Quo vadis, Israel?

Marcel Duchamp, Rotorrelevos, 1935


Considerations about the book “Niemals Frieden?”, by Moshe Zimmermann

How does he act, or rather, how does the historian react in extreme situations such as war? Especially when belligerence is not only aimed at the enemy, but also at those who dare to question the reasons and morality of their own compatriots? In a country like Israel, such questions are not at all theoretical. An example: for his harsh criticism of the occupation of Palestinian territories and his work with the peace movement Schalom Aschaw, political scientist and historian Zeev Sternhell suffered a bomb attack on September 25, 2008. Zeev Sternhell, who spent part of his childhood in the Przemyśl ghetto and was 73 years old at the time, was lucky and suffered only bruises.

Things have not reached that point, fortunately, for Israeli historian Moshe Zimmermann, who has just published an important book for understanding the cycle of atrocities triggered by the brutal Hamas terrorist attack on October 7 last year. Specialist in the history of anti-Semitism and author of extensive works, Moshe Zimmermann is a passionate defender of the “two-state” solution and one of the biggest critics of the errors in his country's politics.

Unlike his other books on Israel and the Palestinian issue, in Niemals Frieden? Israel am Scheideweg (“Impossible peace? Israel at the crossroads”, in free translation) the firm and serene voice of the historian opens, here and there, to the personal dimension: childhood memories, admiration for the scientist and great humanist Yeshayahu Leibowitz, the lawsuits to which he had to respond for his opinions, concern for the fate of his grandchildren. The same firmness expressed in his other works is now accompanied by what he – an 80-year-old intellectual for whom the basic structure of the conflict has remained unchanged for decades – calls “constructive pessimism” (p. 14).

It is as if for Zimmermann there was no more time to waste, not even for causal imputation exercises or great analytical flights. All that matters is to present the reader with an honest chronicle of events, contribute to the clarification of public opinion and, who knows, strengthen the still minority peace party.

A hasty or uninformed critic will probably reproach you for focusing your analyzes on the Israeli part of the conflict. Anyone interested in salon neutralism will definitely not find it here: “the attempt to be neutral is an attitude that I consider morally suspect” (interview with Day care, 01/11/2023).

Less than a review, the following text is an attempt to familiarize the Brazilian reader with Moshe Zimmermann's historiographical enlightenment. The subtitles correspond to the chapter division of the book. Only chapter 12, which deals with the economic dimension of the conflict, was omitted.

The failure of Zionism: October 7th

The project of the father of Zionism, Theodor Herzl, was indebted to the European political culture of the 19th century. What was sought was the creation of a State that could guarantee a home and full citizenship to Jews. But this also created a myth: that in Eretz Israel they would be entirely safe. A dream that, for Moshe Zimmermann, is not the wars of 1967 or 1973, but the pogrom last year put it to the ground. “If the worst catastrophe in Jewish history since 1945 happens in Israel, we have to admit that something is wrong with the whole idea of ​​Zionism” (interview with El País, 19/04/2024).

Moshe Zimmermann reminds us of an additional tragic element: the locations attacked were kibbutzim located in the undisputed territory of Israel, spaces in which, contrary to the dominant radicalism in the so-called “colonies”, dialogue with the Palestinians is generally supported – or supported. Among the victims of the massacre “were countless who, selflessly, were involved in actively helping [their] neighbors in Gaza” (p. 22).

The two-state solution and its enemies

Anyone who has read Hannah Arendt's essays on Zionism, written in the 1940s, knows – contrary to the generalization that recurs in forums and websites, or that which has become current in part of the Muslim world – that Zionism has never been a homogeneous movement. At the very least, explains Moshe Zimmermann, he was divided between a secular and a religious wing, and between a “proletarian” and a “bourgeois” wing. From this last faction the revisionist current would later be born, which Zimmermann classifies as “nationalist and ethnocentric” (p. 24). It is the embryo of Likud.

In Palestine under British rule in the 1920s, there was a “latent internal war” (Arendt 2007, p. 365). This is how things went in the following decades, leading to the first great catastrophe for the Palestinians, the Nakba. While the revisionists were reluctant to give up the lands east of the Jordan, guided by the ideology of “Greater Israel”, the creation of the new State would be unanimously rejected by the Arab world (only in 1988 would Arafat's PLO recognize Israel).

As an “outward” expansion proved unrealistic, Likud’s predecessors opted for “inward” expansion, that is, with the objective of annexing the Gaza Strip and the West Bank (that is, the territorial foundation of the future Palestinian State , as provided for in 1947 in UN resolution 181). The revisionists then began to count on the support of religious Zionists. For fifty years, writes Moshe Zimmermann, “a deliberate policy of colonization of regions under occupation has been promoted with the aim of realizing the dream of Greater Israel” (p. 27). The author does not fail to note, however, that sectors of the young Israeli civil society raised their voice: at the end of the 1970s the Schalom Aschaw (“Peace Now”), a movement that defends the return of occupied territories to the Palestinians.

Unfortunately, the 1977 elections would celebrate the definitive rapprochement between Likud, the religious Zionists and the ultra-Orthodox. Two years before the Islamic Revolution in Iran, a coalition was formed that Moshe Zimmermann characterizes as “radical right-wing, nationalist, conservative and fundamentalist”, which did not hesitate to encourage “illegal actions towards the Palestinians” and a “radical occupation policy ” (p. 28).

The assassination of Prime Minister Yizhak Rabin in 1995 would be a clear sign that “no Israeli government”, if such a constellation continues, “will risk establishing negotiations with the Palestinians that could imply a withdrawal from the colonies” (p .29). The withdrawal of 7.000 “settlers” from Gaza in 2005 only apparently contradicts this prognosis. Ariel Sharon's plan – as Moshe Zimmermann had already pointed out in his book The fear of peace. The Israeli dilemma (2010, p. 45) – was to dodge the peace agreement proposed by the Arab League in 2002 by giving up a ring.

With this, Sharon (whose provocations were the trigger for the Second Intifada) intended to “strengthen colonization initiatives in Judea and Samaria” (p. 29), biblical toponyms with which Jewish nationalism refers to the West Bank. Not even the brief Labor governments that followed did anything to reverse this policy, which clearly indicates that the occupations are a state policy in Israel. This state of affairs would reach a new level with Netanyahu's arrival in power.

Since 2014, when the negotiations proposed by Barack Obama failed, the Israeli “settlers” have had a green card from their government. From then on, they were able to “build colonies almost without any hindrance, harass the Palestinians, build roads that only [their own] settlers can use, and thus promote a gradual annexation” (p. 30) of what was not available to them. belongs.

Power and powerlessness: endless war

Zionism established the model of what the new Jew should be: strong, fearless, ready for war (p. 33), an ideal reinforced and legitimized by the country's educational system. In school textbooks “the history of wars overshadows (…) all other aspects of life in Israel”; and the soldier is elevated to the status of “ideal type” (p. 35). All conflicts and military operations in which the country has been involved – from the war of independence to the current war – are presented as “inevitable”.

For nationalists, anyone who questions this article of faith commits “a sin against Zionism” (p. 35). Moshe Zimmermann considers that this heroicizing narrative “is strongly rooted in the Israeli mentality, which, in turn, has practically destroyed the belief in peace” (p. 37). In this sense, Hamas' radicalism has provided an invaluable service to what Arendt (2007, p. 374) called Zionist “sectarian ideology”.

In his sober treatment of the issue, Moshe Zimmermann is very far from expressing any empathy with Hamas, limiting himself, rather, to asking: “what can best explain the willingness to war of Palestinians living under occupation: their Arab ‘nature’ or Israeli behavior?” (p. 38).

Israel or German reason of state

In a book written directly in German and designed for German readers, relations between the Federal Republic and Israel occupy considerable space. The starting point here is the statement made in 2008 by Angela Merkel in Knesset, that Israel’s security is “part of the German reason of state”. Zimmermann does not hold back in this section of the book, as in his interviews with the press, criticizing the Germans' stance on this matter. Unconditional support for Israel (according to The Guardian, Germany is the second largest supplier of weapons to Israel, behind only the USA) seems foolish to you.

Israel's security will only be achieved through “a rapprochement with the countries of the region, especially the Palestinians, based on the two-state solution” (p. 42). The statements made by Chancellor Olaf Scholtz and Foreign Minister Baerbock in recent months only confirm Berlin's tendency to combine “lip service statements” with a humanist content with a factual acceptance of the uninterrupted seizure of Palestinian territory. How to justify automatic alignment with the actions of a government that Moshe Zimmermann describes (interview with Day care, 01/11/2023) as “a regime of nationalist fanatics”?

To a reporter who asked him whether it was up to the Germans, the people who perpetrated the Holocaust, to put pressure on Israel, Moshe Zimmermann replied: “Precisely for that reason. As heirs of the perpetrators one has to learn something from history. Needless to say, you shouldn’t be on the side of racists” (interview with Day care, 04/03/2024).

In these days, the mere fact of quoting the phrases above can earn anyone, especially a non-Jew, the accusation of anti-Semitism. How does Moshe Zimmermann, a renowned expert on the subject, face the issue? He shows us that the concept has been in dispute for some time; something that, as we know, has the potential to metamorphose analytical concepts into political concepts, or rather, politicized ones.

In 2017, after carrying out a vast inquiry, an “independent commission”[1] convened by the German parliament went further and proposed a typology of forms of anti-Semitism. Alongside “classical” anti-Semitism (hatred of Jews) and “secondary” anti-Semitism (denial or relativization of the Holocaust) there would also be a israelbezogener Antisemitismus, that is, “anti-Semitism-linked-to-Israel”. Based on this last type, it has been suggested that criticisms of Israel, even the most apparently neutral ones, could have an anti-Semitic motivation.

Four years later, a group of experts gathered in Jerusalem, in which Zimmermann took part, concluded that anti-Semitism should be understood (p. 46) as “discrimination, prejudice, animosity or violence against Jewish women and men as Jews and Jews (or from Jewish institutions as Jewish).” The Jerusalem group therefore opposed an overly broad meaning of the term, such as that outlined by the “independent commission”. Criticism of Israel based on facts and even sanctions and boycotts of products from the occupied territories should not be considered per se antisemites.

For Moshe Zimmermann, experience has demonstrated “that Israeli politicians and diplomats tend to denounce criticism of Israeli policy as anti-Semitic” (p. 48); a type of semantic abuse that intensifies as the conflict prolongs and the number of Palestinian civilian victims generates outrage around the world, from North American universities to former Israeli reservists (Gvaryahu 2024).

That supporters of the Palestinian cause are not entirely free from committing the same type of error is shown by their repeated use, which is no less susceptible to abuse, of the concept of genocide. We can only agree with Zimmermann that the trivialization of the term anti-Semitism weakens the fight against true anti-Semitism rather than strengthens it, since it tends to blur the perception of the phenomenon in precise contours, where it actually manifests itself (p. 48) .

European roots, post-colonial retrospective look

Since the last world war, an understandable hypersensitivity to everything to do with Israel and anti-Semitism has developed in Germany. Like all forms of hypersensitivity, however, from time to time the limit of what is reasonable is exceeded. This is the case with the controversy sparked by the invitation to Achile Mbembe for a conference at the Ruhr Triennale in 2020, or, more recently, the sad episodes of the cancellation of the awarding of a literary prize to the Palestinian writer Adania Shibli (author of the acclaimed book Minor detail) at the last Frankfurt Fair, and the University of Cologne's disinvitation of the philosopher Nancy Fraser to a professorship for having signed the manifesto “Philosophy for Palestine”.

Despite the content of his criticisms of the chronic indisposition of Israeli high politics towards peace, Zimmermann expresses the fear that in the current context, behind many of the current comparisons between the reality of Palestinians in the occupied territories, colonialism and the regime of South African apartheid, the desire to delegitimize the existence of the State of Israel may be hidden. In other words, the hypothesis that in one case or another there may be anti-Semitic motivation should not be ruled out. beforehand (p. 56). “I need to admit here that in the past I underestimated the potential of this danger. The reaction (…) to what happened around me since October 7th made me suspicious” (p. 58). In fact, there were many who qualified the atrocities committed by Hamas as an act of legitimate resistance, as an “uprising”. The cards become even more confusing when such a speech is taken up by a Jewish intellectual of the importance of Judith Butler.

How can we safely assess the underlying meaning of a criticism of Israel? Or rather: how can we know what is behind the absurd thesis that indiscriminate, apocalyptic violence against defenseless civilians (whether inside or outside Gaza) could be legitimate? Is it anti-Semitism, ideological perversion, boundless naivety or a mere instinct for revenge?

The issue is by no means simple, but as daily legal practice shows (motivations count), there is no way to leave it aside. Zimmermann understands that “if you attribute a Jew's behavior to the fact that he is Jewish, you are arguing on the basis of anti-Semitism. If you criticize Israel for controlling the West Bank and would say the same of any other nation that occupies a territory and subjugates its inhabitants, that is not anti-Semitism. Or if you call for a boycott” (interview with El País, 19/04/2024).

It is understandable what probably left Moshe Zimmermann suspicious. It is notable that on the left in general, and among postcolonialists in particular, events such as Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the invasion of Ukraine in 2022 have rarely been treated as an expression of modern colonial aggression. But as the double standards of part of the intelligentsia is not the biggest of his problems, Zimmermann prefers to leave his criticism between the lines and conclude that the “racist-fundamentalist program” of the current Israeli government, as well as “the type of war it promotes in Gaza, is fuel on the fire of post- colonials” (p. 58).

Israel – a state without borders

From the perspective of political geography, we are facing an undeniably anomalous situation. Israel is a country without internationally recognized borders – at least the ones it would like to have. This is closely linked to the demographic issue. Even after the two major immigration waves in the second half of the 20th century, Israeli laws continue to maintain a clear distinction between Jews and non-Jews. While the former acquire citizenship as soon as they settle in the country, the path is extremely difficult for the latter, especially when they are Arabs (p. 64-65).

But the distinction in treatment and rights is not limited to Israeli Arabs and Palestinians. For Moshe Zimmermann, the asymmetry extends to Jews in the diaspora. While the country understands itself as their natural destiny, they “are not consulted about their interests, being, rather, practically protected by Israel”. He reports that, in 1992, when participating in a debate with a former Mossad chief, he proposed nothing less than sending Israeli soldiers to Germany “to save the Jews and 'send them back' to Israel” (p .66).

In short, true integration into other cultures and societies would be impossible, a mere and undesirable interregnum before the definitive return to Eretz Israel. As historian Idith Zertal has shown in a well-documented article (Zertal, 2007), casting such an article of faith into doubt was one of several reasons why Hannah Arendt became persona non grata among politicians and even among Israeli academics.

For Moshe Zimmermann, who had already expressed himself in the same terms more than ten years ago, a style of relationship was established over time that “transforms diaspora Jews into hostages of Israeli politics” (p. 67). We know what this means in practice: Brazilian and North American Jewish leaders tend to pledge unconditional support to the Israeli governments. An automatism that should be questioned, says Zimmermann, when the country has at its head “an extreme right-wing, ultra-Orthodox, homophobic government”, a government “favorable to the establishment of Greater Israel, theocracy and the destruction of the division of powers” (p. 67).

From secularism to fundamentalism

On other occasions, Moshe Zimmermann (2005; 2010) mapped two decisive moments in Israel's recent history, without which the current situation cannot be understood. The first is the Six-Day War in 1967, when Israel occupied the Sinai Peninsula (returned to Egypt following the agreements with Anwar Sadat), the Golan Heights, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. At that moment, Israeli society showed signs of undergoing a profound ideological transformation. Liberal and socialist political values ​​decline and the social democratic bench in Knesset starts to shrink.

Zionism in its classical, secular sense is entering a crisis. This process reaches its high point with the defeat of the Labor Party in the 1977 elections, which “was not only a political turning point, but also a paradigm shift in the political theology of the State of Israel” (Zimmermann 2005, p. 155). With the new government, formed by the coalition between religious nationalists and ultra-Orthodox, the separation between religion and politics that had predominated in the Zionist movement until then comes to an end.

A common tenor of the rising groups is what Zimmermann calls biblical romanticism (p. 70), and which manifests itself in the search for “sacred tombs”, in the obsession with locations such as Hebron and Bethlehem and in the attempt to return Israel to its presumed “biblical borders”. Even influential leaders of the Labor Party adhere to this Make Israel Great Again, seeing the Jordan River “not as a security border, but as the eastern border of the Land of Canaan, promised by God to the Jews” (p.71).

Moshe Zimmermann associates the fundamentalist turn of Israeli state ideology with the gradual loss of influence of Western European secular Zionism, à la Herzen. Coming mainly from Eastern Europe, the ultra-Orthodox were initially a minority and did not exercise greater political influence (especially because they see a kind of heresy in the modern State). The balance of forces began to change after the first large wave of immigration, made up especially of Jews from nearby countries, such as Yemen, Morocco, Tunisia and Iraq (around 120.000 Iraqi Jews settled in Israel in the 1950s).

Not very fond of the secular Zionism of the founders of the State of Israel, this portion of the population placed the symbolic relationship with the “holy land” at the forefront. By organizing themselves politically and associating themselves with the ultra-Orthodox, Israeli politics finally begins to be dictated, in its broadest lines, by what Moshe Zimmermann calls “true post-Zionism”. Since Menachem Begin's electoral victory, such an alliance has only governed the country during brief labor interludes.

The radicalism of their positions is gaining more and more expression, as demonstrated by the uninterrupted expansion of the “colonies” in the occupied territories, the violence practiced by both the “colonists” and the army, the attempt to expand the jurisdiction of the rabbinical courts, the setback in women's rights (as former minister Meirav Cohen admitted last year), the public financing of ultra-Orthodox educational institutions at the expense of the university academic system, attacks on the independence of the judiciary and the LGBT community. Such facts demonstrate, says Zimmermann, that “Zionism has undergone a terrible metamorphosis” (p. 73). The time and turn indeed seems to have come for those whom one of his professors at the University of Jerusalem, the great historian Jacob L. Talmon, referred to as “zealots” (Talmon 2015, p. 276).

From this perspective, and beyond all the tragedy, a great irony stands out: the conflict that has arisen in recent decades between Israel and Iran is no less a result of the growing similarities between the two societies than of their obvious differences. The fact that both began their respective ultraconservative turns almost simultaneously (1977/1979), as well as the undeniable parallels that exist, are demanding a worthy research effort.

Jewish state or state of all citizens

The tragic situation of the Palestinian people, who risk living a new Nakba, almost makes us forget another group that is deserving greater attention from international public opinion. We refer to Israeli Arabs, who make up about 20% of their country's population. Although the 1948 Declaration of Independence speaks of equality between Jews and non-Jews, it does not provide a legal basis for ensuring fundamental rights. The fact that Israel still does not have a constitution is not something that is disconnected from this situation: subjected to martial law until 1966 – marked by “expropriations, limitations on freedom of coming and going, prohibition on exercising certain professions” (p. 81 ) – the Arabs who remained in Israel after independence would have become full citizens as soon as a constitution was promulgated (Sternhell, 1998, p. 320).

Moshe Zimmermann shows that, over time, a view spread among the majority of the population “according to which Israel must understand itself as a Jewish State, in the sense that it must mirror orthodox religious values ​​and act to remove the privileges of non-Jews” (p. 82). The practical consequences of the decline of liberal and Enlightenment values ​​are obvious. And despite the fact that the use of historical analogies has long become a controversial issue in Israel (Zimmermann 2015, p. 205-208), the author subscribes to the diagnosis of those who, such as North American president Jimmy Carter (2006, p . 242), assess that in the occupied territories there was – and still is – a regime of apartheid (p.83).

Opinion polls cited by Moshe Zimmermann even suggest that Israel may have played a leading role in the global crisis of liberal democracy and the ideal of an open society. For example: 49% of Israelis believe that Jews should have more rights than non-Jews, and the trend is upward (p. 84). Not surprisingly, the so-called National State Law, approved by Benjamin Netanyahu's government in 2018, eliminated the status of second official language that Arabic had enjoyed for 70 years.

Cultural diversity vs. cultural struggle

As we have seen, Moshe Zimmermann is not exactly sympathetic to the postcolonial critique of Zionism. For him, Zionism is not the result of colonialism (against which, moreover, the founders of the State of Israel had to take up arms), but rather of European nationalism, and Herzl believed in the possibility of cooperation and mutual tolerance between Arabs and Jews. Projecting a teleological and fatalistic view of the conflict into the past, as postcolonial criticism does, “obscures important facts” that indicate that “the conflict was not pre-programmed” (pp. 89-90).

The first Zionists advocated a cultural rapprochement with the Arabs, and the creation, still in 1906, of the Bezalel School of Art opened Jewish aesthetics to all sorts of “oriental” influences – from music to literature. Unfortunately, little by little the cultural identities of both sides became rigid and lost their permeability, to the point that in the 1950s there was a true “cultural war”. The intense migratory flow of Sephardic Jews produced a profound change not only in religious culture, but also in Israeli political culture.

Closing ranks with the nationalism of “Greater Israel”, the Sephardim led to a radicalization of the policy of occupation of the Palestinian territories, making it increasingly aggressive. Furthermore: from Menachem Begin onwards, successive right-wing governments never tired of repeating the accusation that the country continued to be in the hands of an “Ashkenazic, Europeanized cultural elite” (p. 93).

According to Moshe Zimmermann, in 2023, Benjamin Netanyahu began to instrumentalize the tensions between the two large Jewish ethno-religious groups, labeling the defenders of the rule of law and peace as “white, privileged, a left-wing threat to the fortress Israel” (p. 93). A caesura between “West” and “East” began to divide Israeli society, as much as the division that traditionally opposes Israel and Palestinians.

Colonists as kidnappers

The use of the kidnapping metaphor has become a delicate resource in these days, when hundreds of Israeli civilians remain in the hands of Hamas after the pogrom on October 7th. But this is effectively how Zimmermann has long referred to the Israeli “settler” movement. Until 1977 this group had around 5.000 people, but the generous state financial support – revealed by the commission chaired by lawyer Talia Sasson in 2005 – and the virtual immunity that the “settlers” enjoy before Israeli justice (when it comes to abuses in relation to the Palestinians) offered the necessary safeguard so that the number of Israelis in the occupied territories reached around 110.000 in 1993, rising to 300.000 at the end of 2009 and reaching, today, the mark of 700.000.

“Such a policy,” says Moshe Zimmermann, corresponds to “the implementation of the ideology of Greater Israel through self-enacted land grabs (selbst ermächtigte Landnahme).[2] This resulted in a system similar to that of the apartheid” (p. 98). Its best-known sign is the wall that began to be built around the West Bank in 2003, and declared illegal by the International Court in The Hague shortly afterwards.

As in Brazil today, Israel's political culture began to be dictated by the dynamics and moods of the religious field. According to Moshe Zimmermann, the religious radicalism of the “settlers” began to dictate the direction of Israeli politics, making all other citizens “hostages” (p. 101). Considered a top priority, the safety of the “settlers” in practice left the kibbuzim of the south (p. 102), which made them victims of both Hamas terrorism and, to a certain extent, the obsession of the Israeli far right with making the mythical geography of the Eretz Israel a historical reality – whatever the cost. Not surprisingly, the “settlers” movement has been openly demonstrating, since the beginning of the current war, in favor of the return of settlements to the territory of Gaza (p. 103).

It is in this context that the so-called “Youth of the Hills” was formed, a group of extremists whose objective is to create outposts of the occupation process and promote indiscriminate attacks on Palestinians, vandalizing their schools, mosques and olive trees. His “fanatic colonization policy” (Zimmermann 2010, p. 96) has reached a new level in recent years, as Moshe Zimmermann explains: “Since Itamar Ben-Gvir, a former member of Rabbi Meir Kahane's banned terrorist organization, became deputy in Knesset, the members of the Youth of the Hills found in him not only a patron, but also a representative in parliament” (p. 104).

The reader can easily imagine what, given the spiral of ultranationalist radicalization, the appointment of Ben-Gvir to the position of Minister for Internal Security at the end of 2022 represents.[3]

The kakistocracy

The use of this term is nothing surprising or inappropriate: like Donald Trump's United States, Jair Bolsonaro's Brazil and Javier Milei's Argentina, Israel is currently governed, in the words of Moshe Zimmermann, “by people who are populists, far-right, fundamentalist, racist and homophobic” – a constellation that scandalizes even former Likud politicians (p. 107).

Following an unoriginal script, Benjamin Netanyahu even approved a package of laws that “begins with the end of the division of powers and will end with the destruction of liberal democracy” (p. 107). Very recently, an unprecedented mobilization of Israeli civil society managed to postpone the Prime Minister's plans, which, let's be clear, is in the interests of defenders of the Palestinian cause. If Netanyahu succeeds in his plans and Israeli democracy is limited to the mere holding of periodic elections, peace will become even more unlikely.

Moshe Zimmermann uses the term kakistocracy (the government of the worst) in the title of chapter 11 of his book, and for obvious reasons. The position of government representative for issues of national-Jewish identity is occupied by an “extremist racist”. There are portfolios with more than one holder, and the second (!) Minister of Justice “offends the members of the higher courts in the most vulgar way possible”. The Minister of Finance reduces university resources and considers the humanities to be “absurdity”. The Minister of Education strives to tame the critical spirit of universities.

The Minister of Foreign Affairs is the same one who stated, in 2019, that “Poles suckle anti-Semitism along with their mothers' milk” and who last February accused President Lula of making anti-Semitic statements during his visit to Ethiopia. The high point, obviously, is the case of Ben-Gvir: “his appointment as minister could be compared”, says Zimmermann, “to the appointment of Al Capone as Chief of the North American Police of his time” (p. 110).

Israel and the great powers

None of this leads Moshe Zimmermann to exonerate some of the Palestinian leaders for their share of responsibility in the tragedy, after all “both sides made their contribution to blocking efforts for peace” (p. 125). In fact, article 13 of the Hamas charter states verbatim that giving up any part of Palestine would be equivalent to giving up part of its religion – a beg of the question that could well be on the lips of its enemies!

However, those who still think that Israel is nothing more than a puppet of North American foreign policy are mistaken. Since the 1990s, when around a million Russians emigrated to Israel, relations between Israeli rulers and the Kremlin have been growing closer. In January 2020, at a ceremony commemorating the liberation of Auschwitz at the Yad Vashem memorial, Netanyahu and Putin let the other guests wait for more than an hour (p. 128).

Once the event began, the heads of state present were shown a piece of Russian propaganda that, among other things, diminished the importance of Great Britain and the United States in the defeat of Nazi Germany. Faced with the scandal, Yad Vashem itself was led to apologize. Israel also maintained a “shameful neutrality” (p. 129) in relation to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, a gesture that Vladimir Putin was known to be unwilling to make in relation to Israel. And although relations between the two countries have suffered a severe setback in recent months, the 2020 dress rehearsal made it clear which political model the hearts of the new zealots beat.

The two-state solution

At one point, Moshe Zimmermann evokes verses by poet Nathan Alterman that he used to sing with his childhood friends: “Yesterday remains behind us,\ but the road to tomorrow is long”. In the same spirit, he insists, in the final pages of his book, that “the longer the conflict continues, the more difficult the path to a fair and rational solution becomes” (p. 139). But Zimmermann, like any good historian, knows that the future is always open.

He does not believe that war is destined to definitively bury the dream of peace. If Israel at some point truly commits itself in this direction, its leaders would do better to return to the path opened by the Oslo agreements and recognize that “the West Bank and the Gaza Strip both belong, even if geographically separated, to the State of Palestine.” (p. 140).

*Sérgio da Mata is a professor at the Department of History at the Federal University of Ouro Preto (UFOP). Author, among other books, of Weberian fascination: the origins of Max Weber's work (ediPUCRS).


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ZIMMERMANN, Moshe. Moshe Zimmermann, Israeli historian: “Jewish nationalism tends to consider everyone who does not belong to its nation as its enemy.” El País, 04 Apr. 2024. Available at https://elpais.com/ideas/2024-04-04/moshe-zimmermann-historiador-israeli-el-nacionalismo-judio-tiende-a-considerar-todo-lo-que-no-pertenece-a-su-nacion-como-el-enemigo.html.

ZIMMERMANN, Moshe. Einen Ausweg suchen. The daily newspaper, 04 Mar. 2024. Available at https://taz.de/Historiker-ueber-Israels-Zukunft/!5993204/.


[1] The quotation marks are from Moshe Zimmermann. Of the seven members of the aforementioned commission, only one was a historian – and yet part time schedule. The final report can be accessed on the Bundestag: https://dserver.bundestag.de/btd/18/119/1811970.pdf.

[2] Em The fear of peace, Zimmermann (2010, p. 98) uses more direct language when talking about “stolen land”.

[3] Kahanism, an extremist movement founded by Kalhane, advocated not only the annexation of occupied territories, but the strict separation between Jews and non-Jews, in addition to the replacement of liberal democracy with a theocratic regime, including the use of terrorist methods. Yigal Amir, the assassin of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, was a follower of Kalhane. After its ban in the 1980s, the racist, xenophobic and fundamentalist ideas of Kahanism were incorporated by other organizations, which today support Netanyahu. In the 1990s, Zimmermann compared Kahanism to Nazism (Haaretz, 28/12/2023). Given the scarcity of studies on the subject, see the excellent report by Sheen (2021).

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