Memo to Anti-Zionist Jews

(This post appeared on The Times of Israel blog platform on May 2, 2016)

If your anti-Zionism flows from a religious conviction that a Jewish state is a sacrilege if established before the coming of the messiah, read no further. I cannot alter your faith-based credo.

If your anti-Zionism flows from a conviction that the Jewish state of Israel is by its founding and nature a racist oppressor of Arabs, then I can try to dispel the “big lies” that have fueled that belief. Read on as I address the slogans and distortions that underlie efforts of anti-Zionists to demonize and delegitimize the state of Israel.

A fair definition of Zionism is a Jewish movement to reestablish sovereignty in part of the ancient Jewish homeland in Palestine in order to serve as a refuge for the multitude of Jews facing oppression in their foreign environs. In 1922, even before the Holocaust, the League of Nations acknowledged that centuries of inquisitions, mass expulsions, forced ghettoization, and pogroms warranted a Jewish refuge. Sparsely populated Palestine was an appropriate locus given the historical and ongoing connection of the Jewish people with that land.

Nothing in the Zionist vision entailed exploitation or expulsion of local Arab populations. The 1922 League of Nations mandate to Britain to manage the Palestine portion of the former Ottoman Empire endorsed Jews’ settlement in their ancient homeland but explicitly preserved the civil rights of existing non-Jewish communities. Israel’s 1948 declaration of independence pledged to develop the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants and to assure all inhabitants equal political and religious freedoms. The implementation of that vision is far from perfect, but it’s also far from the nefarious picture painted by anti-Zionist accusers.

The first anti-Zionist calumny is that Israel was founded as a colonialist enterprise intending to ethnically cleanse resident Arabs. A small Jewish presence remained in Palestine even after ancient diasporas. Starting in the 1860’s, more Jews migrated into sparsely populated Palestine (then a part of the Ottoman Turkish Empire) and purchased land for small, mostly agricultural enclaves. In the early 1900’s, those early Jewish settlers were joined by Russian migrants fleeing pogroms. In the 1930’s, German Jews fleeing Nazi persecution also sought refuge in Palestine. These 20th century Jewish migrants and refugees had equal legal and moral status with the many thousands of Arabs who were then migrating into Palestine from the surrounding Arab areas of Lebanon, Syria, and Egypt. During the early 20th century, both Jews and Arabs settled in Palestine and both ethnic groups revolted against the British mandatory rule that prevailed between 1922 and 1947.

In 1948, Israel agreed to a United Nations partition plan for Palestine under which Jewish residents would be sovereign over a small portion of original mandatory Palestine and Arabs would rule over another portion allotted to them by the U.N. (As noted, Israel agreed to equal rights for the Arab minority remaining under its sovereignty). Arabs rejected the partition and Arab armies from surrounding Arab countries promptly attacked the fledgling Jewish state vowing to drive the Jews into the sea. In the vast disruption prompted by the Arab-initiated war, several hundred thousand Arabs became refugees and hundreds of thousands of Jews were forced to leave their homes in North Africa and Arab countries. Hundreds of thousands of local Arabs chose not to flee in 1948 and they became the source of the 1.7 million Arabs who today are full citizens of Israel. Any notion of virulent Israeli colonialism is also belied by Israel’s relinquishment of the Sinai peninsula (via a 1979 peace treaty with Egypt), by its unilateral withdrawals from Gaza (2005) and south Lebanon (2000), and by prior offers to Yasser Arafat (Camp David 2000) and Mahmoud Abbas (2008) to relinquish over 90% of the West Bank.

The second anti-Zionist calumny is that Israel is an “apartheid” state. As a resident of Tel Aviv and a former law faculty member at Tel Aviv University, I am well situated to refute that malicious distortion. Israeli Arabs have full political rights and occupy 10 percent of the parliamentary seats. Arabs work in most sectors of the Israeli economy, including as lawyers, judges, physicians, nurses, pharmacists, and hi-tech engineers. Arabs constitute over 10 percent of university students. Arab shoppers regularly mingle with Jewish shoppers in malls and on public transportation. While there is considerable discrimination against Arabs in Israeli society that needs to be overcome, the current scene is far from apartheid.

The final anti-Zionist calumny is that Israel is engaged in a genocidal campaign against Palestinian Arabs in Gaza and in parts of the West Bank. As to Gaza, Israel in 2005 unilaterally withdrew settlers and armed forces from Gaza, hoping that the Gazans would exercise self-rule for self-benefit. Instead, Hamas violently seized control, ruthlessly suppressed all forms of freedom, and launched thousands of missiles wreaking havoc and trauma in Israel’s civilian border communities. In an effort to end the missile barrages, Israeli forces have invaded and bombed Gaza 3 times, inflicting heavy casualties.

There have been many civilian casualties in those Gaza invasions, as was the case in comparable allied operations in places like Afghanistan, Iraq, Kosovo, Libya, and Yemen. When belligerents like Hamas (or ISIS) use mosques, schools, and other civilian structures for weapon storage and launchings, these misused structures become possible targets. Israel adheres to international legal standards of proportionality in selecting targets and takes steps (like telephoning possible civilian occupants) to avoid excessive collateral damage. See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NX6vyT8RzMo&feature=player_embedded

Arab residents of parts of the West Bank are indeed subject to harsh Israeli control entailing serious limitations on travel, work access, and building. On occasion, either isolated soldiers or Jewish settlers exacerbate that harsh control via criminal acts of assault, vandalism, and even homicide. Such misdeeds are in no way part of Israeli policy and are subject to criminal punishment by Israeli authorities. Three Jewish terrorists were recently convicted for the vicious murder of a Palestinian teen in 2014. Two of them received life sentences. More Jewish extremists are now under indictment for criminal activities (including arson) directed against West Bank Arabs. An Israeli soldier who recently killed a disarmed Palestinian assailant is now facing homicide charges. All this refutes the notion that Israel is conducting a genocidal campaign toward Palestinians.

Many “liberal” Zionists are troubled by Israeli domination over more than 2 million Arab Palestinians in the West Bank and they therefore pursue a 2-state solution. People like Ari Shavit, Yair Lapid, Dennis Ross, and Alan Dershowitz are vocal critics of some of the Netanyahu government’s policies while still supporting Israel’s entitlement to secure borders and staunch defense of its citizens. These liberal Zionists recognize that Palestinian rejectionism toward prior peace offers and contemporary Palestinian incitement to violence against all Jews undermine the prospects of a peaceful resolution. These Zionist critics also recognize that anti-Zionism, the delegitimization of Israeli statehood, is counter-productive to the ultimate well being of both the Jewish and Arab populations of what was formerly mandatory Palestine. Any attempt to dismantle Israel would precipitate violent confrontation incalculably costly to all sides.

If you seek a just solution to the Israeli-Palestinian Arab conflict, I urge you to forego the counter-productive anti-Zionist position and to join the liberal Zionist ranks.

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>Playing Tennis and Politics at the Same Time

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           Tears of joy are infrequently seen at Israeli appearances in international sports competitions. But yesterday the tears spilled freely from the members of the Israeli Davis Cup tennis squad after the team upset Sweden, 3 matches to 2, to advance to the quarter-finals of this year’s international Davis Cup competition. After Harel Levy won the deciding match 8 to 6 in the fifth set, the winning squad wildly celebrated as though they had won the Davis Cup outright rather than just the prospect of meeting a very strong Russian squad in the next round. The Swedish loser in the final match, Andreas Vinciguerra, hurled his racquet into the (empty) stands and stalked off the court in frustration.
           Why all this emotional upheaval around a tennis match between two mediocre teams like Sweden and Israel? Neither squad had a player ranked in the top 50 in the world. Amir Hadad, one of the Israeli doubles players, is ranked 331 in the world. Vinciguerra, the #2 player for Sweden, hadn’t played world class tennis since October of 2006. Ordinarily, this match would produce yawns even from the most avid tennis fans in each country.
The key to the furor was that Sweden turned this piddling tennis match into an international cause célèbre. Palestinian supporters in Sweden had urged that the entire match be canceled. Leaders in the host city of Malmo responded by barring spectators from the Davis Cup matches in the 4,000 seat Baltic Hall arena. (This is the same city that weeks ago broke up a peaceful pro-Israel rally after pro-Palestinian counter-demonstrators began throwing stones).

The stated rationale for barring spectators was that Malmo could not guarantee security in the arena. But the local public safety director had said that security could in fact be handled for the arena and Israeli basketball teams have played before hostile audiences in Spain and Greece without serious incident. The intended insult to the visiting country was patent. Israeli tennis players were being told, in effect: “you are invited to participate in this cultural event, but your appearance will be closed to the public. Your nation is too repulsive to warrant better treatment.” Beyond the intended insult of the empty stands, a further element of extreme hostility faced the Israeli players. Thousands of Palestinian supporters, still upset that the match had not been cancelled entirely, demonstrated and rioted right outside the Malmo arena on the first 2 match days. They screamed their anti-Israel vitriol. Some masked demonstrators threw rocks and paving stones at the police. Some demonstrators tried to storm the arena gates.
In the face of all this hostility and insult, the Israeli players, not surprisingly, felt a strong emotional surge. They desperately wanted to salvage national pride by beating the ungracious hosts. Every one of the five matches became a titanic struggle. All four singles matches went to the fifth set. Players on both teams spilled their guts trying for every ball and every advantage. The level of tennis was only moderate, but then again every player on both squads was obviously feeling the weight of emotion generated by the atmosphere surrounding the competition. It isn’t easy to play top-level tennis while carrying a national flag in one hand; serving becomes especially problematic.
Despite the pressure, the Israeli players ultimately exploited their motivation and hung on for the overall victory. Dudi Sela, Israel’s #1 player, won two incredible five-set matches, the last against the wily veteran Thomas Johanson.
After Harel Levy’s last winning shot, the Israeli squad paraded around the near-empty arena waving a giant Israeli flag. Their pride in their nation and in themselves was palpable. The tears of joy spilled out. The Israeli television commentator shouted: “There is a God.” I don’t know about divine intervention, but what I see, in the wake of this tennis event, is a speck of justice in the world. In their zeal to bash and delegitimate Israel, the Malmo hosts shot themselves and the Swedish players in the foot. For if the arena had been filled with supportive Swedish fans, the Swedish squad would probably have prevailed. The hostile Malmo hosts engineered Israel’s advance to the round of 8 for the first time in 22 years. And they engineered the Swedish Davis Cup squad’s first loss ever after leading by a 2-1 margin after 2 days.
This Purim I’m dressing up as either Harel Levi or Dudi Sela. They’re my super-heroes.
– Norman L. Cantor