12.10.2003


literatureMo goes ballistic - Wrestling With Zion Book Discussion

Earlier today:
Mobius responds to Ami Eden's response

Whoa... Mobius did not take well to Ami Eden's contribution thus far to our little book discussion. He covered considerable ground, but I'm going to zero in on just a few key elements here.

First up, Mobius inquires: "I'm curious to know which 'sins' in particular he's purporting to exist in the left-wing anti-Zionist camp. This too sounds as though it is an assertion, like Eden's, that people who take this position are somehow apologists for terrorism, which is an absurd and insulting contention." This in response to my assertion that far too many left-wing anti-Zionists have been "as guilty of ignoring the sins in their own camp as are Zionist zealots."

I answer: Far too many left-wing anti-Zionists ignore the anti-Semitism in their midst. Far too many left-wing anti-Zionists would rather disengage with and seek the dissolution of democratic institutions rather than engage with them and seek to change them for the better. Far too many left-wing anti-Zionists actually do apologize for terrorism by standing silently in the face of terrorist actions, giving full-throated attention to Palestinian suffering and letting out a whimper at best on the subject of Israeli suffering, and by resorting to the simplistic logic that says terrorism may be bad, but it's the Israelis who caused it.

These actions, both of commission and omission, are sins against our civil society, and they're a disservice to the greater ideals of liberalism. I don't deny that terrorism, even in all its grotesque immorality, exists in a political and social context that includes (though is not limited to) the policies of the Israeli government and the social interrelationship of Israeli society with that of the Palestinians. I'm not opposed to a discussion of that context, but it must be in its entirety. Mobius is right to criticize so many in the Jewish community who continue to show an unwillingness to recognize the Israeli contributions to that context, both historically and in the present, though I tend to question whether Ami Eden is so unwilling.

We need also accept that it is incumbent upon us to criticize those on the left who have shown a continual unwillingness to recognize the full depth of the horrors visited upon innocent Israelis by Palestinian terrorists. It is not enough to include a passing reference to the value of life and abhorrence of terror. If we are to challenge the crimes of Zionists committed in the past century, we must be equally vocal in our opposition to terrorism as an illegitimate and delegitimizing tactic.

According to Mobius, "Apparently Pilcher would like to turn our discussion towards the misdeeds of anti-Zionists," but that is entirely a misrepresentation. I want us to discuss the flaws of Zionists, the foibles of Zionism as it developed, the inherent tensions in Zionist ideology, but I will not discuss these alone and rely on the excuse, it's not "as if [terrorism] weren't on the front page every morning, as if we don't hear about it every day." In short, I'd like to hear no more of the pro-Israeli right-wingers telling us to stop talking about Israeli wrongs, and I'd like to hear no more of the left-wingers sympathetic to the Palestinian cause telling us to stop talking about Palestinian crimes.

But before I depart, I have to respond to this comment from Mobius: "Or perhaps a better question for you, sir—if Israel is to be a Jewish-only state from which Palestinians are to be expunged, forced behind barbwired fences, and shot on sight if they attempt to traverse it, what truly makes Israel all that different from Nazi Germany?"

I suppose we could discuss the comparisons to Nazi Germany if Israel actually was, in fact, a state that forcibly expunged its Palestinians, shepherded them into concentration camps ringed with barbwired fences, and shot on sight any who attempted escape. But Israel is not such a state, and we have enough policy failures and wrongs to discuss on the Israeli side without resorting to these kinds of charged comparisons and hyperbolic rhetoric. To invoke such a comparison does nothing to further debate, it does nothing to engender critical thought, and it does nothing to move us towards peace. It inflames emotion, and it's unnecessary.

12.09.2003


literatureWrestling With Zion Section Two

Earlier today:
Ami Eden responds to my critiques
Pinchas Shapiro begins Section Two

Elder Pinchas has begun to address Section Two of Wrestling With Zion, but before I get to that I'd like to address the ongoing debate over Ami Eden's initial reaction to the book's introduction. First it was Mobius taking him to task, then I mentioned I felt his initial reaction leaned too far towards a dismissal of Kushner and Solomon's approach. On both points, he's responded, claiming his "argument was simply that by failing to take into account contemporary Palestinian actions – i.e. the current terrorist onslaught -- Kushner and Solomon (as well as several other contributors) are offering up an outdated, intellectually lazy critique of the current situation and the moral state of Zionism." Fair enough.

I've re-read his post, and I can see his main point. I suppose my error was a form of reflex. So many Jews today dismiss even sincerely Zionist criticisms of current Israeli policy by falling back on the maxim, "It's the Palestinians. If they weren't [BLANK], the Israelis wouldn't have to [BLANK]." After hearing such one-dimensional arguments for so long, I too quickly sensed it in Ami Eden's posting when, in fact, it really wasn't there. Perhaps his posting could have been more clear, but my reading into it could have been more accurate.

Now, Eden raises and issue that was picked up on by Shapiro's most recent post and then slammed in comments to Shapiro's post: the validity of continually questioning Israel's existence. Now here's where a certain clarity of language is required. There is a difference between questioning whether or not Israel actually exists (a question easily answered with a map) and questioning whether Israel's policies and history has actually fulfilled the stated purpose of Zionism. Has Israel lived up to the ideal of Zionism, to say nothing of the ideals of Judaism?

Eden writes: "ItÂ’s hard enough to get people to think through the long-term ramifications of security policy and demographic trends when their children are being blown up on buses. How does it help matters to reopen the very question of a Jewish state?" His point that terrorism tends to muddy the waters, even on immediate political concerns much less on more existential and philosophical metaphysics, is valid. It hardly negates the necessity of trying, however, and there's a larger issue that goes ignored here.

Israel is a nation state far more comparable to America than to Britain or China. Britain, for example, is a collection of historical menageries that led to the creation of a state. China, as well, has gone through a lengthy history of governing and nationalistic change. Neither modern China nor Britain were founded on an idea, and their existence as such is in no way predicated on the fulfillment of those ideas. They may be asked to live up to certain moral standards, but they're not infused at their very creation with such purposes. Israel is, and so is America. These are two states founded because of and in the pursuit of certain principles and visions.

To that end, it is indeed laudable to constantly question whether America is living up to the ideals of freedom and its vision as a nation of immigrants. To be sure, we rarely do that as a question on America's legitimacy as a state. Thus as we ask about Israel's success in living up to the ideals of the Zionist movement, we shouldn't bquestioningng its legitimacy as a state. But we should be questioning its trajectory as an enterprise, and even be entertaining discussions on moderate and radical ways to change that trajectory when necessary. In short, it more than helps to constantly keep open the question of a Jewish state. It is critically necessary, especially considering Israel has become so wrapped in the Jewish identity, so much a part of the Jewish purpose and Jewish moral case in the world.

Which finally brings me to Section Two of the book. It is, in fact, a poorly constructed section. Shapiro is right in pointing out, "Much to my disappointment, instead of finding authors truly grappling with security fences, refugee camps, 'occupied territories,' the Gush, the right of return, highways and waterways, we find far too many references to a leftist past that does little to advance the editors perspective's in the curcrisis. AgainAgain, Kushner and Solomon have failed their cause and their readers." It's actually worse than that.

To be fair there are highlights here. Even if the overall section is poorly constructed, Michael Massing's essay is brilliantly done, and Michael Staub's exploration of Breira is actually a relevant topic insofar as it parallels the polarization of today's Jewish community on the issue of Israel. But then there's an essay by Naomi Klein, which is just emblematic of the fundamental failing of so many leftists: they're inability or unwillingness to engage with their larger society.

Naomi Klein is ostensibly writing in an anthology of Jewish-American voices about America and the American society's relationship with the Middle East, yet she cannot help but distance herself from that society. She writes: "Senator Rockefeller put it in a speech to the Senate, 'We take care of our people.' Do they?" The more appropriate response should have been, "Do we," but that's not the approach of Klein and so many of her compatriots. They'd rather distance ourselves from America, referring to it as imperialist or fascist, or both, then engage with it. Too many of Klein's ilk would rather burn an American flag than clean it. Which, I suppose gives credence to Ami Eden's original argument -- that too many of the contributors in this book aren't interested in cleaning up Zionism, lifting it above its historical failings or ideological polarizations. They'd rather see it collapse, be destroyed by something else.

And I suppose there's an argument to be made that Zionism was a failed idea from the beginning, that its failings are inextricable from its metaphysical foundations. But that is an argument left unmade so far in Wrestling With Zion. If Klein and others are going to so distance themselves, perhaps they'd be better of simply cutting loose with just such an attack. At the very least, it would be more honest.

12.08.2003


literatureWrestling With Zion the Discussion

I'm up next in the cross-blog discussion on the book, Wrestling With Zion, so I'll take a stab at the first section before I dive into Ami Eden and Mobius' tit-for-tat on the introduction. Section number one amounts to a collection of historical documents by Zionists and Jews who might be considered quite left-wing in the modern era. There's Ahad Ha-Am all the way through Judah Magnes and Martin Buber, Hannah Arendt and I. F. Stone. It closes with Henry Schwarzschild on his early-80s withdrawal from Sh'ma. It's a pretty decent litany of the historical voices of Jewish dissent from the mainstream Zionist orthodoxy.

But I can't get my mind off one line from Judah Magnes in 1929 letter to Felix Warburg (major player in the founding of the Jewish Agency). "If the Arabs want an Arab national state in Palestine, it is as much or as little to be defended as if the Jews want a Jewish national state there," wrote Magnes. It's a rather resounding statement coming from a Jewish rabbi who was then serving as head of Hebrew University. In the next paragraph he goes on to lament that Zionist leaders were apparently unable to recognize the suffering on the other side, the crimes within their own camp. It was a fixation on the suffering of one's own to the full exclusion of empathy with the other, and it was going on in the middle of the 1920s. More than 80 years later, one could argue that little has changed.

For students of Zionist history, this is not particularly news, but I think it's noteworthy and laudable that Kushner and Solomon began their anthology with an examination of the less recent voices of dissent against Zionist orthodoxy. It serves as a reminder of how much we've repeated our history in so short a time, of how deep goes our emotional reactions to the rhetoric and sublime reasoning in the Arab-Israeli conflict. In a time when it seems treasonous to speak out as a Jew against the policies of the Jewish State, it's a sad testimony that this is not a recent turn of events.

But then again, it reminds us just how far we've progressed in our ability to recognize the other side of the equation. The 1920s was hardly an era when Zionists were willing to barter a two-state deal with the Arabs. They accepted the Partition Plan in 1947 out of political necessity moreso than genuine desire to compromise along two-state lines. Indeed the voices of dissent recorded in Section One existed in a time where the political consensus of the day was far more right-wing than is the case in 2003. In one section, Kushner and Solomon both give us a grim reminder of our communities long-standing discomfort to accept open dissent on this issue and show us just how far those voices of dissent have taken us. In a way, it undermines them. The Jewish community is not so monolithic in its intolerance of diverse views after all.

Now, as for Ami Eden's ripping of the book's introduction and Mobius' quick retort, I'm dismayed. On the one hand, Mobius is correct in lamenting Eden's knee jerk response, in which he essentially writes off the books intentions entirely because it fails to sufficiently bring up Palestinian intransigence. Surely the Palestinians have sinned, and sinned greatly, but must that preclude an internally focused discussion among American Jews on the foibles and failures of Zionism throughout the last century? I think not, and Eden should perhaps allow for that without resorting to a typical and tiring response that only serves to shut down discussion rather than foment true understanding and moral progress.

That being said, Mobius swings too far to the other end of the spectrum. I agree with the core of his argument, but it's worth making the point, at least in some small degree, that most left-wing anti-Zionists are as guilty of ignoring the sins in their own camp as are Zionist zealots. What we really need is both an internal discussion among Zionists and Jews and an external discussion with the other side, at every available level. One can only hope the other side might also engage in internal discussion and even dissent, but Eden does nothing in his post to support internal discussion among Jews and Mobius doesn't do his part to account for a basic honesty of focus among Jewish supporters of Palestinian rights.

Or something like that...