Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has declared common ground with several, or perhaps all, of Europe’s far-right-leaders by suggesting that Jews don’t belong here. The difference is that Netanyahu is inviting Jews to where he happens to be; but this outbreak of traditional Zionist denigration of the diaspora, although applauded by many, is less helpful than it looks.
We hear from a much-challenged recent poll that more than half of British Jews have some doubts about the longterm prospects of their community. Other studies have shown smaller, although not insignificant agreement with this view. Part of this malaise reflects the attractions of life in Israel and its lower rates of assimilation (although secularism ensures that plenty of Israelis are barely ‘Jewish’ in a conventional sense). It cannot be the longterm safety of Israel that attracts, since the physical dangers there are far greater than here. So why the misgivings of half of British Jews about life in the UK?
I think they have much to do with events over which Netanyahu has some control. Bombing Gaza elevated the Hamas government to victimhood by means of civilian casualties, fatally ignoring the rule that if your enemy wants you to do something, you should do the opposite. Rockets and tunnels which could have been dealt with by drones or listening devices, were attacked because someone on the Israeli side thought the negative impact could be brazened out. They correctly relied on US complaisance, but in Europe, post-colonialist consciousness – hyper-sensitive to civilian casualties – made Israeli arguments look disingenuous.
I would argue that the consensus Netanyahu has built since about 1999 encourages Jews to perceive themselves as outsiders. Try defending Israeli military actions over the past few years to British observers, and see how far you get. The only polite – and truthful – thing to say is that diaspora Jews are not Israeli voters, deplore the often unnecessary exploitation of Palestinian vulnerability, and hope that Israelis will find interlocutors in the Arab camp with whom to establish a two-state solution. The situation is helped neither by Palestinian nor Israeli intransigence. The alternatives to two states are unpromising: a non-Jewish single state, or a racially exclusive Jewish one. The arguments offered by Hasbara experts – that Israel acts invariably under force of circumstances and with military restraint – look plain wrong.
Perhaps Netanyahu calculated that Jews already feel foreign in Europe and just need reminding to leave. But the young Israeli Palestinian depicted in the powerful film Aravim Rokdim (Dancing Arabs) is so alienated from Israel that he symbolically ‘dies’ and finally escapes to Berlin, where he can live freely – in Europe. Several Israelis to whom I have mentioned the film said they could not bear to see it; perhaps the implicit metaphor was too strong for them: Israeli Arabs represent European Jews, and Israel a Europe they must flee.
The Zionist view of the diaspora revealed by Netanyahu’s intervention in European politics, and the support he received from some in the Jewish community, reflect Jewish thinking on territory that urgently needs to be challenged. Few would dispute that by the early twentieth century Jews needed a home. The accepted Zionist narrative that Israel must be this home, however hard to justify, has won the day. But arguments for homelands based on historical sources lead to absurd results. We would have Greeks in Syria, Vikings in York, and half of mankind searching for roots in a valley near Dusseldorf in Germany called Neanderthal. Past Jewish occupation of the Holy Land may be grounds for nostalgia, or even (for the religious) belief in eventual return, but cannot constitute a sole legal claim – not in the real world.
Jews have a long tradition of attachment to Israel, and their presence should need no justification. What can be challenged is the claim of divine right to exclusive and permanent possession. The promise of the land to Abraham was fulfilled by the end of the Exodus, but the actual entry into the land is invisible in the Jewish sacred year. There is no festival to mark it, and since it is not mentioned in the Torah it is never encountered in the synagogue liturgy. Several texts suggest that the land is not an unconditional possession. Rashi (d. 1104) argued that the first verse of the Torah – ‘In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth’ – shows the land to be on divine loan, perhaps thinking, satirically, of the crusaders of his own time. The central Jewish prayer – the Shema –says it is held conditionally and warns of exile if Jews do not remain close to Torah. But failure to do this seems inevitable from Deuteronomy 4:25-6, which says not ‘if…you shall do evil’, but ‘when’ – implying certain failure to adhere to Torah. It is symbolically important that the entire generation of the Exodus were sentenced to die in the wilderness, as though setting a precedent for a view of a land promised not to ‘us’, but to our children. Maimonides’s (d. 1204) elevated view of spirituality suggests why attaining this closeness reflects an internal religious process with strong ethical links, rather than possession of land.
The first to view possession of the land as desirable in itself rather than as a symbolic process was Yehudah Halevi (d. 1141), who went there in response to malaise in Spain and died soon after arriving. He is a late and not particularly authoritative source for today’s quasi-article of territorial faith, and few followed his example. But many read his Kuzari, which became a key text for territorialists. Actual fulfilment of the dream became possible only with the invention of the steamship and railways, transforming religious imagery into political activity by the end of the nineteenth century.
Confusing words for reality, religious images for contemporary certainties and dreams for statements of intent, can be dangerous and – depending on context – a symptom of madness. For this reason, we have to read our texts clearly, and respect their textual nature. At an international conference in Tel-Aviv in December, the academic psychoanalysts Jessica Benjamin and Stephen Frosh delivered papers on peaceful conflict-resolution to an audience of Israeli Jews and Arabs and psychologists from Gaza. Each party to a conflict, they agreed, must empathically place itself in the position of the other, and in this way construct a common ground in which the morality of the conflict can be thought about. Not everyone who was there perhaps understood the size of the challenge, and it gave both Jews and Palestinians much to think about. A pity Netanyahu was not there.
Dr. Jeremy Schonfield is Research Fellow at the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies, and John Rayner Reader in Liturgy at Leo Baeck College, London.