Sunday, January 10, 2010

Tony Judt and the Velvet Genocide

In the New York Review of Books in 2003, Tony Judt published his view that the Jewish state should be deleted. This was the predicate of his proposal to reanimate the corpse of the one-state solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict*. Cloaked with academic authority and writing during the overlap of the second Intifada with Bush's invasion of Iraq, Judt argued that Israel was a harmful anachronism. He was not the first to express an abolitionist anti-Zionism, but his prestige and timing led him to become the celebrity spokesman for the internationalist case against Israel.

This is a blog about ideas, and as such it treats them as living things that generate results. To reverse what he considered the moral decay of man during the Enlightenment, Rousseau recommended in his Discourse on the Arts and Sciences that primitivism and an inchoate Luddism replace intellectual and technical** progress. This too was unoriginal, but it made Rousseau's fame. After being refined by two hundred years of illiberal thought, Rousseau's atavism was bolted like a gun turret to a totalitarian reading of his concept of democracy, and we entered upon the abattoir of Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge.

But it is also important to resist the temptation to think of ideology as independent of practical influences. Consider the cluster of doctrines gathered under the construct of "socialism". Some early socialist thinkers had attitudes to race that would seem disqualifying today. These ranged from the conflation of Jews, Judaism and capital, most famously articulated by Marx and termed the "socialism of fools" by August Bebel, to racist determinism. Socialists like H.G. Wells, Jack London and Sidney and Beatrice Webb anticipated or prescribed eugenics and race war. Those strains of socialism that predominated by the time of the Second World War only then officially assumed an identity that featured anti-racism. This change was partly actuated by the showdown between Hitler and Stalin. The Fuhrer himself made pretenses of being "socialist", and in private once confessed Nazism's debt to Marx.*** Marxism-Leninism needed to sharply distinguish itself from its main anti-liberal competitor.

The logic of Judt's Israel: The Alternative looms as the leftish auxiliary to the Islamist enterprise to destroy Israel. As with the Khmer Rouge and Rousseau's primitivism, the one-state proposal has a precursor: Judt creepily recapitulates a facet of Marx and Engels' thought, which Engels articulated in an 1849 essay called "The Magyar Struggle". This was the quasi-Darwinian idea that certain European ethnic groups had been orphaned by the historical-evolutionary process and would have to be exterminated to permit the onset of socialism.

There is no country in Europe which does not have in some corner or other one or several ruined fragments of peoples, the remnant of a former population that was suppressed and held in bondage by the nation which later became the main vehicle of historical development. These relics of a nation mercilessly trampled under foot in the course of history, as Hegel says, these residual fragments of peoples always become fanatical standard-bearers of counter-revolution and remain so until their complete extirpation or loss of their national character, just as their whole existence in general is itself a protest against a great historical revolution.

This view was part of a larger meditation on the short-term political failure of the revolutionary violence that had begun the previous year in France and resonated throughout Europe. Arrayed in opposition to the "historical" and "revolutionary" Germans, Poles and Magyars were "petty hidebound nations" of Slavs, such as Czechs, Slovaks, Croats and Serbs. These, in an absurd attempt to restore their national historicity, "put themselves at the disposal of Austrian reaction," i.e. the Habsburg Austrian Empire. Engels blamed these Slavs seeking self-determination for the eclipse of internationalism by nationalism and ensuring the failure of the Revolutions of 1848.

Judt begins by referencing these same national movements. Then he recasts this analysis as an internationalist lament about Israel's twilight attachment to its Jewish character.
The problem with Israel, in short, is not—as is sometimes suggested—that it is a European "enclave" in the Arab world; but rather that it arrived too late. It has imported a characteristically late-nineteenth-century separatist project into a world that has moved on, a world of individual rights, open frontiers, and international law. The very idea of a "Jewish state"—a state in which Jews and the Jewish religion have exclusive privileges from which non-Jewish citizens are forever excluded—is rooted in another time and place. Israel, in short, is an anachronism.

If you consider Israel's geography, this is a breathtaking passage. The Jewish state is situated in a region where the timbre of nationalism isn't exactly Scandinavian. Nonetheless Judt argues there is now a status quo of 'post-racial' states, if you will, whose peace is imperiled by the "hidebound [nation]" of -- curiously, only -- Israel. He cites Israel's nuclear weapons as the primary impediment to nonproliferation; he says Israel was a major reason for the US invasion of Iraq, with Syria on deck.

In an attenuated way, Judt reasserts the struggle of international and national socialism. Certainly he doesn't mirror Engels in advocating Israel's violent destruction, but this is rich ore from which to extract an imprimatur for the velvet genocide of Middle East Jewry. "What is to be done" is to undo the impediment to progress set up in 1948, even though the 1940s saw the success of other national separations in India, Pakistan, Burma and Laos.
But what if there were no place in the world today for a "Jewish state"? What if the binational solution were not just increasingly likely, but actually a desirable outcome? It is not such a very odd thought. Most of the readers of this essay live in pluralist states which have long since become multiethnic and multicultural.

As Leon Wieseltier observed, "Judt and his editors have crossed the line from the criticism of Israel's policy to the criticism of Israel's existence." It takes naivete reminiscent of the Iranian communists who aided the Islamic Revolution, and found themselves among its first victims, to expect peace and safety for a Jewish minority in a binational Palestine.

I won't pretend to predict the fortunes of nationalism, but it would seem that if anyone's ideas about the Arab-Israeli conflict are an anachronism, they are Judt's.

Epilogue: This post was inspired by Andrew Sullivan mentioning that Tony Judt is suffering from Lou Gehrig's disease. That's awful. Judt's initial account of his cruel infirmity is moving.

I feel like a shitheel for writing this now, but the truth is I'd been wanting to compose and publish this analysis since 2004, when I first filtered Judt's essay through the lens of George Watson's The Lost Literature of Socialism, to which I am indebted here, especially Chapters 7 and 8.

* In the most generous assessment, the one-state notion is properly identified as an ideal, not a solution.

** In Rousseau's time, the term "arts" roughly meant "manufacturing".

*** Otto Wagener, Hitler: Memoirs of a Confidant, pg. 167, cited in Watson, op. cit., pg. 72.

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