Anti-Semitism, colonialism and the banality of evil.


I’m reading Hannah Arendt’s, Eichmann in Jerusalem, for the first time. This is her study of the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann the chief bureaucrat behind the Holocaust. When the book was first published Arendt was vilified as being a ‘self-hating Jew’ because she used the phrase ‘the banality of evil’ to describe the unexceptional, bureaucratic, corporate, ‘yes man’, that was Eichmann.

It seems self-evident to me that what she says about the human capacity for evil is correct. It wasn’t the punks, hippies, nutters, anarchists, eccentrics and rebels who committed the atrocities of Nazism; on the contrary it was ordinary, normal, little men and women like Eichmann.

And I’ve met hundreds of Eichmann’s over the years. Otherwise unremarkable men and women who have invested their sense of self in obediently doing as they are told as if this were a moral virtue.

Most intriguingly the first two chapters of the book are basically discussing why and how the German and Austrian Zionists were negotiating with the Nazis in the early 30’s. Indeed, Arendt reports that Eichmann made great play in his defence of the fact that he had supported Zionism and the idea that the Jews needed their own ‘ground beneath their feet’ as he put it. He also claimed that he had ‘saved’  thousand Jews by extraditing them, to Palestine.

This is all in the historical record of course but nonetheless Ken Livingstone has been suspended from the Labour Party for referring to it in order to make a broader point about how criticism of Israel and Zionism, as a distinct philosophy, is not in-and-of-itself, anti-Semitic and how anti-semitism in the LP is being used for petty political gain.

ZIONISM (noun) – a movement for (originally) the re-establishment and (now) the development and protection of a Jewish nation in what is now Israel. It was established as a political organisation in 1897 under Theodor Herzl, and was later led by Chaim Weizmann.

But even from this first reading of Arendt it seems clear that between 1933-37 the Nazis and the Zionists worked closely together for the common objective of removing ‘the Jews’ from German territory. What Livingstone actually said was that Hitler ‘was supporting Zionism’ and it is clear that whether Hitler himself did, the Nazis as an organisation did.

“They came in order to enlist help for the illegal immigration of Jews into British-ruled Palestine, and both the Gestapo and the S.S. were helpful.”

But in fact such was the nature of Nazism and the total rule of the Furher that it is inconceivable that Hitler had not sanctioned this cooperation between the Nazis and the Zionists. Indeed, Eichmann at his trial confirmed that he had been partly responsible for setting up training schemes for German Jewish emigrates to Palestine – as Livingstone has recently claimed.

Indeed, Arendt provides clear evidence that before the outbreak of WW2 at least some Zionists saw the Nazis as allies and the British as the enemy – because the British were in charge of Palestine and resisted Zionist aspirations.

“… their chief enemy, prior to the extermination program, was not those who made life impossible for Jews in the old countries, Germany or Austria, but those who barred access to the new homeland; that enemy was definitely Britain, not Germany.”

The Nazis supported a Jewish homeland as a solution to what they conceived as ‘the Jewish problem’ i.e. removing Jewish people from Europe.

“Zionists, according to the Nazis, were “the ‘decent’ Jews since they too thought in ‘national’ terms.”

But so what might we ask? What was Livingstone trying to imply by these remarks? What is Arendt trying to prove by reporting it on so extensively? These  Zionists in  the 1930’s were clearly not Nazis, neither were the Nazis Zionists. On the contrary surely these particular German Zionists were merely trying to make the best of the terrible situation of German Jews under the Nazis and further their Zionist cause in the most difficult of situations and for a few years the aspirations of Zionists coincided with the objectives of the Nazis. “My enemies enemy is my friend…” and all that.

But perhaps the point Livingstone was trying to make is that ‘Zionism’ as a philosophy is inconsistent with Western Enlightenment political ideas of religious tolerance and freedom. Israel as conceived by Zionists is a state in which full citizenship is only granted to those of the Jewish faith. In Israel today non-Jews do NOT have the same democratic, social or even property rights as Jews. The tragic irony of the Jewish victims of Nazism where they were persecuted because of their religious faith, establishing a Jewish state in which the extent of your human rights are determined not by your humanity but by your religion, cannot be ignored.

Many (most?) of us who criticise Israel argue from the position of believing in a genuine 2 state solution. We argue that Israel should withdraw to the 1967 borders and that Palestine be allowed to develop as a credible and sustainable homeland for those displaced by the establishing of Israel.

The problem for Israel is that this would mean they would be surrounded on three sides by a hostile Palestinian state that has never accepted the legitimacy of the Israeli state and indeed claims the territory that Israel itself sits on.

Thus some (many/most?) Israel’s have come to believe that a credible and sustainable Palestinian homeland is incompatible with the survival of Israel as a Jewish state. And lets face it the Israeli government is manifestly not interested in a 2 state solution as the continued building of settlements on the West Bank illustrates. The Israeli government is clearly committed to the gradual appropriation of most of the area they occupied in 1967. They are seeking over time to redefine the borders of an expanded Israel. And they would presumably argue that the survival of Israel as a Jewish state is absolutely dependent upon doing so

Thus it would appear that the phenomena of the conflation of criticism of Israel with anti-semitism comes from the fact that many Jews conflate criticism of Israel with calling for the destruction of Israel as a Jewish state. Many Jews believe that those who criticise Israel do not accept that Israel is a legitimate state and ergo should be dismantled as a state.

And to some extent this is of course true. There are many men and women of good faith across the globe who do not accept the ligitimacy of Israel as a Jewish state. Indeed, there are many Jews and indeed some Israeli Jews who do not accept the legitimacy of Israel as a Jewish state in which rights are determined by religion. Many believe that Israel should be transformed into a secular democratic state with equal rights for citizens of all religions. It could still be a safe-haven for Jews but not a state in which Jews were privileged by dent of their Jewishness.

However, and this is where it gets really tricky, there are many millions, especially in the Middle-East, who believe that the state of Israel should cease to exist completely and be replaced by a Palestinian, Muslim state, in which Jews would undoubtedly become an oppressed majority as full citizenship would only be granted of the Muslim faith.

Thus many Jewish people see ‘criticism’ of Israel and/or support of the Palestinians, as de facto an attack on Israel as a Jewish state and thus, according to this logic, as being against the Jewish nature of Israel and thus being anti-semitic.

However, for a Western, secular, educated, agnostic or atheist, gentile, Jewish claims to the land of Israel are based on a Bronze Age, tribal, origin myth and can not hold political legitimacy in the 21st Century… if it were not for the horror of the Holocaust. But the Holocaust did change everything and in the West after WW2 the Holocaust made calls for a Jewish homeland morally and politically irresistible.

For the Muslim inhabitants of British Palestine the Holocaust is understandably less compelling as a moral justification for the forced appropriation of their land. From their perspective the events of the Holocaust took place far-away in Germany, yet it is they, not the Germans, who have had to pay the price for the Nazis crimes.

And that in itself reflects a Eurocentric, colonial and racist world-view in which the plight of European Jewry is privileged over the plight of Middle-Eastern, Muslim, Arabs. Far from being the oriental outsiders of Medieval history, today the Jews of Israel are regarded in the West as being part of ‘us’, as being part of a civilised, democratic, modern enlightened, Western Europe, as opposed that is to the primitive, uncivilised, violent, Medieval, theocracies of the Muslim, Arab world.

In this light Israel can be seen as nothing more than the latest instalment in the story of European colonisation and appropriation of the land and resources of the third world. One of the many tragedies of the Israel/Palestine conflict is that 70 years after the defeat of the Nazis their racist, colonial, Eurocentric, moral degeneracy is still playing out in the Middle-East.

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