Commentary Magazine


Topic: Zionism

A Disgraceful Smear: Blaming Judaism for Israel’s Fallen

I wasn’t planning on writing about Slate senior editor Allison Benedikt’s deeply ignorant screed against Israel this morning, both because of discomfort with rewarding click-trolling and because it was so obviously abhorrent that by the time I got around to it (the piece was posted last night) I would just be repeating others. But I think an important point is still being missed.

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I wasn’t planning on writing about Slate senior editor Allison Benedikt’s deeply ignorant screed against Israel this morning, both because of discomfort with rewarding click-trolling and because it was so obviously abhorrent that by the time I got around to it (the piece was posted last night) I would just be repeating others. But I think an important point is still being missed.

The piece centers on Max Steinberg, a “lone soldier” in the Israel Defense Forces who was killed by terrorists in Gaza this week. Steinberg is from Los Angeles, and after attending a Birthright Israel trip, felt connected enough to make aliyah. He joined the IDF. Benedikt strings these basic facts together and comes up with a creative, and thoroughly repugnant, theory: Birthright shares the blame in Steinberg’s death.

Here’s the crux of Benedikt’s case. You’ll notice two problems:

Though most trip alumni do not join the IDF (Birthright’s spokeswoman told me they don’t keep track), to do so seems like the ultimate fulfillment of Birthright’s mission—the ultimate expression of a Jew’s solidarity with Israel is to take up arms to defend it.

The first is that she leaps to quite a conclusion while admitting she has no data to back it up, as the Times of Israel’s Haviv Rettig Gur notes:

Let me help. The answer is “exceedingly few.” Fewer than 3,000 Americans make aliyah each year across all age groups — from a community of six million Jews. Only a few hundred are young adults, and only a fraction of these (excluding religious women, health problems, anyone over 26, among others) join the IDF.

Then there are those who join the IDF without becoming Israeli citizens via a program known as Mahal, a program that predates Birthright by decades. Hundreds of Mahal soldiers fought in Israel’s Independence War in 1948. Max was a Mahal soldier, one of an estimated 400 young people from English-speaking countries who join the IDF each year through Mahal to serve a shorter service of 1.5 years instead of 3. While Mahal fighters number in the hundreds, only a fraction could have been Birthright participants. At least one-third are classified by the army (based on their own self-identification) as “religious,” meaning that they had been raised in religious educational frameworks, and thus are unlikely to have gone on Birthright. Most Jewish religious schools take their students to Israel during high school, making them ineligible for free college-age Birthright trips.

But the focus on the data misses the other problem with Benedikt’s essay. Benedikt doesn’t have the data on Birthright alumni joining the IDF because she doesn’t need or want it. She’s making a more philosophical argument. She’s saying Birthright connects Jews to Israel, and the “ultimate expression” of this connection must be, in Benedikt’s mind, to pick up a gun and put on a uniform.

The real clue to why Benedikt’s piece is so repulsive is her closing. She writes:

You spend hundreds of millions of dollars to convince young Jews that they are deeply connected to a country that desperately needs their support? This is what you get.

Now we’re getting somewhere. It’s not about Birthright per se. It’s about connecting Jews to their ancient homeland–their historical identity, in other words. And that connection, if successful, leads–not always, but logically, in Benedikt’s mind–to Steinberg’s tragic end. “This is what you get,” she says. War, death–this is what happens when you help Jews connect to a crucial part of Jewish life, history, practice, and identity.

It’s not Birthright that killed Max Steinberg, in Benedikt’s telling. It’s Judaism. Compartmentalize your Judaism by separating yourself from the global Jewish community and from Eretz Yisrael–keep your people’s history hidden–and you should be OK. “Maybe Max was especially lost, or especially susceptible, or maybe he was just looking to do some good and became convinced by his Birthright experience that putting on an IDF uniform and grabbing a gun was the way to do it,” Benedikt offers, trying to explain Steinberg’s Zionism by ascribing it to mental weakness, to emotional instability, or to a moral naïveté that his fellow Jews took advantage of.

To teach a Jew about his people and his history, according to Benedikt, is to play a dangerous game. And this, she says, pointing to the death of a 24-year-old soldier, is what happens; “This is what you get.”

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Blaming Zionism: The Lydda Misdirection

Imagine the following headlines: “Zionism Enables Paraplegics to Walk Again”; “Zionism Leads Lifesaving Medical Efforts in Disaster-Struck Haiti”; “Zionism Helps Prevent AIDS in Africa”; “Zionism Saves Syrian Lives As Arab States Abandon Them”; etc. There is something awkward, clumsy about them. But most of all you have to imagine those headlines because you wouldn’t otherwise see them.

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Imagine the following headlines: “Zionism Enables Paraplegics to Walk Again”; “Zionism Leads Lifesaving Medical Efforts in Disaster-Struck Haiti”; “Zionism Helps Prevent AIDS in Africa”; “Zionism Saves Syrian Lives As Arab States Abandon Them”; etc. There is something awkward, clumsy about them. But most of all you have to imagine those headlines because you wouldn’t otherwise see them.

Yet we hear the opposite refrain: when Israel earns the world’s opprobrium, Zionism gets a black mark as well. This is what jumped out right away at me from Ari Shavit’s much-discussed chapter on Lydda in his new and widely praised book.

There has been a fascinating debate taking place at Mosaic Magazine on the chapter. It began with Martin Kramer’s essay challenging Shavit’s selective interpretation of events in the famous 1948 battle, which Shavit used to accuse Israeli forces of committing a massacre. Efraim Karsh followed that with his take on Lydda and revisionism, and now Benny Morris has responded with a pox on both the houses of Shavit and Kramer who, he says, offer partial truths in the service of agenda-driven history.

But aside from the historical question of what exactly took place in Lydda in 1948, there is the classification by Shavit of Lydda as Zionism’s “black box.” Here is Shavit:

Lydda is our black box. In it lies the dark secret of Zionism. The truth is that Zionism could not bear Lydda. From the very beginning there was a substantial contradiction between Zionism and Lydda. If Zionism was to be, Lydda could not be. If Lydda was to be, Zionism could not be. In retrospect it’s all too clear.

This idea of Lydda explaining Zionism–and remember, in Shavit’s telling this means exposing the vengeful violence at the center of it–helps the reader understand, if not approve of, Shavit’s statements about Zionism and Lydda throughout the chapter. With the battle looming, Shavit says that “as Zionism closes in on the valley of Lydda from the south, east, and north, it now prepares to conquer the city of Lydda itself.” Later: “By evening, Zionism has taken the city of Lydda.” And then: “Zionism carries out a massacre in the city of Lydda.”

It is this portrayal of Zionism that is so risible. The documented history of Lydda is murky, and though it’s clear Shavit cherry-picked his facts, his conclusion is not impossible. But he slanders Zionism by declaring it is, at its heart, inseparable from this violence.

Morris touches on this glancingly but effectively in his response piece. Morris leans toward Shavit’s opinion of what actually happened at Lydda, but he writes:

Lydda wasn’t, however, representative of Zionist behavior. Before 1948, the Zionist enterprise expanded by buying, not conquering, Arab land, and it was the Arabs who periodically massacred Jews—as, for example, in Hebron and Safed in 1929. In the 1948 war, the first major atrocity was committed by Arabs: the slaughter of 39 Jewish co-workers in the Haifa Oil Refinery on December 30, 1947.

That is a basic fact. In an earlier parenthetical pair of sentences, Morris offers his own “black box” of Zionism:

As an aside, I would suggest here a much more telling “black box” or key to understanding both Zionism and the conflict. It is Kibbutz Yad Mordekhai, where for four to five days in May 1948 a handful of Holocaust survivors held off the invading mass of the Egyptian army, giving the Haganah/IDF time to organize against the pan-Arab assault on the newborn state of Israel.

Shavit’s treatment of Zionism is one of inevitability: the agency of those involved is removed in favor of ideological predetermination. But it’s also, in a perverse way, a form of blame shifting. And if anti-Arab massacres are the inevitable result and defining characteristic of Zionism, then anti-Zionism would be the proper atonement. This is curious, because Shavit is most certainly not an anti-Zionist. Though he is a man of the left, he doesn’t throw his lot in with those who want to see Israel erased.

It’s cognitive dissonance, then, for Shavit. But not for those who will use his book and his declarations of Zionism’s “black box” to continue faulting the very movement for Jewish self-determination for everything that goes wrong in the Holy Land. And though Israel remains a force for good in the world, we won’t see a flurry of the reverse: declarations crediting Zionism for the fact that the world would be a darker place without it.

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Coming Apart at the Seams: the Anti-Arab Incitement Must End

The killing of an Arab teen, Muhammad Abu Khdeir, in Jerusalem last week has added a harrowing dimension to the tragic series of events in Israel. Police have not concluded their investigation, but they initially leaned toward the explanation that the killing was done by Israelis in retaliation for the kidnapping and murder of three Jewish teens, whose bodies were discovered last week. The Israeli police have now made arrests that would seem to bolster that theory, with the Times of Israel reporting that “the investigation has led them to believe that the act was most likely carried out by Jewish extremists in revenge for the killing of three Israeli teenagers earlier in June.” If confirmed, it’s sickening; and those who worry about how this will affect Israel’s reputation in the international community are getting it exactly backwards: there is a more pressing concern than reputation at a time like this.

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The killing of an Arab teen, Muhammad Abu Khdeir, in Jerusalem last week has added a harrowing dimension to the tragic series of events in Israel. Police have not concluded their investigation, but they initially leaned toward the explanation that the killing was done by Israelis in retaliation for the kidnapping and murder of three Jewish teens, whose bodies were discovered last week. The Israeli police have now made arrests that would seem to bolster that theory, with the Times of Israel reporting that “the investigation has led them to believe that the act was most likely carried out by Jewish extremists in revenge for the killing of three Israeli teenagers earlier in June.” If confirmed, it’s sickening; and those who worry about how this will affect Israel’s reputation in the international community are getting it exactly backwards: there is a more pressing concern than reputation at a time like this.

And I don’t just mean the killing, to which I’ll return in a moment. The outpouring on social media of anti-Arab incitement has been shocking. The encouraging aspect to this has been the official denunciation of such incitement, both from the government, united in its revulsion of the incitement, and from groups of private citizens speaking out against it. Also encouraging has been the reaction of religious leaders. The Times of Israel reports that former Sephardic Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar has spoken out against such lawlessness, and he makes a key point here:

Reaching out to “all our brothers, the people of Israel, the young among us,” Amar said, “I feel their pain. I feel the frustration. But we can’t lose our heads. There are soldiers, and policemen, and security forces, praise God. And we can rest assured that by the grace of God, they will take the correct and necessary steps” in response to the killing of the three Israeli students. …

Speaking to Israel Radio Tuesday, Amar said calls for revenge were liable to “destroy our nation from within.”

Indeed they are. Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi David Lau echoed the sentiment: “The discourse about revenge is wrong morally, ethically and halakhically,” Lau said, adding: “We have to trust that the security forces will do their job properly and not think at all about taking revenge which can lead the entire region down a dangerous path.”

There need be no strategic consideration in denouncing the murder of an innocent boy. But beyond its own obvious moral repulsiveness is the question of what, if it’s true Israelis were responsible, they thought they were doing. Terrorism eats away at the fabric of civic life. Incitement rots the soul of a nation. We say this about Palestinian murder and incitement, and we say it for a reason.

Again, there are differences of course. The Israeli state does not condone it, and does not encourage it. And the voices of Lau and Amar have been tremendously important here, because they show that the leaders of the Jewish faith do not condone it. Israel’s founders had something to say about this as well. And though it may surprise those who have bought into a false reading of Israeli history, the figure we ought to look to for guidance here is Vladimir Jabotinsky.

When the Peel Commission in 1937 published its proposal to divide the land, it included the possibility of transferring Arabs out of the slice it apportioned to the Jews. It was not the left that recoiled from this but Jabotinsky. As Hillel Halkin writes in his new biography of Jabotinsky:

Nor was Jabotinsky enticed by the idea of Arab resettlement. People might call him an extremist, he said, but at least he had never dreamed of asking Arabs in a Jewish state to emigrate. If there would not be enough room for Arabs in a partition state, this was only because neither would there be enough room for Jews. It would be a “death sentence” for Zionism.

Jabotinsky did not believe the Arabs would be willing to peaceably accept the proposals for partition or coexistence. He was right, and violence followed. But he did not himself reject the idea of coexistence, nor did he think Zionism countenanced it. Jabotinsky also opposed, almost to the end of his life, terrorism against Arab civilians:

On a brief stopover in Alexandria in July 1937 to meet Revisionist leaders from Palestine on his way back from a second South African tour, he reportedly told them, “I see nothing heroic about shooting an Arab peasant in the back for bringing vegetables on his donkey to Tel Aviv.”

From his perch in Europe, Jabotinsky at first thought reports of Jewish terrorism against Arab civilians might be rumors to discredit the Revisionists. He said:

As far as I’m concerned, Palestinian Arabs in Tel Aviv are [as though] in their own home, because otherwise I can’t imagine law and order in Palestine. But even if this guideline isn’t followed, I could still forgive [the Jews involved] if they had gone [to the Arabs] and politely asked them to leave without laying hands on them. If there were blows or shoves, or seven Jews ganging up on one Arab, I only hope that our people [i.e., Revisionists] weren’t part of it. I would consider such a thing beastly, even if it happened during a pogrom [of Arabs against Jews].

Jabotinsky had, from a distance, lost command and control of his followers. But even when he, reluctantly, tried to rationalize Jewish violence, his excuses wouldn’t hold today and he almost certainly wouldn’t offer them because of what Amar said. The Jews fighting for a state in Palestine became desperate, as the British authorities’ response to terror was appeasement, and as the British sought to close immigration to those fleeing genocide, thus handing out death sentences to Jews by the thousands even as they were being eradicated at their points of origin.

Today the Jews of Israel have a state and the right of return and an army to defend themselves. The grief and anger being felt in Israel is understandable. The incitement with which it has recently manifested is, as Amar said, a self-destructive act–a betrayal, and not a defense, of the Jewish people.

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Massacre at Lydda?

“In thirty minutes, at high noon, more than 200 civilians are killed. Zionism carries out a massacre in the city of Lydda.” That lapel-grabber, from Ari Shavit’s bestselling My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel, is the departure point for my essay at Mosaic Magazine, “What Happened at Lydda.”

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“In thirty minutes, at high noon, more than 200 civilians are killed. Zionism carries out a massacre in the city of Lydda.” That lapel-grabber, from Ari Shavit’s bestselling My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel, is the departure point for my essay at Mosaic Magazine, “What Happened at Lydda.”

I won’t summarize the piece, which will run at the top of the magazine site for the month of July. When I first read Shavit’s account, I thought it sounded forced, and so I searched for other interviews with the same people he spoke to twenty years ago, when he collected his material. (Most of the subjects are dead.) A fairly quick search yielded results: I found a trove of additional interviews in public archives. On their foundation it’s possible to construct an entirely different story: not of a vengeful massacre by “Zionism,” but of collateral damage in a city that turned into a battlefield.

Sound familiar from the recent history of Israel? It should. This is a story that repeats itself every few years. I don’t know exactly what happened in Lydda on July 12, 1948, because the testimony is contradictory. But Shavit has vouched for the accuracy of his work down to the last fact and detail. Read the essay and see whether I’ve planted a seed of doubt.

Some will say that Shavit’s book, on balance, is good for Israel, and so should be entitled to an exemption from this sort of criticism. The confession of sin married to expressions of love for Israel may be what many American Jews need just now, and I make no judgment about the book as a whole. But the same argument for silence was made when American Jews needed to believe that Israel could do no wrong. And while confession is good for the soul, confessing the supposed sins of others—in this case, the Palmah officers and soldiers of the Yiftah brigade who conquered Lydda—must be done judiciously. After all, most of them can no longer speak.

My motive hasn’t been to protect Israel’s honor against the charge of massacre. There are some well-documented instances from 1948. It’s just that Lydda isn’t one of them. From a narrative point of view, it’s appealing to combine the stories of the largest expulsion and the largest massacre. But that’s a little too tidy, and when the past appears tidy, it deserves another look.

As a historian, I know something about the rules, but as I admit in the article, I’m not a historian of 1948 (or even of Israel). My expertise is the rest of the Middle East. That’s why I placed the essay at Mosaic Magazine, which solicits responses by experts. I’m eager to ignite a debate among people who have made this era their lives’ work (and, of course, Shavit too). There’s also a comments feature, for anyone who might have an interesting insight. I urge you to read my opening move, and I’ll be posting more pointers as appropriate.

And as a bonus for getting this far in this post, here are links to some remarkable photographs of Lydda at the time of its capture, taken by Boris Karmi (1914-2002).

Mula Cohen (1923-2002), commander of the Yiftah brigade. Shavit portrays him a sad figure, but he looks like he’s on top of the world here.

• A portrait of a smiling Israeli soldier against the backdrop of the “small mosque,” epicenter of the alleged massacre.

• Yiftah brigade soldiers take a break in Lydda.

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French Anti-Semitism and the Specter of “Humanitarian Zionism”

Last week, French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve made a very smart observation about terrorism in France that other Western officials would do well to consider. On May 24, a man, believed to be 29-year-old Mehdi Nemmouche, shot and killed four at the Jewish Museum in Brussels. After Nemmouche’s arrest about a week after the crime, authorities began using the term “lone wolf” to describe him–including Cazeneuve. But Cazeneuve now thinks that was a mistake and, as JTA reported, had this to say on the term:

The term suggests an assassin or terrorist who is working independently of partners or any larger framework.

But actions such as Nemmouche “begin a long way back,” he said. The processes of radicalization, Cazeneuve added, “have to transcend many stages,” including procuring weapons” and “arriving in conflict zones or terrorism.” He concluded by saying: “What I want to say is that accomplices are important here not only in the procurement of arms that terrorists use. This leads me to think, without any reservation, that the ‘lone wolf’ is anything but.”

Western officials like to use the term “lone wolf” both for self-serving reasons (to avoid blame) and to try to calm the public (there’s no conspiracy afoot, no persistent danger, etc.). But not having an immediate and knowing accomplice is not the same as acting completely alone, and Cazeneuve seems to realize this. In Western Europe, it is especially important to understand how and why crimes like this happen because European Jewry is under attack more consistently and brazenly than has been the case in decades. As the largest European Jewish community, France is something of a test as to whether European Jewry has a future. And right now it’s failing that test.

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Last week, French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve made a very smart observation about terrorism in France that other Western officials would do well to consider. On May 24, a man, believed to be 29-year-old Mehdi Nemmouche, shot and killed four at the Jewish Museum in Brussels. After Nemmouche’s arrest about a week after the crime, authorities began using the term “lone wolf” to describe him–including Cazeneuve. But Cazeneuve now thinks that was a mistake and, as JTA reported, had this to say on the term:

The term suggests an assassin or terrorist who is working independently of partners or any larger framework.

But actions such as Nemmouche “begin a long way back,” he said. The processes of radicalization, Cazeneuve added, “have to transcend many stages,” including procuring weapons” and “arriving in conflict zones or terrorism.” He concluded by saying: “What I want to say is that accomplices are important here not only in the procurement of arms that terrorists use. This leads me to think, without any reservation, that the ‘lone wolf’ is anything but.”

Western officials like to use the term “lone wolf” both for self-serving reasons (to avoid blame) and to try to calm the public (there’s no conspiracy afoot, no persistent danger, etc.). But not having an immediate and knowing accomplice is not the same as acting completely alone, and Cazeneuve seems to realize this. In Western Europe, it is especially important to understand how and why crimes like this happen because European Jewry is under attack more consistently and brazenly than has been the case in decades. As the largest European Jewish community, France is something of a test as to whether European Jewry has a future. And right now it’s failing that test.

Cazeneuve was also speaking about a man named Mohammed Merah, the gunman involved in a brief crime spree in Toulouse that included murdering Jews. This week in France, Merah’s name was reportedly found spray-painted in a message praising him. In fact, the phrase “this week in France” is rarely followed by good news, and for Jews the phrase has taken on an even more ominous tone.

On June 11, Tablet reported on “the third disturbing incident from [the] French capital” so far that week, and then listed all the anti-Semitic incidents in Paris in 2014 for good measure. Each such story tends to bring a round of recollections on social media sites of readers’ latest stories of French anti-Semitism.

It’s easy to see how such incidents proliferate when each is treated as a “lone wolf” attack. The willful blindness practically ensures it will continue. It’s possible that a shift in attitude such as Cazeneuve’s will make a difference, though it would take a cultural shift for the correct approach to be prevalent enough to turn the tide. It’s easier to pretend the tide isn’t there.

What does that mean for French Jewry, and for European Jewry? As to the former, JTA also noted last month a survey showing that three-quarters of French Jews are considering leaving the country. More than half the respondents said “Jews have no future in France,” and nearly all (more than 95 percent) said anti-Semitism there is “worrisome” or “very worrisome.” As for what it means for European Jewry, this part of the story is pertinent:

Ninety-three percent said the French state had no efficient means for countering “Islamic exclusionist and pro-Palestinian propaganda,” whereas 93.4 percent said French mass media are partially responsible for France’s anti-Semitism problem. Roughly three-quarters said French Jewish institutions were helpless to stop anti-Semitism.

To take those three points in order: According to Brown University’s Maud Mandel (no relation–that I know of, anyway) “France houses the largest Jewish and Muslim populations living side by side outside of Israel.” That bodes ill, obviously, for Muslim-Jewish relations in Europe in the future (though there are certainly aspects of this that are specific to France). On the second point, European mass media is broadly hostile to the Jewish state, so it’s unlikely any strife caused by the press would be limited to France. (Ahem, BBC.) On the third, I’m not sure what the Jews of France expect, outside of their own private army. Jewish institutions in many cases could do much better than they are, but it’s doubtful they can singlehandedly change the hearts and minds of Europe’s Mehdi Nemmouches and Mohammed Merahs.

If there is any strength to be had in numbers, then France’s treatment of its Jews shows how easily that strength can be negated. The packed aliyah fairs in Paris and the rate of French aliyah itself raise the specter of what Jabotinsky once called “humanitarian Zionism.” If such a Zionism is necessary in 2014, Europe has failed its Jews once again.

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More on SJP at Vassar College

Last week, I wrote about the Vassar chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine, which quoted an anti-Semitic author, writing for an anti-Semitic publication, to this effect: “Of course, mainstream media hasbarats have been around for decades, as have ‘hasbaratchiks,’ fifth-columns in foreign governments who subvert national policies to serve Israel.” I learned about the episode from Rebecca Lesses of Mystical Politics, whose follow-up posts are also worth reading. David Schraub and Petra Marquardt Bigman have also commented.

The Vassar SJP has now issued an apology of sorts: “we did not vet the original posters of some of the content we reblogged close enough this past week, and only focused on the content.” Last week, they dismissed criticisms this way: “if the idea is alright, who cares where they [sic] come from?” But they now understand that the “sources, no matter the content, can be triggering to many in our audience.”

The Vassar SJP is therefore counting on an assumption that David Schraub’s post questioned in its very title, that one is “Innocent Until Proven Nazi.” As Schraub puts it: “Suppose Vassar SJP had posted the exact same material, only it wasn’t attributable to an avowedly white nationalist website? Would the reaction have been the same? For some of us, sure: we know anti-Semitism when we see it. But for others, it seems that the Nazi link is a crutch — without it they find it very difficult to even raise the prospect of anti-Semitism.”

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Last week, I wrote about the Vassar chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine, which quoted an anti-Semitic author, writing for an anti-Semitic publication, to this effect: “Of course, mainstream media hasbarats have been around for decades, as have ‘hasbaratchiks,’ fifth-columns in foreign governments who subvert national policies to serve Israel.” I learned about the episode from Rebecca Lesses of Mystical Politics, whose follow-up posts are also worth reading. David Schraub and Petra Marquardt Bigman have also commented.

The Vassar SJP has now issued an apology of sorts: “we did not vet the original posters of some of the content we reblogged close enough this past week, and only focused on the content.” Last week, they dismissed criticisms this way: “if the idea is alright, who cares where they [sic] come from?” But they now understand that the “sources, no matter the content, can be triggering to many in our audience.”

The Vassar SJP is therefore counting on an assumption that David Schraub’s post questioned in its very title, that one is “Innocent Until Proven Nazi.” As Schraub puts it: “Suppose Vassar SJP had posted the exact same material, only it wasn’t attributable to an avowedly white nationalist website? Would the reaction have been the same? For some of us, sure: we know anti-Semitism when we see it. But for others, it seems that the Nazi link is a crutch — without it they find it very difficult to even raise the prospect of anti-Semitism.”

The Vassar SJP has backed off not even a little from the claim that the “idea is alright,” where the “idea” is that Israel’s defenders, whether on the right or the left (neither Lesses nor Schraub is on the right and the former has explicitly distanced herself from COMMENTARY) are or are deliberately in league with fifth columnists, or traitors. Indeed, the SJP, which has asserted that its apology came late “due to finals week” found time, in what it called “Communique #1” to accuse its critics of being paid agents of the Zionist conspiracy. They “know that the manufactured misrepresentation of our mission does not occur in a vacuum” and are  “aware of the watchdog organizations who pay alums and students to generate slanderous claims against pro-palestinian activists.” They “find it an appalling irony to be accused of supporting white supremacy by those who support the racist Israeli regime,” whose “agenda is comprised of policies that work towards exterminating Palestinians and African migrants.”

The apology was followed up, remarkably, by a new posting, since taken down, of a Nazi propaganda poster depicting, among other things, a big-nosed man clutching a money bag. When called on this latest misstep by Lesses, SJP Vassar saw no problem at all: “it’s from a blog showcasing various types of historical propaganda.” In other words, just as Schraub suggested, they think that they can be accused of spreading anti-Semitism only if they lift material directly from a known anti-Semitic website. The idea—here that greedy Jews are part of a monstrous America—is, once again, “alright.”

The attitude of the Vassar SJP is oddly blithe, as if they do not know they are playing with fire. But they are. Consider another post about the African-American activist Stokely Carmichael, taken from a site called Disciples of Malcolm. Carmichael is quoted to the effect that Martin Luther King was “confused” when he associated anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism. But King, Carmichael adds, was depending on progressive Jewish support, or the support of “Zionists who did not say they were Zionists.”

Carmichael was also wont to say “the only good Zionist is a dead Zionist.”

If SJP has a faculty adviser, this may be what we in the education biz call a “teaching moment.”

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The Misleading Nakba Narrative

In recent years the international community has come to accept the Palestinians’ Nakba narrative in which Israel’s birth is treated as a “disaster” and indisputable proof of the need to pressure Israel. While it is possible to sympathize with the tale of Palestinian suffering in the wake of the creation of Israel without seeking to delegitimize Zionism, all too often those who adopt the notion that the events of 1948 were a “disaster” treat Israel’s creation as an original sin that requires the world to bow to all of the Palestinians’ demands.

But what is most troubling is that many on the Jewish left have adopted this same point of view. As Joshua Muravchick wrote in a definitive article on the subject in the June 2013 issue of COMMENTARY, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz has been “Trashing Israel Daily” for years. But its editorial last week days before the celebration of Israel’s Independence Day, which called for the state to not only accept the Palestinian narrative of victimization for which Israel bears sole responsibility but have it taught in its schools, was so over the top it prompted one of the country’s veteran left-wing thinkers and advocates of peace with the Palestinians to call them out.

Shlomo Avineri, a leading Israeli scholar and at one time the director general of its Foreign Ministry, was among the first in the country to advocate negotiations with the PLO in the 1970s when such dealings were illegal. As such, his credentials as an advocate of negotiations and reconciliation with the Palestinians are impeccable. But Avineri was shocked at what he read in a paper whose opinion columns often read more like Palestinian propaganda than anything else. His dissection of the editorial that was published today is must reading for anyone who cares about peace or about the truth. While acknowledging that the history of the conflict is complex, he believes those who accept the idea that Israel alone is responsible for Palestinian suffering are wrong.

He writes:

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In recent years the international community has come to accept the Palestinians’ Nakba narrative in which Israel’s birth is treated as a “disaster” and indisputable proof of the need to pressure Israel. While it is possible to sympathize with the tale of Palestinian suffering in the wake of the creation of Israel without seeking to delegitimize Zionism, all too often those who adopt the notion that the events of 1948 were a “disaster” treat Israel’s creation as an original sin that requires the world to bow to all of the Palestinians’ demands.

But what is most troubling is that many on the Jewish left have adopted this same point of view. As Joshua Muravchick wrote in a definitive article on the subject in the June 2013 issue of COMMENTARY, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz has been “Trashing Israel Daily” for years. But its editorial last week days before the celebration of Israel’s Independence Day, which called for the state to not only accept the Palestinian narrative of victimization for which Israel bears sole responsibility but have it taught in its schools, was so over the top it prompted one of the country’s veteran left-wing thinkers and advocates of peace with the Palestinians to call them out.

Shlomo Avineri, a leading Israeli scholar and at one time the director general of its Foreign Ministry, was among the first in the country to advocate negotiations with the PLO in the 1970s when such dealings were illegal. As such, his credentials as an advocate of negotiations and reconciliation with the Palestinians are impeccable. But Avineri was shocked at what he read in a paper whose opinion columns often read more like Palestinian propaganda than anything else. His dissection of the editorial that was published today is must reading for anyone who cares about peace or about the truth. While acknowledging that the history of the conflict is complex, he believes those who accept the idea that Israel alone is responsible for Palestinian suffering are wrong.

He writes:

Some facts of history really ought not to be left to historians. The attempt to ignore them is morally flawed — and morality is, rightfully, the driving spirit behind the editorial. It is a fact — one that should not be “a matter for historians” — that in September 1939, Germany invaded Poland and not the other way around. It is a fact that on December 7, 1941, Japan attacked the United States and not vice versa. It is also true that what is called the Nakba is the result of a political decision by the Palestinian leadership and the Arab states to reject the United Nations partition resolution, to try to prevent its implementation by force and to attack the Jewish community in the Land of Israel before and after the state’s establishment. Of this, the editorial says nothing.

Thus, the context of the founding of the State of Israel is presented in the editorial exactly as it is presented in Palestinian and Arab political discourse — with total disregard of the political and historical reality in 1947 and 1948. Usually, Arab discourse simply never mentions the partition resolution, just as it never mentions the violent opposition to its implementation. Such denial from the Arab side might be understandable — but in Haaretz? In case anyone forgot or does not know, I suggest going to the newspaper’s archives and reading the headlines from November 30, 1947 and the daily news from the subsequent months. They are full of reports of Arab violence and the beginnings of armed Arab resistance to the establishment of the State of Israel, first by the Arab militias (the “gangs”) inside the country and later via the coordinated invasion by Arab armies when the British Mandate ended on May 15, 1948. The editorial says not a word about that, just as Arab discourse prefers simply to wipe those historical facts from memory.

Avineri also points out the hypocrisy of the effort to brand Israel has having been born as a result of original sin:

Was the Nakba an earthquake? A tornado? A tsunami? It was the tragic result of an Arab political decision to prevent the establishment of a Jewish state in the portion of the Land of Israel that had been under the British Mandate, just as the expulsion of 12 million ethnic Germans from Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary after 1945 was the tragic result of German aggression in 1939 and later in 1941, when it invaded the Soviet Union. In both cases, masses of innocent civilians paid the price of their leaders’ aggression. But if anyone today tried to describe the expulsion of millions of Germans from Eastern Europe as a “disaster” that had nothing to do with the Third Reich’s aggression, he would rightly be called a neo-Nazi.

By ignoring the real reasons Palestinians suffered, those who buy into the Nakba narrative tilt the diplomatic playing field against Israel and legitimize the efforts of those who seek to promote boycotts of Israel or its destruction. Burying the truth about the Nakba makes it difficult if not impossible to understand contemporary Palestinian violence.

One can certainly understand, but not justify, the general Palestinian and Arab opposition to the Zionist enterprise. That is the nature of national conflicts, although this opposition had more aspects of murder and terrorism than other national movements did. Palestinian terrorism against Jewish civilians is not the result of the post-1967 years of occupation. It was part of the 1929 riots and the Arab uprising of 1936. It is true that on the one hand, we cannot conclude from the grand mufti’s presence in Berlin during World War II that Arab opposition to Zionism was identical to Nazism. But on the other hand, to ignore this fact and leave it to historians is a distortion of history. It is part of the concrete historical consciousness of both Jews and Arabs.

Avineri’s cri de coeur about the way Haaretz has joined the assault on Zionism should be heeded not just by those who seek to defend the Jewish state but also principally by those who are troubled by its presence in the West Bank and ardently desire a two state solution. Peace will remain impossible until the Palestinians reject a conception of national identity that is inextricably linked with the effort to destroy Israel. As long as Palestinians treat the Nakba as an excuse to delegitimize Israel, the sea change that will make peace viable won’t happen. Those Jews and Jewish institutions that seek to validate this false Nakba narrative are putting off the day when peace will come, not hastening it.

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Why Ed Miliband Won’t Drop the Z-Bomb

The Jewish leader of Britain’s Labor party is currently in Israel expressing his support for the country, just as Prime Minister David Cameron did back in March. Yet for all his platitudes about his support for what he refers to as the “Jewish homeland” and his repeated references to his own family background, you won’t catch Ed Miliband referring to himself as a Zionist. (He almost did it once, but has certainly learned his lesson since.) The simple truth is that for a politician on Britain’s left, referring to oneself as a Zionist would be nothing short of political suicide. And Miliband is undoubtedly of the left; conservative pundits in the UK delight in referring to the Labor party leader as “Red Ed,” but more to the point Miliband has openly declared himself a socialist. How telling that Zionism—the national liberation movement of the Jewish people—is considered so much further beyond the pale than an ideology like socialism, which has a rather troubled record to say the least.

During a Q&A session with a group of Israeli students at the Hebrew University Miliband was questioned on whether or not he considers himself to be a Zionist. Knowing already the consequences of answering in the affirmative, he instead sidestepped the question by saying that he sees the matter in terms of his family, his grandmother having come to Israel following the Holocaust. Miliband’s coyness on the matter is warranted, for this is a subject on account of which he’s been burned before. Asked on a previous occasion if he considered himself a Zionist, he was reported to have responded, “Yes, I consider myself a supporter of Israel.” However, Miliband’s Zionism lasted less than 24 hours, with his office—no doubt seized with panic—releasing a prompt “clarification,” or rather a retraction.

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The Jewish leader of Britain’s Labor party is currently in Israel expressing his support for the country, just as Prime Minister David Cameron did back in March. Yet for all his platitudes about his support for what he refers to as the “Jewish homeland” and his repeated references to his own family background, you won’t catch Ed Miliband referring to himself as a Zionist. (He almost did it once, but has certainly learned his lesson since.) The simple truth is that for a politician on Britain’s left, referring to oneself as a Zionist would be nothing short of political suicide. And Miliband is undoubtedly of the left; conservative pundits in the UK delight in referring to the Labor party leader as “Red Ed,” but more to the point Miliband has openly declared himself a socialist. How telling that Zionism—the national liberation movement of the Jewish people—is considered so much further beyond the pale than an ideology like socialism, which has a rather troubled record to say the least.

During a Q&A session with a group of Israeli students at the Hebrew University Miliband was questioned on whether or not he considers himself to be a Zionist. Knowing already the consequences of answering in the affirmative, he instead sidestepped the question by saying that he sees the matter in terms of his family, his grandmother having come to Israel following the Holocaust. Miliband’s coyness on the matter is warranted, for this is a subject on account of which he’s been burned before. Asked on a previous occasion if he considered himself a Zionist, he was reported to have responded, “Yes, I consider myself a supporter of Israel.” However, Miliband’s Zionism lasted less than 24 hours, with his office—no doubt seized with panic—releasing a prompt “clarification,” or rather a retraction.

Yet, it is noteworthy that while it was unthinkable for the Jewish leader of the Labor party to confess Zionism, non-Jewish members of the Conservative party have been more unabashed in identifying themselves as Zionists. When he was himself leader of the opposition David Cameron described himself as a Zionist (although one wonders if he would still do so openly now that he is prime minister), and similarly the education secretary, Michael Gove, has defended being a Zionist as well as having long been a vocal supporter of the Jewish state.

As a politician on the left, however, Miliband finds himself in a far more complicated position. Hostility to Israel extends far beyond the radical left in Britain, with several members of the parliamentary Labor party and significant sections of the Trade Union movement actively campaigning against the Jewish state. And after all, Miliband won the race for the party’s leadership in part because he had the backing of the Trade Unions. For many of these people, Jews are tolerated provided they first establish their credentials as being anti-Israel. By expressing support for Israel in the way that he has done on occasion, Miliband is already entering dangerous territory, to come out as a Zionist Jew too might well be more than certain key constituencies could stand.

As already mentioned, Miliband has had no such qualms about calling himself a socialist and has even claimed that he is all about bringing back socialism, something that will sound pretty unsettling to many voters. Of course there have been many strands of socialism and no one would wish to suggest that Miliband has ever expressed support for the regimes that have practiced its more authoritarian and genocidal incarnations–unlike, say, Labor’s deputy leader Harriet Harman, who has expressed praise for Fidel Castro, or another prominent voice in the party, Dianne Abbott, who claimed that Chairman Mao had done “more good than bad.” Indeed, Miliband’s father Ralph was a prominent Marxist theorist and it is quite conceivable that if Ed were to refer to himself as a Marxist then he’d cause less controversy within his party than if he announced himself as a Zionist during his visit to Israel.

It might well be asked if there’s any meaningful difference between calling oneself a strong supporter of Israel as opposed to an out and out Zionist. And the answer is yes; thanks to a determined campaign, that word is now sullied with so many undesirable connotations. The truth is that, for many on the British left, the United Nations’ “Zionism is racism” ruling was never really overturned. But at anti-Israel events and rallies, Zionism is not only declared a form of racism but rather is knowingly equated with Nazism. Images of swastikas stamped over the Star of David are common at anti-Israel demonstrations, while protestors have given the Nazi salute and had even begun goose-stepping while targeting one Israeli-owned business. It is then no exaggeration to say that there are those for whom declaring oneself a Zionist would be akin to endorsing National Socialism. No wonder that Ed Miliband is going out of his way not to drop the Z-bomb.  

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At the Heart of the Jewish State Issue

As we learned last weekend via Bloomberg, President Obama is obsessed with the idea that Israeli intransigence is the reason there is no peace in the Middle East. Obama’s whitewashing of the rejectionism of the Palestinian Authority and its leader Mahmoud Abbas is shocking in its single-minded determination to ignore both recent history and the current state of the negotiations. Israel has already shown its willingness to accept a U.S. framework for continued talks despite their justified misgivings about the direction of the negotiations. Meanwhile the Palestinians have given every indication that they won’t buy into the framework because they fear it will commit them to the one thing they have repeatedly shown no interest in accepting: peace.

Further proof of that comes today from the New York Times in the form of an op-ed from a leading Palestinian academic explaining why his people could never agree to one of the key points in the framework: recognizing Israel as a Jewish state. Ali Jarbawi of Bir Zeit University gives a number of reasons why the Jewish state demand is a non-starter. But the Palestinians would probably be better off if they gave up trying to explain why that is so. The more we understand about the Palestinians’ objections to this condition, the less likely peace will ever be agreed to, no matter what the terms.

Not entirely by coincidence, the Times editorial page endorsed the Palestinian position on the Jewish state today. But the paper was far more concerned with seconding President Obama’s stance and ignoring Israel’s past offers of statehood turned down by the Palestinians (in 2000, 2001 and 2008) and Prime Minister Netanyahu’s repeated statements about his willingness to accept a two-state solution if it meant real peace. Their dismissal of the Jewish state demand, which has been accepted by both Obama and Secretary of State Kerry, is however, a key point that should alert readers to the fact that the paper’s supposed concern for Israel’s future is less than sincere. But those wishing to understand the Palestinian’s reluctance to accept the necessity to merely say a few words in exchange for tangible concessions in terms of land from Israel need to read Jaberi’s article to understand why this seemingly trivial concern is actually at the heart of the dispute.

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As we learned last weekend via Bloomberg, President Obama is obsessed with the idea that Israeli intransigence is the reason there is no peace in the Middle East. Obama’s whitewashing of the rejectionism of the Palestinian Authority and its leader Mahmoud Abbas is shocking in its single-minded determination to ignore both recent history and the current state of the negotiations. Israel has already shown its willingness to accept a U.S. framework for continued talks despite their justified misgivings about the direction of the negotiations. Meanwhile the Palestinians have given every indication that they won’t buy into the framework because they fear it will commit them to the one thing they have repeatedly shown no interest in accepting: peace.

Further proof of that comes today from the New York Times in the form of an op-ed from a leading Palestinian academic explaining why his people could never agree to one of the key points in the framework: recognizing Israel as a Jewish state. Ali Jarbawi of Bir Zeit University gives a number of reasons why the Jewish state demand is a non-starter. But the Palestinians would probably be better off if they gave up trying to explain why that is so. The more we understand about the Palestinians’ objections to this condition, the less likely peace will ever be agreed to, no matter what the terms.

Not entirely by coincidence, the Times editorial page endorsed the Palestinian position on the Jewish state today. But the paper was far more concerned with seconding President Obama’s stance and ignoring Israel’s past offers of statehood turned down by the Palestinians (in 2000, 2001 and 2008) and Prime Minister Netanyahu’s repeated statements about his willingness to accept a two-state solution if it meant real peace. Their dismissal of the Jewish state demand, which has been accepted by both Obama and Secretary of State Kerry, is however, a key point that should alert readers to the fact that the paper’s supposed concern for Israel’s future is less than sincere. But those wishing to understand the Palestinian’s reluctance to accept the necessity to merely say a few words in exchange for tangible concessions in terms of land from Israel need to read Jaberi’s article to understand why this seemingly trivial concern is actually at the heart of the dispute.

Let’s first dismiss the claim made by both the Times and Jarbawi that this demand by Israel is an innovation on Netanyahu’s part whose purpose is to derail the peace process. But there’s nothing new about it. The original 1947 United Nations partition resolution stated that the land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River was to be divided between an Arab state and one it designated as a “Jewish state.” If the Palestinians are now reversing their adamant rejection of partition by saying they will be satisfied by an independent state in the West Bank and Gaza, there should be no problem accepting this term.

But they can’t and Jarbawi doesn’t shy away from explaining why. The Palestinians can’t say the words “Jewish state” because to do so would force them to give up their historical narrative in which they see themselves as victims of history who can only be made whole by annulling the results of Israel’s War of Independence. This is not merely a matter of Israelis stating their sympathy for the losers in that war and. The key principle of Palestinian nationalism is rejection of Zionism and the existence of Israel no matter where its borders are drawn. If Palestinians agree that a Jewish state has a right to exist that means they are forever giving up their dreams of extinguishing it. That seems unfair to Jaberi because it means the 1948 refugees and their descendants will be deprived of their dream of “return” which means the end of Israel as a Jewish state. But without accepting this will never happen the Palestinians are, at best, merely agreeing to a pause in their war against Israel and not in concluding it.

Jarbawi then makes the specious point that agreeing to Israel being a Jewish state would compromise the rights of Israel’s Arab minority. Jaberi knows very well this is a red herring since Israel’s basic laws hold that it is both a Jewish state and one in which ethnic and religious minorities have full rights. Israeli Arabs are equal before the law in Israel, serve in its Knesset, government and its judiciary. There is no conceivable scenario under which those rights will be annulled even in the event of war, let alone the outbreak of peace. But his real objection to this point comes in the following paragraph when he says his real worry is that even if those conditions are confirmed, Palestinians fear that a peace treaty might mean that Jews living in the West Bank who wish to remain in their homes in the event of peace would be given the same rights that Arabs have in Israel.

A savvy Palestinian propagandist might have been willing to concede the right of Jews to live in the West Bank as a protected minority in a Palestinian state, but not Jarbawi. Speaking for what is mainstream, indeed, the virtually unanimous opinion of Palestinians, the academic says Jews have no right to be there and therefore cannot be accorded the equal rights that Arabs have inside Israel. Their vision of peace is apparently one in which a Jew-free Palestinian state exists alongside an Israel flooded by Palestinian refugees who would vote the Jewish state out of existence.

While Obama, Kerry and the Times are mindlessly blaming Netanyahu for fighting a two-state solution he has already accepted, the Palestinians persist in laying down terms for peace that are not only unrealistic but demonstrate that the end of their century-old conflict with Zionism is still at the top of their agenda. Two little words would be enough to convince the world that the Palestinians are sincere about peace even though Israel has good reason to doubt Abbas’ sincerity or his ability to make a deal stick even if he signed one. But the more the Palestinians explain why they cannot say them the more obvious it becomes that peace is not their objective.

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Of Zionism and Camels

The idea that anyone might use research about camels to attempt to invalidate Zionism may seem rather far-fetched. But at the avowedly anti-Israel Guardian newspaper, anything is worth a try. The author of the piece in question, Andrew Brown, has set upon a recent story featured by the New York Times and National Geographic who themselves have seized upon research from two scholars at Tel Aviv University which has suggested that domesticated camels may not have existed in the Levant in the time of Genesis.

Brown parades this as proof positive that the camels mentioned in genesis must be a fiction. From there Brown’s impeccable line of reasoning just runs and runs. The camels in Genesis are made up, and if they are made up then the Bible is made up, and if the Bible is made up then everything else in the Bible is made up, which means promises to Abraham and his descendants about the inheritance of the land were made up, which means the foundations of Zionism are made up, and so, whatever one might say about the modern State of Israel, its foundations, which Brown dismisses as emotional, are made up and invalid. You follow?    

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The idea that anyone might use research about camels to attempt to invalidate Zionism may seem rather far-fetched. But at the avowedly anti-Israel Guardian newspaper, anything is worth a try. The author of the piece in question, Andrew Brown, has set upon a recent story featured by the New York Times and National Geographic who themselves have seized upon research from two scholars at Tel Aviv University which has suggested that domesticated camels may not have existed in the Levant in the time of Genesis.

Brown parades this as proof positive that the camels mentioned in genesis must be a fiction. From there Brown’s impeccable line of reasoning just runs and runs. The camels in Genesis are made up, and if they are made up then the Bible is made up, and if the Bible is made up then everything else in the Bible is made up, which means promises to Abraham and his descendants about the inheritance of the land were made up, which means the foundations of Zionism are made up, and so, whatever one might say about the modern State of Israel, its foundations, which Brown dismisses as emotional, are made up and invalid. You follow?    

While it may not be wise to engage such people on such matters as to whether the history of domesticated camels does or does not invalidate the Bible, there are a couple of brief points to be made here. For one thing, the research cited in all of this only appears to concern specific copper smelting sites in the Negev’s Aravah Valley. What the study seems to show is the date at which domesticated camels were probably introduced to work at that specific site, which by all accounts is some several centuries after the time at which the Patriarchs and their camels are believed to have been moving through the surrounding region.

Now, perhaps the Methodist Sunday school I attended was deficient, but I don’t seem to recall anything about the Patriarchs participating in the copper smelting industry. Indeed, it seems like somewhat of a stretch altogether to say that because there were no camels working at a specific copper producing site prior to a specific date, therefore no one kept domesticated camels in the entire region before that date either.

Yet, if that extrapolation is too much, what to make of Andrew Brown’s still more far-fetched contention that the probable absence of camels at an ancient copper smelting site in the Aravah Valley somehow invalidates the modern day movement to secure a Jewish national home? Brown writes with relish about how the story in the Times will no doubt upset “Christian fundamentalists,” a hint about what is most likely really at work here. For, with the Guardian serving as Britain’s preeminent left-wing daily, Brown is sure to stress in his piece that there is far “less evidence for the historical truth of the Old Testament” than there is for the Koran.

Europeans in general, and the left there in particular, have become fiercely hostile to Judeo-Christianity and its values. Over recent decades many of them have come to perceive Zionism as an active effort to validate and reaffirm the very same Bible that so many of them have spent so long arguing against and attempting to drive out of their societies. They believe that by establishing a state in the land of Israel, Jews are seeking first and foremost to fulfill a biblical commandment. I recall once attending a tumultuous public lecture by Benny Morris at the London School of Economics. Morris was trying to explain to his audience that Zionism had begun as a secular movement. The audience was having none of it and during the Q&A the arguing went back and forth on this point that they had become so stuck on. They would not be dissuaded from their conviction that Zionism and Israel is a religious and theocratic project, one essentially comparable with jihadism.

The way in which this aggressive dislike of biblical religion can so easily translate into a seemingly untamable hatred of Jews more generally, including Jews today, was evidenced by an outburst by the liberal television personality and would-be intellectual Stephen Fry, when during an interview he exclaimed, “The ten commandments are the hysterical believings of a group of desert tribes. Those desert tribes have stored up more misery for mankind than any other group of people in the history of the planet, and they’re doing it to this day.” Whether or not these desert tribes had camels by this point, disappointingly Fry doesn’t say.

If camels have the slightest chance of helping to invalidate the twin evils of Zionism and the Bible then the Guardian and its readers are only too pleased hear all about it. Brown asserts stridently, “The history recounted in the Bible is a huge part of the mythology of modern Zionism. The idea of a promised land is based on narratives that assert with complete confidence stories that never actually happened.” Of course, the Jewish religion and collective memory has played no small part in the development of Zionist thought, but as one reader wrote in the comments section of a blog monitoring the Guardian, “Modern Zionism has nothing to do with the camels of Abraham but everything to do with European anti-Semitism so perfectly represented by Andrew Brown and the Guardian.”  

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Does the U.S.-Israel Alliance Have a Future?

Perhaps a week when the U.S. secretary of state told a Senate committee to “stop listening to the Israelis” and to ignore their concerns about the existential threat from the Iranian nuclear program wasn’t the best timing to write about the importance and the permanence of the U.S.-Israel alliance. But bad timing or not, my post about the rumblings from some in Israel about an alternative to their ties to the only true superpower in the world has provoked some interesting comments and led me to think a bit more about the topic as well. In fact, weeks such as the one we’re currently experiencing may be the best time for those who care about the relationship to explore how to shore it up and the stakes involved for both countries. Even as Kerry seems to be doing everything to downgrade the relationship, it’s important to point out that not only is there no rational alternative to it from Israel’s point of view but that it is of vital importance to the United States as well.

First, let me address the question of whether it is wise to inextricably link Israel’s wellbeing to America’s standing in the world. Martin Kramer wrote here that he agreed with me that it is dangerous for anyone in Israel to even consider trying to play China or Russia off the United States in a vain attempt to outmaneuver Washington when it comes to questions like the nuclear peril from Iran. But he disagreed with this passage from my post:

Israel’s long-term safety must be seen as linked to the ability of the United States to maintain its status as the leader of the free world. Even at times of great tension with Washington, Israelis must never forget that it is not just that they have no viable alternatives to the U.S. but that American power remains the best hope of freedom for all nations.

Kramer believes that American power, like all power, “waxes and wanes.” He goes on to write the following:

More than six years ago, before Obama even declared his candidacy, I told the Conference of Presidents that “America’s era in the Middle East will end one day,” and that “it is possible that in twenty years’ time, America will be less interested and engaged in the Middle East. What is our Plan B then?” Obama accelerated that timetable, but the long-term trend has been clear for years. And one doesn’t have to be a “declinist” to realize that the United States can lead the free world and still write off the Middle East, which isn’t part of it. That’s precisely the mood in America today.

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Perhaps a week when the U.S. secretary of state told a Senate committee to “stop listening to the Israelis” and to ignore their concerns about the existential threat from the Iranian nuclear program wasn’t the best timing to write about the importance and the permanence of the U.S.-Israel alliance. But bad timing or not, my post about the rumblings from some in Israel about an alternative to their ties to the only true superpower in the world has provoked some interesting comments and led me to think a bit more about the topic as well. In fact, weeks such as the one we’re currently experiencing may be the best time for those who care about the relationship to explore how to shore it up and the stakes involved for both countries. Even as Kerry seems to be doing everything to downgrade the relationship, it’s important to point out that not only is there no rational alternative to it from Israel’s point of view but that it is of vital importance to the United States as well.

First, let me address the question of whether it is wise to inextricably link Israel’s wellbeing to America’s standing in the world. Martin Kramer wrote here that he agreed with me that it is dangerous for anyone in Israel to even consider trying to play China or Russia off the United States in a vain attempt to outmaneuver Washington when it comes to questions like the nuclear peril from Iran. But he disagreed with this passage from my post:

Israel’s long-term safety must be seen as linked to the ability of the United States to maintain its status as the leader of the free world. Even at times of great tension with Washington, Israelis must never forget that it is not just that they have no viable alternatives to the U.S. but that American power remains the best hope of freedom for all nations.

Kramer believes that American power, like all power, “waxes and wanes.” He goes on to write the following:

More than six years ago, before Obama even declared his candidacy, I told the Conference of Presidents that “America’s era in the Middle East will end one day,” and that “it is possible that in twenty years’ time, America will be less interested and engaged in the Middle East. What is our Plan B then?” Obama accelerated that timetable, but the long-term trend has been clear for years. And one doesn’t have to be a “declinist” to realize that the United States can lead the free world and still write off the Middle East, which isn’t part of it. That’s precisely the mood in America today.

That’s a sobering thought and the possibility can’t be entirely discounted, especially with figures such as Senator Rand Paul rising to prominence in a Republican Party that has become a bulwark of the alliance in the last generation. Moreover, he’s right when he says that the history of Zionism teaches us that in order to survive, the movement has had to be flexible in its alliances with world powers. A century ago, many Zionists were looking to tie their future to that of the Ottoman Empire. A few years later, after the sick man of Europe collapsed, they cast their lot with a British Empire. But after a few short years when London seemed ready to make good on the promise made in the Balfour Declaration, they were abandoned. Gradually America became the focus of Zionist diplomacy, but until that alliance became a reality after the Six-Day War, Israel relied on a brief yet crucial period of Soviet friendship during the War of Independence and after that a fruitful friendship with France that lasted until 1967.

Israel’s leaders must, as Kramer says, be prepared for all eventualities and they should not, as I wrote, be blamed for seeking to foster ties with other countries. But the problem with planning for a theoretical period of American withdrawal from the world is that the answer to his question about a “Plan B” is that there isn’t one.

Though he is right to assert that the point of Zionism is, to the greatest extent possible, to make sure that Israel can defend itself, no “agility” or ability to “read the changing map of the world” can substitute for an alliance with America. Without a strong United States that is engaged in the world, Israel will not disappear. But it will be weaker and far more vulnerable. For Israel there is not and never will be—at least in the foreseeable future—a viable alternative to the alliance with the United States.

But the key question here is not so much whether Israel appreciates how important the U.S. is to its future—and there’s every indication that Israel’s leaders understand that—but whether Americans understand how important the Jewish state is to it.

The flip side to this discussion is that for all the talk from anti-Zionist conspiracy theorists like those who promote the Walt-Mearsheimer “Israel Lobby” in which the Jewish state is supposed to be the tail that wags the American dog, we don’t talk enough about how Israel is a valued ally of the United States.

After the end of the Cold War, the value of having what many consider to be a regional superpower allied with the United States has been largely ignored. But the notion that the U.S. doesn’t need strong allies in an era in which it is challenged by Islamist terrorism as well as rogue states like Iran is farcical. Moreover, the traditional meme of critics of the alliance—that Arab states are hostile to the United States because of its friendship with Israel—has been exploded both by the Arab Spring and the regional concerns about Iran that have made it clear that they fear Tehran more than they do the Jewish state.

Israel’s intelligence capabilities have long been a boon to the U.S. But its technological resources—both in terms of military and commercial applications—are now just as if not more important. Israel, the “start-up nation,” is a vital partner for the U.S. economy.

But even if we ignore the utilitarian aspects of this friendship, it should be remembered that the core of American foreign policy has, contrary to the slanders of the left, always primarily been moral rather than a nation bent on conquest or empire. As such it needs nations that share its democratic values. That means Israel remains part of the select few countries that will always be natural allies. It is true that Israel cannot always count on the U.S. to do the right thing at the right time. Nor can the U.S. assume that Israel will disregard its interests in order to serve American convenience. But the relationship is both mutual and rooted in something stronger than Lord Palmerston’s famous dictum about permanent interests. Support for Israel is part of the political DNA of American culture. The same is true of Israel’s affinity with its fellow democracy.

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Superpower Outage

Jonathan Tobin rightly dismisses as dangerous any Israeli attempt to play China or Russia off the United States out of frustration with the Iran policy of the Obama administration. When it comes to dealing with the immediate threat posed by Iran, only Washington has superpower leverage, and if Israel wanders off the reservation, it will only damage itself.

But Jonathan makes a further claim: “Israel’s long-term safety must be seen as linked to the ability of the United States to maintain its status as the leader of the free world. Even at times of great tension with Washington, Israelis must never forget that it is not just that they have no viable alternatives to the U.S. but that American power remains the best hope of freedom for all nations.” This “linkage” is problematic, and its acceptance could blind Israelis to what they need to do to survive through the next half-century.

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Jonathan Tobin rightly dismisses as dangerous any Israeli attempt to play China or Russia off the United States out of frustration with the Iran policy of the Obama administration. When it comes to dealing with the immediate threat posed by Iran, only Washington has superpower leverage, and if Israel wanders off the reservation, it will only damage itself.

But Jonathan makes a further claim: “Israel’s long-term safety must be seen as linked to the ability of the United States to maintain its status as the leader of the free world. Even at times of great tension with Washington, Israelis must never forget that it is not just that they have no viable alternatives to the U.S. but that American power remains the best hope of freedom for all nations.” This “linkage” is problematic, and its acceptance could blind Israelis to what they need to do to survive through the next half-century.

The problem with American power, like all power, is that it waxes and wanes. We have become used to the notion that U.S. preeminence in the world and the Middle East is a constant. But it isn’t so. Geography has rendered the United States the most self-contained superpower in history. As a result, it goes through manic bouts of interventionism and isolationism, and sometimes awakens to the responsibilities of its power too late. It did so during the Holocaust, and it did so during the first years of Israeli independence, when the fledgling Jewish state had to look to the Soviet Union and France for the arms essential to its defense. The simple truth is that Israel cannot rely on the United States to do just the right thing at just the right time. That’s at the heart of the crisis of confidence between the United States and Israel over Iran, and its sources run deeper than the particular world view of Barack Obama.

More than six years ago, before Obama even declared his candidacy, I told the Conference of Presidents that “America’s era in the Middle East will end one day,” and that “it is possible that in twenty years’ time, America will be less interested and engaged in the Middle East. What is our Plan B then?” Obama accelerated that timetable, but the long-term trend has been clear for years. And one doesn’t have to be a “declinist” to realize that the United States can lead the free world and still write off the Middle East, which isn’t part of it. That’s precisely the mood in America today.

Hedging has been a fundamental principle of Zionism from its inception. That’s how it managed to outlast the fall of two empires that dominated the Middle East in the pre-state decades. When political Zionism emerged, the Ottoman Empire still held sway over the land, and Theodor Herzl went as a supplicant to the sultan’s palace in Istanbul. As late as 1912, the future first prime minister of Israel, David Ben-Gurion, and the future second president of Israel, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, went to Istanbul to study Ottoman law, on the assumption that they would have to build the Yishuv under the same Ottoman power that had ruled the country for four centuries. (Here they are, looking like the deputies to the Ottoman parliament they planned to become.) A few years later, Ottoman power collapsed. Fortunately, Chaim Weizmann had laid the foundations for the support of the Allied victors, above all the British, whose empire now expanded to encompass the core of the Middle East.

British dominance in Palestine lasted for thirty years, during which London became the center of Zionist political activity. Britain was the mother of democracy, bastion of freedom, and home to a strong tradition of philo-Judaism and Christian Zionism. Much was made of “shared values.” But Britain, after facilitating the remarkable growth of the Yishuv, backtracked on its commitment to Zionism at the very moment of paramount Jewish need. It was Ben-Gurion who understood that the world war would bring down the British empire across Asia and Africa, Palestine included, and who sought an alliance with the ascendant United States. Still, years would pass before the United States would admit Israel to a “special relationship,” leaving Israel to fend for itself in the world’s arms market. That insecurity drove Israel to ally with Britain and France against Nasser’s Egypt—to Washington’s chagrin—and to build a nuclear capability with French assistance—in defiance of Washington.

Those days may seem distant, and Israel and the United States have had an extraordinary run. But history stands still for no people, and if our history has taught us anything about geopolitics, it is this: what is will not be. However enamored we are of the status quo, Israel needs a Plan B, and it has to consist of more than editorially flogging America for failing to maintain its forward positions in the Middle East. The State of Israel, like Zionism before it, must be agile enough to survive a power outage of any ally, and to plug in elsewhere. If Israel’s long-term safety really did depend on America’s will to govern the world, then it would be a poor substitute for Judaism’s own survival mechanism, by which the Jewish people outlasted the fall of countless host empires. But Israel’s future depends upon something within its own grasp: its ability to read the changing map of the world, to register the ebb and flow of global power, and to adapt as necessary.

Let us pray for the perpetuation of America’s power to do good in the world. Let us prepare for something less.

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Remembering Warsaw By Trashing Zionism

Today is the 70th anniversary of the start of one of the greatest acts of heroism in the history of the world. On April 19, 1943, SS forces entered the Warsaw Ghetto to begin the final “liquidation” of the enclave in which hundreds of thousands of Jews had been herded. But instead of rounding up the tens of thousands of starving Jews, they were attacked by Jewish resistance forces that stalled their advance and set off a battle that would last for weeks. Two separate groups organized the resistance. One was the ZOB—The Jewish Combat Organization—a coalition that was largely led by left-wing Zionists. The other was the ZZW—the Jewish Military Union—led by right-wing Zionists. Both fought bravely in a struggle that could not alter the fate of the Jews of Warsaw but which nevertheless reminded the world that the honor of the Jewish people had been redeemed in even the most hopeless of circumstances.

Resistance to the Nazis was expressed in many ways, and we now understand that those who stayed with the elderly and children as well as those who died with dignity in other ways deserve to be remembered just as do those few who were able to take up arms against their murderers. But we rightly remember the Warsaw Ghetto fighters and all those who were able to resist the Nazis because their efforts were a symbol of heroism that has inspired subsequent generations of Jews to stand up against those who seek to carry on the hate of Hitler and his legions. The most famous moment of the revolt was the raising by the ZZW of the flag of Poland and the blue and white banner of Zionism over Muranowski Square. This was an event that even the Germans considered of immense importance since it showed their opponents were part of a nation they could not kill–a nation that would be reborn five years later as the State of Israel.

But in a curious act of revisionism, the New York Times commemorated the Ghetto Uprising today with an article that seeks to push back against this narrative and to replace it with one that downgrades the importance of Zionism in both the story of the Warsaw revolt and its place in Jewish history.

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Today is the 70th anniversary of the start of one of the greatest acts of heroism in the history of the world. On April 19, 1943, SS forces entered the Warsaw Ghetto to begin the final “liquidation” of the enclave in which hundreds of thousands of Jews had been herded. But instead of rounding up the tens of thousands of starving Jews, they were attacked by Jewish resistance forces that stalled their advance and set off a battle that would last for weeks. Two separate groups organized the resistance. One was the ZOB—The Jewish Combat Organization—a coalition that was largely led by left-wing Zionists. The other was the ZZW—the Jewish Military Union—led by right-wing Zionists. Both fought bravely in a struggle that could not alter the fate of the Jews of Warsaw but which nevertheless reminded the world that the honor of the Jewish people had been redeemed in even the most hopeless of circumstances.

Resistance to the Nazis was expressed in many ways, and we now understand that those who stayed with the elderly and children as well as those who died with dignity in other ways deserve to be remembered just as do those few who were able to take up arms against their murderers. But we rightly remember the Warsaw Ghetto fighters and all those who were able to resist the Nazis because their efforts were a symbol of heroism that has inspired subsequent generations of Jews to stand up against those who seek to carry on the hate of Hitler and his legions. The most famous moment of the revolt was the raising by the ZZW of the flag of Poland and the blue and white banner of Zionism over Muranowski Square. This was an event that even the Germans considered of immense importance since it showed their opponents were part of a nation they could not kill–a nation that would be reborn five years later as the State of Israel.

But in a curious act of revisionism, the New York Times commemorated the Ghetto Uprising today with an article that seeks to push back against this narrative and to replace it with one that downgrades the importance of Zionism in both the story of the Warsaw revolt and its place in Jewish history.

Yale University scholar Marci Shore’s “The Jewish Hero History Forgot” focused on Marek Edelman, one leader of the ZOB who was not a supporter of Zionism. While Edelman deserves to be honored as a hero, her attempt to debunk the traditional view of the uprising tells us more about the left’s animus toward Israel than it does about the events of 1943 or the Jews of Poland. Though all those who resisted and even those who did not should be memorialized, the idea that Edelman’s distaste for the Jewish state should be the last word about the Holocaust is as offensive as it is a distortion of Jewish history.

Edelman was a member of the Bund, the Jewish Labor Party, a socialist group dedicated to preserving Jewish life and culture in Poland and which rejected Zionism. The argument between the two movements is an interesting chapter of the Jewish past, but surely not one that needs to be re-fought in light of what happened. Yet Shore argues that the Bundist position was actually reasonable:

Today, the teleological deceptions of retrospect make it seem a foregone conclusion that the Zionists would win that debate. Yet in the 1920s and 1930s, the Bund’s program seemed much more grounded, sensible and realistic: a Jewish workers’ party allied with a larger labor movement, a secular Jewish culture in Yiddish, the language already spoken by most Jews, a future in the place where Jews already lived, alongside people they already knew. The Zionist idea that millions of European Jews would adopt a new language, uproot themselves en masse, and resettle in a Middle Eastern desert amid people about whom they knew nothing was far less realistic.

But the problem with this attempt to rehabilitate a failed ideology is that even in the 1930s, the idea that there was a viable Jewish future in a virulently anti-Semitic Poland set in a Europe where Nazism was on the rise was the fantasy, not the burgeoning and successful effort to rebuild Jewish life in what was then called Palestine.

As Shore notes, after the war when almost all of the survivors of the revolt found their way to Israel, Edelman stayed in Poland and served as a doctor. But his subsequent life in a Poland where those few Jews who stayed behind were subjected to a new wave of anti-Semitism from the Communist government merely demonstrated anew how wrong the Bundists had been all along. While she writes of him as someone celebrated today as a Polish hero, anti-Semitism is alive and well in contemporary Poland.

She chides Israel for not treating Edelman with the honor he deserved, but that is also a distortion of the record. It was he who disdained Israel more than it slighted him, as she indicates with her concluding quote  in which he says “a single-nation state is never a good thing.”

But it is difficult to understand how one can think about what happened in Warsaw 70 years ago as well as the rest of the Holocaust without concluding that creating a national home for the Jewish people where they could defend themselves was a good thing.

Jews of every conceivable religious and political belief lived, fought and died in Warsaw. But their plight illustrated that the Zionist idea that Jews must take their fate into their own hands was correct. What the Zionists understood in the pre-Holocaust era was that the belief that Europe could remain home to millions of Jews was an illusion. Zionist leader Vladimir Ze’ev Jabotinsky told the Jews of Warsaw on Tisha B’Av—the date on which Jews commemorate the destruction of their ancient Temple—in 1938 that “the catastrophe is coming closer” and they and the rest of European Jewry must be evacuated. Rather than working with him to save European Jewry, the Bundists mocked Jabotinsky.

From the perspective of 2013, the Zionist critique of pre-war Jewish complacence is still compelling. Today, even the U.S. State Department has concluded that a troubling wave of anti-Semitism is on the rise in Europe. In France, the largest Jewish community on the continent is under siege with many leaving for Israel. The concept that the Jews must have a state of their own where they can stand against the still-vibrant forces of hate remains irrefutable.

Contemporary leftist critics of Israel may also view the Jewish state with distaste and wish to somehow separate it from the sacred memory of Jewish resistance against the Nazis. But the attempt to replace the Zionist narrative with one in which the revolt is detached from subsequent Jewish history is utterly fraudulent. The Ghetto fighters were the forerunners of those who have fought to preserve Jewish life and sovereignty during the 65 years of Israel’s existence. For the New York Times to choose to devote its only coverage to this subject by publishing Shore’s thinly veiled critique of Zionist historiography is a disgrace.

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Why Debate the Jewish State? Prejudice

Is it worth the effort to debate those who question Israel’s legitimacy? In one sense, the answer has to be no. Israel’s right to exist should no more be a matter for debate than that of any other nation on the planet. If no one questions the right of Saudi Arabia to exist as a nation-state predicated on an extremist view of Islam (where practitioners of other faiths have no rights) or the rights of any European state, including those based on narrow ethnic identities (such as that of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, for whose benefit the United States went to war in 1999), then why should we bother even answering those who question whether the one Jewish state in the world is one too many?

And yet there are some instances in which there is no choice but to acknowledge such arguments and to answer them. The deluge of abuse directed at Zionism and Israel from much of the Arab and Muslim world is easily dismissed even if the sheer volume of these expressions and the way they have seeped into European popular culture have serious consequences. But when the New York Times devotes space on its website to an attempt by an academic to justify the position that Israel has no right to exist, attention must be paid. That’s what happened this past weekend when the Grey Lady published a lengthy article along these lines by University of Massachusetts philosophy professor Joseph Levine. Levine’s purpose was not just to try to prove that Israel shouldn’t exist but to claim that holding such a position was not anti-Semitic. He failed on both counts, calling into question not only the disreputable arguments that can be arrayed against Israel but also the Times’s decision to treat the question as one which is worthy of legitimate debate.

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Is it worth the effort to debate those who question Israel’s legitimacy? In one sense, the answer has to be no. Israel’s right to exist should no more be a matter for debate than that of any other nation on the planet. If no one questions the right of Saudi Arabia to exist as a nation-state predicated on an extremist view of Islam (where practitioners of other faiths have no rights) or the rights of any European state, including those based on narrow ethnic identities (such as that of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, for whose benefit the United States went to war in 1999), then why should we bother even answering those who question whether the one Jewish state in the world is one too many?

And yet there are some instances in which there is no choice but to acknowledge such arguments and to answer them. The deluge of abuse directed at Zionism and Israel from much of the Arab and Muslim world is easily dismissed even if the sheer volume of these expressions and the way they have seeped into European popular culture have serious consequences. But when the New York Times devotes space on its website to an attempt by an academic to justify the position that Israel has no right to exist, attention must be paid. That’s what happened this past weekend when the Grey Lady published a lengthy article along these lines by University of Massachusetts philosophy professor Joseph Levine. Levine’s purpose was not just to try to prove that Israel shouldn’t exist but to claim that holding such a position was not anti-Semitic. He failed on both counts, calling into question not only the disreputable arguments that can be arrayed against Israel but also the Times’s decision to treat the question as one which is worthy of legitimate debate.

Levine’s basic position is that denying the right of Israel to exist is not the same thing as anti-Semitism. While he denies that the Jews are a people or that they have any particular right to Israel, he puts those points aside to concentrate his 2,000-word rant to the question of whether Israel has the right to be a nation. To do so he must draw a distinction between those like himself who merely wish there was no state of Israel and those who are trying to depopulate that state of its Jews. In the course of this strained argument he seems to be saying that he has no problem with Israelis being Israeli (i.e. the right to live in the country, speak Hebrew and have their own culture and national identity) just as the right of the French to be French is unquestioned. But he thinks the idea of a government that recognizes the particular rights of Jews to self-determination in the country is illegitimate. Doing so would acquit those who agree with him of any taint of would-be genocide, let alone prejudice. But these are distinctions without differences.

Levine’s basic argument with the Israeli state is that any country that grants a privileged status to a particular group—in this case the Jewish people whose existence he denies—is inherently undemocratic. His point seems to be that any nation that is not one in which all citizens are viewed as individuals has no claim on the world’s sympathy and ought to be replaced with something else.

It might be intellectually defensible, if unrealistic, to argue that all nation states ought to be disbanded and that the entire world should be governed under the principles of the U.S. Constitution. But that is not what Levine or the Times is debating here. His sole interest is in the one Jewish state, not the scores of other nations whose identity is based in other national identities or faiths. What he calls the “ethnic hegemony” of Jews in Israel is replicated in various ways in the vast majority of United Nations member states–though in almost all cases with far less concern for the rights of ethnic and religious minorities than is enshrined in Israeli law. Though he claims he is not judging Israel by a double standard, that is exactly what he has done.

Thus, any attempt to deny to the Jews what is not denied or even questioned when it comes to other groups is by definition a form of prejudice. Such prejudice against Jews is called anti-Semitism. That’s why the claim that to be anti-Zionist is not the same as being anti-Semitic is mere sophistry.

But the truly contemptible aspect of Levine’s treatise is the disingenuous attempt to treat the question of Israel’s right to exist as separate from the real world consequences of anti-Zionism.

While Jews deserve the same rights of self-determination that are accorded to others, the particular importance of Israel stems not just from the Jewish demand for equitable treatment but from the consequences of 2,000 years during which they were denied statehood.

It is a popular misnomer to speak of Israel’s legitimacy as having stemmed from the Holocaust. Contrary to Levine, the right of the Jews to their ancient homeland transcends that tragedy and is rooted in history and law that existed long before the Nazis. But the legacy of Jewish powerlessness was 20 centuries of persecution that culminated in the murder of 6 million European Jews. Being deprived of sovereignty not only fueled contempt for the Jews; it made their defense and survival dependent on the whims of an international community whose lack of interest in their plight was a source of encouragement to Adolf Hitler.

Even if we take the Holocaust out of the discussion, the same paradigm applies today. Without an army and a state specifically dedicated to the defense of the Jewish people, the more than 6 million Jews who live in Israel (whose continued existence Professor Levine says he has no desire to interfere with) would be in a similar position to that of European Jewry 70 years ago. One need only listen or read the unceasing stream of anti-Semitic and anti-Israel propaganda emanating from Tehran, Cairo, Ramallah and half a hundred other centers of anti-Zionist agitation to understand what would happen to the Jews of Israel were they not protected by a sovereign Jewish state. In a majority Muslim state, Jews would revert to dhimmi status, and that means subjugation and persecution. Talk of the creation of a bi-national democratic state in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza (the traditional demand of Palestinian nationalism) is merely code for the expulsion and slaughter of the Jews, something that groups like Hamas and Hezbollah have no trouble affirming.

There are many aspects of the complex Middle East conflict that persons of good will may debate. But the notion that Israel should be eradicated is not such a notion. Support of this position, even when couched in academic or intellectual arguments such as those that Levine attempts to muster, always boils down to denying the Jews rights that are held sacrosanct and unworthy of discussion when applied to others. Moreover, the denial of these rights cannot be separated from the active desire of some to do more than merely replace one form of democratic government with another. One can no more debate Israel’s legitimacy without taking that into account and placing it in the context of the history of persecution and genocide of Jews than one can debate the merits of Stalin’s economic policies without mentioning the millions who died as a result of his schemes.

Levine’s piece is therefore not merely wrong but a disreputable intellectual gloss on a policy based in hatred.  Those who deny the right of Jewish self-determination are aiding the cause of those who make war on the Jews and cannot be cleansed of the taint of that association. No one disputes his right to spew his bias wherever he can get it published, even if this is the sort of thing that ought to be beyond the pale in terms of the conduct of decent persons. But we don’t doubt that were he or any other employee of a state institution of higher learning to associate himself with support of segregation or South African apartheid, they would face serious consequences. That the New York Times would give so much space to it is a shameful reminder of the fact that prejudice against Jews (even when articulated by those who claim Jewish identity as does Levine) is alive and well even in the seemingly respectable corridors of our mainstream media as well as the academy.

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Hillel’s BDS Battle and Anti-Semitism

To listen to the arguments put forward by Harvard students to create what they call an “open Hillel,” their fight with the national Hillel group is about the right of young Jews to free association. The students say that rules mandating that the organization not partner with groups that support BDS—the anti-Zionist campaign that aims to boycott, disinvest and sanction the State of Israel—or host speakers that advocate such measures are unfair and limit their ability to have dialogue with Palestinians. To the thinking of the Progressive Jewish Alliance that is, according to the Forward, organizing the campaign against Hillel, such rules “stifle discourse” and discriminate against those who disagree with Israeli policies.

But this controversy isn’t about the deadening hand of a Jewish establishment determined, as leftists claim, to silence dissenters. Any Hillel branch that regards groups that are struggling to destroy Israel in this manner would in essence be declaring their neutrality not only about the continuation of the Zionist enterprise but that they can no longer be counted among those prepared to bear witness against the discriminatory ideology at the heart of the drive for BDS. Those who wage war on one people and deny the same rights they readily concede to any other group are advocating a form of bias. Such a bias when directed against Jews has a name: anti-Semitism.

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To listen to the arguments put forward by Harvard students to create what they call an “open Hillel,” their fight with the national Hillel group is about the right of young Jews to free association. The students say that rules mandating that the organization not partner with groups that support BDS—the anti-Zionist campaign that aims to boycott, disinvest and sanction the State of Israel—or host speakers that advocate such measures are unfair and limit their ability to have dialogue with Palestinians. To the thinking of the Progressive Jewish Alliance that is, according to the Forward, organizing the campaign against Hillel, such rules “stifle discourse” and discriminate against those who disagree with Israeli policies.

But this controversy isn’t about the deadening hand of a Jewish establishment determined, as leftists claim, to silence dissenters. Any Hillel branch that regards groups that are struggling to destroy Israel in this manner would in essence be declaring their neutrality not only about the continuation of the Zionist enterprise but that they can no longer be counted among those prepared to bear witness against the discriminatory ideology at the heart of the drive for BDS. Those who wage war on one people and deny the same rights they readily concede to any other group are advocating a form of bias. Such a bias when directed against Jews has a name: anti-Semitism.

Were Hillel to back down on this issue it would not be a victory for free speech or free association. Rather, it would mean the most important Jewish campus organization would be signaling that the war on Israel is neither hateful nor worth opposing. BDS is, after all, not just a point of view about the settlements or borders or the peace process. It is an economic war on Israel whose purpose is not an alleged reformation of its policies but a desire to bring it to its knees and hasten its destruction. It is an attempt to deny to the one Jewish state in the world the right to self-determination and self-defense in the face of armed foes who threaten it with terror and violence.

It needs to be understood that this is a very different argument from those that have divided many Jews in this country about the peace process. Groups like J Street and other left-wing critics of the current Israeli government may take a point of view about the country that is harmful as well as based in a poor understanding of the realities of the Middle East. Those who think Israel should be pressured from abroad in order to make concessions that are opposed by the country’s democratically elected government and the vast majority of its citizens are doing something shameful. But so long as they continue to support the right of Israel to exist and to defend itself and oppose those who seek to wage war on it, such groups must still be considered as having not crossed an important line between legitimate dissent and actions that are beyond the pale of communal conduct.

This debate is illustrative of the fact that there is a point of view prevalent in contemporary Jewish life that views any attempt to draw lines between those inside the community and those outside it as illegitimate. It values inclusiveness above Judaism, Jewish values and even Jewish survival. It fetishizes dialogue with all comers as the supreme good even if such encounters serve only to legitimize forces that are serve as fronts for those who wish to destroy the Jewish state.

The increasing acceptance of this frame of reference about Jewish life is a dangerous development for an American Jewish community that has spent the last two generations faltering in its effort to maintain itself against the ravages of assimilation. While the idea of welcoming everyone fits in nicely with our pluralistic American ethos, a community that is defined primarily by inclusiveness is one that stands for nothing. Such a community is not only unsustainable; it may not be worth saving.

But the application of the principle of inclusiveness to BDS supporters takes this trend to a new low. It is one thing to say Jews may believe anything about their faith or support any political point of view. It is quite another to say that there is nothing amiss with a nominally Jewish group that is neutral about the war on the Jewish state.

Any student who believes that being “progressive” requires them to be open to working with BDS supporters fundamentally misunderstands not only liberalism but the intent of Israel’s foes. Neutrality toward BDS is no different than neutrality toward beliefs that stigmatize Jews. What these students don’t understand that is that their fight for an “open Hillel” means giving a pass to hate.

It is up to Hillel to resist this attempt to transform a Jewish campus group into a beachhead for those who make common cause with these anti-Semites. Inclusiveness is not an excuse for acquiescing to an ideology of hatred. There is no alternative but for Hillel and its supporters to stand their ground and to help Jewish students find the courage to stand up against the enemies of their people.

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Don’t Dismiss the Moral Power of Protest

A few days ago, a video was posted online of an anti-Israel protest at Portland State University. Following an increasingly common tactic among campus anti-Israelists, the protesters filled a few rows of the audience for a talk on Israel by CBN contributor Erick Stackelbeck with people wearing tape over their mouths and then silently walkingd out, holding signs and – in a few uncontrolled cases – shouting slogans.

As foolish as the protest looks, it would be unwise to dismiss its potential power or what it says about the nature of the view of Israel endorsed by a small yet committed minority at many American universities.

This particular video is interesting mostly because Stackelbeck invites the protesters to take the tape off their mouths, stay for his talk, and then debate him afterwards. It’s an effective way to make them look foolish and is a tactic other pro-Israel speakers, faced with similar displays at other universities, should consider.

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A few days ago, a video was posted online of an anti-Israel protest at Portland State University. Following an increasingly common tactic among campus anti-Israelists, the protesters filled a few rows of the audience for a talk on Israel by CBN contributor Erick Stackelbeck with people wearing tape over their mouths and then silently walkingd out, holding signs and – in a few uncontrolled cases – shouting slogans.

As foolish as the protest looks, it would be unwise to dismiss its potential power or what it says about the nature of the view of Israel endorsed by a small yet committed minority at many American universities.

This particular video is interesting mostly because Stackelbeck invites the protesters to take the tape off their mouths, stay for his talk, and then debate him afterwards. It’s an effective way to make them look foolish and is a tactic other pro-Israel speakers, faced with similar displays at other universities, should consider.

While it is true, as Joel Pollak notes, that the students’ refusal to debate is a sign of an anti-intellectualism that has taken hold at far too many schools, there is a powerful statement within the silent protest that anti-Israelists are trying to latch onto. For if you believe that Jewish independence is morally repugnant, it is appropriate to refuse to debate those who cast themselves as its defenders. The act of debate itself, the granting of a platform in a university, is itself a kind of approval, if not for the totality of an ideology then at least for its place within respectable debate. Because anti-Israelists are driven by the conviction that Israel is not a topic worthy of debate, it makes sense for them to refuse to do so.

Conveying that message, along with the idea that anti-Israelists speak for the center of campus opinion, is precisely the idea behind staging such a protest.

It’s a view many who support Israel should find easier to understand than they perhaps realize. It was only five years ago that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was granted his bit of real estate on the campus of Columbia University, and many were the voices who found it appalling. And rightly so. Letting him in the door conveyed the idea on a significant stage that he stood for ideas worth debating, not standing against. So too can you find this thinking in a recent article criticizing Harvard’s hosting of a “one state solution” conference by the esteemed Alan Dershowitz, who, in pointing out that a conference around a question like “Are the Palestinians Really a People?” would likely find no sanction on campus was reminding us that there are limits to the questions we consider. Though those limits may often be misplaced, it is undoubtedly true that it is good for there to be some.

Thankfully, anti-Israelists committed to the idea that Israel does not deserve even a hearing on campus are no more than a small fraction of nearly any school, and thus incapable of pushing pro-Israel voices off campus. But to ensure their ranks do not grow, and they do not succeed in making Zionism an ideology not even permitted a defense, we’ll have to recognize the potential power of their strategy and get better at reaching the vast middle whose views remain up for grabs.

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The Principles of Benzion Netanyahu

The death of the father of Israel’s prime minister will likely set off a wave of comment focusing on the influence that Benzion Netanyahu  had on his son Benjamin and whether his passing will make the prime minister more amenable to pressure to make concessions to the Palestinians. But this popular interpretation of the relationship between the two men, which the prime minister rightly dismissed as “psychobabble,” misses the point both about the Netanyahus and the principles they embraced.

Benzion Netanyahu, who died in Israel today at the age of 102, was an important figure in Zionist activism and Jewish history in his own right. Benzion was a follower of Zeev Jabotinsky, one of the great figures in the history of Zionism whose Revisionist movement is the ancestor of the modern Likud. Many contemporary pundits saw him as a representative of a bygone era whose belief in the rigid ideology of that movement served as a human obstacle to peace, because they claimed his son would never embrace a two-state solution to the Middle East conflict as long as the father lived. This was false. Netanyahu signed peace agreements with Yasir Arafat during his first term in office in the 1990s and embraced the concept of a Palestinian state during his second. But the values and lessons his father did teach him will stay with the prime minister. The shame is that more Jews don’t understand them.

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The death of the father of Israel’s prime minister will likely set off a wave of comment focusing on the influence that Benzion Netanyahu  had on his son Benjamin and whether his passing will make the prime minister more amenable to pressure to make concessions to the Palestinians. But this popular interpretation of the relationship between the two men, which the prime minister rightly dismissed as “psychobabble,” misses the point both about the Netanyahus and the principles they embraced.

Benzion Netanyahu, who died in Israel today at the age of 102, was an important figure in Zionist activism and Jewish history in his own right. Benzion was a follower of Zeev Jabotinsky, one of the great figures in the history of Zionism whose Revisionist movement is the ancestor of the modern Likud. Many contemporary pundits saw him as a representative of a bygone era whose belief in the rigid ideology of that movement served as a human obstacle to peace, because they claimed his son would never embrace a two-state solution to the Middle East conflict as long as the father lived. This was false. Netanyahu signed peace agreements with Yasir Arafat during his first term in office in the 1990s and embraced the concept of a Palestinian state during his second. But the values and lessons his father did teach him will stay with the prime minister. The shame is that more Jews don’t understand them.

As with other veterans of the pre-state Zionist movement, Benzion Netanyahu deserves the gratitude of the Jewish people for his labors. As the representative of Jabotinsky’s movement in the United States during World War Two, the Polish native who had moved to Palestine during his youth is credited with helping to persuade the Republican Party to adopt in 1944 an unprecedented pro-Zionist platform plank that caused the Democrats to follow suit. But he deserves just as much, if not more credit for his work as a scholar of Jewish history. And it is here, as much as in his embrace of Jabotinsky’s vision of a secure, liberal and democratic Jewish state in all of historic Palestine that his influence is felt.

In his seminal work, The Origins of the Inquisition in Fifteenth Century Spain, Benzion Netanyahu exploded myths about the persecution of Jews in Spain that saw most of those who converted to Christianity as a result of persecution as secretly practicing their old faith. Contrary to the long-held belief that the victims of the Inquisition were secret Jews or Marranos, Netanyahu proved that most were not. They were attacked by the Christian establishment not because of their religion but because Jews were seen as inherently evil. As with the Nazis who followed centuries later, the attack on the former Jews was the result of racism, not religious extremism.

While many Jews persist in believing that anti-Semitism as well as ant-Zionism is all a terrible misunderstanding, Benzion Netanyahu understood that hatred and intolerance lay at the roots of the difficulties of the Jews then as now. As his son noted at his funeral today , the challenge is to “face reality head on” and “draw the necessary conclusions.”

Doing so does not make one insensitive to the need for peace or to the legitimate desire of other peoples to live in peace. But it does force one to strip away illusions about the world and force us to come to grips with the modern versions of the ancient hatred that consumed the Jews of past eras. Peace with Palestinians who have not yet abandoned a belief that the Jews have no right to be in the country cannot be bought with good intentions. Until the day comes when the Palestinians are willing to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state, the people of Israel must shield themselves behind the “iron wall” that Jabotinsky envisioned and leaders like David Ben-Gurion built and now Benjamin Netanyahu must preserve.

The principles of a belief in the right of the Jews to their homeland and the need to defend them against the unreasoning hatred of their enemies will not die with Benzion Netanyahu. Nor should his son or any person of good will forget them.

May his memory be for a blessing.

 

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Study Debunks Crisis of Zionism Myth

The Jewish People Policy Institute has just published a new paper by Shmuel Rosner and Inbal Hakman on the so-called Distancing Hypothesis, analyzing “trends of distancing and… policy proposals for strengthening the attachment of young American Jews to Israel in the time of the distancing discourse.” The 53-page PDF comprehensively evaluates current surveys, contains 77 footnotes, walks the reader through dizzying charts, and is worth reading just for the appendices.

The authors outline a series of straightforward recommendations, including an emphasis on the methodological and normative value of discussing “attachment” rather than “distancing.” Along the way they note:

There is no conclusive evidence of an erosion of U.S. Jewry’s attachment to Israel. On the contrary, the studies that included a longitudinal comparative examination indicate a sustained and even increased level of attachment. In short, there is no evidence of distancing as compared to the past.

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The Jewish People Policy Institute has just published a new paper by Shmuel Rosner and Inbal Hakman on the so-called Distancing Hypothesis, analyzing “trends of distancing and… policy proposals for strengthening the attachment of young American Jews to Israel in the time of the distancing discourse.” The 53-page PDF comprehensively evaluates current surveys, contains 77 footnotes, walks the reader through dizzying charts, and is worth reading just for the appendices.

The authors outline a series of straightforward recommendations, including an emphasis on the methodological and normative value of discussing “attachment” rather than “distancing.” Along the way they note:

There is no conclusive evidence of an erosion of U.S. Jewry’s attachment to Israel. On the contrary, the studies that included a longitudinal comparative examination indicate a sustained and even increased level of attachment. In short, there is no evidence of distancing as compared to the past.

The findings are in line with the consensus of polling and trends in American-Jewish philanthropy, to say nothing of the near-universal rejection of Peter Beinart’s call to economically suffocate Israeli communities he doesn’t like while funding Israelis who live where he wants them to.

The exception proving that rule has been Lara Friedman of Americans for Peace Now, who embraced Beinart’s call after returning from a vicious anti-Israel hatefest at which she and her organization were on the speaker list. Her participation in that conference was as out of the mainstream as her support for Beinart.

On the other side, for example, is liberal Tablet editor-in-chief Alana Newhouse. Last week, Newhouse wrote in the Washington Post that Beinart’s book and campaign have “ruined his chance to be a leader for many” progressive American Jews. She specifically pointed out what might be called Beinart’s epistemic solipsism, noting that his book “offers little in the way of personal reporting on the Israelis or the Palestinians themselves” and relies instead on secondary sources and his impressions of same.

Newhouse’s comment is not the first time Beinart’s lack of enthusiasm for field reporting has raised eyebrows. But his habit of taking what’s inside his head and generalizing outward extends beyond his research and analysis, and into his entire ethical case against Israel. He condemns Israel’s presence beyond the Green Line on account of the toll it takes on his conscience. He blasts Israeli self-defense campaigns because they complicate conversations with his child. And he’s personally haunted by the audio tracks of YouTube videos showing Israeli police actions, so he declares that Zionism is in crisis.

Not so much, it turns out.

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Demolishing Peter Beinart’s Book

In his review of Peter Beinart’s book The Crisis of Zionism, Bret Stephens of the Wall Street Journal offers up what he calls a “harsh” critique. That would be one way to describe it. Devastating would be another.

Stephens eviscerates Beinart’s book by highlighting some of its errors, including false claims about the Sasson study (which measured how American Jews feel about U.S. support for Israel); asserting that Israel’s blockade shattered Gaza’s economy, with 90 percent of Gaza’s industrial complex closed in 2008 – even though the source of this claim is a study conducted by the IMF in 2003; relying on incomplete quotes by former Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami; and insisting that the Egyptian leaders who have emerged in Hosni Mubarak’s wake have not called for Israel’s destruction. (Essam El-Eryah, who heads the Foreign Affairs Committee in the Egyptian Parliament, has said the Arab Spring will “mark the end of the Zionist entity.”)

“There’s more of this,” according to Stephens. “Much more. In fact, the errors in Beinart’s book pile up at such a rate that they become almost impossible to track.” Stephens then broadens his critique:

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In his review of Peter Beinart’s book The Crisis of Zionism, Bret Stephens of the Wall Street Journal offers up what he calls a “harsh” critique. That would be one way to describe it. Devastating would be another.

Stephens eviscerates Beinart’s book by highlighting some of its errors, including false claims about the Sasson study (which measured how American Jews feel about U.S. support for Israel); asserting that Israel’s blockade shattered Gaza’s economy, with 90 percent of Gaza’s industrial complex closed in 2008 – even though the source of this claim is a study conducted by the IMF in 2003; relying on incomplete quotes by former Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami; and insisting that the Egyptian leaders who have emerged in Hosni Mubarak’s wake have not called for Israel’s destruction. (Essam El-Eryah, who heads the Foreign Affairs Committee in the Egyptian Parliament, has said the Arab Spring will “mark the end of the Zionist entity.”)

“There’s more of this,” according to Stephens. “Much more. In fact, the errors in Beinart’s book pile up at such a rate that they become almost impossible to track.” Stephens then broadens his critique:

Still, the deeper problem isn’t that there’s so much in Beinart’s book that is untrue, but rather so much that is half-true: the accurate quote used in a misleading way; the treatment of highly partisan sources as objective and unobjectionable; the settlement of ferocious debates among historians in a single, dismissive sentence; the one-sided giving—and withholding—of the benefit of the doubt; the “to be sure” and “of course” clauses that do more to erase balance than introduce it. It’s a cheap kind of slipperiness that’s hard to detect but leaves its stain on nearly every page.

And this:

Beinart is singularly intent on scolding Israel, like an angry ex who has lost all grip on the proportions of the original dispute. To him, no Israeli misdeed is too small that it can’t serve as an alibi for Palestinian malfeasance. And no Palestinian crime is so great that it can justify even a moment’s pause in Israel’s quest to do right by its neighbor.

The book demonstrates “mental slovenliness” and is written with a “spirit of icy contempt and patent insincerity.”

None of this is surprising; Beinart’s antipathy toward Israel has been in full public view for a while now, and he has made sloppy and stupid arguments before. But to see bad arguments so systematically demolished, and bad faith so systematically exposed, is rare. It’s also a genuine public service. That sound you hear is Peter Beinart trying to escape from under the pile of ruin he finds himself.

 

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Who Says “Hatikvah” Isn’t for Everybody?

This week in The Forward, the usually superb Philologos sadly decided to give a bit of his intellectual heft to a topic that is becoming a bit of a meme for leftist Jewish writers of late: the supposedly discriminatory nature of Israel’s national anthem,”Hatikvah.” But these attacks on “Hatikvah” are themselves assaults on the liberal democratic values these writers claim to be upholding.

Philologos isn’t as sloppy as others and knows instinctively it would be unjust to throw out or rearrange “Hatikvah” so thoroughly that it would mean “accommodating the feelings of Arabs by trampling on the feelings of Jews.” Showing his poetic chops, he claims to have discovered a solution by substituting a few choice words that allegedly don’t change the song’s fundamental meaning for Jews but would nevertheless placate the Arab minority allegedly harmed by the song’s Jewish character.

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This week in The Forward, the usually superb Philologos sadly decided to give a bit of his intellectual heft to a topic that is becoming a bit of a meme for leftist Jewish writers of late: the supposedly discriminatory nature of Israel’s national anthem,”Hatikvah.” But these attacks on “Hatikvah” are themselves assaults on the liberal democratic values these writers claim to be upholding.

Philologos isn’t as sloppy as others and knows instinctively it would be unjust to throw out or rearrange “Hatikvah” so thoroughly that it would mean “accommodating the feelings of Arabs by trampling on the feelings of Jews.” Showing his poetic chops, he claims to have discovered a solution by substituting a few choice words that allegedly don’t change the song’s fundamental meaning for Jews but would nevertheless placate the Arab minority allegedly harmed by the song’s Jewish character.

So “yehudi” (Jew) becomes “yisraeli” (Israeli) since “in traditional rabbinic Hebrew it means “Jew” just like “yehudi.” Jews would then still get to sing about an eye looking east, it would just be to “artzenu” (our land) instead of Zion, “which is a bit too close to ‘Zionism.’” The final resounding call of the anthem to be “a free people in our land, the Land of Zion and Jerusalem” gets tossed in favor of an earlier version which didn’t mention Zion and Jerusalem, instead noting “the city of David,” as Muslims and Christians see David as a part of their traditions as well.

Allegedly having resolved any problems to what should be the satisfaction of Jews and Arabs, both Muslim and Christian, we now have an anthem that all of Israel’s people can share (anyone who doesn’t hold by an Abrahamic faith apparently doesn’t count.) Since “the country’s future depends” on “the successful integration of Israeli Arabs into Israeli life” and it is “unacceptable to have an anthem that can’t be sung by 20 percent of a population,” this is something Israel should do.

This proposal is indicative of more errors in thinking than present space allows. Most troubling is Philologos’ unstated assumption that a state’s identity must perfectly match that of all its citizens.

The dominance of the liberal democratic order in international affairs that we all benefit so greatly from is largely based on the principle of the self-determination of peoples. This principle can only be expressed when all those peoples determining their own destinies get to really do it, which for probably every single one who has been given the opportunity means aligning the identity of their independent state with the people’s own historical identity and heritage, while also making plain the special relationship between that state and its diaspora.

Believing in the right of peoples to determine their political destinies free of the meddling of outside powers means they and they alone truly get to decide what the symbols of their state will look like. Twenty years after the glorious collapse of the Soviet empire, one of the most important ways that we know Poland is truly free is that its people have made the state truly Polish, as they define it. History has shown well that the future health of these states depends foremost on their ability to retain the symbols of their heritage.

So it is with Israel, to no greater or lesser extent. The rights of minorities in states like Israel or Poland who do not share the national identities of the majority must of course be protected for the states to be truly democratic. But that does not mean they must alter their national symbols in order to do so. For the Jewish people, there really is no substitute for Zion and Jerusalem (whatever the original wording of “Hatikvah”), and they have no need to change their anthem to placate those who unjustly see something problematic in the word given over to their national liberation movement, Zionism.

To ask they do otherwise is to assault the very principle of self-determination all peoples enjoy. To stand for “Hatikvah” as it is presently worded is therefore to stand not just for the rights of the Jewish people, but for the rights of all peoples to determine their own fates.

 

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