[I wrote this essay at the time of the Jenin siege (April 2002) as an effort to explain the “new anti-Semitism” coming from the Left and link it to earlier expressions of Western anti-Semitism which, as far as I could make out, derive from the (right-wing) authoritarian hatred of Jewish influence on culture. It was too long to publish at the time. Overall it constitutes a theoretical framework for understanding why cultures find Jews so problematic. I post it here for readers who might share in my astonishment at the nature of Judeophobia in the 21st century.]
Antisemitism: Medieval, Modern, Postmodern
One Guide to the Perplexed at the Dawn of the Global Era
“Is it possible that the whole world is wrong and Israel is right?”
— Ahad Ha-‘Am, 1893 (about the blood libels)
— Kofi Anan, 2002 (about the Jenin “massacre”)
How impoverished a world, when the answer to that is no.
The Millennial Cusp of 2000 and Philo- and Anti-Judaism in the West
In 1996 I wrote an essay on Jewish-Christian relations entitled “The Social Bermuda Triangle: Jews, Modernity and Apocalypticism” in which I expressed concern over the possible effect that the passage of 2000 might have on the exceptional period of philo-Judaism that has marked Western society from the end of the Holocaust until the present. Indeed the last 60 years may well mark the most exceptional and sustained period of philo-Judaism in the history of Jewish-gentile relations, and the results – a flourishing and creative civil society precisely where those relations are best – seems to support the larger argument of this paper about the relationship between Judaism and civil society. On the other hand, as an historian familiar with the pattern of Christian and post-Christian history, in which periods of philo-Judaism end up flipping into their opposite and generating a sometimes furious episode of anti-Judaism, I wondered about a downswing in the aftermath of 2000.
I chose this date as the point of the downturn for two reasons. First, it was the date of choice for many of the evangelical and fundamentalist Christians whose support of Israel and whose love of Jews is intimately connected to their desire to convert them, and to see the final apocalyptic events play out through the fate of the Jews. Given the powerful historical role of apocalyptic hopes and disappointments in triggering the philo-/anti-Judaic dynamic, I was concerned that the (inevitable) passage of 2000 might provoke a classic case of (post-) apocalyptic scapegoating: Jesus did not return because of the refusal of the Jews to convert according to the Christian messianic scenario. Second, Muslims had become acutely aware of the Jewish-Christian messianic alliance at the approach of 2000, especially the desire to build the “Third Temple” on the site of the Dome of the Rock and the Al Aqsa mosque. Illustrating the first rule of apocalyptic rivalry – one person’s messiah is another’s Antichrist – the Muslims depicted Jews as agents of the Dajjal (Antichrist), who would himself be Jewish.
I therefore speculated that we might even see an alliance between some bitterly disappointed fundamentalist Christians and the apocalyptic enemy of 2000 – Islamism. At any rate, I argued, Jews should prepare themselves for a rough ride, and, while the philo-Judaic sun shone before 2000, they should strengthen their alliances among their current friends, liberal and conservative, secular and religious. In particular, I meant that we should clarify the nature of our relationships, so that the tacit expectations might not lead to bitter disappointments. When I spoke to prominent Jews about this issue, I received a condescending, sometimes aggressive rebuke. Don’t be silly or alarmist! Alan Dershowitz quoted me in his The Vanishing Jew (p. 97n), as a lone voice cautioning against his unrestrained optimism that the era of state-sponsored Antisemitism and open displays was over.
Sadly, my concerns have proven founded. Although I was wrong about the Christian Evangelicals who have remained remarkably loyal to Israel, I was right about a post-2000 alliance, this one between the radical “left” and the apocalyptic Muslims. In trying to understand how matters could have come to this pass, I have composed the following exploration of Judeophobia, medieval, modern, and, alas, post-modern.
Anti-Semitism: Conceptual Backround, Jews and Civil Society
Anti-Semitism: Medieval (Prime Divider)
Anti-Semitism: Modern (Civil Societies)
Anti-Semitism: Arab-Israeli Conflict (Prime Divider vs. Civil Society
Anti-Semitism: Post-Modern (Civil Society Self-Destructing)
Post-Modern Antisemitism: Leftist Anti-Zionism
The exception to the rule for my reading of anti-Semitism [largely a “right-wing” phenomenon from people opposed to the liberal impact of Jews on prime-divider cultures] comes when I try to explain the anti-Zionism of progressives. According to my analysis, those who favor the humanistic commitments of civil society – government responsible to the people, freedom of expression, treating the life of commoners as a valuable social good, broad empowerment of populations, both as individuals and as groups, women’s rights, etc. – should side unequivocally with the Israelis. Indeed this is the common cry of Israelis when they appeal to the West for support.
And yet the opposite has happened. Rather than the morality tale I describe above, a radical inversion has occurred in the retelling of this story in modern progressive (leftist) circles. The toxic imperialism and fascist nationalism with genocidal tendencies so prominently on display in the Arab world, appear now as Israeli traits. The Zionists are an imperialist settler colony like the Boer in South Africa or the pilgrims in America. Israel, in this narrative, represents only the latest of that vicious imperialism and nationalism that Europeans and Americans, as they increase their commitments to civil values, come more and more to regret – slavery, genocidal policies that killed millions of natives, ruthless suppression of indigenous culture. The Palestinians, in this reading, represent the oppressed people trying valiantly to free themselves from European-style occupation.
The difficulties of such a reading are immense. They necessitate:
• Romanticizing of the past in which the Arabs of the region were living in an egalitarian society (rather than being occupied by their own elites), in which Muslims and Jews got on famously
• Reversing the vectors of action in which the Israelis initiate the aggression and the Arab violence is a reaction to that aggression
• Viewing the aggressors in the conflict as innocent by virtue of their loss, and the defenders as guilty by virtue of their victory
• Ignoring, or lightly condemning all of the immensely depraved actions of the Arab leadership (killing their own “dissidents”, imprisoning and immiserating their “refugees”, suicide terrorism) as “understandable” given their frustration and “lack of hope” while criticizing every Israeli act against these deeds as inexcusably disproportionate aggression.
• Accepting the statements that Arabs make in English as an index of their intentions, and ignoring what they say in Arabic, thus dismissing any possibility that they still harbor desires to wipe out Israel. (As one confident analyst put it on NPR: “Any Palestinian with a three-digit I.Q. knows that Israel is here to stay.”)
Such readings are possible. Indeed there is a whole academic literature dedicated to just such analyses, and a press that generally covers the events essentially from this framework, and a large body of left-wing and pro-Arab ideologues who assume it is true. It results in a widespread consensus that views events in an “even-handed” manner, one in which both sides have reasonable positions (even if the Palestinian position must be attributed to them in order to make it reasonable), both have done reprehensible things, and both should just sit down and work this out in negotiations. Such thinking, generous in its belief in the good intentions of both sides, results in astoundingly inaccurate and harmful analyses. By failing to distinguish between a shame culture dominated by a political prime-divider on the one hand, and a guilt culture, organized by the principles of a civil society – indeed projecting onto both sides the same liberal values and commitments – progressives undermine the very forces they believe they strengthen.
• they systematically misread events, assuming that, for example, the Israelis must be guilty of the pain and suffering of the Palestinian refugees, since who would imagine that the Arabs would do this to their own people.
• they fall prey to the use of Western liberal language by people who have no commitment to it, believing, for example that the Palestine Liberation Organization is dedicated to freeing the Palestinian people, not destroying the Israelis
• they adopt the demonizing narrative of the Arab elites, reinforcing their grip on the populations that they victimize in the name of fighting the Zionist imperial entity
• they abandon one of the rare independent cultures that share their progressive values, excoriating them for their lack of restraint precisely where they demonstrate a level of restraint no Western country has ever shown
• they justify behavior (terrorism, especially suicide mass murder) as “legitimate expressions of frustration” that set a catastrophic precedent for the dangerous and delicate task of globalization that faces us in the coming decades and centuries.
• They label as racism any attempt to point out the violent, hate-mongering racism of the Palestinians and Arabs.
One might ask, why such self-destructive behavior? Why attack those who represent the very cutting edge of the culture you have worked so hard to create? Why side so enthusiastically with people who despise you and your culture, and want nothing more than to dominate you? Why empower a narrative and an elite that treats its own with such merciless cruelty?
At one level, one can analyze this as an honest mistake, one that systematically underestimates the difficulty of achieving a civil society, and assumes that such “rational” behavior lies within the grasp of any culture. Thus, the Palestinians would love to build a civil nation if only the Israelis would leave them alone (end the occupation), and as soon as the Israelis make enough concessions, the Palestinians will respond accordingly. Similarly, Arabs value the lives of their children just as much as Israelis do, or, in Ted Koppel’s words, “I refuse to believe that Palestinian mothers mourn their dead children any less than Israeli mothers.” Indeed to suggest otherwise would be racist.
This of course means that one must look away from the behavior of mothers who, their daughters killed by their husbands and sons for having “shamed” the family, insist that they do not mourn. They may indeed mourn as Ted Koppel (and I) suspect, but the public culture demands that they do not, and they comply. When we look away from such profoundly different cultural phenomena, we fail to ask such pertinent questions as: If these violent men will kill their own children for shaming them, what would they do, could they, to the Israelis for shaming their culture and religion? Similarly, when reporters do not know about honor killings, they cannot understand the attitudes of families toward suicide “martyrs.”
The result becomes profoundly superficial and subtly racist. When, as many will profess in an almost off-handed way, suicide bombers are the expression of hopelessness – “what else can they do?” – one assumes two terrible things about the antagonists. First, one assumes that the Jews are as evil as the Palestinians present them, ruthless, genocidal killers who throttle any decent desire for independence among Palestinians; and second one assumes that Palestinians have so impoverished a moral culture that they have no choice but to engage in the most depraved and vicious form of child sacrifice in the recorded history of mankind in order to get their way. Deconstructed, such banal remarks underscore the poverty of such off-hand sympathy for the “poor Palestinians.”
Nowhere does the intellectual and moral failure of even-handedness appear more blatantly than on the question of racism. Jews and Israelis often accuse the Arabs of being anti-Semitic. No, reply the Arabs, for we too are Semites, so how can we be anti-Semitic? Facetious, perhaps, but nonetheless an argument that seems to carry weight. Rather than accept the argument, however, it should then shift our attention from the specifically racist quality of late 19th and 20th century antisemitism to the more general demonizing hatreds of medieval and early modern antisemitism.
Rather than moving in such a direction however – again a desire to avoid the unpleasantness of accusing a whole culture of hatemongering – the discourse then takes a stunning turn. Not only are the Arabs not antisemites, the Israelis are racists. This accusation, which is patently false – no country in the world has as much racial, religious, and cultural diversity as Israel – and even wrong where the Israeli’s treatment of their Arab Muslim and Christian minorities are concerned (our society would, as Scott Andersen recently admitted on NPR, have produced vigilante groups to intimidate any group that dared to attack our civilians in the manner of the suicide bombers, who get a 80% approval rating among their fellow Arabs).
And yet the accusation carries great weight, not only in organizations like the UN which voted in 1985 under the presidency of a former and unrepentant Nazi, Kurt Waldheim to condemn Zionism as racism, but also in the widespread parallels drawn between South African apartheid and Israeli treatment of Palestinians. The appalling logic here came to a stunning climax just after the second Intifada, in the summer of 2001 at Durban, a conference supposedly dedicated to fighting racism around the world, but which spent most of its time dealing with Arab denunciations of Zionist “racism,” and ended with condemnations of the Atlantic slave trade (i.e., historical European trade) and no mention of the Indian Ocean slave trade (i.e., current Arab trade). The fact that the Arabs demonized the Jews should not have surprised anyone who follows the narratives that dominate Arab press, academic, and political discourse, but the acquiescence, even the enthusiastic support of NGOs, the self-appointed bastions of civil society around the world, deserves pondering. Even liberals with enough sense to see the excessive nature of the attack, preferred to regret the excess as an “unfortunate distraction,” than focus on the revealing contradiction of demonizing racists successfully accusing others of racism.
Perhaps the single most revealing misreading that comes from an attempt at fairness, an “even-handed” approach concerns the interpretation of the divisions within Israel and the unity among Palestinians. On the surface, it suggests that even some Israelis recognize the errors of their own nation’s deeds (e.g., the Israeli expulsion of Arabs in 1948), whereas the Palestinians unanimous complaints about the aggression of the Israelis suggests there must be considerable truth to them. Gentiles who criticize Israel invariably cite the Jews and Israelis who make similar criticisms in defense of their own attacks, recalling the Christian invocation of prophetic critique to demonize the Jews.
In reality, this asymmetry reveals just the opposite. It separates a culture that has raised self-criticism to a high – some might argue pathological – art, from one that throttles self-criticism with the violent demands of tribal unity. Palestinians invoke precisely the fate that Israelis suffer – the use of their self-criticism by outsiders to attack them – as the reason for not allowing anyone within their ranks to admit to any shortcomings on pain of death.
When Andrea Koppel spoke of atrocities at Jenin shortly after the Israeli assault, an inquiring Israeli asked her if her Palestinian sources might be exaggerating or even lying. “Oh, so they’re all liars now,” came her response, with its edgy suggestion that the Israeli was being a racist. Ms. Koppel obviously has little experience with the nature of Palestinian attitudes towards the truth, and the experience of Jenin’s non-massacre probably has done little to sober her. She will continue to project onto the Palestinians all the best intentions that she herself feels.
And what seems innocent, if inexcusably naïve from some, seems somewhat more malevolent in the hands of others. Claire Balderson of the BBC has openly criticized Palestinians for arguing that their own side should stop the violence and return to negotiations. “But isn’t this spontaneous Palestinian rage?” she challenged one such Palestinian. “Are you saying that the they should just bottle up their frustrations?” Similarly, when Arafat’s call for reform brought the kinds of critics who show a much deeper appreciation of the need for and the demands of civil society began to speak, she challenged one: “Isn’t this a time for Palestinians to band together behind Yasser Arafat, and not break ranks?” One imagines with difficulty her scolding an Israeli liberal, critical of the government for breaking ranks with Sharon.
Or, to take another classic case of leftist conspiracy thinking, Jose Bové, the French farmer who took on MacDonalds, recently claimed that the Mossad was blowing up synagogues in France because “the Arabs would not be so foolish as to endanger their own good cause.” Such logic suggests that the Palestinian grievance against Israel is so important to M. Bové that even when the evidence of Arab anti-Semitism and thuggish violence appears in his own land, he prefers to project the best of intentions and the most honorable self-control onto them, and the basest motives – who could be so base as to attack their own people? – to the Israelis. Such cases recall to mind the fellow travelers who continued, despite all the terrifying counter-evidence, to believe that the Stalin and the Soviet Union were paragons of virtue. Is this anti-Zionism primarily anti-Jewish malevolence (wanting to see violence against Israel) or knee-jerk radical chic (siding with romanticized “third world” “radical”)? It may be difficult to separate out the two; they may be sides of the same coin.
The virulence of European anti-Israeli sentiment shows up most strikingly in their fondness for the analogy between Israel and the Nazis, an analogy much favored by the Palestinians (when they’re not denying the Holocaust ever happened). The astounding hurtful and breathtakingly inaccurate nature of such a comparison – after 12 years of power the Jewish population of Germany did not double – takes on an added horror when one considers that if anything, the historical connections and analogies between Germans and Arabs goes disturbingly far. The Arab League in 1948, like Hamas in 2000, are the only organizations to openly call for genocide, and genocide against the Jews, since the Holocaust. The Arabs embrace the world of delirious antisemitic fantasies like the Protocols and the blood libels, the very paranoid hysteria that drove the Nazis to their staggering evil. And yet, like moths to a flame, European leftists find the comparison of Israelis with the Nazis inordinately attractive.
The best explanation I can come up with is a kind of moral Schadenfreude driven by their own ugly past, both their colonial violence on a scale that beggars the modern liberal imagination and Israel’s actual behavior, and their craven cooperation with the conquering Nazis, especially in assaulting the Jews. The Jews, once again, serve as a sacrifice on the altar of European denial and projection of guilt. In their view, then, the Jews are the imperialists who, long after the Europeans have given such nasty behavior up, continue to endanger world peace with their desire to dominate others. Still better, the analogy with the Nazis permits Europeans to exculpate their own antisemitic depravity. To be able to say: “Ah the Jews… after so many centuries of suffering from others, as soon as they can, they turn around and do it to someone else.” Irresistible, especially if you are more interested in escaping blame than in confronting reality. (And of course, for those who wish to go there, the more extreme versions open up the path to suggesting that “maybe the Nazis had good reason to fear the Jews.”)
None of this “moral” thinking offers promising signs; on the contrary, it seems like the very stuff of anti-Semitism.
What could possibly explain such extraordinary and ultimately self-destructive moral blindness? The average committed Jew would fairly rapidly conclude that this moral sadism represents a classic case of anti-Semitism. The psycho-logic here seems clear: like the anti-Dreyfusards of late 19th century France who preferred the Jew Dreyfus in jail at the cost of allowing the traitor Esterhazy to go free, these people would rather wish the Jews harm than move to protect themselves, and certainly prefer it over protecting the people about whom they profess so much concern and sympathy, the Palestinians. To fight for civil society in Palestine would mean fighting the elite’s demonizing of the Jews, urging and educating the Palestinians to abandon these vestiges of prime-divider hatreds. And somehow, many would rather fortify the demonizing than save its first and longest victim – the Palestinians.
Such an analysis explains two major anomalies among progressives on this subject: First, it explains why the Palestinian Liberation Organization is the most popular liberation movement in the world today, despite the fact that a) they behave worse than any other (and the record of the other movements is not great), and b) if their cause were successful, they would represent the 23rd Arab Muslim nation, rather than the first Kurdish, or Berber, or Tibetan, or Tamil, or Timorese, or that of any of the other ethnic and religious groups that languish under the heavy hand of “third world” imperialist and nationalist dominion.
Second, it explains why the Palestinian people (as opposed to their heroic leaders) languish in hell not only under Israeli occupation, but under the occupation of their own people, Lebanese, Syrian, Jordanian, Egyptian Arabs, and, since Oslo in 1993, under Palestinians. For all its good will, the world of “progressive” sympathy for Palestinians has never translated into their welfare. Why not? Because the logic of Arab irredentism demands that Palestinians must be the victims of the Jews. How can one justify to oneself hatred of the Jews if they are not harming someone. The Palestinians must suffer on the altar of hatred to the Jews. And for reasons we would all rather not think about, the suffering of Jewish victims has enormous appeal. The Palestinians are not only the designated victims of the Arab elites, but also of European intellectual and political elites.
After the Holocaust, this accusation runs, when Jew-hatred was no longer acceptable, even in some drawing rooms, when publications of the Protocols drew reproof (e.g., at Vatican II when the Austrian bishops opposed to exonerating the Jews for deicide, tried to circulate the text through the Spanish contingent), anti-Semites strong and mild, could count on their Arab proxies, and their victim people the Palestinians, to carry the torch. They would keep the nascent Jewish state under constant threat of destruction. What better way for the old virus to survive in a world of victorious liberalism, where everyone, even Jews, were supposed to get a fair chance? Thus, rather than help the forces of civil society in the Arab world by getting them to come to terms with Israel, Europeans preferred to encourage the worst aspects of Arab political culture, and assure the victimization of the Palestinian people. Now, faced with an Arab world that has become literally world-destroying in its frustrated rage and hysterical victim-narrative, they blame the Israelis for creating this situation.
If such an attitude does not constitute anti-Semitism, it certainly shares a lot of traits and dynamics with it, including the current outbreaks of public celebrations in Europe at the killing of innocent Jews (marches in praise of suicide-bombers), the outbreak of copy-cat attacks on Jews and Jewish sites, not only in Israel, but around the world, the passive approval of European elites who dismiss such incidents as political spill-over from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But more forebodingly, the suicidal attitude of the progressives in legitimating Palestinian suicide bombing as somehow “justified,” parallels the repeated results of earlier, “medieval” antisemitism – they will fall victim to their own violent fantasies and projections of hatred and slaughter, corrupted in their society by this way of dealing with the “other.” The West went through nightmare centuries of persecuting “heretics” and “witches” and every other scapegoat they could find as a result of this approach to the Jews. Why do we want to repeat such self-destructive madness?
Unconscious Anti-Semitism, “Objective” Anti-Semitism?
Such analyses, however, fall largely on deaf ears, no matter how much more cogent their reading of history. Somehow liberals – Jews and non-Jews alike – do not like to think badly of people; they want to believe that all this hatred is behind us, that we are in a new world, and that such talk is both paranoid and demonizing. They are quite comfortable with the statement “Just because you criticize Israel doesn’t make you anti-Semitic”; and spend somewhat less time contemplating the statement: “Most post-war anti-Semitism expresses itself as anti-Zionism.”
But the issue goes farther. Many of the people who engage in this thinking do not dislike Jews; indeed many of them prize Jews as close friends, and find great delight in conversation with them. Some of them think they are the Jews’ best friend, who wants to comfort the Jewish people in their afflictions. They think the Jews are a great and admirable people, and they thrilled to the early exploits of Zionism. But now they fear for the soul of this great people and brave nation. Now they tremble in anxiety and know not what to say.
Moreover, this argument has an excellent liberal lineage. It founds itself in basic human principles: it wants to be fair, to hear both sides, to think well of people, to alleviate suffering, to support the rights of all people to dignity and freedom. It naturally recoils at stereotyping on both sides, and naturally looks for compromising formulas whether in assessing claims and counter-claims, narratives and counter-narratives, or coming up with equitable solutions. It accepts as axiomatic that the Palestinians have legitimate national rights, that both Israeli and Palestinian states should be democracies. And it rigorously applies the same standards of empathy to both sides: both people sincerely want peace; both equally value the lives of their own and their children. To take this position is to feel good about oneself, to fly the flag of liberalism. And for Jews, so passionate about the liberalism because so much of it is biblical in origin, taking a courageous stand against Israeli oppression, makes it all the more noble. Self-criticism never had more valiant martyrs than the Jews who suffer the indignant hostility of those fellows who view them as traitors. The package is understandably difficult to resist.
And yet, it is also approves of all of the worst elements that any people could possibly display, setting an extraordinarily low bar for admission to the family of sovereign nations. On one level it’s extraordinary: the most widely accepted notion today is that the Palestinians should have their own nation as quickly as possible – and this before the southern Sudanese black Africans, the Kurds, the Tibetans, the Berbers, etc. And yet the Palestinians show every indicator of producing a fascist, repressive, and violently aggressive state. Not only do they treat their enemy’s lives with contempt, they treat their own people’s lives with contempt – their daughters for shaming the family, their dissidents for treason, their child-martyrs for the sake of killing Israelis. And instead of reading this as writing on the wall that this “nation” once given sovereignty will abuse it, good people all agree that once they get what they tell us they want, all will be well. This may nice, but it’s suicidally stupid thinking.
Most people don’t even see it. Some people do and try to explain it. One of the most interesting recently has been the remarks of Mick Hume, a Palestinian sympathizer in the New Statesman. According to his analysis,
Israel has become the designated scape-goat of Western society’s loss of nerve. They are indulging a contemporary fantasy that, if only Israel could somehow be made to disappear, everything would be all right, since surely nobody would have reason to hate the West. While Western leaders turn their backs on their old ally, their enemies turn on Israel as a scapegoat for the world’s ills. Israel and the Jews have become the targets of a sort of ersatz anti-imperialism. A global consensus against Israel has taken shape among all those who hate the values of Western society, an unholy alliance of Islamic fundamentalists with fashionable anti-capitalists.
What Hume puts his finger on is the inability of the West to stand firm, to say precisely the opposite of what the outraged Mr. Larsen of the UN said: “You Palestinians cannot behave as abominably as you do and then cry about suffering casualties when your enemies come to stop you. You would do far worse if you had the power, in response to far less provocation. If you wish to make a moral claim, show that you know what morality means.”
But that would take a degree of both courage and understanding that the West, and particularly Western progressive thinkers seem to lack. Obviously one could cite the moral relativity of post-modern pluralism, on the one hand a timidity about making moral judgments – who’s to judge between narratives? Are they not all valid? – and on the other an aggressiveness about attacking our own narratives – decenter “objectivity,” destabilize Western triumphalism. The two stances contradict each other: extremely high moral demands of the West to show empathy and modesty when dealing with other cultures linked to a complete lack of any demands from the other cultures. It exactly replicates the fearful asymmetry of the leftist critique of Israel, and delineates an attitude that weakens itself especially in the face of a determined onslaught from an enemy that still plays by the rules of the dominating imperative. Interestingly enough it replicates a particular Jewish pathology of runaway self-criticism characteristic of the Israeli and American Jewish left, a kind of masochistic omnipotence fantasy in which everything is our fault and, therefore, if only we would do better, everything would be alright. Unfortunately, Israel (and the Jews) are one of the main objects of this “critique.”
An Ominous Misreading of the Global Problem
This leads to some of the most widespread and potentially disastrous interpretations of the current situation that progressive thought generates and have penetrated deep into a largely well-wishing and good-willed center. The basic position goes something along the following lines: we are the hegemonic oppressors of the world; globalization is merely a new form of imperial oppression; terrorism is the natural product of our oppression; if we wish to put an end to terrorism, we will adopt a progressive agenda for the rest of the world, insure economic well-being, for them as well as for ourselves. In brief, to dry up the swamp of terrorism, we need to bring these people prosperity. On one level, anyone who wishes to see a world at peace and in harmony with both humans and nature, will find it hard to disagree with at least the sentiments to which this analysis appeals. On another, such an analysis, in its haste to lay blame where it hopes most to change behavior, fails to understand two key elements of the current conflicts.
Above all, it grossly underestimates the difficulty of achieving the values and commitments of civil society, as well as ignoring the hegemonic behavior of non-Western political cultures. Instead of seeing the West as a recovering power-addict (and their own voice within it as evidence thereof), and the political culture of prime-divider societies as full-fledged power addicts (in which anyone who expressed a progressive level of criticism would rapidly be eliminated), they demonize their own culture and romanticize the “other.” In so doing, they belittle the Western accomplishment and, in their eagerness not to offend the pride of other cultures, they assume that these other cultures already share our values and commitments. Thus, all Arab spokesmen need to do is use our language – liberation, inalienable rights, tolerance, resistance to oppression, human dignity, peace – and we assume both that they mean the same thing as we do, and that they cherish these values they so ardently invoke.
But from the world of the dominating imperative, in which reciprocity does not exist, peace means that “we” rule you, “end of occupation” means the elimination of your autonomy, and human dignity means “our” honor and your submission. On a social level, this is true even if the most liberal voices of Arab and Palestinian and Muslim causes sincerely believe what they say, genuinely desire a progressive agenda. The problem lies in the fact that these liberals carry no weight in the larger political culture: they could not stop massacres and lynchings in the situation where their own people had the power to do so, they could not secure the victory of their values were their side to succeed. If we do not understand and clarify the ambiguities and paradoxes that underlie any exchange between such differing approaches, we will find out too late, as have so many earlier cultures, that a totalizing ideology while weak will appeal to tolerance, but will change its spots rapidly when strong. The behavior of the Arabs at Durban should ring every imaginable alarm bell here.
In the “Protestant” “Reformation” of the 16th century, tolerance was a loser’s (minority) creed, intolerance the policy of winners (majorities), and the result was two centuries of devastating religious wars. In the Constitution of the Unites States, for the first time in Christian history, tolerance was a winner’s creed, and the consequence has been two centuries of prosperity and ever more radical explorations of the values and practices of civil society (emancipation, women’s suffrage, civil rights, post-modern modesty about grand narratives). We cannot, we dare not assume that the Muslims and the Arabs, whatever they say now to gain our support, will chose tolerance and the peace of mutual respect over intolerance and the peace of dominion (Dar al Islam). Indeed, virtually no significant indicator suggests anything but the latter, imperialist choice.
Those who think that the hostility of the Arab and Muslim world, and beyond it the “Third world” in general, stems from their lack of material wealth make a critical error in projection. Material prosperity works against prime divider elites, and the advent of the rules of civil society threaten them in ways we cannot begin to appreciate as long as we insist on projecting our world into their psyches. Long before our efforts to produce a society that shares its wealth succeed, the process of dismantling the prime divider will provoke precisely the kinds of violent abreactions we think we are finally putting behind us. What from the perspective of positive-sum interactions in civil society seems counter-intuitive – that the population should live not too far above subsistence levels – is standard operating procedure for prime-divider elites. They would rather kill the goose that lay the golden egg than have him turn into a political player. It has been precisely the fate of Jews and commoners for millennia.
Economists have, much to their puzzlement, come to understand that “rational” behavior as they define it does not export as easily as they had assumed, that positive-sum interactions do not automatically appeal, that there are cycles of poverty that have condemned whole societies to fail in their efforts to develop. The key to their misunderstanding lies in the necessary shift from the dominating to the empathic imperative, from the “crab-in-the-basket” mentality that views another’s success as a condemnation of oneself to the generosity of being able to take pleasure in the success of another; from the world where no one can be trusted except a clannish few, to a world where one needs to trust most people, except a proven few; from a world where power makes it possible to take vengeance, to one in which it means putting aside one’s personal agenda; from a world in which ruling over others is the greatest honor and satisfaction, to one in which the mutual respect of others sets both parties free to explore a fascinating world of possibilities. That takes enormous psychological resilience and considerable discipline on the part of many people, and we Westerners, however far we still have to go, have nonetheless accomplished impressive levels in this lengthy process. We sell ourselves short and hurt other cultures by assuming that they have already or will rapidly reach such levels without the hard work involved.
If this sounds condescending, it is not, or rather considerably less than the “affirmative action” projections of those who, at the cost of being so, shudder at the very thought of being called racist. It recognizes our accomplishments without triumphalism – we have a long way to go before we have lived up to the goals we have set for ourselves and others, and much to learn from other cultures in the process. It recognizes the long path that lies before others without assuming that they cannot make it – they are not genetically or even culturally incapable of such a journey, but it takes serious attention and concerted effort.
Such an approach avoids the false hopes that the West has held out to the “liberated” global community ever since the “de-imperialization” of the post-War period, hopes that have fed the growing sense of impotence that comes from trying and failing to take short-cuts that don’t work. The origin of both the ideological and even practical terror of Al-Qaeda and the Palestinians comes not from wretched poverty – the poor are merely the victims and foot soldiers, but from the educated and deeply discontented classes of people who have either not yet found the place they want above the prime divider or who feel that their place is threatened. They are dedicated both to preventing the modern processes from occurring and to scapegoating the Israelis for the failure.
My criticism, then, condemns not the Palestinian people or the Arabs, or the Muslims, but the political culture of their prime-divider elites, and the testosteronic men that they recruit from below – the “street”, the “louts,” as one Gazan woman whose fourteen year old son had been recruited by Hamas for a “martyrdom” called them: “Why don’t they use the louts who hang around the marketplace?” These elites and their commoner allies do not represent the interests of their people, although they can, in the right circumstances, hold them hostage, eliminate the voices of those who would rather make the switch to civil society, rouse up a frightened voice of unanimity in hatred and vengeance for a designated scapegoat, and get their own people to participate in their own victimization – a vampire political culture goes cannibalistic.
One cannot fault these men so much for their behavior – it is based, after all, on the norms of most political cultures with the extraordinary exception of modern civil societies. What one can and should do, is to excoriate the self-destructive, cowardly approval that people who should know much better give to these victimizers, the “peace activists” who go to share Yasser Arafat’s fate in Ramallah. The very people that complain bitterly about American foreign policy favoring the dictators rather than the democrats of other cultures, fawn over and romanticize some of the most vicious killers and dominators of those very faulty “third world” political cultures.
It is a Western liberal consensus that Palestinians also want peace, that Palestinian parents also treasure their children, that they are as eager for the blessings of civil society as we are. On one level this is true. I suspect that a majority, given the choice between the blessings and demands of civil society will take them over the pain and suffering of living below the prime divider. But the minority that rules those societies finds the deal far less interesting. They prefer the impoverishment of their own people and the demonization of any neighbor whose social world undermines their legitimacy. They will stop at nothing, including child abuse.
Nor is that minority small. It includes men with no political power, but with the socially sanctioned right to beat their wives and kill their children for shaming the family. Until Palestinians and other Arabs are prepared to give up honor-killings, they do not have a right to claim that they want democracy.
The tragic situation that faces us at the dawn of the first global millennium – the “post-modern” era is really, hopefully, the global era – has progressive liberals in the West supporting not the people they empathize with, but the demonizing narratives of their ruthless elites. They thus condemn those people to increasing suffering by aligning themselves with forces that hate precisely what these progressives so treasure.
Why such blindness? Why such deep moral confusion hidden by stupid moral outrage? Why does this pattern paradoxically recapitulate the anti-Jewish thinking that has cursed the West for the past millennium, and effectively therefore strengthens the very forces of Anti-semitism around the globe that these people would be the first to denounce were they not so consumed with moral indignation at the behavior of the Jewish state?
These are questions that Jews and non-Jews must struggle with. The Jews, because they cannot begin to talk to either themselves nor their non-Jewish neighbors without having considered weighing the balance between their moral perfectionism and its attendant pathologies of self-criticism on the one hand, and our defensive accusations of gentiles as innately anti-semitic on the other. The non-Jews because they cannot afford to slide into self-defeating patterns of thought that, no matter how moral they might sound, and no matter how much they appear to injure only the Jews, actually pave the way to hell for us all. They already have done so for the Palestinians.
If we can think about these things clearly, if we can get at the emotional contortions of envy and denial, of masochistic megalomania and impotent perfectionism that drive so many intellectual agendas, Jewish and gentile, if we can focus on affirming those who deserve our sympathy and help, rather than those who deserve our rebuke, if we can have faith in the decent and humane values that we have fought so hard for, and appreciate how much effort and courage they have taken to establish, then maybe we can turn this madness around. Then we can begin to work for a peaceful, abundant, and creative global culture, filled with the richness of many cultures which, having made the transition from prime divider to civil societies, each in their own idiom, using their own cultural resources, can live together in real tolerance.
But to do that will mean that people like Kofi Anan need to consider the possibility, however galling, that, yes, indeed, it is possible for “all the world” to be wrong, and Israel, or the Jews, to be right. Not always, to be certain. But sometimes. Even this time.
May 20, 2002