Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Further honing the idiosyncratic WWPD definition of Zionism

The standard pro-Israel line has been the following two-part argument:

1) Israel is indistinguishable from, say, Sweden. A liberal Western country just like us! Or as like us as Europe. Skeptical non-Jewish Westerners should support Israel because it's this little country with our values, plopped in the middle of not-our-values-ville.

2) Israel is unfairly singled out, when if you look at what goes in in developing-world dictatorships, it's far worse than what goes on in Israel.

And, as commenter Caryatis points out in so many words, these things don't add up. If Israel is Sweden, well, Sweden's a mess. If, meanwhile, Israel's North Korea, those 'only democracy in the Middle East' claims start to seem ridiculous.

The reality is more that Israel's a hybrid - part Western liberal democracy, part postcolonial-experiment state. It would almost have to be. Obviously, Israel began as a country founded by people from Europe, some of whom tried to sell the idea as a civilizing mission, which doesn't sound very PC today, and indeed, gives us the (anachronistic!) impression that early Zionists were GWB-era neoconservatives.

But to look at Israel as a colonialist enterprise - to look at the Jews who started the country as a bunch of white Western and Central Europeans who just up and decided to start an outpost of Westernness in brown people's lands, ignores a key detail. Namely that regardless of how an Ashkenazi Jew generally reads in the U.S. today, Jews in 19th or early 20th century Europe most certainly were not undifferentiated white people. (Remember 'race is a construct,' my fellow overly-educated sorts?) They were people who had been told for generations that they came from Palestine, that they were, no matter how many generations in whichever European country, foreigners.

So! Does this make Israel colonial (i.e. like the U.S.) or post-colonial (i.e. like Algeria post-independence)? It makes it the result of a postcolonial problem (an oppressed people in need of a land, ideally the one everyone seemed to think they came from originally) whose solution was colonial. It was meant to appeal to an audience - of Jews and Christians - who saw setting up a new country in the Middle East as a viable solution to this problem.

But back to Caryatis's point. Yes, the refrain that Israel's Western keeps getting repeated, and no, it's not especially helpful for those looking to defend Israel. Not because Israel isn't in many ways quite 'Western', but because its troubles (both the state's bad behavior and the continued bigotry it faces from abroad) are more postcolonial.

14 comments:

Britta said...

Ok, one issue that is never discussed in the "why Israel and not X country" is military aid. If we gave 3 billion dollars a year in military aid to Russia or China, we would have more of a stake in their human rights abuses. The reason we care is because Israel's money to a large extent *is* our money. They're our weapons and our military training techniques. The only country we "give" more money to is Afghanistan, and we clearly have pretty strong opinions about how that country is run. Iraq receives less military aid than Israel, and we also manage their internal affairs pretty heavily. From this perspective, what seems exceptional about Israel is how little we meddle in internal affairs given how much money we give.
If Netanyahu doesn't want Americans or Europeans condemning his government's actions, he is free to turn down military aid. Until then, it isn't unreasonable for aid to come with strings attached. I'm a huge critic of how American military funds get spent in any country, and I have taken to the streets to protest how the US spends its money. I'm critical of US funds used to torture "terrorists" in various Middle Eastern countries and I'm critical of US funds being used to illegally bulldoze residences in the West Bank and Gaza. It has nothing to do with Israel in particular and everything to do with the fact it is US money.

Britta said...

Also, as someone who is not "anti-Israel" but really dislikes the Likud, it's annoying how they get conflated. Disliking Republicans doesn't make me "anti-American," I think it makes me pro-American. Protesting human rights abuses IMO makes me pro-Israel, since in the long run peace is a far better option than permanent war with an colonial territory.

Phoebe said...

Re: military aid, maybe? That doesn't explain why Israel's of such disproportionate interest to Europeans, whose tax dollars are not involved, but could explain some such attitudes within the U.S.

I'm the last person who'd know the true reasons why the U.S. sends military aid anywhere, but I'd definitely say that this gets defended in terms of Israel 'sharing our values.' Which is, as I get into in the post, not necessarily the best approach. I don't see it as at all anti-Semitic or anti-Israel, for that matter, to question the U.S. spending. It only crosses over into such territory when we're talking Walt-Mearsheimer-type arguments, in which the aid itself is attributed to a Jewish conspiracy.

Also to file under things I don't know about, I don't know whether Israel's least moderate aspects are more things Israel does *despite* what Americans would want them to do, or more because it's what Americans want/what Israel thinks Americans want. As in, there are plenty of Jewish Israelis who want peace in new, smaller borders, while there are plenty of Americans - most not Jewish, I suspect - who are very much pro-Likud, pro-Greater Israel. What I don't know, then, is how it all balances out.

"Protesting human rights abuses IMO makes me pro-Israel, since in the long run peace is a far better option than permanent war with an colonial territory."

Certainly that's true if you're for a two-state solution. If what you're protesting is the very idea of a Jewish state on any part of its current land (and I don't think it is), then maybe not.

caryatis said...

That was more sophisticated than what I was saying, but yes. That is enlightening.

I also wonder that part of the belief in the U.S. that Israel "shares our values" comes from the American sense that, like Israel, we don't quite live up to European standards either, what with all the religion, guns, crime, and a chronically poor minority group. And that both countries, compared to European ones, are relatively new and founded in some part for ideological reasons.

Maybe that's obvious.

Phoebe said...

Caryatis,

The long version of my reply disappeared, so! The shorter one is, I think it's also that Europe has a different relationship to Israel than the U.S., what with Israel largely owing its existence to Jews being uncomfortable in - or fleeing - Europe.

Moebius Stripper said...

Another thing that's interesting about those two (as you say, incompatible) arguments is that right-wing Zionists and left-wing social justice activists seem to agree on (1). The existence of visibly Middle Eastern Jews living in Israel throws a wrench in both the Israel-as-sharing-our-enlightened-values and the Israel-as-colonial narratives, so it's entirely ignored by both groups of ideologues.

Re race being a social construct, 2 things: 1, I (a part Sephardic, part Ashkenazic mutt) am white according to the social justice set (including those who've never seen me), and Middle Eastern according to customs agents. 2, as you say, even classifying Ashkenazic Jews as white is...ahistorical, and moreover, it's beyond callous to ascribe undiluted white privilege to people whose entire families were tortured and killed for not being white.)

Phoebe said...

Moebius,

Yes, yes, yes re: both. Re: the first, though, some of it comes from colonial-era understandings (at least in French colonies) that the Jews in whichever era weren't really Middle Eastern/North African, and were somehow more European. This was, in the French context, a sneaky way of making Jews convenient intermediaries, useful to the French but hated by all. I mean, this is what I remember from the time I thought I'd be doing my dissertation on Algerian-Jewish history. Not sure how much this applies re:, say, Iraqi Jews. In any case, while physically, these Jews may look Middle Eastern (or not - a friend I now realize I've lost touch with is a very blond Moroccan Jew, whom I, 100% Ashkenazi as far as I know, am far darker than), there's some pre-Israel history of these populations identifying and being identified as somehow European.

Re: the second, "it's beyond callous to ascribe undiluted white privilege to people whose entire families were tortured and killed for not being white" is so, so, so important, and so totally ignored in these discussions. Like, you may be the only other person I've ever encountered, online or off-, who thinks this. I mean, yes, someone as pasty as I am has advantages in the U.S. (and, to an extent, in Europe) that someone black or Asian does not. But the kind of carefree unhyphenated one's-hair-isn't-political whiteness that "whiteness" usually refers to? No, not so much.

Moebius Stripper said...

I defer to your vastly superior knowledge of history on this, but "convenient intermediaries...useful to the French but hated by all" describes the Jew-as-moneylender role (not just in France) pretty aptly. And to tie that into the variant of white-privilege-but-not-really that applies to white-presenting Jews: a few months back, I got to chatting with an aging white hippie of my acquaintance (I play Celtic music, so I know far too many of these types) and the topic turned to Leonard Cohen and how his manager had swindled him out of his life savings. "And what I don't get," continued my interlocutor, all wide-eyed innocence, "is how could this happen to a Jewish boy? Aren't Jews usually really good with money?"

So, basically: once upon a time, Jews' career opportunities were restricted to the point that many ended up taking jobs that were important but not respected, and developed financial smarts; but never mind that, this particular skill set is a privilege; and so, any Jew who ends up being defrauded out of his life savings by an unethical handler has only himself to blame, having so carelessly squandered his advantage. (For what it's worth, this particular hippie had previously placed 100% of the blame for the financial crisis of 2008 on the banks, and none on the people who took out mortgages they couldn't afford. No word on who was to blame when the mortgage holders were Jewish.)

But I digress. In any case, I was far too stunned to be able to come up with anything nearly as coherent as [above] at the time.

Petey said...

"But to look at Israel as a colonialist enterprise - to look at the Jews who started the country as a bunch of white Western and Central Europeans who just up and decided to start an outpost of Westernness in brown people's lands, ignores a key detail. Namely that regardless of how an Ashkenazi Jew generally reads in the U.S. today, Jews in 19th or early 20th century Europe most certainly were not undifferentiated white people."

But this all ignores the reasons for why Israel, of all countries, deserves the kind of boycott/divest/sanction movement that was successfully applied to South Africa.

The issue is not 1948. The years from 1945 to 1948 were those of massive population shifts and boundary redrawing all across the world. These massive movements were sanctioned by international law, fragile, contingent, and arbitrary as it might be. Israel's formation, and the Palestinian losses, were as valid as ethnic German deportations and boundary shifts all across Eastern Europe, to mention one case out of many, many, many. These were legal things by the lights of international law. Israel's 1948 boundaries were accepted as legal. Such things matter.

But after the WWII shifts were done, different rules came into effect: namely, you can't capture territory in war and keep it.

Thus, the issue for Israel, of course, is 1967. Colonialism is a red herring.

Israel post-67 is an outlaw regime, just as Serbia was as outlaw regime in the '90's until NATO thankfully put an end to their shenanigans, or as Indonesia was in East Timor, until widespread international pressure put an end to those shenanigans.

If Sweden successfully invaded Norway, kept control of Norwegian territory and population for 30+ years, built Swedish settlements in Norway, and refused to allow the Occupied Norwegians to take their place as citizens just like the Swedes, then Sweden would be a highly compelling candidate for boycott/divest/sanction. (Or NATO bombing.)

Colonialism wouldn't be the problem in that Sweden scenario, just as colonialism isn't the problem with post-67 Israel.

If you want to look at history exclusively through the lens of 1894 to 1948, then you indeed correct that singling out Israeli behavior for special condemnation doesn't make any sense, colonialism or not. But if you look at history from 1967 to 2014, then you're looking at Israel as an indisputably outlaw, Apartheid regime that deserves to be singled out for universal condemnation all across the world, and demands to be singled out for action from civilized folks to end the Occupation.

And boycott/divest/sanction seems likely to work over time, given enough pickup.

Phoebe said...

Petey,

*You* think 1948 is acceptable. Many of your fellow travelers do not. Therein lies the challenge.

Britta said...

But I would say that the number of people who accept 1948 but not 1967 far outweigh the number of people who don't accept 1948, at least in the American/European context. I would say *many* is a huge exaggeration in terms of people critical of current Israeli policy towards Palestinians. Israel was loved by leftists across the West until after 1967. Yitzhak Rabin was almost Gandhi in the minds of lots of people. It's not like there has been some enduring hatred of Israel from Europeans and Americans since its formation. People's opinions have shifted with Israel policy towards Palestinians.

Phoebe said...

Britta,

If it really were that simple - 1948 borders, problem solved - that would be great. But just because opinion began to shift around 1967 doesn't mean that's the whole issue. One big difference between 1948-1967 and 1967-now is proximity of the Holocaust. There was once much more sympathy to Israel, I'd imagine, because of that. And, with time, resentment over Holocaust guilt.

As for the lack of sympathy now, while I'd agree that some stems from 1967, even if we take renewed anti-Semitism as a reaction to Holocaust memory completely out of the equation, what's maybe happened is, 1967 has, for many, delegitimized the very idea of a Jewish state. As in, the people who say that Zionism is racism, and who don't simply mean that Greater Israel is bad news, but that a state of any size can't be Jewish and a democracy.

Petey said...

"*You* think 1948 is acceptable. Many of your fellow travelers do not. Therein lies the challenge."

Fellow travelers. Huh. A fine McCarthyite term.

My fellow travelers who consider 1948 Israel legitimate and the post-'67 Occupation illegitimate consist of the EU, US, UNSC, human rights groups, a hefty chunk of American Jews under 50, and even reasonably significant sections of the Islamic world.

Your fellow travelers who consider the Lebensraum Occupation in Perpetuity to be legitimate consist of Shelly Adelson, Sarah Palin, the '70's and '80's Apartheid South African government, Bibi, and (did we remember to drive a stake through his heart?) Ariel Sharon.

I like my fellow travelers better than yours.

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"One big difference between 1948-1967 and 1967-now is proximity of the Holocaust. There was once much more sympathy to Israel, I'd imagine, because of that. And, with time, resentment over Holocaust guilt."

You seem to be unaware that, at least in Western Europe, Holocaust awareness in any kind of mass way really didn't take off until the '70's. Tony Judt's Postwar pretty extensively covers the way that Western Europe repressed Holocaust memories until the '70's for various WWII-connected reasons, after which point the Western European countries all had mass awakenings.

Prior to '67, the main reason why Israel had widespread sympathy in Western Europe had to do it's well-publicized values of democracy, socialism, and humanism. Back then, Western Europe could look at Israel and see a mirror to their own societies.

Phoebe said...

Petey,

You, Britta, and I seem to want the same end result, borders-wise. But where to you see the one-staters fitting in? The people who see Zionism as racism, no matter the borders of Israel?