Review: Political War Over Palestine

Against the Current, No. 131, November/December 2007

David Finkel

Overcoming Zionism
Creating a Single Democratic State
in Israel/Palestine
By Joel Kovel
London (UK) and Ann Arbor: Pluto Press, 2007.
Distributed by University of Michigan Press,
281 pages + bibliography and index, $19.95 paper.

Between the Lines
Readings on Israel, the Palestinians,
and the U.S. “War on Terror”
Edited by Tikva Honig-Parnass and Toufic Haddad
Chicago: Haymarket Books,
387 pages + index. $17 paper.

IT HAS BECOME impossible to review titles like these, or discuss the issues they raise, without reference to the rise of an exceptionally vicious campaign against critical activist voices and academic scholarship on Palestine and Israel.

These attacks, of course, are part of a much larger post-9/11 pattern extending way beyond the academy, deep into our society — a pattern that also includes the U.S. government’s massive assault on basic democratic rights, blatantly political prosecutions of Muslim charities, denial of visas to Islamic scholars invited by American universities, and the outrageous railroading, imprisonment and torture of Professor Sami al-Arian.

What’s happening on campuses is an extension of this general racist campaign. The assault on pro-Palestinian scholarship has been conducted under the name of outfits like Campus Watch, launched by Daniel Pipes, and related front groups like “Stand With Us.”

Here I’ll mention only a few notorious cases that have arisen in academia within the past year. The best-publicized of these was DePaul University’s denial of tenure to Professor Normal Finkelstein, despite faculty colleagues’ support and acclaim from students for his teaching.

The decision against Finkelstein by the university administration followed a crude outside intervention by Alan Dershowitz, the Harvard professor of law whose shallow and dishonest writings on the Middle East conflict were skewered by Finkelstein in his 2005 book Beyond Chutzpah (published by the University of California Press, after Dershowitz attempted to scare it from doing so).

Professor Mehrene Larudee, who was scheduled to be tenured and to become chair of De Paul’s international studies program, was also peremptorily denied tenure, unquestionably because she spoke out in support of Finkelstein.

A Palestinian-American anthropology professor at Barnard College, Nadia Abu El-Haj, is under concerted attack for her book Facts on the Ground. Archaeological Practice and Territorial Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society (University of Chicago Press, 2001), which actually received the prestigious Hourani prize for the year it was published. In what may be the first case of its kind, a whole website has been dedicated to “Deny Nadia Abu El- Haj Tenure.”

This website features a variety of academic critiques of her thesis that Israeli-Zionist archaeology is both a product and a perpetrator of a largely mythical construct of ancient Israel, and crude smears on her intellectual integrity. While the substantive debate on archaeological method and findings is of interest, sometimes genuinely fascinating, the campaign to destroy her career can only be taken to corroborate professor Abu El-Haj’s contention that in this field at least, depressing as it may be, scientific research is inseparable from nationalist and ideological agendas.

Abu El-Haj’s colleague at Columbia, Professor Joseph Massad, also faces a very difficult struggle following a smear campaign against him two years ago.

In the most shocking recent incident, the president of the University of St. Thomas rescinded an invitation to South African Bishop Desmond Tutu to speak at an April, 2008 peace and justice conference at this Catholic university in Minnesota, after the extreme rightwing Zionist Organization of America objected to his sharp criticism of the apartheid qualities of Israeli practice in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

A quick and sharp response from several quarters, including a mass email campaign organized rapidly by Jewish Voice for Peace, brought about a reversal of this decision. At this writing, while Bishop Tutu’s invitation has been restored, Professor Chris Toffolo has not been reinstated to her position as director of the peace and justice program from which she was summarily dismissed because of the controversy. (For updates, see the JVP website

Storm Over Overcoming Zionism

This past August, the Middle East war in academia unexpectedly swept up one of the titles under review here. When author Joel Kovel queried the director of the University of Michigan Press, the U.S. distributor for Pluto Press titles, why his book Overcoming Zionism had gone missing from the UMP website, he received an email reply that reads in part:

“Because it is a distributed title for Pluto Press, no one at UMP had read Overcoming Zionism prior to the Stand/With/Us diatribe [attacking Kovel’s book along with other Palestine-related titles published by Pluto — ed.] I and others read it after that assault…(We) were appalled by your reckless, vicious and unmodulated attack on Zionism and all Zionists. For us, the issue raised by the book is not free speech but hate speech. Perhaps such vituperative and aggressive rhetoric works for the barricades, but it cannot be countenanced or underwritten by the university or the university press, even in this peripheral, distributed capacity…

“(A)s a result of your book, the university is in process of reassessing our relationship as a whole to Pluto (during which review) we have ceased shipping Overcoming Zionism.”

A considerable outcry from concerned intellectuals prevailed upon UMP to resume distribution of the book. As we go to press, UMP has announced that its commercial distribution relationship with will continue.

Upon seeing the above correspondence, this reviewer sent an email inquiry to the UMP director — not altogether diplomatically worded, I will admit — requesting that he supply any examples of “hate speech” in Kovel’s book, not to be confused with strong statements of opinion. Not too surprisingly, no reply has been received.

Now, although the definition of “hate speech” is somewhat slippery, Kovel indeed has passages which at least come pretty close. Consider this, from page 187:

“There is a deep problem in Islam. It’s a world whose values are different. A world in which human life doesn’t have the same value as it does in the West, in which freedom, democracy, openness and creativity are alien …The phenomenon of the mass Muslim penetration into the West and their settlement there is creating a dangerous  internal threat. A similar process took place in Rome. They let the barbarians in and they toppled the empire from within.”

There’s more where that comes from, but these words, a virtual comic-book parody of Orientalist stereotyping regardless of whether they cross the hate-speech line, are not Joel Kovel’s.  Rather, it’s obvious that he’s quoting here from the American racist Patrick Buchanan…Just kidding! In fact, this noxious statement comes from the Israeli Zionist liberal historian Benny Morris, in his interview that Kovel cites with the leading Israeli paper, explaining his views that “Palestinian society…is a very sick society. It should be treated the way we treat individuals who are serial killers,” and that David Ben-Gurion’s mistake in 1948 was failing to complete the expulsion of the Arabs that he had begun. (“Survival of the Fittest,” interview by Avi Shavit, Haaretz, January 9, 2004)

Kovel is not seeking to stir up hatred here. He’s nailing down an important point, which he’s by no means the first to make but bears constant repetition: Deeply embedded in the logic of “the Jewish state” or (even worse, I’d say) “the state of the Jewish people” in Palestine is the permanent tendency toward ethnic cleansing and the justifying of whatever other means are required to sustain the precious “Jewish and democratic character of the state,” in other words, the institutions of guaranteed Jewish supremacy. Even if one were to concede that this may not have been its only meaning at one moment in history, when hundreds of thousands of survivors of Nazi extermination were seeking refuge after World War II, it’s certainly the ugly defining reality of a “Jewish state” in permanence.

Kovel is explicit here: Unlike Jimmy Carter’s book Palestine Peace Not Apartheid, he’s not just speaking here of the atrocities visited upon the post-1967 Occupied Palestinian Territories, but the very structure of Israel itself — indeed he views them as a totality. Such views are frequently voiced in Israeli newspapers, but not tolerated for American audiences — undoubtedly part of the reason for the viciousness with which the campus arm of the Zionist thought-police targeted Kovel.

This doesn’t mean that expulsion, war or other forms of open barbarism happen all the time. It means that the dangers of their occurrence are always lurking; and that the quiet “normal” daily practices of discrimination, housing segregation, blatant inequalities of resource allocation, unequal education and environmental injustice inside Israel constantly override principles of democracy and citizenship which exist on paper.

Nothing could better demonstrate this than the words, not of a known “extremist” like Avigdor Lieberman, the Russian-Israeli leader of the fascist “Israel Beitenu” party, but of a certified liberal like Benny Morris — formerly hated by the Israeli right wing for his meticulous historical scholarship on the Palestinian expulsions of 1948.

Morris now embraces the expulsions in the name of historic necessity and the higher needs of statehood, with a frankness that both Ben-Gurion and for that matter Joseph Stalin might have admired. (In fact, Norman Finkelstein might have put it best when he noted in Beyond Chutzpah that Morris’s statements seem so shocking today because they are so old-fashioned 19th century in their colonial-supremacist mentality.)

Left-Humanist Critique

Joel Kovel’s book is clearly aimed at a primarily American, and mainly a Jewish, rather than an Israeli or Palestinian, audience, and its strengths and limitations need to be viewed in that context. (Full disclosure: Kovel is also a comrade and friend of this reviewer.)

Kovel makes no pretense of being a specialist in the history, politics or sociology of Israel, Palestine or the Middle East. So while useful historical and political ground is covered, that’s not this work’s specific contribution.

Overcoming Zionism is, first, a trenchant work of what I would call leftwing-humanist moral philosophy. That is to say, it views the history of the Zionist movement and the theory and practice of the Israeli state against the basic principles of human rights and citizenship norms deriving from the Enlightenment — criteria he sets forth beginning on page 198, starting with “(t)he most basic principle is respect for the inherent dignity of each and every person” — and finds Zionism and Israel failing on all counts.

Hence, he concludes (echoing Marx’s famous final Thesis on Feuerbach), “(t)he point, however, is to change it, which is to say, to dissolve the Jewishness of the state. For this, one does not smash or trample Zionism; one overcomes it, and frees people from their chains.” (208) I don’t see how any honest reader could ascribe any hint of “hate speech” to this.

I would also draw attention to the section on Zionism and environmental destruction (110-122), which would be worthy of a full chapter in my opinion as Kovel has an outstanding record of scholarship on the dynamics of capital accumulation and ecological devastation (a revised and expanded edition of his earlier work The Enemy of Nature is published by Zed Books).

On this level, Kovel’s argument is cogent. Such a left-humanist anti-Zionist critique, I would argue, is one important component of a revolutionary-democratic Marxist approach to this struggle, and here is where the book is strongest. It certainly carries its point that there is no positive value, and nothing for Jews or anyone else to be proud about, in perpetuating a “Jewish state.”

Even among American progressive forces, “(a)cceptance of the ‘special’ nature of Israel, often manifest in an appeal to just how horribly Jews have suffered, goes hand in hand with devaluation of Israel’s victims and minimization of its crimes.” (149)

Missing Dimensions

On a second level, however, Kovel is much less successful in presenting his political perspective calling for “Creating a Single Democratic State in Israel/Palestine” (the book’s subtitle) which he suggests might be called “Palesreal.” Politics is of course the other crucial component of a Marxist approach — but here I feel Kovel’s discussion is deficient both theoretically and in practical conclusions.

Any proposed “solution” to such a crisis has to be more than just philosophically desireable, or perhaps achievable in some far-distant future. One has to show how it can arise from material realities — first of all, from the existing real-life resistance struggles against oppression — and also address the national aspirations of the oppressed and occupied Palestinian nation, as well as the concerns and fears of the people of the Israeli-Jewish nation in Palestine and the severe contradictions of Israeli society (not to be confused with the paranoid politics rampant among Jews and others in America).

In this context, the book is severely lacking any discussion of “the national question.” The concept of national self-determination is absent, either in regard to the oppressed nation (the Palestinians) or the reality of the existence of a Hebrew-speaking Israeli Jewish nation — an oppressor nation to be sure, but whose existence is undeniable.

A whole series of other problems, I believe, flow from this absence. The “racist state” of Israel is virtually conflated with Israeli society, whose real cultures, contradictions and struggles are barely discussed. Any serious potential for struggle arising from within Israeli society is therefore barely mentioned beyond fragments of wishful thinking.

The unfortunate abstraction from real conditions and struggles is deepened, in my view with baneful results, when Kovel postulates that “(s)tates may be relatively or absolutely illegitimate” (203); that “(a) racist state is absolutely illegitimate” (204); that “Israel, as a Jewish state, is a racist state” (205); and hence “Israel does not have the right to exist.” (207)

These categories push the whole discussion off the rails. From a Marxist point of view, I honestly don’t know what is a “legitimate” or “illegitimate” state, let alone “relatively or absolutely.” What supranational or divine court is supposed to hand down these rulings?

I have some idea of what is a legitimate or illegitimate government or regime, even if that can be a slippery and contested issue; but applying such criteria to a state seems perfectly hopeless.

States are either recognized or not recognized within an existing international state system, with all that system’s injustices and brutalities — and Israel clearly is so recognized. The question is who can change it, i.e. what internal forces can struggle to “dissolve the Jewishness of the state” as Kovel rightly puts it, and how international solidarity can ally with them.

This is why the all-too-common slide from “Israel, as a Jewish state, is a racist state” to “Israel does not have the right to exist” is severely mistaken, on at least two grounds. First, there can be no other theoretical grounding for “the right of a state to exist” than the desire of its people for it to exist. This includes, obviously, the right of the Palestinian people to have their own state (whether or not it advances any other pan- Arab, socialist, humanistic or other agenda).

In the case of Israel, this has nothing to do with any special Jewish claims to statehood in Palestine or anywhere else, but only with Israel’s citizens’ desire for their state to exist. Its “right to exist” within the international state system (until that whole system can be transcended) requires no other justification or dispensation, and is entitled to none.

Second and much worse, Kovel’s logical leap between these proposition implicitly accepts the Zionist presumption that Israel’s existence must be, and cannot be anything other than, “as a Jewish state.” Kovel, and it must be admitted many on the pro-Palestinian left who think the same way, begin by challenging the character of “Israel as a Jewish state” but wind up swallowing its self-definition as such. This leaves essentially no hope of changing it except by way of some outside intervention — yet without any existing or hypothetical force capable or even desirous of doing so.

Kovel’s discussion almost completely overlooks the struggle of Israel’s Arab-Palestinian minority for the country to be “a state of its citizens,” not the Jewish state — a struggle for which the most outstanding Arab-Israeli political leader Azmi Bishara has been exiled (more on this below). In Kovel’s schema, democratic struggle inside the Israeli state is entirely absorbed by postulating “a single democratic state in Israel/ Palestine.”

But the issue is not whether a “one-state solution” for Israelis and Palestinians — and let’s add, within a Middle East democratic-socialist federation — is desirable. It’s not even whether it’s “utopian” — there is after all a place for utopian thinking when it’s rooted in material possibilities. The burning political question is whether any progress toward this or any decent solution is possible abstracted from real-life nationalism and national self-determination, and here Kovel offers no answers.

There are other points of interest in this provocative work. The author’s introductory account of his own Jewish heritage and struggle against the negative legacies of “Jewish tribalism” is insightful. Reminding us of Psalm 137, with its tangled combination of exiled longing and revenge lust (13), is instructive and cautionary for all of us — not only Jews.

I believe, however, that Kovel’s “separatist” reading of the history of the proto-Jewish people of ancient Israel is somewhat simplified. It’s true that modern scholarship proposes, as Kovel puts it, that ancient Israel arose from “a grouping of hill tribes” (18) that apparently seceded from urban Canaanite society in the second millennium BCE (in other words, not from wanderers from Ur headed by the mythical Abraham).

Kovel, however, accepts the priestly, rabbinic and ultimately Zionist view that this people’s “identity was based upon refusing to be like the others. It called itself Israelite, and the notion of separateness remained, to appear throughout the Pentateuch, the five books of its chronicle, which collectively became the Torah, Judaism’s precious affirmation of its history and being.” (19)

The historical record, and for that matter the Biblical text if read closely, don’t quite bear this out. Indeed, the ancient Israelite tribes seem to have happily shared gods and goddesses as well as wives, husbands and cultural practices with their neighbors — all of which were reviled by priestly factions that ultimately wrote the Hebrew Bible centuries later, and would put the sacred text in final form after returning from the Babylonian exile (5th century BCE). The account of an ancient Yahweh-loyal “apartness” promulgated by a theocratic priesthood that ultimately emerged victorious (under the protection of the Persian empire, no less) should be read as ideology, not history.

All this belongs to a separate discussion, but I would suggest that the “Jewish tribalism” that found modern expression in the pseudo-modernist philosophy and appalling practices of Zionism was rooted in the tortured history of the past few centuries in Europe more than in pre-exilic antecedents.

Between the Lines

In reading Between the Lines, the collection compiled by the veteran Israel revolutionary militant Tikva Honig-Parnass and the Palestinian American journalist-activist Toufic Haddad, drawn mostly from the journal of the same name that they jointly edited, I’m struck by their much more cautious approach to formulating The Solution.

Their final chapter, “A Word on Solutions” (335-337), proposes no “n-state solution” where n equals one, two or many, but sets forth basic requirements for any solution that must begin with changing the present sick relationship of forces, “understanding that an alignment of forces behind the U.S.-Zionist axis blocks any solution that would recognize the national rights of the Palestinian people.”

In view of the Israeli-U.S. drive to annihilate the rights of the Palestinians in the context of the global “war on terror,” they warn, “observers should not expect that any solution is imminent under current circumstances. It goes without saying however that the de-Zionization of Israel is indeed a condition for the realization of the rights of the Palestinian people…It also goes without saying that U.S. support for Israel must be broken before any just solution becomes possible, and that U.S. imperialism regionally must be subverted.”

Any positive change in the situation can only come through advancing “the resistance struggles of the very forces that have the potential to transform this reality,” including the Intifada and Hamas-led forces in the West Bank and Gaza; the struggles of Palestinian citizens of Israel for full equality; Palestinian refugees’ fight for the right of return; the Hezbollah-led Lebanese resistance to Israeli-U.S. aggression; and the general resistance of the Arab masses against imperial domination and their own repressive regimes. (335-6)

These echo the formulations developed by the small but heroic revolutionary left that emerged in Israel following 1967, which fragmented in the 1970s and beyond under the impact of events and the problems of political isolation and ideological division.

As a chronicle of developments roughly from the onset of the Al Aqsa Intifada in September 2000 through November 2006, Between the Lines frankly makes for some painful but necessary reading. Each chapter is built around contemporaneous analyses and commentaries on the events as they unfolded, covering successively the beginning and first months of the uprising; the “Likud-Labor Gangster Government” following Ariel Sharon’s electoral triumph in 2001; the battle of Jenin (2002); the 2003 Israeli election, summed up as “What Once Was Will Continue to Be, Only Worse;” and so on, with the ascendancy of the Israeli doctrine of solving every political and social problem through the application of brutal and overwhelming force in partnership with American regional overlordship.

In the authors’ view, a traditional sharp division in the Ashkenazi Israeli elite has been overcome — between those who favored some kind of Israeli-Palestinian accommodation that would facilitate the opening of the Middle East to big Israeli capital (roughly the program of the Labor Party), against those (roughly, the Likud coalition) who prioritized smashing Palestinian society even if this meant sacrificing greater ambitions for an Israeli role in capitalist regional integration.

In essence, by achieving consensus on massive economic privatization at home, brute colonial conquest in the Occupied Palestinian Territories and all-out incorporation in the United States’ “global war on terror,” Israeli capital and military-political elites have come to agreement that they can have it all — pulverizing Israel’s working class, the Palestinians under occupation and the surrounding Arab peoples all at the same time.

The authors also present a fairly devastating picture of the surrender of the traditional nationalist Palestinian leadership to Israeli and imperialist dictation, and its consequent bureaucratic alienation from a population suffering under appalling conditions of occupation. At the same time, one voice stands out in advocating democratic practice, militant resistance, principled methods of struggle and appeal to the international social justice movement — that of Azmi Bishara, the leader of the “National Democratic Assembly — Tajamu” party of Palestinian Israeli citizens.

One of the selections published here, “Arab Political Activity After Iraq,” an address by Bishara to party members, has also been previously reprinted in Against the Current.(See ATC 106, September-October 2003) This presents a powerful statement of an alternative to Arab and Palestinian surrender to Zionism as well as the illusions of militarism, martyrdom or religious fundamentalism.

Another statement, “Not ‘Democracy Defending Itself’ But Nationalism Attacking Democracy,” is Bishara’s response to the revoking of his immunity from prosecution as an elected member of the Knesset. Here Bishara cuts through all the pretensions of the so-called “Jewish and democratic state” and reveals the Zionist left’s hopeless contradictions in the face of the demand for a genuinely democratic state of all its citizens.

At the time this collection was published, the attempts of the state police and prosecutors to criminalize Azmi Bishara for his advocacy as a Palestinian-Israeli politician for a non-racial democracy, and his defense of the Palestinian and Lebanese right to resist aggression, had failed. Subsequently, however, the threat of prosecution over his support of Lebanese resistance in the 2006 war has driven him into exile and out of the Knesset.

This is one of many developments, including the ascendancy of the fascist Israel Beitenu party of Avigdor Lieberman — a partner in today’s government of both Kadima’s Ehud Olmert and Labor’s Ehud Barak — that signal a serious decomposition of Israel’s formal democracy and the potential for an explosive political crisis as traditional parties further disintegrate.

Between the Lines helps us understand how the dynamics of resistance and brutal repression, although rooted in the whole history of Zionist settlement and Palestinian dispossession, have intensified during the first six years of the 21st century, especially as the Second Intifada confronted the full force of the post-9/11 reaction.

Without a fundamental reversal of current trends, a reversal that requires the struggle for what the authors call “the full de-Zionization of the state of Israel” and a breaking of its role as a branch office of the American Empire and military-industrial complex, the course toward Israeli national suicide and the destruction of the Middle East is set.

from ATC 131 (November/December 2007)