Rep. Ilhan Omar’s comments last week in Washington that seemed to question the allegiance of Americans who advocate tirelessly for Israel have incurred the wrath of those advocates, who charge her with anti-Semitism. And even folks in the middle may wonder, Well, was Rep. Omar tapping into ancient stereotypes about Jews as a nation within a nation?
But Omar’s critique goes to the nature of Zionism; and it was anticipated by the Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt. Arendt’s prophetic writings about Zionism in the 1940s described the “double-loyalty” issue for American Jews that Israel would bring on them, by compelling them to be “the lobbies” for an embattled Jewish state.
Arendt was alarmed by the arrogance of Israel’s founders, in proceeding with contempt for their Arab neighbors. So long as the Jewish state had the enmity of its neighbors, she said, the country would be forced to rely on a superpower’s protection, and therefore on the lobbying of U.S. Jews, who would thereby open themselves to the dual loyalty charge.
In her 1944 essay “Zionism Reconsidered,” Arendt, a refugee from Nazi Germany who died in New York in 1975 at age 69, wrote that the double loyalty issue for American Jews was “unavoidable.” (Emphases mine).
Here enters the double-loyalty conflict, never clearly answered, which is an unavoidable problem of every national movement of a people living within the boundaries of other states and unwilling to resign their civil and political rights therein…
Without the power and resources of American Jewry, above all, the catastrophe in Europe would have been a deadly blow to Palestine Jewry, politically as well as economically. If a Jewish commonwealth is obtained in the near future–with or without partition–it will be due to the political influence of American Jews. This would not need to affect their status of American citizenship if their “homeland,” or “mother country,” were a politically autonomous entity in a normal sense, or if their help were likely to be only temporary. But if the Jewish commonwealth is proclaimed against the will of the Arabs and without the support of the Mediterranean peoples, not only financial help but political support will be necessary for a long time to come. And that may turn out to be very troublesome indeed for Jews in this country, who after all have no power to direct the political destinies of the Near East. It may eventually be far more of a responsibility than today they imagine or tomorrow can make good.
That passage is so forceful because Arendt predicted the rise of the Israel lobby: influential Zionist individuals and organizations that would be called upon to shape American policy. That has come to pass, particularly in the wake of the 1967 and 1973 wars, when many American Jews felt Israel’s existence was at stake and organizations like the AJC and AIPAC and the ADL took on the mission of holding the breathing tube. And it has gone on “for a long time to come.”
Israel’s reliance on “lobbies” and a superpower, rather than the goodwill of its neighbors, was a folly that was not good for Jews, Arendt said:
[T]he Zionists, if they continue to ignore the Mediterranean people and watch out only for the big faraway powers, will appear only as their tools, the agents of foreign and hostile interests. Jews who know their own history should be aware that such a state of affairs will inevitably lead to a new wave of Jew-hatred; the antisemitism of tomorrow will assert that Jews not only profiteered from the presence of foreign big powers in that region but had actually plotted it and hence are guilty of the consequences…
[T]he Zionists ended by making the Jewish national emancipation entirely dependent upon the material interests of another nation.
The actual result was a return of the new movement to the traditional methods of shtadlonus [court Jews], which the Zionists once had so bitterly despised and violently denounced. Now Zionists too knew no better place politically than the lobbies of the powerful, and no sounder basis for agreements than their good services as agents of foreign interests…
[O]nly folly could dictate a policy which trusts a distant imperial power for protection, while alienating the goodwill of neighbors
Four years later, witnessing the 1948 war of Israel’s independence — and Nakba — Arendt predicted (accurately) that Israel would devolve into a militaristic state.
And even if the Jews were to win the war, its end would find the unique possibilities and the unique achievements of Zionism in Palestine destroyed. The land that would come into being would be something quite other than the dream of world Jewry, Zionist and non-Zionist. The ‘victorious’ Jews would live surrounded by an entirely hostile Arab population, secluded into ever-threatened borders, absorbed with physical self-defense to a degree that would submerge all other interests and activities. The growth of a Jewish culture would cease to be the concern of the whole people; social experiments would have to be discarded as impractical luxuries; political thought would center around military strategy….
Under such circumstances… the Palestinian Jews would degenerate into one of those small warrior tribes about whose possibilities and importance history has amply informed us since the days of Sparta.
Arendt went on that Israel’s relations with world Jewry “would become problematical, since their defense interests might clash at any moment with those of other countries where large number of Jews lived.”
That hasn’t happened yet. American Jewish organizations have been only too happy to hold the bag for Israel. Well-placed Zionists such as Dennis Ross and Richard Perle speak at Washington think tanks about the need for Israel’s “defensible borders.”
But the support that Ilhan Omar is getting from progressives and young Jews suggests that the era of the Israel lobby is coming to an end. Because as she wrote in 1944, that long support “may turn out to be very troublesome indeed for Jews in this country.”
What Arendt’s prophecies demonstrate is that the question of Israel’s reliance on lobbies in the United States was a problem built into Zionism, and one that absolutely merits serious consideration by progressive Jews and foreign policy experts. For her critique was based on a worthy idea: Israel cannot continue to govern without the consent of those governed.
A serious consideration of these issues is exactly what Israel and its lobby don’t want. No wonder they are trying to run Omar off the road.
H/t James North, Adam Horowitz, Scott Roth, Ira Glunts.