Posted by: sean | May 22, 2010

More on Zionism and liberalism

In response to my post about Zionism and liberalism, David in the comments replied that “citizenship everywhere is bounded by illiberalism,” while Spencer had this to say:

Sean’s second point is that liberalism and Zionism are incompatible. I don’t really know how to respond to that except at length, so I’ll respond to it at length later, but to be utterly simplistic, that’s only true insofar as all nationalisms are illiberal and Zionism historically has done a better job at incorporating liberalism than most nationalisms, even when you factor in the bellicosity that emerges when a culture is under constant outside danger.

In light of the same idea coming from two people whose opinions I respect and whose liberalism I don’t doubt, I think it’s necessary to flesh out a little more my contention that Zionism cannot, by definition, be liberal.

The main point that both David and Spencer make is that it is not only Zionism, or Jewish nationalism, that is illiberal, but rather nationalism in and of itself. I think that there is a lot of truth in this, especially given that much modern nationalism is rooted in 19th century European nationalism, which was decidedly illiberal in the way we define liberalism today. What I take issue with, though, is the assumption that all nationalisms are equal, and equally illiberal.

It’s important to note here that I’m not interested in attacking the veracity of Zionist myths or the idea of Jewry as a nation, as opposed to a religion or an ethnicity. (For those who are interested in that question, though Shlomo Sand’s new book sounds fascinating, and the recent research of Nadia Abu El Haj is particularly interesting. There is also, Ernest Renan’s conference on “Judaism as race and as religion,” in which he discusses Judaism’s historical movement from a local, national religion to a proselytizing universal one to a closed but no longer local religion whose adherents were of many races.) That debate, isn’t an important one to me here, because national myths are ubiquitous and, well, mythological, and I’m inclined to believe that all nationalisms are socially constructed, or “imagined communities,” as Benedict Anderson calls them.

What is important to me, however, is analyzing the premise that there can be such a thing as liberal Zionism. Often the argument begins with the implementation of Zionism, which includes the war of 1948 and the dispossession of hundreds of thousands of Arabs, what the Palestinians call the Nakba, or catastrophe. While this is certainly important in terms of the legitimacy of a Jewish state in mandate Palestine, it doesn’t tell us much about the political philosophy of Zionism in and of itself. And for that matter, Zionism would not be the first nationalism to be implemented through ethnic cleansing and dispossession of an enemy Other. (Australian aborigines and the Choctaw on the Trail of Tears come immediately to mind.)

So let’s get to the root of the issue at hand. Nationalism, and even the political if we’re to believe Schmitt, implies an in-group and out-group; citizen and non-citizen; us and them. There is no way to avoid this, and I’m sympathetic to the idea that nationalism is inherently illiberal by the very act of creating this distinction. The hitch is that Western 21st century nationalism has come a long way from its 19th century origins. Today, American and French nationalism, despite the wishes of certain teabaggers and Jean-Marie Le Pen, are fundamentally political categories that no longer have an ethnic component. In the United States, the president is the grandson of a Muslim Kenyan goat herder; Miss America is a Shi’a Arab who immigrated as a child from Lebanon; and the Supreme Court will soon be a third Jewish. America has made a lot of progress concerning religious and ethnic minorities.  This is not to say that the US is post-racial – it’s clearly not – but it does seem to be on the right track. Likewise, while France is behind the US in terms of racial integration, the state is officially secular and color blind. Much to the chagrin of neoconservative doomsayers stateside, Amadou and Amina are just as French as Jean-Luc and Julie.

Again, I stress that this does not mean that racism and discrimination have ceased to exist in these countries. They absolutely haven’t: people still talk about “real Americans” and “les français de souche,” but the point is that as far as the law of the land is concerned, the philosophy of the state, these are categories that have no meaning.

Israel, on the other hand, is explicitly a state for one category of its citizens: Jews. In both theory and practice, the Jewish state accords certain rights and privileges to Jews that it does not to non-Jews. This is seen most dramatically in the right of return, which states that anyone who has one Jewish grandparent (ironically the same criteria used in the Nuremberg laws) is automatically eligible for Israeli citizenship. Conversion is a little more complicated, but generally speaking, converts to Judaism are also accorded the right of “return.” On the flip side, a Palestinian citizen of Israel from Haifa or Jaffa, not only cannot give Israeli citizenship to his or her spouse in Ramallah or Bethlehem, but the latter cannot even enter Israel so they can live together.

In contrast, I cannot convert to American or French. And as an American or a Frenchman, no matter your race or creed, you have the same rights (at least in theory) as a citizen. The same cannot be said about Israel. Many of the inequalities (in education, for example) are not unique to Israel. If we look at education rates of young Arabs in France or Hispanics and Blacks in the US, we’ll find similar inequalities in situation and even opportunity. Likewise, for infrastructure. But citizenship, which is really the crux of a state, is the most glaring inequality. The state automatically gives citizenship to non-Israeli Jews but refuses to do so for non-Israeli Arabs. Military service is also sectarian, which wouldn’t be such a big deal if employment weren’t tied so tightly to military service in Israel. Jews are obliged to perform military service, whereas non-Jews (with the exception of the Druze, Circassians and some Bedouins) are discouraged from service.  Finally, Israel is defined as a state for all Jews, so one might imagine how frustrating it would feel to be a Palestinian from Nazareth who knows that Israel belongs more to a Polish Jew in Brooklyn who’s never left the state of New York than it does to you. (For more on Israeli Arabs, I highly recommend David Grossman’s touching book, Sleeping on a Wire.)

The long and the short of it is that a liberal democracy is a democracy for all of its citizens equally. It does not accord privileges or rights based on race or religion. Israel is not that kind of a democracy. Instead it is explicitly an ethno-religious democracy, which is a direct consequence of the logic of Zionism, the logic of a Jewish state, as opposed to that of a state of its citizens.

So while it’s true that Jewish nationalism has mirrored 19th century European nationalism. The difference is that most of the Western countries built on that logic have moved on to evolve into multi-cultural liberal democracies. And the horrors of the first half of the 20th century should be enough to show us why that has been so necessary. What’s frustrating is that when it comes to Israel, self-labeled liberal Zionists, especially in the United States, still aim for the roots of European nationalism instead of the more liberal multi-culturalism that it has given a painful birth to. Tony Judt put it best, when he wrote:

[T]he founders of the Jewish state had been influenced by the same concepts and categories as their fin-de-siècle contemporaries back in Warsaw, or Odessa, or Bucharest; not surprisingly, Israel’s ethno-religious self-definition, and its discrimination against internal “foreigners,” has always had more in common with, say, the practices of post-Habsburg Romania than either party might care to acknowledge.

The problem with Israel, in short, is not—as is sometimes suggested—that it is a European “enclave” in the Arab world; but rather that it arrived too late. It has imported a characteristically late-nineteenth-century separatist project into a world that has moved on, a world of individual rights, open frontiers, and international law. The very idea of a “Jewish state”—a state in which Jews and the Jewish religion have exclusive privileges from which non-Jewish citizens are forever excluded—is rooted in another time and place. Israel, in short, is an anachronism.

Spencer, for example, makes excuses for this anachronism by describing Israel’s faults as “the bellicosity that emerges when a culture is under constant outside danger.” As someone who reads Attackerman pretty much every day, I can safely say that these are not the same standards to which he holds American democracy. When Washington tries to use “outside danger” to justify torture, indefinite detention, illegal rendition or homophobia, Spencer, as a thoughtful and devoted liberal, consistently calls bullshit. And to his credit, he also does so when it comes to the more egregious illiberalism of Likud hawks and their American allies. But where he falls short, I’m afraid, is questioning the fundamental illiberalism of the tenets of Zionism – tenets he would never support in an American context.

In conclusion, I’d like to do an imperfect thought experiment. The US is roughly 79% Christian (in comparison to Israel, which is roughly 79% Jewish), so would Spencer or other liberal Zionists support the institutionalization of the United States as a Christian State, one in which Christians were granted privileges in attaining citizenship, buying land, etc. over non-Christians?

Neither would I.

Now one can say that the analogy doesn’t work because of Judaism’s unique history of persecution, and in particular, the Shoah. But that line of reasoning directly contradicts the idea that Jewish nationalism is just like any other nationalism and leaves us to ask the question: should we hold Israel to different standards than other countries that claim to be liberal democracies? And if so, doesn’t that directly contradict the underpinnings of universal liberalism and lead us to a cultural relativism in which liberals can no longer decry the lack of women’s rights in Afghanistan or human rights in Zimbabwe? As liberals, we cannot have it both ways. And that, in a nutshell, is why I am for a one-state solution with equal rights for Jews and Arabs, Jews, Muslims, Christians and secularists.



  1. Thank you for this superbly argued post. This hits the nail on the head.

  2. Execllent post :)

  3. Thanks, guys!

  4. There are several fine lines of reasoning in this article. I too am for a one-state solution, with Jerusalem as its capital, with all the citizens living in peaceful harmony.
    But a glaring omission: The PLO Charter still calls for the total destruction of the State of Israel. (Yes, the Oslo accords – or some other accords, I cannot remember the details now) do record that this will be changed, but it was never done. Conventional wisdom has it that Yasser Arafat knew that he (and any other Arab leader) would go the way of the late brave Anwar Sadat of Egypt(or Yitzhak Rabin of Israel, for that matter) if he dared make peace with Israel.
    I also find it somewhat naive to make the 79% comparisson between the Christian USA and Jewish Israel. There is only one Jewish state in the world, but countless Christian states and entities.
    And finally, although Sean does rightly mention the background of violence that is Israel’s daily problem, I feel he underestimates the effect that that has on ‘illiberalism’ and its roots. The relentless threats of violence and war against Israel, the relentless attempts to delegitamize Israel in every international arena, and the relentless anti-Semitism posing as efforts at human rights do not make the situation any easier.

  5. You write: “Now one can say that the analogy doesn’t work because of Judaism’s unique history of persecution, and in particular, the Shoah.”

    Well, the analogy doesn’t work because Israel is not the United States (or Canada or France, for example), and the Middle East is not North America or Western Europe.

    Israel is not perfect, but in its region, it’s by far the most “liberal” state – and that includes the fact that many right-wing Israelis are religious nuts.

    It’s sitting in a region filled with totalitarians, authoritarians, monarchies and rampant with religious nutjobs.

    Sure, it’s not Holland. But neither is it Saudi Arabia (or Syria, Egypt, Jordan, [insert name of Gulf Monarchy here]).

    So a 60 year old country in the middle east doesn’t have the same exact democratic model of a 235 year old country with a 79% christian/mostly white majority in North America.

    I guess we should dismantle it and watch it become as messed up – if not more – than Lebanon and Iraq.

    Great plan.

  6. “nationalisms are socially constructed”
    Everything humans create is socially constructed. There is no point here.

    Trying to judge Israel by US standards is absurd. They are different countries with different foundations, different goals, different roles. Intended for different people.

    “…a one-state solution with equal rights for Jews and Arabs…”
    Is completely impossible. It doesn’t matter how much you or I might wish it. It doesn’t matter how liberal the socialist-atheist kibbutzniks are. The Muslim religion and Arab culture absolutely positively forbid this. The concept of equality before the law is forbidden by Sharia.

    Jew hatred is a strong theme in Arabic culture. The Mufti of Jerusalem became a Nazi because of Jew hatred, not the other way around. He was hardly typical. But he fit right in and was accepted by the Arab masses.

    In order to have a multi-cultural society, the various sections have to have some core beliefs in common. Between the Jews and the Arabs, that does not exist.

    Arabs live in Jerusalem, work in all parts of Jerusalem, ride the city buses, guide themselves around with street signs in Hebrew and Arabic all around the country. No such multi-cultural tendencies exist in the Arab areas.

    A bi-national state would put the Jews in a position lower than that of the Copts in Egypt. Look it up.

    Israel may never be liberal by your lights. So what?

  7. I’m curious about how this analysis cross-applies to other situations. Take a historically Black college like Howard University, for example. It seems to be “illiberal” in the sense that you allege even the most liberal Zionism would have to be “illiberal” — that is, even though it admits students of all races and treats them “equally” in some sense, it clearly conceptualizes itself as a Black school with a Black identity and holding a mission that is irreducibly connected to advancing the Black community in the United States.

    So my question is twofold: First, is Howard University “illiberal”? (I think we can bracket the fact that it is a private institution — liberal societies can still have illiberal private institutions, but that doesn’t make them not “illiberal” — but if you’re hung up on that we can replace Howard with the African-American Academies that some public school districts, such as Seattle’s, run, that are roughly analogous).

    And second, if it is “illiberal”, why should I care, if I think that nonetheless the existence of Howard is a net benefit to racial egalitarianism in American society and experientially has proven itself to serve an important role in remedying anti-Black subordination? If “liberalism” can’t account for that, isn’t that more a strike against theoretical liberalism than it is a strike against the idea of HBCUs (just as Matt Yglesias is arguing that if “libertarianism” can’t account for the 1964 Civil Rights Act, that doesn’t show us much more than that libertarianism is fundamentally flawed)?

  8. “nationalisms are socially constructed”
    Everything humans create is socially constructed. There is no point here.

    Thanks for summarizing Benedict Anderson and providing a poignant critique of his work. That’s why every book in the social sciences seems to cite Benedict Anderson and why nobody can discuss nationalism without him, right?

  9. I think you make some very interesting points about how Zionism is both similar to and distinct from other forms of nationalism. However, I think you might be leaving some important questions out of your focus. For example, you ask:

    “But that line of reasoning directly contradicts the idea that Jewish nationalism is just like any other nationalism and leaves us to ask the question: should we hold Israel to different standards than other countries that claim to be liberal democracies?”

    I’m not sure why it is that the claim of being a liberal democracy is what determines the standards to which a country should be held. I agree that it is important to be precise when defining what is a liberal democracy and what is not, but if Israel should not be held to a lower standard than, say, Germany, should it not also be held to a higher standard than Egypt?

    I am not trying to say that any discussion of Israel must include a mention of how it’s not as bad as its neighbors in some ways. Rather, I think the discussion shouldn’t simply focus on who is in or out of the “liberal democracy” club and instead should consider the possibility that there are many forms of governance — many of which fall outside of the liberal democracy standard — that can and should be evaluated on their merits, rather than on whether their self-identification is accurate. As David noted – would you call Howard University illiberal? If so, what does that mean? What about Native American reservations? The fact that they are not “liberal” does not make them illegitimate, does it?

  10. It’s all been allowed by guilt over the Holocaust and other anti-semitic acts over the centuries. That seems easy enough to explain why non-Jews simply cannot criticize Israel except in the gentlest terms without an avalanche of “Anti-Semite!” descending on their head. Hell, on NPR you had a guy on worrying that Matt Taibbi’s piece of Goldman and the “Vampire Squid” line could be taken as anti-semitic.

    It’s ridiculous.

  11. Very pleased to find your voice. One-state is the way to go. The only way that is sustainable.

  12. I think it is right, as Tony Judt does, to characterize the whole Zionist project as a somewhat tragic anachronism. But I’d say ultimately the problem is not Israel’s failure as an il/liberal national construct, but its almost complete success as a political entity. Militarily and politically, Israel has basically won. Even in the case of a two-state settlement, the Palestinian territory will be but a sliver of the 1947 UN partition plan, and the descendants of those who fled Jaffa and the Galilee won’t be able to claim their property or their land. Not a chance. Why? Precisely because Israeli democracy is illiberal and perfectly happy with that state of things. It’s a bit like Russia – look at how the Russians deal with their minorities. The thing is the Russian government does not care whether it’s called liberal or illiberal by the New Left Review or the NYRB or whatever. Israel, not being Russia, does care about PR and political philosophy. But only to a certain point.

  13. “Much to the chagrin of neoconservative doomsayers stateside, Amadou and Amina are just as French as Jean-Luc and Julie.”

    Well, Jean-Luc and Julie get to live in Paris and Amadou and Amina may very well live in an ugly ghetto outside Paris that was designed to house them and their families when they weren’t busy cleaning the toilets of Jean-Luc and Julie.

    I’m not trying to be snide, but please. This whole post is just silly. This bits about assimilation in France and comparison to American assimilation were risible.

    No, you cannot “convert” to be American, but my immigrant father is now considered an American. This wouldn’t be the case in France. Let me know, too, how quickly Saudi Arabia, Iran or even Egypt accepts someone of an immigrant different race (or a Jew) or their child or grandchild as a true member of their community and nation.

    And, of course, you ignore the hundreds of thousands of Jews who fled other countries in the Mideast and now reside in tiny Israel.

    You might also want to look into Pakistan and India too. Then return to looking at some other countries near Israel.

    I’m not an Israeli apologist (far from it), but this is really a facile at best (supercilious and specious at worst) post.

  14. I honestly hope one day a one state solution is feasible but for now it’s a suggestion that I’m afraid is hopelessly disconnected from reality. A one state solution right now would just be an exercise in achieving one liberal principle (21st national nationalism) and sacrificing some other liberal principles (use your imagination). Maybe if you proposed some suggestions for how to realistically reach a viable (and liberal) one state solution this post might hold more weight.

  15. David,

    Non-white students in the United States have a variety of Colleges they can attend. Palestinian citizens of Israel have only one national body that rules over them. And they have very little say in how it governs them.

    Liberal societies aren’t measured by the existence of private organizations which can discriminate up to a point. But they are measured by how they treat their citizens, how they define citizenship and how public institutions relate to citizens.

  16. Sean observes, “In both theory and practice, the Jewish state accords certain rights and privileges to Jews that it does not to non-Jews. This is seen most dramatically in the right of return, which states that anyone who has one Jewish grandparent (ironically the same criteria used in the Nuremberg laws) is automatically eligible for Israeli citizenship.”

    I don’t mean to be excessively snarky, but I think the only thing ironic here is your failure to notice that the relationship between the standards defining Jewish identity for the purposes of the right of return and the standards for defining a Jew established by the Nuremberg laws is neither ironic nor accidental.

  17. “Facile at best, supercilious and specious at worst”??? Hardly. Both this and the previous post are commendable, Sean.

    What some of the critics above have trouble differentiating between unofficial cultural discrimination, and extensive state-sponsored discrimination against certain minorities within one’s own borders.

    I refer skeptics to the recent movements to “rescue” newly Israeli Jewish women from Arab men. See here:

  18. Eric: I quite agree that liberal societies can tolerate illiberal private institutions — in fact, I say as much in the comment. Not coincidentally, then, that observation has absolutely nothing to do with the question I asked.

  19. […] old post that I wrote last year has been slightly edited and put up over at +972, which is a great Israeli blog that you should be […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: