20 May 2021
I’ve been feeling a great need to revisit a reply I made, last week, to a tweet by Sheeza Shah, a Muslim advocate for social justice and solidarity economy whose home is in the U.K.
Shah, whom I don’t know well but have connection with through friendship between Solidarity Hall and her organization Zebras Unite, has been for me very moving in posted expressions of grief and anger in response to the current surge of hostilities in Palestine and Israel — the 3/4-century of warfare and societal (civil-order as well as mob) violence in which most, by far, of the losses in lives and in the means of human well-being suffered from the beginning are borne, it always warrants repeating, by Palestinian Arabs.
Shah’s tweet quotes another’s. It’ll be clear that I’m responding much more directly to the words she relays in the quoted tweet than to her own. In any event, had I been doubtful that she’d recognize that I’m coming from a position of basic agreement, or had she been more a stranger to me than she is, I don’t think I would have made any reply. This was a conversational gesture, foremost, in other words — and she receives it as such, graciously.
Here’s her tweet:
My reply needs revisiting for a lot of reasons (all owing something to its being made in what for me is haste, in early hours of the morning when I should have been asleep). But I certainly don’t mean to suggest that I expect somehow to sort out, in this post, whatever I mangled or muddled or missed in the short thread of that reply. I’d say, really, that the best I can probably hope for is not to be any worse tangled up in my words as consequence of this attempt at review than the thread taken alone leaves me.
Most readers will observe that the point of difference I start from is a relatively small one. At first glance, maybe, it’ll seem I’ve just played back the quoted tweet’s idea in different words. Initially, at least, it bears asking: do I really have something to say in this thread? Am I offering little more than a pointless nitpick?
Here I stop (and turn out the lights at last). She replies:
A few hours later, this exchange very much on my mind after I’ve begun my day, I decide I need to add something. I keep it to two tweets — but pretty expansive ones.
To call it a clarification is to be a bit generous with myself, you could say. And this, notice, Shah doesn’t reply to. I’m pretty sure I likewise wouldn’t in her position. Part of the trouble with my thread, especially as amended with this final couple of tweets, is that it doesn’t seem to have any boundaries. If with the first tweet it isn’t quite clear that I’m going to say anything not essentially said in the post I’m replying to, with the last it’s in doubt how far I’d stay on the original topic at all if the exchange continued.
In the end, in short, my thread tries to say far too much. That’s obvious, and it’s a difficulty this revisit certainly isn’t made with any illusion of overcoming. I’m not especially embarrassed at finding myself trying to say too much on this subject. I don’t think anybody probably should be. I’m neither Jew nor Arab, it’s true and important to say, but as an Evangelically-formed Christian in America, a white inheritor of colonial visions, my own story, my life experience, is something I could never hope to disentangle from the world-historical story and problem of the establishment of modern Israel, the idea of it and the fact of it. If I hope merely to be honest about myself with myself or with anybody else, some readiness to confront and speak to a set of ‘Middle Eastern’ facts far too great, far too extensive and complex — this overwhelmingly too much in which my American life, like it or not, is implicated — sooner or later comes to be a necessity for me. There might be many reasons for shame about how one’s dealt with this too-great reality. But that, simply, one finds one keeps trying to meet it in terms correspondingly full — or excessive, out-of-bounds, rather — probably shouldn’t be one of them.
This isn’t the first time I’ve posted about Israel or antisemitism, as the handful who’ve read here over years will know. What I have written here, though, I have to say, is no great indicator of how these things weigh on my thoughts — if measured by frequency of posts on the subject, at least. They’re issues I’m very conscious of my writing’s inadequacy to. In the past couple of years, I’ve resorted to the login wall on the couple of occasions when I’ve attempted anything approaching them, restricting posts from public view. A longer relevant post that I’ve left public, a bit awkwardly studied (as it seems to me now) in its coolness, is this one, seven years old (nearly to the day, oddly).
In the present post, the thing I’d like to linger with just a little is that there’s a kind of insanity, or at any rate unquestionably a grotesqueness, about a nation built in the shadow of the Holocaust in a neighborhood of recently ex-Ottoman territories closely allying itself with the United States and Britain. It wasn’t just a given that it would be so, let’s remember. Why things have worked out in this fashion we can explain in various ways, and we certainly should trouble ourselves with making sense of the forces in play and the details of the current state of the outcome. But nothing can make this path for the newly-established Israel seem right.
Of course, this isn’t something I appreciated myself, or could have, not so many years ago. Lots of people, Israelis and Americans particularly, don’t (or would have a tough time admitting to doing). This fact too warrants troubling ourselves with trying to make sense of.
And it’s very difficult to imagine, it needs to be said, such a modern Israel’s ever being established in the first place, or its surviving as it has, without British and American support. To what extent the support provided was contingent, in the uncertain early Cold-War years, on the closeness of the reciprocating alliance is a historical question I’m far from prepared to talk about, but it does require acknowledgement as bearing in a fairly plain way on how one might evaluate my use of ‘insanity’ here.
Nevertheless: historically speaking it’s an inter-societal alliance almost without foundation, a house built on sand. In the first half of the twentieth century, hypothesizing an Israel project soon to commence, notwithstanding various relative advantages Jews (with other minority populations, broadly speaking) enjoyed in the more firmly liberal-industrialized (Protestant) national economies, this wouldn’t have been remotely a controversial thing to suggest. In the second half of the twentieth century, a Europe, a ‘West,’ with the Atlantic at its center and English as its immemorial lingua franca was suddenly plausible global-political idea, and in these conditions simply overwriting the always-fragile past standing of the Jew in English-speaking societies’ domestic and foreign policies with a brand new story, now opportune, was evidently no challenge to achieve.
But it’s not only that striking disconnect, the anglo-world flip from pre- to post-1945 posture toward Jews internal and external, naturally, that I’m thinking of when I characterize binding the Israel project to us, to Atlantic order, as a kind of insanity. There’s something more basic. (Here’s where I’ll start to go from being thought maybe an Israel-hater to being thought more especially an America-hater.) Zionist nationalism may have always had its colonialist element, but before the second half of the last century that element’s part could only be understood as expressive of Jews’ subject condition. For obvious reasons, Jews couldn’t unto themselves constitute a colonial power. Jewish emigration and settling in formerly Ottoman territory could of necessity only ever constitute them, rather, as a subject people in (new) relation to existing imperial and colonizing power. Pre-1945, the colonialist element in Zionist nationalism had of necessity to work in some tension (whether constructively or destructively I leave to other discussion) with the emancipatory. This is, I’ll insist, the only actually coherent sort of Zionist nationalism — one in which the emancipatory element is clarified and foregrounded in the clarity of the relation of subjection and through which, crucially, some pressure toward solidarity with other subject peoples’ emancipatory struggles keeps being felt.
In the post-1945 world, it’s not that that relation of subjection no longer exists for the Jews who populate the (still quite) new Israeli state. It doesn’t exist in the same way, plainly enough, but let’s be real: it can’t simply have evaporated. The story Israel tells of itself matches, in part, the one we in the principal Atlantic-order countries have been telling of ourselves really only a little longer: within the borders of the liberal democracy (so called), liberation is achieved; what remains only is to defend (preemptively or by proxy as necessary) against freedom’s enemies outside. It’s an incredibly simplistic story, and one that tends to fall apart under examination. In the U.S., you need examine no further than to notice, say, the carceral system (if you allow yourself indeed to notice). A lot of effort’s necessarily expended — under such variously opaque or vacant labels as ‘economics’ — on diverting popular interest from any such examination.
The magnitude of what I’m adopting ‘insanity’ to try to characterize really hits when you remember — as in popular and schoolbook histories we’re generally encouraged not to — that in both Britain and (especially) the U.S., in the century’s first half, there was no shortage of Nazi-sympathetic sentiment, interest, and public influence. There are distinctions to be made, of course, but certainly neither power presented any obstacle to Hitler’s rise before his operations to redraw the continental map were in full swing. Certainly neither went to war from any high concern for the fate of Germany’s — let alone broadly of Europe’s — Jewish multitudes. This needs to be thought about, deeply, not in terms of the large personalities and dramatic turns and chances on a slice of timeline from 1918 to ’38, first, but rather in terms of the centuries-long pattern and evolution of Europe’s powers in shifting rivalries and partnerships on and far beyond common soil, in commerce and industry and in war, with extraordinary advances in war- and peacetime inhumanity in the 19th century, accelerating to hellish dimensions in the 20th. It’s this long development that Europe’s position at the center of a system of jockeying, globe-spanning wealth-drains and drastic power disequilibria emerges within. It’s this long development, above all, that Europe’s Jews bear the brunt of in a signal, seemingly finally culminating way in the Holocaust — the most horrific, if it’s possible to compare, of all the horrors of that God-forsaken period.
More terrible yet, in appreciating this picture, is to grasp that in the Hitlerian vision, the preceding two centuries’ American conquest, domination, and effective erasure of peoples on this continent were quite specific precedent for what Germany would be poised to accomplish to its east, in Slavic lands, in the twentieth. (Timothy Snyder’s accounts, in particular, in Bloodlands and elsewhere, have been richly illuminating for me in these areas. See e.g. this talk and this from a series given at the LSE in 2014.) Or that American systemic innovations were studied by designers of Nazi polity as basis for race law and jurisprudence key to the project to re-mold Europe according to their twisted idea of its true character.
I’m not here to tell anyone that the Yanks and the Brits must be re-cast in our histories in the role of ‘real’ or ‘first’ Nazis, or any such nonsense. (If that’s how you feel you have to understand me, reader, please just move on. Not sure we can have a conversation.) I am here to affirm what should be entirely beyond controversy, that it’s time to put to bed for good the crude heroes-and-villains mythologizing of the twentieth century that my and my parents’ generations learned, as Cold War kids, in lieu of a meaningful account of our own situation.
The story Israel tells of itself, together with its version of the liberty-secured claims and declarations of the self-identifying liberal democracies, noted above, has of course also theme and structure in common with the stories of other states born from pasts under pre-1945 modern-era imperial subjection — a modern national-consciousness and independence myth, in short. That any such new or re-emerging previously-subject or -dispersed national or nationhood-seeking groups should, in weaving the stories of their own independence, be wed to the persisting pre-1945 colonizing powers’ schemes to retain status and holdings is grotesque, appalling. It is nowhere more so, surely, than in the case of the Jewish nation, given what 1945 means — what in some way no one better than a descendant of Europe’s ancient, now former Jewish population can know 1945 means. It’s hard to think of anything more appalling about our moment in world history than the tiny nation formed, in significant part, of refuge-seekers from Holocaust-stamped, Holocaust-exposed Europe serving subsequently as emblem and vehicle of the pre-1945 colonizing powers’ perpetuation in dominance (while it lasts). Maybe insanity’s the wrong word, I don’t know. I can’t think of a good alternative for the moment.
The God-forsaken period can hardly be said to be past. 1945 — the bomb, the stripping bare, the flip — is a very short while ago in reality.
I’m thinking a good deal, recently, about inflated historical time-scale or, to put it better, about the exploded time-sense characteristic, as it seems to me, of the mass culture we know — the ways it’s advanced, the ends it serves. Media- and fashion-cycle churn, or constant reference to generational cohorts and their supposed identifiers, ever more minutely analyzed — this is the kind of easily observable (not to say unproblematically interpretable) phenomenon I have in mind. The idea itself of mass culture, with its intrinsic orientation to commerce and commercializing forces, seems to play a part in this exploding.
It horrifies me that what Europe’s Jews endured — endured for the sake of the great fucking Christian powers’ bannered and medaled exultation in apocalyptic dénouement at the collapse of our colonial-system house-of-cards — will be forgotten. Began already, rather, on all sorts of mean pretext almost as soon as the dust of 1945 had settled, to be forgotten and to be transformed, the survivors still merely trying to start to breathe again. Some forgetting is indeed natural and necessary. But much forgetting is artificial. And some artificial forgetting is shattering injustice (upon injustice), a great violence to souls.
The thought that survivors themselves and their heirs might assist such a forgetting and transformation — for whatever reason, the best reasons — overcomes me. I can’t approach it.
1948 is not that long ago.
1848, for that matter — the year the war that secured the principal remaining bulk of continental territory for the U.S. ended, the year the war that secured the Punjab for Britain began, the year of popular upheavals across Europe and that famous Marx-Engels manifesto — is not that long ago. Not at all.
I want to come, here, somehow, to the moral questions. How to hold Israel to account? How to hold, first of all, the U.S. and the U.K. to account?
How to call one another to emancipatory purpose, to find (to rediscover, where applicable) the liberation footing?
How to repent — how to turn? How to restore?
How to believe in the possibility of being restored?
I’m struggling without success to go forward with these thoughts right now. I’ll have to pick up the thread in another post when I can.