The insider origins of anti-Israelism

Bashing Israel as a racist, failed state in Boston or Berlin doesn’t make anyone less racist in Israel.

Israel boycott 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Israel boycott 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Every week brings news of a controversy involving an ostensibly Jewish or Israeli institution playing host to radical anti-Zionism, anti-Israelism or even anti-Semitism.
For instance, a week ago it was revealed that a Montreal Jewish festival had disinvited a noted anti-Birthright activist named Sarah Woolf. At Limmud in South Africa earlier this year there was some debate over the anti-JNF film Village under the forest. There was controversy over a conference for the Palestinian “right of return” being hosted at the Eretz Israel museum.
Australian Limmud also cancelled a talk by “Vivienne Porzsolt, a spokeswoman for Jews Against the Occupation, who was detained in Israel last year en route to the flotilla to Gaza; Avigail Abarbanel, the editor of Beyond Tribal Loyalties, who renounced her Israeli citizenship in 2001; and Peter Slezak, a co-founder of the far-left advocacy group Independent Australian Jewish Voices (The Forward).”
The narrative we are presented with each time is that this is “surprising” or “ironic.” Supposedly a Jewish community center, Israeli cultural event or Israeli museum serving as a venue for people who think the State of Israel should be dismantled or radically altered is a contradiction in terms.
However, radical critique of Israel is not an outsider phenomenon; while it may be a minority voice, that minority is often the elite of the Jewish and Israeli community.
They are “outside-insiders”: those masquerading as outsider critics but who in fact were groomed by and recognized as part of the elite Zionist structure.
(The “inside-outsider” was used by Jeremy Suri to describe Henry Kissinger, an outsider as an immigrant who became an inside player in US administration.) For example, Avraham Burg, a resident of the posh community of Nataf near Jerusalem, was a head of the Jewish Agency and a Knesset Speaker who then “suddenly” became a radical critic of Israel in 2007, launching a book that he first thought of titling “Hitler won,” in which he excoriated Israel.
He gave an interview to Haaretz in which he advised Israelis to obtain foreign passorts, and said the Law of Return that allows Jews to immigrate to Israel should be cancelled. He was celebrated abroad, in The Independent, The New York Times and elsewhere, as a daring apostate.
Ze’ev Bielski, the chairman of the Jewish Agency, responded that Burg’s statements caused him “pain over a person who was considered to have great promise for the future of the State of Israel. Pain over a person raised and educated in this country in a Jewish Zionist family, one of the leaders of Israel’s younger generation.”
Burg has since been on speaking tours, and on November 11 was at Harvard’s Quincy House giving the Samuel L. and Jodidi Lecture at the Weatheread Center. For an “apostate” he’s done quite well for himself.
Burg’s narrative of growing up in a traditional Zionist home and then becoming a critic isn’t the exception, it is the rule.
Alon Liel, former Foreign Ministry director-general, claimed in a February conference that, “In the situation that exists today, until a Palestinian state is created, we are actually one state. This joint state – in the hope that the status quo is temporary – is an apartheid state.” His comments were greeted with shock.
He told his listeners: “As someone who knows the original apartheid well, and also knows the State of Israel quite well – I was born here, grew up here, served and fought for it for 30 years – someone like me knows that Zionism isn’t apartheid and the State of Israel that I grew up in wasn’t an apartheid state.”
Similarly, Burg claimed “My generation, born in the ’50s.... Back then, Americans and Israelis talked about democracy, human rights, respect for other nations and human solidarity. It was an age of dreamers and builders who sought to create a new world, one without prejudice, racism or discrimination.... Where is that righteous America? Whatever happened to the good old Israel?” Miko Peled peddles his insider status as a key to his identity in his book The General’s Son: Journey of an Israeli in Palestine: “It was 1948 in Jerusalem and Zika Katsnelson- Peled, my mother, was 22 years old. She was a daughter of the Zionist elite. Her father, Dr. Avraham Katsnelson, was a member of the provisional Zionist government in Palestine and later a signatory of Israel’s Declaration of Independence.” His father was the Israeli general Matti Peled.
Miko’s sister, Nurit Peled-Elhanan, was quoted at Mondoweiss as saying “Apartheid in Israel and Palestine, imposed and practised by the Israeli security forces, is enabled by the most profound racism, practised every day, in every domain of life.”
It is a mistake to pretend that these are outsider opinions.
They were generated and sculpted by the very leaders and founders of Zionism, by Israeli generals and a family that signed the declaration of independence.
These views didn’t just come out of nowhere, either, they formed over time, in coffee houses and in the homes of the elites, on the kibbutzim and in the universities.
OPPOSITION TO Zionism is in fact a central feature of Zionism; opposition to and “daring” criticism of the State of Israel is integral to being an insider in Israel.
Abdul Kareem, a commenter at the website of Americans for Middle East Understanding, notes, “I found it hard to believe that Miko, coming from such a background, could present such a moral story.”
But Karim misunderstands the source and nature of these views. They do not contrast with the background, they are rooted deeply in it.
Many other radical critics, like Oren Yiftachel, who compares Jewish communities in Israel to “pure” white settler states like Australia and Canada, proudly describes being raised on a kibbutz “in a northern Israeli kibbutz, where socialism was not a curse and social justice was not a mere theory.”
Meron Benvenisiti, another critic, was the deputy mayor of Jerusalem.
Dror Feiler emigrated to Sweden in the 1970s and renounced his citizenship.
He was on the Gaza flotilla.
But in a recent article it is revealed his mother was a founder of Kibbutz Yad Hana.
In fact, most of the leaders of Israeli anti-Israel NGOs, the radical critics who shout “apartheid” or go on speaking tours of the US, such as the recent one by Breaking the Silence at Harvard University, are composed of those raised on kibbutz or “traditional Zionist families.” They attended the best Israeli high schools and universities. They pose as outsiders, but are the ultimate insiders. To list them all would take too long, but all you have to do is ask, the next time you hear about some radical Israel critic, “where did he or she grow up?” You will find that most probably, they or their parents were generals, leading academics, director-generals of ministries, or bureaucrats in various state-funded institutions.
THE SAME holds true in the Diaspora. Most of the radical critics are insiders. A new film being shown by the NGO Zochrot includes the biography of “Alice Rothchild, an American Jew raised on the tragedies of the Holocaust and the dream of a Jewish homeland in Israel. The film follows my personal journey as I begin to understand the Palestinian narrative.”
Peter Beinart, when he wrote about closing his blog Open Zion, describes the careers of many of his employees; “Our first employee, Elisheva Goldberg, was a high school AIPAC activist transformed by meeting Palestinians while studying at yeshiva in the West Bank.”
The fact is that anti-Zionism and critique of Israel are the ultimate insider’s career path. Those insiders who become anti-Zionist or radical critics rarely offer constructive criticism, and this differentiates them from the descendants of other founding generations.
The founders of the American Republic didn’t turn on that republic in a generation and go on speaking tours condemning it.
Critics of Israeli policy could be constructive; a solution to the conflict with the Palestinians is in everyone’s interest, and combating racism is a good thing. But the way in which many of these insiders go about it, becoming more famous at Harvard and in London than they are in Israel, seems counterproductive, to say the least.
Bashing Israel as a racist, failed state in Boston or Berlin doesn’t make anyone less racist in Israel. Responsible insiders work for change from within, but unfortunately the Jewish community and Israel is not cultivating a responsible elite culture of critique, but an irresponsible one.