Israel's raison d'être is still valid

In 2009, the late British historian Tony Judt argued that Israel's identity as a distinctively Jewish state was "detrimental to Israel" and "detrimental to Jews elsewhere who are identified with its actions.

Oliver Thansan
Oliver Thansan
02 April 2024 Tuesday 10:26
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Israel's raison d'être is still valid

In 2009, the late British historian Tony Judt argued that Israel's identity as a distinctively Jewish state was "detrimental to Israel" and "detrimental to Jews elsewhere who are identified with its actions." At that time his assessments generated controversy; But the global reaction to the war between Hamas and Israel taking place in Gaza seems to agree with him, while Jews around the world see themselves being blamed for the alleged Israeli "genocide" against the Palestinian people.

Over the past six months, following news of atrocities in Gaza, there has been a sudden rise in anti-Semitic incidents in cities such as London, New York and Vienna. Hate slogans have been painted on synagogues, Jewish cemeteries have been desecrated, and people identified as Jewish have been harassed.

By the way, there are many Jews who actively participate in anti-war protests calling for a free Palestine "from the river to the sea"; and equating any criticism of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's far-right government with anti-Semitism is a mistake. But it is also true that some people have been quick to label Israel's behavior in Gaza as genocide, with an urgency that has not been seen in response to acts of mass violence in places like Syria, Sudan or even Ukraine. This disproportion suggests that criticism of Israeli actions can provide relief to those who are tired of being made to feel guilty for the Holocaust.

For this resentment, Israeli governments share a degree of responsibility, not only for their terrible treatment of the Palestinians over many years but also because it is common for Israeli officials to invoke the Holocaust to justify their country's cruel policies. Since the trial of Adolf Eichmann in 1961 in Jerusalem, Israel has presented itself as the voice of all victims of the Holocaust. It is assumed that if Israel had existed in the 1930s, the lives of six million Jews would have been saved from Nazi hell.

Perhaps that is why Israeli President Isaac Herzog was invited to attend the opening of the new Holocaust Museum in Amsterdam on March 10. After the explosion of violence in Gaza, when Herzog stated that the responsibility for the massacre of Israeli citizens committed by Hamas on October 7 lay with "an entire nation" and that there were no innocent civilians in Gaza, it was considered too much. late to cancel the invitation.

This generated large protests, with demonstrators chanting pro-Palestinian slogans at Jews queuing to enter the Amsterdam synagogue, in commemoration of the Dutch Jewish community, almost completely annihilated by the Nazis.

Faced with the equation of Jews with Israel, Judt's response was that Jewish identity and the Jewish state should be separate. "Thus perhaps we can," she wrote, "draw a natural distinction between Jews who are citizens of other countries and Israeli citizens who are Jews."

Judt was not the first to propose something like this. The Hungarian-born writer Arthur Koestler (a former Zionist like Judt) argued that Jews who wanted to live as Jews should settle in Israel, and that those who did not should stop identifying as Jews. But while this may seem like a simple solution, it is not, because how Jews perceive themselves does not necessarily change how others perceive them. In the Holocaust, the Nazis killed secular Jews who saw themselves primarily as Germans in the gas chambers, along with Orthodox Jews from Polish shtetls.

The clearest expression of Israel's Jewish character is the Law of Return (1950), which grants all Jews the right to settle there. Its goal was to turn Israel into a refuge from anti-Semitism, but it has been criticized for its imprecise definition of Jewish identity. Today it gives access to Israeli citizenship to anyone who has at least one Jewish grandparent or who has converted to Judaism.

This is a clear injustice to Palestinians whose families were expelled from their ancestral lands by Jewish forces during the 1948 war. Why does a Frenchman or a Russian with only one Jewish grandparent have the right to immigrate to Israel and the descendants of Palestinian refugees No?

Many Jews will say they feel no affinity with Israel and reject any suggestion that they should be loyal to it or defend its policies. In fact, there is no reason why Jews should defend Israel's policies, and many do not. But just because some Jews in Europe and the United States consider persecutions a thing of the past does not mean that other Jews in less privileged regions do not have difficulties. It is also true that today Israel appears to be a long way from being a safe haven (partly as a result of the machinations of its own government), but the principle remains valid.

Still, it can be argued that Israel should reconsider the Law of Return, as it is an obsolete policy that makes a lasting peace with the Palestinians almost impossible. However, although its repeal would be an act of justice for the Palestinians, it would also violate the founding principle of Israel as a refuge for Jews in need.

Dismissing Israel's role as a possible refuge is to some extent a sign of a lack of solidarity and imagination. The ideal of creating a homeland for all persecuted Jews remains the strongest argument for its existence (unless one believes that Jews have the right to a state of their own because God promised the holy land to the Jewish people).

As long as this is the case, it will be difficult for Jews to completely disassociate themselves from Israel. And even if the Jewish diaspora denies such a connection, many Gentiles will insist on it. After all, it is common for identity to be imposed on us by others… a reality to which Jews are very accustomed.

Translation: Stephen Flamini. Copyright: Project Syndicate,