In the wake of Israel’s attack on Gaza, eager voices are telling us that antisemitism has returned – yet again. Eight years of Hamas rockets and the world unfairly cries foul when Israel retaliates, they say. Biased media are delegitimising the Jewish state. The Left attacks Israel as uniquely evil, making it the persecuted Jew among the nations. Even theatres keep wheeling out those antisemitic stereotypes, Shylock, Fagin and the “chosen people”, just to torment us. If this bleak picture were an accurate portrayal of what Jews are experiencing today, who could deny that suffering is the determining feature of the Jewish condition?
In most Jewish circles, if you pause to question this narrative and suggest that it might be exaggerated, that it unrealistically implies a level of dreadfulness and victimhood unique to Jews, you’ll attract hostility and disbelief in equal measure, and precious little public sympathy. But in the work of Professor Salo Baron, probably the greatest Jewish historian of the 20th century, we find powerful justification for just such a questioning.
Professor Baron spoke out angrily against what he called the “lachrymose conception of Jewish history”, which placed suffering at the centre of Jewish life. “Suffering is part of the destiny” of the Jews,” Professor Baron said in an interview in 1975, “but so is repeated joy as well as ultimate redemption.” Another distinguished historian, Professor Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, said Baron always fought against the view of Jewish history as “all darkness and no light. He laboured mightily to restore balance”.
Baron, who was born in Poland and went to America in 1930 to teach at Columbia University in New York, died aged 94 in 1989, perhaps one of the most significant years in post-war Jewish history. With the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and the USSR, the suppression of Jewish religious practice and cultural expression came to an end. More than two million Jews were finally free to choose to be Jewish or not. An astonishing number chose Jewishness and a remarkable revival of Jewish life began. This historic moment aptly illustrates the central truth of Baron’s critique.
Twenty years on, that revival continues, but the world’s response to Israel’s war on Gaza and the dramatic rise in antisemitic incidents in a number of countries since the war began have led many to paint a very dark picture of the current Jewish predicament. So, in thinking about the accuracy of this, especially in view of the poisonous weed of antisemitism that Howard Jacobson, writing in The Independent last month, claims to find growing in practically every patch of criticism of Israel, I wondered what light Professor Baron would have found in the current darkness. Would he have concluded that the lachrymose conception of Jewish history has returned and that a restoration of some balance is required? Have we Jews succumbed psychologically to a sense of eternal Jewish victimhood, a wholly negative Jewish exceptionalism, or is paranoia justified?
Some pioneering research, published as Israel’s bombing of Gaza began, throws some light on this. It reveals just how much the feeling that no matter what we do, we are perpetually at the mercy of others applies to Jewish Israelis. A team led by Professor Daniel Bar Tal of Tel Aviv University, one of the world’s leading political psychologists, questioned Israeli Jews about their memory of the conflict with the Arabs, from its inception to the present, and found that their “consciousness is characterised by a sense of victimisation, a siege mentality, blind patriotism, belligerence, self-righteousness, dehumanisation of the Palestinians and insensitivity to their suffering”. The researchers found a close connection between that collective memory and the memory of “past persecutions of Jews” and the Holocaust, the feeling that “the whole world is against us”. If such a study [pdf] were to be conducted among Jews in Britain, I suspect the results would be very similar.
For Jews to see themselves in this way is understandable, but it’s a distortion and deeply damaging. As Professor Bar Tal says, this view relies primarily on prolonged indoctrination that is based on ignorance and even nurtures it. The Jewish public does not want to be confused with the facts. If we are defined by past persecutions, by our victimhood, will we ever think clearly about the problem of Israel-Palestine and the problem of antisemitism?
To justify its attack on Gaza, Israel threw the mantle of victimhood over the residents of southern Israel who have lived under the constant threat of rocket attack from the territory since 2001. Israeli government and military spokespeople seemed to get a remarkably sympathetic hearing in the media when they made this argument. But history did not begin in 2001. As the Israeli journalist Amira Hass notes, the origin of Israel’s siege dates back to 1991, before suicide bombings began. The relentless emphasis on Israeli suffering, to the exclusion of all other contextual facts, and the constant mantra that no other country would tolerate such a threat posed to its citizens over such a long period provided the basis for arguing that the military option was the only alternative. The victim is cornered and there’s only one way out.
But the popular Israeli phrase ein breira, “there is no alternative”, won’t stand one second’s scrutiny. There was a wealth of informed senior military and security opinion, especially following the disaster of the 2006 Lebanon war, which argued that there is no military solution to the problem of Islamist groups such as Hamas and Hizbollah. Even before Lebanon, in 2004, former IDF spokesman Nahman Shai, a senior figure in the Israeli establishment, said: “Despite all the anger, frustration, and disgust we feel, we ought to talk to Hizbollah. We must exploit every possibility to reach a compromise with them and gain precious time. Does it really embody all the evil in the region? What are we waiting for? We can always go back to fighting terrorism.” Early in January this year, Israel’s former Mossad chief and former national security adviser, Efraim Halevy, said: “If Israel’s goal were to remove the threat of rockets from the residents of southern Israel, opening the border crossings would have ensured such quiet for a generation.” Daniel Levy, former adviser in the office of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, shows clearly where the wrong choices were made: withdrawing from Gaza without co-ordinating the “what next” with the Palestinians; hermetically sealing off Hamas and besieging Gaza after the 2006 elections instead of testing Hamas’s capacity to govern responsibly; instead of building on the ceasefire, Israel was the first to break it on 4th November. In short, there were other alternatives.
The current flurry of diplomatic activity only confirms this. Tony Blair’s first trip to Gaza, Hillary Clinton’s talks with Israel’s leaders and stronger language on settlements and the $5bn pledged for Gaza at the Egyptian donor conference are all discomfiting signs for Israel’s polity, now in a state of electoral upheaval. They show that the Gaza offensive blasted open the doors to alternative diplomatic options, as well as the possibility of a new Palestinian unity government. Instead of validating the government’s line that this was justice for Israel’s traumatised southern citizens, it only served to demonstrate to the world, and especially to the new Obama administration, Israel’s responsibility for the injustice of the humanitarian disaster in Gaza.
It’s not a political judgement to feel compassion for Israelis terrorised by Hamas rockets, and it’s just the same for Palestinians living in a virtual prison in Gaza. But the objective predicaments of the two populations are not the same. To convince yourself that a turkey shoot is an act of great heroism, you need the “self-righteousness” and “blind patriotism” Professor Bar Tal found in his study. You see yourself as David against the Islamist Goliath. The world sees a powerful elephant and an aggressive, rogue mouse that draws blood. The elephant hands the mouse the power of veto over the entire Middle East peace process by demanding that the mouse recognise the elephant’s existence before any meaningful negotiations with Palestinians can take place. All this does is send a message of weakness: “We genuinely believe that our existence is threatened by this mouse.”
Professor Baron argued that you cannot understand the history of the Jews outside of the histories of the societies in which Jews lived. Yet this narrative of victimhood is sustainable only on the basis of a negative Jewish exceptionalism which severs the Jewish experience from the historical mainstream.
The hope and optimism which accompanied the collapse of communism and the Jewish revival in Europe in 1989 have certainly been eclipsed by a defensive, fearful, ethnocentric mindset, which makes a just resolution of the Israel-Palestine conflict ever harder to achieve and casts a pall over Jewish life everywhere. So why are we reading our own times through the prism of a lachrymose view of Jewish history?
If you’re urging me to list the faults of the enemies of the Jews, to say it’s all because of them, you might as well stop reading now. Yes, of course our predicament is partly caused by others who wish us no good, but before we heap blame on them, I want to hold up a mirror to ourselves, to know what’s our responsibility. The liberal historian of Zionism, Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, said it’s “wrong to deny the Jews the dignity of having made their own history, even its pain”. Consider these five interlocking points.
There is every reason why the Holocaust should be a constant influence on our thinking. But by insisting on owning it, fencing it off and seeing it as uniquely unique, we’re in danger of lifting the Jewish tragedy out of history altogether. And this process has been a conscious act. If seen as completely unfathomable, the Holocaust is easily used to justify extraordinary measures to ensure that it doesn’t happen again. This is a dangerous road to travel.
Being so defined by the Holocaust, Jewish leaders in Israel and elsewhere regularly use the tragedy to dramatise Israel’s position or the threats facing Jews. So when the US Anti-Defamation League head Abraham Foxman described the attack on the Caracas synagogue as “the scene of a modern-day Kristallnacht” – the 9 November 1938 pogrom in Germany in which 91 Jews were killed, more than 30,000 were arrested and 191 synagogues were set on fire – he diminished Kristallnacht. But more than this: it perpetuates the view that we Jews are for ever the objects and never the subjects of history. This was never more than partially true, but ever since the establishment of the state of Israel, it has ceased to be true at all. Israel changed everything – whether you’re close to Israel or not. Israel acts on the world stage; it calls itself a Jewish state; what it does affects the Jewish position worldwide; it cannot pretend to powerlessness; it’s the subject of history, not the object, and in being so turns Jews everywhere into subjects of history too.
This is starkly illustrated in the fact that the UK Jewish community’s defence body, the Community Security Trust, reports a dramatic increase in antisemitic incidents since the beginning of the Gaza war. This is not a new phenomenon. For some decades, incidents have increased at times of high tension or violence in Israel-Palestine. Jewish leaders and commentators are indignant at the implication that Jews worldwide are responsible for Israel’s actions. Don’t conflate Jews and Israel, they say. But matters are far more complicated. Most Jews support Israel; they feel it’s part of their identity; official Jewish bodies defend Israel when it’s criticised.
None of this justifies one single act of antisemitism against Jews perpetrated because someone claims to be angry about Palestine. But we can’t have it both ways. If you’re close to Israel, you can’t just own your connection with the country when all is quiet; you have to own it when what Israel does provokes outrage. The consequence of this is recognising that by provoking outrage, which is then used to target Jews, Israel bears responsibility for that anti-Jewish hostility. If Israel were truly concerned about Jews worldwide, it would think long and hard about the implications of this reality.
The incongruous truth is that while we are drawing attention to antisemitism more comprehensively than at any time in the past 30 years, I sense that so much of the Jewish world is more comfortable with an identifiable enemy that hates us than with a multicultural society that welcomes Jews on equal terms.
Any antisemitism must be taken seriously, even at the best of times, but our appetite for the apocalyptic assessment of the antisemitic threat seems to know no bounds. When the Labour MP Denis MacShane writes that “Neo-antisemitism is a developed, coherent and organised system of modern politics that has huge influence on the minds of millions” and that it “impacts on world politics today like no other ideology”, can we really take such hyperbole seriously? It’s perfectly possible to acknowledge the pain caused by increased antisemitism but reject wild scenarios and counterproductive ways of dealing with the problem – such as demonising strong criticism of Israel. We should be able to have a dialogue about alternative ways of interpreting what’s happening and what needs to be done. Sadly, the Jewish establishment here and other self-appointed gatekeepers of Jewish dignity see this as traitorous and a denial of antisemitism.
Nothing illustrates better how we are in thrall to the uniqueness of our suffering than the shocking silence from most Jewish leaders that has greeted the rise of Avigdor Lieberman – a politician who, in Ha’aretz’s words, “conducted a racist campaign against Israel’s Arab citizens and is suspected of grave criminal acts” – to king-maker for the next Israeli government. It’s sickening that the leaders of Israel’s three largest parties have courted him and conferred respectability upon him, with not the slightest hint that they might be metaphorically holding their noses.
Before we put down the mirror, the final image we see is that of Lieberman.
We are not condemned to accept the fate which the closed-minded ethnocentricity of so many Jews dictates to us. Ameliorating our predicament, restoring the balance, could come from acknowledging modest but profound truths, even if we get to them through distasteful comparisons.
I know that the siege, bombardment and invasion of Gaza were not like the German obliteration of the Warsaw ghetto – a comparison that critics of Israel are spreading through the internet I believe. And our need for calm and compassionate examination of the reality of the conflict would be greatly enhanced if we could retire such comparisons. But if we pause to think of the suffering of a dying Jewish child in the ghetto and a dying Palestinian child in Gaza, who would dare to suggest that their suffering is any different. Yet, as Professor Baron seems to imply, we fall all too easily into the trap of thinking that there is something unique about Jewish suffering. There isn’t.
Antony Lerman is the former Executive Director of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research.