Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Of Blood and Country

Harry's Place reports that the new Macmillan Encyclopedia on Race & Racism has an entry on Zionism, unsurprisingly calling it racist. I say unsurprisingly, because my unfortunate experience is that whenever Zionism gets singled out for focus amongst various nationalist ideologies (which it was here -- indeed, "nationalism" itself didn't even warrant an entry), it's not going to be in a manner that is precisely equitable or fair-minded to the Jews.

The author of the section on Zionism is a Noel Ignatiev, who, though having done interesting work on the normative status of Whiteness, does not have any particular expertise on Zionism or Jews that I know of (he was born to Jewish parents, but I'm pretty sure he does not practice or identify at all). He has on occasion written on the topic, such as in this lovely essay where he alleges that Zionism served as a Nazi collaboration project and claims that "Osama Bin-Laden was telling no more than the truth when he said that the Muslim world is facing an alliance of Zionists and Crusaders." So, you know, a neutral figure to construct an encyclopedia entry.

Anyway. Insofar as Dr. Ignatiev has an academic specialty, it is on race, and particularly Whiteness, which he wishes to "abolish". This is a polemical claim, and though I find myself disagreeing with it, it is easily misunderstood. But I fear that in this case, Dr. Ignatiev's lens of Whiteness as the paradigm by which he views race leads him to significant misunderstanding of how "race", Judaism, and Israel intersect.

Ignatiev's justification for labeling Zionism as a fundamentally racial endeavor is the following:
Because it defines 'Jew' not by religious observance, language, place of birth, or culture, but by descent, Zionism is an ideology of race.

Now, there a couple things to be said about this. First, strictly speaking, this is inaccurate, as one can convert to Judaism and persons duly converted as considered to be full members of the Jewish community. There are, of course, disputes about who is eligible to oversee a conversion and thus which conversions are legitimate, but the principle is well established that, both religiously and as far as the state of Israel is concerned, one can be Jewish without having Jewish descent.

Second, the subtext to Ignatiev's claim here is that the "descent" definition is exclusionary, hence why it is problematic. This comes out of his dominant framework for understanding race, Whiteness, by which using "White" as a defining characteristic (as opposed to other potential identification axes) was done specifically to point at a given class of Other people and say "not for you". But the descent framework for Jews has the opposite effect -- it is considerably more inclusive than alternative frameworks, such as place of birth or degree of observance. Ignatiev could argue that Whiteness served the same effect by uniting disparate European nationals with little else in common under a single banner for the purpose of exploitation. But that "little else in common" is the kicker here, which moves me to my next point....

Third, the definition is remarkably ahistorical. As noted by some critics of Ignatiev's entry, his encyclopedia article makes no mention of the Holocaust. This, of course, is problematic, because it, and the broader currents of anti-Semitism from which it stemmed, were instrumental in making the definition of Jew what it was. Jew was defined broadly because it was intended to capture all those who would be targeted for death by anti-Semitic violence. It is asinine to assert that the broad definition was created for purposes of domination and control. It rather clearly was done so as to protect the maximum number of people possible. The broadly defined "class" of Jew does share something in common, and that something is anti-Semitism. It is little consolation to religious Jews if violence is being directed at their less observant brothers if that violence is occurring due to their Jewishness -- it is still equally threatening. And Israel has practiced what it preaches in this respect: when Jewish-identified persons whose Jewish descent is subject of question and debate by Israeli authorities (such as the Ethiopian Jewish community) seek to emigrate, they are welcomed in regardless of whether it is ultimately determined that they are Jewish-by-descent (indeed, the Ethiopian Jewish community was encouraged to convert, indicating that the relevant authorities did not think they were "actually" Jewish through descent).

Fourth and finally, I think that Jews as a community show an interesting malleability to such concepts as "race", "religion", "nation", and "culture". I've often heard it demanded that Jews "pick one", for example, that Judaism is "properly" a religion and thus should not be able to claim rights rightfully restricted to nations. For those of us who think those concepts should be destabilized, or at least shaken up a bit, the way which Judaism blends these categories should be exciting and laudable, as we seem to reject the notion that Jews as a "race" or "nation" or "religion" has to be calcified and eternal across all time. But Ignatiev is insistent upon keeping Jews in one box: if we're acting like races typically do, then that is the root of any national policies we promote, regardless of whether we ourselves see religious, cultural, communal, or historical influences as being as much or more important to the behavior.

Ignatiev, in short, doesn't see Jews as Jews. He sees them through eyeglasses tinted by other experiences, and expresses no interest in hearing our own tale as we express it. In doing so, he inevitably misses the reality of our situation, and will find it impossible figure out a solution that promises the flourishing of Jews qua Jews as one of its characteristics.


PG said...

"but the principle is well established that, both religiously and as far as the state of Israel is concerned, one can be Jewish without having Jewish descent."

This certainly seems to be true for the standard required to be admitted to Israel, but what about the standards for being allowed to marry? I'd normally be indifferent to this -- OK, so you're not Jewish enough to marry in an Orthodox temple, get married somewhere else -- except Israel apparently lacks the civil marriage option.

David Schraub said...

If you convert under Orthodox rules, you should be allowed to marry a fellow Jew. But those rules (which actually date back to British control -- the rules are basically that each religion controls the rule for its own group) are a travesty and I strongly urge their repeal.

PG said...

British control -- the rules are basically that each religion controls the rule for its own group

Yep, that's how India ended up with its various "personal laws" too.

David Schraub said...

Stunningly, British colonization tends to fuck things up.

Jack said...

I wonder if the encyclopedia defines all nationalisms as racist. In principle I could accept such a position (though in practice nation states are really really important and necessary until such time as everyone extends the protection of rights to everyone else). Though, as you suggest, the fact that the Encyclopedia isn't going to include articles on every other nationalism is problematic to say the least.

Zionism needs a better PR campaign though. In my experience though, a lot or people don't know what Zionism is and basically just think of it as this spooky mysterious conspiratorial ideology. Many are only familiar with the word "Zion" from hearing about The Elders of Zion fraud (which unfortunately isn't always explained as such).

David Schraub said...

What about the song from the orgy scene in The Matrix? (Also, the city itself).

Given that the encyclopedia doesn't have an entry on nationalism, period, it's difficult for me to buy the "all nationalism is racism excuse". And Ignatiev seems intent on distinguishing Zionism from other forms of nationalism as being based off descent, rather than (among other things) place of birth.

PG said...

I'm pretty sure that India has a civil marriage option, though; it's technically secular in a way that Israel isn't.

Having gone from my hometown of almost no Jews, to a major university, to the D.C. suburbs, to New York City, I found this guy's experience of the mid-sized city with a small but very much present Jewish population interesting, especially how he describes the way in which "post-anti-Semitic humor works."

I don't think I understand the idea that "nationalism" is inherently a form of racism, although there is a potentially racist quality to most nationalisms. Hindutva, for example, is obviously religiously bigoted and relying on a false historical memory of some pure, unified Hindu India to which we should return, but I don't think it's obviously racially bigoted. From what I can tell, a Hindu and Muslim in Mumbai probably have a closer genetic link -- despite the effect of caste intra-marriage in reducing Hindu genetic diversity -- than that urban Hindu does to a tribal person who would fit into the extremely broad meaning of "Hindu" and thus isn't excluded from the zealots' Hindutva. And it's those faux-fundamentalist-freaks who are burning down Christian villages to get the inhabitants to "reconvert" back to Hinduism.

This seems to me a policing of religious lines but not of racial ones. In contrast, we know Nazism explicitly policed racial lines, as did American white supremacy; an obsession with bloodline as deciding whether one was part of the nation seems like the easy marker of a racist nationalism. While the caste system creates Hindus' own bloodline obsession, there's no suggestion that the scheduled castes are not part of India. The caste bigots are exactly the type who feel they can't do without Dalits, because who else will deal with the bigots' shit -- literally?

On the other hand, I suppose caste Hinduism is a racist nationalism if one only tolerates the "lower" Hindu bloodline as a necessary evil and obstructs their efforts to be equal citizens of the nation. However, in non-caste religions like Islam, this wouldn't be an issue; all Muslims are equal. So is Islamic Iran a racist nationalism?

Jack said...

Yeah, if the Encyclopedia has no entry on nationalism then we have a big problem. I'd argue nationalism has always had an element of descent about it- thats not to say there have never been multi-ethnic states but certainly nationalism in the post-soviet era has been about establishing states for particular ethnic groups- even when a multi-ethnic state would have resource and strategic advantages. The fact that most of these ethnic groups live in relatively proximate areas is basically tangential to the point. This is evidenced not least of all by the fact when ethnic populations don't have geographically continuous states wars are more likely.

I did forget about the Matrix. Also, Rastafarian influences reggae and hip hop often mentions Zion.

Pg, you're right to talk about the racist policies associated with and brought about by nationalism and that was certainly on my mind. But when I said I could accept a position that held nationalism was inherently racist I was thinking of an argument something like the following. Nationalism explicitly argues that a government should pursue the interests of either a given ethnic group or, at the very least, of people who reside withing certain boundaries. Moreover, nationalism entails that those interests should be pursued to the exclusion of the interests and (almost always) rights of people who live outside those boundaries. Boundaries are often based on ethnic geography and our understanding of the people who live outside our own boundaries almost always incorporates race/ethnicity.

I don't know if this would fit under your definition of racism. I'm not sure it fits under mine- but its a plausible not a particularly offensive claim that I can imagine this sort of publication making.

A nationalism of Islam is probably still tied up in race. Sure, in principle anyone can become a Muslim. But that means requiring people to give up something thats almost always tied up in their ethnic/racial identity. Though as it happens Iran is quite tolerant of religious minorities (in some ways they have more rights than Muslims). On the other hand, Iran does persecute its Kurdish minority- its unlikely Iran has purged its Persian identity completely. It isn't JUST an Islamic Republic.

PG said...

Nationalism explicitly argues that a government should pursue the interests of either a given ethnic group or, at the very least, of people who reside withing certain boundaries. Moreover, nationalism entails that those interests should be pursued to the exclusion of the interests and (almost always) rights of people who live outside those boundaries.

But by that definition, most Americans, especially politically conservative ones, are nationalists. They will say, for example, that it is morally worse for Ayers to have been involved in a group whose members threatened the lives of Americans than it would have been had the Weathermen operated in Sweden. Most people all over the world want their government to pursue the interests of the people living within the borders of the country for which that government has responsibility, even to the exclusion of the interests of people outside those borders. I would say that to the extent the U.S. in the 20th century has moved toward a fairly non-racist immigration policy (i.e. one that does not privilege certain ethnicities and races over others), its nationalism cannot be racist because so many races are within its borders.

Jack said...

Thats not unreasonable. I was just saying that the all nationalism is racism position is plausible and consistent in a way that "only Zionism is racism" is not.

PG said...

But who says that the only racist nationalism is Zionism? Surely even the doofuses writing this encyclopedia recognized that the German fascist form of nationalism -- Nazism -- was racism.

David Schraub said...

I don't think you two are actually in disagreement here....

PG said...

I'm not sure. Jack seems to be saying that he finds the "all nationalism is racism" argument plausible, while the "the only racist nationalism is Zionism" argument isn't.

I don't find the first argument all that plausible and would offer post-1965 America as an example of non-racist nationalism; our government acts with much more concern for our having cheap oil than for foreign people's lives, but it seems to do so on behalf of Americans of all races and with a de jure insistence on internal equality -- 1965 being significant not only for the voting rights act but also for the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965.

I agree the second argument isn't plausible, but it seems a bit strawman because I didn't think anyone was making it. Are there people published in the mainstream press who believe that Zionism is racism but Nazism isn't? (I say "mainstream press" to exclude the StormFront types.)

Anonymous said...

Hi. Two comments.

First, Noel Ignatiev is certainly not Jewish. "Noel" means Christmas. "Ignatiev" is an aristocratic Russian family name -- many Slavs and no Jews bear it. There is nothing to suggest he is Jewish, save some Wikipedia crank who keeps reverting edits alleging, for whatever reasons, that Ignatiev is Jewish. He's not.

Second, on all nationalism as racism as a principled position, note that the particular nationalism at issue is the kind that is the cornerstone of international law. (The references at the Wikipedia article on self-determination Re basically correct if you are looking deeper.) So you'd have to further express your principles position as: all nationalism, including the right of peoples to self-determination, is racism. More elegantly: the idea of "peoples" is racism and states should be decoupled from such racist fictions.

And there's your principled position and its problems in a nutshell. See also under Sweden, Hungary, Korea, Aotearoa, etc.