Who’s afraid of the Israeli Left?

By FANIA OZ-SALZBERGER

DURING the last two years I have had the pleasure of meeting, and talking politics, with numerous members of Australia’s Jewish community. I have traded views on Israel, the Middle East and global politics with many different people, Right, Left and centre, plus a few who are refreshingly unclassified. Here is an interim report: I am yet to find a single Australian Jew who is indifferent towards Israel.

There is a level of proximity here that one cannot find amid British or American Jewry, where many individuals are unstirred by their Jewish ancestry, uninvolved with Israel, or both.

I like telling my Jewish-Australian friends that they are first cousins to us Israelis, while many other communities are second cousins at best. This metaphor is historically sound: most Australian Jews and many Israeli Jews are recent and last chips off the old block of East and Central European Jewry. Both groups were orphaned by the Holocaust only two generations ago. 

Common memories abound, cultural similarities range from art to cuisine, and two-way travel and migration foster an ever-renewable nearness. Most poignant of all, Australian Jews seem to regard Israel with the same tortured intimacy typical of us Israelis. The same mix of love, pain, pride and sensitivity.

My Australian interlocutors include doves and hawks, hard-liners and liberals, supporters of West Bank Jewish settlements and advocates of the two-state solution. In short, they pretty much resemble the Israeli political spectrum. Nearly all are Zionists, in the most basic sense of caring for Israel’s existence as a Jewish and democratic state. 

Even those who tell me that the concept or the term Zionism is obsolete or irredeemably tainted, do not seem averse to a peaceful Middle Eastern democracy with a sizeable Jewish majority next door to a Palestinian equivalent. All this seems to fall well within the fold of mainstream Israeli public opinion.

I am constantly puzzled by the way some of my Australian friends shrink from opinions, ideas, even words, that are common fare in Israeli public discourse. Fierce debate about the wisdom of the Second Lebanon War? Qualms about the mass bombing of civilian homes during the Gaza war? 

Endorsement of the Palestinians’ term for their 1948 disaster, the Naqba? All these issues are constantly present and fully legitimate in the Hebrew media. It’s even fine to say that Obama might be a better builder of Israel’s future than Netanyahu. Of course, all these opinions are hotly debated, and so they should be. But they are well within the fold, eliciting polemics, not scandal.

Harsh critique of the Israeli government is, and has long been, a staple of Israeli public opinion. Compassion for the Palestinians’ plight, however one might allot the blame for it, is well within today’s Zionist discourse. So is the two-state solution, which 57 per cent of Israel’s Jewish citizens support according to a recent poll. Most of them would see it, indeed, as the only Zionist solution for maintaining Israel both Jewish and democratic.

But are things “different in the Diaspora”? True enough, Israelis like myself are often unaware of the precarious situation of Israel’s friends in bluntly anti-Israel environments. Reasonable self-criticism can easily slip, in the wrong hands, down the slope of wholesale de-legitimation of the Zionist idea. 

True enough, certain opinion leaders in the West have often pounced on Israel’s own soul searching, or quoted the findings of Israeli civil rights non-government organisations to discredit the Jewish State. But why should these ideas be left in the wrong hands?

Israelis voice their opinions, criticisms and hopes very openly thanks to the sense of personal and political freedom in Israel’s public sphere. This affordability of honest reflection is what Herzl wanted. Even the most critical of Israeli intellectuals must be secretly celebrating this successful Herzlian legacy, in his or her heart of hearts. Can Israel’s friends in the world, Jews and non-Jews, not afford similar freedom?

In the United States, Latin America, and to a lesser extent in Britain, Israel’s friends are finding ways to reproach what they love, and get away with it. See, for instance, the American Friends of Peace Now. In the age of Obama it is perfectly possible to be a proud Jewish peacenik without playing into the hands of Israel-bashers. It takes some sensitivity, to be sure. But sensitivity need not boil over to hyper-sensitivity. 

The Israeli liberal Left has not lost its moral bearings. Its humanistic arguments have a strong lineage in Jewish and Zionist history. Its interlocutors on the Zionist Right -— in Israel, in Australia and elsewhere -— should listen to its reasonings. And then, in fairness, they should request that the Left listens to them in return.

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