Post-Post Zionism and the Israeli and European left

May 16, 2002


[Note by Tom Gross]

I attach:

(1) A book review of Tom Segev’s Elvis in Jerusalem that I wrote for The Wall Street Journal earlier this week.

(2) A heartfelt letter by a friend of mine who is a British filmmaker on the difficulty of discussing Israel with his left-wing colleagues.

(3) An article from the National Post (of Canada), by Jonathan Kay, the editorials editor, entitled “To the sound of bombs, Israel’s left wakes up.” Kay writes about the changing attitudes of Israeli society. He says: “Palestinian tactics have become so brutal they have overwhelmed most Israelis’ post-colonial sympathies. Thoughtful Palestinians lament this fact.”

(4) A report by Agence France-Presse, entitled Pro-Israel demonstration in Berlin. This was unusual because the march was carried out by “1,000 people from left-wing and humanitarian organizations in support of Israel and calling on the EU not to shelter 13 Palestinian militants from the siege in Bethlehem... During the march from the foreign ministry to the Mitte section of central Berlin, demonstrators waved red flags alongside blue-and-white Israeli flags.”

Incidentally, following the recent big pro-Israel rallies in Washington, New York and London, there will be a large pro-Israel demonstration, with people coming from all over Western Europe, in Brussels on May 29 in the Place du Sablon.



The Blaming of Israel From Within
By Tom Gross
The Wall Street Journal
May 14, 2002

Elvis in Jerusalem By Tom Segev
(Metropolitan, 167 pages, $23)

The past 19 months of orchestrated Palestinian violence against civilians, coupled with the incitement to kill Jews that permeates the official Palestinian media, have led some of Israel’s “new historians” to take a less indulgent view of Yasser Arafat and his Palestinian Authority.

For some years now, the new historians have attempted to rewrite Israeli history to show that at almost every stage the Zionist movement was at fault as much as, if not more than, other parties, such as Arab despots and intransigent Palestinian nationalists. This argument is not so easy to make now. Prof. Benny Morris, one of the leaders of the new-historian group, recently wrote that he now feels “like one of those western fellow travelers rudely awakened by the trundle of Russian tanks crashing through Budapest in 1956.”

Apparently Tom Segev has not been so “rudely awakened.” Mr. Segev, a columnist for Ha’aretz, Israel’s leading liberal newspaper, is perhaps the foremost journalist among the new historians or “post-Zionists,” as many of this clique have styled themselves. “Elvis in Jerusalem,” begins by describing how the communal, socialist ideals of Israel’s Zionist pioneers have given way to an American-style society where trips to McDonald’s and Dunkin’ Donuts are commonplace.

Mr. Segev welcomes this dilution of national identity, pointing to examples wherever he can find them, from the growth of cable television to the spread of the Internet. He believes the Americanization that has taken place in the past decade has had an extraordinarily beneficial effect on Israeli society, offering not only “normalization” but increased tolerance, individualism and liberalism on an American-style model.

Naturally, he forgets to mention the many ways in which Israel has been ahead of Western societies with liberal breakthroughs, from the election of a female prime minister some three decades ago to the awarding of spousal benefits to the partners of homosexual soldiers long before countries like Britain and America would contemplate even allowing openly practicing gays in their military.

It turns out, however, that “Elvis in Jerusalem” is less a series of anecdotes about Israel’s Americanization than another critique of Israel and Israelis in general. Mr. Segev writes of Israeli “war crimes,” repeatedly refers to “the Zionist enterprise,” as if the state of Israel might be only an experiment, and slips in many dubious claims, such as that in Israel today “once again it is acceptable to hate the Palestinians openly.”

I can only comment that, however much Israelis may fear Mr. Arafat and his suicide bombers, in my many years of living in Israel I have rarely heard an Israeli express hatred for the Palestinians, either openly or in private. This despite the fact that unbridled expressions of hatred from the Palestinian side, toward Jews, are all too frequent.

Unsurprisingly, Mr. Segev has next to nothing to say about this Palestinian hatred, let alone about the outrages of those engaged in “the Palestinian enterprise.” Instead, at times he seems to side with the most hardline PLO positions, for example calling Ehud Barak’s sweeping concessions at Camp David “a peace of surrender” for the Palestinians.

The movement now known as post-Zionism gained considerable public attention in the 1990s, thanks to the efforts of a small group of academics and journalists like Mr. Segev and the eagerness of Israel’s many enemies abroad to give prominence to their works.

In fact, as Mr. Segev notes, it is not new. In the 1920s the Tel Aviv poet Uriel Halperin famously declared: “I’m not Jewish.” Halperin and his colleagues as Mr. Segev explains believed that Muslims, Druze and Christians could be members of the Hebrew nation. And in 1985, Ha’aretz’s chief editor, Gershon Schocken, called on Israel to encourage mixed marriages between Jews and Arabs to create “a true Israeli nation.” (In fact, Jews have always “married out”; it is an Arab girl who puts her life at risk from her own family if she does so.)

The generation of revisionist historians that came to prominence in the 1990s believed that they were performing a valuable service by making Israel even more self-critical than it already was. Their own critics, on the other hand, believed that the post-Zionist campaign was dangerous, aiming to bring about what the enemies of Israel have so far been unable to do by force: to destroy the Jewish state spiritually from within, under the banner of liberalism.

Even if Mr. Segev sympathizes with the aspirations of the post-Zionists, there are moments in his book when he appears to display the kind of pride associated with more traditional Israelis. At one point he calls Israel “one of the great success stories of the twentieth century,” and he acknowledges that, unlike the British who previously governed Jerusalem, Israelis “have nowhere else to go.”

He also recognizes at the end of his book that, thanks to a new wave of Palestinian terror that has “pushed Israelis back into the Zionist womb,” the age of post-Zionism seems to be over, at least for now. He quotes Benjamin Netanyahu, the former prime minister, saying that Israel has moved on to an age of “post-post-Zionism.” Calling this “a retreat into the past,” Mr. Segev adds that “regrettably, Netanyahu may be right.” Most Israelis, by contrast, wanting their country to survive as a Jewish state, may not regret this at all.

(Mr. Gross has reported from Israel for the Sunday Telegraph of London and for the New York Daily News.)



Email to his friends from JB
Sent: 9 May 2002
Subject: On Passover we lean to the left

I read your article and would like to comment on your analysis of UK/European anti-Jewish/Israel sentiment.

I am a filmmaker. Last year I travelled to Genoa with my friend, the author XXX. We travelled with Globalise Resistance to track the anti-capitalist movement at the G8 summit. We witnessed 300,000 people taking to the streets to protest at global social injustice. And overwhelmingly, Israel was one of their targets.

Was this not the left? Would they not support the struggle of a minority? Would they not see that a tiny state, born from socialism, was defending its own people from acts of aggression?

Clearly not. The anger was loud and vocal.

The best scene in any paranoid thriller is when the paranoid’s fears turn out to be true. So here I am, a paranoid Jew, surrounded by friends who daily denounce Israel’s terrorism to me.

My friends cite sources I used to trust: CNN, the BBC and the morning paper. They accuse the Jewish leaders, the Jewish lobby, the Jewish middle class and the Jewish media conspiracy.

Ah yes, I say, the Jewish media conspiracy. From Hollywood to St Johns Wood... of course.

The Jewish community recognises this irony. But for those of us who support the left, who embraced the vision of Rabin and Barak, who do not wave flags for Sharon and Netanyahu, it is less clear-cut.

I dissent. But not so loudly, not any more.

A few months ago I was in a Tel Aviv cafe having lunch. Four hours later the cafe was blown up. I remember screams, smoke and sirens. I prayed for the victims, the waitress I had fancied, the Palestinian teen strapped with explosive.

But I knew that back home that my friends my media-savvy friends would feel for the bomber, not the bombed.

The Palestinians need help, certainly. They need a state, elections and democracy. But I won’t be a poster boy for pro-Palestinian PR just because I disagree on Israeli policy issues. I won’t be blown up over a Caesar salad and ignored. And I certainly won’t be turned into a self-hating Jew, quoting half-truths from the media because it seems to be a human rights issue.

Why are the opinion-makers forcing me to turn to the right? Why must I quote editorials from The Sun and The Mail to know I am being objective. Why does the left not support me?

On Monday I rallied with thousands of others in solidarity with Israel. With me were little old ladies, randy kids on the pull, parents in neatly creased corduroys and Zionists draped in Israeli flags.

It was a true peaceful protest, a far cry from Genoa, with comment from the left and the right, with solidarity for Israel. It was a peace rally, not a war rally. But as we held a minute’s silence, remembering all the victims of terror, the chant of the pro-Palestinan activists echoed loud across the square.

And I wondered to myself which crowd would look better on TV.

-- JB



“To the sound of bombs, Israel’s left wakes up”
By Jonathan Kay, editorials editor
The National Post (Canada)
May 8, 2002

The first time I visited Israel was in 1975. The Jewish state, then half its current age, had the feel of a feisty frontier society. I was only seven but I still remember my parents dragging me from kibbutz to kibbutz to observe weather-beaten Zionists harvesting oranges and pomegranates. Soldiers were everywhere. Only two years before, Arab armies had attacked Israel on Yom Kippur.

Yesterday’s suicide bombing of a Rishon Lezion pool hall reminded Israelis the Arabs still wish them dead. Yet, in other ways, much has changed. Troops and tanks are still a common sight. Thanks to prosperity and yuppification, however, Tel Aviv and the coastal plain have become blandly Western. On my block there are two homeopathic pharmacies. Tiny tots carry cell phones. To buy a decent house costs half a million dollars.

Israelis have become Westernized ideologically too. Like their counterparts in North America and Europe, many of the Jewish state’s top intellectuals bash their own society and whitewash those it supposedly “oppresses.” Post-Zionist academic theories, Israel’s answer to the “post-colonial” studies taught in the West, have become popular.

If only the Palestinians had a leader who knew how to exploit the Israelis’ Western-style knack for self-flagellation, they might have their own country by now. Israel seized the strategically crucial Golan Heights and West Bank not because it sought to “colonize” them, pace Edward Said, but because it needed protection from tens of millions of hostile Arabs. Thirty-five years later, those Arabs are no less hostile, yet pseudo-colonialist guilt among Israel’s intelligentsia spurs some leaders to trade land for a false peace.

This explains why Ehud Barak offered Arafat a peace plan so generous it threatened Israel’s security; and why many Israelis subsequently pressured Barak to sweeten the deal after Arafat rejected it without making a counter-offer. In the long run, time is on the Palestinian side. As Noam Chomsky and Susan Sontag show us, the richer and freer nations get, the more self-loathing their intellectuals become; and the more willing they are to reinvent enemies as victims.

The original intifada, which began in 1987, bolstered the Palestinian cause by packaging the Arab-Israeli conflict as a colonial morality play. When Palestinian kids threw stones at Israeli soldiers, it reminded the French of Algeria, the British of India, and the Jews of themselves. But Arafat gambled away his advantage by moving from stones to bombs. Palestinian tactics have become so brutal they have overwhelmed most Israelis’ post-colonial sympathies.

Thoughtful Palestinians lament this fact. Last week, a delegation of prominent Canadian lawyers met Sari Nusseibeh, the head of Al-Quds University and the man who organized that first, successful intifada. “The only way to end the occupation and achieve peace is to understand Israeli public opinion,” he reportedly told them. “It’s opinion that drives Sharon’s policies. Palestinians have to stop turning opinion against themselves.”

Everywhere I look in Israel, I find confirmation of Nusseibeh’s analysis. Even among supporters of the hard-left Meretz, which describes itself as a “peace-seeking party in which Arabs and Jews work together,” support for Sharon’s invasion of the West Bank ran at about 60%.

“I am definitely not a Sharon supporter,” Yair Bortinger, a 26-year-old Tel Aviv University student and Meretz activist, told me. Like most of his friends, he endorsed Oslo and opposes Jewish settlements in the West Bank. “I believe Israel will get stronger if it retreats to its [pre-1967] borders. Then we would have the legitimacy to defend ourselves. When you control other people with occupation, you lose that legitimacy.”

But Bortinger had an ideological crisis when a bomber killed 29 Jews celebrating Passover in March.

“At that moment, we just wanted revenge. I’m conflicted about the whole thing. I still don’t agree with the invasion in principle. But at least the government [was] protecting us.”

The real question is why Arafat ignored Nusseibeh’s advice. Even Arafat’s enemies describe the Palestinian leader as savvy. Why did he continue to promote attacks against Israel even after Sharon’s election victory made it clear violent tactics were turning Israel’s Bortingers against peace and thereby lessening Arafat’s chance of getting his state?

The answer is that Arafat doesn’t really want a Palestinian state any more unless he can get one without making compromises. And the only way that will happen is through an all-out regional war that results in Israel’s destruction. This explains why Arafat’s cronies were so anxious to hype the faux-massacre in Jenin as a pan-Arab causus belli.

Bortinger and millions of left-leaning Israelis like him once thought the peace process could be reignited once the current spasm of violence ends. But senseless massacres such as yesterday’s coupled with the disclosure of documents linking Arafat to the murderers who perpetrated them changed that. Two years ago, the Israeli left explained away terrorism as an organic product of colonial-style occupation. Now, few do. They know that an independent Palestinian state would likely become a base for terrorist attacks on pre-1967 Israel, as well as an advance base for foreign Arab armies.

“Post-Zionism,” in other words, is taking a backseat to realism in Israel. And for anyone who cares about the survival of the Jewish state, that can only be good news.



Pro-Israel demonstration in Berlin
Agence France Presse
May 12, 2002

Some 1,000 people from left-wing and humanitarian organisations marched through Berlin Sunday in support of Israel and calling on the EU not to shelter 13 Palestinian militants from the siege in Bethlehem.

Shimon Samuels of the Los-Angeles-based, Nazi-hunting Simon Wiesenthal Center said at the start of the demonstration: “We urge (German Foreign Minister) Joschka Fischer to take a strong position tomorrow to convince his fellow foreign ministers that it would be immoral to grant shelter to serial killers from Bethlehem.”

After helping to end the Israeli siege of the Church of the Nativity, the European Union has to work out what to do with 13 Palestinian militants on Israel’s most wanted list who were evacuated to Cyprus as part of the agreement ending the siege.

EU foreign ministers were expected to decide their status on Monday in Brussels.

Sunday’s demonstration was organized by the Berlin Alliance against IG Farben, a coalition of left-wing German groups originally formed to seek payments for former slave laborers from the Nazi-era IG Farben chemical company. IG Farben made the Zykon B gas used in extermination camps.

During the march from the foreign ministry to the Mitte section of central Berlin, demonstrators waved red flags alongside blue-and-white Israeli flags.

They also held banners declaring “solidarity with the state of Israel, against anti-Semitism.”

All notes and summaries copyright © Tom Gross. All rights reserved.