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April 02nd 2013 print

Daryl McCann

Nationalism and Identity Politics in Israel

The Promise of Israel (Why Its Seemingly Greatest Weakness Is Actually Its Greatest Strength)
by Daniel Gordi
John Wiley & Sons, 2012, 256 pages, US$25.95

Israel/Palestine and the Queer International
by Sarah Schulman
Duke University Press, 2012, 208 pages, US$22.95

The nation-state concept long ago lost its allure for many of those on the Left. Perhaps they take the lyrics of John Lennon’s much celebrated song a little too seriously:

Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too …

Sarah Schulman, author of Israel/Palestine and the Queer International, is so repelled by the notion of patriotism that she prefers to identify her abode as New York rather than the United States. Daniel Gordis, at the other end of the spectrum, presents in The Promise of Israel a case against fashionable one-worldism. Both Schulman and Gordis use the case of modern-day Israel to support their disparate worldviews.

Gordis compares the legacies of two Russian Jews who each embarked on language-creation projects in the 1880s, Ludwig Zamenhof (1859–1917) and Eliezer Perlman (1858–1922). Zamenhof created an entirely new language, Esperanto, while Perlman breathed fresh life into the long-unspoken language of Hebrew. The story of Esperanto has had some positive moments, including the (rejected) proposal to make it the working language of the League of Nations. But Gordis argues its significance pales in contrast to Modern Hebrew, a language that now serves as more than “a means of communication” for the vast range of ethnicities that constitute the State of Israel. The acquisition of Hebrew allows “Yemenite, Russian and Ethiopian Jews” to experience “a shared core”, notwithstanding the diverse heritages and cultures of birth that characterise Israel’s population.

Numerous leftist critics of Israel, from Noam Chomsky to Ilan Pappe, speak of replacing the Jewish state with a bi-national Palestine; a country in which the Arab-Jewish population would live in harmony, with everybody committed to a secular state that did not favour one religious-cultural identity over another. It almost sounds plausible, just as Esperanto and the League of Nations and so many other supranational dreams must have seemed like good ideas at the time. Gordis acknowledges that for progressively minded Europeans, committed to multiculturalism and a borderless EU, the continued existence of Israel is not only a leftover from the past but also an impediment to world peace.

The Tower of Babel story, along with the Hebrew Bible in general, serves as the starting point for Gordis’s rejection of idealistic universalism and his spirited defence of the nation-state concept. The builders of the tower renounced the kind of “territorial, cultural, and linguistic diversity” that the book of Genesis considered “critical to a flourishing human species”. Thus, the preferred biblical option for humanity was not humanity merging under the authority of a single tower, but the peoples of the world dispersing in all directions and remaining “different and heterogeneous”.

The theme of so much else in the Hebrew Bible concerns the indispensable relationship between a nation of free people and “a home in a specific land”. The kingdom depicted in the Hebrew Bible “refers to rule by kings of flesh and blood”, something very distinct from the “otherworldly Kingdom of God” found in the New Testament. While the New Testament variously displays an awareness that “humanity is composed of diverse peoples”—in the epistles of Paul, for instance—that is a long way from the Hebrew Bible advocating those divisions. Secular Europeans will not appreciate Gordis explaining away their starry-eyed internationalism in terms of a lingering Christian-flavoured distrust of the nation-state. When the church ran an empire it had even more reason for being ambivalent about the nation-state. There are still occasions when the church displays its old prejudices and laments the break-up of unmanageable countries with “no good reason to exist in the first place”. Gordis notes Pope John Paul II’s frustration with nationalism in his 1994 visit to the war-torn Balkans, and yet the ultimate source of that conflict was not nationalism but the oppressive apparatus of Yugoslavia, a supranational state.                          

The sticking point, even for those not reflexively hostile towards Israel, is the Jewish state’s policy on immigration. Gordis acknowledges that Israel’s Law of Return, granting Jews anywhere in the world the automatic right to citizenship, strikes many in the West as “inherently discriminatory”. Some critics might allow that the Law of Return once guaranteed sanctuary for Holocaust survivors but the world has moved on since then. Surely an American Jew living comfortably in New York or Los Angeles should not have “automatic rights to Israeli citizenship” while an African refugee, for instance, is often denied citizenship. The choices for the State of Israel are not simple: “if Israel offers a safe harbour to all those who arrive at its borders, it will cease to be a Jewish state”. There is, nevertheless, continuing public debate on the matter, since the Shoah casts a long shadow and “Jews know what it is not to have anywhere else to go”. Furthermore, Israel is a liberal democracy, the only country in the Middle East and North Africa region the 2010 Freedom House survey certified as free, and so nobody in Israel “has sought to silence any of the sides in the debate” over immigration policy.                     

What makes The Promise of Israel such a powerful and relevant book is its insistence that the Jewish state’s immigration debate does not represent Israel’s “greatest weakness” but “actually its greatest strength”. Most Israelis, unlike the politically correct brigade in the West, have an understanding of whence their country has come, what its existence signifies, and where their nation-state might be heading. Gordis senses that Europeans are increasingly coming to the conclusion that multiculturalism and pallid universalism—in reality, two sides of the same coin—“may have been a mistake”. He refers to Angela Merkel’s admission that Germany’s multicultural experiment “has failed, utterly failed”; and also quotes Nicolas Sarkozy’s plaintive cry: “The truth is that, in all or democracies, we’ve been too concerned about the identity of the new rivals and not enough about the country receiving them.” The Israeli model, contends Gordis, can show Europeans how to ditch multiculturalism whilst retaining the rich tapestry of human diversity.                      

The Promise of Israel suggests nationalism satisfies our desire “to be heir to something larger than ourselves”. It is so “hard-wired into human beings” that even in contemporary Germany “a resurgence of national pride” continues to gain momentum. While many might find this worrying, the phenomenon of German nationalism, like so many other nationalisms, cannot be wished away. Gordis quotes from an International Herald Tribune article on the latest trend in Germany for “best-sellers about Goethe and Schiller”, and the desire by Germans to explore the country “by foot, by car and by train from the Bavarian Alps to the Hanseatic ports on the Baltic Sea”. The secret of “harvesting the gifts that nationalism can bestow” involves integrating nationalism with the customary individual freedoms and obligations of liberal democracy. A middle ground, in other words, between myopic nationalism and utopian internationalism.  

In April 2012 the then leader of the Australian Greens, Bob Brown, addressed a speech to his “Fellow Earthians” in which he called for the establishment of a new Tower of Babel, also known as One World Government. Despite years of demanding Beijing respect Tibet’s independence, here was Senator Brown advocating a scheme that would invite Beijing—courtesy of demography—to dominate a new-fangled universal government. The Chinese Communist Party must have loved the senator’s high naivety; freedom-loving Tibetans less so. What radical universalists overlook is the emancipatory nature of nationalism in places such as East Timor, Georgia, Ukraine, Bangladesh, Kosovo, Poland, Armenia, Slovenia, Georgia, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, India, Kenya, West Papua, Kurdistan and South Sudan, to name just a few. Given the crushing reality of geopolitics, not all patriotic liberation movements are feasible, but as Gordis concludes: “There is simply no reason to claim that just because not every people who deserve a state can have one, then no one should.”                           

Gordis applies his “Israel Model” to the challenges faced by today’s Palestinians. Although Palestinian Arabs referred to themselves as Southern Syrians in times past, Gordis has no problem with their relatively recent adoption of the former Zionist label “Palestine” or their acquisition of the Zionist goal of self-determination. He views these developments as implicit admiration on the part of Arabs for the blooming of Jewish culture under the auspices of Israeli sovereignty: “The great irony of the Jewish revival in the state of Israel is that it has spawned not only a Jewish renewal but a Palestinian yearning for statehood as well.” However, Palestinians are “still pawns in a cynical international chess game” in which “Arab countries consciously keep them in limbo so as to be able to pressure Israel to take them in”. The opportunity for statehood has presented itself on numerous occasions—1948, 2000 and 2008 to name but three—but Palestinian leaders, from Haj Amin al-Husseini to Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas, have repeatedly betrayed their people.                              

One of the hard questions Daniel Gordis addresses in The Promise of Israel is whether the foundation of a Palestinian state would encourage the kind of cultural flourishing that has occurred in Israel. The institutions of liberal democracy are just as important to the success of Israeli society as sovereignty. If a Palestinian state were to be truly democratic along the lines of the Israeli model, the result could be momentous: “When the Palestinians get their own state, they could alter the future of not only the Palestinian people but also, quite possibly, the entire Arab world.” In the light of the illiberal and anti-democratic practices pursued in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip and the Al Fatah-dominated West Bank, Gordis admits the “signs are not entirely positive”.

Sarah Schulman’s Israel/Palestine and the Queer International contains an account of her visit to the West Bank, and it would be fair to say she observed “signs” there rather different from those discerned by Daniel Gordis. In some ways—though I should not wish to push the comparison too far—Schulman plays a latter-day Zamenhof to Gordis’s Perlman. For instance, Schulman is ambivalent about Modern Hebrew, the official language of the State of Israel (along with Arabic, a point often missed by Israel’s detractors). She has a predilection for Yiddish, the language of the European Diaspora. Schulman quotes from a 1978 speech by Isaac Bashevis Singer, which notes that Yiddish “possesses no words for weapons, ammunition, military exercises [or] war tactics”. A commendable point maybe, and yet surely there were Yiddish-speaking Jews at the time of the Shoah who wished it otherwise. Modern Hebrew and Zionism, declares Schulman, cannot be the remedy for Jewish particularism because patriotism is always wrong—Palestinian nationalism excepted, of course.

For Schulman, exasperatingly, many of those living in modern nation-states know full well their respective liberal democracies safeguard individual freedoms, sexual preference included. Non-heterosexuals in the West are just as prone to patriotic sentiment as anybody else when making the link between personal liberty and the libertarian character of their respective nation-state. Schulman cannot abide this. It does not fit her interpretation of identity politics, which asserts that a person with a non-normative sexual orientation must automatically adopt an anti-capitalist, anti-nationalist, anti-Zionist and pro-Palestinian perspective. To dissent from Schulman’s version of political correctness is to fall prey to “homonationalism” or, as old-time Marxists would say, false consciousness. Schulman fears that having “won a full range of legal rights” many non-heterosexuals are choosing “to identify with the racial and religious hegemony of their countries”. Let us hope so. 

Schulman saves her greatest animosity for Israel. She touts the implausible notion expounded by Aeyah Gross, a leftist professor of law at Tel Aviv University, that “gay rights have essentially become a public relations tool” for the State of Israel. The circularity of this so-called “pinkwashing” thesis is astonishing. The freedom enjoyed by the citizens of Israel’s liberal democracy constitutes a ruse perpetrated by the Jewish state to deceive Americans and Europeans into believing Israel is a liberal democracy. If only Hamas would adopt such a ruse, instead of making homosexuality in Gaza a crime punishable by ten years in prison. Schulman, a LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) activist, admits to joining Hamas supporters in America at anti-Israel rallies, blithely explaining this away as no more incongruous than marching with Republican gays in an earlier era.   

Schulman insists that “for being out as a lesbian” and “for articulating critiques of power”, she has been “censored, blacklisted, fired, demeaned, marginalized, and shunned”. This litany of tyranny, evidently, allows her special insight into the tyranny endured by the Palestinian people. Nonetheless, an obvious dissonance remains between Schulman’s tale of subjugation in modern-day America and the twenty or so books and plays now accredited to her, the publishing of Israel/Palestine by Duke University Press, her current post as professor of humanities at the City University of New York, and a very public role as an activist and media commentator. Perhaps Schulman is not quite as “disenfranchised” as she makes out, and maybe her anti-Zionist polemic is just old-time leftist bigotry.                  

How else to account for the obfuscation on the rights for non-heterosexuals (including Arabs), women, the religious, and minorities in Israel, and her blindness to the misogyny that pervades the West Bank and Gaza. During her brief sojourn in the Palestinian territories all she can muster is an occasional disingenuous comment: “I realized then this was a very male-dominated world.” In her February 2012 New York Times op-ed on “pinkwashing”, Schulman writes about the 1950 repeal of a British-era sodomy law in the West Bank—as if Ramallah became more à la mode than Swinging London. Contrast Schulman’s narrative with the following passage from Gordis’s The Promise of Israel:

Today, women in the West Bank and Gaza are afforded an appallingly low level of protection. As of this writing, there are no laws that protect women from domestic violence. According to surveys conducted by the Palestinians themselves, more than 60 percent of women who have ever married report having been psychologically abused by their husbands. Almost 25 percent of Palestinian women who have been married report having been beaten by their husbands at some point.

Sarah Schulman’s travels remind me of fellow travellers who visited Stalin’s Russia or Mao’s China and saw exactly what their ideology trained them to see.

Are we surprised, then, that “the most harrowing moment” of Schulman’s “entire trip” is not her discovery of the corrupt, inept and anti-democratic practices of the Palestinian Authority but Israel’s security checkpoint on the return journey from the West Bank. The entry arrangements, even as she describes them, seem innocuous enough: “Once through the long blockade, we saw signs in Hebrew, Arabic, and English that instructed us to take off our belts and put them and our bags through a scanner.” Schulman, however, concludes that these safety procedures “are not about security” but “only about humiliation”. Is Schulman being devious or is she genuinely unaware that during the Second Intifada, 2000 to 2005, Palestinian terrorists murdered 1000 Israelis—78 per cent of them civilians?              

Schulman’s rejoinder would be that the Jews of Israel give up the whole Zionist caper—with its border checkpoints and security fences and Iron Dome gadgetry—and relocate to New York “because the best place in the world for Jews is New York City”. Gordis argues a very different case about what best serves Jews or any of the distinctive peoples of the world: “People thrive and flourish most when they live in cities in which their language, their culture, their history, and their sense of purpose are situated at the very centre of public life.” Schulman’s counter-position might be that multiculturalism in the West adequately preserves the world’s diverse ethnic heritage; and yet we know that, despite the Left’s current embrace of identity politics and credulous universalism, America’s success has been its capacity to integrate and therefore modify inbound cultures. Sarah Schulman, the New York academic who is a clued-up political and media operator in the United States, admits to knowing little about her Jewish heritage. Meanwhile, Israel experiences an artistic, cultural, archaeological, linguistic (including Yiddish), scientific and technological renaissance—and literally runs to the rhythm of its own calendar.

Schulman appears unaware that the United States of America and Israel, though both committed to the principles of liberal democracy, are two very different projects. Gordis notes the “sadness, loss and dislocation” that informs American immigrant literature, the result of people leaving behind their “ethnic homeland” in search of a fresh beginning in the New World. Newcomers “could be different, but they were expected not to be too different” given that any workable society—even a relatively new one—possesses some form of “core”. America’s creed, as Samuel Huntington speculated, might be “Protestantism without God”, but however we define it, the “shared American experience is denuded of religion, cultural richness, and the specificity and profundity of ancestral languages”. The price paid for keeping the American project afloat is “limiting the sphere of the collective” to the political domain “and little beyond it”.                          

The situation in Israel, according to Gordis, could not be more dissimilar, with “the sphere of the collective” affecting so many aspects of contemporary life. I too have marvelled at “the Israeli phenomenon of an entire country slowing down on Friday afternoon as the Sabbath sets in”. Gordis, writing on the integration of Ethiopian Jews into the cadence of Israeli life, does not shy away from the manifold problems and setbacks involved in the scheme, and yet how different the whole thing is from the hostility and isolation that characterise, for instance, the outer suburbs of Paris. Gordis makes a similar case for the millions of Russian Jews and North African and Middle Eastern Jews who have relocated to Israel over the years, drawn into a commonwealth that speaks to their deepest identity. Modern-day Israel might not have embraced Europe’s multicultural politics, and yet the miracle of Israeli’s immigration and its multi-ethnic character makes a mockery of the anti-Zionists who falsely associate Jewish nationalism with racism, fascism and apartheid.              

The ultimate contention of Daniel Gordis, one that will cause Sarah Schulman parapoplexy, is that the nation-state of Israel does more than make a vital contribution to cultural diversity and sustainability—this minuscule country, a quarter the size of Tasmania, provides a practicable model of tolerance for the rest of the world. A strong sense of belonging and a clear understanding of one’s identity, asserts Gordis, allow Israeli Jews to empathise with those who are different, those who are in the minority. There is the fact that no Arab political party has ever been banned in Israel, and that Israeli Arab Christians tend to perform better at school than the Jewish majority. Moreover, Israel “has more democratically elected Muslim officials than all the other non-Muslim states combined—more, even, than the United States”. Twenty per cent of Israel’s population might be Muslim, but Islamist universalism does not intimidate Israelis in their daily life—leaving aside Intifadas emanating from across the border, rockets fired out of Gaza, and the threat of Iran’s nuclear program—because mainstream Israel’s identity is incontrovertible. In short, I wager that Muslims are less likely to be resented or feared in an Israel university than at Sarah Schulman’s City University of New York.                                            

On one issue Schulman and Gordis would agree, and that is Gordis’s reference to “the extraordinary power that comes from being a part of a larger whole”. Both writers understand that human fulfilment does not lie in unbridled egoism, even if Schulman speaks of solidarity where Gordis might use terms like communitarianism and patriotism. Schulman’s self-identification as a radical leftist and member of the LGBT community doubtless brings a rationale and wider meaning to her life, and yet her attempt to force a merger between the two sounds more like Stalinism than solidarity, with dissenters denounced for such crimes as “gay imperialism” and “homonationalism”. Daniel Gordis and his family migrated to Israel in 1998 and his latest book is a testament to his deepening connection to the people of Israel.                                           

Daryl McCann wrote on Barack Obama and the Republicans in the January-February issue. He has a blog at http://darylmccann.blogspot.com.au.