Sunday, March 27, 2005
the trouble with Zionism - Joel Kovel
JK: The contradictions posed by the notion of a Jewish democratic state are so severe that you can’t codify it in a constitutional form. To do so would mean breaking apart the fiction that there can be a genuine democracy for one ethnic group over others. So a great many questions are just sort of shelved. In fact, the national boundaries cannot be well defined. It is not at all clear just where Israel should begin or end, given the myth of its origins, still held by many Zionists, that `God promised all of this region to us…` There are people who say Israel should keep expanding all the way to Turkey and should take over everything in the region. More crucially, this notion underlies the relentless impulse to occupy all Palestinian land and the appalling story of the settlements in the Occupied Territories.
If past experience is any guide, we can be pretty sure that what I’ve just said will arouse very strong negative feelings among the American Jewish community. The question is, however, whether one can accept responsibility for what has been done, which means being able to think honestly about the past, to incorporate your history into the present, and to have a sense of your limits. In a word, it means being conscientious, or in this case, arguing openly about the history and actuality of Israel. This doesn’t of course mean accepting what I’ve said on faith, but it does imply an open and conscientious engagement with the issues and a willingness to look at oneself and if necessary, to change—we might say, in `good conscience.`
Then there is the matter of the bad conscience, where, instead of being able to accept responsibility and to look at what you are doing, one is unable to think self-reflectively and self-critically. Being unable to take criticism, the bad conscience explodes into violent denunciation and suppression of critics. It replaces conscientiousness with blame. I contend that such a bad conscience is an important aspect of the present situation. And evidence for this is precisely that we have so much difficulty getting a decent debate about Israel and Zionism going in this country.
I think this situation is improving to some degree, witness undertaking an interview like this. The terrible events of the last few years have cost Israel a lot of legitimacy, and this has made for certain openings. But the openings have to be seen as possibilities to engage the still-massive ideological complex supporting Zionism, including its bad conscience.
LT: What happened in Nazi Germany—the Holocaust—was a horrible thing. It remains the principle justification for a Jewish national home.
JK: Yes, no doubt, it still looms like a monstrous shadow. It’s understandable that people would have felt that way, or even still feel that way. But a feeling of that kind can’t justify what has been done in the name of Zionism, if only for the instrumental reason that it has failed to bring real security to the Jewish people.
LT: What accounts for the inability of one side to empathize with the other that leads to anger, name-calling, and violence?
JK: I agree we have to get beyond the name-calling and the denial, both of which are driven by the bad conscience. One important dimension is the denial that Palestinians may have a legitimate grievance. Because a bad conscience can’t take responsibility, the person afflicted with it can’t think of themselves as being wrong; this just stirs up intolerable feelings of guilt. Now if you admit that the Palestinians have a legitimate grievance, then of course, you have to think that maybe you are wrong, and might have to take responsibility or even change. The bad conscience keeps that kind of thought out of awareness, by attacking the critic, and at the same time, by reducing the moral value of Palestinians and their cause. Then the only things one can think about are is that the Palestinians are simply motivated by blind hatred, or are congenital terrorists, or being Arabs, are shaped by Islam to hate the West. This takes the whole situation out of history and makes it impossible to look at what has really happened, namely there has been violent expropriation, ethnic cleansing, and illegal occupation of Palestinian land. Everything is simply put on the level that all these Palestinians hate us. At times the denial has extended to the claim that the Palestinians don’t exist as a people.