Tony Klug, Tikkun Magazine, May/June 2010
This essay by Tony Klug is based on a talk given at Limmud in December 2009 and published on this website in January 2010. It was revised for publication in the May/June edition of Tikkkun magazine. Subsequently Dave Beldin of Tikkun did an audio interview with Tony Klug, It’s now up to Obama to drive a solution in Israel / Palestine on 6 May 2010, discussing the development of his views since his Fabian pamphlet on the topic in 1973. You can listen to it here.
Even posing the question is painful, for after all the suffering anti-Semitism has caused the Jewish people over the centuries, the last thing we need or deserve is to have it become a permanent state of affairs. Nonetheless, the proposition that the State of Israel, which was conceived as a way of normalizing relations between Jews and all other peoples, might instead be normalizing anti-Semitism is not one we can simply close our eyes to in the forlorn hope that it will go away of its own accord.
I realize I may be stepping near the knuckle here. As Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest might have said, “To take on one controversial topic may be regarded as a misfortune; to combine two controversial topics looks like carelessness.” However, to my mind, the two topics (Israeli policies and anti-Semitism) are not separate and unrelated but ineluctably converging—an inference I draw reluctantly from my forty years of engagement on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian divide. I believe that the danger signals are flashing and that it is important to be candid about these matters at these uncertain times.
The Other Alleged Culprits
Our starting point—regrettably not a controversial one—is that there has been a disturbing rise of anti-Jewish sentiment around the world in recent years. Reports of this rise may occasionally be exaggerated or distorted, but they are not invented out of thin air. But why has this come about?
Some say it is the fault of extremist Muslims, or of large-scale Muslim immigration to Europe and other Western countries, or even of Islam itself and its holy book, the Qur’an. Others widen the net of fault to blame “spineless” Western governments and their smug, predominantly Christian populations who, they say, have always harbored anti-Semitic feelings anyway. Yet others accuse human rights groups of betraying their mission and developing—along with almost the entire NGO sector, the mass media, the trade unions, and the universities—an almost exclusive obsession about Israel, the “stand-in collective Jew.”
Finally, there are the alleged “self-hating Jews”—Jews accused of being ashamed of their origins and of turning their backs on their people in order to ingratiate themselves to others. The accusation is facile and commonly offensive, as many Jews who are on its receiving end—a constantly expanding number, apparently—draw largely on such traditional Jewish values as justice, peace, truth, human dignity, and rightful treatment of the stranger (“for you were strangers in the land of Egypt”) for their inspiration. These values—with which I am quite familiar as they were daily drilled into me at the orthodox Jewish school I attended between the ages of five and eighteen—are trashed virtually every time the “self-hating” accusation is leveled. In most cases, the accusation (whatever it is supposed to mean exactly) is made not because there is any basis for it, but because it meets the self-serving purpose of enabling the accuser to deflect mounting inconvenient realities.
A novel recent addition to those labeled as members of the “self-hating” community are the Israeli government officials responsible for overseeing Prime Minister Netanyahu’s partial construction freeze, whom disgruntled West Bank settlers have greeted as “anti-Semites.”
Altogether, this adds up to a large number of people supposedly out of step. With so many alleged anti-Semites around, is it any wonder there are Jews who feel paranoid? But, then again, are we not primed to see ourselves as the perennial victims when, at the annual Seder table, we recite the passage from the Pesach Haggadah that warns, “Not just one alone has risen against us to destroy us, but in every generation they rise against us to destroy us”? If we take this adage to heart—as a statement as much about the present and future as about the past—are not all the above groups just bit players merely acting out their scripted parts?
It’s not that there is nothing to any of this. Indeed, the Jews have had more than their fair share of adversity since time immemorial, and there are still plenty of authentic anti-Semites around, doubtless rather enjoying the moment. But maybe some introspection on our part is also warranted. Is it possible that we ourselves have in some way contributed in recent times to the overt rise in Jewish unpopularity? It’s a tricky question, as minority groups throughout history have habitually been accused of causing the prejudice from which they suffer, a slur the browbeaten Jews of Europe, among others, stoically endured over many generations. Yet, again, in the contemporary reality, it’s a question we cannot simply shield ourselves from on the back of a convenient, if often legitimate, principle.
Definition Creep: Are We Changing the Meaning of “Anti-Semitism”?
If by anti-Semitism we mean an irrational hatred of Jews, or an underlying prejudice or contempt for all things Jewish, can there be such a thing as an antipathy to Jews or Jewish causes that is not irrational—even if some Jews find it upsetting? The answer would be “no, never” only if we define antagonism to virtually any Jewish endeavor—let’s say Jewish schools in the educational sphere—as necessarily a form of “anti-Semitism.” Such a generalization would clearly be stretching the meaning of the term too far.
In the political arena, pertinent examples could range from disparaging the policies and practices of the Israeli government, through contesting Zionism as a political ideology, to questioning the legitimacy of a Jewish state. Such challenges, in particular the latter two, are bound to make many supporters of Israel feel uncomfortable, even outraged. That’s understandable, but are the critics necessarily driven by anti-Semitism? To corral them into this fold by slapping on the prefix “new”—as in “new anti-Semitism”—is not only simplistic and muddling, but it also risks trivializing past Jewish suffering, as well as genuine instances of anti-Semitism today, and it generally debases the currency.
Not only this, but many Jews, religiously observant or secular, within Israel and without, would suddenly find themselves on the wrong side of this “definition creep.” So too, retrospectively, would past luminaries of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, leading figures of which, prior to the establishment of the Israeli state, were outspokenly anti-Zionist. Should they therefore now be deemed anti-Semitic, or newly anti-Semitic?
As with any phenomenon, stretching the definition of anti-Semitism is bound to make it appear more prevalent than it really is by inflating the figures and expanding the fear factor. More ominously, it can obscure the real situation. Worse still, it can pervert it, as we saw in November last year when certain Zionist circles in Britain courted two far-Right members of the European Parliament, one from Poland and the other from Latvia, who had been accused of blatant neo-Nazi associations in the past and of distinct anti-Semitic proclivities more recently. This tendency was again in evidence the following month when two right-wing Hungarian politicians, who had made very disparaging comments about their country’s Jews, participated in the annual Global Forum to Combat Anti-Semitism in Jerusalem, sponsored by the Israeli Foreign Ministry. There was a time when Jews and official Jewish bodies would not go near such people with a bargepole. However, their records as “friends of the Jews” have been defended partly on the ground that their political parties can be relied on to take Israel’s side on resolutions at the European Parliament. (Why they do this is a matter of debate, although it may have something to do with many modern-day fascists apparently hating Muslims more than they hate Jews and seeing them as the greater threat.)
There may be a parallel here with the posture of the chairman of the far-Right British National Party, Nick Griffin, who, when he appeared on BBC Television’s Question Time in October 2009, disavowed his anti-Semitic past by claiming that his party was “the only political party which, in the clashes between Israel and Gaza, stood full square behind Israel’s right to deal with Hamas terrorists.” In all of these cases, professed support for Israel or Israeli actions is employed to relieve the charge of anti-Semitism, even by an avid anti-Semite with a record of Holocaust denial.
Among Israel’s most impassioned partisans on the other side of the Atlantic are members of the ardently pro-Zionist, evangelical Christian Right in the United States. For them, aliyah (immigration of Jews to the holy land) should not let up until every Jew lives in Israel, and settlement building in “Judea and Samaria” should not cease until the entire West Bank is colonized by the Jewish people. Then the conditions would be right for the “rapture,” at which point all Jews would have to choose between conversion to the true faith of Christianity or perishing forthwith. Ultimately—quite literally—this creed is deeply anti-Semitic. But its purveyors are sought out and serenaded by many of the influential pro-Zionist Jewish lobbies in America and by the Israeli government. They are, after all, through their ostensible support for even the most outrageous Israeli policies, proven “friends of the Jews.”
To summarize, it now seems that it is the stance that groups and individuals take toward the Israeli state and the policies of its government of the day, that is becoming, bit by bit, the standard by which anti-Semitism is measured and assessed, steadily replacing the former gold standard of enmity toward the Jews qua Jews. Traditional anti-Semites are no longer—necessarily—anti-Semites. They may even be regarded as philo-Semites. Their place has been taken by people who have no quarrel with Jews qua Jews but do have a problem with the behavior and the policies of the political leadership in Israel, particularly with regard to its actions in occupied Palestinian territory. Some of them may even have a problem with the whole idea of a Jewish state. They, in this worldview, are fast becoming the new anti-Semites.
Unquestionably Genuine Anti-Semitism
None of the above is to say that anti-Zionism or hostility to Israel is not sometimes used as a cover for anti-Semitism or, in some cases, that it does not spring from similar impulses, whether on the part of the far Right or the far Left or elements in between. This was the blatant motive of the neo-Nazi National Front, a forerunner of the British National Party, when it latched on to the “anti-Zionist” crusade in the 1970s, using all the familiar anti-Semitic imagery and gobbledegook. A similar motive was quite transparent when the Polish Communist government launched a campaign against so-called Zionists in the wake of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war that robbed many of the comparatively few remaining Polish Jews of their livelihood and party membership and coerced thousands of them into leaving the country, to settle—not in Israel in most cases—but in Scandinavia!
Nor is it to say that it is not absurd to see a clutch of despotic human rights abusers sitting in sanctimonious judgment of a nation that, despite its own serial transgressions, is not in their league. One only has to leaf through the range of reports produced by such illustrious organizations as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch to gain an idea of the scale of the tyranny elsewhere.
And it is certainly not to say that we should not be concerned about the propensity of some anti-Zionist jargon to propagate, wittingly or inadvertently, many of the familiar, sinister anti-Semitic tropes, such as Jewish power, Jewish money, Jewish control of the media and governments, Jewish vengeance, or even the idea of Jews as child-murderers.
Now that Jews Are in Power in One Country …
While all this is deeply troubling, the concern should not cause us to lose a sense of proportion: the “objective” situation of the shtetl Jew in Mittel Europe in past centuries—when anti-Semitism was often official state policy and authentic blood libels were common currency—and the “objective” situation of the modern-day state of Israel, bear no resemblance to one another. In this respect, Zionism has succeeded in spades. But many Zionism-adherents seem not to have noticed.
The Jewish reality has changed dramatically since the end of World War II, with the establishment of a Jewish state and the entrenchment of equal citizenship rights in most if not all countries that Jews inhabit. Whichever way you look at it, there simply is no comparison in reality between past trumped-up accusations of abusive power leveled against a downtrodden, defenseless community that time and again was made to pay a heavy price for these baseless smears, and the current accusations of improper use of power against an advanced, nuclear-armed state which, for the past forty-two years, has enforced a harsh military rule over the lives of another downtrodden, dispossessed people, while relentlessly colonizing their remaining land.
Drawing parallels is treacherous territory, and I normally keep off it. But if there is any sort of parallel with the Mittel Europe of centuries past, the more compelling one is not between the subjugated Jew of then and the powerful, occupying state of Israel today but between the Jew of then and the occupied Palestinian of now. This is the parallel that much of international public opinion instinctively perceives, and it goes a long way to explaining the global switch of sympathy. To the extent that the Jewish world remains in denial, it is dislocating itself from the rest of the world.
And, whether we like it or not, and whatever our personal views may be, as Jews we are all implicated in Israel’s actions, good or bad. While the audacious claims of successive Israeli governments to speak on behalf of Jews the world over may highlight the association—Prime Minister Olmert, for example, opined that Israel’s ferocious war with Lebanon in 2006 was “a war that is fought by all the Jews”—the general perception is rife even without the explicit claim.
Herein, I believe, lies the key to the conspicuous increase in anti-Jewish sentiment in a range of countries, most strikingly among Arabs and Muslims. What has triggered it is no more of a mystery than what lies behind the simultaneous upsurge in anti-Muslim and anti-Arab feeling among Jews. It’s the conflict, stupid. More particularly, it’s the Occupation. And at the core of the Occupation is the invasive settlement project and the whole hideous infrastructure—segregational and intensely oppressive—that has proliferated on its back.
What If the Jewish State Had Been a Hindu or Buddhist State?
Shorn of the hysteria, and with exceptions, a lot of the opposition to Israel’s actions has little or nothing to do with it being a Jewish state. Had it been a Hindu or a Buddhist state, for example, the Palestinians would have been no less embittered if the state in question had dispossessed them and then proceeded to dispossess them further. And it would still have attracted the opprobrium of people around the world, plenty of Jews included, who held a commitment to basic justice and fairness and the right to self-determination—the very attributes that, at an earlier point in time, underpinned widespread sympathy for a Jewish state.
Moreover, if Hindu or Buddhist diaspora communities ostentatiously demonstrated from far-away lands their solidarity with a militarily powerful, modern Hindu or Buddhist state which, albeit under horrendous provocation, eschewed the diplomatic path and mercilessly pounded—to international revulsion—an impoverished, entrapped people, from land, sea and air, causing widespread death and destruction, it would hardly be surprising if such communities found themselves on the receiving end of rising negative sentiment in the countries they inhabited.
The Hindu/Buddhist diaspora communities themselves—parading ostensibly under a banner of wanting peace for everyone—would doubtless see it all very differently and express their indignation at the very idea that they were condoning human rights abuses or that they were in denial about them. Accordingly, any manifestations of hostility toward them could only be explained in terms of inveterate anti-Hinduism or deep-seated anti-Buddhism. But such cognitive dissonance would not be to their benefit. On the contrary, its most likely consequence over time would be a self-fulfilling prophecy, deepening the antagonism toward them. This is where the real danger lies.
A Malfunctioning Moral Compass
Deepening antagonism from global onlookers is not the only danger. The diaspora associated with the occupying state may also be in danger of losing its moral direction. There may be some individuals who know that the latest military assault is merely the most recent in a rolling sequence of onslaughts that have pounded towns and villages in neighboring countries and in the occupied territories in preceding years, but who find themselves barely batting an eyelid at the widespread devastation. They have become inured to it. Some may go further still and celebrate the carnage, taking leave of their moral compass altogether. One of the problems with occupation regimes is that, irrespective of their national identity or religious or other affiliation, they tend to brutalize the occupier as well as the occupied.
The processes at work are not hard to fathom. If there is one cast-iron law of history, it is probably that occupations and other forms of colonial rule are sooner or later resisted, and when that point comes, the occupier has a straightforward choice between leaving and allowing the native population to exercise its independence and self-determination—or staying. When the time came, Israel made the disastrous decision to stay. The rest was predictable.
As the Palestinians stepped up their resistance, Israel stepped up its colonization of their territory and the harshness of its retaliation—if only to keep order. The charge of “brutal occupier,” while plainly unjustified in the earlier years, turned out to be prophetic. In consequence, the moral appeal of Israel’s case started to weaken, alongside the fading memory of the Nazi Holocaust. While the country’s level of international support began to drain away, it simultaneously firmed up in the organized Jewish diaspora, through a form of heightened tribal solidarity. The sharpening polarization increasingly isolated Jewish opinion and led to a steady upsurge in anti-Jewish feeling.
I say all this was predictable because, in essence—although in the future conditional tense—I first mapped out this very sequence in a Fabian pamphlet in the mid-1970s, a relatively calm period in the Palestinian territories. But it wasn’t intended as a prediction, as I felt sure that Israel, in its own self-interest, would have the good sense to leave the occupied territories in the near future and help foster a Palestinian state. It was more of a hypothetical warning of what might happen in the decades ahead in the unlikely event that Israel failed to come to terms with the imperative of withdrawal. Unfortunately, Israel lost its way and the scenario I described thirty-five years ago has since played itself out.
At the time of my writing, there were fewer than 5,000 settlers in the territories captured by Israel in the 1967 war. Today, there are around 500,000. Israel appears more entrenched in the West Bank—the principal focus of Palestinian national aspirations—than ever, and organized Jewish diaspora opinion behind Israel and its policies seems more solid than ever. As the Palestinians despair of a two-state solution—and as Israelis despair, too, but for somewhat different reasons—the prospects of a fair and workable peace settlement are fast fading. In the absence of a plausible alternative, the conflict is on the verge of becoming unresolvable and of transforming itself into a state of perpetual strife, with potentially dire international consequences, not least, I fear, for Jews around the world.
The downward trajectory of the situation has been brought into focus recently by the Goldstone Report on the war in Gaza and by Israel’s usual “there’s-nothing-to-it” response to that report. More ominously, it has been sharpened by the growing worldwide BDS campaign—a call for boycott, divestment, and sanctions against Israel—which, despite the occasional Pyrrhic “pro-Israel victory” that every time seems to excite the U.K.’s Jewish Chronicle and other Jewish media to no end, we can be sure will continue to gather steam for as long as the Occupation lasts. How big a step is it from boycotting Israeli goods to boycotting shops that stock such goods? And guess which shops this will mostly affect? The battle lines are already being sketched out.
The Mantras of Self-Justification … and Self-Delusion
How, one may ask, does a reputedly intelligent people, with traditionally strong humanistic values, manage constantly to delude itself about what is going on, what lies in store and what needs to be done? And how has it allowed the Jewish Star of David, and by implication the Jewish religion and Jewish people, to become associated in the eyes of growing numbers of people with repression?
One answer is that, over the years, a blanket of self-justifying stories and catchphrases that we tell ourselves and everyone else time and again, ad nauseam, has smothered the art of rational thought. Many of the mantras will be familiar:
“We are the only democracy in the Middle East. We have the most moral army in the world. The Palestinians spurned our generous offer—as always, with violence. We have the right to defend ourselves. There is no peace partner. The Arabs have always rejected us and always will. Palestinian terrorism. Arab terrorism. Muslim terrorism. Anti-Semitism. New anti-Semitism. Blood libels. Self-hating Jews. Islamo-fascism. Security, security, security. Everyone else is naïve, naïve, naïve. We have no alternative.” And the list goes on. It is worth noting, however, that one formerly popular slogan, “the most liberal occupation of all time,” is rarely heard these days.
Again, it’s not that there is nothing to any of these catchphrases or the stories that underpin them—although many of them do not stand up well to scrutiny—but they are constantly wheeled out, in a spirit of injured innocence, to deflect any substantive criticism of Israeli actions.
The analogy with the hypothetical Hindu and Buddhist states can be taken only so far. It breaks down once an explanation for the ostensibly wicked ways of the “nation of usurpers and occupiers” is sought by delving into their scriptures, belief systems, history, or supposed genetic makeup. In the Jewish case, this does not require much original or detailed research for, possibly uniquely, there, waiting in the wings, is a pernicious time-tested ideology—that of full-blown anti-Semitism—with all the answers, simplistic and absurd though they may be. It is at this point that anti-Jewish sentiment tips portentously into something far more sinister. Hinduism and Buddhism, whatever their own issues, have nothing to compare with this.
I make none of the above observations with relish. There was a time in my life when I sang from the regulation Jewish pro-Zionist song sheet and defended Israel’s corner at the local, national, and international student levels, first as an active member of the Jewish Society at the University of Birmingham, then, more diplomatically—and I believe fairly—as student union president during the seminal 1967 Arab-Israeli war that spilled over onto campuses up and down the country, and later as deputy president of the British National Union of Students, responsible for international affairs during a distinctly hot phase of the cold war, in which the Middle East conflict played a starring role. I believed then, as I do now, in the essential justice of Israel’s underlying cause and backed its right to self-determination and independence, free of threat—not always to my political or personal advantage. The Jews had suffered enough over many generations and deserved their own place, if that’s what many of them wanted.
I was struck, as others have been, by Lord Byron’s lament in 1815, when the worst tragedies to face the Jewish people still lay a distance ahead and several decades before Theodor Herzl, the founder of political Zionism, was a twinkle in anyone’s eye. Byron wrote: “The wild dove hath her nest, the fox his cave, / Mankind their country, Israel but the grave!” By “Israel,” of course, he meant the Jewish people.
But, in the attempt, more than a century later, to rectify the Jewish calamity, a second people paid a heavy price. The ill-fated Palestinians—the knock-on victims of Nazi atrocities, whose original felony was simply to be in the way of another distressed people’s frantic survival stratagem—have also suffered enough and are no less worthy of their place in the sun. If they don’t get it soon, the Israelis, for sure, will never be left in peace to enjoy theirs. In this respect, each holds the key to the other’s destiny.
The passionate arguments deployed in bygone days—that Israel was not expansionist, that it desperately yearned for peace, that it was eager to withdraw from the occupied territories, that it would guarantee everyone access to their religious sites, that it was a good friend of the Palestinians, that it did everything it possibly could to avoid civilian casualties, and so on—have all been exposed, one by one.
It’s not that these arguments were necessarily false from the very beginning. But little by little they were usurped by the triumphalist mood that infiltrated the country and swept the Jewish world following the Six-Day War and the hubris the resounding victory gave rise to. Such characteristics are of course not unique to Israel. They are common to conquering powers and have frequently led to their eventual downfall.
The Immutable Terms of Any Deal
So what may be done?
By far the preferable—and simplest—path would be a public declaration of a swift, authentic change of Israeli policy that heralded a genuine commitment to ending the Occupation, pulling out of the West Bank, sharing Jerusalem, ending the siege of Gaza, and living peacefully and in mutual respect alongside a sovereign Palestinian state broadly along the pre-June 1967 borders, albeit with agreed, equitable land exchanges. Nothing less than this will ever do, no matter which Palestinians are on the other side of the bargaining table or which government is in power in Israel or indeed the United States. These are the immutable terms of any deal, and Israeli leaders’ occasional and hollow claims to be extending a hand in peace to the Arab world are no substitute. Absent the above commitments, they are worthless platitudes.
An Israeli declaration along the lines I have outlined, if sincere, could radically transform the regional and international political atmosphere, just as the Oslo Accords did in the 1990s. Almost overnight, Israel moved from semi-pariah to semi-hero. Its leaders, together with the Palestinian leader, were awarded the Nobel peace prize. Shimon Peres, then the Israeli foreign minister, was spoken of as a possible future UN Secretary General. One country after another, including from the Arab and Muslim worlds, lined up to establish or re-establish relations with and visit the Jewish state. As the optimism, in subsequent years, gave way to gloom and doom, it is easy to forget the uplifting mood of that time.
Today, sixteen disappointing years later, the reaction to a fresh initiative may not be quite so dramatic, but a firm Israeli commitment along the lines described would give the Palestinians—as well as the Israelis—something tangible to hope for. It could be the vital trigger everyone is waiting for to spark off a fresh momentum.
If they had any sense, Jewish diaspora communities would use such influence as they have with the Israeli government to encourage it to adopt such a policy and simultaneously align themselves with apposite international moves to this end—if not from conviction then at least on the grounds of prudent self-protection.
And Failing That … Jews Must Protest
In the more likely, if regrettable, event that the current Israeli government will commit itself to no such thing, what should Jewish diaspora communities do? I believe they would be well advised to take a deep breath and reconsider their habitual reflexive responses, which are in part responsible for the mess we are in. No one would expect them to waver from their uncompromising support for the genuine welfare of the Israeli state and people, and I do not propose this. But, with precisely this welfare in mind, it is beyond time for them to distance themselves from the expansionist policies of the Israeli government, its belligerent approach to problem-solving in the region, and its propensity to infringe Palestinian human rights, periodically on a massive scale.
Some Jewish groups and many individual Jews are already doing this, to the consternation of certain voluble self-appointed guardians of the Jewish good. However, in the main, these dissenting Jews are, I believe, helping to lower the temperature of anti-Jewish feeling.
To state the obvious, not everyone will agree with all the arguments expounded here. That is their prerogative. But this is not a purely academic discussion. The price of getting it wrong could be high. To those who hold that Israel is not “in occupation” of the West Bank at all, but that it has “liberated” the biblical Judea and Samaria, more worldly considerations may matter little. This is a voice that has grown louder over the years, and it is not susceptible to reasoned argument. Nor does it concern itself, in a serious way, with such secular anxieties as anti-Semitism.
But there is another camp that is seriously concerned about anti-Semitism. Indeed, it is convinced that anti-Semitism is the principal underlying cause of the conflict, and—with the full force of the self-fulfilling prophecy behind it—interprets any manifestation of ill feeling toward Jews, or even toward Israel, as compelling proof of this conviction. It is “Jew-hatred,” they say, that continues to keep the conflict going and prevents Israel from leaving the West Bank. Movement toward a peace settlement will be possible only once the Arab and Muslim worlds, they argue, have purged their anti-Semitism—doubtless a worthy goal but one with an almost limitlessly extendable bar and a certain cart-before-the-horse quality to it.
In the end, this argument is both an excuse and a recipe for sustaining the status quo, continuing the colonization of the West Bank, the building of exclusive roads, the construction of the monstrous separation barrier, the destruction or confiscation of Palestinian homes, and, in general, the encroachment on and encirclement of the remaining space of the putative Palestinian state.
Through cheap and inappropriate usage, the charge of anti-Semitism has become so debased—in particular when it is directed at the dispossessed Palestinians themselves and at others for whom universal justice and human rights are genuinely paramount—that a strange and dreadful thing is starting to happen: the charge of anti-Semitism is gradually being transformed in the minds of many from a mark of shame to a badge of honor. This is quite an achievement.
But not everything is so bleak. In the White House, there is a president who is learning his trade but who seems to have the right instincts. Intellectually, emotionally, and politically, he is committed to solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the near future on the only basis that, for the last forty years at least, makes any sense: two states for two peoples. The twenty-seven-nation European Union, to Israel’s predictable ire, has recently reiterated the same policy in very clear terms, laying emphasis on the need for Jerusalem to be the shared capital of both states.
The Arab Peace Initiative of 2002, which calls for full peace and normalization of relations with Israel in exchange for withdrawal from the territories captured in 1967—an offer that would have had Israelis dancing in the street not so long ago—remains on the table, with the support of the twenty-two-nation Arab League and the endorsement of the fifty-six-nation Organization of the Islamic Conference. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, in a speech in June 2009, uttered, for Likud, the hitherto forbidden phrase “a Palestinian state,” even if he hedged it with strict preconditions. The PLO, too, still remains committed to the two-state policy it adopted in 1988, and even Hamas has indicated its preparedness to do a deal based on the pre-June 1967 borders.
So, it seems, many of the pieces are in place. But they are no more than the bare bones of a comprehensive solution and will amount to little without a deft international strategy that responds to the urgent needs of the moment, coupled with an effective enforcement mechanism. Sponsoring indirect or even direct negotiations between inherently unequal parties in the first instance is decidedly not that strategy. What is required now is an end to sham processes and a shift of focus directly to the endgame.
We are on the cusp. It could go this way or that. Hard decisions will have to be made. In the next year or so, we’ll all have a better idea of where we stand and what to look forward to. Much will depend on President Obama’s grit and strategic sense. One thing’s for certain, though. Whatever happens, there will be profound repercussions, good or bad, for Jews qua Jews around the world. So if we can have any influence on the decisions, let’s try to make sure they are rational, sound, and responsible, for much rides on them—not just for Israel and the Palestinians, but for all of us.
Dr. Tony Klug is a veteran commentator on Middle East affairs. His Visions of the Endgame (Fabian Society, 2009 download the pdf here) outlines a strategy for Obama and the international community to bring the conflict swiftly to an end. An earlier pamphlet, How Peace broke out in the Middle East (pdf here), described an imagined future sequence of events as if they had taken place in the past, to indicate how Israelis and Palestinians could bring about peace by themselves. The international strategy is the default alternative.