Overcoming Impunity by Joel Kovel
by: Joel Kovel
January – March 2009
The Link – Volume 42, Issue 1
June 8, 1967. Israeli warplanes and boats attack the USS Liberty as it sits in international waters off the coast of Gaza, killing 34 seamen, wounding another 137, and leaving the high-tech surveillance vessel in ruins. President Lyndon B. Johnson calls off a rescue mission and issues orders that nothing further is to be said about the incident. To this day it is the only peacetime attack on a U.S. naval vessel that Congress refuses to investigate.
March 16, 2003. A D-9 bulldozer, made by Caterpillar in the United States and bought by Israel with U.S. taxpayer money, crushes American citizen Rachel Corrie as she tries to prevent its demolition of a Palestinian home in Rafah, Gaza. Rachel is wearing an orange flak-jacket, and speaking into a bull-horn under a cloudless sky—yet the Israeli military claimed that its driver could not see her and that she slipped on debris roiled up by the bulldozer. No protest is launched from the U.S. State Department, nor is one generated from within Congress, which shortly afterwards passed yet another resolution pledging near-unanimous and unconditional support for the state of Israel. To this day, no action has been taken against Rachel’s murderers.
Israel lives and breathes impunity.
• It clandestinely built a nuclear arsenal with full knowledge of the U. S. and in flagrant violation of America’s stipulated goal of checking nuclear proliferation. Israel has refused to acknowledge its arsenal or to join any international covenants for the regulation and restriction of nuclear weapons. But while the U.S. government, politicians and mainstream media obsess over a future nuclear threat from Iran, the present menace of Israel’s nuclear weapons goes unmentioned.
• The candidates for the 2008 presidential election vied with one another over who is the better friend of Israel. In May 2008, Barack Obama went to Washington where he pandered to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), promising the Jewish state even more impunity, including undivided sovereignty over Jerusalem. Accompanying him on that trip was Illinois Congressman Rahm Emanuel, a fervid Zionist, who had volunteered to assist the Israel Defense Forces during the 1991 Gulf War, and whose father was a member of the Jewish terrorist group, the Irgun. Six months later, Rahm Emanuel became President-elect Obama’s first political appointment as chief of staff.
• Meanwhile, Israel has been shielded from censure by more than 40 U.S. vetoes of U.N. resolutions and it continues to flout resolutions that variously demand the right of return of Palestinian refugees, the cessation of its occupation of Palestine after the 1967 war, or the taking down of the so-called “Separation Wall,” a monstrosity whose ostensible purpose is checking Palestinian terror, and whose actual effect is to steal yet more Palestinian land, separate Palestinians from each other and their meager croplands, and keep them out of view of Israelis—in short, the Wall seals off the West Bank into a giant prison. Meanwhile Gaza has become the example par excellence of collective punishment, one of the gravest violations of human rights. Israel knows it can thumb its nose at international law—and the principle of law—because it can count on the backing of the U.S. superpower, even when that superpower itself is attacked by Israel, as happened in 1967.
Impunity is license to do as one pleases, knowing that there will be neither restraint before nor punishment after the act. It is a conduit to nihilism, that is, a moral degeneration in which everything is permitted and nothing is true. It is the absolute corruption that comes with absolute, unchecked power. This is most pronounced in the occupation of Palestine, where impunity is so marked, the balance of forces so one-sided, and the conflict so prolonged. The Israeli occupation of Palestine is a culture medium for atrocity, which occurs at the far side of silence. When those who should speak hold back, the perpetrator loses his way and falls into a moral abyss. The silence which permits this in the case of Israel is largely made, like D-9 bulldozers, in the United States, Israel’s giant patron and protective shield.
As a citizen of the United States and a Jew descended from Russian-Ukrainian immigrants, I perceived this wanton criminality as a betrayal of the moral identity of the Jewish people, whose wanderings across the globe were a veritable chronicle of the impunity of the powerful. The impunity of Israel, its complicity in the injustices wrought by the United States, all with collusion by great portions of its Jewish community, filled me with shame and provoked outrage. I came to reject the tribalized identity of the Jew as perpetual victim, but retained and tried to cultivate that portion of my heritage which stood for the universality of humankind.
Although I spent a great portion of my adult life in movements against racism, war, U.S. imperialism, the corruptions of media and mass culture, and—with special emphasis in recent years—the ecological ravaging of the earth, I remained relatively quiet about Israel itself until the year 2000. This was not for lack of aversion to Israeli policies, nor did I fear the accusation of anti-semitism, the identification of which with criticism of Israel I had always regarded as tedious, albeit pernicious, nonsense. My reticence stemmed, rather, from certain family conflicts. When the individuals concerned in these—chiefly my mother—passed away, my political development in this sphere resumed and, as if to make up for lost time, gathered speed.
The brutality of Israel’s response to the Second Intifada, which began in late September 2000, pushed the process into the open. I resolved to be one who would speak out and not hold back, and began publishing articles critical of Israel. In 2003, infuriated by the murder of Rachel Corrie and encouraged by the support of people like Edward Said, I expanded the project into a book-length study. This became “Overcoming Zionism,” published in 2007, about which more will be said later.
In the course of my studies, the problem posed by Israel seemed less the particular offenses of the Occupation or of Israeli foreign policy than of Zionism itself, the defining logic of the Jewish state and its central dynamic. Having been a physician I was accustomed to think in terms of an underlying disease pattern as the generator of manifest symptomatology. Accordingly, Zionism is the world-historical disease of Jewry in the present epoch. It is the structural disorder that drives ethnocentric chauvinism, ethnic cleansing of indigenous people, structural racism—and also the peculiar moral logic that shapes the Zionist power structure in the United States and configures its impunity. There is a “bad conscience” to Zionism, which results as the ancient identity of the Jew as the ethically superior perpetual victim encounters the endless transgressions required to construct Zionism’s dream of a Jewish state in historic Palestine. Played out within the circumstances of Israel’s great patron, the United States, this becomes the manufacturer of Israel’s impunity.
The Architecture of Moral Silencing
The relationship between the United States and Israel is surely one of the most peculiar in all history. A major aspect of this is that the United States has become a country in which serious criticism of another country, Israel, is largely forbidden. To say this is not to claim that criticism is impossible—after all, this essay is part of the United States political culture and is based on such criticism, as is the work of AMEU. But there is a kind of prevailing wind that marginalizes criticism, instills fear, and imposes penalties for speaking out. A certain toleration for criticism is allowed, as befits a liberal society. But this is set about with taboos, and signposts arise to warn the unwary: Do not call into question the right of Israel to exist. Do not commit the sin of anti-semitism. Do not go too far. Do not call Zionism itself into question.
It has been widely observed that it is much easier to criticize Israel from within Israel than from within the United States. This should not be overstated—the great historian Ilan Pappe was essentially driven out of his native land because his epochal critique, “The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine,” went too far in demolishing the founding myths of the state; but the observation is real enough. Thus the ferocity of suppression of anti-Israel criticism in the United States greatly exceeds that in Israel itself. Indeed, the criticism America allows of itself is far greater than what it allows for Israel.
This would not be so were it not for the extreme dependence of Israel on the United States, a support that requires billions of dollars and the most sophisticated military aid, along with the effective silencing of criticism as the precondition for aid. American support of Israel would be withdrawn or vastly reduced if key groups within this country or the population at large began to think ill of the Jewish state. The peculiar relationship, therefore, would collapse like the proverbial house of cards were criticism freely allowed. And once that went, the state of Israel would very likely become radically transformed. It follows that the impunity granted Israel by the machinations of Zionist suppression is essential to the health and vigor of its Jewish state.
The suppression mechanism is usually ascribed to an influencing agent, or lobby, either called the “Israel Lobby” or, equivalently, the “Zionist Lobby,” with its apex in AIPAC. Needless to say, a massive and richly funded institutional system of lobbies are a vital part of the process; indeed, one might call them the factories in which the manufacture of the final product is carried out. But the suppression of criticism is not made from whole cloth; there are also components and raw materials to be taken into account. So it is with the lobbies, the raw material for which entails a common belief system that circulates among elites and stems from deeply held assumptions that go back to the origins of our society.
The lobbies as such are therefore powerful enforcers of a much more broadly based system. This develops within what is called civil society, the interconnected set of institutions that comprises the connective tissue of a nation, and includes churches and synagogues, schools, libraries, publishers, and a wide range of community organizations. Among this great mass certain Zionist organs of repression have crystallized in recent years—Campus Watch, CAMERA, the David Project, and so forth—and, in alliance with traditional Zionist groups such as the Anti-Defamation League and the Zionist Organization of America, have acted as focal points of repression. I am sure that they communicate with each other, with AIPAC, and with other major Jewish organizations, as well.
But while there are definitely lobbies among these networks, the overall network is no lobby. It would be better to call it, as sociologist James Petras has, a “Zionist Power Configuration,” or perhaps we could say, a “Zionist Apparatus.” What we call it is not especially important; what matters is that we understand that the loose and decentralized character of the network floats atop an attitudinal sea that supports the basic notions of Zionism, and functions to structure the Israeli cause in the collective mind.
Though a great many repressive acts are initiated by one node of the network or another, a great many others are executed without any particular organizational focus. These fade off, as is the case with most discriminatory campaigns, into gestures and slights, shunnings and glances that never register on the meter as newsworthy. Thus numberless decisions are made by publishers to automatically reject books critical of Israel, at times without even an acknowledgement of receiving the manuscript; or literary agents will decline to represent the work; or if the book finally does get published library committees will decide not to purchase it, or editors of journals will more or less automatically decide not to review it.
All of these mishaps, by the way, happened to me in the course of bringing forth ”Overcoming Zionism.” None of them, with an exception to be taken up below, required the intervention of Zionist watchdog institutions, or prior consultation with them. They were carried out under supervision of the Watchdog that lives in the head, signaling editors what to publish and what to review, signaling reviewers as to which way the wind is blowing, signaling authors where to pull their punches and how to couch their arguments, signaling politicians when to kowtow, and signaling the thought-police of the apparatus when and how to attack.
The formidable matrix of pro-Israel feeling has its corollary in the neglect and disregard of the Palestinians, as though these were not fully formed human beings with equivalent natural rights. In the process, Islam, the lost cousin of the “Abrahamic” family, is considered an alien religion by the great majority of Americans. All of this is the result of an unexamined history that underlies and nourishes the apparatus. Channeling History
Listen to Napoleon Bonaparte, writing in 1799:
Bonaparte, Commander-in-Chief of the Armies of the French Republic in Africa and Asia, to the Rightful Heirs of Palestine. Israelites, unique nation, whom, in thousands of years, lust of conquest and tyranny were able to deprive of the ancestral lands only, but not of name and national existence . . . She [France] offers to you at this very time, and contrary to all expectations, Israel’s patrimony . . . Rightful heirs of Palestine . . . hasten! Now is the moment which may not return for thousands of years, to claim the restoration of your rights among the population of the universe which had shamefully withheld from you for thousands of years, your political existence as a nation among the nations, and the unlimited natural right to worship Yehovah in accordance with your faith, publicly and in likelihood for ever . . . . .
Napoleon’s missive, the first instance so far as I know of European support for Zionist settlement, was a typically imperial ploy to use Jews as cat’s paws to enter the Middle East for purposes of Western—in this case, French—domination. Needless to say, it fell flat, in good part because Jews at that time had no interest in restoring their glorious past. But this curious initiative reminds us that anti-semitism is only one aspect of the complex figure of Christendom’s attitudes toward the Jewish people. Along with Judaeophobia—and at times shadowing it—there has laid another part of the complex: the notion of Jews as lost brethren, whose conversion was eagerly sought, and whose plight needed restitution. No narrative was more emphasized than that Jews had been forcibly exiled as a people and had, therefore, their “Right of Return.” This became a divinely sanctioned mission to return to the Holy Land. It derived from the Exodus myth of the Egyptian captivity, and the later actual captivity by Babylon (King Nebuchadnezzar ca. 800 B.C.), and it received its definitive historical shape with the destruction of the Second Temple by Roman legions in 70 A.D., and the diaspora that allegedly followed.
This powerful theme served to absolve Christianity from guilt over its own failings and persecutory misdeeds. But it also, in contrast with anti-semitism where the Jew is the eternal and diabolical stranger, granted a kind of fellow feeling to the “unique nation,” according to which the Jewish predicament as strangers within Christendom needed mending, and in which the restoration, and hopefully, conversion, of the Jews was the precondition for the return of Christ and redemption of Christians.
In numerous instances, this extended to frank identification by Christians with the fate of Jews—even, often enough, when such attitudes were accompanied by Judaeophobic loathing. Thus the leading British proto-Zionist, the Earl of Shaftesbury, while advocating in 1830 a Jewish homeland in Palestine, wrote that Jews, “though admittedly a stiff-necked, dark-hearted people, and sunk in moral degradation, obduracy, and ignorance of the Gospel . . . [are] not only worthy of salvation but also vital to Christianity’s hope of salvation.”
The rub here is that appeals to Jewish settlement of the Holy Land have from the beginning been embedded within projects of Western expansionism. By identifying with Jewish restoration Europe could remain unconscious of its own aggression. This could also be projected onto the Jews, who can be considered capable of any crime according to the logic of anti-semitism. In any event, Shaftesbury, however sincere in his evocation of a proto-Zionism, was also seeking to get a leg up on the French, just as Napoleon, 30 years before, was seeking advantage over the British.
Identification with Jews became particularly strong in outposts of the British empire, the colonial settlers of which fell naturally into the habit of thinking of themselves as covenantally chosen, morally exceptional, and deserving of salvation thanks to the hardships and persecution they had to endure. Nowhere was this attitude stronger than in the American settlements. Its effects have become foundational for our national life. They still reverberate today and enter into Jewish life in America, in the relationship between Israel and the United States, and in the power of the Zionist apparatus.
The utopianism which forms so substantial a portion of America’s basic belief-system was largely an Old Testament legacy, elaborated by Puritan elites into a theocratic modeling according to the example of the ancient Israelites, whose Thirteenth Tribe the settlers often considered themselves. We find, for example, Cotton Mather, the leading intellectual of 17th century Puritanism, writing favorably about the Massachusetts colony becoming “a theocracy, as near as might be, to that which was the glory of Israel, the ‘peculiar people.’” Mather was extolling the example set by his forbearer, John Cotton, of whom the American historian Vernon Parrington has written:
To found an Hebraic state in which political rights should be subordinated to religious conformity, in which magistrates should be chosen from a narrow group, with authority beyond the reach of the popular will, and with the ministers serving as court of last resort to interpret the divine law to the citizen-subjects of Jehovah—this was the great ambition of John Cotton; and the untiring zeal and learned scriptural authority which he dedicated to that ambition justify us in regarding him as the greatest of the New England theocrats.
By the 18th century, theocratic Puritanism had become layered over with the Jeffersonian belief system known as “Arminianism” whose relatively benign deistic impulses became enshrined in the liberal democracy set forth in the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights. But as recent history starkly reveals, the theocratic specter remains alive and well in the Christian Right, and became an essential component of the Republican coalition which has dominated American politics for the past quarter century, veering the Republic sharply in the direction of Cotton’s “Hebraic state,” and both savaging the Constitution and sharply increasing Zionist power in the process.
It is impressive that two of the four presidents prior to Obama have been steeped in the ways of the Christian Right. George W. Bush was artfully manipulated by Ariel Sharon in this regard, as on a helicopter trip over the Holy Land in which, choking up with tears, Bush swore fealty to the Jewish state.
However the President most thoroughly marinated in Christian Zionist ideology was the much revered Ronald Reagan. From boyhood, the 40th President was exposed to the premillennial-dispensational theology dominant in the Christian Right, in which signs from present events are interpreted according to biblical texts such as Ezekiel and the Book of Revelation. For example, when discussing with an evangelist preacher in 1976 about how “dramatic Bible prophecy” was being fulfilled with the “re-emergence of Israel as a nation,” Reagan was asked what America should do if Israel was about to be destroyed by other nations. His reply was: “We have a pledge to Israel to the preservation of that nation . . . we have an obligation, a responsibility, and a destiny.” Similar comments were observed during his presidency. In 1984, for example, speaking, notably enough, with Tom Dine, then director of AIPAC, Reagan averred:
You know, I turn back to the ancient prophets in the Old Testament and the signs foretelling Armageddon, and I find myself wondering if—if we’re the generation that is going to see that come about. I don’t know if you’ve noted any of these prophecies lately, but believe me they certainly describe the times we’re going through.
To a person so disposed, an Israel strategically placed in respect to events of cosmic magnitude must be given impunity for crimes committed against mere Muslim heathen. With the Millennium at stake, hordes of terror-loving Arabs should not be allowed to stand in the Lord’s way. When Menachem Begin followed suit and conferred Israeli honors upon Jerry Falwell, a profound realignment had been achieved. From being the odd man and pariah of Christendom, the Jew-as-Zionist now joined hands with the Christian West as partners for a new Crusade against the other Abrahamic faith.
Most recently, this crusading impulse has seen the rise of a new kind of courtier, the neoconservative, who further embedded Zionism at the highest levels of American power. The neocon personifies Old Testament messianism in the service of United States imperialism. It was natural for a certain cadre of Jewish intellectuals to come aboard the project, men of radical temperament, some of them veterans of the eclipsed leftism that had once been part of Jewish identity, and all of them ready to serve the new crusade. Thus men like Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle and Elliott Abrams surfaced on the right wing of the political spectrum and found their home. By no means are all neocons Jewish; however, it is certainly the case that to function as a neocon one must be ardently Zionist, whether of Christian or Jewish stripe.
Beginning in the 1980s, then, U.S. foreign policy, which had been moderately pro-Israel since 1948 and vigorously tied with Israeli interests since 1967, now began to be strongly influenced from within by Zionists, whose messianism dovetailed nicely with the well-worn themes of Manifest Destiny and America’s Covenantal obligation to bring democracy to the world, by force if necessary. There has developed, in short, a kind of Zionification of the American security apparatus, with a confluence of Christian and Jewish Zionist themes. This continued in a muted way through the Clinton administration and burst forth under the second Bush. The neocon-driven debacle in Iraq undoubtedly has thrown the proverbial monkey wrench into this machine. Its fate under an Obama administration is, as of this writing, too uncertain for speculation.
Zionism: Hard and Soft
Jewish Zionism was at the same time a rejection of the West and an embrace of its colonial impulse, for which purpose it had to become the dependent instrument of a Great Power. The dual role leads to endless and profound contradictions, among them a permanent state of insecurity grounded in eternal ambivalence toward its patron. This may help explain the startling occurrences of hostility on the part of Israel toward its protector, shown for example, by the USS Liberty incident, or the turning over by Prime Minister Shamir of the espionage gathered by Jonathan Pollard to the Soviets, which resulted in the death of American agents and the demolition of the U.S. network in the Soviet Union. And it definitely contributes to the striking mixture of truculence and obsequiousness shown toward the United States and to Zionism’s extreme sensitivity toward criticism.
These contradictions are deeply rooted in the identity of American Jews. As Zionism proclaims that Israel is the state of all the Jewish people, everywhere, it also requires that a proper Jewish identity must include Zionism. In the United States, where the phenomenal success of the Jewish community has entailed both the falling away of traditional anti-semitism and the loss of the traditions that defined Jewish identity over the centuries, a more or less perpetual identity crisis (aggravated by rising rates of intermarriage) has made American Jews, and especially their better-off members, highly susceptible to the lure of Zionism, now perforce an ideology of the right wing despite its socialist origins. Criticism of Israel becomes an attack on who American Jews are.
Jewish Zionists, however, are not homogeneous, and may be graded on a continuum between “hard” and “soft” tendencies. Research suggests that hard Zionists represent roughly 15-20% of the American Jewish population, and they are the ones in command of the main structures of the so-called Lobby. Their hardness consists of the capacity to override considerations of justice with claims of existential necessity. They live in a constant state of low-grade hysteria, evoking the canard that criticism of Israel is anti-semitic and summoning the allegedly omnipresent threat of another Holocaust; or they resort to extreme racist claims against Palestinian “terror;” or grandiose and messianic assertions of Israel’s superior “democracy.” They are ardent in going to the barricades for Israel, whether to squash dissenters or keep Congress and U.S. foreign policy in line. They exult in Israel’s power, speak of the Jewish state as the restoration of Jewish greatness, and, even though they may have contempt for the peccadilloes of the Christian Zionists, have little difficulty in making tactical alliance with them.
The soft Zionist cannot so easily override the moral contradictions that dog the Jewish state. He is therefore obliged to admit criticism. But he cannot allow criticism to reach the stage of calling Zionism itself into question. Therefore soft Zionism calls for “responsible” criticism and remains divided in its soul. This leads to a veritable frenzy of subterfuges, rationalizations and legal pettifogging. The soft Zionist, generally speaking, does not exult in Israel’s power nor allow himself to dream of Jewish restoration. He will console himself, rather, with “realism” and call attention to the complexities and imperfections of this world. He will advance the (quite specious) notion that everyone is entitled to a national state; or ponder the great sufferings of the Jews and their entitlement, therefore, to a country of their own; or congratulate the Jewish state for allowing the Palestinians who live in Israel proper to vote, all the while chiding its improprieties. More generally, he will consider Israel to be a “normal” state; and when its massive impunity and lawlessness is pointed out—for example, that the country has flouted scores of U.N. resolutions, or that it lacks a constitution—he will rejoin that after all, England lacks a constitution, too, or that nobody is perfect, or that the Arabs are much worse. The technique of the soft Zionist, then, is to employ lines of reasoning that enable Palestinians and Jews to be compared on equal ground—for example, how much each side has suffered, or as perpetrators of equivalent violence. Thus the soft Zionist dwells on narratives—individualized lines of reasoning that foster the equivalence of both sides in a complex and imperfect world—rather than on basic structures of justice whose asymmetry reflects the actual history of Zionist conquest.
Soft Zionists are more numerous than hard Zionists and are often successful in academia, the law, and politics. Being conflicted, they can go one way or the other, and thus on occasion will aid the cause of justice. An important example has arisen in context of the debacle of the neocon-driven 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq. This has provoked a reaction from representatives of the so-called “realist” school of foreign policy. In the process, Israel itself has come under open criticism for the first time from within the elites, and this in turn provoked a harsh reaction from hard Zionists.
The leading instance has been President Jimmy Carter’s “Palestine—Peace Not Apartheid,” published in 2006 and variously greeted by intellectual officialdom with neglect, scorn, and/or fantastic charges of anti-semitism. Two years later, hard Zionist vengeance remained in full swing at the 2008 Democratic presidential convention when Carter, the only president to have actually achieved something in the way of peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors, was confined to a silent, hasty walk across the stage.
Carter is very much a Zionist, even, given his religious convictions, a kind of Christian Zionist whose views on Israel/Palestine were laid down by years of biblical study. Needless to say, he belongs to the soft end of the spectrum, able to criticize Israel yet careful to keep criticism from troubling the waters of Zionism itself. “Palestine – Peace Not Apartheid” has in this regard copious documentation of the relentless drive of the Israeli state to rid itself of Palestinians and seize their land.
But Carter blocks the realization of what this means. For example, he asserts: “Continuing impediments [to peace] have been the desire of some Israelis for Palestinian land, the refusal of some Arabs to accept Israel as a neighbor . . .” In other words, individuals are at fault, not any structure. Further, the equivalence of Israeli and Arab miscreants denies the central dynamic of conquest. The reader gets a confusing message: we are shown a systematic, expulsionist logic to the Jewish state, but only unspecified individuals are at fault.
More, though the mere appearance of the word “Apartheid” in the book’s title was enough to ignite an explosion of criticism, Carter actually says little about apartheid, and when he does, denies an essential comparison with South Africa: “The driving purpose for the forced separation of the two peoples is unlike that in South Africa—not racism, but the acquisition of land.” The distinction is pointless—for racism pervades Israel as much as it did South Africa, and in both instances does so for material reasons—to build a Jewish state and to ensure cheap black labor for South African mines and factories. The practical result is to force attention away from the logical conclusion that Israel, being equivalently racist to South Africa, should be treated in the same way, that is, be pressed to radically transform itself.
Another important example is Stephen Walt (Harvard) and John Mearsheimer’s (University of Chicago) “The Israel Lobby and United States Foreign Policy,” which argues for a realist foreign policy as against the excesses of the second Bush administration. As if to ward off in advance charges of anti-semitism or, heaven forfend, hostility to Zionism, Walt and Mearsheimer weaken their argument with the claim that “We are not challenging Israel’s right to exist or questioning the legitimacy of the Jewish state”—as if someone dared them to say this. Later they assert that they are “pro-Israel” and deny that AIPAC is more than an ordinary lobby (except for being bigger and fiercer), or that Jews who support the lobby can be other than patriotic, decent Americans: “Any notion that Jewish Americans are disloyal citizens is wrong.” Indeed, Israel must be treated “as a normal and legitimate country.”
Such off-the-cuff statements remind us of obeisance routinely made by politicians before Zionist power. By asserting a priori the legitimacy of Israel, Walt and Mearsheimer forget that no state has an inherent right to exist, a principle established by Jefferson in our Declaration of Independence and a foundation stone of modern political theory. To take the question of legitimacy off the table in the face of massive structural evidence of human rights violations by Israel is to assert exceptional privilege for the Zionist state, and to join the chorus granting it impunity.
Walt and Mearsheimer flatly assert that Jewish Americans cannot be disloyal. Yet they write of several who have either committed espionage on behalf of Israel or are being charged with the same. Are these loyal Americans? And how can AIPAC be a normal lobby when it has been shown to have circumvented the U.S. Department of Justice’s Foreign Agents Registration Act? Though Walt and Mearsheimer effectively challenge the way the Israel lobby grants the Israeli state impunity, they undercut the power of their critique by giving the lobby itself impunity.
Carter, Walt, and Mearsheimer have made important advances against the Zionist apparatus. But their tepid and circumscribed criticism leaves untouched the main problem with Israel: that, driven by Zionism, it is compelled to commit human rights violations on an expanding scale. Plainly, we need a ruthless criticism of Israel, one that rejects taboos, goes to the heart of the matter, and refuses to grant Israel its impunity.
My 2007 book, “Overcoming Zionism,” tried to address this need by arguing, first, that since no state has an inherent right to exist, the court of world opinion is obliged to examine such right in the case of Israel; second, that such an examination discloses human rights abuses similar in kind and at least as great in degree as those for which the apartheid state of South Africa was deemed in need of transformation; and third, that people of good will should work, nonviolently, for the transformation of Israel into a democratic and secular, i.e., non-racist, state. Through a critical rejection of Zionism, therefore, I was arguing for the “one-state” solution. Indeed, as the two-state option (aside from its manifold practical obstacles) demands the retention of Israel as a Jewish state, with all its malign implications, there is no other option than a single, democratic and secular state for those who place human rights and universal values in the foreground of their belief.
I expected that this would not find favor with the establishment, and I was right. My book received the full deck of hostile neglect. It was rejected time and time again by publishers in the United States, often rudely and out of hand, as well as by literary agents. It was kept out of libraries (not one copy circulates throughout the vast system of the New York Public Libraries), and it has been shunned en masse by reviewers in mainstream print publications, including those on the left.
Two instances deserve some elaboration. “Overcoming Zionism” was originally viewed with considerable interest by a senior editor at the University of California Press. However, about a month into the vetting process she wrote me in distress that she would have to withdraw her provisional offer as it was proving impossible to get the manuscript past the press’s faculty board. She shared with me a letter of rejection, redacting the author’s name but assuring me that he was a prominent critic of Israel and a person with “very progressive politics.” The grounds for rejection had essentially nothing to do with intellectual or scholarly merit. Rather, it was that:
I fear that this book would give intellectual credence to political forces that will retard, rather than advance, the chances of peace. I believe it will harden ideological divisions between defenders and critics of Israel. Rather than “offer[ing] a way for Jews to reclaim the universality buried beneath tribalism and exceptionalism” and thereby “help[ing] people break loose from this trap,” [claims made in my description of the project] I fear the impact of this book will be just the opposite. It will just make things more difficult for progressive Zionists like Michael Lerner, who largely agree with Kovel regarding the horrendous policies of the Israeli government, but make a distinction between Zionism as a legitimate national liberation struggle and the racism of Israeli policies.
In sum, the reviewer felt that I went too far in questioning the basic legitimacy of Zionism, and thereby made life difficult for soft Zionists. Thus “Overcoming Zionism” would have to be silenced so that soft Zionism could continue to have its moment in the sun. The “progressive,” compelled as he twice says by fear, was arguing that a great university press could not afford to publish a radical critique. So much for the free play of ideas.
I decided to turn abroad to the more open intellectual climate of the U.K., and soon found Pluto Press of London willing to publish “Overcoming Zionism.” This meant that it needed a U.S. distributor, for which purpose Pluto had contracted some years before with another great university press, that of the University of Michigan. For a while all went as anticipated. “Overcoming Zionism” was greeted with the expectable blank silence from established sources. Meanwhile I did what I could to promote it through alternative channels—internet, speaking engagements at small venues and in solidarity networks, interviews on community radio stations, and the like.
In July 2007, Pluto informed me that despite the blackout, sales were proceeding briskly; “Overcoming Zionism” was not about to wither away from malign neglect but was being nourished from below. The Zionist thought police must have concluded the same, and with alarm, because on August 13 an outlet near the University of Michigan, StandWithUs/Michigan (considered a branch of the Campus Watch movement, under the leadership of the well-known hard Zionist, Daniel Pipes), released in its newsletter a broadside against me and my “ruthless criticism” of Israel, as well as against Pluto Press. Among the charges:
The book is a collection of anti-Israel propaganda, misquotes, and discredited news stories, and is carried forward throughout by declared contempt for Judaism and its adherents. . . . Overcoming Zionism is a wholly unscholarly propaganda text, a rambling negation of every aspect of Israeli society, and a near complete restatement of Israel’s history. It is published by the radical left Pluto Press of London, England . . . and distributed in the United States exclusively by the University of Michigan Press (UMP).
StandWithUs-Michigan contacted the office of UMP director Phil Pochoda last week, making repeated requests for a statement regarding the book and the reason for its distribution by UMP. To date no statement or response has been provided by the director.
That was swiftly to change. Three days later, Pochoda, after promising me on the phone that UMP would resist this effort to suppress the right of free speech, wrote to say that he had caved in . . . Well, no, he wouldn’t say that. He put it, rather, that “Overcoming Zionism” was so vile a work as to be unfit for human consumption:
Because it is a distributed title for Pluto Press, no one at UMP had read Overcoming Zionism prior to the Stand/With/Us diatribe. I and others read it after that assault, and had fully expected to gear up for, at least, a free speech defense. Though I had no trouble with the one-state solution your book proposes nor with a Zionist critique, per se—we had, after all, proudly and successfully published Virginia Tilley—I (and faculty members I asked to read the book, as well) were apalled [sic] by your reckless, viscious [sic], and unmodulated attack on Zionism and all Zionists. For us, the issue raised by the book is not free speech but hate speech. Perhaps such vituperative and aggressive rhetoric works for the barricades, but it cannot be countenanced or underwritten by the university or the university press, even in this peripheral, distributed capacity.
Even worse for me, as a result of your book, the university is in the process of reassessing our relation as a whole to Pluto (and that has been a four year relationship that I have cherished, both personally and professionally). While that review goes on (and I am only marginally involved), we have ceased shipping Overcoming Zionism.
The rest of this story can be told briefly: an organization sprang up in September 2007 called the Committee for the Open Discussion of Zionism (see www.CODZ.org). Responding to the efforts of certain Zionist organizations in the U.S. to suppress criticism of Israel and/or Zionism, it defended the rights of “Overcoming Zionism” and Pluto Press. As a result, the book was restored to circulation, with grave reservations being expressed by the faculty board of UMP as to its worth. The attack then shifted to Pluto, whose contract with UMP was threatened. A massive letter-writing campaign ensued, protecting Pluto’s rights for a while, but these were threatened again in November, when several regents of the university weighed in on the side of repression. UMP’s formal ties with Pluto were broken in May, 2008, when the contract was terminated as of the end of 2008 on the transparently hypocritical grounds that Pluto did not properly vet manuscripts. Some lessons:
• “Overcoming Zionism” has continued to sell modestly yet steadily, and indeed was helped by the attention aroused by its banning, which substituted at one level for an actual review by stating in effect that the work was important enough to warrant suppression. At another level, the lack of such a review, at least in the mainstream press, meant that the charges hurled at the book (none quoting, by the way, any actual instances of what I wrote) could not be substantiated. Those charges—hate speech, vituperative and aggressive rhetoric, anti-Israel propaganda, misquotes, discredited news stories, declared contempt for Judaism, wholly unscholarly, etc., etc.—are mere mud-slinging, though it must be added that sometimes mud can have considerable weight.
• UMP had indeed published a book highly critical of Israel and advocating its transformation, Virginia Tilley’s “The One State Solution.” This is an excellent work which I cite approvingly in “Overcoming Zionism.” What distinguished the two cases is that my book was attacked by the Zionist apparatus and Tilley’s, for reasons unknown, was not. The point is, that the director of UMP accepted the legitimacy of the Zionist inquisitor and revealed himself to be a soft Zionist for whom criticism of Israel is possible so long as it does not go “too far.” But what is too far? Is it that which arouses an irrational and vindictive panic in certain liberals? And who is to determine “too far?” The liberal Zionists? The hard Zionists who launch the attacks? Surely these are not adequate criteria.
• What we need is the realization that although all living beings have an inherent right to exist with dignity, ideas do not hold any such right. If an idea can be proven destructive to living beings then it should be combated and destroyed, as the idea of slavery and the innate inferiority of women have been destroyed. This is often not an easy matter to decide, whence we need to install the grounds for full and open inquiry, and honor and protect those ideas that run against the grain.
At the practical level, both fear and the desire for revenge have to be overcome. This happens to the degree that we reach out and achieve a universal, as against a tribal or chauvinist, perspective. For the critique of Zionism—the case at hand and, it may be added, a very bad idea—it is necessary to reach out to comprehend how we have gone astray and make it part of our being. The unity of the Christian West and Zionist Israel is given in their common history of eliminating indigenous people and using lofty and pseudo-spiritual values to justify this. The failure to confront and overcome this history is shown in racism and the foundation myths of conquering societies. Once we reach out beyond these limits, we can recover what has been lost. There is nothing to fear then. No need for impunity—just the taking of responsibility for what we have done and who we have become.
With this, we can begin to change. ?
Joel Kovel, a retired medical doctor, is Professor of Social Studies at Bard College in Annandale, N.Y.