When I was reading Mikhail Bakunin, the Russian anarchist revolutionary, earlier this year, what struck me especially in his later texts was a sense of sorrow, as if he knew, despite the continued existence of the organizations and networks he helped build, the moment for social change had passed. He was still alive, though not for much longer, and the conditions in which a radical change to society could happen were gone. The opportunity existed only for a moment, and then it disappeared.
As I watch the unfolding crisis in Israel, I feel as though a similar moment for genuine progress had long since passed. Over the last couple of years, I’ve grown more connected to the conflict in that country, first because of my girlfriend’s strong personal ties to Israel, and then because of my fear and disgust over the anti-Jewish racism in the West, when it became strangely acceptable to articulate criticism of the Israeli state’s actions as violence against ordinary Jewish people.
I was particularly horrified by the tendency among too many of the Western left who have begun to parrot rhetoric that begins in the anti-Jewish racism of Arab street propaganda, that Israel is a colonialist creation and has no right to exist.* But I find it completely weird to think of Israel as an articulation of colonialism because of the conditions of its formation.
* In a broad philosophical sense, all states are founded on some form of violence toward their populations and have no real right to exist.
|Before the modern left stumbles into parroting the racism|
of Hamas, we should remember the values of the people
who originally settled Israel, the kibbutzim.
Thinking through this, I realized why Holocaust denial recurs so frequently in the discourse of prominent figures and ordinary people in the Middle East who advocate for Israel’s destruction, and who describe the Israeli state measures to control the Palestinian population as the only real Holocaust. Because if you accept the truth that the Holocaust was real, then you understand the Jewish settlers of Mandate Palestine and the population who founded the modern state of Israel as refugees.
There’s a story in the Amos Oz collection Between Friends that articulates the tragedy of the situation beautifully. Its focal character is an old professor who became a kibbutzim after surviving the Holocaust’s concentration and death camps. The story describes, through his memories of the kibbutz’s foundation, what their motives were.
They were all anarchist and socialist radicals from eastern Europe, educated people whose goal was to work the land in Israel and build a peaceful society that had overcome all the ethnic and nationalistic enmities of the past. They had already lived through the most horrifying social phenomenon nationalism had ever produced, the industrialized death factories of the Holocaust. They bought the kibbutz’s land from Jordanian aristocrats and set up shop.
The kibbutzim always made entreaties of friendship to the Arab villagers who lived nearby. They were all working people, farmers, teachers, craftspeople, who had suffered under oppressive powers that persecuted them because of their identity. The Arabs suffered under British, French, and Turkish colonialism; the Jews suffered under Russian and German racial oppression and violence. The establishment of the kibbutz movement was to have been the moment of radical change, when oppressed people would build a new society free from the terror of racism and colonialism under which they had suffered for centuries.
|Likewise, we should look to people like Amos Oz to|
understand modern ideals of universal brotherhood.
At the same time as these kibbutzim, many of them Holocaust survivors, were reaching out to their Arab neighbours, there was another group of Jewish immigrants to the Palestine Mandate who had a more skeptical attitude. These were the Haganah and Irgun paramilitary groups who worked to establish the state of Israel by force. Oz’s story describes their dynamic with the kibbutzim as brotherly, but tense.
The paramilitaries were skeptical that the Arabs in the region would ever accept Jewish people as their brothers. Decolonization in Arab cultures took a nationalistic character, revolving around the Arab identity. This was the grassroots activism of the pan-Arab movement that would bring the military government of Nasser to power in Egypt. People who define themselves according to ethnic nationalist characteristics will exclude those who do not fit the model, even if they could benefit materially from friendship.
What’s more, the military and monarchist leaders of the Arab peoples had a vested interest in preventing the growth of solidarity between poor Arabs and the secular socialist kibbutzim of Israel. If you define your anti-colonial movement through an ethnic national identity, then it won’t matter if your rulers are kings, army generals, or presidents-for-life, as long as they’re your kin.
In this atmosphere, every entreaty for peace and comradeship the kibbutzim made to their Arab neighbours was met with violent reprisals, as Arab people followed the rules of their nationalistic movement. This, even though a political alliance with kibbutzim would have liberated them from the kings and dictators who treated them as rabble or pawns.
Eventually, the kibbutzim gave up on their idealism in the face of ethnic nationalist violence, and their own ethnic nationalists had their way. So the one attempt to stop the feedback loop of violent uprisings and military reprisals was a failure. Despite the public force of those ideals influencing Israeli society ever since, the forces of nationalism have come to dominate the country’s politics.
One of my last conversations with my libertarian friends happened during the firestorm of anti-Jewish hatred that spread throughout Europe and Canada during Operation Protective Edge. He spoke seriously to me about how a core value of socialism was the hatred of Jews, their equation with capitalism and greed through their cultural association with the finance industry. He assured me that all leftists were anti-Semites who would like to rid the world of all Jewish people.
|Perpetuating Holocaust denial throughout the Arab|
world is in the interests of oppressive military groups
like Hezbollah and Hamas.
I could not abide this because I knew that, despite many of my friends in left-wing political movements beginning to fall for the anti-Israeli rhetoric that was only a few short steps from the Holocaust denial that is a popular belief throughout the Arab world, it was a lie. And it was just as hateful a lie as Holocaust denial itself.
Oz’s story makes the point that Israel was built on a terrible tragedy, an attempt to build a home for all the oppressed whose idealism found no willing listeners, either among the nationalists of the Jewish community or their Arab neighbours. And despite all the violence of modern politics, that yearning for peace and brotherhood still exists in Israeli society, just as the yearning for freedom remains in every culture that’s been shaped by a rebellion against oppression.
This is why, to preserve the narrative of Israel and the Israeli people as inherently colonial oppressors of the Palestinian and wider Arab peoples, Holocaust denial has propagated through Arab society. Because if you admit the reality of the Holocaust, you are led inevitably to the fact that, despite all the reprehensible state violence and the pressures of population management that the Occupation encourages, you can’t vilify Israel in a pure sense.
The reality of the Holocaust proves that the Jewish people are also historically oppressed, and that Israel was founded as an anti-colonial movement as well. Jews fleeing the Holocaust and poor Arabs stifling under colonial, military, and monarchist rule should have been brothers. The real seeds of peace lie in that regret.