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The necessity and impossibility of taking sides

By Mark Leonard. Source: Observer, 19 January 2003

A personal reflection on the dilemmas raised by the Israeli election for Jews around the world

The Israeli election next week will trigger yet again the mixed feelings, discomfort and conflicting loyalties that define life as a Jew at the beginning of the 21st century. The sense that we will be implicated in the actions of a right-wing government that we can't vote for and do not support is deeply uncomfortable. I have heard Jews complain bitterly that they are allowed to vote in lots of elections they don't care about - to send an anonymous person to the European Parliament, or decide who collects their dustbins - while being totally excluded from a process that will impact on them and their families in an existential way.

Personally speaking, I have always had an ambivalent relationship with the collective pronoun, and felt strange when people have included me in the phrase "us Jews". I have little knowledge of the religious and cultural aspects of Judaism. I have only once visited Israel itself. And yet the fact that my mother is Jewish is arguably the most important constitutive part of my identity. For me being Jewish is a fact dictated by history. The holocaust both explains why I have so few relatives on my mother's side and also why I need to speak three languages simply to converse with her brother and sister who each live in different countries. I often wondered whether this feeling of confusion was related to the fact that my upbringing was secular. But the Sharon Government has meant that many now experience what the Auschwitz survivor Jean Améry labelled "the necessity and impossibility of being a Jew". Each will do it in a different way, and my own expressions of discomfort are bound to alienate everyone else - Arab and Jew alike - involved in understanding their own responses to the dilemma.

First the necessity. The holocaust sealed the link between Jewishness and Israel - even for anti-zionists. The Israel in people's heads means that "there is somewhere to go" should history repeat itself. And Israel certainly cashes in on this feeling. Many have written of the Jewish diaspora's support for Israel - financial through remittances and political through the lobbying of national governments. But the diaspora provides the state of Israel with something that goes far beyond material help: legitimacy. Most travellers to Israel will stop at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem. Etched into the stone of one of the monuments are the words: "from their death our life". This is a graphic recognition that the existence of Israel rests on the rock of the six million.

The necessity of being a Jew is reinforced by perceptions of a "new wave of anti-semitism" sweeping Europe. It is understandable that Americans see the rise of the far right, the desecration of synagogues and Jewish graves as echoes of the 1930s. But much of this new anti-semitism tends to be contingent - more a reaction to the situation in Israel-Palestine than an essential hatred of Jews. Socially excluded youths of Arab origin (subject to a good deal of racism and abuse from the far-right themselves) identify their own difficult circumstances with the plight of the Palestinians they see on the TV news and take action. But it is precisely this solidarity for the "oppressed" that adds a new dimension to the conflict with the Palestinians.

Sometimes it looks as if the "zero-sum" logic of Jews who argue that the conflict is irresolvable is less about land, water and security than Israel's claim to a monopoly of victimhood. Some, such as the playwright Arnold Wesker, have even suggested that the biggest challenge to Israel's existence comes not from the explosives of suicide bombers but from the Palestinian ability to be seen as greater victims than the Jews. For Jews, victimhood is a birth-right. Elie Wiesel once said that being Jewish is "having a long memory" - and that memory stretches back through two thousand years of forced evictions, pogroms, and massacres. Many Jews cannot understand how the suffering of two generations of Palestinians, can out-victim the most oppressed people in the history of mankind. This leaves the historical tragedy of two wronged people continuing to inflict damage on each other.

But this necessary attachment to the existence of an Israeli nation - and the need to identify with Jews - is mirrored by an equally strong feeling of alienation. The bundle of feelings that Améry called "the impossibility of being a Jew", has different roots for different Jews. But a number of recent developments are making these dilemmas more acute.

First there is Sharon. It was difficult not to share Israeli doubts about Arafat when he walked away from peace and sealed Barak's defeat in the 2000 general election - but the total unreason of Sharon's Government has stretched the loyalty of even the most steadfast allies of Israel to the point of destruction. This goes beyond his self-defeatingly violent tactics. Few people can identify with the systematic way Sharon has set about putting peace beyond reach, and the almost casual humiliation of sympathetic leaders: Blair, Colin Powell and even Bush himself.

Secondly, the changing demography of the promised land. A short trip to Israel is enough to tell me that the over-educated, idealistic European emigres of my grandmother's generation are in short supply. The freedom Israel has accorded to North African and Eastern European Jews goes to the heart of its moral purpose. But implementing of the vision of the secular humanists who founded the state has now had the unintended consequence of changing its nature.

The most alienating consequence of this - particularly for secular Jews - is the growing power of the ultra-Orthodox Jews, whose black hats and black coats are increasingly visible in the Knesset. The growing influence of the Haredim - and their ability to blackmail Likud governments with the threat of withholding political support - means that Israel retains some of the trappings of a theocracy: only religious marriages are legal, huge amounts of public money flow into religious schools, public services including buses close down on the Sabbath, and religious scholars are exempt not only from military service, but tax as well. Despite the fact that the majority of Jews in Israel are secular, they have been powerless to stop these developments.

Finally, there is the generational change. The fact that discrimination is becoming something that Jews in developed countries learn about, but do not experience themselves, is bound to have an impact in the long-term. Young Jews are acutely aware of their moral duty to ensure that the experience of the Holocaust is not forgotten - but their support for Israel is bound to be more contingent than it was for a generation who experienced its consequences at first hand. This contingency is given added weight by the growing rumbles of dissidence within Israel itself: the conversion of young army recruits to the peace movement, the determination of Labour Leader Amran Mitzna to return to the negotiating table, and the emergence of Shinui, the anti-orthodox party, under the leadership of the charismatic Yosef "Tommy" Lapid.

And yet for many Jews, whatever deep differences of policy they have with the Israeli Government, the necessity of supporting the idea of Israel often outweighs the impossibility of the contemporary Jewish dilemma. In a strange way this echoes the special relationship between Britain and America. Britain might feel deeply uneasy about American actions, but ultimately each episode is reduced to a black-and-white loyalty test which no British Prime Minister has flunked.

The peculiar genius of Sharon has been to demand support by conflating the war to defend Israel's existence, which all Jews can relate to, with his personal war to defend a greater Israel that runs from the Mediterranean to the Jordan. It must be said that this mirrors the political tactics on the Palestinian side. In the last two years, the increased intensity of suicide attacks against Israelis has meant that the Palestinian struggle for functional statehood has become blurred with the quest of those who dream of driving Israel into the sea. The chants of "death to Jews" at Palestinian demonstrations rekindle the inherited memories of victimhood which make it politically impossible to separate the moderate from the ultra-orthodox Jews, and so help to maintain Ariel Sharon in power. As long as this happens the two-state solution that everyone knows will have to be adopted in the end will remain beyond reach.

· Mark Leonard is Director of The Foreign Policy Centre ( and writes here in a personal capacity. He writes regularly online for Observer Worldview.