Guest Post: A Failure Of Reason

May 21, 2012 § 3 Comments

After a Twitter exchange a couple of weeks ago in which he schooled Ali Abunimah on Zionism and social cleavages within Israeli society, I asked Dov Friedman if he would be willing to turn his thoughts into a guest post and he graciously agreed. Aside from being an early booster of O&Z, Dov is a preternaturally astute analyst, and when he decides to use his prodigious talents to write something longer than 140 characters, you don’t want to miss it. You should also all be following his Twitter feed @DovSFriedman since I guarantee that it will make you think on a daily basis. Without further ado, I give you Dov’s thoughts on the shortcomings of the anti-Zionist movement.

Were the anti-Zionist movement wiser—and less unmoored—it might recognize that it could make common cause with the left wing of the Zionist movement.  In many respects, leftist Zionists have far more in common with pro-Palestinian voices than they do with Zionism’s far-right wing.  The Zionist left awaits an Israel that abandons the settlement enterprise, that disaggregates Orthodox Judaism and the state, and that increases equality of rights among its citizens.  Some in the pro-Palestinian movement have recognized that much progress can be made promoting liberal values and human rights before the groups philosophically diverge; however, the anti-Zionist wing of the movement has not joined them.

In theory, the potential for common cause explains why J Street has—shortsightedly—downplayed its Zionism in an attempt to create a “big tent.”  Yet, with much to gain through joint action, the anti-Zionist wing perpetually radicalizes the debate, precluding any meaningful consensus on forcing accountability from a recalcitrant Israel.  Organizations like J Street jeopardize potential constituencies to accommodate a movement that lacks a shred of interest in fruitful dialogue aimed to carve out common ground.

Last week, I exchanged messages with Ali Abunimah, the founder of Electronic Intifada and a prominent anti-Zionist writer who authored a book advocating a one-state solution.  On the surface, the topic was a bizarre op-ed by Yaron London in Yediot Ahronot that Israel should deal with its Haredi issue by seeking to reduce—not integrate—the population.  The piece is troubling and weakly argued—even among Israelis who harbor bitterness toward Haredim, it is not clear London’s argument would draw sympathy.  Yet, Mr. Abunimah saw an opportunity and pounced.  The op-ed was proof, he claimed, of “Zionist anti-Semitism” that dates back to “Herzl’s vile Jew-hatred.”  In Mr. Abunimah’s view, London’s piece encapsulates societal feelings that Haredi, Ethiopian, and Palestinian populations are all threats to the Zionist vision.

I replied to Mr. Abunimah that his understanding was impoverished, partly because he derives a societal feeling from a singular op-ed, and partly because he conflates three issues with different historical origins and different societal discourses.

The Haredi issue is one of civic participation, national economic health, and the welfare state.  Historically, the republican equation dictated that secular, educated Ashkenazi Jews traded military service for political and economic power.  This began to change as Mizrahi and religious Israelis achieved military and societal status.  The only non-Arab group that escapes national service is the Haredi community.  Deepening the societal rift, the state devotes major resources to support this community that contributes neither to the nation’s defense nor to its coffers.  The predominant discourse surrounding the Haredim is not London’s proposal to thin their ranks; rather, it is how to increase their participation in society—in terms of both national service and economic contribution.  The Haredim are essentially a national issue.

The Ethiopian issue stems from racism, parochialism, and fierce protection of communal interests.  Thus, Ethiopians, in essence, are the new Mizrahim.  They are the new “marked” Israeli group.  Particular social classes fear the pressures these new Israelis have placed on their economic prospects and communal interests—spurring some of the racism that can accompany class resentment.  Certainly, Israel’s affluent, educated residents are less concerned with Ethiopian immigration than are Israel’s blue-collar families.  If any critique is valid in this case it is a Marxist one.  A rudimentary understanding of Israeli history and contemporary society would reveal the incongruity of the Haredi and Ethiopian issues.

This is all before we arrive at the Palestinians—who for Mr. Abunimah are the heart of the matter.  Defining the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is beyond the scope of this post.  Suffice it to say, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict may be well understood within the history of nationalism as an idea and within the development of 20th century international order on the basis of nation-states.  To tie Israel-Palestine in with Israel’s Haredi and Ethiopian issues goes beyond poor analysis—it constitutes willful misrepresentation.

When evaluated closely, this misrepresentation is only the initial sleight of hand.  If all three issues are one and the same, as Mr. Abunimah suggests, then not only has Zionism begat hatred of Palestinians—it provokes deep anti-Semitism as well!  I wonder if Mr. Abunimah esteems his readers so lightly that he believes he can pose as the premier anti-Semitism watchdog.  This from someone who advocates a solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict which—as Gershom Gorenberg notes in his most recent book—solves the borders issue, shifts every other issue from an international to a national one, and risks civil war.  Mr. Abunimah warps history and obfuscates the issues at hand to score a political point.

Yet Mr. Abunimah’s ahistorical misrepresentation was not the most mindless note I received that day; Palestinian activist Susan Abulhawa seized on my call for nuance in evaluating Israel’s societal issues by ignoring the debate over Haredim and Zionism completely. She simply posted pictures of IDF soldiers with crying Palestinian children.  No context, no opening for discussion—Abulhawa was “justsayin.” What is there to say back to such deliberate non-argument?

And therein lies the tragedy.  The anti-Zionist wing of the pro-Palestinian movement is so consumed with frustration—so aggressive in trying to “win” arguments—that it willfully distorts reality and proves immune to reasoned debate.  In so doing, it fails—day after day—to recognize a true partner in achieving Israeli retrenchment and Palestinian self-determination in a better Middle East.

Dov Friedman is a research fellow in foreign policy at the SETA Foundation in Ankara.

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