Friday, September 07, 2007

From Non-Jewish Jew to pro-Zionist

I didn't know that Isaac Deutscher, hero of the anti-Zionists, actually renounced his anti-Zionism.

(Via Hak Mao)


Noga said...

(Bob: This is a cleaned-up version of my first comment. Will you deleted the first one?)

Deutscher gets some things right but many things - wrong.

The movement for Jewish nationalism in their own historical territory did not happen, all of a sudden, with Hitler’s gas chambers. It started in the nineteen century, at a time when many others national movements were clamouring for their own independence and sovereignty (the Greeks and Italians come to mind). So the idea of Jewish Nationalism, far from being an anachronism as he claims, was actually a very pertinent idea whose time had come.

It was envisioned and encouraged by such proto-Zionist works like George Eliot's "Daniel Deronda" and Disraeli's novels "Tancred", "David Elroy" and others.

Here is a passage from Wikipaedia:

"It should be remembered that at the time, idealistic people all over Europe were caught up in the nationalistic currents of the era. Daniel Deronda is set during the 'epoch-making' Battle of Sadowa, the beginning of the end of Austrian hegemony in Europe. Eliot thus deliberately linked the events of the novel with major historical upheavals. Movements of national unity and self-determination were gathering steam in Germany and Italy and were seen as progressive forces at odds with the reactionary, old regimes of empires such as those of Austria-Hungary and Russia. Eliot's enthusiasm for the Zionist cause should be understood in this context. The evidence suggests that her view was that of righting a historical injustice at a time when progressive elements viewed national liberation as a positive."

Deutscher typically considers Israel's creation from an ethno-centric view, as an Ashkenazi Jew and a radical thinker, he completely ignores the existence of a sizable Sephardic presence in Ottoman Palestine, or the immigration of Sephardic Jews from Turkey and the Balkans during the first part of the 20th century (both my paternal and maternal grandparents attempted it, but only one side remained, the other going back to Istanbul) inspired by Zionism but not necessarily as a response to the kind of persecution that East European Jews suffered from.

Considering that he writes his recantation of anti-Zionism in 1967, when half of Israel's population is the mizrahim, I find his analysis not too useful or even accurate.

His words remind me of Mordechai Richter’s account of his visit to Israel in his book "This year in Jerusalem" in which he makes quite clear that he finds the Levantine character of Israel, caused by the presence of ultra-nationalistic "Arab Jews" grating on his finer European sensibilities. But at least he acknowledges their presence. Deutscher, even in 1967, pretends that the only Zionists in Israel, who matter, are those who have survived the Holocaust. Actually, a typical Jewish lachrymose tale of sheer victimhood. Israel was not created as a response to the Holocaust. The Holocaust served as a catalyst, not an instigator.

At least Richler had the decency to add, at the end, that even though he was de-facto anti-Zionist, he was glad to see in Israel that for one it was the Jews who were holding the rifles.

Schizophrenic, yes, but honest, and so darned typical of the Zionist anti-Zionist mind, don't you think?

bob said...

The point about the Ashkenazi ethnocentrism is spot on Noga.

Not sure about the anachronism one. Surely, the Deronda/Disraeli example shows that the idea of Zionism was thoroughly part of an essentially nineteenth century romantic ethnic nationalism? Nazism was the extremity of romantic ethnic nationalism in teh West, and its horror led Western Europe to abandon or dilute this form of politics - just as the rest of the world was putting it into practice: in the Indian subcontinent, in the Middle East, in decolonising Africa.

For Israel, it was timely, because the rest of the world made it clear Jews weren't welcome. Jews simply needed a place to go.

But if the "utopian" idea of a binational state (as proposed by Buber, Magnes, Arendt and other Zionists) had caught on, instead of the romantic ethnic nationalism that dominated the movement, perhaps the last 60 years would have been a lot better for the Jews.

Noga said...

"Surely, the Deronda/Disraeli example shows that the idea of Zionism was thoroughly part of an essentially nineteenth century romantic ethnic nationalism?"

I intentionally referred to the writings of Disraeli and Eliot as "proto-Zionist" in order to distinguish between their visions which were inspired by romanticism from the later, very pragmatic, unromantic Herzl's response to the pogroms in Russia and the Dreyfus affair. There was nothing romantic about his realization that the enlightenment had ushered in a different, virulent, and irrepressible sort of Jew hatred, which you identified as the "the extremity of romantic ethnic nationalism".

The first generations of Zionists were all rather hard-boiled assimilationists who had no nostalgic attachment to Biblical Judaism or any wish to revive it, as such. They were, however, much more audacious in their ambitions, than the Greeks or Italians, who wanted to be masters of their own futures. They were also all about politics and diplomacy, and not taking up arms against their oppressors. That's why Zionism was never referred to as a revolution. Revolutions are sentimental and nostalgic and therefore brutal and gory.

Having said that, I think that if, as you suggested, "the "utopian" idea of a binational state (as proposed by Buber, Magnes, Arendt and other Zionists) had caught on", there would be no Israel today and the movement would have died right then and there. It almost did, with the Uganda proposal. The Jews of Europe, or elsewhere, could hardly be excited about exchanging one dhimmitude for another. Which what the bi-national proposal amounts to, even today, with a robust Jewish presence in Israel.

As for Arendt: I respect and appreciate her thoughts very much, especially about the totalitarianism and the way she analyses political "pity". However, she is highly flawed when it comes to discussing Jews. There is always a streak of derision in her writing about any Jew. Her reliance on rumours and innuendos (as when she talks about Heydrich as a Jew, a factoid that was debunked long before she wrote her notes) does not lead to historical credibility. In her book on Eichmann she described her encounter with the Oriental Jews as a rather unpleasant experience, with their dark hair and black eyes they reminded her of Arabs... For her, there was no difference between these Jews and Arabs, so it made sense that they should all belong in the same state. Who would know the difference, anyway? I don’t think she was even conscious of offending both Jews and Arabs in the same breath with the same thought.

bob said...

On Arendt and the Jews: I don't think it is fair to say that her views on Jews were "always" coloured by derision. She (like all of us) had contradictory thoughts, and was proud of her Jewishness.

In relation to the Mizrahim, as with Deutscher, there is a whole fascinating history to be written here on Zionism's ambivalence towards the Oriental Jews: sometimes idealising some romantic image of the Orient, sometimes seeing them as dirty Arabs.

On Herzl and co: yes, your diagnosis of Herzl and his ilk is correct; they were not romantics. But the versions of Zionism that were dominant by 1948 (Jabotinsky's Revisionism, heavily influenced by Italian fascism, and the labour Zionists with their cult of Hebrew labour) were pure romantic ethnic nationalism - like the early advocates of Hindutva and like Marcus Garvey.

Noga said...

"Herzl and his ilk"??

Arendt was not a "proud" Jew. She never claimed to be one. And you are doing her an injustice by attributing to her what she never said, or felt.

In her letter to Gershon Sholem, who blamed her for not being a true daughter of Israel, she makes quite clear that she could never be anything but Jewish. No pride is asserted. And rightly so. How can anyone be proud of an accident of birth? But she does hold that edge of constant and consistent rhetorical curl of the lip when she speaks of her co-religionists, whether somewhat sympathetically (when she discusses the notion of the exceptional Jew) or prosecutorily (when she speaks about the Jewish leaders' "complicity" in Hitler's mission). That whole chapter is very disturbing, mostly for its lack of compassion on her part.

Also, as the example about Heydrich shows, she was not as well informed as she thought she was. This is important.

Ironically, Arendt, who coined the phrase "exceptional Jew" herself was an "exceptional Jew" with all the less felicitous nuance that accrue. It's actually quite an intriguing combination.

I count her as one of the four writers who influenced my own thinking and worldview but she is the only one among them who has that sort of moral ambiguity inbuilt into her wisdom. Which is challenging.

bob said...

Herzl's ilk: by this I meant the first generation or so of Central European assimilated, cosmopolitan Zionists.

Arendt's pride: yes, you're right. I take that back. But derision is certainly not the right word.

Noga said...

"Herzl's ilk: by this I meant the first generation or so of Central European assimilated, cosmopolitan Zionists."

I was wondering about the "ilk" part.

bob said...

Ilk. A good word, no?

The Contentious Centrist said...

"ilk" has the same status as "regime". There is the neutral official meaning of the dictionaries and then there is a special usage that gives them a slant towards the negative and nefarious. Anyone who refers to the American Administration as The American Regime means to apply a fascist undertone. Same with "ilk". If you speak of Theodore Herzl and "ilk", it does not denote respect for Herzl.

Needless to say, I totally disdagree with you. Refering to Herzl in such terms reflects an Arab Palestinian narrative, which regards Zionism as a crime against humanity, not much different from Nazism. But then you already implied as much when you suggested that the same romantic ideals that spawned Zionism also spawned Nazism.

bob said...

I thought "ilk" was more ethically neutral than that - will stop using it for people I respect (and that includes Herzl).

I'm not sure how portraying the first generation of Zionists (at least, most of the first generation - Herzl, Sokolow, Weizmann, etc) as cosmopolitan and liberal fits "reflects an Arab Palestinian narrative, which regards Zionism as a crime against humanity, not much different from Nazism."

I do believe that Zionism is significantly different from Nazism. They do both spring, I believe, from similar romantic sources. Zionism has other roots too, of course (most obviously, in Jewish religious traditions) - as does Nazism (e.g. in German imperialism and Prussian militarism).

And lots of other movements come from similar romantic sources: the Czech, Indian, Pan-Arab and Pan-Slavic nationalist movements that were Zionism's contemporaries, for example. And these were, on the whole, fairly benign movements, at least in the first half of the twentieth century.

I do believe that some elements in Zionism, and specifically the Revisionist Zionism of Jabotinsky, was far closer to fascism. Jabotinsky was fascinated with Italian fascism, and shared many of its key influences.

But that does not mean that a pure Revisionist Zionist state would necessarily have been genocidal, or that Jabo was morally equivalent to Mussolini, let alone Hitler.

Zionism in the first half of the twentieth century was an extremely broad and heterogeneous movement. Some of key Zionists (like Martin Buber and Judah Magnes, or even Ahad Ha-am) advocated positions that might be seen as anti-Zionist today. Any single, teleological narrative of Zionism that sees an unbroken, inevitable line from Herzl to Gush Emunim (as in Lenni Brenner's work, or its vulgar derivations), is utterly false. Zionism cannot possibly be seen as equivalent to fascism.

But we should also be aware and honest about the fact that, among Zionism's diverse roots and branches, there have been some very ugly ones, including some with a close kinship to fascism.