Friday, May 15, 2009

Israel, Palestine, Zionism and Anti-Semitism in the aftermath of WWII

I'm currently reading Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem: a Report on the Banality of Evil. As a German-Jewish, female political theorist, she had a unique perspective on Nazi war crimes during the Holocaust, especially because she was a long-time friend of German philosopher and Nazi Martin Heidegger. Adolf Eichmann was a top Nazi leader who was prosecuted in Israel in 1961 and sentenced to death. His crimes against humanity included the organization of the mass deportation of Jews to concentration camps for extermination between 1940-45. This book was one of the first to look at the concept of evil as an ordinary occurrence. In other words, the genocide of Jews during the Holocaust could not have happened if the atrocities hadn't become a banal part of everyday existence. The Nazi "Final Solution" to exterminate the Jews, as if they were vermin, was systematic, cold-blooded and bureaucratic. Orders were followed without question.

I've read many, many books on the Holocaust and have known Holocaust survivors. I was raised in a traditional Jewish family. I still value my Jewish upbringing, and identify myself culturally as a Jew, but I'm not religious. I've always liked how in Judaism there is an emphasis on social justice and community. I've always been fascinated by the stories of how people survived the Holocaust, perhaps because I know that if my ancestors hadn't immigrated to America around the turn of the 20th century, I might have been sent to a concentration camp. One of the phrases I heard over and over again as a child in regards to the Holocaust was "never again." Never again should something as horrifying and inhumane as the Holocaust occur.

Many Jews escaped to Palestine or moved there upon gaining their freedom from the concentration camps. The formation of the state of Israel in 1948 came about as a way to provide security to the hordes of traumatized Jews. Many countries had turned Jews away during Hitler's regime (including the United States), and so Jews felt they needed a "home" of their own. The demand to create a Jewish homeland had been growing throughout the early 20th century, due to Zionist beliefs. I haven't read a lot on Zionism and only know what I've been told in my family. From what I can gather, Zionism initially was a left-wing labor movement, which grew out of communism and socialism, that advocated for a Jewish homeland in Palestine. It didn't have the racist overtones that it has today. I think the original idea was that Jews and Arabs would share the land peacefully. Many secular Jews were attracted to Zionism because it advocated a collective lifestyle through the kibbutz. Even after Israel had been granted statehood and the Israeli-Arab territorial conflicts intensified, the kibbutz was considered an ideal form of living for many American Jews. I had a hippie cousin who went to live on one in the early '70s, and there were Jewish camps for kids in the U.S. at that time that were based on the labor-Zionist/collectivist model.

What has disturbed me deeply, as I've seen radical Zionist views become more nationalistic and racist (i.e.- pro-Israel = anti-Arab), has been the avoidance of many American Jews in dealing with the plight of Palestinians and Arab Americans. The tunnel vision of many American Jews understandably arose after the Holocaust. I don't think people who haven't experienced the Holocaust first or second hand, or who haven't read a lot about it, can understand how traumatizing it was to the Jewish people. There is such a huge fear of being abandoned, of having no place to call home, because so many governments preferred to see Jews die in the gas chambers than become citizens in their countries. So the state of Israel represents the survival of an entire group of people. Unfortunately, many American Jews think there are many Arab countries who would take Palestinian Arabs in if needed. And that's exactly what disturbs me. Diaspora, or the displacement of a group of people, is never a positive experience.

On top of this, there has been an increase in anti-Semitism against Muslims. Anti-Semitism is a term usually meant to signify discrimination against Jews; it has now come to represent racial prejudice against any Semitic group, including Arabs (although this is still debatable - see my comment). I recall one especially upsetting experience - I called the Jewish Anti-Defamation League and B'nai B'rith to ask what I could do to stop the discrimination of Arab Americans after 9/11. In my mind, "never again" applied to all groups of people, not just the Jews. I was shocked when I was told they couldn't help me.

After seeing photos of Arab prisoners tortured in Abu Ghraib, I tried again to see how I could work with these Jewish groups to stop the inhumanity. I saw the photos of Iraqis being tortured and immediately thought of the photos I had seen as a young girl of Jews in Auschwitz. I read the news accounts of the Arab prisoners' experiences - systematic, cold-blooded and bureaucratic. Those who carried out water boarding, abuse and psychological terrorism were just following orders. One woman I spoke to told me these Jewish groups couldn't help because to do so would be to show support to Arabs and that would mean they weren't supporting Israel. I don't see things so black and white. Why does being pro-human rights mean choosing sides in the Middle Eastern conflict? Both groups are supposedly humanitarian and in support of civil rights for all.

In the intervening years, as Israeli terrorism has increased against innocent Palestinian civilians, and more stories of the tortures at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay have come to light, I've been appalled. So I've been spending a lot of time in contemplation around the issues of discrimination and tolerance. Unfortunately, some people think the U.S. is in cahoots with Israeli terrorists and radical Zionist groups, and therefore American Jews must be behind Israeli terrorism and anti-Semitism against Arabs. This seems far-fetched to me, but I can understand the thought process that would make these connections, given all that's transpired since WWII. What's even worse is that anti-Semitism against Jews is on the rise and people are reverting back to old stereotypes of Jews, especially because of the economic downturn (i.e. - "the banking industry is run by Jews", "Jews are greedy capitalists", etc.). So now we have increased anti-Semitism in America against Arabs AND Jews. Who does that benefit? Are we just doing as we're told or are we thinking for ourselves?

Below are videos showing different points of views on the current Middle East situation and Zionism by two contemporary philosophers, Bernard-Henri Lévy and Slavoj Žižek.

1 comment:

decomposition said...

I've been researching more about anti-Semitism and wanted to note that it is still debatable whether the term can be applied to Arabs. The U.S. State Dept., in a 2005 Report on Global Anti-Semitism, states: "The definition of anti-Semitism has been the focus of innumerable discussions and studies. While there is no universally accepted definition, there is a generally clear understanding of what the term encompasses. For the purposes of this report, anti-Semitism is considered to be hatred toward Jews— individually and as a group —that can be attributed to the Jewish religion and/or ethnicity."

Wikipedia states: "While the term's etymology might suggest that antisemitism is directed against all Semitic peoples, it has been used exclusively to refer to hostility toward Jews since its initial usage."

Yet, I've read recent articles that have used the term to describe prejudice against Arabs. For example, Dr. James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute, wrote an excellent essay in 2004 titled Arabs and Muslims Are Victims of Anti-Semitism that discusses anti-Semitism against both Arabs and Jews.