Jews are not obliged to support Zionism and the policies of the Israeli government

The state of Israel was created on 15 May 1948. About 800 000 Palestinians were killed, dispossessed or expelled from their land to create Israel. That day is commemorated annually as Nakba Day by people in occupied Palestine. 

I was born in February 1936. According to Jewish customary law, I am Jewish because my mother was Jewish.

Why do some people assume that, because one is Jewish, there is a duty to support Israel?

I have learned that there are two types of people. Firstly, there are those whose dislike for Jews ranges from mere distaste to wanting to kill them — every single one if possible. Secondly, there are those who think that Jews are entitled to special rights and privileges.

My father came to South Africa from the town of Vilkomir (now called Ukmerge) in Lithuania as a young man. I recall him getting the news from the Red Cross of what the Nazis did to the Jewish population when they occupied Lithuania in June 1941. My father was distraught and my mother, who was South African born, tried to explain the news to me.

In 1942-3 I was at a school in Port Elizabeth, where I learned what anti-semitism meant. I was bullied mercilessly. My Jewishness was a matter for derision, I had bacon rubbed in my face and I was told by a teacher from whom I sought help that I should stand up for myself.

The war ended in 1945 when I was nine years old. There were photographs in the newspapers of what was found in Auschwitz, Belsen, Buchenwald, Dachau, Treblinka and other death camps.

In 1945 I was taken by my father, who was a Communist, to a gathering in the hall of the Yiddische Arbeitersklub (the Jewish Workers’ Club) in Doornfontein in Johannesburg. I was nine years old. I remember the event well. 

The hall was full with Jewish men and women mostly around my father’s age. They were weeping, reciting the Jewish prayer for the dead, and making hopeless attempts to comfort each other. Some were tearing their clothes. The atmosphere was fraught with grief and anger. I understood clearly that they were mourning for their own families ….. parents, brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, cousins ….. and I was old enough to understand that what had happened to them had happened because they were Jewish. My father’s family in Vilkomir were victims, and I watched him and his sister weep.

The photographs I had seen gave a context to what was happening and my parents ensured that I understood. Today, the images are readily found on the internet. When I think of the European Holocaust, that hall in Doornfontein is almost the first thing that comes to mind.

In 1960, aged twenty-four, I visited the death camp at Paneria near Vilnius (once Vilna). I cannot forget the photographs, and what I saw in the museum at Paneria.

I never lost my sense of being Jewish, and with many of my peers I joined Habonim (“The Builders”), a Zionist youth organisation. I became a Zionist. I drifted out of Habonim before I went to university in 1953 and was drawn into the struggle against apartheid.

Under apartheid, because I had a white skin I was expected to have certain political views and to support apartheid. As a lawyer, I learned that mobilising against apartheid and fighting it amounted to treason. It was easy to see this as racist — what does my skin colour, which I cannot choose, have to do political opinions which I can choose?

I left South Africa in 1965, and settled in England. I became active in the Anti-Apartheid Movement and I joined the African National Congress in exile, though my part was insignificant. At the height of the anti-apartheid struggle I did not think much about Israel and Palestine, though I once met Palestinians at an ANC meeting and as students at the university where I was a lecturer. They treated me warmly as a comrade.

One result of bringing down the apartheid regime was that I had to confront issues that Palestinians and other South Africans had raised. I have no choice about being Jewish, but I can certainly choose my political views. I discovered that Zionists insist that, because I am Jewish, I am obliged to be a Zionist — that because my mother was Jewish, I am obliged to hold certain political views and to feel allegiance to Israel.

This is racism, and it’s the same racism as apartheid.

There is no need for a detailed review here of the atrocities committed according to Zionism’s policies. Suffice it that Zionists claim the right to drive Palestinians out of homes and towns and off land where they have lived and worked for centuries. They claim the right to use whatever degree of violence is convenient for the purpose and to suppress any resistance.

It is unlikely that there is a single Jewish person anywhere who does not have a family history that includes the European Holocaust. And it is worth remembering that it was not only Jews who were part of the organised killing machine — the Nazis included others who were regarded as inferior to the perfect Aryan image, including homosexuals, the disabled, Roma, ethnic Poles, Soviet prisoners of war, and political and religious opponents.

The atrocities against the Palestinians are committed by soldiers who are young men and women following orders,  but they have to find ways to justify their conduct. In 1964 I gave a lift to a young white prison warder who was hitch-hiking towards somewhere in the eastern Cape Province. I was a junior advocate at the time, and I took the opportunity to ask him a question which had long been in my mind: why are warders and police officers always yelling at the black prisoners when dealing with them? 

He said simply that one had to be angry to get the prisoners to do what was needed — to form a line, or to board a vehicle,  or to enter or exit a room or cell or whatever. The conversation flagged at that point — he thought that this was normal behaviour and saw nothing wrong with it.

It was many years later that that I read Hannah Arendt’s book on the trial of Adolph Eichmann, one of the Nazis commanders at the heart of the Holocaust. She wrote:

“The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal. From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and of our moral standards of judgement, this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together”.

When he was the Israeli minister for economy and trade, the current Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is reported to have said, “I have killed lots of Arabs in my life – and there is no problem with that.” This is a perfect illustration of what Arendt wrote. It is this Zionist normality which drove the Nakhba.

I wonder at the damage being done to the young soldiers by Zionism. They are people who can only do what they are ordered to do by being trained into an anger which dehumanises and fears the Palestinians.

Every element of apartheid is a normal, and essential constituent feature of Zionism and Israeli policies towards Palestinians. The parallels with the worst that apartheid inflicted on South Africa are obvious and amply justify the accusation that Israel is guilty of the crime of apartheid. Criticism of Israel and its Zionist policies is not anti-Semitism. By challenging what Zionism regards as normal is the only way to peace.

I have no choice but to be Jewish, but I do have a choice about my political views — and mine are in alignment with this conclusion.

The views expressed in the article are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.

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Mervyn Bennun
Mervyn Bennun is a retired legal academic living in Cape Town.

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