When I was growing up, my mother would often extol the virtues of the “tough Jew.” The tough Jew, unlike the garden variety, does not take things lying down. He isn’t a Woody Allen-type, anxiously cracking jokes in the office of his psychoanalyst, who’s been trying in vain for fifteen years to shrink his patient’s supersized superego. Nor does she let a bunch of jackbooted Germans put her on a train bound east without bloodying a few Aryan noses. The thing about tough Jews is that when they have problems, they don’t kvetch; they shoot people. And the toughest Jews of all, of course, are the Israelis.
I don’t want to write about Israel. Losing my voice from arguing late into the night is a semi-regular occurrence for me. I’m far too eager to inflict my opinions on anyone who’s willing to listen, and sometimes those who aren’t. In short, I possess all the requisite self-absorption and over-intellectualism necessary for an opinions columnist in a low-circulation college newspaper. But every discussion I have about the Jewish state leaves me with a strong desire to make a head-shaped dent in the wall. No matter what position I take, no matter what position my interlocutor takes, I leave the conversation feeling angry, irritated, and, above all, guilty. The origin of the guilt varies: I might feel like a self-hating Uncle Moishy, an apologist for imperialist occupation, or, perhaps worst of all, a blowhard perpetuating a loathsome and interminable conversation. Ethno-religious conflict, beyond being byzantine and bloody, has always struck me as fundamentally petty. To be related to such a conflict, however tangentially, is to be part of a very high-stakes schoolyard tussle. It’s just embarrassing.
Yet, at the risk of embarrassment, I’m going to write about Israel anyway, because the Zionist movement offers a lesson on a subject I’ve been tossing around in my head a lot over the last several months: how liberatory projects can go wrong. Zionism, despite the settler-colonialist rap it’s received from BDS activists, can’t be separated from its emancipatory content. The whole point of the Zionist project was to give self-determination to a scattered diaspora, that, throughout its history, had been ghettoized, pogromed, and massacred by many of its host populations. The Ashkenazim of Eastern Europe did not make the First Aliyah to Palestine out of some laughable abundance of sentimentality; they left the Pale of Settlement because the conditions of Jewish existence there had become increasingly intolerable. That’s why other Jews often idolize the supposed toughness of their Israeli counterparts. The appeal of that toughness isn’t about macho posturing; it’s about a willingness to seize control of one’s own destiny. The independence afforded by the 1948 declaration is nearly unprecedented in Jewish history; for the first time in nearly two thousand years, a Jewish community would be the primary shaper of its own future.
And yet the Zionist project, for all its emancipatory sheen, has been engaged in ethnic oppression throughout its existence. From its earliest days, Israel displaced and murdered Palestinian Arabs. Today, the crimes of the Israeli government are legion: the continued occupation of the West Bank, the expansion of illegal settlements, and the demolition of Arab homes, just to name a few. For Bibi Netanyahu and his conservative allies in the Knesset (Israel’s parliament), the point of Zionism isn’t Jewish national liberation; it’s Jewish national domination.
This way of thinking is, I fear, more a feature than a bug of certain kinds of identity politics. The line between national liberation and ethnic chauvinism is incredibly thin. A movement that seeks to emancipate one people can easily oppress another when it comes time to govern. In any struggle, it is not enough for a movement to articulate the grievances of its own members alone. If it takes the prospect of victory seriously, it must articulate a sense of justice that applies to all people, for all time.