Me? A Jew? Anti-Semitic?

Jewish critics of Israel are increasingly being accused of anti-Semitism. But in fact, they represent the 'normalized' Jew who thinks like the majority.

Eva Illouz
Eva Illouz
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Eva Illouz
Eva Illouz

Like Hester Prynne (the heroine of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1850 novel “The Scarlet Letter,” which deals with the harsh religiosity of the 17th century Puritans), many contemporary Jewish intellectuals are marked with the letter of infamy: not A for adultery, as in the novel, but A for anti-Semitism. Peter Beinart, Noam Chomsky, Judith Butler, Avi Shlaim, Shlomo Sand (and more recently, I myself in the pages of the French newspaper Le Monde) share the dubious privilege of being viewed as anti-Semitic by members of their own ethnic and religious community. What have we done to deserve such an ignoble epithet? Nothing more than exercise the right to think and evaluate critically the accomplishments and failures of the state of Israel.

Among the Jewish people who developed, with exceptional brilliance, the Talmudic art of debate and argumentation there are today many individuals and institutions who respond to criticism with the rather inarticulate practice of excommunication. (To call a critical Jew anti-Semitic is nothing but a variation on that old form of zealotry.) The accusation of anti-Semitism is especially puzzling when it is aimed against Jews like me, who have made the deliberate choice of living in Israel. But it is no less disturbing when it is hurled at strongly identified and highly dedicated Jews, like many of those mentioned above. These accusations and the ways in which they are proffered point to a disturbing phenomenon in the Jewish community worldwide. In a process initiated by Daniel Pipes a Jew of Russian origin who seems to have learned something about techniques of intimidation Jews who stray from the official line of unconditional support of Israel and its policies are increasingly monitored and the object of bullying tactics. Interestingly enough, such bullying is far more likely to come from members of Jewish communities worldwide than from Israel itself (although Im Tirzu and journalists like Ben-Dror Yemini from Maariv have adopted the same rhetoric). This should help us to pause and reflect on the state of the relationship that binds or divides Israelis from Diaspora Jews (mainly those from the U.S. or France).

One simple explanation to the repeated assaults on critics of Israel is that anger hides anxiety. According to this view, the French (or American) Jewish community perceives itself to be vulnerable, which in turn commands solidarity against a common enemy the anti-Semite. This is particularly true in the French context, in which Muslim anti-Semitism has grown considerably in the last decade (the horrifying murder of Ilan Halimi a few years ago, the shooting at the Ozar Hatorah school in Toulouse, and daily acts of street violence perpetrated by Muslims against Jews). This explanation overlaps with the “dirty laundry” argument: what can be said among members of one’s primary group, cannot be said in the presence of others, and what can be said in Israel cannot be said outside of Israel.

These two arguments are valid. The interpretation of any claim or text is embedded in a cultural context. Critiques of Jews by Jews necessarily have a different resonance among non-Jews, whose beliefs and attitudes cannot be presumed to be always and only benevolent. So, should we accept these arguments and retreat in a cautious and anxious silence? By no means. For we Israelis would have to accept that our thoughts and opinions be dictated by the situation and existential horizon of those who live outside Israel. Thus, the differences between Israeli critics of Israel and the violent defensiveness of Diaspora responses to these critics hide three contradictions and paradoxes that plague the position of Jewish communities toward Israel:

1. Zionism was created to stop the anomaly of Jewish existence, which had been the object of centuries of persecution in Christian countries (far more than in Islamic countries). Zionism which was a European nationalist movement claimed that Jews needed a national homeland in order to “normalize” their existence. In Zionist thought, national sovereignty was not only territorial, but also a practice vis-a-vis oneself, in one’s rapport a soi, as Foucault put it. Zionism commanded the new Jew to banish fear and weakness in order to make the collective destiny of the Jews the outcome of an affirmative political will to become political subjects, rather than objects. To be an affirmative political subject as envisioned by Zionism means that fear (of anti-Semitism) does not dictate one’s existential and political positions.

This does not mean that critics of Israel are not aware of the widespread presence of anti-Semitism, that they are not appalled by it and by all forms of racism, but rather that fear does not shape their emotional and political vocabulary. Critics of Israel represent the purest form of Zionism as it intended to recreate the Jewish subject: They represent the “normalized” Jew who has become similar to the non-Jew in his/her capacity to think of him/herself as a majority. And to think of oneself as a majority means to be able to care about the minorities who live in one’s midst.

It is from this position of security and sovereignty vis-a-vis their own selves that critics of Israel can question a series of fundamental assumptions: the inequality entailed by definitions of citizenship based on the majority religion in Israel; the politics of oppression of another people; the inequality between secular and religious; the persistent and widespread discrimination against Israeli Arabs. These inequalities, which grow naturally out of the Jewish definition of the state, are questioned by those of us who care about justice, precisely because the Jews are now sovereign. It follows that one cannot be a Zionist and yet reject the implications of what it means to become a majority.

2. The second contradiction is even more disturbing. Diaspora Jews often (rightly and justly) demand a universalist citizenship from France or the U.S. (even the rights of cultural minorities are always ultimately embedded in universalist demands), yet they accept the fact that Israeli Arabs rank as third-rate citizens. That cannot be. A Jew who fights for equality in Europe (for his own or for other groups) must demand it from Israel as well. One Arab judge in the Israeli Supreme Court cannot compensate for the fact that Arabs 20 percent of Israel’s population are excluded from active participation in most of the military, cultural, and political institutions of Israel; for the fact that the occupation has blunted the moral sensibility of Israelis, and for the fact that Israeli politicians are spectacularly devoid of moral compass. It is true that the premise of universal citizenship threatens the Jewish character of the country. But this fact which implies the exclusion of and discrimination against Arabs should be agonized over by the people who gave birth to the biblical prophets, and not simply accepted as an ineluctable, and therefore tolerable, fact.

It is true that our political institutions are better than those of undemocratic and bloody regimes in the region. But is that the standard by which we want to be judged? My article comparing the France of Dreyfus to contemporary Israel (Haaretz Magazine, October 19, 2012) was interpreted as a point-by-point comparison between France and Israel. But it was an attempt to engage in an exercise in historical and political imagination in order to illustrate that something fundamental about universalist morality is becoming increasingly flawed in the Israeli polity. My point is simply this: In basing the definition of citizenship on religion, the Israeli-Jewish polity has considerably narrowed the range, the force and the intensity of the morality present in the Israeli public sphere.

3. Finally, in calling any critic of Israel anti-Semitic, many Jews are acting irresponsibly. They make the fight against real anti-Semitism less effective and look downright silly, as if the insult of “anti-Semitism” was a cheap trick to silence the universalist critics of Israel. Surely, there is a difference between moral critique and racial hatred? Between the will to oppress a group and the desire for justice for all? Jews living outside Israel’s borders do not help us by projecting onto us their tangled relations with the majority cultures they live in, however painful these relations are. These Jews are not helping us advance this conversation on the destiny of Israel.

Zionism was a movement of national self-determination, which conceived of itself as a just political project. It emerged from the ardent desire of Jews to espouse the Enlightenment ideal of living a self-determined life free of fear. But whereas other movements for national emancipation in Europe succeeded, Zionism, which brought European ideas to the Middle East, faced far more serious challenges, internal and external. Its legitimacy has been consistently undermined, and the problem that we intellectuals and critics face is that it has been undermined both for the right and for the wrong reasons. Wrong reasons, because some have unacceptably denied to the Jews their legitimate right to self-determination. But right reasons also, because Zionism has become an ideology in the name of which colonial and violent policies are legitimized. To remain a just and universalist political project, Zionism demands an unprecedented capacity to stretch the boundaries of our political imagination. Rather than throwing mud at each other, Jews inside and outside Israel, with the help of non-Jewish political philosophers and activists, must mobilize themselves to face up to this challenge.

Peter Beinart. Represents a world in which anti-Semitism barely exists.Credit: Dan Keinan
Norman Finkelstein. Credit: AP

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