So love me, love me, love me, I’m a liberal Zionist

Not all criticism casts Israel as pure evil.

Not all criticism casts Israel as pure evil.

I’ve tried to avoid commenting on the Gaza conflict—on facebook, via text message, on the bus, to my dog—for many reasons, but this piece by Rabbi Menachem Creditor broke my will. Creditor’s writing unintentionally lays bare a tension at the heart of large swaths of the American Jewry: a commitment to cosmopolitan liberal values that is incompatible with Zionism’s call for nationalistic identification with of the state of Israel. Everyone has a limit, and mine is here.

There are a few things that strike me as deep epistemic and moral failures in this piece.1 It isn’t overstating the point to say that these mistakes should be embarrassing for a “progressive US faith leader” to have made in print, and they strike me as the sorts of mistakes that undercut anyone’s claims to being a moral leader.2 These points are, in increasing order of seriousness: the challenge is made in a truly uncompelling manner; the challenge implicitly questions the motives or integrity of Israel’s critics; and, most appallingly, the piece relies a morally suspect mode of identification.

The requisite caveats

This post is already long, but, given the way discussions about Israel go, let me start out by noting the following:

  1. Nothing I say here questions Israel’s existence, intentions, or moral character. I take it that Israeli Jews who share my sensibilities aren’t hoping that Hamas pushes them into the sea.
  2. I agree that Israel, like any country or individual, has the right to self-defense.
  3. I do not believe that Israel is a uniquely problematic or especially evil entity.
  4. I do not agree with Hamas’s platform, and I do not believe that raining rockets down on civilians is either an effective or morally permissible strategy for achieving those ends (which, again, I don’t endorse).
  5. I do think there are anti-Semites in the world, and I do get that they frequently use criticism of Israel as a cover for their hostility to Jews. However, I am not one of those people.

How can argument by rhetorical question fail?

The core of Creditor’s push against criticism of Israel is the question that appears italicized in the center of the piece:

What do Israel’s enraged critics truly desire?

And, later,

I ask the enraged critics of Israel’s defensive responses to Hamas: Would you have us not respond to this monstrosity?

When Creditor poses these questions, with their accompanying eight or nine follow up questions, about what critics think should be done now, I think he wants people like me to be stumped by them. But some of the people like me—including people identical with me—are philosophers, and so we see rhetorical questions as opportunities to tell people our views. (True, we don’t need much in the way of invitation here. Endeavor not to hate the player so much as the game.)

Rather than answer the rhetorical questions, I want to reply in kind—not because I think it is an effective form of argument, but to highlight that it is such an ineffective one. In the grand tradition of Jews answering questions with questions (which I adore, because what’s not to like?): What were you, a “progressive US faith leader,” doing over the last four decades to pressure Israel to end its occupation and give the Palestinians a sovereign homeland? Where is your outrage that some of your people have been doing horrible, despicable, criminal things to Palestinians in the territories in your name for generations? Where was your demand that Israel dismantle the illegal settlements? In short: what did you do to prevent us from getting here?

That was cathartic, but I don’t think it made a particularly effective argument. I’m certain that Creditor has all sorts of responses, and I really doubt that his response is going to be “Huh. That’s a trenchant analysis of the false assumptions guiding my position. Perhaps I’ve been complicit in moral evils, and I had better rethink some things.”

In any event, I appreciate that liberal Zionists like Creditor are willing to listen to me now. Alas, I’m not a military tactician, so I’m all out of help on that front. But as someone who thinks about institutions, metaphors, and morality, I do have two further points to make.

The Charlie Brown problem

In Creditor’s view, Israel has a bit of a Charlie Brown problem:

I ask: What do Israel’s enraged critics truly desire? How is it possible to hear indignant claims of human rights violations in the context of Syrians slaughtered by the hundreds of thousands, state-sanctioned terrorism around the globe, and young immigrants treated like chattel by the US and other? Israel is doing its best, sacrificing its own children to preserve the lives of Palestinians.

Each time I read this, I get stuck with an earworm of “Charlie Brown” by The Coasters: “why is everybody always picking on me?” And it isn’t just Creditor: there’s a lot of talk of the steps Israel takes to mitigate and treat civilian casualties (esp. in contrast to Hamas’s vile practice of targeting civilians) as well as Israel’s great restraint in not using all those weapons we sell them to turn Gaza into a fine mist of gore and concrete dust. Creditor’s version goes as follows:

Israel is treating wounded Palestinians during this conflict, risking Israeli lives in surgical strikes to destroy weapons-smuggling tunnels created with building materials Israel allowed into Gaza for infrastructure projects to benefit Palestinian society. Just for a moment, consider the deaths that would result from Israel wishing harm on Palestinian civilians. In just the last 48 hours, Israel has allowed over 10 tons of goods into Gaza. During the past weeks, Israel has agreed to two humanitarian cease-fires. In the first hours of those ceasefires, Hamas rained down over 70 missiles onto Israel civilians.

The idea here is supposed to be that Israel is the “Good Guy” here, because it doesn’t (at least, arguendo) target civilians, it honors its commitments, and it provides humanitarian aid. And, as far as these things go, they do provide us with evidence that the government of Israel has a different motivational structure than that of Hamas. Added to all of this is the fact that there are other problems in the world, many of them worse (e.g., the situation in Syria) than what is happening in Gaza, and we are supposed to wonder why people are calling out Israel. Let’s grant that Israel is the “Good Guy” here, given that the other institutional player is Hamas. When good guys do bad things, the things they do are still bad. The war crimes of the Allied forces in WWII were still war crimes, even though their cause was a good one, they meant well, and I’m pretty glad they won. I can say this without expressing any sympathy for the Axis forces in general or Nazism in particular.

Let me pivot to address the question a bit more personally. The reason I tend to be more vocal about Palestine than, e.g., Syria is that nobody in Syria uses my cultural identity and history as a justification for its actions. Israel, in contrast, does do so, and it does so with my country’s tax dollars and political support. Thus, I have a stronger moral obligation and more of a motivation to say “Not In My Name” when Israel does terrible things than when Syria or China does. I am not Amnesty International or Médecins Sans Frontières, so I haven’t the resources to be aware of (let alone address) all of human suffering. Indeed, I wish that I had the resources to address more than the sadly too few local forms of human (and non-human) suffering that I do, but I don’t. When someone is doing terrible things in my name and with my resources, I’m going to object—whether it is America’s system of mass-incarceration or Israel’s continuing occupation—because I’ve now been implicated. If it makes people with Creditor’s concerns feel better, I could come up with a list of cultures, countries, practices, and beliefs that I find morally odious; it is a long list though, so they better promise to read it all. Alternatively, Israel could stop using my cultural identity and tax dollars, thereby relieving me of the obligation to tell them to stop using those things to destroy human beings.

Some folks don’t wonder about how the other half die

So far, I’ve really only focused on the philosophical critiques of Creditor’s work: it makes its point weakly, and it impugns the motives (or at least the moral insight) of people who criticize Israel. My final point is the one that I think calls into question the morality of Creditor’s position. Let’s begin with where he ends:

We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else.

As far as this goes, who could argue? I mean, you could print up t-shirts with those slogans and people everywhere will buy them. No matter the “we” wearing the shirt, folks are gonna just agree with this.

However, I think Creditor’s piece betrays a profound and troubling failure to properly identify the “we” here. Creditor lives in Berkeley, CA, which is not under attack by Hamas. Indeed, it isn’t Jews who are under attack by Hamas but Israelis. Jews around the world are not fighting Hamas, Israel is. Construing the situation in Gaza as one between two sides, one an existential threat and the other acting in self-defense, is misleading because (at a minimum) Hamas is not the same thing as the population of Gaza. But this is substantially worse: Creditor wants to make the same move that anti-Semites have, which is to identify Jewishness with Zionism.

I can see why identifying Judaism with Zionism may have made sense prior to the establishment of the state of Israel: as a dispersed and persecuted group, the conception of unity (what we might call Am Yisrael) across time and place provides a kind of succor and power. Am Yisrael was the abstract ideal that embodied the hopes and aspirations of a dispossessed people.

After 1948, there was an actual geopolitical entity, what we might call Eretz Yisrael in contrast to the aspirational Am Yisrael. The hope for Eretz Yisrael was that it would be the place imagined in the abstract ideal that embodied the best Jewish values. After 1948, there was a state that had to do the sorts of things states do: defend citizenry, create infrastructure, and the like.

Defenders of Zionism, like critics of Zionism, fail to distinguish between these two projects. I might agree that Am Yisrael is “my” people, but only because I can freely and appropriately project my values and aspirations on a theoretical construct. It is a grave error, though, to project my values and aspirations on an actual institution because the institution, like all parts of reality, might differ from my hopes and expectations. The Israeli occupation of the territories seems to me to be a place where Am Yisrael and Eretz Yisrael diverge, and I suspect Creditor might agree with me here. After all, the force of his argument is that Israel’s hand is forced here, and so the current violence isn’t what Israel wants—however much appreciation we must have of Israeli restraint. But I’m generally inclined to identify with the innocent targets of violence (yes, on both sides) rather than with states, so I’m not going to identify with Eretz Yisrael.

This moral misidentification also comes through elsewhere in the piece:

I, a Jew, have lost 20 of my sons in the last three days, because I will not lose my humanity and stage a careless ground war in Gaza that would cause mass casualties. Though I fight monsters, I will not become one.

I read this and think, “Too late.”3 Because when I look at this situation, I don’t see only (or primarily) the 20 Israeli soldiers who died because of decisions about military tactics. Rather, I would describe Israel’s “surgical strikes” as causing “mass casualties,” and I’m agonized by the thought of the nearly 100 Palestinian children who have been killed by Israel’s military so far. Here, we’re talking about the paradigm of the non-combatant: unarmed children who likely would rather watch cartoons or play with toys than violently undo the Nakba. Their final moments were perhaps filled with terror and agony that their parents could do nothing to assuage. If I had to choose who I mourn as my own, they would be the more likely candidate for me than heavily armed and well trained soldiers who may well have been enthusiastic participants in the conflict. But my whole point here is that we don’t have to choose, and we need to find a way to end this humanitarian disaster that we’ve tolerated for several generations now. Perhaps we should start from the claims that nobody’s children should be sacrificed here and that it is to our enduring shame that we refuse to end this conflict. That, it seems to me, is the commitment one should have as a cosmopolitan liberal.

You might think that I’ve been unfair to both Creditor and Zionism. After all, I did seem to suggest that Am Yisrael played an important part in Jewish survival. But here’s the thing: Am Yisrael is morally dangerous by itself. The danger is that it threatens to lapse into a lazy “racism,” wherein one imagines that the inhabitants of one’s Am Yisrael are identical with one’s actual co-religionists. Of course the citizens of Am Yisrael are morally worthy human beings, since they are the projection of our aspirations. But real people aren’t projections, and some people are going to do stupid or wicked things.

We can see this sort of conflation play out in Creditor’s piece:

My response has changed these last few weeks, in which three Jewish teens were murdered by Arab terrorists and Palestinians celebrated by distributing sweets to children and an Arab teen was murdered by Jewish terrorists and the Jewish world condemned the hatred.

I have no doubt that Creditor genuinely believes that this is what happened. However, it isn’t actually what happened—because, it turns out, the world doesn’t cleave neatly into the good people of Am Yisrael and the bad people outside of it (this time, the Palestinians). In the first case, the Palestinian Authority publicly condemned the kidnapping and helped Israel with the search (despite Israel’s use of “blowing shit up” as a search method). In the second case, there are plenty of folks in the “Jewish world” who are perfectly content to celebrate the death of a Palestinian teen (or the destruction of Gaza) in public. And, in the aftermath of the murders of those Jewish teens, there were fairly widespread reports of Israeli mobs trying to get some revenge. Really, go find yourself an internet search engine that covers the news and noodle around a bit. It turns out that Jews, being human, end up with the same range of foibles as everybody else.

This is really quite the stunning moral and epistemic failure. I mean, I’ve never even been to Israel, but I know that some of the Jews there are reactionary and, frankly, genocidal. It makes the papers pretty regularly, and progressive Israeli organizations publish their confrontations with such Jews online all the time. But somehow a “progressive Zionist” who has actually been to the country recently isn’t aware of this? I mean, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but let’s start out slow with the casual racism of some Israeli millenials. I hesitate to even mention the rise of right-wing violence against peace activists in Israel.

Unless we recently upgraded the status of the No True Scotsman fallacy, seeing the world in the way Creditor does is a serious epistemic and moral failing. It is also the natural consequence of thinking that humanity cleaves, based on geography or parental lineage, into the “we” that we should care about and those others who can just go die in the mud.

A closing thought

The moral vision of the Judaism I was raised with was expressed nicely by the EZLN’s Subcomandante Marcos:

Marcos is gay in San Francisco, black in South Africa, an Asian in Europe, a Chicano in San Ysidro, an anarchist in Spain, a Palestinian in Israel, a Mayan Indian in the streets of San Cristobal, a Jew in Germany, a Gypsy in Poland, a Mohawk in Quebec, a pacifist in Bosnia, a single woman on the Metro at 10pm, a peasant without land, a gang member in the slums, an unemployed worker, an unhappy student and, of course, a Zapatista in the mountains.

Marcos is all the exploited, marginalised, oppressed minorities resisting and saying ‘Enough’. He is every minority who is now beginning to speak and every majority that must shut up and listen. He is every untolerated group searching for a way to speak. Everything that makes power and the good consciences of those in power uncomfortable. This is Marcos.

  1. For my purposes here, I won’t question the facts as they are arrayed in the piece. There are lots of ways to critique the Creditor piece, but this is the one that I’m interested in here. 
  2. And, while I’m quibbling, I wouldn’t call “work[ing] to reform gun laws, extend LGBT rights around the world, grant refuge to illegal immigrants, [and] protect women’s reproductive choice” progressive causes. These are fairly mainstream liberal causes, focused by-and-large on making piecemeal reforms and working within an existing order. I would have thought that the point of distinguishing progressives from liberals was that the former suspected that there were some fundamental problems with the institutions in place, and so deeper and more systemic changes were required to make social progress. But, whatevs. People can call themselves whatever they want. Quibble mode off. 
  3. Unless Creditor means that he actually lost 20 of his male progeny, in which case I do pass along my sincere condolences. I can’t imagine that kind of heartache. 

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