Monday, September 24, 2007

Hess and anti-colonialism

This weekend I started reading Rome and Jerusalem, Moses Hess's 1862 declaration of Jewish nationhood. Yes, pre-Herzl. Our bearded friend claimed not to have read Hess's work until after writing The Jewish State. Could be. But what's fascinating about Hess's take is that relates the fight for a Jewish state to the national struggles of all oppressed peoples. He specifies that he is talking about those oppressed either by the East or by the West. So Hess in a sense anticipates Tunisian Jewish intellectual Albert Memmi, who sees Zionism as a form of anti-colonialism.

This is what critics of Israel-as-a-Jewish-state always seem to miss. Israel is not an imperial consolation prize for the Holocaust at the expense of a group of people, the Palestinians, with nothing to do with it. Nor would any reasonable person say that Israeli policy ought to be immune to criticism on account of Jewish history. Israel is more accurately seen as yet another postcolonial state which, in its independence, has not always done things as elegantly as countries with less new and volatile existences, largely but not entirely due to circumstances over which they had no control. Though of course always necessary, reform in such cases simply cannot mean a loss of hard-won independence. Suggesting that Jews should return to the status of at best tolerated minorities wherever they live is not an acceptable (morally or pragmatically) answer to the region's conflicts.

In what way were the Jews colonized? For a people to have been colonized, it need not have lived in complete autonomy prior to colonization--the Ottomans preceded the French in various spots, for example, so the fact that there was no independent land of Israel in, say, the 18th century, is irrelevant.Here I am paraphrasing/botching Memmi: The confusion comes from the fact that Jews, unlike other groups, identified and were identified as nationally distinct but lived all over the world.

In other words, if Jewish national independence were to have happened without displacing anyone at all, there would have to have been a tiny Jewish state in each of the countries with a Jewish population, from Germany to Iran. I mean, with email and the Internet, anything's possible, but in less distance-learning-friendly eras, such as when Zionism began and when the state of Israel was born, a state effectively had to be in one place. The Holocaust enters into it, then, above all in that however morally justified Jews would have been to demand these (absurd, as we've already seen) mini-states in Germany, Poland, France, Italy, etc., as great as this might sound from a Palestinian perspective, what do you think the demand among Jews would have been for an autonomous Jewish state in 1946 Germany? Perhaps those Europeans who spent years claiming, violently, that Jews were an Oriental people with no place in Europe should have first consulted the Palestinians. It's a bit late for that now.

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