So. This could get ugly.
There has been a bit of a hoo-hah recently around Left Blogovia about anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, with a couple of prominent Jewish bloggers (Matt Yglesias and Ezra Klein, to be specific, and why not, specificity is good) expressing that they felt they were being accused of either anti-Semitism itself or of aiding anti-Semitism by (a) expressing that it might not always be in the self-interest of the United States to fully support Israel and its policies, and (2) there seemed to be a largish faction of Israeli and American Jews who are espousing an insane policy of either the US or Israel attacking Iran. I will point out that as far as I know, neither Mr. Yglesias or Mr. Klein are in fact anti-Zionist, in that (again, as far as I know) neither of them has said that they feel that the entire Zionist project was a mistake, or that the Zionist project needs to be abandoned.
Your Humble Blogger feels that the entire Zionist project was a mistake, and would like the Zionist project to be abandoned, if that could happen without too much violence. I don’t see how it could be safely abandoned, but I think that the safe abandonment of the Zionist project could be a useful new project for the world’s Jews.
I read in this morning’s New York Times that Essay Linking Liberal Jews and Anti-Semitism Sparks a Furor, in which article Patricia Cohen, very likely Jewish herself although she does not appear in the article, discusses the response to an essay published by the American Jewish Committee. Ms. Cohen indicates that the AJC is featuring the essay on its site, but I had to do a search to find the thing; in fact, if the New York Times hadn’t had a direct link, I doubt I would have read the thing at all.
The essay is "Progressive" Jewish Thought and the New Anti-Semitism, and it’s by Alvin H. Rosenfeld, and it seems awfully stupid to spark a furor. Well, stupid is unnecessarily harsh. It seems willfully obtuse, how about that? It begins by detailing the exterminationist anti-Semitism that does in fact exist in much of the world, and shows that many of the traditional images of Jews as poisoners, conspirators and assassins have been adapted into a movement that uses Zionism as a threat to whip up support for vile, crazy leaders. All this is, as far as I can tell, true. Nor is it surprising.
It was surprising to me to read Mr. Rosenfeld claiming that “... most Jews probably thought [the Holocaust] would prevent public manifestations of anti-Semitism from ever appearing again”. I don’t know most Jews. I would be shocked if any Jews I actually know—real ones—thought that anti-Semitism was over and done. In fact, the Jews that have most fervently supported the Zionist project in conversations with me did so, in large measure, because they felt that only that Zionist project could protect the Jewish remnant from another outbreak of exterminationist anti-Zionism. So, in case Mr. Rosenfeld or any other Zionist Jew reads this and wants to know what I think, I’ll make it clear: I think there is anti-Semitism in the world, that it will again take political form in exterminationist policies, and that Zionism will neither prevent that nor protect us from it. The most likely protection, I think, is full participation in the liberal democratic project.
Mr. Rosenfeld also writes that “Anti-Zionism, in fact, is the form that much of today’s anti-Semitism takes, so much so that some now see earlier attempts to rid the world of Jews finding a parallel in present-day desires to get rid of the Jewish state.” I believe the some in the sentence is Mr. Rosenfeld and the AJC, and that his saying so doesn’t make it so. Again, I’ll try to be explicit: There are exterminationist anti-Semites using anti-Zionist rhetoric to gain power. That does not mean that all anti-Zionist rhetoric is anti-Semitic, nor that all those who would like to abandon the Zionist project are anti-Semites. The existence of a black cat only shows that some cats are black.
Mr. Rosenfeld then turns to those Jews who have abandoned (or never shared in) the Zionist project. He admits that Zionism was never every Jew’s dream. “Jewish Marxists regularly denounced Zionism as inherently imperialist, colonialist, racist, and repressive; they saw it as an ideological enemy of those who stood on the side of the oppressed in the class struggle.” I so rarely call myself a Marxist these days, but, um, yeah inherently imperialist, colonialist, racist and repressive. Is there some sort of argument that it wasn’t? Sure, it was other things, too, and those other things count for a great deal. After all, the founding of these United States, of which I am so fond, was inherently imperialist, colonialist, racist and repressive. And on balance, it’s come out rather well, really.
The next, and lengthiest section of the essay is a detailed look at a handful of moderately prominent anti-Zionist Jews in England and America. He describes their rhetoric, showing that they often use heated language and exaggeration. He is particularly incensed at the accusation that the Israeli government is engaged in genocide, and I understand that. The term is exaggerated for effect, and it’s possible that some poor saps are so dulled by that exaggerated use that they really do not see the difference between the disgusting and inhumane policies of the Israeli government and actual genocide. That is bad. Furthermore, some people suggest that Israel has become one of the vilest and worst nations in the world. Not so, says Mr. Rosenfeld: “Compared to the truly horrendous crimes committed by other nation-states—think Sudan, Cambodia, Slobodan Milosevic’s Serbia, or Augusto Pinochet’s Chile—Israel’s record actually looks relatively good.” Now that’s a slogan. Sharon was better than Pinochet! I’m sure Theodore Herzl is looking down on Israel now, thinking Yes, my dream has been fulfilled, the leadership of Zion is being favorably compared to Pol Pot!
Look, I agree that some of the rhetoric about the appallingly bad, vile, evil and wrong policies of several successive Israeli governments has been exaggerated and irresponsible. That is how political arguments happen. But the policies have been bad, vile, evil and wrong nonetheless. I’ll go further. Some of the writers have claimed that these policies are not so much choices, independently and wrongly arrived at but independent from the idea of Zionism, but are instead the likeliest result of the Zionist project. Not, let me be clear, because the people making the policies are Jews, but because of the nature of partition. I would like to see the counter-argument, the argument that points a way for the Zionist project to continue without such policies and their inevitable disastrous consequences. Heck, I would like to see the argument that points a way for Pakistan to exist without bad, vile, evil and wrong policies. That’d be swell, wouldn’t it? Asking for such an argument is not (in my eyes) racist, and neither is the refusal to accept such an argument, certainly not in the absence of the argument actually being argued.
Mr. Rosenfeld sees such refusal as inexplicable, or at least inexplicable without resort to racism. He’s left pointing at the people who refuse to accept Zionism and gasping in shock. He attributes to Joel Kovel the notion that “The Jewish vocation, in other words, is to be fulfilled by living openly and peacefully in the Diaspora, not narrowly and defensively within the confines of territorial borders.” OMGWTF? How could anyone believe something like that?
““Should Israel Exist?” Can one imagine such a question being raised in an American schoolbook about any other country on the globe? “Should Sweden, Egypt, or Argentina exist?” “Should Canada or Japan exist?” The question would be so baffling as to never arise.
But then, the question is not the same question (and, yes, the question of whether, say, East Germany, the Ottoman Empire, Kurdistan, Gran Colombia, Aztlan, Yugoslavia or Chechnya should exist does on occasion arise). The question Should Israel Exist is, as Mr. Rosenfeld puts it elsewhere, the question of whether Jews have some sort of right to a geographic area with a sovereign government, in which area they are to be the majority population. That right is not obvious to me. It isn’t obvious to me that if, for instance, Germans became the minority population in Germany that they would be deprived of some natural right. I don’t see that the Romany have a natural right to a carved-out area of majority population. I don’t see that Poland, for instance, exists because of some right that the Poles have to self-governance as Poles, which was violated by their inclusion in the Austria-Hungarian empire simply due to their being a minority in the nation-state. There are arguments, of course, for the self-governance of a self-identifying People (vaddevah dat means), and for the existing self-government to protect that self-identifying People, but I don’t see that those arguments derive from any natural right as opposed to pragmatic realism.
Look, the arguments for Zionism are, as far as I can tell, threefold. First, there’s the self-defense argument, which states that Zionism is the only response to the Holocaust. I disagree. Zionism was not the correct response to the massacre in 1096. Zionism was not the correct response to the Spanish Inquisition and the Alhambra Decree. Zionism was not the correct response to Philip the Fair and the expulsion from France in 1306. It was not the correct response to the expulsion from Arabia under Caliph 'Umar in 641 or the expulsion from the Babylonian Empire by Heraclius I in 629. It was not the correct response to Hadrian’s depredation in 135. It was not even the correct response to the destruction of the Second Temple. I understand the thinking, but I disagree.
The second argument is religious, and I simply do not see any scriptural or traditional imperative for the idea of a Zionist nation-state. It doesn’t appear to me to be forbidden, mind. But in the absence of the Messiah, we are not commanded to rule the land.
The third argument is simply that, taken one thing with another, the existence of Israel is “good for Jews”. I don’t think it has been, all in all, and I don’t think it will be in the next two or three generations. It has certainly been good for some Jews, and I’ll bite that it has been good for many Jews, but it has also been bad for many Jews, and in the horrific arithmetic this sort of thing comes down to, I think it’s been bad for more. Furthermore, in a general, aggregate sense, Judaism is worse off almost everywhere in the world than it was sixty years ago. Better in the US, better in Israel, but worse in Tehran, in Buenos Aires, in Kabul, in Shanghai, even in Paris and London.
Which means that as far as I can tell, there is no good argument for the Zionist project. Except, unfortunately, that it would be unsafe and unwise to abandon it.
Now, having said all of that, at far too great a length, let me address Mr. Rosenfeld’s essay once more. The argument of the essay, in brief, is that (a) There are anti-Semites who are anti-Zionist, and (2) there are Jews who are anti-Zionist. Therefore... nothing. Seriously, nothing. Mr. Rosenfeld does not claim that the anti-Semites who are pushing anti-Zionism are being strengthened in any particular way by the anti-Zionist Jews. Nor does he claim that the anti-Zionist Jews are using the same anti-Semitic tropes as the anti-Zionist anti-Semites, such as claims that it was really Israel who knocked down the World Trade Center or that Mossad is somehow spreading AIDS in the ummah. Now, if it were the case that anti-Semites were gaining power as a function of Jewish anti-Zionism, then I might well change my mind about the whole Zionist project. That is, if abandoning the Zionist project or even weakening the support for it would lead to exterminationist anti-Semites being given political power they would not otherwise have, then, well, I’d be agin that. That’s why I read the article, actually; it seemed from, well, from the existence of the article, that it must be making such an argument. But it wasn’t. So what was it saying?
Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,