Left - wing protesters hold placards during a demonstration in Tel Aviv.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Over the course of Jewish history, the idea of survival has become essential to understanding the Jewish community. Such understanding has run highest at times when Jews were powerless, such as the end of World War II, and produced at these times a certain amount of world sympathy.
In contrast, when the Zionist enterprise began to lay the foundation for statehood in Mandatory Palestine, Jews began to accumulate power, which caused some to immediately question the enterprise itself. Old anti-Semitic tropes immediately reminded us that such a state would be based on “exploitation” or even Zionist “world domination,” something that generated non-Jewish hostility and, among a Jewish minority, feelings of guilt. Powerlessness was the preferred, even ideal situation.
After the Holocaust we witnessed a trend among many Jews, especially among children of survivors, to distance themselves from the horrors, and the State of Israel, because of the contrast that had emerged between powerlessness and power. This was illustrated in books like The Holocaust Is Over; We Must Rise From its Ashes by former Knesset speaker Avraham Burg, Norman Finkelstein’s The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering and the writings of critics like the late Tony Judt who categorically rejected Zionism.
This rejection of power and Israel was neatly articulated by Isaac Deutscher, who noted in his concept of the “non-Jewish Jew” regarding the State of Israel, “[O]n a deeper, historical level the Jewish tragedy finds in Israel a dismal sequel. Israel’s leaders exploit in self-justification, and over-exploit Auschwitz and Treblinka; but their actions mock the real meaning of the Jewish tragedy.”
Judt’s uncompromising rejection of Zionism put him in a class with other contemporary Jewish intellectuals of the Diaspora such as Jacqueline Rose, Michael Neumann and Joel Kovel, who have singled out Israel for opprobrium that is rarely, if ever, directed at other countries that choose to adopt unique religious or cultural-based nationalities. At the core of Judt’s attacks on Israel was the refusal to accept the right of the Jewish people to self-determination in a distinctly Jewish state.
In contrast, Peter Beinart’s The Crisis of Zionism came out of “tough love,” rooted in his perception that illegal expansion of the “occupation” is creating still more Zionist guilt. The result that Beinart sees is an American Jewish Left that is distancing itself from Israel and the Zionist enterprise at large.
Moreover, for many Jews on the far Left, as for all Arab Palestinians, the events of 1948 are the original sin. Seen through a colonialist prism, Western powers implanted a Jewish state in the Middle East to enhance their control of this region.
For Beinart the answer is a “Zionist” boycott against Israeli settlements and products. Beinart, like many post-Zionists and revisionists, only oppose the “occupation,” which draws them toward the “tough love mentality” which conveniently also puts the entire onus on Israel. In this distorted narrative Israel is largely to blame for the collapse of the Oslo/Camp David process of 2000 and for any subsequent failure to revive a peace process. Arab rejectionism or Yasser Arafat’s web of lies to his people, Israel and the US do not play into the equation.
Indeed, the “occupation” has become the banner of the mainstream American Jewish Left that claims to recognize Israel but expresses visible discomfort with the inevitable contradictions and disappointments of Jewish power.
The concept of “occupation” has become the defining lens for Palestinians’ self-conception and self-justification. And this is exactly the same myopic and self-pitying view taken by Beinart. The only difference is that unlike anti-Israel ideologues like Norman Finkelstein, Ilan Pappe and others, Beinart claims to be a lover of Zion – just one who is having a difficult time grappling with the “harsh” Israeli reality.
The hypocrisy of these voices is that they put Arab-Palestinian views before their own Jewishness and reveal their discomfort with the Zionist vision, indeed, with the idea of Jewish sovereignty. Through this twisted logic Jewishness is even embodied in the other – the Palestinian narrative.
The tension between controlling one’s destiny or letting it control you is rooted in Jewish guilt – the guilt of surviving, living, and in the creation of the State of Israel.
The rise of global anti-Semitism today, exemplified by the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, requires understanding that much of the problem is actually rooted within the Jewish community, which would like to create a distinction between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism. But at the end of the day it must be understood that hatred of Israel can no longer be separated from loathing of Jews, even by Jews themselves.The author is executive director of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (SPME) and a research fellow at the Middle East Forum.