“Jews, Go to Palestine”
By Yair Sheleg | 24/09/2009
“Yair Sheleg explores the reasons for the upsurge in anti-Semitism in the past years
Jews, get out!”. Anti-Semitic Nazi board game,
Dresden, 1936 Weiner Collection, Elias Sourasky
Central Library, Tel Aviv University. Courtesy of
Museum of the Diaspora, photo archive
The reality in which Jews are viewed as a thorn in the side of the region in which they live, closely dovetails with the atavistic gut feeling that exists among many in the West. Just a moment – many Europeans are probably thinking – wasn't that the same situation we had, when the Jews were interlopers here, too?
The frustration and sorrow that have been our lot for the past years are not only a factor of the wars and the failure of the peace process. They are also related to what is evidently the failure of the basic Zionist credo – to deliver the Jews that chose Zionism from the “Jewish fate”
Since the start of the “Al-Aqsa Intifada” in September 2000, anti-Semitism has come back into style. If in previous decades, the general feeling was that global anti-Semitism had been reduced to a handful of incidents involving attacks on synagogues or Jewish cemeteries, now there is a prevailing sense that we are facing a far more pervasive wave of anti-Semitism all over the world.
This sentiment stems from a combination of several factors. First, the fact that in the past few years – but especially since October 2000 – the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has increasingly taken on the nature of a religious struggle between Jews and Muslims. In recent years suicide attacks carried out by the Islamic fundamentalist movements, such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad, have increased. Additionally, grassroots Palestinian public support for these movements, which reject any form of compromise on Jewish control over any part of what they consider the Islamic domain (Dar al-Islam), has burgeoned. Thus, the national conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is increasingly being viewed – at least in Israel – as a religious conflict between Jews and Muslims.
It could of course be argued that the West's identification and empathy with the Palestinians is not rooted in anti-Semitism, but in the West's guilt over its own colonial past and desire to atone for that past by automatically sympathizing with any occupied population seeking independence. While it is likely that this element does playa role in the West's stance on the Palestinians, the question remains, why does the West not similarly sympathize with the Basques' war of independence against Spain, or the struggle of the Catholics in Northern Ireland to shake off the yoke of British occupation, despite the fact that the Catholics represent a clear majority in Northern Ireland.
The impression that the West tends to employ a double standard in its approach to Israel appears to be well grounded.
It appears that the key to understanding the West's approach lies in a more profound appreciation of the events of the past years. What has happened during this period is that for the first time since the establishment of the State of Israel, the Israeli-Arab conflict has reached its moment of truth. It has suddenly become abundantly clear that this is not merely a conflict over a certain amount of territory that Israel may have to concede. Rather, there is now a realization that it is indeed possible that this conflict will have no solution as long as Israel insists on remaining an interloper within the Arab-Muslim Middle East. That message is, of course, especially difficult for Israelis themselves to swallow; but no less so, it is a difficult message for the Arab world, that suddenly has to contend with the prospect that the Middle East – an especially sensitive region owing to its potential for danger (due to its oil, Islamist fundamentalism and the volatile combination of the two, which enables the most extremist regimes to arm themselves with weapons of mass destruction) – will continue to hemorrhage without a solution as long as the Jewish state remains within its midst.
Under such circumstances, it should come as no surprise that there is an increasing tendency among many in the West not to be bogged down by questions of which side is right, but rather to hope that ‘the damn thing simply ends already'. Consequently, it is only natural to demand that the price be paid by Israel – the tiny state of just a few million people that “insisted” on embedding itself among a billion Muslims.
This reality, in which Jews are viewed as a thorn in the side of the region in which they live, dovetails very closely with the atavistic gut feeling that in any case exists among many in the West, especially in Europe, toward the Jews. Just a moment – many Europeans are thinking – wasn't that the same situation we had, when the Jews were interlopers here, too?
In a certain respect, nothing could be more natural than to ask this question. After all, even we Jews have been asking ourselves over the past years: Why, for heaven's sake, can't we have a little peace and quiet? Wherever we wandered, wherever we sought refuge, we were driven out, persecuted, slaughtered. Just 60 years ago, we were almost completely annihilated, and now, after we finally thought that we had reached a safe haven, our enemies are once again rising up to kill us. So there is little reason to be surprised that others are asking the very question we are asking ourselves – except with a slight twist. Instead of “Why can't we have a little peace and quiet?”, a question that reflects that the Jews see themselves as a passive factor to whom all these troubles just “happen”, many non-Jews are asking, “What is it about the Jews that provokes unrest wherever they go?”. And from there, of course, the articulation of anti-Semitic sentiments is a short way off.
To put it simply, what has changed in the past years, and what is now awakening new anti-Semitic undercurrents, is the crystallization of an awareness that the conflict here in the Middle East may be irresolvable. It follows that once again, the Jews are the principal cause of unrest – except that this time, they are also endangering the rest of the world.
The Old Jew
The frustration and deep sorrow that have been our lot for the past years are not only a factor of the continuing war and its almost daily victims. They are also related to what is evidently the failure of the basic Zionist credo – to deliver the Jews that chose Zionism from the “Jewish fate”.
“Jewish fate” in this context has a dual denotation. On the one hand, it means to be hated because one belongs to an alien minority; and on the other, to be helpless to defend oneself against that hatred. The “New Jew”, the one that Zionism sought to shape, was supposed to embody the diametric opposite of both those elements. Zionist sought to foster a “New Jew” that lived in his own state and stood tall, proud and independent, a Jew that was not persecuted and was not haunted by a constant sense of persecution. But if enemies did attack, he would be able to defend himself from them. This new human specimen was a source of pride for Zionism and Israeliness, to the point that Israelis felt a sense of superiority over the “Diaspora Jew” who chose to remain an alien minority living in the Diaspora. This partly explains why Israelis that choose to leave Israel and live in the Diaspora generally keep their distance from the veteran Jewish communities there, preferring to create their own communities of Israeli émigrés.
But the past few years have undermined this sense of Israeli uniqueness. True, throughout all the years of Zionism, we grew accustomed to having to fight for our lives, but this was for the most part a war pitting armies against armies, which best reflected the contrast between us and the “ghetto Jews” who were helpless to defend themselves. But because the focus of the violence is now also civilians – a terror that by nature targets victims simply going about their daily lives, unprepared to fight – we are propelled back to the memories of the “Jewish fate” we had hoped to escape. Terror that is directed not only against soldiers, but rather against civilians, transforms us from Israelis, with one of the strongest armies in the world, into “Jews” that are slaughtered without the ability to defend ourselves.
In the face of the sweeping hatred, a hatred that is no longer limited to Israel's occupation of the territories, but which aspires to uproot the Jewish presence in the land of Israel, a hatred that is not restricted to Israelis, but that strikes at Jews wherever they may be – one may be tempted to find refuge in a deterministic view of the conflict. According to this outlook, what we are confronting here is not hostility that has a rational basis – as in the case of a territorial conflict or a clash between cultures – but rather an eternal, absolute, mythic enmity between Jews and Gentiles that can never be resolved.
This determinist approach is embodied in its most profound form in the midrashic dictum: “It is known that Esau hates Jacob”. “It is known”, in other words, it is predetermined, decreed from above, a fate that Jews – and perhaps even Gentiles – can do nothing about. Gentiles, even if they come to know Jews and learn to like them on a personal level, will never be able to overcome their anti-Semitic nature.
As pessimistic and hopeless as this statement is, it nonetheless holds many in its thrall. After all, it is repeatedly quoted and cited, especially by religious people in their effort to explain the sources of anti-Semitism and even the Israeli-Arab conflict. It should come as no surprise, then, that this statement holds a twofold allure. It absolves one of the need to grapple with the reasons for the hatred, which might also shed light on ways to reduce it; on the other hand, it accords a tragic aura to the Jewish identity, that of the “most despised people on earth”, a people that is reviled by all the nations, that have throughout history withstood – and still withstand – the whole world, but that continues to hold on. This same allure is embodied in the expression, “a nation that dwells alone” (not as a description, but rather as a destiny), or in the midrash that explains the name of “Abraham the Hebrew” as one who stood to one side while the entire world stood on the other. In short, it is the allure of being the greatest underdog of human history.
It would be incorrect to say that history has not provided ample good reason to support this feeling. The Jews indeed stand out as the most persecuted and hated people in history – from Pharaoh's decrees in Egypt, to Christian persecution, to the Nazi Holocaust. Nevertheless, it is extremely dangerous to give in to this determinist approach, because doing so denies any option of escape from the cycle of hatred. Even if said escape is not completely feasible, the determinist belief in absolute hatred does not leave the door open to even the slightest attempt to diminish its intensity or reduce the ranks of the haters. Because even if the world is filled with many that have a blind, absolute, determinist hatred of the Jews, there are many others who do not necessarily hate, and yet others, who even if they do hate or are “potential haters”, it is due to specific factors, such as the occupation of the territories or Israel's treatment of its foreign workers. In these instances, something can be done to reduce the scope of hatred. The notion that hatred will persevere no matter what we do will lead us to do nothing to mitigate the hatred. Those who believe this are doomed to an arrogant disregard of the other and his needs, thereby issuing a self-fulfilling prophecy that serves only to further perpetuate the hatred. A clear-eyed examination of Israeli reality demonstrates that this situation is far from hypothetical.
Yair Sheleg is a senior researcher at the Israeli Democracy Institute