Mark Braverman’s critique is fairly typical of people who oppose the idea of a Jewish state. In this revisionist version of history, as we see here, the Palestinians are nothing but innocent victims:
The truth is that by and large the Palestinians are a peaceful, patient people – and at this pass an angry, humiliated and pained people. Their sin over the last 60 plus years has been their relative lack of organization – set up effectively by the British during their 30-year rule – in the face of the highly organized and effective Zionist colonial project.
There is nothing here about the Mufti’s pro-Nazi leadership of the Palestinian national movement. Nothing of their violent rejection of the UN partition resolution and of their effort to destroy the Yishuv by force in late ’47-early ’48. I agree with the writer that the history of 1948 needs to be examined, but it needs to include the errors, sins and crimes of both sides.
Notice also that this guy’s concern for “justice” is incompatible with any kind of Jewish state, that he attacks our progressive Zionist position for “merely” being against occupation. Although I don’t see Mark Braverman as evil or anti-Semitic, there’s something morally obtuse about his non-condemnatory condemnation of Palestinian terrorism – mere “pinpricks” when compared with Israeli power, attacks that don’t threaten Israel’s existence, etc. On a political level, this guy wants very much to end Israel’s existence.
The Jewish People, Zionism, and the Question of Justice by Mark Braverman, Ph.D.
…. Zionism was the answer to the anti-Semitism of Christian Europe. The failure, despite the Enlightenment, to establish Jews as an emancipated, accepted group in Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries, and the rise of political anti-Semitism in the late 19th and first half of the 20th century gave birth to political Zionism under the leadership of Theodore Herzl. Zionism expressed the powerful drive of the Jewish people to establish ourselves as a nation among other nations, with a land of our own and the ability to achieve self-determination. This is why, in sermons from synagogue pulpits, in lectures on Jewish history, in classroom lessons for small children, and in spirited discussions about the Israel-Palestine question, you will so often here the preamble “throughout the centuries…,” followed by a description of the suffering of the Jews at the hands of our oppressors. Indeed, it’s in our liturgy, notably in the Passover Seder. The story of Jewish survival despite constant persecution is in many ways our theme song — it’s in our cultural DNA, it’s the mantra of our peoplehood. It runs deep.
This unique Jewish quality is not the product of some cultural aberration or collective character flaw. Developing this particular brand of “character armor” has been part of our survival throughout long ages of persecution, marginalization, and demonization. We survived, in part, by creating rituals, habits and attitudes of insularity, pride and persistence that allowed us never to forget, never to let down our guard, and to always be proud of our stubborn vitality in the face of “those who sought to destroy us.” When, in our modern liturgical idiom, we talk of the State of Israel as “the First Flowering of our Redemption,” we are reflecting the reality of our survival, the meaning of the achievement of political self-determination in the context of Jewish history. It is good to have survived.
But we must also see clearly the shadow that this history casts on us today. We have striven to be the masters of our fate – but, having achieved this, we must also realize that we are responsible for our actions and for the consequences of these actions. Being free, we have free choice. The tragedy of Jewish Diaspora history, in our own cultural narrative as well as in reality, is rooted in our history of powerlessness and passivity. Zionism came to correct this, and it has undeniably succeeded, indeed far beyond the expectations of Jews and non-Jews alike. But if we now become slaves to the consequences of empowerment, then we are not free, and we are not truly powerful. The Nazi Holocaust in particular casts its shadow over our modern history and the history of the State of Israel. The Nazi’s campaign to eradicate world Jewry has become part of our uniquely Jewish “Liturgy of Destruction,” the way we Jews throughout the ages have made sense of our suffering by turning to the broader context of Jewish history. From this matrix of vulnerability, victimization and meaning-making comes the Zionist cry, “Never again!” But the modern State in its policies, carried out purportedly to preserve our people, and using the Holocaust as justification for unjust actions, is betraying the meaning of Jewish history. You cannot achieve your own deliverance, even from the most unspeakable evil, by the oppression of another people. Indeed, in this current era of power and self-determination for Jews in Israel, we face risks to our peoplehood that far exceed the physical perils brought by millennia of persecution.
Israel and Palestine: Reality Stood On its Head
The stormy controversy over the Israel-Palestine question today – a controversy that is splitting the Jewish community here in the United States as well as Israeli society, stands as evidence of this risk. The history of conflict and bloodshed between the State of Israel, its Arab neighbors, and the indigenous inhabitants of historic Palestine is the unavoidable and predictable result of the colonialist nature of the Zionist enterprise. Although Zionism, unlike the other European colonial projects, was not directed originally toward the occupation and exploitation of a subject people – the Zionists sought only to create a refuge for a themselves – it is no less a settler colonial enterprise for that. What is uncanny and tragic is that in the current discourse, the roles of the combatants are turned upside down: The Jews are portrayed as the victims, and the Palestinians as the aggressors.
In truth, it is the Palestinians who are the victims: dispossessed, powerless, and pained. In every way, the Jews are victorious and all-powerful. The Jews of Israel are, to be sure, pricked by acts of popular resistance on the part of Palestinians. But in the perspective of the current power balance, these are pinpricks, no more. At the same time, this resistance, fueled by the desperation and humiliation of a displaced and occupied people, has been amplified and exploited by political forces within and outside of Palestine. As terrifying as acts of resistance such as suicide bombings and cross-border shellings are, Israel’s current hegemony, power, and certainly her security are not threatened by these acts. Suicide bombings are horrible and terrorizing. But it is too easy, too convenient to tar an entire people with this brush, which is precisely what has happened. The image of the Palestinians as a violent people, as “terrorists” bent on the destruction of Israel, is not a true picture.
The truth is that by and large the Palestinians are a peaceful, patient people – and at this pass an angry, humiliated and pained people. Their sin over the last 60 plus years has been their relative lack of organization – set up effectively by the British during their 30-year rule — in the face of the highly organized and effective Zionist colonial project. They are paying for this now as they face the ongoing dismantling of their economy and their infrastructure, and the continuing program to disable their leadership and ability to self-govern. Israel has taken over where Britain left off – and with far greater efficiency and thoroughness. [Note again how this completely gets the Palestinian side off the hook with the ahistorical claim that they were only victims — completely ignoring their recourse to war in an attempt to destroy the Yishuv in the months leading up to Israeli independence in May 1948.]
The Jewish Discussion
…. One particularly “slippery” form of denial, of this failure to grieve, is how some Jews take issue with some of the actions of the Israeli government while still avoiding confronting the fundamental issues of justice. This can take several forms. The first is the “pragmatic” approach, which can also be called the appeal to “enlightened self-interest.” “The Occupation,” so this position goes, “was a mistake. It’s bad for Israel. Denying self-determination for Palestinians and subjecting them to the humiliation of a military administration breeds hatred and desperation, which is then visited upon Israelis in the form of violence.” Some American Jewish organizations, hoping to avoid being marginalized by the mainstream community, or labeled “Pro-Palestinian” adopt this position, ignoring the issue of justice.. “Israel,” they say, “should smarten up and change its policies if it wants to live in peace and limit the economic drain of unending conflict.” In informal conversations with some Jewish Americans who articulate this position, I have heard confessions that their position is really much more extreme with respect to their feelings about Israeli policy, but that they feel it important to hew to this line for strategic purposes, in order to maintain credibility with the Jewish establishment as well as with government legislators.
A second kind of denial, for me more serious and more disturbing, is to be found in the ranks of what has come to be called the Jewish Progressive movement. In his critique of this element of American Judaism, Jewish Liberation theologian Marc Ellis notes that whereas this element of Jewry critiques aspects of Jewish ascendancy by recognizing the validity of Palestinian aspirations, it limits the scope of the critique by accepting the need for this same Jewish ascendancy as a solution to Jewish history. This viewpoint acknowledges the issue of justice, but attempts to do this within the context of Jewish mainstream assumptions of entitlement with respect to the rights of the Jews to historic Palestine. “If we can just clean up this messy business of the Occupation,” say these people, “things will come out alright, and we will be able to enjoy the land with a clean conscience.” This viewpoint limits the discourse to actions post-1967: it denies the history of Palestinian displacement prior to that. Indeed, Progressive Jewish organizations avoid discussion of the Nakba, an Arabic word meaning “catastrophe” used to describe the ethnic cleansing of three quarters of a million Palestinians from historic Palestine by Israeli forces between1948 and 1949. Indeed, progressive Jews have been known to become quite irritated with fellow Jews who raise it. Finally, it avoids the fundamental question, which is how a Jewish state, founded as a haven and a homeland for Jews, can be a true democracy, providing justice and fair treatment for its non-Jewish citizenry. It avoids the related and equally fundamental question of demography – the issue that, above all others, drives Israeli foreign policy and fuels the current political and military conflict. On the whole, Jews outside of Israel across a wide spectrum from “establishment” to “progressive” want to avoid these questions – indeed, they are off limits. [This paragraph represents a complete denial of the Zionist peace camp, which recognizes the brutal reality of the Nakba and continues to work for equal rights under law for all Israeli citizens, Jew and non-Jew alike.]
This is denial – it is a fundamental failure to accept the consequences of Jewish actions in pre- and post-1948 Palestine-Israel, and thus a failure to grieve over the particularly Jewish tragedy from which we as Jews suffer today. Returning to the pre-1967 borders (as if that will ever happen) will not make everything better. It will not make Israel a just society with respect to its Palestinian citizens. It will not erase what was done to the Palestinians who were driven out of their cities, towns and villages in 1948. It does not place the issue of justice as primary. Rather, it places the interests of Israel as primary, and promotes an entitled, supremacist, paternalistic stance with respect to non-Jewish inhabitants of historic Palestine, on whichever side of the final status border they may reside when a political settlement is finally achieved. It pre-empts our horror over the crimes we are committing and the suffering we have caused. It muffles our own cries of pain over our sins and our cruelties. It squelches the agony of confronting the contradictions and the excruciating dilemmas. It blocks the discussion. It closes our hearts. [In other words, because the Palestinians suffered as a result of their bad political leadership, which refused to come to a peaceful accommodation with Israel in 1947-48, Israel must forever be condemned and bear the cost.]
Conclusion: … Our Accountability
…. As Jews we sought political self-determination, and we got it. Now we must behave in accordance with principles of justice and in accordance with international law as an expression of universally agreed-upon principles of justice. As Jews, we are confronted daily with this choice as we witness the illegal and oppressive actions of the Jewish state toward the Palestinian people it is so rapidly displacing. Empowerment – political empowerment – presents a mighty challenge to values. The Prophets knew this well, continually speaking this truth to the power structures of their day. To the crushed and exiled Jewish people of his time, Second Isaiah declared that redemption and comfort was coming, but only when the people acknowledged the divine meaning of their suffering. To my coreligionists in Israel and America, I say that we will ultimately survive as a people only to the extent that we can understand how our own suffering makes us part of humankind, and responsible for suffering wherever and whenever it happens. It was Roberta Feuerlicht, the Jewish ethicist who famously wrote, “Judaism survived centuries of persecution without a state; it must now learn how to survive despite a state.” [How clever and how pompous!]
Mark Braverman lives in Bethesda, MD. He is a member of Jewish Voices for Peace and serves on the boards of Partners for Peace and the Washington Interfaith Alliance for Middle East Peace. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org