Shulamit S. Magnus
Jewish historian

About Rep. Tlaib’s Remarks: It’s Not About ‘Antisemitism’

There has been an outpouring of responses to the remarks which Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib made last week about Palestinians supposedly offering “safe haven” to Jews fleeing the Shoah. An eruption of Hitler-supporting quotes from Hajj Amin ‘al Husseini, leader of the Palestinian national movement, and photos of him in Berlin with Hitler and top Nazis, followed, to give the lie to any such assertion, however befuddled Tlaib was in making it. Now we are hearing that the pile-up on Tlaib is unjustified, politically motivated (she is a Democrat), and Islamophobic; and what about all the Jew-hatred on the white-supremacist right, which allegedly, gets no similar attention? As if we are incapable of the political equivalent of walking and chewing gum at the same time: taking on delegitimization, threats, and acts of violence from whatever the source. Is this a choice? Either or?

Maybe, this historian says, there is a much more serious problem here, that of common discourse and cause, for all the differences in other positions Jew-hating entities hold. This has happened before in history, in the nineteenth and twentieth-centuries, when elements which shared nothing otherwise—arch-Conservative Christian parties; radically anti-clerical, anti-Christian (leftist) parties;  fascist parties—parties left, right, and center—espoused versions of Jew-hatred in Germany, France, Austria-Hungary (to cite just three countries). When this congruence happens, when all opposing parties agree on is hating Jews, we are in serious trouble, and there is much to indicate that we are in precisely such trouble now, in Europe and in the US (for some reading on the subject of conflicting worldviews coalescing in Jew-hatred, Jacob Katz, From Prejudice to Destruction; and Uriel Tal, Christians and Jews in Germany, are a start). We would be seriously remiss in getting drawn off in a contest over which side of the spectrum is worse, while ignoring the cumulative threat they represent.

But in all the brouhaha over whether Tlaib is Jew-hating (she is the first Palestinian-American to serve in Congress), the main point here has been overlooked. The wrong question has been foregrounded while Tlaib’s fundamental assumption has been accepted without notice. That assumption, shared widely, acquiesced in far too readily by some Zionists, too, is that Zionism and the creation of a Jewish State in Israel are the products of Jew-hatred.

This conflation is not only a tremendous distortion of history, it is the basis for delegitimizing Israel’s existence, which may well have been behind Tlaib’s use of it.

Jew-hatred, of any kind, including the kind that resulted in the murder of two-thirds of European Jewry, is not why Jews wished, and some of us wish, and live in, and sacrifice to have, a Jewish state. That is, a state in which Jews are not a minority but the majority culture. In which Jews are not a minority but the majority.

A state in our ancestral homeland, in which our ancestral language is the language, our culture’s calendar governs time, and in which we revive a national culture, in art of all kind– literature, graphic arts, music, dance, film– in which we are free to develop our national culture. To hear babies babbling in Hebrew.

Some of us indeed, did not return here because of Jew-hatred of any kind.

On the contrary.

We had it very good “there.”

We were not persecuted.

We were well employed. Even very well employed. In meaningful, even top positions.

We were very comfortable, economically.

We were however, not comfortable in other ways that no metric can measure. But which matters more than metrics can measure. We were not home.

We were not driven here. We chose here.

Zionism is not refugeeism. If it were, Thedor Herzl’s idea of a temporary asylum in Uganda for pogrom- and poverty- ridden east European Jews would have been welcomed wildly. Instead, the very east European Jews he hoped to help with this absurd idea drove him to an early grave with their vehement opposition and denunciation of him and of the very notion of anything but– home. The one we originated in, the one in which our earliest writings, the ones we still read every day and every week, in the same language we speak here today, originated. They preferred poverty and even physical attacks to even temporary distraction from the goal; those were increasingly intolerable but not the reason for the existence of Zionism or the hopes which masses of Jews, not just in Eastern Europe but in the Middle East, placed on the movement.

Of course, Jew-hatred played a part in Jewish consciousness, nationalistic and otherwise. It was an inescapable element in Jewish existence as a minority in majority cultures with highly developed mechanisms of marginalizing and colonizing us in their midst. When they were not expelling, ghettoizing, or killing us. Of course, many Jews came here, fleeing persecution and murder. Some of my numbers-on-the-arm bearing relatives were among them. Many other such relatives were not so lucky. Of course, the Shoah was a consideration in postwar politics about the establishment of a Jewish state at that time, if far from the only consideration. 

But it has been demonstrated conclusively by Professor Shlomo Avineri in his biography of Herzl, that it was not the Dreyfus trial, or Jew-hatred altogether, that motivated Herzl, made him a Zionist; let alone electrified the throngs of Jews who responded to his call for a Jewish state in the ancestral homeland, mobbing his train at every stop when he came to tsarist Russia, shouting, “Messiah!”

Rather, it was nationalism. Not that of big, powerful states, like France or Germany, but that of Slavs, of Italians– small, subject peoples, suppressed, oppressed minorities in multi-national empires, and their national movements for liberation and independence. It was the awareness of such national movements, mapped on to millennial Jewish self-understanding that Jews were in Exile from Eretz Yisrael, awaiting Return, which was responsible for the rise of the modern Zionist movement.

In a fine article in Haaretz (English edition, May 14, 2019: “’Safe Haven’?: What Israeli, Palestinian Scholars Think about Rashida Tlaib’s Holocaust Comments”), reporter Allison Kaplan Sommer assembles a range of opinion by scholars on all points of the political spectrum on the history of Jewish and Arab nationalism, on Zionist and Palestinian narratives and claims.

One of the assertions cited in the article is the widespread claim that Zionism was/ is a “colonial settler project.” I certainly understand the political appeal to some of making such a conflation but the barest of examinations reveals its weakness. In every colonial enterprise with which I am familiar, overwhelmingly for me, the European variety, but there are other varieties, such as the Chinese in Tibet– there is a mother country, which sends colonists to, wherever, to rip off the country’s natural resources and ship these back to the mother country, for whose benefit the inhabitants are enslaved and the country dominated for the strategic advantage this brings. Britain in India is a prime example of this dynamic but only one among many.

In the case of Zionism, who is the mother country?

We should not be led astray here that “colonialism” is what Herzl and others were doing in their attempts to find and use allies, including, in Herzl’s case, countries in conflict with one another: tsarist Russia, England, France, Germany, the Ottomans. And yes, even some representatives of the Arab national movement, who perceived benefit in the Zionist enterprise. Show me any political movement, not least, the Palestinian, that does not do this. As we are now hearing, in response to Tlaib’s remarks but which has been well known for a long time, the Palestinian national movement and in particular, Hajj amin al Husseini, made common cause with Hitler and Nazism. Al Husseini spent the years 1941-1945 in Berlin, whence, in the words of historian Benny Morris, as quoted in the Haaretz article, he “called for the massacre of Jews in the Arab world on Nazi radio stations — [for] an anti-Jewish ‘jihad’ — and helped the Nazis recruit Muslims from the Balkans for the SS and Wehrmacht.” Perhaps even more germane, al Husseini did not renounce his Nazi-alliance and positions even after World War II and the demise of German Nazism. Yet, would anyone credibly argue that this alliance makes all of Palestinian nationalism Nazi?

To return to my question, posed above:  the mother country in the Zionist case is the Jewish people.

As is well known, until the discovery of gas offshore here very recently, there were no natural resources, never mind, “mining” them, as in e.g., Africa, for the benefit of foreign powers. As for enslaving the inhabitants, “avoda ivrit”, Jews doing manual labor, was an intrinsic part of the modern Zionist enterprise.

It is important to distinguish between zionism, with lower case z, and Zionism. The former is the millennial attachment of Jews to this place based in religion, and the ubiquity of the expression of this connection in all Jewish texts, from biblical to rabbinic, including daily prayers, the prayer after eating a meal, the Passover seder, weddings, mourning rituals. There is not the slightest analogy between this, bedrock, foundational material, the constituents of a people, and any colonialist venture which Europeans or any other colonial power else undertook, or in the case of the Chinese in Tibet, undertake now.

Zionism, lower case, is what made Zionism, upper case, possible. This is what was politicized in the nineteenth century. This is what Herzl and others were able to galvanize. This is why the movement took off. The reason it took off when it did is because the nationalism of European subject peoples took off then and served as a model, giving Zionism any plausibility, making it possible even to dream the improbable.

I do not claim to know what Tlaib was doing with her rambling, confused, and confusing pronouncement. She, a first-term Congressperson, is not the point.

What arouses my attention is the misplaced attention to her strange and invented claim, while the real issue is overlooked.

To Tlaib’s underlying assertion, that Zionism and the State of Israel are simply the products of Jew-hatred, unjustly righted on the backs of Palestinians, I would say this. Years ago, I was walking in the Old City in Jerusalem. It was Ramadan then, as it is now. I looked at some fabrics and the merchant invited me inside to talk. He would not eat or drink but he went to get me tea. How do I know Hebrew, etc. Eventually he got around to saying that there was Jew-hatred in Europe but Palestinians should not be made to pay for it. To which I said, you are absolutely right. And that is not why we are here.

It is time to stop playing the Jew-hatred card in this discourse because not only does that distort history and perpetuate an outrageous reductionism; it serves to delegitimize our existence.

I am very weary of the Jew-hating discourse that questions our right to exist, as individuals, as a people, as a State. We ought to stop engaging it. We ought to challenge it for what it is. We should certainly learn to recognize it in whatever guise it appears, even when it is elided in the context of some other argument.

All this, our story, does not negate the story of Palestinians, the reality of their loss in our redemption. We need to find ways out of the logjam we are in. I cannot say I am optimistic at the moment but we must never give up on this, in pain, in honesty, in pragmatic, courageous acts of thought and of action. As has been noted many times, we are the victors here: we won our State. The onus is on us to initiate such acts. To behave with supreme consciousness from our own experience as a minority, even yes, while we continue to be threatened and must continue to defend ourselves. We have not done this thus far, on the contrary; and this is to our shame.

In the meantime, I can say with certainty what won’t work.

Ignorance. Denial. Distortion. By either side or their advocates.

About the Author
Shulamit S. Magnus is a professor of Jewish history and an award-winning author of books on Jewish modernity and on Jewish women's history.