Is Israel confusing legitimate criticism of its policies with anti-Semitism to avoid having to make difficult existential decisions? The questions are tough – the answers even more so.
The month between Purim of wicked Haman and Pesach of Pharaoh is the right time to contemplate the relationship between Jews and anti-Semitism. It is a delicate, complex package, crammed with clichés and unrelenting cries of panic, but surprisingly meager in insights. Two writers, Jean-Paul Sartre and A.B. Yehoshua, were among the few who have dared to touch the boiling core of the issue. Sartre dealt with the subject in « Anti-Semite and Jew » (1946 ); but despite his diligent struggle against anti-Semitism, he saw the Jews as no more than a product of the anti-Semitic gaze. Largely unfamiliar with what is positive about the Jews, he maintained a trenchant existential observation that it is actually the anti-Semite who determines who is a Jew.
Years later, in « Homeland Grasp » (2008 ), A.B. Yehoshua wrote: « In a certain tragic sense, anti-Semitism has become the most important and most natural component in crystallizing Jewish identity, so much so that for many Jews the absence of anti-Semitism … appears suspicious and unnatural. »
The time has come to take the next step and ask whether we can in fact exist at all without an external enemy, without anti-Semitism. Do we have the courage to take issue against the embarrassing, absurd conclusion of both these writers, which holds that we need anti-Semitism in order to define ourselves?
It is impossible to embark on a path like this without assuming that anti-Semitism does in fact exist. There is Jew-hatred of a very complex order. In part, it is historical and entails the innocent belief in the Jews being responsible for the murder of Jesus. Some anti-Semites hate Jews in the abstract, as some of us hate the Amalekites in the abstract. That is part of the religious DNA that is perpetuated time and again in rituals and ceremonies of all religions (including ours ). This primal existential hatred interconnects with current events through the spreading tension and hostility that spring from and seethe in the Middle East.
Many of those who link criticism of Israel for its misguided policy to hostility against Jews for being Jews, are actually « corresponding » with official Israel, which has claimed since its inception that it is the heir to and speaker for the historic Jewish people. If there is no difference between Jewish history and Israeli history in the perception of the government of Israel, why should the anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli fomenters of evil draw that distinction?
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Fortunately, today’s anti-Semitism is very feeble in comparison with its former potency and possibly with its future potential. A few years ago, large headlines proclaimed « Rise of 300 percent in manifestations of anti-Semitism » – and it turned out that this referred to an increase from 19 to 59 events of Jew-hatred in a specific European country that year. A scanty harvest when compared to the manifestations of racist, nationalist hatred between settlers and Arabs in Kiryat Arba or Yitzhar, which are everyday occurrences here; a negligible number compared to what the Haredim write about secular Jews, and vice versa; and, in general, a meager lot compared to the expressions of loathing and racism that all of us hurl at one another here. Having noted the self-evident, we can now move farther afield.
It has always been so; this accounting – Zionism in return for anti-Semitism – is not new. The greater part of the Zionist idea is based on Herzl’s experience in the face of the Dreyfus trial. Desiring to resolve the Jewish question and rid Europe of its Jews, Herzl conceived the Zionist idea. Ahad Ha’am (Asher Ginsberg ) immediately retorted: « Antisemitismus [anti-Semitism] begat Herzl, Herzl begat the Jewish state and Zionismus, and Zionismus begat the [Zionist] Congress. Antisemitismus is therefore the cause of causes in this whole movement. » But no one would listen to him then. Ahad Ha’am became one more gridlocked street in Tel Aviv and anti-Semitism was consolidated as one of the components of modern Jewish identity. I heard the joy of a potential increase in aliyah expressed in so many Zionist back rooms whenever the level of anti-Semitism rose. A modicum of anti-Semitism in the West is always sufficient proof of the rightness of the Zionist path as seen through the prism of « catastrophic Zionism » at its finest.
In recent years the situation has become far more acute. Israel sweeps all the criticism against it, both justified and unjustified, under the same anti-Semitic rug. It is actually we who are repeatedly mixing up proper criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism. The reason is to avoid at any price having to confront the situation and make tough existential decisions: the occupation, the injustices, the discrimination, the persecution of the non-Jewish minority in our midst. As long as « they » are anti-Semites, we feel pure and justified in our own eyes.
So far this has been enough to go on posturing against the world, based on a paradigm as addictive as it is erroneous, that « the whole world is against us. » This mutation has proved itself across multiple generations, and there is no genuine incentive to terminate it now. It’s a historical, moral and emotional checking account that is suffering from being over-extended and is on the brink of being closed. There is no other country in the Western world from which the international community has been willing to put up with acts of state violence for five decades, other than Israel. There is no other country that is permitted by the international community to maintain a vast, unsupervised nuclear arsenal, other than Israel. And there is no other colonialist left in the world, other than « the only democracy in the Middle East. » The world is still putting up with all this, but not for much longer – it will soon be over.
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In a very short time we will no longer be able to evade the real questions: Are we capable of apprehending our existence without the hatred of others? Do we really need external anti-Semitism as a means to define our inner identity? Think for a moment about a world in which Jews are not hated; about a utopia of peace in the Middle East, fraternity wherever our brethren live. Unreasonable? Definitely not! A hundred years ago, who believed in the existential transformations being played out before our eyes? Few, indeed.
A hundred years ago, Europe was awash in bloodshed that had lasted a thousand years, yet now it is a peaceful continent. Only a few months ago, the Middle East was one of the world’s largest repositories of nasty, bizarre dictatorships, yet today we are on the brink of what appears to be a historic and positive change. And with the world going into this mode, immediately or soon, will the Jewish people be able to survive without an external enemy? It’s not certain.
We have proven methods of coping with persecution, hatred and pogroms. But we don’t have a clue and don’t have experience when it comes to openness, acceptance and full equality for Jews, as for everyone else. That prospect threatens us in the deepest recesses of our being and confronts us with questions about our national existence as such, as « a people that shall dwell alone, and shall not be reckoned among the nations. » This being so, we tend to return to the sick, pathological molds which are so familiar to us: junkies of hatred, we isolate ourselves from the haters, real or imagined. As though the evil we know is preferable to the potential – and threatening – good.
From this point of view, the establishment of the State of Israel not only failed to solve the problems for the sake of which it was founded but, on the contrary, made them a great deal worse. Israel is the biggest shtetl in the history of the world. One big town around which walls of segregation and resentment rise higher every day, cutting it off from its surroundings. Few of us know any other existential reality apart from our unrelenting war with everyone, all the time and over all issues. In this sense, as a collectivity we are continuing the pathological historical relations between Jews and gentiles. The goy is still a threatening figure, but absolutely necessary, because who are we without the Sartrean goy who defines us?
We have done very little in Israel to develop an internal national-identity model that is not dependent on the definitions of the external persecutor. It is convenient, albeit not pleasant, to place responsibility for our identity in the hands of the enemy. Let Hitler decide who’s a Jew. And if Hitler is gone, then some poor man’s Hitler, like Yasser Arafat or Ahmadinejad. Every generation and its Pharaoh, every era and its wicked Haman.
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Is there another possible way to understand and live the reality? Plainly. Hatred exists in the world, but we do not have a monopoly on it. In the past, anti-Semitism was the primary focus of Western hatred. Because in the heart of the First World, the Christian world, we were the ultimate strangers, set apart by the two basic activities that define a society and a community: eating and procreation. The strangers are those people who live in our midst but with whom we do not eat and do not marry. And for thousands of years « we » and « they » refrained from sharing the same bed and the same table.
Today’s Christian world is of a completely different stripe. The society of the First World is saturated with immigrants, with new « others. » Muslims and people from the East, labor migrants and seekers of political asylum, Turks and Koreans, Jews and Chinese, pagans and Hindus. The European responses are fascinating. Some of them reflect astonishing openness, stemming in part from the lessons of the terrible failure in dealing with the Jewish « other » a mere 70 years ago; and others reflect isolationist insularity, which engenders the Islamophobia, xenophobia and other manifestations of panic-stricken racism from which we are not exempt, either.
Yes, the Western world is once more coping with issues relating to the « other » by means of hatred and segregation. But this time we are not at the top of the list. We are only one item on it. Many of us, notably Prime Minister Netanyahu, tend to argue that we have a monopoly on hatred. We are hated more than anyone, Jew-hatred is more qualitative, and anyway, you shouldn’t mix the Jewish particularity with all the other hatreds. We are trying to create a ghetto within a ghetto. Jew-hatred that is separated amid hatred of all the strangers. This is a serious mistake. Because there is a wonderful opportunity for rectification. As history’s most distinctive victim, we are enjoined to alter the approach and the conception.
There is an internal Jewish essence that is not dependent on external circumstances. It is buried deep below layers of historical trauma. But its heart still beats; in the form of humanism, responsibility for the peace of the world, universalism without boundaries. Israel’s establishment ought to enable the realization of this potential. For example, the state of those who were ostracized can do everything in its power to assist the present-day ostracized who have taken their place. It can be a partner in the creation of a world coalition against hatred. Precisely because of its memories.
The memory of being slaves in Egypt and the memory of the Amalek trauma are the basis of our national reservoir of memories, which has never been erased. But if we do not stop reenacting the past instead of remembering it, the future will look equally gloomy. In contrast, in Israel and within the large Jewish diaspora in North America there are vibrant, riveting spiritual outpourings, which are also resources of the spirit. We have new Jewish music, cinema, secular forms of the traditional Beit Midrash, poetry and literature in Hebrew and in other voices of Jewish language. All of these forms are very Jewish at their source but conduct an open dialogue with and authentic recognition of the universal humanity within them. Without apologetics and with the same degree of modesty, and without condescension. A conversation between equals, Jews and gentiles. There is no coercing of emotions and no tear-jerking. This is a Jewry that identifies within itself the non-Jewish, pan-human element as well, and gives and receives with openness.
By means of this approach, we are obligated to prepare for « the day after the goy, » the post-anti-Semitic era in our lives. For the day on which our children will ask us why they should go on being Jews and we will have an answer that emanates from within. We not only have the obligation to prepare for that day, we also have the ability.
Avraham Burg is a former speaker of the Knesset and a former chairman of the Jewish Agency.
01.04.2011 | Avraham Burg | Ha’Aretz