Sunday, February 28, 2010

No diapora Jew has failed to benefit, in more or less calculable ways, from the existence of the state of Israel

US-born, British and Jewish writer Frederic Raphael has written a review of a book by Shlomo Sand "The Invention of the Jewish People". I have not read the book, the the review is an interesting look at the relationships between Zionism as a political movement, Jewish identity, Israel and the historical narratives that connect and motivate them. I want to look at the segments of that article that I find most striking.
In the last 60 years, the measure of a man’s Jewishness has become more political than religious: The more we support Israel, the more loyal we supposedly are to what is said to be our ancestral faith or race. Today’s Jew can be forgiven for eating a crab salad, but never for wishing that Israel would withdraw from the West Bank “territories,” still less for favoring the dissolution of the Jewish state, as Tony Judt, Harold Pinter and other well-placed Diasporites have appeared to do. In less enlightened eyes, the least that an absentee who calls him/herself a Jew can do is to be a supporter of the Jewish state. My Zion right or wrong; where would we be without it? There is, in truth, no knowing.
The phenomenon that Raphael describes, that Jewishness is tied to support for Zionism in mainstream modern Jewish discourse, has an analogue in the non-Jewish world. For non-Jews, especially, support for Zionism is a defense against charges of anti-Semitism. In some cases it seems presented as both a necessary and sufficient defense against the - in many cases objectively false - charge of anti-Semitism. Necessary because I cannot think of a single person who is not Jewish who has publicly opposed Zionism as a political objective who has not been accused of anti-Semitism. Sufficient because there are examples of people who have directly expressed bigotry against Jews who seem to have been spared from the charge of anti-Semitism by their support for the idea that there must be a Jewish state.
By the same token, turned abruptly on its head, it is unlikely that Zionism would ever have achieved its measure of paramountcy if it had not been for Nazi racism (and what Lucy Davidowicz called “the Abandonment of the Jews” by the Allies). In that sense, there is some truth in the malevolent assertion, which George Steiner put in the mouth of his fictitious Hitler, in “The Portage of A.H. to San Cristobal,” that without Adolf there would have been no Jewish state. Zionism was as unpopular among emancipated Western Jewry (only some 2 percent endorsed it) in the 1930s as Nazism itself had been in Germany until the disaster of the Depression. It does not follow that the state of Israel should not, for that reason, be allowed to exist, still less that its founders endorsed or conspired with the Nazis.
The relationship between Hitler and Zionism is interesting. Supporters of the idea of Zionism point out that the Zionist movement was born before Hitler's rise to power and had made notable progress. For example, the Balfour Declaration predates Hitler's participation in German politics. But one thing that argument misses is that without a specific embodiment of European ethnic nationalism there may well have been both no Hitler and no Zionism.

Hitler was consciously attempting to emulate for the Germans the successes in assertion of ethnic territorial dominance that had earlier been achieved by the "White People" of the United States or the British in, among other places, Southern Africa. Hitler's ideas were in line with the logical progression of the apparently common and widely accepted ideas of the time that success for ethnic groups was signified by the acquisition of territory on which those groups could fulfill free from any unacceptable amount of interference from outside ethnic groups.

German, or even Aryan nationalism and Jewish nationalism are the same idea. If Zionism is Jewish nationalism, then it is not exactly analogous to the radical form of German nationalism that we call Nazism now. However, if Israel loses a major war and is humiliated and impoverished as a result, we can be certain that Israelis will be as hostile to the Arabs living in their country as ethnic Germans were towards the Jews of their country. If Netanyahu faced the situation Hitler faced in 1943, the military defeated and the overrun of the country by more numerous and better equipped enemy forces inevitable, we can only imagine what his final solution would be to the problem of Arab populations inside and outside of Israel.

The ideas that lead to the unification of Germany as an "ethnic German" nation in the mid-1800s, and also, at around the same time, to the impulse for "White People" (which in the United States included Jewish people) to conquer and subjugate the natives of their continent also lead to the idea, formalized a few decades later, that Jewish people need a land to conquer.

The answer to the question, would there be an Israel if there was no Hitler, no Nazism, no ethnic cleansing of Jews in territories held by the Germans, is possibly and possibly not. But that question does not capture the full relationship between Zionism and Nazism. Ethnic nationalism in general can be thought of as a father. Jewish nationalism and German nationalism are, in that case brothers. Nazism is a radical son of German nationalism, and a nephew of Jewish nationalism. But Jewish nationalism may well have its own children. Hopefully none will ever be as destructive or evil as Nazism, but there can be no guarantee.

To present Hitler as the father of Israel is factually incorrect. But there is certainly a relationship.

Rafael makes the valid point that the relationship between Israel and Nazism, even if true, does not by itself discredit Zionism as a movement or prove that Israel should not exist. The argument that there should not be a Jewish state is that the cost is greater than the benefits. The suffering of non-Jews to maintain a Jewish state is the entire argument that maintaining such a state should not continue.

I don't recall ever seeing an argument of the form: "Without Hitler there would not be an Israel today, therefore there should not be an Israel today." The closest I've seen is the argument that Israel today is ironically the perpetuation of Hitler's evil. But by that argument the reason there should not be an Israel is the evil, the suffering imposed, not the connection to Hitler.

I have seen claims that political Zionists, through Germany, in some way sacrificed the Jewish people who were killed by the Nazis as part of the project of establishing a Jewish state. I agree with Rafael that those claims are the product of a profound misunderstanding of what Nazism is.
Konrad Adenauer’s payment of reparations to Israel, rather than (as later happened, in some cases at least) to individual sufferers, was probably well intentioned. Symbolically, however, it can be read as standing for Germany’s (and the West’s?) paying off of all its debts to “the Jews.” Europe’s conclusive goodbye was wrapped in cash. Israel, it has further been argued (not entirely implausibly), was established so that Europe’s evicted Jews should have somewhere to go which was not either the United States or Britain. The victors did not want the despoiled. The British, unsurprisingly, used the Jews to enable them to divide and rule Palestine and then, in accordance with Foreign Office tradition, left them to face the angry Arabs in a war which, if the British had rightly calculated (and fixed) the odds, would lead to their elimination. Pontius Pilate has never lacked emulation in London.
Wait a second. The British calculated that the Jews would be eliminated? That represents a profound misunderstanding of what British imperialism is.

Yes. 1948 Britain was much more anti-Semitic than the 1948 United States, even if it was less anti-Semitic than 1940 Germany. And if Palestine was inhabited by about one-third Jewish people and two-thirds ethic British, Britain would have perceived a great interest in ensuring that the British of Palestine won their war with the Jewish people.

Jewish people very often seem not to understand the idea that "foreign" is not a binary value. A group of people can be more or less foreign, targets of more or less bigotry. The British were bigoted against Jews, especially when compared to other British, but European Jews were less foreign than Palestinian Arabs to them. Conceding that the British were bigoted against Jews, it is a ludicrous idea that that means the British favored the Palestinians, or even that the British were not more bigoted against the Arabs, whom they mostly ruled as indirect colonial subjects at the time.

Ludicrous but also commonly held. The counter-historical idea that Jewish people have been subjected to more intense bigotry than any other group seems to be a major component of the Jewish narrative. One easy way to refute it is to point out that there were dozens or hundreds of different actively practiced religions in Europe two thousand years ago. Almost all of those religions were ruthlessly exterminated to the point that very few can even be named by specialists today.
None of this, however keenly asserted, validates the existence of Israel, nor yet does its devious creation, as a kind of noble dump for unwanted persons, invalidate it. It happened as it did, not because “the Jews” were or were not a single people, but in consequence of events over which no Jews, of any political persuasion, had effective control. Israel is, in that sense at least, a reactionary state. So what? It is a common phenomenon, as Zionists have proved, for the defeated to adopt, in whatever modified or supposedly sublime form, the tactics of those who humiliated them.

Ben-Gurion, for eminent instance, admired European culture, but wanted the Jews to become, once more, a “fighting people” (in truth, the Philistines had more often defeated the Jews than modernized myth found convenient to admit). The baggage Ben-Gurion wanted left behind, in old Europe, were the weapons of inferiority: He now wished the sword to be mightier than the pen.
The goal of becoming a "fighting people", if practiced by leaving Europe to fight people who had already been defeated and were at the time in colonial arrangements with the British strikes me as less glorious than it may have struck Ben-Gurion. "We were powerless before the Germans, so let's go to Palestine, use our European weapons and military techniques and beat up some Arabs who have already been defeated by other Europeans" sounds more shameful than noble. Nobody can say now that an eventual Arab victory would not represent justice, just as it did with previous defeats of colonialism throughout what is now called the third world.
As a consequence of this a posteriori judgment, the Palestinians have a seemingly inexorable reason to regard themselves as Israel’s Jews. The comedy, in a very cruel sense, is that Sand argues, with conviction, that the Palestinians are at least as likely to be the descendants of the “original” Judeans as the Jews who have come from, for instance, the ex-Soviet Union, of whom more than a few are almost certainly without any ancestral link with the Holy Land, since they are descended from, in particular, the Khazars whose king converted voluntarily to Judaism in the seventh century C.E. The Khazars, however, are not an admitted topic in Israeli historiography. Facts are not the friends of ideologues. In logic, Wittgenstein observed, “there are no surprises”; in life, however, there always are. One of my favorite little-known books is Raymond Boudon’s “La place du desordre” (1984), in which he argues, with solemn brilliance, for the systematic lack of reliable system in all theories of social change, i.e. in all ideological prescriptions.
I do see arguments about the Khazars from time to time. I guess they can serve as a single example. I think this particular example is probably over-used. If there were no Khazar's Zionism would not have a stronger or weaker moral underpinning.
The Right of Return implies, in some minds, the obligation to do so. For this logic to hold, it has to be argued that the whole of the Diaspora can trace its lineage, pretty well directly, back to the population which is said to have been expelled, and certainly dispersed, after the double disasters of 70 C.E., when Jerusalem fell to the besieging Romans, under Titus, and that of some 60 years later, when Bar-Kokhba’s rebellion was savagely repressed by Hadrian. One of Sand’s claims is that, despite many massacres and the ban on circumcised men entering the renamed Jerusalem (it became Aelia Capitolina), there was no mass deportation of Jews from Palestine.

Among the unwanted truths of the past is that, at least by the time of Hadrian’s vindictive war against the rebellious Judeans, Palestine was by no means the home of most Jews. Since 10 percent of the population of the Roman Empire was said to be Jewish in the first century C.E., many of them were surely proselytes and most of them, including converted slaves, lived outside Judea. There is a strand of Jewish thought (seconded by the great Sephardic poet Yehuda Halevi) which argues for the superiority of “biological Jews,” but this is unworthy of intelligent endorsement. Moses Maimonides was the first to argue against such divine nonsense, but he was vilified for his humane philosophy. A great many Jews had, of course, been reluctant to return even from Babylon, where, as Jeremiah himself had recommended, they had prospered and multiplied. Baghdad remained a great center of Jewish life and scholarly wisdom for many centuries. Only in 1941 did the British garrison stand aside while insurgent Arabs massacred most of the Jews still living there.
It is not widely understood that most Jews did not live in Palestine before the Roman conquest. (Or that a ban on entering the main city does not demonstrate or imply that the population of the entire territory was purged.) So the "return" even without the Khazar stuff isn't really returning. This does strengthen the claims of Palestinian people who can prove actual ancestors who were driven out, as compared to people who have a right to return because of their ethnicity but who mostly do not have ancestors who were driven out. But this is still a side point in discussions about the project of Zionism.

But the key statement of Rafael's essay:
However assimilated, in terms of language, education or social embeddedness, no Diaspora Jew has failed to benefit, in more or less calculable ways, from the existence of the state of Israel. Those who grew up after 1948 can have little idea of the sense of isolation, of habitual anxiety to which Jews, even in the most allegedly enlightened or tolerant countries, were frequently subject. Of course there were some who, by virtue of their wealth, excellence or muscle, had no such nervous unease, but the Holocaust was the culmination of the manifest malice and, in the Nazi case, of the murderous hostility of the Gentile world. The German Jews were the most assimilated, culturally and, it seemed, socially, but they were swept away along with the Ostjuden from whom they had made every effort to distinguish themselves.
I had never before seen expressed an explanation for the vehemence and emotional intensity of Jewish support for Israel. According to Rafael, the fear that the US may become Nazi Germany was frequently held among Jewish people before the creation of Israel. It doesn't make much sense given, as Rafael asserts, Jewish support for Zionism was very low before the Nazis came to power. But feelings do not have to make sense.

The reason Western policy must seem so bizarrely distorted to non-Westerners is not mainly or directly that Jewish people or Jewish or non-Jewish people sympathetic to Zionism have positions of power and influence in Western society. What we are seeing is that in polite society, when a large group is apathetic and a small group is emotionally energized, the emotionally energized group, beyond what would be expected by its numbers, directs the discourse and sets the terms by which both the smaller and larger groups understand the issues.

Rather than be out of sync with his emotionally motivated colleagues, we see Juan Cole go out of his way to read anti-Semitism into one of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's speeches. We see Flynt Leverett and even Barack Obama extol the virtues of Egypt's authoritarian, but pro-Israel, dictator Hosni Mubarak.

When Barack Obama sits in a cabinet meeting, the Jewish people in the room with him feel they personally benefit from Israel. Both in that Israel is an assertion of their virility as Jews, proof that Jews can beat someone, and also a place that they can go if the United States (for the first time ever) becomes particularly hostile to Jewish people. They are personally threatened by the idea that Ahmadinejad does not believe there should be a Jewish state, or that the pro-Israel Mubarak may lose power in favor of democratic groups that do not accept Israel's legitimacy.

Part of the US and Western conception of civility, the US idea of acceptable behavior, is the avoidance of personal attacks when discussing objective issues. But Jewish people are personally attacked by the idea that Iran can build a military nuclear capability. Over time the idea that civility itself, that good manners themselves, conflict with presenting viewpoints about the Middle East that otherwise may be true systematizes a set of pro-Israel distortions in US perceptions of the region.

This seems to me to be a key to understanding the distortion of US policy and perceptions regarding the Middle East.

On the other hand, if all of the 15 million or so Jewish people of the world benefit from Israel, the number of people who suffer for it is immeasurably greater. The only region where the US maintains the exact same colonial relationships it inherited from the British is the Middle East. The number of people living under pro-US indirect colonial dictatorships, in addition to the number of people whose economies are deliberately hampered to give Israel a strategic advantage approaches 20 times the world population of Jewish people.

The US and other countries' taxpayers funding wars and the people dying in them, and also every person in the world who has flown on an airline since 2001 is paying part of the price of ensuring that there is a secure Jewish state.

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