Reading Yakov Rabkin’s What is Modern Israel? (Chicago, 2016), you can only marvel that Israel continues to exist at all, given its unending criminal behavior, from the 1920s onward, while it was still just a dream, until the present. The only change is in the details, the full scale wars of conquest (1948, 1956, 1967) giving way to smaller-scale invasions of occupied territories and Gaza (there’s no more land to conquer), the creeping settlements, and ever new bureaucratic torture techniques intended to drive the Palestinians either crazy or into voluntary exile.
Even the latter, a soft version of the 1948 ethnic cleansing, is made difficult, as the Palestinians can only leave via Jordan, at the mercy of Israel. Why does the whole world, especially the US, which could bring Israel to heel overnight, let the horror continue?
Rabkin delves deep into the Russian Yiddish roots of Israel and brings together many startling facts, which suggest that there was a much better option for Palestine and the Jews, one which was scuttled by secular Jewish fanatics inspired by their experiences before and after the Russian Revolution. What is Modern Israel? is packed with fascinating quotes and historical tidbits. Some of Rabkin’s insights from his book and a podcast interview include,
He decries the use of holocaust in depicting the tragedy of WWII, as that is a religious symbol, and the deaths were hardly a burnt offering to some god. He uses genocide. Rabkin also insists that it is not the “Jewish lobby” and “Jewish State,” but the Zionist lobby/ state, as most Jews are not Zionists, certainly not approving of Israel’s remorseless brutality and illegal settlements. And the lesson of the genocide and the rejection of Zionism: multiculturalism, not “be strong and kill and hound suspected antisemites.”
Israel is a stark example of “demodernization,” something that is happening around the world in different ways, as a reaction to the weakness of secular multiculturalism. Marshal McLuhan just uses tribal to describe the larger global village return to oral cultures, which as in preliterate society, were tribal, “politically engaged, emotionally charged, tightly woven,” but demodernization is ef-fective to juxtapose the wildly modern nature of Israel as opposed to what I call postmodern states in the current geopolitical order. It still has an independent foreign policy, like the US, and unlike Canada and Europe. Combine this 20th-century Jewish virulent form of premodern tribalism with high tech, and you have a recipe for disaster.
The Russian (and Polish) shtetl/ ghetto life of Jews morphed into the ghetto mentality and the reality of Israel. Israel is one big (really, small) ghetto, a fragile one plagued by enemies within (not the Arabs, but rather the various Jewish religious and secular factions) surrounded by equally implacable enemies. And this ain’t gonna change. Ever.
The violence of the Russian revolutionary traditions both before and after the 1917 revolution saw Jews at the forefront of the social upheaval and transformation. Jews suffered the most as a group from discrimination in Tsarist Russia, at the same time, largely embracing the secularization process that saw the weakening of religion as the foundation of social life. They partook of the anarchist assassinations of political leaders, including Tsar Alexander II, and Nicolas II. Stalin’s deportations of Tatars, Chechens, and others during WWII were a template for Jabotkinsky’s project to rid Palestine of its natives. Though Stalin turned against Israel in 1948, he looms large in Israeli history.
Rabkin compares the artificial creation of a new capital for Russia under Peter the Great, St. Petersburg, to Israel’s creation of a new capital, Tel Aviv, and the construction of a new state, as built on slave labor and without regard to the environment or traditions. Critics of both projects forewarned of the unviability of these ambitious schemes. St. Petersburg limps along, but couldn’t survive without, yes, slave (Russia’s “blacks”) labor to keep the wheels turning.
Jewishness as fashioned after the creation of Israel is largely a Russian/Soviet secular nationality, with little regard (really, none at all) to Jewish spiritual traditions. This was not a problem in the Soviet Union, where all religion was suppressed, and where Jews were given complete equality with other “nationalities” and even encouraged to express their Jewishness, to the extent of creating an autonomous Jewish republic, Birobaidjan. It was in virtually-uninhabited Siberia which meant no natives had to be “cleansed,” but had the drawback that Jews, preferring urban European-style lives, refused to take up the offer. So Israel is actually the second “homeland” of Jews, one still waiting for them in reserve.
Israel’s first Prime Minister David Ben Gurion wrote an ode to Lenin, and Menachem Begin was an NKVD (People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs, the leading Soviet secret police organization from 1934–1946) agent. Israel is a Russian/communist Jewish creation, despite the fact that once Soviet military aid was no longer necessary, Israel dropped its intimate links with the Soviet Union (eat crow, Stalin). All the prime ministers have been Russian. They despise the Mizrahi Arab Jews (let alone the Arab Muslims).
Rabkin could have gone a step farther to see how other new states being born in 1948 were faring. Yugoslavia, like Israel in 1948, broke ties with Stalin, both for their national independence and independent building of socialism. Both paths were supported by the US as keystones to its Cold War Great Game strategy, but they quickly diverged. Yugoslavia distanced itself from the US and made peace with the reformist Nikita Khrushchev, staying true to its socialist principles. Israel increasingly abandoned the romance of communism, symbolized by the kibbutz, embedding itself in the US-dominated imperial order as the enemy of socialism.
Yugoslavia was genuinely socialist, which meant a nonracist society, where the formerly hostile Slavs, Croats et al. lived in peace, integrating as a society in economic and social terms, while maintaining their ethnic identities. When the socialist bloc collapsed, Yugoslavia descended into civil war (thank you, imperialism!). Israel’s ethnic time-bomb still ticks, but can’t avoid a collapsed at some point, its blatant racist identity ensuring it will never be fully accepted by the rest of the world.
Yes, Israel was a creation of the British imperial strategists in the 19th–20th centuries. But the way Israel looks is much more Russian-Soviet than British, even as the kibbutzim disappear. Israel is a wolf in sheep’s clothing, and awaits some kind of Yugoslav denouement. This warning forces the world to push Israel asap to avoid the Yugoslav scenario, and agree to a sensible resolution in line with the international order.
Soviet Jews who came en masse after 1990 easily assimilated in Israel because of their acceptance of the state of Israel as largely secular, and much like other Western states. They were used to a state with a heavy hand and not much opposed to treating the “brown” natives as second class. They were white and brought their secular racism with them. Soviet Jews were a mixed blessing to Israel, bringing many who were not even Jews and in any case far more interested in going to the US/Canada, opting for an Israeli passport merely as a way out.
In fairness to the Soviet Union, “browns” were treated equally with “whites,” the latter including Jews. In fact, this was resented by those lurking “white” Russian racists, who saw/see themselves as superior, and motivates anti-Jewish prejudice today. The weak racism of Soviet life was not anti-Jewish until Israel fomented unrest and pressured the West to allow its Jews to emigrate. On the contrary, the subtle racism of Jews as the “chosen people,” a tribe unto itself, is in line with the traditional white (Russian/American) racism, and accounts today for the extreme racism that Muslims encounter in Israel from both aliyah factions.
I would add two other baneful Russian/Soviet legacies: the disdain for civil rights, and the use of the constitution as a fig leaf (Stalin, again, a model).
Rabkin recounts how diaspora Jews prefer not to know much about Israeli life, preferring to just support Israel blindly as the “Jewish State.” This also has a Soviet parallel, with foreign socialists visiting the Soviet Union from the 1920s onward, seeing it through rose-tinted lenses, oblivious to the terror of Stalinist society. One might call this the Potemkin or the George Bernard Shaw syndrome, as he visited Moscow in the 1930s during the height of the repression, and saw a Potemkin village Soviet Union.
Rabkin calls this seeing a “virtual Israel,” as foreign Jews are regularly invited on junkets carefully shepherded by Israeli tour guides, seeing only the nice Israel, coming back and reporting how the Israelis (don’t use “Jews”) “made the desert bloom.” At a conference at Ben Gurion University of the Negev, an American participant asked Rabkin, “Where is Negev?”
My own version of this Potemkin syndrome is a young Jewish friend who went to visit Israel (not on the Birthright junk). I asked him to quiz his friends there about the conflict, the wall, their service. When he returned, “So tell me about the wall?” He replied, “What wall? The only wall I saw was a low wire fence on the border of Lebanon” (where he visited a 6th generation Jewish olive farmer and smoked lots of pot). His Israeli friends were not interested in politics. They refused to talk about their military service, much like American soldiers returning from stints in Afghanistan or Iraq.
Even otherwise politically correct Jewish Canadians still find Israel kind of neat — illicit, titillating, something to be proud of and ashamed of at the same time. A poisonous dual nationality, with or without the extra passport. This conflation of Jewish/Israel with poison immediately elicits charges of antisemitism from the Thought Police. But Ruth Blau, in 1937, recounts the words of Theodor Herzl and Max Nordau, “The Jews constitute a foreign and destructive element for the countries they inhabit.”
There are lots of Jews in the Diaspora who are fed up with Israel’s flagrant violations of international law, of human rights, but most are still afraid to speak out, though this is changing. On the other hand, opinion polls show Russians as the most pro-Israel (25%, tied with Canadians) after Nigerians, Americans, and Kenyans (54%, 50%, 45%). Moscow has the one of the largest Israeli expatriate communities in the world, with 80,000 Israeli citizens. There are 60 flights a week between Tel Aviv and Moscow, and visa-free travel. Russian media coverage is by Russian Israelis and is naturally pro-Israeli. Israel’s military power and its Russian character play to Russian chauvinism. Over 400,000 Orthodox pilgrims from Russia visited Israel in 2015– 2016. Russia is Israel’s main supplier of oil.
Writing about Canada and Israel means focusing as much on the way the natives in both countries fared, how they interacted with the colonial occupiers/settlers. While historians have been sifting through the rubble of Palestine-Israel for years, there are many gaps in Canadian history, and the shocking treatment of natives continues to come to light decades after it was the norm and done with impunity. Unlike Canada’s theft of land in the 19th century, Israel’s theft of land and invasions of Gaza and Lebanon make world headlines, though they are still done with impunity.
This impunity, despite the headlines, is because of the power that world Jewry wields, both in the media and in the halls of governments through the Jewish-Israeli (oops, Zionist) lobbies and government officials. The conflation of Jewish and Israeli was achieved after the creation of Israel as the “home of all Jews” and cemented by the 1960s, when Jewish criticism of Israel largely was silenced, and world Jews seemed to accept that their real homeland was not where they lived, but in Israel. This contrasts with the case of regular colonies, like Canada, which was never the “home of all Brits.”
The Zionists actually like the hostility of westerners toward Jews that results from this conflation of Jew and Israel, or, if we believe Herzl, is endemic to Jews in the Diaspora. It either encourages aliyah and/or is “proof” that antisemitism is endemic and that Israel is a safe haven. Win-win for the Zionists, but lose-lose for the Jews.
Arab Palestinians wanted full independence from Britain as Arab Muslim states after WWII, something that Canadian natives could not aspire to, given their much weaker position with respect to the colonizers. Religious Jews such as Rabbi Amram Blau (1894–1974), who founded Neturei Karta in 1937, also advocated that, “political control of the Holy Land must be handed over to the Palestinians, that Jewish life would be better protected under Arab control than in the Zionist State.” He argued that Palestinian rule would be no worse than other non-Jewish regimes, “in Switzerland or America, for instance.”
But the Jewish invasion of Palestine from the 1930s onward has put the Muslims in much the same perilous state as Canada’s natives. Today, Canadians are trying to “decolonize,” acknowledging their genocidal treatment of natives, and finally making amends, however little and late. This gives hope to Israel’s natives, who are being treated much like Canadian natives in the 19th century, subject to outright racism, violence, open theft of land, and no “right of return.” Given the world’s condemnation of colonialism today, this cannot continue.
Rabkin clarifies Israel as a Russian/Soviet creation and a British/ American outpost for imperialism. My own writings focus more on the natives and their prospects. For both of us, there is a sea change taking place in the world’s understanding of Israel-Palestine, pushing it toward Canada’s (the world’s) multiculturalism, even as the ironies of history confound the imagination.