Bibi’s Bad History

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s UN speech focused largely on Iran’s nuclear program exhibited everything that is wrong with his understanding of world history and his Zionism.

The rhetorical structure of the speech was brilliant, though less for what it said than for what it implied. The speech begins by drawing a seemingly exclusive line from Abraham to the modern Jews. What is conveniently missing is that Muslims also view their lineage as extending back to Abraham; according to most interpretations of the Quran it is Ishmael and not Isaac who is the chosen son. And for Christians, according to Paul, they are the spiritual progeny of Abraham and Sarah, and the Jews of Abraham and Hagar.

Netanyahu then uses the term “ancestral land” to describe the location of the Land of Israel and the State of Israel. But what are the borders of this “ancestral land”? According to the Bible and Jewish tradition it would certainly include the West Bank (Gaza is more complicated), the very land Palestinians are claiming as their own. Hence, by implication Israel relinquishing any of that territory is already a concession, essentially erasing any rights Palestinians have to this “ancestral land.” In other words, the Palestinians have a right to nothing; anything they get is only an act of Israeli generosity.

The speech goes on to list Rohani’s duplicity and the danger of Iran, topped off with a tragic story of Netanyahu’s grandfather and great-uncle being pursued and beaten by anti-semites somewhere in “the heart of Europe,” gesturing to the Nazis but extending beyond them.

The finale proclaims that “biblical prophecies are being realized,” supported by a quote from the prophet Amos that the Jews “will never be uprooted again from their land.” The problem here is that Amos prophesied in the eighth century B.C.E., long before the Second Temple. Indeed the Jews did return to the land, only to be uprooted again in 70 CE. So while Amos’s prophecy did come true for a time, it didn’t last because, as the rabbis of the Talmud claim, Israel was guilty of “baseless hatred” (sinat hinam). Perhaps there’s a lesson in that rabbinic teaching today. While it’s true that Netanyahu isn’t a scholar of the Hebrew Bible or the rabbinic tradition, he is the son of a historian and thus his historical lapses are less forgivable.

Most political speeches on the world stage are hypocritical, but this one is also cynical and duplicitous. Netanyahu claims that Rohani says one thing and means another largely because of things he has said in the past. Let’s say that everything he quoted from Ronahi was true, and that what leaders said and did in the past must reflect their present beliefs—including Israeli leaders.

David ben Gurion said that he accepted the UN Partition Plan as a temporary measure before Israel could capture all of biblical Israel. Ben Gurion never acted on that and, in fact, was in favor of returning the West Bank and Gaza to Jordon and Egypt after 1967. Menachem Begin was a member of a terror organization and a firm believer in Greater Israel. Yet he made peace with Sadat (Sadat was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood yet he made peace with Israel). Yizhak Rabin said of the Palestinians, “we will break their bones,” yet shook Arafat’s hand and implemented Oslo. Ehud Barak was part of a clandestine army unit that crossed into the sovereign territory of another nation (Lebanon) and assassinated members who were implicated in the Munich Massacre. Yet he too came to support peace with the Palestinians in Camp David II. In short, are we to say that these men were lying in their peace gestures or, more likely, that they simply changed their minds? I certainly do not know whether this will be the case with Rohani, but whatever the outcome, his past statements do not definitively determine his present remarks.

Netanyahu uses his speech to teach us a history lesson (“Have these people learned nothing from history?”). Comparing Iran to the Nazi regime he states, “…when a radical regime with global ambitions gets awesome power, sooner or later its appetite for aggression knows no bounds.” This, he claims, “is the central lesson the 20th century,” yet he conveniently forgets that the 20th century saw the beginning and end of the Cold War with the Soviet Union. When Khrushchev acted on his “global ambition” by sending warheads to Cuba, Kennedy confronted him. Khrushchev relented, which was arguably the beginning of the end of the Cold War.

In other words, the lesson of the 20th century is not only the Nazi regime’s irrational behavior, but the Soviet Union’s pragmatic realization that it did not want another world war. I do not know if Rohani is more Hitler than Khrushchev (more likely he is neither), but we do know that Netanyahu doesn’t want us to even consider the possibilities. Incidentally, at the UN Rohani sounded far more conciliatory than Khrushchev ever did (you may recall Khrushchev’s outburst at the UN when he banged his shoe on the table threatening to bury America). But let us even forgive Netanyahu’s memory lapse when it comes to history.

The real tragedy of the speech is the implication of Israeli exceptionalism. Israel can have a nuclear weapon from a reactor built illegally, but Iran cannot even have enough uranium for nuclear power. I do not think Iran should have a nuclear weapon. And I do not think Israel should have one either (or the US etc.). Iran must give up all its chemical weapons while Israel can keep its chemical arsenal (Israel signed but has not ratified the UN ban on chemical weapons). Why? Because Israel is the most persecuted of all people as illustrated by the Holocaust. So the logic is that persecuted peoples (or perhaps only the most persecuted people) can have WMDs but no one else can. What about the second most persecuted people? And the third? Where do we draw the line?

My claim here is that the Israeli exceptionalism implied in this speech is not Zionism. Most forms of Zionism were about normalization in part to erase or diffuse the accusation that the Jews were an “abnormal people.” It was about sovereignty and autonomy in order to become part of the world and not an exception to it. Israeli exceptionalism is simply the inverse of anti-semitism: it is a form of national abnormality. Israel, and only Israel, can do x because of its history of persecution. This form of Zionism is little better than anti-semitism. In fact, it is inversely implying the same thing.

I do not know whether Rohani is sincere, as peace loving people hope that he is. We should, as Reagan correctly said about the Soviet Union, “trust and verify” and not, as Netanyahu said “distrust, dismantle and verify.” What is wrong with Netanyahu’s locution? It leaves no space for reconciliation. It forces a zero-sum game of destroying the opposition by force. But perhaps that’s his point. 

Ultimately, the speech was a failure for two reasons: first it made Israel less and not more relevant on the world stage. And second, it showed how far some forms of Zionism, the great modern Jewish experiment, have fallen, fallen to merge with the very thing Zionism nobly sought to eradicate.

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