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Anti-Semitism and Criticizing Israel

by Michael Lerner

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There is nothing inherently anti-Semitic about criticizing Israel’s treatment of the Palestinian people, but there are ways of making those criticisms anti-Semitic.

Jews did not return to Palestine to be oppressors or representatives of colonialism and cultural imperialism. It is true that some 19th- and early 20th-century Zionist leaders sought to portray their movement as a way to serve the interests of countries in Europe, the birthplace of Zionism. Moreover, many Jews who came brought with them a Western arrogance that made it possible for them to see Palestine as “a land without a people for a people without a land” and virtually ignore the Arabs of Palestine and their cultural and historical rights.

The Jewish who shaped Israel (which declared its independence in 1948) in its early years were jumping from the burning buildings of Europe. And when they landed on the backs of the indigenous Arabs, Palestinians, they were so transfixed with their own pain that they could not be bothered to notice they were displacing and hurting others in the process of creating their own state. Subsequently, many of these Jews would deny their role in creating Palestinian refugees, who would dream of their own “return” just as we Jews did for some 1,800 years.

This Jewish insensitivity to the pain of others was also abetted by the actions of Arab leaders prior to and after the creation of Israel. As Jewish and Arab nationalism collided, atrocities were committed on both sides. Many Jews cannot forget the attacks on Jewish communities beginning in 1880 and culminating in the massacre of dozens of religious Jews in Hebron in 1929. (It is worth remembering that Jews and Arabs had been living peacefully in Hebron for hundreds of years.) And even as the Holocaust unfolded, Arab leaders, backed by the British authorities who then administered Palestine, denied Jewish pleas for entry.

Eventually, after three wars between Israel and its Arab neighbors, most Palestinians had acknowledged the reality of Israel and the need to accommodate it in order to make possible their own self-determination.

But it was too late. By then, most Jews and Israelis clung to the notion – a powerful misperception of reality – that their state could be wiped out at any moment unless they exercised the utmost vigilance. Drenched in the memories of the Holocaust, in their seemingly eternal status as victim, Jews were unable to recognize that they had become the most powerful state in the region. They have used this sense of imminent doom to justify their occupation of the West Bank and Gaza for over 30 years. (Gaza was handed over to the Palestinian Authority in August 2005.)

Israel, occupation and Judaism. Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories can only be maintained by what has become an international scandal: the violation of basic human rights of the occupied; the documented and widespread use of torture; the systematic destruction of Palestinian homes; the seizure of Palestinian lands for West Bank settlements created to undermine the possibility of a viable Palestinian state in the West Bank; and the transformation of Israeli politics into a system where verbal violence begot real violence, most notably in the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995.

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