Thursday, February 5, 2009

Why I am a Zionist

Dear Readers

Two letters appeared in the Cape Times this morning (5 Feb), criticising my last post entitled "Betrayal by any other name" which had previously been published in the same newspaper. The letter by Leonard Shapiro can be accessed on the Internet at Unfortunately, I cannot provide you with the URL for Rosemund Handler's letter which appeared in the same issue.

My response, written in some haste but which conveys the broad thrust of my position adequately, is reproduced below. It has also been submitted to the Cape Times with the request to publish in full. I would like to thank Steve Magid of "It's Almost Supernatural" for drawing attention to my blog since his readership is, deservedly, much greater than my own. He, together with Joel Pollock on "Guide to the Perplexed" keep up an informed critical commentary on on-going events which I cannot match.

They are not alone: the names David Saks and Cape Town's pithy letter writer, S Kaye, spring to mind. I hope this brief list is not invidious and apologise to the many other friends of Israel who have been outspoken in their support. We do not always see eye to eye on details but we are united in the belief that the broad Zionist project and Israel deserves the full support of the Jewish Diaspora.

And let me remind you, as I sometimes have to remind myself, don't forget to get a life. The world is bigger than the the endless conflicts which mankind is prey to. Don't get mired in despondency or anger or a sense of hopelessness. Such emotions solve nothing and often involvement in these controversies are ways of escaping from oneself or projecting one's own fears, disappointments and anger onto others. Jung sort of said it when referring to WW1:

"The psychological concomitants of the present war- above all the incredible brutalization of public opinion, the mutual slanderings, the unprecedented fury of destruction, the monstrous flood of lies, and man’s incapacity to call a halt to the bloody demon- are uniquely fitted to force upon the attention of every thinking person the problem of the chaotic unconscious which slumbers uneasily beneath the ordered world of consciousness.”

Letter submitted to Cape Times

This is a brief response to Leonard Shapiro and Rosemund Handler (Cape Times, 5 Jan), and possibly other Jews who feel the same way or are simply confused:

With Isaiah Berlin I believe that culture, spirit and values are not abstractions but are embedded in the history and struggles of a people. The values that both these writers express, and which, in general terms, I share, are those of the Jewish people formed over millennia of dispersion and struggle.

If they would truly engage with the history of their own people, and not the spectres thrown up by virulent anti-Zionists, they would understand that much Jewish existence for most of the 2nd millennium was marginal and harsh and was coming to a cataclysmic end in Christian Europe in the 19th and 20th century.

It was apparent to Jewish thinkers like Herzl after witnessing the Dreyfuss case and other evidence of the collapse of Jewish emancipation, that the Jews desperately needed a physical space in which the diverse strands of their national identity could find expression and evolve in its own unique manner. In short, they needed a national home – the necessity for which become abundantly clear with the rise of Nazism and the Holocaust within my lifetime.

This was the essential foundation on which Israel was built. But reality and history rarely accommodate themselves to human needs and deepest yearnings and the fact is that the Zionists landed in the midst of another people’s own emergence into modernity and struggle for self-expression – namely the Arabs.

The result has been the messy and often ugly struggle which persists today and is tied up with the ambitions, agendas and ideologies of both regional and global participants. It is not pretty and is extremely difficult to resolve.

I fully identify with this heroic Jewish project which has brought the possibility of a decent and full human existence for the first time to millions of marginalised and brutalised Jews from around the world. I identify with its struggle for morality in the midst of a deadly struggle and sympathise with (not overlook) its transgressions and errors. I admire its remarkable achievements. None of this detracts from my belief in the common brotherhood of humanity.

Now it is possible that this history leaves Shapiro and Handler cold or that they have other ideological commitments. But that does not mean that they’re obliged to overtly or covertly lend ammunition to those who actively wish to bring an end to this extraordinary product of Jewish idealism and spirit.

Loyalty is not a specific Jewish value – it is a universal one – and loyalty and honesty dictates that those Jews who cannot identify with the Zionist project or are especially concerned with what they perceive as its failings, find ways to express this which do not involve acts of betrayal.

Mike Berger

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Betrayal by any other name

There has been a vigorous campaign within the Jewish community, initiated by members of the South African Human Rights Delegation (SAHRD), to dissociate itself from the carefully worded and moderate statement by the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, the South African Zionist Federation and the Chief Rabbi supporting Israel in its military response to years of rocket and mortar attacks from Hamas and other extremist groups in Gaza on civilian communities in Israel.

After considerable effort, this group has managed to gather 300 signatories, out of a community of around 80 000, to a petition condemning Israel’s response to these attacks as inhumane and disproportionate. It is safe to say that the sentiments expressed by the signatories run contrary to the opinion of most South African Jews. Furthermore, at least some of those who signed are Jews in name rather than in substance or identity.

At the same time, many of the petitioners have a well-deserved high profile in South African public life and a few are known to me personally as decent, intelligent people for whom I have a high regard.

Nevertheless, I believe the action they have taken is morally and intellectually insupportable. In brief, the moral content of any action is ultimately determined by the context in which it takes place. To illustrate this in the simplest and crudest of terms let us take the murder of another human.

The sanctity of human life is rightly regarded by modern civilised people as a basic intrinsic virtue. Yet we would equally recognise that the morality of shooting a man in the back would be significantly different were he a defenceless neighbour going about his own business or the same neighbour engaged in raping your wife.

Loyalty, is equally regarded as a basic human virtue. Yet there are circumstances in which loyalty is recognised as wrong and inappropriate. For instance, in the years leading up to World War 2, when Nazi doctrines of Aryan superiority and Jewish evil were being actively promulgated by an increasingly totalitarian state bent on achieving world domination and the elimination of Jews and other “inferior” peoples, open opposition by fellow Germans can only be applauded.

The common factor in both these examples is that extreme conditions are required to justify actions like murder and betrayal which go against a deep moral consensus. This is recognised by ordinary people, by moral philosophers and, I dare say, in law.

The creation of Israel is a Jewish project (otherwise what would be the point of advertising one’s opposition as Jews?) supported by the majority of Jews worldwide. The act of publically condemning Israel for its self-defense nowhere remotely meets the standards required to justify an act of betrayal, which in context this petition undoubtedly represents.

On the contrary, the petition is being widely disseminated in the context of a situation which has been deliberately engineered by Hamas and its allies as part of a long-term strategy for reversing the creation of a Jewish state in the Middle East. This strategy includes a global campaign of demonisation and condemnation based on manipulated, selective and often downright false information. The result is a global outpouring of hatred and anti-Zionist rhetoric - and antisemitic sentiment last seen in the 1930s.

The petition lends ammunition to those whose deepest desire is to see Israel destroyed and even to those who have bought into the notion of Jewish evil, a necessary prelude to genocide the world over.

The signatories should think again and take the necessary corrective action.

Mike Berger