Israel’s Haaretz newspaper will tomorrow host the grandly-named “Israel Conference on Peace” in Tel Aviv. In a crammed schedule across twelve hours, an intriguing array of speakers–Israelis, Arabs, Europeans, and Americans, left-wingers and right-wingers–will address economic development, human rights, access to water, the prospects for a diplomatic breakthrough, and other critical aspects of this particular Middle Eastern conflict.
As is often the case with such events, one can tell a great deal about the nature of this conference through what’s not being discussed, as well as who isn’t in attendance. Despite Israel’s location in one of the most violent and illiberal regions of the world, the conference does not deem the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear program, or the conquest of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq by the Islamists of ISIS, as worthy of a separate session–evidently, all that is secondary to the fate of the Palestinians. However, since two prominent Palestinian leaders, Palestinian Authority negotiator Saeb Erekat and businessman Munib al Masri, have already pulled out of the conference, citing as a reason “respect” for the “feelings of the Palestinian people” in the light of “the developments of the last few days,” one might legitimately wonder whether the Palestinians share the conviction of the Israeli left that in times of crisis, dialogue is of paramount importance.
Yet to portray this conference as a dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians–as UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon does, in an op-ed that praises “Israeli civil society” for “its vibrancy in speaking out against incitement,” while ignoring the integral role that incitement plays in the articulation of Palestinian goals–rather misses the point. There is another agenda here, one that centers upon promoting the idea among Jews that racism and bigotry are inherent in the notion of a “Jewish state.”
That is why, in the collection of articles assembled by Haaretz to accompany the conference, you will find Gideon Levy, one of the paper’s resident anti-Zionists, declaring preposterously that “a Jewish state means a racist, nationalistic state, meant for Jews only.” You will find an official Haaretz editorial insisting that the murderers of the Palestinian teenager, Mohammed Abu Khdeir, are the “descendants and builders of a culture of hate and vengeance that is nurtured and fertilized by the guides of ‘the Jewish state.’” And you will find a longer meditation on the same theme by Avraham Burg, the scion of a leading Zionist family and the former Speaker of the Knesset, who concludes that the root of Israel’s problem lies (as he describes it) in the anti-gentile culture that distinguishes the Jewish faith.
To anyone familiar with the historical trajectory of anti-Zionism, this linkage between an antagonism towards non-Jews that is underscored by Jewish religious beliefs with the very existence of a Jewish state is nothing new. In “Judaism Without Embellishment,” a notorious anti-Semitic screed published by the Soviet Union in 1963, Trofim Kichko asserted that “all of Judaic ideology is impregnated with narrow practicality, with greed, the love of money, and the spirit of egoism.” The Jewish state, Kichko went on, expresses these values through its discrimination against non-Jews.
What is new and worrying, however, is the revival of this discredited anti-Judaic discourse by those Jews and Israelis for whom a Jewish state is, by definition, a racist endeavor. Writing in a tone that is slightly less contemptuous than that adopted by Kichko, Burg says, in his Haaretz piece, “The element of distrust of other nations is woven into the fabric of the way Jews operate. This stems not only from persecution and hatred, ghettos and bloodshed: It is also an internal and active choice expressed through our normative system of halakha (traditional Jewish law), which ensured this mode of thinking.”
For Burg, this emphasis on Jewish separatism, embodied in dietary laws, Sabbath observance, and restrictions on intermarriage, has been incorporated into the “pathological view of Jewish-gentile relations” practiced by the State of Israel. Three millennia of fiendishly complex history are summarized thusly: “The State of Israel is continuing to employ the strategy of alienation that was always practiced by the Jewish people. We cast all our cumulative historic accounting onto our Palestinian adversaries. They fulfill the present needs; in the past we had Pharaoh, Haman, Antiochus, Khmelnytsky and Hitler. Now it’s the Palestinians’ turn.”
It’s tempting to submit that no form of Judaism would pass Burg’s ethical test. Had Judaism claimed for itself, as Christianity and Islam did, the status of universal, transcendent truth, he would be denouncing its imperial character. As it is, Judaism’s acceptance of its lot as a minority faith, along with the rules and practices that such minorities necessarily adopt to preserve their independence, is defamed as a form of racism. The logic of such a mindset determines that anti-Jewish persecution, insofar as it reinforced these separatist tendencies, was a perverse gift to the “ideologues” of Jewish separation.
A century ago, the sin of the Jews was their perceived internationalism. Hitler railed against “international Jewish financiers,” while Stalin’s prosecutors denounced the influence of “rootless cosmopolitans.” These days, the polar opposite is true: now, the perceived sin of the Jews is their aggressive, religiously-centered nationalism, which prevents them from realizing that the attainment of peace, as Burg argues, “is the total, completely beneficial alternative to all our historical phobias–a condition that can replace or erase them.” Never mind Hamas, Iran, ISIS, or Mahmoud Abbas’s double talk: the true enemy resides within us.
Doubtless, Burg’s message will resonate with those who, in another era, would have warmly endorsed Karl Marx’s maxim that “the emancipation of the Jews is the emancipation of mankind from Judaism.” The fact that we are still having this same conversation is precisely what should alarm us.