This interview was inspired by an article Kovel wrote entitled “Zionism’s Bad Conscience” in the September/October 2002 issue of the journal Tikkun.
Lorna Tychostup: In your article “Zionism’s Bad Conscience,” you begin by asking the following question: “How have the Jews, immemorially associated with suffering and high moral purpose, become identified with a nation-state loathed around the world for its oppressiveness toward a subjugated indigenous people?” Can you elaborate?
Joel Kovel: It’s a remarkable phenomenon, which I don’t think has ever been adequately explained. It essentially involves a denial of reciprocity—a denial that the Palestinians could have similar feelings and motivations as Jews, that they are fighting for their national existence, too, or that their claims have any legitimacy. Basically, though, it is a denial that Jews and Palestinians share a common humanity. There’s a phenomenal degree of hypersensitivity in the Jewish community associated with this, which amounts to a refusal to hold Israel to a moral standard agreed upon by the rest of the world. And this tendency is notably more prominent amongst Jews in the United States than in any other country in the Jewish Diaspora, or indeed, in Israel itself. So that calls for a double level of inquiry. Why are Jewish people so intolerant of criticism of the state of Israel? And why is this problem so much more extreme in the us?
LT: You also wrote of this idea of the “other”—the person who is not viewed as a person by an opposing group. You wrote that violence toward the “other” is OK, but violence from the “other” is demonized and both sides in a dispute of this sort tend to feel this way. But you point out a feature of the Jewish response, which is that Jews are supposed to know better and to be better, because they have been suffering for so long; that they have been so put upon throughout history that they have developed the idea of being special and having a special relation to God.
JK: There are a number of sides to that. There is, in the Jewish tradition, the notion of the Covenant, as the special promise God made to Abraham and his descendents. It is a very precious part of the Jewish heritage and leads to a feeling of being exceptional. This feeling is reinforced by the actual history of Jewish people, who have in fact been treated as radically different, for example, by being forced into ghettos. And as happened all too commonly, this was associated with extreme persecution, right on up to the Holocaust. It’s important to bear in mind that such a fate principally arose in Christian society. Considering what has happened in the last hundred years, it’s ironic that Jews had far less difficulty in the great Islamic societies, whether in Moorish Spain, Arabia, or Ottoman Turkey. Thus the development of Jewish exceptionalism lies within the Christian and European experience, while its territorial expansion takes place at the expense of Islam.
In any case it’s a very complex and many-sided problem, in part because the Covenant—the sense of being God’s chosen people—can be read in different ways. One possibility is to see it as a charge to seek justice on a universal basis. Here the Jew takes the position of being an outsider and identifies with all outsiders and victims. Here one belongs to all of humanity, all of whom are morally equivalent by the virtue of being a human being before God. But another direction is possible as well, in which the Covenant becomes a special, “chosen” relation to God. Now one is morally better than non-Jewish people—the goyim—and by that fact, puts them down with a certain degree of hostility and even contempt from a place of moral superiority. The second path, of being the chosen favorite of God, is quite contradictory to the ideals of universal justice, though common enough throughout history. In this respect the Covenant comes to organize a kind of tribal feeling: Jews are special, God’s chosen people, and their suffering entitles them moral as well as intellectual superiority over the others.
So the Covenant can be a universal demand, which drives toward justice and compassion with the underdog and the oppressed, or it can become a tribal demand that drives towards exclusiveness, pridefulness, hostility towards outsiders, along with perpetual fear that the persecutions will return. You can see that those are two very different processes, two poles between which the Jews have, so to speak, oscillated through history. In any event, there is no single way of being Jewish, rather, a set of ambivalent impulses that become played out differently in different historical circumstances.