Josef Joffe

The Jewish question is back

Post-Holocaust, Jews had a good run, for a while, but now Israel and world Jewry are again the target of 'anti-ism,' with the war against Hamas merely the most recent chapter

For a generation, since World War II, Jews have had a good run, though at the price of six million slaughtered. The survivors were cocooned in Europe this side of the Soviet Union. Guilt and remorse reigned across the West, which in the ’30s had re denied entry to fleeing German Jews. Even the US looks back in shame at the St. Louis, a ship packed with 900 Jews, who were turned away in June 1939. They perished in the “Final Solution,” as did millions of others.

So, the callous indifference of the past yielded to “Never Again!” In continental Europe, Jews became a protected species, which lasted roughly until the Yom Kippur War. Previously, the UN had delivered a haven of statehood in 1947. West Germany handed over 3.5 billion deutschmarks to Israel in 1952 worth five times more today – blood money. America began arming Israel in the ’60s, if mainly for strategic reasons. In Europe, memorials to dead Jews were built, their congregations subsidized by the state. In the 1967 Six Day War, Jews were suddenly cool: warriors rather than wards, winners, not victims. Prevailing against all odds, the miracle topped the Exodus version without God’s help, relieving the guilt feelings of those who had collaborated with the Nazis from France to Norway.

Why the creeping end of compassion post-1973? The rote answer runs: The survivors had turned imperialist, occupying and tormenting Palestinians under their knout. This charge conveniently ignores history, especially in the Middle East where Pharaonic Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, then the Ottomans had conquered and oppressed. Which does not exculpate Israeli “settlerism,” but raises an eternal question: Why the Jews? Why do they sit alone in the dock, as they did even before their existential counter-terror war against Hamas?

Pop psychologist can come up with the explanation. Guilt feelings don’t last; they invariably flip into resentment and loathing. (The “Global South” is another story where hatred of Israel melds with general anti-Western hostility.) The mechanism is simple. To get rid of guilt, project it onto the victim. So, Israel is evil, oppressing Palestinians and, as in Gaza, hitting civilians although the real culprit is Hamas. The killer brigade is hiding out behind human shields in hospitals and high-rises. These civilians are supposed to be killed in order to mobilize world opinion and diplomacy against Israel and to tear up the Abraham Accords. As an aside, such gruesome tactics are verboten under the Geneva Conventions.

When the Western-Islamic war against ISIS claimed tens of thousands of non-combatant lives, tears did not roll. Did anybody moan when Azerbaijan drove 100,000 Christian Armenians from Nagorno-Karabakh? Nor did mass protests erupt against Pakistan when it set out to expel 1.7 million Afghans.

The point here is not “whataboutism.” Fingering the Other to exculpate oneself is a well-wrought fixture of humanity. Jews are the crux. The targets are not well-secured Israeli embassies, but synagogues, Jewish community centers and stores – Jews as such. Jewish students do not pose as “snowflakes” melting under imagined slights. They are real victim in American and British universities. The loftier the institution – Harvard or Oxford – the more vicious the Jew-hatred of tomorrow’s elite. No Stormtroopers needed.

“The Jewish Question” is back, to recall the anti-Jewish tract by Karl Marx, whose parents converted to Christianity. Actually, it never disappeared, setting aside that benign post-Nazi interlude.

For instance, almost half of Germans believe partially or wholly that Jews have “too much influence.” Their community numbers 90,000 among 80 million non-Jews. One-quarter think that they “don’t really belong.” More than one-fifth answer that Jews play “dirty tricks to get what they want.” [1] One out of four West Europeans harbors antisemitic attitudes, and one out of three in Eastern Europe.[2] The proportion rises steeply in Poland and Hungary.

So, the nice run is over. To put it cynically, the Holocaust has been used up, and not only because of the antisemitic surge of “10/7” in the United States, as well. Assume now that Israel withdrew from all occupied territories. Would it all be honey and milk thereafter? The answer should be “no.” For Israel is now the “Universal Jew.” It is just too successful, a little Mideast superpower. Its per capita income exceeds that of Germany and France. (If you don’t believe this, check the tallies of the IMF and the World Bank.)

Israel now is what Jews have been for 2,000 years, the object of envy and resentment. Israel lives in a region of nearly half a billion Arabs, who populate failing or failed states and have missed the train to modernity, excepting a handful of oil-rich “Gulfies.” Would a state for the Palestinians soothe the enmity? They have rejected every solution since 1947 – all the way to Israel last best offer in 2000, which would have given them 8 percent more land than has territory of the West Bank. Their dream is Haifa, not Hebron, and Hamas et al. want a judenrein Umma.

Jewish statehood as envisioned by Herzl and other visionaries has not resolved “the Jewish Question,” and Zionism has not replaced anti-Judaism. Is anything to be done?

Throughout the ages, that question has plagued greater minds than that of this author. Assimilation has not worked, and neither has sovereignty. But a nation-turned-state creates a problem Herzl had not foreseen. Jewish universalism – rights, freedom and emancipation for all and hence for the Jews, too – has taken a hit in Israel in years past. Nor is this an accident. States are not necessarily moral creatures; they obey self-interest and the sacro egoismo of nations.

Over the years, “Israelism” has dented universalism. This lofty principle is being beleaguered by an ultra-nationalist Right whose settler wing kills Palestinians in the West Bank. That is not the Jewish way, and the task is to listen to the “better angels of our nature,” to invoke Abraham Lincoln. The point is not to “please the Goyim,” but to do right by oneself.

The Islamic-Israeli conflict will not be resolved in our time. And so, it requires strength and readiness to fend off deadly hatred. But given the Jewish heritage, necessity must not poison the minds. The threat to Israel, this nuclear-armed mini-superpower is, au fond, not military. Nor will Israel as endearing “light unto the nations” tame antisemitism, a historical constant. To curb the “worse angels” of the body politic will serve Israel first and foremost. Practically speaking, it would restore a core of national unity lost before the Hamas murder campaign. The “Startup Nation,” Merkava V, and Iron Dome are but tools, not the essence of fighting-power and deterrence. And this over the long haul, for the rest of this century.



About the Author
Josef Joffe serves on the Editorial Council of Die Zeit in Hamburg. He is also a Distinguished Fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution. (Author photo by ©Vera Tammen)
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