Tony Judt on Israel as Anachronism

Tony JudtThe Middle East peace process is finished. It did not die: it was killed. Mahmoud Abbas was undermined by the President of the Palestinian Authority and humiliated by the Prime Minister of Israel. His successor awaits a similar fate. Israel continues to mock its American patron, building illegal settlements in cynical disregard of the “road map.” The President of the United States of America has been reduced to a ventriloquist’s dummy, pitifully reciting the Israeli cabinet line: “It’s all Arafat’s fault.” Israelis themselves grimly await the next bomber. Palestinian Arabs, corralled into shrinking Bantustans, subsist on EU handouts. On the corpse-strewn landscape of the Fertile Crescent, Ariel Sharon, Yasser Arafat, and a handful of terrorists can all claim victory, and they do. Have we reached the end of the road? What is to be done?

At the dawn of the twentieth century, in the twilight of the continental empires, Europe’s subject peoples dreamed of forming “nation-states,” territorial homelands where Poles, Czechs, Serbs, Armenians, and others might live free, masters of their own fate. When the Habsburg and Romanov empires collapsed after World War I, their leaders seized the opportunity. A flurry of new states emerged; and the first thing they did was set about privileging their national, “ethnic” majority — defined by language, or religion, or antiquity, or all three — at the expense of inconvenient local minorities, who were consigned to second-class status: permanently resident strangers in their own home.

But one nationalist movement, Zionism, was frustrated in its ambitions. The dream of an appropriately sited Jewish national home in the middle of the defunct Turkish Empire had to wait upon the retreat of imperial Britain: a process that took three more decades and a second world war. And thus it was only in 1948 that a Jewish nation-state was established in formerly Ottoman Palestine. But the founders of the Jewish state had been influenced by the same concepts and categories as their fin-de-siècle contemporaries back in Warsaw, or Odessa, or Bucharest; not surprisingly, Israel’s ethno-religious self-definition, and its discrimination against internal “foreigners,” has always had more in common with, say, the practices of post-Habsburg Romania than either party might care to acknowledge.

The problem with Israel, in short, is not — as is sometimes suggested — that it is a European “enclave” in the Arab world; but rather that it arrived too late. It has imported a characteristically late-nineteenth-century separatist project into a world that has moved on, a world of individual rights, open frontiers, and international law. The very idea of a “Jewish state” — a state in which Jews and the Jewish religion have exclusive privileges from which non-Jewish citizens are forever excluded — is rooted in another time and place. Israel, in short, is an anachronism.

—Tony Judt
Israel: The Alternative (2003)
In When the Facts Change: Essays 1995-2010

6 thoughts on “Tony Judt on Israel as Anachronism

  1. That’s a brilliant observation. It’s worth remembering that Wilson was both a huge advocate for “self-determination,” AKA ethnically separate nations — and a huge racist.

    One thing you read online all the time is defenders of Israeli policy suggesting that Israel gets more condemnation than anyone else. The inference means to suggest that anti-Jewish prejudice is behind most criticism of Israel’s government. (That is a factor, but usually the people who are anti-Jewish make themselves fairly easy to spot.)

    There’s one sense in which the defenders have a point. Not that most criticism of Israel is prejudiced in origin (it isn’t) or that Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians is justified (it isn’t.) But that many other countries are just as bad, and few receive the level of international attention Israel’s wrongdoing receives.

    Part of this may be due to what Judt points out. Israel’s open racism is anachronistic. It’s not in vogue today to treat people horribly on express account of their ethnicity. Rather, it’s done through the oppression of poor by rich. How much attention is focused on South Africa today? Almost none — and the people persecuted under apartheid there are largely even worse off under “market reforms.” Much the same thing is happening to poor people everywhere, often poor people historically oppressed for racist reasons, and it’s very little remarked upon as a type of racial discrimination, even though it is. (Israel’s situation is fairly odd, in that they are not persecuting the Palestinians to profit off cheap labor for the most part.)

    That said, I believe a large number of individuals worldwide who condemn Israel’s actions are also firmly against exploitation of the poor anywhere. There are governments, though, in Europe for example, with politicians who criticize Israel (fine), give humanitarian aid to Palestinians (very fine), and yet approve of policies their own systems use to oppress others, usually ethnic minorities in their own countries or poor people in other countries. (France has long been critical of the Israeli occupation; it also has some of the sleaziest water-privatization companies on Earth.)

    So not that we shouldn’t criticize Israeli policy — but that we need to realize how unregulated capitalism is quite nearly as harmful. (And in the case of America, which has a primary hand in both, criticizing almost everything!)

    • There is something to what you say, but I think you have it mixed up a bit. It is only people like us who criticize Israel. Most people I know are amazed to ever hear that someone thinks Israel isn’t the shining city on the hill. The reason that I complain more about them than I do some truly vile countries is because in America, Israel is largely above condemnation. There is an old racist claim that American Jews are more committed to Israel than the US. I’ve never noticed that to be true. But over the past 15 years, I have seen that many evangelical Christians do place Israel’s interests above those of the US. And that’s because of their ridiculous ideas about the book of Revelation. And yes, I am most definitely saying that these people are unpatriotic. Of course, that isn’t religion based. They are just told by their preachers that this is the kind of garbage that “good” Christians must believe.

      On the plus side for Israel, it is a modern western society that actually does care about how it looks to other people. But it seems more recently, they have been moving away from that and simply justifying whatever it is they do. And slowly American opinion is shifting to a more nuanced view of Israel. That’s something that Netanyahu really should be worried about instead of making it worse.

      But I totally agree on your broad point: the biggest problem is that the oligarchs control the world. My father is fond of saying that if it weren’t for religion, we would have peace. I totally disagree. It is all about power and greed. People often use religion as a cover for this, but it isn’t the religion itself. This is why I’ve had a falling out with a lot of atheists, because they want to make everything about religion. That’s even true of people who are otherwise liberal. Their hatred of religion blinds them to the more fundamental economic and political factors that are causing the problems. And I think that’s just so pathetic. It’s a total misreading of human psychology and it just feeds into conservative policy.

      • Most of what I said about defenders of Israeli policy accusing others of anti-Jewish prejudice was from experiences reading online commentary, something I don’t do a lot of anymore (I like arguments, but I dislike angry, personal arguments.) It was quite clear that a lot of Israeli citizens who are very defensive about their country would get involved, and many were convinced the world was out to get them (the equivalent of our Tea Party, Fox types, repeating what they’ve been taught to think.)

        Here, you’re right, of course, it’s largely hopeful Armaggeddonists. And what can you say to that? If someone really wants the Rapture, you can’t logic that wish away. Amusingly, I took a community-college religion course some years ago, and while the instructor was brilliant on world religions and I learned a lot, she was terrible on American Christian end-times stuff. I like to think I opened her eyes a little on that fascinating subsector of religious thought . . .)

        • The problem with the end times stuff is that it is pretty much devoid of theology, so I’m not surprised your professor wasn’t much up on it. It is more along the lines of conspiracy theories.

          I’ll say, I still understand (and I’m sure you do too) that Jewish people feel the world is out to get them. (Where the Fox News types get this, I can’t say.) So fundamentally, I’m a Zionist. I just think there are good and bad ways to be a Zionist, and Israel is increasingly using the bad ways.

          • For sure. No group with a history of being abused, misused, and killed outright would ever be wise to forget it. Forgive, to be sure, not forget. It’s also wise to remember who did the deeds. Before modern Palestine became an issue, powerful fear-mongering Christians were no friends of Jews. And I don’t think they are today. Whereas there are centuries of good historical reasons for Jews and Muslims to stick together, and many ways they still can in the future. Fear-mongering politicians on basically every conceivable side aren’t helping the matter, though.

  2. @JMF – Yeah, as I’ve noted in the past, my experience in academia was that Israelis and Palestinians were fast friends. And as I recall, before the official state of Israel, the Jews and Muslims got along pretty well. Frankly, I don’t think that Israel has been well served by its conservative governments these last several decades. And I think they’ve created their own kind of Tea Party problem in the illegal settlements where the government is afraid to do anything for fear that the settlers would turn to terrorism. And you can see that Israel’s status as a good actor would vanish if that happened.

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