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Nowhere else to go?

Ocotber 2002.

Nowhere else to go?

By Yakov M Rabkin*

A recent direct mailing that reached my desk began with a question :  “What is a nice Jewish boy from London, Ontario, doing patrolling the streets of a city in Israel with an M-16 and a flack jacket, searching for a terrorist infiltrator? And why am I turning to you now for help?” The answer follows right away: “When my family and I moved to Israel 4 years ago, we got a lot more than we planned for : an Intifada”. The letter was from Ephraim Shore, a resident of Betar on the West Bank, who, with the help of a Zionist organization in Toronto, is raising funds to buy defence equipment for the Betar Emergency Response Team, a settlers vigilante group that, according to Mr Shore, the army sponsors but does not finance.

His plea sounded convincing enough, particularly next to his affirmation that « There is nowhere else for the Jewish people to go ». A moment later, however, this affirmation, which makes quite a few Jews feel that they have no choice, appeared dubious and then plain wrong. I thought it highly unlikely that Mr Shore and his family had been hounded by violent anti-Semites from their quiet abode in London, Ontario. Most probably, they made an ideological choice, all the while keeping their Canadian passports and thus the right to come back here.

When Jewish children are killed in the West Bank or Gaza, many people are outraged. However, more than a few also wonder what kind of parents would endanger their children by taking them to Betar or Hebron. This sacrificial rite is beginning to awaken doubts as to the very nature of the State of Israel, which had caused hundreds of human sacrifices from Jews and their neighbours well before it was established, and tens of thousands since. These doubts crop up because the majority of the Jews, on whose behalf the State of Israel was ostensibly established, have enjoyed more tranquil lives elsewhere. They feel at home in their countries and live normal, often successful, lives as full-fledged citizens and accepted members of society. Zionism postulates that Jewish history is essentially a sequence of expulsions, massacres and forced conversions, that sooner or later we shall be shown the door or worse. According to this view, the Shoah is the ultimate proof of the untenability of Jewish Diasporas, rather than a unique tragedy interrupting the uneasy but steady progression towards a more tolerant and pluralistic society.

Many Diaspora Jews believe that it is Israel that ensures their safety and welfare from afar, that either physically or ideologically, “there is nowhere else for the Jewish people to go”. This may be an erroneous and a dangerous belief to hold. Erroneous because it belittles the progress of human rights that has made Jews equal and active citizens of their countries. Dangerous because it lures Diaspora Jewry into a mental and a physical trap, just like the one Mr Shore is writing from. His Canadian citizenship notwithstanding, he does feel that he and his family have nowhere to go from their endangered home in Betar.

Since Israel promotes itself as the representative of the Jews, and most Diaspora Jewish leaders enthusiastically support this claim, the State of Israel is often associated with Jews everywhere. Jews outside of Israel are thus put in a difficult situation of defending the morally indefensible, of bending their ethical standards in order to justify Israel’s actions in Bethlehem, Jenin or Beirut. Indeed, Israel routinely, and perhaps inevitably for any state, acts against the morality embodied in Judaism. At the same time, since there is nothing but Judaism that distinguishes Diaspora Jews from their fellow citizens in different countries, this blanket defence of Israel seriously discredits Judaism and reawakens anti-Semitism. Distinctions must therefore be drawn between Zionism and Judaism.

One of them is the growing disparity in values between Israel and the Jewish Diasporas as the countries with sizable Jewish communities have all adopted a liberal system of social and political values, which are often at variance with realities in Israel. Structural segregation of Jews from non-Jews is common in Israel, so is occupational discrimination, both stemming from the Herzlian denomination of Israel as a state for the Jews. For example, the government builds neighbourhoods for Jews only in Jerusalem so that Arab citizens do not outnumber their Jewish compatriots in the disputed city.

However, in the context of Western societies it would be inconceivable to practice ethnic or religious discrimination in such a manner. One could imagine an international outcry if the Front national mayor of a French town were to promote a public housing development designated solely for Catholics. One of Israel’s dailies wryly observed that Le Pen would be considered a bleeding-heart centrist in the Israeli political spectrum. Israel’s discriminatory practices, while often opposed by the country’s Supreme Court, conflict with the liberal values that underpin the stability and welfare of Jewish diasporas around the world. A growing number of Jewish leaders have come to acknowledge the conflict between the imperatives of Israel’s survival and the moral values that constitute the Jewish tradition.

The primacy of the State is a slippery slope. A few decades after the Shoah, Jews remember what happens when the raison d’état becomes a transcendental principle that supersedes individual morality. As to the Land of Israel and our link with it, I believe it is illusory and even dangerous to confuse the profane centrality of Israel with the sacred centrality of the land: in order to affirm the first aspect one has to reject or distort the second one, and vice versa. Messianic redemption should not be confused with military occupation.

Mr Shore’s family picture appears on the top of the letter : the couple and five children in front of their house on the West Bank. The image is also mobilized for the fund-raising effort : « Worth it? What if it was your children or grandchildren? ». I tried to imagine just that: moving MY five children to a West Bank settlement and expose THEM to fear and danger. And as a Jew and a responsible parent I cannot imagine that. Our home is in Montreal, which – with all its problems – is a lot more hospitable than Betar. Moreover, life in Canada enables me to be more loyal to my Jewish values, which command me to cherish life and concentrate on improving my character and behaviour and thus on improving the world around me.

Yet I fully sympathize with the Shores and their predicament. But, rather than finance the purchases of defence equipment for Betar, I would offer them seven one-way tickets on the next Air Canada flight to Toronto. We should all be grateful for the peace and prosperity we enjoy in this country. For a Canadian Jew who chooses to emigrate to Israel, to claim that he has “nowhere else to go” is both wrong and ungrateful.


* the author teaches History of Science and Contemporary Jewish History at the University of Montreal; his most recent article on Israel appeared in Tikkun last July: http://www.tikkun.org/magazine/index.cfm/action/tikkun/issue/tik0207/article/020711f.html


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