May 24, 2022

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What About Jewish Triumphalism: Response to Harvey Blume and Gitlin’s Maps

In response to my post on why I am a member of Peace When, one commenter, the blogger Harvey Blume, posed the following challenge in an exchange with me: I had written that he seemed to be arguing that “Israel should hold everything ready for when the Palestinians are ready, including, presumably, stopping any construction (including natural growth) so that the Palestinians have the space they want.”

No stipulation about when the Jews/Israelis are ready? Not a one? Which they are increasingly, as per their increasingly right-wing governments indicate, they’re not?

Good example of mistaking the response for the cause. Israelis were enthusiastic about peace in the 90s and elected leftist governments. Over the last fifteen years, they have come to recognize the depths of the hostility and elected governments that reflected (rather than denied) that realization. Get Palestinians to show they can behave like neighbors rather than murderous enemies, and you’ll get 80% in favor of the most painful concessions.

For those committed to the cult of the occupation, however, the fault is Israel’s. All previous expressions of willingness to compromise made by Israel do not count. We demand more evidence, otherwise we peg you as an extremist.

I get you.

You’re the kind of polemicist who can cast Islamicism, dreadful, as it is, as innately triumphal and not think of Israelis claiming “Judea and Samaria” as Messianic writ, in the same way.

First, I never use the term Islamicism. Islamism is the theological expression of triumphalist religiosity. I do not claim that Islam, the religion of over a billion people, is “innately triumphal[ist]”. Any religion can, and hopefully does, grow and mature.

Second, it seems a bit harsh to presume I don’t pay attention to such issues. But I’m not sure I’d call the messianism of the “Greater Israel” types “triumphalist.” As I defined it, triumphalism refers to those who feel they must prove the superiority of their religion “by dominating others,” and as a religiosity, it constantly needs to affirm that dominance. In this case, we are dealing with people who have a defined (relatively small) area in which they want to be left alone. (Greater Israel constitutes .2% of the surface area of the Arab world.)

Triumphalist Muslims  on the other hand, know only shore lines as boundaries. Their need to visibly dominate others has imperial consequences of global significance.

I’m not saying that Israel shouldn’t be willing to compromise for peace, but I am saying that the compromises that one needs to ask of the Palestinians/Arabs/Muslims for peace – namely to restrain their triumphalism – vastly outweigh the compromises one can, in the name of justice for all, legitimately ask of the Israelis. Right now, withdrawal is not a fair demand. The land was taken militarily in a war with a genocidal enemy, and it’s sadistic to demand that it be given back to that enemy, especially when so many (allegedly) progressive folks these days justify that enemy’s hatreds.

Me, I abjure religions, all of them, and their messianic/triumphalist claims.

Not all religions/religiosities, make messianic claims, and not all messianic claims are triumphalistPadamalgam.

You don’t. Your critique does not extend to Judaism, at its worst.

It would be more fair of you to ask what my critique of messianic Judaism at its worst. When one extends to Judaism the critique of triumphalist dominion-mongering from Islam (or pre-modern Christianity), with their violent imposition of an honor hierarchy, their holy wars and heretic hunting, it means shifting to a radically different scale. Jews have, more than any other monotheistic variant, given up real-world triumphalism. In part it was beaten out of them by Roman armies; in part it goes back to origins in demotic religiosity.

Do flare ups occur of a violent messianism that looks triumphalist to observers? Yes.

Can they become violent, even terrorist (i.e., attacks civilians)? Yes.

Is Israeli society energetically trying to resist and metabolize this messianism? Yes.

Are they succeeding? Better than any other polity in the current world, or in history ever have. Indeed, Jews have one of the greatest firewalls against triumphalist messianic outbreaks of all the monotheistic faiths.

It took the French Revolutionary experiment only a few years before it melted down, first into paranoia and totalitarianism, and from there another few years to turn to imperial conquest. Today Europeans, Germans especially, are terrified of what kind of fascist forces they might unleash within their own democracies were the public to be informed about the threat of Muslim triumphalism. Israel has been dealing with this problem for much longer, at a much higher dosage without melting down, at least yet.

Indeed, in the history of mankind, any people with the vast military and political superiority over their neighbors, that Israel has over hers, has moved straight on to empire – the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Franks, the Muslims, the French, the English. Historically, Israel has resisted the call of violent, triumphalist messianism, despite the hostility of its neighbors, more than any country on record.

So I ask you Harvey Blume, how does it help this situation for you insist on some kind of moral equivalence as a sign of good faith? It seems rather a way to get someone to give up his or her intellectual integrity in order to be accepted.

You continue, citing your blogpost:

The tale of Israel as an emergency creation of Jews jumping out of a burning building, Europe, and landing on the backs of an innocent people, the Palestinians, has made its rounds. First I heard of it was in something by Isaac Deutscher, probably in his “The Non-Jewish Jew.” Christopher Hitchens makes use of this parable, with minor modification, in “Hitch-22.”

My version is more problemmatic: yes, the Jews jumped out of a burning Europe and landed on the backs of Palestinians who had no part in creating the inferno. And yes, no question, the Jews continued to beat, belabor and even evict Palestinians, as happens to this day.

What’s missing from that account, though, is that the Palestinians from the start wanted nothing more than to push the Jews back into the sea, and have never been able to fully repress that urge.

Thank you for that final acknowledgment, something that normally does not go often with members the “cult of the occupation.” If we accept your last paragraph (which I do) we must modify the original formulation of the “burning building”. The Jews did not land “on the backs of an innocent people, the Palestinians,” but rather landed in another part of the burning building of imperialist societies at genocidal war (and do not think that Arabs political culture is neither imperialist nor genocidal).

Indeed, it was the desire to exterminate the Jews, which you yourself acknowledge, that made Haj Amin al Husseini and Hitler such an odd couple: united only in their common hatred of the Jews and their mutual contempt.

Israel is not a colonialist implant destroying an “innocent” native culture, as were Western imperialist-colonialist projects like South Africa and Algeria. It was an experiment in demotic modernity which, for two full generations, survived and thrived without the protection of a prior conquest the way all other colonialisms had proceeded. And they did so by connecting fruitfully with many Arab Muslims, in one of the most difficult (and increasingly anti-modern) parts of the world. Their enemies (the triumphalist Muslims and Arabs) were burners of buildings, and the current generation of Palestinians is steeped in the same kinds of genocidal hatreds as the Nazis.

Thus we get a distressing irony. On the one hand, there’s no comparison here with Israeli society where anything remotely resembling the behavior of the Nazis is scrupulously pursued. And yet on the other hand, the Israelis get regularly smeared as the new Nazis, while no one dares say such nasty things about the Palestinians. As Irwin Cotler puts the paradox:

So, you have the situation where on the one hand, Israel is the only state, and the Jews the only people, that are the standing targets of state-sanctioned incitement to genocide. And at the same time, they are the only state and the only people that are accused of engaging in genocide itself.

But somehow this does not have much of an impact on your thought. You continue:

A piece by Todd Gitlin presents the situation graphically, by means of maps.

Palestinian maps, the ones Palestinian children are bought up on, manage not to include a place called Israel; for them the whole place is labeled Palestine.

Jewish maps, all too many of them, depict an Israel that extends from the Mediterranean to the Jordan, without reference to a green line, on the other side of which is a Palestinian territory known as the West Bank, the basis, should justice someday prevail, for a Palestinian state.

“All too many of them…” Classic “higher standard” language: we expect more from Israel. In comparison with maps produced by the PA which do not recognize Israel, very few of the Israeli maps of any degree of detail leave out lines like the Green Line. The exceptions may be “worrying” but don’t compare with the utter absence in Palestinian maps of Israel. Nor is this inability to recognize Israel on a map uniquely Palestinian. It is shared by most Arab nations and extends the promise of wiping Israel off the map that failed in 1948-73, into the present.

Gittlin’s comparison is only really useful as “both-sides” rhetoric and is deployed to insist on tenets of the cult of the Occupation:

What must be said, and said again, and amplified, to Israel’s defenders as well as its detractors, is that if there is ever to be two-state coexistence, Israelis will have to accept the Green Line, however modified it may turn out to be by swaps in some (alas, not very immediate) future agreement. Every fantasy map is an insult, a ratification of injury, and a preface to more injury still. The same goes for every Middle Eastern map that wipes out the state of Israel.

So for Gitlin (and I’m guessing, also for you), the “Green Line compromise,” that Peace Nowniks thought was imminent in the 90s, is now, alas, pushed off, but the deal – land for peace along those lines – is still the only just solution, and anyone who thinks differently insults and injures that noble vision.

I don’t think that “Occupation and Green Line” is a useful way to think about the conflict. Nor do I think it’s going to help to judge people by whether they genuflect to the land-for-peace-along-67-lines solution. On the contrary, I think looking at Muslim triumphalism, without tripping over ourselves to self-accuse as an act of good faith, not only helps us understand the core of the conflict – and therefore help find useful responses – but it helps us understand the much larger phenomenon of global Jihad.

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