Wednesday, November 30, 2011

On Liberal versus Left Zionism, Part II

Abir Kopty has a post up attacking the entire concept of "liberal Zionism" (reposted here). In fairness, it is responding to a pretty impressively bad "defense" of liberal Zionism from Larry Derfner (for a much, much better one, see David Hirsh). But even granting that, I'm left, well, kind of relieved to be honest. While in a sense it's unnerving that someone could put up what is essentially a warrantless repetition of the phrase "Zionism is not liberal" for a dozen paragraphs and find it persuasive, the part of me that still thinks arguments matter is pleased to see what I'm up against.

The only argument Kopty explicitly makes against the possibility of Zionism being liberal is that "what matters is the implementation of this ideology on the ground." That is to say, because Zionism is and has been implemented in illiberal ways, it is congenitally incapable of being liberal.

This is, to be generous, gibberish -- and counterproductive gibberish at that. I could just as easily respond that Palestinian nationalism is congenitally anti-Semitic and illiberal. That would be true to the same degree, which is to say, not very. While it is true that the dominant "on the ground" manifestations of Palestinian national aspiration have been characterized by bigotry, violence, and so far mostly futile eliminationist desires towards Jews, that does not exhaust all the "live" renditions of Palestinian nationalism, much less all it could be. There are many Palestinians who forward visions of Palestinian nationalism and self-determination that have none of these qualities, and absolutely recognize and defend the equal status of Jews locally and globally. The whole point is to try and make it so they win the day. It would be both ridiculous and foolish of me to try and argue that the history of Palestinian nationalism as played out through anti-Semitic violence permanently corrupts the entire enterprise. And so it is with Zionism: there are a host of live schools of what Zionism is, some morally defensible (some I'd say morally obligatory), others not, and the whole point is to ensure that the former defeat the latter. I mean, I suppose I could rename these concepts "Xionism", but I don't think that would remove the problem in Kopty's eyes.

That being said, Kopty does sort of gesture in the direction of some bigger claims about liberalism and its demands, which could arguably sustain an assertion that liberalism and Zionism are intrinsically incompatible. Much of the "debate", such as it is, is a reprise of issues I talked about in this post -- specifically, slippage in the use of the word "liberal". That pops up here as well, as Kopty doesn't actually give us a definition of what "liberal" means. For example, "liberal" can simply mean left-of-center. Or it can mean "as agnostic as feasible between competing conceptions of the good life". Or it can mean "viewing its constituent parts as individuals, and taking no notice of 'identity' characteristics such as race, sex, religion, or nationality." It is a fundamentalist account of the last that seems to be in play here.

It is true that this version of liberalism cannot be reconciled with Zionism. That's because it is opposed to all nationalism -- Jewish, Palestinian, French, Chinese -- as well as affirmative action, historically Black colleges, and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. But as I wrote in my other post, finding through "liberalism" that Howard University to be the moral equivalent of Jim Crow Ole Miss is no more a strike against Howard than finding through libertarianism that the Civil Rights Act is unjust indicts anti-discrimination law. The arrow goes the other way. Hence why I rearticulated my Zionism as "left" rather than "liberal", though this is more to avoid confusion, since I don't think the very particular form of liberalism I'm reacting against is the essence of liberalism.

I do not believe it intrinsically wrong for people to organize around identities (race, sex, class, religion, nationality), nor do I think it's wrong for a state (or other entity) to take note of them. As one might guess from the above paragraph, I do not find Howard University or affirmative action morally problematic at all. Nor do I find national self-determination to be inherently problematic. Indeed, I think it can be a very good thing; I think it is a positive good when national groups are able to find a space where they are relatively autonomous and in control of their own destiny. And I am optimistic that such spaces can be created while still respecting the rights and equality of people who don't identify as part of the group -- Howard University is a Black college that nonetheless has White students and faculty members who don't seem to view themselves as second-class members of the Howard community. Which is why I support the existence of a Jewish state, and why I support the existence of a Palestinian state.

Since, for me, "Zionism" is simply the Jewish rendition of "liberal nationalism" (different definitions of liberal strike again!), supporting Zionism flows out of and commits me to two principles: (1) democracy, and (2) national self-determination. The first holds that all citizens in a given territory are given the equal ability to influence via the ballot box the governing authority; the second asks that national groups be given space where they are in control of their own destiny; where they are the norm.

In pursuit of those goals, I am willing to sacrifice another potential moral principle, one which Kopty seems to hold in much higher esteem: the right of people to live on the particular parcel of land they wish. And I apply this even-handedly -- there are many Jewish families that very much wish to live in certain settlements in the West Bank, and I think they will have to let that go; no matter that they view that lands as "home", no matter that they may have deep historic and familial connections to it.

Now, she might protest that she doesn't support the principle that anyone can live anywhere, bur rather that "native people" ought to be allowed to live on (or return to) "their land". But this gets us virtually nowhere. After all, a major part of Jewish history is precisely analogous to her own account of the Palestinian experience: that Jews lived in what is now Israel, were expelled, and now want to come back. That they were expelled for longer can't affect the sort of moralistic, first-principles argument Kopty is making, and if she's actually putting forward a statute of limitations on these sorts of claims -- after a certain amount of time in the diaspora, "return" becomes "colonization" -- I'm sure the Israeli government would like to know about it so they can run out the clock.

Even if we restrict the conversation to land where a person has a familial claim to a particular deed, it doesn't get us that far (though it does get us further). First, there's ample ground to be suspicious that this actually is a universal principle: I see very few right of return advocates protesting in favor of the Jewish family over in Sheikh Jarrah,who are seeking to reclaim land they were expelled from in the War of Independence (as indicated above, I absolutely think the Jewish family at issue in Sheikh Jarrah should not be permitted to live there, as I care more about protecting Jewish and Palestinian national self-determination rights and democracy than I do about letting every person live on the precise acre they wish).

Second, in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, possessing a deed is hardly a conversation-stopper regarding the justness of owning that plot of land -- much Jewish-owned land prior to Israel's establishment was purchased, but from absentee landlords who held title rather than from the peasant farmers who actually lived there. But either actually occupying the land in question trumps deed ownership or it doesn't (universal principles are tricky that way).

Third, to the extent Kopty is making a backwards-looking argument, it doesn't have a logical stopping point, and that raises the question of why the Jewish people can't raise a prior claim of ownership stemming from their (much earlier) exile. The answer being, of course, that it is impossible to trace lineage, much less figure out how to reallocate resources so as to "remedy" the original injustice. The egg is hopelessly scrambled (this is a problem that hardcore "liberals" of the vein we're talking about, like Nozick, recognize as potentially fatal -- the inviolability of property claims is predicated on that property being justly attained, a characteristic that describes precisely no property). It would be wildly unjust to tell Palestinians that their entire history of living in this area is unjust because it all happened on top of prior Jewish dispossession. This doesn't mean historic injustices are irrelevant, it just means that they can't be remedied via an expectations damages model.

More likely, Kopty could also explicitly jettison the importance of national self-determination as a value. That is, whereas I'm saying "we can't allow everyone to live on the precise parcel of land they wish and still respect the national self-determination aspirations of both Jews and Palestinians, therefore, we must sharply limit Palestinian 'right of return' to Israel and Jewish settlement of the West Bank and Gaza," she could say "we can't allow everyone to live on the precise parcel of land they wish and still respect the national self-determination aspirations of both Jews and Palestinians, therefore, we must abandon the pursuit of national self-determination for Jews and Palestinians". Again, from this "fundamentalist" version of liberalism, this is probably the position she should be taking -- nationalism is not liberal in this sense. But as I wrote in my prior post, taking that view is a very reactionary form liberalism that I think is politically dominative and at this point better thought of as conservative.

One of the perks of being a dominating majority is that an entity which is "nothing" is, in effect, "you". American doesn't need to be a "Christian Nation" to be a Christian Nation. One does not have to create a White congressional district to have a Congress full of White people. This is Anatole France's neutrality -- it forbids rich as well as poor to beg, steal bread, or sleep under bridges. It is a state of affairs guaranteed to oppress minorities, and there are excellent reasons for progressives to oppose it. Which is one of the reason this sort of "neutrality" which studiously ignores the differentiated histories and positions of various social groups doesn't interest me. Those groups have justice claims too, and we should absolutely listen to them and give them space. Often times, this means creating nation-states. The moral ground that is good for all is trying to create a pluralist global order where various national groups -- even relatively small ones with severe histories of persecution and oppression -- are given a few acres that is to be theirs. Surely both Jews and Palestinians can see the appeal in that.

* Kopty actually writes: "[W]hat will you do if a given country decides today that the land of 'Israel' belongs to its nation, and brings its people to occupy and ethnically cleanse those who have lived here for 60 years." It almost feels unsporting to take a swing at a pitch just lobbed over the plate like that.

In a related vein, she asks "Shall we go through history and examine the many cases of nations who were at war, but were allowed back to their homes when it ended?" Umm, sure, but I think it will lose out rather dramatically to the many more cases where they weren't.

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