November 01, 2009

Yada Yada Street (episode I, Matt Yglesias)

I haven't said anything about J-street, mostly because I do not share the sentiment that it represent a big breakthrough. It is, at most a small and incremental, nay glacial, change. I also do not share the analysis that the emergence of J-Street reflects a dramatic change in Jewish attitudes. More on this later. I haven't been at their conference (thank God! I might have assaulted some speakers.) But thanks to the good coverage from Mondoweiss, I can at least express my reaction with some detail.

To begin, the event proves, once again, that Zionism is a stultifying drug. Exhibit A is blogger Matt Yglesias. Yglesias is a generally sober and progressive writer who dislikes the occupation and makes no bones saying it. This is what makes his following comment noteworthy. He criticized critics of "the Jewish state" by attacking the usefulness of comparing "cosmopolitan settler communities" like the U.S. and Australia to Israel. The latter, supposedly, "is modeled on the European nation state". (see here video, 4:20).

Let me present a few basic observations that do not require an advance degree in logic. First, reality matters. I can "model myself" after Bill Gates but that won't make me a billionaire. Likewise, in order to be a "European nation state" a state must meet a number of conditions, one of which, quite obviously, is to be located within the geographic confines of Europe. Trying to establish a "European nation state" outside Europe, on inhabited land, leads to certain inexorable problems, including the outcome not being a European nation state but a European colonial settler state. Second, describing "settler communities" such as the U.S. and Australia as "cosmopolitan" (in contrast to the allegedly more justifiably chauvinistic Israel) does not quite capture the full range of historical experience within these settler states, unless one subsumes under cosmopolitanism such phenomena as slavery, genocide and expropriation of the natives. Israel, of course, is just as "cosmopolitan" as the other settler states are in as much as it is composed by immigrants from every corner of the world. That is not the basis for setting Israel apart from other settler states. Likewise, Israel's racism towards the native people does not set it apart from the US and Australia either. There are differences, because circumstances are different, but the general scheme of settler colonialism, with, on the one hand, welcoming a broad range of immigrants, and, on the other hand, genocidal racism towards the natives, is precisely what makes Israel so much like other settler societies.

Yglesias makes his silly observation about the fundamental difference between Israel and the U.S. in reply to an audience member asking how Jews can support a Jewish State that exclude a 20% of a population (and not, mind you, 70%, which would be a lot more on the mark), while they would reject a much more demographically relevant Christian State in the U.S. It is quite significant that Yglesias misreads the question on the basis of an implied essentialist comparison between the alleged cosmopolitan values of the U.S. and the nationalistic values of Israelis. It is tempting to make such a comparison based on relatively recent race-positive events in the U.S., such as Obama's elections. Broadly, however, such a comparison fails because neither the U.S. nor Israel can be reduced to an essence, e.g. U.S. liberalism vs. Israeli "European" nationalism. There are many models of the kind of a country the U.S. should be. The U.S. is the country of both Daniel Berrigan and Father Coughlin, of Martin Luther King and Milton Friedman, of Tom Delay and Paul Wellstone. Likewise, Israel wasn't made from the European nation state model the way a piece of plastic springs out of its mold. Israel was made what it is now, an apratheid state, by a series of struggles in which a whole lot of alternative potential futures lost. There is Shimon Peres's vision of Israel and there is Avigdor Lieberman's vision of Israel. But however wide the gap between them seems to Yglesias, it shrinks within a much larger array of options, both current and historical. There is also the Israel of Azmi Bishara and the Israel of Mahmoud Darwish. There is the Israel of Yehuda Magnes and the Israel of the Israeli Black Panthers. There is the Israel of Matzpen and the Israel of Isma'il Haniyeh. Identifying the "nature" of Israel does not settle anything. Nobody forces Yglesias to defer to those who conceive of Israel as a "European nation state" for Jews on land expropriated from Arabs. Nobody forces Yglesias to eschews in advance the visions of Israel's future that are proposed by non Jews, or by Jews outside the dominant Israeli mainstream. It is a matter of politics, of who in Israel Yglesias chooses to be the ally of, and of the consistency of that choice with his other political commitments. That is the question that was asked, and that Yglesias sought to deflect by appealing to an essentialist (and incoherent on top of that) distinction between the U.S. and Israel.

I assume that moment of less than stellar intellect reflected Yglesias's difficulty to explain his choice of allies within Israeli society. Conclusion: Zionism may impair your mental faculties. Try not to drive, operate heavy machinery, or speak in public while under the influence.

And this was, mind you, the "left wing" of the J-Street conference.


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