Sunday, April 10, 2005

Teaching Israel

Crooked Timber points me to (and partially dismantles) this screed by Michigan History Professor Juan Cole. Cole dovetails in and out of two contradictory positions, seemingly without realizing it. First he says:
Historians are unkind to nationalism of any sort. Nineteenth century romantic nationalism of the Zionist sort posits eternal "peoples" through history, who have a blood relationship (i.e. are a "race") and who have a mystical relationship with some particular territory. The Germans, who were very good at this game, called it "blood and soil." Nationalism casts about for some ancient exemplar of the "nation" to glorify as a predecessor to the modern nation.

Quite right. You won't find any disagreement from me on this. But Cole needs to remember his subject. Jews aren't a race in the classic, blood-bond sense of the term, but rather because they are culturally and in many ways ethnically different. The community is one of self-identification, for which membership is open and voluntary. There are black Jews, white Jews, Arab Jews, all kinds of Jews. No mythification is necessary. But just as most claims of biological connection are fictive, the cultural connection is very, very, real, and deeply ingrained in what it means to be Jewish. Cole's standard storyline of racial construction doesn't work here, but he tries to force the master anti-colonialist narrative onto a group it really doesn't apply to. The implication of this narrative is that Israel (being the result of fictive and oppressive nationalist forces) doesn't deserve to exist (why any nation-state--Palestinian, Saudi Arabian, French, Chinese--deserves to exist is left unsaid).

Then Cole says:
"[A]nti-Israeli"...generally...means any criticism of Israel. (You can criticize Argentina all day every day till the cows come home and nobody cares in the US, but make a mild objection to Ariel Sharon putting another 3500 settlers onto Palestinian territory in contravention of all international law and of the road map to which the Bush administration says it is committed, and boom!, you are branded a racist bigot. And if you dare point out that Sharon's brutality and expansionism end up harming America and Americans by unnecessarily making enemies for us (because we are Sharon's sycophants), then you are really in trouble."

The distinction, Professor Cole, is that criticism of Argentina never carries the subtext that the state has no right to exist, a point you ratify mere paragraphs earlier. I'm sorry, but you can't apply a standard to Israel and nobody else, and then whine when we treat your criticisms differently than those of anybody else.

Either Cole agrees Israel has the right to exist on the same terms as any other nation (in which case Cole's first point is simply biased), or he doesn't, in which case he can't complain when Israel supporters believe that his criticisms might not come from a objective stance.

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