June 8, 2010
The Mavi Marmara victims are the most visible of many unarmed international solidarity workers and Palestinian civilians killed by Israeli military forces at peaceful demonstrations. Charges that Israel’s lethal commando assault violated international law are far from the most serious it faces, after wars on Lebanon in 1982 and 2006, and Gaza in 2008-09. The lame official excuses for the assault invite the question: what does it take for “supporters” of Israel to protest that enough is enough?
Jewish leaders and their community follow Israeli official script: the raid on the unarmed civilians of the flotilla was in self-defence, just as pasta, coriander and children’s toys entering Gaza pose an existential threat to the Jewish state. The collective punishment of Gaza is merely putting them “on a diet”. George Orwell would have been impressed by such Newspeak in “defence of the indefensible”.
Apologists claim international outrage towards Israel is evidence of global anti-Semitism, seeking to “delegitimise” the Jewish state. The slur has caused non-Jewish commentators and individuals to avoid public criticism. The Jewish establishment has even sought to discredit human rights groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, though the same criticisms may be found in reports of Israel’s own B’Tselem.
Diaspora Jewish communities and their leadership have not only avoided making public criticism of Israel themselves, but have sought to prevent other Jews speaking out as well. Those who dare, such as the signatories to Independent Australian Jewish Voices, are labelled “self-hating”, “useful idiots”, “kapos” and even “Jews for genocide”. However, if their communities expect uncritical loyalty of Jews to Zionism, they can hardly be surprised if others fail to make the distinction clearly.
The wider public is not mistaken in seeing a conspicuous Jewish silence as condoning whatever the state of Israel does. In Plato’s Republic, Socrates says: “We should be the first to use rhetoric to denounce ourselves and the people close to us, to expose their crimes and save them from immorality.” It is a moral truism, as is the biblical precept about the hypocrite in Matthew 7: “For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged.”
For such reasons, in a recent article in the New York Review of Books, Peter Beinart has charged the diaspora Jewish establishment with being detached from reality, failing to recognise “Israel is becoming (has become) a right-wing, ultra-nationalist country” being abandoned by younger liberal and progressive Jews. As early as 1948, an open letter published in The New York Times signed by Hannah Arendt, Einstein and others warned against the fatal combination of “ultra-nationalism, religious mysticism and a propaganda of racial superiority”.
It is one of history’s ironies that Jews have embraced an essentialist idea of some intrinsic quality constituting their identity and destiny, since they have been perhaps history’s most aggrieved victims of it. Since the position of diaspora Jews has a critical influence on government policies in Israel itself and elsewhere, Beinart poses the question to Jewish leaders: what would Israel’s government have to do to make them scream “no”? Beinart asks: “If the line has not yet been crossed, where is the line?”
The question of Jewish identity and responsibility has been posed acutely by some Jews themselves, those who break ranks – those referred to in Isaac Deutscher’s essay as ”The Non-Jewish Jew”. Among these, Baruch Spinoza (1634-77) is described by Bertrand Russell as “the noblest and most lovable of the great philosophers”. For his heresies, he was given the severest punishment, Cherem – permanent excommunication from the 17th century Amsterdam Jewish community.
He notes the paradox that Jewish heretics who transcend Jewry belong to a characteristically Jewish tradition, among the great revolutionaries of modern thought, including Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud. To Deutscher’s list we may add Hannah Arendt, the late renegade American historian Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky, all reviled by their communities.
“They all went beyond the boundaries of Jewry,” Deutscher says, to transcend their narrowly conceived ethnic identity while remaining attached to it. Such Jewish thinkers embrace a wider, universal, Enlightenment outlook – the tradition of secular, liberalism and humanism. This is the position of the famous Jewish philosopher Marx – not Karl, but Groucho – who quipped “I wouldn’t want to join any club that would have me as a member”.
Do you feel good when your football team wins a game? Do you know any of the players whose success you enjoy and feel you share? Are you proud of being Jewish? Or Irish? Or Australian? What have you done to deserve credit for the achievements of Einstein, Beckett, Bradman or anyone else?
The true heroes in history are the heretics who adopt a critical attitude towards the national symbols and sacred traditions.
Edward Said, the Palestinian intellectual who took students to visit Auschwitz, made the point: “To this terribly important task of representing the collective suffering of your own people . . . reinforcing its memory, there must be added something else . . . The task, I believe, is to universalise the crisis, to give greater human scope to what a particular race or nation suffered, to associate that experience with the suffering of others.”
Israel is not the state of its citizens, of whom now 20 per cent are not Jewish, but the state of the Jewish people. The Knesset has considered a bill that would institute a jail sentence for anyone who speaks ”against Israel’s existence as a Jewish and democratic state”. But, as Ariel Sharon explicitly recognised in the Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronot, there is a contradiction inherent in attributing these two properties – Jewish and democratic, like green and colourless.
In view of the brutal occupation of the West Bank, inhumane blockade of Gaza, continuing dispossession, injustice and suffering of the Palestinians, Jews might heed Einstein’s prophetic warning in 1955: ”The attitude we adopt towards the Arab minority will provide the real test of our moral standards as a people.”
Peter Slezak is a senior lecturer at the University of NSW’s school of history and philosophy of science.