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Whose Left, Which War? A Comment from Jerusalem

When Gabriel Brahm suggested I write a review-essay concerning Michael Bérubé’s The Left at War, I was intrigued, both tempted and apprehensive. So I read it, and it made fascinating reading. After finishing, though, I realized that my hesitations were well founded. As I was working my way through the approximately three hundred pages of this dense and sometimes hermetic (for me) text, it was becoming ever-clearer that the best I can do is share with the reader a few reflections, impressions, puzzlements and questions, which arose during my reading. In other words, what follows is not a “review” in the habitual sense of the word, but a response to Bérubé. I shall not weigh the force of all the arguments, nor shall I measure the accuracy of the empirical evidence given to support them. I shall also not comment on the overall coherence or reasonableness of the general position nor judge its truthfulness.  I want to discuss instead some things that concern me about the book.

In fact, I tend to agree with much of what Bérubé says. I don’t know what to say about the messianic vision of the Internationalist-Democratic world that the “democratic left” in the name of which he speaks envisions, or of the disappointment that he and some other leftists feel in the face of a world that does not live up to their expectations–especially as these appear at the very end of the book. I am afraid that the message articulated in the last pages of the book – a plea for a world governed by some kind of international or universal jurisprudence – is utopian and unrealistic; and utopias are not only naïve but also dangerous. Yet I have a lot of sympathy for what seems to me to be the basic, perhaps pre-theoretical, moral-political agenda the book speaks for: freedom, equality, justice, institutionalized solidarity, care for the weak, etc. But since The Left at War does not contain anything that can be regarded as a concrete political program, there is not much more to say about this aspect of the book. I also have much sympathy for the polemical side of the book, which is its main content. I can even appreciate, I think, at least to some degree, much of the irony his criticism contains, and I respect the courage that writing it must have needed.

Thus I share Bérubé’s negative opinion of what he calls the “Manichean Left,” and I can add that much of his analysis of Chomsky’s positions or of his followers, disciples and collaborators applies, mutatis mutandis, to the Israeli version of the same phenomenon. Like him, I don’t have much respect for reductionist-paternalist explanations, typically endemic in a leftist kind of thinking about, for instance, the “ordinary people’s” support for Thatcher in England, Reagan or Bush in the US (which are the main topics of the last two chapters of The Left at War) and—one could add here perhaps—for the Likkud, or Netanyahu in Israel. I could not avoid thinking, however, while I was reading the non-reductionist attempt to understand the “ordinary people’s” rejection of the Left, that Bérubé was doing himself after all a relatively easy job: not less important and sometimes more intellectually challenging than the “ordinary people” is what the “non-ordinary” adversary of the Left, the intellectual on the right for example, has to say. Bérubé typically ignores this kind of being. There are thus limits to my agreement or sympathy with what the book expresses, and I shall try in what follows to specify and explain what these are.

Marginal & Central: the View From Israel

The book’s five chapters (plus an “Introduction” and “Conclusion”) deal with two main topics: the internal quarrels of the American Left after 9/11; and the theoretical, or ideological-theoretical, disputes within the field of Cultural Studies, mainly in American academe, but with constant reference to the English school of Cultural Studies, and in particular to the work of Stuart Hall. It is written from an explicitly avowed leftist ideological position, and so it is not exactly an academic book, at least if this last notion is taken in its good old sense—the one which poses an ideal of scientific neutrality in matters of opinion and of the need to parenthesize ideological commitments or presuppositions when one is involved in an attempt to understand reality, whether physical or social. I was thus necessarily reading this book as an outsider: not only am I not very familiar with either one of the two “discursive spaces,” as these things are called in up-to-date language but, moreover, the stakes of the political-ideological, let alone personal, wars in question do not concern me directly. I would even dare say that insofar as the issues discussed by Bérubé belong mainly to internal American debates, it is not only lack of competence which dictates caution on my part here, but also some democratic modesty and prudence: it is not for me to take part in such debates.

I was reading it, to be more exact, as an Israeli citizen and academic, living and working in Jerusalem, and watching with increasing amazement—perhaps bewilderment would describe it more accurately—the intensifying anti-Israeli feeling and the growing anti-Israeli and anti-Zionist literature which characterizes lately the Western, including American, “left.”  In the end, what convinced me that there was a point in putting in writing some of the thoughts that reading The Left at War evoked in me, were the several, mostly incidental, references to Israel that it contains. I shall come to it at the end of the present review; let me say though already that despite the marginal place discussion of Israel occupies in the book, this will be the only topic on which I shall have something more substantive to say. This more or less secondary issue for Bérubé is, alas, very important for me; it also informs—or so I believe—the general moral stature of the book as a whole.

Outside & Inside Bérubé’s Discursive Space: Radical Orthodoxies?

The core of The Left at War, then, is an ideological settling of accounts with two currents of the American left: the “Manichean Left,” criticized mainly for its attitudes toward American politics after 9/11; and the critics of cultural studies. I am not quite sure that I can fully understand the rationale of linking these two issues in one book and under the same title but, as mentioned above, I agree with much of what Bérubé says about his two adversaries. To be fully frank, I took particular pleasure in reading what he has to say about Noam Chomsky. In a recent book of my own, I too discussed Chomsky’s political-moral acumen. I wrote about his involvement in an older affaire (the so-called Faurisson affaire) and, as could be expected, Chomsky’s Israeli partisans did not particularly like what I had to say about it. Some of them expressed their feeling in ways which are more than reminiscent of what Bérubé says about the reactions of Chomsky’s American advocates to the less-than-enthusiast readers of Chomsky’s political-ideological production.[1]

Faurisson, a French ex-professor of literature, is one of the world’s leading Holocaust Deniers. In the early 1980s, Chomsky stood up in defense of Faurisson’s freedom of speech, in (as Chomsky saw it) a Voltarian gesture of civil courage. He even wrote a short text—I warmly recommend reading it—that was added as a preface to Faurisson’s main book. The primary thesis of the book was that a systematic gassing of Jews and others had never taken place during what some of us call the “Holocaust” or “Shoah” and that these latter terms are names not of an unprecedented crime (as Hannah Arendt, for one, thought) but of a huge hoax. Although Bérubé does dig out some older skeletons from Chomsky’s political closet (such as his stance on the Cambodian genocide), he passes over the Faurisson matter in absolute silence.[2] This omission is comprehensible, because it does not concern directly American imperialism or involvement in post-colonial wars, but it is interesting to note here, since the same ideological pattern of which Bérubé speaks is recognizable there too: the burning need to denounce American politics which leads to the defense of the most despicable deeds or people. And just as in the cases Bérubé mentions, so too in this one, Chomsky would explain afterward that it was nothing more than an innocent defense of the universal freedom of expression. Yet as Bérubé implies, one suspects that there was at least a certain measure of bad faith in Chomsky’s claim of innocence. So, it was reassuring to be reminded that I am not the only one, who is not a right-wing conservative, with some reservations about Chomsky’s political perspicacity and intellectual honesty.

The feeling of being an outsider, however, is perhaps not just a result of my intellectual, geographic and institutional distance from the theaters in which Bérubé’s wars take place, or of my very partial acquaintance with the people who participate in them, but also of something else. The book wholly confines itself to the debates it talks about. Not only does it seem to lack the reflexive distance needed in order to make the stakes of the wars he refers to more salient to outsiders like me, but it also seems to be surrounded by some sort of a sanitizing ideological barrier: in order to be able to fully understand the stakes of the positions defended or attacked in this book—or so at least was my feeling when I was reading it—one has to be among the initiated. I had often the impression that the potential reader which the author of this book had in mind when he was writing was mainly a fellow-leftist, sharing with him some fundamental assumptions and ideological commitments. These are not spelled out beyond a very general presentation, and seem to be supposed beyond critical evaluation. There is a credo and its acceptance is the condition of any possible discussion.

One general comment I have is thus the following: the term “left” means quite different things in America and in Israel, for example. It also means very different things in America and in most European countries. But there are a few traits common to some lefts on both continents, mainly to the more ideologically oriented ones (and less in social-democratic discourse for example), traits which in one way or another are what make the left Left. One of them is the tendency to create a sort of inner circle of the initiated, more or less inaccessible to more ordinary mortals, and also immune to their criticism. The languages spoken inside and outside the borders of ideological camp are incommensurable. Not unlike different forms of theologically based religions, the ideological left has its own orthodoxy, or orthodoxies (since like religions in general, divisions and sub-divisions and deep controversies over very minute matters of doctrine are often the name of the game), and as with all orthodoxies since the beginning of time, leftist orthodoxy also does what orthodoxies know how to do best: consolidate itself. A sort of spiral-like movement is created here, turning around an infinite and never-ending quest to reach the “true” or “pure” belief. In order not to let anything disrupt this movement, orthodoxies also tend to build effective lines of defense and draw steep barriers between themselves and ordinary believing or thinking people. For the ideological discourses we tend to identify as “left,” whether in the US, Europe or, for that matter, Israel, turn within more or less clearly drawn frontlines—one either belongs, or he/she does not belong, in which case he/she is a priori in the wrong. One of the more effective ways the Left has of keeping the uninitiated off-limits is via the creation of a jargon. Certain terms tend to lose their more colloquial sense and, without always being fully redefined, serve as trademarks for the initiated.

Although he himself employs some of this jargon (especially of Gramscian origin), Bérubé regards with welcome irony a number of such strategies. Thus, he seems to be unappreciative (rightly so, in my view) of the ways his adversaries on the “Manichean Left” prefer to consider themselves a lonely avant-garde—rather than having any significant following among the “ordinary people,” or even among less ordinary people. As Bérubé nicely says, there is an interesting mechanism of self-deception at work here: once an opinion or a political-ideological position gains some support, it ceases to be a vanguard opinion. Hence the considerable efforts invested by certain forms of the Left to remain always on the margin.

Bérubé &“Post-Zionism”: Family Squabbles?

We in Israel know too this kind of self-serving left: the more marginal it is within the Israeli society, the more certain it is that it really occupies the high moral ground. The irony is that this Israeli left (sometimes referred to as “post-Zionist,” and, incidentally, more narcissistic in fact than “self-hating”) is very much welcome by the Left, Manichean or not, outside of Israel—on American campuses, for example. Thus I suspect that Professor Bérubé, would tend to see these so-called Post-Zionists in a better light than he does the “Manichean Left.”  If he could see them the way I see them though—with an intimate knowledge of the Israeli reality and some indifference as to whether the Left outside Israel considers me one of the courageous minority who dares to question the “hegemonic” political ethos of the State of Israel—he might realize how similar they are, at least on this one point, and in fact on many others, to the vanguard-left in his own country.

Paradoxically, though—and for all its criticism of the “Manichean Left”—Bérubé’s book remains very much immersed in the culture of the Left, and is written in its language. In fact, he does not say otherwise and, on the contrary, explicitly and proudly locates himself within the Left too—not the “Manichean Left,” but what he calls the “democratic left.” Once again on many issues I could agree with him, although sometimes the need to distance himself from the “Right”—from the conduct of Bush’s wars in particular—makes him fall into what seem to me to be oversimplifications and platitudes. He is not against the war on the Taliban and Islamist terrorism, yet he criticizes Paul Berman (to name just one) for being too hawkish on the same matters. Instead of the kind of war the US and its allies have waged in Afghanistan, he seems to suggest a “police operations” approach or something of this kind. All this is very ambiguous. We know this kind of attitude here in Israel too—some people support the fundamental justice of, say, the war in Gaza, but are unwilling to accept the consequences. Some very good friends of mine, who are not “post-Zionists” at all, did not like what Israel was doing in Gaza during that war. Asked to offer an alternative, they usually come out with some such vague propositions of “police” or “commando” operations. But this is not serious. For if one accepts the jus ad bellum justification of operations like the one the US conducts in Afghanistan, or the one Israel fought in 2008-9 in Gaza—given the great difficulty of fighting these kinds of wars—the question of jus in bello becomes a very tricky question indeed.

Belonging/not belonging thus tends to become the crucial matter: What does it mean to be of the Left, that’s the question the book seems very concerned with. For alongside the rather explicit demarcation from those on the “Right” or the “ordinary people,” or, more generally still, all those not belonging to the Left, Bérubé clearly considers himself to be of the same political and ideological family as, say, Chomsky. He criticizes him and derides him deliciously, but he seems to feel closer to him than to some more or less enlightened conservatives or even “liberals” (in the American sense) who would be of his opinion about the wars in Iraq or in Afghanistan, in Kosovo or in Mogadishu. Family squabbles, as everyone knows, are often very bitter. But the family remains a unit.

Indeed, the question of how to belong to the family, or what being of the Left means, becomes so essential that it seems to have become the central issue of Bérubé’s venture as a whole. There is thus in his book a typical reversal of the proper order of questioning: We are asked to consider not so much whether something is right or wrong, good or bad, true or false, but what should the Left—the real left that is—think about this or that matter. Once again, this is a typical orthodox way of thinking: orthodox truth precedes all discourse, and is not given to critical scrutiny. The truthfulness of what one says, or believes, is not measured against the hard facts of reality, but against what is supposed to be, in this case, the beliefs of the Left insofar as it is a left. It becomes all a matter of hermeneutics: what does it mean to be Left? Who is the true interpreter? The question of truth, or the question of what can or should be done, is implicitly, and often explicitly, contingent on the question of “how to be a good leftist.” Hence the most awesome criticism one can address to fellow leftists—they are not enough Left or not really Left; or not leftically correct. In the last analysis, more than a matter of sharing some ideas about various issues, the Left is an artifact of cultural identity. It is what distinguishes those whom one is ready to consider friends from those who are not eligible for this role. This is a cultural identity conceived as an intellectual matter, and as such built on ideas. And since it is very hard to agree on most issues, one pivotal constitutive element of this cultural identity is the attitude towards the State of Israel.  Hostile suspicion of Israel thus serves as a kind of “anchor” (or what Slavoj Zizek might call a “quilting point”) of left identity/identification today.

Israel & the Elephant: Anti-Zionism, Anti-Anti-Zionism & Global Anti-Semitism

An old and famous Jewish quip tells roughly the following story (I found this rather nice version on the Internet): A German goes to Africa, returns after ten years and composes a five-volume tome: “Forward to a general Introduction to the Origins of the African Elephant.” A Frenchman comes back after half a year and writes a slim and elegant volume: “The Love Life of Elephants.” An Englishman returns after a week and produces a booklet: “How to Hunt Elephants.” A Jew stays at home and writes an essay about “The Elephant and the Jewish Question.”

Another citation I would like to give here is from Leo Strauss’s famous introduction to his classic Spinoza’s Critique of Religion. On page 6 of this text one can read this outstanding phrase: “From every point of view it looks as if the Jewish people were the chosen people in the sense, at least, that the Jewish problem is the most manifest symbol of the human problem as a social or political problem.” Bérubé says somewhere in his book that the situation in Israel, or the Israeli-Palestinian, conflict is one of the three major issues the Left confronts. It seems however that its importance is indeed due to its symbolic weight more than to anything else. It also seems that it is mainly Israel (more than the Jewish people as such) that carries today the heavy burden of being the symbol of the human problem as a political problem.  One thing that catches the eye immediately is the importance given to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Other international conflicts in which the US is not involved directly—Rwanda, Darfur or the Congo for example, or Tibet and China in general—are either not mentioned at all or get referred to in a very cursory way. Israel has become a central issue on the public scene, in large parts of the world, far beyond its objective importance, with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict drawing much more attention than it merits. For the Left, I dare say, the symbolic value of the Israeli Problem is even more important than for other sections of Western public opinion. Without entering into the question of the reasons, causes or origins of this, it seems to me safe to say that a “critical” attitude towards Israel has become one of the identifying elements of the Left. It is hard to find many more issues on which the Left agrees in the way it agrees about Israel.

So, one way or another, I am indeed at home and I am writing a short essay. It’s on Bérubé’s book and I want to terminate it with some brief remarks on the place Israel occupies in it. Is it more like the writer of the essay on the “Elephant and the Jewish Question,” or is it more in line with what Strauss said? Is it an example of the famous Israeli paranoia which sees behind every critic of Israel a Nazi or at least an Antisemite, or is there some foundation to the worries I felt while reading Bérubé’s references to Israel. I leave the decision to the reader, but here are my observations.

The question seems to be easily answerable, because Bérubé explicitly opposes anti-Zionism, and does not question Israel’s right to exist. There are about five references to Israel and the Israel-Palestinian conflict in the book, including one long and very critical discussion of “anti-Zionism”(17-25).  Bérubé is then explicitly against calls for the annihilation of Israel as a Jewish state, or even (I am paraphrasing a memorable suggestion of Judith Butler) for the transformation of the grounds of its legitimacy. Given the current anti-Israeli sentiments so endemic in progressive circles, this undoubtedly takes courage – both moral and intellectual. But Bérubé is still part of the family of the Left; his culture is determined by this pedigree; and this is a culture of deep reservation concerning Israel and Zionism.

In the last pages of chapter three of his book (“Iraq: the Hard Road to Debacle”), and before passing on to his second major theme: Cultural Studies and how they relate to the crisis within the left, Bérubé sums up his discussion of the war in Iraq and the left, with some thoughts on the question of the “still-emerging ideal of liberal internationalism” and of the idea of “humanitarian intervention.” The issue here is how to distinguish between a justifiable and unjustifiable (on humanitarian grounds) military intervention or, put differently, the difference between Kosovo and Iraq. Bérubé cites here approvingly from a report published in 2004 by Ken Roth of Human Rights Watch, titled “War in Iraq: Not a Humanitarian Intervention,” in which he says, among other things, that military intervention should be ruled out completely. The genocides in Rwanda and Bosnia are such cases. Bérubé then adds that Roth “decisively slammed the door on any attempt to use the 1988 Anfal (in which 100,000 Kurds were killed) or the suppression of the 1991 Intifada as retroactive grounds for international action” (149).  This is an accurate statement as far as it goes, but also somewhat misleading. Roth says the following in his article:

There were times in the past when the killing was so intense that humanitarian intervention would have been justified—for example, during the 1988 Anfal Genocide, in which the Iraqi government slaughtered more than 100,000 Kurds. Indeed, Human Rights watch, though still in its infancy and not yet working in the Middle East in 1988, did advocate a form of military intervention in 1991after we had begun addressing Iraq. As Iraqi Kurds fleeing Saddam Hussein’s brutal repression of the Post-Gulf war uprising were stranded and dying in harsh winter weather on Turkey’s mountainous border, we advocated the creation of a non-fly zone in northern Iraq…[4]

Even more interesting, there is no mention whatsoever of Israel, Palestine or the Intifada, first or second, in Roth’s report. The idea of bringing together the Anfal massacre and the Intifada seems to be entirely Bérubé’s. It remains unclear though whether Bérubé would take the Intifada, if not as a retroactively valid justification for intervention on behalf of the Palestinians, then a justification for such an intervention in real time. Given what Robert Bernstein, the founder of Human Rights watch has recently said and written about his former organization’s (and other HR organization’s) attitude toward Israel, which he describes as a moral failure, it is not altogether impossible that Roth would have endorsed such an idea.

It is also perhaps worth mentioning that indeed between 60,000 to 100,000 Kurds—men, women and children—died in the Anfal repression campaign. Thousands were killed by gas. The first Intifada begun in 1988 and ended at 1991 (so Bérubé is not altogether cautious with the dates here; the second began in 2000 and lasted until, more or less, 2006). During the first Intifada approximately 450 Palestinians died in each of the four years or so it lasted (and 25 Israelis). According to Be’Tselem, an Israeli Human Rights organization, a total of 1,593 Palestinians and 84 Israelis lost their lives. One can get a somewhat better perspective on the soundness of comparing Anfal and Intifada from a quick look at the journalist Ben Dror Yemini’s article “A Homemade Genocide” in his blog (accessible through the website of the Israeli journal Maariv, Just one or two examples from a very long and appalling list of statistics: during the more than a hundred years of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict approximately 60,000 Arabs (Palestinians and others) have died. Some 23,000 to 24,000 Israelis were killed during this time by Arab military or paramilitary actions. In less than 60 years of civil wars in Sudan, there are between one million and one million and a half dead. The civil war in Lebanon cost the lives of some 130,000 people. In the Srebrenica massacre alone died more people than in both Palestinians Intifadas.

In a recent encounter of a small Arab-Jewish group of academics, one of the many discussion groups that bring together Jews and Arabs in Israel, to discuss diverse aspects of the difficult coexistence of Arabs and Jews in one (Jewish) state, one of the participants—an Arab, incidentally—admitted that despite appearances, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been much less bloody than most other similar conflicts. Another participant—a Jew this time—suggested that the reason might be that, unlike other conflicts, in this particular one, the winning side is also the less brutal. There was no general disagreement to this remark.

So how come Bérubé—no enemy of Israel—can bring together in one breath Saddam’s gassing of the Kurds and Israeli suppression of the Intifada? On a couple of other occasions he speaks, again without blinking, of Israeli atrocities or allegedly unacceptable conduct of Israel in its struggle against the Palestinians or Hezbollah. Paradoxically though, more disturbing still is Bérubé’s attack on the “Manichean Left’s” attitude to Israel, in what amounts to a real defense of some crucial issues concerning Israel—its right to exist and its right of self-defense. He begins with a long quote from a 2006 article by Moishe Postone, criticizing the responses of the “Manichean Left” to 9/11. Seeing the attack on the U.S. as an “immediate reaction to American policies and Israeli policies,” thinks Postone, is too narrow.

Bérubé approves, and adds that Postone is “right to take up the question of anti-Semitism and to distinguish it from legitimate criticism of Israel” (16): Despite the degree (this is Postone again) “to which the charge of anti-Semitism has been used as an ideology of legitimation by Israeli regimes in order to discredit all serious criticism of Israeli policies.”  So anti-Semitism is a real issue, especially in the Arab/Muslim world, and it should be addressed despite the dangers of addressing it, namely that “it can … further Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza” (17).  However, Postone’s article was published in 2006, and Berube’s book in 2009. In the summer of 2005 Israel withdrew its army from Gaza, evacuated some 8000 civilians and dismantled all the settlements there. If after this one still speaks of “occupation,” then one wonders what should be done in the West Bank that would be considered an end to occupation?

There are other things that could be said about anti-Zionism, anti-Semitism and the “legitimate” criticism of Israel, but this is becoming too long and tedious. So I shall finish with two brief remarks: on pages 23-6, Bérubé recounts an exchange he had with “one Professor Michael McIntyre,” who disliked his very relative indulgence toward Israel during the 2006 Lebanon war. Israel, thinks Bérubé “has the right to respond to armed attacks.” Within reason, of course. But in a blog he condemned Israel’s bombing of Lebanon. It was, he wrote, “disproportionate and profoundly counterproductive” and then that it was “morally illegitimate.” McIntyre still thought that this was “like labeling the Nazi response to the Reichstag fire ‘German’s [sic] disproportionate and profoundly counterproductive response.'”  Bérubé goes on to give some of the exchange between him and McIntyre, and I shall not bother the reader with it. I have no business with McIntyre and his ilk, what bothers me is Bérubé.

As he says, ironically to be sure, what he learned from this incident was that his condemnation of Israel was not nearly enough for some of the “Manichean Left.” Now just imagine what would have happened to him if he had shown more courage (and more intellectual perspicacity) and actually defended Israel! For, first of all, it is not so clear that the operation in Lebanon was so counterproductive. Although it was disastrously conducted, the fact is the northern border of Israel has been (almost) totally quiet since this war. This is a very long period of calm in Israeli terms. Since I spent an  amazingly calm, happy and eventless (but for one shooting on the main street) year as a visiting professor at Penn State, I know how difficult it is to understand there – where Bérube works — the reality in Israel: five or six years of calm on the northern border in Israel is quite an achievement.

But was Israel’s bombing disproportionate? The Hezbollah fired thousands of rockets on the northern half of Israel. Given the real capacity of Israel to harm and destroy, Lebanon got out of this war fairly cheap. But the real question here is—how to measure proportionality? When does a legitimate riposte become “disproportionate”? What are the criteria? The notion of “proportionality” is a principle of international law. It has become one of the more effective arms of the “law-fare” recently conducted against Israel and indeed a kind of catchword in all kinds of denunciations of it. The recent experience shows that no matter what Israel does, it is always “disproportionate.” And I challenge Michael Bérubé, or any of his friends, to show me one example where a military operation of Israel was justified (in his view). It is always easy to use abstract principles, such as this legal principle, to serve agendas such as the agenda of the Left with regard to Israel; especially if one does not have to say how the “right to response” can be applied—within reason, of course.

The real question, however, is not one of “response,” but of defense. Not even an abstract right of “self-defense,” but the very concrete question of defending the lives of Israeli citizens. These were the stakes of the Lebanon war and these are the stakes in Israel’s struggle against Hezbollah, Hamas, a few other Palestinian organizations, not to speak of Iran. This is not, alas, an abstract question here.

In the last analysis it is not Israel’s war against Hezbollah that was “morally illegitimate,” but the use by Bérubé of these very words to qualify it. For the stakes of the current debates about Israel are its right to exist or its legitimacy as a Jewish state. Contesting this legitimacy is done on more than one front and more than one way. What is questioned is not only whether the fundamental claim of the Jews to have a state of their own on the land many of them think was the land of their ancestors is morally, politically and historically sound, but also the moral quality of the State of Israel as a concretely existent political entity. “Is it a rogue state?” was the subject lately at the debating club of Oxford (or was it Cambridge—I am not sure). What would be Bérubé’s answer to this question? I know not. But the fact that I am not sure that it would be in the negative, is enough to make his book if not altogether part of the delegitimizing campaign, at least an insufficiently courageous, lucid and—most importantly—effective response to it.

What explains in the last analysis this lack of moral courage and intellectual lucidity–what is also the most disturbing thing–can be seen best in what looks the most like a defense of Israel as a Jewish State, or at least the most straightforward rejection of anti-Zionism in the book. As he often does, Bérubé cites here at length one of his favorite writers – in this case Ellen Willis – in what seems to be full agreement (17-18). Willis’s article cited is entitled, “Is there Still a Jewish Question? Why I’m an Anti-Anti-Zionist?” Willis, says Bérubé, “does not shy from the question of anti-Semitism in her discussion of the ‘root causes’ of 9/11”; although, as he adds immediately – in her “criticism of Global anti-Semitism [she] did not mute her criticism of Israeli policy in the Occupied Territories.” It is in fact amazing that addressing the question of “global anti-Semitism” is not what every honest human being should find the most natural thing in the world; and it is amazing that this question cannot be addressed without immediately and apparently unavoidably adding the excuse of “not muting the criticism of Israel.” It is also interesting to note that the best way Willis found to describe her position, is to define it as “anti-anti-Zionism.”

The end of his quotation of her is most revealing, and perhaps also the most perplexing: “I reject the idea that Israel is a colonial state that should not exist. I reject the villainization of Israel as the sole or main source of the mess in the Middle East. And I contend that Israel needs to maintain its ‘right of return’ for Jews arounds the world.” The problem is that Israel is not about “right of return”; the problem is that Israel is about Jewish sovereignty.


[1]Yakira, Elhanan.  Post-Zionism, Post-Holocaust: Three Essays on Denial, Forgetting, and the Delegitimation of Israel.  Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2010.

[2]Berube, Michael. The Left At War. New York: New York University Press, 2009. 258-9, n. 3. Subsequent citations in text.

[3]Strauss, Leo. Spinoza’s Critique of Religion. New York: Schocken Books, 1965.

[4]I found this text on  Accessed December 10, 2010.

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