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Europe Finding Its Moral Voice

Palestinians have been the collective scapegoat for Israeli hubris. Zionism, once a progressive historical force for liberation of oppressed European Jewry, early revealed its potential for ethnic cleansing via the population displacement/forcible removal of an indigenous people standing in the way of the Colonialist Project. It did not have to be. Jewish suffering in the Holocaust (words are feeble markers, “suffering” not beginning to fathom the depths of unprecedented human agony and death inflicted on the Jewish people of Europe), justifying beyond peradventure the cry, “Never Again!,” nonetheless perversely came to rationalize the practice, the conquest over others—the betrayal of Judaism’s own centuries-old stand for human freedom, social justice, ethical principles of respect for others (the prototypic stranger who is to be welcomed at the gate). Zionism became the negation of its politically sublime self, the expression of yearning to be free somehow corrupted, turned sour, when opportunity followed for its nationalistic realization. The result: from Yishuv to ethnocentric-xenophobic-military State in less than a generation, growing increasingly hardened, crueler, bellicose by the decade.

One of the historical mysteries yet to be solved, if ever: a transmogrification of religious-and-secular soul into everyday stridently authoritarian moral abyss, where once both wisdom and heart reigned supreme and together. Israel, more than the vulgarization, now the debasement, of Judaism, is recapitulating the vile practices intended to destroy the Jewish community of an earlier day, applied instead and directly to the Palestinian people totally overawed by and at the mercy of a grinding military machine which shows no mercy—no, not the ovens, not the “scientifically”-conducted genocide, that awaited themselves and was their fate under Naziism, but death by degree, by humiliation, by confinement (what, for example, is Gaza but a large concentration camp?), by the studied, predictable application of cruelty designed to break the will and somehow make the subject people vanish, go away, become (in the unguarded thoughts of Israeli leaders even going back as far as Ben-Gurion) liquidated. The distillation of pain is thrown over the wall—and yes, “Greater Israel” is nothing if not walls, and checkpoints, and armed guards, and security sweeps, and house demolitions, and, and…)—as a wholesale cleansing process in which the eradication of memories is gained through simple displacement on to the head of the Other, dehumanized so as to carry the burden of affliction hopefully without complaint. Here the rawness of colonialism gives to Israel a special chapter in the splendiferous history of imperialism and subjugation.

***

Why now these bitter thoughts, especially from one who is Jewish himself? It should be obvious; I seek, as a lone voice, to wrest my beloved Judaism from the corruptive, despoiling hands of a nation which, as the self-proclaimed Jewish State, flaunts its power, its nuclear arsenal, its mighty air-naval-tank-artillery forces in the service of retrograde purposes, from internal regimentation to international Reaction, to, perhaps more egregious because more premeditated, the intimate details of subjugation and sadism as pressed down (or rained down) on a people whom from Day One could have been befriended through understanding rather than vilification, and through sharing power rather than insisting on domination. Instead, it has all been one-sided, a defilement of Torah for those who think religiously, a defilement of democracy for those who think secularly (like myself), in both cases, what would be a miniscule number in present-day Israel, where both Torah and democracy are invoked in the murder and rape of another people. How could any Jewish person exonerate such defilement?

I am stirred to write this morning, if the saturated shelling of Gaza (reminiscent of scenes in World War II against helpless villages) were not enough, the kill ratio in Israeli favor testifying to the disproportionate use of force as benchmark of aggressive intent to DECIMATE the Palestinians (a functional analogue of the gas chambers, albeit on a smaller scale), by a small but promising sign of retribution in the face of a standoffish world. I refer to the New York Times article by Steven Erlanger, “Europe Takes Stronger Measures, Albeit Symbolic, to Condemn Israeli Policies,” (Nov. 23), in which he states that “European nations, Israel’s largest trading partners and a historical bastion of support, are taking stronger measures to support Palestinian sovereignty and condemn what many see as aggressive, expansionist Israeli policies.” That hurts. America is in the bag. But Europe, trade, markets for Israeli arms and high-tech products, even, admiration for European culture, another story altogether, possibly—this train of thought mine, not Erlanger’s—enough to penetrate the hard shell of Israeli self-righteousness and open the way to self-criticism and doubt. Europe cannot be dismissed as a collection of self-hating Jews, allowing an elaborate psychological defense mechanism to remain rigidly in place. Europe holds up a mirror to Israel that America could not and would not, particularly American Jewry, enslaved to the connection with Israel, right or wrong, the latter never considered.

The ground is beginning to shake: “After years of mounting frustrations widely expressed but rarely acted on, politicians from Britain, France, Spain and Sweden have embraced symbolic steps to pressure Israel into a more accommodating stance toward the Palestinians.” I note, this is not Left criticism, and so, easily dismissed (as is the wont of Israel’s supporters in the rare instances when it arises), Britain particularly worrisome in this regard. Yet, two points stand out, a reiteration that this is only a symbolic stage for now and, he continues, is even-handed in that still taking a blame-both-sides position: “Last week, European Union foreign ministers issued a statement that condemned the growing violence in the Israeli-Palestinian relationship, Israeli expropriation of land near Bethlehem in the West Bank, and plans for new settlement construction, and urged Israel to change its policy on Gaza. [Yet despite Israeli one-sided blameworthy conduct, the EU ministers’ backing off of a forthright indictment.] It ended with an unusual warning: ‘The future development of relations with both the Israeli and Palestinian partners will also depend on their engagement toward a lasting peace based on a two-state solution.’” At least the last is clear, legitimating the two-state solution in direct opposition to Israel’s wishes and conduct (but not its deceptive rhetoric of continued negotiation).

The four countries thus far are acting singly (if acting it be), the EU per se not officially engaged. Yet as one Israeli analyst, Dahlia Scheindlin, points out, “’Israel is losing Europe on three levels’”–shifting public opinion against Israel, EU’s growing concern about its presence in the West Bank, and, “’most recently, the waves of parliamentary discussions and votes in favor of recognizing Palestinian statehood.’” Too little I should think, because, as Erlanger states, these “statements and nonbinding votes… do not seem to have an immediate, tangible impact on Israel’s core political or economic interests. Israel continues to enjoy good diplomatic relations with the major European powers.” I sense temporizing if not outright stalemate, the glimmer of hope I mentioned: at least criticism is coming out in the open. He writes: “Yet the actions reflect surging antipathy in Europe’s public discourse that threatens to drown out residual support for the Jewish state.” Talk of sanctions if there is “no progress toward a two-state solution,” but on Israeli interests primarily in areas outside the ’67 boundaries. Even following along with Erlanger, in which he says, “the tone sharpened in response to the war in Gaza this summer and to continuing Israeli settlement expansion, which European leaders call illegal,” there is not a hint of withdrawing diplomatic recognition—at best still the kind of shilly-shallying that Israel can afford to dismiss, and indeed, thrives on, through demonstrating its contempt for all critics of its policies.

***

What we see then is a ceremonial dance on the heads of Palestinians, EU diplomats swaying in the moonlight, troubled by “’the one-state outcome, where Israel is heading fast,’” but not sufficiently so to force Israel’s hand. The ties that bind are telling: “The European Union is Israel’s biggest trading partner, at nearly thirty billion euros (about $37.4 billion) a year, and provides it with tariff-free access to the bloc’s 28 member states. For many European nations, Israel is an important partner in high technology, intelligence and defense, including arms purchases.” The cultural affinity flowing in both directions may give Israel pause about antagonizing Europe, but also keeps the EU somewhat on tenterhooks about the need for decisive action. This stand-off, Israelis more cautious in criticizing Europe than the US because of taking the latter for granted, an attitude we all know which is positively explosive, bordering on hate, when it comes to the UN, is itself, as European criticism grows, becoming for Israelis more transparent, i.e., contemptuous when it comes to any criticism (the self-hating Jew, Exhibit #1), a situation that could ultimately backfire. Erlanger quotes Shlomo Avineri, of Hebrew University, unusually frank on this point: “’There are people in the Israeli government for the first time who are messianic fanatics. They don’t care what the world thinks, either because they believe God is on their side, so who cares what Brussels thinks, or because they want Armageddon, after which all will be fine.’” I could not say it better, and only add, its secularist equivalent with a strong quotient of militarism can also be found everywhere.

Of course, Israel has a ready answer to criticism of its treatment of the Palestinians and procrastination about moving to a two-state reality. The reporter has a good ear: “Israeli leaders reject much of the European criticism of their policies as betraying a deep bias or lack of understanding. [Why stop with Europe, although here his topic—the standard line repeated on any or all occasions.] It is Palestinian leaders, not Israelis, they say, who have declined to engage substantively in the peace process. They argue that radical Islamists among the Palestinians, including Hamas, conduct armed struggle and terrorist attacks against Israelis, leaving the country no choice but to take tough security measures. Some blame an increasingly organized and vocal subset of Muslims for the shifting opinions in Europe.” Everything is THEM, not US, opting for the explanation, “leaving the country no choice” on security (i.e., repression, occupation, rubber bullets, gas, prison, blockade, the stifling of economic development), as though no other path were possible. We need a new chapter in Torah: The inevitability of degradation. Maybe that would satisfy Israel.

It would not satisfy me. If one murders while wearing a yarmulke, that does not make the act clean in the sight of God. Why stop then, why hold back? Acting with impunity is the license afforded through certitude and self-righteousness. Avi Primor, head of European studies at Tel Aviv University and former ambassador to Germany and the EU, whom Erlanger quotes as acknowledging “’the loss of European public opinion,’” goes on to describe the resulting Israeli indifference—“so ‘it does not change anything for the government,’ which dismisses most criticism as anti-Semitic, and will not affect elections.” I do not know if Primor shares that view, but his further observation helps us to grasp the Israeli mindset on the brazen lack of concern: “’Public opinion in Israel has learned that international criticism does not hurt us. Does this damage something? Bring sanctions? No. The dog barks and the caravan moves on.’”

What better epitomizes the official and perhaps popular outlook? Well, there’s always Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who likens criticism of Israel and support for Palestinians to “Europe’s attitude toward Czechoslovakia in 1938,” and Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, who declares the Palestinian state “no longer realistic.” With Netanyahu, a magnificent triumvirate of peace and reconciliation that only world Jewry could love, so far has Judaism strayed from its sublime origins, ethical foundations, and humanistic practices. But hear Nigel Sheinwald, who had been British ambassador to the US and the EU. Erlanger describes him as having “recalled growing up Jewish in North London when Israel was revered as a plucky, brave outpost of the West that had arisen from the ashes of the Holocaust.” (Though the reference is to the Cold-War context, the brave outpost of the West, “plucky” fits my own memory of the late ‘forties, little did we know the population displacement going on.) Erlanger finishes the thought about being revered: “That image is long gone.” And Sheinwald, seeing the difference, yet believes only the present government is at fault (at least for him, someone is!): “’The change from that high point to the levels of public antipathy toward Israel today is quite serious. The single thing that has changed perceptions of Israel and increased the sense of frustration is simply the sense that this Israeli government, even more than its predecessors, has been averse to serious negotiations with the Palestinians.’”

Whoa, sentiment for peace must not be allowed to get out of hand. Erlanger quotes Dore Gold, former Israeli ambassador to the UN and president of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, who warns: “’In general, these European initiatives don’t contribute to diplomacy, and strengthen the Palestinian proclivity for unilateralism, so it can have the exact opposite effect from what Europeans want.’” To work for peace stimulates the conditions for war. Shove your initiatives…. Israel may be right: war in its severest, most barbaric form, against a helpless people, is the best step toward peace. If you want to contribute to diplomacy, look the other way at our atrocities, no, praise us for quelling the Arab-Muslim will to carnage, terror, rapine, coming out of an inexhaustible, bottomless well of hatred. Do that, and all’s right with the world. I write these last sardonic lines with a cold shiver: The Orwellian-Voltairean curtain falls on an Israeli moral/mental vacuum of depraved nihilism fed on the utter despoilment of a people flesh of the same flesh blood of the same blood as fellow human beings, with learning, dreams, aspirations, children, the same intelligence, wide eyes, curly hair—all to be annihilated for the sake of a Nightmare of Perpetual Aggression.

Norman Pollack has written on Populism. His interests are social theory and the structural analysis of capitalism and fascism. He can be reached at pollackn@msu.edu.

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Norman Pollack Ph.D. Harvard, Guggenheim Fellow, early writings on American Populism as a radical movement, prof., activist.. His interests are social theory and the structural analysis of capitalism and fascism. He can be reached at pollackn@msu.edu.

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