Loving Israel and hating Jews

As this issue was being finalised, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seemed to be on his way out after failing to win a majority in recent elections. Many progressive American Jews feel Netanyahu’s close relationship with Donald Trump encapsulated their long-standing unease with the Israeli state.
Trump and Netanyahu on an Israeli election poster. The writing means: “Netanyahu, another league”. Oded Balilty/picture-alliance/AP Photo Trump and Netanyahu on an Israeli election poster. The writing means: “Netanyahu, another league”.

A curious image circulated in social media in the last few years: Shmuley Boteach, a charismatic right-wing orthodox rabbi, shown smiling with Steve Bannon, Trump’s former advisor and a known anti-Semite. Why, one might ask, would a rabbi want to pose with someone who was not only reported to have refused to send his children “to a school with Jews”, but more importantly was the editor of Breitbart News, a website openly associated with white nationalism and anti-Semitic conspiracy theories?

One could as easily ask, is the photo any more odd than the Israeli government’s love of Donald Trump? Most Jewish Americans, including myself, consider the US president to be an anti-Semite. He prominently spoke of “very fine people on both sides” after white nationalists rallied in Charlottesville, Virginia, chanting “Jews will not replace us”. One of them, moreover, had killed a women by driving a car into a group of anti-supremacist protesters.

Trump also routinely deploys anti-Semitic imagery in campaign ads, featuring opponents beside Stars of David on piles of cash, or linking prominent Jewish bankers and financial experts to the global economic crisis of 2008. And yet Trump is the most popular US president in Israel in living memory. Which is only slightly less strange than Israel’s government arming Ukrainian neo-Nazis or supporting Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, the most anti-Semitic elected leader in Europe.

For many people, the spectre of anti-Semites who love Israel appears to be a new phenomenon (see Jonathan Brennemann in D+C/E+Z e-Paper 2019/10, Focus section). However, the idea that Jews should relocate to Palestine was not only an idea endorsed by Jewish nationalists. Christian policymakers were among the instrumental architects of Zionism, often with their own reasons to want to send Jews packing.

Lord Balfour, the British diplomat who pledged a Jewish nation in the British colonial mandate, was a known anti-Semite. He believed that Jews had no real home in England and would be pliant clients in Palestine, too weak to create a state that might challenge the British empire. Nationhood for Balfour was a biological condition only experienced by Christian, Western Europeans.

Ernest Bevin, a British foreign secretary, echoed this thinking. He argued that it was better to resettle hundreds of thousands of Jews who had survived the Nazi Holocaust in Palestine than to have them move to the UK or the USA – countries in which survivors had extended family, and they looked to as new possible homes. Bevin believed – correctly – that the west would not welcome these victims of war and genocide.

As the socialist magazine Jewish Life reported in the years after the war, rather than condemn such sentiments, Zionist activists welcomed them: they too lobbied for Jews to be barred from resettling in the US or Britain.

Awful in a double sense

Trump’s recent accusation that American Jews who support critics of Israel, such as Democratic Congress women Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, are being “disloyal” to Israel, has a long lineage. Trump’s words were awful in a double sense. He reiterated the old idea among white supremacists that American Jews are not really loyal to the USA, and he reinforced the Zionist idea that to be a good Jew, one has to put Israel above party, or country.

That is a sentiment the longest serving prime minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, has repeatedly echoed: the diaspora, the home of Jews for thousands of years, is a place of death. Jews, he said recently at the Holocaust memorial site Yad Vashem, deserved the Nazi genocide as they were “weak” and didn’t fight back. Jews who do not enlist in Fortress Israel deserve what is coming. As education minister Rafael Peretz recently said, “assimilated” or diasporic Jews in the US are a “second Holocaust”: one wonders if he means it literally.

Jewish Studies historian Enzo Traverso remarked that Zionism, originally conceived, was to “regenerate” Jews by making them more like European nationalists, and if that means turning them into a colonial power, so much the better.

While there have been historically other visions of Zionism that were not colonial, right-wing Zionists founded the Israeli state, and they can only conceive of Jewish life as bound within the confines of an ethnically defined nation, one in which they are the ethnic majority and the ruling and economic elite. They are ethno-nationalists. It should not be surprising that Netanyahu and others like him speak badly of non-Israeli Jews who do not believe in a nation defined by a single race. White nationalism, the historical enemy of the Jewish people, has now found an alliance with the only Jewish state.

Yet Jews are not reducible to a single state; neither demographically nor politically. We don’t need any Lord Balfours telling us where our “home” might be. Criticising Israel is not criticising Jews; to suggest so is to conflate Israel with the Jewish people. And yes, that is anti-Semitic because Jews belong to the nations and communities in which they live, like anyone else.

And yet anti-Semitism is on the rise: Donald Trump, Viktor Orbán, massacres in synagogues are but some of the features of our new political reality. If you would like to oppose anti-Semitism, oppose the far-right – but do not oppose legitimate critiques of Israeli human rights abuses or its ongoing occupation of Palestinian land.

Benjamin Balthaser is a professor in the English Department of Indiana University’s campus in South Bend.

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