GABlog

March 7, 2015

Originary Zionism

Filed under: GA — adam @ 9:45 am

Are you now, or have you ever been, a Zionist?

That, today, would be the most likely form of that “infamous” inquisitorial query—there are many situations today in which very few people would be comfortable identifying themselves as Zionists. I certainly consider myself one, but have always had a problem with Zionism, so much so that my own willingness to affirm my Zionism has been as much due to the need to contest those who would demonize Zionism as to assert a belief in any particular theory of Jewish national liberation. In fact, intellectually speaking, Zionism is quite a mess—there’s nothing like a shared, coherent version of it, like we would find with “Marxism,” “liberalism,” or even “nationalism.” The idea that Jews scattered throughout the world constitute a single “nation” in anything like the modern sense is a stretch, to say the least; the idea, further, that they should all pick themselves up and move to Israel is arbitrary and ridiculous to the vast majority of Jews; and the assumption that the gathering of all these Jews should take place in the ancient land of Israel splices religious messianism with modern political notions of self-determination in a way it would be hard to justify within any theoretical framework. Add onto this the assumption that Jews from the “Galut” needed to be transformed into “new Jews” (on the model of the Socialist “New Man”), which presupposes a kind of virulent self-hatred behind the entire enterprise, the very scant consideration given to the existing inhabitants of the land where this national project was to take root, and the impossibility of resolving the problem of non-Jewish citizens of a Jewish state other than through formulaic references to “equal rights” and feeble relativizing allusions to the by now mainly vestigial remnants of ethnic privileging in some other countries, and we have a mode of political thought someone with intellectual integrity can hardly feel comfortable with.

But here is Benjamin Netanyahu visiting the sites of vicious antisemitic attacks in Europe, attacks that are merely the tip of a cresting wave of hostility toward the beleaguered Jewish minority in the countries that not that long ago (with very few honorable exceptions) gave them up for slaughter, calling on the Jews to “come home” to Israel. And he’s getting a response from European leaders—grudging, resentful responses, but the leaders of countries like France, Germany and Denmark feel compelled to reiterate (unconvincingly) their commitment to making their countries safe for Jews. This actually points to another problematic element of Zionism (noted, like all the problems I mentioned above, long ago, most of them soon after the initial formulation of Zionism, and in internal Zionist debates)—the appearance of an interest, on the part of Zionism, in diminished safety for Jews in the Diaspora (those who wish can find some confirmation in the infamous “Transfer Agreement” between the Zionist leadership in Palestine and the Nazis, or in the charges, the truth of which I cannot assess, that Zionist agents in Iraq exacerbated the perceived peril Jews of that country were in following the founding of Israel by planting bombs in synagogues). The worse things are for Jews elsewhere the better for Zionism and, its successful institutionalization, the State of Israel. I don’t say this is true—just that it’s consistent with Zionist theory. But this particular double bind (the movement to make Jews safe depends upon increased dangers for Jews) also gets us to the heart of Zionism which, in fact only makes sense on the worst case scenario constructed by the more fatalistic of the Zionists—that, ultimately, antisemitism is so deeply rooted, or will take such deep roots, wherever Jews are going to be, that Jews will in the long run never be safe anywhere but in their own homeland (but if they are so hated everywhere, won’t they be just as hated all gathered together in one place—and, in an age of weapons of mass destruction, much easier to finish up once and for all? Hence the “normalization” theory, which inflects the antisemitic claim that Jews don’t fit in anywhere by explaining this misfit in terms of historical distortions in Jewish life that a Jewish state will rectify. But what can more inescapably mark one as abnormal than striving for normality?).

If that claim is true, none of the inconsistencies, contradictions and absurdities matter all that much—on the most basic level, as the Revisionist (the trend embodied in Netanyahu’s Likud Party), and most minimalist version of Zionism has it, Zionism is ultimately a life raft, albeit an armed one. In a sense, while being the most embattled, even paranoid version of Zionism, it is also the most open one: Zionism is not to transform the Jews, create a utopian society, or usher in the Messianic Age, it is just to keep the Jews out of the grasp of their executioners (even if we acknowledge that this can only ever be a deferral). All the problems created by Zionism, most obviously the displacement of the Palestinians and enmity with the Arab and Muslim worlds, can be addressed provisionally and pragmatically, within that broader framework. The same with relations with the Diaspora, with which a fairly traditional relation, going back to antiquity, whereby Jews in Israel represent an eternal Jewish possibility while Jews elsewhere lend support, can be maintained, while Israel remains ready to transform that relationship into a rescue mission at any time. Questions of political and economic institutions—socialism or capitalism, parliamentary democracy or some kind of Presidential system—can be debated on their own merits; the crucial and ultimately unresolvable secular/religious question can likewise be left to the ongoing cultural push and shove and demographic transformations.

Zionism, then, is utterly unlike other political theories, and all of its contradictions and confusions come from attempts to model it on those theories (socialism and national liberation in particular). Maybe it’s not even a theory, but rather more of an mood that accompanies one at times (for some, very often, enough to institutionalize it). You are a Zionist insofar as you support the efforts of those Jews operating under the assumption that Jews can rely on no safe haven other than what they can create for and defend by themselves. I call this a “mood” because there’s no provable or falsifiable proposition here: we can’t know whether Jews will, in fact, always be driven, sooner or later, out of any place they have made their home as a vulnerable minority. It’s also a mood insofar as it has a kind of “shading” to it—dark. Zionism is a depressive mood, a paranoid one—it leads one to see duplicity in Gentiles even when there are no signs of it, it gives weight to the burdens of the past over the possibilities of the future. It is therefore a mood that long predates the founding of Zionism as a political movement, and extends beyond its explicit adherents. Above all, it’s a desperate mood, one that spurs to action—it has glimmers of hopefulness, but those never encroach upon the alertness to impending catastrophe. It is a profoundly ironic mood, because it must occur to the thoughtful Zionist that thus prejudging the possibilities of Jewish-Gentile relations might very well, by generating mutual distrust, contribute to the feared result. Part of this irony (and, in fact, part of the longstanding bill of indictments against Zionism) is that, from a sheer propositional standpoint, there is no one with whom the Zionist agrees more than the anti-Semite, who also believes that Jews can never live peacefully among non-Jews. Only mood really separates the Zionist from the anti-Semite, as a very different range of feelings would naturally associate themselves for each regarding their shared diagnosis of the “Jewish Question.” (I say only mood, because even the ethical distinctions can be blurred—it is hard to imagine an emergency for the sake of which Zionism exists in which the possibility of collaborating with anti-Semites wouldn’t have to be seriously considered.) Insofar as Zionism is a mood rather than a theory, it need not be pervasive—it is perfectly reasonable that comfortable American Jews will feel Zionism only weakly, perhaps punctuated by sharper pangs in response to troubling events and evocations of communal memory.

Israel must be Zionist, but insofar as it is Zionist it is dangerous (its enemies must know it to be dangerous). Insofar as it is nationalist (“Israeli”), or liberal, or democratic, or Jewish, the danger is mitigated. This interplay of the Zionist mood with more familiar political ideas and feelings should be kept in mind in assessing the aspect of Zionism that most blackens its reputation in world opinion: the settlements in the territories captured in the 1967 war. Certainly the settler movement, like the Zionist movement in general, bears a strong family resemblance to Western colonialism and perhaps especially the settlement of North America by Europeans, and this accounts for a great deal of the hysterical hostility to them. But we can go deeper than that, and to do so I would like to draw upon a perhaps unlikely source: the political theorist, and one time Nazi political theorist, Carl Schmitt.

Schmitt, in his Nomos of the Earth in the International Law of the Jus Publicum Europaeum, argues that the Greek word “nomos,” often translated as “law,” really denotes a way of social life grounded in an originary land division, out of which, and for the preservation of which, political and legal institutions emerge. Indeed, Schmitt gives the Biblical account of the division of the land of Canaan amongst the Israelite tribes as an example of such a founding nomos. Schmitt’s account is long, penetrating and rich (and no doubt contestable), and includes an account of America’s role in modern history that is not relevant here but well worth familiarizing oneself with. What is important for my purposes is Schmitt’s articulation of the originary land division as a source of nomos with the other contributory elements of political life he considers essential: production and distribution (which comes down to the economy, and politics in its more familiar, mundane operations). For Schmitt, the modern world was founded on a new nomos created by the discovery and division of the New World among the European nations: by placing the settlement and exploitation of the New World (including all the associated violence, against the natives and between the European competitors) beyond the civilized pale, the European countries could “bracket” war amongst themselves on their own continent in order to subject it to rules and prevent it from becoming total in a way that the religious wars consequent upon the Protestant break had been. This new nomos, which maintained relative peace from the 18th century to the first World War, began to collapse in the late 19th century, as the boundaries between metropole and periphery became confused. Be that as it may, the point is that following the European catastrophe of the first half of the 20th century, the European powers (brought to this point, according to Schmitt by American priorities and principles) renounced nomos as a basis for political order and sought to found political order on production and distribution alone.

One can point to the fascist (“blood and soil”) implications of the “nomos of the earth,” but Schmitt is very clear that each new age, at a new level of civilization and technological development, will require a new nomos—the modern nomos included the sea, and the new one Schmitt wonders about in the book would of course include the air (and perhaps one day space—or, for that matter, DNA, or gigabytes). In any case, though, any enduring political order must be founded on a concrete division of finite, zero-sum property, both within and between nations. Only a political and legal order that can be traced back to such an originary division can claim legitimacy—in particular because the inevitable transgressions (invasions, revolts, secessions, etc.) will need to be framed in terms of such an order, baptized within it, so to speak. The marginalization of nomos in the name of production and distribution is predicated on the fantasy that no originary division, even as a distant reference point, is needed, because actual property—that which cannot be used by one without withdrawing it from the use of another—is part of a global process of production in which any particular property is a manipulable part. (Modern rights, which make the basis of social order the isolated individual that is actually the result of a centuries long civilizing process, is a transitional step towards the integration of humans as elements into the global production and distribution process.)

The Jews never became part of the nomos of Europe—its constitution could not accommodate them, which is another way of saying there was no room for them—and their only hope for freedom and safety lay with the displacement of nomos by production and distribution, which Jews overwhelmingly and enthusiastically supported. (That there could be no room for a particular people makes perfect sense if we are thinking in terms of a nomos; it is utterly mystifying if we are thinking in terms of production/distribution because, after all, couldn’t any human capital be put to some use?) But the loss of the nomos of “European civilization” made Europe mad and the Jews were held responsible. Zionism is the attempt of Jews to found a nomos for themselves that would enable them to fit into the nomos of the world constituted by nation-states and the emergent post-Nuremberg international law. But that nomos has turned out to be a pseudo-nomos, held together for a time by the stabilizing enmities of the Cold War, but ultimately failing at its main imperative: to integrate as equal nations the postcolonial world. Into the void has rushed a vitalized Islam and the victimary.

Israel relied upon the post-Nuremberg order that shared with Zionism a sense of the vulnerability of the Jews as a hinge of social order, but that can no longer be relied upon. The internal nomos of Israel society will probably become central, as in fact it was before the founding of the state and for its first few decades. That internal nomos is what Zionism has always called “facts on the ground,” perhaps the concept most diametrically opposed to the production and distribution networks that can be imagined. Controlling land, building on land, using land to continually reshape borders with the other, to implicate the less committed in the nomos of the social order by requiring shared defense of land acquisitions and construction—this is what Zionism needs now more than anything else. Of course, this—settlement activities—is the most pressing source of friction between Israel and the post-European world order, but friction is necessary for the foundation of a new nomos. And that friction might take less hysterical forms as the world order becomes increasingly post-American, with China, Russia and India competing to fill the many vacuums American leaves behind. Only an Israel firmly grounded in the Zionist nomos will be prepared for the emergent Islamic nomos (or failure to establish such) of the Middle East

Leftists and liberals (including libertarians), then, are right to feel uneasy, at least, about Zionism. Israel is a mostly liberal society (in some ways as liberal as any place on earth), but Zionism is illiberal. Of course, the foundations of any social order are illiberal—liberalism can never be anything more than the ripest fruit of an order that has already been highly civilized and by other than liberal means: liberalism is constituted by a carefully cultivated capacity to ignore that. But Zionism cannot be kept out of sight—it has perpetual, and urgent, imperatives to press upon us. Your ability to resist the power of the civilized, liberal impulse to turn away is an index of your immunity to the metastasizing victimocracy.

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