Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Or Is Liberal Zionism the Problem?

Since my last post on the subject of liberal Zionism appeared on this blog, most of the individuals I discussed there have had a chance to address the latest violence in Gaza, whether in print or in interviews.  So far, they have justified most of my fears and very few of my hopes (tentative and watery though these were) about liberal Zionism.  Remember for instance my judgment about Leon Wieseltier? "The most one can say for [him]," I wrote, "is that there are brief moments in reading his articles when one almost thinks he is going to say something, before he elephantinely demurs[.]"  Witty or not (I guess I was hoping to make a pachyderm put-down along the lines of H.G. Wells' assessment of Henry James-- that the latter was like an elephant trying to pick up a pea), the judgement has mostly been borne out.  Wieseltier has offered at least a partial condemnation of Israeli actions in the war in Gaza, but he has done so amidst a great deal of throat-clearing and long rhetorical querying.  The equivocal tenor of his response is well captured by the lines the New York Times chose to quote from it: “A provocation does not relieve one of accountability for how one responds to it [...] For this reason," says Wieseltier, "[…] the war has filled me with disquiet, which my sympathetic understanding of Israel’s position has failed to stifle.”

As for Jeffrey Goldberg, the liberal side of his liberal Zionism appears to have been reduced to little more than occasional pleas to reverse the encroachment of settlements in the West Bank.  It does not appear to include, that is, any very serious confrontation with the possibility that Israel is committing war crimes in Gaza. His latest essay on the subject begs us to recall the insidious nature of Hamas -- and Hamas is quite insidious, in fairness (though this did not discourage Israel from supporting it in the '80s against the secular nationalists, let us recall, in what Avi Shlaim dubs a "divide and rule" policy (310)).  But Goldberg then asks us to be led by this recollection to an understanding of why Israel responds the way it does to Hamas' actions, and presumably to regard these responses as justified.  He writes: 
"People wonder why Israelis have such a visceral reaction to Hamas. The answer is easy. Israel is a small country, and most of its citizens know someone who was murdered by Hamas in its extended suicide-bombing campaigns; and most people also understand that if Hamas had its way, it would kill them as well."
This is surely true-- but you can't write honestly about this conflict with recognizing that the exact same sentences could -- with equal justice -- be written about the people of Gaza, with the names reversed.  Gaza is a much smaller place than Israel, after all, and chances are considerably greater there that any given person will have a relative or friend who was killed or whose home was obliterated during one of Israel's recent invasions (about 10,000 homes in Gaza have been reduced to rubble in the past month's conflict alone).  Most Palestinians are similarly aware that there are mainstream Israeli politicians who openly endorse ethnic cleansing within Israel's pre-1967 borders.  Surely Avigdor Lieberman has come close enough to the seat of power in Israel to cause justified alarm among Palestinians, wherever they reside.  I'm not sure why their feelings should be so different from those of Israelis that Goldberg describes above.

One can understand why Israel behaves the way it does in Gaza's airspace, just as one can understand why Hamas sends its rockets toward civilian areas-- this doesn't make either set of actions the least bit defensible.  Fair-mindedness is a bummer, isn't it?  But there's still no amount of emotion that can justify violating its tenets.  However much outrage you feel, you still have to countenance the possibility that the other side feels equal or greater outrage, and that its outrage may be justified.

Though it took him a few weeks, Goldberg does finally appear to have acknowledged the possibility that Israel is responsible for some of the civilian deaths in Gaza.  His current line on the subject is that: "Hamas’s strategy is to bait Israel into killing Palestinian civilians, and Israel usually takes the bait."  To the extent that he faults Israel for walking into this trap, therefore, his stance amounts to a sort of condemnation of the airstrikes.  But if condemnation it is, it is only as much a one as "Look what you made me do!" is a sincere confession of guilt.

On these points, Goldberg, for all his supposed liberalism, ends up sounding just like American conservatives and other, even less equivocal supporters of Israeli military actions.  The party line from these sectors throughout the latest conflict has been that killing civilians is, perhaps, unfortunate, but that Hamas deliberately placed these civilians in the line of fire, so Israel is not to blame for their deaths.

What disturbs me so much about this argument is not that it impugns Hamas' character (the group's own, openly acknowledged actions, such as firing rockets indiscriminately at civilian targets, have already done that quite sufficiently, without any help from conspiracy theories).  What disturbs me about it, rather, is that it attempts to absolve Israel's military of any responsibility for the deaths it causes-- and moreover, that people seem willing to hold out this absolution without providing any documentation or evidence in support of it.  Goldberg, so far as I can tell, has yet to adduce a single concrete example in which Hamas rockets were fired from a hospital or a school or a UN facility in Gaza.  He does not feel the need to list any cases in which civilians were apparently killed due to their proximity to a military target (though surely some such instances could be found, if they really account for so many of the casualties).  The point is that Goldberg feels himself to be under no obligation to prove the point, or marshall evidence in its favor, suggesting that he is committed to it a priori, and expects us all to be as well.  

Nor has any other pro-Israel commentator, at least whom I've come across, seen fit to present any evidence to justify the claim. Perhaps the silliest entry in this genre I've seen so far comes from David Frum who, in the midst of a controversy in which he accused the New York Times of publishing fake photos of Palestinian casualties (the photos were genuine, it turns out), asserted on his Twitter feed: "My guess: real civilian casualties occur in Gaza when Israel strikes a military installation [....] Photos of real civilian casualties would show too much truth about *why* those civilian casualties occur."  This remark is stupid, in addition to being dishonest.  Why exactly would a child who has been hit by a missile look any different in the hospital if she had been standing near a military target at the time of the strike or not?  Are she and her parents not equally drenched in blood and tears in either scenario?  More reprehensible still is the fact that Frum did not see fit to provide any evidence for his "guess."  It's just the IDF's line, so he swallows it.  And we are meant to swallow it too, (to alter a line from Stephen Crane), because it is bitter, and because it is Hamas.

The contrast with human rights watchdogs who have been critical of Israeli strikes is obvious-- these groups have clearly felt that they were under an obligation to actually document their claims about civilian casualties, before trumpeting them.  I have cited several of them in previous posts: here's another incident, this one reported by B'Tselem, that seems rather difficult to account for on Frum's and Goldberg's theory about civilian casualties.

Part of what is happening here is that supporters of Israel find it difficult to countenance the thought that Israel is deliberately inflicting civilian casualties, in an effort to terrify the people of Gaza into submission.  I admit that I too find this possibility difficult to credit, though I reflect that Israel would hardly be the first military power in history to engage in this sort of practice, if that were in fact what it was doing.  Our own nation, let us remember, deliberately burned to death hundreds of thousands of innocent people in Germany and Japan during the Second World War.  Our system of electoral democracy did not prevent that from happening, nor did it prevent our government from imprisoning 130,000 of its own citizens in concentration camps for the duration of that same conflict, purely because of their race.  Nations, even our own nations, do worse things than we like to admit.  In a sort of prose poem published recently in the New York Review of Books, Charles Simic wonders: "Has any country ever admitted killing civilians out of a desire for revenge?"-- the implied answer is, I take it: No-- but we all know that they do it anyways.

But at any rate, we don't need to resort to this claim to avoid the conclusion that Israel bears no responsibility for civilian deaths in Gaza.  There are other possibilities beyond this one and the conclusion of Frum and Goldberg.  In 2009, for instance, during an earlier iteration of the same violence in Gaza, Zeev Sternhell suggested that the reason Israel kills so many civilians in its wars in Gaza is that the Israeli political class and the IDF have found, in recent years, that the public will simply not support any military action that leads to the deaths of large numbers of Israeli soldiers.  Therefore, the IDF conducts itself in such a way that will minimize Israeli deaths-- often by maximizing Palestinian civilian casualties.  If there is any possibility that someone might be a military target, she or he is treated as such. 

Sternhell's explanation is anything but an apologia (though it does avoid the conclusion that Israel's exclusive goal in bombing civilian targets is to instill terror).  He ends his comment on a note of profound and personal anguish:
"The practical result [of these policies] is that according to the new doctrine of warfare [...] any place, any person, any home in any village and in any neighborhood in which enemy forces operate can be an enemy position and are therefore legitimate targets for Israeli fire. It is the closing of a circle: the moral, if not the criminal, responsibility is borne not by the junior officers who make the decisions in the field, but rather by the senior command that taught them to do so, the senior politicians who approved the new principles, and above all by the ideologues who formulated this doctrine, which brings disgrace upon all of us, especially those of us who fought in previous Israeli wars."

Sternhell's wisdom at least provides me with some hope that liberal Zionism within Israel proper may have a future as a conscientious dissenting voice, even as it seems bereft of ideas here in America.  Yet I'm disappointed to see Amos Oz, another eminence gris of Israeli peaceniks, being quoted with approval by Jeffrey Goldberg, and offering some very lame apologetics about recent Israeli actions.  The quote is taken from an interview with Oz, in which he asks a rhetorical question, presumably intended as an analogy to the current fighting: "What would you do," asks Oz, "if your neighbor across the street sits down on the balcony, puts his little boy on his lap and starts shooting machine gun fire into your nursery?"

This is a pretty impoverished way of looking at it, especially from a noted "dove."  A more apt analogy might have been as follows: Suppose you had locked your neighbor in your basement for several decades, and recently, you stopped sending him any food.  Then one day, he breaks out of his dungeon and comes after you and your children with a gun.  Surely it's right for you to protect your children in this situation, you would say, as they were innocent of his captivity-- but isn't it also right to let him escape at last from your basement, after you have disarmed him?  And don't you bear some responsibility for his present anger and the actions it has inspired?  

If we are willing to follow Oz's questionable move of personifying nations and their histories, surely this latter scenario is closer to the truth.  If we are going to play with silly analogies and pretend that collective entities can be reduced to individual agents (in real life, they can't be) --, then at least let our imaginary scenarios reflect the fact that Gaza has been occupied and blockaded by Israel for a very long time, with catastrophic consequences for the people who live there.  These are not two friendly neighbors, in short, one of whom suddenly and for mysterious reasons pulled a weapon on the other.


I am an admirer of several of the most prominent liberal Zionists, such as Zeev Sternhell and Avi Shlaim, but it is beginning to dawn on me that what I admire them for is their liberalism, rather than their Zionism.  The reasons for their continued commitment to Zionism remain fundamentally incomprehensible to me, though I have genuinely striven to understand them. Yet I conclude: to the extent that they remain Zionists, these thinkers display many of the same blindnesses as the conservatives and the hawks.  These blind spots are particularly noticeable with regard to the creation of the State of Israel in 1948 and to Israel's current status as a state with a particular ethno-religious identity.

I have tried many times to convince myself that Israel's creation as a nation-state of the Jewish people in 1948 was essentially legitimate, since this belief is shared by so many of the reasonable and humane people who write about the subject.  But I can't do it.  This is so for the simple reason that the State of Israel was created through an act of ethnic cleansing, and could only have been created in that way, if it was to have a Jewish majority from the outset.  

I don't mean by asserting this to enter into the historical debate over whether or not there was an organized effort to expel the Arab population in 1948, or over the extent of the massacres and violence carried out by Israeli militants against this population, etc.  I have no expertise in that field, and more importantly, these are not the questions on which the debate should really turn, in my view, though they receive so much attention.  

The truth of the matter, I say, is that pretty much however one answers these controversial questions, Israel still committed an ethnic cleansing in 1948, or something morally proximate to it.  This conclusion follows straightforwardly from three historical facts that I don't think any party to the debate really disputes; 1) there was a substantial Arab population with Israel's borders before 1948; 2) they left or were forced out during the '48 war, for some reason; and 3) they were not allowed back into the country after that date.  So regardless of any other details of the conflict, the fact remains that Israel claimed land that had belonged to other people for generations, and when those people asked to be allowed to return to that land, they were not allowed to do so, exclusively because of their race and religion.  Is there any way to look at that act in which it is not, effectively, expulsion?  Is there any sense in which it is not ethnic cleansing, or at least something that is morally objectionable for basically the same reasons?

Yet even the liberal Zionists I admire most appear blind to these conclusions.  Avi Shlaim, in a review of a book by Benny Morris about Israel's "border wars" that followed on the end of the state's creation in 1948, refers to the debate over Arab "infiltrators" after the '48 conflict.  Avi Shlaim writes about these "infiltrators" at first blush with apparent sympathy: 
"The evidence gleaned by Morris," he writes, "suggests that infiltration into Israel was a direct consequence of the displacement and dispossession of over 700,000 Palestinians in the course of the Palestine War, and that the motives behind it were largely economic and social [...] Many of the infiltrators were Palestinian refugees whose reasons for crossing the border included looking for relatives, returning to their homes, recovering possessions [...]," etc. (p. 86)
Yet Shlaim insists a few pages later that "infiltration posed a very serious problem for Israel in general [....] There was [...] the threat that the infiltrators would try to re-establish themselves in their former homes inside Israel.  Infiltration, in short, posed a danger not only to the country's day-to-day security but also to its territorial integrity." (89)

Why exactly is it a "threat" to anyone if people attempt to return to homes they possessed only a few years previously?  Whom or what does it threaten?  The only way one can view it as a threat if one does not think there should be Arabs living in Israel, simply because they are not Jews.  

I am loath to attribute anything like racism to Avi Shlaim, who has devoted so much more of his life and career than I have -- and at such greater risk -- to securing human rights and fair treatment for the Palestinians.  Yet there does seem to be an inescapably racist logic to his claims in this one instance-- a logic that is ultimately inseparable from the aspiration to maintain a Jewish majority in Israel.  So long as Israel deliberately seeks to preserve that ethnic majority, it will invariably end up discouraging the growth of some of its communities, simply because of their ethnic identification.  And that, I'm afraid, is racial discrimination-- it is the very definition of racial discrimination.  


In my last post on this subject, I attempted to salvage some limited sense in which Israel might meaningfully maintain a distinctive relationship with the Jewish people in the future, without this relationship undermining its democratic and universalist aspirations.  I still think that there is some such sense, and that these two goals of having a Jewish identity and being a liberal democracy for all Israeli citizens, regardless of race, can be made to fit together-- just as Iceland can have a state church, say, without this rendering the place a Christian theocracy.

However, I believe now that we need to approach this conflict with aspirations that are more than just theoretically compatible with universalism-- we need aspirations that are defined by their universalism-- that make this universalism absolutely and uncompromisingly central to their vision.  Liberal Zionism does not embody such aspirations, I am forced to conclude, to the extent that it remains committed to the idea of a Jewish majority state.

The argument for preserving Israel's distinctively Jewish character that I found decisive, the last time around, was the claim that there ought to be, somewhere in the world, a place set aside as a refuge for Jews from anti-Semitic persecution, given the distinctive virulence of such persecution throughout modern history.  Yet it occurs to me now that in that same post, I had already provided the most potent objection to this claim, if only I had listened to myself.  

Whenever one is faced with the fact of ethnic conflict, it is profoundly tempting to think that the solution lies in separating the antagonistic groups.  Deprived of each other's company, the thought runs, they will lose interest in harassing each other.  This is what essentially motivates the idea of having a political refuge for one ethnic group rather than another.  

The trouble is that this is an ethnic solution to the problem, when the problem is ethnicity itself.  That is to say, ethnic conflict does not arise because of some permanent, implacable, or inherent conflict between different peoples, religions, or ways of life.  I admit it may be true that difference between people generally causes some sort of conflict-- psychological tension at least-- to arise between them.  But the point is that each of us is different from all the rest of us in an infinite number of ways. What ideologies of ethnicity and identity do is to fasten onto one of those differences and say: "There, that is what you are-- that and nothing else." And of those people who differ from you in that one aspect, you are informed that the most important thing about them is that sole point of difference.  "They-- those people-- are not-you. That is all you need to know about them."

It should be clear, therefore, that segregating ethnic groups from one another achieves nothing.  If anything, such "solutions" only deepen the problem, because they grant credibility to ethnic ideologies, which thrive on the notion that different groups are unalterably hostile to one another by their very nature.  Once the different groups have been segregated into their enclaves, does anybody seriously believe that each will live peaceably amidst itself?  Of course not, because there will still be a thousand other differences between the members of that group, because there are a thousand differences at a given moment between any two people.  All it takes is for a fresh ideologue to seize upon any one of them as the new, most "essential" and timeless point of difference between people, and the process will begin again.  I suppose this could go on indefinitely, and we would eventually be left with seven billion ghettoes of one person each.

I was thinking, again, about Iceland -- always a useful counterpoint to my assumptions.  The country has surely one of the most ethnically homogenous populations on earth.  But just read the old sagas-- it is clear that the medieval Icelanders still found points of difference to battle each other over, even in the midst of what would seem to us, by modern standards, to be relative homogeneity-- the differences they fought over were simply those of clan and family, rather than language and race.  Even if you do not fight over who's white and who's black, you can still kill each other over who's Baldur's son and who's Odin's dottir.  The problem is not in the degree of difference, I say- the problem is in the logic of ethnic ideology, which, so long as that ideology survives, will always find points of difference to exploit.

The real obstacle to peace in Israel and Palestine is therefore not the presence there of two distinct peoples with rival historical claims, as is so often stated-- it is the failure of universalistic thought-systems to take root amidst the intelligentsia.  I have fretted a great deal over the causes of this failure, and I think perhaps the fault lies in part with liberal Zionism.  By offering an admixture of secular nationalism and left-wing idealism, that is, the movement attracted to its banner much of the Israeli intelligentsia, who might otherwise have adopted a more dissident stance toward the nascent state. There might have developed then in Israel a Palestinian liberation movement that included both Jewish and Arab leaders-- one that also might have staked a more plausible claim to be capable of offering a democratic, secular future for the country, with equal rights for members of both main ethnic groups -- and others.  But instead, much of the Israeli Left was attracted by the mixture of Mazzini-style liberal nationalism and egalitarian socialism that left-wing Zionism used to offer.  Meanwhile, no Palestinian intellectuals could very plausibly identify with a Zionist movement of any kind, even one that had a liberal intonation.  Thus, no Arab-Jewish coalition ever emerged. (The closest thing to it in Israel's history is the country's small Communist Party, and I suppose it has my endorsement, for what it's worth, for victory in the Knesset.  Maybe in that small body lies whatever hope there is for the future-- much as South Africa's Communist Party was for a long time in the apartheid era pretty much the nation's only morally responsible voice-- one that managed, moreover, to bring together black and white activists into some sort of partnership.  What can I say? Communism is always at its best when it is most completely out of power.)  

In the meantime, I suspect that something like a two-state solution is still the best option on offer in the remotely near future for Israel and Palestine-- the only one, in short, that does not pose so great a risk of leading to the ethnic cleansing or even genocide of one or the other group.  One has to compromise with ethnicity, sometimes, even when such compromises may end up feeding the root problem. 

However, I don't think there will be  a truly lasting peace in the region until a significant cohort emerges that can plausibly claim to represent both peoples -- and that can make this claim because it rejects the ideology of ethnicity in all its forms.

I open myself to some misunderstanding here: Let me be clear that I am not saying, by all this, that Jewish people in Israel should cease to think of themselves as Jewish, or that Palestinians should no longer think of themselves as Muslims or Christians.  I am not suggesting, in short, that anyone submerge her identity and whatever else is distinctive about her in some universal notion of humanity. 

To the contrary, I find that there is a natural, if rather curious, alliance between the deeply local, and the truly universal.  I think it is no coincidence, for instance, that the person who has written most compellingly about the need for cosmopolitan ways of thinking about Israel's future-- ways that consciously reject the logic of ethnicity-- is also the person who has written most poignantly about the importance of the communitarian spirit in politics: I am referring to Tony Judt.  Judt throughout his writings recognized the importance that collectivities play in people's lives- and the ways in which such smaller-scale collectivities become, in fact, the very things on which we are able to found our more universal hopes.  In a recent profile of Judt in Dissent magazine, Daniel Solomon describes the stance in the following terms: "The biography of Judt [...] is also the story of the political left: the imagination of the universal through the preservation of the provincial."  I wish that Solomon had elaborated this insight more extensively, for it is a profound one.  I take his point, to the extent I grasp it, to be similar to my own-- the local and the universal align, that is, in curious ways.  

I'm not entirely sure why this should be the case, but one possibility that comes to mind is that it is precisely when we look to our most local ties, that we see the things that make us most like other people-- the fact that we have friends and family whom we care for, as other groups of people do, the fact that we attach value to things in this world other than our immediate advantage, that we live for something other than ourselves.  You can only detect these things in yourself when you look at the closest relationships in your life.  But they also reveal to us the deep commonalities that persist across our species.  

The trouble comes when we look neither to the very personal or to the very cosmopolitan-- but to those medium-sized collectivities of which we are ostensibly a part -- those big, bullying fictions, like "nation," "identity," and "race," that cause so much sorrow in the world.  Whereas the local exhibits to us our commonalities, and the universal describes and names them, the middle-weight collectives, by contrast, only exist to the extent that they can define themselves by difference.  These are the collectives for which people shed so much innocent blood.  

If there is hope in Israel and Palestine, it lies in the chance that people there will come to sense the implicit alliance between the local and the universal, and spurn the ideologies of racism, ethnocentrism, and religious chauvinism that are competing for their loyalty. This is an implausible hope, but it may be the only hope we've got.  As Tony Judt once concluded in a brave and controversial essay on the subject: "A binational state in the Middle East would require the emergence, among Jews and Arabs alike, of a new political class. The very idea is an unpromising mix of realism and utopia, hardly an auspicious place to begin. But the alternatives are far, far worse."

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