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When support for Israel means abandoning universal values

On a recent trip to Germany, Jewish Israeli filmmaker Udi Aloni finds himself defending the Palestinians’ right to resist Israeli apartheid and occupation. Before pledging unconditional loyalty to Israel, he says, people should ask themselves what values they are helping promote.

By Udi Aloni

A Palestinian woman walks by a grafitti sign calling to boycott Israel on a street in the West Bank city of Bethlehem on February 11, 2015. (Miriam Alster/Flash 90)

A Palestinian woman walks by a grafitti sign calling to boycott Israel on a street in the West Bank city of Bethlehem on February 11, 2015. (Miriam Alster/Flash 90)

My daughter Yuli and I set out on a journey in Berlin this summer to spend quality time together, to see art, and learn from each other. Yuli lives in Israel, where my mother, Shulamit Aloni, was the minister of education and culture in the second Yitzhak Rabin government. She was with Rabin at the rally where he was murdered following a wild smear campaign of right-wing forces in Israel. It is those same forces that, today, some Germans have called to unconditionally support.

I had been planning to go to the Ruhrtriennale festival in Bochum to screen my film, “Junction 48” (winner of the Berlinale Panorama Audience Award 2017), when my friend and comrade in the struggle from Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), Iris Hefetz Amsalem, called to inform me about a controversial event being planned in Berlin. It was a symposium against the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement, and no Palestinian representative was invited to speak there.

It was clear to me that I had to attend the event and confront those who have turned the BDS concept upside down. As an outsider who is unsure of the advantages and disadvantages of the BDS movement in Germany, my goal was not so much to protect the movement, but rather to stop the cynical depiction of civil rights activists as anti-Semitic. The manipulative use of the term anti-Semitism is an act that promotes anti-Semitism by obscuring its literal and historical meanings. This inaccurate usage must be fought with the same degree of decisiveness with which we fight anti-Semitism itself.

I thought that as an Israeli Jew I could go to the symposium and simply explain that, not only is the BDS movement clearly not anti-Semitic, its basic tenet is equality between Jews and Palestinians. BDS is a Palestinian call for solidarity from international civil society, whose money has been used to acquire lethal weapons to oppress the Palestinian people. It is a call for solidarity coming from a people who have lived without basic rights for 70 years. It is a call to create a space for non-violent struggle for justice and equality.

Palestinian citizens of Israel protest against the Jewish Nation-State Law in Tel Aviv on August 11, 2018. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Palestinian citizens of Israel protest against the Jewish Nation-State Law in Tel Aviv on August 11, 2018. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

One might not agree with the call to boycott, divest from, and sanction Israel, but we must at least allow it to be heard. It seems that the more Israel distances itself from universal morality and values – and now, when apartheid measures are officially valid not only in the West Bank and Gaza, but also within the borders of ’48 (Israel), according to the Jewish Nation-State Law – the “good Germans” believe that they have to urgently defend it, and deny the facts.

The philosopher Slavoj Žižek has already written about the close and symbiotic relationship between anti-Semitic movements and the State of Israel (for example, the welcoming of American right-wing evangelists and the Hungarian Prime Minister as distinguished guests of Bibi Netanyahu).

In a time of weakness and confusion, in which the right wing appropriates our human rights discourse, political correctness and identity politics are crucial to refresh the stagnant left. How is it that crucial strategies become perversely transformed, only to be thrown back in our face as racist ideologies while the white-supremacist crowd applauds? And how can I stand up to these brutal attacks and not fall into them? How can I face my daughter and feel that I am passing on to her the values of humanistic Judaism that my mother and grandparents taught me?

Palestinian refugees play in an impoverished area in Gaza City on January 17, 2018, after the White House froze tens of millions of dollars in aid to UNRWA. (Wissam Nassar/Flash90)

Palestinian refugees play in an impoverished area in Gaza City on January 17, 2018, after the White House froze tens of millions of dollars in aid to UNRWA. (Wissam Nassar/Flash90)

At the symposium in Bochum, Musician Elliott Sharp read a text on empathy and the BDS movement in a moving and deep voice. When he said that the looks of the Warsaw ghetto and of the Gaza Strip are visually similar, and when the audience did not jeer him as they had jeered me, I thought to myself: how can I find the language of radical grace that I have been seeking? I wondered whether my radical emotional fervor was helping me communicate my message, or whether it was obstructing my ability to listen to others. I asked my daughter Yuli what she thought. She said that both emotional appeal and intellectual dialogue are important for the struggle.

The Jew is not singular, and not an object. We are subjects with many different and contradictory voices. And what kind of Judaism do we want to preserve? The Judaism of Judith Butler, Tony Kushner, Daniel Barenboim, Franz Rosenzweig, Franz Kafka, Sigmund Freud, Gershom Scholem, Buber, Benjamin, Luxemburg, and Arendt? Or the Judaism of Benjamin Netanyahu, Sheldon Adelson, Naftali Bennett, and Avigdor Lieberman? This is the question that needs to be asked before one wraps themselves in an imaginary Judaism, like a prayer shawl, and pledges unconditional loyalty to the State of Israel.

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On the last day of our journey, Yuli and I went to the “Hello World” exhibition at the Hamburger Bahnhof museum. At the end of the exhibition, there was an installation by the artist Bruce Nauman called “Room with my Soul Left Out, Room that Doesn’t Care.” We stood there pondering and asking, Quo Vadis Domini? Where will the internal political and artistic path lead us, while the fire continues to rage and burn our fragile world?

At night, Yuli and I had dinner with Israeli writer Nir Baram and other friends. With the encouragement of some wine, we yelled and argued about the question of what better promotes a solution to Israeli apartheid and occupation: a more moderate, diplomatic approach, or a more radical one? And then Timothy, another friend, said, “just remember to tell them that it is not about you nor the Germans. At the end of the struggle is a young Palestinian woman with no rights, who deserves to live in equality and security and to get to the hospital to treat cancer, even if her father’s politics are different from ours.”

But at the end of the struggle, there is also my daughter, and I want to help her create a world in which she and Mariam, her Palestinian friend, will be able to make their art together and feel that their friendship is obvious, not rare or eccentric, as it is perceived today.

Udi Aloni is a filmmaker, artist, and writer whose works frequently explore the interrelationships between art, theory, and activism. His most recent film, “Junction 48” (2016), won the Audience Award at the Berlinale, and Best International Film at the Tribeca Film Festival, among many others. Aloni’s book, “What Does a Jew Want: On Binationalism and Other Spectres” (Columbia University Press), is a theological-political compilation that contains interventions by Judith Butler, Alain Badiou, and Slavoj Žižek. Previously, Aloni was the head of the cinema department at the Freedom Theater of Jenin Refugee Camp. Aloni is on the Advisory Board of Jewish Voice for Peace – America. Currently, Aloni lives between Tel Aviv, Berlin, and New York. A version of this article was first published in German in the Berliner Zeitung. Read it here.

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    COMMENTS

    1. Motti bembaron

      When calling Israel Apartheid you show your true colors. Count me out.

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        We never counted you in.

        Reply to Comment
    2. itshak Gordine

      “Universal values” are foreign to Judaism. They mix with nothingness and prove their bankruptcy. The assimilated Jews and the leftists cling to them as if they were a lifeline. Jewish values based on Torah and Talmud are those of the past, present, and future. Any true Jew should study them carefully. These are the ones of life.

      Reply to Comment
      • john

        so israel is predicated on theocratic values.

        Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        Itshak Gordine Halevy is fueled by this high-octane mass narcissistic tribal delusion* from another age harbored by 79% of right wing Israelis and 56% of Israeli Jews:

        79 Percent of Right-wingers Believe Jews Are the Chosen People. Are You for Real?
        Whereas belief in God is a private matter, the belief in a chosen people provides the outlines of policy that explains a great deal about Israel’s actions. When they say that they are the chosen people, it reveals their psychosis
        Gideon Levy
        Sep 15, 2018
        https://www.haaretz.com/opinion/.premium-79-percent-of-right-wingers-believe-jews-are-the-chosen-people-are-you-for-real-1.6471893

        You read that right. And this in a modern nation state in 2018. We’ve got quite a situation here. STILL think Israelis can end their 51 year military dictatorship, their Lordship, over Palestinians without outside force?

        *If you thought—and I was of course taught this from my childhood—that this is more “a calling,” that there is a more benign, spiritual, modest, humbling, aspirational, discipline-obeying, submitting-to-G-d meaning to this “chosen people” thing, the Israeli right wing and center has managed in 50 years to utterly erase that more modest and subtle connotation and replace it with frank arrogance and frank supremacism (Judeofascism is not too strong a word in this latter half of the second decade of the 21st century. Just listen to Halevy. And Lewis from Afula.)

        Reply to Comment
        • itshak Gordine

          Ben, do you really think that the values that have allowed the Jewish people to survive for centuries are arrogance? All our sages would be wrong and you would be right? You are going through very serious disillusions.

          Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            Don’t you lecture me on Judaism, Halevy. That is part of your arrogance that you think you have a superior purchase on Judaism. You don’t. I see your misguided nationalist rabbis that you worship as the destructive heirs of Bar Kochba and the Zealots who do not heed the modern Yohanan Ben Zakkai’s wisdom about compromise and are headed for another catastrophe. It is I who have the best of rabbinic Judaism on my side, not you.

            Reply to Comment
          • itshak Gordine

            Forgive me, Ben. I prefer my references to yours. I rely on Bal Chem Tov, Nahman, Kook, Ben Ychai, Bar Yochai, Ovadia Yoseph and others among the elders, and on the greatest thinkers of Judaism today, including the great Rabbis of Israel. All advocated the return of the Jewish people to Eretz Israel and the liberation of the land of Israel from the Arab colonizers.

            Reply to Comment
          • john

            no religion deserves a country, all theocracies are wrong.

            Reply to Comment
          • itshak Gordine

            How does this affect you? Do you live in Israel? I do. We choose the government and the policy that suits us best.

            Reply to Comment
          • john

            though your divorce from reality has no bearing on my personal life, by the same token each incident of reality running contrary to your vision of how it should be is met with antisemitism and apparently religiously-inspired racism.
            i assume you disagree with my opinion that all theocracies are wrong, because your majoritarian purity is the only correct dogma.

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            Halevy, I doubt you’re a genuine messianic Kookist holdover, a Gush Emunim type. I suspect religion is subsidiary to nationalism for you, is a rationale. That is, I suspect you are to a large extent a bourgeoisified secular nationalist, a Habayit Hayehudi-Naftali Bennett-Ayalet Shaked follower (when you’re not conveniently following after Netanyahu) a core nationalist, using religion as a cover, and this among other things is why the 51-year military dictatorship over Palestinians sits well with you.

            Tomer Persico: “The late Yeshayahu Leibowitz was wrong when he predicted that disappointment in the messianic vision would lead Gush Emunim’s adherents to convert to Christianity. But he knew well that exalting nationalism to the status of a religious principle meant its deification: namely, its idolatrous positioning as the center of the religion. “The ‘religious’ arguments for the annexation of the territories,” he wrote in April 1968, are no more than “an expression of the transformation of the Jewish religion into a camouflage for Israeli nationalism” (translation from a 1992 collection of essays by Leibowitz, edited by Eliezer Goldman). Nationalism is the core, religion is the cover. Today we see vividly the grotesque result of the process.”
            https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/.premium.MAGAZINE-the-rise-and-fall-of-zionism-as-a-religion-1.5486927

            Reply to Comment
          • itshak Gordine

            Ben, you seem to be reading Haaretz too much, and that has disturbed your judgment. Regarding my little person, I am a religious Zionist who instilled true Jewish values in his children (respect for the Shabbat and love of the Land of Israel), without which we do not have the honor to belong to the Jewish people. . For a large majority of Israelis, the people mentioned in this article (Aloni, Buber, Barenbaum, Leibowitz, Guidon Levy, etc.) are unimportant.

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            To say I read Haaretz too much is simply anti-intellectualism, ignorance-boasting, and cult-speak. The Israeli Jewish populace as right wing cult.

            OK, so you want to say you emphasize religion as much as nationalism, the fusion and inseparability of the two that is the essence of Kookism. (Whereas Naftali Bennett is quite something else.) I gather.

            But please clarify: are you of the Hardalim, Halevy? Just want to clarify.

            Tomer Persico uses the phrase “degraded Kookism” to describe where I think you are coming from. And says this:

            “Here’s what the increasing secularization of religious Zionism looks like: Its adherents view themselves in the first instance as members of the Jewish people and defenders of the State of Israel. True, they also observe the commandments, but that’s just their “religion,” something they pile onto nationality that expresses their personal relationship with God. Their basic identity is ethnic-Jewish and national-Israeli. What remains of the Kookist package, then, is the veneration of nationalism, but without the translation of nationalism into a theological language.

            There still are religious Zionists, of course, who believe in the coming of redemption and in the settlements as the central project that is hastening it. However, they have been marginalized and now find themselves in a situation similar to that which preceded the Six-Day War. There are also religious Zionists whose halakhic identity remains very powerful and overrides the nationalist aspect. They are what’s known as “Hardalim” (acronym for national-Haredi), a group that coalesced parallel to the general disintegration of Kookism. These groups continue to abide by different versions of Kookism, but they constitute a minority in the religious-Zionist movement. For most religious Zionists, modern nationalism and the observance of the precepts constitute two separate foci of identity, and the former is becoming increasingly paramount.

            From the ruins of Gush Emunim, then, religious Zionism emerges less halakhic and more nationalist. This is religious Zionism without messianic fervor and with a diluted Jewish identity, one that draws primarily on the national aspect and puts forward a simple, ethnocentric Jewish perception.”

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            I am going to take your non-answer here, Halevy, your answers elsewhere, and your definition of “true Jewish values” as indicating that you are mainly an extremist ethnic nationalist using religion and piety as an excuse, a cover, an easy justification to yourself and others. That is where I place you on Tomer Persico’s continuum of degraded Kookism.

            Reply to Comment
          • itshak Gordine

            Ben, I’m not at your service and I respect, like any good Jew, the Yom Kippur holiday. I am a practicing Jew and I respect the teachings of the majority of our past and present religious leaders. Judea and Samaria were miraculously freed in 1967. Since then, hundreds of thousands of Israelis repopulate this land where in 25 years we will be majority, given our birth rate. There is no explanation. It’s like that.

            Reply to Comment
          • john

            so the idf is god’s army, the nation state of the jewish people a form of divine will.
            itshak, your country is recently jettisoning its values, because extremists like you get vertigo on the moral high ground.

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            By your non-answer I was referring to your reply on the 17th. And that besides, there’s your answers elsewhere, and your definition of “true Jewish values.” With your “miraculously freed…there is no explanation, it’s like that” comment, however, you come off as more full-fledged messianic Kookist (degraded) on that continuum. Very well, we’re dealing with a royal Ha-Levy-ite, degraded messianic Kookist overlord (and Netanyahuist) with total contempt for the non-Jews among him, who cloaks that in piety about what a good observant Jew he is. And uses Judaism as an excuse for ethnic cleansing. Making God his real estate agent. And feels free to come on a modern liberal democratic left-leaning site and lecture people about the errors of their ways. Got it, Halevy. We have taken your measure. We are not going to normalize this, Halevy. You act insouciant and nonchalant about this but we are not going to let you normalize this extremism.

            Reply to Comment
          • itshak Gordine

            Ben, you are free to waste your time. A vast majority of people in Israel have the same ideas as me. Thanks to our birth rate, we will be the majority in 30 years in Judea and Samaria.

            Reply to Comment
          • john

            cite some numbers? or are you fathering this demographic threat yourself?

            Reply to Comment
          • itshak Gordine

            The birth rate of Arab women is in free fall and that of Jewish women is constantly rising. In the lines before 1967 the rate is 3.06 in 2016 for Jewish women. That of Arab women is 3.11 in 2016 against 4.35 in 1996 and 6 in 1980. In Judea-Samaria, the fertility rate of Jewish women is 30% higher than that of Arab women. These are official numbers that everyone can check.

            Reply to Comment
          • john

            thanks for being at my service

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            Halevy thinks that sometime in 2048 there will finally be one more Jew than Arab in the West Bank and then instant nirvana and heaven on Earth will ensue and the Moshiach will come and smite the N-minus-one Palestinians. It will all work out swell. So we shouldn’t waste our time. God told him so.

            Halvey, in what settlement in the West Bank do you live? Surely you practice what you preach and you live in a settlement? Correct?

            Reply to Comment
          • itshak Gordine

            No Ben, not one more Jew. Much more. We win the bellies war. Jewish women, even secular, have more and more children and Arab women less and less. We have the highest fertility rate of all OECD countries (in the pre-1967 lines). In Judea Samaria with more than 7 children per Jewish woman, we will be in a few years more numerous. If this trend continues, we will even have the highest fertility rate in the Middle East, while that of Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon collapses. Leftists have always tried to cheat with statistics in order to impose their suicidal policy. But official figures have shown their lies.

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            Halevy you’re staking it all on Jewish versus Arab reproductivity, and you bandy about hearsay from the far right settler frequencies you’re tuned in to (those upstanding science-respecting swell chaps who never ever lie, right?), but I don’t see any reliable stats. Where’s the beef?

            However, more fundamentally, your cast of mind, your strategic racial reproductive thinking, is awkwardly, uncomfortably reminiscent of the Lebensborn program:
            https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lebensborn

            Again, in what settlement in the West Bank do you live? Surely you practice what you preach and you live in a settlement? Correct? Why won’t you answer this?

            Reply to Comment
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