Unconditional Support for Israel?

I am a journalist based in Toronto Canada. I was born in Iran to Iraqi Jewish parents who immigrated to Israel in the mid 1950s. I emigrated from Israel.   However, the remainder of my family stayed behind. My family and I are Arab /Sephardic Jews. Culturally linguistically, and physically we are Arabs.

In Israel at a very young age Israeli institutions including schools taught us that as Arab Jews we have nothing worthwhile to contribute to society. But above all, we are taught that Arabs are our enemies who want to destroy Israel.

I, like most Jews in Israel, accepted that ideology. It was not until I left the country, went to university, and started asking questions and only then I reevaluated my own position as an Arab Jew and about the Israeli/Arab/Palestinian conflict.

Roll the clock to 2014. Nothing much has changed.  We are still at war and the idea for a just peace remains unattainable. The following is a transcript of a radio interview that took place last month. – Souad Sharabani


Souad Sharabani: I have been struggling to understand why the Jewish communities around the world, unconditionally support Israelis’ treatments of Palestinians.

I sat down with Prof. Norman Pollack to talk about this question and more.

Norman Pollack: My name is Norman Pollack, I am professor emeritus of history in Michigan State University.

I am Jewish, it’s my parents’ religion, and my wife Nancy is far more schooled in it than I. Though I am critical of some passages in Torah, I choose rightly or wrongly to see Judaism as a theology of social justice. My primary identity with it is secular. My pride in and identification with being Jewish as I grew up had to do with recognizing that Jewish people were in the forefront of radicalism and the arts. Therefore the criticisms I now make are not that of a self-hating Jew, the standard put down to silence all criticism of Israel, but the prideful affirmation of the Judaism I once knew, that of a progressive social force.

Souad: Jews who want to know the truth can easily understand that Israel right now is neither a victim nor is morally superior. Plus the fact that there is the Internet, where people can see for themselves first hand without the filter of the TV what is going on in Israel, what is Israel doing in the occupied territories. I find it extremely difficult to understand how can they have such a blind spot when it comes to Israel? How can they see these pictures, read what they are reading, and still see that country as a victim?

Norman: That is an excellent statement, if I can just work at it a little bit in terms of my own thought and perhaps a little bit of my own experience. I think the starting place might be that the Jewish community, especially in America, which is what I would know (it might hold in Canada as well), but certainly in America, really has abandoned its liberalism. And the question that now we are talking about is, why? And how explain that kind of obsession, an ironclad attachment to Israel. I would have to go back and say, this is actually a problem that begins following World War II itself, the whole McCarthyism and anti-Communism experience that Jews more than others felt vulnerable about. And that was the beginning of the collapse of the progressiveness. It did not happen all at once, but I think already inroads have been made. My sense is that by the 1970s you are already beginning to see a different Jewish community.

I think before that the Jewish community in America was really progressive, having an important place in labor organizations, in militant labor organizations, and extremely so in term of civil rights. So I keep on going back to this magnificent threesome, if I may, of Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman–three young people, two Jewish, one black, who were murdered in Mississippi during that Freedom Summer. I was there right after their deaths. And I know through my personal experience and involvement in civil rights there was always that supportive context of Jewish young people of my age. Up until the 1970s the American Jewish community at all levels including business men and lawyers as well as working people and students had that kind of affinity toward the dispossessed and toward progressive movements, certainly disproportionately so.

Souad: But that does not necessarily exclude their feelings towards Israel, but now it seems it is all about Israel.

Norman: Right, Right, Right. Now why the emphasis on Israel? As we are talking, I am thinking it is almost like clinging to a life raft. Israel then becomes the symbol, if you will, of security, that even if one is not to go their oneself it would stand for a number of things. And one of the things it would stand for, to me, is very unfortunate; it would stand for a pride in militarism, a pride in standing up, no longer being pushed around, no longer being a people stereotyped as simply weak and mercantile.

Souad: When you are talking to people who are progressive, who still consider themselves as progressive, on any other issue but not on Israel. I am talking about people who still go out to demonstrations against apartied, against this war or that war. But when it comes to Israel, they still would not believe that Israel has committed a crime. They would not.

Norman: Those people who are not only completely pro-Israel or who refuse even to hear arguments or evidence to the contrary, they may appear to fight for this cause or that. My sense going back to Theodor Adorno’s Authoritarian Personality study is: No, if you probe hard enough, you find that these things are interrelated, they hang together. And if one shows that kind of rigidity and inflexibility and refusal and deniability, that is the word, deniability, I am looking for when it comes to Israel, if you poke hard enough, the very same mindset is going to pop up elsewhere. So I do not credit those who have just a single—let’s call it–blind spot, even if it looks like that, what you see is that we tend to give them this free pass when it comes to these other things. And maybe they themselves intuitively think that if they can demonstrate interest in or support for something that is good, that that somehow cancels out the other or makes it appear somehow not that inconsistent.

Souad: The US and the EU foreign policy. Yes there is some guilt about supporting Israel. We know that the support for Israel is politically motivated and not morally. There have been many books and articles that show that the US unconditional support for Israel is working against America’s interest. To continue to support this country unconditionally is working against their interest. At what point would the US say enough is enough?

Norman: The unconditional support is obvious and it has a lot to do with pressure politics. AIPAC is a very strong pressure group. But as part of that, you’ve got a couple of things that are interesting. There are the evangelical Protestants, whom I find difficult to comprehend, the notion of a future kingdom, which feeds into support of Israel. But more important, to me, is why the Republicans are so strong on Israel. As I see it, Israel has become code for conservatism, repression, militarism, and that resonates. Israel is a sure thing. This is not Che Guevara in the Sierra Maestra. This is a very different thing. And you can bank on Israel to represent in the world policies that would be supportive of dictators, that would be supportive of counterrevolution, that would be a beacon of conservatism over and above what comes out of religion itself. That is one point. As far as the Democrats go, we see, beyond pressure politics, the misguided thought that support for Israel somehow represents a sign of liberalism, a sign of progressiveness to be for Israel. But the point that you are making, maybe this is working against US interests in the world, this is where I take a different position.

We know that the United States has a global presence, a military presence throughout the world. From a geopolitical standpoint Israel becomes essential to the American paradigm for maintaining its own leadership in the world. And so the US is willing to risk, and it seems it does not cost very much at the moment, world dislike, world criticism, so long as it can prosecute its own global design, its own globalism.

Souad: Let’s talk now about the Israelis’ policies vs. the Palestinians’. And here is the hard question for me to ask: How can people who suffer so much then are able to make others suffer?

Norman: The Holocaust itself was of such enormous pain and darkness and horror that I think that the Jewish people in many cases internalized that experience, internalized that fear, but in doing so, introjected, took into themselves, the very psyche of their oppressors. And so we see what is demonstrable, that the oppressed become the oppressors.

Palestinians themselves in a way become a surrogate for the Jews themselves who were exterminated. In a sense now the Israelis have the upper hand. Now the Israelis are in the driver’s seat and they turned on the Palestinians. And that is a sick, perverse, psychological dynamic. And then the question is why should it linger later? The Israelis are not the victims. The Israelis are not persecuted. In fact it is the other way around. This psychological dynamic becomes fortified, it becomes something reinforced in the whole political culture of militarism. And of righteousness. And part-and-parcel of an exaggerated notion of the chosen people.

Instead of that humanness, I see these rapped around sunglasses where you cannot see the eyes of the person. And all you see are masculinity and toughness. Why did that have to be the path? But clearly it became the path and has been the path. It has been this pride in strength, not just strength, pride in cruelty. This is what got me most about Gaza because in Gaza you had the evidence so clearly that there were deliberate acts of cruelty in the bombing of these UN school shelters, the bombing of those water treatment plants. All of those things were designed for no other purpose but to damage, harm and hurt and destroy.

It seems to me the critical mass of those who are questioning over time is getting smaller, smaller, and smaller. So today from the little I can find that kind of criticism, the criticism of government’s policies, the criticism of the peace process, how it is not working out, and the treatment of Arab Israelis and of dissidents in general. There are these first hand accounts of hooligans going around smashing dissidents in demonstrations with the police looking the other way. And the only way one can explain it is that repression of dissent has received the approval of government at the highest level, permitting that kind of assault on other Israelis for trying to speak out on policies .

Souad: Do you think the religious parties are responsible for the hard line policies taken by the Israeli government against the Palestinians?

Norman: What I came across (and I would not say it is humorous, because it is not) is the demand that buses would be segregated. That is the US at its worst seventy years ago in that kind of intolerance and so on. I think the important thing here is what utility Israel derive from religious extremism? And what I mean by that is that the very idea of a Jewish State, if you probe it, justifies discrimination. It drives even further this wedge of ethnocentrism, between Them and Us. It allows among many things killings in the name of God. We are doing God’s work. Whether or not this, on the part of governing circles, is used for convenience or whether they themselves are going to be threatened by it, I don’t know. In fact it works in such a way that it makes genuine negotiation impossible. It makes for further settlements, further encroachments.

But in a way it reveals what has been a major transformation in Zionism itself as a pride to Israel. And what I have in mind is, it is one thing to have a homeland and a secure homeland. It is another thing to go that further step and to then turn that from homeland and security into a nation-state founded on whatever principle you choose to make of it and then exclude all other people on whatever ground you can get away with. But I don’t see how religious orthodoxy can change any more policies that are already geared in that same direction.

Souad: Seeing what is happening I am very pessimistic. Seeing what they have done in Gaza and it is not the first time. And the idea of a two states solution is almost a joke where you have over 400,000 Jewish settlers living in the West Bank. So a Palestinian State would be in Ramallah, the Gaza Strip, or in the desert? You are not going to move those settlers. And one state, what does it mean? I do not know, I cannot see any way out. Do you?

Norman: No, I do not. You said it better than I, or as well as I. As you were talking I was thinking what would happen with a bi-national single state? If that is the only solution, it would have to be a single state in which the two communities could have their voice in those matters that are important to them. But as a state they will both be represented equally in the governing of the state. And as part of that there would have to be an absolute guarantee of equality and so on.

Souad: But that would never happen.

Norman: No, of course not, and as you pointed out, whatever could have been a Palestinian State is constantly shrinking. And that would not be turned around. And there is not an International Force that would compel Israel into boundaries and borders. Certainly there is not anything that would enable a genuine right of return or any kind of solid, legitimate, lawful presence and inhabitance. I do not see it. And to make the situation even worse, which I think prevails, I do not think there is the slightest inclination on the part of Israel to change that. So I do not know what would be the future in that respect.

Soud Sharabani for 30 years has been a freelance radio journalist based in Toronto Canada.  She has worked for the CBC and BBC, as well as for PEN INTERNATIONAL.

Soud Sharabani for 30 years has been a freelance radio journalist based in Toronto Canada. She has worked for the CBC and BBC, as well as for PEN INTERNATIONAL.