The Israeli military operation against the humanitarian Gaza convoy has provoked an outcry around the world and within Israel itself.
Five leading headlines from this morning’s edition of the daily newspaper Haaretz illustrate the frustration.
Ari Shavit’s ‘Fiasco on the high seas’, Reuven Pedatzur’s ‘A failure any way you slice it’, Yossi Sarid’s ‘Seven idiots in the cabinet’, and Gideon Levy’s ‘Operation Mini Cast Lead’ – Israel’s code name for its bloody war on Gaza, considered a war crime by the UN Goldstone commission – and last but not least the paper’s editorial, ‘The price of flawed policy’.
An increasing number of Jewish activists in Europe and the US are expressing their displeasure – and even anger – over the way in which Israel has evolved in recent years. Some have joined – and even led – solidarity initiatives that aim to lift the siege of Gaza and to end the occupation of Palestine.
But as Israelis begin to question, criticise and even condemn wrong headed Israeli policies, one wonders: Where is the silent Jewish majority in whose name Israel acts?
This is especially relevant because, generally, Israel questions crimes only when there is a clear public relations necessity, read fiasco. But the Jewish majority would not want to be silent about any crime committed in its name.
A recent article in the New York Review of Books has shed more light on the increased detachment of the influential international Jewish community from Israel and its alienation from the unconditionally pro-Israeli Jewish establishment.
However, the majority of Jews remain silent about the “controversial” policies Israel carries out in their name as a self-declared “state of the Jewish people”.
Polarised by the 20th century
Shimon Peres, the Israeli president, once divided Jewish intellectual activism into two categories: rooting to change the destiny of the Jewish people and contributing to change the destiny of the world.
He was right. Since the beginning of the 20th century, Jewish communities, especially those with a strong presence in Europe, Russia and the US, have been polarised between two trends, Zionist nationalism and universal humanism. The former underlined their Jewishness as a nationality and the latter their universality as citizens of the world.
These polar perspectives hardened with each development of the 20th century – from the pogroms of its opening decades, through to the second world war and the Holocaust. They even continued with the establishment of the state of Israel.
The Zionists believed that Jews had much to learn from the genocide in Europe and that this necessitated a major shift in Jewish history – a break with the past. They went on to establish a “Jewish state” on 78 per cent of Palestine, leaving two thirds of Palestinians as refugees after destroying more than 300 of their towns and villages during and after the war that followed Israel’s declaration of statehood.
The universalists believed it was Europe that had to learn from the second world war and undergo a serious shift in the way it functioned. They joined and at times led or defended some of the most important ideologies aimed at introducing change – from communism to democratic capitalism and social democracy.
For his part, Peres immigrated to Israel and joined the Zionists who went on to transform Jews into nationalists and de facto colonialists.
Peres godfathered Israel’s military nuclear programme and its strategic relations with European colonial powers France and Britain, that culminated in the trilateral 1956 attack on Egypt.
To gain the moral high ground, Israeli leaders consistently defended their state’s “humane” and “democratic” nature.
The best expression of Israel’s ‘surplus morality’ reached the heights of chutzpah when late prime minister Golda Meir defended Israeli crimes by blaming them on the Arabs: “We can forgive the Arabs for killing our children … we cannot forgive them for forcing us to kill their children.”
But colonial Zionism’s attempt to monopolise Judaism and claim its humanism was exposed by some of the most authoritative religious Jewish voices in the country.
The most outspoken critic of Israel, its values and polices was the late Israeli philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz. A deeply religious man, he staunchly condemned the Israeli occupation and reportedly accused Israeli soldiers of possessing a Nazi-like mentality.
Avraham Burg, an observant religious Jew who was the head the Jewish Agency and the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, has also emerged as a bold critic of destructive or the “eschatological” form of Zionism, suggesting in his eye-opening book, The Holocaust Is Over, that Jews must now rise from its ashes.
Fast-forward 21st century
Recent events in Israel/Palestine magnified the difference, even the contradiction, between Jewish intellectuals inside and outside of Israel.
A quick look at the response of most visible non-Israeli Jewish intellectuals and activists to Israeli policies in the occupied Palestinian territories magnifies this polarisation.
Elie Wiesel, a Nobel Laureate along with his close friends Peres and Henry Kissinger, and Bernard Henri Levi, the French ‘philosopher’, have been vocal in expressing their “love” for Israel and “attachment” to Jerusalem.
They generally defend the practices of the Israeli military in the occupied territories as a “democratic army” who attaches great importance to “purity of arms”.
Four decades of military occupation, tens of massacres and tens of thousands of killed Palestinians have done little to dissuade them.
Henri-Levi has been particularly vocal in defence of Israeli and US policies since he became the laughing stock of the Paris intellectual community for his gaffs, not to say hoax as an “impostor”. His flip flops in Tel Aviv this week were quite telling.
Likewise, Wiesel, who one Israeli intellectual referred to as the “Holocauster” – the guru of the Holocaust industry – has been staunchly – some say blindly -supporting illegal and bloody Israeli practices in the occupied territories, particularly in occupied East Jerusalem.
Interestingly, the sharpest criticism of the resident New Yorker Wiesel came from Jewish residents of Jerusalem.
To my mind all attempts at comparing what goes on in Palestine to the Holocaust is wrong. And so is invoking it when speaking of Israeli behaviour.
Divided over Israel and beyond
Diametrically opposed stand the universalists. Richard Falk is a professor of international law and the UN’s special rapporteur on Palestine and eminent philosopher Noam Chomsky is considered to be one of the greatest intellectuals of the 20th century.
Both have consistently stood up and spoken against war crimes everywhere, regardless of the identity of their perpetrators. And they have not shied away from taking a moral stand when that concerns Israel or the US.
They are two of the most vocal liberal humanist voices in the West, indeed the world, condemning the wars in Vietnam and Iraq, as well as Israel’s wars in Lebanon and Palestine.
Wiesel and Henri-Levi have consistently emphasised their Jewish and Zionist credentials, while Falk and Chomsky uncompromisingly underline their liberal humanism and opposition to colonial Zionism.
Most interestingly, while Wiesel and Henri-Levi get the VIP treatment in Israel, Falk and Chomsky were both denied entry into the Israeli occupied Palestinian territories!
The contrast could not be sharper for the silent and not so silent Jewish majority and, indeed, Western and international public opinion.
Not in our name!
I heard a young Jewish woman activist yesterday on Al Jazeera saying that Israel should no longer be allowed to carry on with its crimes in the name of the Jewish people.
True. What about the silent and alienated Jewish majority!
Many Jews do not want their identity, politics or worldview limited to or identified strictly with their religion and rightly so, especially when they are secular or unbelievers.
But that leaves the door open for those who underline their Jewishness and Zionism as one and the same to be more vocal “representatives” of the Jewish people on Israel.
Remember, just as there is nothing Muslim about terrorism and nothing Christian about genocide, there is also nothing Jewish about colonialism. All religions and peoples should, first and foremost, stand against all crimes carried out in their name.
So once again, where is the silent Jewish majority around the world in whose name Israel commits war crimes and who have a great contribution to make to bringing peace and justice to Israel/Palestine – indeed to the Middle East region?
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