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The intellectual giant and Israel’s cartoon prime minister

Bibi Netanyahu’s speech at the UN last week has, predictably enough, been widely covered in the world’s media, much of it dealing with his use of a cartoon sketch to illustrate the supposed progress of Iran’s nuclear development and the general conclusion that he deferred any Israeli attack on Iran until next spring. I don’t have anything to add on those two scores.

For me, the most fascinating commentary on Bibi’s appearance was not contained in any of words written or images broadcast after the speech, but in the counterpoint created, within days of the speech, by the death of Eric Hobsbawm, the renowned English historian who was both a communist and a Jew. The many obituaries to Hobsbawm have drawn attention, if only inadvertently, to the “other Jew”; one who doesn’t wallow, as Netanyahu does,  in Jewish suffering but takes satisfaction from the Jewish contribution to civilization since the Enlightenment.

Hobsbawm, it’s fair to assume, would not have wanted to be an example of Jewish anything. Being a Jew, to him, was an inherited trait; something in which he did not have a say. He called himself a “non-Jewish Jew” and his Judaism played almost no part in his work. He was a highly controversial figure, primarily due to his critique of bourgeois nationalism and his lifelong commitment to communism, even after the fall of the Soviet Union. Judaism had no role in his world view.

The same can’t be said of Zionism. Hobsbawm was a critic of 19th and 20th century nationalism, of which Zionism was part, and had no problem describing himself as an anti-Zionist. As Anshel Pfeffer points out, “for Hobsbawm, ‘heritage’ and ‘history’ were often contemporary constructions made to fit modern political and social needs. He believed that Herzlian Zionism had been manufactured in the same way and was not an authentic continuation of the ancient Jewish connection to the Promised Land.”[1]

“I am a Jew,” Hobshawm told the Guardian in 2002,  “but being a Jew does not imply being a supporter either of Zionism and even less of the particular policies now being pursued by the government of Israel, which are disastrous and evil. They are policies logically leading to the ethnic cleansing of the occupied territories… I am very strongly of the opinion that Jews must say it is possible to be a Jew and not to support Israel.”

Not everybody’s cup of tea, certainly. But a forthright and entirely legitimate Jewish standpoint in a world in which the conflation of Judaism and Zionism has tarred every Jew, no matter how removed from Israel, with the brush of the occupation. A reminder that being born of a Jewish mother does not necessitate agreement with and support for the Zionist state.

Hobsbawm was a Jew by birth, By vocation, he was a universalist.

Compare Hobsbawm’s cosmopolitan universalism with the parochial patriotism and self-indulgent victimization dished up by Netanyahu at the UN. Compare Hobsbawm’s intellectual rigor with Bibi’s evasions and obscurantism; his elevation of legend, dogma and manufactured myth into history.

Netanyahu had the gall to describe Israel as one of “ the forces of modernity”. Had Eric Hobsbawm not been on his deathbed, he would have been able to explain to him that Israel is nothing of the sort. It is, in fact, one of the last remnants of 19th century colonialism, the Israeli hi-tech industry notwithstanding. Many of the Arab states, which Netanyahu described as “medieval”, are hemorrhaging blood as they overthrow the dictatorships that Israeli governments tacitly supported for decades. The Palestinians, meanwhile, remain cowed and impotent under the imperial Israeli thumb.

“It’s important that you hear the truth,” Netanyahu told his audience. Then he proceeded to regale them with lies, half-truths, evasions and lacunae. He mentioned the Palestinians only four times. Twice in passing and twice when he spoke of the need for Israelis and Palestinians to sit down and talk – as if such talks haven’t been held for the past two decades with precious little to show . There was no mention of the occupied territories; no mention of the settlements; no mention of the Israeli blockade on Gaza.

That’s the truth?

My truth is the same is Eric Hobsbawm’s: That being born Jewish does not endow one with any credit, over and above what is earned during one’s life. That Zionism is a murky soup of superstition and myth, mixed and reheated for the sake of a colonial enterprise. That Israel is embarked on an evil and dangerous path of ethnic cleansing that has destabilized the entire Middle East and now threatens to plunge it into nuclear war.

I’ve been reading Hobsbawm since my early twenties. I haven’t always agreed with him, particularly regarding his stance on the Soviet Union and communism. But I have come to know him as a deep thinker and a man of integrity.

I wish I could say the same about the prime minister of Israel.


[1] That theme has been explored in depth by a number of contemporary Israeli academics, prominent among them Shlomo Sand in his books The Invention of the Jewish People and The Invention of the Land of Israel.

2 replies on “The intellectual giant and Israel’s cartoon prime minister”

great piece. Hobsbawm could be bloody irritating however. You had to be a BIT of a tittyboink to cleave to soviet communism the way he did. Nonetheless … as you say …

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