In the middle of a reading a perfectly interesting and informed post on Lenin’s Tomb this morning about the parallels between the Israeli occupation of Palestine and the apartheid system in South Africa I got a genuine shock.
“…the Palestinians face more than an onerous system of oppression and ritual devastation: they face real attempts to do away with them as a national group, to destroy their life-sustaining systems and throw them off their land inch by inch. We are speaking here of politicide. Given a sufficient crisis for Israel, we could be speaking of genocide: after all, if Israel’s existence as a polity were ever seriously threatened, we have it on reasonable authority that the state proposes nuclear annihilation of surrounding population centres.”
Now am I thick or does that not make one bit of sense? I haven’t checked the comments to see if anyone else thinks it’s completely mad, but I assume they must do.
It kind of ruins the argument for me. I don’t know if its true. I don’t want it to be true, but a part of me worries that it is. However, I’ll leave that aside for the moment and move on to this concept of Israel and apartheid.
The reason, I suspect, for using the apartheid label in this context is to try and develop a strong rhetorical case against the actions of the Israeli state. After all, apartheid was seen eventually as a huge injustice, an infringement of human rights and, with international pressure, was finally brought to an end. By associating them the desire is, I suspect, to imagine the ending of the Israeli occupation of Palestine. However, the differences between apartheid and the Israeli situation, as Lenin acknowledges, are considerable. It seems that the only real similarity is that both situations were brought about by colonialism and the establishment of the colonizer as the permanent gate keeper of the economy.
And this, ultimately, is Lenin’s point. As he says in his conclusion:
“The founders of Israel didn’t imitate the Nazis: they imitated colonialism and the apparatus of ‘racial’ knowledge that went with it. The Nazis radicalised and intensified European imperialist doctrines, whereas the Zionists simply adapted them for their own purposes.”
The problem with the debate about Israel is how hysterical it becomes, and how divisive words like Nazi are.
The reason, of course, is the historical association of the word Nazis with the holocaust and why the State of Israel was formed in the first place. However, before I go any further let’s be clear, the Israeli Government is not fascist. Israel is still a democracy, which allows some Arab citizen to vote in national and regional elections. It is not a totalitarian state, although its actions against the Palestinians can be seen as being totalitarian in nature. These actions should be considered an outrage and the fact that they can continue to oppress an Arab minority without suffering any penalty is solely down to the fact that the United States, for its own interest, continues to protect them. That said they are not likely to drop a nuclear bomb on the surrounding populations centres and therefore are not on the verge of being genocidal (but maybe I say that because I can’t imagine circumstance where that would make any sense).
So in criticizing Israel it seems easier to point towards the international taboo of apartheid, rather than suggesting that Zionism equals fascism. But unfortunately, there are connections. And these connections come not from an adherence to a Nazi ideology but from the way that the State of Israel was formed in the first place and how Zionism bases itself as the interests of a ‘people’.
In a previous post Lenin quotes Norman Finkelstein, who in a 1995 book suggested that there was a similarity in the German Romanticism that informs both pro-Nazi historiography and Zionism:
“Steeped in German Romanticism, the claim was that because the forefathers of the Jewish people had originated and been buried in Palestine, Jews could only - and only Jews could - establish an authentic, organic connection with the soil there. Noting the ‘German source’, Shapira points to the ‘recurrent motif’ in Zionism of the ‘mysticism that links blood and soil’, the “cult of heroes, death and graves”, the belief that “graves are the source of the vital link with the land, and they generate the loyalty of man to that soil”, and that “blood fructifies the soil (in an almost literal sense)”, and so on.”
This sort of ‘historic right’ was also seized by the Romantic precursors of Nazism and, with a vengeance, by the Nazis themselves, to justify the conquest of the East. Germany was said to have legitimate claims on Slavic territory (especially but not limited to Poland) since it was “already inhabited by the Germans in primeval times”, “fertilised by the most noble ancient German blood”, “Germanic for many centuries and long before a Slav set foot there”, “teutonic-German Volksbloden for 3,000 years as far as the Vistula. … In the 6th and 7th Century after Christ the Slavs pushed outward from their eastern homelands and into the ancient German land… - admittedly only for a few hundred years”, etc”
But ultimately, I think, Finkelstein is saying that the very idea behind a single ethnic nation leads inevitably to the contradiction that, just as you attempt to escape fascism you are creating a state that potentially leads to the denigration of whatever minority exists within the geographic borders of that ‘nation’.
“[T]he claim of Jewish ‘homelessness’ is founded in a cluster of assumptions that both negates the idea of liberal citizenship and duplicates the anti-Semitic one that the state belongs to the majority ethnic nation. In a word, the Zionist case for a Jewish state is as valid or as invalid as the anti-Semitic case for an ethnic state that marginalizes Jews. (Norman Finkelstein, Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict, Verso, 1995, pp 100-1).”
Quoted in Lenin’s Tomb.
Judith Butler, in her review of The Jewish Writings by Hannah Arendt points out how Arendt was aware of the contradiction (that as a stateless people, the Jews when creating a state for themselves could only do so by making others stateless).
“She stated the matter quite clearly in The Origins of Totalitarianism, published in 1951. Statelessness was not a Jewish problem, but a recurrent 20th-century predicament of the nation-state. What happened to the Jewish people under Hitler should not be seen as exceptional but as exemplary of a certain way of managing minority populations; hence, the reduction of ‘German Jews to a non-recognised minority in Germany’, the subsequent expulsions of the Jews as ‘stateless people across the borders’, and the gathering of them ‘back from everywhere in order to ship them to extermination camps was an eloquent demonstration to the rest of the world how really to “liquidate” all problems concerning minorities and the stateless’. Thus, Arendt continues,
“after the war it turned out that the Jewish question, which was considered the only insoluble one, was indeed solved – namely, by means of a colonised and then conquered territory – but this solved neither the problem of the minorities nor the stateless. On the contrary, like virtually all other events of the 20th century, the solution of the Jewish question merely produced a new category of refugees, the Arabs, thereby increasing the number of stateless and rightless by another 700,000 to 800,000 people. And what happened in Palestine within the smallest territory and in terms of hundreds of thousands was then repeated in India on a large scale involving many millions of people.””
So while the motivation to create Israel was to resolve a situation brought about by Fascism it managed to replicate it, by basing itself on an idea that the ‘nation’ belongs to a single ethnic group. This then allows the guardians of that nation to treat those it considers outside of the ethnic group as part of a non-national minority while still retaining sovereign power over them.
On the point about nationhood and sovereignty Butler says:
“We have become accustomed over recent years to the argument that modern constitutions retain a sovereign function and that a tacit totalitarianism functions as a limiting principle within constitutional democracies. Giorgio Agamben’s reading of Carl Schmitt pays particular attention to the exercise of sovereign power to create a state of exception (state of emergency) that suspends constitutional protections and rights of inclusion for designated populations within established democratic polities. Arendt’s Jewish Writings offer a valuable counter-perspective.
Although Agamben is clearly indebted to Arendt’s The Human Condition in his elaboration of ‘bare life’ (the life which, jettisoned from the polis, is exposed to raw power), it is the nation-state rather than sovereignty that is Arendt’s focus in her work on totalitarianism.”
It is interesting to note that, according to the wikipedia entry on State of Emergency, that Israel has been in a state of emergency since the 1948 War of Independence.
Oh damn it, this post is long and bad enough and I’ve only just realized that Judith Butler has an London Review of Books article from 2003 in which she states her own opinions about Israel and the effective censorship of the debate pretty explicitly.
“Summers uses the ‘anti-semitic’ charge to quell public criticism of Israel, even as he explicitly distances himself from the overt operations of censorship. He writes, for instance, that ‘the only antidote to dangerous ideas is strong alternatives vigorously advocated.’ But how does one vigorously advocate the idea that the Israeli occupation is brutal and wrong, and Palestinian self-determination a necessary good, if the voicing of those views calls down the charge of anti-semitism?”
“What do we make of Jews such as myself, who are emotionally invested in the state of Israel, critical of its current form, and call for a radical restructuring of its economic and juridical basis precisely because we are invested in it? It is always possible to say that such Jews have turned against their own Jewishness. But what if one criticises Israel in the name of one’s Jewishness, in the name of justice, precisely because such criticisms seem ‘best for the Jews’? Why wouldn’t it always be ‘best for the Jews’ to embrace forms of democracy that extend what is ‘best’ to everyone, Jewish or not? I signed a petition framed in these terms, an ‘Open Letter from American Jews’, in which 3700 American Jews opposed the Israeli occupation, though in my view it was not nearly strong enough: it did not call for the end of Zionism, or for the reallocation of arable land, for rethinking the Jewish right of return or for the fair distribution of water and medicine to Palestinians, and it did not call for the reorganisation of the Israeli state on a more radically egalitarian basis. It was, nevertheless, an overt criticism of Israel.”
Of course, in the case of Norman Finkelstein it has now gone beyond being labeled as anti-semitic.