Thursday, June 24, 2010

NLR Exchange on Zionism

In the most recent edition of New Left Review there was an exchange on the issue of zionism between Gabriel Piterberg and Zeev Sternhell. I must say that seeing Sternhell's piece, entitled "In Defenese of Israel", listed on the cover of the journal gave me a bit of a jolt (given that the journal has always been an excellent source of critical material on Israel and zionism). But I think the practice of inviting a non-critical scholar on some issue (e.g. Russian economic development (see Popov vs. Wood in an older edition), etc.) to exchange with an author of a more critical persuasion is a good one. It is smart for two reasons: first, it draws in more mainstream readership to Left-wing arguments and ideas, and secondly it makes a good case for critical ideas by juxtaposing them against (often less plausible) mainstream ones.

I found Sternhell's perspective interesting, given how little one hears from the Social Democratic or Labourite wing of zionism these days. Unlike most apologists for the regime, Sternhell is staunchly critical of the post-1967 occupation and the settlement projects in the Occupied Territories. (In 2008 an Israeli settler placed a bomb on his doorstep, which injured him considerably). Nonetheless, I didn't find his arguments compelling. At the end of the day, the main oversight of the Sternhell line is what Pitterberg makes so clear: zionism must be understood in terms of settler colonialism.

In his response to Sternhell, Pitterberg emphasizes a point he makes clear in his book, namely that there were alternative Jewish nationalisms in the late 19th and early 20th century that are often overlooked or forgotten today in the wake of a dominant Zionism. Importantly, many of these alternative forms of Jewish nationalism eschewed the religiously-charged Zionist project:
These modern Jewish nationalisms were truly secular, for they rejected the Old Testament as a religious text, in stark contrast to Zionism, whose secularity is limited to the rejection of rabbinical Judaism. As Amnon Raz-Krakotzkin has put it, the logic of Zionist Israeli secularity is, ‘There is no God, but He promised us the Land.’

Inherent in these modern expressions of Jewish nationalism was the resolution to change the societies within which the Jews existed and to challenge the exclusiveness of the European nation-state. Equally central was the willingness to work with Jews as they actually were, even if this was accompanied by a modernizing confidence in collective and individual improvement. Zionism, by contrast, shared the hegemonic view of both anti-Semites and progressives like George Eliot that national societies were organic and homogeneous, and therefore the Jews—an extrinsic element in the national body within this logic—should emigrate, and replicate the same exclusive type of national society in a piece of land deemed ‘empty’ in the East; this is what Daniel Deronda and Mirah Lapidoth were presumably planning at the end of Eliot’s novel. Zionism, moreover, accepted that there was something irremediably wrong with Jews as they actually were—so long as they remained ‘in exile’. They needed to be territorialized in order to be normalized.
The most important point of contention between Sternhell and Pitterberg is the "C word", but it is here that Pitterberg's argument is on much firmer ground. Pitterberg, and he is hardly alone in thinking this, holds that we must understand Zionism within a comparative framework in the context of settler-colonialism. As he puts it:
The achievements of the comparative study of settler colonialisms have been at once scholarly and political. Several of these colonies gave birth to powerful nation-states which have asserted their own hegemonic narratives, nationally and internationally. The comparative field not only questions these narratives, through countervailing evidence and interpretation; it also offers an alternative account of the social formations themselves. In the process, three fundamental features common to these hegemonic settler myths are undermined. The first of these is the putative uniqueness of each settler nation; the second, their privileging of the settlers’ intentions, as sovereign subjects, at the expense of the natives’ consciousness. Third, the supposed inconsequence of the natives to the form each settler society takes; in other words, the conflict with the natives is not denied, but the fundamental role that this conflict has played in shaping the identity of the settler nation is written out. It is within the typology of settler colonialisms that I place the Zionist colonization of Palestine and the state of Israel—a move which surely should have put to rest the tedious contention that Zionism could not be termed a colonial venture because it lacked the features of metropole colonialism; as if anyone were suggesting otherwise. What its apologists fail to confront is the settler-colonial paradigm.
This seems to me to be exactly right. And it's clear why apologists for the regime are so keen to avoid the "C word". Their primary mode of argumentation is to simply avoid discussions of this kind entirely (i.e. discussions which critically examine the very foundations of the Zionist project) and focus attention on narratives about self-defense and so on. But any sober examination of the project reveals that it rests on thin air.


-sf said...

I completely disagree! To describe the Zionist ideal of Jewish liberation as a colonial venture is to reject the national aspirations of the Jewish people -something I consider to be highly anti-Semitic. The links of the Jewish people to the Middle East are not only biblical and cultural, but also empirical. They are based on multiple historical and archeological sources and have recently been confirmed by genetic analysis. The Jewish people are distinct from their host populations and are more closely linked to the Syrian Druze than to any other population. Thus Jews are not only a one people, but are a Middle Eastern people. Furthermore, the last sovereign indigenous rulers of the Land of Israel was the Kingdom of Israel prior to Roman colonizations and exile. The invaders from the Arabian peninsula, the Crusaders from Europe, the Turks and the British were all colonialist ventures that occupied and subjugated the former Kingdom of Israel and vacated it of its native population. The return of this native population from its forced exile should be seen as the pinnacle of the arc of history bending towards justice. I fail to see how the Zionist movement is a colonial venture. There was no mother country to which the settlers were beholden to or acted on the behalf of. Sternhall makes an excellent point in this regard: "First of all, a colonization that is not comparable to any other colonial society in its social and economic structures cannot be called a colonization. If Mandate-era Jewish Palestine was not based on any of the characteristic features of a colonial society—the exploitation of a native work-force; the confiscation of the natural riches of the country; a monopoly of political power that created two different classes of inhabitants, citizens and others who had no rights—it could not have been a colonial society. The truth was rather the opposite: in order to build a nation, the Jews of Palestine formed themselves into a self-sufficient and closed society. The cult of manual labour and the necessity of creating an infrastructure for the reception of new immigrants helped to prevent the emergence of exploitative relationships."
The endeavor of the Jewish people was not to subjugate the local population to its will, but to reestablish a Jewish national homeland that would allow Jews to control their own destiny. To deny the Jews the right to self-determination is something I consider to be anti-Semitism in its worst form.

Jon said...

I disagree with this response. First, I reject the rigid definition that every Jew is a middle-eastern person. This so-called empirico-biological "fact" is ideology at its purest. The definition of the Jew shifts throughout history. In early modernity, Jews faced pressure to convert to Christianity: were they actually converted, or still secretly Jews? This problematic is dissolved in the nineteenth century. It culminates in Nazi anti-Semitism: conversion becomes meaningless, because being a Jew is a matter of biological constitution. You are or aren't a Jew, and you are guilty on account of your Jewishness. The Nazis transformed anti-Semitism from theology to race. Jews were no longer guilty of being manipulative merchants, sexual predators of women, or for killing Christ, but for what they were. At best, your definition of "Jew" is simply wrong; at worst, it's quite frightening.

Furthermore, the worst anti-Semitism is currently perpetrated by Zionists. Visit the website, which has a list of over 7,000 SHIT (Self-Hating Israel-Threatening) Jews. This is absolutely horrifying and worse than any Arab propaganda. These Zionists hate Jews who do not agree with Israel's policies, and they blacklist them in Nazi fashion. What they attack is the true dimension of being Jewish (the use of public reason). To attack those critical of Zionism is to already approach anti-Semitism.

-sf said...

Actually its pretty factually true that MOST (not all) Jews share a Middle Eastern ancestry distinct from their European host populations. A recent paper in Nature called "The genome-wide structure of the Jewish people" sampled 14 diaspora communities, choosing individuals who had not converted nor inter-married, to compare patterns of genome-wide diversity with 69 Old World non-Jewish populations. Remarkably they found that most Jewish samples form a remarkably tight sub-cluster that overlies Druze and Cypriot samples, but not samples from other populations. In other words, Ashkenazi Jews are genetically more closely related to Syrian Druze than to white Europeans. If you're in an academic institution, and are willing to read through a rather technically dense paper you can check out the original:
Otherwise, you can read news summaries of this paper, they're pretty ubiquitous in any major news source.

Finally I think calling Noam Chomsky a dick for his anti-Israel stance is way different than preaching that Jews are descendants of apes and pigs and that "Judgment day will not come until the Muslims fight the Jews, and the Muslims will kill the Jews, and then the Jews will hide behind stones or trees, and the stone or the tree will say: Oh Muslim, oh servant of Allah, there is a Jew behind me, come and kill him - except for the Gharqad, which is a tree of the Jews." Personally I think those critical of Zionism are not inherently anti-semites, but those that reject the right of self-determination for Jews and no other (currently or formerly) stateless group are absolutely anti-semites and I have no qualms of naming and shaming them as such.