Israeli Perceptions of Anti-Semitism and Anti-Zionism

Anita Shapira. Journal of Israeli History. Volume 25, Issue 1. March 2006.

Zionist thinkers assumed that the establishment of a Jewish state, which entailed a fundamental change in traits that non-Jews found contemptible, would bring an end to anti-Semitism. Yet after the 1967 war, the Soviet Union, the Western left and Third World governments, previously supportive of Israel, placed Israel in the camp of Western imperialism, while the emerging New Left identified Israel as imperialistic and racist. Against the background of the change in the international climate, debates in Israel over anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism were shaped by domestic politics. While the right saw anti-Semitism as the cause of hostility to Israel, the left argued that anti-Zionism, rooted in political arguments about the Middle East conflict, fanned the flames of anti-Semitism. The attitude to anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism became a cultural code, highlighting the divide between left and right, and between religious and secular.

After Auschwitz and 1948, the distinction between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism can no longer be upheld.

For some reason, the world does not yet regard as natural and self-evident the right of Jews to live and exist on a footing of true equality—as of right and not on sufferance or as reward for exceptional excellence. (Jacob Talmon, “The New Antisemitism,” Davar, Masa supplement, 22 June 1990)

Israelis tended to ignore anti-Semitism, as a concept that belongs to the world of yesterday and has nothing to do with the Jewish state. At the same time, they treated anti-Zionism as a separate phenomenon, rooted in Middle Eastern and world politics. Today most Israelis see both phenomena as interrelated and inseparable. In the following article, I propose to follow the changes in Israeli perceptions of both phenomena and their interrelation, since 1948. It is my contention that changes in Israeli identity affected public attitudes to both concepts. Eventually, with the growing split since the 1980s between left and right, and between religious and nonreligious sectors of Israeli society, the attitude to anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism became part of a cultural code, identifying and signifying to which camp one belongs.

One element of Zionist thought was the belief that the realization of the Zionist idea and the creation of an independent Jewish entity in the Land of Israel would entail the end of anti-Semitism. The Zionist endeavor in the land of Israel was to engender an essential change in the Jewish character and the relationship between Jews and non-Jews. The roots of anti-Semitism, lodged in the friction between a majority population and a visible minority, were to disappear. Conversely, Jewish traits that aroused the contempt and disgust of Gentiles—notably, Jewish alienation from manual labor, Jewish weakness and ineptness in self-defense—all these were to be rectified in the state of the Jews. The “new Jew” was to be no different from non-Jews. Hence, anti-Semitism was bound to disappear.

This conception, explicit or implicit, was formulated by numerous Zionist thinkers. Those who believed in an exodus from Europe as the response to the existential danger hovering over Jews (as did Theodor Herzl) saw the disengagement from Europe as the solution to anti-Semitism. Those who stressed the importance of the Zionist movement as a spiritual and cultural renaissance emphasized the metamorphosis in the Jewish image that would occur in the new land. Quite commonly, the generation educated in the land of Israel, who drew their picture of the world from Hebrew literature, believed anti-Semitism was passé: it had nothing to do with the new proud Jew, soldierly and independent, growing up in Palestine and Israel. Anti-Semitism applied solely to Jews who had not absorbed the Zionist creed, had not come to live in Israel. It was perceived as belonging to another time, another place. This view was widespread among the generation that came of age in the land of Israel in the 1930s and 1940s.

The approach was reinforced by the fact that after 1945, anti-Semitism fell into disrepute in the West, pertaining to the dark forces that had been defeated in World War II. Just as “Nazism” had become a dirty word, so too had “anti-Semitism,” seen as its companion. In Palestine-Israel, the 1940s and 1950s were years of mass immigration, including that of Holocaust survivors. The encounter between survivors and Israeli youth at the time was marked by alienation and a lack of communication. The immigrants were different: they sounded different, looked different and were foreign to the cultural and social fabric of native Jewish youth. Soon, a conspiracy of silence enveloped the Holocaust: survivors found it hard to speak of their wartime experiences. Local youth, for their part, had no desire to hear about them. Even though the Shoah was a key issue on the public agenda, on the personal level there was a reluctance to deal with it. It was a topic everyone preferred to bury. When it did come up for discussion, there was a tendency to accuse the victims of having “gone as sheep to the slaughter.” The shame felt by the country’s native sons at Jewish timidity in the Shoah consciously or unconsciously reinforced the idea that anti-Semitism was a phenomenon restricted to Jews “over there”—it did not apply to Israelis.

As important as the mood of “negating exile” was in molding the approach to anti-Semitism, the greatest impact on Israel’s young was the fact that they grew up in a majority society, never tasting minority life. Even though until 1948 Jews constituted a minority in the land of Israel, they nevertheless had the self-awareness of a majority; immigrants considered themselves the rightful owners of the land even when Jews comprised a relative minority. Furthermore, most of the new Jewish Yishuv was concentrated in areas of Jewish settlement. Youth growing up in Tel Aviv lived in a milieu that was entirely Jewish, from the bus driver to the construction worker. The constant friction between an ethnic, cultural minority and the majority society was not part of the formative experiences of Israeli youth. In contrast, it may be assumed that the new immigrants, who doubled Israel’s population within the space of four years, had been exposed to anti-Semitism whether they hailed from Europe or Middle Eastern states. But their experience of anti-Semitism belonged “over there”; it most likely was not transposed to their new reality.

The distinction between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism was an important component of the Israeli self-image. Whereas anti-Semitism was considered illegitimate, based on stereotypes of the diaspora Jew, on prejudice and age-old religious hatred, anti-Zionism was considered a by-product of Zionism. Until World War II, Zionism had been a minority movement among Jews. It had aroused the opposition of the Orthodox on the one hand and of the Bundists on the other. It was attacked from the left by the adherents of world revolution, and from the right by liberal circles of assimilationists. As an issue of debate, “anti-Zionism” was primarily an internal Jewish affair. The arguments more or less ended with the establishment of the State of Israel. This long public debate made anti-Zionism a legitimate concept, not to be dismissed on moral grounds, as anti-Semitism was.

Zionists did not see Arab opposition to modern Jewish settlement in Palestine in the same light as European anti-Semitism. Even though the generation that came from Europe occasionally depicted hostile Arab rioters in images reminiscent of east European pogromists, the frame of reference was different. Ze’ev sharp delineation between Zionist settlers and locals in “The Iron Wall” situated the difference in the context of relations between natives and colonizers the world over. In other words, he regarded Arab opposition to Zionism not as an expression of anti-Semitism, but as a common feature of colonizer-native relations. The Palestine-Israel Jewish labor movement portrayed Arab opposition as due to a misunderstanding: the Jews after all intended to bring progress, development and other benefits of socialism to Palestine. Arab opposition no doubt was based on inadequate information or on incitement by religious leaders and large landowners (effendis), who oppressed the peasantry and feared the impact of Jewish socialism. As naïve as it may have been, this portrayal of the national conflict between the two peoples over the land of Israel does show that, as a rule, Jews did not attribute to Arabs an anti-Jewish animus. If there was mention of growing hatred of Jews among the peoples of the Middle East in the twentieth century, they tended to blame Western Christian culture and its import into the region by missionaries. Arabs, after all, like Jews are Semites and thus could hardly be accused of anti-Semitism. As a result, even though growing Arab violence against Jews (1920, 1921, 1929, 1936-39) sowed rage and estrangement, the inclination to distinguish between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism remained intact: anti-Semitism was regarded as part of the world of racist, Nazi thought, whereas anti-Zionism was regarded within the context of the Jewish-Arab struggle over the Land of Israel.

Nevertheless, by the eve of Israel’s establishment, there were those who already warned of a possible connection between “the anti-Semitic International” and “the enemies of Zionism.” The Jewish struggle against the British, whether in the form of illegal immigration to the country or acts of terror within the country, aroused broad coverage in the British press, coverage that Jews interpreted as anti-Semitic. British newspapers depicted Zionism as responsible for rising hatred of Jews in Britain. “The anti-Semite has become anti-Zionist and apparently pro-Arab throughout the reactionary world,” wrote A. Tzimuki, illustrating his point by citing the unholy anti-Semitic alliance between Polish General Anders and Jerusalem Grand Mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini, “Hitler’s partner in exterminating the Jews of Europe and Britain’s ally in thwarting the Jewish state.” Referring to the Zionist assumption that anti-Semitism was to disappear upon the realization of Zionism, Reichert contended that the anti-Semitic monster, “child of Exile and its faithful companion” would continue to endanger Jewish communities throughout the world and even the state of the Jews, which would become “not only an address for those who wish us well, but also a clear target of those who wish us ill, for world fascism and its overt and covert allies.” His article deals with a number of motifs: first, propaganda with anti-Semitic undertones goes hand in hand with criticism of Zionist policy; second, the mention of Haj Amin al-Husseini as an example of aversion incarnate to Zionism and Jews as a whole; third, his emphasis that the foes of the Jewish people and the foes of Zion all belong to the reactionary camp of the right.

Thus, even prior to the establishment of the state of the Jews, there was visible interaction between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism. The dynamic of using anti-Semitic argumentation in political polemics with the Zionist movement, on the one hand, and the anti-Zionist posturing of traditional anti-Semites, on the other, hints at a two-way process: from anti-Zionism to anti-Semitism and from anti-Semitism to anti-Zionism.

Most segments of the Israeli public linked the animus towards Jews and Israel to the fascist right, as Reichert did: this, when all is said and done, was the camp that had sprouted the Jews’ worst enemies in the first half of the twentieth century. The left, which was associated with the world of revolution and the Soviet Union, had saved the Jews: until 1939 the Soviet Union had waged a campaign against anti-Semitism and, later, the Red Army had been the liberators from the Nazi yoke. From 1947, the USSR had supported the plan to partition Palestine between Jews and Arabs. While Western powers laid an embargo on the region, the USSR (via Czechoslovakia) supplied vital arms to Israel in the War of Independence. Above and beyond all this, Israel’s left identified ideologically and psychologically with the camp of revolution. Old myths die hard: even when the brief honeymoon between the Soviets and Israel was to evaporate, Israel’s left found it hard to believe that there was anti-Semitism in the USSR. Nor were these deep-set leanings changed by reports of the persecution of Jewish writers and intellectuals in the Soviet Union, which was concurrent with the “honeymoon” period; nor by reports that Zionism was a “star” defendant in the Prague Trials (1952), as the ostensible ally of American imperialism and fascism.

Israel of the 1950s took little interest in anti-Semitism. The hostility of Arab states was seen as legitimate within the framework of a national conflict. In Europe at this time, anti-Semitism was on the wane. Little wonder, then, that the interest in the phenomenon in Israel was confined to historians and the generation hailing from Europe. The hatred of Jews burst into Israeli consciousness with the Eichmann Trial (1961). The long weeks of witnesses’ testimony broadcast by Israel Radio caused an upheaval: Israelis began to adopt a Jewish identity and to identify with Jews. Ever since, fear of annihilation has been part and parcel of the Israeli psyche. To illustrate: even though in 1948, there were times that the fate of the fledgling state hung on a thread, there was no fear of annihilation. On the eve of the Six Day War, in contrast, during the protracted waiting period leading up to the war, the civilian population did have serious fears of annihilation. Soldiers’ Talk, a collective work by soldiers from Israel’s left in the 1967 war, reveals the change in consciousness that had taken place: the young soldiers identified with Jews, Jewish fate and the dire events of Jewish history. The penetration of Holocaust memory into Israel’s public discourse, it appears, heightened existential anxiety and honed the sensitivity to hostility towards Israel as the state of the Jews.

Israelis, in time, came to attribute the change in attitude of the worldwide left towards them to the crushing victory they had achieved in the Six Day War: as if they had dashed the left’s hopes of composing fine eulogies for them. The Six Day War in fact marked a turning point in Israel’s position in the international arena. Yet the early 1960s had already seen a propaganda campaign emanating from Soviet-Arab sources and designed to delegitimize Israel, transforming its international image from a state of Nazism’s refugees to a state of Nazism’s adherents. In 1961, it is doubtful that Israelis paid attention to the fact that Ahmed Shukeiri defined Zionism as worse than fascism, uglier than Nazism, more loathsome than imperialism, more dangerous than colonialism; in 1964, the definition made its way into the PLO Charter. Especially interesting is the definition’s ideological inversion: leaders of Arab states, like Arabs in Palestine, had taken a favorable view of fascism and Nazism if only because these forces were the enemies of Western imperialist powers—”the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Now, with the acceleration of decolonization and USSR support for “progressive forces” in Asia and Africa, matters had been turned upside down. In the past, Arabs and their British supporters had accused Zionism of Bolshevism, the dread of conservative forces in the Middle East and the Western world. Now, communism had become the accepted ideology of African and Asian peoples freeing themselves of the yoke of European powers. Now the illegitimate epithets were fascism and Nazism, symbolizing ultimate evil in league with imperialism and colonialism, everything that men of conscience had to fight against. The object of attack was not the State of Israel, since attacking it would entail indirect recognition of its existence, but Zionism, an ideology that started to be characterized in demonic terms. It is easier to attach demonic qualities to an ideology, for its relationship to reality is more nebulous; a state has more substance as an entity. “Zionism” is a catchword universally associated with Jews, but without explicitly mentioning Jews. The maneuver was initiated by the USSR, which heaped on Zionism all that it wished to heap on the Jews but could hardly do so because anti-Semitism had become illegitimate.

In 1965, two years before the Six Day War, the USSR tabled a proposal in a United Nations (UN) committee that defined Nazism, fascism and neo-Nazism as racist crimes. After consensus was reached on condemning apartheid as racism, the delegates of the United States and Brazil proposed that anti-Semitism be condemned as well. Fearing that such censure would be understood as targeting Soviet policy towards its Jews, the USSR stratagem was to demand that Zionism too be added to the list of ignominious ideologies. As a direct result of this stratagem, neither anti-Semitism nor Zionism was included in the list. It was the first signal for the “Zionism = racism” equation down the road. At conferences of African heads of state, at congresses of Nonaligned States and at Arab summits at the end of 1964, there was a “clear and dangerous trend to equate the land of Israel with Angola and Mozambique and to place the State of Israel on an equal footing with Portugal and South Africa, war against them being fair game and enjoying the support of the world’s enlightened people.” It is rather astonishing to read the following analysis in an article from 1964: “The trend is clear: to present the problem of the land of Israel not as a complex political, territorial conflict but as a plain anticolonialist, antiracist problem, to implant this view in world public opinion and thereby prepare the suitable ideological and psychological background for firm action against Israel when the time comes.”

Israel does not seem to have given serious consideration to the propaganda transformation taking place around it. In those days, its close ties with Asian and African states received broad coverage in the Israeli media: its general self-image was of a small, benevolent state helping the less fortunate who were winning their independence. Soviet hostility towards Jews and Israel was a sore point, but it was explained away in rational terms: it all boiled down to the USSR’s courtship of Arab states, which enjoyed important strategic advantages in the Cold War face-off. The press did not highlight signs of Soviet anti-Semitism. It did not depict the discrimination against Soviet Jewry regarding national rights in the Soviet Union or emigration to Israel as singling out Jews from other national groups in the USSR. It described it as part of overall Soviet policy, which, even if distasteful, was built into the regime’s guiding principles.

At the end of the 1960s, several processes came together: the Six Day War, the students’ revolt, the USSR’s invasion of Prague, the Vietnam War, the appearance of the New Left. These phenomena changed the public climate and the public discourse. The outburst of anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union and East European states such as Poland and East Germany, and the Eastern bloc’s full-throated support for Arab states shocked Israelis by its venom and by the exposure of a connection between communist frustration at the failure of its arms in the Six Day War and the new legitimacy for anti-Semitism in these countries. The severance of diplomatic ties with Israel by Asian and African states in the wake of the Six Day War was a bitter disappointment. De Gaulle’s description of Jews as an arrogant and domineering people astounded Israelis who, until then, had believed him to be Israel’s ally. Especially baffling was the anti-Semitic tone of his words: why denigrate the Jewish People down the generations because of Israeli policy? The most disturbing developments, however, concerned the new central role played in the public discourse by young students rebelling against the Western establishment and the emerging turnabout among Western intellectuals vis-à-vis Israel.

Israel had no undue hardship dealing with criticism and virulent animosity so long as it was confined to the communist and Arab camps. The Arabs had never recognized the legitimacy of the State of Israel. The Soviet Union for the previous fifteen years had consistently wielded an anti-Israel policy; little by little, Israelis became willing to acknowledge the anti-Semitic coloring of Soviet propaganda. The real difficulty was adjusting to the new anti-Israel climate on American campuses. Less than a year after the war, an Israeli intellectual then in the United States noted the change in the position of the non-Jewish left on Israel. “Anti-Israel and anti-Jewish hysteria” was how defined the leftist stance around the world. Dan aptly connected the turnabout with the change in public discourse: in the division of the world between “white” and Third World countries, Israel was counted among the “white,” and the Arabs among the “black.” It was a value judgment, not an ethnic description: after all, Israelis originating from Arab states supposedly belonged to the same “black” camp. Nor did the definition have anything to do with economics or national wealth since the Arab states commanded vast oil reserves. It was the sense of guilt felt by the left-liberal camp over imperialism and colonialism that automatically made anyone on the “dark” side a saint, and anyone on the other side a scoundrel. Israel, being “white,” was by definition disqualified. The attitude towards it, Dan argued, was not a direct result of its failings or actions, but an a priori matter of principle. Had it taken energetic steps to settle the refugees, it would have been equally faulted: “Instead of bewailing the misery of refugees in camps, liberal journalists would have described the lack of consideration and boorishness of Israel’s Military Government in attempting to lodge Arabs in European-style housing and, against their will and disposition, make them conform to modern breadwinning.” For all his scathing criticism of liberal leftists, Dan accused them of hypocrisy, but not of anti-Semitism. He reserved his charge of anti-Semitism for the Soviets and for East European states, as well as for the Arabs. The left was disappointing, mistaken, hypocritical—but not anti-Semitic. And yet, the very fact that most Jewish liberals took a different approach towards Israel than did their non-Jewish counterparts did raise questions.

The New Left appeared on the scene in the late 1960s to early 1970s. The backdrop for its emergence was the crisis in consciousness wrought by the Vietnam War, the student unrest and the disillusionment with the Soviet Union. The New Left was anti-establishment and radical. From the start, its approach to Zionism and the State of Israel was negative: its antipathy to nationalism and specifically Jewish nationalism was a direct outcome of the cosmopolitan faith characteristic of some of its constituents. According to its worldview, there was a clear division between “white” nationalism, which is wrong, and the nationalism of the oppressed whose freedom struggle was right and just under any conditions. The New Left identified Israel as imperialistic and racist, dispensing with the need for evidence of its actions and shortcomings.

Like all worldwide intellectual fads, the New Left too found a following in Israel. Their extreme censure of Israel and her policy triggered an internal crisis of consciousness. For the first time, there arose a group of Israelis who, in the name of world revolution, denied Israel’s very right to exist. Numerically, the group was negligible, but not so in intellectual terms. It sparked a media brouhaha out of all proportion to its size.

The Israeli left found it difficult to swallow Israel’s dubious standing in intellectual circles. The New Left was chic, with the added attraction of an anti-establishment and moral fervor, qualities that the communist bloc had long lost. The desire to identify with the progressive, enlightened, just camp, the same impetus that in previous generations had caused a blind eye to be turned to Soviet sins, now focused on the New Left: if this camp says that Zionism is essentially wrong, that the State of Israel is imperialistic and colonialist, there is probably some truth to it. Anti-Semitism had not affected the innate sense of justice at home, and basically left no traces on Israel’s self-image. Anti-Zionist criticism, on the other hand, not only affected but undermined the confidence in the Zionist creed among segments of Israel’s left. The process did not take place in a vacuum: the fact that since 1967 Israel had ruled over a conquered Palestinian population poured potent fuel on the flames of self-doubt. The moral erosion engendered by the occupation and its by-products evoked harsh self-criticism. The result was what poet Haim Gouri termed a transition from a society of righteous besieged to a society of guilt and remorse. The 1973 Yom Kippur War, which shattered the faith in the leadership of the Labor Party, added an additional blow to the wobbling self-confidence of Israeli society.

As stated above, Israelis were hard put to accept the view that anti-Semitism related to them as well. Consequently and dialectically, they tended to blame themselves and their actions for its outbursts, which they defined as anti-Zionist but not necessarily anti-Semitic. Much of the anti-Israel hostility, for instance, they explained as deriving from the post-1967 occupation. The fact that the seeds of a pernicious anti-Zionism were already sown in the mid-1960s, prior to the occupation, attracted no attention. In the same way, a decade later, Israeli left-wing intellectuals tended to blame Menachem Begin’s government and its bellicose behavior for the unfavorable image of the State of Israel. But the fact is that the infamous UN Resolution 3379, which defined Zionism as a “form of racism and racist discrimination,” was adopted in November 1975, during the first Rabin government. UN discussions leave no doubt about the grossly blatant anti-Semitic nature of the issue. It was an attempt to delegitimize the existence of the State of Israel. In his analysis of the resolution, Israeli political scientist discerned a qualitative leap in anti-Zionism in the 1970s: “Its implication is that, from an object of delegitimization, Zionism has become an object of dehumanization.” In the process he described, the victim is unaware of what is happening around him because the change is not taking shape within himself but in the conceptual group invalidating him—until one clear day he realizes that not only fringe elements but also mainstreamers have ostracized him. Similarly, Zionism changed from a legitimate ideology of national liberation in 1947 into an ideology of national oppression denying legitimate aspirations. Zionism became a dirty word. Based on the paradigm of “Zionism = racism,” any Israeli government is tainted to begin with, even if strictly leftist. Any Israeli war is racist and all acts of terror against Israel are kosher and admissible. The definition is particularly grave because slowly but surely it has crept into the language of Western civilization. A new stereotype made its debut: Zionism is racism and racism is Zionism. It makes no difference that Zionism never was racist—the spread of the stereotype makes the need for proof irrelevant. The dehumanization of the state of the Jews went hand in hand with the dehumanization of Jews. As Leon Wieseltier said, it was a repudiation of the right of Jews to define themselves as a collective, of their historical legitimacy to be what they wish to be rather than what others expect them to be.

The Likud Party’s rise to power in 1977 signified an upsurge in Israeli society of traditionalist rightist currents. Opposite the Zionist-socialist rebellion against Jewish tradition in the form of the “old Jew,” there now arose groups who stressed the continuity of Jewish history and advanced conservative views about Jews and non-Jews. As far as they were concerned, hatred of the State of Israel was an expression of the traditional hatred of Jews. They considered any criticism of the State of Israel as suspect of anti-Semitic motives and thus inadmissible. The necessary conclusion from this mode of thinking was that Israel need not concern itself with the criticism leveled at it since it was based not on her conduct but on age-old prejudice and animus.

The Likud’s rise to power was concomitant with an additional change in consciousness: the Holocaust became a central component of Israeli identity. The process in Israel dovetailed with the worldwide process, which, in the West, led to a heightened consciousness of the Shoah of European Jewry. The trend paralleled the growing criticism of Israeli policy towards the Palestinians. In Israel, the European onslaught was understood as an attempt of European peoples to shed their Holocaust guilt about Israel. Begin, more so than any of his predecessors, kept bringing up the Holocaust as an indictment of the world’s nations, gainsaying their moral right to preach to Israel. On the Palestinian side, there was a process of appropriation and inversion of Holocaust symbolism, in a reversal of roles: in media images, Israelis were transformed from the successors of Holocaust victims into the successors of Nazis. The role reversal was first initiated by the Soviets who, back in the 1950s, had already accused Zionists of having cooperated with the Nazis in “self-genocide.” These drifts were reinforced after the Six Day War when the Soviet propaganda machine invoked Nazi symbols to describe the war: the war was a Blitzkrieg, Israelis were a “master race,” and their attitude to the Palestinians was described in such terms as “concentration camp,” “SS,” and “Gauleiter.” Moshe Dayan and Golda Meir were likened to Hitler and his henchmen, and the military government in the West Bank, to the Third Reich. The Palestinians, since 1967, have adopted the anti-Nazi frame of reference, although during the Eichmann trial (1961) they still contended that Hitler had been right, and that it was a pity that he had not completed the extermination of the Jews. Now, they appropriated the terminology of Europe’s anti-Nazi resistance movements, portraying the Jews as the Nazis of our times. During the siege of Beirut in the Lebanon War, Western media stations dressed the Palestinians in the image of Warsaw Ghetto fighters, poised before a formidable military machine. Author John Le Carré wrote that the Israelis were on the verge of doing to the Palestinians what the Germans had done to them. Preaching to the Jews was now done in the name of Holocaust memory.

Many Israelis were uncomfortable with Begin’s constant reminders of the Holocaust. They regarded it as a cheapening of its memory and using it manipulatively for political purposes. But they were not aware of the use being made of the Holocaust by the other side. Israeli public opinion woke up to what was happening after the media attack on Israel during the Lebanon War. A considerable chunk of Israelis were not happy about the war and as Israel’s embroilment became increasingly clearer, so too did domestic criticism. It reached a climax following the massacre of Palestinians by Christian Phalangists in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila. The huge demonstration held by Israel’s left against government imperviousness to the war-induced human suffering sharply demarcated the moral boundaries set for the state by Israeli public opinion.

The profound differences of opinion on the war also found expression in the variant assessments of the media onslaught waged against Israel at the time. Newspapers and magazines associated with the right, such as Ha-TzofehHa-Umah and Gesher, dwelt on the exhibition of anti-Semitism towards Israel in the world press and media. The mantra of these groups was “the whole world is against us” and the Jews are “a people that shall dwell alone, and shall not be reckoned among the nations” (Numbers 23:9). Israel’s isolation in the international arena was decreed, deriving from Esau’s mythic, meta-historical hatred of Jacob. Reactions in the leftist press, in contrast, were moderate. “Neither alone nor all against us,” noted one writer. “Even if there were any truth to this view,” he protested, “one should be careful about voicing it before the public for whom memories of Exile and the Holocaust determine much of their attitude to the nations of the world.” The opposition to the Israeli stance stems not from a generation-old loathing of Jews, but from rational causes related to the Cold War, the power of Arab oil, strategic and economic interests. A way must be found to explain our positions to our friends in the United States and Europe, he said, and also to talk with the Arab states just as we found a way to talk with Egypt (i.e., the peace treaty with Egypt). In a magazine connected with the Labor Party, letters to the editor lambasted the Begin government and its response to world reaction to events in Lebanon. “There is no connection between the angry reactions of the free world towards us and the traditional hatred of Jews,” stated a member of Kibbutz Ayelet Hashahar, “the exaggerated use of the word “anti-Semitism,” as a weapon of defense to justify deeds that bring no honor to the State of Israel, cause it to be devaluated.” He went on to say that, “the fact is, that in all the years of Labor movement rule, we sensed no such hostility from the peoples of the free world.”

The 1983 Journalists’ Yearbook carried a balanced analysis by Wistrich, a moderate leftist. Preuss had no illusions about the timing of the deterioration in the attitude of the world media to Israel: it had already begun during the “honeymoon” period preceding the Six Day War, before Israel had even conquered the territories. Hostility towards Israel pre-dated also Likud rule: thus, for example, the London Times portrayed the first Rabin government as a military high command ruling the country. But this tendency gathered momentum with the election of Begin “the terrorist” as prime minister. Preuss described the double standards employed by the world media against Israel: unseemly actions by Israel grabbed front-page headlines whereas far worse actions by others, including by Middle Eastern regimes, were reported on inside pages. The press inflated the figures of Arab casualties in Lebanon, including fictitious reports on the number of refugees fleeing from southern Lebanon. At the same time, conduct that could be viewed as favorable on Israel’s part met with skepticism and meager acknowledgment in the European press—for example, the Camp David Accords and the risks Israel had taken upon itself in the peace treaty with Egypt. Preuss also cited newspapers and television networks that covered the war fairly. The day after the large demonstration on Sabra and Shatila, the world press expressed praise and esteem for Israeli moral courage, only a week after having written that Israel had lost its moral advantage and, indeed, that Israeli auxiliary forces had taken part in the massacres. Thus, Preuss believed, it was wrong of the government to present even specific criticism of Israel as a sign of anti-Semitism. However, it was necessary to expose any anti-Semitic hypocrisy and self-righteousness that took issue with Israel’s right to exist, as did Die Zeit when it wrote that, had it not been for the Holocaust, the State of Israel would not have arisen, making Germany morally obligated towards the Arabs. Preuss suggested a criterion for the distinction between legitimate criticism and anti-Semitism—the attitude to Israel’s right to exist: no state could accept criticism that cast it as a Nazi monster to be destroyed.

Since the Lebanon War, public discussion of anti-Semitism and its relationship to anti-Zionism has been a permanent fixture. The Study Circle on World Jewry in the Home of the President of Israel was one of the more important colloquiums to consider the subject. In the 1984/1985 series, the topics of discussion included “Anti-Semitism Today: Myth and Reality” and “Anti-Zionism as an Expression of Anti-Semitism in Recent Years.” Scholars of anti-Semitism and Israeli diplomats took part in both discussions. The main questions explored were the interaction between Israel’s measures and the world’s attitude to her, as well as the connection between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism. Leftist political scientist Ze’ev Sternhell called on participants not to exaggerate either the severity of anti-Semitism or the identification of anti-Semitism—which he saw as an attempt “to destroy Western civilization and the basic components of Western culture”—with anti-Zionism, which “is primarily a political phenomenon linked … with the war in the Middle East.” He did note that his visit to Europe during the Lebanon War had been traumatic, in view of anti-Semitic manifestations, but he protested against Begin’s excessive depiction of Arafat as Hitler. He did not attach much importance to the portrayal of Zionism as Nazism, ascribing the maneuver to irrational and insignificant fringe elements. On the other hand, he linked the New Left’s delegitimization of the right of Jews to their own state with Israel’s delegitimization of the PLO. While the forum leaned towards President Herzog’s diagnosis that anti-Zionism was a polite form of anti-Semitism, a distinction between the two was nevertheless maintained. Participants noted that anti-Semitic ideas and symbols had leached into anti-Zionism but they were cautious not to bracket the two together. Politically, they were on the whole either center or left. There was apparently no salient representation of Israel’s right; nor of religious Zionism. It may be assumed that, had such representatives attended the discussions, the forum’s positions would likely have been more polarized.

In 1985 a first survey polled Israeli Jews on their perceptions of anti-Semitism. Another, eight years later in 1993, checked whether attitudes to this and related topics had changed. Most of the Israelis questioned in the first sample had no personal experience of anti-Semitism. Nevertheless, a majority of those polled believed anti-Semitism to be widespread. A vestige of the period when Israelis believed anti-Semitism did not apply to them can be seen in the 1985 opinions about the causes of anti-Semitism: 41 percent attributed it to the minority status of diaspora Jewry; 22 percent cited the traits of non-Jews; and 36 percent gave precedence to Jewish traits or conduct. The relatively large last category indicates that Jews and notably Israelis had internalized some of the anti-Semitic stereotypes.

The study also found firm and positive Jewish identification among both youth and adults, although it was stronger among adults and it rose with age. Among adults, Jewish and Israeli identity overlapped. As a rule, the survey highlighted the suspicious attitude of religious and tradition-oriented Israelis to the non-Jewish world, as opposed to a more relaxed approach on the part of non-religious Jews. The second, 1993, survey showed an increase in the number of respondents who said that they had never encountered anti-Semitism (from 57 percent in 1985 to 62 percent in 1993). At the same time, nearly 75 percent of respondents took an interest in the subject. The majority believed that anti-Semitism derived from social, political and economic conditions in non-Jewish society (71 percent). But prominence was also accorded to ideologies dehumanizing Jews (67 percent). Minority life appeared in third place (64 percent), the traits of non-Jews were in fifth place (58 percent) and Jewish traits and conduct were in sixth place. As in 1985, so in 1993 most respondents believed anti-Israel and anti-Zionist manifestations to be anti-Semitic (57 percent). However, whereas in 1985, about a quarter of the respondents believed that such manifestations were on no account an expression of anti-Semitism, in 1993, only 14 percent thought so. In other words, over the years, the trend of the Israeli public to identify anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism grew stronger. Nor was there any significant difference on this question between the religious and the non-religious. The same attitude also relates to the conviction of Israelis that their government’s policy is the less influential factor in arousing anti-Semitism. Considering that in 1993 the peace process was at its height and yet noxious anti-Israel propaganda continued, the growing association between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism in Israeli consciousness is little cause for wonder.

Some years later, in 1995, the (socialist-leaning) Kibbutz Teachers Seminar initiated and published a study on the attitudes towards anti-Semitism and racism of two target groups: student teachers from the secular and religious sectors. This study presented a highly polarized picture of the two groups. Thus, for example, when asked what kind of Israeli behavior might help stop anti-Semitism, secular students cited “humane behavior” in first place, encompassing such elements as striving to reach a peace settlement, fostering good relations with many states; better information; liberalism and a respect for human dignity; changing our attitude to Arabs; opening the country’s gates to anyone who wished to enter. In second place, they cited “active behavior,” which included being a strong country, helping Jews who so desired to immigrate to Israel; demonstrating military strength. The religious respondents, in contrast, gave precedence to “active behavior” and, lagging far behind in second place, to “humane behavior.” While both sectors believed anti-Semitism posed a considerable danger, the religious group attached greater importance to it. Most respondents thought it was directed primarily at diaspora Jewry, especially those easily identified as Jews. On the other hand, they also associated anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism; that is, they saw themselves too as endangered by anti-Semitism. The researchers remarked on the particularistic perspective of the young, especially the religious, on the question of racism—they identified anti-Semitism as racism, but were quick to ascribe to it specifically Jewish components, making no allowances for racism’s universal aspects. The researchers recommended more intensive education towards universal love of humanity and against racist attitudes to Arabs. The study sheds light on the left’s concern about the erosion of humanist sensitivities in religious education as a result of an overemphasis on anti-Semitism.

In the onslaught on Israel, the role reversal between Jews and Arabs, with Jews depicted as Nazis and Palestinians as victims of Nazism, was the ingredient most infuriating to Israelis. The standard bearers of this propaganda line were the radical left. The linkage in this analogy between the history of the Middle Eastern conflict and the history of European Jewry was to no small extent responsible for the association between hatred of Jews and hatred of the state of the Jews. Any association between what was happening in the occupied territories and the Nazi regime sparked impassioned reaction. The term coined by Yeshayahu Leibovitz, “Judeo-Nazis,” continued to provoke and enrage. On the other hand, Moshe Zimmerman, a scholar of German history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, claimed that the political manipulation by Israel’s government of the Holocaust guilt felt by Germany, Europe and even the United States towards Jews was responsible for the emerging image of Israel as Nazi: “Every time Israel reopened the subject, presenting itself as the victim to whom the world still owed a debt, it aroused a counterreaction and build-up of anger.” “In every place that Israel used its status as eternal victim, comparisons to Nazism come up.” Zimmerman held that Israel could not have it both ways—both to demand for itself moralistic treatment from others in the name of Holocaust memory and to behave on the basis of raisons d’état whenever it suited it. Israel pretended to be guided by “Jewish ethics”: Hence, it could not act according to Syrian or Russian criteria, he objected.

A number of journals dealing with anti-Semitic phenomena and trends are published in Israel. The major ones are the annual Massuah, which is concerned with the Holocaust, and the periodicals of the World Zionist Organization, such as Bi-Tfutzot YisraelKivunim and Kivunim Hadashim. In addition, journals identified with the right, such as NativHa-Umah and the religious daily, Ha-Tzofeh, frequently carried material published abroad, discerning anti-Semitism in anti-Zionist propaganda. Menachem Begin used to invoke the Holocaust whenever he found himself under specific attack, whether politically or morally. The growing identification of Israel’s right with religious circles reinforced the trend to regard hostility towards Israel as the heritage of ages: Esau is Jacob’s enemy. It is an old story. As religious imagery intensifies, the bond to the imagery of the “new Jew” slackens, fixing identity around the image of the “old Jew.” The old Jew has no problem with the idea that “the whole world is against us” and the realization that the Zionist prognosis on anti-Semitism proved to be wrong.

But the right was not monolithic. The secular right, champions of classic secular Zionism (after Nordau or Jabotinsky), found it hard to digest the case of anti-Semitism. In two respects, the establishment of the State of Israel was supposed to have been the ultimate response to anti-Semitism: not merely as living proof that anti-Semitism was a lie, but as an end to the apologetic polemics with anti-Semites who were simply to be bypassed by Zionism. The realization that the State of Israel had not only failed to put an end to anti-Semitism but had even bred a new strain—namely, anti-Zionism—was hard to swallow for anyone raised on basic Zionist tenets. “For native Israelis, popularly known as “sabras,” it was not easy to relate to the revival of anti-Semitism,” declared Kreutner. An interview given by Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir (the erstwhile head of the pre-state Israel Freedom Fighters underground, Lehi, termed the “Stern Gang” by the British), to David Landau of the Jerusalem Post illustrates the complexity of the anti-Semitism/anti-Zionism approach. Shamir distinguished between the duty of the State of Israel to fight for its existence and the battle against anti-Semitism in the world arena, which he saw as the job of large Jewish organizations. World Jewry was to wage the battle against anti-Semitism whereas Israel’s government was to keep the state safe and not create new enemies by opening up new fronts (the interview was held against the background of emerging anti-Semitism in Russia in the days of Glasnost‘ and the confrontation with the Catholic Church over the erection of the convent at Auschwitz). Shamir’s distinction between peculiarly Israeli interests and the interests of world Jewry, in which journalist Dan Margalit detected a “thin edge of Canaanite dust” (referring to the Canaanite ideology that drew a wedge between Israelis and diaspora Jews as two separate entities), did not relate to the identification of extreme anti-Zionism (such as “Zionism = racism”) with anti-Semitism. This remained intact. Nor did it relate to Israel’s commitment to protect and shelter Jews, which he took for granted. But it did raise the possibility of there being anti-Semites friendly to the State of Israel. It was a reflection of Herzl’s views and the unfulfilled expectations that decent anti-Semites would be happy to be rid of the Jews in their midst in an enlightened fashion. To Shamir, the realization of Zionism was a lengthy process, as was the liquidation of anti-Semitism. It was his way of saying that the Zionist premise had not been wrong, but that the time was not yet ripe for its fruition. There was an essential difference between the fear of annihilation and the hysterical tone of rightist articles on the question and Shamir’s approach, which took into account both the possible and the desirable from the point of view of the state, and weighed it against the ideological.

A similar complexity characterized the approach of the Zionist left. In the early 1990s, the Israeli press gave wide coverage to government reports citing anti-Semitic incidents, especially in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. These reports were not taken at face value: leftist political scientist Yoram Peri protested that “more than the goyim need anti-Semitism as a scapegoat, we Israelis need it as self-justification for our mistakes, failures, shortcomings and crimes.” This extremist pronouncement, in a no less extremist article, exposed the frustration of Israel’s left, and not necessarily the radical left, at the stalemate on the diplomatic front during Shamir’s premiership and the toughening of Israeli measures against the Palestinians in the first Intifada. The same Yoram Peri had published a study in 1981 pointing to the transition of Europe’s Socialist International from unequivocal support of Israel to rolling out the red carpet for Yasser Arafat, without their having received his agreement to coexistence with Israel. In this article, Peri accused the socialist parties not of anti-Semitism, but of yielding to pressure, interests, and a changing policy due to changing generations. Nor did he blame Israel then for deteriorating relations, even though Begin’s government was already in office. A similar phenomenon can be seen in the report by Shevah Weiss (a Labor Party MK and himself a Holocaust survivor) on the Council of Europe Conference in December 1990. He spoke of Israel-bashing at Council sessions, of false horrors attributed to Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, and of his objections before the Council to the lies voiced even though he was a member of Israel’s Opposition at the time. He ended the article with the remark that a year and a half earlier, when the Unity Government had proposed a peace initiative, “Israel’s position in the Council of Europe had been far better.” But in truth, Weiss’s previous report from the Council of Europe had been even worse: “In the Council of Europe, there is now intellectual terror against Israel,” he had written—”Palestinians are depicted as the victims of Nazism.” And: “There is no limit to the lies, no limit to the deceitful stereotypic descriptions,” and so on and so forth. The growing frustration of the left led to an overemphasis on the responsibility of Israel’s government for rising anti-Semitism around the globe.

An extreme example of the polarized positions on the question of anti-Semitism/anti-Zionism can be found in an article by journalist Gideon Samet of Ha’aretz, following publication of a report by the Inter-Ministerial Forum Monitoring Anti-Semitism (25 March 1992). The report dealt mostly with the former USSR, Muslim fundamentalism, rising nationalism, anti-Semitic publications the world over, and so on. Samet wrote that “the government has now added another whining chapter to the book ‘The Whole World is Against Us.'” Criticism of the Israeli government was not anti-Semitism, claimed Samet. “Dangerous demagoguery had filled our ears over the years with a muddle between anti-Israelism and anti-Judaism.” Most of the article is a sharp polemic against the published reports on anti-Semitism, which struck him as exaggerated in content and tendentious in timing in order to relieve pressure from the beleaguered government. The editor of Davar, the Labor daily, Hannah Zemer, wrote in a similar vein. Government Secretary Elyakim Rubinstein, head of the Monitoring Forum, responded rather mildly that the timing hinged on the Forum’s agenda, not the government’s. He also pointed out that anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe was unconnected with Israeli policy in the Middle East and that the attempt to connect the two was strained and fabricated. Veteran journalist David Pedhazur summed up the discussion: “This may not be self-hatred—but it is certainly typical Jewish self-righteousness.” Anti-Semitism was not a disease of the Jews, he said, alluding to a statement by Holocaust scholar Hayim Hatzori: “It is a disease of the non-Jews …. Neither Jews nor Israel need anti-Semitism. It is needed by anti-Semites who see Jews as the prime cause of all their woes and frustrations, their troubles and disasters. It is needed by anti-Zionists who see Israel as the world’s pariah Jew.” The article, published in Davar, reiterated the moderate stance of the old Zionist left, as against the radicals.

Elyakim Rubinstein and Gideon Samet may have come from opposite sides of the fence in the controversy but they shared a common denominator: estrangement from the phenomenon of anti-Semitism and a basic sense that it did not affect the existential roots of Jews in Israel. On anti-Semitism, Samet wrote, “Also for us here, who are free of one of the most contemptible social phenomena in history, this data deals a blow to the heart: in an ostensibly new world, built on the ruins of the old order, the infestation of hatred of Jews is spreading.” And Rubinstein explained: “I grew up in a land free of anti-Semitism, in a Jewish majority society, with a flag, [self-]governance and its own army; hatred of Jews was a faraway idea unknown first-hand to my native-born generation.” Acknowledging the latency of hatred of Jews, which is built of stereotypes ingrained in Western civilization that are transferred to all parts of the globe, is hard for someone raised to believe that anti-Semitism is a phenomenon from an earlier stage of human development and that, in the present age, it has no place. Students educated in the State of Israel accepted as self-evident, as an axiom requiring no proof, the idea that the Jewish people are equal to all other nations in the world and individual Jews are equal to the rest of humanity. This was the basic essence of the Zionist idea. From this perspective, Zionism was a success story, for it changed the individual and the collective mentality and psychology. Consequently, it was especially difficult for people with an Israeli identity based on the idea of equality to accept the notion that the attitude to Jews and Israelis in the world does not live up to egalitarian expectations. This outlook was especially widespread among the non-religious Israelis, whose basic beliefs were Zionist, rather than traditionally Jewish.

Jewish tradition was ahistorical. By its lights, the basic relations between Jews and non-Jews were never meant to change until the coming of the Messiah. In these circles, hatred of Jews and the rejection of Jews as equal to other peoples were taken for granted. It fit their normative system, causing no dissonance. They were thus better equipped to accept a pessimistic view of Jewish-Gentile relations, which correlated with their inbuilt expectations.

Into this complex configuration of mindset and psychology, the component of Arab and Islamic attitudes was introduced. As will be recalled, the secular majority regarded the opposition of Palestinian Arabs to Zionism in political and social terms rather than in terms of racial hatred. Since Israelis anticipated a process of reconciliation between Jews and Arabs in the country, they tended to treat tolerantly the trickle of clearly anti-Semitic ideas and concepts into the Arab world of ideas and politics. “The fact that Muslims picked out an element hardly central to their tradition, such as anti-Semitism, and it is to be found in fundamentalist propaganda and writings from the first moment, is no doubt nourished by the Israel-Arab conflict,” Islam scholar Emmanuel Sivan asserted. Further on, he pointed to “the conflicted soul of [Muslim] people, who have not yet decided whether to choose the peace process or radicalized anti-Semitism.” In other words, the venomous anti-Semitism of Muslim fundamentalism is a possible though not a necessary option of Islam, not anchored in historical depths. This view reflected the hopes and expectations of the Israeli left. In contrast, Israeli opponents of the peace process—whether out of a belief that the whole of the land west of the Jordan was the Jewish ancestral patrimony and that no part of it could be relinquished, or out of an inference from the system of beliefs and opinions that the nations of the world could not be trusted—described Arab and Muslim hostility towards Jews as an inbuilt quality of Islam, highlighting its explicit anti-Jewish components and those episodes in the history of Islam that were least tolerant of Jews.

In the final analysis, the attitude to anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism in Israeli society became a political-cultural code, highlighting the divide between left and right, and between religious and secular. Whenever an important new political issue comes up on the agenda, the political-cultural code surfaces, with one side of the fence claiming that “the whole world is against us” and the other, that “our actions will cause us to be either embraced or shunned.” The attitude to the anti-Semitism/anti-Zionism issue in Israeli society does not stand alone but is part of an ideological basket, tagging one’s political membership: for those on the right, anti-Semitism and hatred of the State of Israel are political navigators tabled on the agenda whenever the Israeli government takes a decision unacceptable to them. Therefore, in their eyes, the Oslo Accords are equivalent to Auschwitz and Arafat to Hitler. In the other camp, leftists will do all they can to minimize the importance of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, depicting them as phenomena contingent on the political context rather than immanent in relations between Israel and the non-Jewish world. This position is based on their conviction that the memory of the past should not be allowed to dictate the future. While the right portrays anti-Semitism as the root of anti-Zionism, the left chooses to put forward the contrary picture: anti-Zionism fans the flames of anti-Semitism in our generation.

The period of the 1930s and World War II still provides key elements in the West’s world of images. Hence the questions as to whether the identification of our own times with the eve of World War II represents myth or reality, and whether today’s anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism hint at the imminence of a new Shoah. Or maybe the two eras cannot be compared at all. These questions are topical and highly significant, and they have unmistakable political implications. On the face of it, the establishment of the State of Israel marked a quantum change in the situation of world Jewry: can the situation of the Jewish people in Europe of the 1930s even be likened to today’s Israel in terms of power and freedom of action? But, on the other hand, the fact that the Holocaust did happen without prior warning places any future scenario, no matter how appalling, within the realm of the possible. The fact that millions of Muslims pray every day for the destruction of the state of the Jews is not a recipe for serenity in the Israeli psyche. The pendulum between existential anxiety and the dizziness of power are variations on a theme. The overriding majority of Israel’s public is situated in the space between the two, having seemingly accepted hatred of Jews and hatred of the State of Israel as existing phenomena, attendant on their lives though not affecting daily considerations. Is this the repression of the ostrich or the wisdom of survivors?