A debate: Is Zionism today the real enemy of the Jews?

Avi Shlaim

International Herald Tribune, 4 February 2005

These articles are based on remarks delivered in a debate in London on Jan. 25 organized by Intelligence Squared. The motion was: ``Zionism today is the real enemy of the Jews.'' The other speakers were Jacqueline Rose and Amira Hass, for the motion, and Melanie Phillips and Raphael Israeli, against. After the debate, the audience voted 355 to 320 in favor of the motion, with 40 abstentions.

YES: Avi Shlaim
OXFORD, England

Zionism is the national liberation movement of the Jewish people and the state of Israel is its political expression. Israel used to be a symbol of freedom and a source of pride for the Jews of the Diaspora. Israel's mistreatment of the Palestinians, however, has turned it into a liability and a moral burden for the liberal segment of the Jewish community. Some Jews, especially on the left, would go even further by linking Israel's behavior to the upsurge of the new anti-Semitism throughout the world.

Israel's illegal occupation of the Palestinian territories since 1967 is the underlying problem. Occupation transformed the Zionist movement from a legitimate national liberation movement for the Jews into a colonial power and an oppressor of the Palestinians.

By Zionism today I mean the ideological, ultra-nationalist settlers and their supporters in the Likud-led government. These settlers are a tiny minority but they maintain a stranglehold over the Israeli political system. They represent the unacceptable face of Zionism. Zionism does not equal racism, but many of these hard-line settlers and their leaders are blatant racists. Their extremism and their excesses have led some people to start questioning not just the Zionist colonial project beyond the 1967 borders but also the legitimacy of the state of Israel within those borders. And it is these settlers who also endanger the safety and well-being of Jews everywhere.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon personifies this xenophobic, exclusive, aggressive and expansionist brand of Zionism. One of the greatest accolades in Judaism is to be a rodef shalom, a seeker of peace. Sharon is not that by any stretch of the imagination. He is a man of war and the champion of violent solutions.

Sharon's purpose is politicide: to deny the Palestinians any independent political existence in Palestine. His plan for withdrawal from Gaza is called "the unilateral disengagement plan.'' It is not a peace plan but a prelude to the annexation of large chunks of the West Bank to Israel. Sharon, the unilateralist par excellence, is a Jewish Rambo - the antithesis of the traditional Jewish values of truth, justice and tolerance.

Sharon's government is waging a savage war against the Palestinian people. Its policies include the confiscation of land; the demolition of houses; the uprooting of trees; curfews, roadblocks and 736 checkpoints that inflict horrendous hardships; the systematic abuse of Palestinian human rights; and the building of the illegal wall on West Bank, a wall that is as much about land-grabbing as it is about security.

It is this brand of cruel Zionism that is the real enemy of what remains of liberal Israel and of the Jews outside Israel. It is the enemy because it fuels the flames of virulent and sometimes violent anti-Semitism. Israel's policies are the cause; hatred of Israel and anti-Semitism are the consequences.

There has been much talk in recent years about ``the new anti-Semitism.'' The argument, in a nutshell, is that the resurgence of anti-Semitism has little or nothing to do with Israel's behavior. Anti-Zionism is merely a surrogate, so the argument runs, for bad, old-fashioned anti-Semitism.

These arguments need to be addressed. First: What is anti-Semitism? Isaiah Berlin defined an anti-Semite as ``someone who hates Jews more than is strictly necessary!'' This mischievous definition has the merit of applying to all anti-Semitism, old as well as new.

But we need to look beyond the labels. Is there a lot of classic anti-Semitism about? Yes. Is anti-Semitism spreading in Europe? Yes, at an alarming rate. Do some people use anti-Zionism as a respectable cover for their despicable Judeophobia? Alas, yes again. What is the relative weight of hatred of Israel on the one hand and Judeophobia on the other in the making of the new anti-Semitism? I don't know.

What I do know is that a lot of decent people, without any anti-Semitic baggage, are furious with Israel because of its oppression of the Palestinians. There is simply no getting away from the fact that attitudes toward Israel are changing as a result of its own shift towards the Zionism of the extreme right and of the radical rabbis. During the years of the Oslo peace process, Israel was in fact the favorite of the West because it was willing to withdraw from the occupied territories.

Israel's image today is negative not because it is a Jewish state but because it habitually transgresses the norms of acceptable international behavior. Indeed, Israel is increasingly perceived as a rogue state, as an international pariah, and as a threat to world peace.

This perception of Israel is a major factor in the recent resurgence of anti-Semitism in Europe and in the rest of the world. In this sense, Zionism today is the real enemy of the Jews. It is a tragedy that a state that was built as a haven for the Jewish people after the Holocaust is now one of the least safe places on earth for Jews to live in. Israel ought to withdraw from the occupied territories not as a favor to the Palestinians but as a favor to itself and to world Jewry for, as Karl Marx noted, a people that oppresses another cannot itself remain free.

Avi Shlaim is a British Academy Research Professor at St. Antony's College, Oxford, and author of ``The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World.''

NO: Shlomo Ben-Ami

The argument that "today" Zionism is a threat to the Jews is a convenient pretext for a wider challenge to the legitimacy of the state of Israel. Zionism was put in the dock by its detractors many years before the current intifada. Nobody recalls that an earthquake was registered among the Western Intelligentsia when, 30 years after the Holocaust, an infamous UN resolution equating Zionism with racism was passed. In 1975, one should recall, there were hardly any settlements in the territories, and the Palestine Liberation Organization had not yet endorsed the two-state solution.

The now fashionable ivory-tower nonsense about a one-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute still draws its rationale from the old topic that "religion is not a proper basis for statehood,'' as if the European states were not historically born as Christian republics, and as if the Arab states surrounding Israel are a monument to religious diversity.

Israel has faced in recent years a political and moral crisis that is circumstantial, not built in or written into its genetic code, for it is a predicament that affected most Western nations in the modern era. It responds to a conflict that is solvable between two competing nationalisms. Europe, which too frequently looks at us with the air of a sanctimonious finger-wagger, knows from experience how bitter can such conflicts become.

This is exactly the crux of the matter: the intriguing attitude that turns what may be the reproachable policies of a government into the trigger for a discourse whose underlying meaning is the negation of the right of existence of a state and now of the entire Zionist idea. The vilification of Israel has long superseded what may be defined as legitimate criticism, for it has turned into an international bacchanalia of character assassination.

The Holocaust should not give the Jews and Israel any moral immunity from criticism, nor is it proper for Israelis to conveniently dismiss all and every attack against their reproachable policies as anti-Semitism. But it is likewise indecent that Israel should be treated as a state on probation, and singled out for international opprobium in a way that leads eventually to its delegitimation as a state.

Those who claim to be good-faith critics of Israel should be the first to lead the outcry against the monstruous absurdity whereby more UN resolutions are devoted to human rights abuses in Israel than to abuses in all other nations of the world combined. They should likewise be more ready to repel obscenities like the writer Jos' Saramago's comparison of Jenin to Auschwitz. A fierce urban battle in which 23 Israeli soldiers and 52 Palestinians, many of them terrorists who excelled in blowing up buses and kindergartens, died - compare this to Grozny, to the Kasbah of Algiers, or to Najaf and Falluja - has been likened to a death factory where 30,000 Jews were murdered daily; and Israel's "good-faith critics" kept silent.

Zionism is not a religious dogma, for it has always been a broad and democratically diverse movement. A bitter internal struggle has been going on for some time now on the boundaries of the idea. All and every study of Israeli public opinion today shows that the overwhelming majority of Israelis assume that the territorial phase of Zionism is over.

Nor have its ethical defences been put to rest. As Justice Itshak Zamir - not exactly a friend of the policies of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon - has explained, Israel is the only nation whose civilian courts have such a broad jurisdiction on military actions. Israel's Supreme Court ruling on the wall in the West Bank, which forced the government to change the wall's route, is a case in point.

Israeli human rights organizations, such as Betselem, which relentlessly draw attention to the moral price of occupation, and independent columnists who force us to look daily at the Palestinian tragedy and into our own share of responsibility for it, are a moral lighthouse for a nation in an always desperately difficult quest for balance between security and ethics. I am equally reinforced in my trust in the sanity of the Zionist idea by what now looks as the political and moral defeat of the settlers movement in the Gaza Strip and beyond.

None of the parties to this conflict has a monopoly on suffering and martyrdom. But we, the Jews, have not survived the horrors of extermination only to entrench ourselves behind the walls of our own convictions and remain there immobile. What brought Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to Oslo and the government where I served as a minister to Camp David and Taba was the need to devise a solution that would make Jewish statehood legitimate in the eyes of those who consider themselves its victims.

Now that Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas), the Palestinians' new leader, has finally interrupted his predecessor's compulsive surfing on the waves of death and suicide, a political process has again become a possibility. The former French foreign minister Hubert V'drine might be right after all: Like the French and the Germans we shall also reach a reconciliation, only that it will take us far less time and much less bloodshed than it took these two most civilized nations to settle their differences.

Shlomo Ben-Ami, a former Israeli foreign minister, took part in the Camp David summit meeting and led the Israeli team in the Taba negotiations.