Why Zionism today is the real enemy of the Jews

4 February 2005

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Avi Shlaim

Zionism is the national liberation movement of the Jewish people and the state of Israel is its political expression. Israel used to be a symbol of freedom and a source of pride for the Jews of the Diaspora. Israel’s mistreatment of the Palestinians, however, has turned it into a liability and a moral burden for the liberal segment of the Jewish community. Some Jews, especially on the left, would go even further by linking Israel’s behavior to the upsurge of the new anti-Semitism throughout the world.

Israel’s illegal occupation of the Palestinian territories since 1967 is the underlying problem. Occupation transformed the Zionist movement from a legitimate national liberation movement for the Jews into a colonial power and an oppressor of the Palestinians.

By Zionism today I mean the ideological, ultra-nationalist settlers and their supporters in the Likud-led government. These settlers are a tiny minority but they maintain a stranglehold over the Israeli political system. They represent the unacceptable face of Zionism. Zionism does not equal racism, but many of these hard-line settlers and their leaders are blatant racists. Their extremism and their excesses have led some people to start questioning not just the Zionist colonial project beyond the 1967 borders but also the legitimacy of the state of Israel within those borders. And it is these settlers who also endanger the safety and well-being of Jews everywhere.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon personifies this xenophobic, exclusive, aggressive and expansionist brand of Zionism. One of the greatest accolades in Judaism is to be a rodef shalom, a seeker of peace. Sharon is not that by any stretch of the imagination. He is a man of war and the champion of violent solutions.

Sharon’s purpose is politicide: to deny the Palestinians any independent political existence in Palestine. His plan for withdrawal from Gaza is called “the unilateral disengagement plan.” It is not a peace plan but a prelude to the annexation of large chunks of the West Bank to Israel. Sharon, the unilateralist par excellence, is a Jewish Rambo - the antithesis of the traditional Jewish values of truth, justice and tolerance.

Sharon’s government is waging a savage war against the Palestinian people. Its policies include the confiscation of land; the demolition of houses; the uprooting of trees; curfews, roadblocks and 736 checkpoints that inflict horrendous hardships; the systematic abuse of Palestinian human rights; and the building of the illegal wall on West Bank, a wall that is as much about land-grabbing as it is about security.

It is this brand of cruel Zionism that is the real enemy of what remains of liberal Israel and of the Jews outside Israel. It is the enemy because it fuels the flames of virulent and sometimes violent anti-Semitism. Israel’s policies are the cause; hatred of Israel and anti-Semitism are the consequences.

There has been much talk in recent years about “the new anti-Semitism.” The argument, in a nutshell, is that the resurgence of anti-Semitism has little or nothing to do with Israel’s behavior. Anti-Zionism is merely a surrogate, so the argument runs, for bad, old-fashioned anti-Semitism.

These arguments need to be addressed. First: What is anti-Semitism? Isaiah Berlin defined an anti-Semite as “someone who hates Jews more than is strictly necessary!” This mischievous definition has the merit of applying to all anti-Semitism, old as well as new.

But we need to look beyond the labels. Is there a lot of classic anti-Semitism about? Yes. Is anti-Semitism spreading in Europe? Yes, at an alarming rate. Do some people use anti-Zionism as a respectable cover for their despicable Judeophobia? Alas, yes again. What is the relative weight of hatred of Israel on the one hand and Judeophobia on the other in the making of the new anti-Semitism? I don’t know.

What I do know is that a lot of decent people, without any anti-Semitic baggage, are furious with Israel because of its oppression of the Palestinians. There is simply no getting away from the fact that attitudes toward Israel are changing as a result of its own shift towards the Zionism of the extreme right and of the radical rabbis. During the years of the Oslo peace process, Israel was in fact the favorite of the West because it was willing to withdraw from the occupied territories.

Israel’s image today is negative not because it is a Jewish state but because it habitually transgresses the norms of acceptable international behavior. Indeed, Israel is increasingly perceived as a rogue state, as an international pariah, and as a threat to world peace.

This perception of Israel is a major factor in the recent resurgence of anti-Semitism in Europe and in the rest of the world. In this sense, Zionism today is the real enemy of the Jews. It is a tragedy that a state that was built as a haven for the Jewish people after the Holocaust is now one of the least safe places on earth for Jews to live in. Israel ought to withdraw from the occupied territories not as a favor to the Palestinians but as a favor to itself and to world Jewry for, as Karl Marx noted, a people that oppresses another cannot itself remain free.

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    Avi Shlaim is a British Academy Research Professor at St. Antony’s College, Oxford, and author of “The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World.” This article was based on remarks delivered in a debate in London on Jan. 25 organized by Intelligence Squared. The motion was: “Zionism today is the real enemy of the Jews.” The other speakers were Jacqueline Rose and Amira Hass, for the motion, and Shlomo Ben-Ami, Melanie Phillips and Raphael Israeli, against. After the debate, the audience voted 355 to 320 in favor of the motion, with 40 abstentions. The article was first published in the International Herald Tribune on 4 February 2005, and is reprinted here with the author’s permission.