Thursday, October 22, 2009

Goldberg: The Last Word (At Least From Me)

A couple of days ago, Jeffrey Goldberg explained why he was disinclined to associate with J Street, in spite of his sympathy for a two-state solution:

So I'm comfortable in many ways with J Street's basic worldview. On the other hand, I don't think the group has put forward a well-articulated vision of what a progressive Jewish democratic Israel should look like. This might be because, in addition to having progressive Zionists as members, it also has anti-Zionists (these are the types who are happy with Stephen Walt's tragic endorsement of the group) and it's obviously very hard to put forward a positive vision of a Jewish Israel when some of your important supporters -- Bernard Avishai comes to mind -- don't even believe in the idea of a Jewish state.

Now Goldberg denies that "anti-Zionists" like myself are actually keeping him away from J Street's conference. We would know this, presumably, if we had read a different one-line blog post, in which he says, with obvious sarcasm, "I'm sorry I'm going to miss this conference" (which, in context, if you follow his link, reads like "I'm sorry I'm going to miss this circus"). Then, en passant, Goldberg explains his evidence for my "anti-Zionism."

On the more important question of Zionism and anti-Zionism, all I think I need to say is this: Avishai, the author of a book called "The Tragedy of Zionism," believes that Israel's Law of Return should be repealed. This is the law that grants Jews anywhere in the world to claim citizenship in the newly-reconstituted Jewish state, which was meant to be a refuge for persecuted Jews. The law is the raison d'etre of Zionism, and of Israel's existence. I don't think I was being "vicious" in pointing out that Avishai's conception of what Israel should be is very different from the mainstream Zionist position. By the way, J Street's position, as officially enunciated by its head flack to me, is that the group's core mission is to preserve Israel as a "Jewish democracy." Though maybe I should ask J Street if it believes the Law of Return as currently written and implemented is undemocratic.

This is unworthy of Goldberg's talents. It would also be unworthy of our time if Goldberg were not a well-regarded journalist, burying those talents under cozy prejudices that are shared widely among decent American Jews; people who do not have the time Goldberg has to get things right or think things through; people who look to Goldberg to give them direction.

1. Yes, I wrote a book called the Tragedy of Zionism in 1985. William Appleman Williams wrote a book called the Tragedy of American Diplomacy. This did not mean he was opposed to American diplomacy. Tragedy does not mean catastrophe except, perhaps, to tyro reporters covering car accidents on the local news ("This is Shannon Williams reporting from the scene of the tragedy.") Tragedy means we cannot fully undertand the implications of our actions.

The Tragedy of Zionism argued that the Zionist revolution put up a kind of scaffolding in the Palestinian Yishuv, institutions that made great sense in their day, but which were never taken down when the state was organized. In effect, Israel has continued for the past 60 years as two Jewish states: a democratic, Hebrew-speaking civil society (the real triumph of historic Zionism), and, encased by this "Hebrew republic," an heroic settler-state that, covering itself in neo-Zionist rhetoric, gives material privileges to certified Jews, and requires an official rabbinate to certify them.

I argued that this embedded settler state threatens the coherence of Israeli democracy and, thus, the survival of Israel, given the understandable alienation felt by Israel's one-fifth Arab minority. Tragedy, you see, does not come from doing the wrong thing but the right thing too long. I won't say more about this here; readers of my blog posts surely know the arguments by now.

2. Since Goldberg brought this up, let's look at the Law of Return in this context, a perfect example of an institution that fit its day and is now both unnecessary and inflammatory.

Let me be clear: it makes sense for Israel to have an immigration law that gives (what Canada calls) "landed immigrant" status to anyone who can show that he is a refugee from anti-Semitism; or even give preference to someone who can explain to an immigration officer why he reasonably counts himself a member of the historic Jewish people. All western democracies have had messy criteria like this (i.e., claims about persecution, quotas based on ethnicity). The point is, they also then have a process of naturalization, so that citizenship is granted only after immigrants learn the language and culture and civil laws of the country.

The Law of Return, which grants immediate citizenship to anyone who can prove to a rabbi that he is Jewish according to Halacha, or has a one Jewish grandparent (i.e., anyone Hitler would have called "Jewish"), precludes the idea that citizenship requires naturalization: that Israeli identity is something that can be learned, acquired. It makes a nonsense of the idea that Arabs or any other minority can be Israeli. Leave Brookline, get on a plane, poof, citizen.

This law, in other words, makes the idea of an inclusive Israeli nationality (a patently Jewish nationality, that might assimilate others) impossible. Goldberg says he cannot see "a well-articulated vision of what a progressive Jewish democratic Israel should look like." He might if he opened is eyes to precisely what I'm talking about; to standards that are second nature to people all over the Western world. Why not simply bring Israel up to code? The notion that the Law of Return is "the raison d'etre of Zionism, and of Israel's existence" is so much bond-dinner blather. The law made sense for a revolutionary time of ingathering. It makes no sense for a multi-cultural, global Hebrew (that is, Jewish national) democracy.

3. Which brings me to Goldberg's last dig: that my views are "very different from the mainstream Zionist position." Since I have chosen to live mostly in Jerusalem, I am not sure what mainstream position I have to belong to, well, belong. I consider myself a cultural Zionist in the tradition of Achad Haam, Weizmann, and Ben-Gurion; I think everything was worth it just to get Yehuda Amichai's poetry. Anyway, some rightist jurists, like Ruth Gavison, have problems much like I do with the Law of Return, as Ben-Gurion had problems with the persistence of all Zionist institutions after the movement so obviously succeeded in achieving its goals.

Yet the sheer superficiality of Goldberg's dig does not render it harmless. Israel's future is not unchallenged and its citizens are not without real enemies. To call people anti-Zionist in this context is a way of announcing they are traitors to living, struggling fellow citizens, in my case, students and friends I love. It is like calling someone unpatriotic or anti-American.

Back when I published The Tragedy of Zionism, the guardian of the mainstream du jour, The New Republic, reviewed the book and put on its cover, "Jew Against Zion"--in consequence of which I was subject to a blackballing in Jewish organizations (and most mainstream media) of the kind alleged "Reds" had been subject to a generation before. It was shameful for the magazine's editors to have engaged in this kind of thing then. It is shameful for Goldberg to engage in it now.


Shoded Yam said...

Dr. Avishai,

The commonality that you share with Goldberg begins and ends with that fact that you are both American Jews who made aliyah. The differences are much more instructive.

You've spent the better part of your life internalizing the humanity of Israelis. ALL Israelis, including the cousins. You feel inherently and culturally comfortable with all of them (as I do). The downside of this is the burden of moral responsability that comes with seeing both sides of the equation. Unfortunately, it doesn't allow for knee-jerk, xenophobic-fueled, jingoistic responses to percieved threats, real or imagined. And therein lies the problem. Because while you were busy reasoning possible solutions to a conflict between your friends, Goldberg was never able to internalize being an Israeli, let alone appreciating their individual humanity. Since he was never able to "become" Israeli, an American Jew he remained. As such, he regularly regurgitates those suppositions that allow him to be seen as a team player by the establishment, while validating his inability to identify with actual Sabras of his own intellectual and emotional strata and thereby allowing for their humanity with all of its attendant nuanaces. I've always found his writings about Israelis to be of a suprisngly voyeuristic nature, with a nice sized helping of hero worship. While considered de rigeur for the American Jewish Establishment, I find it disconcerting in someone who had made aliyah and served in Zahal and is now thought to be a journalistic eminence grise. In the end however, the greatest difference lies in what you do for a living. You see, I live with a scientist, a Bio-Chemistry. While this is a boon when I need an answer to a flatulance question :-), it is a burden because I know longer have the luxury of living my illusions. Oh no. I have to live by the scientific method. No room for cognitive dissonance in this house. As a scholar, I suspect you are burdened with the same requirement. May I remind you that Mr. Goldberg does not seem to be burdened by any such strictures. Hence his continued access to, and popularity with, Mr. Oren.

Please excuse my presumptions


Anonymous said...

Dr. Avishai,

I'm going to ask a question that's going to appear to have racist undertones, but it's the one issue that has prevented me from embracing your views (with certain qualifications).

Ha'aretz recently published an article on its website containing video of Fatah Central Committee member and ambassador to Lebanon Abbas Zaki stating in an interview "They consider Jerusalem to have a spiritual status. The Jews consider Judea and Samaria to be their historic dream. If the Jews leave those places, the Zionist idea will begin to collapse. It will regress of its own accord. Then we will move forward."

In another interview (of which there is also video) he says overtly that "moving forward" means expelling the Jews from Palestine.

Leaving aside for now that it would be practically impossible to simply expel the Jews from Palestine (though not impossible to kill large numbers of them and encourage a massive voluntary exodus) and that not all Jews in Israel cherish the territories and Jerusalem, it is important to note that your conception of a fully Western democratic Israel could fit quite nicely into Zaki's conception of the regression that Zionism must make before it becomes vulnerable enough to dismantle and expunge--a Zionism that has lost its forward thrust, a Zionism that just wants to do business. Furthermore, I think Zaki represents a not insignificant segment of Palestinian, Arab, and Islamic society that you and other intellectuals have willfully overlooked but that I have experienced quite intimately. This is a segment that remains unsatisfied with a non-Arab entity occupying the heart of the Arab world and that views your anticipated normalization of Israel as a necessary stepping stone to righting a historical wrong.

Let it be said. Many Israeli Arabs are completely uninterested in acculturating to Hebrew in any genuine sense, and the great lot of them maintain an ethnic solidarity with fellow Arabs that is problematic for Israel (especially in the event that Palestine fails as a state and devolves into a resentful, hostile entity on Isrel's doorstep). Is it not possible that a more ethnically-blind immigration policy would enable them (both for ideological and material reasons) to permeate your beloved Hebrew culture and slowly dissolve it out of existence?

I want to be clear, I'm not suggesting that we remain in the West Bank, but I think that Israel's "Jewish State" mandate is a phenomenon occurring in reaction to anti-Semitism and hostility (we all know the story of Herzl) and that its normalization will occur after, not before, the end of Arab hostility (if it ever happens).

Your assessment that there is a separate people living amongst the Israelis (the "Judeans") is true, and these Judeans have recognized that the professional, coastal plain-residing Israelis just want to live their comfortable lives in a Hebrew Republic, even at the expense of softening up Israel and inviting its demise.

The stratification is growing.

I have a few other issues, such as your preoccupation with the supposedly burgeoning Palestinian professional elite at the expense of recognizing the difficulties inherent in a nascent, resource-poor Palestinian state absorbing 3-4 million low-skill, tribal, angry people who have been festering in overly-coddling refugee camps that have sapped many of them of work ethic. For now, however, I would appreciate an answer to the above query.

pabelmont said...

Making something intended to be a "just and lasting peace" (based on ending the occupation on the basis of a return to June 4 1967 lines) cannot correct for the horror of 60 years of exile (for the exiles, including those who now live in Gaza and West Bank) nor for the horror of 42 years of occupation, nor for that matter for the horror of the Holocaust.

It can possibly bring a peace from which a new Palestine (and, necessarily, a somewhat new Israel) can arise.

I hope that there is a form of Zionism (or love of Israel or some such) which can embrace this view and, therefore, oppose occupation, oppose war-crimes-intrinsic-and-intended military actions like Gaza 2007-2009, and which can embrace international law as a justification for powerfully calling for repatriation of all the 500,000 settlers.

For me, any Israeli who knows about the settlements and knows about the international law and fails to oppose the settlements (and call for removal of the settlers) is part of a criminal enterprise which I oppose.

I do not ask Israeli Jews to oppose Israel, to eschew Zionism, or any such thing. I ask them to embrace a humanitarian concern for those (now called Palestinians) who have suffered so long and so much at the hands of Israeli governments bent on territorial enlargement and replacement of populations. I was brought up to regard the term "good German" as a word of approbation for a brave, humanitarian few. I hope for evidence of more than a few "good Israelis".

pabelmont said...

Goldberg wrote:

"But it is inaccurate and Jewishly wrong for J Street's right-leaning political adversaries to argue that the group as a whole represents some sort of manifestation of Jewish self-hatred. I have very serious doubts about the willingness of Arabs to make peace with the Jewish state, but I also know that certain Israeli policies make the cause of compromise even more difficult. It's not self-hatred to acknowledge the obvious: That the settlement movement, and its supporters, overemphasize the sanctity of land in Jewish theology, and neglect other aspects of Judaism. Land, love, social justice, an intolerance of idolatry, the law as a whole, abhorrence of cruelty -- all these things together make up Judaism. (This is why a balanced Jewish life is so hard to master.) It is unfair to call a Jew a self-hater simply because he'd rather see Hebron under Arab rule than an Israel that, in keeping Hebron under Jewish rule, betrays other Jewish values. "

This is for me (secular and a lawyer, thus perhaps ridiculously over-concerned with legalities) a statement that Goldberg would OK settlements, military-iron-hand as in Gaza early 2009, and the like IF these were consistent with (his view of) "other Jewish values", let the humanitarian law fend for itself (as indeed, it is left by US-Israel-EU-Arab States). I'm happy that he believes all the Israeli-expansionist horror is anti-Jewish. But clearly there are those who find otherwise (if, indeed, they care about "Jewish values" at all).

What all this suggests to me (am I confused here?) is that it is Goldberg's view that it is OK to put "Jewish values" ahead of the law and ahead of any non-Jewish or extra-Jewish humanitarian values which put Palestinian human rights ahead of Jewish desires for land, power, domination, etc. Maybe Goldberg or another can clarify this for me.

Goldberg, as I see it, puts Jewish values ahead of (mere) humanitarian or humanistic values (if they are not also Jewish values) and ahead of the law. It just happens, saving Goldberg in a way, that his vision of "Jewish values" finds enough common-cause with (mere) humanitarian or humanistic values to allow him to find his views and values consistent simultaneously with "Jewish values" and with more general humanitarian concerns.

Thereby he avoids "Jewish self-hatred" -- that is, hatred of "Jewish values" by a Jew; and also avoids humanistic self-hatred -- that is, the hatred of humanistic values by a human being.

Woe to us all, however, that so many people in Israel support Israel's triumphalism with an Israel-can-do-no-wrong viewpoint, JUST AS so many Americans view US imperialism and US wars (and torture and all the rest) with a happy US-triumphalism.

The triumphalists may not be Jewish self-haters or American US-haters, but they come off as human humanity-haters.

Bernard Avishai said...

I am grateful for the quality of the comments here, and also for Shoded Yam's personal encouragement which means a great deal to me. But I would like to answer Anonymous in particular, since he asked for clarification.

I do not doubt there are Palestinians who wish Jews to disappear and Israeli Arabs who wish Hebrew to be “dissolved.” Your idea of “stratification” appeals to be both as a logic and an image. Of course, I am not for disbanding Israel’s police or its conscript army. But the real question is what can we do to expand the moderate "stratified layer" and marginalize the people who would like Jews and Hebrew to be gone. Which relations and institutions build, and which destroy?

The implied principle behind your question is that status quo is morally ugly but at least safer. I disagree. The things that make occupation and discrimination morally ugly also make them terribly dangerous and getting more dangerous every day. The world will not give us a perfect peace, ever. But what institutions help to contain the incipient violence over time, and force people to confront the difference between the great and the good? (This applies also to valorizing the Palestinian business class as a group that provides work over a dream of “revolution.”)

Ultimately, the question is what can we as individuals stand for that contributes to “decency,” as Camus said. Anyway, these are the issues that keep me awake, and also help me sleep. Thanks for a deeply intelligent response.

survivor said...

I agree with everything in your post, Dr. Avishai, but... but...

what's a "bond dinner"?

Is it a dinner where people get together and "bond" over stupid platitudes about Israel, or is it a dinner for bond salesmen and other people in the financial industry where they're asked to give money to support the Jewish Agency or something?

Arik said...

Israel is not a property of those who dwell in it. It is a state for all Jews on this planet, and as such it has no business with "naturalization", when it comes to accepting new Jewish citizens. Non-Jews who reside in Israel do so as a result of historical accident and the fact that we have sufficient democracy not to deprive them of their political rights. They do not get a say in defining the character of our state. If they feel such limitation as discrimination, they should be able to fulfill their wishes across the border. Law of Return is not perfect. It was changed repeatedly according to political winds; it may be amended again in the future. But it will never be repealed, and frankly, as an immigrant from the Soviet Union, I am quite happy about that. Your objections are irrelevant.

Potter said...

The most important phrases here for me: ....cozy prejudices that are shared widely among decent American Jews; people who do not have the time Goldberg has [ you can insert many other names ] to get things right or think things through; people who look to Goldberg to give them direction.

Tell me about it.

Maybe you give decent American Jews too good of an excuse (not having the time). Laziness, too open to allowing others to think for them, lack of urgency, boldness and belligerence from a supposedly safe distance,( and more harshly) not REALLY caring enough about Israel to think things through. How many even are too scared to go to Israel because of perceptions from the media? ( I spoke to such a person, an anxious woman, who had these concerns about her daughter applying to go to Israel through the "birthright" program).

Across the board with other issues as well- I think this is also true of Americans in general especially with regard to foreign policy though we are( finally maybe) getting tired of warring for no urgent reason. Talk about changing healthcare- people will focus.

Perhaps this is true of Israeli's ( or human nature); it was so for the friends we spoke to last Spring. We heard regurgitated right-wing points and prejudices from very committed old Labor Zionist kibbutzniks (literally coastal), who were once proud of their friendly connections to Arabs ( in the north). They now seem resigned, even despondent, and incapable of looking down the road to any bright future. "They lie" We won" "They should go to Jordan".

These are my anecdotes, bookends to Anonymous's Zaki- and maybe also not insignificant. I am happy for J Street, late to the scene as it is here. But it has some hard work cut out. I can hope that the light shining in the message will prove to be very attractive.

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