A Rejoinder to Joel Kovel

Against the Current, No. 133, March/April 2008

David Finkel

JOEL KOVEL IS to be congratulated on the successful struggle to overturn the outrageous University of Michigan Press decision to halt distribution of Overcoming Zionism.  To whatever extent the controversy has boosted the book’s sales and stimulated discussion of the issues it raised, so much the better. Unfortunately, the vicious campaign attempting to get the University of Michigan regents to cancel the distribution of Pluto Press titles continues at this writing.

To begin this rejoinder, I can’t find a better way of putting the “two states/one state” argument in its real-world context than by citing the veteran Israeli socialist Moshe Machover (2006):

“(N)o genuine resolution is possible in the short or medium term, because of the enormous disparity in the balance of power. The Palestinians, economically shattered, lightly armed and enjoying little international support, are facing a dominant modern capitalist Israel, a regional hegemonic nuclear superpower, a local hatchet man and junior partner of the local hyper-power. So long as such gross imbalance of power persists, any settlement will inevitably impose harsh oppressive conditions on the weaker side…

“In these circumstances any ‘two-state settlement’ is bound to be a travesty: not two real sovereign states (let alone two equal ones) but one powerful Israeli state dominating a disjointed set of Palestinian enclaves similar to Indian Reservations, policed by corrupt elites acting as Israel’s proxies [and further degraded] with the virulent malignant metastasis of Israeli colonization, and the weakening of the Palestinian Authority under Israeli pounding and international strangulation.

“Faced with the evident present infeasibility of an equitable two-state setup, many people of genuine goodwill have reverted to the ‘one-state’ formula. The trouble with it, however, is that a truly equal one-state setup is no more feasible in the short or medium term than an equal two-state one – and for exactly the same reason. Given the actual imbalance of power, a single state embracing the whole of Palestine will be no better than an extension of direct Israeli military occupation and subjugation.”

I think this speaks to one of the comfortable illusions confronting Palestine solidarity activism — not the struggle inside Israel/Palestine, but the movement outside – that if the “two-state solution” has failed, the “one-state” option is somehow thereby advanced. This is simply not the case: If a genuine “two-state solution” requires at a minimum mutual recognition, economic interchange and territorial compromises, all of which are deeply deficient on the Israeli-Zionist side, “one state” demands a level of binational solidarity, trust and common purpose that is nonexistent except among a thin layer of Palestinian and Israeli intellectual elites.

The future promise represented in the admirable vision of these important thinkers — Ali Abunimah whom Joel cites, Naseer Aruri, Ilan Pappe and others — must not be confused with any possibilities existing in mass politics inside either Israeli society or the Occupied Palestinian Territories today or in the near term. Without for a moment putting Israel’s brutal assault and campaign to starve Gaza on the same level as the retaliatory defensive Palestinian rockets fired toward Sderot, we need to understand that neither of these advance the affected populations’ confidence in a common future.

National Question is Key

Turning to the specifics of Joel’s argument, I will focus on two points. First, there’s an astonishing sentence in Joel’s response: “Though David is undoubtedly right in insisting that concrete analysis on the ground is essential for moving forward politically, he is mistaken if he thinks discussion of the national question, etc. is essential to a justification of the One-State option.”

Yet Joel also “would call the One-State position a strategic goal…both an end to be sought in itself (though with forms and paths to be decided by people on the ground) and an organizer of the means to that end.” (ATC 132: 44)

It is stunning to me to consider a “strategic goal” for solving a conflict between two nationalisms without a deep and serious “discussion of the national question.” There are two nations in historic Palestine, an oppressor nation and an oppressed one, produced by a historic process of colonial-sponsored settlement, occupation and resistance. Any “strategic goal” must begin by getting the Israeli oppressor nation’s foot off the neck of the oppressed Palestinian nation — first and foremost, ending the post-1967 Occupation — then must address the national aspirations and fears of both.

To be clear, the Israeli nation means here the Hebrew-speaking Jewish national majority in the Israeli state (the latter also includes, of course, a substantial Arab Palestinian national minority) — not “the Jewish people” as a whole, however defined.  Joel Kovel and I, American Jews, aren’t part of that Israeli national majority: Israel has no claim on us, and we have no claim on it except to demand that it stop committing crimes against humanity in our name. That doesn’t mean that this nation’s existence can be discounted or nullified by its origins in colonial-settler conquest.

The problem with Joel’s book isn’t that it gives a false answer to the admittedly very difficult question of dual rights of self-determination of two nations in the same place — let alone a space fractured between a bourgeois-democratic state (democratic for its Jewish majority with subordinate rights for the Arab minority) and the Occupied Territories combining the most brutal features of colonialism and apartheid. Rather, Joel argues as if the question of self-determination simply doesn’t exist, a position which in my view eliminates the possibility of any viable “strategic goal” at all.

This problem is connected, I think, to the philosophical labyrinth into which Joel wanders in positing the “relative and absolute illegitimacy” of various states. The distinction strikes me as utterly ambiguous and arbitrary. Joel’s formulation that “(t)he bourgeois state is relatively legitimate to the extent that it builds into itself ways of moving in a socialist direction…” could be read either as a vigorous defense of the importance of democratic rights — as Engels did in championing the struggle for a “democratic republic” as a steppingstone to socialism — or as an opening for awful reformist politics.

Joel continues, “…whereas it becomes absolutely illegitimate when there are no internal correctives available to overcome violations of human rights, especially as these take the form of racism.” Now think about it: Where would the United States of America, say, fit into this schema, or Putin’s Russia, or today’s China?

Space doesn’t permit the exercise here, but I can easily argue for either the “relative” or “absolute” side of the “illegitimacy” of any of these, or of Israel. I can’t see how this arbitrary designation helps us identify and develop what really matters most, the potentialities for democratic and social transformation in any of these nation-states.

In his response to my review, Joel admits that “Classical Marxism has little to say about legitimacy” but claims “(t)he question is, however, foregrounded by Gramsci and it is perfectly possible to extrapolate it back to Marx.” Shamefully confessing that I’m not well-versed in the writings of Gramsci (the pioneering Italian Communist), I asked Joel what he means and received the following helpful response:

“Gramsci’s chief contribution to Marxist theory was a nested set of concepts establishing that class rule was grounded in consent as well as coercion, and that consent was indeed the first line of defense — it obviously being preferable to have the masses fond of the system that oppresses them rather than having to be beaten in the head for resisting. Legitimacy is a way of expressing this relation from the side of the political system, but also the economic system, whence the successful propaganda that capitalism is “the American dream” and so forth. Legitimacy is the linchpin connecting the consent of the governed with the class structure; and it is not the allegiance to any particular government that is at issue, but attachment, loyalty, patriotism, etc, directed at the whole system of governance. This is the kind of glue that holds contradictory societies together…Correspondingly, it is the job of radical intellectuals to work at dissolving the legitimacy of the establishment. This frames my project of delegitimizing Israel by analyzing its racist character.” (email communication, 1/13/08)

The idea expressed here seems to me a concise Marxist summary of the role of ideology in the workings of any class society, with coercion of course as the essential second line of defense. But while I’d like to pursue the discussion further, I see nothing here that justifies the categories of “relative” versus “absolute illegitimacy” of Israel or any other state. This is not to deny the validity of all kinds of ethical and political judgments about existing states, above all regarding their class character, relationship to the imperialist-dominated global state system, and adherence to norms of international law and human rights; I don’t see how the concept of state “legitimacy” or “illegitimacy” aids us in any of this.

To reiterate the basic point of my review of Overcoming Zionism: Joel Kovel’s moral philosophical critique of the “Jewish State,” or to call it by its right name a Jewish- supremacist state, effectively demonstrates the bankruptcy of the concept and its disastrous consequences in practice. One important part of our struggle internationally is to confront American Jews, and others who consider themselves “supporters of Israel,” with the inherently racist character of the “Jewish State” concept.

This should not be conflated with “delegitimizing Israel” (I still don’t understand what this is supposed to mean) in abstraction from the realities of dual national questions in historic Palestine, or from the possibilities for democratic and transformative social justice struggles in a class-divided Israeli society — and above all, from the struggle to weaken the stranglehold of the imperial colossus in the Middle East.

To conclude where we began, with Moshe Machover:

“No balance of power lasts forever. A genuine resolution of the conflict will become possible in the longer term, given a change in the present balance of power…But it seems quite certain that [this change] will not be confined to the relationship between Israel and the Palestinians [but] will necessarily involve tectonic shifts in the entire region, as well as international global shifts.

“Two interconnected and mutually reinforcing processes will be vital for changing the present balance of power. First, decline in American global dominance, and in particular the ability of the U.S. to go on backing Israeli regional hegemony without incurring unacceptable economic and political costs. Second, a radical-progressive social, economic and political transformation of the Arab East, leading to a degree of unification of the Arab nation — most likely in the form of regional federation.”

It is pretty pointless to discuss the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as though it would take place in an isolated Palestinian box — whether partitioned or in one piece — while ignoring the rest of the region, and failing to factor in its transformation, without which that resolution is in any case impossible…A new radical progressive counter-globalization movement is gathering momentum in parts of the Third World. It is yet to take off in the Arab East. But much depends on us.

Perhaps, following that magnificent moment when the Palestinian population in Gaza tore down the Israeli-built border wall with Egypt and seized a tiny slice of the freedom they deserve — the beginning, can we dare to hope, of a new mass-based Intifada? — we can take inspiration and assume the awesome responsibilities facing us as solidarity activists and as a global justice movement.

Source: Moshe Machover, “Israelis and Palestinians: Conflict and Resolution,” the Barry Amiel and Norman Melburn Trust Annual Lecture, November 30, 2006 (www.amielandmelburn.org/uk/articles/moshe%20machover%20%202006lecture_b.pdf)

POSTSCRIPT: While tangential to the political issues debated here, the question of the supposed “apartness” of ancient Israel is of intellectual interest. Joel’s emphasis on this “apartness” is associated with a psychoanalytic reading of Jewish history which I think offers some insights, but is problematic. My contention is that this religious “apartness” is largely a later priestly construction developed to “legitimize” (forgive the expression) their theocratic rule established under Persian imperial sponsorship. A few sources on the interpenetration of ancient Israelite culture and religion with neighboring peoples:

* The Bible Unearthed. Archaeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts, by Israel Finkelstein and Neil Silberman (NY: The Free Press, 2001) contrasts the actual archaeological record with the Biblical “Deuteronomic history” of Israelite conquest and kingship.

* The Hebrew Goddess, by Raphael Patai (Detroit: Wayne State University press, third edition 1990) deconstructs the image of priestly monotheism in ancient Israel, especially showing the universal appeal of goddess worship throughout the ancient Middle East.

* Hebrew Myths. The Book of Genesis, by Patai and Robert Graves (NY: Greenwich House, 1983 edition) shows how the Biblical Creation stories, despite priestly editing, show the influence of the widespread mythologies of the time.

* The Common Background of Greek and Hebrew Civilization, by Cyrus H. Gordon (NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 1965) documents the common themes and massive borrowings of material in epic literatures from Mesopotamia to ancient Egypt and everywhere in between, including the Hebrew Bible stories.

ATC 133, March-April 2008