Israel’s Crossroads

Anti-Semitism is a scourge that never washes away. Anti-Israel hatred is rising throughout the world, especially in the Middle East and Europe. This was proven by a recent opinion poll in the European Union where respondents claimed Israel was the greatest danger to world peace, with America not far behind. Incitement against the state of Israeli is now aired openly in mainstream publications throughout the world and beliefs in a worldwide Jewish conspiracy are increasingly accepted as fact. Robert Wistrich, director of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, says that ‘you have a link of money, Jews, America, world domination and globalisation. The notion that the Jews are a superpower that controls America is both a classic and revamped form of anti-Semitism.’ Israel has never been so scrutinised or exposed and its Zionist supporters so forced on the defensive.

All this is cause for grave concern. But it is simply not enough to express vigilance against anti-Semitism without understanding its context. Astute commentators similarly grasped for explanations of September 11, 2001, not as a way to justify the terrorist outrage, but to offer rational answers to the oft-asked question: ‘why do they hate us?’ Multi-billionaire George Soros entered this debate in a speech last November to the Jewish Funder’s Network in New York. He argued that the policies of George W.Bush and Ariel Sharon contribute to the ‘resurgence of anti-Semitism in Europe…if we change that direction, then anti-Semitism will diminish.’ From a Hungarian born Jew who escaped the Holocaust by escaping to London as a child, Soros’ comments come at a crucial time in Israel’s history.

The last years have seen an increasing debate around Israel’s very existence and the long-term viability of the Zionist enterprise; a belief that, after centuries of persecution, Jews needed a homeland to protect and nurture them.  More than 50 years after the establishment of Israel, and the growing calls for Israel to withdraw from the Occupied Territories, it is surely time to freely discuss the country mired in political, moral, legal and ethical dilemmas. Yaron Ezrahi, a leading Israeli political scientist, believes this debate needs to happen sooner rather than later because ‘Sharon’s policies are endangering Israel’s future by fuelling virulent and violent anti-Semitism.’ Healthy sentiments, but ones rarely expressed in Australia’s public domain. A close analysis of the sentiments expressed by Avraham Burg in 2003, former speaker of Israel’s Knesset, highlights the debate already occurring in Israel: ‘Zionism’s superstructure is already collapsing like a cheap Jerusalem wedding hall.’

A further reading of Burg’s words is instructive. Written for the mass circulation Israeli daily, Yediot Aharonot, and then republished in the Guardian, the article offers a scathing indictment of Zionism in the 21st century: ‘Israel, having ceased to care about the children of the Palestinians, should not be surprised when they come washed in hatred and blow themselves up in the centres of Israeli escapism…They spill their own blood in our restaurants in order to ruin our appetites, because they have children and parents at home who are hungry and humiliated.’ Burg’s view unquestionably represents the minority position in Israel and the international community, but it highlights the increasing backlash against fundamentalist policies pursued by successive Israeli leaders in the Occupied Territories, while supported by the US, whose government gives Israel the highest amount of foreign aid annually. Burg is not suggesting the dissolving of the Jewish state, but alternatives to the Sharon worldview, policies that have seen more deaths in Israel other than the wars of 1948, 1967 and 1973.

This is therefore the opportune moment to examine future options for the Jewish state and intentions of the Zionist enterprise, as well as acknowledging the growing outcry within Jewish circles for a just resolution to decades of Israeli aggression in the West Bank and Gaza. Recognition, also, that Jews may have realised their nationalist ambitions in 1948, but at what cost to the Palestinians? When Thomas Friedman, renowned New York Times columnist and Zionist, writes that current US-supported policies in the West Bank and Gaza are ‘insane…and Israel must get out of the (territories) as soon as possible, and evacuate most of the settlements,’ the tide is surely turning. Friedman continues: ‘Demographically speaking, if Israel does not relinquish the West Bank and Gaza, the Palestinians will soon outnumber the Jews and Israel will become either an apartheid state or a non-Jewish state.’ Who could have imagined even five years ago that America’s most widely read foreign affairs commentator would be talking about Israel becoming reminiscent of South Africa in its darkest days? The mainstream is finally embracing ideas that have been on the fringes for years.

One of the most passionate cries for historical recognition of the Palestinian cause, and belief in the state of Israel, comes from Michael Lerner, editor of progressive Jewish magazine Tikkun ( and Rabbi in San Francisco. On Israel’s 50th birthday in 1998, he wrote an influential article entitled Post-Zionism: restoring compassion, overcoming chauvinism. He articulated the central tenant within the Zionist adventure and questioned its relevance to a modern world: ‘Zionists wrote a story of Jewish history that portrayed Jews as totally powerless, suffering, and unable to shape their own destiny until a Zionist movement emerged to allow Jews to re-enter history as the subject of their own story, ready to take ‘a land without a people’ (because for them Palestinians were invisible) for ‘a people without a land.’ While understanding the severe trauma of the European Holocaust, and its impact on the Jewish psyche, Lerner argued that until there was an acceptance of Palestinians suffering, not dissimilar to recognition of atrocities against the Australian Aborigines, Israel was destined to be recognised as the country where ‘we Jews jumped from the burning buildings of Europe and Arab lands. We landed on the backs of Palestinians (and) we were unable to acknowledge what had happened.’ For a people so decimated under Nazi Europe, the Jews created, according to Lerner, ‘a society that oppresses others and (therefore) you cannot expect that you will yourself not begin to embody the ugliness of the immorally powerful.’

Ephraim Nimni teaches politics and international relations at the University of New South Wales in Australia and is the editor of The Challenges of Post-Zionism: Alternatives to Israeli Fundamentalist Policies. Post-Zionism is the belief that Israel should become a secular state for all its citizens, and not a Jewish state that discriminates against non-Jews. Israel is a religious state, after all, despite claims otherwise. In a 2003 unpublished opinion piece for the Sydney Morning Herald, Nimni wrote that ‘the well being of Diaspora Jews is not dependent on what happens in distant Israel but it is crucially dependent on expanding and enlarging multiculturalism, as it is only in a vibrant multiculturalism environment that Diaspora Jews and other minorities can thrive and securely transmit their proud heritage to future generations.’ For many Jews, suggesting this is tantamount to treason, such is the ingrained connection to Israel, as supposed protector and defender of the Jewish people. Nimni says that the 1967 war was a turning point in the support Jews gave to Israel. ‘There was a perception that there was a threat to the Israeli state and the discourse of Zionism, together with the discourse of survivalism (meaning the idea that Jews have survived persecution). The combination of these two led to the creation of a Jewish state. That argument became… dominant.’ Today, for Jews to question the policies of Sharon, or US support for Israel, labels you a traitor to the cause, a self-hating Jew.

Bi-nationalism is another increasingly imagined future for Israel. Tony Judt is a lecturer at New York University who wrote a provocative piece in the New York Review of Books in October 2003. He argued that ‘the very idea of a ‘Jewish state’ – a state in which Jews and Jewish religion have exclusive privileges from which non-Jewish citizens are forever excluded – is rooted in another time and place. Israel, in short, is an anachronism.’ Instead, he imagines a world where secularism is the fundamental tenet upon which all democracies should be established and maintained. Israel, therefore, and any number of other states operating under religious doctrines, has no place in the 21st century. Israel is therefore ‘bad for the Jews’, echoing comments by George Soros. The only way forward, says Judt, is a bi-nationalism based on both Jews and Arabs living together on the same land. Acknowledging the difficulty in this proposal, Judt is optimistic, because ‘a legitimately constituted bi-national state would find it much easier policing militants of all kinds within its border than when they are free to infiltrate them from outside.’ He also insists that an international force would be required to implement this vision. Palestinians and Jews living side by side in peace may sound like an unrealistic dream in 2004, but who could argue that current policies have any chance of working better?

The last year has seen an explosion of dissent within Israel, never matched in Diaspora communities, mainly out of fear, paranoia and a powerful Zionist lobby. Increasing numbers of senior members of the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) are becoming consciousness objectors against immoral Israeli policies in the West Bank and Gaza and ex-heads of the Israeli security service, the Shin Bet, recently argued that ‘…if we go only living by the sword, we will continue to wallow in the mud and destroy ourselves.’ Israel is therefore at a crossroads in its history. Brian Klug writes in a forthcoming Nation that much criticism of Israel is not anti-Semitism but in fact anti-Zionism, a rejection of the belief that Jews are entitled to their own homeland. But a mature nation is one that can reflect on its history, myths and accepted truths. Israel and its supporters must decide if they want to continually lay the blame for all the country’s woes at the feet of Yasser Arafat and Hamas, or be more pro-active in their approaches to the future. The extent to which Israel’s society is long overdue for a serious appraisal is best expressed by journalist Gideon Levy in Ha’aretz, Israel’s liberal daily. Writing on the increasingly oppressive occupation in December 2003, he paints a state where ‘the dehumanisation is characterised to the value of human life. During the past months, virtually not a single day has gone without Palestinians being killed in clashes in the territories; dozens of Palestinians, many of them unarmed innocents, have died every month, even during periods in which there were no terrorist attacks. The deaths were a marginal item of Israel’s public agenda.’ Surely a humanist believes in justice for all and not just for the victors who write the history books.

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Antony Loewenstein is a journalist based in Sydney, Australia

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