Israel Loses Its Best


In 2012 the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported on a poll suggesting that at least one-third of Israelis would consider emigrating abroad if the opportunity presented itself. This was not to be temporary phenomenon. An updated 2018 Newsweek article stated that “Israel celebrates its 70th birthday in May with the opening of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem. Yet the country is grappling with an existential crisis. … Spurred by the high cost of living, low salaries, and political and demographic trends, Israelis are leaving the country in droves.” Given the fact that “Israel has one of the highest poverty rates and levels of income inequality in the Western world,” you can see why the notion that Israel is “absolutely essential … to the security of Jews around the world” is up for debate among Jews themselves.

While economics is certainly playing a role in this emigration, it is not the only factor. There is also a question of conscience. Particularly noticeable among those leaving are numbers of intellectuals and academics. And among this group are some of Israel’s most ethical citizens. Here we can again turn to Haaretz. On 23 May 2020 the newspaper published a series of interviews with some of the activists and scholars despairing of enlightened change and therefore choosing to leave the country.  Here are a few examples:

—“Ariella Azoulay, an internationally recognized curator and art theoretician and her partner, philosopher Adi Ophir, who was among the founders of the 21st Year, an anti-occupation organization.”

—“Anat Biletzki, a former chairwoman of B’Tselem — the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories.”

—“Dana Golan, former executive director of the anti-occupation group Breaking the Silence.“

—“Yonatan Shapira, … who initiated the 2003 letter of the pilots who refused to participate in attacks in the occupied territories.”

—“Neve Gordon, political scientist, who was director of Physicians for Human Rights and active in the Ta’ayush Arab Jewish Partnership.”

And the list goes on for quite a while. According to the article, “the word that recurs time and again when one speaks with these individuals is ‘despair.’ Percolating despair, continuing for years.” That is, despair among those people trying to build a society where Israeli Jews and Palestinians could live in harmony as equals. It has gotten to the point where such a humanitarian stance can result in being “forced out of their jobs because of their political beliefs and activities” and/or the realization that “they could no longer express their views in Israel without fear.” Those with children expressed concerns about raising them within the political and social climate that now dominates Israel.

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Empowered Fanaticism

It is to be expected that each of these expatriates has mixed feelings about leaving Israel. After all, they leave not only a suffocating political and social climate, but also their community and a Hebrew language that many find personally enriching. Unfortunately, empowered fanaticism puts at risk all that is culturally and socially positive.

And empowered fanaticism is what you get when nationalism merges with an exclusive tribalism characterized by racism and religious zealotry. Eitan Bronstein, an Israeli activist now living abroad, gives a sense of this when he observes that “There is something quite insane in Israel.” To grasp it fully an Israeli must learn to see it from the outside—“to look at it from a distance is at least a little saner.” Neve Gordon tells us just how much distance is required to fundamentally change things: “What I understood was that the solution cannot be contained in Zionism.”

Gordon is correct. The source of Israel’s fate, as well as its behavior toward the Palestinians, lies in its founding ideology. Here is an explanatory sequence:

— Zionism, the ideology underlying the Jewish state, originated in the 19th century as a response to the persecution of Jews, particularly in eastern Europe and Russia.

—The 19th century was a prime period of nationalism and the nation-state. It was a logical decision of the early Zionists that the solution to Ashkenazi (northern European) Jewish persecution lay with the founding of their own state. And so began the melding of Judaism and Zionism.

—However, in the 19th century the nation-state was also tied to Western chauvinism and imperialism. Peoples outside of Europe and North America were seen as inferiors.

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—The founding Zionists, mostly Poles, Russians and Germans, were, if you will, just as infected with this chauvinism as their non-Jewish European counterparts. They took the superiority of European culture over that of non-Europeans for granted and therefore believed the Palestinians had few, rights in the face of European imperial expansion. In this way the Zionist Jews identified with and absorbed the role of the aggressor. It was an ironic stance because that same European culture was the source of Jewish persecution.

— Come the early 20th century, the Zionists made an alliance with the British government, which would soon conquer Palestine. The British promised the Zionists a “Jewish national home” there. This allowed the Zionists to begin bringing ever larger numbers of European Jews into an Arab land.

— The inevitable Palestinian resistance to this Zionist invasion was used to further justify the racism most Israeli Jews feel toward those they have dispossessed.

“Good Riddance”

This interpretation of events probably raises a negative emotional response in almost all Israeli Jews. This is not because it is inaccurate, but because they have all been raised within a Zionist culture that teaches them that Palestine is rightfully Jewish and now, as a consequence, only Jews can be full citizens of Israel. Somehow that indoctrination ultimately failed to overcome the basic humaneness of those exiles described above. It is their lack of tribal solidarity as defined and demanded by Zionist ideology that renders them renegades in the eyes of many doctrinaire Israelis. A sense of this is given in some of the reader comments that followed the Haaretz interviews. My responses are in brackets.

—They are all “radical leftists” or of the “far left.” [This assignment of political position is really ad hoc. There is nothing inherently “left” or “radical” about what in truth is a recognition that Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs share a common humanity, and a common fate.]

— These radicals fail to appreciate that Israel is a democracy and their political faction lost. [When it comes to human rights and human decency, a liberal democracy protects the rights of its minorities. In a society where minorities have shrinking rights, or no rights at all, democracy is only a facade.]

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— The exiles are themselves bigots who fail to respect the points of view of true Zionists. [This is just sophistry. To stand against bigotry cannot make one a bigot. If we have learned anything from history, it is that not all points of view are equal.]

— Those who chose exile think they are principled, but then so did Hitler. [Equating those who show compassion toward the Palestinians with the Nazis is a sure sign that Zionism has corrupted the minds of its adherents.]

—Israel is better off without these people: “May they meet their destiny among Israel bashers in their new utopias.”

[With the Zionists, it is always “us” against the world.]


The increasing number of empathetic Israelis—peace activists and those who just seek basic human rights for both Palestinians and Israeli Jews—who are being pushed to choose exile is a tragic and telling sign. They are literally being chased out of their own country, much as are the Palestinians, by those Jewish citizens committed to the reactionary, tribal doctrine of Zionism. The state has now been given over to doctrinaire chauvinists and religious extremists. Under such circumstances, is it any wonder that, as one of the few enlightened commenters stated, “Evil is driving out good” and “This is the price that Israelis of conscience are paying for [their opposition to] the steadfast persistence and growth of bigotry in Israel today.”

* Lawrence Davidson is professor of history at West Chester University in West Chester, PA.