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What Social Animals Owe to Each Other

Friday, December 13, 2019

TGIF: But Mr. Trump, Is Israel Lovable?

Speaking before Sheldon Adelson's Israeli-American Council the other day, Trump took a shot at Jewish Americans who he says don't "love Israel enough."

"We have to get the people of our country, of this country, to love Israel more," Trump said. "We have to get them to love Israel more because you have people that are Jewish people, that are great people – they don’t love Israel enough. You know that."

Typical of Trump, this is scatter-brained. He begins by talking about "the people of our country," which sounds like everyone, but ends up focusing on Jews who "don't love Israel enough." In either case, Trump talks rubbish.

First off, observe that although Trump stands accused of fomenting anti-Semitism by such remarks, he actually turns the loyalty issue upside-down. He doesn't say that some Jewish Americans are too loyal to Israel (presumably at the expense of America), which is what a classic anti-Semite would say, but that they are not loyal enough. Recall that he previously labeled Jews who vote for Democrats "disloyal." Disloyal to whom? Disloyal to Israel! We know this because he's criticized the Democratic Party for "defending [Reps. Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, who sympathize with the Palestinians] over the State of Israel." Trump's critics seem to overlook this twist because it doesn't fit their stock narrative.

But turning to the matter at hand, Trump now entitles us to ask: what's so lovable about Israel anyway? The modern state was founded through a campaign of ethnic cleansing -- violent expulsion of Arabs, that is, non-Jews, from their long-held properties -- and outright massacres and terrorism. For the next couple of decades it subjected those who avoided expulsion to martial law. Then in 1967 it conquered the remainder of Palestine, the West Bank and Gaza Strip, creating new refugees. Since then Israel has denied the inhabitants of those territories all rights while the Israeli occupiers built privileged Jewish-only settlements and otherwise usurped the land it acquired through aggressive force -- contrary to morality and international law. The West Bank today resembles apartheid South Africa. But things are even worse in Gaza, a small, crowded piece of land under blockade that dissenting Israelis call a concentration camp and others euphemistically refer to as merely the world's largest open-air prison. Gaza consists largely of refugees from the 1947-48 ethnic cleansing and their families.

So, I ask again, what's lovable about Israel? Is it because Israel calls itself the nation-state of the Jewish people (whether or not they live or want to live there) and Jews were treated horribly by Christian Europe, culminating in the monstrous Nazi Judeocide? That doesn't make Israel lovable. It is accountable for its crimes against humanity in Palestine regardless of the atrocities Jews suffered elsewhere. Israel is not exempt from moral judgment.

As for Jewish Americans in particular not loving Israel enough, Trump has again stuffed his foot in his mouth, something so commonplace that most people don't notice it. Like other Americans, Jewish Americans are not obligated to love Israel. How could they be? They are not part of a supposed Jewish national people -- they are Americans with a particular private religious faith (unless they are secular). If they wanted to become Israelis, they would have done so.

Israel, despite what it claims, cannot be the nation-state of all Jews everywhere (even atheists with Jewish mothers); it is the state only of its own Jewish citizens/nationals. The 25 percent of non-Jewish Israeli citizens unfortunately are out of luck, but then it shouldn't call itself a democracy. Jewish Americans have roots in many countries, yet no one would say they are obliged to love those places.

We may ask: what does today's state of Israel have to do with the Jewish creed, especially the universalism of the prophets? Little, really: Zionism was a secular movement that disparaged traditional and secularized Jews in Europe and America. Theodor Herzl et al. promised a new Jew in his own state, strong and hardy farmers and soldiers, unlike the frail bookish scholars and rootless "parasitic" financiers of the so-called "diaspora." (It wasn't a diaspora since the Judeans were not exiled by the Romans in 70 CE.) That's one reason Zionism was a minority movement for a long time.

No one is clear about what it means to be a Jewish state. True, you have to be a properly credentialed Jew to get the benefits the Israeli state offers, but that only means having a Jewish mother or being converted by an approved rabbi. Jews and non-Jews may not marry each other, but that is not a religious injunction for Israelis; rather it's a matter of secular (pseudo-)ethnic purity. It's feared that Israeli children of interfaith marriages are less likely than other children to identify as Jewish -- but then what would happen to the "Jewish people's" state?

In fact, no Jewish national ethnicity exists to be kept pure, but many Israelis (who do constitute an Israeli ethnicity) don't accept that. Nevertheless, Jews worldwide are of virtually every ethnicity, culture, language group, and color, and despite what Israel's apologists say today, Hitler was wrong: there is no Jewish race (or gene or blood). Most Jews descend from the converts of many ethnicities -- Judaism was a wide-ranging proselytizing religion roughly from 200 BCE to 200 CE (and later) -- and most ancient Israelites, Judahites, Yehudis, and Judeans never left their homes, although many of their offspring converted to Christianity or Islam.

For the record, ancient kingdoms of Israel, Judah, Yehud, and Judea, according to the Old Testament, were no more lovable bastions of enlightenment than any other kingdom in the vicinity, what with their authoritarian monarchies, military conquests, genocides, Hebrew and gentile slave labor, animal and occasional human sacrifice, forced conversion of gentiles, suppression of religious pluralism among the Hebrews, and persecution and even capital punishment of sundry peaceful nonconformists, such as homosexuals and dissenters.

Moreover -- and I wouldn't expect Trump to know this -- there is a long and honorable tradition of Jewish anti-Zionism. It goes back to the days of Herzl, though his idea of a "return" to Canaan originated earlier with non-Jews for perhaps less-than-honorable reasons. On different grounds, Orthodox and Reform Jews vehemently opposed Herzl's movement. (See details on this and other matters discussed here in my book Coming to Palestine.) The Orthodox regarded the Zionists as charlatans because a "return" was not to occur until the Messiah appeared in order to redeem the sinful Jews; the Orthodox anti-Zionists did not regard any of the atheists running the Zionist movement as Messiahs -- even if they had Jewish mothers.

The Reform shared that disdain for the Zionists and Zionism but on different grounds. First, they rejected the premise that the people around the world who profess Judaism constitute an exiled national people, race, or ethnicity. Judaism is just a religion, they said. Second, they objected to a country that would proclaim itself the nation-state of all the "Jewish people," including Jews who don't and won't live there. This, they said, would harm the Jewish citizens of other countries and the non-Jewish residents of Israel. Third, they knew that Palestine was not a "land without a people," and so they rejected the land theft and expulsion they knew would be required to make a Jewish state there. I would say the Reform were right. (The remnant of this movement resides at the American Council for Judaism.)

So, Mr. Trump, I can't see how Jewish Americans, who when surveyed rank justice high on their list social concerns, have an obligation to love Israel -- or how this admonition from you, an enthusiast for Palestinian oppression, could possibly be taken seriously.

TGIF -- The Goal Is Freedom -- appears occasionally on Fridays.

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