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Annexation Means AIPAC Can Pack Up and Go Home

Annexing the West Bank punctures useful delusions about Israel and Zionism which have, until now, kept together otherwise fractious Diaspora Jewish communities – and their proudly 'big tent' organizations

Keith Kahn-Harris
Keith Kahn-Harris
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at an AIPAC conference in Washington, D.C. March 6, 2018.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at an AIPAC conference in Washington, D.C. March 6, 2018Credit: GPO
Keith Kahn-Harris
Keith Kahn-Harris

At a seminar I attended in 2015, a lay leader of a British Zionist organisation explained why he thought Diaspora Jewish criticism of Israel should be done very carefully, if at all:

"Israel is a young country. It is still developing, still learning. And just as you take youth into account when children do things you don’t like, so you should do the same with Israel."

This idea of Israel as a 72-year old young country, as a work in progress, is a useful one in Diaspora Jewish communities. It enables leaders to nurture a sense of indulgence towards problematic Israeli actions. It enables youth movements to build enthusiasm for Zionism amongst their members as a youthful project in which they too can participate.

Less visibly, Israel’s perceived youthfulness has also played a vitally important role in keeping fractious Diaspora Jewish communities together.

A participant wears a shirt that reads "This is what a Zionist looks like" during the "Celebrate Israel" parade along 5th Ave. in New York City, U.S., June 4, 2017Credit: STEPHANIE KEITH/ REUTERS

For all the photos tweeted by hasbara accounts of sexy Israeli soldiers and for all the talk of the "start up nation," the idea of Israel as a young country is no longer sustainable. Aside from the fact that most of the former territories of the British, French and Portuguese Empires acquired sovereignty in the decades following 1948, and the fact that the fall of communism also brought many new countries into the world, Israel has been transformed since independence into a wealthy, densely populated, military superpower.

Yet it may not be literal youth that the idea of Israel as a young country refers to. Rather, youth is often a kind of synonym for being "unfinished." Israel does not have fixed, internationally-recognized borders. Nor does it have a fixed constitution. The position of the Palestinians relative to Israel still awaits settlement.

In recent decades, as it became increasingly difficult to sustain an image of Israel as literally youthful, so assertions of its unfinished quality have become a vitally important prop for Diaspora Jewish Zionists.

For earlier generations of Diaspora Jews, the existence of Israel was often a cause for celebration in and of itself, regardless of the nature of the country. In recent decades though, Diaspora Jewish communities have often found it increasingly difficult to encompass more critical viewpoints on Israel.

And if annexation means Israel is finally "finished," then those Diaspora Jews who held out hope for a different kind of Jewish state may well be permanently disillusioned.

Diaspora Zionism has always been a much more vulnerable and confused project than its often-celebratory nature would suggest. In the first place, it has not always been clear whether you can be a Zionist outside of Israel, at least for those who view Zionism as the negation of exile.

Even if Diaspora Zionism is viable, the plurality of visions of what Israel is and could be – including mutually exclusive ones – make it highly unclear what it means to "support" Israel. The lauding of Israeli democracy by Diaspora supporters of Israel is often combined with a resistance to allowing certain Israeli opposition parties or dissenters a public platform in their communities.

This confusion has often been submerged. At times it is genuinely difficult to tell what those who believe in Israel actually believe in. Pro-Israel organisations such as AIPAC have backed Israel during the Oslo years and during the negation of the Oslo years. The still-widespread argument that Diaspora Jews should never criticize Israel publicly ensures that some of the most vociferous defenders of Israel may end up making impassioned arguments for Israeli actions that they privately think are disastrous.

This passionate amorality has become increasingly anachronistic in recent years. The growth of liberal Zionist groups like J Street in the U.S. and Yachad in the UK stem from the difficulty that Diaspora Jews who hold to a maximal two-state vision of Israel to simply support Israel while that vision is extinguished.

Members of IfNotNow and rabbinical school students blocking traffic while protesting President Donald Trump's U.S. Embassy move to Jerusalem and Israeli violence against Palestinians in Gaza, WashingtCredit: Gili Getz

Jews who support a right-wing vision of Israel, as advocated by groups like the Zionist Organisation of America have always had less dissonance standing up for what they believe in (there were even right-wing demonstrations in New York against the 2005 Gaza withdrawal). It is much easier to make the case for an Israel you actually believe in then to twist and turn to try and maintain a position that simply supports what Israel does.

"Centrist" Jewish and pro-Israel organisations have also become dangerously exposed precisely because they compromised on their amorality. The only way an unconditionally pro-Israel organisation aspiring to command the support of most Diaspora Jews could ever work long-term would be if they never took any positions on Israel at all, a complete detachment – to avoid getting caught when the ideological wind changed. Big tent communal organizations are now learning this lesson, to their cost.

The official position of the Board of Deputies in the UK and AIPAC in the U.S. is to support a two-state solution. That was adopted at a time when support for two states encompassed the widest possible spectrum of Jewish opinion. This adoption was predicated on the assumption – which now seems quaint, or dangerous – that a two-state solution would always be pursued by Israel. Now the ground has shifted, and this may be in doubt.

The dissonance emerging now between their official platforms and reality will inevitably lead to charges of hypocrisy from the left. Those critics on the right of who have long argued that these groups should simply support whatever Israel is currently doing may at some point feel vindicated. But it’s not clear in any case that such an amorphous and easily manipulated approach would ever have attracted a broad base of support.

Ironically, the Israeli political leader who understands the Diaspora (or at least American Jewry) better than any of his predecessors, is also the one who may cause an existential crisis for Diaspora Jewish Zionism.

Netanyahu has put off the reckoning by pursuing a strategy that does everything possible to ensure that, on paper at least, Israel will remain unfinished. He offers morsels to the settlers while once endorsing the principle of the two-state solution in the Bar Ilan speech in 2009. He floats annexation even while some on the right and left doubt he will actually do it.

But Netanyahu cannot do this forever, nor will he be around forever. At some point he may have no option but to take the final step towards making a liberal Zionist vision of Israel a de jure as well as de facto impossibility. What happens then to Diaspora Jewish Zionism is unclear.

Israeli right-wing demonstration calling for immediate West Bank annexation with placards reframing the 'Peace Now' slogan to 'Annexation Now.' Jerusalem, 8 May 2020Credit: Emil Salman

At the very least though, we will find out what Diaspora Jews actually want Israel to be. There will no longer be a hiding place from the fact that Israel will no longer be a young country. It will be impossible to retain a fantasy image of Israel – it will be a real place, not a "light unto the nations" or a confused amalgam of vegan restaurants, tanks, Entebbe and kibbutzniks.

Of course, the more far-sighted Israel educators have acknowledged for some years that Diaspora Jews need to be able to "engage with" (rather than always support) the messy reality of what Israel is, to "hug and wrestle" with Israeli reality. The problem is that this approach also assumes Israel as a work in progress, an ongoing process with which Diaspora Jews can always, and will always, be able to see at least some of their own desires reflected.

It is very unlikely that Diaspora Jews whose dreams for Israel are permanently disappointed will simply "walk away," at least at first. As long as Israel remains a self-defined Jewish state then its destiny will always be entangled with that of Jews around the world.

What will have to be abandoned though is any attempt within Diaspora communities to maintain a consensus "pro-Israel" position. Rather, Diaspora Jewish engagement with Israel may end up not just splintering, but also developing new forms of Zionism predicated on a bitter awareness that Israel does not reflect them.

In some cases, this may be a Zionism focused on supporting Israeli opposition forces in dark times, opposing a "victorious" version of Zionism espoused by the right-wing.

Perhaps this "disappointed," even elegiac, Zionism will be a recognition of what some Israel-based Zionists have long argued: that for Diaspora Jews to aspire to see themselves reflected in Israel (or even believe they were entitled to see that reflection) was always naïve.

But there are even bigger questions at stake: whether, given the multiple conflicts and fractures that await Diaspora and Israel, grand and familiar invocations of "one Jewish people" will be the next casualty of annexation.

Dr Keith Kahn-Harris is a UK-based sociologist and writer. His latest book is "Strange Hate: Antisemitism, Racism and the Limits of Diversity" (Repeater 2019). Twitter: @KeithKahnHarris

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