Zionism vs. Zionism

Friday, 18 September 2009 10:40 By Ira Chernus, Truthout | name.

Zionism vs. Zionism

    It was a telling coincidence that two reports were issued on the very same day. The Geneva Initiative, a group of Israeli and Palestinian diplomats and technical experts, released its updated 400-page plan, spelling out the practical details of a reasonable two-state settlement. But Israeli newspapers barely noticed. They were too busy headlining the other report: a UN fact-finding mission's 575 pages of detail on war crimes committed by both Israeli and Palestinian forces during last winter's war in Gaza.

    The UN report's lead author, Richard Goldstone, says he's a Zionist and "loves Israel." The Israeli authors of the Geneva Initiative are Zionists who love Israel, too. So are the Israeli government leaders who ignored the new Geneva document while they lashed out at Goldstone and the whole UN fact-finding operation.

    So, the coincidence of both documents appearing on the same day cast a bright spotlight on the contest between two different styles of Zionism, a contest that may soon come down to the wire. And the outcome will matter to all of us. So, it's worth paying attention.

    There is one thing all Zionists generally agree on: The Jews should be a "normal" nation, like all other nations. "Normalization" was the mantra of the founders of Zionism over a century ago. It has continued to be a guiding principle for the Jewish state and its supporters.

    That's one reason Israeli leaders and many commentators were so outraged by the Goldstone report, just as they've been outraged by criticisms of Israeli actions before. Going to war, and killing civilians in the process, is what normal nations do, they say.

    Look at Afghanistan, said Ha'aretz analyst Amir Oren. "Dozens of civilians were killed this month in an air strike carried out by American warplanes" at Kunduz. "Goldstone is now free to go to Kunduz, but American might means there is no chance that he will. In the end, it is not about the law, but about power, military and political." Normal nations mobilize their power to get away with as much as they can.

    Oren expects the US response to prove that morality doesn't count for much in the world of normal nations: "When the smoke of Goldstone's report clears, the IDF and the government can emerge from the bunker to find that little damage has been done. Israel's cooperation is needed in the diplomatic arena.... President Barack Obama will probably curb the propagandistic trend of slamming Israel for war crimes in order to extract tangible concessions from it as a peace partner."

    Another Israeli pundit, Aluf Benn, adds that Obama is unlikely to threaten the Israelis with criminal persecution, even as a whip to move them toward a two-state solution, because any legal action "would set a precedent against other militaries fighting terror in civilian areas, as is the US army in Iraq and Afghanistan." Oren and Benn may well prove to be right.

    This is what a logically consistent Zionist should say: See, we're no different than the British in Kenya, the French in Algeria or the Americans in Vietnam. (A fully consistent Zionist might even add "or the Germans in Poland," though that would be too incendiary to say out loud.) We're just doing what comes naturally for modern nation-states.

    If that were all Zionists were saying, there might be little to disagree with. It's tragic, but pretty much true.

    However that was not Amir Oren's main point. Rather, he was emphasizing what nearly every other Israeli voice, from the nation's president on down, was emphasizing: Israel is not a normal nation because it holds itself to a higher moral standard when it fights. The Israeli military, he claims, has been able to "fine-tune its system of operational planning, approvals and legal involvement to reduce to almost nil the possibility of purposeful harm to civilians."

    The Israeli government used its most dovish leader, President Shimon Peres, to make the same argument in detail: "Israel is the most threatened nation in the world and yet it makes the most effort to avoid harming innocent lives. Any comparison of Israel's fight on terror with recent conflicts in Kosovo, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan etc. immediately shows that Israel holds itself to the highest ethical standard."

    The ardent Zionist Richard Goldstone has most of his 575-page report to say it ain't so. Though the Israeli claims of innocence are dubious, they are also perfectly predictable. Proclaiming moral innocence, while acting amorally, is another part of what normal nations do - again, the British, French, Americans (and, yes, even the Nazi Germans) all did the same. Hamas is now doing the same, too, predictably protesting the accusations leveled against it in Goldstone's report.

    If nations have the kind of power the US has, they even set up tribunals like the International Criminal Court to cast blame on those they label "bad guys," while making sure their own people are exempt from prosecution. Again, tragic but true.

    So, how is Israel different? Most nations accused of war crimes make their protests rather quietly. They don't draw the world's attention to the discrepancies others see between their moral claims and their immoral actions.

    The Israeli government, on the contrary, used it as yet another occasion to indulge in its favorite rhetorical activity: pointing its finger at new enemies to "prove" that Israel is not merely innocent but endlessly persecuted - and eager to fight back.

    "The Goldstone Report is a grave blow to the State of Israel on three significant international fronts: The diplomatic theater, the media front, and the military-legal arena," reported the widely-read pundit Ron Ben-Yishai. "The Israeli government and mostly the Foreign Ministry must engage in a difficult battle in order to minimize the report's damage."

    The military metaphor is not accidental. "Israel girds for diplomatic war over 'biased' UN Gaza report," was the headline in Israel's most prestigious newspaper, Ha'aretz. Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon called on his nation to "mobilize and act with all force against the report in order to remove it."

    The Israeli government's main "defensive strategy" in this battle is to "convince the world's democracies the report handcuffs them in their fight against terrorism," the Jerusalem Post reported. More precisely, such a report might handcuff other nations if the same standards of international law were applied to them.

    Deep down, though, Israeli leaders doubt other nations will be affected. President Peres lodged the usual complaint: When Israel goes to war on this, or any, battlefield, it faces unfair odds, because it is not treated the way normal nations are treated: "The Hamas terror organization is the one who started the war." Israel was merely defending itself. Yet, "Israel is the only country in the world which is not allowed to defend itself against acts of terror."

    Although Peres claimed that Goldstone's report "makes a mockery of history," it is actually Peres' own comments that make a mockery of history. Last fall, Israel could have avoided the Hamas rocket attacks and the war. All it had to do was ease its economic stranglehold of Gaza, which was causing widespread poverty and even starvation. And Israelis could know it, if they simply read their own press.

    But most Israelis were blind to that reality. For them, and for the governments they elect, feeling like an embattled victim of persecution is an essential part of Zionism. Though all nations are prone to blaming others for their problems, few if any seek out that sense of embattled victimization as eagerly as Israel.

    Mainstream and right-wing Zionism has always been tangled up in this catch 22: wanting to be normal, yet at the same time wanting to be seen as totally unique, singled out, attacked more unfairly than any other nation and, thus, quite abnormal. The more Israelis have tried to become normal by naming and defeating their enemies, the deeper they've entrenched themselves in their myth of being the uniquely persecuted people.

    It's hard for many Israeli Jews to say what it would mean to be Israeli (or to be Jewish, most might add) if there were not oppressors to denounce and resist.

    Hence the natural response, for most, to something like the Goldstone report: Don't read it carefully. ("There was a very quick rejection of the report," in Israel, Goldstone commented "even before anyone read it.") Certainly, don't investigate its claims and reflect on why such war crimes could have happened.

    Instead, just denounce it as "a feat of cynical superficiality," because "the verdict was sealed before the probe had begun," as the Jerusalem Post editorialized. When you're already sure that everyone hates you, everything and anything becomes further proof that everyone hates you, and that your only option is to fight back.

    Fortunately, not all Zionists are entrenched in this cycle of victimization and counterattack. Richard Goldstone himself said, in measured words, that "it is grossly wrong to label a mission or to label a report critical of Israel as being anti-Israel." - or, he might have added, anti-Zionist.

    Goldstone's daughter told Israel Radio that her father thought "he was doing the best thing for everyone, including Israel.... If he thought what he did would not somehow be for the sake of peace for everyone in Israel or that it would have hindered such efforts, he would not have accepted the job."

    For the sake of peace, recognize that both parties to the conflict have done wrong, that both must change, that both can change, that compromise is possible and is the only way to security - that's been the message of the Geneva Initiative group ever since it began in 2002. It has brought Israelis and Palestinians - notable political leaders and technical experts - together to figure out the nuts and bolts of a viable two-state solution. Since the end of 2003, they've had it pretty well in hand.

    The details are important. They show that when the official Israeli and Palestinian delegations sit down together at the behest of President Obama (as they soon will), there is a reasonable settlement to be had, if they want it. It's already written out in the Initiative.

    On the Israeli side, the Geneva Initiative is just as important because it shows that another kind of Zionism is possible - one that pursues a truly normal national life, free of constant conflict, more like the way normal, reasonable individuals work out their problems with their neighbors.

    The success of the upcoming negotiations depends largely on what vision of Zionism and "normalization" the Israelis bring to the table. If they remain stuck on the dead-end path of trying to be normal by insisting that they're abnormal, they will use the talks only to "prove" that the whole world is still against them. They'll treat every call for reasonable compromise as evidence of a global conspiracy to destroy the Jewish state.

    But as religious Jews begin observing their High Holidays - "aseret y'mai t'shuva," "the ten days of turning around" - it's most appropriate to hope that more and more Jews will turn around and follow the Zionist path charted by Richard Goldstone and the Israeli authors of the Geneva Initiative. They've shown that Zionism can rise above the constant need for victimization, enmity and strife, that Zionism can be a way to a truly normal life for both Israel and its neighbors.

    The contest between these two modes of Zionism will go on for a long time. And every American has a stake in the outcome. As long as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains unresolved, US relations with Muslim nations will be undermined, US foreign policy will be strained and the US Treasury will continue to provide massive taxpayer support for Israel's military machine.

    So, though ultimately Jews must determine the shape of their Zionism, every American has a right to get involved in the conversation and help steer it in the direction that seems best for us. That's what any normal nation would do. Fortunately, the direction that's best for us - the direction of peace and normal relations between Israel and its neighbors - is best for them too.

Last modified on Saturday, 19 September 2009 09:13