Shaul Magid Responds

I just got this email from Shaul Magid, responding to my critique of his piece in Times of Israel.  I post it here without responses. I’ll respond to various aspects over the next couple of days.

Thank you, Richard, for your thoughtful response to my essay. As you can imagine, I disagree with much of your reading but will limit my remarks to a very few observations that, in fact, do not get to the heart of the matter. I will need some time to formulate more substantive reactions:

(1)   I think “berate” is neither a fair nor accurate description of what I was doing. I was respectful throughout and, as I wrote explicitly, I was using RFN simply as a heuristic device to ask a larger question about what I viewed as an incongruity (not necessary a blatant contradiction) between what I determined in broad strokes was a counter-cultural ethos and “right-wing” Israel policies.

(2)    I know you have a problem with “right” and “left” in describing a complex array of positions and I am sympathetic to that. I suppose I simply could not find a better way of expressing the categories in such a popular essay. When I say “right” I think most people know what I mean, even as there are great differences between positions that defined as such (I unpacked this somewhat in my previous essay on the “Pragmatic Right” that you also commented on, evoking similar criticisms). As a philosopher once said “generalizing is the occupation hazard of philosophers,” which is why historians have so much trouble with philosophers and why Hegel drives historians crazy. But still, granting your general point, I think you know what I mean. In general, I speak of what one private commenter called the “Rainbow Right” that is driven in large part, in my view, by the romanticism first absorbed in the counter-culture and then revised in Kookean theology.

(3)   Regarding the Dead (I too am an unrepentant Deadhead of sorts), like many of the other comments I think you are guilty of an overly simplistic rendering of what I meant by the Dead. I didn’t mean the rock and roll band but the ethos they came to represent. The Dead as individuals turned out to be pretty bourgeois gentlemen, driving around in their series whatever BMWs and living in their mansions in Marin County. Jerry, who I love to this day, was a decades-long heroin addict who just couldn’t kick the habit until his heart gave out. He was a deeply tragic figure in my view.  If he wasn’t a talented musician in the right place at the right time he probably would have ended up homeless on the streets of San Francisco. Even better, as my old friend used to say “Jerry Garcia doesn’t even exist. He is just the figment of Robert Hunters’ imagination.” But “the Dead” as opposed to the Dead, that is a different story. And yes, the counter-culture was not absolute, nor righteous, nor always just. But it held to certain principles as best it could and those principles in my mind are incongruous with some of the rhetoric about there being “no occupation” or other such comments regarding the rights of the Palestine people vis. the rights of the Jews in the Israel/Palestine.

(4)   Lorelai’s comment on her FB page about not believing that the term “occupation” applies is a perfect example of what I am saying. Occupation is, of course, a political term referring to a political reality, often the result of war or conquest. I am aware of all the questions regarding the nature of the territory but let’s put that aside for the moment. For every ten international law experts you can find that say it isn’t an occupation, I can find ten that say it is. We both know that. This is why in 1967-68 the government only allowed civilians to make temporary camp inside military outposts. They knew their international law (on this see Goremberg;’s use of de-classified IDF documents in Accidental Empire). If I understand Lorelia correctly however  (and if don’t Lorelai, I apologize) it is that the land of Israel belongs to the Jews by dint of the Torah and therefore, if anything, they are occupying our land. I understand this. However, this is a theological claim not a geo-political position. I know that the political theology of those influenced by R. Zvi Yehuda Kook want to problematize the distinction between the categories of the political and theological (Political Theology is based on that, as Carl Schmidt has shown) but this is arguably an anti-Zionist position. The Zionism of Herzl (and others) is one based on normalization, the creation of a modern nation-state that would live in accordance with internal law and standards. The theological claims of a Scripture (or at least one interpretation of that Scripture) that all parties do not adhere to, is not a basis for a modern political claim. Alternatively, one could say that even if we accept the position that God gave Erez Yisrael to the Jews that does not by definition mean Jews today cannot, or even should not, give part of it away until the messiah comes. R. Yoel Teitelbaum, basing himself on literally hundreds of sources, argued that, yes, God gave us the land, but we have no right to claim sovereignty to that land until the messiah comes. He went further to say that doing so is in fact a transgression that he writes explicitly in his Introduction to  ‘Al ha-geulah ve al Ha-Temurah (the only part of the book he actually wrote) , is worse than the Golden Calf. This premillennial view is not his alone but has a continuous stand through most of Jewish history. I am not advocating such a position but only bring him into the discussion to counter to over-romanticization of the Rainbow Right’s problem with the language of “occupation.” Kookean thinking is no more based in Torah than Teitelbaum’s. It is just that the latter does not conform to a romantic world-view. Occupation is a political term that relates to a political reality, even if, from a theological perspective, it is meaningless.

(5)   Churchill’s alleged comment is “cute and sweet” as Shlomo would say, but empty at best, self-serving at worst. We used to hear it from the Wall Street bankers making millions while ripping off the rest of us in the 1980s.

(6)   Your comment about “Masters of War” is guilty of the same overly simplistic reading as I mentioned above. I used that song in particular not to limit it to the context in which it was written but to make a larger point. Is American imperialism the same as occupation? No, of course not. But they are both immoral and they are both unjust. Just because two things are different doesn’t mean in some way they can also be the same.

(7)   I didn’t mean to be dismissive with the “etc.” (as you note). Is Israel under an existential threat? Perhaps. But not by the Palestinians. In fact, one could argue that the existential threat is exacerbated not diminished by the continued and growing occupation. Israel can be destroyed, but not by Hamas. To argue that it can is, in my mind, without substantiation. If we would ask IDF military experts if they think Hamas could wiped out Israel I would bet the answer would be overwhelmingly “no.” The more important question is what will best insure that the real outside threats are kept in check. Continued systematic persecution (yes, systematic, as Aaron Barack acknowledged) of the Palestinians is hardly the way to allay the real dangers that exist out there. It is, in my view, a classical example of cutting off one’s nose despite one’s face. I know you will disagree and I admit this is something two intelligent people can disagree about.

(8)   I really think Sacks is beneath you Richard. He is a good writer, an accomplished apologist, and  popularizer but should not share company with the likes of Pascal, Levinas, or Hegel. I read The Dignity of Difference when it came out.  A decent apologetic rendering of the issue for a general audience. Hardly worth more than a footnote in my humble opinion.

(9)   I am, of course, familiar with the Levinas quote suggesting the Palestinian are not the “other.” I think it is an unfortunate somewhat off-handed comment and Levinas scholars are not sure what to make of it in relation to his larger philosophical corpus. I will say, as a friend and teacher commented to me recently, Levinas suggested that Heidegger was Amalek and also that Heidegger was the most important philosopher of the 20th century. And I would add, without Heidegger, Levinas simply would not have been able to philosophize as he did. This is only to say I do not think Levinas’ comment about the Palestinians is worth much one way or the other.

And finally, “With the exception of outliers like Kahane, most of the settlers had were quite successful at living in peace and positive-sum relations with their Arab neighbors.” I find this to be a baffling sentence. It is untrue in so many ways I can’t even begin to respond. In the 80s I seriously considered moving my family to various settlements, in Gaza, and the WB. I know that world perhaps more than you, at least in those days and it is far more radicalized now. This comment is simply untrue according to any realistic criteria.

Your comments on the universal/particularism issue are pertinent and deserving of  a more reflective response, which I hope to do in the coming weeks. I just wanted to raise a few questions and clarify a few of my own.

After reading your response and resisting those parts that I think misrepresent or overly simplify my argument, I think my point, which is really more of a question than an accusation, stands. This essay in many ways dovetails with my previous two on the Pragmatic Right (mentioned above) and “What if the Left Abandoned Israel?” They constitute an unintended trilogy of sorts. I have no intention of expanding this beyond its present borders at the moment. My new book to appear in January is American Post-Judaism: Identity and Renewal in a Postethnic Society (Indiana University Press). It moves in a very different direction and doesn’t deal with Israel or Zionism at all which I am sure will make many of your readers very happy.


3 Responses to Shaul Magid Responds

  1. Nathaniel says:

    One gloss on Magid’s response: it is not true that “for every ten international law experts you can find that say it isn’t an occupation, I can find ten that say it is.” The only international law experts who think that the term “occupation” does not apply to the West Bank are a small number of current or former officials of the Israeli government or a handful of non-Israelis who are associated with right-wing political views on Israel. There are simply no non-partisan international lawyers who would not use the term “occupation” to the West Bank. And, perhaps even more to the point, there are no non-partisan international lawyers who think that settlements beyond the Green Line are legal. None. Of course, one may disagree with the views held by this overwhelming consensus among international lawyers, but the fact is that there is such a consensus. (And let’s not quibble about my colloquial use of the term “non-partisan”: I simply mean that the very few international lawyers who support the view that it isn’t an “occupation” or that the settlements are illegal are ideologically pro-settlement and that no other international lawyers take their arguments seriously.)

  2. Nathaniel says:

    oops – that last sentence should have read “I simply mean that the very few international lawyers who support the view that it isn’t an “occupation” or that the settlements are legal are ideologically pro-settlement and that no other international lawyers take their arguments seriously.”

  3. […] my responses to Shaul Magid. Thank you, Richard, for your thoughtful response to my essay. As you can imagine, I disagree with […]

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