13 January 2009

To the Jerusalem Station

  • Tony Judt. Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century. Penguin Press. April 2008.

You would be forgiven, upon reading the panoply of negative reviews of Tony Judt’s Reappraisals, for thinking that Judt’s latest book was a book-length screed, a Kassam rocket of scorn and derision directed at the state of Israel. Imagine your surprise when on cracking the spine of Reappraisals you find all of three essays, out of twenty-four, dedicated to Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—one of which is primarily about the life and work of Edward Said, himself neither exclusively nor principally concerned with Israel. The gap between the perceived and actual subjects of Judt’s work is startling. In fact the book deals mostly with the shameful intellectual history of European Communism, western and eastern versions. It expresses Judt’s desire to form a new leftist canon purged of communist influences, yearnings, and ideas. Yet the critics are not wholly wrong that Israel, too, is part of the puzzle.

What sunk the Communists and their fellow-travelers in the West? Judt argues that it was their inability to acknowledge or understand the consequences of their beliefs. “Irresistibly drawn to the underlying ethical message … of an idea and a movement uncompromisingly attached to representing and defending the interests of the wretched of the earth,” the crusaders for a better world unilaterally disabled their ability to critique their own Communist colleagues with the same ferocity they demonstrated in probing fascism and liberal democracy. Whether it was Walter Duranty of the New York Times, who won a Pulitzer Prize for reporting that “village markets are flowing with eggs, fruit, poultry, vegetables, milk, and butter at prices lower than in Moscow” from Ukraine in 1933, the year millions were deliberately starved to death by Stalin, or Simone de Beauvoir, who argued that “the sacrifices of the Russian people had proved that its leaders embodied its wishes,” intellectuals and writers sympathetic to Communism chose to ignore what they preferred not to see. Long after it had become impossible to do so, many Marxist intellectuals defended Communism to the last. This is an old story but Judt retells it in these essays with a passion that bespeaks a present commitment.

What is it? Judt’s desire to “purge” the party of the left of all Communist sympathizers bears an obvious resemblance to the actions of the Communists themselves in regards to “bourgeois intellectuals.” Well, an eye for an eye, but now that international Communism is no longer a threat, why is Judt still going around the various book reviews gouging eyeballs? The answer lies in his vision, expressed best in Reappraisals’ final essay, “The Social Question Redivivus,” for the future of the left, in Europe and elsewhere. In that essay, Judt comes up with an essentially refurbished Euro-socialist approach to the modern problems of the welfare state under the pressure of globalization—those problems which rose almost immediately after the fall of the Berlin Wall, when the Eastern Bloc became suddenly open to the flow of international capital. Like the platforms of the Socialist parties of Europe, which had, towards the end of the Cold War, engaged in a Lady Macbeth-like “cleansing” of their own Communist bloody hands to become sustainable political parties, it bears little allegiance to any Communist past.

This is because, in Judt’s view, the “Communist Idea” can always, like a vampire, rise again even after being stabbed to death. What has always bothered Judt about Communism is not merely its past (though, for most, that would be enough), but also its problems as a philosophy: its attempt to be completely systematic and unstoppable, a magnificent fantasy posing as science, which ruthlessly subjugates and destroys any erratum of dissident reality, bound like a mob victim to the tracks ahead of it. This is an attitude he draws from, above all, the Polish ex-Communist Leszek Kolakowski, author of the comprehensive and damning Main Currents of Marxism, which indicts Communism as a political practice through a deconstruction of its philosophical basis. In the warm and reverential essay on Kolakowski included in Reappraisals, Judt warns that the dangerous inequalities exacerbated by globalization’s onward march may seed the field left fallow by the end of Communism, thereby preparing a potential renewal of Marxism in general. The rise of modern socialist movements in Latin America, of Maoist revolts in Nepal and northeastern India, and the minor flurry of essays in the advanced capitalist nations that proclaim, “Marx was right,” in the wake of the current financial crisis, modestly confirm Judt’s insight. For those sympathetic to Judt’s fear of a Marxist revival, moderating the process of globalization (“globalization with a human face”) is still anti-Communism: by tempering a destructive capitalism, it preserves the left’s most lasting achievement—the welfare state—against destruction from the left. Judt, then, is purging a certain style of thinking, still smoldering in the ruins of Communism, which is always ready-at-hand, though unable to accommodate or readjust in the face of something it cannot account for: its philosophical inadequacies confirm its political history, and vice versa.

So where does Judt’s notable, and prolonged, interest in Israel fit alongside his passion for righting the left’s wrongs? Born the same year as the state, in 1948, and raised in a labor-Zionist household in Britain, Judt displays a fervent disdain for Zionism thatis the mirror image of a disappointed Marxist’s anti-communism. His increasing disillusionment with the Israeli enterprise—in particular its savage treatment of the Palestinians—has led him to refer toIsrael as “the country that wouldn’t grow up.” With the image of those leftists unwilling to atone for communism freshly in mind, the one time Zionist pokes and prods at Zionist ideology, hoping to deflate its myths—and possibly clear a path for a more honest version of the Jewish homeland he once admired. Judt paints an unremittingly dark portrait of the country, and documenting a propensity for Orwellian double speak that fails to reflect the true horrors of state-sponsored injustice, finds

a place where sneering eighteen-year-olds with M-16 carbines taunt helpless old men (“security measures”); where bulldozers regularly flatten whole apartment blocks (“collective punishment”); where helicopters fire rockets into residential streets (“targeted assassination”); where subsidized settlers frolic in grass-fringed swimming pools, oblivious of Arab children a few meters away who fester and rot in the worst slums on the planet; and where retired generals and cabinet ministers speak openly of bottling up the Palestinians like“drugged roaches in a bottle” (Rafael Eytan) and cleansing the land ofits Arab cancer.

Reappraisals has been lambasted by many reviewers for its supposed anti-Israel bias, a fact which has more to do with anessay not included in the volume. In “Israel: The Alternative” (published in the October 23, 2003 edition of the New York Review of Books), undoubtedly the most hotly disputed of Judt’s essays, he called for a one-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—aposition that led to the American Jewish Committee referencing him prominently in a pamphlet on “the new anti-Semitism.”

Judt never articulates a philosophical basis for his interest in Israel, but there is a logical affinity between Communism and Zionism, as he sees them both. American Zionists (of which I count myself one) are running the very real danger of becoming the new Communists—passionately committed, endlessly energetic, and thoroughly, incontrovertibly wrong.

The analogy is imperfect, of course, but the mysterious lack of interest, especially among Zionists outside Israel, in the yawning gap between officially sanctioned ideology and the unpleasant reality on the ground is eerily familiar. For Zionist leftists like myself, it is deeply frustrating that the most basic facts about daily life in the occupied territories never penetrate, and that popular discourse about Israel in the United States is generally limited to Likud talking points. Criticism of Israel, even from a solidly Zionist perspective, is seen as inherently pro-Palestinian, or the unnecessary airing of dirty laundry. Closed-minded systems of thought become closed systems of rule; Judt’s critique of Communism is equally applicable to American Zionists’ inability to acknowledge Israel’s gaping flaws. Being a Zionist means never having to say sorry for Israel.

Communists, and their sympathizers, gloated over Soviet successes while ignoring the nightly arrests, the show trials, and the gulags; many American Zionists have created an Israel-of-the-mind in which Palestinians only play a shadow role, as terrorists or silently complicit non-citizens. The daily life of Palestinians—the lack of access to medical facilities, the shortages of water and food, the Israeli home demolitions and acts of collective punishment, one of the highest population densities on the planet—remain curiously unreal to them. The recent incursion into Gaza has only strengthened their devotion to Israel’s carefully tailored narrative. The issue is not so much the moral or political justifications for the Gaza incursion, or Hamas’ undoubted perfidy, as the almost-complete lack of dissenting voices wondering what the purpose of all this death might be. Sderot,where Hamas rockets cause terrible anguish, looms large in their worldview; Zeitoun, where 27 members of the Samouni family were killed by Israeli shelling, is a blank spot on the map.

Like the Western Communists of yore, American Zionists tend to be rabid in their support and hazy in their awareness. Zionism abroad has grown calcified and creaky, its arguments as illogical and unconvincing as those of the Communists burdened with explaining why Soviet tanks on the streets of Prague were in the best interest of Czechs. When newspapers report unflattering news, change your newspaper; when politicians argue for difficult-but-necessary adjustments of attitude, vote for someone else. Above all else, where ideology and reality part ways, stick closely to theory. “From where he stands, much of the rest of the world is upside down,” Judt remarks of the great British historian and Communist Eric Hobsbawm, and much the same could be said of the unreflective wing of American Zionists. As a personality type, Judt’s old-guard Communists would be right at home as defenders of Israel.

Ever since the Six-Day War, and Israel’s acquisition of the West Bank, Gaza, and the Old City of Jerusalem, the unofficial policy of the state of Israel, whether sanctioned by the ruling party at the time or not, has been to create a series of permanent facts on the ground in occupied territory. Contravening well-established international law, Israel has persistently and deliberately torpedoed any chances of a permanent, or even temporary, settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by maintaining the pace of new construction in the occupied territories. If you were to ask any one of the post-‘67 pioneers who people the pages of the brilliant, deeply unsettling history of the settlers’ movement, The Accidental Empire, written by Gershom Gorenberg (perhaps the most articulate Israeli critic of settlement policy), what the purpose of their struggle was, the answer would be couched in terms of the Torah: the Jews, the people without a land, had finally returned to the land promised to them by God. The Torah serves as their Marx and their Engels, with divine favor coming to serve the samerole that history’s favor once had for their Communist forebears. The pro-settler status quo—no peace talks, no easing of the misery-inducing restrictions on Palestinian life, a relentless focus on security that never addresses the underlying causes of insecurity—has become the consensus among American Zionists, even as Israeli politics remains a raucous free-for-all. As of the end of 2007, 282,000 Israelis live on the West Bank, with the numbers steadily increasing, and no sign of a settlement freeze on the horizon. The possibility of exchanging land for peace grows ever more unlikely as the Israeli presence on the West Bank increases—which was precisely the point of building the settlements. Rather than slowing down, the pace of settlement construction has doubled in 2008, as compared to 2007. Meanwhile, a demographic time bomb sits under those charged with securing Israel’s future: taking into account the entirety of the state of Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza, the population of the region is made up of 5.8 million Jews and 4.9 million Arabs. Demographics spell Israel’s doom as surely as any Iranian nuclear bomb ever could—so why do right-wing supporters of Israel reference it so rarely?

“The day will come when the two-state solution collapses and we face a South African-style struggle for equal voting rights,” one noted Israeli, in favor of direct negotiations with the Palestinians, recently pointed out. “As soon as that happens, the state of Israel is finished.” No less a Palestinian figure than former prime minister Ahmed Qurei only recently suggested that the lack of traction in negotiations could push them away from two-state agitation, and toward a binational, one-state solution. Israel’s religious Zionists,and those Americans who support them financially, politically, and emotionally, love Israel so much they are in danger of destroying it. They also must stand in opposition to centrist Israeli politicians. The name of that Israeli agitating for a two-state solution? Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. After announcing his resignation, Olmert went even further, stating in an interview with an Israeli newspaper that “ We have to reach an agreement with the Palestinians, the meaning of which is that in practice we will withdraw from almost all the territories, if not all the territories … without that there will be no peace.”

In “Israel: The Alternative,” Judt argues that a one-state solution is the only workable alternative to the untenable status quo. Judt himself describes it as “an unpromising mix of realism and utopia,” knowing that the very possibility is an athema to the overwhelming majority of Israelis, in addition to meaning the effective end of the state of Israel. Yet in Judt’s view, Israel as it once was is already finished. He sees its downward spiral beginning immediately with its triumph in the Six-Day War: “A historic victory can wreak almost as much havoc as a historic defeat.” In the wake of the Six-Day War, Israel lost its European character as a democratic socialist enterprise, and became just another problematic Middle Eastern country, with “crazed clerics, religious devotees, nationalist demagogues, and ethnic cleansers.” The only way to get back to a semblance of decency, and utility, is to once again recreate Europe by the Jordan. Reappraisals‘ tenderness toward that lumbering behemoth, the European welfare state, and its antipathy toward American neo-conservatism and third-way moderation, leads toward its European-style multicultural vision for this theoretical Israelstine.

Judt’s argument leans heavily on the assertion that Israel would never, and could never, voluntarily leave any of the occupied territories, making a true land-for-peace settlement impossible. Written in 2003, Judt’s essay appeared before the 2005 Israeli pullout from Gaza, which proved that an orderly, peaceful disengagement from occupied territories was indeed possible, if immensely difficult. “It may be that over a quarter of a million heavily armed and subsidized Jewish settlers would leave Arab Palestine evoluntarily,” Judt argued, “but no one I know believes it will happen. Many of those settlers will die—and kill—rather than move.” With the Gaza disengagement, Israel showed it could—with extraordinary care and diligence—extricate itself from a nightmarish quandary witha minimum of loss of life. Gaza had only 8,000 settlers; the West Bank,with a Jewish population nearly 35 times greater, is far thornier. Israelis have grown attached to the West Bank, but the only question that really matters, at this late hour, is this: would Israelis prefer a two-state solution, or a one-state solution? Given that the latter means the erasure of the state of Israel as it currently exists, the choice is illusory.

One might be led to note that Judt’s essential rightness about Communism leads him toward a parallel that, while correct in the generalities, is too crude to handle the particulars. Opening one’s eyes to the cruelty and callousness of the Israeli occupation should not entail closing one’s eyes to the religiously fueled violence thatan ever-growing segment of the Palestinian population has embraced. Rightly horrified by the Israeli occupation, Judt gives short shrift to the equally horrifying pathologies in the Palestinian community. Like Edward Said, whom he admires, he is eager to tell the truth to his own community, and this is laudable. But in his zeal to right Israel’s wrongs, he neglects one of the truths of revolution, familiar to any student of Communist history: a bad regime can always be replaced by an even worse one.

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