Thursday, May 28, 2009

Theorize This

A correspondent of Jeffrey Goldberg writes:
The rise of the right in Israel has been explained to death but the collapse of the left has not. And I think one of the key things is that commentators like Duss are extremely attuned to the psychological issues involving the Palestinians (the humiliations at checkpoints, loyalty oaths, Nakba Day bannings, the idea of honor and respect for the loss they suffered to be acknowledged) but ignore it among Israelis Jews (that there is always another Amalek out to destroy the Jews - if its not Hitler it's Nasser. If not Nasser than Arafat If not Arafat then its Nasrallah etc). The failure of the political left in Israel and its supportive commentariat throughout the world to acknowledge and deal with that psychology has been critical to its utter evisceration as an force in Israeli politics - and not for the good.

Agreed, and while affirming the importance of understanding the Palestinian perspective on the current state of affairs as they perceive it, I'd go further. The international left has consciously refused to engage with all but a tiny sliver of Israeli society (except when they're pathologizing them). For all intents and purposes they have not been interested in pursuing a politics of understanding, and at the moment many are consciously opposing constructive engagement with the Israeli community writ large. The Jewish Zionist community remains something of an opaque mystery to them, but, rather than try and understand it, the left throws up its hands, asserts the Zionists are irrational and implacable, and demands they be addressed through the only language that might have an impact: force.

The left is baffled by Zionists. Fine, I understand that -- Jews are an other, and I don't expect the Gentile community to get everything about us at first blush. But I do expect that they recognize that we are in an otherized position and approach us with a sense of openness that respects our sense of self and experience. That is a commitment that has historically been absent from the global political sphere (left and right -- but only the left is committed to it in the first place). It shouldn't surprise us that such a left is a moribund force in Israel -- its practices are ones calculated to alienate. But it is a move of spectacular arrogance (the sort that only seems to flow to those who deem themselves possessed of a universal truth to wield against the heathens) to pivot from that to assert that engagement has failed. In a sense it has, but it is due to the willful refusal on the part of the global left to adopt any other position other than teacher/master to Jewish servant/children. To borrow from George Yancy, they "admit[] of no ignorance vis-à-vis the [Jew]. Hence, there is no need for ... silence, a moment of quietude that encourages listening to the [Jew]."*

In its best moments, the left understands this. I'm reminded of one of my favorite passages, by Richard Bernstein, as a guide to what should be happening:
The basic condition for all understanding requires one to test and risk one's convictions and prejudgments in and through an encounter with what is radically "other" and alien. To do this requires imagination and hermeneutical sensitivity in order to understand the "other" in its strongest possible light. Only by seeking to learn from the "other," only by fully grasping its claims upon one can it be critically encountered. Critical engaged dialogue requires opening of oneself to the full power of what the "other" is saying. Such an opening does not entail agreement but rather the to-and-fro play of dialogue. Otherwise dialogue degenerates into a self-deceptive monologue where one never risks testing one's prejudgments.

Richard J. Bernstein, The New Constellation: The Ethical-Political Horizons of Modernity/Postmodernity (Boston: MIT Press, 1992), 4.

* George Yancy, "Introduction: Fragments of a Social Ontology of Whiteness," in What White Looks Like,George Yancy, ed. 2004 (New York: Routledge 2004), 12.

1 comment:

Barry Deutsch said...

Point well taken.

I do have a nit to pick, though -- "The left is baffled by Zionists. Fine, I understand that -- Jews are an other, and I don't expect the Gentile community to get everything about us at first blush." That sentence only makes sense if you assume that there's no significant overlap between "the left" and "Jews."

Also, by the definition of Zionist you use, many or most of the Jews (and gentiles too, come to think of it) who strongly criticize Israel are at least partly Zionists, in the sense of wanting Israel to continue existing as a state and in security.