Zionist Joke: What Have We Ever Done to Them?

There’s one big difference I’ve noticed between the political Left and Right. Even in the worst of times, lefties have a sense of humor. So I wasn’t surprised to see the grand old man of the Israeli Left, Uri Avnery, sum up his government’s galling attack on the Gaza flotilla with an old Jewish joke. Avnery has been fighting his nation’s militarist policies for longer than most of us have been alive. But at 86, he can still blend outrage with humor.

In his response to the attack, he made it clear that he was furious because the violence was premeditated: “The orders given to the [Israeli] forces and made public included the three fateful words: ‘at any cost.’ Every soldier knows what these three terrible words mean.”

And he was furious about Israel’s claims of innocence: “We storm a foreign ship at sea, but turn at once into victims who have no choice but to defend ourselves against violent and incited anti-Semites.” The Israeli government is so detached from reality, Avnery wrote that “a psychiatrist might judge this to be the symptom of a severe mental problem.”

But he got to the heart of the matter with that joke. It’s the one about the Jewish mother in Russia taking leave of her son, who has been called up to serve the czar in the war against Turkey. “Don’t overexert yourself,” she implores him. “Kill a Turk and rest. Kill another Turk and rest again.”

“But mother,” the son interrupts, “what if the Turk kills me?”

“You?” exclaims the mother. “But why? What have you done to him?”

“Our government does not even rest,” Avnery concluded ruefully. “It seems that they will not stop until they have made enemies of the last of our friends.”

It’s worth noting that Avnery’s column was published in Ma’ariv, Israel’s second largest newspaper. Although a sizable majority of Israelis supported the mayhem their troops committed at sea, dissenting views are still allowed in the mass media there, as they always have been.

And perhaps they are beginning to have some impact. Somewhere between six and ten thousand Israelis (depending on which newspaper you read) demonstrated in Tel Aviv against their government’s right-wing policies and in favor of an independent Palestinian state. Their slogan: “The Government is Drowning Us All.”

Considering that Israel’s population is only about one-fortieth the U.S. population, that would be like a quarter of a million to 400,000 turning out for antiwar demonstrations here on the same day. Not a huge turnout, but certainly noteworthy in light of the many recent obituaries declaring the death of the Israeli Left. (I only hope that, being lefties, they kept their sense of humor when a right-wing crazy threw a smoke grenade into the crowd.)

And what about the discussion of Israel’s actions here in the U.S.? Our mass media have always offered less debate on Israeli policy than Israel’s own media. But ours are allowing a wider spectrum of opinion now than they have in the past.

The New York Times let one of its top analysts, Helene Cooper, write at length about Israel becoming a liability to the U.S., which may well push the U.S. to change its policies toward Israel. The fact that stories like this are appearing in top U.S. newspapers is itself news. They shift public opinion and make it more likely that the Obama administration will force Israel to make real compromises for peace, if only to protect American interests.

The Times also ran an op-ed by Jewish writer Michael Chabon suggesting that Jews should give up any belief that they are smarter or more moral than anyone else. The Times‘ website teaser summed his message up this way: “Jews should abandon the myth of exceptionalism.”

But Chabon missed the crucial point, which Avnery nailed: For most (though certainly not all) Zionists, what made Jews exceptional was their history of persecution. No matter what they did, they saw themselves as innocent victims – by definition. That has been, and apparently still is, the heart of the dominant Zionist myth. Most American Jews who support Israel’s actions are still caught up in the same mythic delusion. So they overlook even the most egregiously immoral actions Israel may take, writing it all off as “self-defense.”

The latest parade example: Charles Krauthammer, writing in the Washington Post. Before we get to his mythic screed, it’s important to note that a day later the Post made some attempt at balance. It gave op-ed space to the outstanding Palestinian journalist Daoud Kuttab, who patiently explained the immorality of the Israeli attack and the Obama administration’s seeming tolerance for it. More importantly, he focused on the root of the problem: Israeli and U.S. refusal to resolve the Gaza problem by negotiating with the Hamas government.

But Kuttab’s fine article got much less attention than Krauthammer’s rant. Indeed hours after Kuttab’s piece was posted, Krauthammer’s was still the most viewed and most e-mailed piece on the Washington Post site. That’s the only reason it merits any attention – because so many other people were paying attention to it. Which proves that, despite the slowly shifting political tides, the old Zionist myth of innocence and victimization still sells, even in America’s most influential media outlets.

Krauthammer recited the whole litany of supposed threats to Israel’s existence. Somehow he eventually pulled together all his “evidence” to “prove” that the Gaza flotilla was intended “to deprive Israel of any legitimate form of self-defense.”

And to top it off, he complained, “the Obama administration joined the jackals … by signing onto a consensus document that singles out Israel’s possession of nuclear weapons – thus delegitimizing Israel’s very last line of defense: deterrence.” Poor Israel. How can it possibly defend itself if it doesn’t have its nukes (perhaps as many as 200), while no other Middle Eastern nation is close to having even one?

It all just proves, the famous neocon concludes, that “the world is tired of these troublesome Jews, 6 million – that number again – hard by the Mediterranean, refusing every invitation to national suicide. For which they are relentlessly demonized, ghettoized, and constrained from defending themselves, even as the more committed anti-Zionists – Iranian in particular – openly prepare a more final solution.”

Oh, that’s why Israel needs nukes. Because all of its critics are in a vast conspiracy bent on doing Hitler’s work. It’s only the threat of nuclear annihilation that prevents them from killing every last Jew.

This deadpan serious recitation of the tired, worn-out myth of Jewish victimization and innocence – as if it were all empirical fact – would be funny if it were not so widely believed, so quickly spread via the Internet, and therefore so dangerous. In fact, I would have expected Krauthammer to end by asking, like the Jewish mother in the joke, “Why would anyone want to kill us? What have we done to them?”

But of course, blinded by the myth, he cannot see the obvious: Unlike the days when the joke originated, Jews today are not powerless, especially in Israel. Every time they wield their power to dominate others and then cry, “It’s self-defense; what have we ever done to them?,” they turn potential friends into enemies. As Avnery says, it seems like that’s exactly what the Israelis want to do – which would also be funny, if it were not so tragic.

Living at the far right end of the political spectrum, though, Krauthammer wouldn’t get the joke anyway. Conservatives just don’t have a sense of humor.

Author: Ira Chernus

Ira Chernus is professor of religious studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder, author of Monsters To Destroy: The Neoconservative War on Terror and Sin, and a Foreign Policy in Focus contributor. Read more of his writing on Israel, Palestine, and the U.S. on his blog.