The Judt Hysteria

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In a provocative essay in the New York Review of Books, "Israel: The Alternative," Tony Judt depicts an exclusively Jewish state as an "anachronism," "rooted in another time and place." "Israel’s ethno-religious self-identification and its discrimination against internal foreigners has always had more in common with, say, the practices of post-Habsburg Romania than either party might care to acknowledge." Israel is a belated outgrowth of the "flurry of new states" that emerged in Central and Eastern Europe after the collapse of the Austrian and Russian empires during World War One. The Jewish version of this phenomenon came along later, drawing on the sympathies and passions that resulted from the Holocaust. But Israel is different in one respect from its European counterparts, in whose world Zionist leaders grew up and extracted their nationalist ideas. It is a "democracy and hence its present dilemma," in having to occupy Palestinian subjects, against their wills.

Judt believes that this situation has created difficulty for Jews outside of Israel, who feel emotionally drawn to a Jewish state but are troubled by the incongruity between this loyalty and their pluralist convictions. How can these Jews who extol pluralism defend an Israeli polity that has turned its back on pluralist principles? And what happens if their fellow-Americans start noticing that "Israel has been a disaster" for American relations with other countries, which support UN Resolutions designed to force Israeli withdrawal from the occupied West Bank? Judt sees three alternatives for the Israelis as they try to grapple with the Palestinian problem: muddling through as before, ethnic cleansing, or conversion to a truly binational state. The last alternative is the one he wants Israelis to choose, lest they fall into "the wrong camp," of "belligerently intolerant, faith-driven ethno-states." Besides, says Judt, "most of the readers of this essay live in pluralist states which have long since become multiethnic and multicultural." Moreover, "Israel itself is a multicultural society in all but name; yet it remains distinctive among democratic states in its resort to ethnoreligious criteria with which to denominate and rank its citizens." What makes Israel an "oddity," Judt insists, is "not, as its more paranoid supporters assert, because it is a Jewish state and no one wants Jews to have a state; but because it is a Jewish state in which one community, Jews, is set above others, in an age when that sort of state has no place."

Having been politically incorrect, Judt is now in the crosshairs of a powerful lobby. It is one that depicts Israel as the Middle Eastern equivalent of New York City or else insists that Israel has a special right to an ethno-national state that should not be permitted to any European or American country. On October 27, the Jerusalem Post stated the editorial opinion that Judt was advocating "genocide for Jews." On October 14, in NRO, David Frum accused Judt of "genocidal liberalism," noting "one must hate Israel very much indeed to prefer such an outcome [a binational state] to the reality of liberal democracy that exists in Israel today."

The question that needs to be addressed is whether Israel is a "liberal democracy" in the sense that Frum and other Zionists would apply that term to predominantly Christian Western countries. Allan Dershowitz, in his recent "case for Israel" packed into a mini-book, never indulges the assumption that there is a case to be made for ethno-national Christian states as well. Because of superior Jewish virtues, the Holocaust (seen as the collective fault of Christian countries), and/or the historical destiny of Western countries to become demographic dumping areas, Zionists Abe Foxman, Dershowitz, Edgar Bronfman, Tom Lantos, and their legion of counterparts in Western Europe propose separate paths of development for Jews and non-Jews: an interwar Polish path for Israel, whatever else one may chose to call it, and a deethnicized path for the Western world. It is not surprising that Judt is catching Hell for bringing up this double standard.

But there are the flaws in this stimulating brief. It is probably untrue that Israel is the only democracy among the ethno-national states that Judt treats as "anachronisms." Poland started out as a constitutional republic in 1919 and maintained a high standard of civil and religious liberty even under its quasi-authoritarian leader, Marshall Joseph Pilsudski, until 1934. Yugoslavia remained a constitutional monarchy albeit one that favored the Serbs. Czechoslovakia was a practicing constitutional republic until Hitler invaded it, though the Sudeten Germans were justified in complaining about anti-German discrimination. Indeed most of the successor states that came out of the fallen European empires practiced some measure of liberal government, although, like Israel, they also treated ethnic minorities as second-class citizens. (Despite the hysterical hatred vented by Serb, German, and Czech nationalists against the "prison house of nationalities," the rickety Habsburg monarchy epitomized multiethnic tolerance in comparison to its nationalistic successors.)

Judt is not proposing multiculturalism for Israel. He favors for the Israelis what he thinks has been historically thrust upon them, a binational existence with Palestinians. Although it remains unclear how this binational state, which thirty years ago was the prevalent Communist position on Arab-Israeli relations, can work, unless the Palestinians renounce their ongoing strategy of guerilla war. But Judt is correct that about 30% of Israel is now composed of Arab minorities. Still binationality is not what Judt praises in Europe or in the U.S. Here he is recommending something different from the acceptance of a binational polity in a de facto binational country, namely, the pursuit by Western countries of "diversity" as a post-national goal. If it is true, as Judt asserts, that "Christian Europe is now a dead letter," while "Western civilization is a patchwork of colors and religions and languages," this is because Europe has chosen to be a multicultural society. Israel is not being asked to "enrich itself" — and would do so only if its population became as guilt-ridden and as self-loathing as Euro-American Christians. After all, Jewish and Christian liberals are not interchangeable; nor are they liberals in response to the same social and psychological needs. Jews are inclined to be multiculturalists because they fear and distrust a Christian majority. White Christians, if one follows the argument of my book Multiculturalism and the Politics of Guilt, chase after "diversity" because they are self-dismissively throwing away their civilization.

A final point that needs clarification is Judt’s identification of "democracy" with multi-ethnicity and multiculturalism. As a political theorist for many years, I remain astonished by this already ritualistic association. Why does being "democratic’ require opening one’s borders and becoming a cultural "patchwork?" Certainly this requirement would have struck Aristotle, Rousseau, Montesquieu, and Thomas Jefferson as a disconcerting "oddity." Such political thinkers assumed a high degree of homogeneity as being essential for popular self-government. Such an arrangement does not presuppose patchworks that have to be rigorously supervised to exclude ethnic nationalism.

While David Frum, in his diatribe against Judt, warns, on the whole correctly, against the physical danger to Israeli Jews of accepting Judt’s binational solution, he also wants Jews to be more than physically secure. He hopes they remain an ethnic nation, which leads Frum into skirting Judt’s charges about Zionism being "outdated, old-fashioned, and offensive." But Frum, who has attacked anti-immigrationists repeatedly as xenophobes and who rages against Sam Francis in the "Unpatriotic Conservatives" (NRO, March 19, 2003) for "a politics devoted to the interests of what he called the Euro-American core," has a long row to hoe in squaring his Jewish ethnic nationalism with his xenophilia. Like Judt, Frum is a Jewish pluralist and enthusiastic immigrationist, but, unlike Judt, changes the rules for his fellow-ethnics. Although ancestral national loyalty is a fact of life, why should it be allowed in only one "liberal democracy "but not here, where its supporters are being accused of immorally protecting a "Euro-American core"? Why should ethnic loyalty be a good thing for the Israeli or Zionist goose but not for the Euro-American gander?

By no means the only Zionist advocate to make this distinction, Frum may be surpassed as a practitioner of the double standard by the president of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities, Amos Luzzatto. The scion of what is the most distinguished Italian Jewish family and a relative of Mussolini’s first minister of finance, Luzzatto has insisted (in an interview on October 23) that Jews, like all European peoples, need to have "their own established seat [insediamento ebreo]." But in an interview with Corriere della Sera in June 2002, Luzzatto, who has remained close to the Italian Communist Party, emphatically denied the right to an insediamento to European nations. He attacked passionately the opponents of Third World immigration to Italy and linked them, without proof, to the fascist past. He ascribed Islamicist- or far left-incited acts of vandalism against Italian synagogues to the "history of Catholic anti-Semitism." Luzzatto kept repeating this implausible opinion despite the fact the interviewer kept trying to pull him back to planet earth. One can find equally tortured examples of self-deception and hypocrisy among French, German, and American Zionists, who should be reconsidering their inconsistent statements instead of ganging up on Judt. Do Abe Foxman and the Anti-Defamation League, for example, make themselves look ridiculous by denouncing those who oppose the granting of drivers licenses in California to illegal immigrants as far-right anti-Semites, while simultaneously defending Israel as a "Jewish state"? Such positions represent multicultural hysteria combined with ethnic national exceptionalism. Although his politics are not mine, Judt is at least an honest Jewish liberal.

November 13, 2003

Paul Gottfried [send him mail] is professor of history at Elizabethtown College and author of, most recently, the highly recommended Multiculturalism and the Politics of Guilt.

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