Sheldon Schreter

Response to Another Critique of Israel

[Who can count the critiques of Israel written since Oct. 7, 2023? I generally read them with a sigh, sometimes agreeing with them in part, more often bristling at their half-truths and malicious distortions. I lack the energy and discipline to try responding to them, which is probably why I am neither an academic nor a journalist. Why, then, did Pankaj Mishra’s contribution to this wave provoke me enough to overcome my lethargy?  

It is connected to his strident condemnation of Israel’s exploitation of the  Holocaust, not that his scathing remarks about this are totally wrong. Coincidentally or not, I am submitting this post on Holocaust Remembrance Day in Israel. I have written comparable things over the years. Nor is this a Jewish version of the phony objection  to “cultural appropriation”.  The Holocaust is personal for me – having obliterated large portions of my family – but it is not exclusive Jewish property, not today and probably not ever. For all its unique horrors, it belongs to the wretched chronicle of human inhumanity.

It is rather that he replicates exactly the sin which he pins on Israel, namely manipulating the Holocaust to serve a specious and hypocritical polemic.  Israel, he argues, deploys the Holocaust as a cudgel to justify its endless misdeeds against the Palestinians and to libel its critics as anti-Semites.  In a sanctimonious, more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger tone, Mr. Mishra asserts that more could have been expected  from the Jews. The Holocaust now has to be protected from their crass perversions of its message. With demonstrative pain, he recognizes that suffering doesn’t ennoble you, a position he later abandons in absolving the Palestinians of any responsibility for their fate, indeed of any agency at all. Pure victims. We are back to good guys and bad guys. There is no question about which side any decent person should be on. The smug pretense of virtue, the sham, binary allocation of innocence and guilt, were more than I could stomach. 

This led me to think again, against the background of the Gaza War, about what it means to wield power morally. That is an infinite quandary we will never resolve, but are forbidden to avoid.

I never saw the Mishra piece till more than five weeks after its appearance, so my response was late. As far as I know, the journal which published it never considered printing my response. Anyway, here goes. –  Shelly Schreter]

* * *

I understood what to expect from Pankaj Mishra’s long diatribe (“The Shoah after Gaza”, London Review of Books, March 21, 2024, ) when, close to its beginning, he wrote this: “Five years later, insisting that Arabs were the new Nazis and Yasser Arafat the new Hitler, Begin assaulted Lebanon.” This signals the main theme of his article, which is the indecent, indeed scandalous manipulation by Israel of the Holocaust, which Mr. Mishra refers to by its Hebrew name, the “Shoah.”

So one morning Begin, “a demagogue from Poland”, woke up and launched a war against Arafat and Lebanon. Any idea why? Just Holocaust paranoia, general bloodthirstiness, territorial ambitions in southern Lebanon? Not a word about years of violent aggression against Israel’s sovereign territory from the Palestinian enclave in southern Lebanon, an armed presence which later contributed significantly to Lebanon’s disastrous civil war and subsequent degeneration into the dysfunctional quasi-state it is today.

“Assault” is an evocative term, and a compelling accusation. It is violent, unprovoked, malevolent. For all the authors he’s read and quotes with such skillful selectivity – Jean Amery, Primo Levi, Tom Segev, Boaz Evron, Yeshayahu Leibowitz, George Steiner, Abba Eban, Alfred Kazin, etc. – it still comes down to a relatively simple morality play for Mr. Mishra, and for so many others in today’s western media, academia, and enlightened circles.

Sure, the Jews suffered, the Holocaust was terrible, but it has been totally instrumentalized and prostituted to provide cover for Jewish racism, supremacism, expansionism, persecution of Palestinians, Darwinian ferocity and recapitulation of many of the horrors of which Jews were formerly the victims. (I might have included genocide in the list of Jewish/Israeli crimes, but the impressive growth of the Palestinian population both inside and outside Israel since 1948 suggests their gross incompetence in that department.)

The inversion is complete, cynical, mendacious, repugnant. Invocation of the Shoah is nothing but a scam, a pernicious guilt-trip employed by cynical Israeli leaders to mask their conquests and ethnic cleansing. With pained sincerity, Mr. Mishra deplores this distortion of the lessons of the Shoah by its former victims, because it was supposed to usher in a post-war era of real awareness of human rights and inherent dignity, rather than the malicious purposes to which the Israelis and their craven American Jewish and other Diaspora allies have subjugated it. The Shoah needs to be “rescued” from their clutches.

I don’t seek Mr. Mishra’s approval or harbour any illusions about his antagonism. For him, Israel’s creation was the original sin, and its elimination is the remedy. Israel’s narratives are lies, its leaders are villains, its policies wicked. The Palestinians like all the other innocent victims of western imperialism had no complicity or responsibility for the crimes upon which Israel fraudulently based its existence. They had no agency (we won’t go into the Third Reich alliances of the supreme Palestinian leader, the Mufti of Jerusalem, or of the leadership in Iraq and other Arab countries), but were made to take the rap for the Shoah. It’s a familiar old line of Arab negation of any Jewish rights to self-determination, or of any claim whatsoever to any part of the Land of Israel/Palestine.

I have made related criticisms of Israel, its leaders and their distortions of the Shoah over the decades, but that is irrelevant. For Those Who Know the Truth, about the absolute evil of the other side, people like me are merely deceptive apologists. The situation has been commandeered by extremists on both sides. They are necessary for one another, validate one another’s perverse narratives, obscenely inter-dependent, and toxic to any nuance, moderation, or attempts to bridge or to create alternatives of mutual recognition. That is how they would dismiss Vivian Silver, for example, the Winnipeg-born member of Kibbutz Be’eri who spent her entire life working for Arab-Jewish reconciliation, most recently devoting herself to driving Gazans needing medical treatment to the Israeli hospitals providing it. She was not only murdered on Oct. 7th, but so completely burned to a crisp that it took a month to verify her remains.

The elephant in the room, which even our western supporters have difficulty fully appreciating, is the depth, intensity and duration of Arab rejectionism. They simply lack the experiential tools to grasp what it is to live surrounded over generations by people, nations, armies, guerilla movements, whose goal and raison d’etre are your destruction, who will never accept your right to live securely as a neighbor or as anything else, but will insist – sooner or later – on either expelling or murdering you and your family, or at best returning you to the submissive, institutionalized inferiority of your former condition in traditional Muslim society. That agenda is explicit in the case of Hamas, implicit for most (thankfully not all) other Arabs.

Not even after 9/11, or after the disintegration of the “Arab spring”, has the penny dropped for most Americans and westerners. It is beyond their ken, their world-view, their understanding of how reality works. It is too threatening to take seriously, or not to attribute to paranoia or to other vestigial colonialist pathologies. For Pankaj Mishra, it merits one long, contemptuous sneer. The line he pushes is subordination to victim-worship and a kind of simplistic, vicarious collective guilt for the abominations of slavery and western imperialism, as if slavery and imperialism were not universal features of almost every other part of the world and its sorry history.

Neither I nor my country, Israel, have legitimacy for Mr. Mishra. I will have to live without it, but I will live. I will go on criticizing and working to change my Government and its policies, as I have done most of my life, but I will go on. I will anytime prefer the agonizing dilemmas of wielding power morally to the genocidal certainties of powerlessness. At one point, Mr. Mishra jeers at “the exponents of military humanitarianism, who reduce human rights to the right not to be brutally murdered.” That is certainly not the sum total of human rights, but without it, none of the others count. I will resist with all my might ever having to rely on the goodwill or sympathy of Mr. Mishra and his ilk to guarantee it for me or my people.

About the Author
Born and raised in Montreal, Canada, studied at McGill, U. of California, Berkeley, and the London School of Economics, living in Israel since 1976, former director of the WUJS Institute (Arad) and of the Israel-Diaspora Institute (Tel Aviv U.), involved in the Israeli plastics industry (former vice-president of ZAG Ltd.), and later in the aquaculture industry in Sri Lanka. Resident in Ra'anana.
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