May 25, 2009

The other Herzl

Philip Weiss is in Cairo doing the right thing, putting in his bit to break the siege of Gaza. Bless his heart! His mind however, is sometimes all over the place. Recently he penned an ode to Herzl that ignored everything that matter about the latter except his purported "success." Weiss even compares Herzl to Frederic Douglass. That to me is a symptom of a deeper deficiency, a deficiency that also manifests itself in Weiss's tolerance for the sewage that often accumulates in his comment section.

To clarify what it is exactly that Weiss fails to understand, let me engage in a little flight of fancy and describe an alternative universe. I am not claiming that this alternative universe could have existed as described, as too much that is different I intentionally ignored. But I do believe that things could always have been different than what they were, although not in ways we can imagine. In our alternative universe, a Black American preacher, Martin Luther Herzl, did not lead a mass movement for civil rights, but instead asked for a private audience with the President of the U.S. He spoke to the President in the latter's office with the following words:
When I was growing up I had many dreams. I dreamed of being an astronaut, a king, a U.S. President, the President of Harvard, I dreamed of being Cecil B. DeMille, and many other dreams. But as I grew up I realized that these dreams were impossible. Because I am black. And because you, white people, will never accept us as equal to yourselves. You can deal with one or two black people, but put three of us in a room and you become nervous. Deep down, the idea of us rising up and succeeding in society on our merit appalls you.

Some of my people urge me to fight this racism, but this is to me akin to fighting gravity. Racism is natural and human. We will never get rid of it. I come to you therefore with a bold proposition. Help me help you get rid of us!

Our ancestors were brought to this place from Africa in chains. But in these two centuries that we were here we learned your ways and acquired your culture and your habits of mind. We are in fact closer to you than we are to the people that remained behind. Africa is a forgotten place, a miserable wasteland, backward, sick and destroyed by war. Let us Black Americans, with our Western genius, habits and know-how, make that wasteland bloom. Help us take over a country there that is in the worse of conditions, Nigeria, Zimbabwe, or the Congo. We don't really care which one. With your assistance, we will expropriate gently the private property on the state assigned to us. We shall try to spirit the penniless population across the border by procuring employment for it in the transit countries, while denying it employment in our country. The property owners will come over to our side. Thus, we will become the rampart of the West against the spread of communism, an outpost of civilization against barbarism. As a side benefit, we will also rid you of our crazy revolutionaries, the communists, the rabble rousers, the malcontents and the criminals. We will take them with us, refashion them and plant them in a soil where they can become productive members of society again, a win for both our people. This is what I propose, instead of fighting, a mutually beneficial alliance between black liberation and white racism.

In our alternative universe, another man, a young Jewish journalist called Theodor King, did not seek private audiences with emperors, but led a million Jews to Paris in the wake of the indictment of Captain Alfred Dreyfus. There on the podium, he addressed Europe:
A century ago, in this city, a new dawn for humanity was declared. It is from here that the dramatic call for "liberty, equality, fraternity" intoned all over Europe. It is here that a nation first wrote into its laws that "All the citizens, being equal, are equally admissible to all public dignities, places, and employments, according to their capacity and without distinction other than that of their virtues and of their talents."

Yet a hundred years later, Jews are still treated as foreigners in their native countries. All across Europe, we are still held in ghettos, denied freedom of movement and employment, impovrished, beaten and murdered, and in the most "advanced" places branded as traitors to our countries.

We have come here to the cradle of the Rights of the Citizen to cash a check. When the architects of modern Europe wrote the Declaration of the Rights of man and of the Citizen, they were signing a promissory note. But you have given us a bad check, a check which has come back to us marked "insufficient funds". We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this continent. So we have come to cash this check — a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.
This is not of course how it happened. Martin Luther King chose the path of struggle, of principles and of dignity. Theodor Herzl chose the path of collaboration and opportunism. What was done cannot be undone. We must grapple with the world as it was left to us by these different choices. But we cannot do that without first recognizing that there is a fundamental choice to be made every time anew: when I pursue my self-interest, my dignity and my liberation, on the basis of what principles and what vision am I doing it?

Weiss doesn't seem to understand this question nor see the difference between these two performances. What makes Herzl a hero for him is the "success" of Zionism, principles be damned. But can there be freedom without a commitment to freedom? Can there be equality without a commitment to equality? Weiss describes Herzl's obsession with bourgeois decorum, sense of social inferiority and status consciousness as a quest for dignity. He confuses dignity and status seeking. Dignity is getting from others recognition of our self-worth. Kissing up in return for conferred benefits is the very definition of an indignity. Besides, what dignity did Herzl achieve for Jews? Herzl was ashamed of being Jewish for all the wrong reasons. His "success" is that a hundred years later we can finally be ashamed of being Jewish for all the right reasons.

And is there really a success? Israel is the largest Jewish ghetto on earth, a doomed state that will either commit genocide or go down in flame or both unless we defuse it first. To be described as a success, Zionism will either have to kill all Palestinians or get Palestinians and neighboring Arabs in general to accept forever being dominated by Jews. Place your bets.

Weiss describes how Herzl "wears a stiff smile as the Kaiser and his aides crack anti-Semitic jokes." It would be a fine example of discipline and self-restraint if Herzl went to these meetings with the goal of undoing his enemies. But he did not. On the contrary, he sat and listened placidly while plotting how he could join their smelly ranks, how he could become one of them, he plotted stratagems in order to help these men maintain their power while becoming their obedient servant. He plotted with them how to betray the Jews of Eastern Europe, who wanted westward and threatened the interests of wealthy assimilated Jews in the West. And he plotted with them how to betray the people of Palestine (or Asia, as he referred to them). This is where Zionism succeeded, as an example of betrayal and collaboration with one's oppressors. where is dignity in that?

That for the last 60 years Israel has been at the forefront of promoting antisemitism is not an accident, but a reflection of the deep affinity between antisemitism and the political Zionism that Herzl introduced.

Weiss should figure out what his politics are. It's good to have a heart, but it isn't enough. He can follow Herzl and Herzl's status obsessed opportunism, but then he'd better not mention Fredrick Douglass at all. Here is a passage about dignity from Frederick Douglass's autobiography, My Bondage and my Freedom. Measure the distance between Douglass's struggle for dignity and Herzl's anxiety over glove etiquette:
this battle with Mr. Covey--undignified as it was, and as I fear my narration of it is--was the turning point in my "life as a slave." It rekindled in my breast the smouldering embers of liberty; it brought up my Baltimore dreams, and revived a sense of my own manhood. I was a changed being after that fight. I was nothing before; I WAS A MAN NOW. It recalled to life my crushed self-respect and my self-confidence, and inspired me with a renewed determination to be A FREEMAN. A man, without force, is without the essential dignity of humanity. Human nature is so constituted, that it cannot honor a helpless man, although it can pity him; and even this it cannot do long, if the signs of power do not arise.

He can only understand the effect of this combat on my spirit, who has himself incurred something, hazarded something, in repelling the unjust and cruel aggressions of a tyrant. Covey was a tyrant, and a cowardly one, withal. After resisting him, I felt as I had never felt before. It was a resurrection from the dark and pestiferous tomb of slavery, to the heaven of comparative freedom. I was no longer a servile coward, trembling under the frown of a brother worm of the dust, but, my long-cowed spirit was roused to an attitude of manly independence. I had reached the point, at which I was "not afraid to die".
Can you imagine Douglass offering to help Covey capture a running slave in return for his freedom?

Why does Weiss suggest we need to be so generous to Herzl? Because
No movement to change U.S. policy in the Middle East is going to work without including Jews, to a greater or lesser extent. To capture Jews, you cannot just batter Zionism. You can’t go around with a big anti-Zionist button--as I generally do.
Of course, Jews should not be excluded. But who is excluding them? If you put a large tent and write in big letters on its entrance: equality, justice, liberty, human rights, civil rights, economic rights for all, which means all, including Palestinians, does that exclude Jews? If you demand full justice for Palestinian refugees, does that exclude Jews? If you condemn Israeli apartheid, does that exclude Jews?

No. There is nothing in any of that that is against Jews. But let us recognize that some Jews have constructed their identity on legal and material privileges taken at the expense of Palestinians. These Jews, upon seeing these platforms, chose to exclude themselves, because they cannot square that platform with who they are. We don't exclude them. they exclude themselves.

Should we run after them and ask begging "just how much should we water down the demand for justice and equality so that you can feel comfortable here?"

I don't think so.

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