We could all agree to differ, but…: A Response to Bronner and Magid

In his response to my fisking, Shaul Magid noted that on certain matters concerning Israel’s conflict with her neighbors:

“I know you will disagree and I admit this is something two intelligent people can disagree about.”

In The Paranoid Apocalypse, I had a similar disagreement with Stephen Bronner. Here is that segment of the chapter:

We could all agree to differ.  But the problem cuts much deeper because, which approach to the evidence one adopts has impact far beyond an academic “difference of opinion.”  How one proceeds, and the intended and unintended consequences of proceeding according to the varying perspectives, carry great weight.

For example, proponents of the “progressive approach,” sometimes justify their epistemological inconsistency in adopting Palestinian narratives in the place of the Israeli on the basis of a kind of “therapeutic” approach: “if we bend over backward far enough, Palestinians and other Arabs will respond in kind.”[i] The withdrawal to the ’67 borders, based on accepting (one of the more “moderate”) Palestinian narratives that blames the “Occupation” for the conflict, operates in the same moral universe: “they” want peace and national autonomy just as “we” do, and if “we” make major concessions, acknowledge the Palestinian as the “other” whose hostility to Israel is the result of “our” having denied their existence, if “we” cease “our” imperial policies, then Arab hostility “will likely diminish with a change in that policy.”[ii]  Such moves are gambles, to be sure, proponents of this approach argue, but should we not take risks for “the peace of the brave”?

The opposing paradigm argues, however, that such a policy will backfire because it mis-identifies the source of the hostility. The deep wellsprings of aggressive paranoia, whose presence we can most readily detect in how the Protocols and its attendant demonizing of Israelis permeate Palestinian culture, suggest just the opposite: concessions to Palestinians at this point will far more likely bring on further aggression, as have the Oslo Process, the retreat from Lebanon and the withdrawal from Gaza – all moves that the adherents to the progressive paradigm greeted with great enthusiasm as major steps towards “peace.” Rather than seeing the Palestinian “other” as a projection of our own (liberal) cognitive egocentrism, this approach argues, we must see them as an autonomous culture with their own cultural imperatives.  (This approach does have the advantage of treating “others” with enough respect to consider them autonomous agents rather than as merely clones of the liberal West, and acting solely “in reaction” to Israeli actions.)

Nor is this only a matter of Israeli foreign policy, over which Jewish intellectuals have a limited impact.  How intellectuals judge the conflict has direct impact on a much larger issue – the sudden, (for most) astonishing, and continuing spread of Judeophobia around the world, above all in the Muslim world, but also in Europe and among the American “left” in the new century.[iii] Progressives tend to minimize this threat, presumably in order to insist that, with the new situation of Jewish “empowerment,” the sins of Israel outweigh the dangers of paranoid anti-Semitism.   Notes Bronner:

Terrible things still occur. A cemetery is still desecrated here and there, now and then a Jew is still beaten up on his way home from synagogue, and some crackpot or other denies the holocaust. But the police are usually on the case and grievances are generally addressed. Even anti-Semitic utterances are instantly condemned by most of the international community and, in western nations, even “salon” anti-Semitism is considered a vulgar holdover from times past.

Such a statement suggests a surprising lack of familiarity with the state of European attitudes towards Jews in the 21st century. In particular it seems to dismiss one of the most astonishing and disturbing phenomena of this current decade – the widespread failure of European governments (and cultural elites) to acknowledge or reprove a wave of Muslim violence against Jews in the wake of the Intifada’s outbreak in October of 2000.[iv]

As a result, any attempt to sound the alarm gets dismissed in a moral equivalence that dissolves rather than distinguishes shades of grey.

Little wonder then that the attempt by Israeli advocacy organizations to portray every new mention of the Protocols as a step toward the emergence of a new Hitler and, often with the same hysterical paranoia as the bigot, every criticism of Israeli policy as an expression of anti-Semitism.[v]

Thus efforts to mark off certain particularly virulent forms of Protocols use, of especially vituperative criticism of Israel as problematic, get buried in the banality of “every” and “any.”  For example, when Alvin Rosenfeld criticized the most extreme examples of Jewish attacks on Israel – e.g., comparisons of Israel to the Nazis, calls for the dismantling of the State of Israel – as feeding this “new anti-Semitism,” progressives counter-attacked by accusing him of trying to shut down debate by tarring anyone critical of Israel of anything with the brush of anti-Semitism.[vi]

The debate needs to occur, and to address precisely the problem Bronner identifies: “Disentangling genuine prejudice from legitimate critique of Israel should be the aim of all progressive inquiry into the problem of anti-Jewish bigotry.” But if, in such an effort, the eagerness of progressive Jews [and "peace journalists"] to downplay the anti-Semitism, and the morphing spread of conspiracism among the “Left,” leads them to dismiss the warnings as “right-wing Zionist propaganda,” and to attack those whose sound a warning about excessive Jewish self-criticism as “enemies of free speech,” then we are in serious danger of losing our bearings.  And such disarray comes at a crisis in Western culture’s (progressive) experiment with freedom.


[i] Ephraim Karsh, “Amos Oz’s Nostra Culpa,” Contentions (May 16, 2007) [http://www.commentarymagazine.com/contentions/index.php/karsh/443].

[ii] Bronner, in this volume.

[iii] See above, note 11.

[iv] This statement seems like it might have been written in the 1990s, a time when the disappearance of anti-Semitism brought on the Sartrean anticipation that perhaps Judaism might also disappear (Dershowitz, The Vanishing American Jew [New York: Touchstone, 1997]). For an analysis of this tendency to dismiss alarms about anti-Semitism, which permeated the discourse of French anti-Israeli Jews for the first years of the 21st century, see Muriel Darmon, “Du paradoxe identitaire au paradoxe dialectique: genèse d’un nouveau culte,” in Les Alter-Juifs, pp. 17-23. See Parliamentary report (above, n. 3).

[v] Bronner, p. **. Italics mine. See above n. 9.

[vi] “It is no surprise Alvin Rosenfeld’s article is creating a furor. The casualties of his onslaughts are rational dissent and language itself.  If you’re a Jew who has ever said or written anything critical of Israel, then you may be contributing to an “intellectual and political climate that helps to foster” hostility toward the Jewish state and exacerbates hatred against Jews…” Letti Pogrebin “Who Dares Criticize Israel?” Moment Magazine (April 2007) [italics mine]. [http://www.momentmag.com/Exclusive/2007/2007-04/200704-Opinion-Pogrebin.html]. [Italics mine.]  See above n. 26 on the Rosenfeld Essay, n. 9 on the rhetoric of “any criticism. . .”

One Response to We could all agree to differ, but…: A Response to Bronner and Magid

  1. w.w.wygart says:

    Richard,

    You are very polite.

    The modern ‘progressive’ LCE tendency to treat Palestinians as you say, “as merely clones of the liberal West, and acting solely “in reaction” to Israeli actions,” robs them of their agency, and responsibility as adult human beings. I’ve always called the practice you describe, “Making pets out of the Palestinians.” Not fair, or effective – or even progressive.

    W^3

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