Why Jewish historians should stand behind Zionism

Israeli reality is not painted black or white. There are many more examples showing Israel as a liberal and democratic society, which do not contradict its Jewish character.

By GUR ALROEY
August 8, 2016 21:06
A SIDEWALK painted with colors for the gay pride parade in Tel Aviv. The author wonders why anti-Isr

A SIDEWALK painted with colors for the gay pride parade in Tel Aviv. The author wonders why anti-Israel Jewish academics don’t support Israel’s gay rights and liberal values?. (photo credit: REUTERS)

 
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Hasia Diner and Marjorie Feld’s recent op-ed in Haaretz, “Why We’ve Left Zionism Behind,” provoked a stir among the Jewish historians’ community, and rightly so. Their article not only criticizes Israel but presents a very harsh indictment of Zionism, the State of Israel and Israeli society. Prof. Diner’s statements are disturbing not only because of their content but primarily because they were made by such an important and prominent historian. As a historian and a colleague of Prof. Diner’s, collaborating during the past three years as director of the Ruderman Program for American Jewish Studies, I cannot keep silent.

As an Israeli citizen I can accept criticism of Israel, provided it is fair and based on facts. Prof. Diner’s historical arguments are incorrect and unfortunately also unfounded. I fear her political agenda led to a distortion in understanding Zionist and Israeli society’s history, going so far as a complete denial of Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish and democratic state. Her ideological observations on the story of the establishment of Israel brought her to erroneous conclusions and to distort modern Jewish history.

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Prof. Diner’s argument that Zionist activities caused the disappearance of Jewish communities around the world is unacceptable and has no historical basis. Migration of millions of Jews in the twentieth century and the Holocaust are the main causes for the demographic shift among the Jewish people. The United States was the preferred destination for millions of Jewish immigrants, and when it closed its gates Jews began to emigrate en masse to Israel. Many of those who did not succeed were murdered in the Holocaust.

With the establishment of Israel North African and Asian Jews were persecuted and faced mortal danger in their Muslim countries; Ethiopian Jews emigrated to Israel because life under the rule of dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam became intolerable; and a million former Soviet Jews emigrated to Israel after the fall of the communist bloc. Zionism was not the cause of the decline of European, Asian and African Jewry, but rather economic hardship and political persecution.

Contrary to Prof. Diner’s claims, Israeli society is not undergoing “haredization.” This claim is baseless and the reality in Israel proves the exact opposite. The Israeli status quo regarding religion and state is consistently breached in favor of the liberal-secular population.

Jerusalem in the 1970s-1980s was completely closed on Shabbat, but nowadays restaurants, pubs, clubs and cinemas are open without hindrance. Haifa has public transportation on Shabbat. Furthermore, as a liberal Jewish American professor Diner should actually be proud of LGBT rights in Israel. 25,000 people took part in the gay pride parade in Jerusalem last month, and Tel Aviv is considered one of the most gay-friendly cities in the world.

Israel is defined (and rightly so) as the state of the Jewish people. It was established after the terrible tragedy that befell the Jewish people and after it became clear that the Jewish people – primarily American Jewry – does not have sufficient power to save Jews and change the course of the war. The State of Israel, as a Jewish state, opens its gates to all Jews who want to live in it. American Jews run their lives in a country which protects them and their rights. They are indeed fortunate, unlike other Jewish communities which found Israel as the only solution for their distress.

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The Law of Return was designed to save and help them in times of need, so they will not be at the mercy of any country. Indeed, immigration statistics shows that the overwhelming majority of Jews came from distressed countries rather than welfare countries, including 300,000 non-Jewish Russians and large numbers of non-Jewish Falash Mura. The United States could have been a convenient solution for them but its gates were closed (and still are) and one cannot expect the US to reach out to all persecuted Jewish communities.

Prof. Diner rightly points out that among Israeli society there are those calling out for all Jews to gather in Israel, but nowadays there are quite a few voices that abandoned long ago the idea of “in-gathering of the exiles” and talk about Jewish people-hood and of a round-table of equal Jewish communities. As an academic who has been acquainted for several years with the Ruderman Program fellows who study the American Jewish community in its own right, Prof. Diner is also intimately familiar with these voices.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a controversial issue in Israeli society. One can of course complain (sometimes justifiably) about the Israeli attitude toward the Palestinian population in the West Bank. I do not justify the occupation. This is a burning issue which has been standing on the threshold for 50 years and needs to be solved. It is expected that historians specifically will possess the ability to understand the complexity of the conflict and avoid casting blame exclusively on one side.

One of the problems with the boycott movement and the anti-Israeli Left is their refusal to visit Israel. They derive most of their information from biased media coverage.

If they had come to Israel, seen the communities in the Gaza vicinity, crossed the Green Line, walked the streets of Tel Aviv, climbed Mount Carmel and driven along the northern border, only then they might understand the complexity of Israeli society. A historian who hasn’t lived Israel but denies Zionism is like a historian who writes historical research but never entered an archive.

Israeli reality is not painted black or white. There are many more examples showing Israel as a liberal and democratic society, which do not contradict its Jewish character.

Alongside less flattering examples, as can be found in any Western democratic society. American society, in which we witness social injustices and persistent racial discrimination taking place daily, is not free of moral and ethical problems. It is time for the anti-Israel Jewish Left to stop preaching to Israel and its citizens while denying Israel’s right to exist. They should allow Israelis and Jews from around the world to shape a healthy, ethical, equal and just society in Israel for the sake of its citizens and for the sake of the Jewish people.

The author is a professor and director of the Ruderman Program for American Jewish Studies at the University of Haifa.

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