Sunday, November 26, 2006

Jewish Liberalism/Difficult Freedom

Alan Wolfe, a professor at Boston College, has added his voice to the unending chorus of hand wringers desperate to identify Judaism not only with mainstream liberalism but as mainstream liberalism. In his article “Free Speech, Israel and Jewish Illiberalism” in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Wolfe concentrates, of course, on Israel and the myriad attempts of its attackers to portray themselves as poor, oppressed, and victimized, when they are none of these things, Wolfe constructs a narrative of “Jewish illiberalism” which has nothing whatsoever to do with the Jews and very little to do with liberalism. It has everything to do with the politics of the Diaspora, the failure of liberalism to answer the needs of the Jewish people, and Zionism’s critique of precisely this failure.

Wolfe springs to the defense, for instance, of Tony Judt, who has become the court scribe of liberal triumphalism:
Judt, who once lived in Israel and served in its military, has emerged as a strong critic of a Jewish state. Basing statehood on ethnicity or religion, he wrote in a 2003 article, is an "anachronism." The only possible future for Israel, he said in "Israel: The Alternative," published in The New York Review of Books, is as a binational state. For many Jews, such positions come close to denying Israel's right to exist…

Judt had been invited to speak in October on "The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy" by a group called Network 20/20, which regularly rents the Polish Consulate in New York as the site for its events. Although the Anti-Defamation League, whose leading officials view Judt as an Israel hater, denies pressuring the consulate to cancel the talk, it acknowledges having made a call inquiring about the event. That conversation, in turn, led the Poles, who tend to be very sensitive on any issues remotely touching on anti-Semitism, to cancel Judt's talk — one hour before it was supposed to take place.

In response to the cancellation, two protest letters were sent off to the ADL's national director, Abraham H. Foxman. One, organized by Norman Birnbaum, an emeritus professor at Georgetown University Law Center, called Foxman's actions "political vigilantism" and labeled Foxman himself "an adversary of our traditions." I did not sign it. As unhappy as ADL's phone call made me, Foxman is neither a person who takes the law into his own hands, as the term vigilante implies, nor, given the ADL's commendable record of combating extremism, un-American.
I shall make only a few specific objections to these paragraphs, but they are important ones. Firstly, to call for a binational state is not only to deny Israel’s right to exist, it is to call for an end to that existence in practical terms. The fact that Judt is considered a “liberal” despite calling for the annihilation of an entire state is rather telling, but not particularly accurate, and we do not need his defenders obfuscating the issue by attempting to relegate it to the realm of the purely theoretical. Judt objects to Zionism in theory, which is an issue for debate, but he also desires its destruction in real life, which is not. Then we are in the realm of life and death and not the amorphous wasteland of ideas. Ideas are important, but there can be an ethics of ideas. There cannot be an ethics of murder. No one has earned the right to destroy nations or peoples. As such, Judt’s cause, however much it may be couched in the language of the innocuous, is outside the realm of which Wolfe is speaking. That is, we are no longer discussing one man’s freedom of speech – a right which has hardly been repressed in any case, Judt having become more famous than he ever was since his call for Israel’s de-Judification – but rather discussing one nation’s existence or non-existence. We have moved, in other words, from words to the concrete. And the concrete has ethics utterly different from those of words. This distinction, lost on Wolfe, as it is on most Americans, being, as they are, far from Israel and far indeed from any of Israel’s immediate dangers, is typical of liberalism’s failure. It reduces the concrete to the word and thus makes sure of its failure.

It is this failure which goes to the heart of liberalism’s hatred of Zionism. Zionism proposes the concrete as an answer to the failure of words. Enough with your good will, says the Zionist, give me ground underneath my feet. This is no small thing, nor insignificant. The Weimar constitution was a model of liberalism at its most sublime and beautiful, the League of Nations a fine ideal, and the French revolution the epitome of liberal utopianism. We may go further back to Christianity’s creed of love for all, the Enlightenment’s ideology of tolerance and debate, the Marxist ideals of solidarity and equality… There is, in fact, no end to this graveyard of modernism, all of it leading, for the Jewish people, to precisely the same place: the Terror. Zionism’s success rests in the fact that it recognized earlier than any other Jewish movement an essential truth about liberalism’s professed ideals: they are completely meaningless. And that, for the Jewish people, this meaninglessness would mean destruction. For liberalism, which adores expansion, and the power that comes with expansion, this simple but undeniable critique, with Auschwitz itself as its ultimate proof, is an existential threat, as all critique is an existential threat to a universalist, and thus imperial, ideology.

It cannot be denied that there is a monstrous side to liberalism. In this, it is not alone, but the nature of this darkness is of the utmost importance. It is simply this: liberalism cannot stop its own expansion, it has no limits. As such, it cannot flinch at the inevitability of madness. When liberalism reaches its limits, it does not stop, it goes mad. We can find expression of this in Wolfe’s own autobiographical musings:
Aside from those who believe that there is no such thing as free speech, most intellectuals can be counted on to oppose efforts at censorship. In my own case, it was the Jewish environment in which I was raised that led me to value free speech and expression. Although I grew up a secular Jew - my bar mitzvah was as pro forma as they come, and after that, I have returned to synagogue only a handful of times - I was spoon-fed a version of Jewish liberalism in which we Jews were always expected to come to the defense of unpopular ideas. When American Nazis announced in 1977 their intention to march in Skokie, Ill. — a town in which one-sixth of the population was related to a Holocaust survivor - the American Civil Liberties Union defended their right to do so, and many of the leaders of and contributors to the ACLU were Jewish. I recall taking considerable pride in the ACLU's actions, not out of Jewish self-hatred, but out of pride in Jewish liberalism.
There is little one can say in response to such complete abandonment of all reason, except to simply point out the obvious: liberalism has created a Jewish culture in which the highest expression of Jewish pride is the defense of those who would, and have, turned them and their children into soap and lampshades. Sometimes ideas are unpopular for very good reason. The fact that many Jews of my generation; in the shadow of the second intifada, 9/11, and Iran’s desperate attempt to emulate precisely these gentlemen in whose defense Wolfe takes so much pride, an attempt which has aroused a similarly impotent response from the doyennes of liberalism; find this brand of “Jewish liberalism” at best archaic and useless and, at worst, suicidal minstrelsy, should come as a surprise to no one.

Even more disturbingly, Wolfe freely admits to the fact that none of the so-called illiberal actions of various Jews and Jewish organizations resulted in any damage whatsoever to the objects of their criticism or any silencing of their ideas. Of course, this is of little consequence to him, as all practical effects apparently are:
Suppression, however, is not the issue; in our open society, it is close to impossible to suppress any idea. The important question deals with intentions, not consequences. In all of the cases I've mentioned, a troubling number of Jews had no intention at all of rushing to defend the rights of people with whom they disagreed, and that alone is cause for concern.
Unfortunately, Wolfe’s litany of the suppressed, Juan Cole, Human Rights Watch, Walt and Mearsheamer’s anti-Israel screed, are not people with whom one simply disagrees. They are people who make charges and practice forms of intellectual violence which violate the basic dignity and pride of the Jewish people. They do so, moreover, through lies, unhinged rhetoric, unfair double standards, and, at times, as in the case of Human Rights Watch, through Orwellian distortions of language which completely devalue human life should said life belong to members of the Jewish nation. To Wolfe, of course, all of this is irrelevant. And it is important to understand why. Because if he can take pride in defending Nazis than there is indeed little he can object to in defending Juan Cole. For Wolfe, the actual agenda of these various figures and organizations is irrelevant. The only thing of any importance is that Jews continue their self-abasement in the name of liberalism, a creed whose goal is their destruction. I emphasize, liberalism seeks to destroy Judaism because it must. Because it cannot stop and will not stop. Jewish particularism, the very existence of the Jewish people as a particular nation, a particular civilization, a particular people, is an affront to liberalism’s universalist imperialism. Judaism and liberalism are opposed not because of Judaism but because of liberalism. Judaism desires to exist and to continue to exist. Liberalism desires to subsume and become everything that exists. The result of this contradiction, and if liberalism is incapable of anything, it is accepting contradiction (Judaism, on the other hand, exists in its contradictions) are fairly plain to see. The primary concern of certain of our intellectuals appears to be, not that liberalism has turned itself against the Jews, but that the Jews are insufficient collaborators in the project of their own sublimation.

One is tempted to simply lament such an impasse, but this will get us nowhere. We should not be seeking merely to analyze but rather to ascend. To move up from the ash heap of liberalism to something new and, perhaps, better. How such an ascension will be accomplished and what its contours and limits will be remains unclear, but its necessity is obvious. It may, in fact, find its basis in precisely the “Jewish illiberalism” that Wolfe so decries. In the ethical particularism and the specified, anti-imperialist form of freedom it embraces. The “difficult freedom” expressed in the works of Emmanuel Levinas. Without it, we may find ourselves with a “Jewish liberalism” in which liberalism has devoured the Jewish, and with it the very rights and freedoms it claims to value and defend. We may, in fact, soon have to choose between “Jewish liberalism” and difficult freedom. When this moment comes, it may be our very illiberalism that saves us from the abyss into which liberalism plunges both its victims and its priests.