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Statement of Principles:

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Anti-Zionism and antisemitism

Like a lion (3)

A continuation of the argument begun in Antisemitism and the left – deconstructing the arguments

Phil Edwards, Workers’ Playtime
14th November 2017


A therapist friend of mine used to say that when a client hit on something uncomfortable they’d often retreat in a cloud of verbiage – of course when I say my mother punished me I’m talking about times when I’d done something wrong, and anyway I don’t know if punish is really the right word… She used to call it ‘squid-ink’. And that’s what most of the Jacobson/Schama/Sebag Montefiore letter is. If anti-Zionists did consistently demonise Zionism and talk in antisemitic conspiracy theories; if the state of Israel wasn’t a settler-colonialist project; if all comparisons with the Nazis were not only offensive but self-evidently invalid; if the Jewish people had always been Zionists; if Israel had genuine claims outstanding against the Palestinian people; if all of those things were true, we could all agree with this letter. But if all of those things were true, we’d be living in a very different world. (If you were right, I’d agree with you, as Steven Zaillian has Oliver Sacks say in Awakenings.) If you hold to the key position these authors are advancing, you can comfort yourself – and perhaps trip up an unwary opponent – by making some of these superficially argument-winning statements. But it’s a short-term hit; eventually you’re going to have to come back down to earth and advance propositions that can actually be defended.

Which is more or less what the authors do with their conclusion:

Zionism is the right of the Jewish people to self-determination. We believe that anti-Zionism, with its antisemitic characteristics, has no place in a civil society.

That sub-clause is yet more befuddling squid-ink – if anti-Zionism has antisemitic characteristics, it’s wrong because antisemitism is wrong; if it’s wrong in itself, it doesn’t matter what its characteristics are – but the rest of it is reasonably clear. This is the ‘key position’ I referred to just now, and it goes something like this:

  1. The Jewish people are a nationality.
  2. All nationalities have the right to self-determination.
  3. Nationalisms are the political vehicle of national self-determination.
  4. Zionism is the nationalism of the Jewish people.
  5. The right to national self-determination is inalienable and is generally supported.
  6. Only someone who hated a particular nationality would deny its right to national self-determination.
  7. Therefore, only someone who hated the Jewish people would oppose Zionism.
  8. Therefore, all anti-Zionism is an expression of antisemitism.

This is a solid and substantial argument: five premises, each of them quite credible, and three conclusions that follow from them logically, driving to the inexorable conclusion that anti-Zionism does indeed have no place in a civil society. (Odd phrase – did they mean “in a civilised society”, or possibly “in civil society”? That letter really could have used another draft, or somebody else to draft it.)

How would I counter this argument? Firstly – point 1 – to say that the Jewish people are a nationality is deeply ahistorical. As we’ve already seen, the Jewish diaspora had lived and perpetuated itself, physically, culturally and intellectually, for 1700 years or more before anyone started to think in terms of what we’d now recognise as a ‘nation’ – and it was another century before anyone applied the new language of ‘nationhood’ to the Jewish people. For most of that period, the belief that the Jews came from Judaea meant about as much, in practical terms, as the belief that Caucasians came from the Caucasus, or Gypsies from Egypt. Uri Avnery:

Jews are basically an ethnic-religious world-wide community which has existed for 2500 years without the need for a homeland. Even at the time of the [autonomous Jewish] Hasmonean kingdom, most Jews lived outside Palestine. Their abstract connection with Eretz Israel is like the connection of Indonesian and Malian Muslims with Mecca – a holy place to be mentioned in prayers and an object of pilgrimage, but not claimed as a sovereign earthly possession. … Israeli nationalism, on the other hand, is rooted in a physical homeland, bound up with national sovereignty and citizenship – concepts foreign to religion.

Here and now, of course, it’s quite possible to think of the Jewish people in terms of nationhood; it’s also possible to see Muslims in those terms, or African Americans. Nationalities aren’t given; the construction of a nationality is a political project, like the construction of any other political subject. The political project of Zionism has been remarkably successful, but this isn’t because it’s in some sense ‘true’ – there is no underlying pre-political reality for it to be a true reflection of.

There’s also a more fundamental problem in asserting that ‘Jewish’ is a nationality, which Avnery’s last sentence touches on: how does this relate to the Israeli nationality? Israeli governments have no problem equating one with the other, offering Israeli citizenship to Jews wherever they are. For Jews who don’t have Israeli citizenship and don’t intend to acquire it, this equation of Jewishness and the state of Israel is more problematic – not least because taking it literally would immediately call into question their commitment to their actual nationality. (This is why, in practice, antisemites often have no problem giving at least verbal support to Zionism and the state of Israel; if your dream is to build a national home for your own nationality, the affirmation that Jews are their own nationality – and that they have their own, suitably remote, national home – may well seem fitting, not to say convenient.) Zionism can only be the nationalism of Jews in the Diaspora, in the normal sense of the word ‘nationalism’, to the extent that they are genuinely willing to throw their existing nationality overboard and become Israeli citizens. As Avnery points out, Herzl’s own vision for the proposed Judenstaat was that “all the Jews who wished to do so would settle in Israel” – and that all other Jews would “assimilate in their host nations and cease being Jews”. A mass aliyah of this kind might be good for Israel, but it would be a disaster for many of the countries where Jews live at present – and I dread to think what chain of events might bring it about.

The only other way for Zionism to function as Jewish nationalism is for the meaning of ‘nationalism’ to change, becoming something existing partly or mainly in the imagination (and hence unlike Benedict Anderson’s “imagined communities”, which are created and sustained through shared experiences). To the extent that this is the case – to the extent that the state of Israel has become, in its turn, “a holy place to be mentioned in prayers and an object of pilgrimage” – there is a genuine continuity between Diaspora Zionism and the dreams of all the centuries of exile; but it’s a continuity of the reverential imagination, not of politics. (Interestingly, Anderson talks of ‘pilgrimage’ (secular as well as religious) as one of the practices through which a sense of a nation is established. However, he’s talking about shared experiences of travelling from, as well as to, the same place – Argentinian functionaries making hajj to Madrid or Indian Civil Servants to London.)

Secondly, even if we had established that the Jewish people constitued a nationality, we’d need to establish that nationalities are generally regarded as having the right to national self-determination (points 2 and 5). This is harder than it might look. Is there general support for the secession of Catalonia, or Scotland, or Lombardy, or Cornwall? There certainly isn’t general support for the establishment of a Kurdish nation, and that‘s been on the world’s agenda pretty much since the time of the Balfour Declaration (the Treaty of Sèvres sketched out possible borders for an independent Kurdistan in 1920). This is a ‘treason doth never prosper’ situation; the right to national self-determination is generally recognised, if and when it’s achieved. (Who would try to reunite Czechoslovakia now or recreate federal Yugoslavia?) Prior to self-determination being achieved, or at least becoming politically achievable, the rights of would-be secessionists aren’t generally recognised at all – and their ‘nationalities’ are downgraded accordingly in the world’s eyes.

Nor is it an affront to the rights of a minority nationality if observers decline to support their rights as a nation. Given that nationalities are political constructions, I can regret the secession of nation A from federation B without denying anybody the right to anything. It’s not the case – whatever a Scottish nationalist might tell you – that a Scottish citizen of Britain is and always was innately a Scot, whose occasional performances of the role of British citizen are an inauthentic masquerade; nor is it the case that that person is and always was innately a Briton. Simply, someone who identifies as Scottish-and-not-British (Catalan-and-not-Spanish, Kurdish-and-not-Turkish, Cornish-and-not-English, etc) is constructing their identity in terms of one collective political subject, when they could have done so in terms of another. The choice that person makes may be quite deeply rooted in their life experience – it may not be something they can put on and take off like a party rosette – but it’s still something they do, not something they are. As such I can affirm their right to do it while still, in some cases, finding it regrettable and wishing they’d chosen the other option. I can even sympathise with the choice itself, while still regretting the fact that they’re pursuing that particular choice at this particular time, in this particular way, with these particular consequences.

So:

  1. Zionism constructs the Jewish people as a nationality, in ways that are real for people who act on that basis, and real in the consequences of those actions. However, no nationality is ‘real’ in the sense of existing in nature, and the Jewish nationality is no exception. Moreover, to be Jewish is only fully a nationality, in conventional terms, in the life experience of people who become citizens of Israel.
  2. All nationalities have the right to self-determination, in the sense that all nationalities that successfully achieve self-determination are acknowledged as having had the right to do so. (Nothing succeeds like success.) Nationalities that have not achieved self-determination are generally not regarded as having the right to do so, and in consequence are often not regarded as genuine nationalities.
  3. Nationalisms are the political vehicle of national self-determination, and of the constitution of national political subjects.
  4. Zionism is the nationalism of those Jewish people who make aliyah and become citizens of Israel. It is also a part-imaginary version of nationalism for many other Jews, with some continuities with the religious symbolism of Zion and Jerusalem (see point 1).
  5. The right to national self-determination is generally supported, for those nationalities that have achieved it (see point 2). However, national self-determination may not be the best solution to any given political problem, and it is possible to find the choice of a nationalist solution regrettable without denying anyone’s right to choose it. Moreover, it is possible to sympathise with the choice of a nationalist solution while also believing that the pursuit of that solution, in a particular situation, is regrettable and should be opposed.
  6. There are many reasons to oppose a national minority’s exercise of its right to national self-determination, and to oppose the construction of a collective national subject among people who have not yet recognised themselves as a nationality.
  7. Therefore, there are many reasons to oppose Zionism.
  8. Therefore, there is no reason to assume that anti-Zionism is motivated by antisemitism, and hence no reason to rule it to be illegitimate. Robert Cohen: “to oppose Zionism in the past or today is a perfectly valid and ethical intellectual position to hold whether you are Palestinian, Jewish or a member of the Labour Party. Saying it has no place in civil society does [the authors] no credit and displays a lack of intellectual honesty.”

Is that it? Not quite.

 

to be continued…

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