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The Liberal/Leftist Case Against Israel: A Rebuttal

Ricochet member Trace Urdan has drawn my attention to an interesting piece that just appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education: a review, by Alan Wolfe, of several books critical of Israel. The review, entitled “Israel’s Moral Peril,” draws a distinction between liberal criticism — that which accepts Israel’s legitimacy and views a two-state solution as the only means by which Israel can maintain its ethics and ensure the rights of its non-Jewish citizens — and leftist criticism, which rejects Israel outright as fundamentally colonialist and racist. Wolfe argues that as criticism of Israel grows ever more vociferous, “the question of which of these approaches will attract the most followers will become increasingly important.”

One obviously need not go far to hear either of these arguments enthusiastically expressed; an avowal of one or the other is practically required for anyone hoping for a long and prosperous career in the American or European academy. What makes Wolfe’s piece interesting is the personal angle: he is himself a secular American Jew, raised on the same brand of milky, earnest, emotional, Reform-Jew love for Israel that produced yours truly. Wolfe’s journey toward criticism of Israel was clearly fraught for him, and he is candid about this in the article.

But the piece warrants close reading as much for what it does not say as for what it does. For all his painful self-examination, Wolfe is so serenely confident of the premise of Israel’s ultimate culpability that he scarcely acknowledges that the other side bears any responsibility for the moribund state of the peace process. The Palestinians are simply not to be held accountable for their own choices and actions. Their more egregious acts of violence are to be frowned upon and even, in extreme cases, acknowledged as justifying, to some degree, Israeli anxiety about the Palestinians’ desire for peace — but the Palestinians must under no circumstances be expected to take responsibility for their own bad choices. Any negative consequences that result — walls, for example, erected to stop the quotidian problem of Palestinian-on-Israeli violence — are evidence not of the extremes to which Israel is pushed to keep its citizens safe, but of fundamental and eternal Israeli fault, and fundamental and eternal Palestinian victimhood.

The Jews, on the other hand, must be held responsible again and again and again. Their stubborn insistence on defending their lives and property must at all times be apologized for, and they are above all to be punished for their presumptuous desire to live on their own historic land. The equivalent Palestinian desire is, of course, respected (how splendid that they are defined by their connection to the land!), admired (how moving it is that their passion for the land remains undiminished through time and travail!), understood (these are people who know the meaning of “home”), and encouraged (it is not, after all, for those of us who have never suffered the agony of exile to criticize the way that agony is expressed).

This is a double standard, pure and simple. And I apologize in advance for getting Mr. Wolfe’s liberal knickers in a twist (in the extremely unlikely event that he reads my blog), but the basis of that double standard is racism.

The word racist is thrown at Israel a lot, but we are not the racists in the picture — people who prefer to avoid giving yet more chunks of territory away as extortion payments might be many things, but they are not defined by their racism. Racism is assuming that a whole people cannot be held accountable for anything because they are not capable of distinguishing right from wrong. Racism is listening sagely while a people’s elected leadership states its desire for the total eradication of another people and the theft of all its property, nodding benignly, and then writing the words off as meaningless since those people can’t, after all, be expected to express themselves in any but the most primitive manner. Racism is overlooking or excusing unconscionable and often stupidly self-defeating behavior because those people can’t be expected to do any better. And yes: racism is expecting the paler people in the scenario to behave better than the darker people, and to set a good, instructive example of conciliation. Surely, the racist blithely assumes, the darker people will respond beautifully to such enlightenment. The notion that they are in fact fully as capable of formulating a world view as their white defenders, and that their expression of it is not gibberish but in fact exactly what they mean, is not within the realm of possibility.

This double standard, in combination with that curious brand of cognitive disconnect that tends to characterize so many Americans’ experience of history, is threaded throughout Wolfe’s review. He describes Israel’s victory in 1967 as the first moment when his youthful,tzedaka-collecting, tree-planting affection for Israel began to waver: “I was too much involved in the protests against Vietnam to become an enthusiast for war of any kind.” To interpret elation at Israel’s rescue from destruction — in less than a week, no less — as enthusiasm for war is to completely miss both the reality of the danger Israel was in and the eagerness of Israel for the war to end as quickly as possible, but I see his point, sort of.

But his allegiance was hopelessly shattered by the Sabra and Shatila massacres in Lebanon in 1982 (when Sharon stepped aside and let Christian militiamen slaughter Palestinian refugees), and Wolfe jumped right off the reality train. From that point forward, it was one side fits all. “The truly odious Arafat is no longer with us,” he writes. (Okay. And where is the Mandela that replaced him?) “[N]ew Palestinian intellectuals and leaders are making an impressive case for statehood.” (Name three.) “The cruelty of Israel’s blockade of Gaza” (no reference to any reasons why Israel — and Egypt — placed Gaza under blockade in the first place), “as well as the clearly peace-destroying intentions of Jewish settlers in Palestinian territory are impossible to ignore” (no mention that it’s the Palestinians, not the settlers, who have declared their intention of making the area free of the other as soon as they get the chance). “Chilling leaks suggest the possibility of an Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear facilities” (Good heavens! No mention, of course, of Iran’s apocalyptic threats to annihilate Israel completely — such mention would be to commit the dread crime of invoking the Holocaust, which real thinkers have apparently agreed is the mark of a fundamentally flawed argument. Unless it’s invoked to implore the Jews not to repeat the crimes once visited upon them, but more on that below).

Wolfe wants to know which camp of Israel criticism he should join, the liberal or the leftist. The liberal case has been laid out by two young Jewish writers: Gershom Gorenberg in The Unmaking of Israel and Peter Beinart in The Crisis of Zionism.

Gorenberg is American but lives in Israel. He believes its ultimate success as a liberal democracy will depend on three things: a reduction of the influence of the ultra-Orthodox by more strictly separating synagogue and state (I agree 100%), a reform of the legal system to ensure that all ethnic groups are treated equally (wholeheartedly with him there too), and pulling out of the whole West Bank. (Oops — lost me on that one.) Gorenberg believes these three pillars will make Israel more stable as a democracy and “more secure in the long run if it voluntarily gives up land it cannot control.” I see this point from a demographic point of view, but demographics won’t count for a hell of a lot if the opponent is emboldened by the concession into becoming more aggressive and violent. Which, judging from the Palestinian response to the Israeli evacuation of Gaza, is a likely result. (For anyone eager to point out that the launching of a war against southern Israel — the showering of rockets onto Israeli civilian communities — was the work of maximalist, Islamist Hamas and not our friends the peacemakers in Ramallah, I remind them of Fatah’s recent reconciliation with Hamas, another historical event about which Wolfe is conspicuously mute.)

Beinart has been in the news recently for a piece he wrote for The New York Times in which he advocated the boycotting of goods produced in the Israeli settlements. He also wrote an essay in The New York Review of Books in 2010 called “The Failure of the American-Jewish Establishment,” of which the recent book The Crisis of Zionism is an expansion. Beinart describes a liberal Jewish awakening that occurred in the US in the seventies, led by a Chicago rabbi named Arnold Wolf. Apparently one of the young idealists who ran with this crowd was Barack Obama, an “aspiring politician [who] was a liberal Zionist at heart.”

Beinart takes Obama to task for failing, as president, to bring a Palestinian state into existence and thereby fulfill the greatest aspiration of liberal Zionism. Obama can’t entirely be blamed, though. According to Beinart, his Israeli opponent — PM Bibi Netanyahu — is so adept at “playing off strong Congressional support for Israel against any presidential inclination to take the peace process seriously” that a Palestinian state is “a battle [Obama] cannot win.” AIPAC is largely to blame, Beinart implies, for strengthening Netanyahu at Obama’s expense, with the Palestinians — as ever — the real victims. Interestingly, Beinart’s prescription is for American Jews to take their Judaism more seriously. He believes that familiarity with the strong ethical code of the faith will encourage Jews down a more liberal path.

Now, to hardcore leftist critics of Israel, all this look-inward-and-find-the-moral-compass business is kid stuff. Wolfe cites Gabriel Piterberg, historian at UCLA and frequent contributor to the New Left Review, whose book, The Returns of Zionism: Myths, Politics and Scholarship in Israel, dismisses Israel as a monument to “white settler colonialism.” Piterberg cites Bernard Lazare, Walter Benjamin and Hannah Arendt (all Jews, by the way), who also saw Zionism as a fundamentally colonialist enterprise.

Wolfe then discusses Judith Butler, professor of rhetoric at Berkeley, whose forthcoming book — Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism — states that Zionism stands in direct opposition to themes of Jewish tradition. (Butler is thus taking her place on the barricades alongside the Satmar and the Neturei Karta, Jewish religious sects that are furiously anti-Zionist.) Like Piterberg, Butler draws on Arendt, who claimed that the Jews’ lack of a state — their “unchosenness”, to use Butler’s term — strengthened Jewish ethics, and that statehood (if I’m understanding Butler correctly) saps them. Or, to quote Butler directly: “it is not only that we may not choose with whom to cohabit, but that we must actively preserve the unchosen character of inclusive and plural cohabitation.” (I’m so glad I left academia.)

Because Jews have survived an attempt at extermination, Butler argues, we have a higher obligation to resist the desire to live only with people like ourselves. And because that is Zionism’s ultimate goal, “Israel has been illiberal from the moment of its creation.”

Except that Israel is one-fifth Arab. It was never Israel’s intention to become an Arab-free state. It is, on the other hand, the Palestinians’ stated goal to create a Jew-free Palestine, and Palestinian children are being fed a steady diet of Jew-hatred in their school textbooks and at the mosque. When their state comes into being, will Judith Butler write books about Palestine being illiberal from the moment of its creation?

Butler indulges in some of those wonderfully zany flights of fancy that can only be gotten away with in the academic world. She asserts that because the Jews’ ethical soundness depends on their dispossession, all Palestinians should be granted the right of return. It’s a win-win! While a little impracticable, that’s at least consistent on a philosophical level. Where she really goes bananas is in the followup: she believes that this mass “return” would result not in the destruction of the Jewish people of Israel, but merely in “the dismantling of the structure of Jewish sovereignty and demographic advantage.” Via what she calls our “complex and antagonistic modes of living together” (you can say that again!), the Jews would “make the case on the basis of their own history of exile for why their Arab neighbors ought not to choose living without them” (Wolfe’s words). The Palestinians would then recall their own experience of exile and we would all hug, or something.

In the end, Wolfe takes the side of the liberals over the leftists because he believes “naivete is preferable to irresponsibility,” which is at least honest. “Israel is a fact of life,” he writes (I can almost hear the sigh), “and given both its military strength and support from the United States, it is going to be with us for some time.” Still, he must be given credit for being at least slightly aware of reality. He notes that Butler, her protestations notwithstanding, “really is calling for the destruction of the Jewish state…Her [one-state solution] would leave Israeli Jews at the mercy of people who would surely take revenge against them if given the chance. I realize that Butler is a philosopher and not a political scientist. Yet even philosophers must say something about the real-world implications of the ideas they advocate. Taking into account the other is indeed a feature of the Jewish ethical tradition. Collective suicide is not.”

I’m glad Wolfe has figured out which team to join, but ultimately I’m not convinced that it matters very much which of the two anti-Israel strains of thought — the liberal or the leftist — gains sway. They are equally insidious, because they’re based on the same faulty premises. They both insist that all that’s required for peace to reign is Israeli willingness to make concessions, despite the known results of the withdrawals from Lebanon and Gaza. They both maintain that not only are the Palestinians to be absolved from the consequences of their own actions, but that the Jews are to be obliged to compensate the Palestinians ad infinitum for their own disastrous choices. They are both fundamentally racist in their terminal condescension toward the Palestinians, a condescension that has allowed the Palestinians to sidestep any responsibility for carving out a genuine peace. It has occurred to neither camp to press the Palestinians to alter the poisonous way their children are educated about Jews. Both liberals and leftists reject the validity of the Jewish historical claim to the land while trumpeting the validity of the Palestinian claim. They both reject the appropriateness of Israeli anxiety about a new Holocaust — despite language meant explicitly to suggest it coming out of the mouths of Palestinians (and Persians) — while insisting we remain vigilant about our behaving like Nazis ourselves, an analogy both ridiculous on the evidence and disgusting in its inappropriateness.

When liberals and leftists write articles lamenting the Palestinians’ “moral peril,” we might be able to have an actual dialogue. I assure you that many Israelis — who are far better at criticizing Israel than any of you pikers — will jump right into the conversation. In the meantime, we’ll get on with trying to keep ourselves in one piece, and you can talk amongst yourselves. I can see you’re doing that already.