The writings of the Israeli left have finally come of age; and is to be welcomed as a sign of Israel’s maturity. Yet, at the same time, they express a continuation of Israel’s well-known parochialism and of a failure to adequately grasp the world outside its borders.
In this category we have a range of interesting and scholarly works that sets out to debunk many of Israel’s founding national myths. One of those founding myths that is currently under critique is that Israel is a bastion against what is presented as an all-pervasive global antisemitism. This was the theme of an award-winning documentary, Defamation, shown at the recent Jewish Film Week. The antisemitism it presented was anachronistic and, to a large extent, now spent. It focused mainly, but not exclusively, on a few comments by one or two aging Central European antisemites and one or two aging Jews (including the director’s aging grandmother and an equally aged Holocaust survivor), the aftermath of the “Crown Heights” conflict of over 15 years ago and one or two incidents in the US that, at worse, could only be evaluated as causing minor offence. Apart from a brief interview with one of the authors of ”The Israel Lobby” the sites and narratives of contemporary antisemitism did not figure at all, not even in passing.
In Israel itself, the question of antisemitism has now become part of the battleground of the progressive left and the reactionary right and so has become part of the politics of how to move forward on the question of the Settlements and the Occupation of Palestinian lands. It is in this context that it is the right that is leading the charge against what it sees as antisemitism.
Much as the Israeli right’s understanding of what is and what is not “antisemitism” is seriously flawed. Reading the literature on the “new” antisemitism, one is immediately confronted with the paradoxical finding that what is “new” about this antisemitism is precisely just how “old” it is.
Yet, as much as the Israeli right’s reading of antisemitism is crude and unhelpful, the Israeli left falls into the same trap. This left mirroring of the right is evidenced in the belief to the effect that there is little (or in the opinion of Uri Averny in the film Defamation that there is no) antisemitism outside of Israel.
If, for the Israeli right, antisemitism is everywhere, then for the Israeli left, it is virtually non-existent. Both left and right are, of course, empirically wrong.
In the increasingly bitter fight between the left and right in Israel, the issue of antisemitism has become a central signifier of where one belongs in this political divide. In Israel, this is fully understandable and, indeed, in the context of Israel’s maturity, is to be welcomed.
However, whilst this conflict is a sign of Israel’s political maturity, it also signifies its parochialism.
Neither the left nor the right appear to consider for a moment just how their viewpoints play out in the world beyond Israel. They appear not to think for a moment how the arguments that make sense in the context of Israeli internal politics are exploited elsewhere.
One need only think of Walt and Mearsheimer’s exploitation and distortion of Haaretz’s story about right-wing pro-Israel lobbying groups that a poster discussed on Engage recently. One need only think of the idea that is common in the UK and elsewhere that “Zionists” and “Jews” “cry wolf/antisemitism” every time someone “dare criticize” Israel, even where, or rather especially where, such “criticism” takes the form of the myth that Jews/Zionists “control the world’s media” or the BBC or the Liberal Democratic party, to name but a few.
As between the Israeli left and Israeli right, I stand with the left. I welcome the debunking of the founding national myths in Israel as I would and do for any other country. I remain critical, though, with the left’s corresponding lack of understanding and lack of awareness, not of the “new” antisemitism, but of contemporary antisemitism, of the blurring between antizionism and antisemitism, of what some people believe is “mere” “criticism of Israel” and antisemitism.
Eye to eye with their right-wing domestic opponents and unable to see beyond them, the Israeli left’s vision on the question of antisemitism, cannot but be severely limited. Parochialism has always appeared as an Israeli trait, it is pity that, for all its maturity, this is one trait the Israeli left has yet to grow out of.