Peoples Geography — Reclaiming space

Creating people's geographies

Israel does not act or speak for every Jew By Andrew Benjamin

SMH 5 August 2006

I WRITE as a Jew and as a synagogue member. I write as one whose academic work continues to move through questions of Jewish identity and the legacy of the Holocaust. Yet, I write with a growing sense of shame. The source of the feeling is simple: Israel claims that it continues to act in my name.

The Jewish community in Sydney and elsewhere insists on identifying themselves with Israeli actions. These acts are part of a tradition in which the state of Israel has set the measure for being Jewish.

The proof of this is the perverse logic in which responses to the politics of Israel – a politics that manifests itself in the bulldozing of houses in Gaza and the bombing of civilians in Qana – take the form of attacks on synagogues, Jewish cultural centres and Jewish cemeteries. Each time Israel acts in a certain way, security measures around synagogues are doubled.

Why? The straightforward answer attests to the victory of those who have linked and continue to link being a Jew to Israel and thus to those who conflate Judaism and Zionism.

The consequence of this is that a critique of Zionism or a disagreement over the policies of Israel are taken at best as a criticism of Jews and, at worst, as anti-Semitic. The evidence is clear. Attacks on synagogues in Seattle and Parramatta underscore the results of this. These attacks are the result of the politics of a nation state.

For a Jew, Israel is both the name of a state and the locus of ideals and actions.

Israel, as a place in which the endless and complex negotiation with others takes place, is the Israel that exists within Judaism. This is the Israel evoked in the liturgy. The state of Israel needs to be judged in relation to the other Israel.

There is a Judaic critique of Israel; one which once articulated would allow some Jews to undo the project that continues to identify the policies of a state with both a culture and a religion.

Until that undoing is accomplished Jewish community centres – religious or secular – will continue to be attacked. Israel, in its present manifestation, sustains anti-Semitism.

And yet, it will be argued the Holocaust has made the state of Israel a necessity: a state was needed so that such events not happen again.

State creation always displaces a people. And the results of that founding displacement should always be acknowledged, understood and in the end resolved.

However what endures for many as an outrage is Israel hijacking the Holocaust for its political ends: the Holocaust is used to sustain a specific geo-political situation.

The other night in Sydney at the Great Synagogue a speaker defended the incursion into Lebanon on the grounds that it would prevent a further Holocaust.

Given arguments of this nature, questions need to be asked. What right does a national government have to speak on behalf of those who died? What sanctions the deploying of that legacy in order to justify the bombing of Lebanon? For a Jew, and indeed for others, these are profound and important questions.

Understanding the Holocaust, tracing its impact upon how we think today, is a project that endures. Moreover, it is a project that resists easy summation. The idea that it can figure as an element of state policy is both an intellectual and ethical scandal. This needs to be said.

Until Jews are prepared to articulate the need to sever the identification of Judaism and Israel, anti-Semitism will flourish. Until Jews are prepared to argue that the Holocaust and its legacy is not the province of a nation state, let alone a justification for Zionism, our responsibility in relation to the dead will continue to be betrayed. We should demand better of ourselves.

Andrew Benjamin is a professor at the University of Technology, Sydney, and a fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities.

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This entry was posted on 6 August, 2006 by in Empire, War and Terror, Human Rights, Israel, Lebanon, Middle East, Religion.

Timely Reminders

"Those who crusade, not for God in themselves, but against the devil in others, never succeed in making the world better, but leave it either as it was, or sometimes perceptibly worse than what it was, before the crusade began. By thinking primarily of evil we tend, however excellent our intentions, to create occasions for evil to manifest itself."
-- Aldous Huxley

"The only war that matters is the war against the imagination. All others are subsumed by it."
-- Diane DiPrima, "Rant", from Pieces of a Song.

"It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there"
-- William Carlos Williams, "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower"