The Trouble with Zionism: An Interview with Joel Kovel | General News & Politics | Hudson Valley | Chronogram Magazine

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The Trouble with Zionism: An Interview with Joel Kovel


Last Updated: 06/06/2013 6:44 pm

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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?

Speaking of Zionism, israel

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