“How can the Jews, of all people do this?”
I hear this too often when discussing the dispossession and occupation of the Palestinian people. It’s a tiresome line. Sure, I understand that on the surface this seems a reasonable question. But one doesn’t have to look very far to see that it isn’t.
Oppression and suffering don’t necessarily lead to a greater sensitivity to these things. We see this on a personal level, as well as on a larger scale. The victim of child abuse may well grow up to become an abuser. The victim of sexual abuse may also react to such an experience by repeating it on someone else. Many such people do not repeat the cycle, but many do.
Similarly, some large groups of people face discrimination and then bring it to others. Puritans faced discrimination in Europe, came to “the New World” and visited worse upon the native population, on slaves, and as time went on, on various other ethnic groups. Power changed hands at different times in Eastern Europe, and discrimination against one group or another continued to flourish. Shi’a have faced great discrimination in the Muslim world, and this has not brought about an egalitarian government in Iran. Hutus were once the majority treated like a minority in Rwanda. The Nazis rose to prominence on the strength of wounded German pride after years of economic deprivation in the wake of the First World War. The examples are legion.
On an individual level, many people of many different groups have also taken their history as oppressed or as oppressors and turned it into inspiration for social justice. Despite Israel’s crimes, I think Jews as a whole have done pretty well in this regard, but to arrive at that estimate, you mostly have to look outside of the so-called “mainstream” Jewish community, especially with regard to the question of Palestine; but if you do, you find a lot of Jews working to change things. And in fairness, mainstream Jewish groups have contributed positively to some humanitarian and liberal efforts, both in their own countries and around the world. Except, of course, when it comes to Israel and the Palestinians.
It’s frustrating. If the many otherwise liberal pro-Israel Jews who are supporting AIPAC, the Jewish National Fund, and buying Israel bonds would insist that such support would only continue if Israel granted full and equal rights to Palestinians (in whatever state formulation), things would change overnight. And if people in the US would learn basic history, economics and political theory, the right wing wouldn’t have a leg to stand on. But these things don’t and won’t happen.
But asking “how can the Jews do this” is simply narrow-minded. Jews are no different than anyone else. The issue is not the history of anti-Semitism. The issue is tribalism, nationalism and mixing those volatile ingredients with state power. Jews are behaving as most people would, and do.
Indeed, the very question presumes some sort of Jewish exceptionalism that is the premise of the worst strains of Zionism and is the case that Israel uses to excuse its own behavior. It was Theodor Herzl himself who described Diaspora Jewish existence as “abnormal,” positing that we could not live among the other peoples of the world and could achieve normalcy only through having a state of our own. Yet despite having that state, with its doors flung wide open for any and all Jews to come and live there, the majority of world Jewry is and has always been in the Diaspora. And in most of the countries we’re living in today, we’re doing just fine, thank you.
Anti-Semitism exists today, albeit in a much more muted and much less dangerous form than it has at almost any time in Jewish history, despite what Abe Foxman and other criers of wolf would have you believe. And yes, the history of anti-Semitism is an ugly one. But despite the insistence by Foxman and his ilk that Jews deserve some sort of special treatment due to our “unique” oppression, Jews have no monopoly on being discriminated against or hated.
Sadly, we have plenty of company in a long list of ethnic or religious groups, among women in myriad ways in different societies, amongst other stateless people like the Roma, among non-heterosexual and multi- or complex-gendered people… in short, there’s a lot of oppression. Anti-Semitism is unique among them, but so is each and every one of the others. They are dependent on context, historical circumstance and a whole host of other conditions that both create the discrimination and determine its form in different societies at different times.
The ability of Israeli Jews to treat the Palestinians as they do has its own unique character, to be sure. It is based on a reading of Jewish history that, in the Zionist reading, paints Jews as passive and weak, allowing ourselves to be driven out of land after land. It paints the Diaspora Jew as the eternal victim, which the strength of the Zionist movement and the State of Israel has reversed. But those are mere details. We can look all around the globe to find similar examples of the powerful, whether they have a history of such power or not, mistreating those less powerful.
So stop asking how it is that “the Jews” can do this. Plenty of Jews don’t, for one thing. For another, the fact that the organized Jewish community in the Diaspora combines with the government of Israel to dispossess the Palestinians and deprive them of their basic human and civil rights is not some sort of aberration. Both historically and in plenty of places around the world even today, it is the norm.
Jews are no different than anyone else. It’s time to stop holding us to a different standard. That means stop expecting us to somehow be better than everyone else on one hand and stop allowing the more unscrupulous of our leaders and loudest speakers – whether politicians like Benjamin Netanyahu, community leaders like Abe Foxman or mere loudmouth bullies like Alan Dershowitz – to intimidate you and others with false accusations of anti-Semitism. Instead, yes, call out the real anti-Semites (including those like David Duke, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or Gilad Atzmon who use the Palestinian cause to put a pleasant face on their anti-Semitism), but stop allowing Israel to use anti-Semitism, real or imagined, as an excuse for their intolerable treatment of the Palestinians.
Anti-Semitism does not confer onto Israel rights other countries do not have. It does not confer on it the right to ethnically cleanse its territory and create a global refugee population in the name of ensuring a Jewish majority. It does not confer onto Israel the right to hold millions of Palestinians on the West Bank without any rights whatsoever, to besiege and “put on a diet” the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip or to treat Palestinian citizens of Israel or residents of East Jerusalem as somehow inferior to Jewish citizens. Most of us would not find this acceptable behavior in an ally of our country, but somehow many of us make an exception or look the other way in the case of Israel. Treating Israel differently because it is a “Jewish state,”—now THAT is anti-Semitism.
If you are still wondering how it is that Jews can do what they do to Palestinians, I’ll leave you with a quote from one of my favorite old movies, Becket. In one scene, the Norman King Henry II, played by Peter O’Toole, tells his Saxon friend and aide Thomas Becket, portrayed by Richard Burton: “They hate you, you know.” To which Becket replies, “Of course. One always hates what one wrongs.”