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Publication Date: Sep 28, 2021

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ISBN: 978-1-63542-097-5

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The State of Israel vs. the Jews

by Sylvain Cypel Translated by William Rodarmor


An unbridgeable hiatus

The year was 1990. My father was nearly eighty, and he was patiently answering my questions. He and my mother lived in Charenton then, a tiny suburb just outside Paris. It was a Sunday morning, and like every Sunday in those years, I had come over to ask my father about his life. My mother was probably in the kitchen, cooking. My wife and children would arrive in a few hours, and we would all have lunch.
My father often spoke about his family, Judaism, and his complicated relationship with religion. The son of a somewhat unorthodox Orthodox rabbi, he became an atheist but remained devoted to the Bible (things aren’t always simple). He talked about why he turned his back on religious practice, but also about his youth in Poland, his love of Yiddish literature, why he didn’t go to Palestine when he had the chance, and much else.
On this particular Sunday, my father was recalling life in his birthplace, Vladymyr, in what is now Ukraine. It was a typical town, buffeted by the region’s constant upheavals. Its nearly forty thousand inhabitants included twenty thousand Ukrainians, fifteen thousand Jews, two or three thousand Poles, and a few others. In 1911, when my father was born, it was a part of the Czarist Empire. As an eight year old, he watched the Red Army march into the town, and remembered how this raised the Jewish population’s hopes. The pogroms would finally end! But the Bolsheviks were defeated two years later, and withdrew. The town fell under the control of the nationalist Polish state, with its anti-Semitic aggressions and quotas for Jewish students.
My father left for France in 1938, when he was twenty-seven. It was a lucky move, because the town was occupied by the Soviets the next year, then in 1941 by the Germans. On September 1, 1942, Nazi Einsatzgruppen killed nearly the entire Jewish population, including my father’s parents, his brothers, their wives and all their children, his uncles, aunts, and cousins. In 1945 Vladymyr became Soviet again, and was eventually named Volodymyr.
In the 1920s, as my father told it, young Jews like him eager to break free of the oppressive anti-Semitic atmosphere and the stifling rule of shtetl rabbis, had only three options. The one chosen most often was Bundism, a worker-oriented ideology behind Polish syndicalism during that country’s industrialization. The Bund advocated a socialism in which Jewish “nationality” would enjoy broad cultural autonomy built around its language, Yiddish. The second option was Communism — Workers of the world, et cetera — and many young Jews signed on. Its path was the steepest, but it seemed the most promising. An end of exploitation for all, including Jews, and the dawn of a wonderful society whose concomitant universal brotherhood would necessarily lead to the end of anti-Semitism. The third option was Jewish nationalism, which combined two great currents. The largest by far joined ethnic nationalism and socialism; the other was ultranationalistic and chauvinistic, like most such movements in Eastern Europe. This Jewish nationalism, which melded all those tendencies, was called Zionism. Its goal was to build a Jewish state in Palestine, which was then under British colonial rule. At fifteen, my father threw away his kippah and joined socialist Zionism.
On the Sunday in 1990 when we were talking — it was soon after the fall of the Berlin Wall — my father interrupted himself in midreminiscence and said, “So you see, we won in the end.” “We” meaning Zionism and the Zionists. The Bundists, he noted, had been exterminated in the Nazi genocide, and Stalin took care of the ones Hitler didn’t kill, sending their leaders to the gulag or the firing squad. Of Bundism and Yiddish-based culture, practically nothing remained. Communism had failed as well, as anyone looking around Eastern Europe could see, and my father predicted there would soon be nothing left of it, either East or West. “But we Zionists are still here,” he said. “Israel is a tangible reality.” A strong state with a developed economy, a powerful army, and an active society. “We won,” he repeated. It was one way of continuing a very old conversation with me, arguing that the choice he’d made in his youth, the one that shaped the rest of his life and his political consciousness, had been the right one.
I remember not saying anything. And sadly thinking that the story wasn’t over, and that deep down, my father knew it. We had a very close relationship, but an unbridgeable hiatus called Zionism lay between us. It had been his whole life, and it was mine no longer.

Israel, I hardly knew you

My father had been the main leader of labor Zionism in France for a quarter century, and ran its Yiddish-language daily Unzer Wort, a socialist-Zionist paper, for twenty years until it closed in 1996. My family was living in Bordeaux when I was born in 1947, and we moved to Paris when I was nine, at which time I was enrolled in a Zionist youth labor movement. Besides French, I spoke Yiddish pretty well, but found it frowned on during my several stays in Israel, which included military service, life in a kibbutz, and university study.
I went to Israel after high school to train as a youth movement leader, but I wound up drafted into the Israeli army, serving in a paratroop brigade. When I got out, I stood six feet tall, weighed one hundred forty pounds, and was in the best shape of my life. I returned to France before turning twenty, still very much a Zionist.
But change was in the air.
In 1969 I returned to Israel, lived briefly on a kibbutz, then enrolled at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. The colonial attitudes I found there astonished me. This was only seven years after Algeria’s successful war of independence, and the Israeli students talked about the Palestinians exactly the same way French settlers there used to talk about the Arabs.
Israel had seized the West Bank and Gaza, and the Golan Heights in the Six-Day War two years earlier, and these students were confidently appraising their new real estate. They were positive the Palestinians would meekly bow to Israeli power. I felt otherwise, and our conversations got heated.
“They’ll never give up their land,” I said.
“Sure they will. We’ll give them some olives and pita bread, and it’ll be fine.”
“You’re fools to think that,” I said.
“You don’t know the Arabs. They’re liars and cowards, and couldn’t run a state of their own. They only understand force.”
My mind reeled, and my doubts grew.
I had always thought that when Israel was founded as a refuge for the persecuted Jews of the world, justice had been on the Israeli side. I knew that founding the State of Israel hadn’t been a bed of roses, but you can’t create a country without stepping on a few toes. But I was gradually discovering that the expulsion of the Palestinians and the seizing of their land had been deliberately brutal. And Israel was evolving into something no idealist could stomach: a racist, bullying little superpower.
As I became an increasingly active anti-Zionist, my life in Israel got harder. My wife and I were ostracized because of our beliefs, and we lost jobs. Paradoxically, I had many Israeli friends, some of whom vehemently disagreed with me. At the time, that was still possible. It isn’t anymore.
When the Six-Day War ended in June 1967, hadn’t my father said that Israel should give up the conquered Palestinian territory, lest it begin a fatal colonial occupation? As he and I talked, twenty-three years had passed, and Israel still occupied the Palestinian territories. But that, I didn’t mention. During my time in Israel, seeing the yawning gap between the promise and the reality of Zionism had driven me away. And after frequently clashing, my father and I had quit discussing Zionism and Israel. What was the point? We had said all there was to say. I knew how far Israel had moved from what my father had dreamed of, but when he died in 2000, nothing had made him change his mind. So I just sat on the sofa in the Charenton apartment and listened. The morning was wearing on.

A country at an impasse

In 2005, I published a book about the evolution of Zionism and the Israeli and Palestinian societies that came out two years later in English as Walled: Israeli Society at an Impasse. In 2014, my publisher suggested I write a sequel, but for a long time I resisted. The great paradox of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is that there’s something happening every day to slake the news media’s unquenchable thirst for breaking news, yet at the same time nothing fundamental really changes. Israel is still occupying another people’s land, and that people is vainly struggling to advance its national ambitions. And then there are the deaths on both sides (ten on one side, one on the other), the expulsions of people (100 percent on one side, zero on the other), the land seizures, the sealed wells, the security wall, the Palestinians’ grinding daily shuffle between checkpoints and constant administrative hassles, the repeated bombings of Gaza, the desperate kids with knives and screwdrivers lashing out in the face of these assaults . . . This has all been said, written, seen, and commented on a thousand times. The incessant repetition is wearisome, overwhelming. Its logic is implacable. The balance of power between Israelis and Palestinians is too uneven, but at the same time, it’s ineffective. Israel is too powerful to lose, but it isn’t able to win. The Palestinians can’t succeed, but also can’t afford to lose. The mere fact of their existence makes a final Israeli victory impossible, and the Palestinians’ defeat preordained.
While I can’t remember what event triggered it, I gradually began to recall that Sunday morning conversation with my father more often. And it led me to realize that I was mistaken: gradually, things in Israel were changing. Some were very new. Laws were being passed that would have been unimaginable just a decade earlier. That was also true of some statements by Israeli leaders as well as political messages spreading through Jewish Israeli society. These were often due to an exacerbation of long-standing tensions, some from the earliest days of Zionism. The appropriation of Palestinian land by any means possible was fairly typical. But other instances were truly unprecedented, like Israel’s rapprochement with the Arab–Persian Gulf monarchies.
Today, to all appearances, Israel has “won.” The national Palestinian movement hasn’t been this fragmented and powerless since the end of the 1930s. Israel continues to daily, systematically, and methodically occupy Palestinian territory, and does it with international diplomatic support that even Barack Obama couldn’t head off. This is accompanied by a policy of dispossession and repression of the inhabitants so violent that it has settled on the land like a bleak new normal that no one talks about anymore, except when something truly unusual happens. As appalling as this new normal is, nobody can see how to end it, or who could do so. And Israel’s power doesn’t only stem from its formidable military domination of the Palestinians, whom it grinds down a little more every day. It is also manifested in practically every other field, whether political, diplomatic, economic, technological, scientific, academic, or artistic. Who could ever imagine, even a little while ago, that Israel would have practically normalized its relations with most of the Eastern Arab countries without first settling the Palestinian “precondition”? The situation is still in flux, but this is Israel’s greatest international relations coup of recent years. That breakthrough has been accomplished, and it represents a radical change, even though the Palestinian question could conceivably erupt again tomorrow. Nor has Israel ever had such close relationships with such major emerging nations as China, India, and Brazil.
But there’s more. Israel’s ideological influence has never seemed so visible. It is a major player in the war on terrorism. It effectively silences its critics by threatening to label them anti-Semitic. Diplomatically, it persuaded important international figures to adopt a new definition of anti-Semitism that includes any criticism of Zionism or Israel. But at the same time, Israel’s image is undergoing a noticeable, steady deterioration in public opinion in most places, including in France and the United States. Its policy toward the occupied Palestinians, especially, has left it open to an ever more frequent and damning accusation: the crime of apartheid.
In 2018, on May 14, to be exact, I decided to write a new book, this time focusing exclusively on Israeli society. On that day, the State of Israel was celebrating the seventieth anniversary of its founding. It was also celebrating another unprecedented event: the United States embassy’s move to Jerusalem, with Donald Trump in attendance. Israel had long urged that the embassy be transferred from Tel Aviv, but without success, because a near-unanimous United Nations refused to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel so long as a peace accord to settle the issues in the aftermath of the 1948 war hadn’t been reached. But Trump didn’t care about international law. And Israel celebrated its triumph in spectacular fashion.
On that same day in Gaza, while the world’s eyes were on Jerusalem, Israel Defense Forces (IDF) snipers were shooting at the crowds of young people who had been demonstrating every Friday for a month and a half at the wall that Israel had erected along the Gaza Strip. The Israeli soldiers fired real bullets, killing three, five, or ten of these youths each time. But May 14 was a red-letter day. Some 58 Palestinians died and 1,350 were wounded, shot at long range by Israeli snipers whom they hadn’t threatened in any way.
This raised a few eyebrows in international opinion, but drew much less interest than the American embassy’s move to Jerusalem. Neither London, Paris, Berlin, Moscow, Cairo, nor Riyadh protested. As for the media, that day’s news was unquestionably the transfer of the embassy. After all, people were always dying along the Gaza border, though that day’s toll was unusually high. In shaking hands that day, Trump and Netanyahu were expressing their total contempt for international law. There was something truly unprecedented in the picture they made. It spoke both to how drastically Trump had intended to change the rules that had determined international relations since 1945, and to Israel’s preeminent role in that strategy. Might was making right.

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