The Committee for Open Discussion of Zionism, or CODZI, has been posting articles from its scholars, including Joel Kovel’s 2002 piece on Zionism’s bad conscience. Kovel says: “It was my first publicly anti-Zionist article and appeared in Tikkun. About 3 – 4 weeks after its publication my Alger Hiss Chair of Social Studies at Bard College was taken away. Go figure.” (H/t Terri Ginsberg) Two excerpts:
Let me begin with some blunt questions, the harshness of which matches the situation in Israel/Palestine. How have the Jews, immemorially associated with suffering and high moral purpose, become identified with a nation-state loathed around the world for its oppressiveness toward a subjugated indigenous people? Why have a substantial majority of Jews chosen to flout world opinion in order to rally about a state that essentially has turned its occupied lands into a huge concentration camp and driven its occupied peoples to such gruesome expedients as suicide bombing? Why does the Zionist community, in raging against terrorism, forget that three of its prime ministers within the last twenty years–Begin, Shamir and Sharon–are openly recognized to have been world-class terrorists and mass murderers? And why will these words just written and the words of other Jews critical of Israel be greeted with hatred and bitter denunciation by Zionists and called “self-hating” and “anti-Semitic”? Why do Zionists not see, or to be more exact, why do they see yet deny, the brutal reality that this state has wrought?…
In Israel, Jewish exceptionalism becomes the catalyst of a terrible splitting of the moral faculties, and, by extension, of the whole moral universe that polarizes Zionist thought. For God’s chosen people, with their hard-earned identity of high-mindedness, by definition cannot sink into racist violence. “It can’t be us,” says the Zionist, when in fact it is precisely Zionists who are doing these things. The inevitable result becomes a splitting of the psyche that drives responsibility for one’s acts out of the picture. Subjectively this means that the various faculties of conscience, desire, and agency dis-integrate and undergo separate paths of development. As a result, Zionism experiences no internal dialectic, no possibilities of correction, beneath its facade of exceptionalist virtue. The Covenant becomes a license giving the right to dominate instead of an obligation to moral development. Zionism therefore cannot grow; it can only repeat its crimes and degenerate further. Only a people that aspires to be so high can fall so low.
We may sum these effects as the presence of a “bad conscience” within Zionism. Here, badness refers to the effects of hatred, which is the primary affect that grows out of the splitting between the exalted standards of divine promise and the imperatives of tribalism and imperialism. A phenomenally thin skin and denial of responsibility are the inevitable results. The inability to regard Palestinians as full human beings with equivalent human rights pricks the conscience, but the pain is turned on its head and pours out as hatred against those who would remind of betrayal: the Palestinians themselves and those others, especially Jews, who would call attention to Zionism’s contradictions. Unable to tolerate criticism, the bad conscience immediately turns denial into projection. “It can’t be us,” becomes “it must be them,” and this only worsens racism, violence, and the severity of the double standard. Thus the “self-hating Jew” is a mirror-image of a Zionism that cannot recognize itself. It is the screen upon which bad conscience can be projected. It is a guilt that cannot be transcended to become conscientiousness or real atonement, and which returns as persecutory accusation and renewed aggression.
The bad conscience of Zionism cannot distinguish between authentic criticism and the mirrored delusions of anti-Semitism lying ready-made in the swamps of our civilization and awakened by the current crisis. Both are threats, though the progressive critique is more telling, as it contests the concrete reality of Israel and points toward self-transformation by differentiating Jewishness from Zionism; while anti-Semitism regards the Jew abstractly and in a demonic form, as “Jewish money” or “Jewish conspiracies,” and misses the real mark. Indeed, Zionism makes instrumental use of anti-Semitism, as a garbage pail into which all opposition can be thrown, and a germinator of fearfulness around which to rally Jews. This is not to discount the menace posed by anti-Semitism nor the need to struggle vigorously against it. But the greater need is to develop a genuinely critical perspective, and not be bullied into confusing critique of Israel with anti-Semitism. One cannot in conscience condemn anti-Semitism by rallying around Israel, when it is Israel that needs to be fundamentally changed if the world is to awaken from this nightmare.