A Jewish Glasnost

Winning the “hearts and minds” of the civilian population, according to counterinsurgency field manuals, is key to defeating the resistance.  It is a lesson that imperialists learned a long time ago, but one that they seldom put into practice, let alone successfully impart to their clients.  Israel’s attack on Gaza is a case in point.  The collective punishment visited on the civilians of Gaza by the Israel Defense Forces might be held up as a textbook example of what not to do, if the point of Operation Cast Lead, meticulously planned for at least six months before its commencement, were a counterinsurgency campaign against Hamas and Hamas alone.

But why should we care about Arab and Muslim hearts and minds, the political class of Israel may ask, so long as we have a majority of Western hearts and minds on our side?  To be sure, they still do, at least in the United States.  Then again, how long?  The irony of Operation Cast Lead is that, militarily, it was a cheaper victory than any previous war that the IDF had ever fought, and yet, politically on the world stage, it is, and will probably remain, the costliest in the history of Israel, the war that began to alienate Western hearts and minds from the country that cannot afford to lose them.

And pro-Israeli spin doctors know it.  These days, much of their time is occupied by negating comparisons.  The attack on the Gaza ghetto is not the same as that on the Warsaw ghetto.  What the IDF is doing is not a genocide or holocaust.  Etc.  No, they are not, as a matter of fact.  But, then again, if your defense is reduced to repeating that what you are doing is “not as bad as the Holocaust,” it means, well, you are losing.

What Israel is beginning to lose is not just gentile hearts and minds in the West.  Its onslaught on Gaza has unleashed an unprecedented wave of Jewish criticisms of Israel, in words (on the Internet, in print, and even on TV) and deeds (participating in, even spearheading, demonstrations, occupations of Israeli consulates, and so on).

That is not surprising.  The Zionist state — a cross between Sparta (a state ruled by its warrior kings) and Athens (a democracy with a large minority of second-class citizens) — had long made its progressive Jewish supporters uncomfortable.  Their discomfort grew after Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War, which eclipsed the image of the Israeli David facing the Arab Goliath.  And it began to snowball as successive Israeli governments, flouting international law and numerous UN resolutions, kept building settlements, at a time (unlike the earliest years of the Zionist state) when anti-colonial movements elsewhere in the world had already decolonized many of the erstwhile colonies of great powers.  Meanwhile, its role as an auxiliary to US imperialism even beyond the Middle East (for instance in Central America) also registered in the consciousness of progressive Jews (many of whom, by the way, took part in movements of solidarity with the Central American Left).

What Operation Cast Lead did was to open (or rather bomb) the floodgate, unleashing feelings and opinions thitherto dammed up by the identification with Israel which has been imposed on world Jewry not only by the political class of Israel but also most mainstream Jewish organizations in the disaspora, the organizations that have by and large acted as if they were dogmatic Stalinists doggedly defending all things Soviet Socialist, including the most indefensible, and purging all heretics from their ranks.

It may be said that a Jewish “Glasnost” has begun.  This Glasnost, unlike the one that eventually led to the end of the Soviet Union, is not initiated from above by elite reformers, but for the most part from below, by countless ordinary Jews no longer fearful of purges organized by the apparatchiks of the organizations that claim to represent them.

The incipient Jewish Glasnost may meet an untimely end, however, if new anti-Semitism is allowed to grow.

In its early years, Zionism hardly resonated among the Jewish working classes, nor did it attract many supporters among liberal Jewish professionals or traditional religious Jews.  Most politically conscious Jews who searched for a movement for self-emancipation found themselves in socialist movements of one kind or another.  It was a massive growth of anti-Semitism in the midst of a great capitalist crisis, culminating in Nazism and the Holocaust, that began to shift the fortune of the Zionist movement.

Conversely, it was the actual waning of anti-Semitism in the West after WW2, especially its dramatic decline through an upsurge of movements against racism in the long sixties, that laid the ground for a Jewish Glasnost today.  After all, the raison d’être of a Jewish state, as articulated by Theodor Herzl, is the idea that anti-Semitism cannot be eradicated in the West, so Jews could never be citizens equal to others in the West and must therefore emigrate from it.  Most Jews, at home in the West, no longer believe that at the bottom of their hearts.  Today, anti-Semitism of National Socialist vintage is a residual ideology.  The most haunting Other against whom we are exhorted to unite to defend the so-called “Western Civilization” wears not a yarmulke but a turban in the style of the infamous Danish cartoons.

That is not to say that anti-Semitism has already ceased to exist altogether.  It is being given a new lease on life by those who, purposely or inadvertently, identify world Jewry with the state of Israel, whether they are for or against the Jewish state.  The Jewish Glasnost is the best weapon against the Zionists who endeavor to make all Jews identify with Israel and defend it at all times, whether its conduct is right or wrong.  For the Jewish Glasnost to succeed, however, gentiles on the Left must see to it that none among the critics of Israel shall ever conflate world Jewry with the political class of Israel.

Jacques Hersh is professor emeritus of Aalborg University, Denmark and former head of the Research Center on Development and International Relations there.