Zionism in the balance…

Yair Rosenberg calls the following paragraph, the “closer” of Jordan Chandler Hirsch’s review of John Judis’s Genesis, “devastating”:

Zionism, for Mr. Judis, is a kind of sin against liberalism. Near the end, he quotes a saying of Jesus: “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” and castigates Israel’s Jews for having “gained a world of their own, but at the expense of another people.” An author who brandishes his liberal commitments at every turn ends up invoking a Christian teaching on greed to condemn the Jews for sacrificing another people at the altar of their own interest.

Not having read Judis’ book, which is just out, I will refrain from attempting to re-construct or defend its argument other than to say that its premise, or apparent premise, of a fundamental conflict or contradiction between Zionism and broadly defined liberalism, would hardly count as a new idea. Diasporetic Judaism was and in significant respects remains closely allied with and intimately connected to the universalist project (“dissolved Christianity”) characteristic of modern liberalism and especially left-liberalism.1 Zionist theorists, organizers, and leaders self-consciously responded to the perceived inadequacy and eventually the catastrophic failure of that alliance or cultural-political joint project, or in relation to its de-stabilization and forced reconstruction amidst the conflict-ridden rise of the ethnically cohering nation-state.

In other words, Zionism and our attitudes toward it are rooted in events and perceptions that circumscribe our world-historical era and shape our collective identities, and that are therefore impossible, or all but impossible, to discuss impartially or disinterestedly. Understanding Zionism’s illiberal tendencies, from its origins in a critique of liberalism to the administration of the Israeli state, presents manifold social and political problems for us, but few authentic intellectual ones. Reviewing the extensive literature on this topic, including foundational Zionist documents, ought to be a matter for archivists, not for any discussion or debate between minimally well-informed participants. Yet it falls to writers like Judis, as to Peter Beinart and other much more controversial figures, many held beyond the fringes of allowable discussion, to explore for us what actually can be said and heard on these topics before the retreat to ideologically fully fortified positions.

This finite order of endless battle will be familiar to anyone with a more than passing interest in the Middle East – in other words to everyone precisely to the extent he or she is politically anyone. Writers like Judis stand within an anti-Zionist tradition exactly as old as Zionism: of thinkers, many of them Jewish by birth, with varyingly hostile perspectives on the Zionist project or the real existing state of Israel, especially on its right to be real and existent at all.2 To believe that the formation of the Jewish state – in a land not actually without a people after all – was unsupportable or simply criminal, especially from a recognizably Jewish moral and religious perspective, is sometimes but not necessarily the same as believing that the destruction of that state is a moral imperative, or, if a moral imperative, one that can or should be followed via policy. The Zionist will tend to be less sensitive to such distinctions, however, than to the danger of their eventual non-distinction: Though anti-Zionism has been suppressed where so far it has had to be for Israel’s sake, the Zionists may rightly perceive their success thusfar as only provisional.

To me as interesting in the “devastating” paragraph is the ideological spectrum that Hirsch offers up in the form of abstractions, like a rainbow in a child’s coloring book, apparently without awareness of the statement he seems to be offering as a substitute for Judis’s actually quite conventional Judeo-Christian and liberal syncretism or synthesis. Hirsch writes as though unaware of any overlap between “liberal commitments” and “Christian teaching,” or, centrally, between Christian and Judaic moralities. What Hirsch calls a “saying of Jesus Christ” (Matthew 16:26) is, like all of Christ’s principal acts and sayings, foreshadowed in Judaic scripture (see Psalm 49:8, Job 27:8 for direct precursors). Put differently, to object to Judis’ invocation of Matthew 16:26 is to implicate Zionism in the opposite view – to say that, to Zionists, “gain[-ing] the whole world” (or any small piece of it to be), even at the cost of one’s soul, looks like a good deal, or the only deal, the only realism and at the same time a moral counter-imperative.

The last can be seen as indeed the core both of the Zionist assertion as well as of the anti-Zionist counter-assertion. The latter is equally “liberal” or “modern liberal” as well as Judeo-Christian: a perspective whose religious and theological origins are hidden within the official narratives of secular iberalism or liberalism-universalism, but which, just like the deity of this deism, can remain everywhere present because it is nowhere visible. As for the former view, as also in the European nationalisms that shaped the Zionist concept, the Zionist alternative to prophetic Judaism and its Christian and liberal-universalist heirs is another typical primitivist-modernism, but in the reverse format, an as it were Judaic-antinomian reaching-back to mythic and subtly or effectively pagan moral-ethical concepts, along with whatever connected mythologized origins: Whether or not knowingly or consistently, the Jewish nationalist recalls and revives Jehovah in his or His early career as one national god among others, a Zeus or Wotan or Ahura Mazda for the Jews, for the Jewish nation as one nation of tribal blood and ancestral soil like all of the others to this day – all later, post-Babylonian configurations of a Judaic and universal purpose to be taken as self-disfiguring and -impeding distractions, suitable for a slave’s or loser’s or eternal victim’s or decadent intellectual-aesthete’s self-concept, unfit both morally and materially for the would-be founders or re-founders or guardians of any nation with a necessary interest in its own survival. The implication of Zionism with racism and fascism is in this sense as unavoidable as it is unspeakable, even if the stopping point – prior to the further implication of every other patriotism or assertion of ethno-national or collective and particular self-determination – can be taken as arbitrary.

Hirsch produces the form of an argument that, to whatever extent it is understood on its own terms, as accurately attributing to Zionism an un- or anti-Christian as well as illiberal essence, may make the Zionist position more difficult to sustain politically for and within a Judeo-Christian and broadly liberal national political culture: Zionism appears in Hirsch’s claims as an affront to the liberal-universalist commitments that define the United States of America aspirationally. At the same time, for Americans who understand their Americanism as a nationalism, as a geographically concretized proxy ethnicity, Zionism emerges as a fatally alien interest, subject to continual re-weighing in whichever balance. The case for “treason” naturally takes on those same two elements, moral and material, and, though Zionism is conspicuously not without resources of both types for its defense, merely being put on trial at all is costly and frightening – thus the fierce, white-hot but un-illuminated reactions of op-editorialists to every latest return of the repressed.

Notes:

  1. “Neo-platonism for the masses” was how Strauss/Kojève crisply defined this syncretic/synthetic worldview. []
  2. The recent anthology Deconstructing Zionism provides a general survey of such mostly radically anti-Zionist, leftwing or left-inflected thought. The unevenness of the contributions reinforces a sense of political disarray and uncertainty that is itself intermittently embraced as a kind of model for a non-imperialist, non-nationalist, etc., worldview. []

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4 comments on “Zionism in the balance…

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  1. Is that what it’s about, I thought it was the eliminationist project from Maurras to Pobedestdenev, from Paris to Kishinev, that culminated in the Final Solution, well they only lost half their population,

    • The rise of right wing anti-semites was hardly unique in itself. They were already anticipated in events two thousand years earlier, long before the there was such a thing as a “right wing.” What was unique about the nationalist anti-semites of the 19th and 20th Centuries was the mobilizing power of the nation-state itself, which the Zionists self-consciously sought to capture for themselves, for, as you suggest, the best practical reasons: When in Rome, Paris, Moscow, Vienna, etc., do as the Romans, Parisians, Muscovites, and Viennese do. Maurras and Pobedestdenev, like the Nazis and fellow travelers long after them, and in a different way like certain revolutionary socialists and atheistic Jews, objectively represented the possible or perceived failure of the two-sided Diaspora strategy – assimilation and segregation – to protect and preserve the Jewish possibility at a tolerable cost. This strategy also implied, as briefly summarized in the post, an alliance with liberalism, which seemed to hold out the promise of effective political equality and full rights of citizenship, and anyway safety, to the Jews. Zionism is in this sense entirely comprehensible, though it seemed to many European Jews of the early 20th Century that non-Zionist alternative was working overall quite well and promisingly.

  2. /back in the day, they would have cheered the power of the people, over the Standard Oil sympathetic Arabists at State and Defense,
    Marshall, Patterson, Forrestal et al, but now everything is a nail

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