On the same day that we learn that Norman Finkelstein has been denied tenure at De Paul University largely because of an aggressive campaign by Israel supporters to silence the (to them) menacing figure of a Jew, son of a Holocaust survivor, as combatively anti-Zionist as Finkelstein is, it is with great pleasure that I welcome Antony Loewenstein as a guest contributor. Antony is a generation younger than me, but he’s further evidence of the fact that the efforts of the nationalists to police Jewish identity in a way that enforces a narrow Zionism are failing — despite their victory over Finkelstein. The sweet smell of Jewish dissent is suddenly everywhere in the air, most recently last week when Avram Burg released his new book, renouncing Zionism and warning of its dangerous consequences for his Judaism and his humanity — it’s not exactly every day that a former Speaker of the Knesset turns around and rejects the very principle of a “Jewish State.” I have a long posting of my own on this in the works. In the mean time, please give Antony Loewenstein a resounding Rootless Cosmopolitan welcome!
Equality, Not Zionism, Will Save Israel
By Anthony Loewenstein
As an Australian anti-Zionist Jew writing about Israel/Palestine, the rules of the game are made clear to me on an almost daily basis. All Jews must support the “Jewish State,” no matter what. Any action carried out by the state is defensible, justified and moral. Any public criticism of Israel will be assumed to be anti-Semitic; if Israel is to be criticized at all, it should only be in hushed tones and in private. Dare to challenge these rules, and you can expect to be bombarded with hate-mail, death-threats and public abuse, invariably from fellow Jews.
The email I received this week from “Steve” in Australia is typical:
You are one of the largest distorters of facts about the Arab – Israeli conflict. The only larger liars about this sensitive issue are the terrorist organisations, Palestinian Authority, Iranian Government and some Arab media.
By portraying Israel in such a negative light, which is completely unwarranted, you cause people to be anti-Israel, which more often that not spills over into anti-Semitism. The attacks on Jewish buildings, graves and people would occur less often if the ignorant pricks such as yourself did not write all the shit that you do.
Sometimes I wonder whether you have a learning disability, because you are completely ignorant of the facts. Go talk to the traumatized residents of Sderot, with Qassam rockets falling around them all the time. Go talk to all the Israelis who have lost relatives and friends. Go to Beit Halochem in Israel and talk to the people who have been disabled, often permanently, because of the gutless actions of Palestinian terrorists.
You disgust me, Antony. Stop betraying your own people and do some proper research instead of spreading propaganda.
It’s hard to respond seriously to such incoherent screeds, but I recognize where they come from.
As a Jew growing up in Melbourne, Australia, it was simply expected that I would show solidarity with Israel in good times and bad. I didn’t know any better in my early years and it wasn’t until my teens that a sense of inner conflict developed. Why were most Jews able to defend the firing of Israeli rockets into Palestinian refugee camps? How did some Jews not think twice when they heard of systematic abuse by IDF soldiers in the West Bank and Gaza? By time I turned 20, I was no longer the same kind of Jew. I wasn’t able to properly articulate my feelings, perhaps, but I now know that too many Jews used the same excuse that Germans articulated after the Second World War; pleading ignorance or condoning brutal violence against the “other.”
In Australia, the Jewish community is primarily parochial, strongly Zionist and highly insecure. They love Israel, but fear it’s only one step away from annihilation. They detest Palestinians who dare to articulate their own narrative. And they offer platitudes towards a two-state solution and rights for all, but in fact never speak out against the ever-expanding occupation that has negated any prospect for realizing such a solution. Indeed, such positions are the default position of most Diaspora Jewish communities, and those among them who dare to dissent are greeted with ridicule or hysterical howls of treachery. My parents have paid a social price for the fact that I have publicly expressed my views, which they share. They found themselves shunned by old friends, for whom those views were so despicable that those who declined to condemn them had to be excommunicated.
Years ago, the constant abuse I received perplexed and upset me. When it was directed at my partner at the time, who was also Jewish, I knew a line had been crossed, but was unsure how to respond, if at all. The hysteria I had generated told me I was having an effect – rather than seriously debating the issues I was raising, my Jewish critics seemed capable of little more than demagoguery and name-calling. Their rage seemed fueled by the fact of my Jewishness; in their worldview, the criticisms I was making were solely the prerogative of Arabs, anti-Semites, terrorists.
The release of my book in 2006, My Israel Question, and its subsequent best-selling status in Australia – it was released in the US this past April – caused even greater vitriol (from, among others, Australia’s only Jewish Federal MP. I had dared to suggest that robust debate on Israel/Palestine was being stifled by an aggressive Zionist lobby. I argued that an alternative Jewish identity was essential for Israel if it was to survive in the next 50 years.
This meant separating Zionism from Judaism, and recognizing that being a Jew didn’t mean automatic identification with every Israeli action. This Jewish identity had to not be solely defined through what was “good for the Jews”, but on the universal principles of justice as espoused by the Jewish prophets, i.e. by creating a state that treats all citizens as equal. No religiously based state – Muslim, Christian or Jewish – is able to achieve this, and Israel is no exception. Instead, many Jews continue to identify with Israel despite its flagrant violations international norms, denying those or blaming them on the victims. Just last week, on the 40th anniversary of the Six Day War, The Australian Jewish News editorialized that the “continued occupation is mainly the result of Arab intransigence .” Clearly the occupied are to be blamed for building new settlements, restricting their own freedom of movement and imprisoning their own children.
Whatever noble thoughts may have been in the minds of some of its founders, Zionism in the real has always been a racist enterprise, precisely because the majority of people living on the land on which it envisaged building a Jewish state were not Jewish, and their very existence in that space was deemed a “problem.” From its outset, it has been obsessed with attaining and maintaining a “Jewish majority” in that territory, which necessarily required discrimination — and worse — against the Arab population of Palestine. Today, still, when the world has come to recognize the politics of ethnic exclusion as a dangerous anachronism, Israel continues to treat its Arab citizens and the non-citizens who live under its occupation not as fellow human beings who should enjoy the same rights as any other, but as a “demographic time bomb.”
As leading British historian Tony Judt wrote in 2003, “Israel itself is a multicultural society in all but name; yet it remains distinctive among democratic states in its resort to ethnoreligious criteria with which to denominate and rank its citizens. It is an oddity among modern nations not—as its more paranoid supporters assert—because it is a Jewish state and no one wants the Jews to have a state; but because it is a Jewish state in which one community—Jews —is set above others, in an age when that sort of state has no place.”
The obsession with maintaining a Jewish majority in a land that always housed a substantial Arab population was always going to require serious military might and super-power support. How should we explain to Palestinians that they can’t return to the lands of their ancestors, but I, as an Australian Jew, can arrive in Israel and automatically gain citizenship?
I couldn’t be proud of a nation that beat, starved, killed, tortured, raped and destroyed another people. But I do remain proud of my Jewish heritage, although curious as to its most-recently deformed evolution. For articulating a Judaism that strives for equality, one is mocked. When writing about Israel’s apartheid in the occupied territories, one is met with denial. When seeing disastrous U.S foreign policy in the Middle East and Israel’s unyielding love affair with it, one can’t help but note that the Jewish state’s future is seriously in jeopardy until radical changes are made. The Australian Jewish establishment wanted to hear none of this, of course, preferring to talk of Jewish solidarity and Israeli strength in the face of Arab “terror”. I was, in the words of the Australian Jewish News, capable of little more than “Israel bashing.”
I fear that most Jews are unprepared to take the necessary decisions to guarantee Israel’s future. And it appears many Israelis are equally unwilling to understand the cost of their continued intransigence. Israel doesn’t need to commit political suicide, merely, like apartheid South Africa before it, re-define who is an Israeli.
The Israeli peace movement is too divided and weak to achieve these changes alone – during last year’s Lebanon war, Peace Now actually supported the mission. Justice-minded Jews around the world must continually explain why they are in fact the best friends Israel will ever have. Tough love is needed.
The solution to the conflict requires debate and the path to achieving it will be tortuous, but it must be framed by principles of democratic equality. While I once believed a two-state solution was the correct outcome, I have come to believe that in fact a unitary democratic state for Jews and Arabs may yet be the only way to resolve the conflict on the basis of equal rights. In many ways, there is already a single state of Jews and Arabs in the territory between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean, but most of the Arabs live under occupation and Israeli laws in which they have no say because they are denied the democratic rights of citizenship – an apartheid state by definition.
There is clearly an urgency about Israel ending its occupation regime over the West Bank and Gaza. The rest is open to debate and negotiation, and past discussions have shown that compromise is possible between the Israeli side and the Palestinian side on issues such as Jerusalem and the fate of the Palestinian refugees.
Jews around the world have begun debating these issues outside of narrow terms demanded by the Zionist establishment, which is struggling to contain the fires. The recent launch of the UK-based Independent Jewish Voices — I soon co-founded Independent Australian Jewish Voices is a signal that a growing number of Jews is no longer willing to accept the Zionist establishment’s limits on debate over Israel. Many of the adherents of these groups love Israel and believe that the state’s own policies are leading to its destruction. I’ve lost count with the number of Jews who’ve told me about Jewish family members or friends who have slammed them for daring to criticize Israeli policies in public and private. Furthermore, literally hundreds of non-Jews have written to me and expressed exasperation that they feel uneasy discussing Israel because they fear being accused of anti-Semitism.
Public debate on Israel/Palestine in the West invariably revolves around “what is good for the Jews?” The tradition of Judaism has always been about campaigning for justice, not just for our own. What has happened to this humanity? The rights of Palestinians are secondary, if they’re considered at all. It’s far easier to blame Hamas or Mahmoud Abbas or the French or the EU. The fact that the international community is deliberately trying to unseat the democratically elected government of Hamas is justified as a pragmatic reality. Political Islam is a growing force around the world and the Western elite is singularly unprepared for its arrival. During a recent visit to Egpyt, I was struck by the number of Western-oriented intellectuals, bloggers and journalists who simply couldn’t understand why Washington and London refused to recognize the Muslim Brotherhood, the undeniably popular opposition party despite its ban by the Egytian authoritarian regime. They saw it as evidence that the West isn’t really interested in democracy in the Arab world, merely seeking subservience. Likewise in Iran, where I am currently, the Western view of a fundamentalist people led by a Jew-hating leader is utterly removed from reality. As a human being first, and Jew second, I believe that a more open-minded Judaism is essential if Israel is to successfully move past its current militaristic malaise.
The personal price many of us pay for critically analyzing the Middle East is balanced by the encouraging messages received from university students, high-school children and average citizens who are either curious about the conflict, or studying my book. As is so often the case, the general public is far savvier than the ruling elite give them credit for.
I write as I do because I believe it to be the truth, not because of the associated controversy or fame. As an atheist Jew, I struggle with my identity only so far as I wonder how my religion has been hijacked by a militaristic and exclusionary ideology.
Israelis are not Nazis, but I wonder, as Harvard academic Sara Roy, herself a child of Holocaust survivors, put it , how have children of the Holocaust ended up as brutal occupiers and oppressors? And why do so few Jews speak out against it?