Wednesday, December 20, 2017

On Hating the Players While Loving the Game: The Progressive Dilemma in Israel and America

Donald Trump is effectuating a sea change in progressive Zionism.

That's not a novel hypothesis. But I mean to make the argument differently than it's usually presented.

If you asked me five, ten, fifteen years ago to associate "anger" at a country with a political orientation towards that country, I'd have said "revolutionary." If I am outright angry at a country, then I'm saying it needs to be (metaphorically, at least) burned to the ground, flipped over and radically restarted. Those who are angry at America do not also love America -- they think America is a poisoned chalice, a false promise. To be clear, I've never thought (and I don't think now) that dissent is incompatible with loving a nation. But this sort of quaking rage is a different beast -- if this is what one feels, it's because one thinks the entire endeavor is not worth saving.

And yet, right now, the attitude I feel towards America and its leaders is anger. I am angry at Donald Trump, and I'm angry at the congressional Republicans who enable him. More than that, I'm angry at the direction America has taken. Democracies are as they do, and as Richard Rorty once observed, "There is nothing deep down inside us except what we have put there ourselves." So, in a real sense, I'm deeply angry at America.

Many progressives share that sentiment. And some of them, certainly, channel that anger into a revolutionary critique. The election of Trump, and the careening of the Republican Party into a far-right political movement, demonstrates that America as we know it really is corrupted root-to-branch.

Yet most of us, I think, aren't going down that road (whether we should or not is a debate for another time). Our anger is not leading us to the conclusion that America cannot be saved, or that it is in its entirety a failed experiment. We continue to care about America; we continue to love America, we do not think that the current political environment -- rage-inducing as it may be -- indicates that "America" as an idea should be abandoned, tossed aside for something else.

And this, I think, is offering a new model for progressive engagement with Israel. If you asked me five, ten, fifteen years ago, "what is the political orientation towards Israel of someone who is angry at Israel," I'd have said "revolutionary." They want to destroy the Zionist state root-to-branch, and replace it with something else.

For Jews, an unbreakable syllogism created an unstable binary. The syllogism was that "If you're angry at Israel (not just "opposed to X policy", but angry) -- its practices, its leaders, its direction -- then you must want to see it destroyed." And so persons who started to feel anger were forced to choose. If they loved Israel, believed in it as a state, then they couldn't be angry towards it -- they had to sublimate and suppress those feelings, because accepting them meant (by syllogism) that they must want Israel to be destroyed. And by contrast, if that anger was irresistible, if they couldn't not be angry at this policy or that leader or those practices, then they had no choice (again, by syllogism) but to endorse the idea that Israel was a false promise, an indelible corruption, which must be torn out from the ground.

Now, to be sure, there are many people for whom anger at Israel really does come hand-in-hand with seeking its destruction. I'm not saying they don't exist, or that they represent the majority of those who have historically held attitudes like "anger" towards the Israeli state. But I don't think that connection holds syllogistically, and it is (amazingly enough) Donald Trump who has allowed me to see that.

The antipathy I hold towards Bibi Netanyahu is not different in kind to my attitude towards Donald Trump, and to be honest it's not that far off in degree either. And Netanyahu isn't even the worst actor -- proceed to the next circle out (not even to the fringes, but still people well within the Israeli political mainstream), look at your Miri Regevs and your Bezalel Smotrichs and your Naftali Bennetts and your Oren Hazans and your Ayalet Shakeds, and things get far worse. And for progressive Zionists, it is hard not to react to this with despair. I detest these people and all that they stand for, but they represent the dominant political coalition in Israel today. So if I loathe them and their policies ... where does that leave me? What's the point of caring about Israel, if this is the Israel of today?

Well, it leaves me in the same place I'm left vis-a-vis America today. The dominant political coalition in America is repulsive to me, it is horrifying, it is sickening. And yet my reaction to it has not been to throw up my hands and give up on America (nor has it been to softplay just how horrible Trump and his cohorts are). I care about America and believe in the idea of "America" -- maybe I shouldn't, but I do -- and so the implied association between anger and revolutionary rupture has not, yet at least, come to pass.

Donald Trump has illuminated the space for genuinely caring about, and investing in, a political community even as one is repelled by its leaders and its current political orientation. I live in that space every day right now, as an American. And learning how to do that is something that progressive Zionists have desperately needed, because the old binary -- abandon anger, or abandon ship -- wasn't going to work for much longer.

This is a lesson that Jews have learned at least once before. The post-Holocaust theology advocated by scholars like Yitz Greenberg and David Blumenthal have suggested that what Jews need to preserve a relationship with God is the legitimized ability to express anger towards God; in my scholarship I've extended this argument into the political context as well. It's a dangerous lesson because anger is a dangerous emotion, and because (at least in my formulation of it) this sort of anger does not imply any ethical obligation to continue to preserve the relationship going forward.

Nonetheless, one virtue of legitimizing a qualified role for anger in our political relationships is that it need not occupy the field. After the Holocaust, Jews may be angry at God -- but we are not just that. We'd be far more likely to become "just that" if our anger was delegitimized -- a sort of irrational hysteria, or proof that we are no longer Jews -- but it wasn't, and so we haven't.

Maybe I'm too sanguine. In part, this is because I dislike anger as a political emotion. I don't like myself when I'm angry; anger doesn't make me feel validated, it makes me feel sad. More to the point: I don't trust my political instincts when they're inflected by anger. I was not surprised to find that I've specifically critiqued anger as a political emotion in the context of Israel and Palestine. Yet I've also recognized that anger can have productive uses here, if it is appropriately cabined and doesn't metastasize into the dominant mode of relating to the conflict (on this more generally, see also). Because I don't like being angry, I'm less worried about the risk I'll want to stay angry for its own sake -- for me, allowing anger is a means of working through it to someplace more productive. But maybe that's not really the case, or at least not the case for everyone.

That's a nettlesome problem, and I'm not sure how to resolve it. I can't imagine a way of being a progressive Zionist that doesn't allow for one to be positively repelled by the current Israeli political climate, any more than I can imagine being a progressive American today who isn't horrified by our own nation's descent into an alt-right fever dream. Nonetheless, I do think that Trump has crystallized a mode of relating to Israel for progressive Jews that allows us to genuinely, in our bones, be upset at the direction Israel has taken -- not simply a bad headline here or there, but core features of its current politics -- without feeling the need to let go of it entirely. If I can do that for America, I can do it for Israel too.

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