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“My trip to Tehran”

Written for The Gazette (Montreal) in November 2007

“My trip to Tehran”

By Yakov M Rabkin

A few days ago, an old pal called me from Israel to ask if I had attended the Holocaust conference in Tehran. Someone in Montreal had told him so. The same week, another friend, this time in Montreal, inquired about my impressions of Iran. The people who had told her about “my trip to Tehran” considered it an ultimate disgrace meant to discredit me beyond redemption.

When a colleague was preparing a discussion of my recent book on the history of Jewish opposition to Zionism at McGill, he was taken aback by the refusal of “four distinguished professors” to discuss my work and the hostility they exhibited. One of them said he would rather debate Osama Ben Laden than me. When, a few years ago, I published an article titled “Israel Endangers Diaspora” in The Gazette, Professor Gil Troy, now a member of McGill’s Senate, accused me of “betraying my people”, called me “despicable”, and pointed a finger at me with the terrible charge of anti-Semitism – and this without noting a single factual error in my article. Another McGill colleague thwarted my participation in an international symposium he was hosting, because, as he told colleagues, I was an anti-Semite.

There is only one word that can describe this attitude: intolerance. When the issues of Israel and Zionism surface, intolerance ovewhelms many otherwise open-minded and liberal people. These individuals will ostracize old friends and refuse to see relatives who dare criticize Israel. Alas, my case is one among many.

It is even more dangerous to question Israel’s Zionist structure: a state of the Jewish people rather than a state of its citizens. Any idea of political transformation is seen as an attack on the “right of Israel to exist”, a prelude to another Holocaust. It is remarkable that so many people who thrive in multicultural societies around the world believe that Jews can survive only if they constitute a majority in an ethnic nation state.

Like many Jews, I look for ways to defuse tensions in Israel/Palestine. While I wish good luck to the Israelis and the Palestinians who met at Annapolis to negotiate the establishment of two separate states, another way out of the impasse may be the development of a more inclusive political structure in the Holy Land. I outlined this old/new idea in an article in the American Jewish magazine Tikkun. It drew on a longer piece I had written in Hebrew for Aqdamot, a Zionist journal in Jerusalem. A symposium that I later organized in Montreal on the one-state solution for Israel/Palestine attracted, among others, Professor Joseph Agassi of Tel-Aviv University and Meron Benvenisti, former deputy mayor of Jerusalem, both of them Zionists. While deemed perfectly normal in Jerusalem, this same intellectual inquiry provokes a barrage of insults, calumnies and threats, including death threats, in Montreal.
This lesson became even clearer when I published my book about the history of Jewish opposition to Zionism. Without taking sides, it explains why some religious Jews have opposed Zionism and the very idea of Jewish state. Israeli dailies —Jerusalem Post, Haaretz and Yediot Ahranot — interviewed me about it and published my articles on this topic. My book is available in bookstores in Israel. Yet, in Montreal it brought me angry insults from people, including rabbis and academics, overtly admitting they would never open it. Its subject seems to threaten their identity since, for many Jews, Zionism has replaced Judaism, and there can be no possible contradiction between these two persuasions.

As someone who grew up in the Soviet Union, I resent limitations on free speech. In the course of my 34 years in Montreal, I have learnt Hebrew (and even imposed it on my children), studied Judaism, spent much time in Israel, and enjoyed the vigorous debate that is common there. Perhaps, my mistake is that I write and speak in Montreal … as freely as if I were in Jerusalem. This is apparently inadmissible for many “Israel fans” who tend to mispresent Israel as a monolithic society united around the flag. Prominent Israelis critical of their country rarely find Jewish organizations to host them here. Those who deeply care about the human tragedy in the Holy Land find it difficult to conduct open debate about Zionism and anti-Semitism in Montreal.

Accusations of being anti-Israel and anti-Semitic, often used interchangeably, frighten people and stifle debate. Such accusations also create resentment and breed anti-Jewish feelings. To prevent anti-Semitism from raising its ugly head in Canada, I do my best to explain crucial distinctions between Judaism and Zionism, to emphasize diversity that has always characterized Jewish life. In the hope of saving lives in Israel/Palestine, I explore ideas that may defuse the chronic conflict there. My ideas may be wrong and are certainly debatable. However, ad hominem attacks do not facilitate debate: they nip it in the bud. The rumour about my alleged trip to Tehran is part of this recurrent tactic to besmirch, ostracize and frighten those who voice independent opinions about Israel and Zionism.
In fact, I have never been to Iran. If I decide to go there one day, I promise to write another article, this time, about a real trip to Tehran.

The author is Professor of History at the University of Montreal; his recent book A Threat from within: a Century of Jewish Opposition to Zionism (Fernwood), nominated for the Governor General Award last year, has been translated into several languages.


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