Walking from Westminster to Trafalgar Square one afternoon in May or June 2002, I came upon a small picket-demonstration — a dozen people perhaps — waving Palestinian flags and placards on the pavement across the road from the entrance to the Prime Minister’s residence in Downing Street.
I saw from a distance, and wondered at it, that half the demonstrators were dressed in the black hats and clothes and the beards that identified them as some sort of especially religious Jews.
I had known, of course, that some devout Jews believe that the creation of the state of Israel is a monstrous act of impiety and defiance against the God whose will it was that the Jews scatter across the world. I had never encountered such people before, so I stopped to talk.
An intelligent, alert man of about 30 explained their point of view. Those Jews who created Israel were rebels against God, criminals. Israel has no right to exist.
What, I asked, would he replace Israel by?
“A Palestinian state, of course!”
“The Israelis will not agree to that.”
“They should get out, give Palestine back to the Palestinians.”
“Where would they go?”
“Oh, there are many countries that would have them.”
So I said that for the generation that founded Israel, nobody would have them. And what should they have done in face of Hitler?
“It was their own fault — Hitler only made war on the Jews because they made war on him. He said so!”
“So they shouldn’t have fought back?”
“No! Jews were meant to suffer.”
And so it went on.
To resist, fight back, struggle to shape their destiny — that was impious. He was very indignant with Israel and, I think, sincerely sympathetic to the Palestinians.
I was concerned to question and listen — to understand. My theological wits being blunt from lack of use, I didn’t in time think to ask him how he knew that his God had decreed the Diaspora but not the Jewish “ingathering” in Israel.
After all, many fundamentalist Christians in the US and elsewhere — Ian Paisley, for instance — see the re-emergence of Israel as God’s will, as proof that the world is being prepared for the “Second Coming” of Christ (such people, I understand, are a major part of the pro-Israel lobby in US politics).
I regretted afterwards also not thinking to ask what he and his friends would have done in the Warsaw ghetto in 1943 , when those marked for systematic destruction by the Nazis rose in arms against impossible odds to write one of the great chapters in humankind’s long struggle against predatory tyrants But I have no doubt at all what the answer would have been.
I may, through lack of theological subtlety, be crudifying his arguments a bit here. I don’t think so; but if I am, I do not do it knowingly, for effect.
Continuing my journey, it occurred to me that, apart from the small number of Jewish theological anti-Zionists, the only other group of people of Jewish background who are outrightly anti-Israel — wanting the destruction of the Israeli state, as distinct from being critical of Israel or opponents of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian-majority territories — are people influenced by “anti-Zionist” “Marxism”, that special “Marxism” created by the Stalinists and taken over by post-Trotsky “Trotskyism”.
Of proponents of this “Marxism”, the most influential in the last 30 years was the late Tony Cliff, a Palestinian Jew in origin — he came to Europe in 1946 — and a vicarious Arab nationalist by conviction. Cliff could get away with preaching attitudes to Israel, and implicitly to Jews, that would, in someone who did not look and sound like Israel’s first Prime Minister, David Ben Gurion, have been easily identified as virulent antisemitism.
By this I mean not “racism”, but comprehensive hostility to most Jews alive, who to one degree or another give their support — often reluctant and critical support — to Israel; who are heirs to the identity stamped on Jews by the murderous antisemitism of the 20th century.
The events of the first half of the 20th century turned Zionism — which fundamentally means commitment to a Jewish state, and then to Israel — from a minority movement amongst Jews to something that is part of the identity of almost all Jewish people. Critically or mindlessly, unreservedly or grudgingly, to one degree or another, Jews identify with Israel. Why shouldn’t they? How could they not?
Knowing something of the history as distinct from the poisoned mythology of how and why Israel came into existence, how could any person of average goodwill find this unreasonable? How could it be otherwise? Unless you share the viewpoint of the Jewish sectaries demonstrating in Whitehall, that Jews must eternally suffer, must humbly submit to ill-treatment, never by their actions try to influence the destiny which God, left to his own inclinations, would inflict on them, how could you argue that the Israelis in 1948 should not have defended themselves? Not that this or that should have been done differently, but that they should have meekly submitted to the invading Arab armies, which was the only alternative to fighting and prevailing. Or that they should now dismantle their national state and put themselves at the mercy of the surrounding states?
No people, no state in history, has ever done that. Why should anyone who does not have a “special” attitude to Israel and to Jews demand it of them? (As distinct from seeking a solution that would do something like justice to both Palestinians and Jews.)
This viewpoint in an anti-Israel religious Jew is one thing — eccentric, strange, bizarre, whatever you like. But when a socialist who is not a consistent pacifist adopts the attitude to the Jews expressed by the demonstrator I talked to in Whitehall, then it is not masochism of the Jewish mystics, but its exact opposite. It becomes a “special” attitude to Jews.
Support for any solution other than two states — Israel side by side with a Palestinian state — inescapably implies a “special” attitude to Israel. Unless you are an Israeli chauvinist opposed to a Palestinian state, it implies, logically and organically, a comprehensive hostility to most Jews alive because they will rightly resist the equation of Israeli nationalism with anti-Arab “racism”, reject calls on the Israel nation to commit suicide by way of voluntarily dismantling its state, and refuse to find anything “progressive” in rocket attacks on Israel such as Saddam Hussein made in 1991 during the Gulf war (and some British pseudo-lefts accepted as useful “anti-Zionism”). In short, they reject the attitudes of my abnegating, self-denying mystic in Whitehall.
It is of course possible to argue that Zionism and Israel are such an evil that the neo-antisemitic implications of advocating Israel’s destruction are an acceptable “overhead cost” of necessary political activity. That attitude is in fact implied in much of what the British pseudo-left says and does, and in what it does not say and do. But who would go so far as to state that and argue for it openly?
It is a precondition of rational discussion of the issues that these implications are brought into the light of scrutiny and rational assessment.