A Jew’s Place

This piece appeared in South Africa’s Sunday Times in December of 2003

Israel’s leaders don’t fear Palestinian suicide bombers nearly as much as they fear the Palestinian population explosion.

Even Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is now warning that holding on to the West Bank and Gaza will soon make Jews a demographic minority in this “Greater Israel”. And that’s anathema to Zionists – believers in the principle of a Jewish nation-state – because the Palestinians could simply demand citizenship in the state that rules them.

Occupation creates an apartheid scenario

That would leave Zionists unpalatable choices: maintain the current apartheid scenario in the West Bank and Gaza and accept an endless intifada; drive the Palestinians out of those territories and book a date with a war crimes tribunal; or surrender the idea of an ethnically defined state and live alongside the Palestinians in a single polity – the “South Africa” option.

To South Africans, the idea of common citizenship hardly sounds calamitous; but for Zionists, the demographics of ethnic advantage are everything.

During my days in the Habonim youth movement in South Africa, I briefly considered settling on a kibbutz in the northern Galilee. Kibbutz Tuval, we were told, was of critical importance to the Zionist project because the local Arab birth rate threatened the area’s Jewish majority.

I subsequently learned from reading Israeli historians that the Galilee had, in fact, been overwhelmingly Palestinian before a campaign of ethnic cleansing by Israeli military units in 1948.

Even before I knew that, however, the idea of living out Habonim’s utopian socialist ideals in a hilltop garrison designed to keep a check on the local Arab population seemed a little grotesque – particularly when measured against the competing claims on my activist energies of the ANC’s non-racialism.

The Zionist language of demographics can be more than a little unfortunate in light of Jewish history: Israeli Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last week described Israel’s Arab citizens as a “demographic problem”.

Having once, ourselves, suffered the consequences of being someone else’s “demographic problem”, you’d think a Jew would know better. But the logic of Zionism is frequently in conflict with the cherished ethics of the Jewish tradition.

Although Zionists like to imagine Israel as the prophetic culmination of 5 000 years of Jewish history, it is more a product of the Nazi Holocaust than anything else.

Before the death camps, Zionism had been a minority tendency among the world’s Jews: the genocide and the refusal by the US and Britain to take in most survivors turned the idea of a Jewish state in Palestine into a matter of physical survival for hundreds of thousands of Jews.

Growing up with the benign anti-Semitism prevailing in much of white South Africa in the 1960s and 1970s – cricket clubs from which we were barred, a teacher complaining that there were too many of us in his class, “Jewish” as a synonym for “stingy” in playground parlance – and then encountering the story of the Holocaust in my teens made me susceptible to Zionism’s basic premise: the world was a dangerous place to be Jewish; our safety required a state of our own.

If anything, however, the inverse has proved true: Israel is the most dangerous place on Earth to be a Jew; its survival is dependent on the fact that Jews in the US are not only safe, but enjoy sufficient influence to have made favouring Israel an article of faith for American politicians of all stripes.

Almost two-thirds of the world’s Jews live outside of Israel, and that number may grow: the destination of choice for Jews leaving Russia today is no longer Israel, but Germany, while the number of Israelis now living abroad has grown by almost 50% in the last two years, to 750 000 – some 15% of Israel’s Jewish population finds the Diaspora sufficiently safe and hospitable to make their homes elsewhere.

The idea of a state that reserves citizenship for the Jews who live in Milwaukee or Milnerton at the expense of Palestinians continuously expropriated since 1948 is now as dysfunctional as it is morally untenable. Israelis increasingly recognise that they can have peace only by reconciling with the Palestinians.

Conventional wisdom sees such reconciliation achieved by splitting “Greater Israel” into two states, but a small but growing number of Israelis have begun to argue that the two peoples have no option but to live with one another, as South Africans have done, in a single state.

Resolving the conflict, however, involves reconciling the competing claims of the Palestinians and the 4.8- million Jews who live in Israel. They have a legitimate right to live there in peace and safety.

But the 8.2-million of us who have chosen to live elsewhere have no legitimate claim on that land. Zionism has outlived its purpose: a Jew’s place is in the world.

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