Wednesday, April 02, 2008


When I got an announcement from NYU's Maison Francaise about a talk called "France, Israel, and the U.S.: Shifting Debates" I felt obligated, as the blogosphere's self-proclaimed Francophilic Zionist, to check it out. Le Monde journalist Sylvain Cipel dispelled every stereotype Americans have about the French media, offering up enthusiastic praise of Israeli policy past and present, and complimenting America on its myriad cultural achievements.


What he did offer was a variant of the Walt-Mearsheimer discussion of the "special relationship" between Israel and the U.S. But rather than naming a cabalistic "Israel lobby," he argued that Israelis and Americans have overlapping "mentalities." These are: self-centeredness; ignorance about their enemies; and a conviction that their country is the 'good' side of the conflicts in which it is engaged. He uses these not as proof that Israelis and Americans are... like everyone else, but to show that both nations are altogether obnoxious.

The question of collective guilt is always one of generalizations. (Generalization intended.) At one point, Cipel referred to some rounding-up of Jews done by "the Germans," then corrected himself and said "the Nazi regime," noting that he does not like to refer to entire people in generalities. Strangely he had no problem referring throughout his talk to "the Americans," "the Israelis," and "the French." He didn't seem to see a problem using the same term to describe those who massacred Native Americans long ago as for those listening to him in the room right then. "Americans" all. The Holocaust is treated as something so horrible that it's offensive to assign blame to anyone, so it ends up falling to the category of almost a natural disaster, such that one can speak of how 'only' such and such proportion of Jews died in one country or another. (Each time he mentioned how "only" a third of French Jews died in concentration camps, I was less impressed with 1940s French humanitarianism than I'd been the time before.) And later, in discussing French attitudes towards the conflict in the Middle East, he emphasized that he wasn't speaking of Jews or Muslims living in France, but of French people. There was more in that statement than in his entire, standard-left-wing talk. Just sit with it for a moment.

After spending two hours in a class on fascism, this was a little bit too much Holocaust for one evening, so I left before the end of the question-and-answer period. But I also left because I could already see what was in store. When an accomplished journalist offers up a carefully-argued take on why Israel is evil, and the questions seem set to come from laymen with an outspoken pro-Israel bent but a much less nuanced way of presenting their ideas, it's clear who gets the medal at the end. I was too tired to think of anything original to add to the proceedings, and started to think that if everyone lost interest in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, if we outside the region could put down our keffiyehs or abstract support for a Greater Israel, that could be both sides' only hope. And then I was struck with why I'm now researching the 1840s and not the 1960s as I'd originally planned.

No comments: