Sunday, September 02, 2007

From two of my favourite "Engageniks":

Anthony Julius, first:

Anthony Julius reviews the new book Jews and Power by Ruth R. Wisse in the New York Times: Ruth Wisse has written a book on a topic that excites a great deal of attention now, but she has written it from an unusual perspective. Her book is not about the power that Israel exercises over the Palestinians, nor is it about the power that the “Israel lobby” is commonly thought to exercise over United States foreign policy. Israel and the “lobby” now tend to be regarded in Europe and perhaps also, but to a lesser extent, in the United States, as Jewish projects inimical to the causes of justice and international security. A new book on either of these topics would be but a minor addition to a substantial industry — that Israel oppresses Palestinians by denying them a state, and oppresses Americans by denying them control over their state, has become the received wisdom of the times.

A book, on the other hand, that celebrates the Jewish return to sovereign power, in all its promise and complexity, is as unusual as it is welcome. Wisse has written just such a work. “Jews and Power,” a volume in a series that contains somewhat more pacific titles (“The Dairy Restaurant” is forthcoming), is a good, fighting book that contains much information in few pages, and offers a simple argument. Zionism is the solution to Jewish powerlessness; Israel is the guarantor of the Jews’ safety. Further, the Jewish nation’s resumption of sovereignty in 1948 created opportunities for the Jews to bring benefits to humanity as a whole.

“Jews and Power,” then, is a Jewish book, though the topic is of immense — one might say disablingly immense — interest to anti-Semites, too. What is the difference between “Jews and power” and “Jewish power”? “Jews and power” is empirical, while “Jewish power” is fantastical. “Jews and power” identifies a real, changing relationship between, on the one hand, the Jews conceived as a nation, plural but one; and on the other hand, political power conceived, at its apex, as self-government by a people in a nation-state. Jews’ relation with political power, and more particularly sovereign political power, has been very remote indeed for the longest periods of human history. This distance has rarely worked to the Jews’ advantage; too often, it has ensured catastrophe. “Jewish power,” by contrast, is an imaginary, unwavering project, malign in its intentions. None of this is apparent to the anti-Semite, for whom Jewish power has been a constant, ever working to the disadvantage of non-Jews.

Wisse begins her book, “The loss of Jewish sovereignty was the defining political event in the life of the Jewish people.” And she ends it, “In defending themselves, Jews have been turned into the fighting front line of the democratic world.” Within these boundaries, marked by loss and retrieval, Wisse offers an entire history of the Jews. What begins with a reverse for the Jews concludes with a gain for the world, or the democratic world. It is a story, then, with a provisional happy ending.

There are of course many ways to write the Jews’ history. Wisse’s way is to divide it into four exceptionally unequal periods. In the first, the Jews come into existence as a nation. In the second, very brief in duration, the Jews are organized in a state (for a while, indeed, in two states). In the third period, which extends from 70 A.D. to 1948, Jewish existence is marked by dispersion, subordination and intermittent persecution. In the last decades of this period, the Jews undertake a struggle to regain sovereignty in the land in which they last exercised it. This time coincides with the greatest calamity of dispersion, the Holocaust. But it is rapidly followed by the fourth period. With the establishment of the state of Israel, the Jews inaugurate a renewed period of sovereignty. Wisse tells the story of the third and fourth periods.

A professor of Yiddish and comparative literature at Harvard who escaped Nazi Europe as a child, Wisse writes, “I feel as if I have been writing this book all my life.” It is an experience that will resonate with many of her readers. It rehearses many of the arguments familiar to those Jews of the diaspora who have grown up in contact with the Zionist project. Certainly, the book reads as a setting-down of conclusions reached across several decades of controversy and reflection. But it also has a certain delicacy, in particular in its openness to alternative histories, alternative political arrangements. “It is worth considering how the Middle East might have evolved had Arab rulers accepted the partition of Palestine,” she writes. There would have been some voluntary shifts of population. Arab Palestine might have federated with Jordan. Regional priorities would have dictated new patterns of trade, commerce and development. Jews and Arabs who wanted to live in the other’s land could have traveled back and forth.

It is good to be reminded of such possibilities by someone who is also such a doughty defender of Israel. It has always been an aspect of Zionism’s utopianism, this vision of Jewish-Arab cooperation, a mutual flourishing in the one region. This book is both an acknowledgment of that openhearted, clearsighted desire for peace, but also — and so to speak — in the meantime, a celebration of the new Jewish ability to await its arrival. If there is not to be peace, Jews at least will be able to defend themselves against their self-declared enemies. This, in the end, is what it means for Jews to have power.

And Howard Jacobson, second:

A recent article by Robert Fisk seems to me to show this process at work. The piece was specifically about Mount Ararat and its symbolic significance to the Armenian people from whom it was taken after the Alexandropol Treaty of 1920, but in a more general way it asks us to think about the tragedy of dispossession. Indeed the first paragraph is nothing less than a hymn to yearning, touching on other people denied the land to which they belong, including Palestinians. It's because Robert Fisk's remarks about the Israel-Palestinian conflict are peripheral to his subject on this occasion that I consider them susceptible to the sort of reading we reserve for slips of the tongue, jokes, stutters, even dreams. Here is the paragraph in question.

There is nothing so infinitely sad – so pitiful and yet
so courageous – as a people who yearn to return to a land for ever denied them;
the Poles to Brest Litovsk, the Germans to Silesia, the Palestinians to that
part of Palestine that is now Israel. When a people claim to have settled again
in their ancestral lands – the Israelis, for example, at the cost of "cleansing"
750,000 Arabs who had perfectly legitimate rights to their homes – the world
becomes misty eyed.

Jews are not included in Robert Fisk's examples of the sad, the pitiful and the courageous. Poles, Germans, Palestinians, but not Jews. I don't say the omission is deliberate. Language has a will of its own. But the description of diasporic longing approximates so closely to Jewish longing that we anticipate a Jewish mention, and when it doesn't come we ask: is that because Jews are now held to be dispossessors themselves and are therefore, so to speak, disqualified?

Gradually, as these sentences unpleat, one notices that two laws of rhetoric are in operation, one for Jews, one for everyone else. The land 'for ever denied' the Palestinians is 'now Israel'. Note the force, in the context of immemorial denials, of that "now". Had Robert Fisk written that the land for ever denied Palestinians is the same land that was for ever denied Jews, he would, I think, have done more justice to the emotional intractability of the situation. As it is, he has actually reversed the roles of the participants, conferring upon the Palestinians, whose grievance however great is only recent, the ancient sorrows of the Jews.


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