Plaiting Sawdust

Reading Antony Lerman’s latest CiF offering was about as productive as plaiting sawdust.
Lerman’s attempts to present Zionism as some sort of reactionary stance which is toxic to any green shoots of peace in the Middle East by citing supposed foundations for his view from sources such as Moshe Arens, through the World Zionist Congress to Peter Beinart fall as flat as an under-baked soufflé due to his usual stubborn insistence upon avoiding any mention of the full range of factors which have contributed to the failed peace-making attempts of the past two decades.

“Israel may show all the signs of being a typical westernised, post-ideological society. But in response to growing international pressure over recent years and with the country’s centre of political gravity drifting to the far right, Zionist ideology appears to be playing an increasingly important role in decision-making and in determining the face that Israel presents to the world. “

With typical sleight of hand, Lerman in this opening paragraph attempts to persuade the reader that there is a link to be made between Zionist ideology and the ‘far right’, thereby attempting to discredit the former by linking it to something the reader will instinctively reject. This does not stand up to scrutiny from any angle: Zionism is something which transcends or precedes political viewpoints for most Israelis and is the mesh which holds this truly multi-cultural and far from ‘post-ideological’ society together.
Neither is it any more true to say that Israel has moved to the right from a political point of view than to make the same statement about the United Kingdom based upon the results of the recent elections there. The party which received the most votes in the last Israeli elections was Kadima, but coalition building sometimes produces strange bed-fellows as the British people should now be finding out. Both the current Likud-led government and the vast majority of the Israeli people today accept and support the concept of a two-state solution; thirty years ago this was an eccentric fringe opinion in Israeli society. If anything, Lerman would be more correct if he pointed out that as in many European countries, the Left in Israel has caused itself to become increasingly less relevant and centrists either mildly to the right or left, but with little to distinguish between their policies and principles, command the majority vote.
Lerman’s lack of understanding concerning internal Israeli politics is painfully obvious from the manner in which he somewhat chauvinistically insists upon analysing them within the framework of his own political experiences, which are of course entirely irrelevant to those of a different nation on a different continent with vastly different collective experiences. Unfortunately he is not alone in making this error; many of the sources he cites as back-up to his erroneous argument make the same mistake. Thus we see the latest World Zionist Congress – influenced by J-Street – and Peter Beinart in his recent essay, adopting a view of contemporary Zionism which actually says more about those who do not live the Zionist experience every day of their lives than those who do.
In the comments to Lerman’s article, Matt Seaton described Beinart’s essay as ‘seminal’. One wonders how creative or original a viewpoint so one-sided that it completely ignores almost two decades of post-Oslo Intifada, rocket attacks and war can possibly be. Equally one wonders what lack of humility can prompt outside commentators to dismiss the often painful experiences of a whole nation in favour of somewhat patriarchal finger-wagging, particularly in light of the prospect of threats to come. In a conversation with Jeffrey Goldberg, Beinart stated that “over the long run, the best way to undermine Nasrallah and people like him is to give hope to those Palestinians and Muslims who do want a two-state solution.” With all due respect, these are the words of a man whose comprehension of the Middle East has as many holes in it as a lump of Emmental cheese.
This, of course, is precisely the problem with so many in the Western world who choose to commentate on Israel or seek to influence its policies and actions. Their desperate wish for Israeli Jews to behave as they think they would in the same circumstances (despite never having had to contend with them) and their strident criticism when we do not conform or live up to their expectations is fuelled by an enormous blind spot. The brand of modern liberal Zionism which may well be appropriate in the micro-cosmos of North London or New York does not have to stand up to the same tests as Zionism in the Jewish state. Neither is it influenced by the experiences of the Mizrahi and Sephardi Jews who make up a large proportion of Israeli society. It is therefore as inappropriate in the Israeli environment as an Englishman’s three-piece suit in an August heat wave.
For Lerman and others of his background and viewpoint, Zionism is an optional extra. For Israelis it is something to be lived every good day or bad day of their lives and a constantly evolving challenge. This fact must be recognised by all parties as an integral cornerstone of a positive future for the Middle East, and the first step towards this is to dismantle the blanket connection made by Lerman and others between Zionism and far-right ultra nationalism; a connection which is not only patently false, but which serves a political agenda opposed to Jewish self-determination and can only have the detrimental result of silencing the moderate majority of Zionists who seek a peaceful two-state solution to the conflict.

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