This week, American Jewish writer Jay Michaelson wrote a piece in the Jewish Daily Forward castigating “the Left” for disingenuousness in their criticism of Israel and/or its Occupation. In it, he highlights the following four phenomena: (1) “a problematic lack of disclosure among many critics of Israel that their ultimate view is that Israel should not exist at all.” (2) “the one-state policy itself.” (3) “that the left is oddly focused on the State of Israel, as opposed to human rights abusers who are demonstrably and quantitatively worse” and (4) “many of Israel’s critics are guilty of massive oversimplification of both Israeli and Palestinian society.” Overall, Michaelson makes some interesting arguments that are certainly worth reading and considering. I think, though, that there are some major flaws in his piece, especially with his dealings with One Statism and its proponents/agnostics, and I wonder how much these flaws damage the piece overall, and whether or not they can/should be viewed and analyzed separately from some of the piece’s other important and well-reasoned points.
1. Michaelson begins his essay, after asserting that he is actually anti-Occupation (which, from my familiarity with his work, seems to be a fair assertion, unlike the Dershowitz-Style “I’ve Long Been a Critic of Settlements Blah Blah”), by stating that he does “not accept [Jewish Voices for Peace’s] leadership’s decision to remain officially agnostic on the “one-state solution” — that is, the end of the Jewish state and its replacement by a majority-Palestinian one — especially because when I talk with the JVP supporters I know, that turns out to be their personal view.”
Two major problems in this ‘graph: (1) Agnosticism on Israel-qua-Jewish-State is not the same as “believing Israel shouldn’t exist.” It just isn’t. It might be in many cases, but the plural of anecdote is not data. Early Zionists like Martin Buber, Judah Magnes, Hannah Arendt, Albert Einstein and many more were opposed to the idea of creating a “Jewish State” in the land of Palestine. They were in favor of the creation of an arrangement that would ensure safety for Jews and in which Jewish culture could flourish in its historical homeland, but could did not support the creation of the aforementioned “at the expense of even a single Palestinian peasant,” to quote Buber. Closer to home (Jerusalem): I am an Israeli, my friends and community are Israelis, we want to continue to live in Israel, and we do not want Israel to be a Jewish State, at least not in any way that resembles how its been Jewish Stating over the last six decades. (2) If the Two State [re]solution is dead or dying or even still-alive-but-barely, then what can one ask of an organization or individuals concerned with the safety of Jews living in Israel, with Palestinian rights (both within and without of the green line), and the values of anti-Apartheid except for “agnosticism” on a one-state solution? I, too, do not see a One State solution, at least not in its simplest one-person one-vote form, as a blossoming pathway to safety and justice for all, but neither do I necessarily see a Two State solution as such, even if it still can be implemented, which I think we all must admit is a large, looming and yet-still-ignored “if.”
In short, Michaelson’s unflinching conflation between “calling for the end of Israel” and “calling for the end of a Israel as a Jewish State” (yes, it is a nuanced distinction, and one that many fail to make, but that does not mean that it is unmakeable) and his opposition to “agnosticism” re: One State weaken his piece, which does include a number of important calling-outs.
2. Michaelson goes on with the same trope about “the one-state policy itself,” saying that “Café-radicals who support this view need to look it squarely in the eye and call it what it is: selective cultural genocide. There is no way that a binational state will be a safe haven for the Jewish people or that it will preserve Jewish culture.” This is the most disturbing part of his essay, and Michaelson, whose reasoning is generally good, even if I don’t always agree with it, goes way out of line with his terminology and dogmatism here. We need to be super careful with using the word “Genocide” in this context, and with haughty, blanket statements about what will definitely work and what definitely won’t. And yet, Michaelson’s support points to this argument are actually not as bonkers as the argument’s language would lead one to expect.
In arguing for this point, Michaelson acknowledges that “a good radical can argue that all states and all forms of nationalism are illegitimate” but argues that “that same radical must explain why that change should begin with Israel, a small state surrounded by enemies, rather than with, say, France.” That is a valid point. A non-Palestinian or -Jewish person (these two groups are intrinsically involved in this conflict and thus must be measured by different -and I’d say more lenient- standards than your-average-involved-wholly-by-choice-Leftist) has every right to be anti-Zionist, as long as this anti-Zionism comes within a framework and a background of anti-Nationalism in general. Without an anti-nationalist framework (or Palestinian (or Jewish) heritage), criticism of Israel that goes beyond criticism of its occupation (which is an apartheid-like situation and should be criticized by anyone concerned with international affairs and justice) does begin to border on unfair singling-out and even anti-Semitism. The situation is Israel-proper (ie. within the green line) is bad, and does have tinges of apartheid to it, but I, like Michaelson, struggle to see why a US activist should focus on the situation in Akko/a rather than that in Pine Ridge or Oakland, or why a French activist should speak of the mistreatment of Jaffa residents before speaking out against France’s brutalization of the Roma (again, though, if said French activist can do both, and is truly pushing for a global anti-nationalist and anti-racist agenda, then by all means, let her join in the criticism of Israel on both sides of the green line).
All of this said, Michaelson’s incendiary use of the word “genocide” makes the important parts of his argument hard to hear, as does his dogmatic positiveness that “there is no way” a binational state could preserve Jewish safety and culture.
3. And then: “The left is oddly focused on the State of Israel” as opposed to China, et cetera. This is a really sticky argument. One one hand, its true that in many Left-circles Israel’s occupation gets a lot more ink-and-ire than China’s cruelty towards Tibet and Tibetans, or the US’ historical and continued despicable practices towards American Indians (even the fact that that is the best name that can be used to describe this hyperoppressed-collective is somewhat nauseous). But there are reasons for this heightened-focus that are not all ugly, as Michaelson acknowledges, including US tax aid[ing and abetting] that goes directly into Israel’s Occupation, an interest in Middle East stability, the conflict’s general international geo-political relevance and more. Also, singling out the occupation is/should be different than singling out Israel writ large, and opposition to any of the world’s apartheids (67-Occupation, Tibet, Kurds in Turkey, et cetera) is a good thing, even if its non-encompassing. Half a democratic loaf is better than none, right?
Some of the reasons the Left focuses so much on Israel are uglier, though, and Michaelson goes on to argue: “If you single out the Jewish state for criticism among all countries in the world, the onus is on you to demonstrate that your discourse is free from conscious or unconscious anti-Semitism. Even if you’re Jewish.” I’d largely agree that while all activists have the right to choose anti-Israelism as one of their primary struggles, they must prove that their anti-Israelism contains no traces of anti-Israeli-ism, that is to say, that they are against the State and its policies, but not against an entire collective living here. And it is often hard to separate, from afar, especially with a media culture which sinks its fangs into black-and-white stories and contributes to a culture of collectivization through absurd-and-yet-common-headlines like “The Israelis did X to the Palestinians,” or vice versa. A fantastic, fantastic ‘zine that I’d say is pretty-much a must read for Leftist activists, Jewish and non-, involved in this conflict and non-, on anti-Semitism and its continued presence in the world and the left is “The Past Didn’t Go Anywhere: Making Resistance to Antisemitism Part of All Our Movements,” which is downloadable here. Anyway, Michaelson’s point is a largely a good one, that singling-out of Israel must be coupled with very good, though out reasons and appropriate levels of caution, but it is weakened by its context, ie. the piece as a whole and his previous and less-good points about One State and Jewish State issues.
4. Finally, Michaelson argues that “many of Israel’s critics are guilty of massive oversimplification of both Israeli and Palestinian society.” Here, again, he is correct, and he rightly points out that it is “Orientalist to depict the Palestinians — as Sarah Schulman did in the pages of The New York Times — as noble victims of European colonialism, free from blemish and fault. Such oversimplifications are no different from those of noble “Indians,” noble poor people, or noble savages in general and are offensive to Palestinians and Israelis alike.” It is, as Michaelson points out, absurd to portray general Palestinian culture as LGBT-friendly, just as it would be wrong to call Palestine any sort of feminist haven. Now, the question as to how much time and energy we should spend as non-Palestinians criticizing Palestinian gender- and queer-oppression is a more complicated one, and may well lead to answers not unlike those I prescribed to the French Activist above (ie. if I am truly doing my part to fight gender oppression in my own society, then I have the right to criticize it in Palestinian society as well, but not before, just as the French activist must truly be working against his society’s own racism, xenophobia and nationalism before singling out those phenomena in Israel-proper). But the point is a good one, as is his criticism of “the erasure of non-European Jews from this Orientalist, black-and-white rhetoric.”
All in all, I think that Michaelson is off in his analysis of One Statism, Jewish Statism et cetera, most notably so in his absurd “supporting One State= Cultural Genocide” formula. I think that his argument about singling out is valid, if overstated, and I think that his final point on oversimplification is a very important one. So, the question, to which I haven’t fully worked out an answer, is this: does his problematic argumentation re: One State invalidate/lessen the good arguments he makes otherwise?
I’ll leave that one open for now.