On simplism and anti-Jewism – Brian Robinson

One of the problems in debating the Israel-Palestine dispute is the way all sides so often talk past one another, and responses remain selective. A related issue seems to be a temptation on the part of advocates of the Palestinian cause to over simplify: the solution becomes as easy to implement as to describe.

An example came in my email correspondence the other day. I’ve kept in touch with several of the people with whom I went on a 10-day study tour of the West Bank and Israel in 2003. Some are Christians but most are simply members of the PSC. (I took part because someone sent me an email about it.) In the light of the recent bout (if that’s the word) between Galloway and Hitchens, I’d sent around a Hitchens piece (from 2003), actually an interview, focussing on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and one friend from that group replied, finding it a “fascinating interview”, as in many ways it is.

However, recently, I’ve been trying to introduce into our electronic discussions something of a more nuanced approach (e.g., not all the bad, nor all the good, is on one side, ever, and so on) I’ve met with either (mostly) silence or (sometimes) got an uncomprehending reply, and occasionally (in three, perhaps four, instances) something I’m very sad to call, after Conor Cruise O’Brien, anti-Jewism. The latter has not been directed so much personally at me, I should say, because I think I’m regarded as ‘the good Jew’ – different in some way from the others.

In the interests of truth, I’d also like to say that I’ve come across some of the same attitudes from some members of Just Peace UK and Jews for Justice for Palestinians (I still stand completely by my signature of the JfJfP Statement).

So it seemed a good moment to set down in words something I’ve been thinking about for several weeks:

“Hitchens: One of the advantages of a Marxist and internationalist training is that it exposes one to the early writings of those Jewish cosmopolitans who warned from the first day that Zionism would be a false Messiah for the Jews and an injustice to the Arabs. Nothing suggests to me that they were wrong on these crucial points. …”

Those who warned against Zionism may well be seen *now* to have been right (some will say that the Holocaust made no difference to their opinion on that), but an important point for me is that historical events (and personalities) are constantly being re-evaluated. I believe that most diaspora Jews were either indifferent or hostile to the idea of a Jewish state up to the 1940s.

We now seem to be caught in a vicious spiral where an increasingly panic-stricken defensive-aggressive Israel confronts an increasingly hostile, and increasingly anti-Jewish world (“anti-Semitic” for those who still use the term). The worse Israel’s actions, the greater the anti-Jewish response, and the greater the latter, the more paranoid and vicious the former.

And I said ‘anti-Jewish’, for this is now more than being about anti-Israel.

You are, (let me invite you to imagine), an Israeli Jew, born and bred there, aged, let’s say maybe 40, plus or minus 5 or so years. Perhaps you’ve been abroad on holiday a few times in your life, but you’ve never lived anywhere else.

You didn’t ask to be born, and you certainly didn’t ask to be born in Israel, but there you are and that’s your country – you have no other.

And then along comes somebody – could be from a Palestinian group, or a Christian or Muslim one, or a Jewish left-wing peace organisation, who says, Sorry, friend, but you have to dismantle your state, your country, it was all a mistake, it should never have been allowed to happen, it’s illegitimate and therefore you are too.

We know (the conversation continues) that this sort of thing happened before – Columbus and the Spaniards went to the Americas, the Dutch and Portuguese went to the East Indies, the British went everywhere – but that was then and this is now: the days when ministers of (the Christian) religion could justify slavery on the grounds that black Africans weren’t human are, give thanks, gone.

So what are you going to do? You have by now a family, your children are in their last years at school, you and they have established the usual social nexus by which most of us live our lives, you’re lucky enough to have a secure job and to have to leave it at your age would reach the end of your powers of imagination.

You may well listen to your friend’s telling you that that comfortable life was built upon a delusion and a moral atrocity, but you’re not a saint and you have hungry children to feed.

Perhaps you may say to him, my moral behaviour is no more (or less) culpable than that of, say a westerner highly critical of western foreign policy, highly aware of the environmental
destruction from our oil-dependent civilisation, yet who still flies off on holiday, still participates enthusiastically in all the benefits that our wickedly exploitative economy offers (I’m including anything from computers to trips to the cinema and everything in between).

So what do you want me to do (our Israeli Jew — “you”) says? And if I wont and can’t, are you going to make, to force, me? And if so, how? You ask me to end the occupation of the West Bank. For some there is no doubt that is the first essential step to resolving this long-running crisis, although no-one claims that it will be of itself sufficient to bring peace and harmony. But do you not think that I am entitled to fear those among my enemies for whom such a step is but the beginning of the destruction of my country?

My tiny little state has barely defensible borders as it is. Why else do you think we have nuclear weapons? We need them much more than Britain does, and when did you last hear a British prime minister muse aloud in public that he or she is considering giving them up?

So yes, as a left-leaning liberal I feel guilty that the lifestyle of myself and of my family and friends were built – ultimately – upon the dispossession of another people and I do feel guilty that just the way of my being here, in Israel proper for I’m no illegal settler, is perpetuating their oppression (and of course I’m aware that even mentioning guilt and sorrow gives the further ammunition of scorn to my opponents in this debate). And yet one of the things – one of the most difficult things – we have to do as human beings is to live with moral ambiguities, with uncertainty and contradiction, including self-contradiction. The world is not clear-cut, never has been and never will be. Only fascists and other authoritarians (including some religious ones) are ever ‘certain’. The rest of us find compromises thrust upon us, especially the further behind we leave the idealism of our youth.

What’s it got to do, your oppositional friend asks, with your British Jewish friend in Manchester, and your American Jewish friend in Brooklyn? As (another of “your” identities) a trade unionist, you can easily answer – what have the conditions of miners in China got to do with British workers, why should shopworkers in London worry about their brothers and sisters standing in line hoping for work in Iraq and risking being blown up by suicide murderers?

Anti-Jewishness has always been one, by no means the only one, but one significant part of the glue binding Jews together. Probably fewer and fewer of us are religious in the orthodox sense, and many are completely secular, but most of us have some sense at least of our history, and history is present and it lives and frames the events of everyday life.

So you ask me to vote for your single, secular state, but I reply that this is but a euphemism for the destruction of my own. So are you going to march in with an army to force me? I fear you will have to do so, for although some of my Jewish compatriots are in total agreement with you, most are not. We in Israel are as far away from the mindset that will adopt such a settlement as you in, say Britain and America, are from moderating your comfortable dependence on oil and your extravagant misuse of it.

You will(I am sure)mention South Africa. My answer will for the moment have to be along the lines of that adopted by the academic pro-boycotters when asked why they weren’t boycotting some of the countries with even worse human rights records than Israel. Most didn’t give a coherent answer, but a few who did said that right now they were considering Israel – they might, if asked, consider boycotting the others at some time but right now it’s Israel. Period.

So, OK, right now I’m not talking about South Africa, I’m talking about Israel, which is where I was born and where I’ve lived for over 40 years.

And if you then say to me, Look, you couldn’t have your nice secure job and family life without the American tax dollars, my answer might well direct you to the state of the British economy after the second world war – and what a dreadful price, some say, the British paid for that rescue. More moral ambiguity.

And so the more I think about this, the further I feel from those for whom this issue is a simple right-and-wrong, with all or most of the wrong on one side. And of course things have entered an even more complicated bit of ambiguity now, because even if you don’t accept the thesis of the ‘clash of civilisations’ there’s certainly a clash between Enlightenment values and their defence, and the sudden irruption in our midst of an irrational, medieval, theocratic totalitarianism. And I’m not just referring to a strand of Islam – there are Christians and Jews, and perhaps others, just as dangerous – and not least in Israel.

We live in dangerous times and we have to reason our way out of them. This is even more difficult than it was now that so many in the so-called progressive Left have aligned themselves with one of the most authoritarian, irrational and fascistic forces of our time.

I’ve put some more thoughts on all this on my website.

Brian Robinson
Brian was born in Dublin and has lived in the UK since the mid ’60s, where he has practised psychiatry.

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