Although there’s a general awareness of the Holocaust, I’m not sure outsiders are aware of the depth of the sense of trauma in Israeli society. We’re a people who really are deeply wounded. Around seventy percent of the people who moved here were forced out of the places they came from. That’s true of almost all the Jews from the Muslim world. It’s true of most of the Jews from Europe who fled persecution before the Holocaust, during the Holocaust, or after the Holocaust. Very few people came here out of free choice.
MJT: Mostly just Americans, right?
Benjamin Kerstein: People from the Anglo-Saxon world, yes. Even Jews who are coming here now from France are coming to escape anti-Semitism. The Jewish community in Turkey right now is undergoing a kind of silent exodus. Initially these people come here with a feeling of liberation. They release a lot of themselves. But they also have a strong sense of trauma and resentment because of what they had to go through. Particularly in the regards to the Jews from the Muslim world, there is hardly any understanding of this on the part of outsiders. There is almost no recognition of it. Outsiders are gloriously unaware of this side of Israeli history.
Benjamin Kerstein: But I also think officials in the US, Europe, and elsewhere are much less naïve than their public statements make them appear. I don’t think many of them believe that the peace process, for instance, is nearly as easy as they say it should be. They say things like, “If we could just get the Israeli and Palestinians to sit down and talk, we could reach a solution.”
I think most of them are smart enough to know that isn’t true. I also think they’re smart enough to know that a lot of it isn’t Israel’s fault, but by blaming most of it on Israel they can buy themselves leverage in the Arab world. I think the Arab world understands this perfectly well, that it’s the politics of the gesture.
I have to say, though, that when foreign governments say Israel has to make concessions and take responsibility for the conflict, Israelis take it all very seriously. The charge of disproportionality during Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, the Goldstone Report—Israelis do not take into consideration the possibility that these may just be gestures. Israelis take it personally, and they become very angry. Israelis feel very strongly that the world is against them.
MJT: Why do you suppose that is?
Benjamin Kerstein: Most Israelis are here because they fled from Muslim and European countries. They don’t feel that either of those blocs have the right to lecture them about anything. Why should a country where your parents were expelled or killed have the right to tell you how to conduct yourself in a war against people who are trying to kill you today? This is something hardly any non-Israelis understand. They don’t understand how galling we find this.
Israelis are often accused of being arrogant, but they find it extremely arrogant for Europeans and Arabs to lecture them about morals, especially during a war. What has Israel ever done that is as brutal as what Europe did to the Jews, or what Arabs routinely do to even each other during armed conflicts?
MJT: How would you distinguish between fair criticism of Israel—and even unfair criticism of Israel, for that matter—and outright anti-Semitism?
Benjamin Kerstein: I think a lot of it is a question of rhetoric. A lot of the criticism is fair, but we often hear criticism which is frankly psychotic—that we’re using poison gas, for instance, or poisoned candies to kill Palestinian children. That we poisoned the water in Gaza to prevent reproduction. That sort of thing.
[See here, here, here, Jewish Witchcraft Summons Phantom Cats to Rape Gitmo Detainees and here for some of those crazy examples.]
The issue of human decency is a big one. It may be difficult to define, but whenever criticism crosses that line, that, to my mind, is where anti-Semitism begins. Anti-Semitism ultimately is a refusal to accord basic human decency to the Jewish people. It’s a refusal to relate to a certain group of people with the common human decency with which you would relate to anybody else.
MJT: What do you think will happen here if Iran gets nuclear weapons? I’m assuming here that Iran won’t actually nuke Tel Aviv, but will occasionally threaten to do it.
Benjamin Kerstein: I don’t know. Israelis have learned to put up with a lot. My guess is that our reaction would be to go public with our own nuclear program, if it exists. [Laughs.] We may end up in a state of uneasy deterrence, like with India and Pakistan.
I think Israeli society will endure. We’ve faced existential threats in the past. People forget that. The military power the Arab states tried to bring to bear against Israel in the 1960s and 1970s would have been just as destructive as a nuclear bomb. Israel prevailed against them from a weaker position.
[See summary here.]