Jonathan Freedland, the Zionist ringleader
By Blake Alcott
Although Jonathan Freedland is a wily and insincere writer, one has to feel sorry for him as a man brought up in conflicting traditions. Those of Britain are largely non-racist, liberal, secular, human-rights based, and egalitarian, while those of his beloved Israel are largely racist, militaristic, religious and ethno-supremacist, with its three tiers of citizens to boot: his own Ashkenazis, the Mizarachi and at the bottom the Palestinians.
Part of the British tradition is concern for refugees, yet Freedland wouldn’t allow more than a handful of Palestinian refugees and their descendants, numbering over 6 million, to return to their homeland and property in Israel. And he has never even written a word about the internally displaced refugees, Palestinians with Israeli citizenship often living within a stone’s throw of their rightful land and homes.
As I argued in a Counterpunch article last year which analysed several score of Freedland’s opinion pieces for the Guardian and the Jewish Chronicle, Palestinians are simply not on Freedland’s radar. Those in the West Bank and Gaza make a few appearances, but the refugees lurking in the conceptual background play no role at all. His sole interest is in Israeli and Western Jews, amounting to explicit Orientalism and implicit philo-Semitism.
Like more articulate writers of his ilk, such as Ari Shavit and Howard Jacobson, Freedland has one emotional bottom line which trumps all else: the Jewish state in Palestine must remain. No argument or fact can conflict with this dogma. It is understandable that he sees an “anti-Semite” behind every bush.
In Israel, discussions ranging from lively to vituperative go on about the actually quite obvious fact that a state cannot be both “Jewish” and “democratic”. Freedland has engaged peripherally with this debate and consistently sides against democracy. He does this once again in a defence of Israel’s “right to exist” as a Zionist – or exclusively Jewish – state and through his clever contribution to the smear campaign concerning purported “anti-Semitism on the left”.
Deconstructing Freedland’s argument
Using the analogy of a country that is “black” in the sense that Israel is “Jewish”, and the only black one in the world, Freedland claims that opposition to the existence of this black country would be universally condemned as anti-black racism. He is asserting that because Israel is “the only place in the world where the majority of the population… [is Jewish]”, it is racist to wish Israel’s replacement by a standard democracy.
He has not the courage to ask of his hypothetical black country how it treats its white minority, nor how – at whose expense – it came into being. Nor whether it denies return to the whites it expelled in order to become a black majority country. Yet these questions leap into the mind of any honest person with rudimentary knowledge of a century of Zionist history.
It doesn’t matter, he says, that there are in fact good reasons to wish Israel’s replacement with a state that has nothing to do with the ethnicity or religion of its overwhelming majority, but rather to do with its ongoing discrimination against non-Jews and with “the manner of its birth” – a coded phrase referring to Zionism’s ethnic cleansing of the indigenous non-Jewish Palestinian population. Such ethno-blind reasons don’t count. It’s all about ethnicity and “anti-Semitism”.
Refreshingly, he actually confesses to the undemocratic, racially discriminatory and unfair birth of Israel:
The hardcore anti-Zionists will tell me that my analogy of a hypothetical sole black country to Israel, the world’s only Jewish country, only works if this imaginary land was guilty of in-built discrimination against a non-black minority and was founded on the forced dispossession of the indigenous people who already lived there.
He lets this stand, spends not a single word in attempted refutation of this, our “hardcore” picture of Israel. Later on he directly admits “the fact that [Israel] was born in what Palestinians mourn as the Nakba – their dispossession in 1948…”
The good thing about this is we now at least don’t have to argue the historical facts for the millionth time. Freedland is here following Haaretz columnist Ari Shavit who, as I show in my review of his book My Promised Land, just admits the Israeli crimes, throws up his hands and says, “We had to do it.” Shavit and lesser soft Zionists have thus allowed the debate to move to where it belongs: ethics.
After this nolo contendere the only thing Freedland finds to throw at us anti-Zionists who deny Israel’s right to exist as a Zionist state is that Israel is not the only sinner. In a court of law this would be laughable. But Freedland’s trope is that “the US, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Argentina, Chile and countless others” are built on the same ethnic cleansing of the indigenous.
So what? We are talking about Israel now. But the hoary tactic of changing the subject is OK with Freedland’s Guardian editors, if he has any. And if change the subject we must, let’s point out that the US, Australia and New Zealand have been admitting the history, apologising and making some amends for the last few decades. Not Israel. The ex-indigenous are backward terrorists, you know, Arabs. They have to be fenced out.
The hook for his article is that we shouldn’t judge Israel by tougher standards than other countries. Don’t worry yourself, Jonathan, we don’t. We support those who focus on the crimes of the China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Belarus, the US and the UK. I boycott all those countries as well as I can. For now, Freedland, please stick to the topic.
Freedland refers over and over again to the Palestinians in present and future Israel as a “minority”. But this is false. All refugees and their descendants have the inalienable right to return to Israel as citizens and owners of the land from which they were thrown out. They number a bit over 6,000,000. Add another approximately 6,000,000 living in the de facto single state between the river and the sea today. All of them, plus the Jewish Israelis, make up the legitimate citizenry of ex-Mandate Palestine. So, Jews constitute a minority.
But this is immaterial, because in the single democratic state replacing Israel they would all be equal citizens. It is Freedland who cannot accept the idea of equal citizenship.
The need to include the refugees whenever we talk about the Palestine-Zionism conflict cannot be stressed strongly enough. Regardless of the mixture of diplomacy and military conquest responsible for Israel’s coming into being in the years 1917-48, to defend Israel’s existence today – its right to exist as a Zionist state – one must immorally ignore the rights of the expelled Palestinians. They have numbered on average at least 3,000,000 per year since 1948, giving a world-record total of 210,000,000 refugee years.
It is right that a Jewish state exists in Palestine only if it is right to deny the rights of the Palestinians in their diaspora as well as those in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and Israel. This Freedland unashamedly does, siding with his own racially-defined group (that is, defined by genetic descent) even though, by his own admission, it is in the wrong.
At least Freedland could reveal to us a vestigial human sense of irony by admitting the hilarity of Zionism’s denial of the right of return to Palestinians while building its crusade on his own people’s alleged right of “return” to Eretz Israel.
Freedland’s fantasised solutions
Freedland is correct that we anti-Zionists, in arguing for a standard-model democratic state to replace Israel, are saying that present Jewish Israelis should “stay where they [are] and… return to living as a minority once more”. In such a post-Israel country the fight to preserve human rights and ethnic equality would go on, of course, day-to-day, just like everywhere else in the world.
Some anti-Zionists, including, for example, a presumably large section of Hamas, wish that the present Jewish colonists would, to use Freedland’s phrase, “go back to where they had come from”. This would be replacing Israel with an ethnically defined “Arab” state which could not be both “democratic” and “Arab”. Liberal Palestinians, however, oppose this, and Freedland is missing a chance to help prevent it: he could follow the lead of the small group of Jewish Israelis who support unadulterated human rights in one democratic state.
Embarrassingly weak is Freedland’s attempt to salvage a Jewish state that is “Jewish” only in its flag, calendar and symbols but with equal rights for all – that is, for all except the roughly 11,000,000 Palestinians not now holding Israeli passports. This is, of course, light years away from the real Jewish state and is utterly meaningless within the ideology and history of Zionism, which always meant legal privileges for Jews.
This reduction of the Jewishness of the Jewish state to a flag and some national symbols is not only fantasy, but also cowardly and disingenuous. The Zionism we have come to loathe has, like Freedland, always insisted on a Jewish majority. But what is that majority good for if not to add some ethno-religious muscle to doings on the ground? And how will Freedland maintain this majority given the higher Arab birthrate unless by transfer – or ethnic cleansing – disenfranchisement or eugenics?
A Jewish state at no cost to anybody
Zionism is the doctrine that it is right that there is a Jewish state in Palestine – not just anywhere in the world. This is why it’s nonsense to call anti-Zionism “anti-Semitism” on the grounds that it allegedly denies a Jewish state as such. It doesn’t. If a large number of Jews, or Roma, or Kurds, want to get “self-determination” in the form of “their own” state, and this happens on empty land or on land sold freely without compulsory purchase, why not? Israel is in Palestine, you see. It’s the British-Zionist colonialist juggernaut, and the ongoing ethnocracy, that raises our hackles, not the principle of self-determination.
That my self-determination shouldn’t happen at the expense of your self-determination is a principle from the kindergarten playground. But not when it comes to Israel. When it comes to Israel not even an Oxford education was able to set Freedland straight.
Again, it’s not a case of “for they know not what they do”. Freedland knows (his words), that “Israel’s creation came at a desperately high price for Palestinians”. However, this is no sooner written than forgotten – words that simply don’t count.
It is, moreover, touching when he adds that this high price is “one that Israel will one day, I hope, acknowledge, respect and atone for through word and deed”. The tell is the “one day”. Today Freedland is not ready to do anything except, under strict colonialist conditions, let the Palestinians have the West Bank and Gaza. The generosity!
What counts for Freedland is only that “it is impossible for most Jews to see [Israel] as a mistake that should be undone”. Israel is part of the “identity” of “most Jews”. That is, these feelings of “most Jews”, should be the determining geopolitical force in the Near East. This is nothing if not cheeky.
To ask how this “impossibilty” might square with justice for, and the rights of, the wronged Palestinians – the price they paid was after all “desperately high”, whatever that means – is to challenge Freedland’s Judeo-centricity. It is asking him and his soft-Zionist friends to do a simple thing: take the Palestinians seriously.
Because if you succeed for only a minute in putting yourself in Palestinian shoes, and look over at Europe, you’ll realise the forgotten fact of the whole story, one that multiplies by an order of magnitude the immorality of the state of Israel: the Palestinians had nothing, nothing at all, zero, to do with the persecution of Jews in Europe. Yet that persecution is the main motor of Zionism and ipso facto of Israel. As evil as the dispossession of individual Poles, Germans or Russians would be for the creation of a Jewish safe haven, the dispossession of Near Eastern people with no record of persecution of Jews is worse.
In sum, anti-Zionism is not quibbling with Zionism’s abstract state. We are saying that the cost to Palestinians, ever since 1917, is non-negotiably unacceptable. The sacrifice and politicide of Palestinians is not on.
A better analogy
Say the Cherokees or Roma or Kurds or… Palestinians, strewn across the globe, needed (OK, wanted) their own state. They get a world power to help them. Somewhere in Mexico, Florida, Tamil Nadu, Iran, or… Israel several hundred thousand indigenous are “transferred”, at greater or lesser pace, with more or fewer murders, out of their homes and replaced by members of these peoples.
And suppose the world realises the mistake and continually passes United Nations resolutions supporting the return of the “transferred” – unfortunately vetoed by said world power. Like it? Liking it is what Freedland’s position boils down to.
Freedland’s supposed clincher, in best courtroom English, is the following:
The question to Livingstone and all the other anti-Zionists is this. Given their belief that Israel’s creation in 1948 was a mistake (or a “travesty”, in Ken Livingstone’s words), do they believe it would have been a mistake for Israel to have been established in the 1930s, when the world’s nations had made it clear they had no intention of taking in the Jews? If the answer to that question is yes, that Israel should never have been created, then Livingstone and those like him are saying they would have denied those 6 million the one lifeline that might have saved them.
Of course, the ethical answer to the question is yes. It would have been a mistake at any point in time because of the “desperately high” price to be paid by innocent bystanders. Any group, Jewish or non-Jewish, that is at any moment in time suffering, is not the centre or the totality of the world. This is the core of his argument: saving European Jews was worth any price, to any other people.
We have here Freedland pontificating that the death, exile, maiming and humiliation of Palestinians is OK – it’s for a good cause. Although “desperately high”, it was not too high. So says he, writing both as conqueror and as supreme moral judge over peoples, some getting the thumbs-up, some the thumbs-down.
I might be wrong on one point. Freedland’s year-in, year-out production of propaganda for a Jewish-supremacist country is a hint that there is not even a liberal self in there tossing and turning in doubt. Norman Finkelstein has a Freedland anecdote confirming this lack of conscience. He has taken his ethnic stand, insincerely uttering a few words of sympathy for the vanquished ethnicity. But that’s all, no self-wrestling, no dilemmas.
If Labour expels anybody, it should be Freedland. In 10 or 20 years, in any case, apologists like him will have a lot of explaining to do: “Why, Mr Freedland, did you side with a racist state?”