12 December 2006

How Jewish is the question?

The principle accusation levelled at critics of Israel is one of anti-Semitism, the principle description of the country is as the 'Jewish Homeland', many critics use 'Jew' and 'Israeli' interchangeably. From the rabid anti-Semites quoting forged Protocols to the hard-right Zionists pointing to the Holocaust and the Old Testament alternately, to the centrists and liberals asking whether Jews, with all their history, should be treating another people in this way, we see it as a Jewish Question. But the more I see of this and other conflicts, and the more I learn about Jewish history, the more I wonder just how much Judaism and Jewishness have to do with any of this. Indeed, there are those that argue that Zionism is explicitly proscribed by the Talmud, so as with Islam and Christianity, seeing it in terms of an ambiguous and contradictory religion - especially one so conscious of its own ambiguities and linguistic fallibilities as Judaism - is tricky and ultimately pointless.

No culture is, or has ever been even really homogenous, but Israel - the land of a people who for millenia were a worldwide Diaspora, is especially diverse and informed by Eastern and Western European, American, Arab, Persian, Central Asian, African and even Chinese cultures. Yet we outsiders still lump the Ashkenazim, Sefardim, Mizrohim, Tamenim and Beta Israel, Orthodox, Conservative, Hasidic, Reform or Secular into one imagined monoculture, at best split into Zionists and Refuseniks, and then still forget that its tiny population is outnumbered by the remaining Jewish Diaspora, in fact by New York Jews alone. Just as Israelis and Jews come in different forms, so does Zionism. Like all ideologies, it has changed as it has changed hands. Herzl the Zionist, and Kafka and Einstein after him, envisioned Jews honestly buying and cultivating land, rich helping poor, perhaps in Palestine, perhaps in Argentina. Eichmann the Zionist saw a desert dumping-ground for the Third Reich's human garbage and a possible alternative to the incinerator. The Zionist founders of Israel, still in displaced persons' camps in 1947, saw a way out. Now Dayan, Sharon and over fifty years of Zionist generals and politicians have seen a justification for brutalising the unruly Arab natives.

But these varied attitudes are not rooted in Judaism. Israel, despite its situation, Semitic tongue and Sefardi, Mizrohi and Tameni populations, still considers itself a European country. European and American culture are still at the centre of Israel. It was founded by refugees from European history's darkest and most perverse era and countless Olim came from America. From Kafka to Derrida to Fiddler on the Roof, Jewish culture has had a profound and enriching effect on Europe and the West. And whatever bridges they may try to burn, for example phasing out Yiddish, Israelis still famously enter Eurovision and eat apple strudel. Theodor Herzl was a Viennese Jew, born in Budapest, and the rosy utopia he proposed as Zionism was full of 19th Century Europe's collectivist idealism. On receiving their land from the British Empire (who turned a League of Nations mandate into a permanant loan), the Zionists of 1948 adopted American images of the Pioneer and British and French mistreatment and exploitation of the Arabs.

Historically, Arabs and Jews have coexisted far more comfortably (or, at least, far less disastrously) than Jews and Europeans or Europeans and Arabs. Middle-Eastern adventurism has been mostly European: the Crusades, the bizarre borders of Iraq, the ethnic and religious gunpowder-kegs there and in the Lebabon, the installation and support of countless brutal dictators, have been led by Europeans, mostly Britain and France and then later, America. Historically, Americans and especially Europeans have killed, tortured, exploited and forcibly converted Arabs, either directly or by proxy, and we view them with the same disdain as our other colonies: either violent fanatics, thieving savages or unruly children needing civilisation brought at gunpoint. Israel, Europe and America's young son, has inherited these attitudes, and our indifference to Arab death and suffering. Proximity to the Arab world has simply amplified these sentiments, and its behaviour is little different to that of the haughty French and British Orientalists, or the genocidal American pioneers that have provided the model for their new baby country.

Arab critics of Israel too have a tendency to mistakenly see it in overtly Jewish terms, and ask why Palestinians must suffer for what Europeans did, and have long done, to the Jews. Liberals that see parallels with Nazism in Israeli actions and rhetoric call it ironic. They are wrong to do so. The same histories, philosophies and tragedies that informed twentieth-century Europe and America informed Israel, and just as many Britons still clamour for an end to ethnic diversity, just as many Americans love the glory of war, Israel has no more, and can no more, leave behind the centuries of shared thought and experience that created all of Western culture, Nazism and Democracy alike. The link between the Nazi genocide and modern Israeli policy has been much theorised - most notably by Hannah Arendt's assertion that the Arabs are suffering retribution for Nazi crimes too enormous to be punished. To me, this psychological analysis is dwarfed by the simple material facts. The land on which Israel was built was given by Britain, and was not ours to give. The commentators that discuss the Holocaust's role in Israel's policy are historically short-sighted, as this is simply another chapter in a continuous exploitation of Arab peoples since before Hitler was a twinkle in his father's eye.

European or American criticism of Israel, however righteous, is meaningless without atonement for our treatement of the Arab world, and countless other peoples, including Jews, that have crossed our paths. Perhaps by seeing this as a Jewish problem, with all our racist ideas that Jews are racist, are a way to avoid confronting our guilt by projecting it onto our former victims. And, more worryingly, it shows that after centuries of anti-Semitism, we are still reluctant to identify Jews as a part of Europe and the West. The sins of Israel are our sins, and as America and Europe come to terms with their brutal imperialist past and present, we should include Israel in this process. One of the hardest bullets to bite will be our enormous guilt, not just for exploitation past and present but for the prosperity we enjoy because of it. An equally hard task will be to do what we have through naive anti-Semitism consistently failed and refused to do - to consider the Jew as one of us, for better or for worse.