Irfan Khawaja: On the Necessity of Getting Jews and Muslims to Acknowledge Hard Truths

Roundup: Historians' Take

Irfan Khawaja, writing in the online edition of Tikkun (Nov. 2003):

The Zionist ideal is perhaps best captured in a slogan of Israel Zangwill, an early Zionist, who described Palestine as "a land without a people for a people without a land." The idea is that the Jews were a "people without a land" in the sense of being a minority wherever they lived, hence vulnerable to persecution. Palestine, in turn, was a "land without a people" in the sense of being a barren land without significant population, hence open to redemption by Jewish settlement and labor. Zionism, then, aimed to secure Jewish ownership of and sovereignty over Palestine, thereby saving the Jews from destruction, and facilitating their return to their ancestral homeland. The consummation of this wish was the establishment in May 1948 of the State of Israel.

The crucial claim at the center of Said's work is that for all of its redemptive power in Western eyes, Zionism was in fact a form of Orientalism-that is, an ideology of conquest and dispossession. For contrary to Zionist convictions, Palestine was not a "land without a people," but a land with one-namely the Palestinians, who outnumbered and out-owned the Zionist settlers until the very eve of Israel's creation. Given this, the project of creating a specifically Jewish state in (or throughout) Palestine was bound to lead to the dispossession or even destruction of the Palestinians, a fact that indicts Zionism of a grave injustice. On this view, the relationship between Orientalism, the Zionists and the Palestinians is analogous to that between Manifest Destiny, the American settlers, and the destruction of the Native Americans. In both cases, a messianic religious vision derived from the Old Testament justified the conquest and dispossession of an indigenous ethnic group, relegating them to the status of second-class citizens, refugees, and in the worst case, death. And in both cases, the conquerors engaged in conquest while cynically playing the role of victims: in the American case by exploiting the "Buffalo Bill" mythology; in the Zionist case by "playing the Holocaust card." The complex interaction of Zionism and Orientalism in this thesis is what I'm calling Zionist Orientalism.

The Zionist Orientalist thesis involves a complex and controversial set of claims, almost every one of which may legitimately be disputed. Precisely because it is complex, however, and difficult to dispute in a soundbite culture, defenders of Israel have often (in fact, typically) taken the path of least resistance in dealing with it, making reflexive charges of "anti-Semitism" against its proponents in lieu of dealing with their arguments. We see a succinct example of this in a recent essay by the Israeli writer Hillel Halkin:

One cannot be against Israel or Zionism, as opposed to this or that Israeli policy or Zionist position, without being anti-Semitic. Israel is the state of the Jews. Zionism is the belief that the Jews should have a state. To defame Israel is to defame the Jews. To wish it never existed, or would cease to exist, is to wish to destroy the Jews.

Despite its syllogism-like appearance, Halkin's argument is little more than an exercise in obfuscation. First, Zionism is not merely "the belief that the Jews should have a state"; it is the belief that the Jews should have had a Jewish state in a place where the majority population was not Jewish-a difficulty Halkin neither addresses nor even acknowledges. Secondly, to reject Zionism is not to "defame" anyone or anything; it is to reject its principles, something that can surely come from a well-intentioned commitment to incompatible principles. (Nor in any case is "Israel" to be so blithely equated with "the Jews.") Thirdly, "to wish Israel never to have existed" is not "to wish to destroy the Jews" so long as one thinks that there were other viable options for saving them. And it's an open question whether there were. Finally, "to wish that Israel cease to exist" is ambiguous. In its non-malevolent sense, it refers not to a wish to harm Jews, but to a wish to do away with the specifically Jewish character of the Israeli legal system so as to promote a secular as opposed to sectarian conception of citizenship. In short, whatever the merits or demerits of the anti-Zionist position, no argument like Halkin's counts as a legitimate response to it. The deficiencies of the argument, however, have done nothing to weaken its currency, and one regularly finds pro-Israeli polemicists using it in brazen attempts at insult and defamation.

As with the Arab/Muslim case, the "highbrow" Zionist literature finds its debased counterpart at the middle- and low-brow levels, where we find habitual comparisons of Arabs and Muslims to predatory and scavenging animals, wild rumor and innuendo about Arab/Muslim treachery, and casual proposals made for the forcible expulsion and even extermination of the Palestinians. Here, too, the connection between "high-brow" and "low-brow" is attenuated but real, as is the need for the corresponding moral judgment.

So: On the one hand, we have the very real and menacing phenomenon of Muslim anti-Semitism, discussed principally by the Jews targeted by it, but ignored or even brusquely dismissed as a Zionist ploy by the wider Arab/Muslim community. On the other hand, we have the equally real and dehumanizing phenomenon of Orientalism, discussed principally by Arabs and Muslims, but contemptuously dismissed as a fig-leaf for anti-Semitism by pro-Israeli Jews. Each side stands indicted by the other, and each side uses its indictment-fallaciously-to discredit the claims of the other. Further, each side has a powerful investment in the evasion of facts identified by the other side. And each resists, with furious vehemence, the attempt to integrate both sets of facts into a single coherent account. Finally, each side uses supercharged moral rhetoric to discredit and disarm opponents, while seeking to coerce the assent of the as-yet uncommitted.

The key to understanding the vicious cycle at work here, I think, is to see that the mechanism behind it is each side's fear of discovering that its most cherished beliefs might be "stained in sin." What Arabs and Muslims fear is the discovery that anti-Semitism might really turn out to be an intrinsic feature of Islamic theology rather than a Christian import. What Zionists fear is the discovery that Zionism might really be an ideology of conquest and dispossession on par with Manifest Destiny-that the Palestinians are, to put it somewhat perversely, the Cherokees of Israel (perverse because the Cherokees were thought by the American settlers to be one of the lost tribes of Israel!). The fear in both cases speaks to deep questions of identity. Arabs and Muslims, even relatively secular ones, have for decades invested their moral identities in mythologies about the "glories of Islam." And Jews, even apolitical non-Israelis, have equally invested themselves in mythologies about Zionism and Israel. Each side sees the very thought of public discussion of its "sore points" as an existential threat to identity. The result is a discourse structured by evasion and fear, compensated for by blackmail and recrimination.

If I'm right about this, the key to breaking the cycle may well be to press each issue against the side that least wants to deal with it, demanding that each side cease its evasions of fundamental issues.

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