Friday, January 16, 2009

The Jew as Pariah

First, the good news. If the Bush administration really started with the horrific plane crashes of 9/11 in Lower Manhattan, it is ending with the miraculous story of a huge commercial airliner landing safely in the Hudson River. Perhaps, just perhaps, God will once again shed his or her grace on America, from sea to shining sea.

However, that’s it for the good news. God’s grace is unfortunately a zero-sum commodity, and the more the US gets, the less than is available for spots in the world that really need it, like Israel and Palestine. In recent days I have been reading the invaluable collection of Hannah Arendt’s Jewish Writings, recently reissued in paperback. Hannah Arendt has an article, which became a section of her classic Origins of Totalitarianism on “The Jew as Pariah,” on the Jews as the perpetual and stigmatized outsider in Christian Europe, and how Jewish
emancipation in the early 19th century , the presumed solution to the problem of Jewish pariah-hood, only made the problem worse. Now that Jews were no longer identifiable by their looks or language, this only fostered conspiracy theories of hidden Jews secretly infiltrating and manipulating gentile society. Jews were not wanted as outsiders, and they were not wanted as insiders. They were not wanted at all. The only future for the Jews was to go somewhere else, where they wouldn’t have to try to adjust to the whims of the majority, only to discover that the game was fixed, the rules were always changing, and they could never satisfy the demands of the referees. Zionism was born.

But Hannah Arendt was also a notably caustic observer of Zionism, and by the 1950s, and certainly by the time of Eichmann in Jerusalem, she had great doubts about the future of the Zionist experiment. In Israel’s effort to be “just like the other nations” it was creating a situation in which Israel would once again be singled out and isolated. Israel, and by extension those for whom Israel claims the moral authority to speak for (namely, all Jews everywhere) is creating a new pariahness.

I was reminded of this reading the latest issue of the Nation, where Naomi Klein has a column advocating a BDS strategy “Israel: Boycott, Divest, Sanction” (BDS) such as played an important role in toppling apartheid in South Africa. She argues that Israel is sufficiently apartheid-like, a reality only adumbrated by the war in Gaza, to warrant the full South Africa treatment of ostracization, anathemazation, and isolation. What can one say? All analogies are imperfect, and I won’t try to defend Israel, and the similarities are striking, especially that a settler colony divided into one side that has the power and the army, and the other side that possesses only the fury of the powerless and dispossesed.
I can understand the rationale behind a proposed boycott, but count me as strongly opposed. First, it will not work, and will lead to all sorts of loyalty tests where one be required to denounce Israel and all of its works, will inevitably be applied not just to Israel, or Israelis, but all Jews, and that includes you Naomi Klein. Righteous anti-Israeli attitudes will be increasingly difficult to separate from old-fashioned (or new-fashioned) anti-Semitism. And one can also speak of double standards—if there is one country, on the basis of its criminal behavior in recent years, and its reckless indifference to human life, richly deserves boycotts, divestiture, and sanctions, it is the United States, followed close on by Russia and China.
But I think something needs to be done—cutting off all US military aid to Israel unless there is real progress towards a genuine peace seems like a necessary first step—and if Israel continues on policies that led to Gaza (and there is no reason to think that they won’t.) And the calls for some sort of BDS strategy will only grow more insistent and irresistible. Israel for decades has complained the rest of the world is biased against it, that the opinion of other nations is irrelevant, etc. If you look like a pariah, and you quack like a pariah, you’re a pariah.
Perhaps the ultimate irony of the past century of Jewish history is that the post-war years will be seen as a trough of Jewish pariahhood in between two crests. Arendt would have appreciated history’s cruel irony. A century after the birth of Zionism, with unimaginable changes to the nature and demography of the Jewish people, the same question has returned with ever-more insistent force; “are the Jews condemned to be a pariah people, an outcast nation, forever hated, feared, and shunned?”

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