As the death toll mounts in Gaza and images of the carnage spill onto our computer screens, anti-war Jews are bombarded with accusations of betrayal, acquiescing to global anti-Semitism and blaming oneself. It’s not the first time violence between Israel and the Palestinians has pitted Jew against Jew. But Operation Protective Edge shows how blind devotion to Israel, for many, trumps all other Jewish concerns.
This is especially true when the conflict has been so entirely one-sided. The good news is that knee-jerk defenses of Israeli aggression are being exposed for their absurdity, such as the sorry excuse that Hamas is putting civilians in the way of Israel’s missiles, placing the blame for civilian suffering on Palestinian society. This claim is never actually defended with evidence—were the four children butchered on a Gaza beach shielding a sand castle harboring mortar rounds? Worse, it’s eerily reminiscent of the lunacy that “9/11 was an inside job.” Sure, it seems likely that firing missiles into one of the world’s most densely populated area would create a lot of suffering, but the propaganda holds that Occam’s Razor is some sort of Islamist conspiracy.
For Jews, we will continue to suffer from such madness unless we collectively make the decision to ensure that Israel and Zionism don’t have a monopoly on Jewish identity. The warnings are clear. A member of the Knesset openly calls for genocide against Arabs. Right-wing gangs, in the style of fascist mobs in Europe, attack left wing, anti-war protesters in Israel. A doctors’ group in Israel has had to beg the nation’s defense minister to spare, of all places, Gaza’s hospital from air attacks. Each and every Jew who criticizes Israel, and most recently in this assault on Gaza, has had the experience of a friend or family member lambasting them for being on the wrong side not because of the facts of the case at hand, but because of a failure to make a choice based solely on ethnic solidarity.
Zionism, once a fringe ideology cooked up at the dusk of the nineteenth century, now cancels out any other Jewish devotion or movement before or after it. Are you struggling against Christian conservatism in the American South? Perhaps you’re organizing a multi-faith homeless shelter, operating on the principles of tzedakah, in an urban wasteland. Or maybe you’re just trying to be a good person, a good parent and a good partner in a Jewish home. None of this matters anymore. Your unmitigated allegiance to a foreign government trumps everything else. If you look at the conflict objectively, you’ve become a traitor to the Jews.
That’s depressing on its own for a culture often proud of its intellectual prowess and a religious heritage rooted in debate and scholarship. But then, that’s precisely what today’s Zionists have a problem with. In the aftermath of the Second Intifada, a fellow Jew who I often clashed with on the Middle East categorized our difference this way: We’re both Jews, clearly, but he was a nationalist and I was a cosmopolitan. There’s a lot of telling insults packed in there.
My choice to value human life as equal, unable to put Jewish lives above those of gentiles, put me in that class Joseph Stalin derided as “rootless cosmopolitans.” The other is the insinuation that being an assimilated, urban dweller made one weak and effete. There I was, sitting in cafes and talking about something wimpy like poetry while real Jews were turning their anger in muscles out in the dusty Negev, trading in books for guns and tweed jackets for fatigues.
From a Freudian perspective, this makes some sense. Jewish history never paints us as the heroes. We’re not victorious fighters, but righteous victims. Our stereotypes are those of physical weakness, our virtues of the mind and not the body. Zionism, in a sense, is a corrective for this historical humiliation. Jews can now celebrate their military might and their ability to dominate someone else for a change, in the same way a bully’s motivation to pick on someone smaller is based on his own personal insecurities. American boys coming back from Birthright are sure to have an IDF t-shirt so they can strut around Hillel like a kosher version of GI Joe. It’s no wonder how violence and sex are interwoven in Israeli propaganda: Witness the proliferation of images of young Israeli girls, posing with automatic weapons.
Of course, the biggest victim in all of this will always be the Palestinians, kicked off their land, forced into exile or as second-class citizens, or in the case of Gaza, inmates of an open-air prison. But for those who insist on allegiance to ‘Zionism’ and Israeli policy, the test of a Jew’s love for his or her own people, that’s the legacy we’re going to leave. The world won’t remember us as the victims of European anti-Semitism, or those who marched with African-Americans during the Civil Rights Movement.
Instead, our names will be attached to the death and destruction in Gaza. For some of us, that’s a tragedy for Jews and Arabs alike. But what’s worse is that for other Jews, that’s just fine.
Photographs courtesy of Joel Schalit