We’re familiar with right-wing racists’ binary conception of the world: literally black and white, Western civilization versus invading hordes. But on the other side of the spectrum, a progressive politics that formally prizes pluralism, has started to adopt the same kind of flattening dichotomy, but for one subject area only: Jews and Israel.
So we expect Fox News’ Jeanne Pirro to grotesquely question the loyalty of hijab-wearing U.S. Muslims to the U.S. Constitution. But it’s shocking when Democratic Congresswoman Ilhan Omar did the same for U.S. Jews.
In her recent Washington Post op-ed, Omar came in line with the Democratic Party norm, declaring her support for the two-state solution. We have no way of knowing whether this latest effort is a more authentic reflection of her actual views than her "Israel has hypnotized the world" tweet, with its less-quoted continuation – "may Allah awaken the people and help them see the evil doings of Israel," which she, years later, stated was an anti-Semitic trope she had "unknowingly" used.
Omar’s recent embrace of two states stands uncomfortably next to her non-renunciation of BDS with its advocacy of a full Palestinian right-of-return, essentially erasing the Jewish state, with the appropriate slogan: "From the river to the sea!"
The Omar controversy is a warning about how the political conversation on the left exposes its authoritarian tendencies when it comes to Jews.
As the literary critic George Steiner wrote, Western culture had always "blamed" the Jews for the introduction of moral absolutes, good and evil (as well as the impossible standards accompanying them). Today, for some progressives, Jews still anchor that binary moral universe, the last vestige of an older "fundamentalist" cosmos. But these days they represent not good, but evil.
Those contemporary progressives, selling this restated allegorical world-view, have hijacked liberalism. They claim to be advocates of pluralism and human rights but they hide a populist and fundamentalist agenda.
And the key playing field for this new progressive and populist anti-Semitism is Israel/Palestine.
When describing the competing claims for the land, pro-BDS progressives, if acknowledging Israel claims at all, dismiss the latter by associating them with the regressive theological text with no currency: the Bible. Against this antiquated claim is a visible, energetic and empirically compelling claim: in 1948 Palestinians were living on the land, and it was and is only their land. About this claim, the progressives are absolutist, and moreover, against it, there is no possible counter-claim.
In contexts other than Israel-Palestine, progressives celebrate pluralism, the multiplicity of different perspectives, and the impossibility of one "master-narrative" to annul that diversity.
Yet in relation to Middle East politics, pluralism shuts down, and the Palestinian claim, manifesting itself in the fantasy of the secular one-state solution, is so powerful as to undermine the validity of any Jewish claim.
In a strange turn, literary theorists and cultural critics – often vocal supporters of BDS – follow the likes of Linda Sarsour (no pluralist herself) fetishizing the land and the kind of non-refutable claim it is meant to give to Palestinians.
The very same humanities activist-academics cite Benedict Anderson’s "Imagined Communities" to argue that nations are socially constructed, that nationhood is the product of shared narratives and discourses.
But in the conflict between Arabs and Jews, Palestinian claims are determined to be, without any self-consciousness, as objectively real and true, while the Jewish claims, textual as they are, are merely fictional.
Like Anderson, the Palestinian nationalist Edward Said cited the importance of literary and cultural representations of nationhood – "national identity does not exist independent of the narratives that speak of it."
But in current iterations of BDS, Jewish claims to Israel are relegated to the historical waste-bin. In the terms of the critical theorist Judith Butler – a vocal advocate of BDS – nationality, like any form of identity, is a "performance." In regard to Palestine/Israel, however, the empirical not only take precedence over story-telling but, for Jewish claims only, rules out the latter altogether.
More than ancient coins with Hebrew insignias, it has been the books Jews read, the stories Jews tell, the volumes on which Jews have provided commentary for 2000 years, as well as the prayers they have recited, that testify to the validity of their claim to the land.
Of the 19 blessings that constitute the center of the three daily traditional Jewish prayer services, six of them are directly concerned with the land of Israel: the prayer for rain; the prayer for the return of justice; the prayer for the ingathering of the exiles; the prayer for the rebuilding of Jerusalem; the prayer for the return of the Davidic dynasty; the prayer for return of worship to the Temple in Jerusalem. The patriarchs are promised the land in Genesis; in Exodus, Moses and the People of Israel inherit it.
Whether my ancestors in Europe had suitcases packed under their beds awaiting the Messiah to travel to Israel (as my Polish great-uncle actually did) is not as significant as the mythography itself. Jews for millennia have written about the land, longed for the land, and some indeed lived in the land.
I am not rehearsing these features of Jewish liturgy and sacred texts to convince Palestinians or anyone else to acquiesce to Jewish claims. Nor am I citing the Jewish library – there is no independent Zionist Library (despite those who claim it's possible to divorce Judaism from its nationalist aspirations or from Jewish nationhood) – because I imagine that such claims are irrefutable.
I do not want to convince others that my claims are valid for them, but that they are valid for Jews, valid for me.
But remarkably today, progressives, like Omar and Rashida Tlaib, do not consider Jews to have any valid claim to the land of Israel. They see the conflict exclusively through the lens of a colonialist narrative, and in the process put forth a worldview in which Jews are just usurpers, in contrast to the wholly authentic and indigenous Palestinians.
It might be reasonably asked, with the existence of the Jewish state an undeniable even intransigent, reality, why does the progressive rhetoric espousing BDS even matter?
In appropriating the languages of good and evil, often reframing the Holocaust narrative with Jews as perpetrators, such rhetoric creates a dangerous either/or that fanatics – both Arabs and Jews – exploit. As the late Israeli author Amos Oz said before his death, the one-state solution will only come to the region through catastrophe and ultimately, the unthinkable again, genocide.
Oz warned that nurturing that fantasy – normative among many millennials with little historical consciousness – not only encourages Arab extremists and their anti-Semitism masquerading as anti-Zionism, but Jewish fundamentalists who counter with their own version of the one-state solution.
Extremists love the dance of codependency between polemical opposites, nurturing one another’s narcissistic fantasies: the current Prime Minister’s embrace of Jewish racist extremists, as part of his re-election campaign, is just a case in point. Both BDS progressives and the far-right are engaged in that dance, trying to draw the rest of us in.
Far-right fundamentalism is not difficult to unmask. But progressives veil their fundamentalism with the rhetoric of liberalism. In the process, the moral values system of the West - for which the Jews were once blamed - gets turned on its head. Now in the guise of Zion, the Jew represents, for the progressive cosmos, a reminder of an older worldview, a manifestation of evil.
Strangely, even for ostensible pluralists, there is an attraction to the simplifying moral order of the older quasi-religious dualism.
The brilliant paradox of this strategy, always implicit in BDS rhetoric, is to sell this binary world view to genuine liberals, a community that values pluralism, while all the time amplifying their own jeremiads against Israel.
Omar’s latest op-ed, part of a now almost year-long series of apologies and explanations revolving around her statements about Jews and Israel, certainly stands as salutary.
But if her words represent more than an opportunistic attempt to appease her party and the political mainstream, then she and other progressives should renounce BDS, and acknowledge that the "freedom and dignity" which she espouses, for it to apply to both Israelis and Palestinians, will only come about through the mutual recognition of two peoples, and the two-state solution.
William Kolbrener is professor of English Literature at Bar Ilan University. His most recent book is The Last Rabbi: Joseph Soloveitchik and Talmudic Tradition (Indiana University Press). Twitter: @OMTorah
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