Einat Wilf

When Arabs Embrace Israel and Jews Do Not

Air Date: January 17, 2022

Israeli politician Einat Wilf discusses contemporary Western anti-Zionism, the advent of Arab Zionism, and the future of anti-Semitism.


HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Hefner, your host on The Open Mind. I’m delighted to welcome Einat Wilf to our broadcast today. She recently delivered a lecture at Indiana University, “Western anti-Zionism, and Arab Zionism.” I urge our listeners and viewers to check it out at Indiana dot edu. It was given virtually at the Institute for the Study of Contemporary Anti-Semitism at Indiana University. Welcome, thank you so much for joining me today.


WILF: Thank you very much for having me.


HEFFNER: What was the thesis that you most wanted to convey to your audience about the difference between Western anti-Zionism and Arab Zionism?


WILF: What I was reflecting on is the growing disconnect between the embrace of Israel in the region, in the middle east, by certain Arab countries and our people, and the rise of anti-Zionism in certain circles in America, making its way from the fringes into academia and perhaps into the halls of Congress. And I was highlighting how disconnected it is, because if anti-Zionism is, as we’re told, not thinly masked antisemitism, which is what I think, but we’re told that it’s really just about Israel and what Israel does and the desire for peace and rights, then I would think that the growing embrace of Israel in the middle east, the normalization agreements known as the Abraham Accords between Israel, the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco, Sudan, and I think we’re going to have more countries soon. You would have at least seen people saying, okay, this is great. This is where we want to go. We want to see Israel embraced. We want to see Israel making peace. But the fact that you see in the west right now, the rise of this virulent anti-Zionism, I think tells more than ever to anyone whoever was at least willing to give anti-Zionists the benefit of the doubt, that it’s not really about Israel. It’s not really about making peace, and that it is merely the new respectable shiny mask of the same old ancient hatred.


HEFFNER: So you were a member of parliament in Israel. You have particular insight into the perception of the Israelis about what anti-Zionism or antisemitism at this juncture means, what that means around the borders of Israel, what that means in the U.S. But what I wanted to just start with asking you, because you mentioned it is, I think there is some skepticism about whether or not those locally established new relations, you know, around the border, and in the neighborhood of the middle east, if that’s real, I mean, is it for real?


WILF: It is very much for real, and you are absolutely correct that when a year ago, the Abraham Accords were signed between Israel and the UAE and Bahrain, there was in some circles an effort to minimize them; to say, they’re not very important. These are not countries that share a border with Israel. These are small countries; those are merely arms deals. So you saw almost a concerted effort to minimize the significance of those Accords. But I think a year on, it’s clear that those are incredibly significant because those accords really reflect a true embrace of Israel. For many years, Israelis were told that the agreements would have with Jordan and Egypt, which are nominally called peace agreements, but are better understood as non-belligerence agreements because they do not really include a cultural ties and economic ties and tourism. There’s none of that. Egypt and Jordan were very clear over the decades that they may have signed a peace agreement with Israel, but they hate us very much. What you’re seeing with the normalization accords, with the Abraham Accords, is something different. We were told that Jordan and Egypt is the best we could hope for, and then come along the UAE, Bahrain, and they’re all in. They’re signing a slew of agreements with Israel in all fields. Emirates is landing in Tel Aviv. Gulf area’s landing in Tel Aviv. We have direct flights, cultural exchanges, tourism, and friendships.


HEFFNER: Well that’s what I want to ask you about. So I think you understood when I asked you if it’s real, what I’m really getting at, right. And this is fundamental to diplomacy, as you know, is, is it real in the eyes of the constituents of those countries, of the citizens, of those countries and moreover, do those citizens even have the franchise or the literacy in some cases to know whether it’s real? So, is it safe to say in the countries that you mentioned as having normalized political and economic relations, that the leadership are on the same page as the constituents, the citizens of those countries?


WILF: It’s a spectrum, but the general answer is yes. You see it at its most of course, in the UAE and Bahrain, where a day after the courts were signed, the books were changed. You see that it’s a total society change, embrace of Jewish life in the UAE and Bahrain. And again, friendships personal relations, the media coverage of Israel is different. Following the courts, I was able to pen an op-ed with a young Emerati, a man and a woman, one man, one woman. Together we signed an op-ed in which they proclaim themselves to be proud Arabs, proud Muslims and proud Zionists, thereby saying that in their mind, the future of the region is not about rejecting Israel. They love to think of their country as representing Arab success, the future of the Arab world, the gleaming skyscrapers, the universities, the space program, and the future of the Arab world, the successful future of the Arab world in their mind, includes an embrace of Israel. They view Arab anti-Zionism as something that has kept the Arab world behind. And for them moving into the future means embracing Israel. And it’s very much real. A lot of people share that sentiment.


HEFFNER: And to the extent that there still is anti-Zionism in the places that you mentioned, I mean, how do you relate it to the obvious anti-Zionism that would exist in the populations and the political leadership of countries like Iran? And I don’t know if I’m again correct in saying Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, but I think it probably is fair to say that the majority is in those countries, if they are not anti-Zionist, they have a different attitude and worldview towards Israel and Israelis and Jews, than the countries you mentioned.


WILF: Certainly, and I’m under no illusion, the dominant view in the Arab and Islamic world is still by and large, an anti-Zionist view that views Israel as a foreign presence in the region that has to be fought and ousted. That is still the dominant view. But for the first time we have an alternative view that is gaining force. We saw recently in Iraq; 300 notables made a very interesting distinction that is kind of reminiscent of how the Islamic world speaks about the house of war and the house of peace. They spoke about the Arab world being divided between countries of war, they mentioned Lebanon and Yemen and Libya, and countries of peace. And they mentioned, of course, the UAE and Bahrain and Morocco, and they associated the countries of peace as those that are normalizing relations with Israel. And they basically said, the future we want for Iraq is not to be like Lebanon or Libya or Yemen.


We want it to look like the UAE. So I think we’re also beginning to see within the Arab world, yes, the dominant view is still, we should oust Israel and it’s the devil and it’s the enemy. But we’re seeing a different narrative emerge with some force behind it. And I think in many ways it does represent the future. Even in countries, like you mentioned, I think in Iran the public, and we have a lot of indications for that is much more pro-Israel than the leadership. So I think as a lot of things begin to change, we’re going to see a greater embrace of Israel in the region, which of course makes the rise of antisemitism in certain Western circles, entirely nonsensical.


HEFFNER: And to what do you attribute the human and political capital that enabled the Abraham Accords and that normalization. And what was the, what was that attributable to, in a a new insight or view, an acknowledgement of Israel and Israelis or Jews in a different way, what is that attributable to?


WILF: So I think some of the key factors of course are time. That over time, just seeing that Israel is in the region you know, all the comparisons that have been made over the years, Israel is like the French in Algeria, like the Crusader state recently, like the Americans in Afghanistan, was a comparison that was intended to say, look because Israel is a foreign presence with enough patience, we’re going to throw them out. I think the more Israel survives and thrives and succeeds, it helps cement the idea that the Jews are not going anywhere. We’re not a foreign force that came to a foreign country. We’re home, and therefore we’re not going anywhere. I think this insight became even more powerful during the Arab Spring where Israel played a very important role in speaking up for the stability of the region; showed an understanding of how the region works.


I think this is something that did not go unnoticed. And of course there are bigger developments. America is getting out of the middle east. It’s pivoting to Asia. It’s reducing its foothold in the middle east. This is a consistent foreign policy of Obama and Trump and Biden. The people in the region are noticing that Israel is not going to be pivoting to Asia because of our history and the history of the Jewish people. So there is an understanding that we’re here to stay. We’re a force that could be a force for good. And as a result, we’re a player in the region with which you make real agreements.


HEFFNER: Real agreements that you at least have to come to the table, the negotiating table, I think, in a civil and strategic way. But you’re identifying the Arab Spring. And now there has been a destabilization of the aspiring democracies in some of those countries. You know, Tunisia was exemplifying the success story until recently. So you have this normalization of relations at the same time as countries where there had been some aspiration, including, you know, in countries that had started the normalization, Egypt, moving more in that direction, you know, sort of towards an authoritarian state, away from a free and open society. So how do you, how do you see the deepening relations of Israel and some of its neighbors in the context of that destabilization?


WILF: I think that ultimately the peoples of the region of the middle east would need to find their own voice, their own structure of governance that suits their history. I think the notion of exporting democracy has been demonstrated to be an utter and destructive failure. And what we’re seeing is countries pursuing their betterment through the mechanisms that they see fit. So it might not look exactly like what you have in the U.S. And I must say these days, it’s no longer an ideal for many countries. But it will be something that people feel gives them a greater voice, greater participation, and is reflective of who they are. And that’s going to take their time. But I think what countries such as the UAE and Bahrain, and even Saudi and Egypt, what they saw is that Israel is not in the business of forcing them to live up to a certain ideal or to certain values and understanding that at the end of the day, self-determination national self-determination means that countries pursue their own course and you respect other countries and their choices and their people, and what they think is right for them.


HEFFNER: And that can work to an extent, but likely not with the Taliban or do you see even a force like the Taliban, being willing to acknowledge things that the UAE and others have come to acknowledge now?


WILF: I cannot speak for them. But what I can say is that the more that you have across the Arab and Islamic world, clear examples of success, the UAE is for 10 years now, the number one countries where young Arabs want to come and work. So they know a good thing when they see it. They recognize success. Remember after 9/11, everyone spoke about the democratic deficit and the failure of the Arab world. Well, that’s not what young people want. They want to see something that is successful. That is future-looking. That is what the UAE is showing them, showing them the way. Normalization with Israel is now part and parcel of a future-looking Arab middle east, rather than a backward looking one. So I do hope that ultimately every people and every nation will pursue their path to prosperity and success. But I think right now, there is a greater understanding that it’s better to lead by example, rather than to lead by coercion.


HEFFNER: Is the tolerance of the Jewish state at all driven now by the realization that there are many countries that are ostensibly run by theology in the region? In other words to accept Israel is to accept one country governed by different, if not opposing religious viewpoint or stance. But in reality, Sharia law predominates and, you know, Islamic lore, if not tradition, is what informs a lot of the daily ritual in so many of their neighbors. So I don’t know at what point this realization was made, but that realization that Israel is a single country, governed by, at times a religious faith. There are many countries in the middle east that are governed by a religious orthodoxy and faith and in some cases to the, to the great detriment of human rights. So was that realization, a part of the calculus to say, Israel is something we need to respect. And, and if not respect, accept?


WILF: I think it’s not as much a matter of faith. It’s a matter of recognizing that the Jewish people are not foreigners in the region, that the historical view of the Jews as colonialists, as representing empires, really just didn’t gel with reality of Jews being in their own way, indigenous to the middle east and being home. And one of the most interesting aspects of theology that we’ve seen the rise of this, our Arab and Islamic embracive Israel and Zionism is the use of theology to support the embrace of Israel. I’ve listened to clerics, Muslim clerics, go on television and basically say, the Koran accepts all three sacred texts. And therefore, of course, we acknowledge that the Jewish people belong here, that they’re not foreigners. One thing you’ve seen in particular is that the UAE and Bahrain are placing and even Morocco placing tremendous emphasis on embracing the very small Jewish life that they have right now, but showing themselves to be very tolerant and really celebrating Jewish life.


And I think in doing so, they’re also playing to a very important truth: to be a Zionist is to also embrace Jewish life. Yes, theoretically you can be an anti-Zionist and be supportive of Jews, but in practice, it never works. When the Arab world turned anti-Zionist, they threw away all their Jews, ethnically cleansing about a million people who even proceeded the Arab conquest and Islam everywhere that the world, if they turn anti-Zionist, if a campus turns anti-Zionist, it also becomes inhospitable to Jews. Theoretically, you could separate the two. In practice, it never works. And you see that now with Arab countries are supporting Israel, they’re also hospitable to Jews.

HEFFNER: Right, and that was your declaration coming to that viewpoint that anti-Semitism is anti-Zionism. Anti-Zionism is antisemitism. I know that that’s an important thesis that you have arrived at. Has Israel had to sacrifice any of its own conception of morality to get to that place of normalization in countries that do not have the same rule of law and respect for human rights that Israel does, at least as it relates to its Jewish population? It could be argued that it doesn’t have that same citizenship or state of human rights for all of its population. But is there any internally speaking to any of your former colleagues in the political arena or even, you know, lay people, Israeli citizens who are concerned that the acceptance of certain practices in these neighboring countries is going to you know, ostracize a certain morally, you know, a certain moral stance, a certain conception of morality.


WILF: So, except for me having to correct some saying that not only does Israel has full and equal citizenship and can punch up there with the best and most advanced of democracies and we’re way up there. The fact that people began to hint that there’s something wrong about Israel making these agreements with the UAE and Bahrain, because they’re just not Norwegian democracies, I no longer say Jeffersonian democracy because people know that that’s not a good thing. So they’re not Norwegian democracies. Well that seems to be an objection that people only raised once they embraced Israel. Somehow when all the countries in the world have warm relations with these countries, no one asks Switzerland how it reflects on Switzerland that it has such close relations to UAE. So I think we’d all be better off if we understand that international relations are the relations between sovereign nations. Each nation can pursue its own path to prosperity and inclusion. And I think if anything, if America should learn from its last several decades, is that telling other countries how to behave and then sending militaries to teach them doesn’t really play out so well.


HEFFNER: In the, in the few minutes we have left. I just want to ask you about American anti-Zionism. And I know you’ve been to the U.S. recently have engaged with students; I believe at Georgetown. My perception of it is that what is often identified as anti-Zionism is not exactly anti-Zionism, according to the definition of Zionism I understand. And it’s certainly not antisemitism. In fact, this view is often harbored by Jews who are not self-hating. But the view that, especially in the wake of hate crimes that accelerated as a result of Donald Trump’s campaign, the desecration of Jewish cemeteries, for instance in many states around the country, that these were viewed as a tax on American Jews. And even as Donald Trump campaigned to support the Jewish State, he was supporting the Jewish State of Israel and not Jews in America. And so from my vantage point, a lot of what could be perceived as anti-Zionism is actually just pro-American Jews. I mean, it is a foothold in wanting to support the livelihood and freedom of American Jews against what we know has been a historic and historical antipathy in this country towards American Jews, and standing up for American Jews actually before Israeli Jews. How do you read that?


WILF: What you are describing, and of course it’s a source of danger, including physical one is the anti-Semitism of the right, which generally doesn’t seek to hide itself. People on the right who are antisemitic will very clearly speak to that. It is on the left where antisemitism has found it necessary to mask itself as this so-called respectable anti Zionism because people of the left cannot conceive of themselves as anti-Semites. This is for the lower classes. This is for history. But the ancient hatred is still there. And therefore this now found this new mask of anti-Zionism, but I do agree with you that it has nothing to do with Israel. It’s not about Israel. One of the things I realized is that the rise of anti-Zionism in America which is a mask for antisemitism is saying something about America. In general, antisemitism is not, and has never been about the Jews in the sense that it’s not that the Jews do something and then antisemitism rises. Antisemitism rises when a society is in crisis and a society feels uncertainty and chaos. And when there’s uncertainty, there’s no greater certainty in the swirl than that the Jews did it. So you latch onto certainties and in the left because of World War II, because of history, because of class, antisemitism is no longer legitimate. So anti-Zionism, especially the way it was shaped by the Soviets has made it into the left-wing circles as the new shiny mask. But it operates in the same way. And you’re seeing the places that have seen the rise of antisemitism in the left in progressive circles have also become incredibly inhospitable to Jews. And therefore both need to be fought:


HEFFNER: But the last point…


WILF: antisemitism on the right,



WILF:  and anti-Zionism on the left.


HEFFNER: But the last point that I just want you to respond to in the seconds we have left is I guess my point Einat, that we, the majority of Jews in America are on the left. I mean, that’s been documented in surveys and in voting patterns in 2016 for Hillary Clinton, in 2020 for Joe Biden. So, I mean, there could be the suggestion then that there is coming of age in America and anti-Zionist Jewish population in America. But I, I would dispute that. I mean, I think that there are a lot of American Jews who believe that the prior rule of thumb was that we are going to concern ourselves more with the wellbeing of Israel and Israeli Jews than American Jews. And, and I think that that is a view that has been adopted in some Jewish circles. So I don’t know if you would suggest that there is a population of anti-Zionist American Jews or what you would call them, but they are aligned in some instances with what you described to be anti-Zionism on the left.


WILF: You’re absolutely right. And I think it is these anti-Zionist Jews, I think are making the mistake of thinking that by selling out their people, they will gain respect and save themselves. But precisely because most Jews in America are in the left, this is why the rise of anti-Zionism as a mask for antisemitism in the left is so dangerous because ultimately it will affect the standing of Jews in America because they are mostly in the left. And that’s why it’s so dangerous. But I also understand that they don’t want to recognize it. Better to believe that it’s just because Israel did this or that, and if you just spoke against it, you would …


HEFFNER: Yeah, there are different shades of it. You know, the population that I’m referring to that would dispute that characterization may or may not support for example, divestment. But the bottom line is I just want to make a public disclosure in saying that there is certainly a community of folks who believe they’re Zionist, support Israel’s existence, have had concerns about us domestic and international policy that have put the considerations of Israel before the considerations of the U.S. and American Jews. Thank you so much, Einat, for your time today. Really appreciate your insight and do check out her presentation at Indiana University’s website. Thank you for your time.


WILF: Thank you.


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