Sunday, May 23, 2010

On Liberal Versus Left Zionism

Spencer Ackerman's link to a post by Sean Lee critical of the entire concept of "liberal Zionism" gives me a wonderful opportunity to deal with a ton of wrong at once. Lee's post is long, but it boils down to a pretty simple claim:
The long and the short of it is that a liberal democracy is a democracy for all of its citizens equally. It does not accord privileges or rights based on race or religion. Israel is not that kind of a democracy. Instead it is explicitly an ethno-religious democracy, which is a direct consequence of the logic of Zionism, the logic of a Jewish state, as opposed to that of a state of its citizens.

A huge chunk of this dispute, obviously, can be chalked up to a slippage in the term "liberal", namely, whether we use it as a vague identifier for progressivism or other left-of-center philosophies, or whether we mean it in a very particular, Capital L sort of way, where it represents a particular normative philosophy predicated on governmental neutrality with respect to various identity affiliations and (non-harmful) life pursuits.

Insofar as this debate is purely descriptive, it mostly bores me, but it also reminds me quite strikingly of the recent Rand Paul controversy where everybody was wondering if his opposition to the 1964 Civil Rights Act was required by his "libertarianism" or not. Now maybe that's a true description of libertarianism or maybe it isn't, but I think Matt Yglesias made the most cogent point on that dispute, namely, that if Paul's position is required by "libertarianism" or Goldwater conservatism or whatever, that doesn't let it off the hook, it just demonstrates that there is a fatal flaw in the ideology. Similarly, we can debate about what is included under the umbrella of "liberalism", but at the end of the day I'm less concerned with whether such things as nation-states, affirmative action, HBCUs, and the like are "liberal" than I am about whether they make a positive contribution to a fair, just, and egalitarian world. If it turns out they do and yet liberalism can't countenance them, that's a strike against liberalism, not the other way around.

Instead of starting with theory and then demanding practice catch-up, I forward a two-part criterion for evaluating proposals aimed at remedying anti-Jewish subordination: First, it has to start from the actual history and experience of Jews in the world, and second, it has to deal with the world as it is, not how we might like it to be.

From that framework, the liberal enlightenment model does rather poorly. It is a false promise (the "neutral", "liberal" state never actually extricates itself from the predilections of the dominant classes), and it is an unequal demand (nobody else is forced to make changes to accommodate the universalist ideal but the already-marginalized). As I put in my best post on the subject, The Superseded Jew:
[T]he liberal burden puts the onus on the oppressed class to craft a liberation agenda which maps perfectly onto an idealized fantasy that doesn’t exist and adhere to systematized rules and procedures which were crafted with reference to the current oppressive reality — they have to be both the paragons of idealized justice which nobody else practices and meet technical hurdles designed specifically to ratify an existing power structure which keeps Jews at the bottom.

I don't want to retread too much of the ground I covered in that post, but suffice to say I think that post really does a good job of interrogating this entire discourse of "liberalism" as applied to the Jewish experience. If you're skeptical of the point I'm making, I encourage you to read that post and then trot on back.

I will say here, briefly, that placing Jews at the mercy of others -- minorities governed by non-Jews -- tends to have a rather consistent result of Jews getting killed. Even subtracting publicly sanctioned discrimination, equal citizenship does very little to alleviate private anti-Semitism -- it isn't clear why this gets so little attention in Lee's post. Indeed, while he contrasts the position of minorities in the US or France (where, Lee says, the state has failed to live up to its ideals) to those in Israel (where the ideals themselves are supposedly flawed), I don't think he in any way establishes that this makes the liberal path obligatory. If the Black Power movement had won out in the 1960s -- if Blacks said "sorry, but we don't trust this liberal universalist model, so we're going to set off on our own" -- I think it would be arrogant to the extreme for Whites to say that Blacks had a moral obligation to accede to liberal prescriptions. They are in a better position than we to know, and we are in no position to (justly) superordinate our theory to their practice.

But I also think it's pretty clear that Lee is not operating from a standpoint that starts from the belief that one needs to take Jewish histories seriously in order to craft the policies and ideologies that will end up governing Jewish futures. Even putting aside his belief that it is "ironic" that the Israeli definition of Jew parallels that of the Nuremberg Laws (does he really think that's accidental?), the post is replete with analysis that does its best to run away from, not engage with, Jewish experience. Y'all might have experienced how angry I get when folks try to lecture Jews on what the Holocaust "taught us". Maybe the lesson European Gentiles needed to take from "the horrors of the first half of the 20th century" were that their nation-states needed to be replaced with multi-cultural liberal democracies. But why should Jews learn that lesson -- it wasn't our nation-state that fucked things up. The lesson most Jews seemed to take from the Holocaust is that all this talk of human rights and universal brotherhood and citizenship and enlightenment rationality counts for jack unless you've got some big fucking tanks backing you up. Where does Lee get off telling us that insight was wrong?

Later, Lee complains that Israel's social organization wouldn't be tolerable to us if Christians did it in America. When people run back to the sort of "you wouldn't tolerate this if it were Christians/Whites/Europeans/whoever" argument that Lee makes, nearly invariably they are doing their best to obliterate the experience of the Other -- trying to totalize the whole of existence under the ambit of majoritarian frames. The demand that we analogize a Jewish state to America as a "Christian" nation reminds me nothing more of the folks who think that Howard University is the equivalent of 1925 Ole Miss, and represents just as extreme a degree of lazy thinking.

Now, Lee does concede that the analogy might not work
because of Judaism’s unique history of persecution, and in particular, the Shoah. But that line of reasoning directly contradicts the idea that Jewish nationalism is just like any other nationalism and leaves us to ask the question: should we hold Israel to different standards than other countries that claim to be liberal democracies? And if so, doesn’t that directly contradict the underpinnings of universal liberalism and lead us to a cultural relativism in which liberals can no longer decry the lack of women’s rights in Afghanistan or human rights in Zimbabwe?

I think the real question this raises is why it is seen as some massive philosophical calamity that Jewish institutions might not aptly be judged via Gentile standards -- i.e., the very standards which have historically operated to keep Jews in a subordinated and oppressed position. Golly, it sure is mysterious why Jews might not want to accede to that state of affairs. And it is equally mysterious why non-Jews perhaps are more committed to preserving it. Look: The fact that your nationalism served no purpose but to subordinate and is entirely unnecessary except as a way of ratifying inegalitarian power arrangements doesn't mean that mine does. You deal with your shit on your own -- leave me out of it. (As an aside, I cannot tell you how pleased I am to have the binational approach endorsed by the sort of person who is horrified at the prospect of "cultural relativism" and thinks it means we cannot criticize Zimbabwe. Normally that's the sort of statement one finds in The National Review or the latest Camille Paglia screed.).

Matt Yglesias wrote a short while back:
I completely grasp the pull of radical cosmopolitan values, but I think people who think that the area west of the Jordan River would be a great place to try implementing them in the short-term are being a bit crazy. It’s not even clear that Belgium or Canada will be able to survive as bi-national entities.

In that vein, I'll conclude with a story a friend once told me about a group of German Anarchists who, like Lee, were opposed to nation-states (indeed, all states) as a matter of principle. Their political program was to abolish all states -- Israel last. They are an example of folks who held fast to theories but nonetheless took due account of the actual experiences of the oppressed. It's fine to have principles, and it's fine to adhere to moral theories. But I think the least we can ask for is to not use the most vulnerable as crash test dummies to test them out. If it turns out liberal enlightenmentism can lead us all to salvation, fantastic. But we are not your guinea pigs.


N. Friedman said...


Yours is is a very, very interesting and engaging post. That is not to say that I agreed entirely with you. Rather, the point is that I have much enjoyed reading your interesting argument.

The issue of liberalism and its attitude towards Israel is one that I have noted in my postfest with "joe" to which you have now posted one comment. My take remains that liberalism has employed non-liberal arguments against Israel. And, I think they are worth highlighting because they are not really arguments that raise the issue of equality in any serious sense.

I am also not inclined to accept the notion that Israel be judged by any standard other than the same one that applies to all humanity. That, to me, is a continuation of an approach which has historically caused Jews problems. In Europe, Jews had "privileges" that were protected by the monarchical order of things. Such allowed those who hated Jews to add an additional and, frankly, significant item to their hatred of Jews, namely, that Jews were not subject to the same issues as ordinary people (which led to charges of their secretly controlling things, etc.). And, in the end, the monarch would see it more prudent to cease protecting Jews.

Liberalism's connection with the idea of equality is a complex one, as you know. Equality has a different meaning for liberals and socialists. Liberals believe in equality of opportunity. Socialists posit equality of result (although, to be fair, that normally means equality of kind, not absolute equality).

Israel, it seems to me, is a pretty liberal country and, I should add, one that takes the socialist idea of equality of result, at least in kind, more seriously than most other liberal polities. The argument otherwise is directed mainly at land conquered by Israel on which Israel does not extend citizenship (and to note, would contradict the idea of creating a Palestinian Arab stated along side Israel).

Lastly, I disagree with your argument regarding institutions designed to protect the rights of oppressed. There is a degree of racism involved. The question is whether, given the circumstances, such race consciousness is offensive. I am inclined, at least in most case, to think such race conscious institutions to be acceptable but, or course, there are limits.

Matt said...