Israel: the Dream of Normalization

Yakov Rabkin
May 2008

Appeared in German in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, May 15, 2008.

Israel: the Dream of Normalization

By Yakov M Rabkin

Real friends of Israel
Would not encourage it
To continue on a road
That leads to disaster.
Gush Shalom
(Israeli peace group)

A few weeks before Israel’s 60
anniversary, these words appeared
in the Israeli daily Haaretz. They deplored the blank support for
Israel that Chancellor Merkel had reiterated in Jerusalem. Quite
a few Israelis believe that such support undermines Israel by
allowing it to act with impunity. They also believe that Israel
has long deserved to be treated as a normal state rather than a
self-appointed legatee of the Holocaust. While the German state’s
concern about the human condition of its victims helps them lead
a more decent life, its blank support for the state of Israel not
only undermines the future of its inhabitants but also ignores
the lessons many German Jews drew from the Holocaust.

Hannah Arendt, a German Jewish refugee who fled the Nazis to the
United States, wrote about Nazi crimes in terms of “banality of
evil”. She firmly believed that murderous amorality is not
limited to one nation or one ideology. Quite a few prominent Jews
of German origin drew similar lessons from the history of the
Nazi genocide. Hannah Arendt, alongside with the theologian
Martin Buber, the philosopher Ernst Simon and the physicist
Albert Einstein, warned against the inherent danger of exclusive
ethnic nationalism. This is why, in the wake of the Second World
War, they supported the idea of a common state for all
inhabitants of Palestine: Arabs and Jews.

However, those who dominated the Zionist movement drew a
different lesson: for them the Holocaust was a consequence of the
Jews’ military weakness. They waged a successful military
campaign, which squashed the egalitarian hope of these German
Jews by turning nearly 800 000 Arab inhabitants of Palestine into
refugees and thus creating “empty” space for a state for the
Jews (Judenstaat). The Holy Land was thus plunged into incessant

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 (London: Zedbooks) was nominated for
Canada’s Governor General Literary Award and Israel’s Hecht Prize for studies in Zionism.  It is
currently available in English, French, Arabic, Dutch, Italian, Polish and Spanish.
This outcome was not inevitable. Before the 1948 war was over,
Arendt had foreseen the perils of establishing an ethnocracy that
would chronically rely on military force:

And even if the Jews were to win the war, … the
“victorious” Jews
would live surrounded by an entirely hostile Arab
secluded inside ever-threatened borders, absorbed with
self-defence…. And all this would be the fate of a nation
that — no
matter how many immigrants it could still absorb and how far
extended its boundaries — would still remain a very small
people greatly outnumbered by hostile neighbours.

These words have lost none of their poignancy sixty years after
they were written. Israel’s overwhelming might has not brought it
peace. This is why many Israelis expect Germany, alongside the
rest of the Western democracies, to prod Israel towards
compromise and integration in the Middle East. German officials
who have long looked forward to the normalization of relations
with Israel occasionally fuel these expectations. However,
Chancellor Merkel, continues to torpedo these hopes for
normalization, reiterating the usual message: “Germany and Israel
are and will always remain linked in a special way through the
memory of the Holocaust. The Holocaust fills us Germans with

Many Germans mean well but they confuse Jews, who suffered in the
Holocaust because of their ethnicity, with the state of Israel,
conceived as an ethnocracy for the Jews. Israel’s dominant
ideology is predicated on the impossibility of a Jew to be fully
accepted in any country except Israel. It is quite clear that
many Jews do not share this belief. This is why, when given a
chance, most Jews, including quite a few Israelis, prefer
peaceful pluralistic democracies to the perennially threatened
Israel. For example, hundreds of thousands of ex-Soviet Jews
chose to move to Germany and other Western countries in the late

The founders of Israel passionately desired Israel to be treated
as a “normal state”. It is about time to make their dream come
true. Germany should indeed treat Israel like any other state.
Israel’s founders discarded traditional Jewish values of non-
violence to create a “muscular Jew” (Muskuljude) who bears
little resemblance to Diaspora Jews. As is well documented in The
Seventh Million by the Israeli writer Tom Segev, Holocaust
survivors from Europe were met with humiliation when they arrived
in Israel: the intrepid muscular Jews overtly disdained the
powerless Jews who landed on their shores.

Israel’s behaviour flies in the face of the lessons that most
Germans, including many prominent German Jews, learned from the
history of Nazism, namely the need to build a pluralistic
democracy based on equality. The kind of Zionism that has
triumphed in Israel is not the inclusive and spiritual version
dear to Martin Buber but the exclusive and vindictive one
developed by Vladimir Jabotinsky, which Einstein and other
prominent German Jewish intellectuals abhorred and denounced.

Germany’s continuing genuflection to the state of Israel is based
on the myth according to which Israel represents the Jews around
the world and constitutes their natural homeland. Rather than
treat Israel as a collective victim of the Holocaust, Germany
should recognize it as a Middle Eastern country with its own
history, interests and values. Germany should treat Israel like
it treats any other country in the region: on its merits. This
would also help the dream of the founding fathers of Zionism to
come true: that Israel should become a normal nation.

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