Feel Good Zionism

A review of Yitzhak Laor's The Myths of Liberal Zionism.

The West has been sold a bill of goods. Bronzed Jewish soldiers protecting the founders of kibbutzim in a Near East backwater, terraforming the desert into farmland, steadfastly creating an outpost of the West in the center of Barbary: redemption for the West’s historical sins against European Jewry. It’s decent — if saccharine and seriously overwrought — ad-copy for Zionism, and it’s gone over well for decades in Paris, New York, Brussels, and Berlin. Like most ad-copy, it has been dishonest. Unlike most ad-copy, it is outright mendacious, something like 1940s cigarette ads advertising tobacco’s salubrious effects. And Zionist intellectuals, like tobacco salesmen, are having trouble covering up an increasingly evident truth: that Zionism should be slapped with a label reading: caution, settler-colonialism, type two: cleansing and extermination. This ideology may be harmful to the native population.

Earlier Zionists were not in the business of molly-coddling modern Western sensibilities. They were honest, unaware the archive they left behind would be trouble. Take revisionist Vladimir Jabotinsky’s scorched forthrightness: “colonization must . . . proceed in defiance of the will of the native population . . . an external power has committed itself to creating such security conditions that the local population, however much it would have wanted to, would be unable to interfere, administratively or physically, with our colonization.” The ideology hasn’t changed much, but the West has. So Israeli new mandarins have to try to sell settler-colonialism to Western states with populations that more and more regard Zionism’s spiritual core and physical reality as somewhere on the spectrum between mildly embarrassing and overtly revolting. It is those mandarins that anti-Zionist Israeli poet Yitzhak Laor meticulously vivisects in The Myths of Liberal Zionism.

Laor is not much for structure. He wanders and weaves. Not a problem. The book was originally published in Hebrew and then translated to French. The myths of the book’s title are intended to muck up the minds of a European audience. As he writes, “We are not really talking to the United States, maybe because we take its love for granted.” And maybe for lack of understanding. In the introduction for the English-language translation, Laor explores differences between the United States and Israel that render this lack of understanding mostly irrelevant. The most important of these center around the Holocaust and its central role in communal binding for the bastion of ideological support for Israel — the American Jewish community. As Jewish theologian Marc Ellis observes, Diasporic Jews are encouraged to feel forever guilty for not having prevented the Holocaust. We are encouraged to see Israel as threatened with “annihilation. The message is clear: unequivocal support for Israel to prevent a second Holocaust.” The corollary is that is it necessary to cultivate a cult of victimology. Children are the best potential victims, much better than grown men armed with Merkava tanks and submarines equipped with nuclear warheads.

So Laor begins with an exegesis of the Zionist depiction of Israel — the national self-image as a vulnerable child. As the embodiment of Israeli nationalism, the Israeli soldier is imagined as utterly innocent: a naïf. History happens to children. Adults make history happen. Israeli soldiers “ask for a different kind of adoration, love and warmth. They arouse, they are supposed to arouse, a desire to protect them, to defend them.” So the soldiers are children in need of a guardian, so too is Israel. This is the image Israel presents to the world, to America, and to American Jews: we are all wards of an ascendant American Jewry, a responsible American Jewry, because it is Israelis that die to protect Jewry. As Laor continues, “The soldier, as a good grandson, is extremely important if we are to understand the Israeli manipulative narrative: we are the grandchildren that the United States and American Jews are often being called on to feel sorry for.” This carefully crafted vulnerability is vital non-sense. Non-sense because Israel is a military titan with a nuclear trump card, vital because a vulnerable child demands succor and nursing. Precisely the correct image for a dependent client-garrison-state — the correct description, despite the analysis du jour in the solidarity movement that elides the materialist reasons for American and European materiel and diplomatic support for Israel.

The soldier is also a figure out of the Aryan imagination. Hebrew literature of the 1940s to 1970s is replete with blue-eyed blondes, at a time when the Israeli Jewish demographic, Ashkenazi and Mizrahi, was hazel and obsidian. That fantasy refers back to the fantasy of an unsullied whiteness as a paragon of European civilization. This meshes neatly with American and European conceptions of whiteness and the fear of the Dark Other. Still, Laor is quite clear: this Jew doesn’t exist.

He is a stand-in for the real Jewry of Israel, the majority, Arabs, many of the Ashkenazi minority, descendants of refugees from the Shoah. This is a conundrum for Zionist Arab Jews, who cannot relate to their past except as undispellable shame, as in the case of A. B. Yehoshua, perpetually bummed at being a Sephardic Jew. When oppression and dispossession map over ethnic lines, binding a community to a racially-conceived state requires racism, an abiding hatred of the Other, the Palestinian Arab. This becomes even more important when that Other is closer to the Sephardic Jewish population than to the dominant population, the Ashkenazi Jewish elite, the major beneficiary of Israeli racism. Israel is the 2nd most unequal advanced industrial economy in the world, with 40 percent of its stock market owned by a handful of families, overwhelmingly Ashkenazi. Racism glues together a national identity in lieu of cultural or class-based links which could bind Jewish Arabs to Palestinian Arabs in different and dangerous communities of identity.

Yehoshua, interviewed in 2004, does his part to tighten that binding in the most callous way imaginable. He observed that there will be a forthcoming war against the Palestinians, “Not a desired war, but definitely a purifying one. A war that will make it clear to the Palestinians that they are sovereign . . . From the moment we retreat I don’t want to know their names at all. I don’t want any personal relationship with them.” That this involves turning the Palestinian people into metaphysical enemy is clear. That this cleansing violence is “fascistic” in Laor’s words is also clear.

Laor chalks this up to Yehoshua’s fear of ethnic “heterogeneity,” an inability to deal with the “pleasant natives, sometimes a bit devious, sycophantic and especially ugly.” This is the product of Zionism’s inability to deal with the world and with the real, a recurring theme — we hate what we fear. This hatred binds Israel to a West that hates brown people, too. Amidst ascendant Islamophobia, elite opinion particularly hates Arabs, a hatred that it freely spreads to the general population. All of this hatred is a necessary component of a world-system in which the class structure roughly overlaps with racial hierarchies, captured in the North-South dyad. This has been pretty convenient for Europe as well: “It is through us that Europe, for reasons I shall discuss throughout the book, intensified its hatred of Islam and the Arabs,” re-directing classical anti-Semitic tropes away from swarthy Judaic Semites to swarthy Islamic Semites and their umma. This occurs frequently — the use of anti-Semitism and philo-Zionism as an adamantine shield-and-sword, behind which European and American bigotries’ official representatives can decry the Durban process, for example, or resistance to Israeli irredentism.

Laor is generous in distributing blame. If Israeli hasbara-istas produce thehasbara, the societies of the West gluttonously consume it. It suits their tastes. So received opinion in the United States and Western Europe agrees agreeably that the failure at Camp David was due to Arafat’s (Oriental, so automatic) rejectionism. Here Laor maps the links between European and Israeli anti-Oriental bigotry beautifully. He quotes Ilan Greilsammer writing in Le Monde: “It is enough to be an anti-Zionist, a-Zionist, post- Zionist, or a new historian who describes the massacres perpetrated by the Jews during the war of 1948 to be welcomed everywhere with open arms.” Pause for a moment and answer these questions: Where does Ilan Pappé teach, and why? Why can’t I find translations of Laor’s poetry on the internet? Where was Benny Morris’s most recent mediocrity published?

Then continue with Laor: what “Greilsammer is really driving at is the following: in any other place in the (white) world, a state of all its citizens would be a reasonable democratic and republican solution, a legitimate political idea — but this does not apply to Arabs . . . it is the role of the Jew, within French racism, to articulate such disdain toward the Arabs. This is the return of the colonial.” The assault on anti-Zionism segues neatly into an assault on anti-Zionism’s moral groundings: anti-colonial universalism. In the neo-colonial present, radical equality threatens a radically unequal world. How to smuggle in colonial ideology? Easy: behind an anti-“anti-Semitic” discourse, from behind which anti-Arab racism can decorously emerge. And it is from this perspective that a Zionist Israeli acts as cipher for European bigotry and explains the extent of the branding operation. This is why Yehoshua does so well in European capital cities. As Laor puts it, describing another Yehoshua novel, “Here the border does not run through the hero, but rather the hero forcibly marks the border.” Over there are the Orientals. We are Hebrews.

These imaginary Hebrews, rootless, de-historicized, fantastic, unreal, are counterpoised with the Ashkenazi Jew of Europe, the desperate refugee, the post-Holocaust in-gathering from the galut. This figure, religious, learned, intellectual, unable to defend himself — the Warsaw ghetto and the Bielski partisans forgotten — is an ugly figure in the liberal Zionist literary imaginary. He is a kike: yarmulke-wearing, effeminate, Talmud-spouting, blathering away in the Yiddish patois, equivocating, thinking, learning, and helplessly dying. That is one of the serial “Others” of Israeli civilization. But an Other presupposes a native. The sabra is the native. But the sabra, too, is clearly of European descent. As Laor writes, “Where is the ‘real native’? Where is ‘the indigenous culture’? There is no such thing in Hebrew literature or there appears to be no such thing. In other words, Hebrew expropriated, by the use of the term ‘native’ (yalid, pl. yelidim), even that status from the Palestinians,” alongside “Israeli” cuisine like hummus and falafel, and Levantine architecture, too.

These are garnishments. The core of the change in Jewish identity that Laor limns is “The metamorphosis of the Jew from non-Westerner to candidate-as-Westerner . . . the most central part of Israeli ideology.” Through Zionism, Jewry is immured from its history: the perennial tax-collector and merchant, lingering far too obviously in the interstices of European culture. Through Zionism, the Jew becomes almost-European. Through the sabra, Israel becomes schizophrenically strong and weak:  “the sabra . . . as a victim of circumstances, or a victim of the cruelty of the generation before him, or of the cruelty of Jewish history. In short, he was expected to be cruel, yet his cruelty was forgiven ‘in advance’ for he was the historical answer to the riddle of Jewish history.” How to solve the riddle? Simple. Through cleansing, renewing violence.

And the Jew-as-probationary-Westerner is doing excellent yeoman work in thrashing the natives. He is permitted and expected to be cruel, in response both to historical cruelty and because Israelis are not in Europe, where the natives are slightly more in line. “What our leaders asked for, it seems, was not the Rights of Man, but the right to belong to the elite. We can now participate in violating the rights of others.” Now that Israel is a grown-up nation-state, playing with the adults, its people can enjoy the privilege of at least border-Westerners: cluster-bombing brown folk. Laor knows that this is good work. Constant conflict is good money, good for scaring up oil prices, good for weapons sales. “Why disarm ourselves if the fences not only help us be safe, but also help us stay in ‘the West’? Or, in the words of the future historian: Why think of peace, if the price we will have to pay in return is a heterogeneous life?” Future historians may be less demure about the way Israel has ideologically stabilized itself and its bigotry vis-a-vis the needs of its political economy and its insertion into mercantilist neo-liberalism.

This too is convenient for a European community that would rather not see the Holocaust as a product of European civilization and its Romantic obsession with national purity, related to the racism inherent in the colonial project and an endogenous process of violent state-formation, as Arendt suggested. Instead, the Holocaust is outside history, for both Israel and Europe. For Israel, this is convenient because it re-writes Jewish history in a floating arc of “national continuity which begins with the rise of Nazism, continues with the war and terminates in the construction of the memory of the (Jewish) victims.” For Europe, this is convenient because it places the Holocaust in a mausoleum marked Human Suffering, so ostentatiously elaborate that we are meant to not notice that the monument has walled off the Holocaust from the genocides the West perpetrated in the global South, privileging it, privileging Jewish suffering, now considered a sort of suffering of full human beings since the Jewish people — via Israel, modeled on the European state — are probationary Europeans.

Germany gets special attention from Laor. It commemorates the dead of World War II by “transforming the memory of Nazism into that of the genocide, and the genocide into remembrance of the Holocaust,” in turn setting up a neat diagram of killers and killed — Nazi génocidaires and Jewish victims. That accomplished, there is little need to look at the Holocaust as a more general instance of Western state violence. As Laor notes, the German Holocaust Museum is in Poland, at Auschwitz, the cemetery of so many Jewish dead, now ensconced in the Western and especially Jewish imaginary as the symbol of the Holocaust. And as Laor adds, it was East, always East, where massacre took place, and so the memory of massacre is less able to contaminate Germany’s cosmopolitan core. Meanwhile, “here” in the German imaginary is there — no quotation marks — in the midst of the Orient, when it comes to actual Israelis. Well-done, since Israelis are mostly Arabs or ultra-religious Jews, reviled in European culture.

But the pristine white-and-azure flag is given pride of place in German ceremonies, “symbols through which German identity is thought,” redemption for its sins just against Jews and not against anyone else: blacks, Gypsies, the disabled, and dissidents. And most importantly, it has been a redemption for which white people don’t have to pay. As Laor points out, this is a way of de-historicizing German history too, a relatively cheap get-out-of-jail free card for a country in which de-Nazification failed. Quick, look over there! The German national narrative distracted, no national introspection needed, “No political price would then need to be paid by the Globkes, the Krupps, IG Farben and the SS pensioners; nor would any compensation be paid to those who did resist.”

Laor reserves a special disgust for the intellectual artisans toiling away within Israeli society. Like Viktor Klemperer, he highlights the treason of the intellectuals as the worst betrayal. He quotes Amos Oz as writing that the Israel-Palestine conflict is, “in other words a conflict between two causes where both are as just, one as the other.” What can Laor say? He says nothing. Or Claude Lanzmann, maker of the movie Shoah: “They have autonomous territories, an armed police force, weapons are everywhere.” While Israeli soldiers beat children to death, children with minds tortured by “memories of mothers screaming with fear, babies who never saw anything but armored trucks near home.” Or on Camp David, Laor highlights “the role played by the Zionist left in cementing the anti-Palestinian public perception so common today.” Here again is Oz: “he has incited his people against Israel and against the Jews. Finally, he has initiated this recent burst of hateful violence,” meant to wrack Jews with suffering. “The Palestinian people are suffocated and poisoned by blind hate.” Laor knows that Oz laid the symbolic ground for 5500 Palestinian and 1000 Israeli dead during the 2nd Intifada. Oz scribbles away with the blood of the dead on his quill and Laor hates him for it.

Laor hates Oz for another reason too. Judaism as a breathing culture has been suffocated by the Zionist Israeli narrative. The old narrative of Eastern Europe Jewry has had to be decimated. This has meant the destruction of a special memory: Holocaust-surviving, the remnant of eastern European Jewry, shtetl life. Laor is the descendant of survivors of the Shoah, with a tincture of Maghrebi Jew. He is everything the Israeli imaginary attempts to erase or to spit upon. Livid, Laor absolutely refuses to condescend to the culture or the memories of Shoah Jewry. When Oz describes annihilated European Jewry as opera and ballet-viewing, poly-lingual cosmopolitans, Laor explodes: “This is simply the desecration of the memory of the victims of the Holocaust, most of whom never went to the opera, never read European poetry.”

As Laor writes, “The real people, those who never frequented operas or concerts, those who were deported en masse to the camps and to their deaths, were not ‘ideal’ in any sense. They loved their spoken language, their world which was burnt down; they were real.” Oz hates the real, for reality is intolerable to the Zionist, thief of Jewish history, abuser of the Holocaust. For the Israeli Zionist, Laor has many damning words. Maybe this is an attempt to heal the culture. For American Zionist Jews, who need this book so badly, who will react to its publication like a blind man to Medusa? “I can hardly find appropriate words for them,” for those who pay for the weapons that kill children, for those who will never live in their insurance-policy patch of land in the Levant. I can find appropriate words for Laor’s book: it is a gift, incredible and beautiful, so wonderful that I am sure that the American Zionist community will spurn it. No one wants to read the words that will be the epitaph on the gravestone marking the burial site of your national imaginary.