the onslaught on the Palestinian people continues and the hundred-year
conquest of Palestine enters what may be its final stages, efforts by the
Israeli, Zionist and Jewish establishments to silence any remaining
criticism of Israel and Zionism intensify. At the center of these efforts is
the claim that anti-Zionism equals anti-Semitism. Critics of Israel are
warned that whilst like any other democratic state, Israel is open to
criticism of its policies, any criticism of Israel’s right to exist as a
Jewish state is, by definition, anti-Semitic.
First, it is not true that we are free to criticize Israeli policies since so many perfectly legitimate criticisms of Israeli policy are blanketed as attacks on Israel’s right to self-defense and therefore as attacks on Israel’s right to exist and, therefore themselves as anti-Semitic. But what of the core argument that, since all other peoples are entitled to statehood, to deny to Jews that which is granted to everyone else is discriminatory and, therefore, anti-Semitic?
There are of course some who really do want to “push the Jews into the sea”, and there are certainly those who say that Jews are not a nation, but a religious group. There are others who undoubtedly would deny the right of Jews to establish a state anywhere. These people can fight their own battles. For my part, if Jews say they are a nation, that’s fine and if Jews want to wear blue-and-white, wave flags and set up a state on some piece of uninhabited and unclaimed land, although I won’t be joining them, that’s also fine. The problem is when this state is established on someone else’s land and maintained at someone else’s expense.
So what is this state of Israel, this Jewish state, whose existence we are forbidden to question? Founded on the expulsion and exile of another people, and defining itself as for Jews alone, Israel officially and unofficially, overtly and covertly, discriminates against non-Jews. Is denying Jews such a state denying them that which is granted to all others? One may agree or disagree with any of this. One may argue for or against Jewish nationhood, the need for a Jewish state, the right of Jews to have a state in Palestine, and even, post-Holocaust, the justification for Jews to establish that state at the expense of another people. One can agree or disagree with any of this, but is such agreement or disagreement necessarily anti-Semitic?
Anti-Zionism equals anti-Semitism?
The anti-Zionism equals anti-Semitism argument amounts to this: If you do not agree with the right of Jews to go to Palestine, settle there en masse against the wishes of the indigenous population, expel this population from 75% of their land and then, for the next fifty years and more, continue this assault on the remaining land and population, then you are an anti-Semite. Similarly, if you do not support the existence of an ethnically based state which defines itself as being for Jews only and discriminates officially both inside and outside its borders against non-Jews, then, again, you are an anti-Semite.
This would be laughable if it came from any other group of people, yet coming from Jews, even though not always agreed with, it is still seen as legitimate. So how do they get away with it? No one else does, so what’s special about Jews?
Whether there is anything special about Jews is not really relevant. What is relevant is that a large part of the Western world, even the most secular part, seems to believe that there is, or, if they don’t believe it, are not confident enough in their disbelief to say so. The Western world seems at times almost obsessed with Jews and Jewish life. Stories of struggle from the Hebrew Bible, such as the Exodus from Egypt, have become paradigms for other people’s struggles and aspirations. The emigration of Jews from Eastern Europe into their Golden Land in America has become as American a legend as the Wild West. Jewish folklore and myth, stereotypes of Jewish humor, food and family life—all are deeply woven into the fabric of Western, particularly American, life. Yet these preoccupations are complicated and often ambivalent
Despite our present secularity, Christianity still occupies a central place in Western culture and experience, and Jews occupy a central place in the Christian narrative, so it is no surprise that Jews and Jewish concerns receive a lot of attention. But Christian attitudes towards Jews are themselves complex and contradictory: Jesus was born a Jew and died a Jew, and yet, traditionally, His teachings supersede those of Judaism. Jesus lived amongst Jews, His message was shaped by Jews yet He was rejected by Jews and, it has been widely believed, died at the behest of Jews. So, for many Christians, Jews are both the people of God and the people who rejected God, and are objects of both great veneration and great loathing. This ambivalence is reflected in the secular world too where Jews are widely admired for their history and traditions and for their creativity and success yet are also held in some suspicion and dislike for their exclusivity and supposed feelings of "specialness". Jews seem either loved or hated and, now since the Holocaust, publicly at least, they seem loved or at least if not loved, then certainly, indulged.
Is Jewish suffering unique?
The establishment of the state of Israel in May 1948, coming just three years after the liberation of Auschwitz in January 1945, marks, for Jews, the transition from enslavement to empowerment. This empowerment of Jews took place not only with the establishment of Israel, but also continuously, from the mass emigration of Jews to the West in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, to the present day. Today in the West Jews enjoy unparalleled political, economic and social power and influence. Jews are represented way beyond their numbers in the upper echelons of all areas of public and professional life—politics, academia, the arts, the media and business. But even more than the political and economic power which Jews possess, is the social power. Jews have a moral prestige derived from their history and traditions as a chosen and as a suffering people. In these more secular times, however, especially since the Holocaust, it is as a suffering people that Jews occupy their special place in Western culture.
That Jews have suffered is undeniable. But acknowledgement of this suffering is rarely enough. Jews and others have demanded that not only should Jewish suffering be acknowledged but that it also be accorded special status. Jewish suffering is rarely measured against the sufferings of other groups. Blacks, women, children, gays, workers, peasants, minorities of all kinds, all have suffered, but none as much as Jews. Protestants at the hands of Catholics, Catholics at the hands of Protestants, pagans and heretics, all have suffered religious persecution, but none as relentlessly as Jews. Indians, Armenians, Gypsies and Aborigines, all have been targeted for elimination, but none as murderously and as premeditatedly as Jews
Jewish suffering is held to be mysterious and beyond explanation. Context is rarely examined. The place and role of Jews in society - their historical relationships with Church and state, landlords and peasantry - is hardly ever subject to scrutiny, and, whilst non-Jewish attitudes to Jews are the subject of intense interest, Jewish attitudes to non-Jews are rarely mentioned. Attempts to confront these issues are met with suspicion, and sometimes hostility, because of a fear that explanation may lead to rationalization, which may lead to exculpation, and then even to justification.
The stakes in this already fraught game have been raised so much higher by the Holocaust. Is the Holocaust “The ultimate mystery, never to be comprehended or transmitted” as Elie Wiesel would have us believe? Are attempts to question the Holocaust narrative just a cover for denial or even justification? Was Jewish suffering in the Holocaust greater and of more significance than that of anyone else? Were the three million Polish Jews who died at the hands of the Nazis more important than the three million Polish non-Jews who also died? Twenty million black Africans, a million Ibos, a million Kampucheans, Armenians, Aborigines, all have perished in genocides, but none as meaningfully as the six million Jews slaughtered in the only genocide to be theologically named and now perceived by Jews and the rest of the Western world to be an event of near religious significance.
Jews have not been just passive recipients of all this special treatment and consideration. The special status accorded to Israel’s behavior in Palestine, and Jewish support for it, is not something that the Jewish establishment has accepted reluctantly. On the contrary, Jews and Jewish organizations have demanded it. And at the heart of this demand for special consideration is the demand that the whole world, recognizing the uniqueness of Jewish suffering, should join with Jews in their fears about anti-Semitism and of its resurgence.
Anti-Semitism in its historic, virulent and eliminationist form did exist and could certainly exist again, but it does not currently exist in the West in any significantly observable form. Jews have never been so secure or empowered, yet many Jews feel and act as if they are a hair’s breadth away from Auschwitz. And not only this, but they require that everybody else feel the same. So soon after the Holocaust this is perhaps understandable, but less so when it is used to silence dissent and criticism of Israel and Zionism. Jews, individually and collectively use their political, economic, social, and moral power in support of Israel and Zionism. In their defense of Israel and Zionism, Jews brandish their suffering at the world, accusing it of reverting to its old anti-Semitic ways.
The silencing of dissent
Is a Jewish state acceptable in this day and age? Are the Jews a people who qualify for national self-determination, or are Jews a religious group only? Post-Holocaust, does the Jewish need for a state of their own perhaps even justify the displacement of the Palestinians? Are Jews who wield power to serve what they perceive as their own ethnic interests and to support Israel, to be held politically accountable? What is anti-Semitism? Is anti-Zionism anti-Semitism? All this and a great deal more could and should be debated. What need not be debated is this: that every complexity and ambiguity of Jewish identity and history, every example of Jewish suffering, every instance of anti-Jewish prejudice, however inconsequential, is used to justify the crimes of Israel and Zionism. Every possible interpretation or misinterpretation of language, and every kind of intellectual sophistry is used by Zionists to muddy the waters and label the critic of Israel and Zionism an anti-Semite. Words and phrases become loaded with hidden meanings, so that even the most honest critic of Israel has to twist and turn and jump through hoops to ensure that he or she is not perceived as anti-Semitic.
And the penalties for transgression are terrible. For those who do not manage to pick their way through this minefield, the charge of anti-Semite awaits, with all its possibilities of political, religious and social exclusion. No longer a descriptive term for someone who hates Jews simply for being Jews, ‘anti-Semite’ is now a curse to hurl against anyone who dares to criticize Jews and, increasingly against anyone who dares, too trenchantly, to criticize Israel and Zionism. And for those Jews of conscience who dare speak out, for them there is reserved the special penalty of exclusion from Jewish life and exile.
Marc Ellis’s “ecumenical deal” which translates also into a political deal, says it all. It goes like this: To the Christian and to the entire non-Jewish world, Jews say this: “You will apologize for Jewish suffering again and again and again. And, when you have finished apologizing, you will then apologize some more. When you have apologized sufficiently we will forgive you, provided you let us do what we want in Palestine.”
As hard as it may be, for the sake of us all - Jew and non-Jew alike, do we not now have to break free?
Paul Eisen is a director of Deir Yassin Remembered and is on the Executive Committee of Sabeel UK. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
* This article is based on "Speaking the Truth to Jews" which will appear in a forthcoming book, Speaking the Truth about Israel and Zionism, edited by Michael Prior and published by Melisende in March 2004.