Commentary/Ottolenghi - Europe's
Europe’s “Good Jews”
It is common knowledge that anti-Semitism in Western Europe has been on the rise for the last five years. Its frequency and intensity have coincided for the most part with the curve of violence in the Middle East, and with the incendiary and openly slanted way that this violence has been covered in the European media. But expressions of anti-Semitism have also taken on a life, and a momentum, of their own. Of course, Jews in Europe have not been deprived of property, expelled, or deported; but they have been subjected to physical violence, insults, libelous attacks in the press and in intellectual circles, accusations of disloyalty, and much else besides.
All of this has been thoroughly documented. Known, too, are the factors that have contributed to the astonishing recrudescence of a hatred thought to have been long uprooted from pluralist, tolerant Europe. Those factors include the open hostility of some European governments to the state of Israel and their active sympathy with the Arab and Palestinian “cause,” even to the point of justifying Arab terrorism against civilian Israeli Jews; the felt need on the part of European elites to accommodate the often murderous anti-Semitism within the immigrant Muslim community; and the alignment of European leftist and “progressive” opinion behind the idea of Israel as the new Nazi Germany, according to which those European Jews who support Israel are relegated to the category of racists until proved otherwise.
To be sure, it is regularly and vigorously denied that contemporary hostility to Israel and its Jewish supporters is itself in the least bit anti-Semitic; rather, it is held to be solely an expression of disagreement with particular policies of the Israeli government. To draw a parallel between this and past variants of European anti-Semitism, especially of the Nazi type, is thus dismissed as a species of moral blackmail.
There is something to this argument, although not much, and then only when it is couched in such extreme terms. The Nazi card is a powerful rhetorical weapon, no matter who plays it—as the anti-Israel side, quick to condemn Israel itself as a replica of Nazi Germany, knows better than anyone. But to help put matters into historical perspective, I want to focus here on a particular feature of the new European anti-Semitism that has been less commented on. This is the crucial role played by some European Jews themselves, mostly intellectuals or academics, who have responded to the latest assault on the Jewish people by excusing it, justifying it, and in effect joining it.
In October 2002, a number of leading European authors discussed Israel’s conduct in the pages of the London Independent. For one of these writers, it was plain that Israel had “adopted tactics which are reminiscent of the Nazis.” For another, it was no less plain that the Israelis “were educated by the Nazis.” And so it went. Such assertions, staples of Arab and Palestinian propaganda, have by now assumed canonical status in liberal European opinion.
But what, aside from rhetorical bombast, is meant by the term “Nazi” in such statements? Ultimately, the evil that Israel is said to embody is the evil of an extreme, aggressive, and racially exclusive nationalism—that is, the very same disease that Europe, in the aftermath of Hitler and the Holocaust, has sought so strenuously and with such success “to limit, transcend, and overcome” (in the flattering words of the historian Anatol Lieven). Now this great sickness is alleged to have returned in the lurid form of present-day Israel, throwing the whole world into turmoil and disturbing the hard-won tranquility of post-nationalist Europe by inflaming the passions of its rising Muslim population.
Hence the obsessive intensity with which European elites have focused on a territorial conflict that, in the scale of the world’s problems, would seem rather less worthy of their concern, let alone of their one-sided rage, than many another. For, in the end, this is their conflict as well, involving as it does their own twisted and morally compromised history with the Jews. Involving—and perhaps mitigating. As I am hardly the first to have observed, Europeans have seized upon the Palestinian intifada, or rather upon Israel’s determined response to it, as an opportunity at last to turn the moral tables, a chance, however specious, to hold not themselves but the Jews to account.
The Italian columnist Barbara Spinelli, writing in La Stampa, spelled out the charge a few years ago. Today’s ultra-nationalist Israel, she wrote, constitutes nothing less than a “scandal.” And it is a scandal, above all, for Jews themselves—since, as every European knows, Jews are the quintessential victims of modern nationalism (nationalism being, for Spinelli as for many other Europeans, virtually coterminous with Nazism). It follows, then, that Jews everywhere have a special duty to speak out against Israel, to apologize to its victims, and to do so in public.
“If one thing is missing in Judaism,” Spinelli wrote in late 2001, “this is precisely it: a mea culpa vis-à-vis the peoples and individuals who had to pay the price of blood and exile to allow Israel to exist.” She called upon world Jewry to undertake such an act of contrition forthwith:
If the initiative does not come from Jerusalem then it should start in the Diaspora, where so many Jews live a double and contradictory loyalty: to Israel, and to the state they belong to and vote in. A solemn mea culpa, proclaimed from the scattered communities in the West. . . .
This call to Europe’s “good Jews,” as they might be called, has in fact been answered. For the most part, those answering it have been not the long-term, all-out, rabid haters of Israel of the Harold Pinter or (in American terms) Noam Chomsky stripe, who need no excuse and waste no pieties in reviling the Jewish state. Pinter, for example, who has termed Israel “the central factor in world unrest,” and has accused it of using nuclear weapons against the Palestinians, hardly stoops to identifying himself as a Jew concerned for the welfare of his fellow Jews. Most “good Jews” are of a somewhat different complexion. Not only do they tend to speak more circumspectly but, with whatever degree of disingenuousness, they cloak their hostility to Jewish nationalism (i.e., Israel) in the mantle of solicitude for, precisely, the good name of Jews and Judaism.
Thus, writing in Britain’s weekly Spectator earlier this year, one Anthony Lippman issued just such a mea culpa as Barbara Spinelli may have dreamed of. Himself the son of a Holocaust survivor, albeit a convert to Christianity and an active member of the Church of England, Lippman was moved temporarily to reclaim his patrimony. Writing under the title, “How I Became a Jew,” he averred that the “little band” of Holocaust survivors in Europe
has a terrible responsibility—to live well in the name of those who did not live and to discourage the building of walls and bulldozing of villages. Even more than this, they—and all Jews—need to be the voice of conscience that will prevent Israel from adopting the mantle of oppressor, and to reject the label “anti-Semite” for those who speak out against Israel’s policies in the occupied territories.
Similarly responding to the claims of an awakened Jewish conscience has been the British academic Jacqueline Rose. In her book, The Question of Zion (2005), Rose undertakes to save Judaism itself from the curse of its movement of national liberation. “What is it,” she asks, “about the coming into being of this nation [Israel] and the [Zionist] movement out of which it was born, that allowed it—and still allows it—to shed the burdens of its own history, and so flagrantly to blind itself?” Zionism, she concludes, has to be seen not as the fulfillment of an age-old Jewish dream but as the out-and-out betrayal of Jewish history and the Jewish heritage, an adoption of all that is, historically and morally, un-Jewish.
Can the disease that is Zionism be cured? Yes, Rose and others assure us, but only by a thorough-going renunciation. In the pre-Israel past, she writes, “dissident voices” in the Jewish world warned against the terrible consequences that would flow from the effort to win a state for the Jews; although silenced and repressed then, they are needed more then ever today, during the Jews’ “dark night of the soul.”
No one can say that such voices have not been forthcoming. In the August 8, 2002 Guardian, 45 Jewish signatories, in a widely hailed act of public abjuration, repudiated their right of return to the Jewish state on account of its racist policies. Since the statement’s original publication, it has been signed by over 80 more individuals from around the world. One of the organizers subsequently explained that what motivated him to act was the “pitiless violence” of his “blood relatives,” i.e., the Israeli people—the “violence,” as he put it, of the “traumatized former victim, clinging to past wounds from generation unto generation.”
The publicity attending this and similar initiatives by European Jews, abetted in some cases by their Israeli counterparts, has been very great. There was tremendous excitement in Europe over the declaration by 99 Israeli academics that their government was planning an imminent “full-fledged ethnic cleansing” of the Palestinian people (a charge that was not withdrawn when the alleged genocidal atrocity failed to occur), and again over the refusal of a few hundred Israeli army reservists to serve in the administered territories. There was even greater excitement when several European Jewish academics turned up among the instigators of a movement to boycott Israeli academic institutions, and yet again when a number of Jewish politicians called for the boycott of Israeli commercial products.
Among the latter group was the British parliamentarian Oona King, who in June 2003, comparing Israel’s treatment of Palestinians in Gaza with the Nazi treatment of Jews in the Warsaw ghetto, spoke of her personal “shame” as a “Jewish person” (her father is Jewish). A year later, Gerald Kaufman, another member of the British Parliament, called for a boycott of Israeli goods on similar grounds, as, in South Africa, did Ronnie Kasrils, a government minister: “As a person who was born Jewish, I am morally obliged to speak out against what is being done by the Zionist state of Israel to the Palestinian people.”
Many others have likewise seen it as their specifically Jewish duty to denounce Israel. Their ranks include all three proponents of a motion, “Zionism is the real enemy of the Jews today,” aired at a public debate in London early this year. One of them was the historian Avi Shlaim. Like others before him, he too felt the need to advertise his Jewish virtuousness by writing about it for publication. In a subsequent op-ed in the International Herald Tribune, he justified the implacable anti-Zionism on which he has based his academic career by appealing to a faith he does not appear ever to have practiced: “One of the greatest accolades in Judaism,” he instructed his readers, “is to be a rodef shalom, a seeker of peace.”
The assertions of Jews like these are often buttressed by a particular narrative of the history of Zionism. The narrative itself has been thoroughly debunked,* but here I want to concentrate less on its veracity or rather lack of it than on the terms in which its main thesis is often expressed. These are revealing.
According to this reconstruction of the past, the achievements of Zionism involved, for the Jews, a fatal loss of moral and historical innocence. In order for the state of Israel to be born in 1948, unspeakable crimes were committed against the Palestinian people. Zionist leaders then entered into a conspiracy of silence to conceal these awful events from the Jewish public. Not until the 1980’s did a small, intrepid band of scholars—Israel’s so-called New Historians—emerge to uncover the evidence and expose the hidden truth.
Zionism’s precipitous descent, from the noble liberal vision of Theodor Herzl to the obloquy of mass expulsions and worse, was characterized in 1988 by Benny Morris, a leading New Historian, in striking language:
How one perceives [Israel’s war of independence in] 1948 bears heavily on how one perceives the whole Zionist/Israeli experience. If Israel, the haven of a much-persecuted people, was born pure and innocent, then it is worthy of the grace, material assistance, and political support showered upon it by the West over the past 40 years—and worthy of more of the same in years to come. If, on the other hand, Israel was born tarnished, besmirched by original sin, then it was no more deserving of that grace and assistance than were its neighbors.
“Grace,” “purity,” “original sin”—Christological vocabulary of this kind recurs frequently in the rhetoric of certain scholarly and journalistic discussions of Israel’s birth. Avi Shlaim, for instance, has mocked those who persist in conceiving of Israel’s War of Independence as a struggle against Arab aggression. They hold, he writes with savage sarcasm, to the idea of “an immaculate conception.” Worse, they do so perfidiously, for both material and moral gain, thus aspiring to the roles of Judas and Jesus simultaneously:
[They] put so much store by Israel’s claim to moral rectitude that they cannot face up to the evidence of cynical Israeli double-dealings or brutal dispersal and dispossession of the Palestinians. It is an axiom of their narrative that Israel is the innocent victim. Not content with the thirty pieces of silver, these people insist on retaining for Israel the crown of thorns. [emphasis added]
But, if the brutality with which Israel is charged was indeed inherent to the project that led to its creation—as the notion of original sin suggests—how can it possibly be made good? That European Jews should wash their hands of the Jewish state goes without saying. But what is required of Israel itself? For this there is an answer as well. Both logically and, as it were, theologically, the only remedy lies in the political equivalent of conversion.
For Israel, in this analysis, entrance into a new life of grace is contingent on shedding its identity as the Jewish national state. Instead, it must agree to a unitary, binational arrangement with the Palestinians. Only thus might the state of the Jews yet wash away the stain of its original sin.
The signatories of the 2002 letter in the Guardian were explicit on this point. No mere condemnation of Israel’s allegedly brutal behavior would satisfy the demands of their Jewish conscience. What was necessary was the dissolution of Israel itself, its place to be taken by a new entity that would no longer be ruled by Jews but in which Jews and Palestinian Arabs would at last live together peacefully as equals.
Of course, this is absurd—a fancy-dress re-wording of longstanding Arab propaganda about the illegitimacy of Israel’s national existence. It is also hypocritical: Europeans who expend such vast quantities of energy lecturing Israel on its supposed hypernationalist instincts give no thought whatsoever to ridding the Arabs of their own, rather more vivid, forms of nationalist sentiment. But for those European Jews who embrace the modish conviction that nationalism is not just a sin but the root of all modern evil, the fantasy of Israel’s de-nationalization serves another purpose. It ensures their own conformity with the latest European thinking on the best way for human beings to organize themselves in society—namely, as good Europeans.
Such, at any rate, was the burden of a notorious 2003 essay by Tony Judt, a British historian now living in the U.S. For Judt, writing in the New York Review of Books, contemporary European anti-Semitism, insofar as it exists, has been the wholly foreseeable result of bad Jewish (that is, Israeli) behavior. And just as the Jews of Israel have only themselves to blame for the fact that the enlightened world condemns them, so they can relieve their suffering, and incidentally that of their fellow Jews around the world who have been implicated in their black deeds, through compensatory acts of self-effacement and re-dedication.
Here, in Judt’s words, is the root sin of which Israel is guilty:
In a world where nations and peoples increasingly intermingle and intermarry at will; where cultural and national impediments to communication have all but collapsed; where more and more of us have multiple elective identities and would feel falsely constrained if we had to answer to just one of them; in such a world Israel is truly an anachronism. And not just an anachronism but a dysfunctional one.
And here, again in Judt’s words, is the path to remission from sin:
To convert Israel from a Jewish state to a binational one would not be easy, though not quite as impossible as it sounds: the process has already begun de facto. But it would cause far less disruption to most Jews and Arabs than its religious and nationalist foes will claim.
The use of the word “convert” is again no accident.
In seeking to explain the seemingly obsessive need for Jewish self-negation that is on display in examples like these and others, psychologists of the future will have their work cut out for them. And if we were dealing with only a few anti-Zionist Jews impelled to act out their personal identity problems in public, we could safely leave them to those future psychologists. Unfortunately, even though such individuals are not many in number, and even though their arguments are invariably mendacious and easily refuted, they, and the many grouplets that have sprung up to represent them, enjoy great acclaim in today’s Europe, and together they have done incalculable damage by lending a Jewish imprimatur to the anti-Israel cause.*
One evening last spring, the UK branch of Peace Now hosted a debate on the Israel-Palestinian conflict at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. Taking the Israeli side, ironically enough, was Benny Morris, the pioneer New Historian. (In recent years Morris has found himself at odds with some of his colleagues since he still supports Israel’s right to exist; he has also begun to entertain second and third thoughts on the issue of Zionism’s “original sin.”) Opposing him was Ahmed Khalidi, a Western-educated scion of Palestinian aristocracy and a “moderate” who is willing to negotiate Israel’s demise diplomatically rather than advocating its destruction through violence.
During the question-and-answer period, a frail student stood up to make an impassioned plea. “I want to express my gratitude to you, Dr. Khalidi,” said this young woman, “for your willingness to share Palestine with the Jews as a common patrimony.” (“Common patrimony” was the anodyne catchphrase Khalidi had coined to promote his one-state solution, i.e., the dissolution of Israel.) Such conspicuous, large-hearted charity, the student went on, heedless of her choice of ancient religious antinomies, stood in sharp contrast to the miserly approach of Benny Morris, who had insisted on Israel’s right to continue its national existence. “As a Jew,” she concluded her address to Khalidi, “I feel ashamed that your land was taken away from you in my name and that of my ancestors. It is my duty as a Jew to stand up for justice.” If indeed she stood up in shame, she sat down to thunderous applause.
In statements like this, one cannot but notice the recurrence not only of those enduring theological tropes but of a certain very dangerous dance in which European Jews have long participated. Today, as yesterday, Jewish “particularism,” then religious, now national, remains a thorn in Europe’s side. Today, as yesterday, removing the thorn involves a renunciation of particularism followed by an espousal of the regnant form of universal salvation—then Christianity, now the tenets of humanistic liberalism.
This is not 1930’s-style anti-Semitism; in that narrow sense, anti-Israel Europeans are correct in protesting that they are not anti-Semites. Nevertheless, it is an age-old form of anti-Semitism, and one that has always called forth a typical pattern of response on the part of the Jews under scrutiny. For most, the choices are to lie low in hopes that the trouble will pass, to pick up and seek life elsewhere, or to resist and oppose to the extent they can. We have seen all three responses in European Jewish society over the last years, each bearing its cost. Some, however, take a different route, finding favor and reward by exerting every effort to assimilate themselves to whatever is required of them, including to the point of publicly dissociating themselves from their people’s history and fate. As ever with such maneuvers, exculpatory rationalizations must be found, and are readily at hand.
Unlike the case in pre-Enlightenment Europe, present-day anti-Semitism does not expect Jews to abandon their religion. Today’s Europe is a self-consciously multicultural society. Although it cherishes secularism above all, it respects, if somewhat warily, religious pluralism. What the enlightened sector of today’s Europe would like Jews to do, in exchange for fully approved membership in the circle of approved opinion, is to renounce a core component of their identity: that is, their sense of Jewish peoplehood as expressed through their attachment and commitment to the democratic state of Israel and to the Zionist enterprise.
What remains constant is that, as in both pre- and post-Enlightenment Europe, today’s European elite has its good Jews and its bad Jews. There are the Jews whom it embraces, encourages, and celebrates; and then there are the Jews whom it chastises and condemns. For the former, there will always be a place of honor in the European sun. On the latter, today’s officially pluralist and tolerant Europe has turned its back. Is it any wonder, then, that some “good Jews” have chosen to live in the light, stopping only to burnish their qualifications by noisily joining the chorus that has consigned their fellow Jews to the dark?
Emanuele Ottolenghi, who was born in Bologna, Italy, is a research fellow at St. Antony’s College, Oxford University, where he specializes in Israeli politics and the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict. This is his first appearance in Commentary.
* For example, see, in Commentary, Shabtai Teveth, “Charging Israel with Original Sin” (September 1989) and Efraim Karsh, “Were the Palestinians Expelled?” (July 2000) and “Revisiting Israel’s ‘Original Sin’” (April 2003).
* The groups, with names like Jews for Justice for Palestinians (UK), Jewish Union for Peace (France), Network of Jews against Occupation (Italy), Jewish Voice for a Just Peace in the Middle East (Germany), New Outlook (Denmark), Another Jewish Voice (Netherlands), and so forth, even have their own umbrella organization, European Jews for a Just Peace.
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