Naftali Bennett, Israel’s minister of education and Diaspora affairs, speaks at the Jewish Media Summit in Jerusalem, Dec. 6, 2016. (Photo/Israeli Government Press Office)
Naftali Bennett, Israel’s minister of education and Diaspora affairs, speaks at the Jewish Media Summit in Jerusalem, Dec. 6, 2016. (Photo/Israeli Government Press Office)

Israel’s foreign minister is wrong: Pittsburgh is not like Gaza

Israel’s Education Minister, Naftali Bennett, flew to Pittsburgh to tell its grieving Jews that their struggle was the same as Israel’s conflict with Gaza. The Palestinians who shoot rockets at the south of Israel, he suggested, are like the gunman who killed 11 congregants at Tree of Life synagogue.

Quite apart from Bennett’s naked exploitation of the Pittsburgh massacre for political gain at home, where he is also leader of the rightist Jewish Home party, his stated equivalence between Palestinian enemies of Israel and the gunman’s anti-Semitism raises some interesting questions. An analysis of his argument that “the hand that fires missiles is the same hand that shoots worshippers” could help shed light on that conundrum of contemporary Jewish politics: Is anti-Zionism the same as anti-Semitism?

Anti-Semitism comes in many forms, but one thing that they often have in common is a belief in conspiracies: the Jews control the world economy, the Jews control the media, the Jews instigated the war in Iraq for the sake of Israel, etc.

One particularly extreme form of this mythmaking, with deep historical roots, is the claim that what the Jews are doing in secret is the opposite of what their religion tells them. Thus, Jews are forbidden to eat blood, but they kill Christian children to mix their blood in matzah. Another weird example from the Middle Ages (which you can still see in European churches today) is the Judensau: images of Jews suckling or having anal sex with pigs. Once again, if Judaism commands Jews not to eat or obtain any benefit from pigs, then the “real” Judaism that anti-Semites have “discovered” commands the opposite.

Some of these myths died out with the Middle Ages, but others and new ones are very much alive today. The gunman believes that HIAS is conspiring to flood the country with Muslims when, in reality, there are eight other non-Jewish agencies also settling refugees. George Soros is said to control the Democratic Party (not to speak of funding the Central American caravan), while Sheldon Adelson, who arguably, along with the Koch brothers, is the biggest Republican donor, gets a pass.

In short, anti-Semites of both the medieval and modern types traffic in myths and conspiracies in which anything Jews do is exaggerated, distorted or fabricated to make them the villains of contemporary politics.

Not so in the conflict with the Palestinians. It is certainly the case that anti-Semitic myths circulate among the Palestinians. Some believe that the Jews didn’t originate in the Land of Israel or that there was never a Temple in Jerusalem. Some subscribe to the view that Jews manipulate world politics for the sake of Israel or manufacture the Holocaust in the service of Zionism.

But at its core, the conflict is about something real: land. Without entering into a debate about the relative responsibility of Israelis and Palestinians for the current impasse, it is fundamentally about real issues. Is a blockade of Gaza the right tactic for changing the behavior of Hamas or, perhaps, eliminating it altogether? Or might loosening the blockade produce moderation? Should there be a Palestinian state, and if so, where? And if not, what should be the status of Palestinians who are not citizens of Israel?

These are political questions that even enemies can agree to debate. They are the very opposite of the stuff of myths.

The early Zionists thought that they could eradicate anti-Semitism by creating a Jewish state. We now know that they were wrong and that the existence of Israel has fed new forms of anti-Semitism. But the great achievement of Zionism has been to turn at least some of this hatred into a political question to which, one hopes, there will eventually be a political answer.

And so, in an odd way, Naftali Bennett betrayed Zionism when he claimed that the Pittsburgh shooter’s anti-Semitism is equivalent to what drives Palestinian action against Israel. It may be convenient for him to do so, because he does not wish to negotiate with the Palestinians. But unlike anti-Semites, Palestinians have some real claims that mere rhetoric cannot sweep away.

David Biale
David Biale

David Biale is Emanuel Ringelblum Distinguished Professor of History at UC Davis.