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Distorting the vision of a Jewish state

An Israel that is willing to abandon Diaspora Jews for its own immediate political needs is a contradiction in terms

Two demonstrations separated by thousands of miles with one common theme: anti-Semitism. In Charlottesville, white racists chanted the Nazi slogan “Blut und Boden” (“Blood and Soil”) while repeating the obscene diatribe: “Jew will not replace us.” In Petah Tikvah, right-wing activists greeted Jewish demonstrators with what has become a common screed, “anti-Semites,” and accused them of being “hypocritical leftists.” It took Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu three long days to condemn American white supremacists in the most general of terms; he has yet to say a word against the harangues disseminated by his supporters at home.

Something is terribly wrong when the leader of the State of Israel can no longer distinguish between anti-Semitism, opposition to Israel and disagreement with the policies of his government. By persistently and cynically sowing conceptual confusion, he is not only undermining the very foundations of the Zionist dream, he is unraveling the normative bonds that unite the Jewish people to each other and to all human beings throughout the world.

During the past several decades, Israel has systematically been transformed into an ethnically defined state which consciously places its Jewish identity over any other attribute. The conflation of state and nation leaves little room for the affirmation of minority rights or, for that matter, for individual dissent from the hegemonic paradigm. This process has gathered considerable momentum under the aegis of Binyamin Netanyahu, who has actively promoted this obfuscation in thought and action both at home and abroad.

Within Israel, several legislative initiatives have sought to press home the redefinition of Israel as first and foremost (if not exclusively) a Jewish state. A series of laws granting preferred treatment to Jews or curtailing the rights of Arab citizens of the country are legally entrenching these outlooks. Current efforts to significantly expedite the passage of the proposed law on “Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People” are intended to endow this definition with constitutional weight while simultaneously downgrading the country’s democratic trappings to a secondary position.

For several years now, all those who have demurred from this characterization of the state or voiced criticism of the present government have been branded as potential traitors and, as such, anti-Semites — even if the vast majority are Jewish citizens of the country. Because they are striving to uphold democratic values — and especially civil rights and the rule of law — the association between their liberal leanings and their opposition status have made them easy fodder in the hands of government-backed ultra-nationalists who revel in calling them “leftist Jew-haters.” Far be it from the prime minister to condemn either this language or the people who propagate its underlying ideas, especially since they constitute the bulk of his electoral base.

This is the prime reason why Mr. Netanyahu continues to insist on tying any future negotiations with the Palestinians to recognition of Israel as a Jewish state. In this way, he perpetuates the overlap between Israel and Judaism, while simultaneously reinforcing his political support at home. Needless to say, by presenting such a precondition, he also knowingly delays prospects for any lasting resolution of the conflict.

Until recently, it was useful to muster this line of thought to rising anti-Semitism, especially in Europe. In several instances, Israeli leaders — most notably Netanyahu and Liberman — brazenly linked Islamic terror and attacks against Jews with anti-Israel incitement. With few tools left to distinguish between legitimate criticism of Israel and ingrained, racially-rooted, anti-Semitism, many friends of Israel found themselves in a veritable quandary, especially when Israeli reactions to the assaults on the Jewish Museum in Brussels or the Hyper Cacher market in Paris also came with calls to European Jews to immigrate to Israel in order to save themselves from further harm.

During the past year, however, and with marked intensity since the beginning of the Trump administration, an attempt has been made to disentangle parts of the correlation between support of Israel and the protection of Jewish communities abroad, in order to conform to the binary distinctions between domestic supporters and opponents. In a further confounding of basic concepts and values, pro-Israeli anti-Semites have been nurtured while Jews critical of illiberalism outside of Israel — much as within the country — have been systematically rebuffed.

This process was highlighted during Binyamin Netanyahu’s recent visit to Hungary, during which — to the bewilderment of the leaders of the local Jewish community — he sided with the nationalist-populist Viktor Orban, while purposefully overlooking his thinly veiled anti-Jewish attacks on his democratic nemesis, George Soros. These two leaders have not only shared the same political strategist — the late Arthur Finkelstein — they also have a common fascination with exalting the nation above all else, through cultivating a distrust of foreigners, liberals, intellectual elites and Muslims. A similar bond ties Netanyahu to Poland’s president Andrzej Duda, who at the beginning of the year stated that Jews were safer in his country today than in Western Europe, while in the same breath denying any culpability for the destruction of Polish Jewry during the Second World War.

A similar preference for bigoted Israelophiles (even those openly associated with neo-Nazi groups) over liberals of any religious persuasion is one of the main marks of the Netanyahu-Trump relationship. Official Israel’s overly-indulgent response to the racist and neo-Nazi cries in Charlottesville is just one of several indications of a willingness to condone anti-Semitism if such a move may help to prop up the present Israeli government. What in the past would have been denounced as shameless collaboration is now feted as an act of patriotism.

This is unforgivable on many counts. The key victim is American Jewry — a decidedly proud, mostly liberal and highly committed community which has consistently supported Israel and increasingly feels betrayed by its leadership. Other Diaspora Jews, also thoroughly bewildered, are beginning to express their deep disappointment as well. For them, an Israel that is willing to protect itself while abandoning Jews is a contradiction in terms — especially when their own Judaism is constantly under attack in that very same Israel they always thought was established to protect all Jews. And for many pluralists throughout the democratic world, such actions are simply incomprehensible and hence unacceptable. They defy the values which guided the establishment of Israel and still constitute its normative foundation.

The vision of Jewish renewal is perhaps best expressed in “Play, Play on the Dreams,” written by one of Israel’s foremost poets, Shaul Tchernichovsky, over a century ago, which depicts a utopia made up of basic human values, social justice, peace and Zionism. Each of its eight powerful stanzas celebrates the connection between personal freedom, liberation from the shackles of persecution and poverty, tolerance and empathy for the pain of others, global solidarity and individual and collective self-fulfillment. For many, this uplifting ballad has become the unofficial anthem of the core aspirations and values of Israel.

A government that plays with its nuanced principles at will and ignores its holistic message in order to serve its immediate needs harms not only itself; it damages the Jewish heritage and denies the human values that constitute its greatest contribution to universal culture. Every Israeli government, of whatever political ilk, must conduct itself with the moral clarity of this vision which it demands of others.

About the Author
Professor Naomi Chazan, former Deputy Speaker of the Knesset and professor (emerita) of political science at the Hebrew University, is co-director of WIPS, the Center for the Advancement of Women in the Public Sphere at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute.
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