Israel’s Soul

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As I mentioned yesterday, Alvin Rosenfeld begins his essay “Progressive Jewish Thought and the New Anti-Semitism” with several harrowing pages on the state of Muslim anti-Semitism. From there he, commendably, suggests that criticizing Israel’s policies in the West Bank and Gaza is “in itself, not anti-Semitic.”

What is anti-Semitic? Questioning the very genesis of the State.

Here Rosenfeld raises a point that’s very much worth sitting on. He correctly points out that for many on the Left, the problems with Israel have less to do with 1967 (i.e. the West Bank and Gaza) and more to do with 1948 (i.e. the very creation of the State). Thus he begins this section of the article with his first “progressive” Jew, Jacqueline Rose, who he quotes as writing “the soul of the nation was forfeit from the day of its creation.”

I’ve never read Rose’s work, but assuming the quotes Rosenfeld takes from her are representative, I think much of the critique he levels against her is justified. “We take Zionism to be a form of collective insanity,” writes Rose, and indeed, statements like this do echo with bias other than political justice and academic rigor.

Similarly, I’ve never read the work of Michael Neumann, but Rosenfeld seems justified in calling him out, as well. Writes Neumann, “we should almost never take anti-Semitism seriously and maybe we should have some fun with it.” The quotes from Rose and Neumann feel like they’re launched with aggression and hate, and though I would need to read more, Rosenfeld does lay the groundwork for an anti-Semitism charge against these Jews.

But back to Rose’s first point: 1948. From my brief interactions with those affiliated with “the international Left” who work on Israeli/Palestinian issues, Rosenfeld’s diagnosis is correct. They are not, ultimately, concerned with the West Bank and Gaza, but see the creation of Israel as part of a colonial enterprise that gave Arab land to white Europeans.

Of course, the problem with this position isn’t that it’s an outright fabrication (clearly, there’s at least a little truth to it). The problem is that it’s an utter simplification, and I would venture to say, the only categorical sin in discussing Israeli/Palestinian issues is transforming an unfathomably complicated conflict into something simple and obvious. So let’s go back to Rosenfeld’s paradigmatic progressive quote. Jacqueline Rose: “the soul of the nation was forfeit from the day of its creation.”

Looking at this idea honestly, I would say: Certainly it wasn’t forfeit. But was it compromised? Surely. What nation state comes into existence with a clean soul? Without blood and suffering? Would Rosenfeld object as vociferously if Rose claimed that the soul of the United States was forfeit from the day of its creation? But, of course, its soul was tarnished, too. In fact, I would venture to say that the Native American blood that fertilized our freedom and liberty has left the United States with a soul exponentially darker than Israel’s.

Israel’s genesis did not occur in a universe of absolute justice, many people — Jews and non-Jews — suffered for it. But that doesn’t mean its genesis was not justified.

My point: Rosenfeld and Rose suffer from the same malady: simplifying the infinitely complex. Rose seems to be the greater transgressor in this match-up, but ultimately Rosenfeld’s article — for all the truth mixed into it — fails on this account, as well. If ever there were a topic that needed all of our capacities to make distinctions, it’s this one.

(For those who want to read even more, Mobius over at Jewschool has collected a list of other articles that reflect upon the Rosenfeld paper.)

Posted on February 8, 2007

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15 thoughts on “Israel’s Soul

  1. Ezekah

    Superfobby

    If you were an person that understood any history at all, then you would realize how silly your post is. At no point in the entire history of the world has there ever been a Palestinian country.

  2. The Doctor

    And furthermore, there was a country called palestine. It’s capital was Jerusalem, it’s paper was the Palestine Post, and it was run by the British Mandate. The people who lived there, Jews and Arabs, were Palestinians.

    Setting the story a little bit straighter…

  3. mbczion

    בס’’ד

    Editor-In-Chief wrote:
    “I’ve been trying to think about these issues for a long time, and I admit, until relatively recently, I too would have brought up the Arab rejection of the partition plan as proof that much of the blame was to be pointed there. But Sam’s empathetic thought experiment is very insightful: If we were on the other side, what would we have done?”

    With all due respect, would have, could have, should have. If we were one of the 700,000 Jewish refugees who fled from the many Arab countries that they lived in for scores of generations (many with only the clothers on their back) what would we have done? Well, we don’t have to fathom because we have the answer- integrated into Israel and made a life for ourselves. Now, it is time for these “Palestinians” to do the same (i.e. integrate into one of their 22 countries, especially Jordan which is 70% “Palestinian”).

    Also, just setting the story a little bit straighter….

    מנחם בן צבי הכהן

  4. Superfobby

    I think that your view of many leftists as concerned with 1948 is correct.

    But I think moderate Zionists need to stop reacting to this as if it were a tremendously shocking affront, like someone raping their grandmother, and start to think about it beyond the usual platitudes: “They rejected the partition plan!” and so on.

    The truth is, the issue is not “1967″ or “1948″ – it goes back before both of those, perhaps all the way back to 1917, when the mainstream of the Zionist movement decided that it would be acceptable to conduct the Zionist project under a British colonial aegis. I find that it is helpful to perform this simple thought experiment: if you were Palestinian Arab in 1947, and all the countries around you had slowly been achieving independence from the British or French Mandates, and only your country lagged behind because the British had decided they would give… say, half of it to the Zionists – would you be more likely to say, “well, sure, let them have half of our country?” Or would you say, “they don’t even have a majority in the part of the country partitioned for them?! Why should we move elsewhere for this European project to take our land and give it to Jews?”

    If you were a Palestinian Arab of truly extraordinary sensitivity and empathy, you might have been able to try to understand the Jewish side of the story at that time. But there was precious little of that type of empathizing going on. And today, unfortunately, as shown by Rosenfeld’s paper, that remains the case.

  5. The Doctor

    Superfobby,

    Don’t misinterpret. I was responding to the comment that there had never been a Palestine. I however deeply disagree with the premise that the Arab population has or ever had exclusive claim to the land. Their revisionist historians still haven’t got it right or they would be talking about the previously occupied [1948-1967] territories, instead of the misnomer “occupied territories.”

  6. Israel

    [superfobby]The truth is, the issue is not “1967″ or “1948″ – it goes back before both of those, perhaps all the way back to 1917,

    The truth is that the issue really has nothing to do with anything but whats going on NOW. Right NOW there are 6 million Jews in Israel. They aren’t going to leave anytime soon. Any Arab that starts mouthing off about who was there first is wasting time. Any Jew who does the same is also wasting time. We have to look at Israel NOW and understand that the only way Israel is going to survive is if we finish building that wall, get the army back up to the level it was at when it could properly win because thats really where they belong.

    ישראל

  7. Israel

    [superfobby] if you were Palestinian Arab in 1947, and all the countries around you had slowly been achieving independence from the British or French Mandates, and only your country lagged behind because the British had decided they would give… say, half of it to the Zionists – would you be more likely to say, “well, sure, let them have half of our country?” .

    “Our Country”? What “country”? You must be talking about Jordan, right? Isn’t that where the “palestinians” should call home? What are you talking about?

    ישראל

  8. Daniel Septimus Post author

    Well, I don’t think that’s in the spirit of respectful debate, Ezekah. I thought Sam’s post was incredibly thoughtful. Even if we want to play by your rhetorical rules, when Sam says “country” he’s referring to the piece of land that the UN was dividing up.

    I’ve been trying to think about these issues for a long time, and I admit, until relatively recently, I too would have brought up the Arab rejection of the partition plan as proof that much of the blame was to be pointed there. But Sam’s empathetic thought experiment is very insightful: If we were on the other side, what would we have done?

  9. Superfobby

    Ezekah: Daniel Septimus and The Doctor have both captured my meaning. Before the Ottoman Empire collapsed, none of the countries in the Levant were marked out as separate countries, precisely because they were imperial provinces. After the Ottoman collapse, post-WWI, the British and the French drew their lines in the sand and created the various Middle Eastern countries we have today: Transjordan, Iraq, Lebanon, etc. In each of those countries, then, the Arab populations had to use their time under the Mandate system to prepare for independence. There was, for a while, a question about whether Syria and Palestine would be assimilated into one country, but when the French decided to depose Faisal and assume more direct control there, the Palestinian Arab leaders who had been contemplating the possibility dropped it and realized they had to focus on achieving independence for Palestine alone, just as their counterparts were doing elsewhere.

    The difference in Palestine was that the British would not simply negotiate with the Arabs on an eventual transfer of power, because they had already promised to give part of the land to another group, namely, the Zionists.

    So, it’s correct to point out that there was not an *independent* Palestine, but under the British Mandate there was certainly a Palestine, and the Palestinian Arab population certainly had reason to expect that they would achieve independence and control there as their counterparts were elsewhere in the Middle East. It was only Zionism and the British mishandling of the Mandate that prevented that from coming to pass.

    p.s. Where did you get “Superfobby” from?

  10. Superfobby

    israel – when people live somewhere, they think of it as their country.

    since jordan had already been marked out by british colonial pens on random maps, the people who didn’t live there didn’t think of it as their country.

    it’s not that hard.

    p.s. ok – weird – i’m logged in now from a different computer and it shows “superfobby” as my posting name. at home, my email address showed up as my posting name. well, i don’t know why that is, but at least it clears up where other people got the word from (it was my old IM name and i didn’t recall choosing it as my posting name here, but guess i did!)

  11. Israel

    [superfobby]israel – when people live somewhere, they think of it as their country. since jordan had already been marked out by british colonial pens on random maps, the people who didn’t live there didn’t think of it as their country.

    So you don’t think that “palestinians” living in Jordan have a justifiable claim to jordan and/or claim to renaming it “palestine” and re-annexing the west bank the way jordan did in 1950?

    Or are we just going to concentrate on the plight of the “palestinians” as it pertains to the jewish state?

    ישראל

  12. Israel

    [Community Manager]Ok, I have to bite here…

    Echoing Sam — “Where did you get “Superfobby” from? “

    And why, Israel, are you using it too?

    -Jason

    Jason,

    Are you asking me why I am using “Israel” as my name?

    ישראל

  13. Jason Brzoska

    >Are you asking me why I am using “Israel� as my name?

    Nope. You’d called him “Superfobby,” and his screen name was appearing to me as something else. Turns out it was because of a technical glitch, which has since been fixed.

    -Jason

  14. Pingback: Blogs of Zion » Jews who get off on being Holier-Than-Israel

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