Radicals, Rabbis, and Peacemakers: Conversations with Jewish Critics of Israel

Seth Farber, Radicals, Rabbis, and Peacemakers: Conversations with Jewish Critics of Israel (Monroe, ME: Common Courage Press, 2005).1

My grandparents came to America from Hungary in 1912. My family who stayed there and the Hungarian Jewish population were mostly killed by the fascists in the bitter winter of 1944, some 800,000. Twenty thousand alone died of the cold and disease, huddled in the great unheated synagogue, the largest in the world, on Dohany Street in Budapest. I was in Budapest with my wife and sister and friends in October 2005, vacationing and visiting my cousins. As it happened it was during Yom Kippur, the Jewish high holiday and new year. We are not religious, nor are my Hungarian relatives, but we asked them to take us to that synagogue for Yom Kippur services. It was quite stirring to be there amongst the remnant of that ancient Jewish community that had been in Budapest going back to the times of the Romans.

My Hungarian cousin Anti is still alive and vigorous at age 96. He was not picked up in 1944 with the others but rather in 1941, because he was a communist. So was his wife Manci. They managed to place their two year old son Vili with a sympathetic Christian woman before being arrested and put in separate labor camps. Anti soon escaped and fought in the forests with the Partisans. He is a figure mentioned by his country’s historians. Manci lived. In 1945 with the Russian liberation they returned to Budapest to fetch their son. Vili answered the door. “I am your mother,” said Manci. “No you are not,” answered Vili. “My mother was beautiful.” She was ninety pounds and bald. So they started anew.

The history of the Zionists in Hungary is a sordid one, even before they established their exclusivist colonial settler state in Palestine. My cousins, who were not important people, were amongst the several thousand Hungarian Jews who survived the fire. A pact was signed by Dr. Rudolph Kastner of the Jewish Agency Rescue Committee and Nazi exterminator Adolph Eichmann in 1944 allowing 600 prominent Jews to leave in exchange for Zionist silence on the fate of the remainder. Malchiel Greenwald, a Hungarian survivor, exposed the deal and was sued by the Israeli government, whose leaders at the time had actually drawn up the terms of the pact. Greenwald won. The Israeli court concluded, “The sacrifice of the majority of Hungarian Jews, in order to rescue the prominent ones [and send them to colonize Palestine – MSS] was the basic element in the agreement between Kastner and the Nazis… In addition to its Extermination Department and Looting Department, the Nazi SS opened a Rescue Department headed by Kastner.”2

In fact, members of the Zionist movement actively collaborated with Nazism from the beginning. The World Zionist Organization sabotaged world Jewry’s attempt to boycott the Nazi economy in order to be allowed to send money from Germany to Palestine. They fought against liberalization of US immigration laws, for they wanted European Jews to go to Palestine, not America. As Ralph Schoenman, like me, an American Jew of Hungarian descent, wrote, “This obsession with colonizing Palestine and overwhelming the Arabs led the Zionist movement to oppose any rescue of the Jews facing extermination, because the ability to deflect manpower to Palestine would be impeded.”3 David Ben Gurion, later Israel’s first Prime Minister, summarized to a meeting of “left” Zionists in 1938 in England: “If I knew that it would be possible to save all the children in Germany by bringing them over to England and only half of them by transporting them to Eretz Israel, then I opt for the second alternative.”4

In 1940, Joseph Weitz, the head of the Jewish Agency’s Colonization Department, which was responsible for the actual organization of settlements in Palestine wrote: “Between ourselves it must be clear that there is no room for both peoples together in this country. We shall not achieve our goal if the Arabs are in this small country. There is no other way than to transfer the Arabs from here to neighboring countries — all of them. No village, not one tribe should be left.”5

The United Nations partitioned Palestine in November of 1947 and by May of 1948, when the State of Israel was formally proclaimed, the Zionist army and militia had seized 75% of Palestine, forcing 780,000 Palestinians out of the country. Massacres attended Israel’s birth. Former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin commanded an operation in the Arab village of Deir Yasin which caused people to flee for their lives. Albert Einstein and others discribed it in a 1948 letter to the New York Times: “This village, off the main roads and surrounded by Jewish lands, had taken no part in the war, and had even fought off Arab bands who wanted to use the village as their base. On April 9th (Begin’s) terrorist bands attacked this peaceful village, which was not a military objective in the fighting, killed most of its inhabitants — 240 men, women, and children — and kept a few of them alive to parade as captives through the streets of Jerusalem.”6

Begin gloated over the impact throughout Palestine of the Nazi-like operation he commanded at Deir Yasin: “A legend of terror spread amongst Arabs who were seized with panic at the mention of our Irgun soldiers. It was worth half a dozen battalions to the forces of Israel. Arabs throughout the country were seized with limitless panic and started to flee for their lives. This mass flight soon developed into a maddened uncontrollable stampede.”7

The first time I toured and worked in Israel was over the summer of 1959. I was 16 years old; Israel was 11. Anti’s brother Carl and his son managed to survive and get to Israel. They lived in Jaffa, a once Arab village north of Tel Aviv which was ethnically cleansed in 1948. I found them in a two-room apartment off an alley. Carl’s son, a boy of 10, greeted me at the door. He wore a blue shirt embroidered with white Chinese characters on the pocket. I recognized the shirt; it had once been my favorite. My grandmother must have sent it in one of the care packages she regularly assembled and mailed. Carl is dead now. So is his son. He was the last Israeli soldier to die in the 1967 war.

Seth Farber’s extraordinarily intelligent book, consisting as it does of interviews with ten eloquent critics of Israel, and a fine editorial summation, strikingly demonstrates, as did my cousin’s death, not only that Israel is a dangerous place for Jews (not the safe haven advertised by the Zionists), but also that the very existence of this State — for whose establishment 385 out of 475 Palestinian cities, towns, and villages were razed to the ground; where the construction of an apartheid wall and the widespread use of torture are an international disgrace; where to live, lease, sharecrop, or work on 93% of the land administered by the Jewish National Fund one must establish four generations of maternal Jewish descent; where only Jewish citizens have equal rights — has undermined Judaism’s ethical and humane tradition and the moral capital that oppressed Jews had accumulated over the centuries. As Farber writes in his introduction:

This book, this compilation is intended to be an affirmation of the moral and spiritual tradition of Judaism — or at least of certain aspects of this tradition that probably most Jews, most Americans, agree constitute a valuable legacy. It is based on my conviction, shared by most of the individuals interviewed…, that this legacy was betrayed and is currently threatened with extinction by the policies of the state of Israel, and in particular its violation of the Palestinian people. It was betrayed also by the American Jewish establishment which gives active and unqualified support to Israel and has been willing to turn a blind eye to the considerable evidence that Israel’s actions over the last few decades are those of a… state engaged in brutal military Occupation in violation of fundamental principles of international law….

Noam Chomsky, states in his interview that “the creation of a state as a Jewish state was a serious mistake… I thought then, and think now, that it is wrong in principle to establish a state that is not the state of its citizens, but rather, as the High Court later defined it, though it was clear enough from 1948 — the sovereign state of the Jewish people, in Israel and the diaspora. Hence it is my state as an American Jew, though it is not the state of non-Jewish citizens. For the same reason, I would oppose moves to turn the U.S. into the sovereign state of the white (Christian, whatever) people, and I object to Islamic states, etc. It is a matter of principle, quite apart from the consequences.”  He too, like contributors Joel Kovel, Norman Finkelstein, Marc Ellis, Daniel Boyarin, Steve Quester, Adam Shapiro of the International Solidarity Movement, Phyllis Bennis, Norton Mezvinsky, and Orthodox Neturei Karta Rabbi David Weiss and his daughter Ora Weiss, make the central point that those who challenge the present consensus are keeping the prophetic tradition alive. In Rabbi Weiss’s words, “Zionism is the antithesis of Judaism” because Jews in their exile were supposed to be compassionate, “the work of the Jew is to perfect himself as best he could, to serve G-d and to emulate G-d and he should be a light unto nations,” not “oppressing a second person.”

Baylor University professor and Jewish theologian Marc Ellis says that the Jewish embrace of power and empire mirrors 4th-century Roman Emperor Constantine’s embrace of Christianity (in the middle of a battle, to better his chances) and the conversion and transformation of the Roman Empire to a Christian enterprise. He says today we have “Constantinian Judiasm” where “The Jewish Community is divided between those who support Jewish power without question and those who resist the use of that power to oppress and silence. A Constantinian Judaism has come into being, mirroring the empire-oriented Christianity that emerged….There is a civil war in the Jewish world that crosses geographic and cultural differences. There are Constantinian Jews in Israel and America; there are Jews of conscience all over the Jewish world.”

The ideal my cousin Anti fought for was the communist goal of universal human emancipation. This was not the Zionists’ aim, neither in its theoretical conception nor in its predictable and proven results. In l887 the Zionist Congress sent a delegation of rabbis from Vienna to Palestine. They reported back that “The bride is beautiful but she is married to another man.” The Zionists nonetheless persisted with their project of overwhelming and displacing the Palestinians, with the consequence that in the name of Judaism they have put into jeopardy the morality of the religion that gave us the Ten Commandments, especially the first. The eminent scholar of Jewish origin, Isaac Deutscher, wrote in the wake of the war that killed my cousin:

I hope that together with other nations, the Jews will ultimately become aware — or regain awareness — of the inadequacy of the nation-state, and that they will find their way back to the moral and political heritage that the genius of the Jews who have gone beyond Jewry (Spinoza, Marx, Luxemburg, Heine, Freud, Einstein, Trotsky) has left us — the message of universal human emancipation.8

This book with its probing interviews and unsparing analyses is a sunbeam of piercing truth, carrying the debate over Israel/Palestine to the highest level of understanding.

Reviewed by Michael Steven Smith
National Lawyers Guild
Member of 1985 human rights delegation to West Bank and Gaza

Notes

1. An earlier version of her argument, written with Leopoldina Fortunati, was published in 1984: Il Grande Calibano. Storia del corpo sociale ribelle nella prima fase del capitale, Milan: Franco Angeli.

2. The imperial fringe was subsidized by Russia, especially with cheap energy — quite unusual for an empire.

3. If there was a ruling class at all, there were no really rich people in the Soviet Union as there are in western countries and in Russia today. Although comparable to middle-class goods in the west like dachas, cars and traveling abroad, the privileges of the elite profoundly offended the public.

4. Speech to the 27th Congress of the CPSU (Ekonomicheskaia Gazeta, March 1986, No. 10, p. 6).

5. See H. Aage, “Russian Occupational Wages in Transition.” Comparative Economic Studies 38, 4 (Winter 1996), 35-52.

6. P. Reddaway & D. Glinski,  The Tragedy of Russia’s Reforms: Market Bolshevism against Democracy (Washington, D.C.: United States Institute of Peace 2001), p. 427.

7. A. Kashepov, “Socioeconomic Determinants of the Demographic Situation in Russia.” Sociological Research 42, 2 (March-April 2003), pp. 11,26.

8. M. Ellman, “Transition: Intended and Unintended Processes.” Comparative Economic Studies 47, 4 (December 2005), p. 609.

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