Illustration by Ben Heine
Assertions without substance, prejudice without apology,
violence without regret; these are the foundations of the Zionist dream
By Shahid Alam* | Sabbah Report
On 12 January, The New York Times carried an article by
David Brooks on Jews and Israel. It so caught my eye that I decided to
bring it to my class on the economic history of the Middle East. I sent
my students the link to the article and asked them to read it carefully
and come to class prepared to discuss and dissect its contents.
My students recalled various parts of the New York Times
article, but no one explained its substance. They recalled David
Brooks’ focus on the singular intellectual achievements of American
Jews, the enviable record of Israeli Jews as innovators and
entrepreneurs, the mobility of Israel’s new class of innovators, etc.
One student even spoke of what was not in the article or in the history
of Jews — centuries of Jewish "struggle" to create a Jewish state in
But they offered no insights on Brooks’ motivation.
Why had he decided to brag about Jewish achievements, a temptation
normally eschewed by urbane Jews? In my previous class, while
discussing Edward Said’s critique of Orientalism, I had discussed how
knowledge is suborned by power, how it is perverted by tribalism, and
how Western writers crafted their writings about the Middle East to
serve the interests of colonial powers. Not surprisingly, this critique
had not yet sunk in.
I coaxed my students, asking them directly to explore if David
Brooks had an axe (or more than one) to grind. Was there an elephant in
the room they had missed? What was the subtext of the op-ed?
At last, one student moved in the direction of the missing elephant.
David Brooks had not mentioned the "aid" that Israel had received from
the United States. Did my class know how much? Several eyebrows rose
when I informed my students that Israel currently receives close to $3
billion in annual grants from the US, not counting official loan
guarantees and tax-deductible contributions by private charities. Since
its creation, Israel has received more than $240 billion in grants from
the US alone.
We had grasped the elephant’s ear, but what about the rest of it,
its head, belly, trunk, tail and tusks? My students did not have a clue
— at least, so it appeared to me.
My students did not understand — or perhaps did not show it — that no discussion about Israel, especially in the New York Times,
could be innocent of political motives. Israel is a contested fact, a
colonial-settler state, founded on ethnic cleansing, a state of the
world’s Jews, but not of its Arab population. It continues to
marginalise its Palestinians "citizens", to dispossess the Palestinians
in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and strangulate them in Gaza.
Supported and coddled by the United States and other Western
governments, Israel now faces growing protests from diverse segments of
Western civil society. Churches, labour unions, professors, students
and other activist groups are calling on corporations and governments
to divest from, boycott and sanction Israel. As always, but now more
than ever, advocates of Israel continue to manufacture myths, opinions,
and "facts" that can cover for its crimes against the Palestinians and
other Arabs in its neighbourhood.
Isn’t that what David Brooks was doing, I asked my class, by painting Jews and Israel in the colours of pure glory?
I saw a few nods of recognition. But one student demurred. "Doesn’t
everyone glorify his own country? The US too had engaged in ethnic
cleansing. What is the difference?"
There are two differences, I submitted. David Brooks is glorifying
Israel but he is not Israeli. More to the point, he is glorifying
Israel to cover up for Israel’s present and projected crimes against
Palestinians. He is covering up for Israeli apartheid that exists here
At this point, many in my class gasped at what they heard. It
appeared to be a voice quarried from the past. It was a defence of
genocide quite commonly advanced in previous centuries when European
settlers were exterminating natives in the Americas, Oceania and
Africa. "We had done so much better with the land than the natives."
Occasionally, such repugnant ideas from the past, which we think we
have buried forever, leak into public discourse. Perhaps it is good
that they do: they remind us that the past is not dead.
David Brooks starts his article with
statistics to show that the Jews "are a famously accomplished group".
Do we need to be convinced of the accomplishments of the Jews? Is there
anyone who contests this? So why does Brooks feel the need to support
this with statistics? "They make up 0.2 per cent of the world
population," he informs us, "but 54 per cent of world chess champions,
27 per cent of Nobel physics laureates and 31 per cent of medicine
laureates." Just in case these comparisons fail to clinch the point,
David Brooks offers more comparative statistics.
Does Brooks aim to belabour the point, or is he saying, ‘Look at all
the great things we have done for you Gentiles. We are indispensable.
Don’t you criticise what we do. Don’t you go against us’? Or does he
feel so personally inadequate that this forces him to seek comfort not
in Jewish accomplishments — as he claims — but in Jewish superiority?
Alas, the Jews in Israel have not matched the achievements of the
Jews in the Diaspora. The Jewish state contains close to 40 per cent of
the world’s Jewish population, but very few of the Jewish Nobel
laureates are Israelis. Only nine Israelis in 61 years have won the
Nobel Prize. If we exclude the three "Peace" laureates — and wouldn’t
you, if you knew who they are — that leaves six. Only three of these
six were born in Israel, and one was born there while his parents were
visiting relatives in Tel Aviv. Hardly a great total. Ireland, with a
smaller population, has six Nobel laureates.
David Brooks knows this. "The odd thing," he writes, "is that Israel
has not traditionally been strongest where the Jews in the Diaspora
were strongest." Why has Israel fallen short? Blame it on the
Palestinians and the Arabs. "Instead of research and commerce, Israelis
were forced to devote their energies to fighting and politics."
That was in the past, however. Israel is now bubbling over with
innovation and entrepreneurship. Tel Aviv is now "one of the world’s
foremost entrepreneurial hot spots". Once again, statistics are offered
to establish Israel’s leadership in civilian research and development.
Israel’s more ominous leadership in military technology is not
Moreover — and this is David Brooks’ point — this technological
success "is the fruition of the Zionist dream". Then follows another
piece of chauvinism. Israel was "not founded so stray settlers could
sit among thousands of angry Palestinians in Hebron. It was founded so
Jews would have a safe place to come together and create things for the
David Brooks disguises Israel’s second round of colonial expansion
that began in June 1967 as a diversion from the main goal of Zionism, a
distraction created by "stray" settlers in Hebron. The close to half a
million Jewish settlers in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, supported,
financed, and protected by the world’s fourth most powerful military
are minimised as "stray" settlers in Hebron, who are a problem only
because they are surrounded by "angry" Palestinians.
Israel was founded — David Brooks asserts, invoking the language of
Zionism — so Jews could have a "safe place" and create "things for the
world". Has Israel been a safe place for the Jews? Safer than the
United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa, or
even the Arab world before 1917, when the Zionist movement gained
official sponsorship from Britain? Plausibly, the answer is no.
One must also ask: What "things" has Israel created for the world?
What "things" has Israel given to the Arab world, other than wars,
massacres, ethnic cleansing, occupation, war crimes, and alibis to its
rulers to create repressive regimes? What has it given to that other
world — the Western world — that Brooks probably has in mind? Israel
has jeopardised the strategic interests of Western powers in the
Islamicate. On more than one occasion, it has brought the United States
close to nuclear collision with the Soviet Union. The most valuable
"things" that Israelis provide to Western powers, to the United States
in particular as an occupying power in Iraq and Afghanistan, are the
technologies and tactics they have been perfecting while crushing
Palestinian resistance. But David Brooks does not wish to talk about
Then comes the coup de grace. This is the blow aimed to finish off
Brook’s primary target, the Arabs. Jewish and Israeli accomplishments
must finally be placed against the terrible paucity of Arab creativity
in the sciences, technology and entrepreneurship. Arabs are asked to
declare the patents they have registered in the United States. The
astronomical gap between Arab and Israeli patents can only have one
cause. The Arabs do not have the "tradition of free intellectual
exchange and technical creativity". In true Orientalist style, blame
Arab failures on Arab culture.
Ironically, the two countries Brooks picks to make his point — Egypt
and Saudi Arabia — are the closest Arab allies of the United States.
The US never wags its finger at the despotic monarchy in Saudi Arabia
or the repressive dictatorship that has controlled Egypt for decades.
The United States works to bring "democracy" only to its enemies.
Yet for all its triumphalism and crude claims of superiority, the New York Times
op-ed ends on a disappointing note. Israel’s innovators, the sons of
Zionist dreamers, bring no real commitment to Israel. Just a little
instability, and they will vote with their feet. "American Jews used to
keep a foothold in Israel in case things got bad here. Now Israelis
keep a foothold in the US." As remarkable as it is, Israel’s success is
"also highly mobile".
Is Brooks the great friend of Israel that he must believe he is? All
that any one has to do to destroy Israel’s economy, he writes, is "to
foment enough instability so the entrepreneurs decide they had better
move to Palo Alto, where many of them [Israelis] already have contacts
What sad and strange thinking. Perhaps this is what happens when a
person gets trapped inside the nightmare that was sold to the Jews as
the great Zionist dream. Brooks confirms that this nightmare cannot be
saved by Israel’s technological prowess. Apparently, Israel’s greatest
success stories — its cutting-edge technology companies — are also
footloose. They could be heading for the exits at the first sign of
Technological prowess will not save Jewish apartheid. Nothing will.
But Jews can shore up their lives and build a more promising future for
themselves by discovering their common humanity with the Arabs, by
making amends with the Palestinians, and learning to give back to the
Palestinians what they have taken from them over the past nine decades.
The Zionists are prisoners of a bad dream: they must first free
themselves — break free from the prison in which they can only play the
part of tormentors — if they and especially their Palestinian victims
are to live normal lives.
* Shahid Alam is professor of economics at Northeastern University. He is author of Israeli Exceptionalism: The Destabilizing Logic of Zionism.