The War Party is beating the drums again, and much of the media is obediently falling into line. Jeffrey Goldberg, whose article for the New Yorkerwas an important part of the disinformation campaign that was so central to the successful neocon push for the Iraq war, is leading the charge once again. His recent Atlantic article, “The Point of No Return,” is a brief for another war, this time with Iran. Rather than present his own doubtless warmongering views, he slants his article as objective reportage on the mindset of Israel’s leaders, particularly Benjamin Netanayahu’s “belief … that Iran is not Israel’s problem alone; it is the world’s problem, and the world, led by the United States, is duty-bound to grapple with it.
“Duty-bound”? That’s quite a sense of duty. The world has a duty to deal with a regime whose overt animus is directed at Israel, and if it doesn’t, Israel will do it itself. Goldberg claims that a military strike is also favored by Arab states, a point cogently disputed by Marc Lynch writing in Atlantic. In any case it’s a bit difficult to believe that “Several Arab leaders have suggested that America’s standing in the Middle East depends on its willingness to confront Iran.” How about America’s standing in the region depending on its ability to pressure Israel from its expansionist aims and end Israeli oppression of the Palestinians?Nah, the Arabs could care less about that.
In any case, one still wonders how attacking Iran is in the interests of the US or the rest of the world. But of course, interest is irrelevant. That’s the thing about duties. When one has a duty, self-interest and personal desire are irrelevant. You have a duty. Be a good soldier. Do it and don’t ask questions. End of story.
Goldberg never tells us why the US has a duty to initiate a military strike against Iran (although one can infer it has something to do with the Holocaust). So his main thrust is to show that Netanyahu would do it unilaterally if the US won’t. And why is Netanyahu so gung-ho on war? It’s because of the influence of his father, Ben-Zion Netanyahu: “To understand why Netanyahu possesses this deep sense—and why his understanding of Jewish history might lead him to attack Iran, even over Obama’s objections—it is necessary to understand Ben-Zion Netanyahu, his 100-year-old father.”
The senior Netanyahu is a premier example of a Jewish academic ethnic activist. Goldberg informs us that he was Vladimir Jabotinsky’s secretary. Jabotinsky was the father of racial Zionism and the inspiration of the terrorist wing of Zionism prior to 1948. Since that time, Jabotinsky has been the inspiration for the pro-expansion, pro-settler Likud Party—racial Zionism in all but name. As Geoffrey Wheatcroft recently pointed out, at the present time Israel “is governed by [Jabotinsky’s] conscious heirs.”
Goldberg describes Ben-Zion Netanyahu’s most important work, The Origins of the Inquisition in 15th-Century Spain (1995), as follows: “He argued that Spanish hatred of Jews was spurred by the principle of limpieza de sangre, or the purity of blood; it was proto-Nazi thought, in other words, not mere theology, that motivated the Inquisition. Ben-Zion also argued that the Inquisition corresponds to the axiom that anti-Semitic persecution is preceded, in all cases, by carefully scripted and lengthy dehumanization campaigns meant to ensure the efficient eventual elimination of Jews. To him, the lessons of Jewish history are plain and insistent.”
Netanyahu’s apologetic account of the Spanish Inquisition is a major topic of Chapter 7 of Separation and Its Discontents (“Rationalization and Apologia: The Intellectual Construction of Judaism”), including especially a long appendix.I remember when I first read his work that I was struck at how baldly apologetic it was—up front and in your face. One reviewer referred to his “almost mystical jeremiads against the Inquisitors” — not exactly the mark of an objective historian.
Basically, it’s the same old story: the behavior of Jews is irrelevant to the hostility people have against them. In this case, he tried to show that the Jews who converted to Christianity were sincere in their beliefs so that the Inquisition was at bottom racialist. I accept that some of the New Christians may have been sincere (and even Netanyahu admits that some were not). But I point out that, whatever their beliefs, there is a lot of evidence that the New Christians continued to intermarry and retain all the other ingroup connections that have always characterized Jews. The result was that an ethnically alien group came to dominate Spanish society even though it had adopted a surface of Christianity. In other words, Jewish racialism came first, followed by the Inquisition as a reaction. In the absence of surface religious differences, the only clue the Inquisition had was suspicion based on their ethnic ties—limpieze de sangre. Ethnicity matters as a point of conflict, even when people have the same surface beliefs.
One of Netanyahu’s comments made an indelible impression because it depicted Jews as willing and self-conscious agents of princely “massive exploitation”—a major theme of anti-Jewish attitudes in traditional societies.
It was primarily because of the functions of the Jews as the king’s revenue gatherers in the urban areas that the cities saw the Jews as the monarch’s agents, who treated them as objects of massive exploitation. By serving as they did the interests of the kings, the Jews seemed to be working against the interests of the cities; and thus we touch again on the phenomenon we have referred to: the fundamental conflict between the kings and their people—a conflict not limited to financial matters, but one that embraced all spheres of government that had a bearing on the people’s life. It was in part thanks to this conflict of interests that the Jews could survive the harsh climate of the Middle Ages, and it is hard to believe that they did not discern it when they came to resettle in Christian Europe. Indeed, their requests, since the days of the Carolingians, for assurances of protection before they settled in a place show (a) that they realized that the kings’ positions on many issues differed from those of the common people and (b) that the kings were prepared, for the sake of their interests, to make common cause with the “alien” Jews against the clear wishes of their Christian subjects. In a sense, therefore, the Jews’ agreements with the kings in the Middle Ages resembled the understandings they had reached with foreign conquerors in the ancient world. (Netanyahu 1995, 71–72)
One would think on the basis of his portrayal of Jews as willing and self-conscious agents of massive exploitation in alliance with corrupt elites that Netanyahu would realize the rationality of traditional anti-Jewish attitudes. However, there is little evidence of that, and certainly his treatment of the motives behind the Inquisition strongly suggest that he thinks Jews are blameless. (I can’t resist pointing out the parallel to our current situation—that our new American elite is substantially composed of ethnically conscious Jews with a heavy sprinkling of corrupt White people with no allegiance or loyalty to their own people—exactly the Jewish formula for success in traditional societies.)
Indeed, the above passage can be read as saying that the Jews had to be exploiters in order to survive the Middle Ages. Survival comes first before any compunction about exploiting non-Jews.(Jewish exploitation of non-Jews was greatly facilitated by Jewish religious attitudes that non-Jews are exploitable outgroups—an ideology that is enshrined in all the founding Jewish religious documents, from the Old Testament to the Talmud.) It’s an argument that can easily be applied to issues like West Bank settlements — needed to make Israel into a viable entity. George Will’s recent column pointed once again to the pre-1967 borders of Israel as dangerously indefensible.
It’s interesting that this survival-first argument is the key to the current attitudes emanating from the Netanyahu camp. Goldberg never once mentions the reality that Jewish behavior has poisoned the atmosphere in the Middle East. It’s simply about survival. As Netanyahu the elder stated: “The Jewish people are making their position clear and putting faith in their military power. The nation of Israel is showing the world today how a state should behave when it stands before an existential threat: by looking danger in the eye and calmly considering what should be done and what can be done. And to be ready to enter the fray at the moment there is a reasonable chance of success.”
This view that the behavior of Jews is irrelevant to hatred directed against them is an incredibly important part of the Jewish self-concept. A recent review of a book on the history of British attitudes on Jews begins, “What is important about anti-Semitism—a fairly modern term for an ancient clutch of ideas—is that it has less to tell us about the Jews themselves than about their enemies” (“Inverted targets,” David Vital’s review of Anthony Julius’s Trials of the Diaspora, TLS, July 23, 2010).
One can always understand the appeal of an existential argument, but it would be much more compelling for non-Jews if Israel’s behavior since 1967 had not appalled pretty much everyone who is paying attention. The problem is that Jews have a long history of not acknowledging the role of their own behavior in fomenting anti-Jewish attitudes. Then, when it blows up, it’s all about survival. Survival trumps everything else, certainly including any need to alter their behavior. As Tallyrand saidof the Bourbon kings, “They learned nothing, they forgot nothing.”