Wednesday, July 19, 2006

The Ghetto of History

A great many voices have been raised in anger over this article by Richard Cohen in which he refers to Israel as a historical mistake. Cohen does not strike me as a hater of Israel. Most of the rest of the article is fairly supportive, but he has clearly accepted a mythology of sorts. A mythology based primarily in an Arab supremacist (or Muslim supremacist, if you prefer) reading of history. The basic premise lies in his opening paragraph:
The greatest mistake Israel could make at the moment is to forget that Israel itself is a mistake. It is an honest mistake, a well-intentioned mistake, a mistake for which no one is culpable, but the idea of creating a nation of European Jews in an area of Arab Muslims (and some Christians) has produced a century of warfare and terrorism of the sort we are seeing now. Israel fights Hezbollah in the north and Hamas in the south, but its most formidable enemy is history itself.
This is, of course, a mythology which has, at times, been echoed on the Israeli left and among the "New Historians", such as Benny Morris. It is, nonetheless, wholly racist and rather obviously so.

The mythology states, in effect, that there is no history but Arab history. There is no history but Muslim history. Zionism (and Zionism is what he is talking about here) is an alien force. A bizarre, demiurgical act of violence against the natural development of human events. I must emphasize the artificiality of this mythos. History is not natural. That is, the very idea of history as a natural development, operating under reasonable and autonomous rules, is itself a human creation. It is the Kantian a priori we require to understand the chaotic reality of events. As soon as this architecture of thought takes on the aspect of divinity, and this is what Cohen grants to it, it becomes a weapon, and not a means of knowledge.

What Cohen has accepted is a history as a weapon. A mythos as a weapon. This architecture denies Zionism because it must. Because if history is Arab, or history is Muslim, then history cannot also be Jewish. That is, there cannot be a history of the Jewish people or a Jewish people which acts within history and upon which history acts. This denial ends in the exile of Zionism. In an apartheid history which creates a metaphysical ghetto whose doors are locked upon the Jewish people. We are made unnatural, alien, and perverse. A mistake.

I know what Zionism is. It is difficult to express and even more difficult to explain. I leave it to better writers than myself. Over half a century ago German-Jewish intellectual Walter Benjamin, on the eve of his suicide in the face of inevitable Nazi capture, wrote the following:
A Klee painting named ‘Angelus Novus’ shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.
This storm is also Jewish history. And the Angel's desire, the desire to awaken the dead, to make whole the catastrophe, this is Zionism. It is the structure of catastrophe formed by these ever mounting debris which makes our history, which demands a reckoning with those who would deny us. Who would return us to the ghettos of history. It is this denial, this rape of history in the name of history, which finds its expression in the mythology which Mr. Cohen has so lamentably chosen to accept.