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Limits of Zionist Apologetics: A Response to Yves Coleman

This is written in response to the polemic conducted by Yves Coleman against what he calls “left anti-Semitism” on the site mondialisme.org.1 I use inverted commas because in my opinion only some of the “anti-Zionist” positions attacked by Coleman are really anti-Semitic. Himself viewing the Zionist movement and the State of Israel through rose-tinted spectacles, he attributes to anti-Semitism anti-Zionist arguments that actually have some degree of validity. Although Coleman knows a lot about many things and makes many valid and important points, it seems to me that he does not know very much about the history of Zionism and current realities in Israel/Palestine.   

Israeli concentration camps?

Let us start with a matter of fact. “There are no concentration camps in Israel/Palestine,” asserted Coleman in a letter he sent to The Socialist Worker on April 19, 2002. Really? What about Ktzi'ot Prison in the Negev desert – Israel's largest detention facility, covering 40 hectares? What about the Ansar prisoner camps in southern Lebanon during Israel’s occupation of that area? (They were not “in Israel/Palestine” but they were Israeli camps.) And now the Israeli government plane to establish a huge new detention facility in the Negev for African refugees. Or has Coleman determined that the conditions in these places are not miserable or crowded enough for them to be called “concentration camps”?  

The comparison with Nazism

Coleman considers any comparison between Zionism and Nazism not just invalid but “criminal” and “reactionary.” However, he fails to make an essential distinction between completely identifying two phenomena and drawing partial comparisons or parallels between them. It is legitimate and illuminating to draw such comparisons between specific aspects of Zionist and Nazi ideology and practice.

Of course Zionism is not Nazism. Crude propaganda that equates them is indeed irresponsible as well as mendacious. Unfortunately, however, the gap between them is not as wide as Coleman imagines. Moreover, it is narrowing as the spectrum of Israeli politics veers further and further to the right.

There is a basic resemblance between the Nazi attitude toward the Jews and the Zionist attitude toward the Palestinians. Both target groups are perceived as an obstacle to the realization of a cherished dream. They are unwanted. Their very presence is a “question” or “problem” that somehow has to be “solved” (the Jewish question, the Palestinian problem). In the meantime they may be merely dispossessed and exploited but the longer-term goal is to get rid of them.

In both cases a partial solution is found in the isolation of the unwanted group in ghettoes that concentrate as many residents as possible in a small area. Another remedy is expulsion or “transfer” (ethnic cleansing), as in the Nazi plan to deport Jews to Madagascar or in the Palestinian Nakba. The possibility of a “final solution” – i.e., genocide – arises when circumstances make transfer impractical. For the Nazis it was the outbreak of war that prevented the further expulsion of Jews. A genocide of Palestinians is not a near-term prospect, but an observer who has watched Israeli crowds chanting “Death to the Arabs!” may no longer find it inconceivable.

Nazi-Zionist collaboration

Coleman is right when he says that in judging the assistance given to the Nazi authorities by the Jewish Councils during the Holocaust we should make allowances for the conditions of terror under which they acted. Collaboration as officials or police officers of these Councils was for many the sole hope of survival. Collaboration it was nonetheless. Not everyone who was invited to serve in such a capacity agreed to do so. Some Jewish Councils pretended to collaborate while doing all they could to sabotage Nazi plans and help the resistance. 

There was a strong relationship between willingness to collaborate and ideological affiliation. Traditional religious Jews refused to collaborate. Communist and Bundist Jews were rarely asked; where they were appointed to Jewish Councils (as in Belorussia) they only pretended to collaborate. Nor were Zionist Jews always prepared to collaborate – but all who collaborated were Zionists. The most notorious case was that of Rudolf Kastner, a Zionist functionary in Budapest, who kept Hungarian Jews in the dark about the fate awaiting them under circumstances that gave them a good chance of resisting and escaping. In exchange he was given a special train to safety for himself, his family and friends, Zionist colleagues, and rich Jews able to pay the high price he demanded for a seat.2

Bombs in Iraq

At the beginning of the 1950s agents of the Israeli secret service committed terrorist acts in Baghdad to frighten Iraqi Jews into fleeing to Israel in the mistaken belief that the culprits were Moslem anti-Semites. These “black flag operations” achieved their purpose. Coleman does not deny that something of the kind happened: “The Mossad placed a bomb in the Fifties inside a Baghdad synagogue to create panic among Iraqi Jews.” He adds a dig at those who place the whole of the blame on Israel: “It is hard to believe that only one bomb was enough to put an end to 2000 years of idyllic coexistence!”

But there was not just one bomb. Zionist agents exploded two bombs and four grenades at Jewish targets in Baghdad:

March 19, 1950. Bomb exploded at the American cultural center and library, a meeting place favored by young Jews

April 8, 1950. Grenade thrown at the El-Dar El-Bida café where Jews were celebrating Passover

May 10, 1950. Grenade thrown at the display window of the Jewish-owned Beit-Lawi Automobile Company

June 3, 1950. Grenade thrown from a speeding car in the El-Batawin neighborhood, where most rich Jews lived

June 5, 1950. Bomb exploded next to the Jewish-owned Stanley Shashua Building on El-Rashid Street

January 14, 1951. Grenade thrown at a group of Jews outside the Masouda Shem-Tov Synagogue3

It is true that the provocations would probably not have succeeded in the complete absence of Moslem anti-Semitism. It was the combined action of anti-Semitism and Zionism that did the trick. It cannot plausibly be denied, however, that the State of Israel deliberately exacerbated the real and apparent threat of anti-Semitism to Jews in Iraq in pursuit of their purpose. There was a similar campaign of terror in Egypt, which also achieved its purpose.

Does Israel engender anti-Semitism?

Nevertheless, Coleman asks: “Does the State of Israel engender anti-Semitism?” and answers his own question: “No, this charge is absurd.” Characteristically, he then immediately grants an exception that shows that the charge is not so absurd after all: “Or it is true only in the sense that all states create hostility to their nationals when their armies carry out criminal acts.” And as the Israeli government claims to represent not just citizens of Israel but Jews throughout the world the backlash also affects all Jews. In other words, the State of Israel does engender anti-Semitism.

Coleman proceeds to point out that “revolutionaries” should not “confound the citizens of a state with the policy of their government” and should distinguish “between Israelis (citizens of Israel), Jews as members of the Jewish people, and Jews as practitioners of Judaism.” He does not acknowledge how difficult it is to make these distinctions when the majority of Israeli Jews vote such governments into office and willingly serve in the army that “carries out criminal acts,” when many Israeli Jews, especially those settled on the West Bank, commit horrendous crimes against Palestinians wholly on their own initiative, and when organized Jewish communities in many other countries support the Israeli government politically and financially.

Are Jews victims?

According to Coleman:

The argument that Zionism requires anti-Semitism to exist recalls the arguments of those who claim that if women did not wear revealing miniskirts or low necklines they would not be raped by men.

I had to read this sentence several times before I could make any sense of it. Eventually I realized that it is based on two assumptions, both of them false. One is the assumption –actually a demand – that a “victim” must never be blamed, even in the slightest, for her or his victimization, where a “victim” is someone who belongs to a recognized and fixed “victim group” (blacks, women, homosexuals, etc.). The prohibited act is called “blaming the victim.” The second assumption is that Jews, including Zionist Jews, merit recognition as such a victim group on account of continuing anti-Semitism.

The demand not to “blame the victim” has become conventional wisdom within the sort of pseudo-leftist milieu that Coleman is criticizing. However, Coleman does not challenge the approach based on the concept of fixed “victim groups.” He is only arguing about which groups should be recognized as victim groups. He wants Jews to continue to be recognized as a victim group – a status they have gradually been losing. Conversely, he wants Moslems to be denied their claim to victim group status (hence his critique of “Islamophobia”). The pseudo-leftist milieu is constantly riven by such arguments over claims of rival groups to victim status. This is understandable in view of the enormous stakes involved: membership in a recognized victim group gives you the right to do whatever you like with no risk of blame or criticism. No wonder people fight hard for such a privilege!

In reality, members of victim groups can and often do contribute to their own victimization. This does not mean that their victimization has no other causes. Obviously it does. It just means that they may behave in ways that increase the dangers they face.

One way many Jews increase the dangers that all Jews face is by supporting Zionism. Jewish support for Zionism gives anti-Semites an excuse and justification, not least in their own eyes, for continuing to persecute Jews at a time when religious and other traditional rationales for anti-Semitism have lost most of their credibility. They can victimize Jews in good conscience – as defenders of the Jews’ own victims. 

Victimization is not something fixed. The same person or group may be a victim in one context and a victimizer in another. The classical example is the male worker who is badly treated by his boss and comes home to beat his wife. If she then takes it out on the kids she too is both victim and victimizer. 

Jews as a group are nowadays both victims (of anti-Semitism) and victimizers (as Zionists). But this is a gross generalization. Not all Jews are exposed to anti-Semitism, nor do all Jews participate in the Zionist project. It may therefore be in the interest of some Zionist Jews who are reliably protected from anti-Semitism to act in ways that expose other Jews to increased anti-Semitism, partly because anti-Semitism is an important element in the rationale for Zionism.

What is Zionism?

Here is how Coleman answers this question: “It is enough to indicate that Zionism is a form of nationalism.” No, my friend, that isn’t enough. What form of nationalism? “It tries to mobilize the Jewish people behind the government of the state that has been constructed in the Middle East since 1948.” But first of all it mobilized the Jewish people to construct that state – a process that began at least 30 years earlier than 1948. 

Coleman is more forthcoming in the following passage:

Is Zionism colonialist? Yes, Israel is a colonial settlement whose evolution resembles that of the United States, Australia, even in some aspects South Africa. This last comparison is, however, dangerous because ... it dangerously criminalizes not only the Israeli government but all citizens. Israel built itself on the violent expropriation of the land and goods of the Palestinian people and this process never stopped.

Apparently Coleman sees South Africa as a worse instance of colonial settlement than the United States or Australia. But why? The indigenous people of South Africa were dispossessed and exploited, but most survived and remained in their homeland. The Amerindians in the US and the Australian aborigines fared much worse. The native people of Tasmania suffered total genocide. What I think Coleman means is that apartheid is a more recent phenomenon and therefore more disreputable: the comparison with South Africa, though to some extent valid, is “dangerous” in that it “criminalizes” ordinary Israeli citizens. But in that case surely the frank admission contained in the last sentence is no less “dangerous”?

Coleman is not consistent in his attitude toward the comparison with South Africa. Here he acknowledges a resemblance between Israel/Palestine and South Africa “in some aspects” but at another place he calls the comparison “easy propaganda for lazy minds.”

Coleman participates, albeit inconsistently, in the general Zionist effort to cover up the ugly truth about Zionism. This truth is dangerous to Jews because it will exacerbate anti-Semitism. It is understandable that Jews should want to avert that result. The trouble is that the cover-up is not very effective and as people become aware of it they will become even angrier. Wouldn’t an honest attempt to face and change the reality be more effective in mitigating anti-Semitism? Moreover, a disproportionate concern with anti-Semitism – I am not saying that the issue should be ignored altogether – tends to undermine other important concerns, including solidarity with the Palestinians.

Is Israel a racist state?

On this question Coleman is also inconsistent. At one place he says that “those who accuse Israel ... of being a ‘racist’ state only reproduce arguments developed by Soviet Stalinists,” who are presumably wrong by definition. Elsewhere, however, he argues that "any nationalist ideology can ... employ racist arguments. And every national state [sometimes] uses the weapon of xenophobia or racism... Therefore, yes, Zionism has a potential racist dimension, but like any other national or nationalist ideology, including that of the Palestinians, and not more than any other."

In other words, Israel is no more and no less racist than any other nation-state.

However, it makes sense to approach this question by examining how Israeli state institutions answer the question “Who is a Jew?” This is a question of vital importance because by the Law of Return Israel grants automatic citizenship to “Jews” and only to them. We find that Israel relies on a definition taken from Halakha (Jewish law) that combines the religious criterion with that of maternal descent. This is at least in part a racial definition. So Israel does not just use racism now and then; it is essentially racist in a way that most contemporary states are not.  

Jews and Romani

Coleman seems torn between his belief that “the Jewish people has the same right as other peoples to benefit from its own national state” and an intermittent awareness of the dire consequences that exercise of this right has inevitably had for the Palestinian people.

He holds that other dispersed peoples also have this right and suggests that “one day the Romani people [may likewise] claim a nation-state with some share of the planet.” But unless the Romani settle in Antarctica Romani nationalism is bound to have the same consequences as the Jewish variety, for there are no longer uninhabited regions in the world. If following the Jewish example they try to reoccupy the Punjab, which some Romani believe to be their original homeland, they will enter into conflict with the current Sikh residents.    

It is logically impossible to assign full national rights to a people living compactly in a given area and at the same time assign full national rights to a dispersed people aspiring to “return” to the same area and build their own nation-state there. One of the claimants must give way to the other, or else they must share national rights, in which case neither of them will have the same national rights as peoples inhabiting areas not claimed by a dispersed people. As some peoples are compact and others are dispersed, complete equality of national rights is unattainable.

Rights of return

Toward the end of his “questions and answers” Coleman comments on “rights of return.” He calls the Palestinian right of return “perfectly justified [but] inapplicable”: he cannot see how the Palestinians in exile could recover the land, houses, and jobs that they lost, for where would the Israelis go? “Payment of compensation seems more reasonable” (to him anyway). The right of return is “an aberration for the Palestinians – but also for the Jews of the whole world.”

Coleman’s willingness to abandon the Jewish “right of return” shows that notwithstanding all his apologetics he is not fully committed to Zionism. But even-handed rejection of both rights of return is a false symmetry. For Palestinians return holds the promise of healing a trauma that still haunts the memory of the oldest living generation and leaves behind a melancholy feeling of loss in their descendants. For Jews “return” has meaning only through the words of archaic texts that have no relevance to present-day life. It is only fair and reasonable that the Palestinian right of return be given priority and implemented to the greatest extent practicable.

As for where the Israelis will go, with the end of Zionism many will choose to leave, especially those who arrived fairly recently from countries where Jews live safe and comfortable lives (Canada, the US, Britain, Australia, perhaps even France). Anti-Semitism and Islamism will not disappear but they will be greatly weakened. Those who remain will be integrated into the post-Zionist state as Jewish Palestinians.

Notes

 1. I rely on the material at http://mondialisme.org/spip.php?article2093 and http://mondialisme.org/spip.php?article2121

 2. On the historical record of relations between Zionists and Nazis see: Lenni Brenner, 51 Documents: Zionist Collaboration with the Nazis (Fort Lee, NJ: Barricade Books, 2002). On the Jewish Councils see: Isaiah Trunk, Judenrat: The Jewish Councils in Eastern Europe Under Nazi Occupation (New York: Stein & Day, 1972). On the Jewish Council in Minsk see: Barbara Epstein, The Minsk Ghetto 1941—1943: Jewish Resistance and Soviet Internationalism (Berkley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 2008), especially pp. 131-2.

 3. Naeim Giladi, Ben-Gurion’s Scandals: How the Haganah and the Mossad Eliminated Jews (Tempe, AZ: Dandelion Books, 2003), pp. 16-18. 

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