Thursday, December 18

Palestinian statelessness is an American Jewish achievement.

Philip Weiss

Avraham Burg has urged me not to argue about Zionism but to talk about the future and what everyone can do. Nice. Last week Avraham said in New York that God made man out of polemics. Even nicer. And so today I'm going to argue more about Zionism. The most elusive part of Avraham's book is that it's exalted, he's doing a vision quest for the Jewish and Israeli future. I love vision quests, and god knows Avrum's a prophet. But no one is going to effect change without talking about real conditions, and those conditions are (per the UN's special rapporteur) the absence of the rights of speech, movement, employment and even the right to life for Palestinians in the West Bank, and their confinement in Gaza under horrifying conditions, blockaded in an open-air prison. Children drinking water contaminated by sewage, and the U.S. is complicit in this brutal confinement, which is known across the Arab world.

Interesting that our little colloquium on Avrum's book includes a couple Israelis, me an anti-Zionist Jew, a leading critic of Israel in John Mearsheimer, but no Arabs. No big surprise. They get very little standing in the U.S.

To talk about this stuff without talking about Zionism is intellectual puffery. Avrum seems to put himself forward as a post-Zionist. Good for him. I want to get there too. But Zionism is a central poltical fact of life right now. It is the most important movement in Jewish life in the last 100 years, more important to Jewish life than Communism. In the early 20th century it enthralled the eastern European Jews who immigrated to the U.S., my ancestors, with its dream of Jewish power--the revolutionary idea that Bernard Avishai talked about the other day here--and it soon enfolded the older German Jews in the U.S. Though when Avishai talks about the revolutionary ideas of the 40s and 50s that have outlived their usefulness, readers must be aware that Avraham Burg's idol, and mine, the great Hannah Arendt, was not on board. She was a frequent critic of Zionism's discriminatory ideas back when. And some Jewish bodies in the U.S. held out too, largely out of concern about the dual-loyalty issue (concerns borne out by the neocons and the Iraq war). As late as '52 Jacob Blaustein the Standard Oil man who headed the American Jewish Committee was angered with David Ben-Gurion over the Law of Return--which allows me to move to Israel tomorrow while a Palestinian who was born in pre-48 Israel and turned out of his property and home has no right to do so.

Zionism won over the entire American Jewish establishment and built the Israel lobby. No discussion of these issues is complete without talking about American Jewish influence on U.S. foreign policy. Avrum's book is great because he describes this fact of life openly, frankly. He deserves tremendous credit for breaking a seal that when gentiles broke it, they were castigated: Walt and Mearsheimer, in their groundbreaking paper and book of '06 and '07. And Avrum to his great credit has welcomed Mearsheimer, a brilliant scholar. A commenter on my post the other day was disturbed that I would put the issue of Jewish influence "in play." As if I am calling for pogroms. No: I am trying to talk about the real political conditions that have created a situation in which 4 million Palestinians have no rights. U.S. Jewish leadership bears a great measure of the responsibility for these realities. Blind to Palestinian suffering, that leadership has enforced American government adherence to Israel for 60 years, pushing American Arabists such as former Sec'y of State George Marshall out of the picture. Jewish leadership did this with good old back channels, money, and armtwisting. Even Abba Eban used the words "pressure" and "influence" when describing the ways that wealthy American Jews engaged Truman and JFK. You can look it up on my blog.

Back to the Law of Return and Right of Return. I believe Dan Levy complimented Avrum for his idea that there must be some acknowledgment of the Nakba, the dispossession of 700,000 Palestinians by the yishuv (the prestate community) and the state of Israel in '48. Burg seeks a spiritual reckoning that will precede the negotiation of the right of return of those refugees in the alleged peace process. Levy and Burg are right, and prophetic. I have said so myself: It is essential that Jews recognize this suffering and ethnic cleansing. That Israel recognize it too. As our suffering was acknowledged by the world after the Holocaust.

But let us also register the absurdity of the statement. It is 60 years on, and there is no recognition at all of the Nakba by the American Jewish leadership, and I believe Tzipi Livni has also been dismissive of the very idea. Do we want the Serbs to recognize the ethnic cleansing of the Kosovars? Yes. Do we want the Turks to recognize the genocide of the Armenians? Of course we do. Are they doing so? Of course not. States with something to lose don't behave like that. But that cannot stop us, as Americans, from doing the right thing and recognizing it. Waiting for the Israelis to in any way acknowledge Palestinian suffering--well, that is their business, and they have done a lousy job of it, and as an American Jew I feel in no way implicated by their abuses. Last week Avrum was on a panel at the New York Public library with American-Israeli historian Omer Bartov when Bartov said, with a twinkle of the eye, Well now the Palestinians have their "Treblinka," too. It was a clear, and nasty, reference to efforts by the Palestinians to claim acknowledgment of dispossession and ethnic cleansing and massacres (not genocide). Avrum said nothing when Bartov made this offensive statement. I imagine the Turks say this stuff about the Armenians, and the Serbs about the Kosovars.

I bring up the Kosovars for a reason. They have a state. Just a few years after the Kosovo Liberation Army participated in terrorist activities across the former Yugoslavia, Kosovo has a state recognized by the U.S. And India and Pakistan, which were partitioned 61 years ago, both have states notwithstanding a lot of ethnic cleansing, political violence and landgrabbing between them. And the Shi'ites and Sunnis are members in good standing of the Iraqi government, in American eyes, notwithstanding the fact that Sunnis did a ton of suicide bombing in the last couple years.

I hope you see where this is going. The U.N. said that the Palestinian Arabs were to have a state on 44 percent of Palestine 60 years ago. Unlike the Kosovars, the Pakistanis, the Indians, the Iraqis, they have never had political self-representation, and their percentage of land is shrinking by the day to the point where 22 percent of historical Palestine in two fragments is held out as some great prize. Lately the president of the General Assembly said this failure, to produce a state for the Palestinians, was the greatest failing of the U.N. And Rahm Emanuel and the entire American Jewish establishment have again and again said they don't deserve a state because they are not "true partners." (In the same way that Jimmy Carter shouldn't talk about Palestine because he doesn't know enough). The Palestinians have never been good enough or virtuous enough to deserve the right of self-determination. By this standard, there would be no government in Kosovo, Pakistan, India, or Baghdad.

This leads us back to Zionism and the support for Zionism in the U.S. power structure. And it leads us ultimately to Jewish identity. As Mearsheimer wrote on TPM the other day, responding to Avrum's powerful ideas about the Shoah: owing to the inculcation of the Holocaust in Jewish life, "the result is that Israelis (and most American Jews for that matter) cannot think straight about the world around them. They think that everyone is out to get them, and that the Palestinians are hardly any different than the Nazis... if there was less emphasis on the Holocaust, Israelis would change their thinking about 'others' in fundamental ways." Absolutely true.

The Israel lobby is a historic expression of Jewish power in the U.S. That power comes out of feelings of utter powerlessness brought on by the Holocaust. My family and millions of other American Jews felt that the U.S. had abandoned the Jews in the Holocaust. As a result, the American Jewish community has never fully trusted the U.S. government since. And so it built the Israel lobby and committed the U.S. to support for Israel and to the nullification of basic rights for "others": the Palestinians. The statelessness of the Palestinians is an American Jewish achievement. One of Hitler's bitterest effects, Norman Mailer said, was reducing Jews to the ethnocentric question: Is it good for the Jews? Even as we have become what Avrum rightly describes as the most powerful minority in America.The spiritual/political challenge for American Jews today is to recognize that we have power in the U.S. because of the separation of church and state and the guarantees of liberty for minorities that our great country has established through tremendous ordeals--and meanwhile we rubbish those very liberties in Israel and Palestine for people who are different from us. It is time for the Jewish community to wake up, and for the U.S. to bring American ideals to Israel/Palestine.

I recognize that Jeremy Ben-Ami, Bernard Avishai, Dan Levy, John Mearsheimer, and Avrum Burg have all been playing essential roles in this, essentially prophetic, work, and I'm thankful to them all.


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