Busting the 'right-or-wrong' mentality on Israel

Amir Mizroch argues that Kevin Bloom’s idea that the mind-set of South Africa’s Jewry needs a messiah to lead them out of the darkness that is their "Israel right-or-wrong" mentality has been widely discredited. (Paul Botes, M&G)

Amir Mizroch argues that Kevin Bloom’s idea that the mind-set of South Africa’s Jewry needs a messiah to lead them out of the darkness that is their "Israel right-or-wrong" mentality has been widely discredited. (Paul Botes, M&G)

In his article for the Mail and Guardian, journalist Kevin Bloom states: “Not since Justice Richard Goldstone released the Goldstone Report has the Jewish world been this at odds over one of its own.”

Bloom argues that the Jewish world is now “at odds” over Peter Beinart, whose book The Crisis of Zionism calls for American Jews to boycott Israeli-made products made over the Green Line, in what Beinart calls “undemocratic Israel”.

I’m not going to get into a critique of Beinart’s book. Others have done a good job of that, and many — including myself — have found Beinart to be journalistically lazy.

As a former South African who grew up in the Eighties and Nineties in a Jewish family in Krugersdorp, and now as an editor of the English edition of Israel’s largest circulation daily, I believe I have an insight into Bloom’s contention that South Africa’s Jewish community needs a Beinart-type messiah to lead them out of the darkness that is their “Israel right-or-wrong” mentality.

First, I’d like to point out that justice Richard Goldstone recanted in a big way, after he saw the blatant misuse of his work by people who had a predetermined agenda.

Goldstone realised, too late, that he had lent his good name to a setup, a hatchet job, an inquisition with a predetermined outcome and a libel against Israel.

And when he did figure it out, he tried to roll it back. While I can’t tell the future — and I don’t personally know Peter Beinart — I won’t close the door on a possible turnaround in his future too.
Richard Goldstone did it. Benny Morris did it.

Secondly, South Africa’s Jewish community is not monolithically Pavlovian defenders on Israel. They’re smarter than that and they’re more involved in a wide range of opinions and projects regarding Israel than one would think.

And if it seems to Bloom that many South Africans defend Israel’s positions “right or wrong”, it may have something to do with the conversely monolithic approbation Israel receives in the South African press, civil society and government, no matter what Israel does — “right or wrong”.

In the South Africa I know and love, Israel is to blame for everything all the time, a priori. If all you’re hearing all day is how evil Israel is, how apartheid-like it is and if you don’t necessarily agree with that, you might feel slightly frustrated and spurred on to speak out against it, maybe write a letter to the editor.

Certainly, there are Pavlovian defenders of Israel in South Africa’s Jewish community, just as there are Pavlovian attackers of Israel in South Africa’s Jewish community.

And while we’re on the issue of Pavlovian Israel-bashers, how about Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, the Palestine Solidarity Committee, the trade unions, the ANC, the universities, the Russel Tribunal in Cape Town, the “anti-racism” conference in Durban, the former deputy minister of foreign affairs and so many other attacks on Israel from South African officials. The list goes on and on. South Africans don’t need a Peter Beinart anymore than they need an Alan Dershowitz. They’re doing just fine.

What they need is a more informed debate about Israel from the non-Jewish population of South Africa.

Bloom continues: “Why does South African Jewry not have a countervailing faction as strong as the movement championed by Beinart in the United States?”

Well, maybe it’s because things are so bad for Israel in South Africa. If Israel didn’t get such an automatic bad rap in South Africa then maybe South African Jews wouldn’t feel so compelled to defend her so vigorously. Just saying. And maybe the “movement” that Beinart is championing in America just isn’t as big as Beinart and Bloom think it is; or maybe it’s more suited to America, where there is a more open debate about Israel (despite what Beinart says) and not to South Africa, where the debate is really about just how bad Israel really is (is it more like Nazi Germany or apartheid South Africa?)

Perhaps a “Beinart movement” hasn’t organically sprung up in South Africa because South African Jews visit Israel quite a lot more than their American counterparts do and are in general more familiar with daily life here, that they have developed a strong sense of protectiveness over this country. Many South African Jews have families here, especially in a town called Ra’anana in the central plain (there are so many South African expats here that locals call it Raananafontein).

Maybe it also has something to do with the uneasy and uncertain existence Jews, like many non-Jews, feel in South Africa — something Bloom explores with great sensitivity in his good book Ways of Staying.

Maybe this existential, unspoken angst gives South African Jews more of an inkling into the hearts of Israelis, many of whom live under the same uncertainty and uneasy sense of impending doom, imminent flight, a Plan B, another foreign passport, an offshore bank account, etc.

Bloom continues: “... in the United States, where a clique of ageing philanthropists — sworn to ensuring that the Holocaust doesn’t happen again — are being censured by their children for refusing to acknowledge that the government of Israel consistently violates the basic human rights of Palestinians.”

Ok, so Bloom would like us to believe that US Jewish support for Israel is being monolithically driven by “ageing philanthropists sworn to ensuring that the Holocaust doesn’t happen again”.

Bloom is falling into Beinart-like journalistic laziness that doesn’t befit a man of his experience. There is a growing number of young American Jews connecting to Israel (not the Israeli government, but the country) through sponsored trips here, through Israel programs, through student exchanges and summer camps. Tens of thousands come here every year.

They’re not brainwashed into becoming Zombie Zionists, well, not all of them anyway. They’re shown around the country, shown the caves of Jewish sages of old, taken to Jerusalem, where Jews have lived for thousands of years, taken to the beaches of Tel-Aviv, where thousands of Jaffa Arabs braai every day too.

They’re finding their own ways to connect to Israel, or not to connect. Just like young South African Jews. Just ask the South African Habonim Dror movement or the South African Union of Jewish Students — young South African Jews that over the years have done outreach and co-existence projects.

As for Bloom’s central contention that “apartheid placed mainstream South African Jewry in a much closer — and therefore much less critical association with the state of Israel” — Bloom’s history lesson is actually quite offensive, to say the least.

He’s essentially arguing that the South African Jews of today, including the young, are not critical of Israel because the Jews in the 50s and 60s were worried that the National Party would become anti-Semitic, so they stayed quiet on Apartheid and Israel’s wrongdoings. That the situation in 1953 has basically not changed for the Jews of South Africa?

I really just have one syllable to say: Kak. Pure kak.

What does that even mean? That South African Jews didn’t support the Oslo Accords? They did. That Jews fought tooth and nail against the disengagement from Gaza? They didn’t. That South African Jews tried to foil Ehud Olmert’s offer to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas? They didn’t. That South African Jews don’t criticise Israel? They do. But they criticise Israel from a position of moderation and intelligence. Why would they want to give fodder to Israel’s enemies? They (if there really is a “they”) support every Israeli government that tries to make peace with the Palestinians, while safeguarding Israeli security. South African Jews have been consistently pro-peace and Zionist. They have been consistently pro-Israel, not purely pro-Israeli government. What does that have to do with Apartheid and support for Israel?

Bloom, like Beinart, sadly misunderstands the Israeli psyche, mostly because he, like Beinart, negates the role history continues to play in the minds of an existentially scarred people who, like it or not, are surrounded not by Swedes and Danes, but by a different sort of neighbour altogether.

It is precisely the issue of history that you cannot ignore if you want to influence Israelis to influence their governments. The last thing you should tell Israelis is, “Listen, folks, seriously, let’s put the Holocaust behind us and play nice with the Arabs. Trust them a little more ok.

Relax on the whole Holocaust thing ok, get over it.” If you want the Israelis to give peace a chance, you need to make them feel more secure, not less. Polls consistently show consistent support amongst the Israeli public for a two-state solution, with security guarantees.

And here’s Bloom’s bottom line: “In South Africa’s Jewish community there is no one to explain to us that we can no longer use past victimhood to justify Israel’s actions.”

Come live here for a while, Mr Bloom. Some of your contentions need a reality check; some of your programming needs QA testing. The Holocaust is in the room, whether you like it or not. But it has nothing to do with Palestinian intransigence. Yes, the Jews of Israel today are not the Jews of Europe or America of 1940. Yes, Israel has a lot it can do to fix the situation with the Palestinians, perhaps just as much as the Palestinians — who have never really come to terms with our determination to stay here.

You know, it’s not that easy to let go of this “thing” when there are still people out there who threaten us with another Holocaust and are trying to get their hands on the weapons to do it with. Not saying they will do it but they could. They might.

There’s even a small chance they would. Should we trust them not to? Shouldn’t we? Can we deal with the Palestinians, or can’t we? Can we change our country without descending into civil war or can’t we? That’s a debate that’s currently raging in Israel. South African Jews share in that debate but are also humble enough to let Israelis, who live here and not thousands of kilometres away, make their own decisions about their destiny. That’s common sense, it’s not blind support.

Amir Mizroch was born on Israel, raised in Krugersdorp and studied journalism at Rhodes University. He’s the editor of Israel Hayom English in Tel Aviv.

This opinion piece was written in response to Kevin Blooms article “Who will shake SA Jewry’s faith in Israel” which appeared in the Mail & Guardian Online on May 7 2012.

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