I Assure You, I Am Permitted to Oppose the Existence of Any and All Nation-States
even one that's very very important to you
There have been a number of pieces lately detailing the terrible imposition on free speech and other civil liberties that have been inflicted on pro-Palestinian groups and people at the behest of Israel’s lobbying and public relations arms. I think this one in the New Yorker by Andrew Marantz is a really good overview. (I also endorse this Jay Caspian Kang piece about the bigoted piece of shit who harassed an innocent Muslim food cart vendor who nonetheless should not be prosecuted for what was, I’m sorry, protected political speech.) Another from Michelle Goldberg was recently published in the New York Times. A section within it reads
there’s a fierce political debate about what antisemitism is. Supporters of Israel often promote a definition of antisemitism put out by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance in 2016 that defines rejection or demonization of the Jewish state as a form of anti-Jewish bigotry. According to the alliance’s definition, one example of contemporary antisemitism is “claiming that the existence of a state of Israel is a racist endeavor.” Another is applying double standards to Israel by “requiring of it a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.” The question of what constitutes double standards is not one that can be easily codified, and one of the experts who helped draft the alliance’s definition argues against its use to circumscribe campus speech.
Let us leave every and all other concerns aside for now: I am and must be an anti-Zionist for reasons that precede any particular opinion about Israel or the Palestinians. I am opposed to religious characters for states, whether actively theocratic or not; I am opposed to ethnonationalism specifically; I am opposed to nationalism generally. None of these beliefs stem from a rejection of Jews or the Jewish religion or Israel, but the other way around - these are core ethical and political beliefs that I hold that militate against support for the supposed right of Israel (or any other state) to exist, and which require that I dismiss the fundamentally religious claims that the Zionist project makes over Palestine. These ever-expanding definitions of anti-Semitism, now codified by government (and, I assure you, Republicans and their liberal Zionist enablers will work tirelessly to make criticism of Israel actively illegal) would prohibit all manner of basic philosophical and political positions that should be protected speech under any definition. The religious opposition to the modern state of Israel found in some Hasidic sects, orthodox Marxism, all manner of libertarian and anarchist conceptions of a righteous future, every impulse that opposes the modern fiction of the nation-state - all ground up, rendered impermissible, under the insistence that to oppose the governmental body that is the modern state of Israel is in and of itself a form of interpersonal bigotry. It’s a casual, incidental destruction of the entire philosophical world of internationalism.
I’m not going to give you a discount argument against the nation-state in this space; you can, and should, read entire books about the subject. You could do a lot worse than to read work by the Anderson brothers, Benedict and Perry. Imagined Communities has been assailed by critics on both the left and the right, but it remains an indispensable introduction to the basic facts of nationalism - that it’s a profoundly recent phenomenon, and one which was explicitly invented to support imperialist warfare. Marxist critics have regularly pointed to the French Revolution in the late 18th-century as the birth of contemporary nationalism. Napoleon is said to have stated that “A man does not have himself killed for a half-pence a day or for a petty distinction. You must speak to the soul in order to electrify him” - speaking to the soul, that is, through reference to the concept of France, some-such unified thing as a French nation, where for generations those concepts were fuzzy and indistinct, with ever-changing borders. (The most obvious European example is what we now called Germany, which did not exist in any uniform sense until the 1870s - and then, immediately after its invention, German nationalism spawned the two most horrific wars in world history.) But historical arguments are not a requirement of anti-nationalist sentiment. All that’s required is to recognize that nations are literal fictions, invented by human beings with no transcendent or permanent reality, and that in a few hundred years nationalism has been responsible for more bloodshed and misery than any other human belief.
For myself, Marxism interfaces comfortably with this preexisting folk internationalism. Marxism is an internationalist philosophy; national divisions are among the many societal tools that prevent organization within the working classes, the proletariat. Only by transcending such artificial boundaries can the proletariat wrestle control of society from the ruling class. “Workers of the world, unite” is as famous of an international slogan as exists, and the sentiment stems from the most basic elements of Marxist doctrine. I know that most people reading this don’t take Marxism seriously, but all that is required for this specific conversation about Zionism is to concede that I take it seriously. And, if I do, then my rejection of Zionism stems inevitably from my basic moral and political values and not from antipathy towards Jews. This is precisely the kind of complication that the efforts to codify anti-Zionism as legally anti-Semitism attempt to wash away.
For the record, many Marxists and other forms of internationalists often take pains to distinguish the nation from the nation-state, national identity from nationalism. (Here’s a piece from this year in Jacobin that does exactly that.) A nation is a people, while a state is a governmental body. Some states (like Spain) contain many peoples. Before 1947, there was a Jewish nation even though there was no Jewish state; Vatican City is a state that does not contain or reflect any nation. Etc. It happens that, for my part, I think that if human beings are to have a future free of violence and greed, eventually nations have to go, as well as states. But that’s not relevant here. What’s relevant here is that rejection of the nation state and all individual nation states is a time-honored and perfectly rational position that has no origins in anti-Jewish bigotry.
Of course, the question of Israel’s basic nature - again, leaving all concerns for the Palestinians aside - is complicated by its status as an ethnostate. Again, I have to point out that as much as people hate hearing that term associated with Israel, you simply can’t engage with the work of Theodor Herzl and the modern Zionist project without accepting that that is what Zionism is, a project in ethno-nationalism. “Jewish” famously denotes both a religion and an ethnic group; a Jewish state must therefore have an ethnic and Jewish character. And this has obvious and ugly consequences for Israel’s essential being. Many people, not just radical lefties but all manner of basic proceduralist liberals, will tell you that states having ethnic or religious characters is extremely fraught business. So many of the basic ugly realities of what Israel is, beneath the surface of “the only democracy in the Middle East,” stem from the fact that an ethnostate cannot help but discriminate, cannot help but create second-class citizens. It’s common for defenders of Israel to point out that there is a sizable minority of Arab Israeli citizens within the country, but they’re much less likely to acknowledge that those citizens face systemic discrimination, which has intensified since the start of the latest conflict. But what did you expect? That an ethnonationalist project wouldn’t result in people pursuing ethnic supremacy?
Whenever people say that Israel’s status as a Jewish state is only symbolic, ornamental, I wonder what Herzl would have said about that idea.
Which brings us to the notion of a double standard. I’m not sure why people think this is all such a gotcha - yes, I do oppose all ethnonationalism! I do not recognize any state’s “right to exist,” given that rights accrue to human beings and not to violent abstractions like states. When it comes to Irish reunification, for example, I find the appeals to ethnic identity, to be weird anachronisms. I support the liberation of Northern Ireland from the continuing hold of British imperialism; that this would expand the Republic of Ireland, a nation state, is just one of those little compromises you have to live with when your political values are as unpopular as mine are. Do I want Iran to be a theocracy? Of course not. I can’t wait for the mullahs to fall from power - but I don’t support the most likely way they get there, which is with the United States destroying the existing government and installing a pliable authoritarian neoliberal client state in its place. Japanese nationalism resulted in some of the worst atrocities in world history, and I’m glad that it was largely defeated, though it pops up again from time to time in a disquieting way. I want Native Americans to have economic prosperity, peace, dignity, and autonomy, but unlike some I have no interest in that arising from a new nation state. I could go on.
So why all the focus on Israel? Because Israel is different, thanks to the efforts of Israel’s biggest supporters. As I’ve written before, Zionists constantly step from one foot to another when it comes to the basic question of whether Israel is exceptional or not, special or not. When justifying 75 years of dispossession for the Palestinian people, they say of course Israel is exceptional, of course Israel is special. The Jews were promised the land by God, they have been expelled from country after country, they endured the Holocaust, they are a wholly unique case for which we must permit every exception. This exceptional status holds precisely as long as it takes us to get to the supposedly unfair fixation on Israel’s crimes, at which point we are to understand that Israel is a wholly unexceptional country and that there is no legitimate reason that an American would focus particularly on its sins. You can’t have it both ways! If you insist that Israel’s very existence is in some sense special, you cannot then rage out whenever people focus on Israel to a special degree. Every year, each and every American has more than 4 billion ironclad reasons to pay special attention to Israel. As long as Israel takes billions and billions of dollars in American tax dollars, as long as we grant Israel’s government a unique amount of interoperability with our defense and espionage apparatus, as long as we act as the great diplomatic umbrella that has shielded Israel from consequences within the international community again and again, it is nonsensical and disingenuous to ask “why Israel?” We could make a deal and subject Israel to less criticism in exchange for Israel not receiving any American aid. But I don’t think Israelis would like that trade very much.
I could also point out that if the status of being “the only democracy in the Middle East” means anything at all, it must entail special attention. If you want to be shielded for supposedly embodying those ideals, you must be ready to be harshly criticized on the grounds that you aren’t embodying them.
Trying to protect Israel from criticism this way may very well result in a lot of people shutting up; it is not a conspiracy theory but rather a statement of bare fact that on no other issues are the risks of being cancelled more intense than when it comes to criticizing Israel. But in the long run, these government actions only demonstrate the coziness between liberal Zionists and our batshit apocalyptic Christian conservative movement, lend support to those who spout lazy anti-Semitic tropes about how the Jews control government and media, and ultimately convince a younger generation that rabid support of Israel is tied up with a rejection of basic progressive values. There’s so much catastrophizing in the media about how young people (and young Jews especially) have come to be harshly critical of Israel. Do you honestly think that caucusing with Republicans to pass heavy-handed and flatly unconstitutional legislation is helping you stem that tide? Really? From a pure perspective of a lifelong student of discourse and politics, I am amazed at the senseless approach liberal Zionists are currently taking, going along with the Christopher Rufos of the world for transitory political gain. This stuff is only going to hurt you in the long run. It won’t be Israel’s 9/12 forever.
Let me add the part which will surely inspire yet-more lazy accusations of anti-Semitism: among the most tiresome and insulting elements of this whole debate lies this insistence that Israel and Zionism must be the exception to every rule. Even many people who are sympathetic to Israel (or, even more, unsympathetic to the Palestinians) find it strange how this one international ethnic conflict can plunge the entire American political system into chaos. I have laid out this basic point many times in my life - I am an internationalist; I reject ethnonationalism; I think religion should have no part in government; therefore I must be an anti-Zionist. And I have been told very sincerely that, sorry, I have to set all of those basic moral values aside because the Zionist project is just too important. Inevitably, they reach for reference to the Holocaust and dangle it over the conversation like a trump card, never stopping to consider that it was German nationalism that made the Holocaust possible. (Who have been hurt more by the very concept of “blood and soil” than the Jewish people?) I find it personally quite tiresome; if you want to defend Israel’s government and actions, simply do so. I will listen. But more, I think in the long run all of this will prove contrary to what liberal defenders of Israel want. If you want Israel to live in peace and prosperity, the only way there is through justice for the Palestinians; and if you want Israel to be discussed as just another normal country, you have to start acting like it is one.