Tuesday, March 12, 2013

How pastiness came to Palestine

Can philosophy - as opposed to blogging, or Facebook status updates - fix the Middle East? Philosopher Joseph Levine's op-ed gives it a go, taking various dubious premises, submitting them to calm, logical analysis, and coming up with an answer that's pretty much obvious: "There is an unavoidable conflict between being a Jewish state and a democratic state." Well, yes. No one who thinks seriously about this issue hasn't grappled with it. Why would it be anti-Semitic to point it out? Sheesh.

What's to be done about that conflict, though, isn't remotely obvious. If you believe Israel-as-a-Jewish-state and Israel-as-a-democracy are both important (or that a one-state solution would be nice on paper but disastrous for everyone involved), it's impossible to end the conversation with a declaration that "Jewish" and "democratic" are in conflict, so. It's fine if Levine doesn't believe the "Jewish" angle has any moral justification, but it would be nice if he saw why others do and then argued against that.

Before I proceed, the usual disclaimer: this post is not a call for rants on the general topic of Israel. So, no tangents promoting a one-state solution or a Greater Israel, no knee-jerk recitation of a speech you've prepared for whenever anything having to do with the region comes up.

So, Levine's op-ed. So far, so reasonable:

The key to the interpretation is found in the crucial four words that are often tacked on to the phrase “Israel’s right to exist” — namely, “… as a Jewish state.” As I understand it, the principle that Israel has a right to exist as a Jewish state has three parts: first, that Jews, as a collective, constitute a people in the sense that they possess a right to self-determination; second, that a people’s right to self-determination entails the right to erect a state of their own, a state that is their particular people’s state; and finally, that for the Jewish people the geographical area of the former Mandatory Palestine, their ancestral homeland, is the proper place for them to exercise this right to self-determination.
Levine says he will focus on the second - whether self-determination means a right to a state - but pauses for a moment on the first:
However, I do think that it’s worth noting the historical irony in insisting that it is anti-Semitic to deny that Jews constitute a people. The 18th and 19th centuries were the period of Jewish “emancipation” in Western Europe, when the ghetto walls were torn down and Jews were granted the full rights of citizenship in the states within which they resided. The anti-Semitic forces in those days, those opposing emancipation, were associated not with denying Jewish peoplehood but with emphatically insisting on it!
I'm not sure if this reveals ignorance of or indifference to the history of modern, pre-Holocaust anti-Semitism, but I read it, reread it, and couldn't make sense of it. (A commenter, whose take isn't quite the same as mine, points out something similar.) Opponents of emancipation in 1790, 1820, weren't "anti-Semitic," exactly, as there wasn't "anti-Semitism" until the late nineteenth century. Were they anti-Jewish? Yes, typically, but so were those who favored emancipation, who (please do read my exciting dissertation) wanted Jews to intermarry so as to rid France (apologies for not covering all of Europe) of the dreaded Jewish diseases and general ickiness.

Then, however, when anti-Semitism-proper did arise, anti-Semites were awfully set on the idea that Jews were a people, and not just any people, but foreigners from Palestine. Jews had long heard that they'd be accepted if only they assimilated. Then, all of a sudden (and in France, it was quite sudden! 1880-ish) the message became that they would be all the more hated if they did assimilate, and that the least objectionable Jews were the ones who didn't try to integrate into mainstream (or, worse, elite) society. If this is baffling to those of us studying this shift from here in 2013, imagine how it was to experience it.

While French Jews did not by and large respond to this turn of events with rah-rah Zionism, there was a certain amount of, 'well, whatever we do, we'll be hated, so we may as well stop trying to deny our distinctiveness.' Across Europe, Jews who very much had embraced emancipation began to find that they were being defined as a people, and a people from Palestine. Once you're constantly hearing that you are foreign, and from Palestine, an "Oriental," not a European, maybe this impacts how you see yourself? Maybe you'd prefer to be just French, but in the face of anti-Semitism, solidarity with other Jews seems like the only ethical option? Zionism didn't come from Jews spontaneously deciding that they were a people. It didn't entirely come from anti-Semitism (and obviously this blogging does not get into pre-Herzl Zionism or non-Zionist Jewish nationalism or the pre-Zionist Jewish presence in Palestine, on account of this is not a Jewish-studies textbook but a blog post) but that sure played a role.

And... once a certain threshold of Jews embraced Zionism, once Zionism got itself a state, then yes, the anti-Semitic contingent, which had been asking pasty European Jews to go back to Palestine, began faulting Jews for having done just that. To say that some criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic is not to say that it all is. Why should that be so complicated? It does get murky, because sometimes entirely valid and much-needed criticisms are inspired by not-so-savory agendas. But it's pointless to say that because the plight of the Palestinians is a pet cause of many anti-Semites, the plight in question doesn't exist or need to be addressed. However, I do not have the exact borders for the ideal solution to this crisis at the ready, so in the interest of not pretending to solve the crisis from the comfort of WWPD, allow me to proceed...

What's problematic (anti-Semitic? eh) is to willfully ignore - if you know it - the whole go-back-to-Palestine part of modern Jewish history. To willfully ignore how sincerely Western European Jews wanted to be and indeed were French, German, etc., and how this came to feel difficult if not impossible even before the Holocaust. It's not anti-Semitic to look at the situation that currently exists and think, gee, it is weird that a so-called democracy defines itself religiously. I know this history, identify as a Zionist, and think this all the time. The problem comes when people fail to see the connection between modern Western anti-Semitism and Zionism, or when they view it as 'the Holocaust makes Jews think they can get away with anything.' Late-19th-century anti-Semitism was fundamentally about telling European Jews that they weren't European. If one loses track of this, one does indeed begin to wonder what all these European Jews - white folk! (ah, but not to their contemporaries) - were doing in the Middle East of all places, if not gratuitously colonizing.

And this is how it came to pass that modern, pasty Jews (not, of course, that modern-day Israeli Jews are all that pasty) came to believe their effectively had to be a Jewish state in Palestine of all non-pasty places.

Does this mean everything the current Israeli government does is admirable? No. Does it mean "Jewish" trumps "democratic"? Not necessarily. What it does mean is that "Jewish" isn't random chauvinism to be brushed aside effortlessly. It needs to be, if nothing else, addressed.

Almost done, I promise, but had to address this as well:
This fundamental point exposes the fallacy behind the common analogy, drawn by defenders of Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state, between Israel’s right to be Jewish and France’s right to be French. The appropriate analogy would instead be between France’s right to be French (in the civic sense) and Israel’s right to be Israeli.
I'm sure it would be news to France's citizens and residents of North African, Jewish, or other 'immigrant' origin that France only feels itself to have a right to exist as a civically French state, but that everyone of every background is, on the ground, equally welcome. France doesn't need to be all 'we're a French state for French people, and yes we mean ethnically' because France is so confident in its ethnic-Frenchness. Not in the fact that all French citizens are ethnically French - in fact, plenty are not. In the fact that "French" is both a nationality and an ethnicity. Yes, it's contested, but I believe the word 'hegemony' might fit in here somewhere. What is French history, what is a French house of worship, what is a French holiday, what is French hair, what is a French food, etc. A French France is such an on-the-ground established fact that France has the luxury of saying it's just a nation, not an ethnicity, while in practice being both. Israel... does not have this luxury.

Now, maybe no state should, and there's your answer. But not really, because as long as others do, the justification for one Jewish state - however reduced in size - exists.


David Schraub said...

This is a good post. I read Levine's article but I'm mostly without an outlet to express my objection. Hence, I've resorted to delivering All The Thoughts to my friends who were foolhardy enough to ask my opinion on it.

In any event, I'm glad you take on Levine's ... charitable interpretation of French-Jewish history, as that raised my eyebrow as well. I also think that Levine's claim that states must favor all of its civitas equally is conceptually incoherent, and his claim that a Jewish state is one that "favors" Jews (rather than one where Jews are in a position to control their own destiny) is misguided.

Phoebe said...

The France thing made me think of our buddy Albert Memmi's thoughts on holiday closings. (What I'd also thought prior to reading Memmi, but he, like, wrote a book about it.) Also that those who have this view of Western Europe as a universalist utopia tend not to have much knowledge of the place, of the more subtle or polite forms of exclusion that operate among the 'enlightened' or 'civilized' or what-have-you.

eamonnmcdonagh said...

A load of countries identify with - I mean in their constitution, laws etc. - a religion and are/claim to be democratic: Argentina and Greece (ever seen the carry on when they swear in a new PM in Greece?) to name but two. No one seems to find this odd. And yet...

caryatis said...

Phoebe, are you interested in a suggestion about your writing style?

Phoebe said...


I think we agree on this.


What a comment! Maybe? (Now I'm paranoid. And what if the comment is that I overuse parentheses!)