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‘Zionism’s bad conscience’ (Kovel’s first anti-Zionist piece, in 2002)

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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.

Joel Kovel

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13 Responses

  1. Stephen Shenfield on April 30, 2013, 1:30 pm

    Good stuff. My only proviso is that Kovel is talking not about Zionists in general but about “liberal Zionists.” As Israel continues to drift toward fascism, the effort to manage the contradiction inherent in the stance of the “liberal Zionist” becomes more and more difficult, pulling him or her deeper into insanity. That is why this reads like a psychiatric text about the split personality and its delusions and projections. Consistent Zionists, by contrast, need not worry for their sanity. Their conscience is a tribalist conscience and they follow its dictates.

    • Keith on April 30, 2013, 5:28 pm

      STEPHEN SHENFIELD- “My only proviso is that Kovel is talking not about Zionists in general but about “liberal Zionists.”

      Yes, indeed. In his book “Overcoming Zionism,” Kovel recounts a letter he received from a right-wing Rabbi who wrote that “you are correct that this incompatibility causes a bad conscience in otherwise liberal Jews. However, I am not a Liberal Jew, and I have no guilt feelings in this regard.” (p178)

  2. American on April 30, 2013, 2:05 pm

    Always like Kovel’s insights and writing.

    But you know I think in all these questions/angst about ‘how could the Jews”…as in…

    ‘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? ”

    One question might help them answer all their questions: …….. ‘Are you sure Jews were immemorially associated with/imbuded with high moral purpose?….or can it be that is just what you tell yourselves and promoted to others?
    Maybe you always were and are no different than any others?

    That’s my bet and what I see as the epic ‘fail” in Jewish thought….they won’t ask that question. If they did it would answer the question of why some Jews are involved in zionism. But then they would lose something—their illusion that Jews are morally exceptional or different—-they would be like everyone else.

    • RoHa on April 30, 2013, 6:55 pm

      “the Jews, immemorially associated with suffering and high moral purpose,”

      I’m with American, here. Who has associated the Jews with suffering and high moral purpose, when, and where?

      Roman Empire? Mediaeval Europe? Abbasid caliphate? Renaissance Europe? Tokugawa Shogunate? Majapahit Empire?

      And if there were such a strong, immemorial, association, whence the alleged universal, perpetual, anti-Semitism? Why so much supposed hate for people who are supposedly thought of as people with high moral purpose?

    • gingershot on April 30, 2013, 9:49 pm

      “One question might help them answer all their questions: …….. ‘Are you sure Jews were immemorially associated with/imbuded with high moral purpose?….or can it be that is just what you tell yourselves and promoted to others?
      Maybe you always were and are no different than any others?”

      That’s exactly right, American, well said. That’s just what struck me as well. Just about all the rest of what Kovel says here appears right on but that fantasy about Zionism/Judaism is really way over the top self-delusional and an important part of the denial and problem.

  3. yourstruly on April 30, 2013, 2:06 pm

    “it can’t be us” – this applies both to the zionist’s denial of any responsibility for israel’s being considered the world’s most dangerous nation and george w. bush’s denial of u.s. aggression against arab/islamic nations as the reason* “they hate us.”
    meanwhile, it’s the intransigence of these two out of control aggressor nations that is a threat to all living beings.

    *besides ranking number two on the most dangerous nation list

  4. Citizen on April 30, 2013, 2:39 pm

    So what does this conclusion mean: “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.”

    That Israel is based on, energized by, an ideology (Zionism) that hates the eternal goy as much as the ideology of Anti-Semitism hates the eternal jew? If not, what?

    • Fritz on April 30, 2013, 5:30 pm

      Important parts of the article “Bad conscience” sound strange to me. I don’t think that it is a good idea to call Begin, Shamir and Sharon as “mass murderers”, and I also don’t agree with an argumentation against Zionism which uses tropes from philosophical deterministic and essentialistic discourse such as “cannot”, “can only repeat”, “degenerate”, “only … can”.

      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.

      That’s not the style of an open discussion, that’s defamation. I agree that rightwing and liberal Zionist also uses such demonistic and deterministic terminology. I found on Mondoweiss so many sophisticated and human thinking authors and pieces, but the article 2002 is not one of them and I’m wondering why it was published today.

      • Shingo on May 4, 2013, 6:30 am

        I don’t think that it is a good idea to call Begin, Shamir and Sharon as “mass murderers”

        Too bad, they are, so why not state the obvious? They murdered a large number of people, hence they are mass murderers.

        I also don’t agree with an argumentation against Zionism which uses tropes from philosophical deterministic and essentialistic discourse such as “cannot”, “can only repeat”, “degenerate”, “only … can”.

        Again too bad, they are not tropes, they are accurate descriptions of Zionism.

        There is no question that Zionism is degenerating and you are conflating defamation with what you might find offensive.

        If anything, the article doesn’t go far enough.

  5. Shingo on April 30, 2013, 7:39 pm

    While some of the criticisms above are valid, this is a brilliant piece.

  6. rensanceman on April 30, 2013, 7:59 pm

    He makes a good point that Zionist ferociously reject all challenges to their mantra narrative which does not allow a course correction to their self-destructive behavior and thought. (My attempts to have a dialogue with a true-blue Zionist have resulted in head-shaking despair). If they would read about the true history of the establishment of “their” country (I.e. the Nakba) by Jewish historians, it could prove too shocking to their sensibilities and would offer an insurmountable obstacle in reconciling Jewish values with its behavior.

  7. Ecru on May 1, 2013, 5:31 am

    “How have the Jews, immemorially associated with suffering and high moral purpose…”

    OK I get the association with suffering but PLEASE somebody tell me where Jews have been particularly associated with “high moral purpose?” Maybe Jews think that of themselves, I’m sure every people likes to think they’re more moral than others, but honestly I just don’t see the justification. Anywhere.

  8. DICKERSON3870 on May 1, 2013, 3:15 pm

    RE: “Why do Zionists not see, or to be more exact, why do they see yet deny, the brutal reality that this state has wrought?” ~ Joel Kovel

    MY CONTRIBUTION: George Orwell — in his 1945 “Notes on Nationalism” — explained exactly the warped form of thinking that creates this mindset:

    [EXCERPTS] . . . All nationalists have the power of not seeing resemblances between similar sets of facts. A British Tory will defend self-determination in Europe and oppose it in India with no feeling of inconsistency. Actions are held to be good or bad, not on their own merits, but according to who does them, and there is almost no kind of outrage — torture, the use of hostages, forced labour, mass deportations, imprisonment without trial, forgery, assassination, the bombing of civilians — which does not change its moral colour when it is committed by ‘our’ side. . .
    . . . The nationalist not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, but he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them. For quite six years the English admirers of Hitler contrived not to learn of the existence of Dachau and Buchenwald. And those who are loudest in denouncing the German concentration camps are often quite unaware, or only very dimly aware, that there are also concentration camps in Russia. Huge events like the Ukraine famine of 1933, involving the deaths of millions of people, have actually escaped the attention of the majority of English russophiles. Many English people have heard almost nothing about the extermination of German and Polish Jews during the present war. Their own antisemitism has caused this vast crime to bounce off their consciousness. In nationalist thought there are facts which are both true and untrue, known and unknown. A known fact may be so unbearable that it is habitually pushed aside and not allowed to enter into logical processes, or on the other hand it may enter into every calculation and yet never be admitted as a fact, even in one’s own mind. . .

    SOURCE: “Notes on Nationalism”, by George Orwell – http://orwell.ru/library/essays/nationalism/english/e_nat

    P.S. “The very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world. Lies will pass into history.” ~ George Orwell (Eric Arthur Blair, 1903-1950)

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