Watching American Israel advocates pile onto Jimmy Carter in paroxysms of nationalist rage at his impudence for comparing the conditions of West Bank Palestinians to those of black South Africans under apartheid, I’ve been struck — as I’ve written below — by the relentless evasion of any discussion of the reality he’s describing. (I discussed my own views on the appropriateness — and limits — of the apartheid analogy for the Palestinians in a previous post.) In the more recent entry, I quoted from former Israeli education minister Shulamit Aloni’s piece in the Israeli daily Yediot Ahronot affirming that an apartheid system is precisely what has been created on the West Bank — but I was interested in her observation on the roots of the outrage against Carter:
Jewish self-righteousness is taken for granted among ourselves to such an extent that we fail to see what’s right in front of our eyes. It’s simply inconceivable that the ultimate victims, the Jews, can carry out evil deeds. Nevertheless, the state of Israel practises its own, quite violent, form of Apartheid with the native Palestinian population.
To which I added my own observation that
A lot of liberal Jewish Americans seem to find it emotionally impossible to accept that Israel can do terrible things. Or, at least, if they see Israel doing terrible things, then those things are immediately blamed on the victim. The idea of universal, timeless Jewish victimhood seems to give Israel a moral free pass in some people’s minds — although the irony is that many of the Israeli liberal counterparts of those in the U.S. that hold these emotionally adolescent views are horrified by them, because many Israeli liberals pay more heed to the ethical injunction at the heart of Judaism to avoid doing unto others that which is hateful unto ourselves.
But last Saturday’s Washington Post op-ed by Holocaust scholar Debora Lipstadt took the cake. For Lipstadt, by focusing on the suffering of the Palestinians, Carter is minimizing the Holocaust! She writes:
His book, which dwells on the Palestinian refugee experience, makes two fleeting references to the Holocaust. The book contains a detailed chronology of major developments necessary for the reader to understand the current situation in the Middle East. Remarkably, there is nothing listed between 1939 and 1947. Nitpickers might say that the Holocaust did not happen in the region. However, this event sealed in the minds of almost all the world’s people then the need for the Jewish people to have a Jewish state in their ancestral homeland. Carter never discusses the Jewish refugees who were prevented from entering Palestine before and after the war. One of Israel’s first acts upon declaring statehood was to send ships to take those people “home.”
…By almost ignoring the Holocaust, Carter gives inadvertent comfort to those who deny its importance or even its historical reality, in part because it helps them deny Israel’s right to exist.
So, not only is he a crypto-Holocaust denier; he’s actively promoting “anti-Semitic canards” by declaring, for example, that it is “political suicide” for a politician in the U.S. to adopt a “balanced position” on the conflict. Actually, I don’t think that’s anti-Semitic at all; I think it’s a pretty obvious reality — and Lipstadt’s hysterical denunciation of Carter is probably a good example of the reasons why taking a balanced position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict just isn’t a good idea for a politician in the mainstream. Who wants to be called a Holocaust-denier by a famous Holocaust scholar, even if the charge is preposterous…
Carter’s inscription at the Holocaust museum:
His sense of the indivisibility of human rights
may be what has gotten him in trouble
Lipstadt may actually have done a service, however, by revealing the full depth of ultra-nationalist paranoia that animates so much of the Carter-bashing. She’s essentially arguing that the plight of the Palestinians can only be discussed against the backdrop of the Holocaust, as if, somehow, the enduring trauma we have suffered as a result of death camps somehow rationalizes or justifies what has been inflicted on the Palestinians — so much so, in fact, that if you discuss the plight of the Palestinians without devoting equal time to the Holocaust, then, in effect, you are Holocaust denier.
I think Lipstadt may be revealing something of the intellectual DNA that explains why so many rational liberal American Jews turn into frothing ultranationalists when it comes to Israel: It’s the narrative of the Holocaust, and the idea that Israel represents deliverance from the Holocaust, and is therefore beyond moral reproach. The Holocaust is the only valid history here; the Palestinian experience is secondary, if that — even though they had nothing to do with the Holocaust, which happened thousands of miles away, they must pay the price. Well, no, Lipstadt — and, I believe, many others who echo this trope — seem to suggest that the Palestinians are the authors of their own misery. This from her own blog in one of numerous references to Jimmy Carter:
“He is automatically on the side of those who appear to be weak. While its good to favor the weak and the oppressed [Jewish tradition stresses that repeatedly], sometimes those who appear weak or oppressed have put themselves in that position. [You can draw whatever analogies you wish.]”
The parentheses are hers, and I’m assuming that she’s trying to tell us that the Palestinians appear weak and oppressed because they “have put themselves in that position.” Frankly, I find that logic monstrous, although quite familiar in the canon of ultranationalism of whatever stripe: You can be sure Slobodan Milosevic said similar things about the Kosovar Albanians or the Bosnian Muslims. In the ultranationalist worldview, “we,” (whoever the “we” is) are always the eternal victim, and whatever it is that “we” do can only be understood in light of that victimization — not only the original trauma, but also the efforts of others to discredit us by making it appear that “we” are inflicting suffering upon them.
The Holocaust has been a major rationalization in the minds of many of Israel’s supporters for the policies of it has adopted (forcing, as I argued elsewhere the Palestinians to pay a very heavy price for a crime against the Jews of Europe in which they had no part). We should, of course, remember that the Zionist project long predated the Holocaust, and the infrastructure of the Jewish State declared in 1948 was, in fact, put in place during the 1930s.
Also, Mark Perry draws attention to the fact that while the Holocaust may be the centerpiece of the Israeli narrative for many Jewish Americans, it is less so for Israelis themselves – he quotes at length from his interview with Benny Begin speaking scornfully of the idea that the State of Israel is somehow there to compensate for the Holocaust.
Of course, what I would imagine, is that support for the State of Israel to the point of denying that it can do wrong or be responsible for the displacement and oppression of the Palestinians may, in fact, be based in a survivors’ guilt, in which those who were powerless to save the 6 million will remedy that through their support for Israel, imagining the Jewish State as an extension of the Warsaw Ghetto, and its critics and enemies, therefore, as an extension of the Nazi Final Solution.
This narrative is profoundly misguided and misleading, but it is also profoundly powerful in the minds of those who embrace it.
Carter has always made clear his belief that human rights are indivisible, and it’s hardly surprising that he’d approach the suffering of the Palestinians — a narrative largely ignored on these shores, where as Edward Said once noted the Palestinians tend to exist only as a threat to Israel — without dwelling on the Holocaust, an epic historic crime, but one in which the Palestinians had no part. After all, he sees the Palestinians suffering, now, as black South Africans did under apartheid, and he believes that there’s no good reason justifying this suffering, since Israel’s leaders already know where their borders are, and they’re not in the West Bank.
Moreover, Israelis are more intimately aware of the Palestinian narrative, and often have a far better understanding of their own role in it, than do their American supporters — as Sandy Tolan has revealed in his excellent book The Lemon Tree, tracking the competing narratives through the interconnected life stories of one Israeli and one Palestinian family. To understand the response Carter has prompted, I’m reminded of the work of my friend the psychiatrist Joel Kovel, on “Zionism’s Bad Conscience.” Joel writes
… God’s chosen people, with their hard-earned identity of high-mindedness, by definition cannot sink into racist violence. “It can’t be us,” says the Zionist, when in fact it is precisely Zionists who are doing these things. The inevitable result becomes a splitting of the psyche that drives responsibility for one’s acts out of the picture. Subjectively this means that the various faculties of conscience, desire, and agency dis-integrate and undergo separate paths of development. As a result, Zionism experiences no internal dialectic, no possibilities of correction, beneath its facade of exceptionalist virtue. The Covenant becomes a license giving the right to dominate instead of an obligation to moral development…
We may sum these effects as the presence of a “bad conscience” within Zionism. Here, badness refers to the effects of hatred, which is the primary affect that grows out of the splitting between the exalted standards of divine promise and the imperatives of tribalism and imperialism. A phenomenally thin skin and denial of responsibility are the inevitable results. The inability to regard Palestinians as full human beings with equivalent human rights pricks the conscience, but the pain is turned on its head and pours out as hatred against those who would remind of betrayal: the Palestinians themselves and those others, especially Jews, who would call attention to Zionism’s contradictions. Unable to tolerate criticism, the bad conscience immediately turns denial into projection. “It can’t be us,” becomes “it must be them,” and this only worsens racism, violence, and the severity of the double standard. Thus the “self-hating Jew” is a mirror-image of a Zionism that cannot recognize itself. It is the screen upon which bad conscience can be projected. It is a guilt that cannot be transcended to become conscientiousness or real atonement, and which returns as persecutory accusation and renewed aggression.
The bad conscience of Zionism cannot distinguish between authentic criticism and the mirrored delusions of anti-Semitism lying ready-made in the swamps of our civilization and awakened by the current crisis. Both are threats, though the progressive critique is more telling, as it contests the concrete reality of Israel and points toward self-transformation by differentiating Jewishness from Zionism; while anti-Semitism regards the Jew abstractly and in a demonic form, as “Jewish money” or “Jewish conspiracies,” and misses the real mark. Indeed, Zionism makes instrumental use of anti-Semitism, as a garbage pail into which all opposition can be thrown, and a germinator of fearfulness around which to rally Jews. This is not to discount the menace posed by anti-Semitism nor the need to struggle vigorously against it. But the greater need is to develop a genuinely critical perspective, and not be bullied into confusing critique of Israel with anti-Semitism.