Former U.K. Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks' particular brand of Orthodox Judaism is profoundly ethical and compassionate. He is one of the leading spokespeople for peaceful coexistence between people of all faiths. But he is also a proud Jew who is unafraid to point out that while there is plenty of room for legitimate criticism of Israel's government, today’s anti-Zionism — which challenges, on human rights grounds, not merely Israel’s policies, but its very existence as a Jewish state — is frequently merely anti-Semitism in a new guise.
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- Have We Jews Lost the Ability to Cope With Dissenting Voices?
- Why Is anti-Semitism Different From Other Prejudices?
In a recent article, Peter Beinart challenges this correlation of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism. He argues that Palestinian anti-Zionism is cut from a different and more reasonable cloth of genuine grievances.
Regretfully, after dedicating the last four years of my life to working for Jewish human rights organizations, I have seen too much unfairness to Israel to doubt that Rabbi Sacks is correct.
Zionism is an outstandingly successful human rights movement. It has restored the dignity of the world's most persecuted people by returning us to our historic homeland, building a sanctuary for our survival and a country where we can flourish in a liberal democracy.
Beinart argues that from the outset Zionism posed a terrible threat to the national interests of the Palestinians, giving them good grounds to hate us, even today.
It's an argument frequently used by Arabs and it's totally unfair. In the decades leading up to Israel's establishment, Arabs convinced the world that this land could only support several hundred thousand people, so Jewish immigration had to be curtailed and our national rights crushed.
Their argument is demonstrably false. Currently, this land comfortably accommodates over eight million people and there's room for plenty more. But the Palestinian campaign led the British to blockade the shores of Palestine, preventing Jews fleeing the Holocaust from finding refuge here. As a result, millions of Jews who might otherwise have found respite were murdered in Nazi concentration camps. Meanwhile, the Mufti of Jerusalem Mohammed Amin al-Husseini (1897-1974) recruited Muslims for the Waffen SS, toured Auschwitz and requested Nazi assistance in aborting the foundation of a Jewish State.
Beinart further justifies Palestinian hatred of Israel because, "It was a Zionist army that displaced roughly 700,000 Palestinians between 1947 and 1949 and would not let them return." He omits to mention Israel's nascent leadership’s willingness to accept partition in 1947 and live side by side with a Palestinian state meant that no one had to die and no one had to leave. It was the Arab refusal to accept the existence of Israel within any borders at all that led them to instruct their people to leave while they sent in their armies to massacre Jews wherever they could. Israel courageously withstood the attacks and won. They have never forgiven us.
Shifting to our current situation, Beinart constantly portrays Mahmoud Abbas as a gentleman and a partner for peace. Indeed, he is one of the most reasonable Palestinian leaders. Others, especially Hamas and Hezbollah leaders, are far worse. But when Israelis see Mr. Abbas and his officials dedicating statues and squares to the memory of Palestinian terrorists, even those of us who would like to see a Palestinian state have second thoughts.
When we hear the Palestinian president inciting violence and bragging about his payments to the murderers of Jewish men, women and children, we're skeptical about claims that he wishes to live peacefully, side by side with Israel.
Roadblocks, the security fence, and travel restrictions which are presented as human rights infringements, are undoubtedly inconvenient for Palestinians, but after years of suicide bombers, knifers, kidnappers and missile attacks from Hamas and Hezbollah, they are simply part of a reasonable effort Israel makes to prevent Palestinian terrorists from murdering Jews.
Israel can be proud that although every one of its elections has been held in the shadows of Palestinian terror, and even according to Beinart, “the vast, vast majority of Palestinians” are anti-Zionist and those who can vote for parties whose goal is to overturn the Jewish state, still, time after time, the overwhelming majority of Israelis reject extremists and vote for centrist parties.
Those who genuinely care about Palestinians' rights would do better to focus on those living under Jordanian, Hamas or PA rule where they have far fewer rights.
Alternatively, they should concentrate their efforts on promoting Palestinian democracy and peacefulness here. Perhaps then, violence would end, we would see that it is human rights rather than anti-Zionism that is driving their agenda, and the two peoples could peacefully coexist.
Not every critic of Israel is an anti-Semite, nor is every Palestinian. But sadly, Rabbi Sacks is right. While the Jewish state has always sought peace, there is a long history of Palestinian anti-Semitism whose narrative is being spread around the world with ever decreasing fairness to promote violence against Jews.
Jews should defend all minorities and we should ensure their rights, but we should do so in a fair and measured way that respects Jewish rights too. Rabbi Sacks’s book, "The Dignity of Difference" demonstrates how its universalist message is deeply entrenched in the Jewish soul.
Now it is time for some of our human rights activists to write, "The Dignity of Decency" and "The Honor of Honesty". When they do, we will be a step closer to ending anti-Semitism and promoting a better life for Jews and Palestinians everywhere.
Rabbi Gideon Sylvester is the British United Synagogue's rabbi in Israel. Follow him on Twitter: @GideonDSylveste