Liberal Zionism and the ethnonational imperative
Steven Salaita 30 December 2015
Liberal Zionists are terrified to hear Palestinians express a simple desire for equality. Ashraf Amra APA images
I recently shared a stage with Columbia University professor Joseph Massad and listened to him vigorously condemn anti-Semitism, deconstructing with his characteristic acuity the problems of conflating Jewish peoplehood with the conduct of the state of Israel.
Zionists often usually charge Massad with a number of sins including anti-Semitism, accusations raised loudly in the context of a decade-long campaign of defamation that aimed to get him fired.
Massad’s predecessor at Columbia, Edward Said, once referred to himself, proudly, as a Jewish intellectual.
Said eloquently castigated any articulation of anti-Semitism and demanded that it be no part of Palestine’s national movement. Zionists often deemed Said anti-Semitic and spent countless hours attempting to get him fired, too.
Ali Abunimah, another Palestinian luminary, so robustly criticizes anti-Semitism that right-wing anti-Semites accuse him of being a covert Zionist, unaware perhaps that they’re reproducing a feature of Zionism.
Last week, Avi Mayer, an American settler in Palestine who works for the propaganda arm of the Israeli government-backed Jewish Agency, alleged anti-Semitism against Abunimah. Abunimah’s transgression was to insist that the Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur not be conflated with a celebration of Israel.
A significant community of Palestinian intellectuals, journalists and activists loudly disdains anti-Semitism and desires democratic coexistence with Jews. Members of this community frequently sustain slander as anti-Semitic and are targeted for recrimination or even criminalization.
It makes no sense – except in the context of liberal Zionism, where it is perfectly sensible.
The horror of democratic coexistence
That Zionists accuse adamant critics of anti-Semitism of being anti-Semitic isn’t actually a disconnect; it is a vital feature of Zionism, especially visible in its liberal incarnations.
Take Mayer’s claim against Abunimah. It’s easy (and tempting) to dismiss it as the paranoid dishonesty of a dullard whose vapidity surpasses his acumen, or, if we are to be more generous, as the preening war cry of a professional colonizer, but Mayer’s duplicity is systematic.
We must take it seriously even if we cannot extend the same courtesy to its purveyor.
To make sense of this bizarre sensibility, we should explore how Zionist notions of anti-Semitism function in relation to iniquitous norms of citizenship in Israel.
According to the logic of settler colonization, anti-Semitism is located not in hatred of Jews, but in the refusal to accept Israeli iniquity.
Those who disassociate Israel from Judaism frequently field false accusations of anti-Semitism. Those accusations don’t generally result from misreading. It’s precisely the disassociation of Israel from Judaism that so disturbs people who view Zionism as an atavistic duty.
The Zionist ideal of a state exclusive to Jews, as defined by a theocratic bureaucracy, reduces culture and history to the fanciful motifs of ethnonationalism.
Jewish peoplehood is thus contingent on fealty to Israel. Delinking Jewishness from Zionism constitutes a grievous act of anti-Semitism. All forms of Zionism, no matter how progressive they sound, rely on that linkage.
When Palestinians support democratic coexistence, which requires equal rights and nonsectarian citizenship, they implicitly desire the end of Zionism.
When Zionists reduce Israel to emblems of cultural uplift (Jewish redemption, biblical fulfillment, ethnic refuge, enlightenment of other nations), they elide its presence as a state that behaves in relation to certain geopolitical realities. It becomes exceptional and sacrosanct. It fulfills the exclusive destiny of an anointed few, sorted from the unchosen through the blunt rites of biology. (All forms of ethnonationalism do the same.)
The state’s critics, then, are not seen to be maligning unjust policies, but as performing acts of cultural insensitivity.
The Palestinian menace
Those of Palestinian origin are especially prone (and vulnerable) to charges of anti-Semitism. Israel’s propaganda technique of conceptualizing Palestinians as beholden to inveterate Jew-hatred initiates the oft-repeated assertion that mindless violence motivates Palestinian resistance.
The technique also serves a more insidious purpose. For Zionism to function, Palestinians must disappear or become anti-Semitic.
The Palestinian who welcomes the opportunity to share a nation and a national identity with Jews exposes the irreconcilable contradiction of Zionism, that something called a “Jewish state” can also be a legitimate democracy.
The Palestinian puts the Zionist in the unusual position of exemplifying what the Palestinian is supposed to embody: tribalism, irrationality, belligerence, fanaticism, chauvinism, superstition.
It is easier to either ignore Palestinians or defame them based on the Zionist’s peculiar obsession with ethnic purity.
These ethical contortions make little sense to those with worldviews that accommodate compassion, but we’re dealing with ethnonationalism, which values group supremacy above all other considerations.
The necessity of liberal slander
In the months after being fired from a tenured professorship at the University of Illinois in August 2014, for condemning Israeli war crimes, I was periodically aggravated that some commentators were unwilling or unable to recognize that my supposedly anti-Semitic tweets actually defend Jews against essentialism.
In those tweets, I warn against conflating an entire community with the behavior of a nation-state busy showering civilians with bombs and chemical weapons, a warning I offer in much of my work.
Yet Cary Nelson, Todd Gitlin, Mira Sucharov, David Myers, Michelle Goldberg and other liberal Zionist academics and pundits all declared or suggested that I had disparaged Jews.
It was remarkably frustrating. These folks could obviously read, even if not competently. They all have impeccable credentials, but I tried not to hold that against them. I couldn’t understand their phonic malfunction until I forced myself to think like an apologist for ethnocracy.
The political identity of liberal Zionists is filled with acute incongruity. They cannot consume or disseminate ideas without the magical benefit of denial. Disassociating Judaism from Israel renders Zionism superfluous. That kind of disassociation requires one to rethink the commonplaces of Israel’s self-image. It is more convenient to outsource failures of imagination to the Palestinian.
The liberal Zionist must constantly choose between a self-professed commitment to democracy and protecting Israel’s reputation.
When pressed, the liberal Zionist always chooses to protect Israel’s reputation. That choice defines liberal Zionism.
The ethnonational imperative
This mentality is evident in, say, the asinine interpretation of Abunimah’s tweets and in the career-long nonsense Edward Said endured.
Every Palestinian activist or intellectual who delinks Zionism and Jewishness – which is to say, nearly all of us – suffers the conflicted rhetoric of colonizers pretending to be enlightened.
The problem isn’t that liberal Zionists ignore what Palestinian activists and intellectuals actually say. They listen closely, in fact. They’re merely terrified to hear the native express a desire for equality. If actualized, that desire would force the destruction of an ideology they refuse to abandon.
I term this phenomenon the ethnonational imperative, which explains spurious accusations of anti-Semitism not as an inability to comprehend the delinking of Zionism and Jewishness, but as an inclination to link them permanently and to punish those who do not.
It does little good for a victim of the ethnonational imperative to insist that he or she refuses to define a complex and multivalent community in relation to a perpetual human rights violator. Such insistence will only intensify accusations of anti-Semitism.
I have no pithy alternative on offer. I can only represent my own experience and identify which approaches suit me at the moment.
Others exist in different circumstances. I encourage them to think closely about strategies that allow them to continue speaking from positions of belonging and to retain the dignity of the Palestinian struggle.
I will no longer respond to accusations of anti-Semitism by appealing to my accusers’ sense of fairness or discretion. They don’t raise those accusations to foster reconciliation or dialogue, to use the favored parlance of the liberal Zionist. They do it to cause harm.
The impulse, even when unstated, is to center themselves as stewards of Palestine’s destiny. In the meantime, their recalcitrance prolongs heinous suffering.
I am willing to work out difficult ideas with ideological opponents, but I have no interest in forestalling the liberation of Palestine to accommodate the colonizer’s identity crisis.