Thursday, December 29, 2016

The Sickness Debilitating Zionism

I've noticed how, when asked to defend Bibi's record or Israeli settlements, conservative Zionist voices immediately -- almost instinctively -- pivot to complaining about the actions or inactions of someone else. Obama did this. Iran did that. Hamas did this. The UN did that.

On this note, there is a passage in T'ruah's analysis of the UN Security Council resolution on Israeli settlements that deserves highlighting:
Much of the Israeli and Jewish communal response to the UNSC resolution, as well as to all tokhecha [rebukes/corrections] regarding settlement growth, has emphasized the failure of Palestinians to accept past agreements, or focused on terror as the primary obstacle to peace. While there is certainly reason to find fault with both sidesas the UNSC resolution does—Zionism, ultimately, is about taking our future in our own hands, rather than waiting for someone else to determine our future. This means both accepting responsibility for the misguided and dangerous policy of settlement expansion, and taking it upon ourselves to do what is necessary to bring about peace.

If I could endorse this 1,000 times, I would. This could not be more right. And that it needs to be said at all identifies a sickness that is crippling the Zionist vision.

My specialty is anti-discrimination law, and so I'm well aware of the importance of comparator analysis. One common way of establishing discrimination is to demonstrate that similarly situated A and B are nonetheless being treated differently. Tell me that the UN -- that much of the world -- treats Israel unfairly, and I'll tell you "you're 100% right". It does. Absolutely it does. The comparative analysis of looking to how other countries behave or what other politicians say and do can completely warrant that assertion.

But the point of Zionism was not to enable Jews to be able to declare how unfairly we're treated. It was not even to make it so that Jews would cease to be unfairly treated. The point of Zionism was to put Jews in control of Jewish choices. It is a far closer cousin to Black Power and other nationalist conceptions of minority liberation than it is to more classically liberal civil rights models. The point of Zionism is self-determination. And a self-determining ideology comes with responsibility for what the self determines; it no longer is primarily about what others determine for us. The revolution that was Zionism was that Jews generate our own future, regardless of how the surrounding world feels about us. When putative Zionists focus on what others are or are not doing, what others say or are not saying, they abdicate the very core of the Zionist mission.

And here is the sickness: For too many Jews, Zionism has ceased to be about taking our future in our own hands. This self-determining vision is beginning to wither. I've complained bitterly about those "Zionists" who refuse to act until the world writes them a permission slip. For these people, the metric of Zionism has become what other people or other countries do or don't do. It has become a pathetic shadow of itself: a reactive, rather than self-generating, ideology. Their Zionism focuses on what we can't do rather than what we can. It talks not of Israeli action but of Arab rejection. "If you will it, it is no dream" is replaced by "no partner for peace."

Take the settlements. Persons opposed to a settlement freeze often argue that Palestinians won't come to the negotiating table just because there is a halt to settlement growth. They say that evacuating the settlements won't bring peace. They say that the international community doesn't really care about settlements at all; it's a figleaf for more general anti-Israeli antipathy. They say that other countries engage in similar behavior and are not chastised for it.

Maybe they're right. It's not implausible. But none of these constitute a self-determined reason to continue the settlement project. They're all based on what others (supposedly) will say or do, or won't say or won't do. We won't act on the settlements until someone else says or does the right thing. Our decisions are in their hands.

Put another way, one could fully agree that reversing settlement growth will not cause Palestinians to come to the negotiating table, will not bring about a peace agreement, will not result in any diminution of anti-Israel sentiment internationally, and still observe that Israel is fully capable of doing it. However, outside of the nationalist-right, which endorses the settlements for their own sake, the discussion barely even purports to glance that way. Among those Jews who are not themselves affirmatively pro-settlement, Jewish autonomous choice has become virtually irrelevant to the conversation. The operative variables are entirely what non-Jews will or won't say, do or don't do.

I talk to these Jews, and they are dismissive -- perplexed, even -- towards the idea that Jews should act even in absence of cookies from gentiles. Say Israel should withdraw from the settlements, and they'll talk of Gaza, of Lebanon, of Cyprus, of Tibet, of Western Sahara, of Ukraine, of Iran -- someone else, somewhere else, something else. Agree with all of these examples, and say Israel should do it anyway, and they'll stare blankly. They cannot see a self-generative Zionism outside of the fringes of the extreme right (which, say what you will about it, tends not to care much about what the rest of the world thinks). The idea that we should do these things for self seems not to occur to them.  They are paralyzed, awaiting a gentile seal of approval even as they bitterly grouse that the seal will never come. They have abandoned the core insight of Zionism itself, regressing to a world in which the most important measurement of the Jew was the gentile.

It is a sickness that is eating away at the heart of the Zionist dream. And somehow, it must be cured.


Mas said...

Long time reader, first time commenting. While I’m sympathetic to your view on self-determination and think your criticism of certain conservative Jews is valid, I think you are missing some nuance here. A few thoughts for your consideration:

1. One reason people are perplexed when you suggest that Israel should withdraw from settlements without getting anything in return from the Palestinians/Americans/UN is that, even outside of the nationalist right, most Zionist Jews don’t have a fundamental objection to settlements. The Israeli center and large parts of the Israeli left would agree that, in abstract principle, Jews of course have a right to live in Hebron and Beit El, but argue nevertheless we should compromise on this right for pragmatic reasons. The pragmatic reasons offered usually have to do, in large part, with the argument that withdrawing will get the Palestinians to the negotiating table, lead to a peace agreement and result in a diminution of anti-Israel sentiment internationally (even the issue of demography is usually phrased in terms of international isolation – if Israel holds on to the territories without giving the Palestinians voting rights, it will become a pariah state and will be internationally isolated). If you are conceding that withdrawing from settlements won’t do any of these things, sure, Israel may be capable of reversing settlement growth, but you’ve removed most of the usual pragmatic reasons for taking this action. The natural response would be to revert to the default of asserting the right of Jewish people to live wherever they want. While I don’t doubt you can articulate your alternative reasons, it is understandable why people from the Zionist middle would find your position confusing before hearing them.

2. It isn’t a coincidence that most Israelis who are not affirmatively pro-settlement resort to pragmatic rather than fundamental objections to the settlements. Making fundamental objections that apply to settlements, but not to Israel proper, is hard. Tzipi Livni and Yair Lapid don’t want to explain why it is fundamentally ok to build Tel Aviv University on the land of the abandoned village of Sheikh Munis, but it is fundamentally terrible to have a yeshiva in Beit Romano (property in Hebron owned by Jews since the 19th century). Much easier to say, sure, it would be great to have control of Hebron, but nebach what can we do, the international community won’t let us. Without articulating and popularizing a convincing argument on these fundamentals, it will be hard for liberal Zionists generally to take your pure self-determination stance.

3. While this criticism doesn’t apply to you individually, it seems a little bit inconsistent for organizations like T’ruah to invoke Zionist ideas of Jewish self-determination in light of their chosen political tactics, which include supporting efforts by non-Jewish power to coerce the Israeli government into doing things it doesn’t want to do. It doesn’t work to say “I advocate Jewish self-determination, unless that self-determination results in policies I disagree with, in which case I will encourage the most powerful country in the world/all the countries in the world to apply pressure to get the results I want.”

Mas said...

4. Self-determination can’t mean that we adopt geopolitical strategies in a vacuum without paying attention to the likely results of those actions. That would be crazy. If so, it seems unavoidable that even the most independent Zionists have to take into account “what non-Jews will or won’t say, do or don’t do” when choosing a policy, even if those aren’t the exclusive operative variables. In analyzing what a policy will do, recent experiences with similar policies and the relevant non-Jewish political actors seem clearly relevant. In that context, it seems like you are conflating bona fide distractions (Tibet, Western Sahara, arguably Iran) with relevant evidence (Hamas, Gaza, Lebanon). If you’re advocating withdrawing the settlements in the context of a negotiated agreement, the burden is on you to explain why your proposed negotiation will have better results than those of Ehuds Barak and Olmert. If you’re advocating a unilateral withdrawal, you should be able to explain how this unilateral withdrawal will be different from the withdrawals from Gaza and Lebanon and won’t result in Qassams on Tel Aviv. These issues are not “somewhere else, someone else, something else” in a discussion of ending the occupation, they are directly on point. Again, the lack of solid, broadly convincing, answers to these questions is a primary reason why the Israeli Zionist left hasn’t won an election in forever.

5. More generally, I think the disease you diagnose is endemic to pretty much all out-directed Zionist political activity in the diaspora, from ZOA to AIPAC to JStreet. If Zionism means (and I largely agree with you on this) that Jews should do for self regardless of the surrounding world, what are we doing fighting BDS or lobbying to secure pro-Israel (whatever that means to us) government policies at all? Both political goals are manifestly inconsistent with the self-determining ideal you’ve articulated. And if diaspora Zionists shouldn’t focus on these things, then what should take their place?

Thanks for the thought-provoking posts.

David Schraub said...

I consider this a very thoughtful and intriguing critique. Thanks for contributing it!

Unknown said...

The preponderance of those who engage in the whataboutery you describe actually agree with Israel's irredentist policies vis a vis Judea and Samaria/West Bank. In other words, they are taking indigenous rights to the point of ignoring demographic realities and endangering our own national rights. It's very hard, if not impossible to get through to people who care more about living on the land than preserving Jewish self-determination.

Ultimately, both Jews and Arabs have to accept that they can't have everything they want.