Israel, Apartheid, and Slavery

Eva Ilouz just published a devastatingly powerful essay in Haaretz that I suspect is destined to be loudly deplored and hardly read at all, except maybe years from now in schools, when students are studying the history of the ex-Jewish state.

The occupation is a condition of slavery, but not slavery: a striped lion is like a tiger, but isn’t a tiger. The occupation started as a military conflict and, unbeknown to itself, became a generalized condition of domination, dehumanizing Palestinians, and ultimately dehumanizing Israelis themselves. This magnificent people – which distinguished itself historically by its love of God, its love of texts and its love of morality – has become the manager of a vast enterprise of brutal military domination.

Without ever intending to, Israelis have become the Lords and Masters of a people, and the only interesting question about this is not how we got there….but why so many Jews outside and inside of Israel are not more disturbed by this.

The reason for this is that Israel has its own proslavery lobby, which is now in the corridors of power, shapes Israel’s policy and has successfully managed to make the occupation appear to be a containable casualty of war and nation-building. The settlers’ discourse – which only 20 years ago was marginal in Israeli society –has become mainstream, and one can only be struck by its resemblance to the 19th-century American proslavery ideology.

Because I’ve written as much about anti-Semitism as I have, a lot of my critics (especially the ones who haven’t read much more of me than my Jewish name) presume that I’m a Zionist. I’m not and I never have been. The notion of a religious state not only runs against my secularist grain; as a product of 2000 years of diaspora, and the descendent of a socialist grandparent who was imprisoned by the Tsar for learning Esperanto, I am troubled by the very idea of nations. I know that people are evolved to be tribal and exclusionary, but I look to civilization to raise us above our naturally brutish and fearful state.

Herzl was right, I think, in recognizing that Jews would never be accepted as full citizens of the European nations, but he was wrong in embracing Jewish nationhood as a solution (not that I have any idea what a viable solution would have been–there would have been a Hitler and a Final Solution in our future no matter what we did).

But as sixty some years of Israeli independence and expansion have proved, a militarized Jewish nation state is no less chauvinistic, violent, and self-justifying than any other nation state–and its existence, moreover, puts Jewish claims of a transcendental identity and destiny on the same footing as Canada’s, Finland’s, or, God help us, Germany’s. I try to avoid writing about Israel and Judaism, because I find the whole subject so painful. I don’t like feeling like an apostate–we are wired to be tribal, after all; a lot of people I love and otherwise admire are deeply identified with Israel and its aspirations, for better and for worse. But I’m not much of a belonger, and as witnessed by my books, I have a pretty low tolerance for cognitive dissonance.


8 thoughts on “Israel, Apartheid, and Slavery

    1. I didn’t mean to cast aspersions on Canada’s or any other country’s belief in their cultural superiority or their conviction that they have been singled out for great things (though I made my feelings about American Exceptionalism pretty clear in the last chapter of THE NEW HATE). But the Jewish prophetic tradition and premillennial dispensationalist readings of Revelation cast the restoration/triumph of the Israeli state as of literally cosmic importance. Put that to the test in the real world and Israel looks like any other nation—as witnessed by Israel’s own insistence that it not be “singled out” or judged by any higher standards than anybody else.

  1. The HaAretz article is on my reading list for the weekend. I so agree with your final point. It is terribly painful to speak or write about the abuses of the State of Israel, and I, too, have avoided it whenever possible. And yet… I am grateful to the Jews who are standing up for humanistic principles above tribalism, many of them a generation or even two generations younger than me. And I am beginning to think that I cannot, in conscious, keep ducking the issue.

  2. From an Israeli who came across this site by accident and has to leave quickly because it stinks so much: ladies and gentlemen, you really give conceit a bad name. “Humanistic principles above tribalism,” huh? You people still believe this stuff? Nowadays? Unbelievable.

    1. It can be. It can also stem from cognitive dissonance (which of course might be reflective of love, filial loyalty, or even fear).

  3. Sorry for the horrible English: With whom do you feel more comfortable, Abe Foxman or Phil Weiss (if you don’t mind my asking)?

    1. I’ve never met either man, though I had a long conversation once with Foxman’s Number Two at the ADL, who seemed like a decent enough person to me, though we had nothing in common politically. I was mostly bored and annoyed by Weiss’s column when he was at The Observer decades ago, though I enjoyed some of his general interest journalism (and cited his account of his “infiltration” of Bohemian Grove in my book CULTS, CONSPIRACIES).

      For a long time (and without particularly reading the Mondoweiss site), I presumed that Weiss was an “anti-Semitic Jew,” until one day I realized that many Jews (Foxman, certainly) would also apply that description to me. I don’t know what he is like as a person, but like him, I was never observant or particularly comfortable with my Jewish identity; also like him, my first trip to Israel, which I also took when I was about 50, came as a sort of revelation to me–it made me realize how disturbing I found the very idea of a religious state, and how disingenuous was Israel’s Declaration of Independence’s promise to “promote the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants” and to “uphold the full social and political equality of all its citizens, without distinction of race [or] creed.” Visiting the occupied territories and talking with Hamas supporters, I understand why they hated Israel so much and why they hated me; I understood on a visceral level that racial and supercessionist anti-Semitism and political anti-Zionism are not necessarily the same things (though they certainly can be and often are indistinguishable). Talking to Israelis, mostly leftist, progressive Israelis, I realized how much cognitive dissonance the Occupation causes.

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