Friday, November 30, 2012

"Central [If Unstated]...."

Edward Goldstein opens his column on the UNGA Palestine vote by asserting that:
A central component of Israeli diplomacy and Jewish thinking has long been the assumption, asserted as necessary, that the Holocaust confers permanent, unassailable virtue on Israel and Jews. In light of the Holocaust, whatever Israel does is justified, especially if declared to be security related. Whatever and however Jews argue in support of Israel is correct. The obverse is also assumed and frequently asserted: in light of the Holocaust, no one has the right to criticize Israel, especially Europeans, and anyone who does may be suspected of anti-Semitism.
This is, of course, a rather gross statement to make. But what can be said in respond to it? Obviously, I could say that nobody (much less the entirety of "Jewish thinking"), in fact, claims that "the Holocaust confers permanent, unassailable virtue on Israel and Jews." Nor does anyone assert that everything Israel does is inherently justified, nor that all criticism of Israel is verboten and signifies anti-Semitism. But if I made that obviously true retort, Goldstein would just say "sure, nobody comes out and says those precise words, but it is the clear implication" -- a counter-argument with the convenient advantage of being completely unfalsifiable.

Indeed, I think this paradigm of moral purity is far more likely to be imposed on Jews from without than claimed from within. The fact of the Holocaust and other acts of anti-Semitism doesn't establish that Jews are unassailably virtuous. Why would it? There's nothing about oppression that purifies its victims -- imperfect people can be victims too. What it establishes is that non-Jews are not perfect; it destabilizes the hegemonic presence of non-Jewish voices and thus creates space for Jewish voices to be heard. To the casual observer that looks like a claim that Jews are "perfect", but that's only because Jews are claiming the right to speak on equal terms with a non-Jewish presence that had previously arrogated to itself a label of universal transcendence.

The frame that oppression makes the oppressed "perfect" is really more of a reactionary step. The framework sets up for Jews (and other minorities) a standard they can't possibly meet. And once they fail to meet it, it justifies stripping the label of "victim" and returning to the status quo where they can safely be ignored. It obviates the need to problematize the non-Jew in favor of providing a temporary elevation of the Jew to non-Jew status, contingent on the Jew maintaining a standard of conduct that nobody else can or is expected to meet. "From now on, Israel's cause will have to stand strictly on its merits"--"merits", here, defined wholly from a non-Jewish perspective and free from the distortive effect of a Jewish presence.

Goldstein is a Jewish writer, and he has the right to say what he wants. But this is really just evidence of how Jewish people can present anti-Semitic themes. I don't claim to know what is in Goldstein's heart, but the way he presents Jewish agency and Jewish contributions bears far less in common with how Jews typically conceive of ourselves, and more in common with what others typically say about us.

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