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Reflections on Jewish Statelessness and Statehood

May 12, 2011 – 8:12 pm5 Comments

Jewish refugee from Iraq, circa 1955. Photo: Babylonian Heritage Center (Jerusalem)

By Philip Mendes

One of my current research projects is an analysis of the disproportionate historical Jewish engagement with the political Left. As many readers will know, there were two key factors that drove Jewish involvement with the Left.

One was class oppression, the poverty and economic marginalisation which afflicted so many Jews in the late nineteenth and early-mid twentieth century. The other factor was ethnic oppression, the extreme and violent anti-Semitism to which so many Jews were subjected from Tsarist Russia to the 1918-19 Ukrainian pogroms to the Holocaust.

One factor, which however, has arguably been under-stated is the extent to which Jews were universally a stateless people, a nation of wanderers seeking refuge and asylum. In that period from approximately 1890-1945, tens of thousands and sometimes hundreds of thousands of foreign Jews landed suddenly in large cities such as New York, London, Paris, Berlin, and Toronto, and were subject to the same fearful and xenophobic responses that greet many asylum seekers today. Those on the Left who were internationalists assisted and welcomed Jews as refugees. Equally, there were many workers and labour groups who took a narrower or more parochial view, and opposed the entry of “alien” Jews.

In contrast, the creation of the State of Israel in 1948 gave Jews the sense of territorial and national connectedness and security which they had previously lacked. This is why for the overwhelming majority of Jews today the continued existence of Israel as a Jewish state is non-negotiable, irrespective of their divided views on the future of the Palestinian territories.

The triumph of the Zionist statehood solution over other potential national solutions to the Jewish problem – such as the Bundist preference for national autonomy wherever Jews live, and also the proposed Soviet Jewish homeland of Birobihan – has obviously had a number of significant ramifications for Jewish politics.

One important outcome was that Jews who experienced persecution had an available refuge. The hundreds of thousands of Jews who were ethnically cleansed from Arab countries in the early-mid 1950s quickly found sanctuary in the Jewish state. Fortunately today most Jews outside Israel live in tolerant liberal democracies and do not need a refuge. Jews are no longer asylum seekers.

Secondly, Jewish support for left-wing universalistic solutions declined as most Jews forged a new common identity based on support for the existence of Israel. This also meant that Jewish political choices and alliances in the Diaspora became increasingly linked to the needs and interests of the Israeli state as much as any local issues or concerns. In short, most Jews today will only vote for political parties which are perceived as sympathetic (or at least not hostile) to Israel.

This leads me to a brief reflection on the recent debate about the proposed Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) policy of Marrickville Council. It was particularly evident in the debate that BDS proponents seriously regard the continued existence of Israel as a Jewish state as something optional or open to re-negotiation. This reflects their view that there is no possibility of reconciling Israeli and Palestinian national rights so consequently Israel rights will have to be sacrificed.

The most overt example of this anti-Zionist fundamentalist fantasy emanated from Omar Barghouti, who is one of the founders of the global BDS movement. Writing in New Matilda on 2 May 2011, Barghouti conveniently denied that the BDS movement had a uniform position on a one or two-state solution. He claimed that the BDS movement neither formally supports the existence of Israel, or formally supports its destruction by military or demographic means.

But Barghouti then admitted that his own position favours the abolition of Israel and its replacement by an Arab State of Greater Palestine. For Barghouti, the national rights of the Palestinians take absolute precedence over the rights of what he calls euphemistically the “other inhabitants of the land”. Barghouti does not recognize the Jewish right to national self-determination in Israel.

It is perhaps understandable that Barghouti as a Palestinian nationalist cares more about the rights of the Palestinian people than the Israeli people. But the same excuse does not hold for the other local BDS proponents – Greens Lee Rhiannon and Fiona Byrne, the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, the NSW Teachers Federation etc. – who have chosen to privilege Palestinian Arab rights at the expense of Israeli Jewish rights.

There are, of course, some Israelis and some Jews who similarly do not recognize any Palestinian right to national self-determination. Some reject any criticism of Israel or any territorial or political concessions because they fear that this will lead to a tragic undermining of Jewish statehood. I understand but do not share their position because I believe that there is a vast difference between reasonable critical analysis and demonization. And fortunately the majority of Jewish leaders appear committed to a two-state solution which assumes that Israeli and Palestinian national rights can be reconciled by mutual compromise.

This moderate Jewish perspective was prominent in the Marrickville debate where the left-leaning (and anti-BDS) Inner West Jewish Community and Friends Peace Alliance – a group that I addressed back in November 2008 – brilliantly refuted the notion that a position in support of Palestinian national rights has to include a fanatical hostility to Israel. On the contrary, the Inner West group showed that peace building requires a respect for both Israeli and Palestinian national narratives incorporated within a two-state framework.

The Inner West Alliance’s win-win approach sends a clear message to other responsible Jews on the Left including those in the Australian Jewish Democratic Society, the Bund, the Greens etc. You have a responsibility to educate the broader community and particularly the Left about what statehood means for Jews as a historically oppressed people, and the importance of finding a solution that reconciles Israeli/Jewish and Palestinian/Arab national rights. Do not join the tiny group of self-denying Jews in reinforcing the anti-Zionist fundamentalist fantasy that Israel will cease to exist.

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