Tony Judt had barely left this world when the Jerusalem Post lashed out at him with a nasty editorial on August 8. Clearly, Judt has never been forgiven for writing in 2003 in the New York Review of Books that Israel lacked legitimacy because of its structural Jewishness and deserved to be replaced with a “a single, integrated, bi-national state.” Heresy is unforgivable; and to call for the downfall of the Jewish state is heretical, because the ostensibly secular state of Israel has to see itself as the guarantor of Jewish survival, spiritual and physical alike. Anytime a Jew with an audience, i.e., an intellectual, critically examines this relationship, the alarm bells go off. Another existential threat! So Tony Judt was a dangerous man when he was alive and will be so as long as the memory of his deed remains.
I am happy to say that I am in his good company. According to the Post, Judt’s “categorical rejection of Zionism put him in a class with other contemporary Jewish intellectuals of the Diaspora such as Jacqueline Rose, Michael Neumann and Joel Kovel, who have chosen to single out Israel for opprobrium that is rarely, if ever, directed at other countries that choose to adopt unique religious or cultural-based nationalities.” Accordingly, our views constitute “a recipe for national suicide for the sovereign Jewish entity.” In other words, we, too, pose existential threats to the Jewish state.
I feel obliged to reply, not to speak in Judt’s place, nor in the expectation that he would have agreed with what I am about to write. We never met nor were we political comrades, Tony being a self-declared social democrat and I, well, several degrees to the left of that. Nor have I met Jacqueline Rose and Michael Neumann. But categorical rejection of Zionism is a common ground I am pleased to share. So here is a brief account of what I take to be the reason for giving a lot of attention to Israel vis a vis the other awful countries, and why I want to bring down the Jewish state itself rather than settling for eliminating one or more of its human rights abuses.
The Jewish Question
The Post’s editorial person starts from the premise that people like Judt, Rose, Neumann and I are doing something that, as Jews, we should be ashamed of: singling out Israel and calling for the end of the Jewish state. (I’ll return below to the rather heated way this latter allegation is framed.) The assumption here is that Israel is for all the Jews and all the Jews should stand behind Israel, because it is self-evidently good to have an organic-national relation to Judaism.
I see things oppositely. I was born into a Jewish family and through this, share in a colorful history that has produced a lot of contributors to civilization, played an ambivalent yet fascinating role in the development of Western society, and suffered a good deal over the centuries for its “otherness.” All of this I keep in mind and have no disposition to deny. So I am a Jew. That’s nice, and that’s all it is. But as for the extension of this identity fragment, whose only common ground across history is a religion, into an organic nationalism which needs a state to set itself on the ground, this is another thing entirely. If you will forgive me a little Biblicism, it is an abomination and a desecration. I share this view with many fellow Jews, including the Neturai karta, whom I have joined at many a demonstration, and whose resoluteness and integrity I admire. I don’t care for their religion, however, or any variant of the Jewish faith. I think that Judaism got trapped in the first century CE by rejection of its prophet Jesus’s call to make the religion universal rather than tribal. As a result—a result made far worse by Christian persecution—the Jewish faith has never really been able to transcend an inward focus on the community of Jews, that is, the Jewish “People.” The jokingly offered and endlessly repeated query as to whether something is “good for the Jews” is, to my view, the sign of a profound and spiritually damaging ethnocentricity. Thus when the possibility opened up to make this People into a nation, a power-grabbing nation in league with imperialism and given a militarized state by its imperial patrons, many Jews fell into line (including most of my family), and especially insofar as they had been handed the all-purpose justifier provided by the history of anti-Semitism and its culmination in the monstrosity of the Shoah.
For me, however, Jewish nation-building proved a time to part ways—an extended time, I might add, and no epiphany. As the Jewish state has continued to tear its brutal path through the history of our time, and chiefly, through the lives of its indigenous victims, I simply see no other place to stand than in utter opposition to the endless chain of its crimes and lies—and with this, to the very construction of “Jewishness” that has enabled this and become canonical for so many, and in the United States especially, essential for the sustenance of the Israeli abomination. So to follow along with the above-mentioned identity construction, I am still a Jew and neither can nor wish to erase the fact, but no longer consider myself Jewish. Thus, following the great Isaac Deutscher, a “non-Jewish Jew.” I think a lot of Jews are these days wrestling with the same dilemma. Needless to add, there are other ways of addressing it besides mine. In any event, I wish them good cheer: life is a lot better once that dreary burden is laid down.
So to the editorial person of the Jerusalem Post, I would say, paraphrasing a certain President: Ask not what Israel can do for the Jews, because all answers to this question have become corrupted by the militarized and racist state Israel has become. Ask rather what Jews can do to earn forgiveness for the wrong turn taken in their history and for all the suffering their precious state has imposed. And lay off criticizing Jews who are stepping forth to “single out Israel.” There are going to be lots more of them. Remember, each person only has one identity and has to live with it.
But there is much more . . .
Though every theocracy and/or ethnocracy is appalling and should be opposed by all folk of good will, the peculiar case of Israel has a far wider radiation and so deserves “singling out,” as the Post puts it, irrespective of the religious/ethnic issue. This has to do, of course, with the nightmarish relation between Israel and the United States, and the shadow it casts over the present world. By the time I first became aware, during the Vietnam era, of US imperialism as a malignant force, Zionists had been insinuating themselves into the American political process for twenty years, since Harry Truman’s political orphanhood gave them the opening. But there was nothing “special” about this, except that the Jewish state depended for its existence upon its great benefactor. It took a while for the creature spawned by this embrace to mature, chiefly through the growth of AIPAC and the entry of ultra-Zionist neoconservatives into state and civil society. With this, however, it must also be said that the beast had mutated; hence one can no longer talk about the United States and Israel as separate political entities. Now we have a second Zionist occupation, of our civil society and state alongside the occupation of Palestine, and necessary for the occupation of Palestine to continue. For reasons of space we need to set aside the intricate matter of who wags whom, or the astounding degree to which the normalization of Zionism has blunted outrage, even among leftists of great repute. Consider only some of the fruits of this creature:
• the degree to which US foreign policy is configured to give Israel its impunity, one small instance being Obama’s recent threat to Turkey that he would cut off military contracts unless it lays off Israel for the Mavi Marmara incident; meanwhile the US reinforces Israeli military superiority with the latest in free ultra technology for its F-16 fighter fleet;
• the shameless debasement of our Congress, with hundreds of elected officials doing the bidding of a foreign power, again to whitewash the Mavi Marmara murders, thereby granting impunity once again;
• the plague of Islamophobia now raging, inflamed by fury over the “Ground-zero Mosque,” and more generally, over the terrors stirred up by 9-11. But who pauses to reflect upon that awful day and the fact that it provided the one incontrovertible instance of highly suspicious involvement by a foreign state in the havoc, namely, the most odd finding of five “moving men,” who turned out to be Mossad agents filming from New Jersey the collapse of the towers while jubilantly giving each other high fives, who were released back to their home country after 71 quiet days in FBI custody, and whose “employer” moved very hastily back to Israel, after stripping his office of all evidence? How did they know to be there, cameras primed, at that time? Why were they so happy? No point in asking. The propaganda machine has constructed mass consciousness so as to obscure any thinking about the matter, which no longer exists so far as official political culture goes. Such questions are highly impertinent. After all, one does not want to “single” Israel out. That would be anti-Semitic, wouldn’t it? This Reichstag Fire leads in another direction, that of the Islamic Threat.
• and then, mere war, as in Iraq, and Afghanistan, and now the latest looming danger, the Persian menace. That this mainly exists in the mind of the Zionist Power Structure, here and in Israel, is anything but reassuring, given the authority of that mind. Suppose, then, that the exquisitely positioned pundits and opinion-makers get their wish of precipitating us into a bombing war with Iran, Israel’s #1 existential threat, and Iran bombs back. This could be a new Board Game: there goes the global economy; and there looms, as ever, our friend and ally’s “Samson Option” using its nuclear arsenal that nobody is to know about, but that has, in the meantime, totally wrecked any efforts to bring nuclear proliferation under control thanks to universal knowledge of the bad faith of the United States for its complicity over the years under the influence of a certain “lobby” . . .
In sum, if you care about the baleful influence of the United States in the world you cannot set Israel aside as an isolated issue. This is the precise opposite of “singling Israel out.” It is, rather, a demand to integrate Israel within the manifold of imperial/economic/military power, and taking the steps necessary to bring this power under rational control.
Signing off to the editor of the Post, who is unquestionably unimpressed with these arguments.
What are trivialities like ethnocide, racism and war weighed against the sovereignty of the Jews? For Jews were once merely a “People,” but now, having achieved the greatness of nation-statehood, have become, hurrah!, a “sovereign Jewish entity,” doubtlessly pleasing Yahweh no end. And it is this triumph that Tony Judt and people like myself would spoil with our “recipe for national suicide.”
I’ve got to hand it to the Jerusalem Post for forcing me out of my self-imposed exile from psychoanalysis (well, it is the Jewish Profession) with this frankly hysterical statement, which is bundled, typically, with a manipulative, guilt-tripping threat: if you people don’t stop doing that, we’re going to kill ourselves! Freud pointed out that every delusion contains the germ of a historical fact. In this instance it is the legendary event of 73 CE, when the Sicarii, a Jewish sect active in the wake of the Roman destruction of the Second Temple, hurled themselves from the cliffs of Masada mountain to avoid capture by the Legion. An archeological museum now occupies the site, which has become deeply inscribed as a symbol of Zionist resolve and desperation.
I hope the Israelis don’t follow this example. Maybe they should keep in mind that the Sicarii were more extreme than even the Zealots, and by some accounts were common bandits, as much opposed to other Jews as they were to Rome. Nonetheless, the imminence of mass catastrophe, however induced, remains active in the Zionist imaginary, where it is stoked by propagandists of the Shoah, so that 1938 is made to eternally return.
There is another, much more deeply rational approach to history, which is to understand it in depth, encounter it, learn its lesson, actively transform it, and, by so doing, let it go. For Israel—and Jews everywhere, and indeed, everyone affected by the conquest of Palestine—the lesson is not really that complicated. It is to face the truth that the Zionist epoch has been a dreadful mistake, for the Jews as well as Zionism’s victims, and that they will have to do what grown-up people do who realize they have been wrong, if they want to have a decent life and rejoin the human race.
Namely, undergo a change of mind and heart. Is that too much to ask?