Last Tuesday night, Holocaust survivor Ruth Millman shared her story with attendants at this year’s James Youngelson’s Lecture on Ethics and Responsibility. My words could not hope to match hers so I won’t try to paraphrase her story. Suffice it to say that Millman helped us better understand that for millions of Jews (among other vulnerable groups) the Holocaust names a horror so vicious that we would do well never to forget it. But while the horror of the Holocaust is patently beyond argument, Millman’s stance toward Israel is not.
No doubt to some of you the previous sentence will read like a non sequitur. It perhaps should be, but contemporary discourse cannot seem to consider the two, the Holocaust and the State of Israel, in isolation from each other. Any discussion of the Holocaust directs us willy-nilly to the topic of Israel, and usually, as it did last Tuesday night, to a defense of its politics.
Toward the end of her time Millman stated: “I don’t question [Israel’s] politics, they’re their own country.” As an abstract proposition, the statement clearly gestures toward respect for the politics of a sovereign country, which is commendable, especially given the long history of imperialist policies of the United States. But when we consider the historical context of the particular country, Israel, it is easier to see what might be wrong with such a statement. Simply put: the problem with this idea, despite its vaguely democratic ethos, is that Israel is a country that claims to speak for all Jews and that, according to recent estimates, receives $4-5 billion per year from the United States in the form of aid. As a Jew and as an American, Millman has every right to question Israel’s politics. And, I argue, she – and every person in a similar position – should exercise that right.
Indeed, upon closer examination, the democratic ethos of Millman’s sentence becomes vague to the point of extinction. To adopt a stance whereby, as a matter of principle, you do not question the politics of a state seems anathema to the pursuit of democracy. And when the state in question oppresses a people, namely the Palestinians, to adopt an uncritical position is inimical to ethics. An ethical stance would, for example, entail speaking against the illegal occupation of the West Bank and the blockade of Gaza; to call for an end to the construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem; to demand the repeal of the discriminatory laws to which Palestinians living in Israel proper are subjected, simply by virtue of not being Jewish; to insist on the necessity of a right of return for Palestinians who were dispossessed in 1948 and after.
Millman justified her position by arguing that, if Israel had existed during World War II, Hitler couldn’t have carried out the Final Solution because Israel would have intervened or, at the very least, helped Jews escape. Even if we grant that this is true – that if Israel had existed in 1942 fewer or no Jews would have died in concentration camps – and even if we allow that a state should exist today that makes it incumbent upon itself to protect a historically oppressed people (the Jews), surely one should question whether that state, while fulfilling its mission, is entitled to viciously oppress another people. That would make as much sense as solving a refugee crisis by creating another refugee crisis, which is, incidentally, what the British Empire and the United Nations, pressured by Zionist groups, did in 1948.
Responding to a question about the rise of anti-Semitism in France and its link to the rise of far right movements in Europe, Millman posited that anti-Semitism is on the rise because a lot of Muslims live in France. Since France is not the topic of this article, I’ll say schematically that the idea that Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far right party Front national, is at all responsive to Muslim interests would be comic if it weren’t clearly an (unsuccessful) attempt at scapegoating. Similarly, Millman’s presumption that “Muslims hate Israel and want to see the end of Israel” is predicated on a schism (Muslims versus Jews, ‘them’ against ‘us’) that is radically out of touch with reality. But that is being too generous… A more sinister consideration of this statement would not see it as the relatively innocuous, if offensive, mischaracterization of a whole group, “Muslims”, as monolithically invested in the destruction of a whole country, but rather as the very alibi (“Security is paramount!”) that permits blatant human rights violations, repressive legislation, rampant militarization, aggressive settlement construction, racial segregation, unwarranted imprisonment of minors, not to mention the murder of civilians. It would be misleading to say that Israel is the only country invoking this alibi or that Israel’s defenders invoke it consciously; it so happens that it is but one of the many alibis that governments routinely use for repressive ends and that many people reflexively accept.
Under the crushing burden of the Holocaust, some of the bravest, most critical of people have, to borrow a phrase from Millman, “turned the other way”. We simply cannot continue to ignore the suffering of Palestinians. We should be comforted by the fact that there’s plenty of opposition to Israel’s politics from the Jewish community itself, opposition that is increasingly visible, articulate and widespread. As Jewish philosopher Judith Butler argues, within the Jewish tradition itself, there’s a long and rich history of opposition to Zionism, to racism and to oppression. It simply will not do to claim that to be critical of Israel is de facto anti-Semitic – it is not. It would be misguided, to put it mildly, to fall victim to the Zionist blackmail that pretends to equate anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism.
This is, to be sure, a complex conflict. There are many actors, with diverse histories and interests. To begin to engage the conflict one would have to know of Hamas and Fatah, the main Palestinian political parties who dishonor the Palestinian people with their corruption (Fatah) and violent practices (Hamas) but, above all, with their paralyzing ineptitude; one would have to reckon the degree to which the spineless, oil-rich Gulf countries have allowed their economic interests to take precedence over the fate of a people, to whom they claim allegiance; perhaps one would also need to understand how every single American President, from Truman to Obama, has broken FDR’s promise to Abdulaziz, then King of Saudi Arabia, that the US would not act in Palestine in any way “hostile” to Arabs in that country; indeed, one would need to consider that, far from being a neutral intermediary in this conflict, the US has consistently fulfilled the role of “Israel’s lawyer”, in Henry Kissinger’s apt formulation; and, finally, one must account for the fact that Israel is, by far, the strongest military power in the region, with access to very real nuclear weapons.
On the other hand, what seems crystal clear is that there will never be hope for a peaceful resolution of this conflict so long as Palestinians are systematically rendered invisible. Their story, their heritage, their lives – being just as precious as that of the Jews and any other people – deserve to be told, preserved, treasured. It is imperative that every time we make an appeal to defend and value Jewish lives – and, as anti-Semitism still exists, we must do this often – we make a similar appeal in the name of Palestinian lives, since the fate of these two peoples are intimately intertwined and will continue to be for the foreseeable future.
Peaceful coexistence with those whom we didn’t choose to share the world; a sense of responsibility for injustices committed against others; respect for every human life independent of that life’s utility value: these are some of the things that an ethical stance vis-à-vis the world requires. Today we would do well to remember the words of Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas: “The fact of not evading the burden imposed by the suffering of others defines the self.” Levinas, despite being one of the 20th century’s towering figures in moral philosophy, could not bring himself to see the Palestinians as the moral equals of the Jews. Evidently, there’s much that we can learn from those with whom we vehemently disagree.
(Copyright 2016 Pedro Hurtado-Ortiz)