Referring to someone as a shanda fur die Goyim — literally, “a shame before the goyim [non-Jews],” is not to be taken lightly. Jews use the Yiddish phrase to describe other Jews that reflect poorly on the Jewish people, who reaffirm the most harmful stereotypes about us and give ammunition to those who would see us destroyed. It is not a phrase that I use or think about frequently, though it best describes what I have heard from some of my fellow Jews over the past two weeks regarding the Israeli occupation of Palestine.
Most of us by now have seen the footage of the Israeli Defense Forces firing stun grenades and water cannons on Palestinian protestors at Al Aqsa, also known as the Temple Mount, one of the holiest and most significant sites in Islam, Judaism and Christianity. Or you may have seen images from two days later on Eid, the Muslim day of celebration upon breaking the Ramadan fast, of Israeli airstrikes leveling entire buildings and refugee camps in Gaza City. But do not mistake these details as evidence that the “conflict” in Israel/Palestine is part of some inscrutable, thousand-year-long religious war. Instead, the truth is much simpler: The timing and location of these attacks is meant to inflict maximum fear, pain and terror on the Palestinians. It is terrorism done in the name of securing stolen land.
In 1917, during World War I, the British Empire issued the Balfour Declaration, voicing its support for the establishment of a sovereign state for the Jewish people in the then-Ottoman Empire. After the defeat of the Ottomans, the Levant was partitioned between the victorious French and British Empires, and the British Mandate of Palestine was created. Following the Holocaust and the Second World War, the Mandate was formally turned into the State of Israel. Jews had been making their way to Palestine since the late 19th century, where a significant number of us were already living relatively peacefully alongside the native Palestinians. But the issuance of the Balfour declaration and establishment of the State of Israel began the nationalist conflict and systematic dispossession of Palestinian land that continues to this day. Studying the history shows us a painful truth that we can no longer ignore: Israel’s founding, and continued existence, has necessitated crimes against humanity.
Palestinians have their own words for the atrocities done to them during this time, just as we do for those done to us only a few years earlier. The forced expulsion of 700,000 Palestinians from their homes in 1948 is known to them as the Nakba, meaning “catastrophe.” The Biblical Hebrew word for catastrophe, “Shoah,” is what we call the Holocaust. There are more disturbing similarities: The 1948 Lydda Death March, in which Israeli forces led 50,000 Arabs from their homes at gunpoint, many to their deaths, has uncanny echoes of the brutal treks our own ancestors suffered. In our own time, the story is much the same: #Kristallnacht was trending on Twitter recently, a reference not to the tragic evening in our own history, but the one going on in Israeli neighborhoods that very night, with Jewish mobs destroying Israeli Arab-owned storefronts.
But where did this idea come from that the Jewish people, and only the Jewish people, have an inherent right to their own sovereign nation on someone else’s land? Even if this was not the intention of the founders, Zionism has grown into European ethnonationalism for Jews. Zionism began in Europe in the 19th century as an ideology that could offer an alternative to the choice given to Jews at the time: Face persecution, or assimilate. Now there was an appealing third option: Leave, and return to the putative Biblical homeland of our people. But in proposing self-exile from European society as a solution to “the Jewish question,” Zionism bought into the same premise as the antisemites: that we were biologically racially distinct and were better off somewhere else. As Polish-Israeli historian Zeev Sternhell summarizes, “At the beginning of the century, the views of those who sought Jewish political independence and those who sought to purge their countries of the Jewish presence were often quite similar.”
Early Zionist literature itself is not always easily distinguishable from antisemitic propaganda, inveighing against the physical, mental and moral deficiencies of the effete European Jew. Writing in 1920, notable Russian Zionist A.D. Gordon put it in no uncertain terms: “We are parasites.” Zionists were particularly concerned with the racial “degeneracy” of Diaspora Jews, ascribing the most vicious tropes about us (e.g. grotesque appearance, cowardice) to our displacement. For this strain of Jewish thought — shlilat ha-golah, “the negation of the diaspora” — the only hope for Jews was to be reunited with their spiritual home in Israel, where they could be made whole. This alternative vision of the hale and hearty Jew in Palestine became known as “Muscular Judaism.” Jewish American cartoonist Eli Valley plays on this legacy in his cartoon series, Israel Man and Diaspora Boy.
We do not need to look hard to see that today, the state of Israel is still in league with the very antisemites from which it was theoretically meant to protect us, such as Viktor Orbán of Hungary and Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil. As more and more young American Jews, and Americans in general, see the righteousness of the Palestinian struggle for freedom, American Zionism’s real base of support has become clearer: Evangelical Christians, whose only interest in Israel is to bring about the rapture in which all of us Jews will die anyway. It is for this reason that I find it particularly cynical, even shameful, to see other American Jews decry the “antisemitism” of even the mildest criticism of Zionist crimes. Hiding behind our own history of persecution to cover for the atrocities done in our name is in bad faith and bad taste, and it is bad for the Jews.
All of us in the United States are living through an extraordinary moment, one in which the old Israeli propaganda playbook just isn’t working anymore. Zionists know this, and they are left to their last tactic: victimhood. Energized by the Black Lives Matter movement and growing support for decolonial struggles everywhere, a critical mass of people is rallying to the Palestinian cause. Fewer and fewer people find themselves able to pretend that it is one particular right-wing politician or party, and not Israel itself, that is the driver of all this death and destruction. The Jewish people of America have a double responsibility to stand with the Palestinian people: as members of the ethnic group for whom this violence is theoretically committed, and as citizens of the country that plies this apartheid regime with billions in military aid. The Palestinian cause now must have a home and a future in American Jewry.
It is not within our rights to condemn any means the Palestinians use to defend themselves and preserve their dignity, just as we would not condemn our ancestors for doing the same. There is no shame in making this obvious connection between our own history of persecution and the persecutions we see around us today. The only shanda is for us to let it continue in our name.
Aaron Neiman is a PhD candidate in the Anthropology Department.
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