It’s the Colonialism They Hate, Not Jews

Most Europeans do not doubt the Jews’ right to an independent state, but they vehemently object to a reality in which we are keeping masses of people under occupation and consciously trampling their basic rights.

zeev sternhell
Zeev Sternhell
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A protester holds a sign that reads 'Boycott Israel' during a protest in Berlin against the Israel-Gaza war, August 1, 2014.
A protester holds a sign that reads 'Boycott Israel' during a protest in Berlin against the Israel-Gaza war, August 1, 2014.Credit: Reuters
zeev sternhell
Zeev Sternhell

Most Israelis, especially those on the right and center, find it convenient to believe that the current hostility toward Israel is anchored in anti-Semitism. Although anti-Semitism did not disappear in 1945 – just as racist and extreme nationalist tendencies in Europe were not eradicated – the fact is that, until the 1970s, no country was held in higher esteem or more admired as a model than Israel. Even the Palestinians were considered refugees who bore sole responsibility for their own fate.

The criticism began when it became clear that Israel was not intending to withdraw from the West Bank. As the occupation grew deeper, and as a colonial regime developed in the territories, the opposition grew and turned into hostility – until, in the wake of the destructive operations in the Gaza Strip, it became hatred that has penetrated wide circles within Europe. To this must be added the fact that the Muslim population is growing in Western Europe and gradually becoming more central in society, politics and the universities there.

There is no doubt that anti-Semitic tendencies feed into the anti-Israel sentiment. But equally, hostility toward Israel’s oppressive policies feeds into the anti-Semitism and antipathy toward Jews. Anyone who wants to nurture the Jewish communities as a pro-Israeli pressure group must understand that this comes at a price. In most cases the hostility is not directed at Israel as the state of the Jews, but rather as the last colonialist state in the West.

Most Europeans do not doubt the Jews’ right to an independent state, but they vehemently object to a reality in which we are keeping masses of people under occupation and consciously trampling their basic rights.

The right wing is settling Jews in the West Bank by virtue of an historical claim whose source is in a divine promise: Does anyone still take seriously the argument that a promise given to our ancestors justifies the denial of the Palestinians’ human rights? Every rational person sees these claims as no more than cynical cover for the desire to annex most of the territories, if not all of them.

As for the Gaza Strip, which is perceived as one big prison, there is nothing left to say. The destruction and ruin have eradicated from the public’s consciousness the fact that, at the start of Operation Protective Edge in July, it was a justified response to indiscriminate Palestinian rocket-firing. As the operation grew longer and its aims changed, and as the bodies piled up and Hamas’ inability to respond effectively to Israeli firepower became more and more apparent, the question of whether Israel’s attacks complied with the criteria of international law ceased to be of interest: Many people saw the attacks as a violent manifestation of an appalling disregard for human life.

Over time, there has been increasing hatred of Israel’s refusal to recognize the Palestinians’ equal right to a state of their own. This is how the failure of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s peace talks are being understood. The Israeli right sees the Jews as the sole masters of the land. However, this use of naked force is arousing disgust in the Western world. The notion that the entire land belongs to the Jews and they are, therefore, allowed to steal the Palestinians’ lands and annex East Jerusalem, along with other large swaths of the West Bank, is indicative of the behavior of a nation of masters – and in our time this is totally unacceptable.

The West’s political elite is not speaking out openly against Israeli colonialism, for fear of encouraging the anti-Semitic monster. But at the universities and in the schools, in the media and on social networks, they are already saying this explicitly: It is untenable that the Jewish past serve as a justification for cruelty in the Palestinian present.

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