March 16, 2011

Criticism of Criticism of Criticism of Criticism

Ok, so Dimi Reider issued a ridiculous call for all leftists to prove their "credibility" by condemning the killing in Itamar. Even though I am of course appalled by the slaughter of babies, I am not going to condemn anything here, and I am certainly not going to shed a tear for the death of Mr. and Mrs. Fogel. Not because I, pace Reider, doubt or ignore their humanity, but because they have dedicated their very human lives to destroying others who have done them no harm. My world has lost little with their passing.(*)

Nor should I have anything to prove to Reider. As he accuses, I plead guilty: I do have a double standard for which I won't apologize. I have one standard for the systemic, meditated, clinical and profitable violence of the oppressor, and a different one for outbursts of anger and hatred coming from those who have been systematically stepped upon, let alone the very different matter of organized armed liberation, which I justify and support. For more in that vein, Max Ajl wrote a beautiful and eloquent rebuttal of Reider that ought to be required reading in schools.

Then another writer from that same 972 magazine wrote a rebuttal. Yossi Gurvitz, with whom I sparred before, among other good points, correctly argued that Reider has internalized right-wing rhetoric. He also had an unpleasant slip of the pen, describing the settlers' rapid instrumentlization of the deaths at Itamar as "going native." He was justly taken to task by Ahmed Moor on Mondoweiss, and this is where it is getting doubly annoying, because Moor's criticism fast developed into little more than a gratuitous swipe at Gurvitz' alleged Jewish worldview.

Here is Gurvitz's offending line:
I never even considered the idea of grabbing the nearest Palestinian, burning his property, or beating him up. And most Israelis were just like me. We took the attacks on the chin, gritted our teeth, and kept ourselves from whining. The settlers, on the other hands, have gone native. It used to be Palestinians who brandished bloodied Israeli bodies; now it’s the settlers who do so.
There should be no doubt that associating behavior the author considers repulsive with "the natives" is a racist commonplace of European colonial discourse. There is doubt however about the level of the conscious thought behind the offense, as Moor graciously concedes being "confident he [Gurvitz] didn’t intend to employ the language he did in the way that he did." That is a charitable, and I would say a fair reading. But it is downhill from here on. Here is how Moor interprets the meaning of Gurvitz's slip:
Here, Gurvitz reveals a deeply embedded Jewish-centrism that many of our friends on the left share. The drive to end the occupation and Israeli apartheid stems not from universal human values, but from the drive for the Tikkun Olamization of the Jewish people. Everything else is secondary.
This is simply made up. Nowhere in this passage does Gurvitz even mention anything Jewish, or indeed provide any rational at all for "ending the occupation," Jewish or otherwise. Nowhere does he mention Tikkun Olam or even raise any of the issues Moor mentions. Gurvitz contrasts an Israeli attitude that one could describe perhaps as a "stiff upper lip" (if there is any allusion here, one that comes to mind perhaps is the popular representation of British calm under the Blitz) with a kind of histrionic politics that is allegedly shared by Palestinians and settlers alike. Is this racist? You bet. But the contrast between the rational, self-disciplined European and the emotional, childish, impulsive native is a commonplace of Western colonialism. One can find it in representations of native Americans, or Africans, of black slaves in the US, and of course, of Arabs in the Middle East. The racism of Gurvitz's language, at least to the extent that a textual reading can reveal, does not come from a "Jewish-centric" worldview, a worldview Moor ascribes to Gurvitz based on the mere fact that Gurvitz is in fact Jewish. It comes from Gurvitz's western cultural references.

Furthermore, the expression "going native," which Gurvitz uses, is a familiar English idiom that doesn't even have an easy counterpart in Hebrew (Although the ideas are certainly familiar in Israeli culture). Here is the definition of the idiom from "Post Colonial Studies: The Key Concepts:"
The term [going native] indicates the colonizers’ fear of contamination by absorption into native life and customs. The construction of native cultures as either primitive or degenerate in a binary discourse of colonizer/ colonized led, especially at the turn of the century, to a widespread fear of ‘going native’ amongst the colonizers in many colonial societies.
What does that have to do with "Tikkun Olam" or Jewish exceptionalism? Nothing. Gurvitz uses an English idiom to articulate an idea that is familiar to English speakers precisely because of the colonial history of the term which allows him to put Israeli Jews inside a larger implied context of whiteness. If there is an argument about Jews in there, it precisely the opposite of what Moor thinks, it is that the Jews are the same as other (Europeans).

Additionally, it is worth noting how much Moor's distinction between "universal values" and whatever he imagines as Jewish values is itself a deep internalization of the same colonial discourse about the natives that traverses Gurvitz's text. It is primarily in the name of "universal values" that Europeans argued that slavery was "civilizing" Africans, that killing native-Americans was an effective way to save their souls, and recently that Iraq ought to be "liberated" so that it is made to conform to the "universal" political norms of US-European kleptocracies. Here is George Bush on universal values:
The great struggles of the twentieth century between liberty and totalitarianism ended with a decisive victory for the forces of freedom—and a single sustainable model for national success: freedom, democracy, and free enterprise. In the twenty-first century, only nations that share a commitment to protecting basic human rights and guaranteeing political and economic freedom will be able to unleash the potential of their people and assure their future prosperity. People everywhere want to be able to speak freely; choose who will govern them; worship as they please; educate their children—male and female; own property; and enjoy the benefits of their labor. These values of freedom are right and true for every person, in every society—and the duty of protecting these values against their enemies is the common calling of freedom-loving people across the globe and across the ages. (The National Security Strategy of the United States of America)
And here is, taken from the same post-colonial dictionary, the entry on "universalism:" a bit simplistic, but given how well it fits the previous paragraph, good enough for my purpose here.
The assumption that there are irreducible features of human life and experience that exist beyond the constitutive effects of local cultural conditions. Universalism offers a hegemonic view of existence by which the experiences, values and expectations of a dominant culture are held to be true for all humanity. For this reason, it is a crucial feature of imperial hegemony, because its assumption (or assertion) of a common humanity – its failure to acknowledge or value cultural difference – underlies the promulgation of imperial discourse for the ‘advancement’ or ‘improvement’ of the colonized, goals that thus mask the extensive and multifaceted exploitation of the colony. (my emphasis)
So yes. The drive to end the occupation and apartheid does not stem from any universal value, because no values exist outside of concrete traditions of thinking about values. It does stem, for some, from certain values that some of us would like to be universally shared. I, for once, would like to impose on everyone my commitment to equality, because I believe that inequality is harmful. When we put it like that, however, that is, when we own the power relations we play when we talk about values, rather than naturalize the superiority of our perceptions under the false claim of universality, we become accountable for what we seek to impose on others. Imposing some ideas, especially about what is ethically acceptable or not, on others, is unavoidable in any context of shared existence. Being disingenuous about it is not. If Moor doesn't like the way some Jews articulate their reasons to opposing Israeli apartheid, he has every right to his feelings. But if he wants to impose on them his notion of the "correct" reason to oppose apartheid he needs at least to provide a justification other than pretending that his own preferences are "universal" whereas theirs are merely "Jewish."

More importantly, before getting into what Jewish values offend Moor and why, there is also the issue of the value of reading accurately, and criticising authors for what they wrote, rather than for what can be assumed about their state of mind on the basis of their religion or nationality. I don't know if this is a Jewish value or not, but I would certainly recommend it to Moor, along with spending less time learning about "Jewish-centrism" from the "native informants" at Mondoweiss.

Here is, for reference, a definition of the "native informant":
A native informant is someone from a particular race or place who is seen as an expert on it simply by virtue of belonging to it. (Abagond)
* As an aside, this elaborate discussion is taking place as if it is already known that the perpetrators were Palestinians. Let me note that we do not in fact now that. Therefore, I think it is inappropriate to "defend" the alleged perpatrators as much as it is inappropriate to condemn them, but with that in mind, it is fair to address the general questions raised.

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