A personal message from Jonathan Ofir

Members of IfNotNow demonstrate against US embassy move to Jerusalem, May 2018, Washington. Photo by Gili Getz.

A message of encouragement for the ‘self-haters’

By Jonathan Ofir

Mondoweiss, 21 December 2018

JVL introduction

In this personal message published on Mondoweiss, Jonathan Ofir, Israeli musician, conductor and blogger, reflects on the extent to which Zionism, for many Jews, has become “the essence of life.”  In the course of doing so he notes that a quiet revolution is taking place. Concepts that undermine Zionism, such as the idea of one secular state for all in Israel/Palestine, have been allowed into the mainstream, “even if its voices are currently a rather isolated minority in their own workplace.” An example of this is a piece by Michelle Goldberg of the New York Times titled “Anti-Zionism Isn’t the Same as Anti-Semitism”.

It is not often that I write about the inner struggles of those Jews who oppose Zionism. There is an unwritten rule of solidarity that as a privileged person, you do not indulge too much in your own problems and struggles, since the struggle you support is incomparably greater, and it would be wrong to weaken it by drawing too much attention to yourself, in what would appear to be self-pity.

I take that notion seriously. Yet it occurs to me, that when you regularly write in support of the Palestinian cause, it can, once in a while, be talked about. I also think that reflections about such matters can be important, to strengthen those thousands of people who are in a situation which I am familiar with – they are societal outcasts because they challenge a Zionist orthodoxy that has become a kind of essence of life in their society, in their family – or they are considering breaking out, but are concerned about the consequences. I want to encourage and support these people.

Jews are generally privileged today, especially in the West. As Norman Finkelstein says, being a Jew in western Europe, Canada, and the U.S. “opens many doors and it closes none.”

But Zionist thinking generally posits that this is but a temporary state. And they’re saying that the Jewish State has to be preserved no matter what, as an ‘insurance policy. Thus any questioning of the Jewish State’s policy that goes beyond soft critique, not to mention questioning of its raison d’etre, is reflexively seen as “delegitimization”.  The fight against “delegitimization” has been headed by centrist politicians such as Tzipi Livni (now head of opposition).

“The threat of delegitimization intensifies other threats facing Israel, and limits our ability to protect ourselves,”

Livni said at a conference in 2010, held by her former Kadima party in cooperation with the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya.

“Israel’s missiles, tanks and excellent fighters can’t properly protect the State of Israel if their hands are tied behind their backs.”… “The international community can tie the soldiers’ hands behind their backs,”

she continued.

“I hear talk of anti-Semitism, of Israel not having a right to exist – but we can’t take the easy way out and say ‘the whole world is against us’ and that there’s nothing to be done.”

Thus, Israel treats the notion of “delegitimization” as an existential threat. As the ‘threat’ of delegitimization often comes from civil organizations who seek to press Israel to comply with international law through non-violent democratic means, as is the case with the movement for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS), Israel has come to approach this ‘threat’ in a manner resembling a military operation: Secretive ‘black-op’ type operations, yet often applying what is called ‘lawfare’ in various countries, with the involvement of the highest Israeli authorities, yet designed to leave no ‘fingerprint’ of the state.

Since 2015, there is a whole ministry invested with this goal, the Ministry of Strategic Affairs and Public Diplomacy headed by Gilad Erdan. “Public diplomacy” is simply Hasbara in the Israeli and official name version of the Ministry, but Israel generally avoids using the full name in Hebrew or English, obviously to avoid drawing attention to its obvious and central Hasbara function, which today is widely known as Zionist propaganda. And it is no coincidence that Strategic Affairs and Hasbara go together in one office – Israel is treating the “delegitimization” notion as a strategic threat, and it is essentially applying Hasbara as the weapon against it.

As Zionism stands at the core of Hasbara and Israel’s “fight for legitimacy”, those Jewish non-Zionists and anti-Zionists are inevitably seen as traitors in Israel’s wars. Kind of like war-deserters, or even worse, traitors who cross to enemy lines in order to fight with the enemy.

But is this “enemy” necessarily Palestinian? Had the Zionists colonized another place, resistance to this colonialist venture would no doubt have been the case anywhere else. That is, that Palestinian opposition to Zionist colonialism is not rooted in some primordial anti-Semitic sentiments that these people harbor for Jews, but is rather a response, an inevitable response, to colonization.

Yet Zionism seeks to erase this logical notion from existence. If Palestinian resistance (which it generally frames as “terror”) is a mere response to colonization, then the Zionists cannot hold the role of the good guys in this ‘clash of civilizations’, and this would be “delegitimization” of the Zionist venture. This is the mechanism of denial, which is a central part of Israel’s propaganda in service to its colonialist venture, indeed also in our times.

There is now a fast-growing support for a one democratic state in historic Palestine. The American public is now evenly split between proponents of a two-state solution (the classical ‘peace-process’ suggestion) and a one-state solution with equal rights to all. Both are at about 35%, and when the question is asked negatively, that is, if a two-state solution is no longer possible, support rises to two-thirds. In other words, the negative impact on the possibility of a two-state solution (which Israel has arduously worked to prevent through settlements and other crimes, recently with very overt support from the US), plays a decidedly positive role in terms of upping the support for a one democratic state.

But this one democratic state is anathema to Zionism. Not the “one state”, but the “democratic” – that is, the equality. Equality is essentially anathema to Zionism. That’s why a no-brainer law for equality (just amongst its citizens, mind you), cannot pass. Think about it – Israel has ethnically cleansed about 85% of Palestinians, so as to have a supposed “Jewish democracy” where Palestinians do not threaten the Zionist hegemony in vote – and yet it cannot offer them equality, not even that minority. If it cannot do that for the small remaining minority, it will certainly not do it in ‘Greater Israel’ (including occupied territories) since this means Jews will no longer be a majority – it won’t do it as things stand now.

This discussion, about a one democratic state, it is very much at the fore, and the idea enjoys massive support. But shock horror: this concept is essentially non-Zionist, or anti-Zionist – it means the end of a Jewish State. And the discussion is certainly reaching the mainstream media, even if its voices are currently a rather isolated minority in their own workplace. An example of this is Michelle Goldberg of the New York Times. In her piece from December 7th titled “Anti-Zionism Isn’t the Same as Anti-Semitism”, Goldberg wrote:

“The conflation of anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism is a bit of rhetorical sleight-of-hand that depends on treating Israel as the embodiment of the Jewish people everywhere. Certainly, some criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic, but it’s entirely possible to oppose Jewish ethno-nationalism without being a bigot. Indeed, it’s increasingly absurd to treat the Israeli state as a stand-in for Jews writ large, given the way the current Israeli government has aligned itself with far-right European movements that have anti-Semitic roots.”

It’s almost possible to call this a revolution. A New York Times columnist has just explicitly legitimized Anti-Zionism.

Goldberg also portrays how this essentially anti-Zionist support for a one democratic state has gained its legitimacy from Israeli policy itself:

“Now, however, Israel has foreclosed the possibility of two states, relentlessly expanding into the West Bank and signaling to the world that the Palestinians will never have a capital in East Jerusalem. As long as the de facto policy of the Israeli government is that there should be only one state in historic Palestine, it’s unreasonable to regard Palestinian demands for equal rights in that state as anti-Semitic. If the Israeli government is going to treat a Palestinian state as a ridiculous pipe dream, the rest of us can’t act as if such a state is the only legitimate goal of Palestinian activism.”

For Israel, all of this talk about a one democratic state in historic Palestine is “delegitimization”, and it is essentially and existentially important for it to portray any talk challenging the “Jewish State” as negative, morally debased and illegitimate. Israel’s Zionist zero-sum game is about delegitimizing those who legitimize non-Zionism or anti-Zionism. If their views are delegitimized, then Israel’s Zionist message is respectively legitimized.

And that’s where this gets personal again. Those Jews who have come to question the Zionist orthodoxy, those who have moved away from it and those who have come to oppose it, they have historically been subjected to an ostracizing attitude from the Zionist establishment, which has to a large degree dominated Jewish life internationally, and is certainly still an established and almost unquestioned orthodoxy in Israel –  as mentioned, a kind of fundamentalist state-religion that all Jews are societally obliged to subscribe to, lest they become social outcasts, because in Israel, Zionism is the essence of life. Zionism has also come to replace the Jewish religion in many Jewish societies around the world. Goldberg quotes Eliyahu Stern, an associate professor of modern Jewish history at Yale: A consensus set in “that Jewish identity can be reduced to Israelism…That’s something that takes place over the second half of the 20th century in America.”

That meant that Jews who questioned or opposed Zionism were not only seen as politically radical, but as haters of Jews – anti-Semites, and since they themselves were Jews, they could be afforded the derogatory label of “self-haters”. The conservative Jewish establishment keeps drilling that into people, as a desperate scare tactic to deter them from venturing into that territory. Here for example is David Harris, head of the American Jewish Committee, in response to Goldberg:

“If anti-Zionism isn’t a form of anti-Semitism, what is? To deny the Jewish people, of all the peoples on earth, the right to self-determination surely is discriminatory […] And if the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (B.D.S.) movement isn’t another form of anti-Semitism, what is? To single out Israel, the only liberal democracy in the Middle East, for demonization and isolation, while ignoring egregious human rights violators aplenty, once again smacks of anti-Jewish hatred.”

I don’t want to sound too sentimental here, but that accusation from Jewish elders has been hard for the self-image of anti-Zionists. They had to rescue themselves from the mindset wherein they were self-haters – haters of themselves, haters of their ‘people’ (Jewish people), haters of their country (applies to Israelis), and so on. So many negative labels have been put upon these people, who were basically responding to their own conscience.

All that is hard to take. I believe that one day, after the Israeli Apartheid is over, many stories will be told by these people about how they managed, psychologically, to withstand that societal pressure, the exclusion, the defamation of their character.

Young American Jews deserve a special mentioning in this context. There are brave young people, who are nonetheless wary about acting too strongly against the establishment, against Israel, because of the flack that such people get. That’s what Elijah, Ariel Gold’s son, wrote, when he penned an open letter to Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the President of the US Union for Reform Judaism, asking him whether the movement cared that his mother was banned from Israel for being a BDS activist. Elijah actually got Rabbi Jacobs to say that his mother’s deportation was “both disgraceful as a matter of principle and a mistake as a matter of strategy”. Yet Elijah wrote that he does not want to be a BDS activist, because “BDS activists take too much flack”. They sure do.

There are other examples of such breaking out, such as the those who did Birthright walkouts this summer. The young people who walked out on the free indoctrination trip to Israel for Jews under 26, sponsored by Republican Sheldon Adelson and Democrat Haim Saban, certainly took some flack. Birthright took their trip deposits, canceled their flights home and threatened them, with lawsuits. Those who walked out may not have been that many, but they made noise. And this winter, Birthright tours are down in numbers by as much as 50 percent, no doubt thanks to these actions as well as the general campaign by the Jewish group IfNotNow to get young Jews to avoid the propaganda tour.

Not everyone wants to take on Israel so strongly. Not all those who want to take on Israel want to even take on Zionism, its founding and core ideology, its “fundamentalist religion”. But Israel, in its increasingly overt embrace of the ‘Greater Israel’ notion, is also radicalizing those people who thought that they could just oppose Israel softly and selectively. If there’s no two-state solution, then it’s down to Apartheid or democracy. And many are beginning to realize that Israel never was a democracy, just Apartheid with a veil. What will people do with notions like these? Will they risk being called ‘anti-Semites’ and ‘self-haters’ by airing them, by discussing them? Will they risk a total break with their former community and society? Or will they forge a new kind of Jewish society, one that the old establishment views with scorn and contempt?

I am sure that there are many Jews out there who have simply kept their silence about such matters, knowing that even critique of Israeli practices (not even mentioning of Zionism) in the wrong place, can have detrimental consequences to one’s reputation, also to one’s career. Indeed, I know such people, and I don’t blame them. But it appears that this is beginning to change. People can now begin to come out in the open, out of the closet. You’re not a bad person if you’ve come to question Zionism or even oppose it. In fact, you might really be onto something, and I want to be your friend.


Jonathan Ofir


Comments (2)

  • George Henderson ( Sydney) says:

    Any reason why I have not seen any statement condemning the San Diego attack on a Synagogue ?

    • Mike Cushman says:

      We posted this on Facebook

      and this on twitter:

      Charlestown, Pittsburgh, Christchurch, Sri Lanka and now #Poway. JVL is appalled that this stream of hate murders while people pray seems unending. There is no hierarchy of suffering and each of these attacks is an attack on each of us regardless of background. Don’t let hate win

Comments are now closed.