Masthead graphic based on a painting by Gudrun Thriemer.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Re: Cotler's speech on the new anti-semitism: response to comments

I agree with Mound of Sound that Cotler's speech on the new anti-Semitism is "a smear job aimed at silencing by intimidation any legitimate criticism of Israel and its policies toward the Palestinians," but MoS underestimates the role of legitimate fear in the politics of Israel.

Fear of so many things--fear remaining from the Holocaust and a fear that things will "go bad" again. (See, for example, Avraham Burg on Democracy Now! and his book, The Holocaust is Over, We Must Rise From its Ashes) Fear of being isolated, of what Avi Shlaim calls "Arab determination not to permit Jewish independence in the Middle East" (The Iron Wall, 369). Fear that derives from a well-remembered tradition of persecution, slavery, and suffering.

These are legitimate fears, like the fear associated with global thermonuclear war. Sometimes paranoia is a "rational" response. "If you aren't paranoid, you don't understand what's going on."

That the Israeli political establishment and their apologists abroad capitalizes on this fear in numerous ways, including propaganda, is beyond question.

But I think Cotler's speech emerges from a trinity of unassimilated and related events in Israeli history: (1) the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin and (2) the "death" of Ariel Sharon. The apotheosis of Avigdor Lieberman (3) acted as a trigger.

There is much here to be feared. Rather than search inwardly for lessons to be learned, Cotler looks for someone to blame. We needn't take it personally. As Gene points out, it doesn't work any more anyway. Anyone who actually bothered to read them knows that the statements of the Durban I Human Rights conference from the earlies drafts to the final statement address anti-Semitism on practically every page.

But anti-Semitism is not the only form of racism that requires attention. Moreover, neither Israel nor the US is above reproach. That is what so many western observers found objectionable about Duban I.

The question of Zionism as a form of racism is still a legitimate subject for debate. The details of the process by which that question was "decided" at the UN make an interesting study.

More urgently, if we are to take Cotler's reaction--and the National Post's decision to amplify it--seriously, we need to ask what is the meaning of this most recent Israeli election.

When Ariel Sharon slipped into a coma, Israel entered the final stages of a dramatic generational change. Just months before, Sharon staged the unilateral "withdrawal" from Gaza. Events since that time clearly show that no one capable of playing the next move has emerged in Israeli politics. The political center of gravity has moved more decisively from the left and farther to the extreme right, even more than it has in "third way" states like the UK , Chile, the US or even Canada. It also appears to have been a shift away from PMs who are generals to PMs who once were captains in the IDF.

Much is still in doubt about what this generational change will entail. Will Israelis decide that being a democratic state must take second place to being a Jewish one? Will the two-state solution be replaced by demands for a single state throughout the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean? Challenges to American military aid to Israel could threaten the "cold peace" with Egypt. Events at the latest Davos meeting suggest that relations with Turkey, the first Islamic state to recognize Israel in 1949, are also in the worst shape ever. The failure to take advantage of what may have been the best opportunity in its brief history to make peace with the Palestinians also has to be added to the list of possible changes.

The Iranian boogie man is the outward projection of a far more serious loss of confidence in the Israeli polity. All the kings horses (tanks, helicopter gunships, nuclear weapons, etc.--all the "Iron Wall" paraphernalia) couldn't stop rocket attacks on Sderot. Tough lesson. It's the one the US didn't learn in Vietnam, Canada isn't learning in Afghanistan. These are practical questions compounded by difficult moral ones.

The failure of Israel and its international cheerleaders to subordinate spectacular military power to the principles of any kind of respectable political wisdom has led to dramatic new successes in the movement to pressure Israel with boycotts, divestments, and sanctions. Some of the most active participants in these movements are diaspora Jews and marginalized left-wing Israelis.

Meanwhile, Avigdor Lieberman, an ultra-nationalist, extreme right wing secular politician, has unlocked a corridor to power for the fanatic forces in Israeli politics that brought Rabin down in 1995. Now the vulnerability of the captains and the suicidal vigor of these internal contradictions are on center stage and in the spotlight.

These considerations give Israel plenty to worry about. Us too. Cotler's speech expresses these fears in a code that is understood mainly by insiders in a venue consisting mainly of those same insiders. But the publication of the speech in in one of Canada's national newspapers is an invitation either to sympathize or to shut up. It's a move that might have worked twenty years ago. Not now.
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The Mound of Sound said...

Excellent piece Jim. You should clean this up a bit and shop it around. The historical background and analysis is genuinely first rate.