“A message to the Left: Israel has the right to exist”
Mitchell Cohen (Dissent co-editor) interviewed by Elisabetta Ambrosi 11 March 2008

This year the Turin Book Fair has chosen to honor Israel on its 60th anniversary of statehood. Novelists like David Grossman, A.B. Yehoshua, Amos Oz and Etgar Keret, among others, are invited. The Paris Book Fair has also invited Israel as its guest of honor. What do you think of these decisions, which are now vigorously debated?

I think it is the right decision in both cases. Israel has had a remarkable history, often tumultuous, sometimes unhappy, but remarkable nonetheless. Its ties to Europe are profound and important. Israel was created in response to centuries of persecution and therefore deserves solidarity. That is not the same thing as supporting all Israeli policies, just as having sympathy for the plight of Palestinians ought is not to be confused with apologetics for every act done by a Palestinian. It is not just Europe and Israel that gain when the Jewish state is honored at these book fairs. The Middle East peace process gains too. Israel has a vibrant literary culture and it is worth noting that many of the Israeli authors who are invited are outspoken doves and supporters of Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation. Unfortunately, there is a campaign these days from within parts of the western intellectual world, especially within parts of the left, to de-legitimize the Jewish state. This campaign is wrong-headed, often slanderous, and betrays the best ideals of the left and democracy.

I say this, indeed I would insist on this, as an American leftist who has in fact opposed many Israeli policies, especially the settlements, for decades. When these anti-Israeli campaigners hiss at “the Zionists,” they remind me of American neo-conservatives hissing at “leftists.” The hiss itself should tell you that there is something wrong. And note the fact that attempts in Britain to boycott Israeli universities were thwarted because they contravened anti-discrimination laws. From a political point of view, the efforts were also ridiculous. Israeli universities have been major bastions of dovish sentiment. Israel’s 60th anniversary should be celebrated and Israeli-Palestinian peace should be sought at the same time. If the only thing you can say to Israelis – and especially to their literary doves – is that a Jewish state incarnates evil, that Israelis should have no place of honor anywhere at any time, that Israelis are the original sinners of the world, that only Jews have no legitimate claim to the right of self-determination, then don’t expect Israelis to listen to you if you urge compromises on them. If your real point is that the state of Israel should not exist, they won’t listen to you either. And they shouldn’t. If your real point is a peace settlement based on a fair compromise, for example the idea of two states – one Israeli and Palestinian – then they should listen to you.

In a recent exchange, Martha Nussbaum, a liberal and very moderate voice, said she disagreed with the decision to invite only Israeli writers to the Turin and Paris Fairs. “I don’t see why,” she writes, adding “Palestinian academics need all the help they can get, given the bad state of their universities, so I am all in favor of inviting them to all conferences. No, I still don’t think it’s an ideological request; it’s like saying, don’t have conferences that are whites only or men only. Assuming that there are competent people in the other group, as I know there are in Palestine, it is a just demand for equal inclusion.” Tariq Ali has likewise asked, “Why did the Turin Book Fair not invite Palestinians in equal numbers? Thirty Israelis and thirty Palestinians writers might have been seen as a positive and peaceful gesture and a positive debate might have taken place.” Do you consider this request to be legitimate or does it represent an excess of political correctness?

I have great esteem for Martha Nussbaum’s work – I am happy to say that you can read some of it in Dissent Magazine which I help edit – but I don’t agree at all with her approach here. It takes the Turin controversy out of context: a campaign across borders to de-legitimize one state and apply standards to this one state that are applied to nobody else. A book fair should be able to honor Israel like any other state. Obviously there is no reason why Palestinian scholars – or, for that matter, Israeli Arabs as well as Israeli Jews – shouldn’t be invited to a book fair honoring Israel to discuss Israeli literature and also to argue about Israeli policies. But there is every reason to oppose a campaign that aims to hound Israel and Israelis everywhere and that is what is involved here. There are many places in the world where universities struggle to survive under bad political circumstances and they should all be helped, but Nussbaum’s analogy to inviting men only or whites doesn’t hold up and in my view lends itself to current efforts to depict Israel as an “apartheid state,” which is also a false analogy. The country has democratic elections in which every citizen, Jew or Arab, can vote and a parliament in which both Jews and Arabs serve as well as in the cabinet. In any event, Hamas poses much more of a threat to Palestinian intellectual and academic life than book fairs in Europe that honor Israel by inviting literary figures who, as it happens, have opposed many Israeli policies. Nussbaum took a very honorable position in the argument over the British boycott (we published it in Dissent) and I think both Israelis and Palestinians should listen to and argue with her.

Tariq Ali is another matter. His position represents a classic case of what I call “the left that doesn’t learn” and it seems to be pretty similar to parts of the Italian far left from what I hear. In Ali’s case, it is really warmed over Trotskyism. I read his article about Turin. First, he says that he has “always” supported the right of Israel to exist, but then he declares immediately that Israel should be replaced by a “single Israel/Palestine.” This is the “only long-term solution,“ writes Ali, although he admits it is perhaps utopian. Let’s be serious: this means that Israel should not exist, and that is the position of the fundamentalist left rather than the open-minded left. Eliminate the twists and turns of his assertions and that is the real basis of his suggestion for the Turin Book Fair. Israelis might be forgiven by responding with an observation once made by Abba Eban, the late, dovish Israeli foreign minister: Israeli national suicide is not an internationalist obligation. Ali’s article depicts Israel’s birth as nothing more than a story of expulsion, killing, rape. But a left-wing Israeli might provide a different narrative. She might tell you that Israel’s independence was declared by the leader of a socialist party, David Ben-Gurion; that it was three years after a third of the Jewish people were exterminated; that during the extermination, the leader of the Palestinian national movement, Hajj Amin el-Husseini, was in Berlin cheering on the Third Reich. She might tell you that when the UN voted to partition Palestine into Arab and Jewish states in 1947, those hideous Zionists accepted compromise and the Arab world refused it. She might tell you that sixty years ago, the day after Israeli independence was declared, the country was invaded by half a dozen armies of the Arab League whose head, Azzam Pasha, stated, “This will be a war of extermination and a momentous massacre which will be spoken of like the Mongolian massacre and the Crusades.” So, yes, the Israelis fought back and might perhaps be forgiven for doing so. She might tell you too that some rotten things happened in the ensuing war; she might well acknowledge that Israel’s hands were not entirely clean, but she might add that she would like to hear an Arab dove make a similar admission.

And she might say to Tariq Ali: ok, perhaps we’ll follow your advice. We’ll give up Israel for “Israel/Palestine” and even ask for European help in achieving this utopia. But please excuse us if we are just a little skeptical after all these decades of war and because of the West’s record when it comes to stopping genocide in our times. The slaughter of Muslims in Bosnia, for example. The slaughter of black Africans in Darfur, for example. So persuade us a little more before we create “Israel/Palestine.” First convince Indians and Pakistanis to give up their countries and to create “India/Pakistan.” And insist that the 10-12 million Germans who lost their homes at the end of World War II be given the “right of return” to Poland, the Czech republic and elsewhere. Let’s see how these utopian experiments work. If, in the interim, a book fair honors Poland, demand that there be an equal number of Polish and German authors. If a book fair honors Palestine, blacklist it if it does not invite one Israeli – a Zionist! – for each Palestinian author.

Tariq Ramadan, the controversial Muslin intellectual, has called for a boycott of the Turin Book Fair and the Paris Book Fair. He declared that “we cannot recognize the legitimacy of celebrating the state of Israel, which leaves death and desolation in its wake.” The issue, he said, “is not an Islamic or Arab question, but a matter of world conscience.” He clarified his remarks by saying that the boycott campaign was “intended as criticism of the ‘guest of honor.’ It is not an attempt to prevent Israeli authors from attending or from expressing themselves. It does not refuse to engage them in debate.” Sergio Chiamparino, Turin’s mayor, replied by saying that Ramadan’s position effectively denied Israelis “the right of free expression” and represented a “fundamentalist line” that was “unfortunately….invading Europe and corrupting many people, especially on the left.” How do you view Ramadan and the boycott in this context?

I have the impression that too many people on the left have a romance with Ramadan. It reminds me a little too much of romances with Stalinism seventy years ago. Of course it is not precisely the same thing. Double talk then was masked by the word “dialectical.” But Stalinists always had someone who could “explain” things properly to intellectuals, who turned out to be gullible when they thought they taking critical stances on their own societies. In fact, their societies needed a lot of criticism (as ours do today), but with a better basis. Those who saw things straight, like George Orwell or the American socialist Norman Thomas were roundly chastised for not being “truly” radical. In my view, the left ought to have been on the side of dissidents in the Soviet bloc, and not on the side of Leninist ideological acrobats. Today, the left should side with dissidents in the Muslim world all while protecting the civil rights of Muslims living in their societies (or anywhere else it is needed, for that matter). Look around today and you will find that instead of the old Stalinism, which was itself a species of left fundamentalism, there is a fetishism of “otherness.”

Instead, of using “otherness” as the useful analytic tool it should be, it has become the basis of apologetics and self-deception. Instead of being a real weapon against prejudice and for pluralism, it has made people susceptible to double-talk. I think all forms of fundamentalism and apologetics for fundamentalism need to be exposed. Here’s an Israeli example. Since 1967, Israeli extremists have argued for Jewish settlements in the occupied territories. They insisted often that this was for “security” reasons when their views were really derived from fundamentalism, either of a nationalist or religious a variety. But it is obvious that armies supply security, not settlements of fanatics. So legitimate arguments about Israeli self-defense were corrupted by this double-talk. Some Israeli governments spoke finally of a “moratorium” on settlements, but they should have stopped them, period. The state of Israel is as legitimate as every other state, settlements of religious-nationalist extremists beyond the 1967 border are not.

But now, consider Ramadan’s famously elliptical positions about stoning women. If you look on his website you will find his sponsorship of a petition supporting a “moratorium” on stoning women for certain behavior in Muslim countries. This is, he explains, so that a debate can begin. A “moratorium”? To begin a debate about religious legitimation of stoning women? Let’s imagine that someone takes the quote by Ramadan in your question to me but makes a few changes: “We cannot recognize the legitimacy of celebrating Islam, which leaves death and desolation in its wake – like 9/11 and the stoning of women. Islam cannot be given an honorable status but since we are liberal we allow Muslims free expression.” Ramadan would denounce anyone who said something like this as a slick, double-talking bigot and he would be absolutely right to do so. But what shall we say when someone refuses to distinguish the state of Israel (which was a response to centuries of persecution), from various policies of Israeli governments and then adds, well, we refuse to grant this country any honorable place in the world of nations, even at a book fair, but of course we allow Israeli writers free speech. I’d ask: Why do you bother? Why will you give them this free speech? So you can have a “conversation” explaining to them how their country spins on its own axis of evil? Has Mr. Ramadan posted a petition calling for a moratorium on relations with Sudan so a debate can begin on the religious legitimacy of what is happening in Darfur. Will he seek to blacklist any book fair that invites states from the Arab League, of which Sudan is a member?

The French-Moroccan novelist Tahar Ben Jelloun opposed the boycott, arguing it would “give the state of Israel grounds to present itself not as an occupier of the Palestinian territories, but as a victim.” He also said that “Boycotting the next Turin Book Fair won’t pave the way for peace and reconciliation.” He adds, “Criticize the policies of a state. Criticize a novel on its literary merits.” One of the better arguments in the entire debate about Turin is that literature and politics are two separate zones and criticisms of the two areas should be distinct. But what if someone objects that an invitation of Israeli writers to Europe to celebrate the Israeli state’s 60th anniversary cannot be, by definition, politically neutral.

I think Ben Jelloun’s refusal to boycott should be saluted and I, for one, hope he goes further and visits Israel, not just to lecture about French and Arabic literature but to present his critical views about Israeli policies in a public dialogue with Jewish and Arab Israeli intellectuals. I would urge Israelis to listen well to him, especially to what he has to say about the Palestinians. There is a basis for serious and honest conversation, which I don’t see in Ramadan or Ali. And wouldn’t it be a good thing if he invited Israeli writers to similar exchanges with Arab and Arab-European writers in Paris and Morocco? Actually, I don’t separate literature and politics so easily. Good literature has to be about important things, compelling aspects of human life. Politics is certainly one of them. There is good political literature and bad political literature; it is bad when it is tendentious. The relation between politics and culture is complicated. There are great novels animated by bad ideas and bad novels animated by good ideas. I guess I think we must address the various ideas in them along with the literary qualities and see how they interact. So, yes, inviting Israeli writers is not politically neutral just as boycotting them is not just a matter of “conscience.” You do have to make a choice, as Sartre used to say: does the state of Israel have the same right to exist as other states or is it to be demonized like none other (and, I should add, rather like the Jews were once singled out in Europe). If you believe it has a right to exist (say, within the 1967 borders), then it is perfectly legitimate to criticize this or that government policy (and it is not at all anti-Semitic to do so). It is another matter if your goal is really Israel’s abolition rather than a real compromise between Israelis and Palestinians to end this long, painful conflict.

A black list was published on line by a neo-Nazi Italian blog in the midst of all these debates about Turin. There were 162 names listed as Jewish or pro-Jewish. Moshe Kantor, president of the European Jewish Congress, responded with a strong warning about the rise of anti-Semitism and xenophobia, even raising the specter of a another “Crystal Night.” Elan Steinberg, executive director of the World Jewish Congress, denounced an “Axis of Evil” in Italy, quoting Pope Benedict XVI’s decision to reactivate prayers dating from the Council of Trent that call on the Jews to accept Jesus. Do you agree with the these estimations? Are there new, covert and dangerous forms of anti-Semitism that have infected the left too? Your recent article in Dissent seems to suggest this.

I think anti-Semitism is a real issue today. I wouldn’t exaggerate it, but I also would not underestimate it or its potential. I doubt that there will be a “Crystal Night” in Western Europe, but history plays tricks sometimes. We need to be honest about the underlying discourse. How different is a neo-Nazi blacklist like this from conspiratorial insinuations about an “Israel lobby” that controls Washington or the old canard about a “Jewish lobby” dominating world finance? Beyond basic debunking of this sort of mindset, I think a broad twofold response is needed, a response that is universalist and particularist. The universalist aspect: strengthen and reinforce the universalist values and institutions of liberal democracy, insisting on tolerance, egalitarianism, and democratic humanism and citizenship. I am a social democrat (or you can call me a socialist – I don’t fetishize labels) so I also think social and economic inequality must be addressed. It damages greatly the fabric of democracy. I would also stress the importance of a secular public realm. I worry that the aggressive injection of religiosity into public life in recent times promotes intolerance. We’ve seen some baneful effects of this in the US, courtesy of the religious right. If the Pope wants to promote the idea that Jews are deficient, he should be prepared for intense scrutiny of and argument with his beliefs in public, down to their basics. Frankly, I think it would be wiser to avoid those sort of theological claims and arguments. Better, I think, to promote mutual respect and to secure the separation of religion and state. I admire the French tradition of laïcité, even if it sometimes goes too a little too far (such as the recent headscarf law).

Being universalist doesn’t mean negating the importance of particularism, which is a simple fact of human life. I believe in rooted cosmopolitanism not integral cosmopolitanism. It is not easy to balance the claims of universalism and particularism or to specify their intersection and interaction. Still, we need to remember that it is simplistic, dangerously so, to claim that all problems must be solved in a one way, by one formula. Prejudice against Muslims is not abstract; it is question of discrimination against Muslims because they are Muslims. If I were European, I would support affirmative action programs to benefit poor Muslim and immigrant minorities. I support smart affirmative action programs in the U.S., to counteract inequalities of racial and gender. Equality before the law is insufficient. You can’t tell people, “You are equal legally, presto, the impact of centuries of discrimination is abolished.” Anti-Semitism targeted Jews as Jews, not as abstractions; specific problems require specific solutions. I see the creation of Israel as a type of affirmative action too, a response to centuries of persecution.

My article in Dissent’s Winter issue entitled Anti-Semitism and the Left that Doesn’t Learn, grapples with just this sort of issue. Back in the 1920s and 1930s, part of the left told Jews that world revolution was on the horizon, every problem including anti-Semitism would be resolved by it. This was very bad advice but some people still cannot get it out of their systems. The founders of Israel – they were in fact the Zionist Left – insisted on being universal and particularist at the same time. They were not always successful, sometimes far from it, but they dominated Israel for its first decades. The historical displacement of their movement, the old social democratic labor movement, by right-wing nationalists (Begin, Netanyahu) and myths about them is one important source of Israel’s woes. But that is a separate question from left-wing anti-Zionism in Europe, which has a longer history. Today you hear people say, “I’m anti-Zionist but not anti-Semitic.” In principle, anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism are not the same things. The problem is that there is considerable and disturbing amount of overlap these days, and phrases like this often mask mental patterns that either replicate traditional anti-Semitic discourse (consciously or not) or they mask what is effectively a demand to abolish the Jewish state. If you criticize Israeli settlements in the occupied territories (as I do), that is one thing. If you think that there is nothing Hamas can do that is not the fault of an Israeli, that is something else. And if you blame the Jewish state in every instance instead of criticizing Jerusalem’s policies when they are wrong and praising them when they are right, don’t be so shocked if general anti-Jewish sentiment also intensifies, for example in Europe.

Social protest is often linked to issues of secularism and religion. There are cases in which artists and writers have chastised religion in irreverent ways, especially Islam. It has even led to deaths. Italy has a similar, if much less violent issue with the Catholic Church. A Left government fell recently in Italy, and this was hurried along by the Pope’s decision not to speak at an important event at a major university in Rome (where he had been invited to inaugurate the academic year) because of protests against him by faculty and students. Politicians and journalists across the political spectrum rushed to express solidarity with Benedict. Should religion be immune from criticism? Should there be a right to speak without facing protests or do you have to accept criticism if you enter the public realm?

I cannot comment specifically on the Italian events because I am not an expert on Italian affairs. But in general terms, I think that no person and no doctrine can be immune from public criticism if they enter into a democratic public realm. A free public culture rests on equality of its participants. Strong civil liberties are a premise of it. That means everyone must have the right to be heard but it cannot mean that nobody can protest your views. Irreverence and especially political satire are healthy things in a free, democratic society. Gratuitous or prejudicial insult is not. It is not always easy to distinguish between them and there are grey areas. After all, cartoons are cartoonish by definition and believers are often outraged by any question posed to their belief system. Perhaps it would be best for political satirists to worry a bit about the distinction between irreverence and gratuitous insult and for believers, of whatever faith, to get used to what an open society really means, especially if they want to assert their religions in the public domain. In a free society, you have to put up with things you don’t especially like, you have to hear things you think should not be said, and in some cases, in fact, they should not be. But you have to put up with it. Likewise the two Tariqs, Ramadan and Ali, may be offended by honoring Israel at a book fair, but they have to put up with it. They have a right to establish their Index and to call for placing the state of Israel on an international blacklist, but frankly, when it comes to Israel, they both sound rather fundamentalist to me, one religious and the other leftist. Alas, they will have to put up with criticisms from the left of their efforts to demonize Israel.

Forty years ago, in 1968, romantic revolutionary movements spread across European and American university campuses. Do we need “another ‘68” today, with its will to utopia and change? Or are we simply stuck with conservative realism now that Marxist and socialist belief systems have dissolved and so many seem pacified by consumerism?

I certainly hope we are not stuck with conservative realism or conservative idealism, for that matter. After eight years of the Bush administration, I’d like to be liberated from both. There are many ways of looking at 1968. If you just look at the year itself, it was pretty disastrous. In the U.S. we began it with Lyndon Johnson as president and we ended it with Richard Nixon. In the interim Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated, the anti-war forces were defeated at the Democratic convention and there was blood all over Chicago’s streets. Vietnamese and Americans continued to die in an absurd war in southeast Asia. In Paris, the barricades went up and then down. In the end the Gaullists were firmly in power, and they won the national elections while left parties lost support. Soviet tanks ended the great hopes of the Prague spring. What was the aftermath of 1968 in American politics? A four decade move to the right. I am from that generation of the left that was shaped in very basic ways by 1968, although I am on its younger side. I was 16, in high school, and involved mainly in anti-Vietnam war activities. I went to demonstrations, but most of my efforts went into handing out leaflets and stuffing envelopes for Senator Eugene McCarthy’s insurgent anti-war candidacy against Johnson in the Democratic primaries. I also read a biography of Eugene V. Debs, the early American socialist leader and became a socialist. I had read The Communist Manifesto a year or so before but had some trouble figuring out what was this thing, the “boor-gee-oh-see,” as, untutored, I pronounced bourgeoisie. I became increasingly radical after 1968 because reformism and “working within the system” seemed to have failed so miserably, even brutally. (I also started to get Marx right). But now I think our revolt against this failure also failed and was often wrong-headed.

If we speak of 1968 as emblematic of a decade, of the 1960s rather than as just one year, some very good things came out of it. I think civil rights was the most important moral issue in domestic American politics (and, of course, long before the 1960s). Racism is still a big problem in the U.S., but the fact that there is a serious black contender for the presidency testifies to substantive change, even if he loses. The status of women has transformed in many positive ways, although there is still a lot to do. These are important social gains, but we have never been able to put together a political coalition and program to move the country left like Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal did. And one of the most important mobilizers for good social policy, the unions, declined. It is a very mixed picture. Nineteen sixty eight produced a lot of good social idealism, and we could use a whole lot more of that now, especially after these dreadful Bush years. It also produced a good deal of self-destructive, violent utopianism which alienated many people from the left. We need to remember both sides of the 1960s. I suppose that is why I consider myself both a ’68er and a ‘compromised social democrat,’ as the radical left used to brand people who had become left reformers. Is there a contradiction here? Yes. Too bad. We don’t need to retrieve the spirit of revolt just for the sake of revolt; we need idealism that helps to make life better for all citizens. We don’t need nostalgia and self-congratulatory élan and we don’t need to phantasize that in the 21st century, the post-colonial world combined with the internet will produce a substitute for Marx’s proletariat. We need practical proposals to strengthen democracy, to address inequality at home, to prevent markets from trumping every social value, and to begin to overcome the brutal poverty that consumes so many lives in what is nowadays called the post-colonial world.

Mitchell Cohen is professor of political science at the Baruch College and Graduate Center of CUNY and co-editor of Dissent.

Related articles:
1) “A message to the Left: Israel has the right to exist”
2) “Dear Mitchell Cohen, attacking the Left is pure evasion”
3) “Dear Andy Arato, you miss the point”
4) “Supporters of Israel often come close to the most obvious ethnocentrism”



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