James Baldwin and the Jewish State

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For James Baldwin, nothing started or stopped at the borders of the United States.  His comments about Black-Jewish tension in the country of his birth took on worldly dimensions, offering unusual insight into domestic race relations, international affairs, and conflict in the Middle East.

Baldwin wasn’t a policy wonk, but, befitting a person of his stature, he commented regularly on contemporary issues of global import.  Public figures don’t normally escape questions about Palestine and Israel; Baldwin was no exception.  The few times he spoke about the region reveal a thinker of significant prescience and a skilled rhetorician who doesn’t allow audiences the luxury of comfort.

His most notable assessment of Zionism and Israel arose in context of a 1984 controversy surrounding then-Democratic presidential candidate Jesse Jackson, whose campaign represented a milestone in Black and progressive politics.  Jackson used the epithet “Hymietown” to describe New York City in what he thought was an off-the-record conversation with a journalist.  (“Hymie” is an anti-Jewish slur.)  When the comment was reported, it erupted into scandal.

Baldwin, who claimed that “Jesse is singled out for particular reasons,” discussed the controversy at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, featured in The Cross of Redemption, an anthology of uncollected talks, essays, and reviews (Baldwin was a stringent, at times unforgiving, reviewer).  Because the Q&A is transcribed, we get to witness Baldwin speaking extemporaneously.

It is a remarkable document, in part because the audience doesn’t seem to get what Baldwin is saying.  Rather than dispensing platitudes about conflict and peace, he identifies Zionism as a concern of Western imperialism:

Whenever Israel is mentioned one is required, it appears sometimes to me, to maintain a kind of pious silence.  Well, why?  It is a state like other states.  It has come into existence in a peculiar way.  But it does not, does not, become a state because people who wrote the Balfour Declaration, or Winston Churchill, or for that matter anyone in Europe, or in the Western world, really cared what happened to the Jews.  I wish I could say differently, but I would be lying if I did—it came into existence as a means of protecting Western interests at the gate of the Middle East.

Baldwin reinforces this point when somebody from the audience questions the validity of implying that Israel “was set up to protect oil interests in that area.”  Baldwin responds:  “I said to protect the vital interests of the Western world, and I don’t mean to be sardonic or cynical, but I would be lying to you and lying by my own experience if I said to you that the Europeans—the English, the Dutch, the Germans, the French—impressed me as having any vivid concern for Jews.”  He returns to the theme of Jewish people being either disposable or instrumentalized in traditions of Western capitalism.

For Baldwin, Zionism isn’t an atavistic cultural or religious attribute, but the modern articulation of an age-old colonial logic.  “In order to be a Zionist,” he notes, “it is not necessary to love the Jews.  I know some Zionists who are definitely anti-Semitic.”  This point impugns some of Zionism’s basic premises: that Israel embodies Jewishness; that Israel is a necessary response to anti-Semitism; that Israel offers a utopian model of nationhood.  Among other uses, the ideology shows how likely, even necessary, it is in imperialist cosmologies to uncouple humans who occupy a territory from the economic utility of nation-states that exist in their name.

What does it mean to be an anti-Semitic Zionist?  (Baldwin is correct, by the way; evangelical Christian leaders, Western heads of state, and Gulf Arab billionaires all in some way fit the label.)  It shows, to begin with, that Zionism cannot deliver on its claim to preserve the well-being of Jewish people around the world.  It is first and foremost a state and as such will be oriented toward the interests of a domestic elite.

Moreover, the mere possibility of an anti-Semitic Zionist illustrates that the state isn’t a pastoral sanctuary, but an entity implicated in the same violence it purports to mitigate.  A rupture facilitates interplay between colonization and capitalism:  confuse a people with the state, a formation devoted to inhuman pursuits, and the people will never live up to any kind of idealization; the state is incapable of—and uninterested in—the resolution of trauma.

Anti-Semitic Zionists are possible because Israel benefits a chauvinistic ruling class; members of that class give zero shits about the health of the state’s inhabitants.  In fact, given the conditions of violence and accumulation in the Imperium, it’s logical to dislike Jews and love Israel.  The alt-right didn’t select Israel as a model of statecraft at random.

Baldwin wasn’t alone in this sort of analysis.  For over a century, Palestinian thinkers, along with a plethora of decolonial voices, have similarly implicated ethnonationalism.  Baldwin didn’t need to specialize in the region or have personal history there to cultivate an incisive critique of Zionism.  He appears to have a sensual understanding of its peculiar violence.  And why not?  He understood capitalism, colonization, and imperialism.  He understood messianism and exceptionalism.  He understood American racism.

A close follower of Baldwin may have anticipated his approach.  He’d expressed displeasure with Zionism and its reification of whiteness before the UMass event.  His thoughts on Black-Jewish relations are too complicated for a single article (or for my range of comprehension), but, if they’re possible to summarize, the following line does the trick:  “One does not wish…to be told by an American Jew that his suffering is as great as the American Negro’s suffering.  It isn’t, and one knows that it isn’t from the very tone in which he assures you that it is.”

This line, revealing a man who is weary but unbowed, isn’t meant to hierarchize suffering for the sake of racial credibility.  In a 1979 Nation article, Baldwin locates whiteness not in physiognomy or genetics, but in social relations:  “The Jew, in America, is a white man.  He has to be, since I am a black man, and, as he supposes, his only protection against the fate which drove him to America.”

Baldwin views Jewish aspirations to whiteness as a foolish conciliation to inherently hostile forces:  “But the state of Israel was not created for the salvation of the Jews; it was created for the salvation of the Western interests.  This is what is becoming clear (I must say that it was always clear to me).  The Palestinians have been paying for the British colonial policy of ‘divide and rule’ and for Europe’s guilty Christian conscience for more than thirty years.”  (Note that Baldwin dates injustice to 1948, not to 1967.)

The reference to Palestinians is important.  Baldwin, who describes himself as “pro-Arab,” refuses to omit them from the conversation, which means he refuses to render what is stupidly called “the conflict” an inherently Jewish concern (something anti-Zionists are apt to do, if only unwittingly).  He underscores the point:

there is absolutely—repeat:  absolutely—no hope of establishing peace in what Europe so arrogantly calls the Middle East (how in the world would Europe know? having so dismally failed to find a passage to India) without dealing with the Palestinians.  The collapse of the Shah of Iran not only revealed the depth of the pious Carter’s concern for “human rights,” it also revealed who supplied oil to Israel, and to whom Israel supplied arms.  It happened to be, to spell it out, white South Africa.

Here Baldwin reduces a baroque analysis to its essentials.  Zionism facilitates global structures of white supremacy and so cultural or religious investment in the ideology hinders an ethical politics.  Of course Israel sided with white South Africa.  Of course Israel expedites US and European machinations in the so-called Middle East.  That’s why it was created.  Destroying Palestine was a prelude to reactionary alliances.

Last week, Facebook revealed that an Israeli consulting firm has meddled in elections throughout the Global South, what a company spokesman called “a staggering diversity of regions.”  Baldwin wouldn’t have been surprised and neither should anybody else.  Israel, after all, is a longtime interloper in US elections.  In a world bifurcated according to geographies of wealth and deprivation, Israel serves the transnational class of war partisans, mercenary firms, and arms merchants.

Baldwin recognized what too many luminaries in the Western left ignore:  Israel isn’t a reconstructed product of its surroundings or a benign ideal unmoored from some noble origin; it is a portal to limitless imposition of discipline onto an expendable, alien world.

This article was first published on on May 19, 2019. 

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Thank you for celebrating a great man and writer in this very important way, Steven. I studied him and his writings at length @ University and learned and absorbed so much. You’ve certainly added much to my understanding~ something of great importance that was not discussed at all! James Baldwin wrt Palestine/Israel, Zionism, and anti- Semitic Zionism. Well, he certainly opened the door and I get to walk through it now, thanks to you. Your… Read more »

Dr. Salaita, thank you for a most informative article. Excellent, as always.

“Moreover, the mere possibility of an anti-Semitic Zionist illustrates that the state isn’t a pastoral sanctuary”

Eyeroll. How many red herring arguments can you made? Zionism never posited that Israel would be a “pastoral sanctuary.” The “mere possible of an anti-semitic Zionist” no more undermines the foundation of Zionism than David Duke’s support for the Palestinians undermines the Palestinian cause.

“Whenever Israel is mentioned one is required, it appears sometimes to me, to maintain a kind of pious silence. Well, why? It is a state like other states. It has come into existence in a peculiar way. But it does not, does not, become a state because people who wrote the Balfour Declaration, or Winston Churchill, or for that matter anyone in Europe, or in the Western world, really cared what happened to the Jews.… Read more »

RoHa, First of all, if any Christian wants to move to Israel and be a peaceful, law-abiding resident or citizen, I have no problem. Secondly, the relationship of the Jewish people to Israel, the historic homeland, is not at all similar to Christian ties to the country. Did Christians pray , for centuries, at least three times a day fo a return to Zion? Do Christian holidays reflect the agricultural cycle in Israel? Do Christian… Read more »