Tony Judt is not entirely wrong

I am reluctant to write about matters Israeli-Palestinian: first, because of all the incoherent shouting on the right and left; and second, because the mammoth Middle East overshadows other, more subtle questions which are perhaps more important to leading a considered Jewish existence. Occasionally, however, an opportunity for staking out the middle ground presents itself. Thanks to Kesher Talk for providing a link to the relevant material.

Tony Judt's original essay in The New York Review of Books received much hostile press, and I can't say that it was undeserved. In defending himself against his critics, he repeats his main claim, which (as I discuss below) I find wholly false. On the way there, however, he makes some worthwhile points which are not commonly addressed by those who care about Israel. It is a pity that those points can only be made from those on Judt's end of the spectrum.

The core of his argument (as Judt himself states) is this: "This, then, was the core of my argument: it is not the state that is anachronistic (pace Walzer's misreading of me), but the Zionist version of it." I suspect that Walzer's "misreading" (actually quite a plausible reading) was an attempt to find the least objectionable construction of Judt's argument. For if we are meant to take Judt at the face value of this, his newest claim, there is something about the Zionist state which is "anachronistic" enough (read: "immoral enough," for the "anachronistic" state is one which does not conform to modern notions of political right) for the world to be rid of it.

It is theoretically possible (though, of course, quite improbable, and one pales at the thought) that a Zionist state, by the very immorality of its foundations, could cede the right to exist -- just like there have been actual states in history which should not have existed. Judt errs, however, in thinking that Israel, in its present incarnation, is immorally constructed. The important error in his argument is this. Israel is indeed flawed, and deeply so, but not in a more fundamental way than all nation-states are flawed. Michael Walzer, whose thought I am happily biased towards, makes this point in his response to Judt.

Let me explain further. According to Judt, while the European nation-states do indeed discriminate among applicants for citizenship, they do not discriminate in a fundamental way among all those who become citizens. It is only Israel, he writes, which discriminates between citizens based on their ethnic origin.

I don't think this is true. The alarm bells start ringing when one reads his description of the nature of Frenchness, a rush-job at the speed of special pleading ("But if someone is a citizen of, e.g., France, he or she is French and that is all there is to the matter, at least as far as the law is concerned."). As Daniel Boyarin pointed out in a talk of his I attended today, the French view of different minority religious communities is precisely that: a French view, strongly conditioned by Christian ideas of religion as distinct from ethnicity and nationality. For example, in its recent outlawing of "religious symbols" in schools, the French government made a serious category mistake, assuming that yarmulkes and head-scarves for Jews and Muslims serve just the same function as crosses for Christians: religious symbols. This Christian approach in the name of the French government (which does not even realize that its policy is conditioned in such a way) puts the lie to Judt's naive assumptions of a "neutral" Frenchness. Indeed, as Michael Walzer points out, it is only the United States which attempts to create in its political-cultural sphere a "neutral space," not beholden to any particular founding religion.

This is only one, comparatively minor example. The point is that many of the European states do indeed discriminate among their citizens -- and that Israel can do so in the same way, without jeopardizing the fundamental moral nature of its society.

Israel discriminates between Jews and non-Jews in two different ways. The first way, and most troubling, is discrimination not in keeping with any fundamental political values appropriate to a democratic state -- I mean those stated quite clearly in Israel's declaration of independence, according to which citizens are granted rights without regard to race or religion. It is in this category that Judt makes necessary points, for there exist those forces in Israeli society that would discriminate against Arabs in a fundamentally unjust way -- e.g., by denying them the right to live where they choose, through unjust search and seizure, through unjustifiable military persecution of innocents.

Judt is wrong in his assumption that such unjust discrimination is at the very foundation of Israeli society. The vital political culture that includes energetic defenders of and advocates for Israeli Arabs and Palestinians, and the political institutions which guarantee Arab participation, make it clear that such unjustice is the system's imperfection rather than its goal. Judt is right, however, to point them out. As we see in the unreflective Israel cheerleading of Abraham Foxman (who also responds to Judt), there are far too many leaders of the Jewish community who cannot bring themselves even to admit that Israel's political culture is capable of injustice!

There is another way in which Israel discriminates. "Discrimination" is perhaps not the right word for this activity, the characteristic of most nation states and one that Judt wishes to deny. France gives special treatment to French Catholics -- not in granting them a higher class of political privilege, but in granting them the status of majority. Those French who are defined this way, in terms of their culture and nationality (and who can deny that this is what comes to mind when thinkng of "the French"?), are differently treated by the political culture than French Muslims. Similar observations can be made about other European nation-states, including Poland, Spain, Italy.

Israel is founded on democratic, majority-Jewish principles, a nation-state in the tradition of other nation-states. It is also imperfect and capable of injustice. It is disheartening that so few public intellectuals seem able to accomodate these multiple truths.

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