From Zionism to Xenophobia

How Israel's policies toward non-Jews within its borders are nourishing anti-Semitism outside of them.

Christians celebrating Epiphany in the Jordan River Valley.The vicious anti-Christian slogans recently spray-painted on the walls of the Abbaye de Notre-Dame de Sept-Douleurs, a Christian monastery in Latrun near Jerusalem, and the image of its burnt door reminded me of Professor Alan M. Dershowitz's sharp criticism of Norway after the University of Oslo refused to open its doors to the pro-Zionist lawyer. "Norway," he wrote last year, "has done everything in its power to make life in the country nearly impossible for Jews."

The disturbing monastery desecration, coupled with Dershowitz’s observation about Norway, offers an opportunity to ruminate about the state of Israeli society, European anti-Semitism past and present, Israel’s image in the world and the sometimes sad ironies of history.

In a statement that the leaders of the Catholic churches in the Holy Land released after the incident in Latrun, they asked, "What is going on in Israeli society today that permits Christians to be scapegoated and targeted by these acts of violence? What kind of 'teaching of contempt' for Christians is being communicated in their schools and in their homes?" The answer is that the shameful act toward the monastery is another worrying indication of a deep dichotomy in Israeli society. The development from a Jewish national revolutionary movement to a modern democratic society was not paralleled by a value system that combines the complex Zionist ethos with that of a modern, democratic state. The development of such a value system requires deep understanding, time and effort, which are lacking.

Of course, what’s happening to Christians in Latrun is not entirely unfamiliar to Jews in Europe today, as Dershowitz’s lament suggests. In Norway, according to a report by the Center for Studies of the Holocaust and Religious Minorities, some 12.5 percent of the population can be considered significantly prejudiced against Jews. The report indicates that these negative attitudes were most often explained by reference to Israel’s role in the Middle East conflict. Nearly 40 percent of those surveyed believe Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians is similar to Nazi treatment of the Jews during World War II. One out of four believes that Jews today exploit the memory of the Holocaust to their own advantage.

It must be said that the level of anti-Semitic notions in Norway is limited—on a par probably with what exists in Great Britain, the Netherlands, Denmark and Sweden. But it was European anti-Semitism that motivated Theodor Herzl, at the end of the nineteenth century, to initiate the Zionist movement that led to the creation of Israel in 1948. If I may be permitted to digress a bit on the impact of that movement on my family, I will note that eighty years ago my parents followed this vision and left Poland for Israel (at that time, "mandatory Palestine"). Their dream was to take part in building a safe haven for the Jewish people (the rest of my father's family perished at Auschwitz). Forty years ago, my wife left her family in Australia in order to be part of a just state, free of anti-Semitism and other forms of racism. We passed to our children the conviction that the Jewish identity of their country should never contradict its democratic values. This, in our view, is the essence and the challenge of Zionism.

But now this vision increasingly is being supplanted by a xenophobic nationalism. Following Israel’s victory in the 1967 Six-Day War, with the country’s occupation of the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, Israel’s traditional ethos has been challenged by a contradicting vision. The Jewish people were told that settling those territories represented the ultimate fulfillment of modern Zionism. The hidden message: "Catch as much as you can from the Palestinians."

As I reported in my Ha’aretz column, a recent report by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs showed that 114 Palestinians were injured by settler gunfire in the first seven months of this year, compared to twenty-seven settlers injured in incidents with Palestinians. This is in addition to the 2,066 Palestinians injured by Israeli security services (a weekly average of sixty-one people wounded, compared to twenty-eight last year).

Such numbers aren’t far removed from the sentiments of contempt harbored by some Israelis for the "other"—in other words, anyone different from themselves. Another example of xenophobic sentiment is a statement by Rabbi Ovadia Yossef, the spiritual leader of Shas (a major orthodox coalition political party) and former chief rabbi, whose answer to Iran’s bellicosity was to "kill all the Iranians." This statement of incitement was ignored by Israel’s political leadership.

Such mean-spirited musings legitimize further violation and destruction of whatever is not considered Jewish or patriotic enough, including Israeli human-rights NGOs that monitor Israeli conduct in the Occupied Territories. Similarly, the demographic obsession justifies portraying illegal African laborers and even asylum seekers as "enemies" and locking them up in wired camps.

For myself, I reject as disgusting any analogy between today’s Israel and Nazi Germany before and during World War II. But, as the survey of Norwegians indicates, Israel’s policies toward non-Jews within its borders and the occupied territories are offering nourishment for anti-Semitism in Europe and elsewhere. A land conceived as a place of tolerance for every Jew in the world is now displaying to the world the face of intolerance. Thus, what was supposed to be a solution for Jews is turning into a problem for them.

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