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Tikkun Sept/Oct 2002 Jewish Denial

Zionism's Bad Conscience

For Spanish translation CLICK HERE

Let me begin with some blunt questions, the harshness of which matches the situation in Israel/ Palestine. How have the Jews, immemorially associated with suffering and high moral purpose, become identified with a nation-state loathed around the world for its oppressiveness toward a subjugated indigenous people? Why have a substantial majority of Jews chosen to flaunt world opinion in order to rally about a state that essentially has turned its occupied lands into a huge concentration camp and driven its occupied peoples to such gruesome expedients as suicide bombing? Why does the Zionist community, in raging against terrorism, forget that three of its prime ministers within the last twenty years Begin, Shamir and Sharon are openly recognized to have been world-class terrorists and mass murderers? And why will these words just written and the words of other Jews critical of Israel be greeted with hatred and bitter denunciation by Zionists and called "self-hating" and "anti-Semitic"? Why do Zionists not see, or to be more exact, why do they see yet deny, the brutal reality that this state has wrought?

The use of the notion of denial here suggests a psychological treatment of the Zionist community. But in matters of this sort, psychology is only one aspect of a greater whole that includes obdurate facts like forceful occupation of land claimed by and once inhabited by others. The phenomena of conscience are of course processed subjectively. But they neither originate within the mind nor remain limited to thoughts and feelings. Conscience is objective, too, and linked to notions like justice and law that exist outside of any individual will. It is also collective, and pertains to what is done by the group in whose membership identity is formed. These group phenomena are, we might say, organized into "moral universes," in which history, mythology, and individual moral behaviors are brought together and made into a larger whole. Such universes may themselves be universalizing, wherein that whole is inclusive of others, who are seen as parts of a common humanity (or for non-human creatures, nature). Or, as all too often happens, they may be unified only by splitting apart of the moral faculties.

Now, the situation prevailing in Israel/Palestine is that common humanity is denied, the Other is not recognized, and the double standard prevails. In such conceptions, which have stained history since the beginning and comprise one of the chief impediments to the making of a better world, talion law reigns, violence toward the Other is condoned, and violence from the Other is demonized. Like the realms of matter and anti-matter, each such moral universe is paired with that of its adversary. But such mirroring does not imply moral equivalence; that is settled according to the rules of justice. In this instance there should be no doubt that those who have dispossessed others and illegally occupy their national lands have to bear prime culpability. This is not meant to excuse such Palestinian or Arab wrongdoings as have arisen in the course of the struggle which would be a denial of moral agency but it provides context for understanding the conflict at a deeper level and obliges us to look with special care at the curious situation of the Jews. Despite the innumerable variations between different fractions of Judaism, here certain unique historical forces have shaped a common dilemma and played a crucial role in the unfolding of Zionism.

Jews were supposed to know better, to be better. Suffering persecution and being eternally on the margins of Europe were supposed to have made Jews more morally developed. I speak from first-hand experience, having been made to feel as a boy that I had inherited a two-fold superiority, by belonging to a people both cleverer and more highly moral than the non-Jews who surrounded us. We Jews were history's exceptions.

A myth made this belief coherent over the ages and shaped Jewish identity: A "covenant" existed, a kind of special treaty and promise between Jews and God. How Odd of God, ran the title of a book from my boyhood Yeshiva days, to Choose the Jews. There was an unmistakable lift one got from feeling endowed by the Supreme Being and made superior to the mere "goyim." The morally dubious implications of this attitude and the hateful contempt that often accompanied it indeed, one could almost hear the sputum striking the ground as the word, "goyim," was spoken was mitigated by the fact that Jews were speaking from the position of victim. Jewish exceptionalism was a kind of payback that nullified the centuries of being forced into ghettos, being denied ordinary rights such as land-holding, and being kicked around, massacred, and expelled, not to mention being constantly in the cross-hairs of the reigning racist system of anti-Semitism.

Living with anti-Semitism, even when its overt violence was latent, contributed to the heightened self-consciousness of the Jewish character and also to its thin skin. Few Jews are able completely to avoid the visceral fear integral to the legacy of Judaism: a drumbeat of blame, with its intimations of the pogrom to follow. The Jew still lives with the fact that his/her people have been scapegoated for centuries by Christian Europe we still hear in our heads that Jews were the killers of Christ, hence responsible for the failures of Christianity; Jews were the usurers who destroyed the medieval community, not the landlords/barons; Jews were responsible for the misery of the Russian masses, not the Czar. In ways too numerous to list here, Jews were made to pay for the crimes of the West, and the betrayal of its ideals. The peculiar exaltation of believing oneself the chosen people is both the effect and, to a degree, the cause of anti-Semitic persecution: They hate us, but we are better than them; and then, they hate us because we are better than them. Exceptionalism reinforced the tribalism imposed upon the Jews; and tribalism played into the hands of anti-Semitism even as it defended against it.

Within this matrix a great variety of ways of being Jewish arose. These included, especially for Jews in the Western European Diaspora, the possibility of assimilating or remaining apart from the societies they inhabited. Some Jews, of course, embraced the protection of tribal ways as a defense against a harsh and accusing world. Others embraced the calculating pecuniary skills which had been foisted upon Judaism long before capitalism became the dominant order, and developed these to become masters of finance once capital moved to the center of the stage. In the West, some Jews saw in the great ideals of universality and enlightenment a means to transcend the stifling tribal role that had been imposed upon them. Having been persecuted, brutally denied the elementary rights of self-determination given to others, Jews of this type adopted the ideals of universal human rights that arose with the Enlightenment, and championed the cause of emancipation.

Then, toward the close of the nineteenth century, the ancient promise of the Covenant took the shape of a real Promised Land. Israel gave European Jews a material opportunity to balance the tensions between tribalism and enlightenment. Driven by the upswelling of anti-Semitism that preceded and gave its horrific stimulus to the Third Reich, Israel became the home of the tribe, the safe place where Jews could be Jews. At the same time, it offered Jews identifying with the enlightenment a chance to demonstrate their competence in western liberal ways (including socialism). In this way, a project arose that sought to combine and synthesize both advanced Western democratic and ancient tribal values.

The Zionists took from the West the values of liberal democracy, but also the goals, tactics, and mentality of imperialism that often accompanied these. The convergence between tribalism and imperialism seemed, on the surface, to be a successful alignment of the various impulses of the Zionist project. From the first Jewish settlements in Palestine an imperialist mentality enabled Zionists to readily rationalize their displacement of indigenous Palestinians under the notion of a civilizing mission, embroidered with a full repertoire of Orientalist prejudices.

Zionism's allegiance to modernity also gave Zionism a high degree of technological prowess and organizational ability. During the years of the Yishuv, or settlement, this was evidenced by the degree to which Zionists would consistently out-produce and out-perform the indigenous peoples despite the great numerical superiority of the latter. Later, in the period of the wars leading up to the state of Israel, as well as the wars carried out by this state, superior organizational ability combined with superior weaponry made Israel into a regional juggernaut one, moreover, driven by the talion law of tribalism and the racist reduction of one's adversary.

It was for some time easy to sympathize with a Jewish state and to overlook its imperialist tendencies, especially in the crucial period of the mid- to late 1940s, when evidence of the Holocaust surfaced as a diabolic reminder of Jewish vulnerability to the malignancies of so-called Western Civilization. I remember well as a youth of twelve the rush of joy and hope as it became increasingly clear that we were at last going to have "our state," and I know full well how deeply the Jews around me shared that feeling.

But neither understanding nor sympathy can nullify the judgment that in proceeding down this path, Zionism set the stage, as surely as could an Aeschylus or Euripides, for the present hellish outcome. And this has a great deal to do with the fact that the notion of a democratic Jewish state, despite its allure, is a logical impossibility and a trap. It is remarkable that so sophisticated a people should have so much trouble grasping the impossibility inherent in their notion of a Promised Land: a democracy that is only to be for a certain people cannot exist, for the elementary reason that the modern democratic state is defined by its claims of universality.

Modern nation-states are uneasy syntheses of the two terms: the nation, which embodies the lived, sensuous, territorial, and mythologized history of a people; and the state, which is the superordinate agency regulating a society and having the capacity, as Max Weber put it, to wield legitimate violence. In its pre-modern, non-democratic form, the nation-state could embrace directly the will of a particular national body. Under these circumstances, state power was held by those who controlled the nation. In practice, these were a mixture of kings and aristocrats who exerted direct territorial dominion, along with the theocrats of the priest class who controlled symbolic and mythopoetic production. Between the divine right of kings and the territorial powers of priests, the legality of pre-modern states took shape.

The democratic nation-state was a mutation of this arrangement, forged to accommodate the power of the newly emerging capitalist classes, but also to advance the notion of an universal human right the stirring ideal that all human beings are created equally free before the law. The subsequent history of this political formation reveals, in all its fragility, the tensions inherent in the fitful development of human rights. But there should be no mistaking that our hopes for a world beyond tribalist revenge and the arbitrary power of rulers depend on strengthening and advancing the notion of universal human right. The legitimacy of modern nation-states the legitimacy of justice itself rests upon this right. Of course, not all democratic nation-states are just in practice, nor have they necessarily come into being in ways consonant with the universal human rights they assert. The United States, Canada, Australia, and South Africa are just a few of the many examples of democratic nation-states that have come into existence through violence. The various horrors that have marked the history of these countries, however, have not prevented them from offering full participation in the polity to those who had been enslaved, expelled, and/or exterminated as the nation-state came into existence. Thus Ben Nighthorse Campbell, an American Indian, sits in the U.S. Senate, while Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, descendents of enslaved Africans, run U.S. foreign policy (needless to add, very cordially to Israel), and may someday be president.

None of this denies the racism that blocks the modern democratic state from keeping its promise. But there is a big difference between a state that fails to live up to its social contract because of a history saturated with racism, and one where the contract itself generates racism, as has been the case for a settler-colonial Israel which claims to be both a democracy and an ethnocracy organized by and for the Jewish people. Under such circumstances, racism is not an historical atavism, but an entirely normal, and constantly growing, feature of the political landscape. To have a state created expressly for one people constantly eats away and mocks the democratic-emancipatory aspects of Zionism. Zionism, in short, is built on an impossibility, and to live in it and be of it is to live a lie.

In other instances of post settler-colonial states, the democratic promise, however compromised, confers legitimacy. In the case of Israel, the logic of the ethnocratic state rules out an authentic democracy and denies legitimacy. All the propaganda about Israel being the "only democracy in the Middle East" and so forth, is false at its core, no matter how many fine institutions are built there, or how many crumbs are thrown to the Arabs who are allowed to live within its bounds. This can be shown any number of ways, none more telling than the inability of Israel to write a Constitution with a Bill of Rights.

As we well know, there are many states in the modern world that proclaim themselves for a given people and are in many respects more unpleasant places than Israel, including some of the Islamic states, such as Pakistan or Saudi Arabia. But none of these assert extravagant claims for embodying the benefits of democratic modernity as does Israel. Thus one expects nothing from Pakistan or Saudi Arabia in the way of democratic right, and gets it; whereas Israel groans under the contradictions imposed by incorporating features of Western liberal democracy within a fundamentally pre-modern, tribalist mission.

In Israel, Jewish exceptionalism becomes the catalyst of a terrible splitting of the moral faculties, and, by extension, of the whole moral universe that polarizes Zionist thought. For God's chosen people, with their hard-earned identity of high-mindedness, by definition cannot sink into racist violence. "It can't be us," says the Zionist, when in fact it is precisely Zionists who are doing these things. The inevitable result becomes a splitting of the psyche that drives responsibility for one's acts out of the picture. Subjectively this means that the various faculties of conscience, desire, and agency dis-integrate and undergo separate paths of development. As a result, Zionism experiences no internal dialectic, no possibilities of correction, beneath its facade of exceptionalist virtue. The Covenant becomes a license giving the right to dominate instead of an obligation to moral development. Zionism therefore cannot grow; it can only repeat its crimes and degenerate further. Only a people that aspires to be so high can fall so low.

We may sum these effects as the presence of a "bad conscience" within Zionism. Here, badness refers to the effects of hatred, which is the primary affect that grows out of the splitting between the exalted standards of divine promise and the imperatives of tribalism and imperialism. A phenomenally thin skin and denial of responsibility are the inevitable results. The inability to regard Palestinians as full human beings with equivalent human rights pricks the conscience, but the pain is turned on its head and pours out as hatred against those who would remind of betrayal: the Palestinians themselves and those others, especially Jews, who would call attention to Zionism's contradictions. Unable to tolerate criticism, the bad conscience immediately turns denial into projection. "It can't be us," becomes "it must be them," and this only worsens racism, violence, and the severity of the double standard. Thus the "self-hating Jew" is a mirror-image of a Zionism that cannot recognize itself. It is the screen upon which bad conscience can be projected. It is a guilt that cannot be transcended to become conscientiousness or real atonement, and which returns as persecutory accusation and renewed aggression.

The bad conscience of Zionism cannot distinguish between authentic criticism and the mirrored delusions of anti-Semitism lying ready-made in the swamps of our civilization and awakened by the current crisis. Both are threats, though the progressive critique is more telling, as it contests the concrete reality of Israel and points toward self-transformation by differentiating Jewishness from Zionism; while anti-Semitism regards the Jew abstractly and in a demonic form, as "Jewish money" or "Jewish conspiracies," and misses the real mark. Indeed, Zionism makes instrumental use of anti-Semitism, as a garbage pail into which all opposition can be thrown, and a germinator of fearfulness around which to rally Jews. This is not to discount the menace posed by anti-Semitism nor the need to struggle vigorously against it. But the greater need is to develop a genuinely critical perspective, and not be bullied into confusing critique of Israel with anti-Semitism. One cannot in conscience condemn anti-Semitism by rallying around Israel, when it is Israel that needs to be fundamentally changed if the world is to awaken from this nightmare.

This is not the place to explore what such change would look like. But the guiding principle can be fairly directly stated. By forming Israel as a refuge and homeland for Jews from centuries of persecution, and especially by making the Faustian bargain with imperialism, those Jews who opted for Zionism negated their past sufferings, and turned their weakness into strength. But such strength, grounded in the domination, oppression, and expulsion of others, is worthless. Zionism negated what had been done to the Jews but failed to negate the negation itself, and thereby repeated the past with a different set of masks. If one doubts this, look at the set of oppressions forced upon Jews by Christendom being forced into ghettos, denied ordinary rights such as land-holding, kicked around, massacred, expelled, and subjected to a racist system by the oppressors and ask yourself whether the same have not been imposed upon Palestinians by the Zionist, with the only distinction worth noting being the terms of the racism?

It is never too late to remedy this state, and a sizable minority of people of good will are already moving in this direction, against great odds. But it would be irresponsible to gloss over the grim finding that the journey is conditioned by the fact that the core of the problem lies in Zionism itself, with its assumption that there can be a democratic state for one particular people. So long as this notion is held, poisonous contradictions will continue to spill forth from the ancient land variously called Palestine or Israel. And as a frankly non-democratic, or even fascist, Israel can scarcely be imagined as an improvement, we are led to the sober conclusion that a basic rethinking of Jewish exceptionalism must be the ground of any lasting or just peace in the region. The implications are many, and need to be worked out. But the time has come for the Jewish people to resume their striving toward universality.

Joel Kovel teaches at Bard College and is the author, most recently, of The Enemy of Nature, just released by Palgrave (Zed Books, London). For more information:


Chronogram interview between Lorna Tychostup and Joel Kovel
I'd like to pick up on some of the themes in your 2002 essay, Zionism's Bad Conscience, which appeared in Tikkun,. You have a number of critical things to say there about Israel, such as the fact that even though Israel makes so much of Palestinean terrorism, three of its recent prime ministers-Begin, Shamir, and Sharon-are widely recognized to have committed acts of terrorism themselves. But the key point of the essay is how intolerant many Jewish people are about facing up to facts like that. I have personally find that the mention of any of this brings up a rage in people. Not just anger, but rage. I am not Jewish, but if you happen to be Jewish and you bring up these issues among supporters of Israel, you risk being called "self-hating" Jews or anti-Semitic. This flies in the face of reality.
JK - Yes, it's a remarkable phenomenon, which I don't think has ever been adequately explained. It essentially involves a denial of reprocity - a denial that the Palestinians could have similar feelings and motivations as Jews, that they are fighting for their national existence, too, or that their claims have any legitimacy. Basically, though, it is a denial that Jews and Palestinians share a common humanity. There's a phenomenal degree of hypersensitivity in the Jewish community associated with this, which amounts to a refusal to hold Israel to a moral standard agreed upon by the rest of the world. And this tendency is notably more prominent amongst Jews in the United States than in any other country in the Jewish Diaspora, or indeed, in Israel itself. So that calls for a double level of inquiry. Why are Jewish people so intolerant of criticism of the state of Israel? And why is this problem so much more extreme in the US?
LT - It has to do with this idea of the "other"--the person who is not recognized as such. So violence toward the "other" is OK, but violence from the "other" is demonized. Both sides in a dispute of this sort tend to feel this way, but you point out a peculiar feature of the Jewish response, which is that Jews are supposed to know better and to be better, because they have been suffering for so long. They really have, throughout history, been so put upon, that they have developed the idea of being special and having a special relation to God.
JK - There are a number of sides to that. There is, in the Jewish tradition, the notion of the Covenant, as the special promise God made to Abraham and his descendents. It is a very precious part of the Jewish heritage and leads to a feeling of being exceptional. This feeling is reinforced by the actual history of Jewish people, who have in fact been treated as radically different, for example, by being forced into ghettos. And as happened all too commonly, this was associated with extreme persecution, right on up to the Holocaust. It's important to bear in mind that such a fate principally arose in Christian society. Considering what has happened in the last hundred years, it's ironic that Jews had far less difficulty in the great Islamic societies, whether in Moorish Spain, Arabia, or Ottoman Turkey. Thus the development of Jewish exceptionalism lies within the Christian and European experience, while its territorial expansion takes place at the expense of Islam.
In any case its a very complex and many sided problem, in part because the Covenant - the sense of being God's chosen people - can be read in different ways. One possibility is to see it as a charge to seek justice on a universal basis. Here the Jew takes the position of being an outsider and identifies with all outsiders and victims. Here one belongs to all of humanity, all of whom are morally equivalent by the virtue of being a human being before God. But another direction is possible as well, in which the Covenant becomes a special, "chosen" relation to God. Now one is morally better than non-Jewish people-the goyim--and by that fact, puts them down with a certain degree of hostility and even contempt from a place of moral superiority. The second path, of being the chosen favorite of God is quite contradictory to the ideals of universal justice, though common enough throughout history. In this respect the Convenant comes to organize a kind of tribal feeling: Jews are special, God's chosen people, and their suffering entitles them moral as well as intellectual superiority over the others.
So the Covenant can be a universal demand, which drives toward justice and compassion with the underdog and the oppressed, or it can become a tribal demand that drives towards exclusiveness, pridefulness, hostility towards outsiders, along with perpetual fear that the persecutions will return. You can see that those are two very different processes, two poles between which the Jews have, so to speak, oscillated through history. In any event, there is no single way of being Jewish, rather, a set of ambivalent impulses that become played out differently in different historical circumstances.
In my view, and the view of many people across the world (though not the United States), the Zionist project has markedly accentuated the tribal or chauvinistic side of Jewish identity. How could it be otherwise once this hitherto oppressed people became a nation of conquerers? This does not dispose of the contradiction observed above, but it does rearrange the terms of universality and tribalism. Or rather, it combines them into the basic Zionist notion that Israel would be a democratic state for the Jewish people.
The terms are combined but in a definite hierarchy, in which the universal part--democracy-coexists with yet is subordinated to the tribal part, that the Jews are to have special status within the state of Israel. The tribal side is powerfully institutionalized, as in the right of return granting automatic citizenship to anyone with a Jewish grandmother, or by reserving the vast bulk of the better land for Jews. And in real practice it almost always trumps the universalist impulse, as the Palestinians, who have precisely been denied these very rights, will freely attest.
This arrangement, which is at the heart of Zionism, creates a terrible contradiction that eats away at the soul and conscience of the Jewish people. The problem is that you can't have a democratic state for just one people while excluding the others. It is just a logical impossibility. The notion of democracy derives from universal ideals based on universal human rights; it cannot exist where there is a systematic inequality, and all the more so when these "others" are those who have been dispossessed by Zionism.
Of course, systematic inequalities are widespread throughout history, indeed, more or less the norm. But never have they occurred in a society ruled by people with the moral dilemmas created by Jewish exceptionalism and the two-thousand year history of ghettoization. In my view it is this moral twist that accounts for the extraordinary thin-skinnedness of Jews, and their intolerance of criticism of Zionism-what I have called Zionism's bad conscience. The irony is radical: because Jews have to think of themselves as morally special, "Chosen" people, they cannot tolerate the coarse grab for territory and the oppression of the dispossessed inherent to Zionism. They deny the implications with messianic fervor, but the wound cannot be healed.
LT - So is it that there are some more enlightened people striving toward a humanitarian-based democracy and others who press for the tribal solution? But both groups have lived through the same history in terms of the horror of Nazi Germany and the horror of the holocaust. What would cause this difference, this schism between the two groups? Is it a difference in the element of fear, felt or experienced?
JK - I think the key factor has to do with the compact one makes with power. That would help explain why this problem is so much more severe in the US than elsewhere--because Jews have become so powerful and successful in the US, and because the US has become so powerful and successful in the world, and because the US has entered into an amazing alliance with the state of Israel to support it in every way possible and to give it a blank check enabling Israel to act with impunity-including maintaining a major nuclear arsenal without ever having to admit this to the world. Really, it is quite hard to fathom just how deep and extensive the US ties are with Israel, whether we look at the huge military donations, or receiving the lion's share of US foreign aid, or the near absolute support given Israel throughout the US government, especially in Congress, or the various acts of dirty-work carried out by Israel for its imperial guardian. Hovering over it all are zealous and highly funded watchdog agencies like the American Israeli Political Action Committee-AIPAC-that keep people in line and forbid criticism of Israel. And yet all this power has only made them more intolerant, and less able to face up to the historical responsibilities of what Israel has done.
LT - This is particularly true these days, where the present administration in the US is a fear-driven system obsessed with the dangers from terrorism: "they are coming to get us, they are all coming to get us and we have to protect ourselves." This aligns perfectly with those in Israel who might feel the same way. But I don't think everyone in Israel, all Jews, feel this way, just as in this country not all Americans feel this way.
JK - Definitely, there is a huge range of responses around this basic theme. And the fear component is very important. There is a terrible irony here because the point of Israel was that it was supposed to make Jews feel safe. And yet there in no place on earth where it is more dangerous to be Jewish. The search for "security" has made everybody less secure.
LT - Historically there is no question; the Jews were put upon, isolated and persecuted. Now we have this situation of the abused becoming the abusers. When suicide bombers strike back, when Islamic fundamentalists strike back, they are sending a message, for example, the fundamentalists, whether Zionist or Muslim or Christian are trying to put off their oppressors as well. It seems we keep passing these behaviors down. The Christians were once persecuted and they became tribalistic and then tried to put off who they saw as the oppressors. Then Jews are trying to put off who they see as oppressors. The Muslim fundamentalists are trying to put off whom they see as oppressors. Is this just the psychology of human nature?
JK - When we talk about human nature we have to think in terms of various potentials, one of which would be getting caught up in cycles of revenge and persecution. As you say, it has been repeated over and over. But it's by no means the only potential within human nature. I want to emphasize that among the most bravest and most faithful fighters for a better world, beyond vengeance and tribalism, are Jews-along, needless to add, with Arabs and Muslims. But focussing for the moment on the Jews, we see that people from within Israel as well as the Diaspora-including a contingent from the US--are perfectly capable of behaving radically differently from the standards imposed by Zionism. The cycle of vengeance is by no means a necessary fate, or the only possibly outcome of human nature.
The more important question is not the potential for good or evil, both of which we know exist within us, but what induces one side or the other. And here it is indisputable that a brutal fact on the ground induces the vengeance cycle, namely, that in order to secure a Jewish state in that part of the world the Jewish settlers had to displace and expel the indigenous people, and to erase the memory of their history. That's simply the logic of Zionism, the kind of path it spelled out. And those they couldn't expel, they had to put into cantons and bantustans and create a situation quite analogous to South African apartheid. In other words, once you have chosen the Zionist path, you are fated to be caught up in a cycle of vengeance and retribution.
To be sure, it has been a very complicated historical process. But the fact of the matter remains that there were people living in Palestine who had to be displaced if the State of Israel was to come into being. Israel has never been able to contend with the contradictions arising from this except by becoming more and more militaristic and trying to defend itself through force, meanwhile developing serious kinds of exclusions and various kinds of ways of removing the humanity of the people that they have displaced. And this extends to removing the people themselves, an openly talked-about option in Israel, and one with much precedent. The term, ethnic cleansing, is the one that applies here. That is the fundamental historical fact.
LT - You pointed out that there is a difference here in the development of the US, where members of our indigenous population, or descendents of slaves have risen to prominent positions, are more accepted and in some cases like the current foreign policy establishment, help to run the country. And in Israel the direction has been that the people should not exist at all.
JK - No country in the world has had a more dismal record vis ‡ vis indigenous or enslaved peoples than the US, or has been more suffused with racism. That is a scar and a wound that continues to fester, and our history simply can't be understood without taking it into account. But there have also been differences with the Zionist experience, which we can't take up for lack of space. The most relevant is that the US was never an ethnocratic homeland for one people only. Individual colonies may have been so in part, but when they came together that principle had to be abandoned. The social contract of the new nation-state was always toward the ideal of including all people; and no matter how much this was violated in practice, the ideal of inclusivity remained for the heroes of the civil rights movement to draw upon. Thus our own apartheid system, all too horribly real, also lacked the kind of foundation that we see in Zionist Israel, where it derives from the basic principle of society.
Another way of saying this is that the US has a Constitution and a Bill of Rights that provides a framework for a democratic society, however poorly realized. Whereas Israel, professing itself a democracy, has never been able to write a Constitution.
LT - I don't think many people know this.
JK - The contradictions posed by the notion of a Jewish democratic state are so severe that you can't codify it in a constitutional form. To do so would mean breaking apart the fiction that there can be a genuine democracy for one ethnic group over others. So a great many questions are just sort of shelved. In fact, the national boundaries cannot be well defined. It is not at all clear just where Israel should begin or end given the myth of its origins, still held by many Zionists, that "God promised all of this region to usÖ" There are people who say Israel should keep expanding all the way to Turkey and should take over everything in the region. More crucially, this notion underlies the relentless impulse to occupy all Palestinean land and the appalling story of the settlements in the Occupied Territories.
LT - A lot of people don't want to hear that "Zionism is built upon an impossibility."
JK - If past experience is any guide, we can be pretty sure that what I've just said will arouse very strong negative feelings among the American Jewish community. The question is, however, whether one can accept responsibility for what has been done, which means being able to think honestly about the past, to incorporate your history into the present, and to have a sense of your limits. In a word, it means being conscientious, or in this case, arguing openly about the history and actuality of Israel. This doesn't of course mean accepting what I've said on faith, but it does imply an open and conscientious engagement with the issues and a willingness to look at oneself and if necessary, to change-we might say, in "good conscience."
Then there is the matter of the bad conscience, where, instead of being able to accept responsibility and to look at what you are doing, one is unable to think self-reflectively and self-critically. Being unable to take criticism, the bad conscience explodes into violent denunciation and suppression of critics. It replaces conscientiousness with blame. I contend that such a bad conscience is an important aspect of the present situation. And evidence for this is precisely that we have so much difficulty getting a decent debate about Israel and Zionism going in this country.
I think this situation is improving to some degree, witness undertaking an interview like this. The terrible events of the last few years have cost Israel a lot of legitimacy, and this has made for certain openings. But the openings have to be seen as possibilities to engage the still-massive ideological complex supporting Zionism, including its bad conscience.
LT - You spoke earlier about denial. Denial is a defense mechanism which must play a big role here. What happened in Nazi Germany - the Holocaust - was a horrible thing. It is quite recent and more present in people's consciousness than things that happened one or two thousand years ago. It is very real, still now, for a lot of people as the principle reason justifying the need for a Jewish national home.
JK - Yes, no doubt, it still looms like a monstrous shadow. It's understandable that people would have felt that way, or even still feel that way. But a feeling of that kind can't justify what has been done in the name of Zionism, if only for the instrumental reason that it has failed to bring real security to the Jewish people.
LT - Yet At the same time there is this pushing away. For example, when a major issue is brought to the table between two people, an issue that just the discussion of which causes pain and grief, there is this pushing away. The pushing away can emerge in a variety of ways, among them name-calling and/or anger. The name-calling is simply diversionary, preventing further discussion. And ultimately these reactive behaviors help to prevent resolution. We need to be talking.
For me, this is the most painful thing. There is this bad situation occurring in the Middle East. It is hurting all sides. Yet, any real open discussion of this, as you have pointed out, brings on an attack and stifles discussion. Even now, I can't imagine what letters we will get for publishing this interview.
JK - I agree we have to get beyond the name-calling and the denial, both of which are driven by the bad conscience. One important dimension is the denial that Palestinians may have a legitimate grievance. Because a bad conscience can't take responsibility, the person afflicted with it can't think of themselves as being wrong; this just stirs up intolerable feelings of guilt. Now if you admit that the Palestinians have a legitimate grievance, then of course, you have to think that maybe you are wrong, and might have to take responsibility or even change. The bad conscience keeps that kind of thought out of awareness, by attacking the critic, and at the same time, by reducing the moral value of Palestinians and their cause. Then the only things one can think about are is that the Palestinians are simply motivated by blind hatred, or are congenital terrorists, or being Arabs, are shaped by Islam to hate the West. This takes the whole situation out of history and makes it impossible to look at what has really happened, namely there has been violent expropriation, ethnic cleansing, and illegal occupation of Palestinean land. Everything is simply put on the level that all these Palestinians hate us. At times the denial has extended to the claim that the Palestinians don't exist as a people.
LT - I have heard this from very intelligent and good-hearted people I know and respect: There is no such thing as a Palestinian because there is no Palestinian State. And therefore this land in question is unclaimed and up for grabs. And Israel is simply claiming it. On one level, as a non-Jew, I feel - perhaps wrongly - that it is inappropriate to argue with these people. On another level, I am in shock to the point of being speechless that this is the attitude from these people who seem to be very rational on other occasions. I am in awe and shocked - and I silence myself because the dissonance is so great.
JK - That is a very common line of reasoning. In fact, the legendary Golda Meir, who was born in Russia and raised in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, before emigrating to Israel, said exactly that in 1969, the year she became Prime Minister: "It was not as though there was a Palestinian people in Palestine considering itself as a Palestinian people and we came and threw them out and took their country away from them. They did not exist." I haven't seen the celebration of her life now on Broadway, but I tend to doubt these words are part of the script.
In the 1980's a book appeared that argued just as did Meir, essentially, that the Palestinians weren't an actual indigenous people, but came on the scene basically to work for the Jews once the Zionists got there. It was by Joan Peters and was called, From Time Immemorial. It was received with enormous enthusiasm in this country.
LT - It sounds like an Ann Coulter book.
JK - No, because Ann Coulter just rants, but Peters' book was packaged as heavy-duty historical scholarship. And it took the country by storm, chiefly, I would say, because it relieved the bad Zionist conscience of any burden of responsibility. In the first year after the book was published, Peters was invited to speak 250 times, and the book swiftly went through seven editions. Many famous intellectuals were bowing and scraping in homage. Somehow, none of these managed to check the scholarship. When serious historians did so, they found the book to be a tissue of fabrication. It was denounced in the harshest terms possible, notably, much more widely in England where the Zionist grip is looser (and where scholars know their stuff about Palestine, since they come from the country that once controlled it). It was also demolished in Israel by a generation of historians critical of the reigning Zionist mythology. From the critical standpoint, then, the book sank like the proverbial stone-and yet it is still influential in the US. I would think that people you refer to who say there are no Palestinians might have been influenced by this book. But in any case there has been a massive effort to minimize, distort, or blatantly deny the complex reality of the Palestinian experience.
Those readers who want to read further on this can consult the work of Norman Finkelstein, a courageous American historian (and son of Holocaust survivors) who was one of the first to see through Peters' phoney scholarship: Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict. For the Palestinean story itself, one might start with Baruch Kimmerling and Joel S. Migdal's The Palestinean People: a history, the joint work of an Israeli and and American scholar.
LT - Your thesis is clearly laid out. But it seems like a hopeless situation. There is this monster moving on, the wall is being built, this separation is underway, people are still dying on both sidesÖmost people would like to see a more appropriate solution, with people getting along. You say, however, that it is never too late to remedy the situation.
JK - Well, anything that humans can make they can make differently. The situation is very far gone, but there is never any good in abandoning hope. And in any case, the one thing we cannot tolerate is not seeing reality for what it is. Of course, all of us have to work on this, Jew and Palestinian alike, and indeed the whole human community. Nothing I've said should be interpreted to mean that the Palestinians are inherently virtuous, or free from the human capacity to make mistakes. One myth we should get rid of is that being oppressed makes you virtuous. It can just as well make you ignorant, desperate and evil. But that's not the issue. There are endless potentials within human beings, including that of redemption. There is weird, ignorant and violent thinking on both sides, as well as heroism, sacrifice and the need for reconciliation.
But irrespective of the capacities of human beings there is an elementary and objective condition of justice, the search for or flight from which brings out the various capacities for good and evil among people. A bad conscience blocks the appreciation of justice and blinds us to the just path. My quarrel with Zionism is first, that it caused the Jews to betray their precious heritage of universalism, and led them down the path of injustice to the illegal and violent expropriation of another people; and second, that it induces a bad conscience because, especially, of the peculiarities of the history of Jewish exceptionalism. And my hope, which I will never abandon, is that these errors can be overcome and a better path chosen.

On Left anti-Semitism and the special status of Israel

For a Spanish translation, CLICK HERE

From Tikkun. May-June, 2003

By Joel Kovel

The tangled question of anti-Semitism within the United States Left was highlighted this past February in a heated controversy between Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor and founder of Tikkun, and the anti-war umbrella group, A.N.S.W.E.R (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism).

In what follows, I take no position on who was right and wrong in this particular case, nor about the behavior of A.N.S.W.E.R., though I might add that my own experience with the group in local antiwar activity does not support Lerner's characterization. My concern, rather, is with the definition of left anti-Semitism offered by Lerner in his email communications and in an op-ed article he wrote that appeared in The Wall Street Journal during the course of the controversy. I do not question Lerner's sincere and passionate desire to end the ravages of violence committed by both sides, nor his use of spiritual healing toward this goal. (In fact, I write a regular column for TIKKUN and have worked with Lerner over the years on many of these issues.) I do have a problem, however, with his political analysis, revealed here by his use of the notion of anti-Semitism, and with the means by which he proposes to identify this issue with the Left.

The notion of Left anti-Semitism is necessarily tied to the question of Israel and the logic of Zionism that animates it. Therefore the issues examined here cut to the very core of the choices we need to make about Israel/Palestine - choices that enter into the ambitious proposals recently launched as guidelines for the forthcoming Tikkun teach-in in Washington, and extend also widely beyond. We understand that anti-Semitism obscures the reality of what it is to be a Jew, and has enabled atrocities great and small to be committed upon the Jewish people. The question before us now is this: can a faulty critique of anti-Semitism obscure the reality of Israel, and thereby weaken the struggle against its violations of human rights?

For Lerner, anti-Semitism of the Left variety exists when: a) criticism of Israel's human rights violations is not evenly balanced with equivalent criticism of other human rights violators, whether they be Palestinian terrorists or other state terrorists; and b), when the right to exist of Israel is denied. Here is a sample of his remarks on the subject, culled from his op-ed and listserv emails:
The position "... the Tikkun community have put forward is that the mobilizations have been run by a group called ANSWER, itself dominated by a communist sect group which is filled with hate toward Israel and wishes to see it dismantled. It has used anti-war demonstrations to demean Israel and to picture the war in Iraq as a war for Israeli interests."

“context is everything. It's not the fact of criticizing Israel, but the one-sidedness and the selecting out of Israel for special focus. We in the TIKKUN Community have been outspoken critics of Israeli repression of Palestinian rights. But we've also been outspoken in our criticism of acts of terror against Israeli civilians. We've called for Palestinians to reject all forms of violence and follow the lead of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Gandhi, whose struggles against oppression were successful in part because they conveyed to the oppressor that the oppressed still recognized their humanity and hence would not take acts of cruel revenge the moment they could. It was that same spirit that made possible the transformation of South Africa under the leadership of Nelson Mandela. Acts of terror, on the other hand, drive the Israeli population into the hands of the most right-wing forces in Israeli society. So if one attends a rally in which Israel is being critiqued without this larger context, the feeling of bashing Israel becomes predominant.”

"And then, if Israel's human rights abuses are selected out as the major focus, only reserving more abuse for the U.S. government, then we have to ask: Why is there such silence at these demonstrations about the far greater human rights abuses of Saddam Hussein? Or of China in Tibet? or of Russian in Chechnya? or of the regimes in Saudia Arabia and Syria and Egypt and dozens of other states?”

I am sure that Lerner would agree that anti-Semitism, like all species of racism, is logically a fallacy of misplaced concreteness. That is, where one should see the rich interplay of real determinations, the anti-Semite inserts an essentialist abstraction, a thing-like phantom taken out of history. Thus we hear of “Jewish conspiracies,” or “Jewish control of Hollywood,” or “Jewish money” or, as Lerner would have us see here, “Israeli human rights abuses” taken out of context and one-sidedly singled out. To avoid an anti-Semitic reaction to Israel, Lerner would have us do the following: first, to denounce Palestinian abuses (along with those of other offenders) equivalently to those of Israel (while urging Palestinians to adopt Gandhian ways or to follow in the spirit” of Nelson Mandela, ( for which, see below); and second, to do this in the spirit of affirming the basic worthiness of Israel and its right to exist.

The difficulties with this approach begin with the fact that by requiring equivalence and balance in the treatment of Israel, Lerner is weakening the very context that he calls "everything." What is unique about Israel is lost, even as an a priori requirement is imposed that Israel be seen both as a state like any other, and also as having intrinsic worth. Thus we approach the subject with a large set of blinders. Instead of examining each actor in the Mideast conflict concretely, we are forced to compare these actors and their human rights abuses according to what is common between them, for example, body counts, rather than what specifically causes them. Quantity replaces quality, and real determinations fade out. To faithfully follow Lerner's prescription, one tallies up human rights abuses and gives the booby prize to the contestant with the greatest number of maimed, tortured or dead victims. In the process, history is erased and a deeper understanding of the causes and remedies of things denied. The critique of anti-Semitism thereby becomes a kind of censorship. And if rational criticism is stifled, then irrational criticism supervenes and the dogs of anti-Semitism are indeed let loose.

If we remove these restrictions and look at the history of this problem, we find that special criticism of Israel is indeed warranted, in fact, mandatory, simply because Israel is special, haunted by the grotesque metamorphosis of Jewish exceptionalism into a logic of empire in which the “Chosen People” have become chosen once again. This time, however, chosenness has not been granted by God, as the spiritual tradition demands, but by the Behemoth known as Uncle Sam.

The United States and Israel are both instances of messianic settler-colonialism and its accompanying exceptionalism. Recall the conscious identification of the Puritan settlers with the tribes of Israel, a linkage that remains very much alive in the affection of the Christian Right (G.W. Bush included) for the Zionist state. This species of Western expansionism has had the gravest impact upon indigenous peoples, whether in North America, Southern Africa, or Palestine. Along with a common root, the presence within the United States of the largest and most powerful Jewish community within the Diaspora made it highly likely that the two nations would develop a powerful bond. The relationship did not develop overnight, however. The United States was virtually absent from the founding of the Zionist movement; and though it was active in the struggles leading to the formation of the Israeli state, was a lukewarm ally (even at times an adversary) through the 1950s. In part, initial U.S. reticence toward Israel was due to concerns about aggravating oil sheikhs, in part it was the result of anti-Semitism in U.S. ruling groups, and in part it stemmed from queasiness about the socialist leanings of Jews in general and Israel in particular.

By the end of the 1950s, however, much had changed. A substantial Jewish-American bourgeoisie had become deeply embedded in powerful institutions, and had moved rightward under the influence of the Red Scares, in particular, the Rosenberg atomic espionage case, which was virtually a show trial of Jewish loyalty to the national security state. At the same time, America, flush with its post-Suez muscling aside of the British and French and deeply mistrustful of the radical Arab nationalism of Egypt’s Nasser, was gearing up for full-scale involvement in the all-important Middle East. And Israel was by now ready to prove its bona fides as an imperial sidekick. The 1967 war, from which the Occupation sprang, proved the catalyst bringing the two countries together. American policy planners now realized that they had an inestimable ally capable of ruthlessly suppressing any national liberation movements that might challenge US hegemony in the center of the oil-bearing world or indeed elsewhere.

U.S.-Israeli ties have only deepened with time, cemented by the roughly $130 billion (the true figure is essentially unknowable, given the military's deviousness and lack of accountability) in military aid given to Israel over the years. Links between the two countries have been underwritten and enforced by powerful Zionist lobbies, justified by a press that slavishly follows the party line, rationalized by the liberal intelligentsia, and institutionalized by robotic Congressional approval. The relationship has extended to new levels of cordiality in the regime of G.W. Bush, for whom Ariel Sharon "is a man of peace." And it is strategically vital for both partners. America aids and arms Israel and defends it in the UN and against world opinion. Meanwhile Israel is America's pit bull in the crucial zone of the Middle East, while performing for the master such tasks as his delicate sensitivity to world opinion has found unacceptable. Israel, for example, helped apartheid South Africa evade an arms blockade, armed and trained death squads for El Salvador's and Guatemala's counter-revolutionary forces, and assisted the arming of Indonesia for its genocide in East Timor, this last, it should be noted, during the peace-minded adminstration of Jimmy Carter. These are all matters of record, and by no means aberrations of Israeli state policy. Nevertheless, they perennially slip down the memory hole that obliterates those difficult facts as would compromise basic support of Israel.

Lerner’s search for equivalence downplays these ties. He writes, for example, of how “Israel's human rights abuses are selected out as the major focus, only reserving more abuse for the US government, as though these were independent variables and not clear indications of the special relationship between the two states. And a chief indication, for him, of A.N.S.W.E.R.'s anti-Semitism is the fact that it "has used anti-war demonstrations to demean Israel and to picture the war in Iraq as a war for Israeli interests."

The notion of “demeaning” Israel seems a bit obscure though it implies a certain innate dignity to the Zionist state which can be traduced. When, however, said "demeaning" is linked to the suggestion that Israel may have "interests" in an Iraqi war, the critique of left anti-Semitism becomes repressive and has the effect of suppressing rational criticism of the Zionist state. Such smear tactics have been used extensively over the years by groups like the Anti-Defamation League to suppress criticism, and have played a definite role in fostering Israel's disregard of human rights.

The assertion that it is anti-Semitic to say that the invasion of Iraq serves Israeli interests is especially problematic. That this war would serve Israeli interests has been widely discussed in the Israeli press and by innumerable others elsewhere, including the Lord Mayor of London at the Feb 15 rally before two million cheering protestors. Are all these voices anti-Semitic? Is Zalman Shoval, former Israeli ambassador to the United States, who has said that "postponement of the Iraqi war goes against Israeli interests"? Indeed, the US intelligentsia seem to be the only people on earth unable to comprehend that America's invasion and obliteration of Iraq will eliminate such deterrence as Saddam Hussein may offer to the real bearer of "Weapons of Mass Destruction" in the region. It will also bring the troops of Israel’s imperial benefactor that much closer to the scene of struggle, while aiding Israeli acquisition of oil and water rights. And to the extent that the internal logic of Zionism points toward the expulsion, i.e., "ethnic cleansing," of the Palestinian people, so, too, is the war welcomed, as it facilitates this dreadful outcome-to which we return below.

On the American side the trail of collaboration is posted with key functionaries in Bush's foreign policy team who are ardent right-wing Zionists as well as architects of war with Iraq-men such as Paul Wolfowitz (Deputy Defense Secretary), Douglas Feith (Under Secretary for Policy in the Dept. of Defense), Lewis Libby (Chief of Staff for Vice President Cheney), Eric Edelman (Libby's top assistant), Richard Perle (Chairman of the Pentagon's Defense Policy Board), and Elliot Abrams (who runs Mideast policy for the National Security Council). Abrams, known for his supervision of counterrevolution in Central America under Reagan, and also for his perjury conviction by Congress (overturned by Bush pere) during the Iran-Contra scandals, brings to his new post the qualification of having written a book advising that intermarriage means the death of the Jewish people. He has also championed Ariel Sharon’s righteousness while strenuously opposing the peace process in Palestine.

Perle and Feith were advisers to the Netanyahu government, for whom they were among the principle authors of a report, “A New Strategy for Securing the Realm.” Among its recommendations are the following: that Israel needs a “clean break from the slogan, comprehensive peace” [i.e., the hopes of the Oslo accords] to a traditional concept of strategy based on balance of power. To this end, Israel must change the nature of its relations with the Palestinians, including upholding the right of hot pursuit for self defense into all Palestinian areas and nurturing alternatives to Arafat’s exclusive grip on Palestinian society. Observe that these gentlemen, now among the chief architects of Bush’s Iraq policy, are here laying out Sharon’s policy for systematically destroying Palestinian society, the chief means for ethnic cleansing.

The essentials of U.S. and Israeli policy have been consistent since at least 1967, during which period the real behavior and indeed the existence of the Zionist state has depended upon the support of the superpower. Moreover, both internal logic and external pressures have substantially worsened the behavior of both partners, while deepening the ties between them. For the United States, writhing in the grip of a persistent crisis in capital accumulation, anticipating flattened extraction of oil resources (in the context of ever-expanding demand), and given the opportunity afforded by El Qaeda's terror attacks, it has been a mutation into pre-emptive militarism and a bid to exert total world domination by force, all of which strengthens the strategic importance of Israel. (Note the ability of the latter to recently wring out an additional $10 billion in U.S. aid-at a time when everything else is being cut back-by claiming that its economic crisis threatens its military dominance). As for Israel itself, we see an incremental tightening of the screws against Palestine to genocidal proportions. The causes for this have been the threat of a post-Oslo peace, and, I would argue, the internal evolution of the basic assumptions of the Zionist state, suitably legitimated by acts of Palestinian rage, in particular, the evil, futile and desperate suicide bombings.

Lerner calls the intensified ethnic cleansing of Palestinians the working of the "most right-wing forces in Israeli society." This, however, is to look at the surface and overlook the structures beneath the surface: the reliable, state-terroristic atrocity machine serviced and warranted by the Godfather. What in general is known as the "right-wing" is the political agency of those who exploit the foundational power relationships of a society. The Right is therefore produced by structures and the movement of events even as it becomes the agent of these events. For the United States, this foundation is primarily one of aggressive capital accumulation; thus the "right" acts so as to maximize accumulation, moving one way or another according to the ebb and flow of events. For Israel, the foundation is provided by the logic of a state whose democratic faÁade masks, even as the persecution suffered by Jews has been used to justify, an unrelenting drive toward territorial control of Palestine by one, Jewish, people. This is the core assumption of Zionism. It contains the seeds of Palestinian expulsion and an ever-more rightward political direction insofar as the subjugated people resist, that is, act as human beings whose basic existence is being destroyed. Moreover, the more America moves toward domination of the Middle East, the more powerful Israel's drive toward ethnic cleansing. Its pace may be retarded temporarily by tactical considerations of not offending the Arab states, but once imperial extension into the region is secured, we can be certain that the destruction of Palestinian society will proceed.

The conclusion to which we are drawn is that the Zionist state is incorrigible within the present configuration of forces. Unless these are fundamentally changed, we look forward to an endless series of disasters.

Beyond the Two-State solution
The claim that it is anti-Semitic to go too far in one's critique of Israel stymies a deeper structural analysis. But it also leaves us in the dark as to just what is far enough in the critique of Israel. The above line of reasoning may be deemed as going too far by many who hold to the view that there is an essential core of virtue to Israel, rooted in the great ethical traditions of Judaism, in Israel's many cultural and technological achievements, and in the fact that it has offered a homeland to a persecuted people. This view, which may be characterized, using Lerner’s phrase, as the fundamental legitimacy conception of Israel, is undoubtedly held by the great majority of American Jews, and accounts for the fact that they cannot bring themselves to believe that Israel would have a drive to transfer, ethnically cleanse, and expel Palestinians.

This notion also presupposes the horizon of the acceptable defined by the "two-state" proposal, a solution in which Israel stays essentially the same with some territorial adjustments, and a Palestinian state is hewn out of the occupied territories or some fraction therof. Two-state logic is what allows Lerner to say that he is "pro-Israel [and] pro-Palestine." It enables him to lay out his political program, confident that there is something in Israel on the basis of which a decent two state solution can be developed. For it is Israel, holding the cards of military power, that will have to be petitioned, reasoned with, and won over, if there is to be a Palestinean state worthy of human beings.

The facts of the case indicate, however, that Israel as it exists cannot be petitioned, reasoned with, or won over to a just solution to the crisis. The reader may study the particulars, with copious references to Israeli commentators, in Tanya Reinhart's superb Israel/Palestine: Ending the 1948 War, (Seven Stories, 2003), and learn about the endless chicanery and manipulation carried out by successive adminstrations from Center-left to Far Right in order to thwart Palestinian statehood. Israel's behavior during the Second Intifada (which it almost certainly deliberately provoked to accelerate its occupation according to the rules laid down by Perle and Feith) makes clear that it merely toys with the idea of Palestinian statehood to throw occasional sops to world opinion. In the meanwhile, Sharon and company-with the certain approval of Bush, Perle, Wolfowitz, et. al.-have been busy annihilating the miserable conditions of occupied Palestine, with a tripling of the poverty rate in the past two years, utter devastation of civil society, and a toll in malnutrition, injury and disease that greatly exceeds the killings directly carried out by the Israeli army. This process, played out against a backdrop of screaming F16’s and the roar of monster bulldozers destroying homes and burying people (including Rachel Corrie) alive, only makes sense if viewed as part of the process of ethnic cleansing, i.e., “transfer.”

Even if this were not the case, the proposed Palestinian state is frankly unworthy of self-respecting human beings. How can there be any pretence to justice when one side is asked to settle for a fragmented domain completely surrounded by its oppressor, utterly dominated by the oppressor's economy, laced with roadways reserved for its troops, where vital resources like water remain under the oppressor's control, and where there are no real guarantees for the withdrawal of the fanatical settlements cynically augmented during the “peace process?”

What, then, is the real character of the Israeli state and the Zionism of which it is the fruit? What are we to call a project which, though it boasts of being a "democracy," reserves 92% of its land for Jewish people? Where one who converts to Judaism or has a Jewish great-grandmother is automatically given full rights to the land while those others whose families merely happened to have lived there for centuries are at best second-class and landless? Where Jews have full legal rights and Palestinian rights have been "temporarily" suspended -- since 1948? Where people have to carry identity cards, specifying ethnicity (a category which may not include the identity of “Israeli”), and that determine how one is treated by the state? Where the territories are laced with "Jews-only" roads? Where political parties that question the fundamentally Jewish nature of the "democracy" are outlawed? And that is afraid to draft a Constitution because it knows it would have to declare itself defunct once it did.

Is there any word for this except racism, institutionalized at the most fundamental level of the state? Is not this the guiding logic of Israel's militarization, and its mechanism of ruthless expansion and repression--and yes, the prospect of expulsion? Does it not devolve onto society and through the Diaspora, corrupting the emancipatory legacy of Judaism and sowing chauvinism and blind prejudice?

The racist character of the Zionist state is the truth so hard to bear by those who believe in Israel's fundamental legitimacy. But it also disintegrates this belief, because racism at this level, where a whole people is destroyed so that another people might thrive, epitomizes the meaning of a crime against humanity. All claims of being “the only democracy in the Middle East,” or of saving Jews from anti-Semitic oppression, or having fine symphony orchestras and universities, fade in its glare.

What is to be done? We can begin with what is not to be done, and reject a two-state solution that solves nothing, is impossible in any humanly desirable sense within the current configuration, and serves chiefly as an illusion lying like a giant stone over the imagination. Beyond this illusion lies confrontation with the racist state and rejection of the idea that Zionism expresses the authentic calling of the Jewish people. We need, in a word, to envision a non-racist Israel, beyond tribalism and open to all. This is an old road, suffering from disuse; it is overgrown with weeds and long thought impassable: the “One State” dream of a fully democratic society where all can live together. But it has a noble history, going back to Martin Buber; and the ruin of alternatives demands that it be re-opened, as a direction if not an immediately attainable destination.

The first portion of this path resembles the demands already made by people of good will, including Michael Lerner: cease the annihilation of Palestinian society, end the Occupation, now and unilaterally. These measures clear the way to go beyond, where the need is to envision an Israel beyond Zionism. The prospect is already immanent in these immediate demands. But its realization requires engaging the principle that a racist state, because it automatically generates crimes against humanity and lacks the internal means of correcting them, cannot have that legitimacy which gives it the right to exist. In a word, the Zionist state should be radically transformed, and if need be, brought down.

The mere mention of this possibility sends shudders of horror through a collective imagination shaped by the Holocaust; this now translates the idea of overcoming Zionism into the image of "being driven into the sea," as though the vengeful Arabs would pick up Israel by its Eastern borders and dump the whole thing into the Mediterranean.

Here we need to remind ourselves that we are talking about changing the Israeli state. A state is not a society, a nation or a territory, but a mode of regulation and control, and the disposition of official violence. States control and direct society, contain nations, and command territories. The racist state aggrandizes one group by annihilating others, who essentially stand helpless before it. The Holocaust happened to state-less Jews, “Roma (“Gypsies”)”, etc, who became the victims of the nihilism of a racist, Nazi state; similarly, state-less Palestinians have become victims of the nihilism of the racist, Zionist state. Given the nihilistic violence built into the Zionist state, it is reasonable to say that such an outcome is in the interests of both the bodily and spiritual survival of the Jewish people.

Being "thrown into the sea” is a fantasy of projected vengeance. It is predicated on sustaining a racist state-organization into the future, forever surrounded by those it has dispossessed and humiliated. Therefore the chief condition to strive for is creation of a society in which the wheel of vengeance is put out of commission. And if this seems completely off the scale, especially so given the extreme violence built into the Israeli state, it is most important to recall the bringing down of the murderous apartheid state of South Africa-and to realize that if so great an accomplishment could be done there, then an equivalently great accomplishment can take place in Israel/Palestine.

There are of course important differences between Israel and apartheid South Africa. The latter was only a secondary (though not insignificant) client of the United States, inasmuch as it lacked strong domestic constituencies in America, and more importantly, was not a factor in controlling an area so strategic as the Middle East. Because South Africa is a wealthy and largely self-sufficient powerhouse, while Israel would collapse like a house of cards without the support of its patron, a much greater role would be given to organizing within the United States in the struggle against Zionism compared to the struggle against Apartheid. At the same time, the depth of the American-Israeli tie makes that organizing much more arduous, even as the present state of war and looming expulsion of the Palestinian people (ethnic cleansing was not significant for South Africa) gives it an immediate urgency. Prevention of the latter catastrophe necessarily provides the entry point into the struggle against Zionism, without altering the long term goal. And this is defined by the deep structural similarities between the two racist states.
Like Israel, the apartheid state was a settler-colonialist venture with messianic ambitions. And like the Zionists, the Afrikaners saw themselves as persecuted wanderers to whom God had promised a homeland, inconveniently occupied by lesser people. Like Israel, they defined their self-determination as being at the cost of the self-determination of the indigenous people. Driven by a sense of divine license for the terrible injustice that grew from this basic contradiction, they also proceeded to construct and justify the Bantustan system, their own "two-state" (to be exact, multiple-state) solution to the basic contradictions of their imperial project. And they responded, like Israel, with increasing degrees of force and cruelty as the oppressed people asserted their rights as human beings.

And they were eventually brought down, notably, without a bloodbath. Though nobody should suffer the illusion that South Africa has conquered its problems, these now chiefly come under the heading of the "normal" exploitation of a country by global capital rather than that of a murderous racism combined with imperial expansion. Squeezed by the IMF, with deep class divisions, terrible crime and sexual violence, not to mention the wrenching AIDS crisis, South Africa faces a difficult future. But at least a stable democratic polity, black and white living together, is on the ground. South Africa (which I have visited four times) today is full of struggle and vitality, and only a madman would exchange its governance for the version under apartheid.

The movement that freed South Africa under the leadership of Nelson Mandela continues to inspire hope for change in Israel/Palestine. As Lerner states, we need to appropriate the "spirit that made possible the transformation of South Africa under the leadership of Nelson Mandela." Lerner would use the example of Mandela to lecture "the Palestinians to reject all forms of violence . . .”, as these [a]cts of terror . . . drive the Israeli population into the hands of the most right-wing forces in Israeli society.”

The clear implication is that Mandela and the African National Congress abjured all forms of violence and acts of terror. But such was not at all the "spirit" which transformed South Africa under the leadership of Nelson Mandela. Early in the history of the ANC, Gandhian principles held sway (Gandhi developed the notion of Satyagraha during a lengthy stay in South Africa), nor did they ever disappear. But Mandela and his cohort, realizing the murderous implacability of the apartheid regime, introduced in 1961 a two-pronged strategy, with nonviolent resistance in some settings to be accompanied by armed struggle and acts that would have to be called terroristic in others. He assumed the command of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the armed wing of the ANC, and was sentenced to life imprisonment on Robben Island largely because of this. Thus nonviolence was, however important, no more than an component of the South African freedom struggle, the victory of which was finally assured on the battlefields of Angola, when the racist regime, having met its match in the army of Cuba, made the decision to liquidate apartheid and free Mandela (as a result, Fidel Castro is the most beloved Western leader in South Africa).

Lerner's sermon to the Palestinians is a reprise of a similar event in 1991. After Mandela had been freed he came to the United States and met with, among other luminaries, President Bush-pere, who similarly lectured him on the need to renounce violence in the struggle. A man of unsurpassable dignity, Mandela responded by publically scolding the Leader of the Free World for this cynical attempt to tell a people struggling for its freedom and life what to do. The reasons for doing so still apply.

First, one does not presume to call upon another people to change their ways unless one has earned the authority to do so. Respecting the "fundamental legitimacy" of their oppressor, indeed, calling (as Lerner has) for Israel to be granted membership in NATO as a consolation prize for abandoning the Occupation does not entitle one to the right to issue a ukase on nonviolence to the Palestinians-any more than G. H. W. Bush’s coziness with the apartheid state endeared him to Mandela.

Nor can rhetoric about “love and healing” obscure the painful and complicated choices we face in this hard world. Nobody, certainly the Palestinians, is above the need for criticism. But the critic, too, needs to be held before the bar. His or her obligation is to be faithful to both the historical complexity of choice and the need to choose, even if such choice means an option for armed struggle. The question is of the spiritual and political context within which this is carried forth. The source for the magnificence of Mandela’s leadership was not the renunciation of armed struggle. It lay, rather, in the scope of his historical vision, and it is here that the lesson for the liberation of Israel/Palestine lies.

Mandela’s greatness derived, it seems to me, from his rejection of South Africa's version of the two-state solution-the Bantustan system. The Bantustans represented an imposed tribalism, with indigenous Africans forcibly displaced onto reservations carved out of the country's poorest land. The whole arrangement was wrapped with racist-utopian rhetoric and secured by the development of parallel institutions of education, judiciary, etc, between the Bantustans and white South Africa. Needless to add, military force remained a monopoly of the apartheid regime, while the territories provided a pool of ultra-cheap labor for exploitation in the factories and mines across the border, much like the situation in the Occupied Territories.

Mandela would have none of it. He concluded, as his official web-site puts it, “very early on that the Bantustan policy was a political swindle and an economic absurdity. He predicted, with dismal prescience, that ahead there lay a grim programme of mass evictions, political persecutions, and police terror”--results familiar to the observer of developments in Israel/Palestine, as are the opportunism and corruption built-into those who would settle for these paltry goals. Indeed, it is here that we can account for the different levels of leadership provided by Arafat and Mandela - the one hemmed in by an acceptance, the other expanded by his refusal, of a Bantustan-type system. (In fact, Mandela rejected an offer of freedom by the Apartheid government if he would assume leadership, Arafat-style, of Transkei, one of the Bantustans.)

Mandela’s greatness was prepared by the negation of the Bantustan system, and realized by going beyond that negation; one might say, in "negating the negation." For Mandela, the essential point was to posit a society beyond racism, which means, beyond vengeance as well. He opposed this vision to all forms of tribalism and exceptionalism, and faithfully held fast to it. It is this vision that humanizes such aggression as may be necessary to break loose from the death-grip of a racist state. It infused the South African liberation struggle with a spirit of anticipated reconciliation that steadily gathered more people from the white as well as the black community, and from all across the world. The abjuring of vengeance proved morally more important, therefore, than a strict renunciation of armed struggle. It became the germ of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and the guarantee that no one would get pushed into the sea.

Michael Lerner has called for a similar commission in a peaceful post-occupation Israel/Palestine. The idea is excellent, but it cannot take place within the framework of a two-state resolution presided over by the Zionist state, for the simple reason that such a resolution in any humanly worthwhile form will never take place under these conditions. The implication is starkly clear. It is futile to build a movement for peace and justice in Israel/Palestine that does not radically challenge the racist state: the goal is simply not worthy enough. In a vision of a post-racist society we find, however, the moral force capable of inspiring and drawing in people of good will from all sides of the conflict. If such people were able to demand the downfall of apartheid, why should they not do the same for Zionism, and unify themselves under this banner? It will be a long and hard struggle, and only a vision worthy of its sacrifices will suffice for the path ahead.


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The idea for this ecosocialist manifesto was jointly launched by Joel Kovel and Michael Lowy, at a September, 2001, workshop on ecology and socialism held at Vincennes, near Paris. We all suffer from a chronic case of Gramsci's paradox, of living in a time whose old order is dying (and taking civilization with it) while the new one does not seem able to be born. But at least it can be announced. The deepest shadow that hangs over us is neither terror, environmental collapse, nor global recession. It is the internalized fatalism that holds there is no possible alternative to capital’s world order. And so we wished to set an example of a kind of speech that deliberately negates the current mood of anxious compromise and passive acquiescence. This manifesto nevertheless lacks the audacity of that of 1848, for ecosocialism is not yet a spectre, nor is it grounded in any concrete party or movement. It is only a line of reasoning, based on a reading of the present crisis and the necessary conditions for overcoming it. We make no claims of omniscience. Far from it, our goal is to invite dialogue, debate, emendation, above all, a sense of how this notion can be further realized. Innumerable points of resistance arise spontaneously across the chaotic ecumene of global capital. Many are immanently ecosocialist in content. How can these be gathered? Can we envision an "ecosocialist international?" Can the spectre be brought into being?


The twenty-first century opens on a catastrophic note, with an unprecedented degree of ecological breakdown and a chaotic world order beset with terror and clusters of low-grade, disintegrative warfare that spread like gangrene across great swathes of the planet--viz., central Africa, the Middle East, Northwestern South America--and reverberate throughout the nations. In our view, the crises of ecology and those of societal breakdown are profoundly interrelated and should be seen as different manifestations of the same structural forces.

The former broadly stems from rampant industrialization that overwhelms the earth's capacity to buffer and contain ecological destabilization. The latter stems from the form of imperialism known as globalization, with its disintegrative effects on societies that stand in its path. Moreover, these underlying forces are essentially different aspects of the same drive, which must be identified as the central dynamic that moves the whole: the expansion of the world capitalist system.

We reject all euphemisms or propagandistic softening of the brutality of this regime: all greenwashing of its ecological costs, all mystification of the human costs under the names of democracy and human rights. We insist instead upon looking at capital from the standpoint of what it has really done. Acting on nature and its ecological balance, the regime, with its imperative to constantly expand profitability, exposes ecosystems to destabilizing pollutants, fragments habitats that have evolved over aeons to allow the flourishing of organisms, squanders resources, and reduces the sensuous vitality of nature to the cold exchangeability required for the accumulation of capital. From the side of humanity, with its requirements for self-determination, community, and a meaningful existence, capital reduces the majority of the world's people to a mere reservoir of labor power while discarding much of the remainder as useless nuisances. It has invaded and undermined the integrity of communities through its global mass culture of consumerism and depoliticization. It has expanded disparities in wealth and power to levels unprecedented in human history. It has worked hand in glove with a network of corrupt and subservient client states whose local elites carry out the work of repression while sparing the center of its opprobrium. And it has set going a network of transtatal organizations under the overall supervision of the Western powers and the superpower United States, to undermine the autonomy of the periphery and bind it into indebtedness while maintaining a huge military apparatus to enforce compliance to the capitalist center We believe that the present capitalist system cannot regulate, much less overcome, the crises it has set going. It cannot solve the ecological crisis because to do so requires setting limits upon accumulation—an unacceptable option for a system predicated upon the rule: Grow or Die! And it cannot solve the crisis posed by terror and other forms of violent rebellion because to do so would mean abandoning the logic of empire, which would impose unacceptable limits on growth and the whole “way of life” sustained by empire. Its only remaining option is to resort to brutal force, thereby increasing alienation and sowing the seed of further terrorism . . . and further counter-terrorism, evolving into a new and malignant variation of fascism. In sum, the capitalist world system is historically bankrupt. It has become an empire unable to adapt, whose very gigantism exposes its underlying weakness. It is, in the language of ecology, profoundly unsustainable, and must be changed fundamentally, nay, replaced, if there is to be a future worth living. Thus the stark choice once posed by Rosa Luxemburg returns: Socialism or Barbarism!, where the face of the latter now reflects the imprint of the intervening century and assumes the countenance of ecocatastrophe, terror counterterror, and their fascist degeneration.

But why socialism, why revive this word seemingly consigned to the rubbish-heap of history by the failings of its twentieth century interpretations? For this reason only: that however beaten down and unrealized, the notion of socialism still stands for the supersession of capital. If capital is to be overcome, a task now given the urgency of the survival of civilization itself, the outcome will perforce be “socialist, for that is the term which signifies the breakthrough into a post-capitalist society. If we say that capital is radically unsustainable and breaks down into the barbarism outlined above, then we are also saying that we need to build a “socialism” capable of overcoming the crises capital has set going. And if socialisms past have failed to do so, then it is our obligation, if we choose against submitting to a barbarous end, to struggle for one that succeeds. And just as barbarism has changed in a manner reflective of the century since Luxemburg enunciated her fateful alternative, so too, must the name, and the reality, of a socialism become adequate for this time.

It is for these reasons that we choose to name our interpretation of socialism as an ecosocialism, and dedicate ourselves to its realization.

Why Ecosocialism?

We see ecosocialism not as the denial but as the realization of the “first-epoch” socialisms of the twentieth century, in the context of the ecological crisis. Like them, it builds on the insight that capital is objectified past labor, and grounds itself in the free development of all producers, or to use another way of saying this, an undoing of the separation of the producers from the means of production. We understand that this goal was not able to be implemented by first-epoch socialism, for reasons too complex to take up here, except to summarize as various effects of underdevelopment in the context of hostility by existing capitalist powers. This conjuncture had numerous deleterious effects on existing socialisms, chiefly, the denial of internal democracy along with an emulation of capitalist productivism, and led eventually to the collapse of these societies and the ruin of their natural environments. Ecosocialism retains the emancipatory goals of first-epoch socialism, and rejects both the attenuated, reformist aims of social democracy and the the productivist structures of the bureaucratic variations of socialism. It insists, rather, upon redefining both the path and the goal of socialist production in an ecological framework. It does so specifically in respect to the “limits on growth” essential for the sustainability of society. These are embraced, not however, in the sense of imposing scarcity, hardship and repression. The goal, rather, is a transformation of needs, and a profound shift toward the qualitative dimension and away from the quantitative. From the standpoint of commodity production, this translates into a valorization of use-values over exchange-values—a project of far-reaching significance grounded in immediate economic activity.

The generalization of ecological production under socialist conditions can provide the ground for the overcoming of the present crises. A society of freely associated producers does not stop at its own democratization. It must, rather, insist on the freeing of all beings as its ground and goal. It overcomes thereby the imperialist impulse both subjectively and objectively. In realizing such a goal, it struggles to overcome all forms of domination, including, especially, those of gender and race. And it surpasses the conditions leading to fundamentalist distortions and their terrorist manifestions. In sum, a world society is posited in a degree of ecological harmony with nature unthinkable under present conditions. A practical outcome of these tendencies would be expressed, for example, in a withering away of the dependency upon fossil fuels integral to industrial capitalism. And this in turn can provide the material point of release of the lands subjugated by oil imperialism, while enabling the containment of global warming, along with other afflictions of the ecological crisis.

No one can read these prescriptions without thinking, first, of how many practical and theoretical questions they raise, and second and more dishearteningly, of how remote they are from the present configuration of the world, both as this is anchored in institutions and as it is registered in consciousness. We need not elaborate these points, which should be instantly recognizable to all. But we would insist that they be taken in their proper perspective. Our project is neither to lay out every step of this way nor to yield to the adversary because of the preponderance of power he holds. It is, rather, to develop the logic of a sufficient and necessary transformation of the current order, and to begin developing the intermediate steps towards this goal. We do so in order to think more deeply into these possibilities, and at the same moment, begin the work of drawing together with all those of like mind. If there is any merit in these arguments, then it must be the case that similar thoughts, and practices to realize these thoughts, will be coordinatively germinating at innumerable points around the world. Ecosocialism will be international, and universal, or it will be nothing. The crises of our time can and must be seen as revolutionary opportunities, which it is our obligation to affirm and bring into existence.

Joel Kovel and Michael Lowy

Paris, Sept 2001