Yesterday, I read with interest Peter Beinart’s wave-making piece on American liberalism and Zionism. A few things about the ensuing debate caught my attention.
First, one of Spencer Ackerman’s posts about the piece, entitled “Those crucial internal shtetl divides,” got me to wondering why this topic is always framed as a typically Jewish debate. In other words, why is this an internal tribal discussion? And, as I’ve asked before, why are we so rarely privy to the opinions of, say, Palestinians or other Arabs? As it stands, Beinart’s piece will be discussed and taken seriously, but would it have even been published if it had been written by an Arab? Maybe, but certainly not in the NYRB, for even Hussein Agha apparently needs a Rob Malley to talk about Palestine and Israel in The New York Review of Books. Arabs don’t really get much of a say in the American conversation, because … well I guess because we don’t think they’re capable of saying anything for themselves, or we immediately discount what they say as biased, since they’re Arabs. Why is it that many of the best known partisans of the Palestinian cause in the US aren’t Arabs? (Think Norman Finkelstein and Noam Chomsky, for example.) It’s not for a dearth of Arab voices.
Likewise, it’s important in the US to know what Alan Dershowitz or Marty Peretz and his cronies have to say on this issue, but can we imagine similar, but converse, rhetoric (à la they make us kill their babies) being considered part of the mainstream debate? I imagine that not only would the Arab Dershowitz not be teaching at Harvard, or likely anywhere else for that matter, but that he’d likely find himself quickly embroiled in criminal proceedings for inciting violence or supporting terrorism.
Second, I predicted yesterday while chatting with a friend of mine, that we’d see Jeffrey Goldberg, who considers himself a part of the lonely liberal Zionist camp because he wrote that one op-ed criticizing settlements that time, rush to engage Beinart, however grudgingly, when a lot of his criticism mirrors what Stephen Walt has said (and with better documentation) in the past. But because he’s part of the tribe, and does the courtesy of avoiding the word “lobby,” he won’t get the same treatment as Walt, whom Goldberg describes with his usual class as a “grubby Jew-baiter” whose endorsement J-Street should have avoided more than that of Osama Bin Laden.
Finally, the one thing that this discussion of liberalism and Zionism is totally avoiding is the question of whether the two are even reconcilable in the first place. This brings up another piece, this time in Harper’s, on Yitzak Laor’s book, recently translated as The Myths of Liberal Zionism, which, comparatively speaking, went largely unnoticed in the blogosphere:
According to Laor, the singular Myth of Liberal Zionism is Liberal Zionism itself. Like the beasts Behemoth and Leviathan, a Zionis liberalis is inconceivable to Laor, because whereas his Liberal believes in openness and the policies of empathy, his Zionist—more than a century after Theodor Herzl recalled Palestine as the Judenstaat—believes that millions can be denied their patrimony, dispossessed, abused, and even murdered in the name of Jewish statehood.
As Laor writes in the preface to this essay collection, composed in Hebrew, then translated into French (published by La Fabrique éditions as Le nouveau philosémitisme européen et le “camp de la paix” en Israël), then from French into the following, with the rage intact:
History is always written by the mighty, by the victors. Even if we do not talk openly of bloodshed, of the price of our blood compared to “theirs” in the ongoing equation between sufferings, every discussion about Israel must bear in mind that over 10 million people live in this nation-state and the territories occupied by it. Half of them are Arabs, but almost 4 million of them live under military occupation, with virtually no law protecting them. Fifty percent of all the prisoners in Israeli prisons and detention centers—in other words, 10,000 people—are “security prisoners,” as Israel calls them, in other words Arabs from the occupied territories who are sitting in prison after being convicted by military courts, or detained without any trial at all. Close to 4 million people are currently living under the longest military occupation in modern times, stripped of the right to vote on the laws that have governed their lives for more than four decades.
This is the elephant in the room, as it were. Zionism is a form of particularist politics, based on a tribalist view of history that sees the goal as an ethno-religious nationalism in the form of a Jewish state: Israel. Liberalism, on the other hand, is a universalist conception of equality and freedom, a philosophy in which the rights of one person are equal to those of another, regardless of race, creed, language, sexuality, color, etc. So it’s difficult for me to understand how an exclusionary conception of nationalism, in this case a Jewish state, can fit into a liberalist vision of the state in which to be American or French, for example, is a purely political distinction divorced from tribal concerns of race or religion.
And there, as the bard says, is the rub. For in his discussion of his piece with Goldberg, Beinart makes this conflict between liberalism and Zionism explicit, although perhaps without meaning to do so:
I’m not asking Israel to be Utopian. I’m not asking it to allow Palestinians who were forced out (or fled) in 1948 to return to their homes. I’m not even asking it to allow full, equal citizenship to Arab Israelis, since that would require Israel no longer being a Jewish state. I’m actually pretty willing to compromise my liberalism for Israel’s security and for its status as a Jewish state.
In other words, he’s not asking it to be liberal at all, because in what other context would we even think of calling such a view liberal? If white Alabamians were to say the same thing about not giving blacks equal rights so as to maintain a white state, anyone who called such a view liberal would be roundly and rightly mocked. Why is it that Beinart can come out and say that the Palestinians in Yaffa and Haifa and the Negev desert (all citizens of Israel) should not be given equal rights and still call himself a liberal?
And this is the problem in a nutshell: the Zionist conception of citizenship is an illiberal one. It’s not a coincidence or a losing of the way that has led liberal American Jews away from Israel, it’s a fundamental incompatibility between Zionism and liberalism. And as Israel has become stronger and stronger, and its digressions more and more flagrant (from Lebanon in 1982 and 2006 to Gaza in 2008), this incompatibility has become more and more difficult to ignore, leaving Zionism to become more and more the territory of the distinctly illiberal ultra-Orthodox of the Meir Kahane variety, who don’t have this sort of cognitive dissonance.