The way for Americans to take on the Islamic state is to end support for Jewish nationalism

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At last night’s Democratic debate in Iowa, Bernie Sanders responded to the Paris horror saying that we have to rid the earth of ISIS, that there’s a war for the soul of Islam, and the Muslim nations have to get their hands dirty too.

These belligerent and self-righteous statements are concerning because once again American leaders, and American Jews, are pure innocence when it comes to the religious dimension of the Middle East conflict. The hypocrisy would be appalling were it not so functional: the biggest impediment to both the reform of Islam and peace in the Middle East that Americans have the ability to remove is our support for a militant Jewish ideology that few Arabs and Muslims have ever accepted.

This understanding dinned in on Americans after the last big shocker, 9/11. At that time some observers pointed out a simple truth: that Osama bin Laden and his radical little army were motivated by the occupation of Palestine as well as the U.S. presence in Saudi Arabia. But that idea was suppressed. They hate us because of our freedom, became the watchword, and the Bush administration’s foreign policy turned into a neoconservative war policy guided by the same ideologues who had lately advised the Israeli Prime Minister to end the peace process and move the Arabs over, from Palestine to Jordan, from Jordan to Iraq. The 9/11 Commission concluded that US policy in Palestine was part of the motivation for the attacks, but that analysis was whittled down to a few sentences– even as the head of the commission said that the Iraq war was launched to protect Israel. (And Condi Rice said the war would provide “strategic relief” to Israel and Colin Powell said it was dreamed up by the Zionist thinktank the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs).

Last night Sanders pointed out that that war, authored by Hillary Clinton and George Bush, among others, is what destroyed Iraq and led to the rise of ISIS. No doubt this is the case; but the analysis is insufficient till it includes the fact that the war was dreamed up and fomented by neoconservatives like Bill Kristol and Jeffrey Goldberg, whose chief concern is the stability of Israel. Americans have never had that discussion; but it is more urgent than ever now that Syria is no more and Europe is reaping the harvest. Yes, that political discussion took place in the shadows. But Walt and Mearsheimer were vilified as anti-semites for making the case that the Israel lobby was the crucial element in starting that war; and the left tiptoed away from the analysis. And this blog– for which the Iraq war was the core issue– began after my brother told me that he had demonstrated against the Vietnam War but his Jewish newspaper said this war might be good for Israel; and this blog got pushed out the door at the New York Observer, then the Nation Institute.

Bernie Sanders and I both opposed the Iraq war. Most American Jews opposed it. But Sanders’s assertion that there is a war for the soul of Islam is hollow, cheap and condescending so long as he and the mainstream Jewish community continue to suppress the war for the soul of Judaism. That war is happening all around us in the margins; but the west will not be able to rid the earth of ISIS and the radical Islamism that we are told is not Islam (believe me, I can’t wait for their demise) till we conduct a similar scathing inventory of Jewish political beliefs.

Sanders is of course not religious an atheist. But the biggest political event of his young life, maybe his entire life, his older brother says, was the news of the Holocaust when he was a boy. After college, Sanders went to Israel before he went to Vermont, and worked on a kibbutz; the same hegira undertaken by many other Jewish leftists, including Noam Chomsky and Tony Judt. Smart men, but there was surely a utopian belief on all their parts; many Jews believed in the establishment of the Jewish state as a redemptive act of history. “It is difficult to assess which of the two miracles was greater– the miracle of [Israeli] independence or the miracle of [international Jewish] unity,” the socialist atheist David Ben-Gurion wrote. Countless Jews refer to Israel as a miracle, from Jeffrey Goldberg to Ari Shavit, and Chaim Weizmann, Jeremy Ben-Ami, and Leonard Nimoy, too. Not to mention Barack Obama and Marco Rubio.

The leading American political theorist Michael Walzer says that the long and continuous Jewish political tradition that produced Israel is derived from the bible, the story of Exodus. He writes:

Its point of departure is always the Hebrew bible…. [Its] big issues [are] election or ‘chosenness’, the holiness of the Land of Israel, the experience of exile, and the hope for redemption….That tradition begins with God’s authority, with divine rule and divine revelations. Exactly how much room there is for human authority and decision making is always a question.

And you’re worried about Christian evangelists? But Walzer is a leading authority on Israel in allegedly secular publications like the New York Review of Books!

Michael Walzer
Michael Walzer

Golda Meir famously said that she was an atheist because she didn’t believe in God; but she did believe in the Jewish people. Ben-Gurion said that the “Sinai covenant” with God had produced the miracle of Israel’s birth. Thus Jewish nationalism (Zionism) was infused from the start with religious ideas. And the creation of Israel always had a religious character for many Jews: a faith so core that it gave life meaning, a faith so strong that it overruled reality. The former SDS leader Todd Gitlin says that Jews are a chosen people: they have “an unshakable attachment to the wild idea of divine election, which, however dampened, however sublimated, continues to ripple beneath the surface of everyday events.”

Till it doesn’t just ripple and goes, Ka-Boom! That’s the sound of suicide bombers in Paris and Baghdad, and the sound of Jewish terrorists blowing up the King David Hotel in Jerusalem to get rid of the British.

All those terrorists are religious nationalists who have some Michael-Walzer-like belief in God’s guidance of their ethnocentric designs. But our world is too small to look on chosenness as anything but a dangerous philosophy.

Count me out of this religious tradition. An anti-Zionist in the war for the soul of Judaism, I call on all American Jews to examine how much of their support or tolerance of a Jewish state has a religious character– in the vision of Jewish agency as a redemptive historical force and answer to the Holocaust and the Jewish question in Europe. Secular Jews who prize their freedom in the United States must come to grips with the ideas of Jewish superiority and uniqueness that have propelled Zionist landgrabs and Jim Crow across Palestine to this day. Secular Jews who celebrated the Egyptian peace treaty and Oslo accords must reckon with their celebration of deals in which 80 million Arabs were put on ice in Egypt by the west and another 6 million in Palestine just so the Jewish state could continue in peace. Neoconservatives must come to terms with their promotion of a war that would stabilize Israel by destroying the great Arab cities of Baghdad, Damascus and Aleppo so far, with hundreds of thousands of Muslim victims–whose national colors are not displayed in grief on the Empire State Building, the Freedom Tower, or the Sydney Opera House. Till we undertake that inventory, there won’t be peace in the Middle East, or the west either.

Yesterday James North and I wrote here that we’re not monocausal; even if there was justice in Palestine it would not end Islamist violence. I stand by that point. But the ultimate question is the one Bernie Sanders raised last night, What can we do to end the religious element of the conflicts in the Middle East? And the answer is that Jews must end their support for Zionism, which has turned out to be religious, fascistic and militant, and is fueling rage across the Middle East and further.

How long can Jews not have this conversation? Hannah Arendt wrote in 1944 that opposition to Zionism drew on great understandings: the “realization of the fatal, utopian hyperbole of the demand for a Jewish commonwealth and a rejection of the idea of making all Jewish politics in Palestine dependent on the protection of great powers.” The realization of the fatal, utopian part is still the Jewish struggle 70 years later: Arendt is pointedly excluded from Michael Walzer’s retinue of the “Jewish political tradition.” Because of the inward self-governing structure of the Jewish community, anyone who says that apartheid is apartheid is a heretic who must be excommunicated; but even if you conclude that it has all the elements of apartheid, as Peter Beinart told Rabbi Sharon Brous in a Los Angeles synagogue last week, well you must support it, you must not boycott it, you must describe it as a democracy. These are foolish claims that you can only maintain in a religious space, or one from which Palestinian Americans and anti-Zionist Jews are segregated, which is to say, every Jewish establishment space in the United States, from J Street to the 92d Street Y to AIPAC to Terry Gross’s radio show. And God bless Jewish Voice for Peace.

The other illusion Arendt tried to blow up, and Walt and Mearsheimer too, was that Israel was finished if it depended on great powers, rather than the acceptance of its neighbors. That dependence was one that the State Department deprecated from the start. If the U.S. helps to establish a Jewish state in Palestine, that state will be dependent on the U.S. and it will lead to endless unrest, State’s realists said. Secretary of State George Marshall threatened to vote against his president if he went through with the decision to recognize Israel; but the nascent Israel lobby was already delivering in the ’48 election, and its vote counted more.

While Harry Truman’s predecessor Franklin Roosevelt surely saw Paris coming when he said of two leading rabbis who came into the White House to urge a Jewish state in 1944:

To think of it, two men, two holy men, coming here to ask me to let millions of people be killed in a jihad.

It was an American problem then and it’s an American problem now. We have set aside our own secular values when it comes to the Middle East. We should stop lecturing Muslims about their backward ideas till we reckon with our own.

Thanks to Scott Roth, Donald Johnson and James North.

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Is it not more than just a bit of exaggeration – no matter how purportedly morally-intentioned – to suggest that attitudes to such a narrow agenda as “Jewish nationalism” can have a meaningful impact on what is essentially a historical-global agenda? One that mainly involves Europe and the Arab world… Read more »

Absolutely not. In fact it is willfully blind to even suggest otherwise. It is not the only significant factor, of course, and the right and wrongs are a further debate but it’s existence needs to be acknowledged.

brave courageous article phil. one of your best.

A clever tactic to try and deflect the blame, if a natural disaster happened tomorrow you would blame it on Zionism. Thankfully most people are sane enough to know that only Islamic terrorism is to blame for this tragedy. To suggest that any other entity is to blame is or… Read more »

Phil actually believes America wants to defeat the Islamic State, I’m not sure how to process this to be honest.