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Israel’s Settler-Colonialist Culture


It took an earthquake in Nepal to uncover some of the emotional bedrock at the bottom of Israel’s settler-colonialist culture. The day after the disaster that claimed over 7,000 lives in and around Kathmandu, I learned from an online Israeli newspaper that the earthquake had also endangered some two dozen babies newly born to Israeli fathers in Nepal – out of the bodies of “surrogate mothers” who had been impregnated there – that had not yet been flown to their future homes in Israel.

I suspect that for many readers, as for me, this story offered the first inkling that Nepal has been serving as a hub of the “surrogate parenting” business – a trade the New Jersey Supreme Court stigmatized in 1988 as “illegal, perhaps criminal, and potentially degrading to women” – but the Israeli report containing this news appeared to take the exploitation of foreign mothers in stride.

“The 24 infants…in Nepal are waiting with their Israeli parents to be evacuated,” announced YNet News breathlessly on April 25, adding that “in order to allow for their flight to Israel, a DNA test must be performed to prove the father is an Israeli citizen.” YNet’s article featured a picture of some of the infants, and of Israeli musician Ohad Hitman and his gay partner, who were among the worried parents of the newborns. But there were no pictures of the impoverished women who gave birth to these children. Their names were never mentioned, nor were they ever described as “parents,” though the babies at the center of so much concern had emerged from those women’s bodies no differently from the offspring of any other mother. For Israeli media, Israeli DNA was required to confer the normal benefits of human identity.

The American Jewish periodical Forward made the same distinction two days later, with an article that underlined the “stressful time” experienced by one of many gay couples in Israel while “the woman carrying their baby is stuck in Kathmandu.” Note again that the possessive pronoun was restricted to the child’s Israeli parents, while the woman who actually gave birth to “their” baby remained nameless and faceless. Forward’s article did note that the Israeli government was “look[ing] at how to bring pregnant surrogates…to give birth in Israel” – it being understood, of course, that these “pregnant surrogates” would be going home alone once the babies were delivered.

“Surrogate” parenting is legally restricted in Israel itself, but to judge from online comments, few Israeli or American Jews have noticed anything wrong with the practice of hiring the body of a poor Asian woman to bear an Israeli child. One post suggesting a dissenting view was immediately buried in an avalanche of indignant protests, of which this was typical:

These women were paid handsomely for carrying a child. They don’t want the babies – they want the money. They have earned more money for carrying a baby than they could hope to earn in three lifetimes. The Israelis do not owe them anything – these women couldn’t even carry the babies fully to term.”

The ingrates! So hungry they have to sell their bodies, these shiksas can’t even manage to carry the purchasers’ babies through a normal gestation period. As Shaw’s Undershaft famously explained, poverty is the worst of all crimes.

I’m aware that I may seem to be oversimplifying the moral picture. It’s easy to sympathize with gay couples who desperately want children and will snatch at any opportunity to have them. And it’s true that many Israelis have participated in disaster relief efforts in earthquake-ravaged Nepal. But none of this dispels the inescapably racist double standard the Israeli media – with far too little dissent from Jews in Israel or elsewhere – apply to foreign women and children, depending essentially upon whether they aid or hinder the interests of Israeli Jews. The Israeli columnist Gideon Levy was virtually a lone voice when he remarked that just a week before the Nepal earthquake, a study published in Israel revealed thirteen recent incidents “in which homes were blown up in Gaza, killing 31 babies and 39 children.”

“He who did this to dozens of babies,” Levy wrote, “needs an intolerable measure of chutzpah to dare be photographed with a baby rescued from an earthquake and to boast of his humanitarianism.”

But Israelis have been doing exactly that – and notwithstanding the reactions of a few like Levy, they seem to be getting away with it. The Orthodox Jewish Press, just for instance, extolled the contributions of the local Lubavitch missionaries to the humanitarian work in Kathmandu even as the web site containing the article in question advertised a Pentateuch commentary by the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, a convicted terrorist notorious for his anti-Arab bigotry.

Nor is the racism only about Nepal. Even as Israeli media dehumanized the Asian women who have been bearing children for Israeli Jews, the literary editor of Israel’s liberal newspaper, Ha’aretz, was mocking the genocide of Armenians in 1915 as the “self-righteous and convenient kitsch of national victimization.” In a shocking April 30 tirade, Benny Ziffer derided the notion that the systematic massacre of one and half million Armenian men, women and children should be considered a genocide – even though the extirpation of the Armenian population (“with no regard…to either age or sex, or to any scruples of conscience,” according to an official directive) was the Ottoman government’s explicit goal. No, wrote Ziffer, use of the word “genocide” to describe the suffering of Armenians, or of any non-Jews for that matter, would dilute the uniqueness of “the Jewish Shoah,” and that in the end might even encourage “self-righteous types” to mourn the Palestinian Nakba – which, according to Ziffer, “is also no more than a salient product of postmodernism.”

To be sure, there was something praiseworthy in Ziffer’s candor, if nothing else: his column clearly acknowledged what was at issue. If you want to lord it over other people, whether by confiscating their land or by appropriating their bodies to bear your children, you need to believe that you are inherently better than they are, that their humanity – or their suffering – can never be justly compared with your own.

Which helps to explain how, 70 years after the closing of the last German concentration camp, Rabbi Kenneth Brander could “honor” Israel’s Memorial Day last month with a paean to the Israeli army – just months after its savage devastation of Gaza last summer – and could even dare to portray the killers of more than 500 children as the ultimate victims, through the rhetorical trick of linking the soldiers to the victims of Nazi death camps. “When will the world understand,” he demanded, that those who wear the Israeli uniform “are the grandchildren of those who wore the Garments of Tyranny, the striped pajamas of Auschwitz?”

If there is something worse than Holocaust denial, surely this is it, this deliberate perversion of historical memory to cast oppressors in the role of victims, so long as they are Jews, and slaughtered civilians in the role of Nazis, so long as they stand in the way of the Jewish State. Yet to the extent we fail to notice when poor women of southern Asia become media non-persons in the service of a privileged master class – Jewish or otherwise – I fear we are encouraging the process by which such monstrosities become the norm.

Michael Lesher, an author and lawyer, has published numerous articles dealing with the Israel-Palestine conflict, child sexual abuse and other topics. He is the author of the recent book Sexual Abuse, Shonda and Concealment in Orthodox Jewish Communities (McFarland & Co., Inc.), which focuses on cover-ups of abuse cases among Orthodox Jews. More information about his work can be found on his web site www.MichaelLesher.com.

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