Tuesday 20 April 2004

Zionism's Bad Conscience

by Joel Kovel

Let me begin with some blunt questions, the harshness of which matches the situation in Israel/ Palestine. How have the Jews, immemorially associated with suffering and high moral purpose, become identified with a nation-state loathed around the world for its oppressiveness toward a subjugated indigenous people?

Why have a substantial majority of Jews chosen to flaunt world opinion in order to rally about a state that essentially has turned its occupied lands into a huge concentration camp and driven its occupied peoples to such gruesome expedients as suicide bombing? Why does the Zionist community, in raging against terrorism, forget that three of its prime ministers within the last twenty years—Begin, Shamir and Sharon—are openly recognized to have been world-class terrorists and mass murderers?

And why will these words just written—and the words of other Jews critical of Israel—be greeted with hatred and bitter denunciation by Zionists and called "self-hating" and "anti-Semitic"? Why do Zionists not see, or to be more exact, why do they see yet deny, the brutal reality that this state has wrought?

The use of the notion of denial here suggests a psychological treatment of the Zionist community. But in matters of this sort, psychology is only one aspect of a greater whole that includes obdurate facts like forceful occupation of land claimed by and once inhabited by others. The phenomena of conscience are of course processed subjectively. But they neither originate within the mind nor remain limited to thoughts and feelings. Conscience is objective, too, and linked to notions like justice and law that exist outside of any individual will. It is also collective, and pertains to what is done by the group in whose membership identity is formed. These group phenomena are, we might say, organized into "moral universes," in which history, mythology, and individual moral behaviors are brought together and made into a larger whole. Such universes may themselves be universalizing, wherein that whole is inclusive of others, who are seen as parts of a common humanity (or for non-human creatures, nature). Or, as all too often happens, they may be unified only by splitting apart of the moral faculties.

Now, the situation prevailing in Israel/Palestine is that common humanity is denied, the Other is not recognized, and the double standard prevails. In such conceptions, which have stained history since the beginning and comprise one of the chief impediments to the making of a better world, talion law reigns, violence toward the Other is condoned, and violence from the Other is demonized. Like the realms of matter and anti-matter, each such moral universe is paired with that of its adversary. But such mirroring does not imply moral equivalence; that is settled according to the rules of justice. In this instance there should be no doubt that those who have dispossessed others and illegally occupy their national lands have to bear prime culpability.

This is not meant to excuse such Palestinian or Arab wrongdoings as have arisen in the course of the struggle—which would be a denial of moral agency—but it provides context for understanding the conflict at a deeper level and obliges us to look with special care at the curious situation of the Jews. Despite the innumerable variations between different fractions of Judaism, here certain unique historical forces have shaped a common dilemma and played a crucial role in the unfolding of Zionism.

Jews were supposed to know better, to be better.

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