The firebombing of a Jewish parochial school in Montreal on April 5, 2004 reverberated through the city. To its credit, Montreal responded with one voice, unanimously deploring this latest atrocity. Politicians from all levels of government expressed solidarity with the beleaguered Jewish community; private individuals spoke out in sympathy; and even the Islamic Congress condemned the attack against its Jewish fellow citizens.
Nevertheless, the most frequent argument marshalled in defence of Jewish institutions seemed tendentious, based on a cursory assumption that subtly undermined its own premises. The defense ran as follows: Jews everywhere are not to be associated with or blamed for the policies of Israel. It is manifestly unfair and logically untenable, the theory went, to spraypaint hateful graffiti, desecrate tombstones and firebomb schools and synagogues in Canada, simply because the Israelis planted settlements in the Territories or because Ariel Sharon ordered the assassination of Shaikh Ahmad Yassin. Mutatis mutandis, the argument continues to circulate today.
A recent instance is provided by Morocco, the freest and most enlightened of Muslim nations, which has a long history of good relations with its Jewish citizens. “We want to make sure,” said Hakim El Ghissassi, an aide to King Mohammed VI, “everybody can differentiate between unfair Israeli policies and respect for Judaism.” There is no recognition that “Israeli policies” and the Israeli army are about as fair as can be expected in any nation surrounded by enemies and constantly under attack.
At first blush, the argument seems to make a certain superficial sense which passes as persuasive only if it remains unexamined. For it is predicated on a troubling conviction that, looked at a little more closely, reveals both an implicit and explicit hostility to the Jewish state which invariably rubs off on the Jewish people it is intended to exculpate. In other words, the argument blithely assumes that the Jewish state is in the wrong and that whoever occupies the office of the Prime Minister is to be condemned for whatever policies he has chosen to enact, if they are interpreted as prejudicing the Palestinian cause.
The irony is a mordant one. The Jew finds himself redeemed at the expense of the Knesset, and the diaspora is vindicated by the liability of Israel. Thus the ordinary Jew has become a “good Jew” while the Jewish state is relegated to the doghouse. The vilification merely persists in a different guise.
No state involved in a war within or without its boundaries can be expected to react with complete moral impunity. Errors of judgment are unavoidable whether they be Canada invoking the War Measures Act during the FLQ crisis in October 1970, the United States invading Iraq without adequate consideration for the sequel, or Israel’s responses to the plague of suicide bombings. (Although one may argue that Israel’s “errors in judgment” consist primarily in not having gone far enough to eradicate the threat to its sovereignty.)
Obviously, one can disagree with the Israeli response—or specific aspects of it—but one cannot blindly conclude that it is de facto perverse, barbaric, invidious or otherwise objectionable. It is moot whether any other nation whose peace overtures had been rebuffed and which then found itself under attack would react any differently. In separating diaspora Jews from the policy of the Israeli government and thus affirming their innocence, the presumption of Israeli guilt is merely reinforced. The same strategy lies behind the boycott campaigns of some of our Unions, pressuring Israeli academics to repudiate supposed Israeli criminality in order to be certified by their peers.
But why this should be so is rather perplexing. Why should we not act on the supposition of Palestinian guilt instead? There is surely more than enough evidence to support this alternative postulate, from Arafat’s rejection of the principles of Camp David to the vicious anti-Jewish school curriculum in the Territories and throughout the Arab world to the ongoing depredations of the terrorists. And yet, in nobly standing up for Jews victimized by hatemongers, we are nevertheless exonerating them from the actions and policies of a national administration we continue to regard as reprehensible. Israel has become the new ghettoized Jew living beyond the political pale while diaspora Jews, assimilated or not, have become the new social mendicants living off handouts of forgiveness—that is, when they are not being firebombed.
In effect, there is no justification whatever for bringing foreign politics into local situations. When a minority ethnic group is attacked on racial or religious grounds, it makes little difference in principle whether that group is Muslim, Sikh, Black or of any other creed or colour—although there can be no doubt that anti-Semitism is a unique historical phenomenon as well as a highly specialized pathology that may well be resistant to treatment.
In any event, on that day in Montreal, a hate crime had been perpetrated, which may be officially and legally defined as a terrorist act. But aside from its gravity and malign purposefulness, the act was also totally irrational. Committing arson against a Jewish school in protest against the Israeli government is equivalent to firebombing, say, a Chinese community center because of what happened in Tiananmen Square. (However, defensive actions of a young democracy like Israel, fighting for its survival are not to be equated with the violent repressions of an entrenched despotism like China seeking to maintain the status quo.)
But, of course, the linking of such terrorist acts with Israeli politics in any way, either to proscribe the innocent or even to absolve them, while downplaying the murderous anti-civilian onslaughts of the Palestinians, is only to be expected in our climate of permissiveness which embraces Israel’s enemies, trades in media-induced myths of Israeli military outrage and, ultimately, threatens to turn Jews everywhere into prospective sin-offerings ripe for anathema.
Most—not all, but most—of the complaints, grievances and accusations brought against Israel have little value in themselves; rather they function as a kind of space grabber. Items of real merit are few and far between. The point is that the rancour against Israel is accepted as a legitimate notion even as we proceed to uphold, at least verbally, the rights, privileges and safety of Jewish communities elsewhere. That Israel may have miscalculated and made mistakes does not mean that it must be censured as an international pariah, any more than a host of other nations embroiled in conflict.
Jews do not need to be defended against Israel. Jews need to be defended against antisemites as well as against their well-meaning but ideologically blinkered champions. After all, would it be acceptable to firebomb Jewish organizations that may happen to concur with Israeli practices? Is it permissible to blackball Jewish academics unless they publicly disavow the policies of the Israeli government? Shall Jews be required to renounce the Jewish state in order to be accepted as Jews?
We do not ask Muslim, Russian, Chinese or Iranian academics, let alone first or second generation citizens, to recant or abjure the policies of their countries of origin, no matter how heinous these may be. We do not demand of them an oath of non-allegiance to the truly oppressive regimes from which they or their families hail. Why, then, the Jews?
Apart from the fact that Israeli strategies and measures are, under the circumstances, quite understandable, to protect Jewish institutions by disengaging them from such policies is to compound the pathological complexity of anti-Jewish sentiment and is nothing more or less than another form of moral delinquency. Many Jews have fallen into the same species of illogic and consequently work to their own eventual detriment—for in the course of time even the “good Jews,” acquitted of complicity with Israel, will find themselves singled out for special treatment. In their case, fear, poor judgment, self-loathing, catering appeasement or just plain ignorance may account for lapses in understanding, but the same reasoning can neither justify nor explain what is, among non-Jews, only another version of the same old same old.