It’s Not Genocide, Honest…

Declaring in the LA Times that “the problem is Zionism,” novelist Ben Ehrenreich opens his article with a 1944 quote from the then President of the American Council for Judaism describing the goal of a Jewish state as a “Hitlerian … Read More

By / March 16, 2009

Declaring in the LA Times that “the problem is Zionism,” novelist Ben Ehrenreich opens his article with a 1944 quote from the then President of the American Council for Judaism describing the goal of a Jewish state as a “Hitlerian concept.” This is yet another display of what is fast becoming a tiresome rhetorical technique; that words uttered against Zionism by a Jew contain intrinsic merit and privileged insight.

Imagine an African-American writer who argued that slavery improved his people’s work ethic, or an Indian writer who insisted that the Raj imparted an unprecedented sensitivity to the value of punctuality. Both would be dismissed with a contemptuous snort. Yet Jews like Ehrenreich, who want to eliminate what has been, in the form of the State of Israel, the principal guarantor of Jewish security since 1945, are making it onto the op-ed pages of serious newspapers. So why this discrepancy? Might Ehrenreich have a point after all?

To the inevitable chorus of “Yes!,” I would counsel against the intellectual laziness of monocausal, essentialist explanations. If only “Zionism” is the problem, then every other element in this sixty-year old conflict by definition is not. And just because a small minority of Jews have opted for that account doesn’t make it any more valid (as an aside, I would be wary of citing the American Council for Judaism as an authority on anything. Its most famous export was the truly nutty, now deceased, Alfred Lilienthal, who spent most of his life vilifying Israel while lauding the Saudi regime.)

Ehrenreich’s article is actually a rehash of two standard anti-Zionist themes. One, that a Jewish state is not viable because it is a Jewish state. Two, that a Jewish state is necessarily discriminatory because it is a Jewish state.

To the first point, even if the worst caricatures of the meaning of a Jewish state were actually true, there is no reason why it couldn’t survive. Syria has been under the heel of the Alawi minority for decades. In Bahrain, a Sunni minority rules over a Shi’a majority. There are many other similar examples, from inside and outside the Middle East. Authoritarian states which are inflected with a particular ethnic or confessional identity rely upon force, not consent, to remain viable.

To the second point, Ehrenreich clearly believes that Israel is the worst state in the world – why else would he say that the comparison with the former apartheid regime in South Africa is now “charitable?” Once we’re on this kind of territory, one really has to wonder whether there is any further purpose in argument. Israel is more worthy of opprobrium than Burma or Zimbabwe or Sudan. This isn’t any moral universe that I recognize – what’s flabbergasting is that the LA Times apparently believes it is one worth introducing to its public.

So there’s a certain irony in the way that Ehrenreich falls back on the ideas of Brit Shalom, a pre-State organization led by intellectuals like Martin Buber and Judah Magnes which examined federalist and binational forms for the future independent state in Palestine. Magnes was not a supporter of the mainstream Zionist movement, but neither did he argue that a Jewish state was “racist” or “Nazi,” in the way that today’s anti-Zionist automatons do. In fact, Magnes was one of the founders of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, which means that, were he alive today, anti-Zionists would have to do the right thing and boycott both him and his institution.

Brit Shalom was not the only organization in Palestine’s Jewish sector to entertain binationalism; as Walter Laqueur points out in his magisterial A History of Zionism, so did the avowedly Zionist Hashomer Hatz’air movement. Moreover, opposing a Jewish state did not mean endorsing an Arab one. For that among other reasons, Brit Shalom failed, because it could not find interlocutors able to rise above Arab chauvinism at a time when the pro-Nazi Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, was calling the shots. Revealingly, Laqueur quotes Magnes wearily observing in 1941 that “there would be no possibility of reaching an agreement” other than on the basis of the Jews remaining a minority in Palestine.

That is even more the case today – because on the other side of Ehrenreich’s little fantasy lies an organization called Hamas. There is a wealth of evidence to demonstrate that Its intentions are genocidal. Ehrenreich might want to take the risk of testing those intentions, perhaps while wearing a T-shirt declaring “Not In My Name!” But he should note well that among Jews and non-Jews who understand the Middle East, he and his co-thinkers are a minority, too loud at the present time to be ignored, but loud enough that they will be scorned.

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