The right-wing seemingly never misses a chance to go after Barack Obama for his collectivism and alleged dislike of America. Yet when Obama embraced blood-and-soil tribalism openly and implied that America was not the “land of the free” for everyone, the right-wing apparently had nothing to say.
Why? The subject was Israel, and the right-wing shares Obama’s tribalist premises on that subject.
In his speech in Jerusalem on March 21, Obama said:
For the Jewish people, the journey to the promise of the State of Israel wound through countless generations. It involved centuries of suffering and exile, prejudice and pogroms and even genocide. Through it all, the Jewish people sustained their unique identity and traditions, as well as a longing to return home. And while Jews achieved extraordinary success in many parts of the world, the dream of true freedom finally found its full expression in the Zionist idea -- to be a free people in your homeland. That’s why I believe that Israel is rooted not just in history and tradition, but also in a simple and profound idea -- the idea that people deserve to be free in a land of their own.
The first half of the paragraph is full of fable and fabrication, though he’s right about suffering, prejudice, pogroms, and genocide. To understand what’s wrong with those sentences, consult Shlomo Sand’s two excellent books The Invention of the Jewish People and The Invention of the Land of Israel (both available for Kindle). Invention is not unique to the “Jewish people.” Many peoples and nations are the product of what Sand calls “mythistory.”
What I want to focus on in Obama’s statement is this:
And while Jews achieved extraordinary success in many parts of the world, the dream of true freedom finally found its full expression in the Zionist idea--to be a free people in your homeland.
Obama is saying that Jews need to live apart in Israel or they can’t be truly free. Think about the implications. Something about Jews makes it impossible for them to be really at home anywhere—including in what the right-wing (and presumably Obama) tout as the freest nation in the history of the world. So Jews need an ethno-religiously exclusivist state. That view amounts to a wholesale rejection of the western liberal tradition, which was inclusive and universalist and in which all people have the same rights without being seen as members of a tribe. Isn’t it the official line that this is what made America great? So why is Obama rejecting it? And why is the right-wing conspicuously silent?
Of course the right-wing can’t raise any objection because it is staunchly in Israel’s corner, which means endorsing its medieval notions. (Forgive me for writing as though the right-wing is monolithic. It is not. Suffice it to say there are honorable exceptions.) So the right-wing is stuck (like Obama) with a contraction: Jews aren’t fully free and at home in what they claim is the greatest and freest country on earth. This seems to be an insult both to Jews and the United States, but no one will say it. (And people wonder why Chuck Hagel once called the Israel Lobby “intimidating”—before being intimidated into withdrawing the charge.)
Obama and the right-wing would find their position untenable if they had a few facts. Throughout Jewish history, few Jews have had any desire or perceived obligation to move to Israel. (Most of those who went wished to die there in order to be near Jerusalem when the messiah comes and raises the dead.) When the Zionist movement was launched in the late 19th century, most American Jews rejected it firmly; for one thing, they couldn’t imagine a freer place than America. They also realized that there is no Jewish People—no race, no ethnic group, no tribe—but only many culturally diverse people worldwide who (in different ways) embrace Judaism. American Jews were explicitly—vehemently—anti-Zionist and would have been even if Palestine were a “land without a people” (which it certainly was not).
Worldwide, Zionism was a minority position among Jews until World War II, at which point for most Jews it became a humanitarian cause on behalf of the survivors of the Nazi Judeocide. Besides the books linked to above, see Jack Ross’s Rabbi Outcast: Elmer Berger and American Jewish Anti-Zionism.)
Understand that Zionism did not begin as a humanitarian cause. The Zionist pioneers (many of whom were secular intellectuals) aspired to remake (invent) the “Jewish People” by getting them away from cities and towns and turning them into tillers of the soil in their own exclusivist nation. (Theodor Herzl might well have been the first self-hating Jew.) The early Zionists wanted—indeed, expected—all Jews everywhere to take up permanent residence in Palestine. (That’s why the Palestinian Arabs had to be removed, violently if necessary, from the land they inhabited and worked for at least thousand years.) By the in-gathering standard, Zionism has been a colossal failure. Few Jews want to move to Israel, and many in Israel are emigrating. When the Soviet Union let Jews leave, they overwhelmingly wanted to move to the United States, but the Israeli government conspired with the U.S. government to push them to Israel against their will. (See my “Let the Soviet Jews Come to America” .)
Hence the old joke that Zionism amounts to one Jew raising money from a second Jew to send a third (poor) Jew to Israel.
As one rabbi put it recently,
When we say “Next year in Jerusalem'” [during the Passover Seder] we mean that all Jews should actually be in Israel and in Jerusalem (not just as tourists!). We mean Jerusalem as it is ideally meant to be - with the Temple, the Sanhedrin and a Jewish Monarch. We're still waiting. Even we here in Jerusalem say “Next year in Jerusalem!” [Emphasis added.]
On the basis of Jews’ demonstrated preference, the rabbi will have a long wait.
Obama’s words are a reminder of the shameful double standard favorable to Israel that many people hold when it comes to the “Jewish state’s” crimes and offenses. As David Bromwich asks, can you imagine Obama’s saying: “Shiite Islam found extraordinary success in many parts of the world but its dream of national realization has attained its full expression in Iran.”
The right-wing wouldn’t have been so silent.