From The Australian, January 4, 2017, by BRIGITTE DWYER:
The final days of the Obama administration have revealed the extent of the humiliating and astonishing victory of Donald Trump. As the president-elect crudely reminded the world on New Year’s Eve, these vanquished politicians “lost so badly they just don’t know what to do”.
In an effort to mitigate the damage and cast the blame elsewhere, outgoing political figures are searching for scapegoats. The finger has been pointed first at the West’s modern enemy, the Russians, and next at its more ancient one, the Jewish people.
In one of its final acts, the Obama government rebuked the Israeli government by refusing to block a UN motion condemning settlements in the West Bank. This marked a striking change in stance towards its longstanding ally. It was backed up by a hostile speech by outgoing Secretary of State John Kerry, clearly blaming Israel for continuing hostilities and warning its leaders that “it can be Jewish or it can be democratic” but not both.
Kerry spoke of his disappointment at being unable to facilitate a peace agreement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Instead of recognising any failure on his own behalf, he laid the blame entirely at the feet of the Israeli government. In burdening Israel with his own disappointment, Kerry unwittingly exhibited one of the West’s most ingrained habits of understanding human life and history: anti-Judaism.
David Nirenberg outlines this millennia-old mode of thought in his 2013 book Anti-Judaism: The History of a Way of Thinking. Anti-Jewish sentiment, he argues, is a persistent and deeply ingrained mode of thought in Western tradition. Anti-Jewish arguments have been used in successive historical periods as a satisfying explanation for the failures and evils of the human world. Like the scapegoat of the primitive world, the Jewish people are easy victims who are somehow responsible for the unsatisfactory nature of existence. They are burdened with the responsibility for failures, from the inability of a nation to achieve its potential to the failure of an individual to realise his desires.
Anti-Judaism survives, Nirenberg writes, because failure and disappointment are constant themes in human history. We are forever frustrated by our inability “to achieve the proper human relation between law and love, thing and person, letter and spirit”.
And from the time of the ancient Egyptians who resented their Hebrew neighbours until the present day, we’ve been tempted to call the failure to achieve that ideal “Judaism”.
Kerry’s speech shows the hallmarks of this tendency, in the stubborn refusal to reflect on his own ideas about Israel. Instead of offering an alternative critique or attempting to address the sheer complexity of the conflict, the Secretary of State prosecutes the case against the Jewish state. He demonstrates just how powerful anti-Judaism can be as a theoretical framework that makes sense of an unbearably complicated and incomprehensible world.
With some notable exceptions, including the clear and robust support of this newspaper, much of the mainstream media has joined with the UN to criticise the actions of the Israeli government. The reception of the global mainstream media to Kerry’s speech has been overwhelmingly favourable. It is almost impossible to find any rational arguments supporting the continued existence of the disputed Jewish settlements. Any support is regarded as ipso facto evidence of an extreme right-wing, ultra-religious and belligerent stance.
Rational arguments for the settlements exist, as the Jewish Journal’s David Suissa powerfully argued on this page on Monday. The widespread failure to even consider these arguments is evidence of our collective failure to produce a critique of anti-Jewish sentiment. At the very least, the settlements can be seen as an acknowledgment of the failure of the peace process, and a way of deferring the inexorable trajectory towards conflict.
Recognising anti-Judaism does not mean denying Palestinian suffering or ignoring Palestinian victims. But it does mean acknowledging some hard truths, including the fact dedication to “the victim” is often a facade that allows us to denigrate others. As philosopher Rene Girard says, “The victims most interesting to us are always those who allow us to condemn our neighbours.”
Kerry’s perplexity and irritability at being unable to impose his dream underscores the naive idealism of the West.
Blind to the sufferings of the rest of the world and fed on a diet of romantic optimism about human nature, the West sometimes pretends to prosecute on behalf of the victim, but in reality perpetuates the oldest and most ingrained of our prejudices.
The Obama government’s refusal to block the UN vote indicates that the tide of opinion is turning against Israel. As a nation it is increasingly criticised as aggressive, suspicious and closed. Our modern world, so deeply hostile to religion, mocks its religious traditions and accuses it of persecution in the name of God. The existence of Israel is seen as a blight on the modern, secular, liberal fight against all oppression and persecution, and on behalf of all victims.
In Australia, popular support is growing for Kerry’s dictum that there can be no such thing as a Jewish democratic state. Anti-Jewish sentiment is summed up in this comment from an Australian website: “There is no place in a harmonious and peaceful world for such rogue arrogance, destabilisation and inevitable, reckless provocation.” Once again, the Jewish people are being told the world has no place for them.
The 11th-hour blame-shifting by the Obama administration lays the groundwork for renewed anti-Judaism. Kerry wants to be remembered for his tireless advocacy for peace and tolerance. Instead, his legacy is likely to be an escalation in hatred and renewed, legitimised violence. The only barrier to a new period of persecution will be “the small minority that dares to oppose”.
Without that small minority, we can expect an intensifying, contagious and increasingly unified cry to deny the state of Israel.