I regret having to spend my weekend rebutting Jonathan Freedland. He is, I think, a humane man; one who earnestly supposes that if we all went down to the end of the garden, held hands, closed our eyes and chanted in unison ‘we believe, we believe,’ the peaceful social democratic Zionism, that he imagines lies concealed below the carapace of actually existing Zionism, would spring forth and dazzle us with its immanent benevolence. Since he has more influence than my 3 year old granddaughter I cannot indulge him as I do her. I must decline fairyland and instead enter the pit of political dispute.
Freedland argued in the Guardian on 30 April:
As for the notion that Israel’s right to exist is voided by the fact that it was born in what Palestinians mourn as the Naqba – their dispossession in 1948 – one does not have to be in denial of that fact to point out that the US, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Argentina, Chile and countless others were hardly born through acts of immaculate conception. Those nations were forged in great bloodshed. Yet Israel alone is deemed to have its right to exist nullified by the circumstances of its birth.
There is some truth and a far greater omission in this argument. Israel continued into the 20th century the crimes of European settler occupations of earlier centuries. It would not be unreasonable to argue that the Nakba, terrible as it was—and as it continues with daily demolitions and exclusions—pales compared with the genocide of Native Americans, Australian First People or the Caribs and Arawaks.
However, timing—as is so often true of historical events—cannot be ignored. 1948 saw not only the foundation of the state of Israel, but the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In setting up their state, the Israelis breached numerous rights of the Palestinians. For instance the Present Absentee Law, by which Palestinians who fled their homes found them confiscated, even if they returned only a few days later. The law breaches Articles 13 and 17 of the UDHR. The various forms of detention without trial that have been applied from 1948 to the present day breach Article 9, and so on.
There were no such international codifications of rights during earlier settler colonisations, and so there were no standards by which to judge them, except the right, assumed by Europeans, to occupy the land of anybody not able to resist their industrialised military power. Had the UDHR been written earlier, the founding of the United States and Australia and the rest would have been judged far more rigorously.
Israel uses the crimes of the Nazis to justify their State, conveniently forgetting that the UDHR was an attempt, with wider reach, to respond to the bleakness of European barbarity. The global is more authoritative than the local; you cannot embrace one without embracing the other: the Declaration invalidates the foundation of a State through ethnic cleansing.
The survivors of the Nakba and their immediate descendants are still around to assert their rights under the Declaration and other developments, in post-war international and humanitarian law. No reference to other crimes invalidates their claims and undermines the particular vitiation of Israel’s founding.
It is important to understand that the United Nations that endorsed the founding of Israel was not the same UN we know today. In 1948 it had less than one-third of the current membership. It was the Second World War victors’ club: the metropolitan nations and a small selection of their dependants. It was run without challenge by nations that regarded colonisation as unexceptional. So that white Europeans should occupy the land of others was not viewed as the continuation of a centuries-long criminal process but regarded as the natural order of things. Israel was set up as an Ashkenazy state; the Mitzrahi were an afterthought, and a discriminated against one at that.
Freedland seeks to buttress his argument by referring to a 2015 survey, which found that ‘93% stated that Israel forms some part of their identity as Jews.’ The survey’s methodology has been severely criticised by academics. Survey forms were sent only to people with the 40 most “distinctive Jewish names” for cost reasons. There is no reason to presume that such a sample frame is representatives of UK Jews, a term that is, in itself, increasingly fluid. Freedland does not report another finding from the same survey, and a less ambiguous one: among the sample only 59% identify as Zionists and this proportion has fallen fast in recent years. I for one, and I am not alone, would have indicated that Israel plays some part in my identity because of my struggle against its crimes and because of Israel’s insistence that, for spurious biblical and Talmudic reasons, I have the right to live there – a right I have frequently declared I renounce. Statistics do not always carry the meaning they are assumed to freight.
Freedland is right that Hitler did not support Zionism, whatever that phrase means. He does not, however, discuss the historical record, which shows that for a time the Nazis and the Zionists has limited congruent interests. Hitler wanted Jews out of Germany to pursue his demented notion of racial purification and he preferred for them to go to Palestine where their entry would discomfort Britain as the Mandate power. Zionists wanted Jews to leave Germany, not for any place of safety, but specifically to Israel, and they impeded efforts for fleeing Jews to enter the USA, Britain and other countries.
Freedland asks if “it would have been a mistake for Israel to have been established in the 1930s, when the world’s nations had made it clear they had no intention of taking in the Jews?” but he asks the wrong question. It would have been better if the Zionists had pressed all countries to admit Jews at risk of persecution and worse. If we are fantasising alternative histories, a fraught project, we could wish that the Kindertransport had both been more numerous and carried parents as well as children: a history that had prioritised saving Jews rather than populating Palestine.
Freedland expostulates, “when Jews call out something as antisemitic, leftist non-Jews feel curiously entitled to tell Jews they’re wrong,” That is frustrating, but I feel equally frustrated when a non-Jew tells me that an antizionist argument is antisemitic for no more reason than that it challenges Israel. I wish that Israel’s apologists would cease claiming all and sundry statements as antisemitic. It is dangerous for many reasons; in particular, such false claims obscure genuine antisemitic incidents. More than that, it desensitises people to antisemitism: if people see ethical actions denounced as antisemitic and the border between ethical and non-ethical actions blurred, they will be less inhibited from crossing that border.
False claims of antisemitism put all Jews at risk, Zionist, non-Zionist and antizionist. I read the weekly reports form the Campaign against Antisemitism (CAA) with two forms of anger. Anger about the suffering of the victims of blatant antisemitism, and anger at the equal denunciation of those acts and of political acts whose only ‘antisemitism’ is that they are critical of Israel to the displeasure of the Campaign.
Freedland’s opinion piece is problematic for what it fails to say as much as for what it does. He does not display the Israeli state behind his prose as deploying one of the best equipped military and security apparatuses in the world: a nuclear armed military outside the non-proliferation agreements, and with a history of aggression against its neighbours and bellicose threats against other states. He does not reveal the singling out of Israel, not by its critics, but by its friends, in particular the USA, which vetoes almost every critical Security Council motion and gives unparalleled economic and military aid, and political succour denied to other states with consistent patterns of human rights abuses.
Antizionist Jews are in a minority, albeit a growing one. Some are deeply observant religious Jews; some are High Holiday Jews; some of us are Jews only because our mothers were Jews and we do not have the right to define ourselves so long as neo-Nazis and the State of Israel regard us as Jews. This forces us to engage with Palestinian rights with singular interest.
While some may identify the problems as originating with the 1967 occupation, many of us–not casually but from deep thought–see the occupation, not as an aberration to a purer kinder Zionism, but as implicit in the project from the start. To deny the legitimacy of the Israeli State is not to deny the human rights of Jews living in Palestine; they are in no way excluded from the care and ambit of the UDHR. Being told incessantly that questioning the right of Israel to exist is to wish the second act of the Shoah and that anyone raising that question is a catspaw of extremists is simply wrong. States do not have rights to exist; people do. Finding how to reconcile the rights to peaceful existence of all the people in the disputed neighbourhood and those ethnically cleared from it will not be quick or easy. It will not be accelerated by using abuse to try to silence those asking difficult and unwelcome questions.