By Rich Bellis
In early December 2008, I sat on a caved-in sofa in Marrakech and listened as a young man roughly my own age explained the international Jewish conspiracy seeking to destroy the Muslim world.
President Obama hadn’t been sworn in yet. It was before his Cairo speech and Nobel Peace Prize, before the Arab Spring and the various disappointments that would later tarnish each of those in turn.
I was with my boyfriend at the time, making the typical tourist circuit through Morocco, where he was studying Arabic in Rabat. In addition to Marrakech, we passed through Casablanca, Fes, Meknes, and Essaouira on the Atlantic coast.
That night, we paid a local guide to lead us around the medina and take us to dinner, which he did—up a flight of unmarked stairs to an uncle’s or cousin’s two-room apartment, where we agreed on the price of our meal in advance and they were served on plastic plates in the living room.
I don’t remember his name but he stayed and ate with us, then sat around for another hour or so, talking almost nonstop about Israel, the U.S., and how “the black man” was just another puppet—he didn’t know the word in English but taught its Arabic equivalent to my boyfriend, miming a marionette—of the network of powerful Jews who orchestrated international relations (plus the attacks of 9/11) between the West and the rest of the world.
For proof, he said, just look at the Israeli-Palestinian crisis: What had the Palestinians done to incur the ire or damning disregard of half the world? To him, the conflict was the skeleton key to every other standoff between Western and Arab powers, an ultimate signal that it all came down to an animating hatred for Muslims by Jews, fed by the latter through the machinery of state and multiplied across the globe.
He wanted to make us see something he knew we didn’t see, or didn’t want to, and helping us see it was more important to him than any of the photo-ops he’d shown us to that afternoon. Later, he took us to a madrassa where we met up with some students and kicked a soccer ball around on the roof.
Since then, the situation in Israel has languished and deteriorated by turns. Israeli settlements have spread across the West Bank and peace negotiations have repeatedly sputtered out. It hasn't helped that since the beginning of his second premiership in 2009, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made forestalling meaningful peace talks a centerpiece of his cynical-minded political strategy.
Meanwhile anti-Semitism is rising swiftly in Europe, with the incidence of threats and assaults on Jews doubling in France and the UK over the course of last year. On February 14, a shooting at the Great Synagogue in Copenhagen during a girl’s bat mitzvah, the second of two fatal attacks that day, left a security guard dead and two police officers wounded.
It would be wrong to interpret these events outside the local and national politics of the places where they’ve occurred. But it would be equally misguided not to recognize that mounting anger at Israel, which many liberal Jews actually share, is putting Jews everywhere at greater risk than at any time since the fall of Nazi Germany—and that Netanyahu and his American backers are more than a little to blame.
For the first time in years, there may now be an opportunity to change course.
As Netanyahu was preparing for his recent visit the U.S., at the behest of House Speaker John Boehner, President Obama’s national security advisor Susan Rice called the move “destructive to the fabric of the relationship between” between the two countries, a sentiment Secretary of State John Kerry later backed up, and which Obama himself has since tempered. Still, on Netanyahu's first day in Washington last week, the Times reported that his undisguised diplomatic preference for Boehner “has done something that larger foreign policy crises have not: It has led to the open distinction between support for the State of Israel and allegiance to politicians who lead it,” starting first among Democratic legislators.
Not only has that distinction eluded most American politicians for more than a decade, the habit of conflating the two has become a common feature of secular Jewish life in the United States.
For as long as I can remember, my family’s synagogue has set aside time during Shabbat services to pray for Israel, for the IDF, for missing and abducted soldiers, for those who give their lives (asked to do so or otherwise) for the Jewish homeland. It’s a powerful reminder of the constant struggle for security that shapes Israeli life.
It’s also an invitation to share in it. The sense of affinity with Israel that these moments of communal piety both reflect and impart is an elemental part of modern Jewish identity, with roots that run down two millennia of experiences and lodge in the bedrock of Diasporic Judaism itself—which helps explain why the phenomenon seems only to gain force in the wake of violence perpetrated against Jews rather than the reverse. It’s as though by refusing to differentiate between Israel’s existence and Israeli policy, Western Jews can present a unified and uncompromising defense against threats to us anywhere in the world, in whatever forms they take.
Recent events in Europe give the lie to that belief, which has always been politically and morally nearsighted.
Whatever else he got wrong, my Moroccan host was right to perceive an unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict as both a global calamity and a personal threat. Just as he saw Palestinians’ suffering to represent a danger to Muslims everywhere, so the willful stalling of Netanyahu’s government—and until recently, the nearly carte blanche support of our own—is a danger to Jews everywhere. The conflict isn't the key to a nefarious Jewish conspiracy, but that some see it that way underscores how key it is to the ways Jews themselves are seen and treated around the world.
By persisting to ignore, or else rushing to justify, the Israeli government's most self-defeating policies, many of us have fallen into the same circular logic I heard in Marrakech six years ago. Just look at the Jews, we say—what did they ever do to deserve this?
To be clear: Nothing.
But that’s the point, or one of them; innocence is not enough.
Anti-Semitism is older than Israelis and Palestinians, and its modern forms have many sources. Like violence itself, it won’t be eradicated anytime soon. Those realities are no excuse for terrorism, which has none. Yet insisting, when faced with it, that nothing can account for the recent spate of attacks but the inherent hatred of those seeking our destruction is itself threatening to destroy us.
Last Thanksgiving, I sat in my parents’ dining room in New Jersey and listened to my grandfather recount how Allied air strikes over Flossenburg, where he was imprisoned during the last years of the war, saved his life. The resulting blackouts the Nazis enforced during overnight shifts in the camp’s factories allowed him to crawl up inside the fuselages of the Messerschmitts he was assembling so he could catch a few fitful moments of exhausted sleep.
That is a fact independent of any lessons that can be drawn from it. Still, for me, this one can: Sheltering inside one engine of destruction to protect against others is a desperate measure, and no shelter at all.
Rich Bellis has written for The Atlantic online, BUST, and The Awl and other publications. He is also a blog editor at The Brooklyn Quarterly.
[Photo courtesy of the Kantor Center for the Study of Contemporary European Jewry]