Playing with Fire

Yakov Rabkin
March 2006

Written for the Canadian Jewish News in March 2006.


By Yakov M Rabkin

For me, this was the last straw. It was the news of the pressure the Canadian Jewish Congress is putting on Ontario’s schools to remove a book about Israeli-Palestinian conflict from the recommended readings for the province’s school children. A week earlier, I read about the pressure being put on a New York theatre to drop the performance of a play commemorating the murder by the Israeli army bulldozer of an American activist house demolitions in Palestine. All this happens while Israel, which commands one of the mightiest armies in the world, continues to act with arrogance and impunity. Israeli military drop bombs on residential buildings in order to assassinate a targeted militant, abuse Palestinians at checkpoints and are by now responsible for thousands of deaths of civilian residents in the Occupied Territories.

Media and governments in many countries are under constant pressure from Zionist organizations to abstain from criticizing Israel’s actions against the Palestinians. There is a UN Watch in Geneva and a Campus Watch in North America. There is a Canadian Council for Jewish and Israeli Advocacy in Canada and an AIPAC in the United States. Paid public relations professionals organize e-mail campaigns against journalists and politicians who dare to criticize Israel. Others would lay charges of antisemitism against Edgar Morin, renowned philosopher and a Jew, who condemned Israel for its oppression of Palestinians in the French daily Le Monde. The purpose of these and many other agencies is to ensure that Israel remains protected from opprobrium for its policies against the Palestinians. They resort to emotional blackmail and manipulate the memory of Jewish victims of the past centuries to shield Israel from well deserved criticism and sanctions. No other country is supported and promoted as actively around the world as the State of Israel. The more obvious its moral bankruptcy, the more adamant Israel’s advocates become.

Israel’s advocates do not constitute a homogeneous group. Some are Jews, many more are Christians, mostly born-again Evangelicals, and there are quite a few right-wing activists in a variety of countries who admire Israel’s strong-armed behaviour. However, the misuse of the word ”Jewish” by many of these groups besmirches the Jews and brings Judaism into disrepute. The same happens when the media call Israel “the Jewish State”, while not even the Vatican is ever called “the Catholic State”. It is true that the Zionist movement, ever since its inception over a century ago, has claimed to speak in the name of all the Jews. It also opposed traditional Judaism and aimed at transforming “the meek Diaspora Jew” into “the valiant and intrepid Israeli”. However, quite a few Jews, both in Israel and elsewhere, have rejected bellicose Zionism and refused to be associated with the Zionist state and its actions.

Whatever their level of ritual observance, these principled Jews remain loyal to the moral teachings of Judaism. They are inspired by the Torah commandment to strive for justice and protect the weak, they strongly believe that righteousness and self-righteousness are mutually exclusive. Not in My Name in the United States and Union de juifs français pour la paix in France, Alliance of Concerned Canadian Jews here in Canada and Neturei Karta in Israel, these and many other similar Jewish organizations around the world work, each in its own way, to expose the fallacy of associating Israel with Jews and Judaism. They also force many Jews to come to terms with the contradictions between the religion they profess to believe in and the ideology that has in fact taken hold of them.

It remains to be seen if the break between Judaism and Zionism is final. But the issue of Zionism is fateful for the entire Jewish people. This is why so many Jews are appalled by what Israel is and does. Some, like Gideon Levy and Amira Hass, veteran reporters for Israel’s prestigious daily Haaretz, document and publicize their country’s cruel oppression of the Palestinians.

Not all dare to speak out. Many are silenced by those who claim that Jewish criticism of Israel “provides ammunition to the enemy”, that one “should not wash our dirty linen in public”. These claims are shameful and irresponsible. They serve to foment antisemitism that nowadays is mainly a fallout from the Israel/Palestine conflict. The Zionist movement has maintained that antisemitism is eternal and that Israel is the only safe place for the Jews. Stifling all criticism of Israel intensifies antisemitism and makes the world less safe for the Jews. A cynical, self-fulfilling prophecy if there ever was one.

Yakov M Rabkin is Professor of History at the University of Montreal; his most recent book is A Threat from Within: A Century of Jewish Opposition to Zionism (Fernwood, 2006)

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Playing with Fire