My weekly Guardian column:
The South African national high school debating team was recently in Bangkok for the world debating championships. During the competition, the team uploaded a picture of themselves at the tournament’s opening ceremony to Facebook, and controversy ensued.
“Team South Africa wearing Palestinian badges and Keffiyehs to show our opposition to the human rights violations carried out against the people of Palestine,” they posted.
The debating team’s captain, Joshua Broomberg, is the deputy head boy of a prestigious Jewish school in Johannesburg. That sent the online commenters into apoplexy. Threats of violence were made against the students.
Although South Africa has long had a strongly pro-Israel Jewish community, despite the African National Congress government increasingly opposing Israeli militarism and occupation, there are growing splits within the tight, Zionist enclave. Over 500 prominent Jews signed a statement a few weeks ago that read:
“Just as we resist antisemitism, we refuse to dehumanise Palestinians in order to make their deaths lighter on our collective conscience. We sign this statement in order to affirm their humanity and our own. We distance ourselves from South African Jewish organizations whose blind support for Israel’s disproportionate actions moves us further from a just resolution to the conflict.”
In the global Jewish diaspora, dissent against Israel of this magnitude is a relatively new phenomenon. Although support for the Jewish state has been an unofficial second religion for Jews for decades – in my own family it was simply expected that Israel would be uncritically backed in times of war and peace, with Palestinians demonised as unreasonable and violent – times are changing.
This doesn’t please some of the loudest Jewish voices. Conservative writer Shmuel Rosner argued in the New York Times in early August that liberal critics of Israel were severing familial ties. “If all Jews are a family”, he wrote, “it would be natural for Israelis to expect the unconditional love of their non-Israeli Jewish kin.”
“If Jews aren’t a family,” he continued, “and their support can be withdrawn, then Israelis have no reason to pay special attention to the complaints of non-Israeli Jews.”
Rosner believes that Israel will survive without liberal Jewish backing but surely even he recognises that Israel isn’t an island, and without strong support from America – diplomatically, financially and militarily – the Jewish state is isolated and increasingly alone. Rosner knows that Jewish diaspora support for Israel is vital if the Jewish state is to perpetuate its nearly 50-year occupation of Palestinian lands.
The standard tools used to silence skeptical Jews, including those in the diaspora – false allegations of self-hatred and antisemitism, accusations of backing Hamas – are less effective today. Israel can’t rely on diaspora support while hardline Zionists criticise diaspora Jewish voices for an apparently insufficient knowledge of Israeli politics or Hebrew, either.
In reality, despite what Israel supporters claim, the conflict isn’t complicated; occupation never is. Critics have been stripped of their power by the sheer scale of the Israeli invasion in Gaza, and the searing images of death and destruction, which are forcing even the most dedicated Israel backers to question the tactic of collective punishment.
In the US, Israel’s chief backer, support for Israel is flagging. The numbers don’t lie; a recent Gallup poll in the US found that Democrat voters and youth were much less likely to endorse Israel’s actions than the general US population, and a key sample of congressional staffers agreed that “Israel attacked Gaza in a wild overreaction”.
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee understands the “vulnerability” of progressive support for Israel in the diaspora. Funding for young Jews to embraceIsrael has been ramped up and “birthright” trips are still ongoing, despite the conflict. But as one Rabbi noted, “This is a hard time to go and make that deep connection that we seek to make [on trips to Israel] … you are not going to see the Israel I saw when I was there in June. It really is different. It changed overnight”. Even the free trips are losing their effectiveness, and little wonder: a recent video, filmed at the Western Wall, shows how some young Israelis consider “another war, and another war, and another war” in Gaza to be normal.
The Jewish diaspora has long been relied upon to endorse and fund Israeli actions. Zionist leaders from my home country, Australia, are this month welcoming one of the most senior members of the Israeli government: Avigdor Lieberman, the foreign minister, who advocates the total separation of Palestinians and Jews inside Israel, and wants “loyalty oaths” for Arab-Israeli citizens. The visit is already being hailed as “a wonderful reflection of the standing of the Australian Jewish community within the leadership of the Israeli government.”
The feeling is mutual. Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, wrote a letter to diaspora Jews this month thanking them for “standing by Israel”:
“The support of Jewish communities around the world has been a source of great strength for the people of Israel … Many of you have had to face aggressive protesters, and even violent antisemitism … Israel will, for its part, continue standing at your side, as you deal with hatred and intolerance. Jews everywhere should be able to live with pride, not fear. I have great faith in the Jewish people and in the justice of our cause.”
While Israel doesn’t attract the same degree of support, some blind, it once enjoyed, the extent of dissent shouldn’t be exaggerated. Netanyahu’s message is still overwhelmingly appreciated by the majority of active Jews worldwide. Orthodox and Liberal around the world embrace Israel in their own, often deeply reactionary way – as do plenty of evangelical Christians.
Even some self-described progressive Jews, like the US writer Peter Beinart, still identify as Zionist. They do so to stay connected to family, friends and community. Were they to oppose Israel they would become outsiders. After all, since Israel’s establishment in 1948, and more so since the 1967 Six Day War, communal organisations have been deeply involved in providing the intellectual, emotional and financial backing for the Jewish state.
Who knows how many more Israeli massacres it will take to wean Jews in the diaspora off the Zionist cultural drip-feed? There’s a feeling of belonging, a prestige associated with the Zionist world that makes many Jews feel complete. Losing that means cutting ties with the modern, Jewish ritual of devotion to a foreign country. It’s perhaps hard for an outsider to understand this.
Nevertheless, groups such as Jewish Voice for Peace in America are giving strength to an independent view. While acknowledging the worrying signs of real antisemitism emerging around the world, they argue, as Israeli journalist Amira Hass does, that “If the security of Jews in the Middle East were of real interest … [the west] would not continue subsidising the Israeli occupation”.
Even the prominent Zionist Leon Wieseltier, writing in New Republic, is signalling the surging disquiet. “I have been surprised by the magnitude of the indifference in the Jewish world to the human costs of Israel’s defense against the missiles and the tunnels,” he argued recently.
A “Jewish Bloc against Zionism” marched in the massive protests in London against the Gaza massacre, joining unprecedented outrage from Britain’s political leadership over Israeli behaviour. Jews protested in New York and across America against Israeli actions.
Diaspora Jews should acknowledge the risks that arise from conflating antisemitism with anti-Zionism, a legitimate difference with historical roots. They are increasingly feeling targeted for uncritically backing Israel, and perhaps have the most to lose if this distinction is not made. The alternatives are bleak: a split among Jewish communities along generational lines, or growing disillusionment of the Jewish population.
French Jews are moving to Israel in ever-growing numbers, but few Jews feel safer in Israel than in their own nations. What threatens the Zionist establishment is not antisemitism or migration, but boycotts. A spokesperson for Britain’s Community Security Trust, a group that monitors antisemitism, recently said that the community would “get through” a spike in Jew hatred – “but the boycott stuff is really, really serious”.