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Tuesday, November 22, 2011

What is the progressive case for Israel?

An avowedly left-wing and pro-Israel organization in Great Britain, Engage, was set up to counter anti-Israel boycotts. Its website has some interesting articles.

Here's part of one recent article by its founder, David Hirsh:
What is the progressive case for Israel? Why should a nation state need somebody to make its case? What is the progressive case for France or for Poland? Before the French Revolution, the question of France was still open. Was Marseille to be part of the same Republic as Brittany? When there was a political movement for the foundation of France, then there was a case for and also a case against France. When Poland was half engulfed by the Soviet Union and half by the Third Reich, there was a progressive case for Poland. But today, thankfully, Poland exists. It doesn’t need a ‘case’.

There are reasons to be ambivalent about nationalism. Nationalist movements have often stood up against forces which threaten human freedom. Nationalism offers us a way of visualising ourselves as part of a community in which we look after each other. But being part of something also means defining others as not being part of it, as being excluded from it. The left should fight for freedom with the nationalists but we should also remember the dangers of nationalism. Like John Lennon, we should imagine a world where people no longer feel the need to protect themselves against external threat, but until it exists, it is wise for communities to retain the possibility of self-defence.

Progressives in France or Poland might hope to dissolve their states into the European Union, or into a global community. In that sense there is still a possible case to be made for Poland or for France. But nobody thinks that either has to justify their existences to anybody outside. Not even Germany after the crimes of the Second World War had to justify its existence.

...But as the Holocaust had defeated the Socialists and the Bundists, so these other criticisms were answered, not by argument or reason but by huge, irreversible events in the material world; in this case by the UN decision to found Israel and by the defence of the new state against the invading armies of neighbouring states which tried to push the Jews out. The Jews, armed by Stalin via Czechoslovakia, in violation of a British and American arms embargo, were not pushed out. About 700,000 Palestinian Arabs left, fled or were forced out during the war and were not allowed back by the new state of Israel. For them this was truly a catastrophe but the Israel/Palestine conflict was never inevitable. It was the result of successive defeats for progressive forces within both nations. It is still not inevitable. Neither could the fact of the conflict possibly de-legitimise a nation. Nations exist and do not require legitimacy.

Isaac Deutcher, Trotsky’s biographer, who had been a Socialist anti-Zionist before the Holocaust, wrote the following in 1954:

I have, of course, long since abandoned my anti-Zionism, which was based on a confidence in the European labour movement, or, more broadly, in European society and civilization, which that society and civilization have not justified. If, instead of arguing against Zionism in the 1920s and 1930s I had urged European Jews to go to Palestine, I might have helped to save some of the lives that were later extinguished in Hitler’s gas chambers.[2]

Deutscher was not embracing Zionism as an ideology, he was recognising that the debate was over. Israel now existed in the material world and no longer just in the imagination. Antisemitism treats ‘the Jews’ as an idea rather than as a collectivity of actual human beings; an idea which can be opposed was transformed into a people which could be eliminated. To think of Israel as an idea or as a political movement rather than as a nation state makes it possible to think of eliminating it too.

Israel needs to find the peace with its neighbours, amongst whom hostile and antisemitic movements have significant influence. It needs to continue to fulfil contradictory requirements, as a democratic state for both its Jewish and non-Jewish citizens, but also as a Jewish state, guaranteeing the rights of Jews in particular. There is nothing unusual about a social institution finding pragmatic and difficult ways to fulfil contradictory requirements.

But what if it turns out that Zionism’s promise to build a ‘normal’ nation state was utopian. Perhaps the poison of the Holocaust is not yet spent. Maybe Israel is, as Detuscher thought, a precarious life-raft state , floating in a hostile sea and before a careless world. Perhaps the pressure on Israel from outside, and the unique circumstances of its foundation are creating too many agonising internal contradictions and fault-lines. Whereas people used to tell the Jews of Europe to go home to Palestine, now they tell the Jews of Israel to go home to Europe. Whereas ‘the Jews’ were thought to be central to the workings of capitalism, today Israel is said to be the keystone of imperialism. If the Palestinians have come to symbolise the victims of ‘the West’ then ‘the Jews’ are again cast in the symbolic imagination as the villains of the world. Perhaps Israel is precarious and perhaps we have not yet seen the final Act of the tragedy of the Jews. And if it comes to pass, there will be those watching who will still be capable of saying, with faux sadness, that ‘the Jews’ brought this upon themselves.

(h/t D)