December 15, 2019.
Mutually Reinforcing Fictions
by Sheldon Schreter
Anti-Israel and anti-Zionist attitudes appear to be a standard component of political correctness among a growing number of western university students these days, or at least among their politically active elites. Of course, the assertion that there is no anti-Jewish animus involved is critical, for otherwise what would differentiate between a progressive anti-Zionist and an old-fashioned, reactionary Jew-hater? Being an explicit anti-Semite is still, at least for now, as unfashionable as being a racist, Islamophobe, homophobe, and all the other evil “phobes” of our time.
For many decades after the Second World War, the ominous shadow of the Holocaust seemed to moderate such views, but its influence has clearly waned with the passage of time and fading of memory. Some Jews still believe its message is potent and relevant, but hardly anyone else does anymore.
At the same time, animated by the anti-colonialist impetus of the post-war era and provoked by the rightward lurch of Israeli politics since the latter 1970s (with some short-lived interludes), academic and media elite opinions have gradually tilted in an anti-Israel direction. By now, for a growing number, viewing Israel as a European colonialist creation, actively occupying and oppressing a dispossessed native population by force of arms, is uncontroversial.
There is no consolation in the occasional blunders of transparent anti-Semites (whose motives, when not malicious, may charitably be attributed to ignorance), whose anti-Zionist façade is sometimes accidentally pierced by naked Jew-hatred. Such incidents might almost be amusing, if they were not so sad and alarming, especially (for me) when they occur at great Canadian universities.
In mid-November, 2019, the U. of Toronto Students’ Council refused to support an initiative to make kosher food available on campus, since doing so would be “pro-Israel” and counter to “the will of the membership”. Kosher food has become the enemy to be resisted!
More recently, the McGill student government censured a Jewish member for accepting a free trip to Israel from a Jewish student organization, which it was deemed would present a one-sided (read: pro-Israel) view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But a revealing inconsistency marred this supposedly principled position when a non-Jewish student who had accepted the same free trip offer evoked no reaction from the same student body. The offense of the student who accepted the offer was apparently not only in agreeing to engage in an activity liable to enhance support for Israel, but also in being herself a Jew!
It wasn’t always this way. Israel’s birth and first decades enjoyed significant support from progressive countries and movements. I spent my four undergraduate years at McGill – 1965-69 – as an active New Leftist and as a Jewish student leader, serving both at Hillel and as an elected representative on Students’ Council. My friends and colleagues in that era included Charlie Krauthammer, Bernie Avishai, Morty Weinfeld and David Kaufman. We had no difficulty in simultaneously opposing the war in Vietnam and supporting Israel’s right to defend itself in the 1967 Six-Day War and Soviet Jewry’s right to freedom of emigration. The moral political stands we took on the issues of the day were derived consciously from our positive Jewish identity, as were our respect for and partnership with other progressive ethnic and religious groups.
Some of us even advocated partition as a formula for resolving the Israeli-Arab conflict, which the UN had approved in principle in 1947. This was not popular following the 1967 War, to put it mildly, for it meant Israel’s withdrawal from the West Bank and creation of a Palestinian state. Years went by, and that two-state solution became a widely-accepted commonplace. We had gone from being radicals to being centrists. I still adhere to that basic position, and now seem on my way to being radical again. I have lived in Israel since 1976.
I don’t doubt that you can oppose Israel’s actions without being anti-Semitic. I have no problem criticizing the policies of any government, certainly including my own. I do it myself – daily. My problems start when Israel is held to standards that no other country is expected to meet, leading to denial of its right to exist. When that happens, the familiar stench of an old hatred, merely re-packaged, becomes unmistakeable.
I am writing in the hope of communicating both to my fellow Jews, and to university students. My message is straightforward.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is complex and tragic, but certain basic truths need repeating. Most importantly: Neither the Jews nor the Palestinians are going away, despite the fantasies of banishing the other nurtured by the extremists of each side. These fictions play off each other, in an obscene interdependence. Fantasies can be fine, except when they feed killing and horror. The second truth is: Any attempt by either side to subjugate the other within one state – whether Greater Israel or the secular, democratic State of Palestine – is a formula for, actually a guarantee of endless suffering and gruesome civil war. No one who cares about either people should promote such a catastrophe.
There are many Israel-lovers who equate support of Israel with the encouragement of their West Bank settlements. Sometimes this shades over into endorsement of Israel’s annexation of all or part of the West Bank. And what then to do with all the inconvenient Palestinians residing there? With few exceptions, the Israeli Right’s answer is to maintain their status as quasi-foreign residents with limited rights and no vote. The underlying agenda is to “facilitate” their eventual departure, either through positive compensation packages or negative measures making their lives intolerable. This is delusional: They are not leaving.
Despite Israel’s flaws, it is not today an apartheid State. Any implementation of the annexationist impulse will turn it into exactly that, with two classes of citizens or residents and the same terminal trajectory as white South Africa. The Jewish State would be destroyed, by its own hand.
The Palestinian narrative sees Israel as the latest artificial Crusader kingdom, to be swept away eventually by the oppressed natives, exercising their right of return to their stolen land. Never mind that Israel’s 1948 borders were established in its successful war of defense against invading Arab armies determined to wipe it out, totally; that more than 50% of its Jewish population are descendants of refugees precisely from Muslim Arab countries; that the Palestinians have been grotesquely exploited by Arab regimes anxious to distract attention from their rotten rule, while stranded in abominable refugee camps for over 70 years; that the “cleansing” of the Jewish invaders from Palestine is an explicit program for genocide. Here’s the point: The Jews are not leaving.
Take a good look at the tremendous parallels between the fantasies infecting both sides. Part of their appeal depends on the ability to reference and heroically resist each other’s triumphalist narratives. The extremists of each side actually validate and therefore reinforce one another. “You see”, each can tell their own people and the world, “our struggle is for justice and liberation, while theirs is for evil and conquest.”
Western progressives who feel morally compelled to oppose Israel’s existence as a Jewish state are helping to perpetuate the fantasies and the continuous misery of the Palestinians they claim to support. They feel very virtuous, at a safe distance from the consequences of their actions.
Israel advocates who encourage the development of the West Bank settlements, even to the point of annexation, are not thereby strengthening the country, as they intend. They are rather propelling Israel further down a tragic path leading to its doom.
The best service foreigners can offer both Israelis and Palestinians is to oppose their respective extremists, to liberate them from their self-destructive, lethal delusions about each other, and to reinforce their moderates. Anything else serves only to prolong the agony, no matter what rationalizations are invented to justify it.
Sheldon (Shelly) Schreter is a Montreal-born Israeli who has directed educational and research institutions, worked in industry, and is a company director.