Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Who is Who?

Mondoweiss (link warning) reposts Winona LaDuke:
"...euro-americans in the United States can't talk about Gaza, because we can't talk about Israel. Because we can't talk about the fact that the world is not suffering from a Israeli/Palestinian conflict, but that the world is suffering from the fact that Europe has never been able to deal with it's 'Jewish Question' without some sort of intense barbarity and horror from the Inquisition to the Holocaust. And that Europe, in particular 'Great' Britain, the masters of divide an conquer 'solved' the problem by supporting the radical, terrorist, extremist Zionists and their mad plan to resettle the 'homeland.' We can't talk about Israel because we can't talk about Wounded Knee. Because we can't talk about Sand Creek or Carlisle 'Boarding School.' Because we can't talk about forced sterilization or small pox blankets or Kit Carson and his scorched earth policy in the Southwest. Because we have Andrew Jackson on our twenty dollar bill. Because we are one huge settlement on stolen land. We can't talk about Israel because we are Israel."
We need to start with the racist exclusion of Sephardic and Mizrachi Jews from this story, since that exclusion is rampant in virtually all discourse about Israel and particularly shines through here. Israel exists in part because "Europe has never been able to deal with it's [sic] 'Jewish Question' without some sort of intense barbarity and horror," but also in part because the Arab world has been equally fruitless in its effort to resolve its "Jewish Question" without resorting to same. To reiterate: a plurality Israel's Jewish population is of non-White European descent. The median Israeli Jew is in Israel not because Europe couldn't resolve its Jewish problem, but because the Arab world couldn't resolve theirs. We can fairly say that the Arab world had historically been better than Europe in its treatment of Jews, we can also note that isn't a particularly high bar to clear. The important point is that the "Jewish question" is not solely a European phenomenon, and pretending that it is erases both the lives and life experiences of Israel's considerable non-White European population.

But put that aside, and let us unpack. LaDuke observes that the history of Jews in Europe is of Europeans slaughtering Jews. She accurately identifies the conditions Jews were facing in Europe that presaged the Zionist movement. Under normal circumstances if one is caught in an abusive relationship the right rational response to get the hell out of there, which is of course what Jews tried to do. But this response -- not sticking around to be slaughtered -- is labeled by LaDuke as "radical, terrorist, extremist [and] mad." Which just goes to show how upset people are, how jarring they find it to their expectations of what should be, when Jews don't die. Within the space of a single sentence LaDuke concedes that Jews in Europe were subjects of brutality and horror, then presumes that their desire to get out from under that thumb and go somewhere else to govern their own lives is naught but some sort of dominationist psychosis.

Even if one didn't think rebuilding a Jewish state in Israel was a legitimate response to European brutality (which lays upon LaDuke the obligation of proffering an alternative program for Jews beyond "sit around and hope Europe figures out a 'solution' to its 'Jewish question' before the next killing spree"), this is still a rather amazing explication of the mindset surrounding Zionism from the Jewish vantage point. But of course, the "Jewish vantage point" is precisely what's excluded from LaDuke's discussion. What we have instead is a substitution of foreign ideologies and symbolic interpretations of Jewish political action for what Jews said about themselves and perceived their own situation to be. In form, to be sure, this isn't a particularly uncommon form of anti-Semitism, but it is still worth pointing out. And I borrow again, as I love to do, from Christine Littleton: the heart of non-anti-Semitic method begins "with the very radical act of taking [Jews] seriously, believing that what we say about ourselves and our experience is important and valid, even when (or perhaps especially when) it has little or no relationship to what has been or is being said about us."

All that being said, there is a link here between how we talk about Israel and our inability to reckon with our own colonialist history, which can actually fairly be closely tied to colonialist and dominationist impulses. There is amongst the European West a deep desire for absolution from a history of racist sins -- a history of colonialism being only but one. This desire is genuine, but it is also typically "cheap" (as in Bonhoeffer's "cheap grace") -- we want the absolution, but don't want to pay the penance.

Israel is valuable because it serves as a useful point of projection for our own sense of moral inadequacy. Opposing Israel offers psychological guilt-release. It is a scapegoat in the literal sense -- we can place our sins upon it and, through sacrifice, gain absolution (the goat, of course, actually pays the penalty). Moreover, unlike more plausible targets for absolving Western sins (e.g., the European states themselves), Israel is relatively marginal, relatively weak, and relatively isolated. One cannot express rabid anti-Americanism of this sort without incurring significant costs. The US isn't going anywhere, and if it did, it would entail severe costs on the people seeking absolution. Israel could plausibly be thrown down, and if it did it would entail virtually no costs on those "repenting". As I remarked once before: "all the joy of liberal guilt-induced self-flagellation, except the wounds show up on someone else's body." For all the talk about Israel's terrifying power, it's Israel's relative marginality and weakness (compared to Europe or America or England) that renders it an attractive target.

The framework of "we are Israel" is very interesting from this standpoint. Wouldn't it make more sense to say "Israel is us"? After all, even if we thought that Israel was a valid case of colonialism (which it isn't), surely it isn't the paradigm case. When the United States distributed smallpox blankets or massacred Native Americans, we weren't emulating the Israeli example. The absolute worst you can say about Zionism -- ignoring, as LaDuke does, the massive difference in motivations and circumstances, and erasing non-European Jews entirely, and making a ton of other concessions to unreality -- is that it was emulating the European example. If that's the case, Israel is flawed as we are, but also as complex as we are and as redeemable as we are.

But note the subtle shift of responsibility here -- our misdeeds are characterized as following another's evil example. Israel stands in for our own misdeeds -- it is the platonic ideal of our own wrongs. We are not intrinsically bad, we're only bad insofar as we're "Israel". Our absolution comes when we're no longer Israel. It offers a way to maintain a sense of moral growth and possibility by externalizing the source of the sins onto another body deemed irredeemably corrupt.

This move only works effectively when "we" and "Israel" are unified as a single entity -- it would not be penance to oppose somebody else's wrong, after all. And so Israel must be refolded into the very European community whose brutal anti-Semitism caused (in part) its formation in the first place. This is why adopting an independent Jewish narrative of Zionism is so dangerous -- acknowledging there is such a narrative and that it runs independent from (and often orthogonal to) the story of European depravity would threaten the fictive unity between Israel and "us", essential for the vitality of the repentance project. And so it is that the Jewish perspective is squeezed out and replaced with a foreign entity; our own evil spirits personified. That, of course, is something very useful. But it is cheap grace.


PG said...

I'm surprised that you're taking LaDuke seriously -- this just seems like typical far-lefty talk. (What does "stolen land" even mean to someone like that... does she consider it a valid transaction to buy land from its legal owner if there are non-owners living on the land?)

However, when she referred to "the radical, terrorist, extremist Zionists and their mad plan to resettle the 'homeland,'" I assumed she was referring specifically to the parts of Jewish leadership under the British Mandate that did engage in what most people would consider terrorism. And so far as I know, the creation of a secular Jewish nation-state in historical Israel was controversial among Jews and even deemed "radical" by some religious Jews who believed that the Messiah had to return before Israel could be re-established.

David Schraub said...

Well, Mondoweiss was on my mind today because someone I know and respect linked to an interview they did and was talking about how thoughtful it was.

As for LaDuke referring to the genuinely terrorist actions taken by various Jewish groups (e.g., the Stern Gang), that's strikes me as unlikely given that Britain most certainly did not support those groups (as most of the terrorism was directed towards the British).