Ill-informed, dangerous, anti-Israel Jews

By Naomi Shepherd, April 8, 2013
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This is a bad time for those Jews outside Israel who are concerned both with the country's survival and for its fragile democracy. How far can they, should they, be involved in lobbying, criticising, protesting, visiting?

The last Israeli government made no bones about using American Jews for its political ends in Washington. So it is natural for Israelis who long for a coherent opposition to Netanyahu's new coalition - which has no programme for peace - to welcome criticism from Jews abroad who think as they do. But do diaspora Jews really share their agenda?

The diaspora today speaks with at least two voices. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee defends every move the Israeli government makes, and condemns dissident voices in the community. Strikingly, its leaders often ignore abuses in Israeli society against which they would protest vigorously in America - such as the established power of the Orthodox.

J Street, on the other hand, combines concerned criticism with involvement, and fights the growing disenchantment with Israel among the younger generation of Jewish Americans.

Jewish antipathy to Zionism did not begin with Israel’s 1967 conquests and the question of Palestinian rights

In this country, the Zionist Federation clearly fears disagreement with Israel's government - as the recent rejection of the anti-occupation Yachad indicates - while the New Israel Fund, like J Street, supports civil rights organisations in Israel and a host of other progressive causes. This, despite the hostility of the Israeli extreme right, which has tried, unsuccessfully, to ban its activities.

But there is a third voice to be heard today, one not coming from inside the Jewish establishment, and yet distinct from a general liberal critique. This is the voice of Jews prominent in the professions, the universities and the arts - in Britain and in Europe and the United States, some of whom have banded together to denounce the iniquities of the Jewish state.

With a few exceptions, the new critics have very little knowledge of either Israeli society or Middle East history and politics beyond what they can read in a daily newspaper. They see Israel in simplistic terms as a latter-day colonial state, and deplore what they see as a racist strain in Zionism. They are not just opposed to current Israeli government policies, as are many friends of Israel today, but to Zionism itself. And the reason for this - in the words of one manifesto - is "Jewish traditional support for universal freedoms, human rights, and social justice". They argue for a particularly Jewish universalism, and some maintain that the very notion of a Jewish state is anti-democratic.

Such critics may applaud the courage of Israeli protesters, as if Ha'aretz journalists, or those who gather weekly at Sheikh Jarrah and other sites were in daily danger of their lives or despatch to some Israeli gulag. Some call for boycotts of all Israeli professional visitors, including university teachers and musicians, and condemn those who visit the country to lecture and perform there. How did this come about?

The decision openly to break the consensus with the Jewish establishment had been growing for years, but escalated with the bombing of Gaza and the expansion of settlements in the West Bank. Most of the protesters had grown up in Britain as the occupation stabilised, and Israel's initial popularity with the European left wing was on the wane. Few members of such groups as Independent Jewish Voices or Jews for Justice for Palestinians are familiar with the country or know the language. With no base in the Jewish community here, their protests have no resonance in the Israeli media or public opinion, unlike the work of the Israeli activists who document the occupation on a daily basis.

Meanwhile, diaspora Jews' opposition to Israel's current policies has morphed recently into something far more radical - an attack on Zionism itself. At Jewish Book Week earlier this year, two packed-out events, attended very largely by young people -"European Diasporists Re-examine Israel" and "Parting Ways - Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism" - were evidence of this.

One speaker was Tony Lerman, former head of the Institute of Jewish Policy Research, whose recent book describes both his adolescent fantasies about Zionism and consequent disillusion, and a record of what he sees as his persecution by the Jewish establishment. Another was Judith Butler, the Berkeley philosopher with a much wider following, interviewed by Jacqueline Rose, the literary scholar known for her diatribes about Israel.

Butler claimed that Israel had abandoned, even "betrayed" Jewish values, though her remarks about the kaddish that evening suggested a distortion of even the most accessible prayer in the liturgy. The fear that Israel's actions might encourage antisemitism, hence the status and security of diaspora Jews, was scarcely mentioned, though Diana Pinto, who interviewed Lerman, has questioned whether Jews who "feel the need to protect" Israel might compromise their own legitimacy in democratic countries. The argument that non-Zionists represent Jewish ethics may well be an expression of such fears.

None of this is new. Jewish antipathy to Zionism did not begin with Israel's 1967 conquests and the question of Palestinian rights. The Jewish establishment in almost every European country in the early 20th century regarded the infant Zionist movement as a threat to its security as a minority, raising the spectre of dual loyalties and calling in question the Jewish communities' commitment to countries where they had fought for emancipation or found refuge. Jewish communists and Marxists saw Zionism as a challenge to their universalist or assimilationist sympathies. Zionism to them was parochial, symbolic of the ghetto they wanted to escape. Many Orthodox Jews argued that Zionism was contrary to Jewish teaching. The only new feature of anti-Zionism today is that some Jewish intellectuals have secularised the latter argument, but without the learning that underpinned it.

When the Holocaust aroused world sympathy for Zionism, and a differently constituted United Nations legitimised Israel as a home for post-war refugees (whom no other country wanted), Jews in countries that had escaped Nazism felt both admiration and relief. When Israel was perceived, at its birth, as in existential danger, few Jews in Europe and the US challenged one of the basic tenets of Zionism: Israel as a refuge for the persecuted. Diaspora Jews basked in the reflected glory of Israel's courage and stamina, especially when liberal opinion was on its side. But, today, Israel is increasingly an anomaly on the international scene, and the continuing occupation and settlement have made its current leadership abhorrent to most liberals - inside Israel and without. However, it is not just Israel's policies that are called in question today but the existence of the Jewish state and its "defensive ethnocentrism".

The Holocaust discredited antisemitism among intellectuals, and Jews with no particular interest in Judaism or Jewish communal life have until now been free to pick and choose the kind of Jewish identity they favour; stress their Jewish "origin" as an individual distinction, not as members of a community. For those of an earlier generation whom Isaac Deutscher called "non-Jewish Jews", Jewish nationalism was an unwanted challenge. In their different ways, both Hannah Arendt (much invoked now by Butler and others) and Arthur Koestler instinctively suspected Jewish nationalism: Arendt with her belief in a non-belligerent, non-nationalist federation of Jews and Arabs, Koestler by arguing that Jews now had the choice either to abandon their exclusive identity or to emigrate to Israel.

Intellectual Jews of a later generation, of whom the late Tony Judt (an admirer of Koestler and another disillusioned former Zionist) was the most distinguished, took refuge in the concept of a bi-national state. For lesser minds than Arendt, Koestler or Judt, the inevitable association of Jews with Israel has become an intellectual and social disadvantage. Hence the need of latter day "diasporists" or ex-Zionists to clear themselves of any complicity in what Israel does or represents.

Some may quote Israeli writers in contending that Israel once had humanist ideals it has since abandoned. But this is a misinterpretation of what Israeli liberals are saying today about changes in Israeli society. Israel was never the utopia of Zionist propaganda, and in many ways is today a far more open society than it was before 1967. Even the Palestinians in Israel today, the Israeli Arabs, while still far from equal, are better off; until 1966 they lived under military rule, which restricted their freedom of movement in a country of which they were only nominally citizens.

The Israel labour movement maintained a stranglehold on public life so that the so called "upheaval" of 1977 seemed to many a reversal of the natural order. Israel has changed as the make-up of its population has changed. Today, it is an often chaotic, complex immigrant society unlike any diaspora community, and its political make-up reflects that reality. Far from being a society of die-hard nationalists as its enemies maintain, the vast majority of Israelis are concerned not with ideology but with their standard of living. Even most settlers - those in the large blocs near the old frontier - were attracted by cheap housing, not annexationist slogans.

As for the bi-national utopia (at the Book Week talk Jacqueline Rose did not name "Israel" but "Israel/Palestine" - a fait accompli?), the post-Zionists praise the ideas of Ahad Ha'am, Martin Buber, Judah Magnes and Gershom Scholem, with little or no idea of their context. The tiny Brit Shalom movement, formed in 1925, whose views they quot, advocated bi-nationalism when the Jews in Palestine were a minority and seemed likely to remain one. This is just one example of the anti-'Zionists' blithe dismissal of both history and political reality. Even a cursory look at multi-ethnic states in the Middle East today indicates that a bi-national state in Palestine would be a recipe for even worse conflict.

If most Israelis support - in theory - the "two-state solution" it is not out of sympathy for the Palestinians, but because they do not want to be a minority in a country where Jews would again lose control of their own fate. This may be the best hope that, if offered sufficient guarantees, a majority would opt for withdrawal. As for the preservation of those universal Jewish values which the pious post-Zionists accuse Israel of having abandoned, these are better left for scholars of comparative religion to determine.

The challenge for Israel today is to end the occupation while ensuring its physical security in a hostile and unstable environment. The settlement movement, initiated or connived at by successive Israeli governments, has blurred the line between security and expansionism. Reversing the situation, however, does not mean rethinking the justification for a Jewish state, or finding ever more sanctimonious reasons to condemn it.

So if some Israelis, passionate critics of the occupation, assume that anti-Zionist Jews share their concerns, they harbour an illusion. Concerned such Jews may be with the fate of the Palestinians; they are far less concerned with the dangers awaiting Israel, whether it ends the occupation or not. It is not the strategic implications of a withdrawal from the West Bank that worry them, but the inevitable association of all Jews with the Jewish state. Zionism may well have divided the Jews historically, as much as it has united them. But, despite the differences between the diaspora and Israel, the world regards the Jews as one people, and will surely continue to do so.

Naomi Shepherd has written many books on Israeli and Palestinian history. Her biography of Wilfrid Israel won the Wingate Prize and 'Local Currency'- short stories set in Israel - will be published this summer.

    Last updated: 10:45am, April 8 2013