The Zionist Imperative

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European and American perfidy in dealing with Iran’s nuclear weapons program apparently has no end. This week we were subject to banner headlines announcing that the EU has decided to place an oil embargo on Iran. It was only when we got past the bombast that we discovered that the embargo is only set to come into force on July 1.


Following its European colleagues, the Obama administration announced it is also ratcheting up its sanctions against Iran… in two months. Sometime in late March, the US will begin sanctioning Iran’s third largest bank.


At the same time as the Europeans and the Americans announced their phony sanctions, they reportedly dispatched their Turkish colleagues to Tehran to set up a new round of nuclear talks with the ayatollahs. If the past is any guide, we can expect for the Iranians to agree to sit down and talk just before the oil embargo is scheduled to be enforced. And the Europeans – with US support – will use the existence of talks to postpone indefinitely the implementation of the embargo.


There is nothing new in this game of fake sanctions. And what it shows more than anything is that the Europeans and the Americans are more concerned with pressuring Israel not to attack Iran’s nuclear installations than they are in preventing Iran from becoming a nuclear power.


Obama has a second target audience – American Jews. He is using his fake sanctions as a means of convincing American Jews that he is a pro-Israel president and that in the current election season, not only should they cast their votes in his favor, they should sign their checks for his campaign.


Both Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak were quick this week to make clear that these moves are insufficient. They will not force Iran to abandon its nuclear weapons program. More is needed.


As to American Jewry, the jury is still out.


In truth, American Jewry’s diffidence towards taking a stand on Iran, or recognizing Obama’s dishonesty on this issue specifically and his dishonesty regarding his position on US-Israel ties generally is not rooted primarily in American Jews’ devotion to Obama. It isn’t even specifically related to American Jewry’s devotion to the political Left. Rather it has to do with American Jewish ambivalence to Israel.


The roots of that ambivalence – which is shared by other Western Jewish communities to varying degrees – predate Obama’s presidency.


Indeed, they predate the establishment of the State of Israel. And now, as the US and the EU have given Iran at least another six months to a year to develop its nuclear bombs unchecked, it is worth considering the nature and influence of this ambivalence.


Today’s principal form of Jew-hatred is anti- Zionism. Anti-Zionism is similar to previous dominant forms of Jew hatred such as Christian anti-Judaism, xenophobic and racist anti- Semitism, and Communist anti-Jewish cosmopolitanism in the sense that it takes dominant, popular social trends and turns them against the Jews. Anti-Zionism’s current predominance owes to the convergence of several popular social trends which include Western post-nationalism, and anti-colonialism.


The problem that anti-Zionism poses for American Jewry is that it forces them to pay a price for supporting Israel. This is problematic because Zionism has never been fully embraced by American Jewry. Since the dawn of modern Zionism, the cause of Jewish self-determination placed American Jewish leaders in an uncomfortable dilemma.


UNLIKE EVERY other Diaspora Jewish community, the American Jewish community has always perceived itself as a permanent community rather than an exilic community. American Jews have always viewed the United States as the new Promised Land.


With the formation of the modern Zionist movement in the late 19th century, American Jews found themselves on the horns of a dilemma. Clearly, the state of world Jewry was such that national self-determination had become an existential necessity for non-American Jews.


But while supporting Jewish refugees and a scrappy little country was okay, support for the Zionist cause of Jewish national liberation involved an acceptance of the fact that Israel – not the US – is the Jewish homeland. Moreover, it involved accepting that there are Jewish interests that are independent of – if not necessarily in contradiction with – American interests. For instance, irrespective of the prevailing winds in Washington, and regardless of whether the US supports Israel or not, it is a Jewish interest that Israel exists, thrives and survives.


In a recent op-ed in Haaretz, Hebrew University political science professor Shlomo Avineri contrasted world Jewry’s massive mobilization on behalf of Soviet Jewry in the 1970s and 1980s and their relative silence today in the face of Iran’s Holocaust denial and open calls for the annihilation of the Jewish state. Avineri is apparently confounded by the disparity between Western Jewry’s behavior in the two cases.


But the cause of the disparity is clear. Supporting the right of Soviet Jews to emigrate was easy. Unlike Israel, Soviet Jews were powerless. As such, they were pure victims and supporting them cost Diaspora Jews nothing in terms of their position in their societies. 


Just as important, the cause of freedom for Soviet Jewry was perfectly aligned with the West’s Cold War policies against the Soviet Union. The frequent Jewish demonstrations outside Soviet legations provided Western leaders with another tool to fight the Cold War.


In contrast, supporting Israel, and the cause of Jewish freedom and self-determination embodied by Zionism, is not cost-free for Diaspora Jews. At root, to support Israel and Zionism involves accepting that Jews have inherent rights as Jews. To be a Zionist Jew in the Diaspora means that you embrace and defend the notion that the Jews have the right to their own interests and that those interests may be distinct from other nations’ interests. That is, to be a Zionist involves rejecting Jewish assimilation and embracing the fact that Jews require national independence and power to guarantee our survival. And this can be unpleasant.


PRO-ISRAEL AMERICAN Jews have historically tried to tie their support for Israel to larger, more universal themes, in order to extricate themselves from the need to admit that as Jews and supporters of Israel they have a right and a duty to support Jewish freedom even if it isn’t always pretty. Again, for Israel’s first several decades, it was about helping poor Jews and refugees. In recent years, the predominant defense has been that Israel deserves support because it is a democracy.


Certainly, these are both reasonable reasons for supporting Israel. But neither support for Israel because it was poor nor support for Israel because it is free is a specifically Zionist reason for supporting Israel. You don’t have to be a Zionist to support poor Jewish refugees and you don’t have to be a Zionist to support democracy.


You do have to be a Zionist however, to defend the Jews in Israel and throughout the world in a coherent manner when the predominant form of Jew-hatred is anti-Zionism.


You have to be willing to accept and defend the right of the Jewish people to freedom and self-dete
rmination in our national homeland against those who deny that right. You have to be a Zionist to defend Israel’s right to survive and thrive even though it is no longer poor and its democratically elected government is not liked by the Obama administration.


And you have to be a Zionist to realize that since Jewish survival is dependent on Jewish power, and anti-Zionists reject the right of Jews to have power, that anti-Zionists seek to bring about a situation where Jewish survival is imperiled.


The weakness of American Jewry’s response to Iran’s genocidal intentions towards Israel is of a piece with its weak response to the forces of anti-Zionism generally and to Jewish anti- Zionists particularly. Since 2007, the US government has effectively ruled out the use of force against Iran’s nuclear weapons program and embraced a policy of pursuing negotiations with ayatollahs while enacting impotent sanctions to quell congressional pressure. At least in part, this policy is due to the US’s assessment that a nuclear Iran does not pose a high-level threat to US national security.


Both then-president George W. Bush and later Barack Obama determined that an Israeli military strike against Iran’s nuclear weapons program does pose a high-level threat to the US. As a consequence, both administrations have taken concerted steps to prevent Israel from attacking Iran.


On the merits, both of these policies are easily discredited. But the fact that they continue to be implemented shows that they are supported by a large and powerful constituency in Washington.


To oppose Iran’s nuclear program effectively, American Jews are required to oppose these strongly supported US policies. And at some point, this may require them to announce they support Israel’s right to survive and thrive even if that paramount right conflicts with how the US government perceives US national interests.


That is, it may require them to embrace Zionism unconditionally.


No doubt, if they do so, their own conditions will improve. They will finally be able to speak coherently against the gathering forces of anti-Zionism – both from within the Jewish community and from without. This in turn will act as a lightning rod for inspiring American Jews to embrace their Judaism.


With their leaders having abjectly failed to contend with the most powerful form of Jew-hatred, it is no wonder that so many Diaspora Jews are leaving the fold. If they reverse course and go after their attackers, American Jewish leaders will give community members a meaningful reason to proudly embrace their identity.


In a speech this week at the Knesset, Netanyahu explained the different lessons the Holocaust teaches the international community on the one hand, and the Jews on the other.


As far as its universal lessons are concerned, Netanyahu said, “The lesson is that the countries of the world must be woken up, as much as possible, so that they can organize against such crimes.


The lesson is that the broadest possible alliances must be forged in order to act against this threat before it is too late.”


As for the Jews, Netanyahu embraced Zionism’s core principle: “With regard to threats to our very existence, we cannot abandon our future to the hands of others.


“With regard to our fate, our duty is to rely on ourselves alone.”


We must hope that world Jewry will recognize today that the fate of the Jewish people in Israel and throughout the world is indivisible and rally to Israel’s side whatever the social cost of doing so. But even if they do not recognize this basic truth, the imperatives of Zionism, of the Jewish people, remain in place.


Originally published in the Jerusalem Post. 
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