How the Kidnapping Crisis Fueled the Denial of Zionism

One thing I realized about right-wing faux-Zionist hasbara this week is that its hard-bitten practitioners are basically deniers of Zionism (until now I thought they had simply warped its meaning).

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Israeli soldiers search for three missing teenagers during a military operation in the West Bank city of Hebron, Tuesday, June 17, 2014.
Israeli soldiers search for three missing teenagers during a military operation in the West Bank city of Hebron, Tuesday, June 17, 2014.Credit: AP
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

In the massive stream of kitsch and ineffectual posturing that has swept through social media over the last week, none of it the least bit helpful to the search and rescue operation for Gilad Shaer, Naftali Fraenkel and Eyal Yifrah, there have been two particularly offensive messages repeated by the denizens of the virtual world of “pro-Israel” hasbara: “imagine if this had been you” and “imagine if this had happened to your children.”

Why do I find them offensive? Two reasons.

First, if you dig a little into the identities of the trolls who are liking, sharing and retweeting these messages, you find that many of them could never imagine being in that situation themselves. Neither they nor their children have, or ever will be, in a situation where such a thing could happen. They lead peaceful lives, far from here. Their “love” and “support” for Israel consists of baiting Israelis into a never-ending downward spiral of violence with its neighbors, and of course lambasting those Israelis who dare to say that maybe there’s a better way forward than the intransigence of the current government.

The second reason is that I, unlike them, have been in that situation. As a member of search parties for missing soldiers, I have discovered and stood guard over the body of a kidnapped friend, and I have sat with parents through hopeless vigils. I have stood at those hitchhiking shelters, waiting for a ride, and now that I have sons — in the same age group as Gilad, Naftali and Eyal — I can imagine all too well waiting for hours for a son who is late returning from his base. I don’t need any hasbara troll on Twitter, sitting in comfort overseas, making a mockery of my nightmares and those of a hundred thousand other Israeli parents.

Everyone has a right to ask questions, to criticize and to argue their beliefs, no matter where they live and what they have experienced. That’s freedom of speech. But to use in such a base and cynical way the ever-present fears of Israeli parents, of calling and calling your son’s cellphone without getting an answer while waiting for that knock on the door, is despicable. Maybe typing out those hashtags and instinctively retweeting cool messages gives them a warm feeling that they have done their bit for Israel; well they haven’t, and many Israelis, on both the left and the right, despise these armchair Twitter-warriors.

Since you so casually ask me to imagine what it would be like to be in the shoes of those parents, I am almost tempted to tell you how I imagine it. It’s easy, I have imagined it a thousand times and I certainly didn’t need your prompting. But I won’t descend to that level and play the game of victimhood. It’s too easy. As long as you’re one of the lucky ones who has so far dodged the bullet, who did not accept that fateful ride or board that doomed bus, who left the targeted cafe a few minutes before and whose son did come home safely, it’s best not to talk about it too much and to keep those fears buried away out of sight. As it is, I already have to add now the caveat that any Israeli who has dared to criticize the government, the right wing and the settlers this week is forced to add.

The caveat: Of course we all want to see Gilad, Naftali and Eyal at home and safe as soon as possible, and condemn the terrorists who kidnapped them. Shame on those who have created this toxic political climate that forces us to add these caveats, as if they weren’t already clear enough.

So with the caveat out of the way, let’s get back to criticizing.

One thing I realized about right-wing faux-Zionist hasbara this week is that its hard-bitten practitioners are basically deniers of Zionism (until now I thought they had simply warped its meaning). How else can you explain the fact that 66 years after Israel’s establishment, after all its military, economic and social success, they still have this atavistic need to portray its citizens as vulnerable and weak. The only conclusion that can be drawn from their running battles online with their mirror-image, pro-Palestine adversaries is that the title they prize above all is that of the eternal victim. Heaven forbid the Palestinians beat us in the dead-and-disappeared-children contest.

But that is exactly what Zionism and the sovereign state of Israel was about, eliminating Jews’ status of eternal victims. And despite still having a long list of serious problems to solve, Israel at least did a good job of that. The hasbarists prefer to deny the success of Zionism, thus allowing them not to recognize its failings.

Yeshayahu Leibowitz understood this already 60 years ago, when he wrote in his seminal essay “After Kibiyeh” (collected in “Judaism, Human Values, and the Jewish State,” edited by Eliezer Goldman, Harvard University Press 1995) of “the fear of losing religous-moral supremacy, which is easy to hold on to when there is no risk to it and difficult under other circumstances.”

Less than six years after the creation of a sovereign state with a powerful army, Leibowitz wrote that the “real religious and moral meaning of our political rebirth and the return to our hands of the use of force” would be a severe test for Jews who were too accustomed to being victims. “Can we prove capable not only of suffering for these values we exalted, but also acting upon them?” he asked. “It’s easy to suffer, physically and materially for values, even to sacrifice our lives: that necessitates only physical courage which exists in surprising quantities among all human gatherings. It’s difficult to suffer for values, when this suffering means also giving up things which are also seen as values.”

In the decades after 1967, Leibowitz would be excoriated by the right wing for his fierce criticism of the occupation which he, perhaps inexcusably, described as “Judeo-Nazi.” But he was speaking as a fervent Zionist who was one of the first to see how the success of Zionism meant we had to realize we were no longer victims and that victory came with a moral price. It was “the great test we are faced with by national liberation, political independence and sovereign power — as a nation, a society and a culture which for generations had the privilege of mental and spiritual enjoyment in exile, foreign-rule and self-impotence.”

Sixty years later, the deniers of Zionism’s victory are afraid to face that test. Cynically, they use the fate of three teenagers and the tragedy that has befallen their families to cling to a long-irrelevant and totally immoral sense of victimhood. But we are not victims anymore, we are victors, and now we must stand up to that responsibility.

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