Reply to Joshua Leifer

Reply to Joshua Leifer

This article is part of a debate. Read the original argument by Michael Walzer here, and Joshua Leifer’s response here.

I disagree radically with Joshua Leifer’s response and won’t be able to get to every point of disagreement in this reply. No doubt, he felt the same way about my original piece; he has probably only scratched the surface of his opposition. But he has said enough to reveal the character of his opposition—and enough for us to see where it might lead.

1) He begins by arguing that Zionism today is essentially what Bibi Netanyahu says it is—an ideology that justifies the occupation, the settlements, and the coming annexations. I am living in the past, he says, defending a Zionism that no longer exists. So all those men and women, my comrades in Israel, who are fighting for civil liberty and civil rights, who oppose the occupation, who challenge every new settlement, who expose the daily thuggery of the settlers, and who think of themselves as good Zionists—well, they are wrong; they aren’t “actually existing” Zionists. They are living in the past. Later in his response, Leifer includes these same people among those he urges us to help politically and financially—as indeed we should. But denying them their name isn’t a good way of helping them.

From the beginning, Zionism was an ideology contested from the left and the right. The contest isn’t over; we liberal and left Zionists are still engaged—though Leifer has conceded defeat on our behalf. That’s easy for him to do since he is committed to a different ideology.

2) Democracy and equality, Leifer says, are not for me “prerequisites” for a Jewish state. He knows Jewish and Israeli leftists “for whom a Jewish state that is not a democracy is not worth having,” and he thinks that is the correct ideological position. Curiously, I know leftists in Poland who think that a Polish state run by far-right Catholic nationalists is still worth having. You just have to fight the nationalists. There are Chinese liberals and leftists who think that a Han state that systematically oppresses Tibetans and Muslims is still a state worth having. You just have to oppose the oppression. If the next Israeli government restores the Davidic monarchy, I will become a fierce anti-royalist, but I won’t call for the end of the Jewish state. Leifer seems to me a bit too eager for the end.

Just for the record: Israel within the green line is a democracy, imperfect, no doubt, but democratic still. And a state for the Palestinian people would be worth having even if it wasn’t a democracy.

3) What should the left’s position be? Leifer thinks that I am only a “self-described leftist” (which is like a self-described novelist . . .) who offers “little new thinking and few good answers.” I should be flattered since he wrote similar things about Amos Oz in a recent Dissent (Spring 2019). Instead, I will return the favor. His piece reads to me like leftist boilerplate (I am sure that I’ve read similar sentences in half a dozen leftist magazines and websites, including the BDS website). It has this peculiar, but familiar, quality of treating Israel as the only agent in the Middle East. There are no surrounding countries whose politics might matter. The Palestinians are entirely passive, the victims of Israel’s evildoing. The pathologies of their own politics are never mentioned. The line he quotes from Silone about refusing “to be aware of what is happening” seems to apply, in spades, to him.

Israel exists in the Middle East, a bad neighborhood, and you can’t formulate a leftist policy with regard to Israel if you don’t have anything to say about the neighborhood. But Leifer seems to think (see the Amos Oz piece) that Israel shouldn’t be in the neighborhood at all; its original crime was its creation in 1948. Indeed, if it weren’t there, Leifer wouldn’t find it a problem.

4) A few words about Gaza—to introduce the real problems of the Middle East. Leifer condemns the Israeli siege “by air, land, and sea” of the Gaza Strip. Actually, this is a joint Israeli–Egyptian siege, and it has the not-so-secret support of the Palestinian Authority (PA). Months ago, rumors circulated in Israel (I was there in the summer of 2018) that strategists in the IDF had come up with a plan to avoid any future war in Gaza by reaching a deal with Hamas, the Islamist organization that rules the Strip. The deal supposedly involved a partial lifting of the siege, the construction of a sea port or an airport, and a desalinization plant, expansion of fishing rights, and more—all this in exchange for a long-term truce and the end of any military build up. Netanyahu and his colleagues were not likely to agree; it would make them look soft to their far-right supporters. But the PA, it was said, also wasn’t ready to agree, since the deal would strengthen Hamas and undercut its own negotiating position; and the Egyptians were skeptical since they regard Hamas as an ally of the Muslim Brotherhood. Assume that all this was true; what should Israeli leftists have said—given that they favor negotiations with the PA as the only way to achieve Palestinian statehood? It would certainly be a good thing to get Israeli, Egyptian, and Palestinian agreement for ending the siege; perhaps that is the most important thing, right now. But Hamas is not a partner for peace, and the PA is the only possible partner. It is a very bad idea to write as if these kinds of questions can be answered just by condemning Israel.

5) Though he doesn’t live in the past, Leifer acknowledges the importance of history and challenges the few things I wrote about the history of mandate Palestine and the war of 1947–48. I argued that there was no displacement of Arabs in the 1920s and 1930s since Arab immigrants were coming into the country in significant numbers and the Arab population was growing steadily. Palestine was apparently a more attractive place than the countries around. I neglected, Leifer says, the “aggressive land acquisition” by “Zionist agencies” that forced Palestinian tenant farmers off the land. Well, as the saying goes, that’s right up to a point. At the end of the Ottoman period, Jews owned 2 percent of the land in Mandatory Palestine, and by 1948, they owned 5.67 percent of the land—some of which was swamp in the north and desert in the south. I am not sure that qualifies as “aggressive land acquisition,” though I guess it was the best the Zionists could do. Of course, it was Arab landowners, often absentee, living in Damascus or Beirut, who sold the land from under their tenants. They should share responsibility with the “Zionist agencies.”

And what about the lure of the cities? The 1920s and 1930s was a time of global migration of oppressed peasants: Italian tenant farmers were leaving Sicily and southern Italy and moving to cities like Milan and Turin, and black sharecroppers from the American South were flocking to Detroit and Chicago. Tenant farming is a hard life. Maybe that was a factor in Palestine, too. Leifer’s historical correction is half a story.

I agree, of course, that Palestinians did not flee the country voluntarily in 1947–48. They fled in fear of war itself and of atrocities committed early on by some of the Jewish militias. Jews lived with the same fear of war and of atrocities; they couldn’t flee because none of the neighboring countries would have welcomed them. But the systematic, large-scale expulsions that revisionist historians and Israeli memoirists have described came after the Arab invasion and, some of them, after the war, and wouldn’t have happened without the invasion and the war. Leifer says that I wrote “as if . . . it was the Arab armies that forced the Israeli military to carry out ethnic cleansing.” No, they didn’t force the hand of the hard men of the Haganah, but they made it possible for them to do what they did and to argue that it was “necessary.”

6) Leifer writes that my description of anti-Zionist ideology doesn’t describe the anti-Zionism of himself and his friends. OK, they can speak for themselves, but Leifer doesn’t seem to have any idea of what “actually existing anti-Zionism” is like. He should look at Cary Nelson’s recent book, Israel Denial, which is a 547-page analysis of anti-Zionist ideology. It includes a careful reading of the work of leading defenders of BDS, including Judith Butler, Steven Salaita, Saree Makdisi, and Jasbir Puar. And, closer to home, he should read Dissent board member Susie Linfield’s brilliant new book, The Lions’ Den: Zionism and the Left from Hannah Arendt to Noam Chomsky. All the anti-Zionist arguments he claims not to recognize are described (and criticized) in these books.

7) Leifer also insists that “no respectable leftist” singles out Israel for especially harsh criticism. That’s the “tired talking point of the professional Israel-advocacy world” (of which I am obviously a part). I am indeed tired of talking about all the leftists who single out Israel not only for criticism but for hate. I agree that they are not “respectable,” but there are an awful lot of them. We know them sometimes by what they don’t do: they don’t boycott American universities that have branches in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, but they are fierce boycotters of Israeli universities. And sometimes we know them by what they do: they solicit invitations to visit the People’s Republic of China but refuse invitations to visit Israel. Maybe it’s only “professional Israel advocates” who talk about this, but that’s because people like Leifer refuse to see what is in plain sight.

8) Leifer argues that one state already exists, ruled by the Jews, the Palestinians radically subjugated. The prospects for a two-state solution, a Palestinian state alongside Israel, are, he says, “slim to none.” Interestingly, as I write, Dissent board member Jo-Ann Mort has posted on The American Prospect website an interview with Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh, who believes in two states and is hard at work, he says, “disentangling” the Palestinian economy from Israel’s—so as to create a foundation for Palestinian sovereignty. He is exercising the kind of political agency that Leifer thinks Palestinians don’t have in pursuit of a goal that Leifer thinks can’t be reached. Leifer’s thoughts on this subject display, I have to say, the wonderful arrogance of young leftists who know everything.

9) Mohammad Shtayyeh is an economist and a technician. I am not sure that the political leaders of the PA, members of Fatah, are similarly committed to a Palestinian state alongside Israel. Some of them, at least, want the whole thing, a Palestinian state “from the river to the sea.” I don’t think that Yasser Arafat, for example, ever imagined himself focusing on economic development in Nablus or Jericho. Greater Israel and Greater Palestine are two parallel alternatives to the two-state solution.

Leifer’s political friends are Jewish anti-Zionists and Palestinian anti-nationalists who claim to oppose both these alternatives. Good people, I am sure, who seem to me naive (as I seem to them old and tired, long past my expiration date). Alas, Leifer’s friends are not thick on the ground. Still, I will not concede defeat on their behalf. No doubt, they won’t shape the future of Israel–Palestine in their own image, but by demonizing Israel and saying nothing at all about the other actors in the Middle East, they improve the chances of Greater Palestine.

10) Leifer claims to be agnostic about one state or two, but since he believes that the realization of two states is pretty much impossible, I don’t see the force of his agnosticism. What would one state really be like? Right now, what he calls the existing one state is dominated by the Jews, but assume that the BDS demand for the return of Palestinians living in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and the extended diaspora is met (Leifer is, I think, a “critical” supporter of BDS but neglects to offer any criticism). Then one state would effectively be a Palestinian state, with a Jewish minority comparable, say, to the Christians in Lebanon or the Copts in Egypt. How would Leifer’s litany “freedom, democracy, and equality” fare in such a state?

He hasn’t bothered to answer any of my questions about what one state would be like, so I don’t know what he thinks. The two main political forces in the Palestinian world today are Fatah on the West Bank, which is authoritarian, brutal, and corrupt, and Hamas in Gaza, which is authoritarian, brutal, and righteous (or, at least, religious). I don’t see how either of these would advance the cause of freedom, democracy, and equality. As I’ve said, I would support a state for the Palestinian people even it wasn’t democratic. But a single state that supposedly doesn’t belong to either people, not to Jews or Palestinians, a state of all its citizens—that state would have to be democratic, wouldn’t it? And yet the chances for that, as Leifer surely knows, are slim to zero.

It is only liberal and left Zionists and liberal and left Palestinian nationalists who can shape a decent peace—each group recognizing the rights of the other. In two states, Jews and Palestinians would be self-determining peoples, and they would produce . . . whatever they would produce. My friends and Leifer’s friends could work for freedom, democracy, and equality (as they already can in Israel), and they would win some battles and lose some. But, at least, neither people would oppress the other. That seems to me the best we can hope for, right now. What worries me the most, reading Leifer, is a future in which the oppression of the Palestinians won’t end, only the nationality of their oppressors will change, and the oppression of the Jews will begin—and all this in the name of freedom, democracy, and equality.


Michael Walzer is editor emeritus of Dissent.


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