Three years after the Palestinians’ violent response to the most generous and practical proposal by an Israeli government to end the decades-long conflict, hatred directed at Israel as a Jewish State has never been as extreme. From paeans to homicide bombings by European intellectuals to an anti-Semitic pogrom against Jewish students at San Francisco State University, anti-Israel sentiment is rising. Most of the time, Arabs and Muslims appear to be the main culprits in the rising anti-Israel sentiment. Indeed, one need only look toward the hate-filled educational system in the Palestinian Authority or the anti-Jewish violence in Paris to confirm this.

One should not, however, fall into the trap of seeing the battle between the Israelis and the Palestinians and their allies as one of simply a war between the Jewish State and Islam. Upon closer scrutiny, it becomes clear that this is a war between those who accept the legitimacy of a Jewish State in the Middle East and those who reject its existence. What is most disturbing, however, are the increasing numbers of Europeans and, indeed, Jews who are openly questioning Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish State.

Writing in the Los Angeles Times on October 10, New York University professor Tony Judt posits that:

In a world where nations and peoples increasingly intermingle and intermarry, where cultural and national impediments to communication have all but collapsed, where more and more of us have multiple elective identities and would feel constrained if we had to answer to just one, in such a world, Israel is truly an anachronism. And not just an anachronism, but a dysfunctional one. In today’s “clash of cultures” between open, pluralist democracies and belligerently intolerant, faith-driven ethno-states, Israel actually risks falling into the wrong camp.

Now, for the sake of full disclosure, I must confess that I used to be an admirer of Tony Judt’s work and was, for two years, affiliated with his research center at New York University. That said, I was truly appalled, indeed disgusted, by this statement and want to react to as best I can.

Judt’s main criticism is that Israel’s identity as a “Jewish State” is itself the problem and as such calls it not only anachronistic, but dysfunctional. These are fighting words, to say the least, particularly coming from a scholar who has long prided himself on the theme of the moral responsibility of public intellectuals. Yet what of Judt’s public responsibility? Indeed, isn’t calling Israel a ‘dysfunctional anachronism’ tantamount to saying that it no longer should exist as a Jewish State? I guess so, for Judt boldly states that the “true alternative facing the region is between an ethnically cleansed Greater Israel and a single, integrated, bi-national state of Jews and Arabs, Israelis and Palestinians.” Suffice it to say, neither the majority of Palestinians nor Israelis truly want this solution. Those who have long advocated it, secular Palestinian Marxists, are now increasingly on the defensive against the rise of Islamic radicalism in their own communities.

So what is Judt’s point, particularly in light of the fact that he is an historian of French intellectual life rather than of the Middle East? Judt stresses the fact that Zionism had much in common with its other European nationalist movements. True enough, but Israel today is not a “European” state and shouldn’t be implicitly compared with European states, particularly given the fact that, were it not for the influx of Soviet Jews in the 1990s, there would be more Sephardic Jews than Ashkenazi Jews in Israel. One cannot simply ignore the fact that millions of Israel’s Jewish citizens were indigenous to the Middle East and then expelled from their homelands by the same Arab nationalists who now continue to de-legitimize Israel’s very existence. The influence of Sephardic cultural and political thought on Israel today can hardly be underestimated. In his condemnation of Israel, Judt does not once mention the hundred of thousands of Jews expelled from Arab lands.

Israel’s political system is, in many ways, as liberal as the European liberal democracies and has, despite years of terrorism, managed to remain intact. It is France, not Israel, that bans devout Muslim women from wearing headscarves at state-run schools. Unlike the United Kingdom whose head of state – an un-elected monarch – will always be a member of the Church of England, Israel’s basic laws do not discriminate as to whether a Jew, Arab, or Christian can be elected president. Simply put, in the United Kingdom, a Catholic can never legally be head of state. In Israel, this is not the case. There is nothing in Israel’s legal system to prevent a Catholic from becoming head of state. True, it may not be likely, but unlike in the United Kingdom, it is not explicitly forbidden by law.

Israel’s counter-terrorism laws are not so inherently different from those used by the British against the IRA and by Spain against the Basque ETA. Should the IRA and ETA have conducted as many large and violent attacks as have the Palestinian terrorist organizations, does anyone seriously doubt as to whether the British and Spaniards would have acted aggressively against these groups? Does anyone doubt that the British and Spanish public would have demanded as much from their leadership?

But back to Judt’s argument, that Israel’s existence as a Jewish State is itself anachronistic and that “Israel … arrived too late.” While it is true that Israel only emerged as a state in 1948, after the Shoah, that does not mean that the state was only formed from scratch between 1945 and 1948. Indeed, Tel Aviv was founded in 1909 on land purchased from the Ottoman government by the Jewish Agency. Also not mentioned by Judt is the fact that the largest percentage of Jews who arrived in Ottoman Palestine between 1880 and 1900 were not from Europe at all. Rather, they were from Yemen, having had to flee oppressive Islamic rule. One could hardly consider these people part of the European Zionist intellectual project. They were merely fleeing to a place where they could live as Jews in safety. Does Judt seriously think that Yemen today will become a model state for Arab-Jewish coexistence and welcome back Yemenite-Israelis and their families who had to flee horrible persecution? Why should Israel, rather than Yemen, become the bi-national state and why should Yemenite-Israelis accede to living in a bi-national state in Israel?

Would Judt advocate the dissolution of all the Arab states that are part of the Arab League? Does he consider the fact that Bahrain is a majority Shi’a state and is ruled by a Sunni monarch to be as “anachronistic” as Israel? In the years that I have known Judt and his writing, I never seem to recall his advocacy on behalf of oppressed minorities in the Middle East, groups such as the Assyrians, Berbers, and Copts who have to fight for the right to speak their own languages and practice their own religion. Unlike in all the Arab League states, all Israeli citizens – Armenians, Bedouin, Circassians, Druze, Jews, Maronites, Muslims, and Russians – have the right to speak their language, practice their faith, practice their customs, and, most importantly, to peacefully protest against government policies and to vote. That does not mean there is no societal discrimination; it just means that, considering the neighborhood, Israel really is a model that the Arab states should consider emulating. There is nothing wrong in wanting to make Israel a more just society, but let’s remember the fact that Israel takes in political refugees from places like Kosovo and the Sudan. Does anyone imagine a political refugee fleeing to Syria?

I would also suggest that Professor Judt acquaint himself with Israel’s Druze community (if he is familiar with the proud history of the Israeli Druze), the overwhelming majority of whom are strong defenders of the Jewish State and who have bravely put their lives on the line defending it from its myriad enemies. Judt should also have a candid conversation or two with the region’s Christians, many of whom fear radical Islam a thousand times more than they fear Zionism and would much prefer to live in a Jewish State than in the bi-national state he advocates, even if they cannot say so in public forums. Judt likewise writes that “The very idea of a “Jewish state” – a state in which Jews and the Jewish religion have exclusive privileges from which non-Jewish citizens are forever excluded – is rooted in another time and place.” Can Judt name one legal privilege that an impoverished Israeli Jew from South Tel Aviv has and that a Druze officer in the Israeli Defense Forces does not have?

The fact of the matter is that advocating a bi-national state not only puts unrealistic utopian expectations on Israel and would eventually reduce Jews once again to minority status – dhimmitude – in the Middle East, but inherently puts extremely low expectations on the other states of the Middle East, the true source of much of the terrorism and violence in the world today. This is what President Bush, in discussing how the liberal establishment viewed inner-city schoolchildren’s potential for academic performance, termed ‘the soft bigotry of low expectations.’ Why should Israel be asked to dismantle its political system, while Jordanian law still forbids Jews from becoming Jordanian citizens?

As a writer who has long interacted with reformist Arab intellectuals and minority groups from the Middle East, I must confess that Judt’s anti-Israel sentiment is not so different from the rhetoric of Arab nationalists and Islamo-fascists who oppress them and make their lives miserable. There are many good people in the Middle East, Arabs and non-Arabs alike, who cannot speak up publicly and say what they truly believe lest they be arrested in the middle of the night: “Israel has a right to exist. We want peace with Israel.” Many Lebanese businessmen, for instance, are anxious to set up trade relations with Israel. The main concern of many respectable men and women in the Middle East is not whether or not Israel remains a state shaped primarily by Jewish culture and has a Jewish demographic majority, but whether or not they will be arrested for allegedly saying the wrong thing about their un-elected leader.

Rather than siding with them, Judt has sided with the enemies of Israel. I have to wonder whether Judt is disappointed that, as an expert in European political history, he really has no influence at all in the shaping of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and is thus helplessly lashing out at Israel rather than advocating constructive and realistic policy positions that would improve the lives of everyone in the region. Whatever the case, Judt is being, for lack of a better term, intellectually irresponsible.

Editor’s Note: Capitalism Magazine’s view is that the proper basis for any state in regards to religion is secularism–a complete separation between religion and politics. The reason why the state of Israel is the moral ideal in the Middle East is precisely because it is the least religious politic in the Middle East. For further elaboration see: http://www.IsraelisMoral.com/

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Jonathan Eric Lewis

Jonathan Eric Lewis is a New York-based journalist and writer. His work has appeared in the "Wall Street Journal"; "New York Sun"; and "Forward." He is the author, most recently, of the essay, "Iraqi Assyrians : Barometer of Pluralism" (Middle East Quarterly, Summer 2003)

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