If Israel's Policies Are Unjust, We Should Say So

Roundup: Media's Take

Henry Siegman, writing in the Financial Times (London) (Feb. 10th, 2004)

It would have been hard to imagine in the aftermath of the second world war that the issue of anti-Semitism would once again require the attention of decent men and women within the lifetime of Holocaust survivors. It would have been even harder to imagine that the state of Israel, whose creation was intended by its Zionist founders as a cure for the malignancy of anti-Semitism, would itself be seen as being at the heart of this disease's recrudescence.

These thoughts are occasioned by the European Commission's preparations for a conference on anti-Semitism next week, and by a recent essay by Omer Bartov, a professor of history at Brown University*. There is much in this essay that serves importantly to identify the dangers of a re-emerging cultural and political anti-Semitism. Particularly disturbing is tolerance of an anti-Semitism that has polluted much of the religious and political discourse in Islamic countries.

Nevertheless, Mr Bartov recognises the problem of confusing legitimate criticism of Israeli policies with anti-Semitism. He finds that the"policies of the current Israeli government in the territories are indeed contrary to the strategic and moral interests of the Jewish state", a point that takes some courage to make these days.

Yet one has to ask whether criticism of objectionable Israeli policies is justified only if these policies are seen as damaging to Israel's"strategic and moral interests". That this would be a dangerously narrow view was illustrated recently by the astounding comments of Benny Morris, the Israeli historian of Israel's War of Independence, in an interview with the Ha'aretz newspaper (January 9).

Mr Morris said that David Ben Gurion, Israel's first prime minister, realised at the outset of the war that the new state of Israel would face impossible demographic problems unless the areas that came under Israeli control were" cleansed" of their Arab inhabitants. Ben Gurion, he said, issued"operational orders that state explicitly that (Israeli forces) were to uproot the villagers, expel them and destroy the villages themselves". Mr Morris concedes that these actions constituted war crimes, but insists they were justified by circumstances, for they served Israel's political and moral interests, namely securing the return of Jews to their historic patrimony.

To insist on the legitimacy of criticism of unjust Israeli policies is not to condone its transformation into blatant anti-Semitism. Those who preach the destruction of the Jewish state should not be allowed to hide behind the unfortunate policies of Ariel Sharon, Israel's prime minister. Supporting the cause of Palestinian nationhood does not require denial of the right of Jews to live in their own state.

It is important to add that the desire of Palestinians to return to territory they consider to be their patrimony is not to be construed as anti-Semitism. For most Palestinians a return to what they consider to be their legitimate home is no more motivated by an ideological imperative to destroy Jews and their homeland than the Jewish return to Zion is shaped by a Jewish desire to destroy the Arab community in Palestine. Rather, both sides have come up against the hard truth that return cannot be achieved without destroying the other unless they are prepared to divide the land equitably. This is an endlessly complicated task that will not be made easier by inappropriate accusations of Palestinian anti-Semitism or of Zionist hatred of Islam.

The struggle against anti-Semitism is not helped by wilful or misguided exaggeration. Prof Bartov recognises the danger from"hysterics" who seem not to know"that Hitler and the Third Reich are history". He notes that Jews are more prosperous, more successful and safer in the US than they have ever been, and"the same could even be said about the nervous Jews of western Europe".

The important question to be asked about criticism of unjust Israeli policies should not be how anti-Semites might exploit such criticism, but rather how these policies can be changed. Preventing injustice should hold a higher priority for friends of Israel, not to mention Israelis themselves, than preventing the exploitation of criticism of that injustice by anti-Semites, who in any event are never at a loss to find reasons for their hatred. Jews who do not regard this as a priority not only fail their Jewish heritage but also perversely help to make the anti-Semites' case.

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