Failing to take responsibility for what Zionism has created

Following the publication of the Independent Australian Jewish Voices advertisement across the Australian media yesterday, Zionist columnist Mark Baker writes in the Australian Jewish News that debate over “Jewish” issues should be wider but he still wants to proscribe certain boundaries. He condemns the lack of “balance” in the IAJV statement, implying somehow that both Israelis and Palestinians are equally to blame for the issue. Baker simply can’t come to terms with his own complicity in the Zionist occupation project, deploying equivocal language in the process. Soft, Left Zionist ideas have allowed the Jewish Diaspora to show its “love” for Israel by stepping so carefully around the Middle East debate that the Israeli government has merely continued to continue the colonies in the West Bank and beyond:

There is a McCarthyist spirit in the Jewish air, an atmosphere where thoughts are censored and words cut off mid-sentence. In an age of mass communications, there is no need to summons a person to testify. A flick of the computer button can spread a lie through the viral stratosphere, and travel to people’s dinner tables for a lively conversation of malice and libel.

The crucible for these whispering campaigns is spawned by fear, and in our world there is indeed much to fear. As Jews, our traumas born of history are being fuelled by an international effort to delegitimise the places and ideas we love most. Our Zionism – Israel – is under threat in a way that I have not experienced in my lifetime, surpassing even the 1975 UN circus that equated Zionism with racism. Today, the climate that would turn Israel into a pariah state is buttressed by a world leader who uses genocidal rhetoric, and will soon have the means to make good on his promise.

Yet in defending Israel, we also need to be vigilant that we do not surrender the values that make Israel worth fighting for; the justness of its identity as the national homeland of the Jewish people, its commitments to free speech and equality, the passionate arguments that make Israel one of the world’s most vibrant democracies.

Within Israel, there is currently a struggle over the meaning of these values that goes beyond the political wings of Left and Right. Which is the truer face of Zionism: The Zionism of the settlers in Hebron or the Zionism of protestors at Sheikh Jarrah? The Zionism of groups that are attacking Israel’s Supreme Court and universities, or the Zionism that values the rule of law and academic inquiry? The Zionism that treats Israeli Arabs as a fifth column, or the Zionism that upholds the rights of the Arab minority in the spirit of Israel’s Declaration of Independence?

For those of us in the Diaspora for whom Israel is one of the core pillars of our identity, we cannot ignore the impact of these struggles. In fact, our community has always provided an infrastructure that respects the differences among us, while recognising that in our diversity we are all working towards a common goal.

How do we define these common goals of Zionism? How do we reach them?

Herein lies the current danger. There is a worldwide trend in Israel and the Diaspora to circumscribe in the narrowest way how we love and advocate for Israel. Patriotism gets measured through rigid slogans rather than through the vitality of Israel itself.

The danger that we face is that increasing numbers of Jews will find themselves alienated from this constricted space, and pushed outside the doors of Jewish life.

There are many students, for example, who in this last election voted for the Greens as an extension of their Jewish readings of environmental responsibility. I have heard people characterise these voters as traitors and anti-Zionists. If we really cared about Jewish continuity, would we allow them to be maligned in this way?

Should we censor Jews if they state that they do not believe in the strategy of blockading Gaza, or if they argue that Jerusalem should be the shared capital of Israel and a future Palestinian state, sentiments that are expressed by a large portion of Israelis?

To be sure, anyone who is a Zionist today will be concerned about the campaign to delegitimise Israel and how words of criticism might fuel the anti-Zionist agenda. The recent statement by the Independent Australian Jewish Voices, for example, lacks any semblance of balance and is designed to present an inflammatory condemnation of Israel, heightened by rhetorical references to Holocaust memory.

While a balanced response is difficult to strike, a monolithic approach that does not allow for criticism of Israeli policies is counterproductive. It rings false with the public and with ourselves; it smothers the diversity of our Zionist commitments; it serves the status quo and undermines the imperative of reaching a two-state solution; and it won’t wash with a younger generation of Jews who are demanding an authentic, open conversation about their values and Israel.

A culture that stifles debate is encircling our community. Fear of being abused or distorted or taken out of context is silencing many younger Jews.

I fear that if we don’t broaden the discussion, then we will wake up and find a new generation that is Jewishly silent, which will translate into apathy, assimilation, and alienation from Israel. The ideas that we wish to defend will have been destroyed by our own zealotry. And the McCarthyists will have no one left to pursue except themselves.

Mark Baker is director of the Australian Centre for Jewish Civilisation and associate professor of Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Monash University.