Tuesday, September 24, 2019

For some reason, Jewish Currents chose rabid anti-Israel ideologue Judith Butler to review Bari Weiss' "How to Fight Anti-Semitism," a book that describes in detail why modern anti-Zionism is a new form of antisemitism just as toxic as white supremacism, a thesis with which Butler violently disagrees.

Butler's "gotcha" of Weiss is this:

Intersectionality theory does have much to say about the possibility of being oppressed in one respect and responsible for oppression in another respect—a part of that theory that Weiss does not address. The mechanics of the concept do not seem to elude her; in fact, we might describe her as arguing in an intersectional spirit when she claims, for instance, that Congresswoman Ilhan Omar is subject to racist attacks at the same time that, in Weiss’s view, she is guilty of antisemitism. “Two things can be true at once,” Weiss reminds us. Indeed they can. This situation is well-known by many Jews who vigilantly oppose antisemitism and yet also bear responsibility for a continuing and unjust occupation of Palestine.

But that tension remains oblique in this ahistorical text. Weiss regards Israel’s founding as a state based on Jewish political sovereignty as the end of a “clear line” that ran from biblical times through the aftermath of the Holocaust, spanning “two thousand years of history [which] have shown definitively that the Jewish people require a safe haven and an army.” The Holocaust, in other words, necessitated “the fulfillment of a biblical promise” to establish a homeland for the Jews in Palestine. And yet another line of history runs through and past the Naqba, a history that intersects with the story Weiss tells: state Zionism provided sanctuary for Jewish refugees even as it dispossessed more than 700,000 Palestinians from their homes, producing more refugees for whom there is no clear sanctuary. 1948 was a year in which multiple histories intersected. There is no one line of history. If we accept wholesale Weiss’s proposition that Israel exists and is therefore legitimate, then we are excused from asking too many historical questions about why it was established in the way that it was—on what legal terms, and at what price, and through the vanquishing of what alternative possibilities.

But if two things can both be true at once, shouldn’t we be able to think through the paradox of a dispossessed population gaining sanctuary only through the dispossession of another population? Shall we not name this as a founding contradiction, one that remains unsolved, and whose resolution could lead to less violence and more common life—cohabitation on equal grounds?  Unfortunately, that order of complexity does not enter into this book and seems rather rigorously excluded. 
OK, let's deal with the issues that Butler brings up that she says is excluded. (I haven't yet finished reading Weiss' 'book.)

Butler falsely claims that Weiss is referring only to the Holocaust when she says “two thousand years of history have shown definitively that the Jewish people require a safe haven and an army.” This is obviously wrong, since the Holocaust took place over only a tiny slice of the two thousand years of Jews being persecuted that Weiss refers to. Butler chooses to ignore that in implying that the Holocaust is the only reason for Israel to exist, to provide sanctuary for Holocaust victims and no one else, and therefore the Shoah is used as an excuse for dispossessing Palestinian Arabs. It isn't. Zionism came before the Holocaust and its arguments are based on Jews being treated as any other nation.

Butler then moves onto her next false assumption: that considering Israel to be a legitimate state somehow stops people from delving into the details of how it was established, a process that Butler clearly thinks was on the whole immoral. This is also obviously not true. The United States and Australia may have done immoral things to aboriginal peoples when they were founded, but no one questions the legitimacy of those and most other countries the way Israel's legitimacy is questioned daily, including in this very essay. No one says that one cannot question the historical details any state including Israel Yet to Butler, only Israel's very legitimacy is dependent on the moral "price" she claims it paid. Butler even seems to also be saying that Israel's legality is open to question - a Jewish state that the UN itself recommended be established, that the UN accepted as a full member, a Jewish homeland accepted by the League of Nations decades earlier - it is difficult to find a state that has more legitimacy in international law than Israel.

If the only state whose legitimacy is questioned is the only Jewish state, then we also have the right to ask questions: Why it Israel singled out to adhere to standards that no other state has ever reached? Why is the Jewish state the only one that is assumed to be illegitimate? Why are people like Butler obsessed over Israel and only Israel?  The only answer that fully explains the visceral hate for Israel  is indeed antisemitism. Weiss shows how the Soviets used Jews to spearhead antisemitic initiatives - and how those Jews ended up being persecuted themselves, despite their being as "good" as they could be. Butler fits exactly into that mold. It is not surprising she doesn't mention that part of the book.

Butler claims that Zionism necessitated the dispossession of Arabs from the land. This is nonsense; one has to truly cherry pick Zionist quotes from the first half of the 20th century to build that case (which is exactly what anti-Zionists like Butler do.) If one reads actual Zionist literature from the period - just peruse any random issue of the Palestine Post during the 1930s - the idea of ethnically cleansing Arabs not considered. On the contrary, it is assumed that Jews and Arabs would live together in harmony and that the influx of Jews would improve the lives of Arabs. One could argue whether that is true or even if that is a colonial mindset, but one cannot seriously argue that Zionism caused the flight of Arabs from the area. War is what caused the flight, and it was not a war that Zionists started.

Judith Butler has a different vision of a wonderful world where Jew and Arab live together in peace, one that necessitates dismantling the Jewish state and replacing it with a single state where Palestinians can "return" and make the Jews a minority. Instead of relying on Jewish ideas of equal rights for an Arab minority we should rely on the Arab majority to protect the rights for a Jewish minority. This will, she says, resolve the "founding contradiction" of Israel - by destroying the Jewish state.

But this is no longer 1948, and we have over seven decades of evidence of what these competing visions look like. On the one hand, we have an Israel that provides legal equal rights to its Arab minority and that, in fits and starts, has been trying to live up to that vision in all spheres. On the other hand, we have abundant evidence of how Arab nations treated their Jews both before and during Israel's establishment.

Egypt created nationality laws in the 1920s that defined as someone who was an Arab or Muslim, pointedly excluding Jews. Libya stripped Jews of the right to vote in 1951. In Iraq, Jewish history and Hebrew language instruction were prohibited in Jewish schools during the 1920s and Jews were expelled from public service and education in the 1930s. In Yemen, Jews were excluded from public service positions and the army during the 1920s. Jews could no longer purchase property in Syria in 1947. In 1948, Iraq prohibited Jews from leaving the country, and Yemen followed in 1949. In 1951, Libyan Jews were no longer allowed to have passports or Libyan nationality certificates.

These Arab laws were aimed at all Jews, citizens of their countries, not "Zionists." And today, Jews who venture into Arab areas controlled fully by the Palestinian Authority put their lives at risk. Israel was and remains the only country in the Middle East where Jews can live without fear. Pretending that a binational state would protect the Jews is to ignore a century of evidence that proves otherwise - Jews ostensibly had equal rights in Egypt and Libya and Algeria and Lebanon, and they were forced out. By any rational yardstick, Arabs are more protected under Jewish rule than Jews ever have been under Arab rule.

Considering Butler's kumbaya solution and comparing it with the reality of Israel today is indeed what gives Israel its moral legitimacy. The Holocaust was unique, but Jewish persecution is not. Israel is the refuge for Jews from Arab lands untouched by the Holocaust as well as from the Soviet Union, Ethiopia and other places they were persecuted or tolerated as not-quite full citizens. Weiss reminds us of the statement of the prime minister of France in 1980, Raymond Barre, after a synagogue bombing that killed two Jews and two non-Jews: ”They aimed at the Jews and they hit innocent Frenchmen.” With few exceptions, Jews have never been considered full citizens of the countries they lived in, and today's white nationalists as well as leftists who want to exclude Jews from student government on campus show that this thinking exists even in the US today.

No one is silencing anyone. All questions about Israel should be asked and forthrightly answered. But Butler isn't just asking questions - she is attacking the very idea of Jews as a people having the same rights as any other people to self-determination. She is disingenuous when she characterizes her criticisms as merely asking questions, since she is not interested in the answers, which an honest academic would welcome. She is singling out Israel for vitriol that is way out of proportion to its supposed crimes, to the point that it is the only state in the world that is assumed to be illegitimate. That isn't debate - that is hate. And it is hate that is identical to the hate that Jews have been subjected to throughout history, that also was justified as merely asking questions.

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