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Leftist Jews And The Longing For Victimhood


In the Guardian of August 8, 2002, 45 Jewish signatories, in a widely hailed act of public abjuration, repudiated their right of return to the Jewish state on account of its allegedly racist policies. Since the statement’s original publication, over 80 more individuals from around the world joined their ranks. One of the organizers subsequently explained that what motivated him to act was the “pitiless violence” of his “blood relatives”, i.e., the Israeli people – the “violence”, as he put it, of the “traumatized former victim, clinging to past wounds from generation unto generation.” His goal was to save his fellow Jews from themselves.

In a similar vein, Israeli academic Bernard Avishai wrote a piece in 2005 entitled “Saving Israel From Itself” – another Samaritan, no doubt. And British-born historian Tony Judt, having chastised Israel for its “immature” behavior, has recommended that Israel “converts” – though he stopped short of providing aspergillums.

The publicity given to this and similar initiatives by European Jews, abetted in some cases by their Israeli counterparts, has been extensive. There was tremendous excitement in Europe in 2002 over the declaration by 99 Israeli academics that their government was planning an imminent “fully fledged ethnic cleansing” of the Palestinian people (a charge that was not withdrawn when the atrocity failed to occur), and again over the refusal of a few hundred Israeli army reservists to serve in the territories.

There was even greater excitement when several European Jewish academics turned up among the instigators of a movement to boycott Israeli academic institutions, and yet again when Jewish politicians such as Gerald Kaufman, Oona King and South Africa’s Ronnie Kasrils called for the boycott of Israeli commercial products. All three used similar rhetoric: they were duty-bound, “as Jews,” to denounce Israel. Kasrils, for example, said, “As a person who was born Jewish, I am morally obliged to speak out against what is being done by the Zionist state of Israel to the Palestinian people.”

Many others have likewise seen it as their specifically Jewish duty to denounce Israel. Shamai Leibowitz, an Israeli former tank commander, explained his support for Israel divestment by saying that the call “reflects true loyalty both to Israel’s peaceful existence and to the highest Jewish values.”

And to mark Holocaust Memorial Day in January 2005, Anthony Lipmann issued just the kind of mea culpa for which Spinelli called. The son of a Holocaust survivor, albeit a convert to Christianity and an active member of the Church of England, Lipmann was moved temporarily to reclaim his patrimony. Writing in The Spectator under the title “How I Became a Jew,” he averred that the “little band” of Holocaust survivors in Europe has a terrible responsibility – to live well in the name of those who did not live and to discourage the building of walls and bulldozing of villages. Even more than this, they – and all Jews – need to be the voice of conscience that will prevent Israel from adopting the mantle of oppressor, and to reject the label “anti-Semite” for those who speak out against Israel’s policies in the occupied territories.

Then there’s Jacqueline Rose, an academic whose admiration for Edward Said is inversely proportional to her knowledge of Zionist history. In her book The Question of Zion (2005) – dedicated to Said – Rose undertook to save Judaism itself from the curse of nationalism. “What is it,” she asks, “about the coming into being of this nation [Israel] and the [Zionist] movement out of which it was born, that allowed it – and still allows it – to shed the burdens of its own history, and so flagrantly to blind itself?”

Zionism, she concluded, has to be seen not as the fulfillment of an age-old Jewish dream but as the out-and-out betrayal of Jewish history and the Jewish heritage, an adoption of all that is, historically and morally, un-Jewish.

*     *     *         Can Judaism be saved? Yes, Rose and others assure us, but only by a thoroughgoing renunciation of Zionism. As anti-Zionist polemicist Michael Neumann writes, Jewish detractors of Israel such as Uri Avnery and Noam Chomsky “are all Jewish. Their focus on Israel is no evidence of double standards, but of where they feel their responsibilities lie.”

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In an essay published in the Jewish magazine Tikkun last January, Bertell Ollman, one of the world’s best-known Marxist theorists, recounted how, on his way into the operating room, he realized that if he did not survive his surgery, he would die a Jew. The prospect was so unsettling that, once healed, he wrote his letter of resignation from the Jewish people. The reasons were Zionism, Israel, and the support its policies enjoy from other Jews.

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