Israel's raison d'être remains valid

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

Oliver Thansan
Oliver Thansan
02 April 2024 Tuesday 10:37
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Israel's raison d'être remains valid

In 2009, the late British historian Tony Judt argued that Israel's identity as a distinctively Jewish state was "harmful to Israel" and "harmful to Jews elsewhere who are identified with its actions". At that time his appreciations generated controversy; but the world reaction to the war between Hamas and Israel that is unfolding in Gaza seems to prove him right, while Jews all over the world see themselves being blamed for the alleged Israeli "genocide" against the Palestinian people.

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

By the way, there are many Jews actively participating in anti-war protests calling for a free Palestine "from the river to the sea"; and equating any criticism of the far-right government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with anti-Semitism is a mistake. But it is also true that some people have been quick to label Israel's conduct in Gaza as genocide, with an urgency not 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 serve as a relief to those who are tired of being made to feel guilty for the Holocaust.

In relation to this resentment, Israeli governments share a certain degree of responsibility, not only for the terrible treatment they have given to Palestinians for 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 held in Jerusalem in 1961, Israel has presented itself as the voice of all the victims of the Holocaust. It goes without saying that if Israel had existed in the 1930s, the lives of six million Jews would have been saved from the Nazi hell.

Perhaps this is the reason why at the time 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 claimed responsibility for the slaughter of Israeli citizens by Hamas on October 7th lay with "an entire nation" and that there were no innocent civilians in Gaza, he consider it too late to cancel the invitation.

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

Faced with the equating of Jews with Israel, Judt's response was that Jewish identity and the Jewish State must be separate. "So perhaps we can," he wrote, "establish a natural distinction between Jews who are citizens of other countries and Israeli citizens who are Jews."

Judt was not the first to propose such a thing. The Hungarian-born writer Arthur Koestler (an ex-Zionist like Judt) stated that Jews who wanted to live as such should reside 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 in the gas chambers secular Jews who saw themselves primarily as Germans, along with Orthodox Jews from the 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. His goal was to make Israel a haven against anti-Semitism, but he has been criticized for his 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 the Palestinians whose families were expelled from their ancestral lands by Jewish forces during the 1948 war. Why does a French or a Russian with only one Jewish grandparent have the right to migrate to Israel and the descendants of palestinian refugees no?

Many Jews will say that they have no affinity with Israel and will reject any suggestion that they must 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 the fact that some Jews in Europe and the United States consider persecution to be a thing of the past does not mean that other Jews in less privileged regions do not have difficulties. It is also true that Israel today appears to be far from a safe haven (in part 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 outdated policy that makes a lasting peace with the Palestinians almost impossible. However, even if its repeal would be an act of justice for the Palestinians, it would also attack the founding principle of Israel, thus providing refuge for the Jews in need.

Dismissing Israel's role as a possible refuge is to some extent a display 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 the Jews have a right to a state of their own because God promised the Jewish people the holy land) .

As long as this is the case, it will be difficult for the Jews to completely dissociate themselves from Israel. And even if the Jewish diaspora denied the aforementioned connection, many Gentiles would insist on it. After all, it is common for identity to be imposed on us by others... a reality that Jews are very used to.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2024.