I am fond of a quote from Orwell, where he observed that “Even a single taboo can have an all-round crippling effect upon the mind, because there is always the danger that any thought which is freely followed up may lead to the forbidden thought.” Assuming that a “crippling effect upon the mind” is something undesirable, this is the best rationale for intellectual freedom that I’ve ever heard.
Of course, taboos will always be with us, and any ideology will tend to narrow the parameters of cognition, behavior, and decency. But Zionism is one of those perennially beleaguered creeds that one can hardly scrutinize without earning its anathema. All cultures work through cognitive frames, but at their best they do not invite this extent of paranoia.
Then again, paranoia is a feature of all sorts of ideologies, some of which pose far greater threats to human freedom than Zionism does. And polemics could just as easily be launched against anti-Zionism, a peculiar ideological commitment centered on the proposition that a nation state with a high human development index and a decent human rights record (within its internationally recognized borders, at least) should be dismantled and abolished. So why single Zionism out for criticism? Well… where no double standards are being imposed, the retort that some sacred cow is being “singled out” by criticism is special pleading. But it is true that I have polemicized about Zionism at least as much as I’ve defended it. Why?
First of all, because Zionism was a big part of my formative years. I lived in Israel for four years in my early twenties and did a stint in the Israeli army. So if I wanted to make a case study of intellectual horse-blinders, Zionism is close at hand. My focusing on the subject no more “singles out” Israel than Ma’ariv or Adi Ashkenazi does. But there is a second reason: because Zionism’s intellectual horse-blinders are perhaps more insidious than others, in that it claims with considerable justification to be liberal.
There’s no question that Zionism operates on a lot of liberal software, but its mainframe is not only not liberal; it implicitly rejects universal reason. It inculcates an extremely active sympathetic nervous system by strongly suggesting to adherents that Jews (not just e.g., the Mossad, but Jews as a people) have peculiar imperatives that transcend morality—and that if someone accuses you of wrongdoing, chances are you’re being hounded by Amalek. Certainly, the persistence of violent, irrational anti-semitism muddies the waters in favor of this mentality, but if evil is embodied in whoever casts doubt on your arbitrary imperatives, then your concept of the good is totally subjective. There are other ideologies like this—various kinds of fascism, nihilism, postmodernism—but for any of them to earnestly make the astounding claim that they are fundamentally liberal cannot go unchallenged without tacit concurrence.
In my previous post on this topic, I considered and rejected the idea that Israel is an anachronism (racist, colonialist, theocratic, etc.) in a liberalizing world, in favor of the inimical proposition that Israel is in fact a spearhead of global liberalism. This doesn’t mean that Israel is not racist, colonialist, etc., or that it is a force for human freedom. Rather, it means that Israel has become a powerful force for late-stage liberal democracy’s worst excesses, e.g., indefinite rule by emergency powers; repression of ideas in the name of fighting “hate”; innovation in the field of biometrics and mass surveillance; and the cloaking of ruthless self-interest in the language of universalism.
According to Glenn Greenwald in No Place to Hide, intelligence sharing between Israel and the U.S. tends to one-sidedly benefit Israel:
Despite the close relationship between American and Israeli intelligence agencies, the extensive information provided to Israel by the United States produced little in return…. As the NSA complained, the partnership was geared ‘almost totally’ to Israel’s needs.
The same might be said of America’s famous friendship with Israel more generally. It is completely one-sided. I’ve written before that contrary to conventional wisdom, the financial advantage in the relationship is America’s, while Israel takes on the bulk of the military risk. I stand by this admittedly counter-intuitive argument. But in terms of which party is signing off on the other’s values and enabling the other’s behavior, the relationship entirely favors Israel. (In fact, without U.S. protection, Israel would behave very differently.) In a bizarre, recurring spectacle, ranking American politicians effusively pledge fidelity (if not fealty, exactly) to the fatherland of their billionaire donors (who also control the media which determines their electoral prospects.) Where is the analogue for this in Israeli public life? Americans are regularly treated to rapt oratory about the importance of this relationship for America’s values, but those have got to be the most unrequited values in the world—Israel couldn’t care less about them:
Nietzsche said a good fight justifies any cause, and Israel’s national pugnacity is justifiably admired. Even so, justification and relative worthiness to prevail are two different things. America, for example, stands for fundamental decency, whereas Israel stands for the most parochial interests of Jews—which is fair enough, but liable to conflict with fundamental decency in a million different ways. Netanyahu’s tweet (above) is just one illustration. When America falls short of decency, it is betraying itself. The same cannot be said of Israel.
It’s certainly true that Israel offers robust democratic protections to its citizens, that Israeli citizenship confers great advantages on those Palestine Arabs who enjoy it, and that Israel has been compelled to take certain repressive measures against those in the occupied territories, who don’t. But a great deal of Israel’s treatment of Arabs (on both sides of the line) is purely aggressive, and when Israel violates their rights it tends to do so not e.g., as a temporary symptom of an election result, but as a matter of its most intrinsic policies and values. Of course, many accusations against Israel are pure fiction, but a great many are not. I won’t go down the list of Israel’s alleged and not-so-alleged (fast-forward to 1:59) crimes against Arabs. What I’m interested in here is why we do it, because that might explain why Israel can be so entitled and disdainful in its attitude toward Americans.
First things first: Zionism is the proposition that the Jews should enjoy national sovereignty in their historic fatherland. While I’m not convinced that this is a universal moral imperative, I don’t think it’s a bad idea at all—where I depart from Zionism is in its reasons why. Basically, there are two: (1) because it is necessary to ensure the physical safety of Jews; and (2) because it is necessary to ensure the continuation of Jewish culture.
The first of these reasons is debatable. Jews have physically survived in the diaspora for over 2,000 years; poorly in some places, but quite well in others. It’s true that pogroms still take place, but no fewer (and probably more) take place inside Israel than they do abroad. So it seems to me that the real reason for Zionism (at least in terms of physicality, security, etc.) is not simply to defend Jews from clear and present danger, but to vindicate Jews as self-reliant fighters in spite of traditionally being disarmed and enfeebled. It’s overcompensation arising out of an inferiority complex; nothing could be more obvious. There was a time when this resonated with me (if not exactly in those terms.) But eventually I had to ask myself whether an inferiority complex is something worth hanging onto, and whether vindicating myself as a man has any necessary connection with Jewishness. And it does—just not much.
Clearly, the second reason (to ensure the continuation of Jewish culture) weighs more in favor of Zionism, because of assimilation in the diaspora. As an American mischling, I’m not the best-qualified person to defend this line of reasoning. The most I can say is that I support a Jewish state as an option for people whose Jewishness is more important to them than mine is for me. But can Zionism afford to agree with me there? As the self-proclaimed state of all the Jewish people, Israel must insist that Jews and even half-breeds belong in Israel; ergo they live outside of Israel because of some defect or inadvertence. But if I belong in Israel, that would have to mean that my most intrinsic wellbeing is dependent on Jewishness. I see no problem with that as a religious belief; but as civics, or teleology? It’s hard to see how all but the most obstreperous, shrunken-headed fanatics could entirely believe it—about themselves or anyone else.
On the other hand, it is very easy to see how my most intrinsic wellbeing depends on fundamental decency, ordered liberty, and intellectual freedom. Granted, we don’t entirely have those things in America. But they aren’t subordinate values here. There is no America without them.