Exploring the Crack in Liberalism in Israel/Palestine: Reading Atalia Omer’s When Peace is Not Enough After Bernie Sanders

For Z.B., liberal Zionist

“There is a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” - Leonard Cohen

In the aftermath of Bernie Sander’s failed campaign to be the Democratic nominee in the 2016 presidential election, it is worth contemplating the question “What has Bernie wrought?”. That is, what have progressives and the American electorate more broadly learned from his introduction of democratic socialism into the political conversation. Socialism, among other things, wages a progressive critique of liberalism on a number of fronts. My interest here is specific to socialism’s questioning the efficacy of liberalism to institute systemic change in matters of injustice and equality, notions dear to liberals and democratic socialists alike. In fact, this critique lies at the very core of Bernie’s critique of Hillary’s program. Below I use this as a frame to explore a very specific segment of the American electorate; liberal American Jews. I define this community as a segment of American Jewry devoted to liberal causes including, but not exclusive to, Israel/Palestine. Yet many of these liberal Jews were opposed to Bernie, sometimes strongly. This commitment to progressivism yet resistance to a critique of liberalism from the left also expresses itself in the way many American Jews respond to various Israeli peace movements in Israel and in the Diaspora.

Progressive American Jews are very much in favor of these peace movements. And yet many of these movements, committed to liberal ideologies, become victims to liberalism’s Achilles heel. That is, that the peace movements themselves often unwittingly perpetuate injustices they are committed to undoing. This phenomenon has recently been analyzed by Atalia Omer in her book When Peace is Not Enough: How the Israeli Peace Camp Thinks about Religion, Nationalism, and Justice (University of Chicago Press, 2013). Below I offer a reading of Omer’s book with an eye to how this can serve as a lens to examine the dilemma introduced into American politics through Bernie Sander’s candidacy.

Reading When Peace is Not Enough evoked in me both pleasure and pain. As I made my way through its complex argument I often felt like I was on the analyst’s couch. As one who has spent decades as part of the Israeli “peace camp” and remain committed to its program I found myself having to acknowledge yet again, page after page, what many of us always knew but were unwilling to admit: that the justice we pursued was somehow based on the injustice we contested. In some way this is a classic critique of liberalism that argues that liberalism’s naiveté enables it to make excuses, all just and righteous, for its dark secret, its buried unconscious; liberalism unwittingly but almost by design perpetuates the injustices it seeks to rectify.

The great mask behind which liberalism often hides in this case and in others, is its goal -oriented approach – social activism that seeks to right the wrongs of an unjust reality and its belief that the societal problems that arise do so more from circumstance rather than constitution. This mask hides the fact that injustice is oftentimes not simply a matter of circumstance but woven into the very design of the society in which liberalism lives and remains committed to. One cannot easily contest the goals nor criticize the fortitude and risks taken by groups such as Rabbis for Human Rights but by not contesting the assumptions upon which those actions are taken one enables the narrative upon which the society is constructed to continue to exist, albeit in a less unjust form. The pragmatist will chime in to say, “This is how the world is. Injustice is endemic to the human condition.”  And the progressive will reply, “Can human beings do better?”

The classic liberal example in Israel/Palestine is the claim that the problem really stems from 1967 which gave birth to the occupation. The peace camp often adopts a sanitized and somewhat romanticized version of 1948 in order to highlight its righteous agenda to fix the fallout from 1967. This has recently been complicated by Mor Loushy’s 2015 film “Censored Voices” that shows a much more complicated picture of the Six-Day War. In any event, Omer shows us that this is all a ruse, or mostly so, not only historically, but more importantly, ideologically. The real problem is 1948, she argues, not the existence of the state per se but the ideological foundations upon which the state was founded. On this reading 1967 is nothing more than an iteration of what already existed in principle (and also to some degree in practice) but not yet tragically. This is a classic anti-Zionist position but I do not think Omer is anti-Zionist, or more accurately, she is precisely anti-Zionist but not as conventionally understood. That is, her Zionism is the basis for her anti-“Zionism.” She is not against the state in principle but against the narrative from which the state was founded and continues to exist. In her book she seeks to uncover the original sin, not the original sin of Zionism (that would make her a post-Zionist) but original sin as Zionism. This sin is precisely what the peace camp cannot bear acknowledging because to do so would undermine its commitment to the Zionist narrative and its belief that Israel’s societal ills are more circumstantial than constitutive. By claiming that being against Zionism is being against the state is precisely the error she wishes to correct. The fusion of an ideology with a reality – even a reality founded on that ideology, endangers the reality, or prevents its correction, when the injustices of that ideology begin to manifest in numerous ways.

That narrative, what Omer calls “the Zionist narrative” is where the peace camp’s ship hits the rocky shore. Omer, like Hannah Arendt, is of course quite sympathetic to the conditions in Europe that produced that narrative but suggests that those conditions alone cannot justify the inequities built into it, and certainly not in 2015. As much as the peace camp tries to navigate around the sharp edges, it often seems to remain trapped in its own ideological commitments that prevent it from achieving its aspirations; a just society with equal rights for all the inhabitants from the river to the sea. Whether this is called “Jewish” or not does not seem to be her concern. This is one iteration of Omer’s “hermeneutics of citizenship.” And for Omer, this is the peace camp’s first error.

The second error of the peace camp according to Omer is its demonization of religion. Like the occupation, religion is often viewed as poisoning the well of a just Zionism. For Omer, there is not, nor can there be, a just Zionism; Zionism is founded on principles of injustice, or perhaps more accurately, the justice of one side, the Jews, necessitates the injustice of the other side, the Arabs who happen to live on that land. And religion is never too far below the surface even if articulated through secular ideology. She writes, “the secular Israeli peace camp is insufficiently reflective about the underlying religious and theological motifs that legitimated the settlements program of the Zionist Congress and the establishment of the state of Israel.” (93). In other words, the religion-secular binary no longer works after Talal Asad. Secular Zionism has not, and cannot, disabuse itself of theological claims that are validated via secular means. Arthur Hertzberg, following Gershom Scholem, stated quite openly in his still useful introduction to his collection The Zionist Idea, that Zionism cannot ever fully sever itself from messianism, often articulated in a secular form. One can see this in political speeches from the secular right to the secular left. It is built into the very definition of Israel as a “Jewish” state. I would add that groups like Rabbis for Human Rights (RHR) do acknowledge those motifs but try to refract them through an enlightened religious outlook they believe can be utilized to correct a religious extremist interpretation, in many cases, toward just ends. In terms of a goal-oriented approach, this is certainly true. But the theological motifs, and what they assume, and produce, remain intact.

I will cite two examples Omer brings to illustrate her point. The first is the peace camp’s motto “land for peace.” Land for peace is arguably the clarion call of the Israeli peace movement, at least since 1967 (interestingly there was no “peace movement” before 1967 – itself an interesting point to consider in terms of the peace camps attachment to 67). Land for peace assumes the following: we, the Jews, have a right to the land and we are willing to give it to you, the Palestinians, for peace. Omer asks, where do we find the Jews’ right to the land that can then be turned into “land for peace”? One could say military conquest, or UN resolutions. But more often than not, the claim is based on a theological premise regarding the notion of the land of Israel as a Jewish homeland. It can be justified as a purely theological claim (God gave the land to the Jews to conquer, Number 33:53) or a historic claim (the Jews “ancestral land” a phrase used often by Prime Minister Netanyahu). In either case, to contest that claim is to contest Zionism itself. It is not to contest Judaism itself as anti-Zionists such as Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum, the Satmar Rebbe, agree with the pure theological claim (God gave the land to the Jews) yet disagree that it can be applied to the present reality. In fact, according to him, its application, Zionism, is the very severance of the covenant. That is why for Teitelbaum, Zionism is the most anti-religious act possible. Thus as long as we deny religion’s embeddedness in the secular Zionist narrative we remain susceptible to more overt religious perspectives to dictate the terms of the debate.

Another example Omer mentions is the term “minority rights.” While minority rights has become a common trope of liberalism throughout the world, in Israel it is never fully severed from the inequality embedded in Zionism as Omer understands it. And it is often not severed from the theological assumptions upon which Zionism rests. On this Omer invokes the discussion of the Noahide laws in the work of David Novak and the way it is incorporated by RHR. “Influenced by the American Jewish philosopher David Novak discussion of religion and human rights, RHR interprets the life of Jews as representing a qualitatively different value from that of the life of non-Jews. Novak derives this outlook from a distinction between the Nohide laws, which are in his view consistent with universal human rights as they echo the divine covenant with humanity and, on the other, Jewish law, which constitutes the special covenant of God with the Jews.” (153). Thus while treating the “resident alien” or ger toshav, ethically is certainly better than treating her unethically, it is all founded on an inequality of citizenship  that is implied in a different but perhaps similar way we find in earlier Zionism about “the Arab question.” The very notion of the Arabs as a “question” assumes inequality (just as “the Jewish question” did the same in Europe): that is, what are we to do with the alien in “our” Jewish state? When the universal notion of human rights is refracted through the special covenant of God with the Jews, who now have legislative power in a territory, what results is a notion of human rights that is unequal by design.

As I understand her, what Omer is asking us to do in a larger sense is consider the peace camp outside its own goal-oriented approach to see whether its liberal commitments of protesting injustice can withstand an immanent critique that its foundations are illiberal by design. Her conclusion is that Zionism can only produce an ethnocentric state in one form or another, illiberal in its foundations and unjust in its applications. At best, its illiberalism can be curtailed by liberal fixes that never really get to the root of the problem (here she arguably echoes Bernie’s essential critique of Hillary’s campaign). And this is not only in regards to the Arabs but includes those outside the Ashkenazi-centric orbit of Zionism as well, in particular the Mizrahim (Jews of the East).

Her chapter “the case of the Mizrahim” is a crucial part of her argument because it stretches inequality to include the excluded insiders, Israeli Jews who were adopted by the Zionists but were never made an integral part of its ideological and societal vision. Ironically, the anti-Ashkenazi movements such as the Israeli Black Panthers in the 1970s had similar grievances as the Palestinians; systemic discrimination, inequality, lack of resources, etc. They were not excluded from the democracy but like American blacks in the pre-civil rights south, while they could vote, they were not truly culturally integrated even as they make up a sizeable portion of the population.

It is not insignificant that when my son worked in New York for an Israeli moving company he told me the Israeli’s referred to the blacks they worked with as “the Sephardim.” In some way, then, the Mizrahim should, or could, have been natural allies with the Arabs, especially those who spoke Arabic and came from Arab lands like Morocco where they were a fairly integrated minority. And yet part of their Zionist education was the cultivation of disdain for the Arab, perhaps a kind of self-hatred of sorts that both made them more inside yet also perpetuated, even solidified, their second-class status by diffusing their feeling of alienation and discrimination.

If I understand Omer’s “hermeneutics of citizenship” correctly she requires abandoning the Zionist narrative to save the state of Israel, or perhaps Zionism itself, that is, to save the country from the river to the sea from a perpetual state of injustice and thus a perpetual state of conflict. The severing of the ideology (Zionism) from that which it produced (Israel) seems, from the liberal perspective, like a radical solution. Yet one could argue that without at least entertaining that possibility liberalism remains bound to achieve only incremental success that will often backslide when conditions deteriorate, as they likely will, given the nature of the beast.  Below I want to suggest a few other models of progressive critiques of liberalism in Israel that, while engaging different problems regarding the fusion between Zionism and the state, may inform and even contribute to Omer’s argument.

The first is the vision of the Canaanites, a small far-left group of poets, writers, and artists in early twentieth-century Israel led by the poet Yonatan Ratosh. Ratosh argued that Zionism fails because if cannot sever its ties with Judaism (religious or secular) and thus it can never fully operate as an autochthonous Hebrew civilization. Ratosh wanted to create a Hebraic society that would include equally all the inhabitants from the river to the see in a new Hebraic (not Jewish) civilization. Jews outside this commonwealth or state would have no inherent connection to it or rights in it and Judaism would have no privileged role in the culture or politics of this polity. It is not a coincidence that cultural critic Ya’akov Savit claimed the Canaanites co-opted Hebraism into an anti-Zionism or that James Diamond, in his book on the Canaanites, calls them the “first post-Zionists.” Whatever their motives, and they were certainly different than Omer’s, they understood that the only way to overcome the religious trappings of Zionism (even in a secular form) was to abandon it by severing the ties between Judaism and Zionism, resulting in Zionism’s implosion.

As an aside, with the establishment of the state, the Canaanite community split, some like Uri Avnery, one of its only surviving members, occupying the far left flank of Israeli society and others, like Ratosh, who never became a Zionist but adopted quite right-wing views, especially toward the Arabs. In any case, while it is true that the Canaanites were an utter failure, attracting a small following among Jews and almost no following among Arabs, their program may have recognized the systemic problem at the core of the Zionist narrative; as long as Judaism remained a part of Zionism, Zionism could not overcome its diasporic mentality. That is becaiuse for the Canaanites, Judaism is Diaspora. Omer means something different by their severance but shares their recognition of the witches’ brew of the Judaism/Zionism fusion.

The second example of severing ties comes from the settler rabbi Menachem Froman (d. 2014). Froman claimed that the Religious Zionism to which he remained committed throughout his life had failed because it could not distinguish between the sanctity of the land and the state.  Alternatively he wrote that his community could not decide which was more important: loving the land or hating the Arab. The land state severance is precisely the fusion his teacher Zvi Yehuda Kook cultivated. In a series of provocative talks and essays he argued that he would be willing to remain in his home in the West Bank settlement of Tekoa and become a citizen of Palestine in the wake of an end to the occupation. He would forfeit his citizenship in the Jewish state in order to remain in Erez Israel. The improbability of this notwithstanding I think it drives a wedge between land and state in a way that recognizes that the fusion of these two categories (land and state) perpetuates a circular state of illiberality. And it coheres in principle with Omer’s “hermeneutics of citizenship” in that it recognizes that the Zionist narrative that hopes for a “Jewish” state that cannot treat the other equally. It is true that Froman never weighs in on how his “Jewish” state would overcome its ethnocentricity (it could not in his view) yet his acknowledgment of the corrosiveness of the land-state fusion is one step toward disentangling political power from religious commitment. Although Froman became a kind of cult figure in Israel, his vision failed as well. This is because, like the Canaanites, it trespasses on the sanctity of the Zionist narrative whereby religion, land, and state need to remain attached in order for each part to inform and legitimize the other. In such a triad, as Omer argues persuasively from a different angle, liberalism can never reach the core of the problem; it can only make it less egregious and seemingly less embarrassing.

The weakest part of When Peace is Not Enough is its constructivist program, or lack thereof.  One does not get a clear view, on my reading, of the implementation of Omer’s “hermeneutics of citizenship.” How for example is it different than the post-Zionism we see in many contemporary Israeli thinkers? And is the Palestinian as subaltern, which she certainly is in Omer’s view, the same as the Mizrahi subaltern? And if not, how are those distinctions navigated? But maybe I have fallen into a trap of my own making. Incisively and systematically diagnosing a problem is meritorious even if one does not know the solution. This is because without closely examining and understanding the disease, one could easily think either a cure is not necessary or can be accomplished with topical ointment rather than surgery.

There is no doubt that the Israeli peace camp, drawing from the liberal tradition, has accomplished much and remains a viable alternative to the continued morass called “Israel/Palestine.” The danger, as Omer shows us, is that it too easily misses the very crack that undermines its own program. Examining liberalism and its “enabling” tendencies, something Bernie pointed out in many of Hillary’s policies, can help create better conditions for systemic as opposed to incremental change. It enables liberalism to avoid the pitfall of choosing the pragmatic option as opposed to staying true to its ideological commitments.

Critics of liberalism from the left, socialists and others, have always existed in our democracies even as in America they remain largely on the margins. In retrospect the most valuable contribution of the Sander’s candidacy may be to get Americans to learn about, and argue about, democratic socialism as a critique of liberalism. The situation in Israel/Palestine is much different in part because Israel’s socialist critics continued to have a voice through its short history. Israel began largely as a socialist experiment. But this has largely been forgotten by most American Jews, many of whom sentimentalize the Kibbutz Movement, a place where Bernie spent some time as a young man, without realizing that much of it subverted the liberalism which those American Jews espoused. In the wake of Bernie, perhaps Omer’s book will awaken American Jews to think about progressivism in a new way, both in their country of residence and in the country to which they profess their love but choose not to live in.

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One thought on “Exploring the Crack in Liberalism in Israel/Palestine: Reading Atalia Omer’s When Peace is Not Enough After Bernie Sanders

  1. Never forget that the entire Middle East is in the grip of tyranny, Islamic religious fanaticism, chaos, and violence. Israel is a beacon of light in a sea of darkness. If our enemies had the power, every Jew in Israel would be murdered or driven into exile. Given this reality, debates about the nature of “post-zionism” miss the point that Jews are entitled to live in peace in Israel. This means we are entitled to Zionism, the national liberation movement of the Jewish people.

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