Friday, April 30, 2004

I can't say that I found this article in Salon about anti-semitism and the European left particularly scintillating, but it got me thinking. According to the article, leftist groups are trying to crack down on anti-semitic rhetoric by setting certain limits on acceptable criticism of Israel. I'm not sure exactly who gets to set these limits, but on some level this seems to me to be a pretty good idea. Like a lot of anti-Zionist Jews (not to mention people of any religion or ethnicity who are bothered by bigotry), I'm frequently disturbed by some strains of pro-Palestinian rhetoric. Just not the strains that everyone else seems to be disturbed by.

When people talk about the limits of legitimate criticism of Israel, the most common boundary they set is that it's unacceptable to challenge Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state. And to me, that's perverse. I don't accept Israel's right to be a Jewish state, not because I have some special hang-up about Israel, but because I don't think that's how states are supposed to work. States are supposed to exist for the benefit of all of their citizens, regardless of ethnicity. Once they become designated as the special property of particular ethnic groups they always, in my opinion, become oppressive. Full citizenship will always be reserved for members of the state-owning group, and everyone else will always be reduced to a sort of permanent outsider status. Since it's impossible to have ethnically-homogeneous states in the modern world, I don't think ethnic nationalism is ever an acceptable basis for any polity. And I'm not about to exempt Israel from basic standards of civilized behavior.

So if I think it's perfectly ok to say that Israel shouldn't exist as a Jewish state, what statements do I think should be off-limits? Let's see:

1. It's never ok to condone, justify, or minimize killing anyone. It's never ok to treat dead civilians as collateral damage. It's never ok to point to a death on one side as if it offsets the death of someone on the other. It's never ok to suggest that someone had it coming, whether it's because she's a settler or a member of the IDF or a member of Hamas.

Of course, in the U.S., you hear this sort of minimizing rhetoric applied to dead Palestinians far more often than to dead Israelis. But it's wrong either way.

2. Israeli Jews have a right to live in Israel, and people should avoid rhetoric that suggests otherwise. I repeat what I said above: states belong to their citizens, not to particular ethnic groups. Israel isn't the G-d-given possession of the Jewish people, but it isn't the sole possession of the Palestinians, either. It's important to avoid that sort of primordialist rhetoric, no matter whom it refers to. Anyone who has a historical connection to Israel, either because they live there now or because their families were kicked out fifty-odd years ago, has some sort of claim to the place.

3. On a related note, it's not useful to refer to Israeli Jews as "colonizers" or to perpetuate the fiction that Israel is just another colonial project. It's fundamentally dishonest to discuss Israel without referring to the specific history of oppression which caused many Jews turn to Zionism. Specifically, it's important to remember that Zionism was originally a response to European ethnic nationalism, which defined Jews out of the nations in which they lived. Jews turned to Zionism as an act of desperation, after it became clear that the only way they'd ever be able to earn full citizenship anywhere would be to found their own ethnic state. And honestly, there's something a little galling about European leftists who rail against Israeli "colonialism" without acknowledging the ways in which their own countries' racialist ideologies, going back to at least the 1890s, contributed to the growth of Zionism.

4. It's awfully easy to be righteously indignant when you're sitting in relative safety in Paris, London or New York. I'm not suggesting that we compromise on basic principals, but it wouldn't kill anyone to try to muster some compassion for people facing terror and uncertainty unlike anything I've ever confronted. The Israelis I know are decent people trying to deal with an unbelievably difficult situation. There's really no reason to demonize them.

Look at that: an entire post that does not mention the VRC! I was beginning to think that I was incapable of thinking about anything else.

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