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.
In my view, and the view of many people across the world (though not the United States), the Zionist project has markedly accentuated the tribal or chauvinistic side of Jewish identity. How could it be otherwise once this hitherto oppressed people became a nation of conquerors? This does not dispose of the contradiction observed above, but it does rearrange the terms of universality and tribalism. Or rather, it combines them into the basic Zionist notion that Israel would be a democratic state for the Jewish people.
The terms are combined but in a definite hierarchy, in which the universal part—democracy—coexists with yet is subordinated to the tribal part, that the Jews are to have special status within the state of Israel. The tribal side is powerfully institutionalized, as in the right of return granting automatic citizenship to anyone with a Jewish grandmother, or by reserving the vast bulk of the better land for Jews. And in real practice it almost always trumps the universalist impulse, as the Palestinians, who have precisely been denied these very rights, will freely attest.
This arrangement, which is at the heart of Zionism, creates a terrible contradiction that eats away at the soul and conscience of the Jewish people. The problem is that you can’t have a democratic state for just one people while excluding the others. It is just a logical impossibility. The notion of democracy derives from universal ideals based on universal human rights; it cannot exist where there is a systematic inequality, and all the more so when these “others” are those who have been dispossessed by Zionism.
Of course, systematic inequalities are widespread throughout history, indeed, more or less the norm. But never have they occurred in a society ruled by people with the moral dilemmas created by Jewish exceptionalism and the two-thousand year history of ghettoization. In my view it is this moral twist that accounts for the extraordinary thin-skinnedness of Jews, and their intolerance of criticism of Zionism—what I have called Zionism’s bad conscience. The irony is radical: because Jews have to think of themselves as morally special, “chosen” people, they cannot tolerate the coarse grab for territory and the oppression of the dispossessed inherent to Zionism. They deny the implications with messianic fervor, but the wound cannot be healed.
LT: So is it that there are some more enlightened people striving toward a humanitarian-based democracy and others who press for the tribal solution? But both groups have lived through the same history in terms of the horror of Nazi Germany and the horror of the holocaust. What would cause this difference, this schism between the two groups? Is it a difference in the element of fear, felt or experienced?
JK: I think the key factor has to do with the compact one makes with power. That would help explain why this problem is so much more severe in the us than elsewhere—because Jews have become so powerful and successful in the us, and because the us has become so powerful and successful in the world, and because the us has entered into an amazing alliance with the state of Israel to support it in every way possible and to give it a blank check enabling Israel to act with impunity—including maintaining a major nuclear arsenal without ever having to admit this to the world. Really, it is quite hard to fathom just how deep and extensive the us ties are with Israel, whether we look at the huge military donations, or receiving the lion’s share of us foreign aid, or the near absolute support given Israel throughout the us government, especially in Congress, or the various acts of dirty-work carried out by Israel for its imperial guardian. Hovering over it all are zealous and highly funded watchdog agencies like the American Israeli Political Action Committee—uaipac—that keep people in line and forbid criticism of Israel. And yet all this power has only made them more intolerant, and less able to face up to the historical responsibilities of what Israel has done.
LT: Historically, there is no question; the Jews were put upon, isolated and persecuted. Now we have this situation of the abused becoming the abusers. The Christians as well were once per-secuted and they became tribalistic and then tried to put off whom they saw as the oppressors. The Muslim fundamentalists are also trying to put off whom they see as oppressors. Is this just the psychology of human nature?
JK: When we talk about human nature we have to think in terms of various potentials, one of which would be getting caught up in cycles of revenge and persecution. As you say, it has been repeated over and over. But it’s by no means the only potential within human nature. I want to emphasize that among the bravest and most faithful fighters for a better world, beyond vengeance and tribalism, are Jews—along, needless to add, with Arabs and Muslims. But focussing for the moment on the Jews, we see that people from within Israel as well as the Diaspora—including a contingent from the us—are perfectly capable of behaving radically differently from the standards imposed by Zionism. The cycle of vengeance is by no means a necessary fate, or the only possibly outcome of human nature.
The more important question is not the potential for good or evil, both of which we know exist within us, but what induces one side or the other. And here it is indisputable that a brutal fact on the ground induces the vengeance cycle, namely, that in order to secure a Jewish state in that part of the world the Jewish settlers had to displace and expel the indigenous people, and to erase the memory of their history. That’s simply the logic of Zionism, the kind of path it spelled out. And those they couldn’t expel, they had to put into cantons and bantustans and create a situation quite analogous to South African apartheid. In other words, once you have chosen the Zionist path, you are fated to be caught up in a cycle of vengeance and retribution.
To be sure, it has been a very complicated historical process. But the fact of the matter remains that there were people living in Palestine who had to be displaced if the State of Israel was to come into being. Israel has never been able to contend with the contradictions arising from this except by becoming more and more militaristic and trying to defend itself through force, meanwhile developing serious kinds of exclusions and various kinds of ways of removing the humanity of the people that they have displaced. And this extends to removing the people themselves, an openly talked-about option in Israel, and one with much precedent. The term, ethnic cleansing, is the one that applies here. That is the fundamental historical fact.
LT: You have pointed out that there is a difference between the development of the us, where members of our indigenous population and descendents of slaves have risen to prominent positions, like Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell, and that of Israel, where the direction has been that the Palestinian people should not have representation in the current government, nor a state of their own.
JK: No country in the world has had a more dismal record vis-a-vis indigenous or enslaved peoples than the us, or has been more suffused with racism. That is a scar and a wound that continues to fester, and our history simply can’t be understood without taking it into account. But there have also been differences with the Zionist experience, which we can’t take up for lack of space. The most relevant is that the us was never an ethnocratic homeland for one people only. Individual colonies may have been so in part, but when they came together that principle had to be abandoned. The social contract of the new nation-state was always toward the ideal of including all people; and no matter how much this was violated in practice, the ideal of inclusivity remained for the heroes of the civil rights movement to draw upon. Thus our own apartheid system, all too horribly real, also lacked the kind of foundation that we see in Zionist Israel, where it derives from the basic principle of society.
Another way of saying this is that the us has a constitution and a Bill of Rights that provides a framework for a democratic society, however poorly realized. Whereas Israel, professing itself a democracy, has never been able to write a constitution.
LT: I don’t think many people know this.
JK: The contradictions posed by the notion of a Jewish democratic state are so severe that you can’t codify it in a constitutional form. To do so would mean breaking apart the fiction that there can be a genuine democracy for one ethnic group over others. So a great many questions are just sort of shelved. In fact, the national boundaries cannot be well defined. It is not at all clear just where Israel should begin or end, given the myth of its origins, still held by many Zionists, that “God promised all of this region to us…” There are people who say Israel should keep expanding all the way to Turkey and should take over everything in the region. More crucially, this notion underlies the relentless impulse to occupy all Palestinian land and the appalling story of the settlements in the Occupied Territories.
If past experience is any guide, we can be pretty sure that what I’ve just said will arouse very strong negative feelings among the American Jewish community. The question is, however, whether one can accept responsibility for what has been done, which means being able to think honestly about the past, to incorporate your history into the present, and to have a sense of your limits. In a word, it means being conscientious, or in this case, arguing openly about the history and actuality of Israel. This doesn’t of course mean accepting what I’ve said on faith, but it does imply an open and conscientious engagement with the issues and a willingness to look at oneself and if necessary, to change—we might say, in “good conscience.”
Then there is the matter of the bad conscience, where, instead of being able to accept responsibility and to look at what you are doing, one is unable to think self-reflectively and self-critically. Being unable to take criticism, the bad conscience explodes into violent denunciation and suppression of critics. It replaces conscientiousness with blame. I contend that such a bad conscience is an important aspect of the present situation. And evidence for this is precisely that we have so much difficulty getting a decent debate about Israel and Zionism going in this country.
I think this situation is improving to some degree, witness undertaking an interview like this. The terrible events of the last few years have cost Israel a lot of legitimacy, and this has made for certain openings. But the openings have to be seen as possibilities to engage the still-massive ideological complex supporting Zionism, including its bad conscience.
LT: What happened in Nazi Germany—the Holocaust—was a horrible thing. It remains the principle justification for a Jewish national home.
JK: Yes, no doubt, it still looms like a monstrous shadow. It’s understandable that people would have felt that way, or even still feel that way. But a feeling of that kind can’t justify what has been done in the name of Zionism, if only for the instrumental reason that it has failed to bring real security to the Jewish people.
LT: What accounts for the inability of one side to empathize with the other that leads to anger, name-calling, and violence?
JK: I agree we have to get beyond the name-calling and the denial, both of which are driven by the bad conscience. One important dimension is the denial that Palestinians may have a legitimate grievance. Because a bad conscience can’t take responsibility, the person afflicted with it can’t think of themselves as being wrong; this just stirs up intolerable feelings of guilt. Now if you admit that the Palestinians have a legitimate grievance, then of course, you have to think that maybe you are wrong, and might have to take responsibility or even change. The bad conscience keeps that kind of thought out of awareness, by attacking the critic, and at the same time, by reducing the moral value of Palestinians and their cause. Then the only things one can think about are is that the Palestinians are simply motivated by blind hatred, or are congenital terrorists, or being Arabs, are shaped by Islam to hate the West. This takes the whole situation out of history and makes it impossible to look at what has really happened, namely there has been violent expropriation, ethnic cleansing, and illegal occupation of Palestinian land. Everything is simply put on the level that all these Palestinians hate us. At times the denial has extended to the claim that the Palestinians don’t exist as a people.
LT: I have heard this from very intelligent and good-hearted people I know and respect: There is no such thing as a Palestinian because there is no Palestinian State. And therefore this land in question is unclaimed and up for grabs. And Israel is simply claiming it.
JK: That is a very common line of reasoning. In fact, the legendary Golda Meir, who was born in Russia and raised in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, before emigrating to Israel, said exactly that in 1969, the year she became Prime Minister: “It was not as though there was a Palestinian people in Palestine considering itself as a Palestinian people and we came and threw them out and took their country away from them. They did not exist.” I haven’t seen the celebration of her life now on Broadway, but I tend to doubt these words are part of the script.
In the 1980s a book appeared that argued just as did Meir, essentially, that the Palestinians weren’t an actual indigenous people, but came on the scene basically to work for the Jews once the Zionists got there. It was by Joan Peters and was called From Time Immemorial. It was received with enormous enthusiasm in this country.
LT: It sounds like an Ann Coulter book.
JK: No, because Ann Coulter just rants, but Peters’ book was packaged as heavy-duty historical scholarship. And it took the country by storm, chiefly, I would say, because it relieved the bad Zionist conscience of any burden of responsibility. In the first year after the book was published, Peters was invited to speak 250 times, and the book swiftly went through seven editions. Many famous intellectuals were bowing and scraping in homage. Somehow, none of these managed to check the scholarship. When serious historians did so, they found the book to be a tissue of fabrication. It was denounced in the harshest terms possible, notably, much more widely in England where the Zionist grip is looser (and where scholars know their stuff about Palestine, since they come from the country that once controlled it). It was also demolished in Israel by a generation of historians critical of the reigning Zionist mythology. From the critical standpoint, then, the book sank like the proverbial stone—and yet it is still influential in the us. I would think that people you refer to who say there are no Palestinians might have been influenced by this book. But in any case there has been a massive effort to minimize, distort, or blatantly deny the complex reality of the Palestinian experience.
Those readers who want to read further on this can consult the work of Norman Finkelstein, a courageous American historian (and son of Holocaust survivors) who was one of the first to see through Peters’ phony scholarship: Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict. For the Palestinian story itself, one might start with Baruch Kimmerling and Joel S. Migdal’s The Palestinian People: A History, the joint work of an Israeli and American scholar.
LT: Your thesis is clearly laid out. But it seems like a hopeless situation. The wall is being built between Israel and the Occupied Territories, this separation is underway, and people are still dying on both sides. You write, however, that it is never too late to remedy the situation.
JK: Well, anything that humans can make they can make differently. The situation is very far gone, but there is never any good in abandoning hope. And in any case, the one thing we cannot tolerate is not seeing reality for what it is. Of course, all of us have to work on this, Jew and Palestinian alike, and indeed the whole human community. Nothing I’ve said should be interpreted to mean that the Palestinians are inherently virtuous, or free from the human capacity to make mistakes. One myth we should get rid of is that being oppressed makes you virtuous. It can just as well make you ignorant, desperate and evil. But that’s not the issue. There are endless potentials within human beings, including that of redemption. There is weird, ignorant and violent thinking on both sides, as well as heroism, sacrifice and the need for reconciliation.
But irrespective of the capacities of human beings there is an elementary and objective condition of justice, the search for or flight from which brings out the various capacities for good and evil among people. A bad conscience blocks the appreciation of justice and blinds us to the just path. My quarrel with Zionism is first, that it caused the Jews to betray their precious heritage of universalism, and led them down the path of injustice to the illegal and violent expropriation of another people; and second, that it induces a bad conscience because, especially, of the peculiarities of the history of Jewish exceptionalism. And my hope, which I will never abandon, is that these errors can be overcome and a better path chosen.