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Israel

Practicing Anti-Semitism, in Theory

Just over a week ago, on August 17, the Los Angeles Review of Books (LARB) published a review of Deconstructing Zionism: a Critique of Political Metaphysics, a collection of essays edited by Gianni Vattimo and Michael Marder. Vattimo is the Italian philosopher who, during the current Israel-Hamas conflict, has made clear once again his sympathy for Hamas and expressed his desire to “shoot those bastard Zionists,” who he considers “worse than Nazis.” His anti-Semitic tendencies are on record (a reevaluation of the claims of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion). The collection brings together the less and the more well-known voices who theorize anti-Zionism and make of the Jew, among all ethnic, racial, and religious groups a generic and cultural category of thought, so that one may speak of them, in contrast to Estonians or Hindus, let’s say, in terms not of what they empirically are or choose to be, but what, symbolically and thematically, some collection of philosophers and professors of literature theorize they should be.

LARB has become, since it’s inception two years ago, a varied and vibrant addition to the American literary scene. Among all of the review’s riches, I had hoped to see in any coverage of Israel-Palestine something different from the standard Israel-centric critique found at the New York Review of Books. This has not turned out be the case, and when LARB assigned its review of Deconstructing Zionism to David Lloyd, a leading member of the organizing collective for the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, I felt compelled to comment. What follows below is the full exchange (as of this writing) between me and Jonathan Hahn, LARB’s executive editor, and Tom Lutz, LARB’s editor-in-chief. For a very different kind of review of Deconstructing Zionism, see the review by Gabriel Noah Brahm at fathom journal.

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the sad red earth • 5 days ago

How unfortunate that LARB, which conceives itself an alternative point of departure from that of NYRB, follows now the same backslapping intellectual fashion, travels irresponsibly the same facile political current, not of anti-nationalism, but of irredeemably racist anti-Zionism. Faced with the job of reviewing a collection of essays that attack the very legitimacy of Israeli nationalism among all others, LARB’s editors choose for the task not some critic who might challenge the foundations of the book’s agonistic ideology, but one of the few people who might actually find the volume wanting in its efforts to deconstruct Zionism, judging them both – Zionism and deconstruction, as it were – too Jewish, the collection, in the end, insufficiently Palestinian. Who criticizes the book for mimicking the “creative contortions” of “liberal Zionist critiques.” (If Lenin did not actually say, after Dick the butcher, “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the liberals,” he surely did it.) Who bemoans the editors’ perceived “anxiety” – despite their “robust anticipation” of them – over charges of anti-Semitism. Who thinks the editors, therefore, too apprehensive before the prospect of truly essentializing Jewish racism, in what is “a singularly Jewish political philosophy and enterprise.” Who finds of the marker “Jews of Conscience” (“good Jews”) only that it is “somewhat polemic.”

Not enough that LARB should consider this production an expression of its mission, but that it should offer it, too, without any acknowledgement of its provenance – that its primary editor champions and wishes militarily to support an expressly, by covenant, anti-Semitic and genocidal organization. That he has wished publically for the deaths of Israelis, and that he has professed to change his mind about the truth of the notoriously fraudulent and anti-Semitic Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The reviewer thinks these realities, no doubt, too genuinely praximatic to include informatively amid the theorizing. LARB’S editors find it unnecessary to append.

Instead, we find entertained and performed the usual diffuse, vatic logorrhea by which, through persistent metaphorical fallacy, a body made a bomb is thought to enact freedom and a person sitting at a bus stop is conceived as committing violence. (Imagine here a parenthetical reference to Adorno or Gramsci, a neologism scraped and dusted out of etymology, a new obscure infinitive.)

  • JonathanHahn Mod  the sad red earth • 4 days ago

    Dear Sad Red Earth,

    We appreciate you posting your concerns, and understand that Dr. Lloyd’s views as expressed here are controversial. We are committed to airing the important debates of our time, and they cannot be aired without allowing people on very different sides of the debate to have their say. The views Dr. Lloyd expresses here do not represent our magazine, nor do the views of any of the many writers we have published on the Middle East, whether they be controversial or not. Our mission is to engage our readers in conversation, and this essay is one part of that effort. We are glad you took the time and effort to share your views.

    Sincerely,
    Jonathan Hahn, Executive Editor, Los Angeles Review of Books

    • the sad red earth  JonathanHahn • 3 days ago

      Dear Mr. Hahn,

      Thank you for your reply. Of course, one should not presume the views of individual writers to represent those of the journal publishing them. However, publications make editorial decisions. These individual decisions are choices among multiple possible alternative decisions, all of which, compiled, may or may not offer evidence of a perspective on the part of the journal, a shaping inclination toward a subject. What does available evidence seem to show about LARB?

      An unscientific but not, algorithmically, random survey by Google search of “Los Angeles Review of Books” and “Israel” turns up the following among the first three pages of results. Foremost, we find the March forum entitled “Academic Activism: Israelis, Palestinians, and the Ethics of Boycott,” in which eight participants, four pro and four con, offered their views on an academic boycott of Israel. As your introduction attested, “We facilitated this forum at the urging of David Palumbo-Liu, a supporter of the BDS movement, in the hopes that it would engender a more informed understanding on these and many related questions.” Why did Palumbo-Liu urge such a forum? What was the “more informed understanding” he sought? Only he knows his mind and motivation, but as a leading academic activist against the State of Israel, and in support of an academic boycott, he could hardly have hoped that such a forum would lower the profile of his cause. In a nation overwhelmingly supportive of Israel, in its origins and struggles, any broader publication of anti-Zionist argument, even against opposing voices, could only, rather, raise the profile of the boycott cause. LARB provided that opportunity. As it turned out, too, only one of the eight participants availed himself of a rebuttal, a last word – Palumbo-Liu.

      Of the nine additional results clearly identifiable as political in nature, three – unflattering depictions of Israel all – are among a series of essays by professed anti-Zionist Ben Ehrenreich. One is by Alex Kane, an assistant editor of the rabidly anti-Zionist and profoundly anti-Semitic website Mondoweiss. One is a review of Ari Shavit’s My Promised Land : The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel, written by Omri Boehm, who has charged the IDF, among the world’s militaries, with immorality and who attacks Israel on the basis of reinterpreting the seminal Jewish myth of Abraham’s binding of Isaac for sacrifice. One is a Marginalia Channel essay opposing the Presbyterian Church USA’s divestment vote against Israel for no better reason than the author’s Jewish identification with Israel – and while nonetheless expressing sympathy for the Church’s complaints against the country. A second Marginalia Channel essay offers that it was Israel’s founding – and not, say, to choose two relatively modern examples, the genocidal anti-Semitism of Haj Amin al-Husseini or Sayyid Qutb – that “increasingly turned the concepts ‘Arab’ and ‘Jew’ into fundamental and irreconcilable opposites.” Then, to close, the one objective piece on Israel related matters, serving only to report, without favor to Israeli or Arab, is an account of – the MLA debate on an anti-Israel measure.

      Needless to point out that among these entries one will find no evidence of “very different sides of the debate” or of a “conversation.” What is normatively controversial and what is prejudicially beyond the pale of respectable debate – such as, one might wish, the singling out of one only among the world’s peoples, in their existing nation-state, as undeserving of self-determination – is a status to be mediated by innumerable human decisions and indecisions, such as the invisibility of any writing presenting an alternative view of the Arab-Israeli conflict. And then there was the choice of David Lloyd to review a collection of essays on deconstructing Zionism.

      A. Jay Adler
      Adjunct Professor of English; California State University, Dominguez Hills
      Lecturer in English, El Camino College
      Professor of English, Emeritus; Los Angeles Southwest College.

      • JonathanHahn Mod  the sad red earth • 3 days ago

        Dear Prof. Adler,

        We have published over 75 pieces, or an average of one every two weeks since founding LARB three years ago, related to Israel. The simplified algorithmic research you’ve relied on here of course does not reflect the scope of what we have published, but the pieces we’ve published that have caused the most talk — those that were pushed up in the Google ratings by the amount of readership, comment, reposting, citation, etc. It is entirely unsurprising that those pieces are the most hot-button ones, the ones that extreme partisans either champion or decry.

        We are always looking for subtle and nuanced analyses, and these are the kind of pieces that don’t tend to shoot up in the Google rankings: pieces that approach these issues in less direct ways — as in reviews of novels, for instance, or interviews with poets — that again, we feel are important, and yet you will not find these in the first three pages of Google results for your search. In fact, the first three pages that result from that search only include 4 pieces from LARB — the rest are posts (from The Jerusalem Post, for example, or sites called holylandprinciples, worldpoliticsreview, etc) where people are reacting to a small selection of our pieces. Using Google the way you do doesn’t prove our bias, it shows the bias of internet chatter.

        Your moniker in your first post — “the sad red earth” — references the blood spilled on that ground, and it is the history of violence and the ongoing violence that compels our attention, of course. As we all know too well, the loudest voices speak past each other, and we have attempted in various ways — as in our special series in which Jewish and Arab, Israeli and Palestinian poets spoke to each other, and in the forum on the academic boycott — to engage as many sides as possible in dialogue. In most cases these attempts fail, but we continue to try.

        You ask why David Palumbo-Liu urged a forum on the boycott. He is an activist, and obviously he wanted to argue for his position to our audience. But he did not choose the other participants or exercise any editorial control. And there is not a single publication that has brought together four such powerful voices against the boycott as we did. We also had four voices in favor. It is a shame, we think, too, that only Palumbo-Liu availed himself of our invitation to all participants (and to others) to respond to the other participants. But as a movement that has made large strides in institutional validation in a short time, we thought it was worthy of sustained attention.

        One of the reasons, of course, that people don’t always respond to arguments like those made in the forum — that is, one of the reasons the other participants didn’t respond further — is because the very language different sides use seems to make discussion impossible. For instance, to call Mondoweiss a “profoundly anti-Semitic” website as you do here — how can one respond to this? Founded by Jews, edited from “a progressive Jewish perspective,” with an emphasis on “Jewish American identity” — whatever one thinks of its politics, to call it profoundly anti-Semitic is simply to use the kind of rhetorical overkill that makes true conversation impossible. Does saying that imply agreement with Mondoweiss’s politics? No. Anti-Zionism, too, takes many different forms, in some cases based on a desire to eliminate Israel, yes. But for none of the writers you mention in your note is this the case: for Ben Ehrenreich, Alex Kane, Omri Boehm, and many other writers in our pages, it is based on a desire to stop the killing, or a desire to find a lasting resolution — a desire, in other words, for peace. Your charge that there is “an invisibility of any writing presenting an alternative view of the Arab-Israeli conflict” is, in fact, true only in that the majority of voices we have published on Israel are, in fact, Israeli and Jewish, and we have not published any piece by representatives of neo-Nazi parties, of Golden Dawn, of the Muslim Brotherhood, or other such parties that are anti-Semitic, anti-Zionist, and dedicated to the destruction of Israel. This is true of absolutely none of our writers.

        To that end the argument you are making here is a real disservice to the 75 writers we have published whose work revolves in some way around Israel, and who are not interested in hitting hot buttons, not trying to forward a particular political agenda, but instead are offering pieces of considered scholarship on the Middle East and its ancillary issues, pieces of engaged literary criticism, and personal, essayistic reflections. Your calculus of our bias takes a huge rolling pin and drags it over these writers, all of whom have worked with their full hearts and minds to produce the best work they can. While flattening out that work into a simplistic pro- or anti-Israel rubric may be exciting to some, it is not of interest to us: it does not represent our writers, nor our magazine, with any accuracy, nor is it informative to any reader who wants a true picture of the kind of magazine we’ve been, still are, and will continue to be.

        We say this knowing full well — we can read the argument in your comments here and in many pieces we have published in our pages — that for certain people to critique the idea of Zionism (or to critique Israel’s defense forces or government, or to support the right of the people of Gaza to self-determination) is akin to arguing for the destruction of Israel. We have pieces critiquing ideas of American exceptionalism, American foreign policy, American war policy, and American racism and yet we do not, by doing so, suggest the destruction of America. We treat none of this lightly; we enter this fray with our eyes open, and know very well, as we edit political debates, that we are editing the words of people who have buried their own parents and children, killed at the hands of others. We never forget this as we let writers have their say, and make their arguments. And perhaps we are naïve, holding to the belief that writing can have some force in human affairs, that the conversation, as we too easily call it, can make a difference — but we do.

        Sincerely,

        Tom Lutz, Editor in Chief, Los Angeles Review of Books
        Jonathan Hahn, Executive Editor, Los Angeles Review of Books

        • the sad red earth  JonathanHahn • a day ago

          Gentlemen,

          I am content to leave your properly fuller presentation of LARB’s engagement with the subject of Israel to answer my own, and to have the two provide together the picture that others might regard. Except.

          Except you endeavor to fill out the picture I paint with reference to “pieces that approach these issues in less direct ways — as in reviews of novels, for instance, or interviews with poets.” Herein lies a distinction I sought to make in culling from my search only those articles I thought clearly political, or what turned out to be, as you described them, hot button in nature. It is the heat that concerns us here – Zionism’s deconstructors and the BDS advocates, and those, like me, who seek to fight the fire they fan. For a life well lived, or at least examined, you and I fully agree on the value of reviews of novels and interviews with poets, and discussions about and among them. However, what these approaches represent on such a subject as Israel – political and hot button in itself to those roiled by the very fact of its existence, and because of how it has had to exist thus far – is, to appropriate a term from Foucault, a kind of soft humanism. The humanizing transformations of literature, when they come, are long in realization; the political coup, in contrast, may be swift and brutal, as would be, for instance, the advent of Hamas, on Israelis and all Jews, upon its being released from its containment. Poetry makes nothing happen, Auden told us in praise of Yeats, with some measure of irony, thought not enough irony to stop an Iranian missile smuggled through the Rafah crossing from being fired. One may bemoan in soulful outreach with one’s nominal enemy, in that soft human way, as writers and other artists may do, our common afflicted humanity and still, politically, seek “solutions” that entail the end of a nation-state for Jews. Soft humanism often accommodates that disjunction from politics in practice. Or if not, the prisons and the unmarked graves of history have been filled aplenty with literary folk who conceived it enough to raise themselves up alone above the strife of peoples and nations.

          There is a different frame for soft humanism, one probably closer to what Foucault had in mind in identifying exemplars in Stalinism and Christian democratic hegemony. One may find it here in Lloyd’s review and the tendency it represents. On the one hand, this tendency critiques through a postcolonial analysis that is focused on the operations of power and the conditions of oppressed marginality. On the other hand, it draws, in its appeals and sanctions, from the same Judeo-Christian originated humanistic well of moral righteousness as do many other ideas of human organization. So near the end, we have Lloyd citing favorably Judith Butler about “undoing sovereignty” and invoking, in Lloyd’s words, “the parameters of living with and in difference that Butler describes as cohabitation.” This represents the culmination of a strenuously theorized evangelical mush that spoons up a stupefying banality – that in seeking to rise above “the post-Westphalian formation of territorial states and sanctioned violence” we all need (who’d a thunk it) to love one another and treat each other as we would wish to be treated. And not to put too fine a point on it, but in that risky leap of faerie faith, Jews go first.

          Yet what more pernicious operation in its own right underlies this prophetic injunction to dwell all together in cohabitation? The sacrifice of the Jews. The sacrifice of the Jews in which “the effect of Zionism’s destruction of Judaism is to make of the Palestinians the Jews of the present, dispossessed, forced into exile… subjects of a continuing diaspora…. The singularity of the Jew transfers to the Palestinians…[.] in the ‘privileged’ critical position, that is, once occupied by the European Jew.” Whereas the more common contemporary anti-Semitic gesture is to shame Jews with the Holocaust by likening Israel and Zionism to Nazi Germany, applying the language of ghettos and concentration camps and genocidal holocaust and racialist supremacy to Israel and Jews – so that some presumed moral authority gained by suffering the ultimate historical victimization is bluntly used as a cudgel with which to beat – the anti-Zionist BDSing deconstructors will rather refine through theory so much special recognition of historical identity away, and deliver it over, even, to the Palestinians. What is left for the Jews? Butler will give them the supreme honor of enacting the moral high ground of eternal exile, as, in Zizek’s words, “the immediate embodiment of universality,” so as to symbolize the undoing of sovereignty.

          And it is all so highfalutin that one can persuade oneself of a disjunction between it and all the singling out that went historically before it for the Jews.

          In this light, the “engaged literary criticism, and personal, essayistic reflections” LARB publishes, of deep human value, are not a counterweight to the political warfare, disguised as intellectual critique, currently underway to undo a nation-state and a people’s self-determination. You believe you read in my comments here perspectives that do not, in fact, apply to me. I will not belabor this further comment by addressing that issue. This is not about me, but about what the true range of widely held and still compelling perspectives is on these issues. You do use the phrase to “critique the idea of Zionism,” which is vague enough in its application and import, and which does raise the question of special treatment of Jewish nationalism only. You appear to believe that anti-Zionism may be understood as not to entail the elimination of Israel – a phrase that in itself should strike the conscience terribly. That is a peculiar understanding. You aver that such a desire does not inhabit those writers I referenced last time. But at least as long ago as 2009 Ehrenreich published an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times entitled, “Zionism is the problem.” In it Ehrenreich quotes supportively Lessing J. Rosenwald, when the latter declared Zionism “the concept of a racial state — the Hitlerian concept.” The society Ehrenreich conjures in the piece is clearly not a Jewish state – not Israel. And as recently as March 20 of this year, Philip Weiss, founder of Mondoweiss, declared in a post at that site, “Israel is a blot on civilization.”

          About Mondoweiss, here we may well focus our disagreement best of all. You charge of my labeling it “profoundly anti-Semitic” that the label is “the kind of rhetorical overkill that makes true conversation impossible.” I think you read some overkill just above. I have been observing Mondoweiss for five years. I have written about it at my blog, the sad red earth (also my Twitter handle). I and other active defenders of Israel against the campaign of vilification against it know it well. You appear to think that because it is operated by, now, three Jews, and that it labels itself “progressive,” this is defense against declaring it what it manifestly is. Its closely moderated comments section, with which the principals engage, is profuse with demonization of Israel – of Zio-Nazi’s and Zio-supremacists – and of Judaism. Many of its published comments are indistinguishable from what may be found at Veteran’s Today or Stormfront. Its editorial direction is not ill represented by the words of Weiss above. Further, particularly in its early days, its founder was prone to revelatory posts evincing psychodramas of maternal, familial, and ethno-cultural discomfort and rejection. He is almost as interested in what he deems excesses of Jewish power in the United States as he is the blot on civilization.

          That Mondoweiss has been mainstreamed in some so-called progressive circles is as indicative of the problem that drew my initial comments as was the choice to assign David Lloyd to review Deconstructing Zionism. In an era in which every other kind of racism is being analyzed at degrees of depth and in ranges of complexity far beyond a simple slur or stereotype, institutionally and intersectionally, it is the very problem itself that only anti-Semitism is regularly reduced in the same quarters to nothing more than the time-honored tropes and preposterous libels, in a concerted refusal to recognize its modern and sophisticated mutations. One of the great embarrassments of the modern civilized world was the 1975 U.N. resolution declaring Zionism a form of racism – a resolution promoted by totalitarians states and supported by a slew of the world’s common dictatorships and overtly anti-Semitic Arab governments. So embarrassing was this stinking rose in the garden of human rights that in 1991, the U.N. was compelled to remove it. Now, in academic and progressive circles throughout the Western World, it is the height of intellectual fashion to make the same claim in theoretically abstruse prose or in cant political terminology and to dismiss charges of anti-Semitism with the same disdain for reaction to their racism as once emitted by bulbous sheriffs on torn Mississippi streets. When Daniel Patrick Moynihan delivered his grand and justly famous denunciation of U.N. resolution 3379, he scorned the “obscenity” of the U.N. declaration in part by the reductio ad absurdum of tracing the U.N.’s own faulty attempts to define racism, including as a form of Nazism, thereby providing grounds to call Zionism a form of Nazism. This is a claim that would fail to trouble many of Israel’s hyperbolic critics today, and it filters through the interstices of meaning from all the fancy critiques of Zionism that denounce it as racialist. See Ben Ehrenreich quoting Lessing J. Rosenwald.

          Quite simply, it should have been obvious that there was a whole world of true conversational challenge – different sides of the debate – that might have been brought to bear in a review of Deconstructing Zionism other than assigning the book to a shades of gray treatment over the genuineness of its deconstructive mode.

          Finally, a last word about the sad red earth. You extended the blog title and Twitter handle’s reference metaphorically in a direction I certainly find fitting. I found it so as well during my travels in Indian Country when people thought the name called our attention to that sad ground we walk upon. In fact, the phrase is from Kerouac’s On the Road. Sal Paradise walks the streets of Denver one dusk after a futile effort by Dean Moriarity to find his father. Says Paradise of his walk, “I felt like a speck on the surface of the sad red earth.” As are we all. That is the focus I try always to maintain in my own humanism and in the tension between it and the often monstrously grinding wheels of history and ideology.

          Sincerely,

          A. Jay Adler

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Response to Judith Butler at Brooklyn College

.

This commentary first appeared in the Algemeiner on February 15. 

Judith Butler and Omar Barghouti

The ironic and the disingenuous are kin. Their commonality resides in a gap, which is the distance between what is said and something else. With the ironic, the distance is between what one says and what one means. With the disingenuous, the distance is between what one says and what one has reason to recognize as true.

Judith Butler is not an ironist – not intentionally so, or perhaps only once, when she opened her remarks at Brooklyn College by referring to the controversy surrounding her appearance with Omar Barghouti at the Students for Justice in Palestine BDS event as a Megillah: “What a Megillah!” By these words Butler sought to wrap her appearance and the destructive impetus of BDS in the comfort of traditional Jewish experience – a tedium, like the tedium of all that Jewish disputation over the millennia, but by that fact merely a part of Jewish experience, just oystaynenzikh over coffee and some rugelach, and not thereby an outlier, something to fear or be rejected. No more than a variation on the time-honored tendency to hakn a tshaynik among the mishpucha.

Butler knew, however,that what she is about is not a comfort, that it would unravel the wrap, and that the arguments against her are so far from a tedium that she would spend all her words to misrepresent and seek to counter them.

Butler closed her remarks – it is the next to last sentence – so:

We can or, rather, must start with how we speak, and how we listen, with the right to education, and to dwell critically, fractiously, and freely in political discourse together.

She had opened her remarks by saying,

I would like personally to thank all those who took this opportunity to reaffirm the fundamental principles of academic freedom.

This of an event that was closed to the general public, to which the press was barred, and from which voices presumed to be dissenting were ejected.

What an ironist. How disingenuous.

Academic Freedom: What We’re Talking About

The Brooklyn College political science department claimed that to sponsor the event was not necessarily to endorse it. Much of the controversy surrounding the event has hung on this point even while missing it. It is a fine point still lacking – from the Brooklyn College political science department and anyone else who has written on the matter – an effective distinction.

To sponsor is to take responsibility for or to financially underwrite. To endorse is to express support or approval. To take responsibility for is one form of support. To financially underwrite is also a form of support. When the campus chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine sought co “sponsorship”of the event by the political science department, SJP did not, according to department chair Paisley Currah, seek and receive financial support for the event. Financial support raises other issues, but since there was none, they need not in this instance be addressed. Without funding from the department, what could the meaning of “sponsorship” be? Other than the college’s stating what it claims sponsorship is not – endorsement – what is it?

With no other practical purpose, sponsorship can only signal some form of endorsement.

But endorsement of what?

A university can stand in three relations to an idea. One is to agree with and promote it. Most people would argue that this is not the role of a university, but obviously, when one considers it, universities do agree with and promote the idea of free inquiry – academic freedom – and, arguably, a liberal education.

A university may represent ideas as worthy of intellectual regard. This is its primary role. In political philosophy, students learn of utilitarianism, Marxism, liberal democracy, anarcho-syndicalism, Plato’s enlightened autocracy. The university will serve as advocate for none of them, but moderate, instead, students’ encounter and engagement with these ideas.

A university will not represent all ideas as worthy of intellectual regard. It will not so represent Nazism or racism (not just the behavior, but a belief in racial superiority) or pederasty as an acceptable model of adolescent development. It is the precise role of the university, however, to acknowledge, in the appropriate context, all ideas and clarify them for educational purposes. In the appropriate classes, students will and should learn about Nazism, what it advocated and what it was. One can imagine the wavering commitment of many, though, were a branch of the Ku Klux Klan to establish a student group on the Brooklyn College Campus and invite David Duke (both a racist and anti-Semite) to speak, while also seeking the “sponsorship” of the political science department.

If Brooklyn College’s sponsorship was not fully of BDS as a position, an advocacy of it, the sponsorship was at least, then, of BDS as a morally respectable idea, so that a university would be fulfilling its proper role not only in acknowledging the idea’s existence and clarifying it for educational purposes, but actually in promoting the idea as worthy of our consideration and our moral intellectual regard and not beyond the pale.

However, when one rejects bias and discrimination and corrupt historical revisionism, such as Holocaust denial, one does not only reject them as supportable practices, but as ideas worthy of our serious engagement. The role of the university is to permit students who are led to engage an objectionable idea to so engage it, even, where appropriate, to educate them in its nature. In that is the academic freedom. Academic freedom does not require that the institution place an imprimatur of sponsorship upon an extra-mural event, an imprimatur that has no other, practical meaning but the symbolism of the sponsorship. The choice to provide such an imprimatur can only reasonably be interpreted as a signal that the ideas to be presented at the event are worthy of consideration. This Brooklyn College, in mischaracterizing the nature and responsibilities of academic freedom, disingenuously fails to acknowledge, as does Judith Butler, who actually does endorse BDS.

An Unreliable Narrator

“That there is no final or adequate narrative reconstruction of the prehistory of the speaking ‘I’ does not mean we cannot narrate it; it only means that at the moment when we narrate we become speculative philosophers or fiction writers.”

Judith Butler, Giving an Account of Oneself

Still prefatory to her actual attention to Israel, Butler felt compelled to acknowledge the Brooklyn College event’s most vocal and high profile critic, stating that it had been asserted that

no one can have a conversation on this issue in the US that does not include a certain Harvard professor, but that spectacular argument was so self-inflationary and self-indicting, that I could only respond with astonishment.

No doubt, the audience was amused by this deflationary poke. Of course the gibe was at Alan Dershowitz, who it is my understanding is capable of offering his own defenses, but we learn something from the specific claim of the criticism. Here is what Dershowitiz actually said to this point:

The event shouldn’t be cancelled, but the political science department should withdraw it’s [sic] support, or alternatively the political science department should invite me or someone else that represents an opposing point of view and give equal endorsement.

Dershowitz’s focus, we see, was on the political science department’s sponsorship of the event, and he considered it sufficient merely for the sponsorship to be withdrawn. Alternatively, he offered himself or anyone else who could represent the opposing view to participate in the sponsored event.

If Butler cannot accurately represent in a single sentence the content and the rather simple alternative proposal of one single other sentence, how may she be trusted to offer an account of matters so complex and profound as the history and nature of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

In the same paragraph, Butler had asserted,

If BDS is hate speech, then it is surely not protected speech, and it would surely not be appropriate for any institution of higher learning to sponsor or make room for such speech.

She attempts to refute the two proposed claims – Dershowitiz must speak and BDS is hate speech – by presenting them as contradictory.

So in the [case of hate speech], it is not a viewpoint (and so not protected as extra-mural speech), but in the [other] instance, it is a viewpoint, presumably singular, but cannot be allowed to be heard without an immediate refutation. The contradiction is clear, but when people engage in a quick succession of contradictory claims such as these, it is usually because they are looking for whatever artillery they have at their disposal to stop something from happening.

In the two quotations above, Butler makes three additional misstatements. First, it may be that in the rhetoric department at U.C. Berkeley hate speech is not protected speech, but in the United States of America, it is protected. It is also, wherever it may direct its hate, a viewpoint. It may be an ugly, emotion laden viewpoint, but it takes a view, and it has a point, and not infrequently in our contentious activist world, movements are constructed around those points.

A ” quick succession of contradictory claims” is surely inimical to informed discussion and debate. So, too, is the inability to accurately describe reality in even a single sentence.

Butler sets next on refuting claims that the BDS movement is anti-Semitic. She asks,

[W]hy would a non-violent movement to achieve basic political rights for Palestinians be understood as anti-Semitic?… [W]hy would a collective struggle to use economic and cultural forms of power to compel the enforcement of international laws be considered anti-Semitic?

She introduces her summation of this rhetorical display, with

For those who say that exercising internationally recognized rights is anti-Semitic….

The level of disingenuousness in these loaded questions and distorted characterization is truly remarkable. It is the first demonstration of a fair and critical mind, capable of stepping outside the frame of its own narrative, to be able to represent its interlocutor’s argument in the opponent’s own terms. The challenge then is to refute the terms of the opponent’s argument and offer one’s one own terms in rebuttal. Yet when Butler, a believer in narratives, calls in her closing for us all to “dwell critically, fractiously, and freely in political discourse together,” she is so opaque to herself that even when she assumes the rhetorical stance of stating her opponent’s position, she cannot, even to the level of a lone introductory phrase, represent it honestly, so as to attempt the refutation honestly.

All the preceding is sufficient to demonstrate Butler’s level of reliability as an interlocutor in debate. (There is far more of this kind of inaccuracy and mischaracterization in her five thousand words than is accounted for here.) At Brooklyn College she had two major points to make about Jews, and the first continued this pattern of misrepresentation, but at this stage, in the critical matter of Butler’s own special concerns, more subtly.

Only if we accept the proposition that the state of Israel is the exclusive and legitimate representative of the Jewish people would a movement calling for divestment, sanctions and boycott against that state be understood as directed against the Jewish people as a whole. Israel would then be understood as co-extensive with the Jewish people.

….

The second point, to repeat, is that the Jewish people extend beyond the state of Israel and the ideology of political Zionism. The two cannot be equated

This argument is both obtuse and a straw man. No significant party, if any, claims that Israel is “the exclusive and legitimate representative of the Jewish people” that Israel is “co-extensive with the Jewish people,” or rejects the manifest reality that the “Jewish people extend beyond the state of Israel and … Zionism.” No more than is France the exclusive representative of the French people or Russia of the Russian people. People of French ethnic origin, like any other, may, and do, live in other nations, may engage French cultural practice, may feel a sense of French identification even while preferring to live elsewhere, may criticize French society or government, may even give up their citizenship for another, while remaining ethnically and even recognizably “French.”

Of course, Jewishness, serving as both ethnicity and religious faith offers conceptual complications for nationality. So does all of human history. The French pied-noir of colonial North Africa found themselves after Algerian independence no longer acceptably Algerian and not comfortably French. Unlike most other nations, nationality in the United States has nothing to do with ethnicity. In contrast, no one expatriating to Russia and gaining Russian citizenship would ever, nonetheless, be considered “Russian.” Those of Irish descent in the U.S. frequently feel very strong identification with Ireland, as during the long conflict in Northern Ireland. Nonetheless, they remained American in citizenship and in equally strong identification. They criticized one side or another in Ireland, yet if a grandparent was born in Ireland, are automatically eligible for Irish citizenship. These complexities of social organization are the rule. The question is whether we generously accommodate them – in honor of the impulse toward affective association that leads all peoples, Palestinians, too, to wish to dwell together in commonality –  or we choose one anomaly among others as the reason for prejudicial exception against Israel and Jews, under the pretense that there is any kind of categorical consistency to nationality.

One atypical feature that Butler exploits regarding Israel is the apparent lexical distinction, in English, between the words “Israel” and “Jew.” This is unlike the obvious relation of “France” to “French” and “Russia” to ”Russian.” The apparent verbal separation seems to provide an opening for making just that argument of separation between Israel and Jews. On the contrary of course, etymologically, Israel, or Yisrael in Hebrew are the descendents of Jacob, who have struggled with God, the Hebrew people – Jews.

Why are not citizens of the United States called United Statesians? What crisis of authority in representation– if voluntarily accepted – does this present? Would the likeness to other national identifications be easier to recognize if Israel changed its name, to suit the modern lingua franca, to Jewland?

Or would such an alteration only highlight all the more the true issue at the core – the objection by Butler that there be a land for the Jews?

Before Butler got to that central conviction, however – her objection to the existence of a land for the Jews – there was one more logical stumble to make on the way to her lurching conclusion. It is easier to dispense with Israel if one can argue that Israel deserves to be dispensed with.

If Israel is to be considered a democracy, the non-Jewish population deserves equal rights under the law.

Now certainly all true democrats will acknowledge that every proclaimed democracy faces the moral compulsion to pursue complete and perfect democracy. The United States pursues that so far elusive goal too. But the “if/(then)” conditional Butler puts forward commits the “all or nothing” variation on the fallacy of false dilemma. In full context, she is claiming that Israel is discriminatory toward its non-Jewish citizens. (Butler chooses to say “population” rather than citizens, perhaps because that in itself would speak well of Israel and would raise the inevitable contrast with Lebanon and Jordan, where Palestinians citizenship and rights have been dramatically and increasingly problematic.) Her all or nothing claim is that if Israel has deficiencies in its equal extension of rights to all of its citizens, then, by dint of that imperfection, it is not a democracy at all, and is clearly a deserving target of its critics. We would find by this fallacious logic that probably nary a democracy in the world is actually a democracy, including certainly the United States during the long period of African slavery, the longer period of female and Indian disenfranchisement, and even until today, when LGBT Americans do not enjoy fully equal rights.

Butler’s continuous forays into illogic are not ultimately a difficulty in her arguments against Israel, though, since Israel should not exist to begin.

The Exile of the Jews

The essential argument against BDS that Butler sought to refute is that it is discriminatory, hateful, anti-Semitic, even destructive.

I am only seeking to make the case that BDS is not a destructive or hateful movement.

Butler claimed that she does not agree with all expressions of the BDS movement, yet she chose to appear with Omar Barghouti. Omar Barghouti expressly seeks the end – the destruction – of  Israel and of a Jewish state.

While I firmly advocate nonviolent forms of struggle such as boycott, divestment, and sanctions to attain Palestinian goals, I just as decisively, though on a separate track, support a unitary state based on freedom, justice, and comprehensive equality as the solution to the Palestinian-Israeli colonial conflict.

Butler also offered a risible protest against the abuse of Holocaust and Nazi analogies by defenders of Israel, when anyone conversant with the contemporary contours of this debate knows that such comparisons, of Israel to Nazi Germany, in word and in image, have become a nearly daily commonplace from foes of Israel – even from Omar Barghouti.

Avishai D. Don, writing for the Harvard Crimson almost exactly a year ago on the subject of BDS and Barghouti’s book Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions, said,

But the BDS movement hides its ultimate goal of dismantling the Jewish state behind its public rhetoric.

….

Utilizing the vocabulary of international norms, the movement actually systematically attempts to undermine the international consensus that recognizes Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state.

This is what Butler did disingenuously at Brooklyn College, first, by appearing with Bhargouti, and second, by failing to acknowledge at that college, that educational setting, that she, too, does not merely seek to correct Israeli policy, but actively opposes the existence of Israel as a Jewish state. She did hint at her position, though.

When Zionism becomes co-extensive with Jewishness, Jewishness is pitted against the diversity that defines democracy, and if I may say so, betrays one of the most important ethical dimensions of the diasporic Jewish tradition, namely, the obligation of co-habitation with those different from ourselves.

Butler does not explain why the Frenchness of France or the Japaneseness of Japan are not so “pitted against the diversity that defines democracy” that the existence of their states, too, need be opposed. However, she does manage to misrepresent the truth in yet another sentence. Butler refers to one of the “ethical dimensions of the diasporic Jewish tradition, namely, the obligation of co-habitation with those different from ourselves.” What shall we say of thinking that characterizes as an ethical obligation what was actually an existential necessity, a necessity that met its ultimate failure in the Holocaust – a failure that should have served irrefutably for all as the irresistible historical peroration of the necessity of the Jewish state? But Butler has stated on more than one occasion that she does not, in her public utterance and advocacy, feel compelled to seek accordance with reality.

It may be that binationalism is an impossibility, but that mere fact does not suffice as a reason to be against it.

Butler wrote those words in Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism, and it is in that work that she fully makes the case for the “ethical dimensions of the diasporic Jewish tradition.” Alan Johnson sums the argument in his Fathom review of the book.

Dispersion, for Butler, must be thought ‘not only as a geographical situation but also as an ethical modality.’ By returning to the diasporic experience we find a ‘Jewish route to the insight that equality must be secured for a population regardless of religious affiliation’ and a means to effect ‘a displacement of the nation as the exclusive framework of ethical relations.’

Words on a page, their reception by the eyes, the scanned processing in rapid succession, for immediate comprehension, of the ideas of a text may not always deliver their full effect. Sometimes what has been said needs to settle, to descend deeper into comprehension with the full weight of meaning and implication, and in some cases, the effrontery of its claim upon the world. Butler argues not only that Jews drew from the Diaspora, their long exile in often and ultimately almost always hostile foreign lands, the experience and insights of an expanded and deeper moral nature. Butler is arguing, too, that this exilic nature has finally actually become the Jews: consigned to exile, Jews should now be condemned to it, for clearly there are millions of Jews who do not wish it. This is of no concern to Butler, for whom impossibility is no bar to reason, like labeling as a “solution” the kind of proposal that millions would fight and even die to prevent.

Jews, for Judith Butler, are to become the symbolic sacrifice on the ideational alter of post-nationalism, for their renewed exile will represent “a displacement of the nation as the exclusive framework of ethical relations.” The God of Abraham and of Moses would let his people go. Cyrus the Great would release the Jews from captivity in Babylon. But Judith Butler will exile them forever.

Who today would theorize that the African Diaspora, having been stolen from their homes and submerged in the depths of servitude had actually – look at the riches of culture they have produced out of their pain and endurance in so many nations – found their true and greater natures in an ethic of selfless service, to which perhaps they should return? Who would philosophize that the indigenous populations of the world – those whom Butler and her allies continue to abuse by co-opting the vocabulary of their cause as a weapon against not Israel, but Jews – who would argue that in their centuries of conquest, abuse, and loss, their alienation from spiritual relation to their lands, indigenous peoples have been transformed by history into a moral exemplar, and that only through their continued disconnection and their yearning for reconnection can they serve to lead us away from materialism and back to a purer relation to the earth?

But Jews should be returned to exile from the land that was, and is again, their own in order to model “a displacement of the nation as the exclusive framework of ethical relations.”

Butler  finds difficulty with the term ant-Semitic. She argued repeatedly at Brooklyn College against its use and applicability to the selective and discriminatory policies she promotes. It has become, to her mind, a term subject to “radical misuse.” Here is another term, then, to describe her convolution of Jewishness, perhaps fresher and more forceful to her mind. It is an obscenity.

AJA

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Israel

Tyranny of Victimhood: Why the Guardian gives a free ride to reactionary Palestinian movement

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This is cross-posted by CiF Watch managing editor, Adam Levick.

Yesterday, some anti-Israel agitators pretended to be “civil rights” activists by riding on buses Israeli citizens in the territories use to travel to Jerusalem.

These buses do not allow non-citizens (without proper permits) to enter communities in Judea and Samaria in order to stop potential Palestinian terror attacks.

No, it’s not surprising that the the decidedly reactionary Palestinian movement would cynically exploit the genuinely liberal US Civil Rights Movement – which, in the early 1960s, attempted to end the practice, in the American south, of requiring that African Americans ride on the back of municipal buses.

And, no it’s not surprising that the Guardian would give the stunt a positive spin, “Palestinian protest ‘racist’ bus policy“, , Nov. 15.

However, the mere ubiquity of such narratives (by both the MSM and the Guardian), which represent the Palestinian cause as anything resembling a truly progressive, anti-racist movement, doesn’t render them any less reprehensible.

As we’ve noted previously, per Freedom House, Palestinian political culture is undemocratic and lacks basic checks and balances; it fails to respect the rights of religious minorities, women, and the LGBT community; and the rights of citizens to peacefully dissent and criticize the government are not respected.

Further, Palestinian culture is imbued with explicit antisemitism and incitement, and PLO officials have even stated that they will not allow Jews to live in a future Palestinian state.

Anti-Israel activists zealously advocating for the Palestinian cause seem, necessarily, to be required to strenuously repress the cognitive dissonance of understanding that such activism is often at complete odds with the progressive values they otherwise cherish.

How then to explain how such an illiberal movement has become a popular cause within liberal circles in the West?

The more I’m involved in efforts to combat the assault on Israel’s legitimacy at the Guardian the more I’m convinced that an unreflective sympathy for those deemed “victims” (whatever the objective merits of designating a group with such a status) party explains the resistance many have to even the most stubborn facts, logic and moral common sense about the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict – even evidence demonstrating Israel’s pronounced liberal advantage over her Palestinian neighbors.

Robbing their Palestinian protagonists (objects of an a priori sympathy) of the moral agency typically assigned to responsible adults allows the Western left to excuse, rationalize, or ignore clear evidence of Palestinian villainy – whether such behavior includes explicit expressions of antisemitism or other reactionary political values, or even acts of terrorism.

A good start in further understanding this dynamic can derived by the thoughts of scholar Shelby Steele, whose recent lecture, (excerpted by The Hudson Institute), included a meditation on the moral interplay between the West and Palestinians.

In his lecture, ”The Narrative of Palestinian Victimhood“, Steele argues that the real interest of Palestinians and their anti-Zionist supporters is to situate the Palestinian people within a narrative of victimization.  Their ulterior goal, Steele argues, “is to see themselves and to have others see them as victims of colonialism, as victims of white supremacy.”

Says Steele:

“Listen to their language; it is the language of colonial oppression. Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas claims that Palestinians have been occupied for 63 years. The word oppressed is constant, exploited. In this, there is a poetic truth; like poetic license, in a poetic truth a writer will bend the rules in order to be more effective.”

Thus, Guardian foreign editor David Hearst, in a column with the chilling title of “Could Arab staying power overcome Zionism“, Aug. 5, can positively cite his Arab-Israeli protagonists as questioning the “supremacist” nature of Israel, a characterization of the Jewish state, I’ve noted, which was popularized by an antisemitic extremist.

And, ‘Comment is Fee’ can similarly publish an essay by Sam Bahour, Aug. 4, which characterized Palestinians as victims of the “settler, colonial, apartheid, racialist, exclusivist” ideology of Zionism.

It also explains why Deborah Orr can even interpret the release of Gilad Shalit in exchange for 1027 Palestinian prisoners as evidence of Israeli racism.

The narrative that Palestinians are victims of racism, colonialism, imperialism, apartheid, and even a from of racial supremacism has a life of its own, and, Steele argues, is often resistant to even the most serious critical scrutiny.

Steele:

Poetic truths like that are marvelous because no facts and no reason can ever penetrate. Supporters of Israel are up against a poetic truth. We keep hitting it with all the facts. We keep hitting it with obvious logic and reason. And we are so obvious and conspicuously right that we assume it is going to have an impact and it never does.” [emphasis mine]

Adds Steele:

“These narratives, these poetic truths, are the source of their power. Who would [the Palestinians] be if they were not victims of white supremacy? They would just be poor people in the Middle East. They would be backwards. They would be behind Israel in every way. So this narrative is the source of their power….It is the source of their self-esteem. Without it, would they be able to compete with Israeli society?

Steele further argues:

“The idea that the problem is…the Jews protects Palestinians from having to confront that inferiority or do anything about it or overcome it. The idea among Palestinians that they are victims means more to them than anything else. It is everything. It is the centerpiece of their very identity and it is the way they define themselves as human beings in the world…Our facts and our reason are not going to penetrate easily that definition or make any progress.”

As to why the liberal West perpetuates this narrative, Steele argues:

“The Western world [feels it] lacks the moral authority to call them on it. The Western world has not said…’your real problem is underdevelopment.’ That has not been said, nor will ever be said – because the Western world was once colonial, was once racist, did practice white supremacy, and is so ashamed of itself and so vulnerable to those charges, that they are not going to say a word. They are not going to say what they really think and feel about what is so obvious about the circumstances among the Palestinians. So the poetic truth that Palestinians live by carries on.”

“[So] the international media give [the Palestinian cause] a kind of gravitas that it would never otherwise have.”

Steele further argues that the I-P Conflict will never be solved until we somehow get beyond this “poetic truth” that they are the perennial victims of a malevolent and racist Israeli state.

So, as long as the moral gate keepers at the Guardian, and the MSM, continue to prop up this poetic truth, grants it life, sustenance and moral license, Palestinians have little motivation to overcome the tyranny of their victimhood.

In contextualizing the Guardian each day, I read each story and commentary on Israel and the Palestinians without any question as to how the story will be framed.  The facts and details of each story may change, but the immutability of Palestinian victimhood renders any objective analysis of the I-P Conflict all but impossible.

Today, Palestinians are “freedom riders”.

Tomorrow it will be some other cynical exploitation of the language of liberalism and human rights which the Guardian will legitimize.

Israel’s military and terrorist threats are indeed quite real, but the cognitive war we’re fighting is every bit as dangerous and – unlike the physical theaters of war where battles are won or lost largely by strength of arms – requires a rhetorical arsenal we’ve yet to adequately develop, yet alone effectively deploy.

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The Political Animal

The End of Memoir: Allison Benedikt and Jose Antonio Vargas

Well, no, not really. But Fukuyama got a lot of mileage out of “The End of History,” and we’re still living it. People will keep on writing memoirs, long and short, and they’ve written bad ones before. This latest acme in the genre may not even have been reached yet. Still, there is a point to be made: we have seen twice in one week the reduction of memoir to self-refuting callowness.

The causes célèbres of last week, across the blogosphere and journoverse, were Village Voice film editor Allison Benedikt’s “Life After Zionist Summer Camp,” at The AWL, and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas’s “My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant,” for The New York Times Magazine. In chronologizing her disillusionment with Israel, Benedikt provoked heated discussion not only of Israel, but about what it means to be a Jew. Vargas ended up raising the topic not so much of illegal immigration (which had been his hope) as the subject, dear to the professional hearts of those providing so much of the reaction, of his having lied – a journalist having lied – to so many people and professional colleagues in order to maintain the fiction of his identity.

What the two otherwise so different accounts share is their writers’ minimalist approach to memoir, their conception – if they even had one – of what makes a memoir meaningful and worth reading. I used the word chronologize above with purpose, because with small, telling exceptions, that is all the writers do. They both seem to have operated from a form of Cartesian revision: “I experience; therefore I have something to say.” But this is not exactly the a priori truth of I think; therefore I am. In fact, it’s the mediate I think that both have omitted. Like rank amateurs, they have been beguiled by the inner conviction, common to many, that their lives are fascinating (which they are to them), and that all that need be done is to recount the elements of a life, and its progression from this to that, to render it fascinating and, far more, instructive to others. The profound truth of the life would thus as a matter of course be automatically revealed: no deep knowledge, no thinking, no analysis, no understanding brought to bear.

In entertainment-world, ghosted autobiography, this is the “and then I wrote” form.

In the case of both Benedikt and Vargas, it is less the ostensible subjects that interest me (though they do) than the texts that represent those subjects, and how badly they do it. Vargas is the simpler case, so I’ll start with him.

Only occasionally does Vargas depart from the chronology that begins at the beginning…

One August morning nearly two decades ago, my mother woke me and put me in a cab.

When he does break from chronology, it is mostly to state the obvious, without any deeper consideration of the subject. For instance, being an “undocumented immigrant”

means going about my day in fear of being found out. It means rarely trusting people, even those closest to me, with who I really am…. It means reluctantly, even painfully, doing things I know are wrong and unlawful.

In the one instance that Vargas pauses to offer commentary beyond his own case, on the issue of illegal immigration in general, he tells us,

There are believed to be 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States. We’re not always who you think we are. Some pick your strawberries or care for your children. Some are in high school or college. And some, it turns out, write news articles you might read.

This trite formulation is seemingly inoffensive. Yet consider the perspectives embedded in it. “We’re not always who you think we are.” So you, reader, are presumed to be among the clueless Americans, guided in what little thinking you do on the subject, by ignorant stereotype. No doubt, there are many such people, but here, in an ill-considered voice, Vargas tells us that it is everyone reading the article.

“Some pick your strawberries or care for your children,” Vargas goes on, “….And some, it turns out, write news articles.”

What are we to make of this? What are meant to be its implications? That we should care more about illegal immigrants now, learning that some of them are actually educated, talented, and successful? Without this added truth, would we be justified in caring less about the illegal immigrants who aren’t? Is Vargas, knowing that immigration policy favors the educated and skilled, argumentatively throwing the gardeners, maids, and nannies under the bus to help save the day for those more advantageously positioned? Is he feeling an understandable, universal pride in his own accomplishments and experiencing, oddly enough, even unconsciously, an economic and professional-class allegiance that conflicts with his shadowy social status? Has he even considered what exactly those sentences were meant to argue?

That’s it. That’s the extent of Vargas’s meditation on his subject. We’re told explanatorily at the end, presumably by editor Chris Suellentrop that Vargas has

founded Define American, which seeks to change the conversation on immigration reform.

At the Define American site, we’re told,

It’s time to have a real conversation about immigration in our country.

Sometimes people will say “honest” conversation. Usually, though, when those on one side of a political argument reflexively call for a changed or real or honest conversation about a topic – especially those who righteously feel themselves to be opining from a higher moral prospect – what they are actually signaling is that there is a conversation taking place already and they don’t like how it’s going. For them, it cannot be that some people have considered the same truths as they and come to a different conclusion, or that, on this topic, as on others, some people are actually, irremediably resentful, small-minded, xenophobic, or racist. It must be the conversation. We’re not doing it right. It’s not honest. It’s not real. Let’s change it.

The problem with this kind of cant in memoir is that it is the enemy of memoir, as it is the enemy of good writing, and why do any other kind. Good memoir burrows under the surface of the writer’s life and circumstance, it doesn’t skate over it. It reveals a life and a milieu, it doesn’t dress it in platitude.

If there is a more honest conversation to be had about illegal immigration it could have been one that Vargas chose to begin on his own side. He might, for instance, have ceased to employ the euphemistic term “undocumented,” which is intended to obscure a reality and to slant perspectives away from the subject of legality, with is the basis, in the U.S., of the problem and the dispute. That’s not an honest conversation. Vargas might have acknowledged that it is an essential and non-racist and thoroughly defensible goal of any nation to secure its borders and control immigration into it. He might have acknowledged truthfully the role of North-South, have and have-not trans-national economic and culture politics in the debate – how domestic racial politics are often used by immigrant activists as a cover for a political agenda that has only secondary sympathy for nation-bound economic interests.

On the other side, Vargas might have reasonably argued, too, that we need to acknowledge that millions of people, large numbers of whom, like Vargas, have lived in the U.S. for many years, and since childhood, cannot be humanely deported. An honest conversation would acknowledge that much of the blame for the situation rests with a dysfunctional U.S. government; it would ask how many individual lives Americans wish to wreak havoc upon in bitterness over our own national failure. It would recognize that with appropriate compensatory behaviors, the best thing for the U.S. and for Jose Antonio Vargas – and for the woman, maybe, who cleans his apartment and who may have been in the country as long – is for him to stay. It would recognize, too, that anyone of us, born poor and with little opportunity somewhere else, might as readily make the choices Jose Antonio Vargas made. And it would live honestly – to chose a word – in the contradiction that while any of us might be Jose Antonio Vargas, the U.S. can afford to let anyone in the world who wishes it become yet another Jose Antonio Vargas.

It may be that Vargas has done some deeper thinking about the reality he represents. I hope so, and I wish him nothing but the best, here in the U.S., but he hasn’t shared that thinking with us. Reportedly,

the Times magazine guys looked at [Vargas’s piece] and said, we definitely want to run this. This is what journalism is all about, putting a face on issues that are important in society.”

Apparently, the editors, like Vargas, thought the story would tell itself.

They were wrong.

AJA

(Tomorrow: The End of Memoir part II: Life Before Thinking)

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Israel

Scratch an Anti-Zionist

It isn’t just that to anyone not already disabled by bias the truth about Helen Thomas was readily apparent in her go back where they came from remarks. It was also that there were those, as always there are, who having convinced themselves that their own political animus is other and innocent, found over interpretation and excess in the response to her.

Said Stephen Walt still months after

After a long and distinguished career, journalist Helen Thomas makes one regrettable and offensive statement and she loses her job, even though she offered a quick and genuine apology.

Snidely offered Glenn Greenwald in superfluous knee jerk, while purusing an entirely different topic,

Perhaps if Helen Thomas had attended more water park parties with the White House and her fellow reporters, she’d still have her job.

And now, for want of a cozier relation to power and the compulsions of the singular and regrettable, Helen Thomas, who perhaps misspoke herself, speaks herself more clearly.

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Israel

An Affirmation of Zionism

At the very core of the recent dispute between Leon Wieseltier and Andrew Sullivan, as I saw it, have seen it, and see it, is Sullivan’s imbalanced adoption – even as he professes his empathy with, and idealized admiration of, Jews – of the anti-Israeli perceptions and rhetoric that are the currency of anti-Zionists. The notion that Zionism should require any defense is abominable. The current atmosphere, in which such defenses might seem necessary, is abominable: see Robert S. Wistrich’s just published A Lethal Obsession: Anti-Semitism from Antiquity to the Global Jihad. What I offer here, instead, from Ernest Sternberg, author of “Purifying the World: What the New Radical Ideology Stands For,” of which I wrote in The Convergence of the Twain, is one of the finer brief affirmations of Zionism I have read. Originally published in March 2009 in Ari, the Jewish students’ publication at the University at Buffalo, State University of New York, I reproduce it here by permission of the author.

Zionism and Universal Justice

The beliefs that motivate my own Zionism originate in a specific conversation with my mother in December 1979, when she finally felt able to talk to me about her experiences in Auschwitz. I vividly recall her description of the day in the spring of 1944, when she, her brother, young sister, parents, aunt, and the three remotely related children they were caring for (their father having been taken to perform forced labor on the Eastern front) were ordered, along with other Jews, to leave the barbed-wire enclosed ghetto for the railway station.

This was in the city of Nagyvàrad (Romanian name “Oradea”) in Hungarian Fascist occupied Romania, where the population consisted of Hungarian speakers. It is there at the railway station that they were forced at gunpoint into cattle cars, squeezed in standing room only, without food or water (other accounts tell of one bucket of water per car) or ability to relieve themselves, for the three day transport to Auschwitz.

The adult male Jews of the region were largely artisans. In my extended family, very few of whom survived, tailors and cabinetmakers predominated, but there was also the odd tinsmith, baby-carriage maker, umbrella maker, orchard manager, and a tavern-keeper. In that transport, my grandfather, a tailor, prayed constantly, for as long as he could bear to.

It was in that cattle car, too, that my mother, then 21, realized-as she put it to me over three decades later-what fools her family and the other Jews had been. There had been chances to escape to Palestine and there had already been horrifying rumors about the fate of the Jews in Poland. But the local rabbinical authorities, whom my grandfather trusted, had prohibited escape to Palestine on the grounds that only the Messiah could rightly bring about the ingathering of the Jews. And it wasn’t as if nothing of the sort had previously happened-hadn’t the pogroms occurred just decades before? The Hungarian Jews had endured the hatred, the dangers of travel (from violent attacks by anti-Semites), and the forced wearing of the yellow stars, under the illusion that, despite it all, somehow, they would emerge from the nightmare and return to their quiet and pious lives, without having to take action for their own, collective protection. Squeezed in among the condemned, my mother became a Zionist, a supporter of the idea that Jews must act to protect themselves, in Palestine.

I need only mention in passing that, nowadays, by official declaration of the United Nations and the enlightened estimate of world’s progressive thinkers, that woman in the cattle car had, need I say it?, instantly become a racist imperialist.

From my mother’s realization in that dark wagon, and from those of others subjected to existential oppression, I would like to draw two conclusions. First, in most of the world’s regimes (America is the great exception), the old ideal of Jewish assimilation turned out to be a disastrous delusion. Now under the global demonization of Israel, when the world’s problems are routinely attributed to sinister Zionist forces, Israel as a place for collective self-defense is as essential as it was after World War II. The belief that Israelis can blithely abandon their self-protective movement by retreating to the pre-War hopes for world acceptance-that is truly an intellectual evasion, a gargantuan amnesia, a lunacy blind both to current events and to history.

Recall something that today’s globalized anti-Semitic rhetoric ignores. There have been many Zionisms. There is cultural Zionism, socialist Zionism, religious Zionism, Zionism of shared national heritage, liberal Zionism (based on the idea that individuals sent to their deaths by their one-time home states had the right to enter into contract among themselves to form a new state), de-facto Zionism (viewing Israel as nation that exists and deserve the rights that others have), and legalistic Zionism (drawing on histories of international agreements).

My second conclusion is that Zionism has one more meaning, perhaps its most important one: as a movement of collective self-protection and self-determination. This Zionism gains its moral legitimacy-it becomes a moral imperative-in face of a world that is much like the present: armed and viciously bigoted, with states and armed movements bent on the Jews’ annihilation. This particular Zionism is in itself morally sufficient to warrant a state. A state is essential because it is the primary political entity through which a people can have access to legitimate means of violence to defend themselves.

It follows that, not just in religious or nationalist terms, but in terms of universal justice, Zionism is a moral requisite. It is so on the moral grounds that a people, any people, targeted for collective elimination have a right to collective defense. Jews had as a cultural asset the religious yearning for the land of Israel and this heritage allowed them to achieve self-determination that other dispersed people have not; but to say so in no way undermines Zionism as a just cause.

To be sure, Jews in Palestine had obligations toward those among whom they were settling. But the obligation extends only in so far as those neighbors don’t themselves join, as they certainly did in 1948, the quest to annihilate the Jews. It is the most bizarre of positions, held even by some Israelis, that Jewish suffering cannot stand as a justification-that it is somehow an excuse-for Israel. That is tantamount to saying the following: that being faced with annihilation is no excuse for defending yourself.

Global anti-Semitic forces are one again converging. Why so? French authors, who are especially good at explaining it, include Bernard-Henri Levy, Pierre-André Taguieff, and Alain Finkielkraut, all available in English. One theme is that we’re seeing the rise of a post-communist “new barbarism,” that needs a scapegoat through which to forge alliances among the world’s supposed resistance movements.

Under the resulting world-wide ideological assault, some of the more sensitive and fearful among us have concluded that the solution is to abandon Zionism. While our diffident co-religionists smile and cringe and blame themselves for having caused it all, the Iranian mullah regime, Hizbullah, Hamas, the Jihadists, the Muslim brotherhood, neo-Nazis, and progressive Israel-haters worldwide are assiduously building and lining up 21st century versions of the cattle-cars.