Thursday, May 2, 2024

Misinformation is a running theme when some non-Jews attempt to tell the Jewish story

While Austria and Serbia began fighting in World War I, and while many other countries began to join into the fighting, a series of frenzied negotiations and conflicting agreements took place. One was the Balfour Declaration in 1917 that “promised to reestablish an independent national home for the Jewish people in the backwater former Ottoman province of Palestine.” 

By the end of the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, the Allies had divided the former Ottoman Empire, a broad, wide-open, and not divided landscape, “into new and invented states based on colonial interests rather than natural borders, tribal affiliation, family connections, or a desire for self-determination” and “to secure the establishment of the national Jewish home.”

A few years' later, in 1924, Noa Tishby’s grandmother was living in Russia and realized - or thought she realized - she was part of and in a good free society. But while seemingly good, a dark underbelly of that society was simultaneously “trying to break down the Jews. It occured to her grandmother that she wanted “a new movement to rebuild the old homeland based on communal ideas, shared living, shared ownership of all personal possessions, and self-sufficiency.” Luckily she escaped before being sent to Siberian work camps, but unluckily her family “left Russia penniless and embarked on a boat, infested with rodents and thieves, from Odessa to the promised land” - also known as the harsh and barren landscape of Jaffa (what is now part of Tel Aviv). Tishby’s grandmother was living at the very tipping point of “Zionism.”

As Tishby continues with fascinating story after fascinating story in 2021's Israel: A Simple Guide to the Most Misunderstood Country on Earth (and she has a new one as well called Uncomfortable Conversations with a Jew, which she wrote with ex-NFL player Emmanuel Acho and discussed with him recently on the CBS Morning Show - pictured), she notes, “After thousands of conversations with highly educated people, I have come to realize that most don’t know” what Zionism means.

Jews, a minuscule portion (less than 1 percent) of the global population, have long been discriminated against, with the Russian tsars being particularly heinous and continuous offenders. In 1903, the tsar’s secret police force created “one of the first pieces of viral fake news” called The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which “claimed Jews were part of a global conspiracy to take over the world.” Henry Ford went on and on about it in his babblings for the paper he owned called the Dearborn Independent. Partly because of that, the book was a huge bestseller, contributing to the slaughter and banishment of millions of Jews the world over. “Cue the Zionist movement,” which was basically all about finding a safe harbor and being able to practice self determination like everyone else.

Theodore Herzl really coined the term Zionism in the 1890s when he realized Jews could never really “shake off the Jewishness” around other people and that a homeland to return to as needed was a pretty good idea. Jewish people were spread out all over the world, mostly persecuted in ghetto-ish areas, and the idea of going off to this far-off place was foreign and not seriously considered by the vast majority, but Herzl’s rallying began to slowly take affect. His writing, beginning with The Jewish State, was laughed at, not covered by the media, and called silly and desperate. The Russian Jewry were the ones who accepted it the most and that’s how it got to Tishby’a grandmother and her family. 

Herzl got Jews to meet in 1897 in Switzerland for the First Zionist Congress, and while the attendees had trouble agreeing on much of anything, they did end up agreeing that Israel should be the home base, "aliyah" or migration to Israel could connect the diaspora, the Hebrew language would be restored, and all Jews should join in solidarity against antisemitism. It would take about 50 years, and a little after Herzl’s death, but the newly formed United Nations established a Jewish state in Israel.

Herzl's subsequent writings about the topic as the 1900s began sounded like John Lennon and ahead of his time, with a slogan of “man, you are my brother!” Right on, Theo! He tried to get the support of leaders from around the world but it would take the Holocaust for there to be enough support for the Jews to finally have a little home, to have Israel. Those who stayed behind in Europe perished in World War II, but those who had made it to Israel survived. 

Tishby, the author, grew up in Israel and, well into her teens, didn’t realize there was such a thing as anti-Zionism until she was having a romantic moment with a hot guy from Germany who told her there possibly wasn’t really such a thing as the Holocaust. For someone whose grandmother had written so much of the her history down, it was clear that not only would this boy get no more of her time that night, but Tishby’s goal in life would be to start to undue the misinformation that dangerously exists around the Jewish story.

I'm really enjoying this book and it's as important as ever, as antisemitism puzzlingly marches on and seemingly progressive students at colleges all over the U.S. appear to be propagating the misinformation of those long-ago terror-mongering and evil Russian tsars.

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