More Reflections on the Current Mideast War

H.H. Hardesty & Co., Chicago, Old Testament Map of Palestine, 1881. Library of Congress.

Anti-Zionism is Philo-Semitism

Claims that anti-Zionism equals anti-Semitism collapse upon scrutiny. The assertion that Jews alone have been singled out as underserving of statehood would surprise the Scots, Welsh, Basques, Tibetans, Kurds, Tamils, and hundreds of other ethnic groups. While it’s true that Israel is different from them in already having a territory, many nations have shifted from mono- to multi-ethnic polities in the interest of justice or to ensure peace. South Africa changed from Afrikaner to British/Afrikaner, and then to multi-ethnic Black/Afrikaner/British in 1994 after the dismantling of apartheid. The U.S., Canada and EU countries have grown steadily more multicultural in recent decades, while maintaining in law (if not always in practice) democratic rights for all citizens.

Israel, however, is a self-declared Jewish state with laws that discriminate against its almost two million Arab-Palestinian citizens. Considering the entire territory under (putative) Israeli control, including the West Bank and Gaza, there are some five million Palestinians denied equal access to property, movement, jobs, education, health care and political participation — and that’s not including the six million person Palestinian diaspora. Since the re-election in 2022 of Benjamin Netanyahu, Jewish control of the area has increased: West Bank settlements have grown, judicial oversight has diminished, settler militancy and violence has increased, and the prospects for peaceful resolution of longstanding territorial disputes have nearly evaporated.

Some of the world’s most Jewish Jews, as I recently wrote, were anti-Zionist: Freud, Einstein, Benjamin, Arendt, Roth, etc. To call them anti-Semites is ridiculous. To designate Jewish Students for Peace an anti-Semitic organization is also absurd. To label as anti-Semitic the thousand or so Jewish writers, artists and academics who signed the “A Dangerous Conflation” petition – including Nan Goldin, Naomi Klein, Tony Kushner, Judith Butler, and Robert Brenner — is meshugah. Ekht Jews like these disprove the charge that anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism.

So does the existence of Zionists who are anti-Semites! The list includes historical figures such as Arthur Balfour who favored restrictions on Jewish immigration to the U.K. before issuing in 1917 the famous Declaration in support of Jewish statehood. Current Zionist anti-Semites include Hungarian President Viktor Orbán, Russian President Vladimir Putin (sometimes), the far-right radio host Glen Beck, the American Nazi Richard Spencer, and of course, Donald Trump!  With that line-up, it’s arguable that  anti-Zionism is philo-Semitism.

Then why do some of the emails I receive from committed anti-Zionists make me so uncomfortable? The authors are intelligent and well informed – in some cases displaying a knowledge of Israeli history and Zionist thought that puts me to shame. Maybe it’s the very intensity and relentlessness of their anti-Zionism that causes me to wonder if I am in the presence of, dare I say it, anti-Semitism? Here’s a letter I received last week – actually, a pastiche of three letters to hide the identity of their authors:

Dear Prof. Eisenman,

Thank you for saying so succinctly what I have long thought: That Zionist Israel is a cancer that if allowed to grow will consume itself and everything around it. To my mind, there’s no difference between the Nazi Reinhard Heydrich [an architect of the Final Solution] and such people as Netanyahu and Bennett.

My question to you is why most Americans have come to accept the political and moral necessity of Zionist Israel. Is it because of Zionist control of the media?

We need to reject the identification of anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism. But if that’s impossible, me and millions of others – Jew and non-Jew alike — will have no recourse but to embrace anti-Semitism!

Your friend,

XXX

The letter references supposed Jewish domination of the media, equates Nazism and Zionism, and suggests – somewhat threateningly – that anti-Semites might have a point after all!

Nevertheless, I am still an anti-Zionist: I support a one-state solution whereby Israel becomes a multi-ethnic social democracy. Every liberation struggle has individuals who misunderstand the nature of the contest, commit rhetorical blunders, or fail to see beyond the current conjuncture. The best responses to them are patience and education. (For that reason, I answer every email I get from readers.) But if reasoned discussion has no impact, then anti-Semites in the movement for justice in Palestine need to be named, shamed, and rejected.

Bad for the Jews

Jews are no more ethnocentric than other people, but the generations that survived pogroms in Eastern Europe and then the Holocaust had good reasons to be self-protective. My own grandparents, who emigrated to the U.S. between 1885 and 1895, were by the time I knew them, thoroughly assimilated. But their focus on Jewish identity was always strong and could appear when you least expected it:

Me (age 13): “Grandma, did you watch the moon landing yesterday?”
Bess (age 79): “At my age, what do I care for moon landings?”

Me: “But Grandma – there was footage of astronauts walking on the moon. Amazing!”

Bess: “It’s amazing enough that the bus I took to my chiropodist today was on time.”

Me: “You have no other reaction to the moon landing than that?”

Bess: “Was it good or bad for the Jews?”

Israel’s pointless onslaught against the Palestinian people is the focus of my recent columns. And yet here I am, 40 years after my grandmother’s death, asking as she would, “Is it good or bad for the Jews?” Answer: “Grandma, it’s very, very bad.”

The U.S. role in the war

The proximate cause of the war is clear and has been well reported in the press: Hamas militants launched a planned and coordinated attack on Israeli civilians living near the Gazan border. Some 1200 were killed and 200 kidnapped. Hamas’ stated justification for the outrage – and there’s no reason to doubt their sincerity on this – was to shatter the confidence of Israel and other regional powers that peace and prosperity could be achieved without taking account of legitimate, Palestinian needs. Indeed, Israel was on the cusp of signing a trade and peace agreement with Saudi Arabia, (the richest nation in the Mideast and the second best armed) that offered little benefit to Palestinians. Netanyahu and his governing bloc are ideologically opposed to concessions, and the U.S. appeared disinclined to force any upon its long-time ally. Under that scenario, Israel would have solidified its hold on former Palestinian territory extending from the Jordan River to the Red Sea. So, Hamas attacked.

That’s not to say the Hamas assault was a logical response to a political provocation. They had no reason to believe the resulting war would achieve anything except cement in place Israel’s expansionist policy and make territorial concessions even more unlikely. If Hamas had not attacked, there was a strong likelihood Netanyahu and his deeply unpopular anti-democratic bloc would soon have been swept from power and a more conciliatory government voted in. As things stand, Netanyahu’s replacement will almost certainly embrace the idea of a “fortress Israel’’ safe from terrorist threats, and insensitive to Palestinian needs. Saudi Arabia and Israel will resume their rapprochement, and an anti-democratic and intransigent bloc consisting of the Saudis, UAE, Egypt and Israel (with a U.S. security umbrella) will chart the course of Mideast history to the detriment of the suffering masses.

In addition to its geopolitical heedlessness, Hamas’ attack had a devastating human impact. The 1500 Israel dead (including 300 or more soldiers) have left behind grieving families and a traumatized nation. The consequent Israeli retribution – senselessly brutal — was entirely predictable (indeed it was predicted) by Hamas’ leadership, meaning that they acted with reckless disregard for the lives of the Palestinian people they claim to defend. Israel has the blood of nearly 15,000 Palestinians on its hands, at least 5,000 of whom are children, but so does the political and military leadership of Hamas. And so does the U.S.

The war against Palestine is partly paid for by U.S. taxpayers. Aid to Israel is almost $4 billion a year, with the Biden administration currently requesting an emergency appropriation of $14 billion more. Though most of the money comes back to the U.S. in the form of weapons purchases, the armaments stay in Israel. The U.S. provides Israel with advanced aerospace equipment, including the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. That plane, manufactured by Lockheed Martin in collaboration with BAE Sytems and Northrup Grumman, is currently being used to bomb civilian and military targets in Gaza. It has the capacity to fire air-to-surface missiles, as well as drop bombs and cluster munitions. The U.S. also provides training to Israeli Defense Forces as well as combat equipment, military intelligence and logistics. All this that means that the usual suspects – Raytheon, Northrop Grumman, BAE, Lockheed Martin, General Dynamics, Bechtel etc – benefit from the war.

But this war isn’t being fought for oil or arms contracts. There’s plenty of that already available for the sharks circling the Pentagon, the State Department, Congress, and the White House. The Israeli war against Palestine is being fought because the U.S. – its government and leading industries — is striving to maintain its global, hegemonic thrall. That means it aims to maintain a Mideast bloc dependent upon U.S. trade and military protection while at the same time fending off diplomatic and trade overtures from China. The war is also being fought for reasons that are relatively autonomous from economic benefit and raison d’etat: The U.S. developed a strong relationship with Israel at a time when the former was dependent upon Mideast oil and needed a strong, military ally in the region. That cold calculus was always masked by rhetoric about shared religious and cultural bonds. Government cultivation of strong Jewish-American and Israeli ties was part of the equation, as well increasingly, as Fundamentalist Christian/Israeli ties. These ideological connections may now be as or more important in maintaining the U.S./Israel alliance, than any military, diplomatic or economic benefits.

That’s why the emerging popular resistance in the U.S. – especially among young people — to expanded economic and military aid to Israel is so important, and why the anti-Zionism = anti-Semitism formula must be resisted. If the popular forces opposing Israeli expansionism and apartheid are de-legitimized, it won’t be only Palestinians who suffer; it will be the Israeli people who have lived in a state of war with their close neighbors since the nation’s founding – and since the Palestinians’ expulsion from their lands (the Nakba) – in 1948. If discomfort and conflict over false charges of anti-Semitism is the price that must be paid for a reorientation of U.S. policy toward justice in the Mideast, then so be it.

Stephen F. Eisenman is Professor Emeritus of Art History at Northwestern University and the author of Gauguin’s Skirt (Thames and Hudson, 1997), The Abu Ghraib Effect (Reaktion, 2007), The Cry of Nature: Art and the Making of Animal Rights (Reaktion, 2015) and other books. He is also co-founder of the environmental justice non-profit,  Anthropocene Alliance. He and the artist Sue Coe have just published American Fascism, Still for Rotland Press. He can be reached at: s-eisenman@northwestern.edu