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Why prominent Israeli scholar wants Germany to confront Netanyahu

Moshe Zimmermann disagrees with how German leaders interpret our nation’s special responsibility for Israel in particular and Jews in general. The historian from Jerusalem wants them to challenge the right-wing policies of Israel’s government rather than rally around Netanyahu.
Opponents of Benjamin Netanyahu, whose nickname is “Bibi”, rallying for hostage release and ceasefire in Tel Aviv on 1 June 2024. picture alliance / ZUMAPRESS.com / Matan Golan Opponents of Benjamin Netanyahu, whose nickname is “Bibi”, rallying for hostage release and ceasefire in Tel Aviv on 1 June 2024.

Even after the atrocious terror attacks of 7 October, Zimmermann does not want Germany’s Federal Government to unambiguously support the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He insists that it must confront Israel’s current leadership in ways that help to bring about the two-state solution, which, according to him, is the only political arrangement that can facilitate lasting peace and thus true security for Israel. Lip service won’t do, he argues, as Israel’s government is not inclined to live up to the Oslo peace agreements. 

In the hope of having an impact on public opinion in Germany, Moshe Zimmermann wrote his latest book “Niemals Frieden? Israel am Scheideweg” (Never peace? Israel at the crossroads) in German. I hope many persons in positions of leadership will read it. The Hamas atrocities and the Gaza war are its starting points, not the topic. Zimmermann does what was totally taboo in Germany after the bloodbath of 7 October: he puts that horrible date in its historical and political context. 

The Jewish scholar elaborates eloquently why Israeli policymakers bear some responsibility for what happened. In rather explicit terms, he points out on page 135 that, in 2023, the provocations of aggressive and escalating settler activism in the Westbank amounted “fuel poured onto the fire”. It also matters that, in order to support the settlers, Israel’s government had reduced the military presence along the Gaza border, which Hamas then attacked.

Sabotaging peace efforts for decades

Zimmermann’s core argument is that right-wing parties have been sabotaging peace efforts for decades, with things getting increasingly worse since Benjamin Netanyahu became Prime Minister again in 2009. The professor emeritus of Jerusalem’s Hebrew University even calls the current cabinet a Kakistocracy. The Greek term means government of the worst. Zimmermann is appalled by corruption and incompetence.

In view of these things, Zimmermann argues, unconditional support for Netanyahu will further empower the extremists who hold public office. These people claim for Israel the entire area between the Jordan river and the Mediterranean Sea. Netanyahu himself insists there can be no other state on this land besides Israel. Right-wing populists and radicals systematically endorse the building of ever more Israeli settlements on the very territory which, according to the Oslo treaties, is meant to become the Palestinian state. Instead, they want to annex it. Their actions have been aggravating tensions for decades. 

On page 176, Zimmermann indeed accuses settler activists of being as “trigger-happy as their Islamist Palestinian counterparts”. Like the latter, he adds, they want a theocratic state and refer to Holy Scriptures to justify their action. He warns against conflating Israel with its current government and also insists that Hamas does not represent all Palestinians. Extremist aggression, according to him, is not only directed at the other ethno-religious group, but also targets opponents in the own. Zimmermann finds it depressing, that religious fundamentalism on both sides is holding both groups captive

What has become of Zionism?

The author argues consistently that this is not what Zionism originally intended. Many chapters in the book follow the same pattern: 

  • they begin with a short summary of the ideas articulated by Theodor Herzel, the founder of Zionism in the late 19th century, 
  • elaborate next how those ideas shaped the newly founded state of Israel in its early decades and 
  • then conclude with an assessment of Israel’s right-wing shift that started in the late 1970s.

Early Zionists wanted to create a secular nation state with scope for the peaceful coexistence of Jews and Muslims, Zimmermann writes. Instead, a fanatic government is now trying to abolish the country’s Supreme Court. He stresses that the basic law, which defines Israel exclusively as the state of Jewish self-determination, was only adopted by a right-wing controlled Knesset in 2018, seven decades after the state became independent. The same law downgraded Arabic from the second official language to one that is merely used.

Zimmermann repeatedly mentions apartheid-like conditions in the West Bank, stressing that Palestinians are being denied their rights. He also states that the first Jews who moved to what was, before World War I, still part of the Ottoman Empire had a colonial mindset in the sense of believing that they, as Europeans, were entitled to claim land overseas. However, their migration did not serve the expansion by any European empire, nor was it actively supported by one. Jewish migration to Palestine was thus not a colonial effort.

It matters even more, that masses of those who came to Palestine were fleeing from oppression. That did not change after Israel was established as a state and prevailed against its Arab neighbours in successive wars. Jews were forced to flee many Muslim countries, and their obvious destination was Israel. 

It is ironic, according to Zimmermann, that Sephardic Jews from the MENA region tended to appreciate religiously coded identity politics in opposition to the secular Zionism originally endorsed by Ashkenazi Jews from Europe. The background was that they felt oppressed by the first comers and considered them to be arrogant. 

Escalating vicious cycle

The historian shows how a vicious cycle escalated over the decades. Both Israeli and Islamist radicals do not want peace, but victory. On both sides, the radicals claim the entire territory between the river and the sea for their own ethno-religious group. On both sides, the radicals benefit from warning against the dangers posed by the radicals on the other side.

Zimmermann expresses deep-felt grief when he reports how he has been warning for decades that violence will only get worse unless peace is made. He insists, however, that there are political forces who still want peace on both sides. In the scholar’s eyes, they deserve more assertive diplomatic support by Germany, the EU, the USA and the international community in general. 

Zimmermann does not list precisely what he wants Israel’s allies to do. To me, diplomatic recognition of a Palestinian state and endorsement of Security Council resolution calling for a ceasefire, seem to be steps that would put the right kind of pressure on Israel’s government. Moreover, allies should speak out publicly when the Netanyahu government does not act in accordance with international law or universal values such as pluralism, democracy and human rights. 

Tackling antisemitism

The book makes it very clear that it is wrong to side with Netanyahu under the impression that anything else would be antisemitic. Zimmermann, who specialises in German history, obviously abhors antisemitism. However, he warns that overemphasising this important concept will only blunt it. He refers to the fairy-tail of the boy who cried “wolf” for fun too often, so nobody came to his help when he was actually attacked by wolves. 

My impression is that the sudden international outburst of antisemitism after 7 October, with many people actually celebrating the atrocious mass violence, resulted from “wolf” having been screamed far too often in recent years. German opinion shapers were wrong, for example, to obsess about whether antisemitism had left a mark on reports of international human-rights organisations that spoke of “apartheid”. They condemned Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International of hating Jews, instead of considering the substance of the apartheid reports. Neither organisation has a track record of antisemitism. For many young people, the lesson was that public opinion is biased in Israel’s favour, which made them more susceptible for Hamas propaganda. 

To make Israel safe and to stem the tide of antisemitic attitudes internationally, one must not downplay legitimate criticism of Israel as antisemitic, but deal with it diligently

Zimmermann takes sides in a long-standing debate on what the precise meaning of “antisemitism” is. He reports that he was among the experts who launched the Jerusalem Declaration, an important document, which emphasises the freedoms of speech and academic research. 

According to Zimmermann, Israel’s government has a misleading habit of claiming to speak for all Jews everywhere. However, its policymakers do not consult the diaspora, even though its actions have an impact on Jews abroad, and they expect them to unconditionally support Israel. The author emphasises that many diaspora Jews find that endorsement increasingly impossible – in the USA, for example. 

Zimmermann states that his personal stance is one of “constructive pessimism”. He knows that the two-state solution looks less likely with every new turn of the vicious cycle of violence. Given that the alternative is war after war after war, he refuses to give up the hope that peace can ultimately be achieved even though it is becoming increasingly difficult. In his eyes, that is the effort that Israel’s friends must focus on, and lip service is not enough. 

Zimmermann, M.,2024: Niemals Frieden? Israel am Scheideweg (Never peace? Israel at the crossroads). Berlin, Propyläen.

Hans Dembowski ist Chefredakteur von E+Z/D+C.