“Forget the Jews for a while and focus on your own backyard.”
This unsolicited morsel of advice left me taken aback. I had just spent two weeks at Oxford attending a course on Critical Contemporary Antisemitism by the Institute for the Study of Global Antisemitism and Policy. Such a rebuke gave me cause for reflection. Why should an indigenous person from distant New Zealand care about what happens to Jews in the Middle East and elsewhere?
Oft-cited is the phrase “Jews are the canary in the coal mine”. In other words, rising antisemitism is an unmistakable sign that society is in deep trouble.
Antisemitism globally is displaying an alarming upward trend, a trend that is coincidental with – likely lubricated and accelerated by – increasing polarization within Western-style democracies. As is painfully obvious, the latter is a phenomenon from which Israel is not exempt.
Antisemitic incidents in the US reached their highest level last year since the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) began such records in 1979.
A 2021 survey on antisemitism in my own nation found that 63% of New Zealanders held at least one antisemitic view and some 6% held nine or more antisemitic views (based on 18 questions posed to expose antisemitic ideas.)
Further, antisemitism emerges from a bewildering range of divergent worldviews. If this means society is indeed desperately ill, perhaps we should all care about the Jews?
Another reason for my concern over Jewish issues is that there are many “in my backyard” who seem to think it’s noble to attack and demonize Israel. As a Christian, I cannot ignore nearly 2,000 years of persecution of Jews perpetrated in the name of Christ. While I can’t be held responsible for such attitudes and actions, it naturally and properly creates for me a deeply rooted connection to the issue.
Viewing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through a settler colonialist lens
Many New Zealanders view Israel through the lens of our own settler colonialist history: the Jews, like the British, are seen as white European colonizers; the Palestinians, as akin to my own people, the indigenous Māori.
SUCH IS the narrative. But like so many narratives, it lacks even a passing resemblance to the facts of history.
The British were complete strangers to the land of Aotearoa New Zealand. In contrast, for the Jewish people, Israel is the ancestral homeland. It was here that a distinctive indigenous Jewish culture, language and religion began to develop more than 3,000 years ago. And despite multiple dispersions, there has always been a residual Jewish presence in the land; for Jews in the Diaspora, an inextinguishable longing for the land. Thus, as an indigenous person, it’s most natural for me to recognize in the Jewish experience and history the markers of indigeneity.
Of course, Arabs are indigenous too – to Arabia. They came to Palestine (so named by the Romans as an act of cultural erasure) many centuries later.
One of presenters at Oxford remarked that Zionism is about reclaiming the land. “We walk the land. We know every stone – we know the land”. (Yossi Shain, ISGAP 2023) This is very much an indigenous trait. The recovery of the Hebrew language is also an inspiration to other indigenous peoples seeking to revive their language.
Moreover, while many critical race theorists insist on defining Jews as white, with all the attendant oppressor class guilt associated with whiteness, Jews generally do not identify themselves as such. Indeed, only two generations ago Jews were hunted down and murdered by the millions, in large measure because they were not white.
One of those in my own backyard recently took it upon herself to opine on Israel’s evils in a prominent New Zealand newspaper. She spoke of her trip to “Palestine,” undertaken as part of a quest to work out her conflicted sense of identity as a person with a Christian mother and Jewish father.
Her article was predictable in many ways. After describing what she saw as the suffering of the Palestinians and the culpability of Israel (with no mention of terror and rocket attacks and the need for security restrictions), the writer concluded:
“I don’t know how the story ends, but one thing is clear: if the question remains as to whether the Jewish people deserve a place to call home, we are still asking the wrong question. The answer to that will always be, unequivocally, yes. The question we should all be asking is whether the autonomy of Jews matters more than the human dignity and lives of Palestinians. My Jewish values of social justice and the sanctity of life guide me to believe that the State of Israel, as it exists today, isn’t worth the cost.”
AND THERE we have it. The questioning of Israel’s right to exist. The author falsely posits a zero-sum game, a false dichotomy between Jewish self-determination and Palestinian dignity. Both matter and need not be pitted one against the other.
The writer failed to address the elephant in the room; the Palestinian leadership bears much of the responsibility for the plight of the Palestinians by refusing to make peace with a Jewish state in any part of the land, and by their endemic corruption and failure to provide for their own people or establish a free democratic society.
Perhaps this young woman is unaware that without a state Jews would be left in a deeply precarious situation. This is proven by two thousand years of homelessness, incessant persecution, the Holocaust and the reluctance of the world to receive Jewish refugees before, during and after the Holocaust. One painful lesson of the Holocaust was that the Jewish people should never entrust their existential security to the international community.
Opposition to Zionism, (belief in the right of the Jewish people to self-determination in their ancestral homeland), is one of the most pernicious forms of contemporary antisemitism. Whereas in the past Jews were persecuted for their religion or their race, now they are persecuted for their peoplehood.
They are denied the right to a national existence. As Professor David Patterson put it, anti-Zionism “is the quintessential form of antisemitism” in that it involves “the elimination of a place to go for the Jewish people… It undergirds the homelessness of the Jews, where the wandering Jew is forbidden to become the dwelling Jew.” (ISGAP 2023)
The denial of peoplehood, history, heritage, and connection to one’s land, in concert with the usual demonization and double standards in regard to security, would be deeply dehumanizing for any people-group. But for Israel, the Jew among the nations, it is now the norm. The canary is long dead.
No. I won’t be forgetting the Jews anytime soon. Indeed, it seems obvious to me that all those who care about history, justice, and decency should be resolutely unwilling to “forget the Jews.”
The writer is a historian and founder of the Indigenous Coalition For Israel, www.indigenouscoalition.org.