Thursday, March 12, 2015

Israel, the Holocaust, American Jews, and Fundamentalist Christians

The decision by the Republican leadership to bypass President Obama and invite Israel’s leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, to give to give a talk to Congress was rather startling.  It was certainly indicative of the dysfunctional political state of affairs, but it also highlighted the special status Israel possesses in our national psyche.  Pundits claimed that the invitation was issued partly to irritate the president, but mainly to gain applause from the Republican base.  American Jewish organizations supported Netanyahu’s visit.  Jewish voting patterns suggest a distinctly liberal political tilt, yet they seem to support an Israeli government that appears determined to abuse and discriminate against a Palestinian minority in much the same way the Jews were abused and discriminated against for all those centuries in Christian countries.  This curious state of affairs deserves some consideration.

Tony Judt discusses Israel and what he refers to as America’s obsession with that nation in the book he produced in collaboration with Timothy Snyder: Thinking the Twentieth Century.  Ultimately, he concludes that our nation’s Jewish population has bought into the notion that Israel deserves special consideration because of the Holocaust, and deserves to be protected by us because it is under constant existential threat.  No other country has produced the unreserved support that Israel has received from United States. Judt provides us with some necessary perspective.

Judt is Jewish, born in England in 1948 of parents of Eastern European origin.  He was aware of the Holocaust his entire life, but it played little role in his life or that of his Jewish friends and relatives as he was growing up.  In fact the term was not even used at that time.  Today we think of the Holocaust as the defining event in Jewish history and a major justification for Israel’s existence.

“It can be very difficult, particularly when teaching here in the United States, to convey how far the Holocaust was from the center of people’s concerns or decisions during World War II….we cannot, if we wish to give a fair account of the recent past, read back into it our own ethical and communitarian priorities.  The harsh reality is that Jews, Jewish suffering and Jewish extermination were not matters of overwhelming concern to most Europeans (Jews and Nazis aside) of that time.  The centrality that we now assign to the Holocaust, both as Jews and as humanitarians, is something that only emerged decades later.”

It is necessary to recall that the United States and the nations of Europe were all considerably more anti-Semitic in the middle of the last century than they are now.  None of the allies thought it wise to make the systematic elimination of Jews a reason for fighting the war.  Most chose to avoid the issue.

“….the history of American Jews is in many respects the story of a belated response—often delayed by a generation or more—to events in Europe or the Middle East.  Consciousness of the Jewish Catastrophe—and its aftermath in the creation of the State of Israel—came well after the fact.  The generation of the 1950s would much rather have continued to look the other way—something I can confirm from the different but comparable British experience.  Israel in those years was like a distant relative: someone of whom one spoke fondly and to whom one sent a birthday card regularly, but were he to visit you and overstay his welcome, it would be embarrassing and ultimately an irritant.”

The holocaust was not something around which a people could build national or ethnic pride.  The prevalent image of Jews being led “like lambs to the slaughter” would have to be overcome.

“Americans, rather like Israelis in this respect, valued success, achievement, promotion, individualism, the overcoming of impediments to self-advancement and a dismissive unconcern with the past.  The Holocaust, accordingly, was not an altogether untroubling story, particularly with the widespread view that Jews had gone ‘like lambs to the slaughter.”

“….I don’t think the Holocaust fitted at all comfortably into American Jewish sensibilities—much less American public life as a whole—until the national narrative itself had learned to accommodate and even idealize stories of suffering and victimhood.”

It would be the Six-Day War in 1967 that would allow Jews to re-imagine themselves and view Israel as something they should take pride in and as something precious that must be preserved at all cost.  The Holocaust could then be elevated to its appropriate place as the central event in recent Jewish history, and it could become a means of rallying Jews and others to the aid of
Israel with the cry “never again.”

Judt had spent summers living and working as a young and idealistic Zionist in the farms of Israel.  He also volunteered to return and assist as the threat of war increased.  The Six-Day War would be a period of great disenchantment as he discovered that the Israel of the rural farms where he had toiled had little to do with the Israel that actually existed.  He was assigned as a translator to make use of his proficiency in English, French, and Hebrew.  In this position he was able to become more familiar with Israeli soldiers and the actual nature of the State of Israel.

“….I had been indoctrinated into an anachronism, had lived an anachronism, and now I saw the depths of my delusion.  For the first time I met Israelis who were chauvinistic in every meaning of the word: anti-Arab in a sense bordering upon racism; quite undisturbed at the prospect of killing Arabs wherever possible; frequently regretting that they had not been allowed to fight their way through to Damascus and beat down the Arabs for good and all; full of scorn for what they called the ‘heirs of the Holocaust,’ Jews who lived outside of Israel and who did not understand or appreciate the new Jews, the native-born Israelis.”

“This was not the fantasy world of socialist Israel that so many Europeans loved (and love) to imagine—a wishful projection of all the positive qualities of Jewish Central Europe with none of the drawbacks.  This was a Middle Eastern country that despised its neighbors and was about to open a catastrophic, generation-long rift with them by seizing and occupying their land.”

The Israelis recognized that they could use the Holocaust to justify just about anything they chose to do.  Peace was of little value because they gained more by being the little country permanently surrounded by threatening neighbors.  The victimhood of the Holocaust provided them with an argument that the world owed them something, and continued turmoil kept alive the notion that a repeat of the Holocaust could occur if Israel was not properly supported.

“To my knowledge, no one in the Israeli political class—and certainly no one in the Israeli military or policy-making elite—has ever expressed any private doubt as to Israel’s survival: certainly not since 1967 and, in most cases, not before then either.  The fear that Israel could be ‘destroyed,’ ‘wiped off the face of the earth.’ ‘driven into the sea’ or in any other way exposed to something remotely resembling a re-run of the past, is not a genuine fear.  It is a politically calculated rhetorical strategy.”

Judt believes that this practice of continually “crying wolf” has already become counterproductive. 

“Ever since Ben-Gurion, Israeli policy has quite explicitly insisted upon the assertion that Israel—and with it the whole of world Jewry—remains vulnerable to a re-run of the Holocaust.  The irony, of course, is that Israel itself constitutes one very strong piece of evidence to the contrary….As a state, Israel—in my view irresponsibly—exploits the fears of its own citizens.  At the same time it exploits the fears, memories and responsibilities of other states.  But in so doing, it risks over the course of time consuming the very moral capital that enabled it to exercise such exploitation in the first instance.”

Judt refers to the Holocaust as a Get Out of Jail Free Card for what Israel has become—a rogue state.  The United States, and most other countries, seeks peace and stability in the Middle East.  Israel’s current leaders have no interest in either until their goals are attained.  The United States has then been put in the position of having to provide unconditional support for a state, Israel, whose actions are harmful to its interests.

Given this bizarre state of affairs, how does Israel maintain its chokehold on the United States government?  Consider the results of polling on attitudes towards Israel. Max Fisher provides a discussion in the Washington Post: 8 fascinating trends in how American Jews think about Israel.  The data indicates that religion is an important factor in determining attitudes and allegiances.

“On one side are the reform and secular Jews who make up 65 percent of the U.S. Jewish population, sometimes joined by the 17 percent who identify with conservative Judaism. This group is more likely to worry about or criticize Israeli policies toward Palestinians. It's less likely to claim an emotional attachment to Israel and less likely still to argue that the country was promised to Jews by God.”

“On the other side are the small minority of Orthodox Jews – about 10 percent of American Jews – joined by America's much larger community of white Evangelical Christians. This block is more likely to oppose an independent Palestinian state, to support settlements and to argue that Israel was promised to Jews by God. That last point is particularly important for how you view Israel-Palestine, as it could suggest that Israel should control all Palestinian land outright and permanently – and that seeing this through is a divinely mandated mission.”

Orthodox Jews and white Evangelical Christians tend to support policies that are not in the best interests of their country.  Orthodox Jews are becoming more numerous as they are breeding faster than more secular Jews in both this country and in Israel.  It is not surprising that they would have the views that they do but what about Evangelical Christians?  Where are they coming from?

Joe Bageant provides a startling introduction to fundamentalist Christians in our country in his book Deer Hunting with Jesus: Dispatches from America's Class War.

“But taken as a whole, fundamentalists have three things in common: they are whiter than Aunt Nelly’s napkin, and, for the most part, they are working class and have only high school educations.”

“Yet some evangelicals stand apart from the mainstream in one important way: They would scrap the Constitution and institute ‘Biblical Law,’ the rules of the Old Testament, and they take the long view toward the establishment of a theocratic state.  Others believe we are rapidly entering the End Times and the fulfillment of the darkest biblical prophesies….they see a theocracy of one sort or another as a necessary part of the End Times, and, though few publicly say so, some are not averse to nuclear war in the Middle East, ideally with the help of Israel.”

They see the founding of the modern state of Israel as the initiating event of End Times.

“....the Messiah can return to earth only after an apocalypse in Israel called Armageddon, which a minority of influential fundamentalists are promoting with all their power so that The End can take place.  The first requirement was the establishment of the state of Israel.  Done.  The next is Israel’s occupation of the Middle East as a return of its ‘Biblical lands.’  Which means more wars.  Radical Christian conservatives believe that peace cannot ever lead to Christ’s return, and indeed impedes the thousand-year Reign of Christ, and that anyone promoting peace is a tool of Satan.  Fundamentalists support any and all wars Middle Eastern....”

Needless to say, such beliefs lead to political conclusions that are not helpful, including the following:

“Israel is to be defended at all costs and even encouraged to expand, because the Bible declares that Israel must rule all the land from the Nile to the Euphrates in order for End Times prophecy to be fulfilled.”

Aren’t we fortunate that one of our two major political parties, the Republican, feels a need to pledge fealty to such people?

Was it really appropriate to describe Israel as a rogue state?  Peter Beinart discusses the state of Israeli politics and the state of American Jewry in an article that appeared in the New York Review of Books in 2010: The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment.

Beinart describe the American Jewish establishment as one that fell in love with Israel when its existence was feared threatened in the Six-Day War.  It viewed Israel then as a liberal state that would set an example for how to deal with minority populations within its confines.  This image of Israel was rapidly proved false, but the leaders of politically powerful Jewish organizations have refused to acknowledge any shortcomings on the part of Israel and have continued to give it unqualified support.  Meanwhile, their children, except for Orthodox Jews, have become more secular and less interested in Israel as a Jewish responsibility.

Beinart describes Israel as a country as polarized as ours.  The secular Israelis are more flexible in their attitudes towards dealing with the Palestinians.  Orthodox Israelis and other conservatives are not flexible at all.  Consider this description by Beinart of Netanyahu’s beliefs and his administration:

“In his 1993 book, A Place among the Nations, Netanyahu not only rejects the idea of a Palestinian state, he denies that there is such a thing as a Palestinian. In fact, he repeatedly equates the Palestinian bid for statehood with Nazism. An Israel that withdraws from the West Bank, he has declared, would be a “ghetto-state” with “Auschwitz borders.” And the effort “to gouge Judea and Samaria [the West Bank] out of Israel” resembles Hitler’s bid to wrench the German-speaking “Sudeten district” from Czechoslovakia in 1938. It is unfair, Netanyahu insists, to ask Israel to concede more territory since it has already made vast, gut-wrenching concessions. What kind of concessions? It has abandoned its claim to Jordan, which by rights should be part of the Jewish state.”

Netanyahu has incorporated into his government individuals with similar views.

“Israeli governments come and go, but the Netanyahu coalition is the product of frightening, long-term trends in Israeli society: an ultra-Orthodox population that is increasing dramatically, a settler movement that is growing more radical and more entrenched in the Israeli bureaucracy and army, and a Russian immigrant community that is particularly prone to anti-Arab racism.”

A political solution to the Israeli-Palestinian issues seems a faded, long-ago dream.  The United States should at least learn to disassociate itself from the goals of what has indeed become a rogue state.

1 comment:

  1. Not sure I agree with your thesis.

    I think both the extremes, fundamentalists/orthodoxs and the secular/intellectuals are fairly unimportant to the issue and should probably be ignored, although they are always the loudest voice.

    I think that perhaps the reality is that a) should America ever fall below a certain point of support for Israel and b) should Israel ever let down her guard beyond a certain point then c) you would witness a much more organized, much larger Arab attempt to destroy Israel completely.

    I understand completely that Israel has used the Holocaust to it's political advantage over and over. But having witnessed 30+ years of zealous and murderous aggression,beginning with the suicide bombing in Beirut, continuing through the 911 bombings until we now see the largest organized Arab threat yet in ISIS, I can't imagine that a true existential threat to Israel from Mohammed's true believers does not exist.

    So, their voices may not be pleasant to hear and their arguments may not be completely rational and may, in fact, sound nothing but self-serving. But I think the fundamentalists and orthodoxs, in the end, wind up being correct, despite themselves.


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