In 1953 I travelled abroad with my parents, who were sent to Argentina by the Israeli Foreign Ministry. I felt as if I’d emerged from a cage into the wide world. There could be no greater contrast to tiny Israel than spacious Argentina. Not only the vast open spaces, the tremendous abundance that existed there in those days stunned us. We stared in amazement as construction workers near where we lived ate their lunch al fresco – each one broiled a huge steak on a makeshift charcoal grill, and ate it with crusty bread and wine. There was some poverty in Argentina, but nothing like the wretchedness you saw elsewhere in Latin America.
Most Argentinians had never heard of Israel. When a young hairdresser asked me where I was from, and I said “Israel”, it meant nothing to her. When I added, “Jerusalen” (Jerusalem), she was shocked. “Seniorita, one mustn’t say such things!” – As far as she knew, Jerusalem was in heaven, or in the next world.
A year later I was in England, where I’d gone to study. People in England were aware of Israel – after all, it was founded in Palestine, a land the Brits had ruled over for 30 years. Their reactions were interesting – conservative types were chilly, but in general there was no hostility. Young people and progressive types tended to be sympathetic. In the new “espresso bars”, which popped up everywhere, you could hear in the evenings young guitarists playing Israeli songs like “Havah Nagilah” and “Eretz zavat halav udevash”.
The reason I’m bringing up these old memories is that today it’s the other way around – today rightwingers, reactionaries, even fascists, support Israel warmly, whereas progressive types and most young people around the world are antagonistic. On my travells in the past few decades I have repeatedly encountered anti-Israel hostility from very nice people, which pained and embarrassed me, because I agree with their criticism of this State, even if not everything they say about it is accurate. (For example, I don’t accept the widespread claim that the United States invaded Iraq just to serve Israeli interests, because despite the fantasies spun by such “Iraq experts” as Amatziah Baram, the Israeli government knew perfectly well that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq did not threaten it. On the other hand, Israel pressed and continues to press the US to attack Iran, or at least strangle it with sanctions.)
So, is there growing antisemitism in the world? Recently some American Jews issued a public appeal to other Jews not to criticise Israel, because it encourages antisemitism. Two respected American academics, Steven Walt and John Mearsheimer, who published (in a British paper) a long and well-documented article about the pro-Israel lobby in the United States, were promptly denounced as antisemitic. The former US President Jimmy Carter, whose book about the Israeli-Arab conflict was entitled “Palestine – Peace Not Apartheid”, was similarly attacked. Tony Judt, a Jewish-English historian currently living in the US, was also maligned and boycotted after he published an article about the neo-conservative supporters of the Bush Administration, most of whom are Jews.
When the critics themselves are Jews, or even Israelis, it’s difficult to call them antisemites, so the term used to neutralise their criticism is “self-haters”. As if we are not honestly and unhappily denouncing wrongs committed in and by Jewish society or the State of Israel, but are simply pathetic creatures needing psycho-therapy to cure our mental illness of self-hate. We end up explaining that it’s not ourselves we detest, but the Zionist policies which continue to produce iniquities.
One defender of Zionism in the United States has come up with a new test for identifying antisemites and self-hating Jews. “Which worries you more – the situation in Darfour, in Haiti or in Israel?” This is a pretty ingenious trick. There is no doubt that the situation in Darfour, as described in the media, is dire – thousands of people living in the open, thousands killed, maimed, raped, abducted by gangs known as Janjaweed; in Haiti there has been for years total anarchy and misery, the people are at the mercy of criminals and the few UN troops are less than useless. In both places the situation is obviously worse than in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Why then do we protest so loudly? – Clearly we are suffering from self-hate and are obsessively preoccupied with Israel’s misdeeds…
We therefore have no choice but to explain why the world must pay attention to what is happening here, and intervene. Let’s start with the basic facts. First, the State of Israel was founded by the international community – when the United Nations General Assembly was asked in November 1947 to decide on the partition of Palestine, more than two-thirds of the member states voted in favour of the resolution. Though there were certainly pressures behind the scenes, there is no doubt that the two super-powers, the United States and the USSR, with their respective satellites and friends, who vividly remembered the annihilation of Europe’s Jews by the Nazis, favoured the resolution despite the opposition of the Arab states and their friends. There was a general feeling that the Jews deserved to have a secure place of their own. Even after the war which we call the War of Independence, despite the large-scale destruction of Arab villages and the expulsion of many of the Arab inhabitants, Israel continued to be seen as a positive element in the Middle East – a small state with a relatively egalitarian society and a socialist economic structure, which had withstood a massive assault by the backward Arab state surrounding it, etc etc… Unfortunately for the Palestinians, and for the Arab interests as a whole, their spokesmen at the UN and in the world media were very unconvincing, whereas the Jewish-Zionist argument was much more eloquent and played on the feelings of guilt and embarrassment in the West.
The first crack opened in October 1956, when Israel joined Britain and France as they set out to capture the Suez Canal, which had been nationalised by Gamal Abd el-Nasser. All at once Israel’s image changed into something resembling South Africa – namely, a state of Western settlers in the Middle East, its natural affinity not with its geographic neighbourhood but with the imperialist European powers struggling to retain control over their former colonies. At that time Britain was still clutching at Kenya, Malaya and Cyprus, while France was conducting a merciless war in Algeria. Israel allied itself with these two powers when it seized the Sinai Peninsula in October 1956 – a mere nine years after the United Nations approved the partition of Palestinian into two states, for the Jews and the Arabs.
The change in the attitude towards Israel was noticeable all over the world, and it did not fade after the United States and the USSR compelled the three musketeers to withdraw from Egypt, and “the third kingdom of Israel”, proclaimed by Ben-Gurion, collapsed like a house of cards. Nevertheless, after a few years the image of Israel recovered to a great extent – it was still the only state in the region with something like a democratic regime (despite the restrictions and gross discrimination against its Palestinian citizens), a society which appeared egalitarian. The kibbutzim continued to attract young, idealistic people from around the world. And in 1967, when the Arab states, led by Egypt, were issuing crude threats against little Israel, again it was mostly liberal-minded people who feared for its survival. The US Administration, Israel’s future patron, was inclined to sit on the fence. “We are neutral in word and deed,” declared the American Secretary of State Dean Rusk when the fighting began…. The rest is too well known to recapitulate. A clever policy of dissimulation – “It’s a temporary state of affairs, till we achieve peace with our neighbours”; “Enlightened occupation”; “We extend our hand in peace”, and so forth – gave Israel a measure of good will for a while longer, but then the land expropriations, the settlements, the repression, the house demolitions and uprooting of orchards, destroyed it for good. Today the only people who support Israel unreservedly are Zionist Jews who justify every act it commits with arguments about Holocaust past and Holocaust threatened; mad Christian fundamentalists who believe that all the Jews should foregather in the Promised Land in order to bring on the Second Coming of Christ (at which time the unrepentant Jews would be destroyed, but that’s by the way), and various racists and fascists in the Western world who hate all the Muslims, Arabs, non-European nations and so on, and who cheer Israel on when it launches its most aggressive actions.
Israel has succeeded in appropriating all the Jews of the world, whether they wish it or not. It’s not difficult to see why – a tiny state in a sliver of the Middle East would not have been much of a power-base. Had Israel’s leaders been content with it, had they devoted their best efforts to work on the available material, Israel might have become something like Singapore – small but rich and strong enough, involving the participation of all its citizens, of all ethnic groups, in its impressive achievements. It might also have achieved peaceful relations with its neighbours. But our Zionist leaders had grown accustomed to moving in the world’s corridors of power, and could not be satisfied with little Israel, which even after taking in the remnant of Europe’s Jews and the Jewish communities from the Arab countries, would still have been a little place. By contrast, Israel as the capital and representative of all the Jews of the world was immeasurably weightier. But for the young State to become the Jewish capital of the world it had to give up some central qualities – first of all, its Hebrew character. Before 1948, the Zionist struggle was for a “Hebrew State”, for “The New Hebrew Man”, for the Hebrew language and culture, and so on. But this Hebrewness created a psychological and cultural division between the Israeli society and the Jews of the world. And let us not forget that Hebrew closely resembles Arabic, and its authentic sounds are unmistakably Semitic. No wonder that the Israeli Broadcasting Corporation dropped the “eastern” pronunciation of its announcers, and the Hebrew language was fairy rapidly demoted – because all these elements were obstacles in the process of turning Israel into the state of world Jewry. Without this transformation, it would have been impossible to claim the reparations from Germany – as though Israel were the legal heir of the Jews of Europe, even though it had never been named as such, even though the victims of the Holocaust had never been here, even though the State had not existed at the time of the Holocaust, and even though Holocaust survivors never served in the Israeli Cabinet. The process continued with the Eichmann trial, based on the same dubious legal claim. Thus the State gradually conscripted all the Jewish institutions and organisations in the world, as if they were all potential Israelis, and as if it represented them all. Every synagogue, every Jewish club, became willy-nilly an Israeli embassy. After a while the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians and the Arab countries sprouted tentacles all over the world. When the Israeli embassy and a Jewish cultural centre in Buenos Aires were bombed, it was not the work of local antisemites, but metastases of the Middle East conflict.
But let us return to the challenge issued to those who criticise Israel more than they criticise other states condemned by the media. The challengers prefer to forget that Israel – unlike Sudan, Haiti, Sri Lanka, Burma or Zimbabwe – receives huge benefits from the richest countries in the world. Israel receives vast financial assistance from the US government, greater than any other country (not counting the tremendous tax-free contributions from American Jews), as well as preferential terms in trade and other connections. The European Union also treats Israel almost as if it were a member when it comes to economic ties. And not only in these – in the various sports as in the Eurovision contest, Israel participates as though it were a part of Europe, rather than the Middle East. How can one enjoy all these benefits and favours and yet demand that the people who treat us like family members should refrain from criticising us? How dare we protest because they demand more stringent standards from Israel than they do from Sudan, Zimbabwe or Burma?
If we care about the welfare of the Jews of the world we have to ask ourselves whether Israel is doing them a favour in holding them in such a bear-hug. Already now there are many voices in America – though not yet in the mainstream media – warning that Washington’s uncritical support of Israel helps to stoke hatred for America all over the world – mainly though not exclusively in the Muslim countries. Some people regard this support as a contributing cause that led to the deadly attacks on the United States – on the US Marines in Lebanon in 1983, the US bases in Saudi Arabia (1995/96), the US embassies in Africa (1998), the USS “Cole” in Aden in 2000, the Port Authority in New York in 1993, and the biggest attack in September 2001… And if the blind approval of Israel and the Zionist lobby is perceived as promoting this hostility, then a day may come when the Jews of America will be presented with the bill, whether they agreed with their government’s unilateral policy or not.