Alex Ryvchin’s article “Zionism and the big lie. How Soviet anti-Semitism shaped contemporary anti-Zionism”, published through the ABC’s “Religion and Ethics” site, is too cute by half. Of course the strong critique of current Israel (which likes to call itself a Zionist State) has a history, but it is primarily fuelled by the reality that contemporary policies of the State of Israel cruelly subjugate the Palestinian people.
That Israel considers non-Jews to be less than full citizens was entrenched in the 2018 Nation State law, which amongst other things permits Mr Ryvchin and other Australian Jews the right to settle in the Palestinian territories as citizens at the expense of Palestinians who have lived there for centuries, many of whom languish till this day in refugee camps within walking distance of their ancestral homes.
As we know, selective quotations from statistics, or history, can prove anything the writer wishes to prove. For example, to ‘prove’ that the use of ‘Palestine’ is illegitimate Mr Ryvchin says territory known as the “land of Israel” was renamed Palestine following the suppression of the second Jewish rebellion in 135 CE.
I could quote different moments of history:
- The only Independent State to be called Israel fell to the Assyrians in 721 BCE to spawn the narrative of the ‘lost 10 tribes’.
- Modern Zionism began in Europe towards the end of the 19th century. Many influential Rabbis opposed the embryonic movement on two grounds.
Establishing a homeland would inevitably involve violence towards another people, an outcome inconsistent with the idea of peace – ‘shalom’ – at the heart of religious Judaism.
Violence would be a continuing reality for such a state, this violence would undermine the lives of the Jewish diaspora exposing them to anti-Semitism.
- The Balfour Declaration specifically stated that the formation of a Jewish State could only be legitimate if “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.”
My selective quotes from history are as legitimate as those of Mr Ryvchin, but in the end, they are no more helpful than his to solve the present impasse.
There is an inescapable reason why Zionism cannot shake off the criticism Mr Ryvchin resents. Whatever else is true of Zionism, it will never escape its great moral flaw – that in creating a homeland for the Jewish people, Zionists assumed a form of terra nullius over Palestine and a pretence that the Palestinians who had lived there for millennia had no right to remain.
It need not have been so. For post-war Zionism, it has never been enough for Israel to coexist on equal terms with the Palestinians – despite Jew, Muslims and Christians having done so in the region since time immemorial. This is the enduring shame of contemporary Zionist Israel. Mr Ryvchin has no answer for this, which is why he distracts and obfuscates with his trip down Soviet memory lane.
History tells us, and present reality confirms, that those in power will do all they can to legitimise their narrative and diminish the narrative of others. For centuries Christendom was the world power. Nations that were part of Christendom found it very convenient to scapegoat others for ills that the powers themselves failed to address. Shamefully the Jewish community suffered what is rightly called anti-Semitism throughout the whole period of Christendom, climaxing in the horrors of the Holocaust.
Anti-Semitism was of course not consistent, at times the Jewish community was embraced, at other times it was shamelessly expelled as it was from England in 1290 CE (to be restored under Cromwell) and from the Iberian Peninsula in the fifteenth century.
The challenge facing those in power today is the same as it always has been, to hold leadership through inclusivity, virtue and service of common good, not through self-service, fear, mistruth and oppression. Currently Benjamin Netanyahu has chosen to hold power externally through military might, and internally through corrupt practices that could soon have him before the Israeli courts.
The facts of the matter are that the State of Israel under Netanyahu is an oppressive regime towards those who are not Jews. At the most recent election the chief combatants vied with one another to promise the most grievous outcome for Palestinians. Netanyahu himself promised that he would annex the Jordan valley, Palestine’s breadbasket.
How dare he! How dare Mr Ryvchin and others infer anti-Semitism to those who criticise this most grievous and illegal action?
In June the US promised $50 billion of other people’s money (those ‘others’ yet to be identified) to Palestine and Palestinians if they will accept the loss of any claim they might have for autonomy. How outrageous. If Palestinians were not prevented by Israel from developing their economy, and their land, like the citizens of any other country, they would not need anyone’s charity.
Behind Mr Ryvchin’s article is implicit support for the current attempt by those in power in Israel and the US to delegitimise the very existence of Palestine and Palestinians. Sadly the preferred option of those in Israeli politics is for Palestinians to cease to exist. The escalating attempts to undermine the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugee in the Near East (UNRWA) and relief organisations generally is geared towards removing the legitimate claims of Palestinian refugees. Children born in refugee camps are no less refugees than their parents and grandparents who were forced by aggressive circumstance to leave their homes – they are certainly not citizens of a refugee camp.
A well know Jewish intellectual, Noam Chomsky, once wrote:
The Zionist dream is to construct a state which is as Jewish as England is English and France is French. At the same time, this state is to be a democracy on the Western model. These goals are incompatible. Citizens of France, no matter their ethnic origin, are French, but citizens of the Jewish state are not equal if they are non-Jews, either by ethnic or religious origin or simply by choice … To the extent that Israel is a Jewish State it cannot be a democratic state.
Palestinians are Palestinians and always will be. They are not Lebanese, or Syrian, or Jordanian, or Egyptian, they are Palestinian who in large numbers have been forced away from their homeland.
Some years ago I was invited to speak at a symposium in Canberra on the topic, “Does humanity have a future”? Most speakers, both scientists and philosophers, were pessimistic, largely on the grounds that although human beings understand what strategies, both environmental and societal, are necessary for survival, their view was that narrow self-interest has historically always prevailed over common good.
An essential societal condition for survival is mutual respect and dignity. The narrative that now prevails from the leaders of both the US and Israel appears to be that dignity belongs to winners, to the strong. Losers or the weak do not deserve dignity being shown to them.
A humanitarian view of dignity is that every human being deserves respect and dignity because they are members of the human race. To be a Palestinian in the Occupied West Bank, or Gaza Strip, or in a refugee camp, is to suffer without dignity.
- It is not dignified to be without water for washing, drinking or cooking, while Jewish settlers on the hill above are watering their lawn and filling their swimming pools.
- It is not dignified to be herded like cattle, to be terrorised at check points and to have a demolition order over your house, or not being able to provide for your family.
- It is not dignified to be called a terrorist simply because you object to your house being demolished, your orchard destroyed or your wife giving birth at a check point because you are not permitted to get to hospital.
- Worse, it is not dignified to be a citizen of a country which imposes such cruelty on others.
Rather than smearing critics of Israel’s policies towards Palestinians and accusing them of harbouring anti-Jewish views, this criticism should be a wake-up call to the Jewish people in Israel and elsewhere who support Israel’s policies, to drink deeply from their traditional wells of virtue, of care for neighbour, and desire for shalom which can only happen when the stranger is embraced as a friend, and motivations of life are based in love not fear.
Over two millennia, Jewish people have often punched above their weight in many fields that have contributed to human advancement, but the Zionist project manifested in the current State of Israel is a dark period in Jewish history.
Let us hope that amongst the younger generation there are some who have the strength to imagine differently. To imagine that lives are enhanced through engagement and reciprocity and, as Banksy famously portrayed through his art, that even a little girl with a balloon can scale a wall.
George Browning is the former Anglican Bishop of Canberra and Goulburn.