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A view from the left and critical comment

Leftwingers characteristically cast a more critical eye on their own societies than on others. At its best it reflects an idealism and energetic optimism regarding the possibility of social improvement and is a welcome antidote to uncritical nationalism and xenophobic impulses. The downside is the loss of proportion, a kind of doctrinaire idealism (even Utopianism) insulated from reality and a consequent failure to recognise the achievements of one’s own society. Carried further it becomes more destructive than beneficial and at its extreme it turns into a messianic absolutism and betrayal.

With this loaded introduction, I have the pleasure to introduce a leftwing academic of the more admirable kind, “Prof Emeritus Gideon Shimoni”.  He was born and educated in South Africa but emigrated to Israel in the 1960s where he was a former head of the Hebrew University’s Institute of Contemporary Jewry, and held the Shlomo Argov Chair in Israel-Diaspora Relations. Among his books are The Zionist Ideology, (1995) and Community and Conscience: The Jews in Apartheid South Africa, (2003) both published by Brandeis University & University Press of New England. Prof Shimoni’s personal integrity and courage is illustrated by the following:

Alon Liel, former Israeli Ambassador to SA, had this to say at the Jerusalem Conference around the time of Obama’s only visit to Israel: “If you, President Obama, intend to come here for a courtesy visit — don’t come. Don’t come! We don’t need you here for a courtesy visit,” Liel said. “You cannot come to an area that exhibits signs of apartheid and ignore them. That would simply be an unethical visit. You yourself know full well that Israel is standing at the apartheid cliff. If you don’t deal with this topic during your visit, the responsibility will at the end of the process also lie with you.” Only Professor Shimoni challenged the application of the term Apartheid with regard to Israeli policies which he said was “rather unfair and lacks intellectual honesty.” He argued that “from land theft to various draconic [sic] restrictions, as much they are worthy of condemnation — they are not apartheid,” which he called a “rhetorical weapon…to demonize and excoriate the State of Israel.” (This exchange can be found here.)

This was a brave action which directly challenged the simplistic sloganeering of the group organising the conference but is in keeping with all that I know of his meticulous scholarship and careful, honest evaluations of the evidence. That said it does not automatically follow that Shimoni is right, and this post will largely be devoted to an article he sent to me addressing the fundamental justification for the establishment of Israel.

But before we go there a brief diversion. I sent the following letter recently to the Cape Times:

In the interesting coverage of the Nobel Prize winners of 2013 (by the Cape Times), some pertinent information has been omitted or minimised which may be of interest to South African readers. Michael Levitt one of the 3 co-winners of the Chemistry prize for modelling complex chemical reactions, was born, raised and educated in Pretoria until he went to Kings College, London to obtain his BSc.

Levitt, along with his Israeli born co-winner, Arieh Warshel, were together at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel for a number of years where they started on the work which ultimately yielded the Nobel Prize. The third winner, Martin Karplus, was an Austrian Jew by birth and fled prior to the Nazi invasion of his country.

Even more dramatic is the history of Francois Englert, co-winner of the Physics prize with Peter Higgs for their theoretical work on the acquisition of mass by subatomic particles. He was a Holocaust survivor hiding during the war in orphanages and children’s homes. Amongst his different appointments he is Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Tel Aviv University.

The Nobel Prize for Medicine or Physiology went to two Jewish Americans, Randy Shekman and James Rothman, and a German, Thomas Sudhof. Two Israelis, Howard Cedar and Aharon Razin, were in the running

A fact, which can only be missed through selective blindness, is that of the 8 Nobel Prizes in the sciences 6 were of Jewish origin this year and most of them worked in the USA, while 3 had Israeli affiliations. Jews who make up about 0.2 % of the world’s population have been awarded about 20 % of the Nobel Prizes – at least a 100 fold over-representation. 

Israel, a country of about 7 million continually embroiled in existential conflict, has produced over 10 Nobel Prizes in the hard sciences and economics and a number of near misses. It has a remarkable list of outstanding achievements in all branches of technology, agriculture and economics which can be accessed here ( and is ranked at the top of international indices on matters relating to innovation and expertise. Yet it continually loses some of its top achievers to greener pastures in the USA and elsewhere.

Instead of the tired slogans and dishonest rhetoric which characterises the media debate around Israel, intelligent readers should be better informed about what makes Jews as a people and Israel, specifically, tick so effectively. Perhaps as we enter the existential challenges of the 21st century in which whole countries are being consumed by conflict caused by scarce resources and fanatical movements, it may be worth asking how Israel has managed so effectively to reconcile its own shortage of resources and massive diversity of languages, worldviews, ethnicities and historical experiences to create a functional democracy in a region notable for its absence.”

The Cape Times did not publish it and Bev Goldman kindly consented to forward it to the many national editors on her distribution list. In the end it was published only by the Saturday Star (in truncated form with the last 2 paragraphs omitted) and in full by the M & G. I have no idea how many turned it down.

 Returning to the core of this post, I am pleased to respond to Prof Shimoni’s academic paper (The Discourse on “Right to the Land of Israel” in Zionism and Israel) below because it cuts to the heart of the Western Left’s rejection of Israel. Beneath all the slogans and rhetoric about the “settlements” and “occupation” and other alleged Israeli  “sins”, is the belief that the whole Zionist enterprise is fundamentally flawed: that it represents a colonial theft of land rightfully belonging to the Palestinians and while realism may dictate that the fact of Israel’s presence cannot be reversed (though many would like and work towards that outcome), they will always regard it with distrust and repugnance. Some of this arises from outright anti-Semitism. Much of it reflects abysmal ignorance and selective evidence and the significant remainder derives from a doctrinaire “universalism” applied especially to the West and to Israel in particular. In this formulation, anything smacking of “ethnic particularity” is suspect – again applied with remarkable alacrity to Israel.

Prof Shimoni in his article offers his personal evaluation of the arguments for the legitimacy of Israel’s existence. While broadly agreeing with his conclusions I, in turn, will challenge elements of his analysis and will assert that it reveals the downside of Western leftwing idealism. In fact, I go further to claim it is an academic analysis divorced from the contextual realities of the region and it thus constitutes an inadequate basis for the defence of Israel against her enemies. (To conserve space I have not published the full article here but it is available on a separate page on this site – see above. I strongly urge readers to read it first and to keep it handy when going through this response)

My response to Prof Shimoni’s paper

I am going to respond initially point by point and only thereafter attempt to briefly summarise my broad position. I should start that in its very tone Shimoni’s paper reflects the constant angst of the leftwing intellectual when faced with the messy human shortcomings of his own side and his relative comfort when confronted with the worse sins of the other: in short, the reversal of the “mote and beam” parable, so characteristic of idealists in the West. I know because I’ve been there and still have to wrestle with it at times.

But to more substantive challenges:

  1. … Here, in this necessarily succinct paper, I shall use a simple paradigm in order to define the ultimate common denominator of all Zionist formulations:-  Imagine theoretically the thinking of an objective impartial judge after hearing all relevant arguments – religious, historical, legal,– marshaled by authoritative spokespersons for the Arab and Jewish claim respectively. Is it human and civic rights? The answer is negative; each side is on record as willing to grant full human and civic rights to all in the state it claims as its national home. Prof Shimoni’s ready acceptance of the legitimacy of the Arab assertion is astounding. The Arab minority in Israel enjoys full formal citizenship rights (with possibly minor constraints regarding access to certain lands) within the context of a democratic state. Imperfect though this may be the equivalent situation simply does not exist anywhere in the region and frequently it is much worse. In the universe occupied by Shimoni‘s analysis, the daily accounts of suicide and other killings don’t happen, the authoritarian and deeply corrupt regimes of the region along with the persecution of minorities simply are wiped off the analytic slate. That is not even to mention the systematic and virulent anti-Semitism propagated by the central State and religious authorities within the Arab-Muslim and non-Arab Muslim world. In short the prospect of Israeli Jews enjoying any sort of rights and dignity in an Arab-Muslim state must be close to zero. Even their own Muslim citizens don’t possess such rights! There is no realistic basis to Shimoni’s assertion whatsoever.
  2. The religious claim is wholly subjective therefore unacceptable; a subjective faith-claim cannot pass as a legitimate right.  As for so-called “historical rights”, these really mean claims based upon historical evidence of physical and cultural connection. These most certainly establish relevance of the Jewish claim, yet are surely inconclusive because the Arabs have equivalent relevance. Well yes and no. I agree that the religious claim, however subjectively compelling it may be for believers, cannot carry weight in an analysis such as this. But the claim that the Arabs have equivalent “historical rights” is questionable. Certainly, Arabs already living there have the rights provided by occupation but in no way was the land “Arab territory” and even less “Palestinian” territory. On the other hand Jews also have rights conferred by occupation (though perhaps not as pressing as those of the Arab  inhabitants). But far more importantly, Palestine/Eretz Israel/ Jerusalem are central to Jewish identity and have been the central plank in maintaining a Jewish religious-national identity for about 2000 years. There is simply no similar Arab-Muslim claim. On the contrary, the Palestinian construct has largely risen in recent decades in response to the Jewish narrative and the creation of the Jewish State. There is no basis whatsoever for a claim of equivalence in this regard. Palestine has been (until very recently) wholly peripheral to Arab-Muslim identity..
  3. To sum up the significance of  the paradigm :– in the final analysis the bottom line of the Zionist case was that, on the grounds of greater existential need and utilitarian ethical principle, the Jewish national claim to Eretz Israel has precedence over the Arab national claim to Filastin; note: relative precedence, not necessarily absolutely exclusive right. Yes I agree with that, though circumstances can arise under which the Palestinians can be said to have forfeited all rights to part of the land. I believe that is true to the extent that they deny the Jews the right to a Jewish state, deny their connection to the land, have spurned numerous attempts to find a path towards co-existence (as Prof Shimoni himself concedes in his paper) and continue to promote and further their hostility towards Israel under the cover of “resistance”. The resistance is, in reality, to sharing the plank with Israel to use the metaphor preferred by Amos Oz. Under such circumstances, and they are impossible to seriously deny, Palestine has forfeited most of its ethical right to sharing territory with Israel. See also later.
  4. It is manifestly evident that what predominates in today’s public discourse is simply the fundamentalist tenet – God’s promise of the Land to the Jewish people in eternal perpetuity, as evidenced in the Bible…. The combined effect of all these factors (the overwhelming evidence of Palestinian-Arab-Muslim rejectionalism) has established an overriding real-politik conviction that the Jews of Israel face a zero-sum survivalist situation. Well which of these is it? Religious ideology or realistic appraisal of reality? In fact, Prof Shimoni wants to have it both ways. He claims that the accurate perception of Palestinian intractability and hatred has resulted in the ideological shift to a quasi-religious position of “divine right” – which deeply offends him. I am not sure such a shift is so offensive (though I would not buy into it myself) but I do think it would be misplaced. But where is the evidence for this claim? Other that some loud voices most Israeli’s are motivated by a clear appreciation of the fact that most (not all) Palestinians regard them as illegitimate interlopers and nurse a virulent anti-Semitism. It is this accurate perception which fuels most of the Israeli “maximalist” demands. That elements within Israel have taken it further into claims of divine right , does not invalidate that underlying basic zero-sum dynamic for which the Palestinians are chiefly responsible.
  5.  …, Yosef Ben-Shlomo, a sophisticated Professor of Philosophy, who became a leading thinker of the settler movement in the post 1967 occupied territories, could justify settlement of Yosh in the first instance not by security zero-sum considerations but emphatically on ethical grounds. He argued that possession of and settlement in Yosh (all the territories of ancient Israel)  is the very basis of Jewish moral right to the Land. To deny the ethical validity of Yosh is to deny the ethical validity of the State of Israel itself.  To label Yosh “occupied territory” is to label the State of Israel occupied territory. To censure  occupied land  settlements like Ofra or Efrat as colonialist is ipso facto to censure likewise Tel Aviv and all sites within Israel proper as colonialist. Shimoni sees this as sheer sophistry but I would differ. There seems to me no difference in principle between Israel’s claim to one part of the territory over any other part. Since in the course of Jewish exile the land has ultimately come to be occupied by another ethno-cultural-religious group (Arabs mainly but not exclusively) the Jews under appropriate conditions should be willing to share the land, but the principle applies more-or-less equally to all parts. And share they have. Jordan was lopped off removing over 3/4s of the territory from Jewish settlement. Then a partition was imposed on the rest, which was rejected by the Arabs though reluctantly accepted by the Jews. To now deny Jewish claims (even if only in principle) to the land which they had painfully relinquished but reoccupied after being attacked, is not only unethical but oils the slope to ultimate eviction from all lands.
  6. Within the national-religious camp, this minority voice alone is compatible with the historically consensual justification of Right to the Land on the utilitarian ethical basis of existential need, to which only the rump liberal sector of Israel’s  secularized and non-orthodox religious public remains faithful. That rump’s most eloquent articulator is the famous writer Amos Oz. Oz has repeatedly used the analogy of a drowning man who can save his life only if he ascends a floating plank on which another shipwreck survivor has already found safety. He argues that “the Zionist enterprise has no other objective rationalization  than the right of a drowning man to grasp the only plank that can save him. And that is justification enough.” But, he adds: “There is a vast moral difference between the drowning man who grasps a plank and makes room for himself and pushes the others into the sea…. It is only in diminishing circles of intellectuals and intelligentsia, mainly writers, journalists and academics, that one finds such refined articulation of the liberal, morally conditional conception of Jewish right to the Land on the basis of historically demonstrable existential need and entitlement.  The bitter truth is: Today it is all about pushing the other off the plank.”  This is painful reading coming from someone of Prof Shimoni’s stature and integrity. In his own article he clearly shows that it is the Palestinians and Arabs who have systematically tried to push Israel off the plank. I urge him to go back and look at what he has written. The Jews relinquished over 80 percent of Oz’s plank to the Palestinians only to find that was not enough. Yet he finds it in his heart to excoriate his fellow countrymen for saying “enough is enough” and without full acceptance of our historical and current rights, a cessation of incitement and adequate security after a century of unremitting hostility, Israel is going to hang on to the  full 22 % of the plank they now occupy. Why? So that his liberal sensitivities are not abraded by tough-minded and assertive Jewish claims to a minute portion of the vast territories occupied by their enemies who have failed abysmally in their stewardship of the both the land and its resources and constitute a threat not only to Israel but to the rest of the world.

Conclusions: I can only repeat that within the ideological world occupied by Prof Shimoni, his is a brave and even anguished voice for some justice. But his world is a flimsy construct which cannot withstand serious scrutiny and will crumble under the impacts of the only too real challenges facing Israel. His anguish would be lessened and his vision  restored by discarding the ideological blinkers which blind him to the justice which Israel seeks and deserves. There is nothing in his paper which persuades me that his final statement The bitter truth is: Today it is all about pushing the other off the plank applies to the Israelis and not to the Palestinians. My advice to the Israelis is that you better hang onto the small portion of the plank left to you because most of the world won’t give two hoots when you are pushed into the Mediterranean which is the undoubted aim of your enemies. In my view Prof Shimoni has not adequately internalised that reality and its implications.

I would be especially interested in responses – and in particular from Prof Shimoni himself.

Mike Berger



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