When people hear I’m updating Arthur Hertzberg’s classic, The Zionist Idea, the question they most often ask is whether my anthology will include anti-Zionists. I reply that just as feminists wouldn’t include sexists when collecting feminist writings, and blacks wouldn’t include racists, this anthology is about Zionism, not anti-Zionism. The question shows a peculiarly Jewish – and Zionist – obsession with the age-old hatred of Jews – anti-Semitism – which has become the new-age hatred of the Jewish state – anti-Zionism. Reading over Zionist texts, which include critiques of anti-Zionism, I have realized once again that, more than wondering what Israel did wrong to become hated so much, we need to ask what’s wrong with those who hate Israel so much, Jew and non-Jew alike.
While Jewish anti-Zionism is as old as Zionism, the latest incarnation is a post-Sixties perversion. In 1970, the Socialist intellectual Irving Howe wrote, “Jewish boys and girls, children of the generation that saw Auschwitz, hate democratic Israel and celebrate as ‘revolutionary’ the Egyptian dictatorship... a few go so far as to collect money for Al Fatah, which pledges to take Tel Aviv. About this, I cannot say more; it is simply too painful.”
Two decades later, in If I Am Not for Myself: the Liberal Betrayal of the Jews (1992), Professor Ruth Wisse explained how Arabs “enlarged their war on Israel into an attack on the idea of Israel. Zionism, the Jewish claim to a land of their own, was declared racist because it deprived Palestinian Arabs of their homeland.” Inverting the facts “of the Jewish national struggle,” the Arabs cleverly substituted “‘homeless Palestinian’ for homeless Jew.” Arabs denied Jews’ rights to our land. Arabs blocked the Partition Plan offering Palestinians a state. Arabs made 850,000 Jews refugees. Nevertheless, the Arabs convinced a gullible world – including gullible Jews – that we were guilty of their crimes.
And – warning, I’m getting really politically incorrect here – following Benjamin Netanyahu’s 1993 argument in A Place Among the Nations that a strong Jewish presence remained in Israel until after the 636 Arab conquest, centuries after Rome destroyed the Second Temple, the moral inversion becomes dizzying. (The Jewish rebellions post-70 CE and Jewish cultural achievements like the Jerusalem Talmud prove that the Islamic invasion triggered the Jews’ second exile, although a remnant remained).
Yes, you can criticize Israel. Yes, the Palestinian problem demands a fair, creative solution. But today’s assault on Israel, repudiating Jewish national rights while deifying Palestinian rights, and inflating this minor conflict into an international obsession, is unconscionable. Perhaps liberal critics exaggerate Israel’s crimes to justify championing a Palestinian political culture that is so vile. How else to explain vilifying imperfect but democratic Israel while romanticizing the sexist, homophobic, racist, violent, dictatorial, illiberal terrorists who declared themselves the “sole, legitimate representatives of the Palestinian people” – claiming all of Israel.
In fact, modern anti-Zionism reflects postmodern identity politics’ hijacking of universal human rights language to create a simplistic world of evil Western oppressors who can do no right versus virtuous non-white victims who can do no wrong. In this polluted political atmosphere, any Israeli shortcomings eclipse all its liberal democratic values, while any Palestinian suffering forgives all Palestinian sins. It is not what you say or what you do that counts, but who you are – or actually who you are perceived to be and whether the identity ayatollahs place you in political protective custody.
This far Left disdain for liberal Israel is stoked by some radical Jews whose anti-Zionism absolves Israel’s enemies of their anti-Semitism. The cosmopolitan, anchorless “non-Jewish Jew” has become the anti-Jewish Jew, attacking today’s greatest Jewish collective project, Israel, nastily, globally, blindly, disloyally.
In 1958, the philosopher Isaiah Berlin explained that most Western Jews were so busy juggling modernity and Judaism, they “lost too great a part of their original, undiluted national personality.” Even “Hitler’s onslaught” did not make German Jewry Zionist. Zionism succeeded because Russian, Polish and Sephardic Jews translated their communal autonomy into modern nationalism. Ironically, these oppressed, imprisoned, impoverished Jews enjoyed “greater... moral and spiritual integrity... than that of their more prosperous and civilized, and altogether grander brothers in the West.” Considering that “Subjective feeling plays a great part in communal development,” these ghettoized but proud Jews could build a proud, secure, Jewish state.
Berlin’s “Jew Jitsu” from the negative to the positive models the proper Zionist response to anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism. Israel must address its problems to serve its citizens, not to soothe liberal Jews. Berlin’s insight – and Wisse’s analysis – caution that government commissions to fight boycotts or delegitimization will fail if they just focus on PR and branding.
The fight against Israel should be understood as one battlefield in the larger war against free thought in universities and elsewhere, which triggered liberal sniveling this fall, not leadership. We should assemble our best minds to assess where the Western world is going ideologically, asking what can be done to affect that drift.
As for Israel’s increasingly harsh Jewish critics, we should say: don’t cry for us, far Left Jewry. Spare us your Ivory Tower embarrassment, your crocodile tears, your selective indignation. Let’s stop confusing your fears with our failures. We accept that we will never be acceptable to you until we become acceptable to the Arabs, and that reflects their pathologies and your insecurities more than our actions.
We invite you to join our great global Jewish peoplehood project and seek to learn from you. But you can wallow in your neuroses, ambivalences and furies alone; we’re not internalizing them. We’re too busy solving our state’s problems to focus on your problematic state of mind. We will build ourselves, fix ourselves, perfect our Jewish state, knowing that, ultimately, it will benefit us all, as it has for decades.The writer is the author of The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s, just published by Thomas Dunne Books of St. Martin’s Press. He is professor of history at McGill University.Follow on Twitter @GilTroy. www.giltroy.com