Trump’s America, Netanyahu’s Israel

Israel’s legislative elections on 9 April were a tribute to Binyamin Netanyahu’s transformation of the political landscape. At no point were they discussed in terms of which candidates might be….

Israel’s legislative elections on 9 April were a tribute to Binyamin Netanyahu’s transformation of the political landscape. At no point were they discussed in terms of which candidates might be persuaded by (non-existent) American pressure, or the ‘international community’, to end the occupation. This time it was a question of which party leader could be trusted by Israeli Jews – Palestinian citizens of Israel are now officially second-class – to manage the occupation, and to expedite the various tasks that the Jewish state has mastered: killing Gazans, bulldozing homes, combatting the scourge of BDS, and conflating anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism. With his promise to annex the West Bank, Netanyahu had won even before the election was held. It wasn’t simply Trump’s recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights that sped the incumbent on his way; it was the nature of the conversation – and the fact that the leader of the opposition was Benny Gantz, the IDF commander who presided over the 2014 ‘Operation Protection Edge’, in which more than 2000 Gazans were killed.

Illusions about the ‘peace process’ – and Israel’s ‘search for peace’ – die hard. The hopes invested in ‘peace’ were once immense, but it has never looked so shaky, even in America, which has underwritten these fictions for decades and rewarded Israel handsomely for paying lip service to them. American liberals no longer lament the fact that Netanyahu has taken Israel off its preordained, conciliatory course, and hope that ‘the left’ might steer it back. There is no left in Israel aside from a few heroic groupuscules. Netanyahu’s Israel – illiberal, exclusionary, racist – is now the political centre.


I used to call myself a non-Zionist, rather than an anti-Zionist: the latter term seemed to traduce the origins of Zionism, which arose as a response to the existential threat to Jewish life in Europe. ‘Anti-Zionism’ overlooked the richness of the debates within early Zionism. The ‘cultural Zionist’ Ahad Ha’am, for example, supported the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, but not a Jewish state, and castigated ‘territorial’ Zionists for imagining that ‘Palestine is a land almost entirely deserted, an uncultivated desert,’ and that ‘the Arabs are desert savages, a people like donkeys, incapable of seeing and understanding what is happening around them. This is a great mistake.’ One of the founders of bi-nationalism – what’s now envisaged as a single state, accommodating both people’s national aspirations – Ha’am considered himself a Zionist. So did the journalist and activist Uri Avnery, one of the fiercest critics of Israel’s wars and occupation, who died last year, aged 94. But these ‘Zionists’ do not represent actually existing Zionism.

In 1948, Hannah Arendt, whose critique of territorial Zionism owed much to Ha’am, warned that after the Arab-Israeli war:

the ‘victorious’ Jews would live surrounded by a hostile Arab population, secluded inside ever-threatened borders, preoccupied by matters of defence to a degree that would submerge all other interests and activities . . . political thought would centre on military strategy; economic development would be determined exclusively by the needs of war. And all this would be the fate of a nation that – no matter how many immigrants it could still absorb and how far it extended its boundaries . . . – would still remain a very small people greatly outnumbered by hostile neighbours.

Arendt’s prediction was in large part borne out. More remarkable still, few Israelis – or their supporters abroad, among Jews and Evangelicals – fret over this ‘fate’. Arendt’s warning that an expansionist Israel would never realise the dream of Herzl and the founders, and become a ‘normal’ state, has lost its charge because its abnormality is the new normal. Israel now looks more like a pioneer of illiberal, ethnocratic nationalism, a model for the likes of Orbán, Modi and Trump.

Today Israelis see no need to conceal, much less extenuate themselves for, their country’s militarism or racism. In the 1960s and 1970s, Western tourists went to Israel to take part in collective farming on kibbutzim. Police officers and soldiers now go to learn new methods of collective punishment and surveillance. For Europe’s greatest internal victims to have refined the repression of another people into a science is now regarded as an advantage rather than an embarrassing secret, or indeed a tragedy. And with Trump’s help, Zionism’s id has been emancipated from its superego. The Nation-State Law, the American Embassy’s move to Jerusalem, the US president’s recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, a possible annexation of large swathes of the West Bank: all these mark an intensification of what Meron Benvenisti called the ‘Judaisation’ of Israel-Palestine, at the expense of its indigenous inhabitants. Even hummus, tabbouleh, and za‘atar are now proclaimed as ‘Israeli’ specialities.


Security is the paramount concern, Israel says, pointing to its enemies (Hamas, Hizbullah, Iran) and to the growing volatility on its border with Syria. These are not irrational fears, but, as in the past, they serve to justify expansion, generating further insecurity, which in turn justifies further land grabs. If security on the basis of coexistence were truly its aim, Israel might have taken up land-for-peace offers made by the Arabs, notably the Saudi peace plan in 2002. But Israel has been less interested in security than in land, with or without peace: a position it can afford thanks to its overwhelming military advantage over the Palestinians. The Arab states have ceased to pressure Israel: their fear of Iran outweighs whatever solidarity they feel with the Palestinians.

The extreme character of Israel’s stance vis-à-vis its Arab population can be measured by the Nation-State Law, which explicitly legalises the inequality – officially denied for decades – between Jews and Arabs. The law’s most vociferous critics were not Palestinian citizens of Israel, who have no illusions about the state’s intentions, but the Druze – at 1.5 per cent of Israel’s population, a minority within an Arab minority – who serve in the Israeli military and are seen by many Palestinians as traitors. As Israeli Druze have discovered, to be a non-Jew in Israel, no matter how loyal, is to be less than a full citizen, tolerated at best by the ruling ethnic majority – a ‘pariah’, as Arendt would have said. That Israel has succeeded in creating a new class of pariahs is a curious achievement, given the history of Jews in the West. The impact on Palestinian life, in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, has been enormous. But the perpetrators have also paid a price. In the words of the historian Enzo Traverso, Israel has ‘put an end to Jewish modernity. Diaspora Judaism had been the critical conscience of the Western world; Israel survives as one of its mechanisms of domination.’


Accused of anti-Semitism for his criticisms of Israel, Noam Chomsky would often point out that in Israel his position would hardly have raised an eyebrow: the problem lay with the absence of debate in the US. Today the situation is nearly the reverse. The debate has never been more constricted in Israel: even Jewish dissenters have seen their freedoms curtailed. In the US, as the power of the Israel lobby begins to crumble, ferocious arguments are erupting inside the Democratic Party, where the old guard, deeply pro-Israel, faces an insurgent challenge from politicians and activists outraged by the occupation. Whether or not US support for Israel is ‘all about the Benjamins’, in the words of the Minnesota congresswoman Ilhan Omar, the old guard is much better funded. But the younger, dissenting wing of the party is more energetic, and closer to the base: of the Democrats running for president, only Cory Booker, a senator from New Jersey, spoke at the most recent conference of AIPAC (the American Israel Public Affairs Committee). A significant portion of the anti-occupation movement in the US is Jewish, notably the group Jewish Voice for Peace, staunch supporters of BDS. Traverso is only partly right to say that diaspora Judaism has ceased to supply the West with a critical conscience.

Israel’s ultras inside the Democratic Party have argued, correctly, that support for Israel is not only about donations (‘the Benjamins’) from Jewish supporters of Israel, but about something harder to dislodge: faith. Senator Charles Schumer of New York recently claimed to be acting on divine orders: ‘You know, my name . . . comes from the word shomer, guardian, watcher . . . And I believe Hashem’ – God – ‘actually gave me that name. One of my roles, very important in the United States Senate, is to be . . . a or the shomer Yisrael. And I will continue to be that with every bone in my body.’ Booker is perhaps more alert to the influential role of the Benjamins, but he, too, spoke in the language of faith when he addressed AIPAC: ‘Israel is not political to me . . . I was a supporter of Israel well before I was a United States senator . . . If I forget thee, o Israel, may I cut off my right hand.’ Ilhan Omar was accused of anti-Semitism for pointing up the ‘political influence’ in the US ‘that says it is OK to push for allegiance to a foreign country’, but Schumer and Booker made no secret of their allegiance and faced none of the insults hurled at Omar. There was no murmur of dissent from supporters of Israel when Trump spoke to a group of American Jews and referred to Netanyahu as ‘your prime minister’.

The Trump administration recently prevented the Palestinian activist Omar Barghouti, one of the founders of the BDS movement, from entering the US. Barghouti, a permanent resident of Israel who has a valid US visa, was scheduled to do a speaking tour and go to his daughter’s wedding. He is a non-violent activist, but this doesn’t count in his favour among those who used to deplore Palestinian armed struggle. On the contrary: now that the Palestinians are mastering an effective means of non-violent protest, Israel claims that it is worse than terrorism because it ‘delegitimises’ the Jewish state. Anti-Zionism, on this view, is not simply an occasional cover for anti-Semitism; it is anti-Semitism. The Trump administration has signed up to this thesis; so has Emmanuel Macron. But if anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism, one would be hard pressed to find a Palestinian, or an Arab, or a Muslim, who is not an anti-Semite. And if anti-Zionism is the only form of anti-Semitism that Israel, the state of the Jews, considers a threat, then Hungary and other Central European states intent on revising their histories of collaboration in the Holocaust, purging their public life of ‘globalists’ such as George Soros, and pursuing their own draconian policies towards ethnic minorities (Roma, above all), can declare themselves friends of Israel and get a kosher seal of approval.


Is there an anti-Semitism of the left? Certainly. Anti-Semitism, like anti-black racism, is a virus in Western society. But it is one thing to acknowledge its existence in movements that want to see an end to Israel’s occupation – largely left-leaning – and another to claim that it is their defining feature. Israel has recast anti-Semitism in such a self-serving way that it has become difficult to distinguish between those who take Israel to task as a Jewish state, and those who criticise it as a Jewish state: as an exclusionary ethnocracy and an occupying power. Israel has also appropriated the right to define what is and isn’t anti-Semitism by forging alliances with parties, states and religious groups that traffic openly in anti-Semitism. That Israel seems untroubled by these alliances – and simultaneously accuses left-wing critics of anti-Semitism, often invoking the Holocaust – has not only made it easier for left-wing anti-Semites to deny the charges; it also makes it harder for those on the left to recognise genuine anti-Semitism in their colleagues, and in themselves.

The recent attacks on Jews in Europe, the Bannonist discourse about Soros and other sinister agents of globalisation, the neo-Nazi chants in Charlottesville of ‘Jews will not replace us’: all are signs that ‘the Jewish question’, in spite of the integration of Jews in the West, has yet to be resolved. As Aimé Césaire told Frantz Fanon, ‘when you hear someone insulting the Jews, pay attention, he is talking about you.’ Anti-Semitism in the US is of no structural significance: it does not prejudice Jewish opportunity, as racism does for black people; Judaism is not invoked by the state, as Islam is, to prevent people from entering the country or to justify the racial profiling and surveillance of American citizens. But it can flare up with fatal consequences, such as the massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue last year in Pittsburgh. Trump, who said there were ‘very fine people’ among the neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, isn’t too troubled by those deadly forms of anti-Semitism. But he has already begun to smear the Democratic Party as anti-Semitic, and Ilhan Omar as a jihadist, in what is surely a premonition of his strategy in the 2020 election.

Omar’s tweet about ‘the Benjamins’ was glib and inaccurate: support for Israel isn’t ‘all’ about campaign donations. Amy Kaplan argues in Our American Israel that the special relationship was never simply a reflection of Jewish influence in America. It draws on the countries’ histories – and imaginaries – as colonial-settler states, and has been reinforced by overlapping imperial interests. But Omar’s remarks were bracing: she seemed determined to tell it like it is. They also signalled that the conversation about Israel is changing, as disadvantaged American minorities, including blacks and Muslims, overcome a range of inhibitions – including the fear of being called anti-Semitic – and begin to speak frankly on the Israel/Palestine question. For politicians such as Omar and Rashida Tlaib, a Palestinian congresswoman from Detroit, and for black activists and thinkers such as Michelle Alexander and Angela Davis, Palestine is, above all, a matter of racial justice. The process of reframing this question is likely to be messy and uncomfortable, not least for Jews accustomed to leading the discussion. It also suggests a very American vision of Israel/Palestine, with the West Bank reimagined as Selma, a site of oppression where struggle and redemption are waiting in the wings. But this is no more of an illusion than the vision of Israel it challenges, ‘the Middle East’s only democracy’, and it aims to end, rather than uphold, a system of oppression. Now that the conversation has started, it will be hard to stop.