Like a lion (4)

I was in my early twenties when I became a Zionist, or at least a strong Zionist sympathiser; I had a long conversation with a friend who’d just come back from a year on a moshav, I read Amos Oz’s In the land of Israel and that was it, I was sold. What I understood by Zionism was fairly bare-bones: I asked myself, did I think that Jews had a right to have some sort of permanent presence in what used to be Palestine? I had thought that ultimately the answer was No, but now I thought it was Yes; I had been anti-Zionist, now I was pro-Zionist.

Spoiler: it didn’t last very long. I dwell on these juvenile ruminations because they highlight something significant about Zionism: it has meant different things at different times, and may mean different things to different people. My new-found commitment to the idea of a Jewish national home didn’t in any way affect my opposition to racism: the Zionism I supported was a Zionism with equal rights for all, without discrimination in employment and housing, and certainly without anyone’s houses getting bulldozed. I hadn’t really stopped to think what such a Zionism might look like on the ground; perhaps something like the 1947 UN borders? For now, in any case, I thought that one could oppose arbitrary arrests, disproportionate use of force, the occupation of the West Bank and so forth, while still maintaining a commitment to Zionism – just as long as Zionism was defined in these minimalistic, ultra-liberal terms; call it Zionism(L).

One good thing that came out of my Zionist(L) period was an awareness of the importance of symbols of Jewish identity, and of the symbolic importance of Zionism to a great many Jews; they’re very different things, but for a lot of people they have quite similar associations. This in turn means that anyone critiquing Zionism needs to take the utmost care to avoid any suggestion that they’re attacking Jewish identity more generally. These people failed this test resoundingly; it’s hard not to see this as a genuine example of an overlap between Left anti-Zionism and anti-semitism. Even if we agree that support for “Balfour” is one of the policies for which Theresa May should be denounced – and, while I sympathise with the logic, it’s not a ditch I’d personally choose to die in – the Star of David ‘earring’ added to the picture suggests that the problem is Judaism as well as Zionism, or else that there is no difference between the two. Either way, this isn’t acceptable.

But what’s going on here – how does this train of thought work? What’s going on when somebody feels genuine outrage at some reported crime committed by the IDF and vandalises a synagogue in protest? Or when somebody denounces the Jewish/Zionist lobby, or hints that the Jewish population of a country are a pro-Israeli Fifth Column? Alternatively, what’s going on when somebody praises the state of Israel – then tells Jews to go there and get out of his country?

What’s going on, in each of these cases, is that Jews in the Diaspora are being identified with the state of Israel, which is then constructed as an enemy (making Jews a proxy target) or as alien (making Jews also aliens). The question then is how these anti-Jewish attitudes relate to the emphatically pro-Jewish position we’ve just been discussing – the argument that, since Zionism is the nationalism of the Jewish people, anti-Zionism is effectively a form of anti-semitism, and an attack on the Jews’ national home is an attack on all Jews. Surely this, too, identifies Jews in the Diaspora with the state of Israel, enlisting them in its support no matter what. (In the words of the World Jewish Congress, “Jews around the world are proud of Israel’s achievements over the last 60 years and support those who continue to build and defend Israel.”) This is a very dangerous route to go down. If an acquaintance tells me that he is a fan of the Miramax production company and its cinematic oeuvre, I’ll expect to hear positive things about the company’s successes and the business acumen of the Weinstein brothers – but I’ll also expect to hear some reflection on the recent revelations about Harvey Weinstein, and if I don’t hear it I’ll feel quite entitled to ask him why not. These Montreal Jews, visiting an Israeli development project in Kenya, felt pride in Israel, having had “a taste of the country’s idealism, creativity, and commitment to tikkun olam [‘repairing the world’, making the world a better place]”. Would it also be reasonable to expect Jewish visitors to Gaza or the West Bank to feel shame in Israel? If you’re asserting a proprietary connection with a nation’s achievements, others may well feel that you should also take ownership of its crimes.

Zionism may thus clear a path for a certain kind of antisemitism, blaming Jews in general for the crimes of the state of Israel. Nor is this simply an opportunistic misidentification, a flag of convenience for pre-existing racism. It’s worth recalling that, historically, Zionism has had a very equivocal relationship with antisemitism. Herzl, working as a journalist, reported on the Dreyfus trial in 1894 and concluded:

In Paris … I achieved a freer attitude towards anti-Semitism, which I now began to understand historically and to pardon. Above all, I recognised the emptiness and futility of trying to “combat” anti-Semitism

The sentiment echoes the early Zionist Leon Pinsker, who wrote in 1882

Judeophobia … is not peculiar to particular races but is common to the whole of mankind … Judeophobia is a psychic aberration. As a psychic aberration it is hereditary, and as a disease transmitted for two thousand years it is incurable.

The early Zionists took as their starting-point the idea that antisemitism was both universal and immutable; that the Jewish people could only be safe to live as Jews by establishing their own homeland and defending it against all comers. The corollary is that those Jews who remained in the Diaspora would not be safe to live as Jews; they would only ever be living among enemies, either concealing their identity or else relying on a tolerance that could be withdrawn at any time. If we think ourselves back to the period when Herzl and Pinsker were writing – the period of the First Aliyah, the very beginning of Zionist settlement in Palestine – we can see that there’s a curious reversal being worked here. A newly-established colony, numbering a few tens of thousands and surrounded by sworn enemies, stands for security and permanence; millions of Jews, living among their neighbours for centuries, represent a precarious settlement that could collapse at any moment. The Holocaust gave this image a terrible credibility, clearly – but this story doesn’t begin or end in the 1940s. This way of looking at the world underlay Zionism in the 1890s, and it underlies Zionism now.

At a deep level, Zionism believes in a world where antisemitism is both universal and incurable, a world where Jews can only hope to live as Jews if they are in their own homeland. This belief is impossible to disprove, as pessimism tends to be: They may be treating you as equals now, but who’s to say what they’ll do next year? Do you know what they’re saying about you behind closed doors? (I remember a Jewish friend saying how, after 9/11, they’d increased security at his son’s school in Cheshire; people were “waiting for the other shoe to drop”, he told me, perfectly seriously.) The underlying message is that Jews don’t really belong here, wherever ‘here’ is: to deny the right of Jews to live as citizens in the Diaspora. This also tends to deny the validity of Diaspora Jewish experience, even to challenge the distinct identity of Diaspora Jews as Jews. Uri Avnery, who I quoted in the previous post, was born as Helmut Ostermann in inter-war Germany; his family emigrated to Mandatory Palestine after Hitler came to power, when he was nine years old. He took a Hebrew name as soon as he was legally able to do so. He commented in 2013:

The changing of names symbolized a basic ideological attitude. Zionism was based on a total negation of the Jewish Diaspora, its way of living, its traditions and expressions. … As a pupil in an elementary school in Palestine I was imbued with this contemptuous attitude. Everything “exilic” was beneath contempt: the Jewish shtetl, Jewish religion, Jewish prejudices and superstitions. We learned that “exilic” Jews were engaged in “air businesses” – parasitical stock exchange deals that did not produce anything real, that Jews shunned physical work, that their social setup was a “reverse pyramid”, which we were to overturn by creating a healthy society of peasants and workers.

The nationalism of the new state-to-be was seen as superseding the Jewish identity that had gone before – even the Jewish religion:

In my company in the Irgun underground, and later in the Israeli army, there was not a single kippah-wearing fighter … The prevalent doctrine was that religion had indeed played a useful role throughout the centuries in holding Jews together and enabling the survival of the Jewish people, but that now Hebrew nationalism had taken over that role, making religion redundant. Religion, it was felt, would soon die out. Everything good and healthy was Hebrew – the Hebrew community, Hebrew agriculture, Hebrew kibbutzim, the “First Hebrew City” (Tel Aviv), the Hebrew underground military organizations, the future Hebrew state. Jewish were “exilic” things like religion, tradition and useless stuff like that.

The revelation of the true horror of the Holocaust – and the brutal and near-total destruction of that “exilic” Jewish world – complicated and qualified this world view, but it did not entirely disappear. There are stories of Holocaust survivors being greeted, on arrival in Israel, not with sympathy but with puzzled contempt: how could they have let that happen to them? Among people who had been born or brought up in Mandatory Palestine, quasi-racial epithets like ‘sheep’ and – more brutally – ‘soap’ were widely used. We see here that same reversal of perspective: a new and precarious colonial settlement is the secure home for the Jews and the centre of their new, healthy, Hebrew life; the Diaspora, global in scale and nearly 2,000 years old, is a passing experiment that was always doomed to fail, Himmler merely the inevitable return of Haman to finish the job.

The Zionist reversal of perspectives has led to an odd duality to the relationship between Zionism and the Diaspora, with the latter regarded both with affection – as Israel’s extended family – and with antagonism and contempt. The difference between the two is the difference between seeing the Diaspora as Israel’s support network and seeing it as making its own claim to be the home(s) of the Jewish people, as it was throughout the centuries dividing the Fall of the Temple from the first Yishuv. The possibility that the Jews of the Diaspora are the Jewish people – the mainstream(s) of Jewish society and culture – is the possibility that Zionism cannot countenance. The result, ironically, is to make the position of Diaspora Jews less secure than it might have been, both by ‘officially’ devaluing their own culture and traditions and by associating Jewish people with the actually-existing state of Israel – an association which, as we’ve seen, can’t reasonably be confined to the good news about Israel. In Britain, the number of reported anti-semitic attacks rose during and after the 2014 Gaza conflict. Looking at this association, it’s easy to deplore the disgusting racism of attacks on visibly Jewish targets, just as it’s easy to understand the very widespread anger at the reported actions of the IDF. What’s missing from this bifurcated analysis is the crucial third element which bridges the two – the association between Israel and Jews in general. That association is weakened by assertions of Diaspora culture and identity, but it’s made firmer and stronger by every assertion that Jews (in general) support those who defend Israel, or that any attack on Zionism is an attack on all Jews.

Zionism today effectively means the state of Israel and its interests – particularly what it considers its security interests. This is problematic, to put it mildly. One of the more idiotic points made in response to Priti Patel’s ‘holiday’ was that nobody would have cared if she’d had a series of secret meetings in Belgium. To make the most obvious and banal points, Belgian society and politics are deeply divided and polarised, to the point where it was impossible to form a government for most of 2010 and 2011; if Patel had decided to wade in to Belgian politics on a freelance basis, that could be viewed very dimly indeed. In any case, any government minister who met a series of high-level foreign politicians without informing the Foreign Office or the Prime Minister would be acting in an outrageously improper way, whether the nation in question was Israel, Belgium or San Marino.

More importantly, of course, Israel isn’t Belgium. Belgium wasn’t founded ex nihilo within living memory and doesn’t occupy large swathes of territory illegally; there is no Wikipedia page listing the countries that do and don’t recognise Belgium; equally, there’s no such organisation as “Conservative Friends of Belgium” (let alone an organisation with a paid staff and membership encompassing most of the Parliamentary Tory Party). Israel is different. Zionists don’t deny this, although sometimes acknowledging it bends their arguments into odd shapes. Consider this from the ADL:

Deeper bias against Israel and Jews may also be evident when Israel is held to a different standard than any other country in the world. Such an example is when critics of Israel question or deny Israel’s right to exist. No one questions France or China or Iran’s right to exist, simply because there is disagreement with their policies. Why then should it be acceptable for only the Jewish state’s legitimacy, or Jewish nationalism to be a subject for discussion? … A more complex manifestation is when critics of Israel advocate policies which would effectively lead to the demise of the Jewish character of the state – such as calls for a “one-state solution’ for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or demand the unqualified right of return for all Palestinian refugees. These measures potentially affect all Jews who have a religious, spiritual or nationalist connection to the Jewish homeland and would lead to the end of Israel as a Jewish state. Although some advocates may not appreciate the destructive consequences of these policies, these policies are anti-Jewish in their impact.

If you thought you might have reason to question or deny Israel’s right to exist – given that its existence in its current form, unlike those of France or China or Iran, is predicated on the continuing exclusion and disenfranchisement of millions of people – hard luck; the ADL are way ahead of you. The state of Israel is different – so different that reforming it, so as to make it more like all the others, would involve policies [that] are anti-Jewish in their impact. Demanding justice for the Palestinians is anti-semitic, even if you’re too naive to appreciate the destructive consequences yourself. If it’s good for Israel, it’s good for the Jews; if it’s not good for Israel – what are you, a Nazi?

Coming back to my starting point, Zionism(L) – a Zionism of liberal politics and equal rights, a Zionism that would look to making amends for the Nakba, never mind the 1967 occupations – does not exist as a political force (Avnery’s Gush Shalom is perhaps the closest thing to it). To favour Zionism now is to favour the territorial expansionism and anti-Arab racism of a series of Likudnik-led governments – an unapologetic form of Revisionist Zionism, made all the more brutal by the reality of entrenched and unchallenged power. To say that Stuart Polak and Priti Patel are Zionists is to say that they support Zionism in this, real-world, form – call it Zionism(R).

Perhaps Zionism(L) can be upheld without contradiction to one’s liberal and anti-racist principles – some would deny this, but I’m inclined to be generous to Zionism(L)’s adherents, not least because they include my former self. What is certain is that upholding Zionism(R) requires one of two things. One is to knowingly suspend all other principles in favour of whatever brings any immediate benefit to the state of Israel and the Jewish citizens of Israel; the other is to operate in a state of denial, following unsustainable arguments into self-contradiction and confusion. The ADL text quoted above is a minor example of the latter style; the Jacobson/Schama/Sebag Montefiore letter gives us confusion on a grand scale. In one way we should be grateful, I suppose; at least it’s better than the alternative.

 

 

 

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