Zionism’s Bad Conscience

By Joel Kovel, 2002 – http://www.joelkovel.net

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: www.joelkovel.net.

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One Response to Zionism’s Bad Conscience

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