Sunday, October 24, 2021

On Losing in History, from Bundism to Liberal Zionism

What does it mean, to be part of a political movement that ... loses?

Most political organizing, as I understand it, is not primarily about predicting the future. It's about fighting for the future that one wants to see, at a time where there are multiple plausible futures that could come to pass. Given that, it will inevitably be the case that many people will join political movements that are fighting for a plausible, defensible future and who -- fast-forward twenty years -- will have lost.

Consider the Bundists of the early 20th century. They fought for a world in which Jewish equality and self-determination would flower and be protected in the places where Jews already were -- "hereness". Certainly, this is a defensible vision of the world, one that one would be perfectly justified in fighting for in the early 20th century. And yet, as we know, the future the Bundists fought for did not come to pass. They lost their battle, and lost it in the most horrifying manner possible to the Nazis. And so in the future that did come to pass, the Bundists, like all Jews, suffered horribly.

Does this discredit the Bundists? Does the end of the story necessarily mean that they made the wrong choice in what they sought to fight for at the start of the story? Many say yes. I'm unconvinced. It seems unfair -- cruel, even -- to judge an ideology by the consequences of a future that they unsuccessfully sought to resist. The Bundists had a plausible vision of the future that they reasonably thought was worth fighting for. And they did, and they ... lost. Are all political campaigns that are lost thereby proven to have been wrong to fight for in the first place?

It is easy to say they should have known better, with the benefit of hindsight. Knowing how the story  played out, of course the Bundists look like fools. But nobody should be so confident in their ability to win political struggles. One can have the best moral judgment in the world, and a will of iron, and a keen strategic mind, and one can in politics still lose. Too much depends on what other people do. You can make all the right moves, or at least defensible moves, and still lose. It is, in many ways, a sign of our own egocentrism that we blame ourselves for "picking the wrong side", as if history's arc would have been materially different if we, personally, had chosen to be liberals or socialists or Marxists or nationalists or pragmatists in the moment of fighting. Any one of us changing sides would almost certainly not change matters one whit. Sure, maybe if everyone had switched sides that would've made a difference. But not even the most powerful and influential among us has that amount of sway. The choices other people make will always be largely uncertain to us. And so while utter naivete about the choices others will likely make is not always excusable, we should not act as if only a fool would not have known how events would play out. The Bundists could not have known that Nazism would end up carrying the day in Germany, and that all their work would be for less than naught.

Liberal Zionism in 2021 perhaps looks much like Bundism in 1931. Make no mistake: we are losing. Perhaps we have already lost, though the revitalization of neo-Bundism today makes me think that no ideology of this sort truly can be said to have lost forever. Maybe in some future world there will be a new set of conditions making Liberal Zionism a winning team again (for example, if we live out the "Czechoslovakia gambit", where a one state solution eventually leads to a two state solution on equitable terms, I can very much imagine a New Liberal Zionism flowering). 

But whether one retains faint hope or not about the present or not, there is no question that the liberal Zionist vision is losingI did not begrudge anyone for cheering Netanyahu's demise, but it is certainly emblematic of how weak the liberals are that Naftali Bennett counts as a savior. Or, for that matter, Benny Gantz, who himself has spoken of the need to preserve Israeli sovereignty over far-flung settlements "forever" and just designated an array of respected Palestinian human rights NGOs as terrorist entities. How excited can we be, when men such as these excite us?

And these are the high notes! On the other side, the far-right is ascendant and makes no bones about its desire to raze liberal rule of law values to the ground. Traditional pillars of liberalism and rule of law in Israel -- the judiciary, cultural institutions, academia -- are under assault from all sides and are slowly wilting. The liberal parties in Israel are moribund, to the point where it's now no longer a given that Labor can cross the electoral threshold unaided. The right surged to victory in the last WZC election and rapidly began consolidating power. With the exception of the Abraham Accords, it is hard to think of any aspect of Israeli life where the liberal ideal has not decayed significantly over the past twenty years (and even the Abraham Accords, as much as I celebrate them, still ultimately represent compacts with largely authoritarian nations -- not exactly a liberal seed). 

And things look slated only to get worse. The younger generation in Israel is far, far more conservative than the older one; in Israel it is not bigotry and prejudice that might eventually die out with age, but tolerance and democratic values. Among young Jewish Israelis, levels of hatred towards Arab citizens are staggeringly high; half of young religious Zionist Jews in Israel think Arabs shouldn't be allowed to vote. The larger mainstream Jewish organizations are still stuck in patterns of passivity and obeisance, and will not stick their necks out to actually organize for liberal values in Israel -- in their best moments the most they can offer is to stay out of the way. Seeing groups squabble over something as seemingly mundane and unoffensive as the Two State Solution Act is as disheartening as it is unsurprising. The idea that they will ever have the boldness to pick a stick to go along with their carrots is ludicrous

And those who are still fighting for liberal values in Israel from a place of genuine attachment to Israel are increasingly alone, and are on the defensive. All their energy is devoted to slightly slowing down the liberal decay; they cannot even imagine what going on the offensive would look like, and they wouldn't have the resources or time to do it even if they could. Elsewhere on the left, there are no reinforcements, but rather cheers for our demise. At best, we have no role in their strategizing. We're non-factors. Just as often, the liberals are seen as nothing more than an annoying set of gadflies standing between the decolonizers and the fascists; the left cannot wait to see us wiped out, and if they see an opportunity to accelerate the process -- squeeze out those beleaguered universities and cultural institutions and academics -- they'll jump all over it

Even the SunriseDC fiasco -- objectively, a crushing defeat for anti-Israel fundamentalists -- is a sign that we're losing, for SunriseDC would not have tried this gambit if it hadn't at least thought it might succeed. Five years ago, it would have been inconceivable to imagine a call to expel the NCJW from progressive spaces succeeding. Even in the wake of its failure, one could see the Overton Window shift, and people for whom perhaps this particular play was a step too far start to rationalize how other, similar moves, that also would result in kneecapping Jewish liberal organizations or imposing special litmus tests us to "earn" or "claim" our seat at the progressive table, could be justified, and how a policy of slow strangulation of liberal Jewish political activity could begin anew. The cavalry is not coming. We are losing.

I don't want to say it's hopeless. But we are losing, and losing badly enough that we have to start imagining actual defeat. If we do lose, outright and utterly, we can only hope first that the consequences of our defeat are not as staggeringly catastrophic as they were for the Bundists. Probably they won't be -- actual industrial genocide remains a rare thing. But an unrepentant authoritarian apartheid Israel would be bad enough.  Or the eradication of Jewish self-determination in Israel, a return to being a minority at others' sufferance, that would be bad enough. And we will ask ourselves, "could it have all been averted, if we had switched sides? If we had not fought a losing battle?" Knowing the end of the story, does the indict our choices at the beginning?

As with the Bundists, perhaps it will be unfair, to blame us for a future that we fought against, just because we did so unsuccessfully. A small consolation indeed.


Ben said...

I don't know very much about Bundism--it sounds like a general plea for respectability politics with a fatal weakness that it would simply be burned down by whatever actor felt like disenfranchising Jews at the very least and killing them at the very worst--but I do have some knowledge of liberal Zionism...and it's main problem is that it takes the respectability argument and tries to apply that to Leftist alliances. This is a problem because the Left, even before the past decade, was only a grudging supporter of Israel and saw Zionism before they generally shifted into the position that Zionism itself needs to be destroyed (since Zionism is a national ideology that succeeded, this is shorthand for attrition that will give them the victory over Israel they can't get on a battlefield). Haaretz and much of the Israeli Left were just ahead of their time as far as taking the Peter Beinart position that the answer to the Left's hostility was to completely surrender to them and embrace their one-state/BDS idolatry. But all that will really equal is that they'll briefly be used as props by the larger Leftist anti-Israel movement and then thrown into dumpsters when that movement feels it has won. It's not hard to understand why liberal Zionism is failing: it literally has nowhere it can go and no one who genuinely supports it.

Leora said...

Well, I came here looking for an explainer for Leftist friends about why SunriseDC's initial statement was antisemitic. I'm not a Zionist, and the posts here were not what I was looking for. That said, it's interesting. And there's a statement I want to respond to:

"Or the eradication of Jewish self-determination in Israel, a return to being a minority at others' sufferance, that would be bad enough."

You do realize after Apartheid ended in South Africa, the white people there may have been a 10% minority and black people an 80% majority, but the white people didn't become a minority at black people's sufferance? They still retained systemic, structural, and institutional power, and black people remained the ones experiencing systemic discrimination at white people's sufferance, even though it wasn't formally codified in law anymore. Considering the power dynamics in Israel and Palestine, it's likely that even if a single democratic state were established that gave everyone equal rights on paper, in practice inequality would continue and there would still be systemic discrimination...against Palestinians. As Jews we have keen memories of what it was like to experience systemic oppression as a disempowered minority and we still have a lot of pain and trauma from that, and aren't wrong to assume that equal rights on paper don't mean equal rights in practice. However, it's a fallacy to assume the only thing that makes a group empowered or disempowered is being a majority or minority. Considering Israeli Jews have been the ones with institutional and structural power in both Israel and Palestine for decades, if the model of South Africa is anything to go by, they aren't likely to lose it just by becoming a minority and the laws that favor Israeli Jews going away on paper. And I don't say this because I don't care about Israeli Jews. To be clear, I am Jewish, and I do care. But looking at the power dynamics of the situation, it seems like Palestinians would have more inequality to deal with under even a democratic egalitarian one-state solution than Israeli Jews will.

David Schraub said...


First, notice I didn't say that the eradication of Jewish self-determination" is an inevitability, only that it's a possibility (just as a self-consciously authoritarian state). It is also possible that everyone will live happily ever after. But that does not strike me as so obvious as to be taken for granted.

Stipulate for sake of argument that South Africa represents such a happy ending -- or, to the extent it's unhappy, it's because it is still too slanted to the "formerly" dominating group. One issue is that South Africa is not the only model we have of what happens to the "formerly" dominating group displaced from de jure power. In other places, the story is much less happy. In many of those places, we perhaps don't have a ton of sympathy for the formerly dominating group -- the "wrongs" they experience are actually fair turnabout; they are merely getting what's coming to them (one wonders if there is any example one can think of where we'd say "the hitherto oppressed group, having thrown off its shackles, went too far in pursuing what it claimed was 'justice' against the formerly dominant class." If we can't think of any cases, that suggests that, to the extent Jews in Israel fit the category of "formerly dominant", there is no limit to what will be accepted being done against them in pursuit of "justice"). However we assess these situations, it does flag the point that the harder one goes in on these points, the more likely that any ensuing maltreatment will be viewed as just deserts, and so has a strong potential to be antipathic to upholding actually egalitarian democratic values. At the very least, it is an exceptionally delicate balance, and whether we're talking about Israel, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Algeria, or Vietnam, few have nailed it. And it absolutely is the case that, even among persons who frame their talk in terms of "democracy" or "egalitarianism" (who doesn't know well enough to speak that language?), there is plenty of chatter that already seeks to lay foundations for justifying, as a form of recompense, widespread limitations or denials of rights, expropriations, or even driving large numbers of Jews out of the region entirely.

David Schraub said...

But there's also good reason to think that Whites in South Africa are different in some very important relevant respects to Jews in Israel. Whites in SA represent a historically dominant group that, even after losing de jure political control post-apartheid, still could and did fall back on the twin facts of (a) centuries of accreted social, political, and economic advantage and (b) White people still remaining the globally dominant caste. Given that, it's perhaps unsurprising that they had a rather cushioned landing (perhaps too cushioned) when SA apartheid fell. This doesn't automatically translate to the Jewish-Israeli case, where a historically marginalized group, in (one of) the regions where they had been marginalized, temporarily secured dominance over a slice of land but (in this scenario) lose it again several decades later. Off the top of my head, I can't think of another historical parallel to that -- there maybe is something in Eastern Europe or Southeast Asia that tracks, but I don't know enough to speak with certainty. Still, since unlike SA Whites Jews neither can fall back upon centuries of being the globally dominant group, nor on being currently the dominant global caste, such a scenario does not seem prone to result in the historically marginalized but temporarily dominant group, once displaced and returned once again to minority status, nonetheless retaining widespread systemic advantages. I'm not saying it's impossible, only that it can't be assumed and I would wager it relatively less likely. Instead, it seems like a scenario where some of the unlovelier wages of "just deserts" become more probable; at best the reassertion of the "historical status quo" (which in SA is still one where White people can do just fine, but in the ME is one where Jews very much were not fine), at worst the status quo plus vengeance for the temerity to have upset the natural order. I don't say that's guaranteed, but it doesn't seem like mere fear-mongering either. An SA-like outcome seems very "optimistic", all the more so insofar as your prediction, self-consciously or not, already frames an SA-like outcome as being insufficient to secure justice for Palestinians and is highly suggestive that the serious proponent of equity for Palestinians may have to forego such niceties and consider more aggressive measures.