Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Can Zionism Be Defended By Proxies?

Zionism is, at its essence, the national liberation project for Jews as applied to creating a Jewish nation-state in Israel. Its object and purpose centers around Jews. Since Israel has been established, Zionism today means just that one thinks creating Israel was a pretty good move and it should stick around (a definition inspired by, if not outright plagiarized from by virtue of not being able to find a link, Phoebe Maltz). Consequently, being a Zionist doesn't mean supporting any given Israeli policy. It does, however, mean affirming Israel's right to exist, be treated fairly and equally in the global community, and be secure.

In America (and throughout the world, but let's just stick with America) most defenders of Zionism as I define it are not Jews. This is not because Jews aren't Zionists (by and large, they are), but just because because most figures with a national audience are not Jews. With the possible exception of Joe Lieberman (who spends most of his time today talking about how peachy things are in Iraq), pretty much of all the national figures who explain why America should support Zionism are non-Jewish. These people -- Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, John McCain, George W. Bush, whomever -- are what I mean by proxies. They are non-Jews who are all out there in the public arena defending Zionism.

My thesis is that Zionism cannot be (or at least, is not) effectively defended by proxies. This is not meant to be churlish towards these supporters. Jews tend to accept help when they can get it, and with some exceptions I don't disagree. I just mean that the type of discourse employed by non-Jewish figures tends to differ dramatically from the reasons Jews themselves support Israel, and that disjuncture leads to problems. There are, I think, three major arguments the proxies use when trying to explain their support for the Zionist project (the right uses all three, the left only the latter two). All are problematic, though some more than others, and none really grasps why Zionism is important for Jews.

The first argument is the evangelical Christian perspective that wants Jews in Israel so we can hasten the coming of the Messiah (and then all convert/die, but that part is usually left off the brochure). This argument is growing in influence as the Christian Zionism continues to flourish and increase its ties with several mainstream Jewish organizations. It is on its terms not a "Jewish" argument (as its conclusion indicates), but it does give Israel a very powerful ally in the Christian religious right.

The second argument is the strategic claim that "Israel is America's strongest ally", either in the world or in the region. I have no idea if that's true as a technical matter (are we actually more important than England or Saudi Arabia?), but no matter -- it's clearly true that Israel contributes material things (trade, technology, intelligence) that are important to America. It is, however, once again not all that concerned with the Jewish perspective -- I'm glad that Israel's relationship with America isn't parasitic, but it's not why I wanted Israel established in the first place.

The third argument is the moral claim that Israel is a beacon of democracy in the Middle East -- sometimes described in religious terms as Israel being a "light unto nations". With the possible exception of Turkey, this is true, at least relatively: Israel certainly is more liberal and democratic than the Arab states around it. As a Jew, I'm proud of that fact, and certainly don't want Israel to cease being liberal or democratic (and indeed, could do an even greater commitment to both). But again, this is not quite getting at why I, as a Jew, wanted Israel to be around.

The missing justification, the one that both actually motivated Israel's creation and still explains its support amongst Jews today, is quite simple: safety. Jews didn't try and establish Israel so that we could die in the rapture, or so we could share neat-o technology with America, or even to prove that we can build a better nation than everyone else. Jews founded Israel because Jews understood -- through painful experience -- that we needed a place where we weren't at the mercy of others, where we were in charge of our own destiny, where we would be the ones who got to decide whether to let fleeing refugees in. In short, we needed a place to flee in case the world decided to start Pogroming again.

This is the defining feature of Jewish Zionist discourse. But it is largely absent from the proxy discussion. This is not surprising. Barack Obama can't get up and give a speech justifying his support for Israel because "at any moment, I might start killing you folks again." That would be absurd. But it would cut to the heart of the matter, and reveal the essential truth that undergirds Jewish Zionism: our insecurity in a gentile world.

The shift of the discourse away from actual Jews and to proxies has several negative effects. Each of the preceding three arguments I think recasts the Zionist question in an ultimately harmful way. The first argument is the one I find most despicable, because the relationship between Jewish Zionists and Christian evangelicals is one based on mutual contempt. The evangelicals think we're deluded hell-bound sinners who will get what's coming to us during the apocalypses. The Jews think the evangelicals are illiterate country bumpkins, and honestly take delight in taking advantage of it (if Christians are going to go crazy in favor of Jews for once, hey, why not?). It's unseemly all around, and it should abandoned. But more generally the Christian Zionist argument, like the other two, emphasizes ultimately marginal elements of the Jewish experience to the detriment of the community as a whole. It exaggerates the Jewish link with Christianity in the west, making easy pickings for those who want to lump Jews as part of a broad "Judeo-Christian" oppressive colonialist movement running roughshod over the rest of the world.

The second argument does much the same thing: it over-emphasizes Jewish power and encourages the view that Israel, despite being the size of Vancouver Island, is really this titanic behemoth that can be America's best friend (and the Arab World's worst nightmare). Moreover, shifts the debate away from remedying anti-Semitic oppression (indeed, by making Israel out to be a hyperpower, it violently lurches it away from that field by making it seem absurd that Jews could be oppressed) in favor of simple cost-benefit analysis about whether Israel (and by extension Jewish lives) is really giving us enough to make it worth it. And from there, we get folks like Walt and Mearshimer who say, no, it isn't. Since I don't believe that the marginalized have to earn their lives through trade, I don't find this line of reasoning compelling, but its where we go when we make Zionist advocacy center around whether Israel is a good ally or not for the United States.

The third argument is the most complicated. Again, I'm very happy that Israel is a relatively liberal democracy. I support efforts to make it yet more liberal and yet more democratic. At the same time, I recall Irving Greenberg's telling statement: "If Israel proves to be 10 percent better ethically than the rest of the world, it will be 'a light unto the nations.' If it proves to be 25% better, it will bring the Messiah. If it is 50% better, it will be dead." Hinging Zionism on Israel being awesome means holding it to higher standards than everyone else. I don't object to higher standards per se, although as Greenberg notes, the risk is that setting them too high means that we get killed trying to leap the bar.

The argument also strikes me kind of as an extension of the "politics of respectability" efforts by Blacks in the Civil Rights era -- if we just act good and pure enough, then people will have to accept us. The problem is threefold: first, there's no guarantee of that, second, while we're waiting for people to make that determination our commitment to "purity" makes us very vulnerable, and third, it does nothing for the people who aren't Gandhi-like superhumans, but just regular Joes (or Josephs). Jewish liberation means that all Jews, not just our Gandhis, have a right to be safe. Jews shouldn't be allowed to get away with unjust activity any more than anyone else, but even the human members of our community have a right to be treated fairly and equitably. When Israel commits a wrong, it deserves to be called on it, but not subject to the hyperbolic screaming fits and flagellations that come its way from the international community.

The light unto nations argument thus corrupts the discourse again by shifting the discussion away from Israel's purpose as a haven for Jews and over to a very specific and exacting critique of its behavior. To critics, this makes any ethical failing by the state a facial indictment of its existence -- a standard under which no nation could survive. To defenders, this same dynamic forces them to be overly-zealous in defending Israeli policies. Because Israel only deserves defense insofar as it is perfect, defending Israel means not conceding that it can do any wrong doing. This is a terrible debate for those of us in the Jewish community -- the vast majority of us -- who want Israel to do right, recognize that it can do wrong, but have realistic expectations about what it can do at all.

Even beyond the shortcomings of the specific arguments made by the proxies, there are other problems caused by the absence of the distinctly Jewish voice in defending Zionist ideology. For one, it obviously diminishes the public consciousness of the degree to which Jews still feel and are marginalized in American and worldwide, leading people to think that the problem of anti-Semitism has been solved and stifling discussion on its persistence. The difficulty so many people have in accepting that Jews aren't just paranoid maniacs, that there really are folks out to get us, and that there really are barriers to our full inclusion in society (Western and otherwise), is proof positive of this dynamic.

Second, our silence occurs as part of a broader paradigm of exclusion by which Jews are presumed to be spoken for and hence Jewish inclusion is unnecessary. Even if the proxies could perfectly defend Zionism from a Jewish perspective, it is not at all clear they could do the same on other issues that are of importance to Jews. Again, the hegemony of the "Judeo-Christian" acts to marginalize Jewish voices and block our full participation in the public arena. On a great many issues (most notably Church/State, but also any normative discussion that deals with the values of the Jewish community), it's very important that Jews have an independent platform to articulate our needs, wants, and arguments free from outside domination. That goal is undermined when the public does not feel the need to hear the Jewish voice because it wrongly assumes it is already part of the deliberative stream.

Third, the lack of a consciousness about what Jews actually think about Zionism breeds mistrust about our motives and allows anti-Semitic theories to run rampant. When the real Jewish motivation behind Zionism -- as a response to oppression in Europe and in the Muslim world -- is not heard, people replace it with their own theories -- inevitably negative ones. Zionism is an extension of European colonialism, or is a recasting of the crusades, or is the natural extension of an unquenchable Jewish thirst for power. It is only by stripping Zionism from its foundation rooted in the actual lived experience of the Jewish community that these theories can gain sustenance.

The upshot is not that Jews need to be more vocal as to why they're Zionist. Jews are already speaking on the subject, at length. It's the world that is not listening; that does not see our contribution to the discourse as relevant, "objective", or meaningful. This is the failing that needs to be acknowledged, and that needs to be remedied. The proxies only have to speak for us because nobody cares to listen to the Jews. So long as that continues to be the case, Zionism -- insofar as it is defended at all -- will continue to be defended from a vantage point that ultimately does not act against Jewish subordination.


Anonymous said...

Okay, I see your point, and it's very legitimate. I do agree with you in many of these things, I see. I don't necessarily feel totally anathema to the idea of a Jewish state per se, the issue I always had was that the lands of Israel, specifically, were the ones handed out.

The Germans prosecuted the holocaust on the Jewish community in Europe, it was the Germans who were conquered, and so it seems only fair that it should have been German land that was portioned out for the Jewish state. The fact that Israel, specifically, was given has to do with sentimental notions of the land belonging to them specifically some how, even when they haven't lived in it for thousands of years, and the European powers wanting some kind of satellite/bastion there in their attempts to colonize the middle-east (this is regardless of whether the Diaspora wanted to be a "foot-hold"; it is the nature of European thought then, specifically of the Allies). The whole problem in the region is compounded by the fact that the native people's in the region claim (and I think justly) that they had no involvement in WWII and the whole fact that the Jewish state is on their lands is a foreign imposition by European powers who didn't care at the time.

Also, I think my point about "oppression" still stands (you have to understand what a really, really powerful word that is; it's like saying you "hate" someone). Oppression is the full, institutional crushing of a people. Racism does not inherently equal oppression. Jim-Crow was clearly oppression, slavery was oppression, as was the Holocaust, the Reconquista, the treatment and slaughter of the Armenians, and the current and past treatment of the Kurds (who I think have a more legitimate claim to their lands than the European Jews did to Israel, considering the Kurds have and still do live in "Kurdistan").

From on Oppression:

1. the exercise of authority or power in a burdensome, cruel, or unjust manner.

I don't think one can argue that *that* specifically is happening to Jews in America. There is certainly racism, and it's bad (though worse in some parts than others). I don't think that the totality of all antisemitism in the West now would amount to "oppression", especially when there are no legal or clear institutional manifestations of it. I'm sure there are instances of it manifesting in people of power, thus denying rightful positions to many Jews, but this occurs with African Americans and Hispanics and Arabs, and even Asians, but I don't think this necessarily justifies any of them getting their own lands. Jews are part of the middle-class in a much grater proportion than say, African Americans or Latinos.

Also, I'd just like to say that if a safe haven was what Jews needed, then Israel was a terrible place to put it. The land is arid (even for the middle-east) and has little or no oil. The place is a religious time-bomb. Israel's GNP can't even support it's institutions; the military that is supposed to keep Jews safe is paid for in large part by America and Americans. What kind of safe haven can't protect itself without foreign money? If anything I think Israel needs to stop being so reliant on America for its own sake.

Anonymous said...

I think this reinforces your point...

schiller1979 said...

David, I think that those of us who support Israel and are not Jewish can share in a way with the goal of the State of Israel as a place of safety for Jewish people. That’s not the same as someone like me saying: “you’d better have a homeland, or we might start killing you.” But we can say “we support Jewish people having a homeland, because we don’t want the same forces in the world that have perpetrated pogroms in the past to be able to do so again.”

As to the democracy argument, many people’s rhetoric might be overblown. But I think it’s possible to see Israel’s being a democracy in a region with a severe democracy shortage as being a good thing, without expecting Israel to be perfect, or setting a higher standard for Israel than for other democracies.

In writing about the predominance of non-Jewish voices in American debate on these issues, you said nothing about the size of the Jewish minority in the US. According to one website I look at, it’s about 2%. So it’s not as though a Jewish population that is equal to the non-Jewish population is being silenced by force. And it’s not true that Joe Lieberman is the only Jewish voice. According to Wikipedia, there are 13 Jewish U.S. senators, and I don’t know of any who don’t support both the idea of Zionism and the State of Israel.

Anonymous said...

I think you're right that Jews who identify as Zionists, from a position of anti-subordination and resistance to anti-Semitism, are better voices for Israel than the proxies who support Israel for reasons that have little to do with social justice.

For whatever it's worth, though, my personal experience is that Jewish supporters of Israel are featuring the two liberal arguments that you associate primarily with proxies at the forefront of their public advocacy, while leaving out the Zionism-as-liberation argument all together. Texans for Israel, a mostly Jewish group run out of the local branch of Hillel, has held an 'Israel Block Party' annually for the past four years at the University of Texas at Austin. I have gone every time to protest, with the Palestine Solidarity Committee, what I see as the whitewashing of history presented in the exhibits there. Every time, I walked through the event, looking at the posters and materials and speaking with participants. I never heard them speak about Israel as a critical safe space for Jews, indeed part of the whitewashing was to present Israel as a diverse democracy which accords equal rights to all its citizens. This is not the case, of course, as Arabs and Palestinians in Israel are systematically under-privileged. The emphasis of the exhibits and those who I spoke with was on Israel as the only liberal democracy in the Middle East and a strong partner with the United States - and on Palestinian terrorism. Many pamphlets emphasized the accomplishments of Israeli industry and science, or the country's progressivism in quality of life or the status of women. No one, in any discussion, made the case you are making, that Jews face the structural oppression of anti-Semitism worldwide and require a space that ensures their safety and right to self-determination. Again, this is just my personal experience and I approached the event with a focus on the Palestinian cause, so maybe I missed it.

This is probably has to do with the suppression of Jewish voices, but I believe your blog is the first place that I've encountered, well, your specific line of argument in defense of Israel. And it is making me question and re-examine my approach to the conflict. Do you have any suggestions for readings on anti-Semitism as a structural oppression, historically or, preferably, in the present?

Anonymous said...

I have to agree. The point you are making never sees the light of day, even in Jewish groups that support Israel. It all gets tied up in the same pattern of things that you state distaste for, which I think is the ultimate problem. There is a perception problem towards what Israel represents and how to deal with Israel politically and with those in conflict with Israel.

David Schraub said...

ansel: thanks for your thoughtful reply. I agree with you that even amongst Jewish organizations the "safe haven" argument is not one that gets a huge amount of public attention; primarily because it's not a politically wise argument. As much as I detest the alliance with the "Christian Zionists" (and I do -- I think it's morally abhorrent and not in Israel's interests in any meaningful sense), it is politically expedient -- the Christian right is very powerful in a way Jews aren't. By contrast, going in front of the American people and saying "look, you've been reasonably nice to us for awhile, but have nothing guaranteeing you won't pull a Germany on us with little warning -- or even pull an WWII America and just reject our refugees" is -- well, let's just it would take the sort of testicular fortitude that Jewish groups aren't known for. So our public advocacy tends to mimic that which is constructed by (and presumably acceptable to) to the gentile majority. But -- with the possible and partial exception of the "light unto nations" argument, there is no question in my mind that Zionist ideology was inspired by Jews as a response to anti-Semitic oppression, and continues to be nourished primarily with reference to that lens.

As for your request for books, I'm afraid there is very little I can do for you at least with regards to Israel specifically. I bank-shotted to this position off of similar arguments some Jewish theorists made with regards to Church/State practice in the United States as reifying Jewish subordination (anything by Stephen Feldman, but particularly his book Please Don't Wish Me a Merry Christmas, would be the go to on this -- you could also try my own article, When Separation Doesn't Work: The Religion Clause as an Anti-Subordination Principle). Primarily, the Jewish response to oppression has been to seek refuge in liberal universalist (as opposed to critical) remedies, consequently, folks like me trying to indict the efficacy of those remedies are in short supply.

Oooh! I almost hit "post" without remembering the obvious source: Albert Memmi -- specifically, "The Liberation of the Jew." Memmi was one of the earliest writers in the field of anti-colonialist theory and a key influence on Franz Fanon. He's top notch, but I don't think he has much popular penetration, at least outside of France (he was a French-Tunisian Jew).

PG said...

The Christian evangelical argument apparently is hazardous to a presidential campaign when stated openly.

schiller1979 said...

I'm a Christian (or try to be, at least). The messianic argument for Zionism seems to me to be typical of the way in which many people find comfort in an overly simplistic reading of Christian scripture. Those who make that argument rarely link it to the Holocaust in the way Hagee has, but I suppose that's the assumption (whether spoken or not) behind that idea. It reinforces David's point about how dangerous that position is.

Anonymous said...

I think that's a very good post on the positive side of Zionism, but I wanted to ask a question about terminology. I would support Zionism in the sense of a national state for the Jews (I don't personally think it should have been put in Palestine, but since it was it shouldn't be violently removed), but I am deeply opposed to the claims made by some Israelis to the whole of 'Greater Israel', on the grounds that the Bible says it belongs to them. Is there a separate standard term for this expansionist project, so I can distinguish it from the protective form of Zionism you're talking about? The two positions tend to get lumped together in discussions, but they're very different proposals.

David Schraub said...

Why doesn't "Greater Israel" work? I'm a Zionist who does not adhere to the vision of "Greater Israel". Seems clear enough to me.

Incidentally, I'm going to have to write a post about the why the "Jews should have gotten a homeland, but not in Israel" argument is really, really bogus which still doesn't root its analysis in the experience and remedy of Jewish subordination.