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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.