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On left anti-semitism and the special status of Israel
by Joel Kovel; Tikkun; May 09, 2003
The tangled question of anti-Semitism within the United States Left was highlighted this past February in a heated controversy between Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor and founder of Tikkun, and the Marxist-Leninist anti-war group, A.N.S.W.E.R (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism). In what follows, I take no position on who was right and wrong in this particular case, nor about the behavior of A.N.S.W.E.R., though I might add that my own experience with the group in local antiwar activity does not support Lerner’s characterization. My concern, rather, is with the definition of left anti-Semitism offered by Lerner in his email communications and in an op-ed article he wrote that appeared in The Wall Street Journal during the course of the controversy. I do not question Lerner’s sincere and passionate desire to end the ravages of violence committed by both sides, nor his use of spiritual healing toward this goal. (In fact, I write a regular column for TIKKUN and have worked with Lerner over the years on many of these issues.) I do have a problem, however, with his political analysis, revealed here by his use of the notion of anti-Semitism, and with the means by which he proposes to identify this issue with the Left.
The notion of Left anti-Semitism is necessarily tied to the question of Israel and the logic of Zionism that animates it. Therefore the issues examined here cut to the very core of the choices we need to make about Israel/Palestine—choices that enter into the ambitious proposals recently launched as guidelines for the forthcoming Tikkun teach-in in Washington, and extend also widely beyond. We understand that anti-Semitism obscures the reality of what it is to be a Jew, and has enabled atrocities great and small to be committed upon the Jewish people. The question before us now is this: can a faulty critique of anti-Semitism obscure the reality of Israel, and thereby weaken the struggle against its violations of human rights?
For Lerner, anti-Semitism of the Left variety exists when: a) criticism of Israel’s human rights violations is not evenly balanced with equivalent criticism of other human rights violators, whether they be Palestinian terrorists or other state terrorists; and b), when the right to exist of Israel is denied. Here is a sample of his remarks on the subject, culled from his op-ed and listserv emails:
• The position "... the Tikkun community have put forward is that the mobilizations have been run by a group called ANSWER, itself dominated by a communist sect group which is filled with hate toward Israel and wishes to see it dismantled. It has used anti-war demonstrations to demean Israel and to picture the war in Iraq as a war for Israeli interests. "
• “context is everything. It's not the fact of criticizing Israel, but the one-sidedness and the selecting out of Israel for special focus. We in the TIKKUN Community have been outspoken critics of Israeli repression of Palestinian rights. But we've also been outspoken in our criticism of acts of terror against Israeli civilians. We've called for Palestinians to reject all forms of violence and follow the lead of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Gandhi, whose struggles against oppression were successful in part because they conveyed to the oppressor that the oppressed still recognized their humanity and hence would not take acts of cruel revenge the moment they could. It was that same spirit that made possible the transformation of South Africa under the leadership of Nelson Mandela. Acts of terror, on the other hand, drive the Israeli population into the hands of the most right-wing forces in Israeli society. So if one attends a rally in which Israel is being critiqued without this larger context, the feeling of bashing Israel becomes predominant. “
• "And then, if Israel's human rights abuses are selected out as the major focus, only reserving more abuse for the U.S. government, then we have to ask: Why is there such silence at these demonstrations about the far greater human rights abuses of Saddam Hussein? Or of China in Tibet? or of Russian in Chechnya? or of the regimes in Saudia Arabia and Syria and Egypt and dozens of other states?”
I am sure that Lerner would agree that anti-Semitism, like all species of racism, is logically a fallacy of misplaced concreteness. That is, where one should see the rich interplay of real determinations, the anti-Semite inserts an essentialist abstraction, a thing-like phantom taken out of history. Thus we hear of “Jewish conspiracies,” or “Jewish control of Hollywood,” or “Jewish money”—or, as Lerner would have us see here, “Israeli human rights abuses” taken out of context and one-sidedly singled out. To avoid an anti-Semitic reaction to Israel, Lerner would have us do the following: first, to denounce Palestinian abuses (along with those of other offenders) equivalently to those of Israel (while urging Palestinians to adopt Gandhian ways or to follow in the “spirit” of Nelson Mandela, for which, see below); and second, to do this in the spirit of affirming the basic worthiness of Israel and its right to exist.
The difficulties with this approach begin with the fact that by requiring equivalence and balance in the treatment of Israel, Lerner is weakening the very context that he calls “everything.” What is unique about Israel is lost, even as an a priori requirement is imposed that Israel be seen both as a state like any other, and also as having intrinsic worth. Thus we approach the subject with a large set of blinders. Instead of examining each actor in the Mideast conflict concretely, we are forced to compare these actors and their human rights abuses according to what is common between them, for example, body counts, rather than what specifically causes them. Quantity replaces quality, and real determinations fade out. To faithfully follow Lerner’s prescription, one tallies up human rights abuses and gives the booby prize to the contestant with the greatest number of maimed, tortured or dead victims. In the process, history is erased and a deeper understanding of the causes and remedies of things denied. The critique of anti-Semitism thereby becomes a kind of censorship. And if rational criticism is stifled, then irrational criticism supervenes and the dogs of anti-Semitism are indeed let loose.
If we remove these restrictions and look at the history of this problem, we find that special criticism of Israel is indeed warranted, in fact, mandatory, simply because Israel is special, haunted by the grotesque metamorphosis of Jewish exceptionalism into a logic of empire in which the “Chosen People” have become chosen once again. This time, however, chosenness has not been granted by God, as the spiritual tradition demands, but by the Behemoth known as Uncle Sam.
The United States and Israel are both instances of messianic settler-colonialism and its accompanying exceptionalism. Recall the conscious identification of the Puritan settlers with the tribes of Israel, a linkage that remains very much alive in the affection of the Christian Right (G.W. Bush included) for the Zionist state. This species of Western expansionism has had the gravest impact upon indigenous peoples, whether in North America, Southern Africa, or Palestine. Along with a common root, the presence within the United States of the largest and most powerful Jewish community within the Diaspora made it highly likely that the two nations would develop a powerful bond. The relationship did not develop overnight, however. The United States was virtually absent from the founding of the Zionist movement; and though it was active in the struggles leading to the formation of the Israeli state, was a lukewarm ally (even at times an adversary) through the 1950s. In part, initial U.S. reticence toward Israel was due to concerns about aggravating oil sheikhs, in part it was the result of anti-Semitism in U.S. ruling groups, and in part it stemmed from queasiness about the socialist leanings of Jews in general and Israel in particular.
By the end of the 1950s, however, much had changed. A substantial Jewish-American bourgeoisie had become deeply embedded in powerful institutions, and had moved rightward under the influence of the Red Scares, in particular, the Rosenberg atomic espionage case, which was virtually a show trial of Jewish loyalty to the national security state. At the same time, America, flush with its post-Suez muscling aside of the British and French and deeply mistrustful of the radical Arab nationalism of Egypt’s Nasser, was gearing up for full-scale involvement in the all-important Middle East. And Israel was by now ready to prove its bona fides as an imperial sidekick. The 1967 war, from which the Occupation sprang, proved the catalyst bringing the two countries together. American policy planners now realized that they had an inestimable ally capable of ruthlessly suppressing any national liberation movements that might challenge US hegemony in the center of the oil-bearing world—or indeed elsewhere.
U.S.-Israeli ties have only deepened with time, cemented by the roughly $130 billion (the true figure is essentially unknowable, given the military’s deviousness and lack of accountability) in military aid given to Israel over the years. Links between the two countries have been underwritten and enforced by powerful Zionist lobbies, justified by a press that slavishly follows the party line, rationalized by the liberal intelligentsia, and institutionalized by robotic Congressional approval. The relationship has extended to new levels of cordiality in the regime of G.W. Bush, for whom Ariel Sharon “is a man of peace.” And it is strategically vital for both partners. America aids and arms Israel and defends it in the UN and against world opinion. Meanwhile Israel is America’s pit bull in the crucial zone of the Middle East, while performing for the master such tasks as his delicate sensitivity to world opinion has found unacceptable. Israel, for example, helped apartheid South Africa evade an arms blockade, armed and trained death squads for El Salvador’s and Guatemala’s counter-revolutionary forces, and assisted the arming of Indonesia for its genocide in East Timor, this last, it should be noted, during the peace-minded adminstration of Jimmy Carter. These are all matters of record, and by no means aberrations of Israeli state policy. Nevertheless, they perennially slip down the memory hole that obliterates those difficult facts as would compromise basic support of Israel.
Lerner’s search for equivalence downplays these ties. He writes, for example, of how “Israel's human rights abuses are selected out as the major focus, only reserving more abuse for the US government, . .”, as though these were independent variables and not clear indications of the special relationship between the two states. And a chief indication, for him, of A.N.S.W.E.R.’s anti-Semitism is the fact that it “has used anti-war demonstrations to demean Israel and to picture the war in Iraq as a war for Israeli interests."
The notion of “demeaning” Israel seems a bit obscure—though it implies a certain innate dignity to the Zionist state which can be traduced. When, however, said “demeaning” is linked to the suggestion that Israel may have “interests” in an Iraqi war, the critique of left anti-Semitism becomes repressive and has the effect of suppressing rational criticism of the Zionist state. Such smear tactics have been used extensively over the years by groups like the Anti-Defamation League to suppress criticism, and have played a definite role in fostering Israel’s disregard of human rights.
The assertion that it is anti-Semitic to say that the invasion of Iraq serves Israeli interests is especially problematic. That this war would serve Israeli interests has been widely discussed in the Israeli press and by innumerable others elsewhere, including the Lord Mayor of London at the Feb 15 rally before two million cheering protestors. Are all these voices anti-Semitic? Is Zalman Shoval, former Israeli ambassador to the United States, who has said that “postponement of the Iraqi war goes against Israeli interests”? Indeed, the US intelligentsia seem to be the only people on earth unable to comprehend that America’s invasion and obliteration of Iraq will eliminate such deterrence as Saddam Hussein may offer to the real bearer of “Weapons of Mass Destruction” in the region. It will also bring the troops of Israel’s imperial benefactor that much closer to the scene of struggle, while aiding Israeli acquisition of oil and water rights. And to the extent that the internal logic of Zionism points toward the expulsion, i.e., “ethnic cleansing,” of the Palestinian people, so, too, is the war welcomed, as it facilitates this dreadful outcome—to which we return below.
On the American side the trail of collaboration is posted with key functionaries in Bush’s foreign policy team who are ardent right-wing Zionists as well as architects of war with Iraq—men such as Paul Wolfowitz (Deputy Defense Secretary), Douglas Feith (Under Secretary for Policy in the Dept. of Defense), Lewis Libby (Chief of Staff for Vice President Cheney), Eric Edelman (Libby's top assistant), Richard Perle (Chairman of the Pentagon's Defense Policy Board), and Elliot Abrams (who runs Mideast policy for the National Security Council). Abrams, known for his supervision of counterrevolution in Central America under Reagan, and also for his perjury conviction by Congress (overturned by Bush pere) during the Iran-Contra scandals, brings to his new post the qualification of having written a book advising that intermarriage means the death of the Jewish people. He has also championed Ariel Sharon’s righteousness while strenuously opposing the peace process in Palestine.
Perle and Feith were advisers to the Netanyahu government, for whom they were among the principle authors of a report, “A New Strategy for Securing the Realm.” Among its recommendations are the following: that Israel needs a “clean break from the slogan, ‘comprehensive peace’ [i.e., the hopes of the Oslo accords] to a traditional concept of strategy based on balance of power.” To this end, Israel must “[c]hange the nature of its relations with the Palestinians, including upholding the right of hot pursuit for self defense into all Palestinian areas and nurturing alternatives to Arafat’s exclusive grip on Palestinian society.” Observe that these gentlemen, now among the chief architects of Bush’s Iraq policy, are here laying out Sharon’s policy for systematically destroying Palestinian society, the chief means for ethnic cleansing.
The essentials of U.S. and Israeli policy have been consistent since at least 1967, during which period the real behavior and indeed the existence of the Zionist state has depended upon the support of the superpower. Moreover, both internal logic and external pressures have substantially worsened the behavior of both partners, while deepening the ties between them. For the United States, writhing in the grip of a persistent crisis in capital accumulation, anticipating flattened extraction of oil resources (in the context of ever-expanding demand), and given the opportunity afforded by El Qaeda’s terror attacks, it has been a mutation into pre-emptive militarism and a bid to exert total world domination by force—all of which strengthens the strategic importance of Israel. (Note the ability of the latter to recently wring out an additional $10 billion in U.S. aid—at a time when everything else is being cut back—by claiming that its economic crisis threatens its military dominance). As for Israel itself, we see an incremental tightening of the screws against Palestine to genocidal proportions. The causes for this have been the threat of a post-Oslo peace, and, I would argue, the internal evolution of the basic assumptions of the Zionist state, suitably legitimated by acts of Palestinian rage, in particular, the evil, futile and desperate suicide bombings.
Lerner calls the intensified ethnic cleansing of Palestinians the working of the “most right-wing forces in Israeli society.” This, however, is to look at the surface and overlook the structures beneath the surface: the reliable, state-terroristic atrocity machine serviced and warranted by the Godfather. What in general is known as the “right-wing” is the political agency of those who exploit the foundational power relationships of a society. The Right is therefore produced by structures and the movement of events even as it becomes the agent of these events. For the United States, this foundation is primarily one of aggressive capital accumulation; thus the “right” acts so as to maximize accumulation, moving one way or another according to the ebb and flow of events. For Israel, the foundation is provided by the logic of a state whose democratic façade masks, even as the persecution suffered by Jews has been used to justify, an unrelenting drive toward territorial control of Palestine by one, Jewish, people. This is the core assumption of Zionism. It contains the seeds of Palestinian expulsion and an ever-more rightward political direction insofar as the subjugated people resist, that is, act as human beings whose basic existence is being destroyed. Moreover, the more America moves toward domination of the Middle East, the more powerful Israel’s drive toward ethnic cleansing. Its pace may be retarded temporarily by tactical considerations of not offending the Arab states, but once imperial extension into the region is secured, we can be certain that the destruction of Palestinian society will proceed.
The conclusion to which we are drawn is that the Zionist state is incorrigible within the present configuration of forces. Unless these are fundamentally changed, we look forward to an endless series of disasters.
Beyond the Two-State solution
The claim that it is anti-Semitic to go too far in one’s critique of Israel stymies a deeper structural analysis. But it also leaves us in the dark as to just what is far enough in the critique of Israel. The above line of reasoning may be deemed as going too far by many who hold to the view that there is an essential core of virtue to Israel, rooted in the great ethical traditions of Judaism, in Israel’s many cultural and technological achievements, and in the fact that it has offered a homeland to a persecuted people. This view, which may be characterized, using Lerner’s phrase, as the fundamental legitimacy conception of Israel, is undoubtedly held by the great majority of American Jews, and accounts for the fact that they cannot bring themselves to believe that Israel would have a drive to transfer, ethnically cleanse, and expel Palestinians.
This notion also presupposes the horizon of the acceptable defined by the “two-state” proposal, a solution in which Israel stays essentially the same with some territorial adjustments, and a Palestinian state is hewn out of the occupied territories or some fraction therof. Two-state logic is what allows Lerner to say that he is “pro-Israel [and] pro-Palestine.” It enables him to lay out his political program, confident that there is something in Israel on the basis of which a decent two state solution can be developed. For it is Israel, holding the cards of military power, that will have to be petitioned, reasoned with, and won over, if there is to be a Palestinean state worthy of human beings.
The facts of the case indicate, however, that Israel as it exists cannot be petitioned, reasoned with, or won over to a just solution to the crisis. The reader may study the particulars, with copious references to Israeli commentators, in Tanya Reinhart’s superb Israel/Palestine: Ending the 1948 War, (Seven Stories, 2003), and learn about the endless chicanery and manipulation carried out by successive adminstrations from Center-left to Far Right in order to thwart Palestinian statehood. Israel’s behavior during the Second Intifada (which it almost certainly deliberately provoked to accelerate its occupation according to the rules laid down by Perle and Feith) makes clear that it merely toys with the idea of Palestinian statehood to throw occasional sops to world opinion. In the meanwhile, Sharon and company—with the certain approval of Bush, Perle, Wolfowitz, et. al.—have been busy annihilating the miserable conditions of occupied Palestine, with a tripling of the poverty rate in the past two years, utter devastation of civil society, and a toll in malnutrition, injury and disease that greatly exceeds the killings directly carried out by the Israeli army. This process, played out against a backdrop of screaming F16’s and the roar of monster bulldozers destroying homes and burying people (including Rachel Corrie) alive, only makes sense if viewed as part of the process of ethnic cleansing, i.e., “transfer.”
Even if this were not the case, the proposed Palestinian state is frankly unworthy of self-respecting human beings. How can there be any pretence to justice when one side is asked to settle for a fragmented domain completely surrounded by its oppressor, utterly dominated by the oppressor’s economy, laced with roadways reserved for its troops, where vital resources like water remain under the oppressor’s control, and where there are no real guarantees for the withdrawal of the fanatical settlements cynically augmented during the “peace process?”
What, then, is the real character of the Israeli state and the Zionism of which it is the fruit? What are we to call a project which, though it boasts of being a “democracy,” reserves 92% of its land for Jewish people? Where one who converts to Judaism or has a Jewish great-grandmother is automatically given full rights to the land while those others whose families merely happened to have lived there for centuries are at best second-class and landless? Where Jews have full legal rights and Palestinian rights have been “temporarily” suspended -- since 1948? Where people have to carry identity cards, specifying ethnicity (a category which may not include the identity of “Israeli”), and that determine how one is treated by the state? Where the territories are laced with “Jews-only” roads? Where political parties that question the fundamentally Jewish nature of the “democracy” are outlawed? And that is afraid to draft a Constitution because it knows it would have to declare itself defunct once it did.
Is there any word for this except racism, institutionalized at the most fundamental level of the state? Is not this the guiding logic of Israel’s militarization, and its mechanism of ruthless expansion and repression--and yes, the prospect of expulsion? Does it not devolve onto society and through the Diaspora, corrupting the emancipatory legacy of Judaism and sowing chauvinism and blind prejudice?
The racist character of the Zionist state is the truth so hard to bear by those who believe in Israel’s fundamental legitimacy. But it also disintegrates this belief, because racism at this level, where a whole people is destroyed so that another people might thrive, epitomizes the meaning of a crime against humanity. All claims of being “the only democracy in the Middle East,” or of saving Jews from anti-Semitic oppression, or having fine symphony orchestras and universities, fade in its glare.
What is to be done? We can begin with what is not to be done, and reject a two-state solution that solves nothing, is impossible in any humanly desirable sense within the current configuration, and serves chiefly as an illusion lying like a giant stone over the imagination. Beyond this illusion lies confrontation with the racist state and rejection of the idea that Zionism expresses the authentic calling of the Jewish people. We need, in a word, to envision a non-racist Israel, beyond tribalism and open to all. This is an old road, suffering from disuse; it is overgrown with weeds and long thought impassable: the “One State” dream of a fully democratic society where all can live together. But it has a noble history, going back to Martin Buber; and the ruin of alternatives demands that it be re-opened, as a direction if not an immediately attainable destination.
The first portion of this path resembles the demands already made by people of good will, including Michael Lerner: cease the annihilation of Palestinian society, end the Occupation, now and unilaterally. These measures clear the way to go beyond, where the need is to envision an Israel beyond Zionism. The prospect is already immanent in these immediate demands. But its realization requires engaging the principle that a racist state, because it automatically generates crimes against humanity and lacks the internal means of correcting them, cannot have that legitimacy which gives it the right to exist. In a word, the Zionist state should be radically transformed, and if need be, brought down.
The mere mention of this possibility sends shudders of horror through a collective imagination shaped by the Holocaust; this now translates the idea of overcoming Zionism into the image of “being driven into the sea,” as though the vengeful Arabs would pick up Israel by its Eastern borders and dump the whole thing into the Mediterranean.
Here we need to remind ourselves that we are talking about changing the Israeli state. A state is not a society, a nation or a territory, but a mode of regulation and control, and the disposition of official violence. States control and direct society, contain nations, and command territories. The racist state aggrandizes one group by annihilating others, who essentially stand helpless before it. The Holocaust happened to state-less Jews, Gypsies, etc, who became the victims of the nihilism of a racist, Nazi state; similarly, state-less Palestinians have become victims of the nihilism of the racist, Zionist state. Given the nihilistic violence built into the Zionist state, it is reasonable to say that such an outcome is in the interests of both the bodily and spiritual survival of the Jewish people.
Being “thrown into the sea” is a fantasy of projected vengeance. It is predicated on sustaining a racist state-organization into the future, forever surrounded by those it has dispossessed and humiliated. Therefore the chief condition to strive for is creation of a society in which the wheel of vengeance is put out of commission. And if this seems completely off the scale, especially so given the extreme violence built into the Israeli state, it is most important to recall the bringing down of the murderous apartheid state of South Africa—and to realize that if so great an accomplishment could be done there, then an equivalently great accomplishment can take place in Israel/Palestine.
There are of course important differences between Israel and apartheid South Africa. The latter was only a secondary (though not insignificant) client of the United States, inasmuch as it lacked strong domestic constituencies in America, and more importantly, was not a factor in controlling an area so strategic as the Middle East. Because South Africa is a wealthy and largely self-sufficient powerhouse, while Israel would collapse like a house of cards without the support of its patron, a much greater role would be given to organizing within the United States in the struggle against Zionism compared to the struggle against Apartheid. At the same time, the depth of the American-Israeli tie makes that organizing much more arduous, even as the present state of war and looming expulsion of the Palestinian people (ethnic cleansing was not significant for South Africa) gives it an immediate urgency. Prevention of the latter catastrophe necessarily provides the entry point into the struggle against Zionism, without altering the long term goal. And this is defined by the deep structural similarities between the two racist states.
Like Israel, the apartheid state was a settler-colonialist venture with messianic ambitions. And like the Zionists, the Afrikaners saw themselves as persecuted wanderers to whom God had promised a homeland, inconveniently occupied by lesser people. Like Israel, they defined their self-determination as being at the cost of the self-determination of the indigenous people. Driven by a sense of divine license for the terrible injustice that grew from this basic contradiction, they also proceeded to construct and justify the Bantustan system, their own “two-state” (to be exact, multiple-state) solution to the basic contradictions of their imperial project. And they responded, like Israel, with increasing degrees of force and cruelty as the oppressed people asserted their rights as human beings.
And they were eventually brought down, notably, without a bloodbath. Though nobody should suffer the illusion that South Africa has conquered its problems, these now chiefly come under the heading of the “normal” exploitation of a country by global capital rather than that of a murderous racism combined with imperial expansion. Squeezed by the IMF, with deep class divisions, terrible crime and sexual violence, not to mention the wrenching AIDS crisis, South Africa faces a difficult future. But at least a stable democratic polity, black and white living together, is on the ground. South Africa (which I have visited four times) today is full of struggle and vitality, and only a madman would exchange its governance for the version under apartheid.
The movement that freed South Africa under the leadership of Nelson Mandela continues to inspire hope for change in Israel/Palestine. As Lerner states, we need to appropriate the “spirit that made possible the transformation of South Africa under the leadership of Nelson Mandela.” Lerner would use the example of Mandela to lecture “the Palestinians to reject all forms of violence . . .”, as these “[a]cts of terror . . . drive the Israeli population into the hands of the most right-wing forces in Israeli society.”
The clear implication is that Mandela and the African National Congress abjured all forms of violence and acts of terror. But such was not at all the “spirit” which transformed South Africa under the leadership of Nelson Mandela. Early in the history of the ANC, Gandhian principles held sway (Gandhi developed the notion of Satyagraha during a lengthy stay in South Africa), nor did they ever disappear. But Mandela and his cohort, realizing the murderous implacability of the apartheid regime, introduced in 1961 a two-pronged strategy, with nonviolent resistance in some settings to be accompanied by armed struggle and acts that would have to be called terroristic in others. He assumed the command of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the armed wing of the ANC, and was sentenced to life imprisonment on Robben Island largely because of this. Thus nonviolence was, however important, no more than an component of the South African freedom struggle, the victory of which was finally assured on the battlefields of Angola, when the racist regime, having met its match in the army of Cuba, made the decision to liquidate apartheid and free Mandela (as a result, Fidel Castro is the most beloved Western leader in South Africa).
Lerner’s sermon to the Palestinians is a reprise of a similar event in 1991. After Mandela had been freed he came to the United States and met with, among other luminaries, President Bush-pere, who similarly lectured him on the need to renounce violence in the struggle. A man of unsurpassable dignity, Mandela responded by publically scolding the Leader of the Free World for this cynical attempt to tell a people struggling for its freedom and life what to do. The reasons for doing so still apply.
First, one does not presume to call upon another people to change their ways unless one has earned the authority to do so. Respecting the “fundamental legitimacy” of their oppressor, indeed, calling (as Lerner has) for Israel to be granted membership in NATO as a consolation prize for abandoning the Occupation does not entitle one to the right to issue a ukase on nonviolence to the Palestinians—any more than G. H. W. Bush’s coziness with the apartheid state endeared him to Mandela.
Nor can rhetoric about “love and healing” obscure the painful and complicated choices we face in this hard world. Nobody, certainly the Palestinians, is above the need for criticism. But the critic, too, needs to be held before the bar. His or her obligation is to be faithful to both the historical complexity of choice and the need to choose, even if such choice means an option for armed struggle. The question is of the spiritual and political context within which this is carried forth. The source for the magnificence of Mandela’s leadership was not the renunciation of armed struggle. It lay, rather, in the scope of his historical vision, and it is here that the lesson for the liberation of Israel/Palestine lies.
Mandela’s greatness derived, it seems to me, from his rejection of South Africa’s version of the two-state solution—the Bantustan system. The Bantustans represented an imposed tribalism, with indigenous Africans forcibly displaced onto reservations carved out of the country’s poorest land. The whole arrangement was wrapped with racist-utopian rhetoric and secured by the development of parallel institutions of education, judiciary, etc, between the Bantustans and white South Africa. Needless to add, military force remained a monopoly of the apartheid regime, while the territories provided a pool of ultra-cheap labor for exploitation in the factories and mines across the border, much like the situation in the Occupied Territories.
Mandela would have none of it. He concluded, as his official web-site puts it, “very early on that the Bantustan policy was a political swindle and an economic absurdity. He predicted, with dismal prescience, that ahead there lay a grim programme of mass evictions, political persecutions, and police terror”--results familiar to the observer of developments in Israel/Palestine, as are the opportunism and corruption built-into those who would settle for these paltry goals. Indeed, it is here that we can account for the different levels of leadership provided by Arafat and Mandela—the one hemmed in by an acceptance, the other expanded by his refusal, of a Bantustan-type system. (In fact, Mandela rejected an offer of freedom by the Apartheid government if he would assume leadership, Arafat-style, of Transkei, one of the Bantustans.)
Mandela’s greatness was prepared by the negation of the Bantustan system, and realized by going beyond that negation; one might say, in “negating the negation.” For Mandela, the essential point was to posit a society beyond racism, which means, beyond vengeance as well. He opposed this vision to all forms of tribalism and exceptionalism, and faithfully held fast to it. It is this vision that humanizes such aggression as may be necessary to break loose from the death-grip of a racist state. It infused the South African liberation struggle with a spirit of anticipated reconciliation that steadily gathered more people from the white as well as the black community, and from all across the world. The abjuring of vengeance proved morally more important, therefore, than a strict renunciation of armed struggle. It became the germ of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and the guarantee that no one would get pushed into the sea.
Michael Lerner has called for a similar commission in a peaceful post-occupation Israel/Palestine. The idea is excellent, but it cannot take place within the framework of a two-state resolution presided over by the Zionist state, for the simple reason that such a resolution in any humanly worthwhile form will never take place under these conditions. The implication is starkly clear. It is futile to build a movement for peace and justice in Israel/Palestine that does not radically challenge the racist state: the goal is simply not worthy enough. In a vision of a post-racist society we find, however, the moral force capable of inspiring and drawing in people of good will from all sides of the conflict. If such people were able to demand the downfall of apartheid, why should they not do the same for Zionism, and unify themselves under this banner? It will be a long and hard struggle, and only a vision worthy of its sacrifices will suffice for the path ahead.
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