What, exactly, is going on?

Taken from a speech given by the writer at the BICOM dinner in London on January 26th. A must read.

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Matti Friedman

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Matti Friedman
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Observers of Western history understand that at times of confusion and unhappiness, and of great ideological ferment, negative sentiment tends to coagulate around Jews. Discussions of the great topics of the time often end up as discussions about Jews.

In the late 1800s, for example, French society was riven by the clash between the old France of the church and army, and the new France of liberalism and the rule of law. The French were preoccupied with the question of who is French, and who is not. They were smarting from their military humiliation by the Prussians. 

All of this sentiment erupted around the figure of a Jew, Alfred Dreyfus, accused of betraying France as a spy for Germany. His accusers knew he was innocent, but that didn’t matter; he was a symbol of everything they wanted to condemn.

To give another example: Germans in the 1920s and ‘30s were preoccupied with their humiliation in the Great War. This became a discussion of Jewish traitors who had stabbed Germany in the back. Germans were preoccupied as well with the woes of their economy – this became a discussion of Jewish wealth, and Jewish bankers.

In the years of the rise of Communism and the Cold War, communists concerned with their ideological opponents talked about Jewish capitalists and cosmopolitans, or Jewish doctors plotting against the state. At the very same time, in capitalist societies threatened by communism, people condemned Jewish Bolsheviks.

This is the face of this recurring obsession. As the journalist Charles Maurras wrote, approvingly, in 1911: “Everything seems impossible, or frighteningly difficult, without the providential arrival of anti-Semitism, through which all things fall into place and are simplified.”

The West today is preoccupied with a feeling of guilt about the use of power. That’s why the Jews, in their state, are now held up in the press and elsewhere as the prime example of the abuse of power. That’s why for so many the global villain, as portrayed in newspapers and on TV, is none other than the Jewish soldier, or the Jewish settler. This is not because the Jewish settler or soldier is responsible for more harm than anyone else on earth – no sane person would make that claim. It is rather because these are the heirs to the Jewish banker or Jewish commissar of the past. It is because when moral failure raises its head in the Western imagination, the head tends to wear a skullcap.

One would expect the growing scale and complexity of the conflict in the Middle East over the past decade to have eclipsed the fixation on Israel in the eyes of the press and other observers. Israel is, after all, a sideshow: The death toll in Syria in less than four years far exceeds the toll in the Israel-Arab conflict in a century. The annual death toll in the West Bank and Jerusalem is a morning in Iraq.

And yet it is precisely in these years that the obsession has grown worse.

This makes little sense, unless we understand that people aren’t fixated on Israel despite everything else going on – but rather because of everything else going on. As Maurras wrote, when you use the Jew as the symbol of what is wrong, “all things fall into place and are simplified.”

The last few decades have brought the West into conflict with the Islamic world. Terrorists have attacked New York, Washington, London, Madrid, and now Paris. America and Britain caused the unraveling of Iraq, and hundreds of thousands of people are dead there. Afghanistan was occupied and thousands of Western soldiers killed, along with countless civilians – but the Taliban are alive and well, undeterred. Ghaddafi was removed, and Libya is no better off. 

All of this is confusing and discouraging. It causes people to search for answers and explanations, and these are hard to come by. It is in this context that the Cult of the Occupation has caught on. The idea is that the problems in the Middle East have something to do with Jewish arrogance and perfidy, that the sins of one’s own country can be projected upon the Western world’s old blank screen. This is the idea increasingly reflected on campuses, in labor unions, and in the media fixation on Israel. It’s a projection, one whose chief instrument is the press.

As one BBC reporter informed a Jewish interviewee on camera several weeks ago, after a Muslim terrorist murdered four Jewish shoppers at a Paris supermarket, “Many critics of Israel’s policy would suggest that the Palestinians suffered hugely at Jewish hands as well.” Everything, that is, can be linked to the occupation, and Jews can be blamed even for the attacks against them. This isn’t the voice of the perpetrators, but of the enablers. The voice of the enablers is less honest than that of the perpetrators, and more dangerous for being disguised in respectable English. This voice is confident and growing in volume. This is why the year 2015 finds many Jews in Western Europe eyeing their suitcases again.

The Jews of the Middle East are outnumbered by the Arabs of the Middle East 60 to 1, and by the world’s Muslims 200 to 1. Half of the Jews in Israel are there because their families were forced from their homes in the 20th century not by Christians in Europe, but by Muslims in the Middle East. Israel currently has Hezbollah on its northern border, al-Qaeda on its northeastern and southern borders, and Hamas in Gaza. None of these groups seek an end to the occupation, but rather openly wish to destroy Israel. But it is naïve to point out these facts. The facts don’t matter: We are in the world of symbols. In this world, Israel has become a symbol of what is wrong – not Hamas, not Hezbollah, not Great Britain, not America, not Russia.

I believe it’s important to recognize the pathologies at play in order to make sense of things. In this context it’s worth pointing out that I’m hardly the first to identify a problem – Jewish communities like this one, and particularly organizations like Bicom, identified a problem long ago, and have been expending immense efforts to correct it. I wish this wasn’t necessary, and it shouldn’t be necessary, but it undoubtedly is necessary, and becoming more so, and I have great respect for these efforts. Many people, particularly young people, are having trouble maintaining their balance amid this ideological onslaught, which is successfully disguised as journalism or analysis, and is phrased in the language of progressive politics. I would like to help them keep their bearings.

I don’t believe, however, that anyone should make a feeling of persecution the center of their identity, of their Judaism, or of their relationship with Israel. The obsession is a fact, but it isn’t a new fact, and it shouldn’t immobilize us in anger, or force us into a defensive crouch. It shouldn’t make us less willing to seek to improve our situation, to behave with compassion to our neighbors, or to continue building the model society that Israel’s founders had in mind.

I was in Tel Aviv not long ago, on Rothschild Boulevard. The city was humming with life. Signs of prosperity were everywhere, in the renovated Bauhaus buildings, in the clothes, the stores. I watched the people go by: Kids with old bikes and tattoos, business people, men with women, women with women, men with men, all speaking the language of the Bible and Jewish prayer. The summer’s Hamas rockets were already a memory, just a few months old but subsumed in the frantic, irrepressible life of the country. There were cranes everywhere, raising new buildings. There were schoolchildren with oversize knapsacks, and parents with strollers. I heard Arabic, Russian, and French, and the country went about its business with a potent cheer and determination that you miss if all you see are threats and hatred. There have always been threats and hatred, and it has never stopped us. We have enemies, and we have friends. The dogs bark, as the saying goes, and the convoy rolls by.

One of the questions presented to us by the wars of the modern age is what now constitutes victory. In the 21st century, when a battlefield is no longer conquered or lost, when land isn’t changing hands and no one ever surrenders, what does it mean to win?

The answer is that victory is no longer determined on the battlefield. It’s determined in the center, in the society itself. Who has built a better society? Who has provided better lives for people? Where is there the most optimism? Where can the most happy people be found? One report on world happiness ranked Israel as the 11th happiest country on earth. The UK was 22nd.

Israel’s intellectual opponents can rant about the moral failings of the Jews, obscuring their obsession in whatever sophisticated way they choose. The gunmen of Hamas and their allies can stand on heaps of rubble and declare victory. They can fire rockets, and shoot up supermarkets. But if you look at Tel Aviv, or at any thriving neighborhood in Jerusalem, Netanya, Rishon Letzion, or Haifa, you understand that this is victory. This is where we’ve won, and where we win every day.

Entire speech posted on ElderofZiyon



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