Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Our shared values

Anyone with even the most remote familiarity with the right or center-right press has heard the argument that Jews, Israel, and the West are on one side, while the enemies of all of the above are on the other. The latest installment. Israel's enemies don't just hate the Jews, goes the argument, they hate Judeo-Christian values, our values, the values shared by all Americans and Western Europeans save a few far-left extremists. Which would certainly be convenient, but it does not ring true.

Whenever I see references to 'Israel and the West' I wonder how 'the West' is being defined. The West has arguably caused Jews more problems than the East in the last century. Without going back decades, it's clear that much of 'the West' today is not so thrilled with Israel or Jews. The problem is that well-meaning people, Jews and non-Jews, Israelis and Americans-- keep asserting a connection between Israel and the West that does not exist outside of high politics and common enemies, or more precisely, of Israel being closer to the West than to the East, which is different from 'of the West.' So much of the European (and American!) Left and Right sees Israel as a problem, not a partner.

Simply put, when political Zionism got started, European colonialism was a fact of life, not something studied critically by progressive academics. When Zionism's founders offered Israel as a way of bringing the 'enlightened' West to the East, this was in part because these same Zionists were (very much despite themselves) of the West, but largely because it was up to Europe who 'got' Palestine, and a case had to be made.

That Israel today is a modernized, technologically-advanced country does not make it part of 'the West' any more than it makes Japan the same. The point is not that Israel is in fact Eastern, but that, as a Jewish state, it just doesn't fit into either category. Since Israel has elements of the West and the East, a case can be made for either, but the difficult truth is, neither. Jews as people or communities can be one or the other, but a Jewish state itself is by definition a third category altogether.

Somehow, the contingent in the West fighting for Western values, the Western canon and so on is now associated with Israel. Yet almost everything that makes Israel unique is that it is not a warmer-climate Switzerland. So then, since Israel is 'the West,' whenever it shocks by not being sufficiently Western, there is explaining to do. As in, gosh, Israelis are rude, this is nothing like my last trip to Sweden!

And ultimately it's not clear whether being 'of the West' helps Israel make its own case. Israel's founding had nothing to do with the European imperial projects of the 19th century, although its history, like that of Arab nationalism, is by necessity intertwined with whatever Europe was up to. Israel was not representing some already-existing nation-state in Europe, but setting out to create a new one. But since Israel equals West, there's no strong argument against the states' founding being European colonialism, other than denying colonization, which is absurd. There was colonization, but not colonialism in the sense of, say, France conquering Algeria.

Perhaps there needs to be a theory of just colonization, along the lines of what exists for war, since in this case it's clear enough that a) there was colonization, and b) although at times violent, it was overall just.

2 comments:

Glenn said...

Those who live in history are doomed to repeat themselves.

Anonymous said...

But the French did not think of conquering Algeria - but making it part of Metropolitan France. Like the Dakotas became states after the Souix were subdued.
Didn't Sharon used to say Alistair Horn's book about the Algerian war was one of his favorites because he said he could have done a better job? There are theories of just colonialization - la civilatrice etc, but like just war theory, they come out of the church -arguable a western organization, albeit originating in Isreal.
Maybe all this west/east talk is a western artifact. Because the Asia dawn has just begun and most people in the world don't have such a dichotomous view. Happy Thanksgiving (There are actually critics of Thanksgiving in the University these days, huh? What's more 'Western' - a nice colonial holiday or the university>