Speaking the Truth to Jews
What Israel and Zionism have done, and are doing, to the Palestinians is indefensible, yet so many Jews defend it. How and why do they do this? And why does the rest of the world seem complicit and unable to speak out?
The original sin
Many arguments can be advanced in favour of a Jewish state in Palestine, from the simple right of the Jewish people to national self-determination, the right of Jews to return to their ancestral homeland, and the need of a suffering and persecuted people for a haven where they can be safe and secure.
Jews can define themselves as they wish. If they feel themselves to be a nation, then they are a nation. But, in accordance with the dictum, that ‘your freedom to swing your arm ends where your finger touches my nose’, it is when this self-definition impinges on others that the problems begin. It is then that others may ask whether this Jewish sense of nationhood—often an emotional and religious matter based on a perceived sharing of history and even of destiny—can ever be realised politically. What it boils down to is this: Jews, like any other people, may have the right to establish and maintain a state of their own, but, do Jews have the right to establish and maintain a state of their own in Palestine, already the home of the Palestinians? All this may, and will be argued, but what is beyond dispute is that, for Jewish national self-determination and statehood, it is the Palestinians who have paid a terrible price.
By 1947-48, Palestinians had been reduced to a state of anxiety and insecurity, and in 1948, when the State of Israel was established, a traditional Palestinian society was no match for its democratic, egalitarian and fiercely ideological foe. As a consequence, an entire way of life was obliterated. At least 750,000 Palestinians were driven from their homes and into exile, more than 450 of their towns and villages were destroyed or pillaged and people who had lived a settled life for generations ended up either in tents in Lebanon, Syria or Jordan, or as a bereft and traumatised diaspora in every corner of the earth.
Nor was all this an unintended by-product of war. Although the idea that the Palestinians just ‘ran away’ has, in the main, been dispelled, we are still left with many stories, obfuscations and downright lies about where responsibility lies for this ethnic cleansing. The critical issue now centres on the question of intentionality.
The ethnic cleansing of Palestinians, like most instances of ethnic cleansing, was intentional, premeditated and planned. But we need not bother looking for direct documentation. Although there is mounting evidence for the desires and intentions of the Zionist leadership to cleanse the land of Palestinians, the architects of the Nakba left no ‘smoking gun’. There was no written order, because there was no need for a written order. Like other instances of ethnic cleansing, the expulsion of the Palestinians was done on ‘understandings’. As Ilan Pappé has noted, every local Haganah commander, and all the men under their command at every village and town, knew exactly what was required. Sometimes a few shots in the air would be sufficient, and sometimes a full-blown massacre was needed. However, the result was always the same.1
This was the original sin. Since then, the sin has been compounded many times over, as Israel has continued its assault on Palestinians and Palestinian life. From border raids and massacres to the occupation and the settlements, to the slaughter of 20,000 in Lebanon, through provocations, closures, expulsions, demolitions, arrests, torture and assassinations, right up to the chicaneries of Oslo and the Roadmap where Palestinians were to be bamboozled into going into their cage quietly, Israel and Zionism have sought to destroy the Palestinians, if not always physically, then certainly as a people in their own land.
‘... While we babble and rave …’
"... Only then will the old and young in our land realise how great was our responsibility to those miserable Arab refugees in whose towns we have settled Jews who were brought from afar; whose homes we have inherited, whose fields we now sow and harvest; the fruits of whose gardens, orchards and vineyards we gather; and in whose cities that we robbed, we put up houses of education, charity and prayer while we babble and rave about being the ‘people of the Book’ and the ‘light of the nations!’ "(Buber/Chofshi).2
For a relatively small number of Jews, support for what is being done to the Palestinians is a relatively easy matter. God gave the land to the Jews, the Palestinians are Amalek, and if they will not submit to Jewish rule they must, and will, be destroyed. Just like those Germans who relinquished Nazism only when the Russians were on the streets of Berlin, such Jews will abandon their militant, eliminationist Zionism only when the options finally close down.
But for most Jews things are not so simple. Defending the indefensible is never easy, and many Jews, intellectually sophisticated, secular and liberal in their instincts, require more than just careful selections from the Bible to justify what is being done to the Palestinians. These Jews have had, over the years, to tell themselves a lot of stories. For some this has been easier than for others. For some, perhaps the majority, it has been simple enough to swallow the Israeli and Zionist line whole: Jews came to a land inhabited only by rootless peasants, and battled against overwhelming odds to establish their state. Since then, Israel, an island of Western decency in a sea of Arab decadence and decay has had to battle for its very survival.
But for some, after 1967, and the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, the illegal settling of the land, and, later, the war in Lebanon, the Intifadas, and the work of the new Israeli historians in uncovering the truth of Israel’s birth, the story has had to be revised.
‘End the occupation!’
Many Jews, now aware of the injustice associated with the establishment of Israel, but still unable to relinquish their belief in Israel’s essential innocence, have congregated around the slogans: ‘End the occupation!’ and ‘Two states for two peoples!’ That there is no ‘occupation’, and that there will never be a true Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza, are simply denied.
The long-term Zionist strategy for the conquest of Palestine was always to wait for what Ben-Gurion called ‘revolutionary situations’, meaning situations which would provide cover under which the take-over of Palestine could be completed. The first of these ‘revolutionary situations’ presented itself in 1947 and 1948, when, under the cover of the conflict, 78 percent of historic Palestine was transformed into Israel. Another such situation presented itself in 1967.
Israel in 1967 was not the innocent party threatened with annihilation by the Arab states (though its population probably thought it was). Israel had been preparing for such a war for years. Neither was Israel’s victory anything other then totally expected by anyone who was even a little bit in the know. Like the 1947-48 conflict, the war of 1967 was an opportunity gladly taken for the take-over of the remaining 22 percent of Palestine. This was the fulfilment of Zionism’s historic mission.
There is, then, no occupation. There never was an occupation. If there had been an occupation, and the Israelis had the slightest intention of ending it they would have done so years ago. The fact is, that no Israeli government, either of the left or the right, has ever shown any intention of fully withdrawing back to the 1967 border. No Israeli government, left or right, has shown the slightest inclination to permit anything even remotely resembling a real Palestinian state to be established on the West Bank and Gaza. Any state that could emerge would be tiny, fragmented and weak, being simply a legitimisation of Palestinian surrender. The occupation, in fact, has been a fig-leaf to conceal the reality of the final conquest of Palestine.
Nevertheless, for many Jews the occupation is the bedrock of Israel’s essential innocence. Occupations are temporary and can be reversed, and this one, they believe, was the result of a war which Israel did not seek. So, Israel and Zionism are still, at heart, innocent. The Jewish state, established at the expense of another people’s national life, is still blameless. It is the occupation that has ‘forced’ Israel into the role of oppressor, and if only Israel would withdraw to the borders of 1967 all would be as it had been, only better: the gains of 1948 would then be secured, Jews would have their Israel with its ‘moral foundations’, and the Palestinians would be contained within a bantustan with a semblance, but not the reality, of justice. For many Jews, this would mean that they could have both their empowerment and their consciences.
The sin of moral equivalence
‘To talk about ‘a cycle of violence’ in the Middle East between Israelis and Palestinians is to commit the sin of ‘moral equivalence.’3
Conceived in the Israeli and Jewish peace camps, taken up by the mainstream and pretty much the entire solidarity movement, and now underpinning all acceptable discourse on Israel and Palestine, is the notion that the conflict in Israel/Palestine is not the brutal dispossession and oppression of one people by another, but a tragic conflict between two equal, but conflicting rights. This notion emerged after 1967 when doveish, more moderate Zionists, realising that the story of a blameless innocent Zionism could no longer be sustained, but still unable to acknowledge Israel’s guilt, after years of denying the very existence of the Palestinian people, began to concede that the Palestinians also had a story which ought to be heard.
In this new narrative Israel is not guilty, because no one is guilty, and Israel is not the oppressor, because there is no oppressor. Everyone is an innocent victim. Variations on the theme include the I’ve suffered, you’ve suffered, let’s talk approach, and what has been called the psychotherapy approach to conflict resolution, You feel my pain and I’ll feel yours. Proponents of this theory say that the two sides are not listening to each other. If only each side would hear the other’s story a solution would surely be found.
But it is not true that neither has heard the other’s story. Palestinians have heard the Zionist story ad nauseam, and they have certainly heard enough about Jewish suffering. It is not, then, both sides that need to listen: it is Israelis, and Jews who need to listen.
But, as is heard so often from inside the Jewish and Israeli peace camps, both sides have a point of view, and both sides must be heard; both sides have suffered, and right or wrong is never on one side only. This, of course, is true, but did these same Jews, then struggling against apartheid and now campaigning for the ‘justice’ of a disempowered statelet for Palestinians on a mere remnant of what was once their homeland—and many were the same Jews—say then that we had to see both sides of the picture? They did not. They acknowledged that white South Africans were as deserving of peace and prosperity as black South Africans, but they never lost sight of who was the victim and who was the perpetrator.
Nor are the two sides in Israel-Palestine equal in power, or in moral weight. Israel, a modern Western-style state, with the fourth most powerful army in the world, faces a civilian population with a few poorly armed militias, and enforces a claim which is highly questionable. Jewish claims to Palestine are not only more complex than Palestinian claims, but are also more contentious. Even whilst acknowledging a Jewish connection with Palestine, and even if one might wish to see a Jewish presence there, the historical evidence can hardly justify exclusive Jewish ownership
This recasting of the struggle as a conflict between equals means that Jews do not have to see Israel for what it is: a powerful state, founded and maintained on injustice, oppressing a weak and defenceless civilian population. Instead, they see it for what they would like it to be: a tiny, embattled state, well-intentioned, but caught up in a tragic conflict of equal but opposing rights. So, an assault by the fourth most powerful army in the world on a largely undefended refugee camp becomes just part of a continuing ‘cycle of violence’, and the imposition of surrender on an exhausted and defeated people can be recast as ‘negotiations’, or ‘peace talks’.
Good cop/bad cop
Zionism’s eternal good cop/bad cop routine has for years deflected criticism, and provided for Jews and others a means of reconciling what they see with what they want to see. The good cop is the secular ‘left’, meaning the Labour Party and its offshoots, descended from the old Labour Zionism of David Ben-Gurion, while the bad cop is Likud, descended from the old revisionists founded by Ze’ev Jabotinsky, and now joined by the religious fanatics and the settlers. And the argument runs, that Israel and Zionism are not themselves responsible for their crimes, but only extremist elements therein. If only the good guys were in power, things would be alright for the Palestinians.
History, however, does not bear this out. The fact is that certainly as much, if not more suffering has been inflicted on the Palestinians by Labour governments and the left, than by Likud and the right. It was Labour Zionism which created the pre-state society that excluded Palestinians, particularly in the organisation of labour. It was Labour Zionists, good, humanistic, left-wing kibbutzniks who directed the ethnic cleansing of 750,000 Palestinians, and the destruction of their towns and villages. It was Labour Zionism which established the present state with all its discriminatory practices, and it was a Labour government that held the Palestinian citizens of Israel under military government in their own land for eighteen years. Finally, it was a Labour government which conquered the West Bank and Gaza, and first built the settlements, and it was a Labour government that embarked on the Oslo peace process, coolly designed to deceive the Palestinians into surrendering their rights.
The difference between the good cop and the bad cop is not their final destination but only how they get there. Both Labour and Likud, indeed the whole of mainstream Zionism, has as its aim the complete conquest of the whole of Palestine, from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River, with as few Palestinians therein as possible. The only difference is that, whilst Likud and the ‘right’ understand, as they have always understood, that the only way to achieve this was through force, Labour would prefer, along with the use of force when necessary, to deceive their victims into going into the cage quietly. And, when the good cop has failed, and the victims have proved themselves unwilling to walk into the cage unaided, as they did at Camp David at the end of the Oslo process, what do they do? Why, they call in the bad cop, in this case, the butcher, Ariel Sharon.
The Palestinians have had 100 years of good cop, bad cop, good cop, bad cop. The good cop led them down the Oslo path and made them the generous offer of a tiny, fragmented and trashed statelet on just part of 22 percent of what is their own land, under the political and economic control of Israel, and under the guns of the Israeli military. And, shock, horror, they turned it down. So the Israelis called in the bad cop, Sharon, who has done his worst. Now after more than two years of relentless assault the victim is nicely softened up. So, in comes the good cop. In his hand is a piece of paper. On the piece of paper is a new peace plan. The peace plan offers just that, peace for the victor, but very little justice for the victim. All the Palestinians have to do is to sign, and the pain will go away. There is little doubt that the overwhelming majority of Jews, including many in the peace camp, will be clamouring for them to sign.
A light unto the nations
‘Le tzionut, le sozialism ve le achvat amim (‘For Zionism, socialism, and internationalism’)
Motto of Hashomer Hatzair (‘The Young Guard’)
Within many Jews there is the deep and abiding wish for the return of the ‘Beautiful Israel’ of their childhoods. This was the Israel that was conceived in universal ideals of socialism and justice to be ‘a light unto the nations’. That such an Israel never existed, and could never have existed, is ignored.
The notion of ‘Beautiful Israel’ lies at the very foundations of Political Zionism with roots deep in Jewish history. Zionism, which connects a modern Jewish state in Palestine with its supposed biblical antecedent, never saw itself as just another colonial enterprise, though it certainly was that. But it was much more as well. Zionist thinkers, though generally secular, used Jewish religious sentiment to further their cause, but this was not just cold-blooded political manoeuvring. Like so many ideologues, the early, and also later and present-day Zionists, believed their own stories.
Even for the least observant Jew, Jewish identity is a complex and resonant issue, and Jewishness may be experienced a long way from the synagogue, the yeshiva, or any other formal aspect of Jewish life. Jewish history, inextricably linked with Judaism, is also the bedrock of many secular Jews’ sense of Jewish identity. The founders of modern political Zionism, as secular a bunch as one could meet, still had a powerful sense of their history, and even destiny, with all the inevitable emotional and religious overtones. For many of them, and certainly for many of the Jewish masses who offered their allegiance, the founding of a Jewish state in Palestine was, if not overtly religious, still profoundly emotional and spiritual.
Many of the founding fathers of the modern state defined themselves as socialists. Unable to choose between their socialism and their Zionism, they tried to combine the two, believing that Zionism and Socialism could go hand in hand in building a Jewish state, founded on principles of equality and social justice, an absurdity really, since the one stood for universal principles and the other for Jewish ethnic interests. The motto of Hashomer Hatzair (The Young Guard), which formed the core of the ‘left-Zionist’ Mapam party, Le tzionut, le sozialism ve le achvat amim (For Zionism, socialism, and internationalism) is significant in that Zionism always came first.
Loftier than most run-of-the-mill colonial enterprises, pre-state Zionism did not so much rob the natives—though they certainly did plenty of that—as ignore them. Central to the pre-state society and the state itself were socialist structures such as the Histadrut trades union, which presided over both the organization of Jewish labour and the exclusion of non-Jewish labour. That their lofty socialist principles rarely extended in practice to non-Jews need not be attributed only to cynicism, but also to a moral schizophrenia that has always made Zionism so hard to analyse and therefore so hard to oppose.
But there was another Zionism: Cultural or Spiritual Zionism that envisioned a Jewish community, a spiritual, religious and cultural centre in Palestine, living in peace and equality with the Palestinians. These voices of bi-nationalism, led by such as Ahad Ha’am, Martin Buber and Judah Magnes, were small in number and increasingly marginalised. In retrospect it is hard to see that they had any effect on Zionist policy, or made much difference to present-day Zionist ideology. But these traditions were, and are, very important to Jews theologically and had an enormous cultural effect—the revival and development of the Hebrew language and literature, and the establishment of centres of learning, such as the Hebrew University and the Haifa Technion, were to have a huge and positive effect on the scientific and cultural progress of the pre-state Yishuv and of Israel.
But the theological and cultural effects of this Spiritual Zionism were nothing compared to the effects they had on the marketing of Political Zionism. One need not doubt the sincerity of these voices, nor of those Jews who hold them dear, to note how, with that particular blend of conviction, hypocrisy and self-delusion on the part of Political Zionists, they have been used to mystify and obfuscate, and so better promote, a far less scrupulous vision. Many leftist Zionists, such as those in Hashomer Hatzair, took great pains—whilst working for a Jewish majority through immigration, directing and participating in the ethnic cleansing of 1948, and subsequently building their socialist and utopian (but only for Jews) kibbutzim on stolen Palestinian land—to cloak themselves in the rhetoric of bi-nationalism. The sincerely held beliefs of Buber, Magnes, Ahad aham and others were used to give Zionism that messianic, moral tinge which has done so much over the years to bamboozle us all. Today, these traditions are often cited as evidence of Zionism’s essential goodness, and many Jews today now look back on them with nostalgia, and cling to them for comfort, and also to conceal from themselves and others Political Zionism’s manifest character.
These moral ambiguities are evident, not only in the divisions within Israel, the Zionist establishment and the Jewish community world-wide, but also often within many individuals. Zionism, the drive for the return of an ancient and suffering people to their God-given homeland, is for Jews a compelling ideology. This surge of power to the powerless, this messianic story of return, the utopianism, the intensity, the near religious fervour of Zionism, blended with enormous dollops of self-delusion, constitute a heady mix which has gone straight to the head of many an otherwise sober and rational Jew, and has led to some strange and contradictory behaviour: left-wing Jews at solidarity demonstrations calling over loudhailers for justice for Palestinians, whilst at the same time vigorously defending Israel’s right, as a Jewish state, to discriminate officially against non-Jews; the ‘progressive’ Rabbi Michael Lerner claiming that Israel cannot be discriminatory, since it accepts Jews of all ethnic backgrounds, and that the establishment of Israel with the attendant obliteration of Palestinian society amounts to ‘affirmative action’ for Jews;4 and the appearance at Palestine solidarity rallies of organised Jewish youth in full Zionist regalia, blue shirts with stars of David on their badges and flags, carrying placards calling for an end to the occupation.
It is within these ambiguities and contradictions that so many Jews have found places of refuge from the moral condemnation of the crimes committed in their names. When confronted with the crimes of Israel and Zionism or the charge that Israel and Zionism are, by definition, discriminatory, many Jews will answer ‘Ah, but that’s not the Israel I love’, or ‘That’s not the Zionism in which I believe.’
Speaking the truth to Jews
It is understandable that Jews might believe that their suffering is greater, more mysterious and meaningful than that of any other people. It is even understandable that Jews might feel that their suffering can justify the oppression of another people. What is harder to understand is why the rest of the world has gone along with it.
That Jews have suffered is undeniable. But acknowledgement of this suffering is rarely enough. Jews and others have demanded that not only should Jewish suffering be acknowledged, but that it also be accorded special status. Jewish suffering is held to be unique, central and most importantly, mysterious.
Jewish suffering is rarely measured against the sufferings of other groups. Blacks, women, children, gays, workers, peasants, minorities of all kinds, all have suffered, but none as much as Jews. Protestants at the hands of Catholics, Catholics at the hands of Protestants, pagans and heretics, all have suffered religious persecution, but none as relentlessly as Jews. Indians, Armenians, gypsies and aborigines, all have been targeted for elimination, but none as murderously and as premeditatedly as Jews
Jewish suffering is held to be mysterious, and beyond explanation. Context is rarely examined. The place and role of Jews in society—their historical relationships with Church and state, landlords and peasantry—is hardly ever subject to scrutiny, and, whilst non-Jewish attitudes to Jews are the subject of intense interest, Jewish attitudes to non-Jews are rarely mentioned. Attempts to confront these issues are met with suspicion, and sometimes hostility, in the fear that explanation may lead to rationalisation, which may lead to exculpation, and then even to justification.
The Holocaust, ‘the ultimate mystery’
The stakes in this already fraught game have been raised so much higher by the Holocaust. Is the Holocaust ‘The ultimate mystery, never to be comprehended or transmitted’, as Elie Wiesel would have us believe?5 Are attempts to question the Holocaust narrative merely a cover for the wish to deny or even to justify the Holocaust? Was Jewish suffering in the Holocaust greater and of more significance than that of anyone else? Were the three million Polish Jews who died at the hands of the Nazis more important than the three million Polish non-Jews who also died? Twenty million black Africans, a million Ibos, a million Kampucheans, Armenians, aborigines, all have perished in genocides, but none as meaningfully as the six million Jews slaughtered in the only genocide to be theologically named, and now perceived by Jews and the rest of the Western world to be an event of near religious significance.
Whether there is anything special about Jews is not really relevant. What is relevant is that a large part of the Western world, even the most secular part, seems to believe that there is, or are not confident enough in their disbelief to say so. Similarly, whether the world believes that Jewish suffering is qualitatively and quantitatively different from all other suffering is also irrelevant. The fact is that most people seem compelled to agree that it is, or to remain silent.
Christianity occupies a central place in Western culture and experience and Jews occupy a central place in the Christian narrative, so it is no surprise that Jews and Jewish concerns receive a lot of attention. The Western world, though largely secular but still Christian in its cultural foundations, seems at times obsessed with Jews, and unable to see them for what, in the words of Richard Rubenstein, they may well be, ‘a people like any other whose religion and culture were shaped so as to make it possible for them to cope with their very distinctive history and location among the peoples of the world.’6 Jewish life seems at times to be at the very heart of Western concerns. And this goes way beyond the religious contexts. From Jewish history, stories of struggle from the Hebrew Bible, such as the Exodus from Egypt, have become paradigms for other people’s struggles and aspirations. The emigration of Jews from Eastern Europe into their Golden Land in America has become as American a legend as the Wild West. Jewish folklore and myth, stereotypes of Jewish humour, food, family life—all are deeply woven into the fabric of Western, particularly American, life.
Christian attitudes towards Jews are complex and contradictory: Jesus was born a Jew and died a Jew, and yet, traditionally, His teachings supersede those of Judaism. Jesus lived amongst Jews, His message was shaped by Jews, yet He was rejected by Jews, and, it has been widely believed, died at the behest of Jews. So, for many Christians, Jews are both the people of God and the people who rejected God, and are objects of both great veneration and great loathing. Jewish suffering at the hands of the Christian majority is a matter of great shame and guilt. Yet still, in the minds of some Christians, and possibly buried deep within many more, are notions that the suffering of Jews is, for the killers of a God, deserved. This ambivalence is reflected in the secular world too, where Jews are widely admired for their history and traditions and for their creativity and success, yet are also regarded with some suspicion and dislike for their exclusivity and supposed sense of their own ‘specialness’. Jews seem either loved or hated, and, now since the Holocaust, publicly at least, they seem loved, or at least if not loved, then certainly, indulged.
During much of their history in Europe Jews were persecuted, culminating most recently in the slaughter in the death camps. The relationship between that ultimate slaughter and the centuries of antisemitism that preceded it, the relationship of the Church to that antisemitism, and the intensity and duration of persecutions of Jews throughout history, all of this is appropriate for examination. The nature of those persecutions may also be investigated, and even the possible collusion by Jews themselves in their own victimhood, all may be subject to proper scrutiny. But, just as in the struggle between Israelis and Palestinians there can be no argument about who are the victims and who are the perpetrators, there can be no doubt that, for much of their history in Europe, Jews were victims. Western society, both Christian and secular, bears a heavy responsibility for Jewish suffering, and this responsibility is now rightly being taken very seriously indeed.
But what, when these legitimate feelings of responsibility are employed to conceal rather than reveal the truth? What, when Christian and other responsibility for Jewish suffering is used to justify the oppression of another people? What, when even the issue of who is the victim and who is the perpetrator becomes confused, when yesterday’s victim becomes today’s perpetrator, and when today’s perpetrator uses its past victimhood to justify its present abuse of another people?
The establishment of the State of Israel in May 1948, coming just three years after the liberation of Auschwitz in January 1945, marks, for Jews, the transition from enslavement to empowerment. This empowerment of Jews took place not only with the establishment of Israel, but also continuously, from the mass emigration of Jews to the West in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, to the present day. Today in the West Jews enjoy unparalleled political, economic and social power and influence. Jews are represented way beyond their numbers in the upper echelons of all areas of public and professional life—politics, academia, the arts, the media and business. Even more than the political and economic power which Jews possess, however, is the social power. Jews have a moral prestige derived from their history and traditions as a chosen, and as a suffering people. In these more secular times, however, especially since the Holocaust, it is as a suffering people, that Jews occupy their special place in Western culture.
We see this in both public and private life. Public statements involving Jews or Israel so often include the almost obligatory reference to past Jewish suffering. And in private conversations whenever the subject arises, voices are lowered reverentially and words are carefully chosen. Who is able, when discussing the present suffering of Palestinians, to avoid inserting a reference to the past suffering of Jews? As if no matter what Jews do, account must always be taken of their own suffering. And who, when discussing the amount of Holocaust memorialisation that has taken place in the West—memorials, foundations, academic chairs at universities, study programmes, days of remembrance—who is able to avoid nervously inserting the words, ‘quite rightly’ into their sentences?
On being cursed as an antisemite
Jews have not been just passive recipients of all this special treatment and consideration. The special status accorded to Israel’s behaviour in Palestine, and Jewish support for it, is not something that Jews have accepted reluctantly. On the contrary, Jews and Jewish organisations have demanded it. And at the heart of this demand for special consideration is the demand that the whole world, whilst recognising the uniqueness of Jewish suffering, should join with Jews in their fears about antisemitism and of its resurgence.
Antisemitism, in its historic, virulent and eliminationist form, did exist and could certainly exist again, but it does not currently exist in the West in any significantly observable form. Jews have never been so secure or empowered, yet many Jews feel and act as if they are a hair’s breadth away from Auschwitz. And not only this, they require that everybody else feel the same. So soon after the Holocaust this is perhaps understandable, but less so when it is used to silence dissent and criticism of Israel and Zionism.
Jews, individually and collectively, use their political, economic, social, and moral power in support of Israel and Zionism. In their defence of Israel and Zionism Jews brandish their suffering at the world, accusing it of reverting to its old antisemitic ways. They claim that criticism of Israel and Zionism is in fact criticism of Jews. Just as the Jews were, in the past, the objects of classic antisemitism, so Israel, the state of the Jews, is the object of a new, modern antisemitism. They will concede that Israel, like any other state in the world, is not exempt from criticism, but they do claim that Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state is so exempt. In effect, we may criticise Israel for what Israel does, but not for what Israel is.
But what is Israel? Defenders of Israel claim that Jews, like any other people, are entitled to national self-determination and statehood, and that to deny Jews that which is granted to all other peoples is discriminatory. Thus anti-Zionism is, in effect, antisemitism. But, even leaving aside the fact that Israel was established on the expulsion and exile of the Palestinians, is Israel as a Jewish state merely giving to Jews that which is given to all other peoples? Is Israel, a state which officially defines itself as for one ethnic group alone, the same as other states? Israel is the state of the Jews and of only the Jews. In its immigration, land, planning and housing laws and practices, military recruitment regulations and many other laws, practices and customs, Israel officially and unofficially, overtly and covertly, discriminates against non-Jews. In any other context, with any other people this would be deemed discriminatory and perhaps even racist. Of course, one may agree or disagree with any of this but is such agreement of disagreement necessarily antisemitic?
Is a Jewish state acceptable in this day and age? Are the Jews a people who qualify for national self-determination, or are Jews a religious group only? Post-Holocaust, does the Jewish need for a state of their own perhaps even justify the displacement of the Palestinians? Are Jews who wield power to serve what they perceive as their own ethnic interests and to support Israel to be held politically accountable? What is antisemitism? Is anti-Zionism antisemitism? All this and a great deal more could and should be debated. What need not be debated is this: that every complexity and ambiguity of Jewish identity and history, every example of Jewish suffering, every instance of anti-Jewish prejudice, however inconsequential, is used to justify the crimes of Israel and Zionism. Every possible interpretation or misinterpretation of language, and every kind of intellectual sophistry is used by Zionists to muddy the waters and label the critic of Israel and Zionism an antisemite. Words and phrases become loaded with hidden meanings, so that even the most honest critic of Israel has to twist and turn and jump through hoops to ensure that he or she is not perceived to be an antisemite.
And the penalties for transgression are terrible. For those who do not manage to pick their way through this minefield the charge of antisemite awaits, with all its possibilities of political, religious and social exclusion. No longer a descriptive term for someone who hates Jews simply for being Jews, ‘antisemite’ is now a curse to hurl against anyone who criticises Jews, and, increasingly against anyone who dares too trenchantly to criticise Israel and Zionism. And for those Jews of conscience who dare speak out, for them there is reserved the special penalty of exclusion from Jewish life and exile.
Zionism and the State of Israel now lie at the very heart of Jewish life and so many Jews, even if unaffiliated officially to Zionism, have supported it, and continue to support it in its aims. Indeed, almost all the organised Jewish establishments throughout the world, in Israel, Europe and North America have used, and continue to use their power, influence, and, most importantly, their moral prestige, to support Israel in its attempts to subjugate the Palestinians. And the rest of the Western world, by its support for these efforts, and by its silence, is complicit in these crimes.
Marc Ellis’ ‘ecumenical deal’, which translates also into a political deal, says it all. It goes like this: To the Christian and to the entire non-Jewish world, Jews say this: ‘You will apologise for Jewish suffering again and again and again. And, when you have done apologising, you will then apologise some more. When you have apologised sufficiently we will forgive you ... provided that you let us do what we want in Palestine.’
The situation in Israel/Palestine gets worse and worse. The hatred against Israel and the West grows and grows. Increasingly, Jews are perceived as complicit with power and injustice. There is growing rage. Meanwhile Jews themselves retreat further and further behind the walls of a blind and misplaced group solidarity.
Albert Camus, at a gathering of Dominican friars, commenting on Pope Pius XII’s manner of addressing the Holocaust, wrote,
What the world expects of Christians is that Christians should speak out loud and clear, and that they should voice their condemnation in such a way that never a doubt, never the slightest doubt, could arise in the heart of the simplest man or woman.7
On 14 November 2001 Marc Ellis, addressing a meeting at the General Synod of the Church of England, closed with the words.
Your responsibility … is not to patronise us, not to flee in fear from us, not to treat us as children, and not to repent endlessly for the Holocaust. Your job is to speak honestly to us, to even scold us, to point the finger in the way we pointed the finger at you, to tell us to stop before it’s too late.
For those able to see it, the irony is breathtaking.
1 Ilan Pappé, in a lecture given at the School of Oriental and African Studies (University of London), 10 September 2002.
2 It is unclear which of the men actually wrote this, but it appeared in the Jan/Feb 1961 issue of Ner (Light), the journal of the binationalist movement Ichud (Unity), with which they were both associated.
3 Walid Khalidi, in a lecture, ‘The Prospects of Peace in the Middle East ‘, delivered at Brunei Gallery (SOAS), 8 October 2002.
4 Michael Lerner, ‘Say “No” to the Zionism is racism lynch mob’, in an email from Rabbi Lerner (13 August 2001)
5 Wiesel, Elie. 2000. And the Sea Is Never Full: Memoirs, 1969, translated by Marion Wiesel. London: HarperCollins.
6 Rubenstein, Richard L. 1992. After Auschwitz. History, Theology and Contemporary Judaism. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.
7 Camus, Resistance, Rebellion, and Death, 1995, in Mark Chmiel, ‘Elie Wiesel and the Question of Palestine’, Tikkun 17 (No.6 November/December 2002): 66.
Paul Eisen is a director of Deir Yassin Remembered – firstname.lastname@example.org
This article is a chapter in "Speaking the Truth about Zionism and Israel", edited by Michael Prior and published by Melisende (London) March 2004.
ISBN 1 901764 26 5 £12.95