The Pope recently spoke with Jewish leaders and affirmed that critique of the State of Israel is a form of anti-Semitism. He also affirmed the commonly uttered opinion that Israel has a right to exist. Unfortunately, such talking points are common ways to shut off any critique that the state of Israel is violently occupying and oppressing the Palestinian people.
Far from being just misinformed, the Pope’s talking points are more strategic. By claiming an argument is inherently anti-Semitic, one can close off any critique of Israeli state violence. There is no doubt the state of Israel has and continues to commit violence against the Palestinian people. By saying all critique of Israeli state violence is anti-Semitic, the supporters of the state of Israel do not have to address the claim that they support either intentionally or unintentionally the systematic oppression of a group of people. The argument intentionally obscures because to admit that the state of Israel is oppressing the Palestinian people might mean that one can no longer justify the actions of Israel. Although making the claim that critics of the state of Israel are anti-Semitic sometimes has basis in truth (see David Duke), it is more strategic in most cases. Similarly, the appeal to Israel’s right to exist is strategic.
What is ignored in the claim that “Israel has a right to exist” is the lack of an equivalent appeal to the right of the Palestinian people’s right to exist. It is difficult to imagine this omission as unintentional. It privileges one people’s right to exist over others without explicitly saying as much. How would the Pope address the fact that his statements ignore the Palestinian people and their continued occupation by the state of Israel? Moreover, how would the Pope address the fact that in 1948 Palestinians were forced to leave their homes in what is now the borders of Israel? Do Palestinians have a right to exist and by extension, a right to defend themselves? Or is “the right to exist” rhetoric granted only to Israel? If we’re talking realpolitik here, both peoples have a right to defend themselves.
As I have continued to develop my criticisms of Israeli state violence against the Palestinian people, I continually return to the issue of representation as a Jew. Israel claims itself as the Jewish state. It is only natural that when an entity claims to represent me, I have an obligation to determine whether such a representation is accurate to the values and practices that I hold to be important. In fact, if one looks at the internal politics of Israel, Sephardic, Ethiopic, and Mizrahi Jews are discriminated against in Israel. Even its own claim to represent all Jews is called into question in its treatment of non-Ashkenazic Jewish populations. Admittedly, I acknowledge that the situation is complicated due to Israel’s existence being a result of the aftermath of the Holocaust. Thus, I am not claiming that a Jewish homeland should cease to exist. Yet I also don’t think that this means Israeli state violence should not be critiqued.
The reason I focus on Palestine is my sense of responsibility as a Jew to focus on those who have less agency and power in this situation. While I cannot and do not claim to speak for all Jews, the exodus narrative remains central to my own personal religiosity. The exodus narrative speaks to me because of the way that it reveals God’s concern for the oppressed. Here I believe that this concern for the oppressed must extend to the oppression of the Palestinians. Such a focus is not an indication of anti-Jewishness, but rather an indication of values I hold to be dear within Jewish ethical traditions. What is more is that a Zionism that advocates for a multi-national, single state, one that relies on Jewish and Palestinian cooperation has historically existed. In other words, even the term Zionism at one point did not exclude the critique of violence against the Palestinians. It might be a pipe dream, but dreams have a lot of power. It also seems the only adequate way to address the fact that both populations originate from the Southern Levant.