Torn apart between Jewish values and support for Israel

Yakov Rabkin
27 May 2009

Published on May 27 in ON LINE  opinion  – Australia’s e-journal of social and political debate

Torn apart between Jewish values and support for Israel

By Yakov Rabkin

Parents know how hard it is to tell their children untruths or half-truths. We do so when we are morally torn, ethically embarrassed or intellectually inconsistent. The play Seven Jewish Children shows this with tact and compassion.

Many Jews try to come to terms with the contradictions between the Judaism they profess to adhere to and the Zionist ideology that has taken hold of them. They are torn between the values of social justice that permeate the Jewish tradition and their semi-automatic loyalty to the State of Israel. I was not surprised when, on a recent visit to the Koori Heritage Trust in Melbourne, I was told that the main private supporter of the Centre is a Jew. The Hebrew Bible mentions the prohibition to oppress a stranger 36 times, more than any other injunction, and often adds, “because you were slaves in the land of Egypt”.

The play begins in Europe, during the tragedy of the Nazi genocide. The parents do not know how to put the reality of that danger to the child without frightening her. Even after the war, they still do not want the daughter to know that it was a mass murder machine that consumed her relatives. They want their daughter to see love, not hatred, in the world. When they decide to leave Europe, they are ambivalent; they do not want her daughter to believe she doesn’t belong in her country. Nor do they want to calm her with the belief that the country they are going to had been given to them by God. They themselves are not quite sure.

Once in Palestine, they witness the ethnic cleansing of local population. They are lost. Against their best moral judgment, they are afraid to let their daughter play with Palestinian children. They are confused, they regret their decision to come to Palestine: “Don’t tell her they said it was a land without people, don’t tell her I wouldn’t have come if I had known.” But the Israeli victory in 1948 inebriates them: “Tell her we have won, tell her we’ve got new land.”

Moral qualms seem to have been pushed aside. Not for long: how to explain to a child the destruction of Palestinian homes and the uprooting of their olive groves? The only explanation is that “they” are intrinsically nasty: they hate us for no reason. They set off bombs in cafés and don’t understand anything but violence.” The parents don’t quite believe all this themselves as they continue to claim they want peace, while taking her swimming in the water that could have irrigated Palestinians’ fields.

The final scene is climactic. A really ugly outburst of brutal cruelty is about to occur during the recent onslaught on Gaza, when the play was written. “Tell her we are better haters, … tell her we are the iron fist now”. But at the same time, “don’t tell her her cousin refused to serve in the army, don’t tell her how many of them have been killed”. Finally, they never tell her anything. They play ends where it begins: “Tell her we love her. Don’t frighten her.” Moving to Israel has solved nothing. It compounded one tragedy with another.

Many people wonder why left-wing Zionists standing for equality and justice have become an endangered species. Zionist Left used to be robust. Nationalists who considered themselves Socialists (and were recognised as such by others) were the ones who proclaimed the state of Israel. And yet, they slowly evolved into irrelevance. Israeli elections confirmed this earlier this year. They produced a government of unabashed ethnic nationalists who no longer hide behind progressive rhetoric. It is their real rhetoric that one hears in the outburst in the play’s last scene. This is no longer fiction.

The inherent logic of the Zionist state, based from the beginning on dispossession and exclusion of the indigenous population, has finally produced a government that Israeli media openly call fascist. Quite a few of my Israeli friends used to be left wing Zionists. Some of them remained left wing but had to repudiate Zionism. They followed the example of Abraham Burg, the former Speaker of Israel’s parliament who considers the very concept of “Jewish state” suicidal and morally abhorrent. Others remained Zionists but had to repudiate their commitment to equality and justice. In the last elections, they voted for the fascists.

Fascists, not Nazis, and the distinction is important. The onslaught on Gaza, however cruel, was not an attempt at genocide. But this should not calm our moral qualms. To quote the Israeli novelist Amos Oz, who decries Israel’s immorality:

Our sufferings have granted us immunity papers, as it were, a moral carte blanche. After what all those dirty goyim [non-Jews] have done to us, none of them is entitled to preach morality to us. We, on the other hand, have carte blanche, because we were victims and have suffered so much. Once a victim, always a victim, and victimhood entitles its owners to a moral exemption.

This moral corruption is what the play Seven Jewish Children is all about. It should touch many of us whose commitment to Judaism’s moral values tears apart.

These comments were made at the State Library of Victoria, Melbourne, after the play, Seven Jewish Children, was performed there on May 18.

Yakov M Rabkin is Professor of History at the University of Montreal, currently Visiting Scholar at La Trobe University. His recent book is A Threat from Within: A Century of Jewish Opposition to Zionism.

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Torn apart between Jewish values and support for Israel