Thursday, March 20, 2014

Did Dreyfus Affair Really Inspire Herzl?

The idea that the trial of Alfred Dreyfus inspired Theodor Herzl to write “The Jewish State” is “simply not true,” Shlomo Avineri declared in a pointed, fluent, and well-received lecture that opened the first full day of London’s Jewish Book Week on February 23.

Discussing his biography of the father of modern Zionism, “Herzl: Theodor Herzl and the Foundation of the Jewish State,” Avineri asserted that through examining Herzl’s diaries and letters, he concluded that the Dreyfus affair did not preoccupy Herzl’s thoughts at that time. Only in hindsight would the fate of Alfred Dreyfus come to be seen as a pivotal moment both for European Jewry and the history of the Zionist movement.

Rather, the background to “The Jewish State” was the collapsing scenery of 19th-century Europe and specifically the Austro-Hungarian Empire which had, up until that time, been “the best country for Jews in Europe” and had been referred to as the “goldene medine,” even before the United States. Emancipation began towards the end of the 18th century, while in the 19th century the Emperor Franz Joseph I obtained the moniker “Froyim Yossel” from his Jewish subjects who during his reign became more equal members of his multi-national, multi-ethnic empire.

During the 1890s, however, “nationalism threatened the unity of the Austro-Hungarian Empire,” while the advent of democracy resulted in the emergence of “racist, populist, and anti-Semitic candidates” for office. This affected Herzl’s city of Vienna, where Karl Lueger of the Christian Social Party won municipal elections in 1895 by decrying “corrupt liberalism” and charging that Jews controlled the Austrian economy and the press.

Lueger’s campaign indicated that part of this disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and of Europe more generally was the emergence of anti-Semitism as a reaction to Jewish emancipation. This anti-Semitism, Avineri writes in “Herzl,” “stressed the ethnic and racial character of the Jews, not their religion.” Moreover, “it was not their suffering and weakness that sparked the new hatred — it was their success and their power, whether real or imagined.”

What Herzl saw, Avineri said, was that this new anti-Semitism was “deterministic” since there is “no way out” of a Jewish identity that is in the blood. While emancipation had demolished the physical walls of the old ghettos, opening up industry, commerce, and the professions and granting Jews new political and social rights, the Jews of Europe “found themselves in a new ghetto without walls — an invisible ghetto” but a ghetto nevertheless.

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Monday, January 6, 2014

Rising Number of French Jews Making Aliyah

Aliyah rates from Western Europe increased by 35 percent in 2013, with 4,390 people immigrating to Israel from Western European countries as compared with 3,258 in 2012, according to data released by the Jewish Agency for Israel and the Israel Ministry of Immigration and Absorption.

The most dramatic upturn in aliyah rates, though, was seen in France. In 2013, 3,120 newolim, or people making aliyah, arrived in Israel from France, compared to 1,916 the previous year, marking a 63 percent increase. 2013 was also the first year since 2005 that more Jews immigrated to Israel from France than from the United States, despite the massive disparity in size between the two communities. Even more striking, the increase in French aliyah rates was the driving force behind a 7 percent increase in the total number of Jews who moved to Israel this year.

There are two major factors that explain the rise in French aliyah rates, Shay Felber, the Jewish Agency for Israel’s deputy director general for community service, explained. The first is the ongoing economic malaise in Europe, which is affecting France in particular. Unemployment peaked at 11 percent in July and August, and after negative growth in the third quarter, the French economy is in danger of falling back into a recession. Such problems are “pushing young Jewish students to leave France in search of other job opportunities,” Felber said.

The other factor is anti-Semitism. “Although it has been going down over the past couple of years, French Jews remained concerned about the future,” Felber said. Indeed, a recentsurvey published by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights showed that 85 percent of French Jews believe anti-Semitism is a problem in their country, with 70 percent fearful of becoming the victim of a hate crime. As a result, 51 percent of French Jews frequently avoid wearing, carrying, or displaying items that might help identify them as Jews in public.

But these factors alone don’t account for the upturn in French aliyah rates, or explain why Jews seeking to leave France would choose Tel Aviv and Jerusalem over London or Montreal. Rather, the trends represent an expression of the French Jewish community’s increasingly Zionistic mentality, particularly among young French Jews, and a manifestation of efforts by the Jewish Agency, the Israel government, and other non-profits to cultivate Jewish identity in France.

Programs such as Masa Israel Journey and Bac Bleu Blanc, which bring young French Jews to Israel for educational trips or volunteer opportunities, have been successful in encouraging aliyah. “This year, almost 1,000 young French Jews will have used Masa,” Felber explained, “and 70 percent of the students coming through the Masa programs go on to make aliyah.” Other factors for potential olim are familial connections between France and Israel, plus the community of around 100,000 French-speaking olim already living in Israel.

Overall, though, while other Western European nations did see an increase in aliyah rates, no other country exhibited an increase of the same statistical significance. The Netherlands, for example, saw a 54 percent increase in aliyah rates, but the uptick was a result of only 74olim. Similarly in Belgium, a 46 percent increase in aliyah rates was accomplished by just 240 new immigrants. As for France, where the situation for the Jewish community gets more dreary by the day, there is little reason to think that French olim won’t outnumber their American counterparts once again next year.

Thursday, November 7, 2013 Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Amos Oz and the meaning of homeland

The title of Yonathan and Masha Zur’s sometimes lyrical, sometimes penetrative, yet always insightful and captivating 2009 documentary Amos Oz: The Nature of Dreams makes reference to a much-used and familiar thought of the author’s.

Dreams, Oz states in the film, are destined to remain rosy, perfect, and unsullied so long as they exist only as dreams. The moment they are enacted and made concrete, reality collides with vision – they take on a sour taste, they have imperfections and flaws. “Israel is a dream come true and, as such, it is disappointing,” Oz says. “The taste of disappointment is not in the nature of Israel, it is in the nature of dreams.”

Shifting between continents and time periods, reality and fiction, “Amos Oz: The Nature of Dreams” considers the place of Amos Oz within Zionism, and what has happened to the larger Zionism dream – or spectrum of dreams. After all, what is disappointing and sour to one Israeli, to one Zionist, is perhaps the consequence of the fulfillment of another Zionist dream, the dimming of Labor Zionism and the rise of more religious or nationalistic forms of this ideology, two states and one state.

In the documentary, Oz reads from an historic essay on the subject, “The meaning of homeland.” First published in 1967 during the period of light-headed euphoria and drunkenness which followed Israel’s remarkable victory in the Six Day War, Oz soberly considered what it meant to be a Zionist, what it meant to be a Jew, and what it meant for Zionism to recognise that its future was bound up in coexistence with the Arab population of the Land of Israel, of Palestine. This essay – available today in the collection “Under This Blazing Light” – warrants re-reading.

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Monday, August 12, 2013 Friday, August 2, 2013

Israel will never be a ‘normal’ nation

Whether it is desired or not, Israel will always be an exceptional nation.

It is in the nature of Israel’s birth – of Israel as the manifestation of a dream, or several dreams, and the yearning and investment those dreams hold. The awakening of a Jewish national consciousness within the galut, the revival of the Hebrew language, the founding of Tel Aviv and the kibbutzim, the greening of the land, the victories in existential wars fought on multiple fronts – it is a secular, pioneering achievement unparalleled in modern history.

But that’s not even the half of it. As a Jewish state, Israel will be exceptional simply because it is a state for Jews. On one level this is benign – every nation has its qualities that make it different or unique. In the case of my country of birth and residence, the United Kingdom, it would be the English language and our literature, as well as our contributions to the rule of law, good governance, and fair play. For the United States, it would be their documents – the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights – and the ideas of liberty and democracy embedded within them.

For Israel, it would be that Judaism and Jewish civilisation has sustained itself, as Amos Oz and Fania Oz-Salzberger have recently persuasively argued, not as a bloodline but a textline. “Jewish continuity has always hinged on uttered and written words, on an expanding maze of interpretations, debates, and disagreements,” they write in Jews and Words.  “In synagogue, at school, and most of all in the home, it has always involved two or three generations deep in conversation.”

The Jewish propensity for argument and self-criticism, interpretation and reinterpretation, is essential to the Israeli national character, the Israeli chutzpah, as well as Israel’s political culture, its social fabric, and its literature. Alive and ever-evolving, the textline makes Israel a subject of fascination for those who have an interest in such things as Jewish history and culture. Judeophilia will, since it affects Jews, inevitably impact upon the Jewish state as well. I can attest to this, writing as a non-Jewish Zionist who cannot help but find the idea of a textline both enchanting and enthralling.

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Monday, July 29, 2013

David Ward’s off on one again

At this point, so much water has flown by and so many stupid things have been said by David Ward that it’s barely worth getting upset about. You can read his remarks — tweets — as you see fit at this point.

And I would read them, for they may be his departing remarks. His time as as a Liberal Democrat MP is clearly coming to a close, not because what he has said above is especially dumb (at least not for him) but because since January he’s been on a pathway to severing his ties with the Lib Dems and joining with Respect or standing as an independent.

The most noteworthy thing, as Jessica Elgot pointed out, is that these tweets came at around 9.20pm on a Saturday evening, completely without prompting or cause. What forces a Member of Parliament already suspended from his party for past remarks about Israel and ‘the Jews’ to have these spasms of rage?

And, why doesn’t David Ward have a better communications staff? Who taught him to use an iPhone?

Monday, May 27, 2013

Church of Scotland Strikes Out on Israel

When the Church of Scotland decided to revise its controversial and borderline anti-Semitic report on Israel and the Palestinians, it only really had to do three things.

First, the Kirk, as the church is widely know, had to make clear it understood what Zionism actually is. Not, as they originally stated, a solely religious ideology. But rather, a diverse movement encompassing a multitude of dreams including many secular ones.

Second, it had to repeal all claims that smacked of Christian supremacism.

Third, it needed to delete or at the very least rewrite the passages on the Holocaust, ones which previously asserted that Jews must “stop thinking of themselves as victims and special” and ‘repent’ for the displacement of Palestinians during the Wars of Independence.

“The country of Israel is a recognised State and has the right to exist in peace and security,” it now states as a matter of fact. “We reject racism and religious hatred. We condemn anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. We will always condemn acts of terrorism, violence and intimidation.”

It’s not much, but it needed to be said.

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Monday, May 20, 2013

The strange disappearance of Joseph Massad

Last week, I commented on Columbia professor Joseph Massad’s essay in al-Jazeera, “The Last of the Semites”:

[Massad’s] essay — of that length by virtue of the fact that no-one seems to have thought to edit it down — hinges on that old idea that Zionism is racism. In this case, Massad applies this cliché not just in the usual way to indicate prejudice towards non-Jews. No, he believes Zionism is explicitly anti-Semitic. Zionism, according to Massad, emerged not as a response to European anti-Semitism but in sympathy with its racialist precepts.

Since last Tuesday, prominent journalists including Jeffrey Goldberg, John Podhoretz, and James Kirchick picked up on Massad’s piece and shared it about for all to see, while my critique was mentioned in media outlets like The Jerusalem Post and The Washington Free Beacon (a magazine I don’t believe I would appear in under ordinary circumstances — Bill Kristol doesn’t strike me as a Meretz guy). Well, as of yesterday, Massad’s essay is no longer available, it having been taken down from the web by al-Jazeera without explanation or notice.

And this is exactly the wrong thing for al-Jazeera to have done. First, denying people the right to read this disgraceful, unlettered essay also denies people the right to find out just what a horrible little man Joseph Massad is — which, is a useful public service for al-Jazeera to be engaging in. Second, if al-Jazeera feels it made a bad call by lending its imprimatur to the original work unedited (which, by removing it, is evidently the case), they should be made to pay for that mistake. Either, they should have kept it up on the website with an addendum, or if they absolutely had to take it down, they should have provided a note with reasoning for why exactly Massad’s essay was palatable to them on Tuesday but spoilt by Sunday. The current situation is unsatisfactory for supporters and opponents of Massad’s screed.

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