Fearsome Words?

In April of this year I was invited by the Canada-Palestine Parliamentary Association to speak at one of their meetings.  The meeting was to have taken place in the Parliament building in Ottawa, where I have spoken previously without incident.  John Ivison, in the National Post newspaper, published a not particularly vicious or unbalanced attack on me, deploring the invitation.   After this, without any contact with me and without seeing the content of my talk, the meeting was ‘postponed’.    It is now clear that the postponement was permanent.

This might seem spineless, but it involved more than the National Post article.

Ivison reports that Alykhan Velshi, director of communications for Immigration Minister, Jason Kenney, had the following to say:

“In a free country like Canada, Mr. Neumann has the right to air his noxious views. The corollary, of course, is that we can and must criticize them. Neumann’s farrago of cant, conspiracy theory and hate are completely repugnant to our government, and we make no apology for saying so.”

Bob Rae (former Ontario premier, former head of the New Democratic Party, now a high-ranking Liberal Party leader) is reported to have been ‘”surprised and disappointed” that the parliamentary group thought Mr. Neumann had something positive to contribute’.

Here is the alleged farago of cant, conspiracy theory and hate – unaltered since before the attacks.  Readers may judge for themselves whether the allegations have merit.

* * *

Nationalism and the Israel-Palestine Conflict

For a brief period in the 1970s I worked in the Vancouver used book trade.   I got to know a legend among booksellers –  Bill Hoffer.   Bill was a skilled purveyor of Canadian first editions and a great bluffer.  Once I found him in earnest and extended conversation with one of ‘his’ authors; later I asked Bill whether the guy’s stuff was any good.   “I don’t read it,” said Bill, “I just sell it.”.

Bill told me that the secret of the used book business was ‘gaining moral ascendency’ over the customers (whom he called ‘civilians’).   This meant making them feel like you were more knowledgeable about and more committed to whatever they were interested in.    Intimidate the customer a bit, and your business flourishes.

The Israelis gained moral ascendancy long ago; some reputed people called ‘the Arabs’ never had it.  This involved more than PR skills.   It also involved terrible confusions about nationalism.   They’re the secret weapon of the Zionists and the secret weakness of ‘the Arabs’.

Zionist ideology has always departed from a question:  every people has its state; why not the Jews?   A ‘no’ answer would tie you to that evil of evils, antisemitism.  The rights of ‘the Jewish people’ meant Israel had a morally titanic ‘right to exist’.   It meant that the relentless expansion of Jewish settlement was, far from a mortal threat to the non-Jewish inhabitants of the area, the mere completion of the long Jewish Odyssey.  It was just part of the long journey home.

As for the Palestinians, they described themselves as Arabs.   This sounded like they *had* a home; it was the whole Arab world.  If their ‘Arab brothers’ would not take them in, well, that was no fault of the Zionists.   So if the Palestinians were squeezed ever further into unlivable enclaves, it was the Arabs who were to blame.   The Arabs would rather dispute a tiny strip of their vast possessions than grant the Jews their little homeland.

These claims – we’re just a people like any other, we just want to go home – are the last bastion of lsrael’s crumbling moral stature.   It is hard to imagine a more inappropriate public relations ploy.  Israel’s rhetoric of peoples and homelands constitute a rejection of everything we ought to have learned from the Nazi era.   The confusions that sustain them not only raise racial crusading to a moral imperative; in other ways they bring unjust disrepute and demoralization on the entire so-called Arab world.

If we cannot see the harm in talk of peoples and homelands, it is because our obsession with antisemitism has blinded us to the true origins of Nazi ideology.   Before the Nazis, antisemitism was prevalent all over Western Europe.   There were ugly incidents, one or two outrageous miscarriages of justice, but no genocide and nothing remotely resembling the peasant pogroms of Russia and the Ukraine.   As for Germany, my Jewish parents, born and raised there, staunchly maintained that it was the least antisemitic country in all of pre-Nazi Europe.   Why then is the Nazi genocide attributed to antisemitism, which clearly was necessary but not sufficient to produce it?   And what about the aspects of Nazi ethnic cleansing that antisemitism can’t possibly explain – the genocide against the gypsies and the planned extermination of thirty million Slavs, many of whom died as ‘subhumans’ in inhuman prison camps?

There was an ideology sufficient to drive all those atrocities.  It fairly stares us in the face.   It was not devised by Hitler, but by 19th Century Romantics – poets and pseudo-historians from Scandinavia across Central Europe and down into the Italian Peninsula and the Balkans.   It was not the Nazis, but Woodrow Wilson who made it a fixture of contemporary politics.  This was the ideology of ethnic nationalism.

Before proceeding let me forestall a predictable objection.  I intend to trace the ravages of ethnic nationalism, not by any means to make Zionists into Nazis.  It is entirely unnecessary to take this false step, which would obscure rather than clarify the repellent aspects of Zionism.  The offspring of ethnic nationalism are a nasty brood, but of course the Nazis were in a league of their own.

Wilson legitimized this atrocious doctrine during the peace negotiations that ended the First World War.   Wilson’s own secretary of state, Robert Lansing, anticipated its consequences all too accurately:

“The more I think about the President’s declaration as to the right
of ‘self-determination,’ the more convinced I am of the danger of
putting such ideas into the minds of certain races. It is bound to be the basis of impossible demands on the Peace Congress and create trouble in many lands.

“What effect will it have on the Irish, the Indians, the Egyptians,
and the nationalists among the Boers? Will it not breed discontent,
disorder, and rebellion? Will not the Mohammedans of Syria and
Palestine and possibly of Morocco and Tripoli rely on it? How can it
be harmonized with Zionism, to which the President is practically committed?

“The phrase is simply loaded with dynamite. It will raise hopes which can never be realized. It will, I fear, cost thousands of lives. In the end it is bound to be discredited, to be called the dream of an idealist who failed to realize the danger until too late to check those who attempt to put the principle in force. What a calamity that the phrase was ever uttered! What misery it will cause!”

For his prescience Lansing incurred Wilson’s disfavour and was forced to resign.  He seemed a fussy old spoilsport, unwilling to grant peoples their rights  – peoples, or, as he puts it in the language of his era, races.   Could he not see the progressive implications of Wilson’s doctrine?   Did he not understand that the self-determination of peoples – races, ethnic groups – was a sacred human right?

Well, one person did, the person who wrote:

“If the race is in danger of being oppressed or even exterminated the question of legality is only of secondary importance. The established power may in such a case employ only those means which are recognized as ‘legal’. yet the instinct of self-preservation on the part of the oppressed will always justify, to the highest degree, the employment of all possible resources.

“Only on the recognition of this principle was it possible for those
struggles to be carried through, of which history furnishes magnificent examples in abundance, against foreign bondage or oppression at home.

“Human rights are above the rights of the State.”

Ah, human rights, which belong not only to individuals but to ‘peoples’.   This champion of human rights was Adolf Hitler, writing in Mein Kampf.  (Murphy translation, line 4084, Volume I, chapter iii)

Hitler ‘understood’ that peoples had a right to their homeland.   The ‘national’ part of National Socialism was not civic nationalism, the nationalism that calls on French, German, American, Italian or Spanish *citizens* to cherish and defend their countries.   It was ethnic nationalism, the nationalism of ‘peoples’, races, who did not have a homeland, or who had suffered a diaspora or historic wrongs.  Hitler held that the German people had suffered both and was threatened with extinction.  The Germans wanted their homeland back, all of it.  Every other people had its homeland; why not the Germans?

Of course this was nonsense.   The ‘German people’ was a bit of a fiction, and the borders of their ‘homeland’ were founded largely on historical myths irrelevant to contemporary rights and wrongs.   But despite the most awful and obvious fulfilment of Lansing’s worst nightmare, we have never abandoned Wilson’s and Hitler’s endorsement of ethnic nationalism.   It infects even our condemnations of ‘the Germans’ for the Nazi era.

To condemn ‘the Germans’ means this:  even if you’d spent the war in an orphanage because your parents had died in street battles with the Nazi black shirts, you would share in the Germany’s collective guilt.  You share in it not because of anything you have done, but because you were, by birth, a German.  We might call this ‘collective responsibility’, but that’s just a respectable name for racial guilt, the guilt of a ‘people’.   From the rubble of the Nazi empire, the rubbish of ethnic nationalism rises up and takes an honoured place among our orthodoxies.  From this rubbish comes the right of a fictitiously collective ‘Jewish people’ to a ‘homeland’.

That link is explicit.  The Nazi conception of a Jewish people lies at the heart of Israel’s famous right of return.   Don’t take my word for it.   Listen instead to the AMERICAN-ISRAELI COOPERATIVE ENTERPRISE (AICE), which describes itself as “a nonpartisan organization to strengthen the U.S.-Israel relationship by emphasizing the fundamentals of the alliance – the values our nations share”.   To explain in what sense ‘Jews’ have a right to return to their homeland, the AICE states that “At present, the definition is based on Hitler’s Nuremberg Laws: the right of Return is granted to any individual with one Jewish grandparent, or who is married to someone with one Jewish grandparent. As a result, thousands of people with no meaningful connection to the Jewish people theoretically have the right to immigrate.”  AICE neglects to mention that such persons also have the actual right to immigrate, and to obtain citizenship.  On the other hand,  a stateless Palestinian refugee, perhaps living a precarious existence in France, has no such right of return, even if his ancestors inhabited Palestine itself for a thousand years.  Palestine, it seems, is not is the ‘homeland’ of Palestinians, but only of the Jews.

‘Jew’, in other words, does not refer to those who espouse Judaism or embrace Jewish culture. ‘Jew’ means ‘of Jewish ancestry’.   In virtually every Canadian jurisdiction, ancestry is explicitly cited as a prohibited ground of discrimination.   Ancestry is just a contemporary stand-in for the older notion of race and is generally used in references to racial discrimination.(**)   Like skin colour, it’s something you cannot change, and therefore a particularly repugnant basis for determining civic status.

For the homeland to *belong* to the Jews is for them to have *sovereignty* there.   Thus Article 7(a) of Israel’s Basic Law stipulates that “A candidates’ list shall not participate in the elections to the Knesset if its objects or actions, expressly or by implication, include…  negation of the existence of the State of Israel as the state of the Jewish people.”  The Jewish people, in other words, are sovereign, and hold the power of life and death over all non-Jewish inhabitants under state control.  Lest this seem overdramatic, note how the Israeli ministry of justice commented on a court case in March 2009:  “The State of Israel is at war with the Palestinian people, people against people, collective against collective.”(***)

So a miracle appears among us.   The very ideology of homelands and peoples under whose auspices the Jews were all but exterminated has become the sustaining ideology of Israel, a state devoted to Jewish ethnic sovereignty.   This is why we always hear that Israel – not Israelis – has a right to exist.   What matters are not the citizens of a state, but the state itself, the totemic icon of ‘the Jewish people’.   The fatal confusion that legitimized ethnic nationalism at the Paris Peace Conference now legitimizes Israel itself.   When Zionists suggest that the French and Germans have a right to their states, they conveniently forget that this means the *inhabitants* of France and Germany, not those of some French or German *ancestry*, not a ‘people’ in the sense of an ethnic group.  (The world was outraged when it suspected that Britain’s ‘patrial’ immigration laws were designed to favor those of ethnically British ancestry.)   But ‘the Jewish people’ have a right to their state, and this is supposed to be some lofty ideal.   Why?  Because ethnic nationalism has taken on the cloak of civic nationalism, and we are too stupid to notice.  Had ethnic nationalism not shed a single drop of blood, we should still be ashamed for crediting its mystique of peoples, historical wrongs, collective vices and virtues, ineluctable destinies.   Abstractions and myths that could not even gain entrance to a university’s ivory towers flow daily from the lips of supposedly practical people.

Zionists bought into ethnic nationalism because it served them well.  ‘Arabs’ bought into it too, partly as a reaction to Zionist colonization.   It has not been enough to say:  the Zionists wish to impose racial sovereignty on these Palestinian individuals; this in unacceptable.  One must also ask:  are not the Palestinians a people?  is Palestine not their homeland?   do they not also have a right of self-determination?  But if ethnic nationalism has given the Palestinians some chance at meeting the Zionists on their own terms, it has on the whole served ‘the Arabs’, and therefore the Palestinians, badly.

In the Middle East, ethnic nationalism has always been greeted with polite acceptance and a certain embarrassment.  The idea that all Arabic speakers shared in being Arabs began life, like most ethnic nationalisms, as an almost literary adventure.  It originates in Syria, where progressive Christians developed it to counter Ottoman rule.  The British, through T.E. Lawrence ‘of Arabia’ quickly seized on it enrol some inhabitants of the Arabian peninsula in the same cause.  After 1919, the Syrian and Arabian strains of this doctrine met in uneasy coexistence.  The British installed Arabian rulers in Syria/Lebanon and Jordan, not without complaints that their new subjects were ‘not Arabs’!  It was again the British, in the 1940s, who presided over the foundation of an ‘Arab League’, partly as a move to keep the French from re-establishing their position in Lebanon.

One of  the League’s founding members was Egypt.  This might bring a smile to some of you who know the Middle East, because you have heard Egyptians make disparaging remarks about ‘the Arabs’ who frequent the nightclubs along the Nile, or listened to an elderly Egyptian tell you the story of just when he first discovered he was an ‘Arab’.   But the myth of an Arab people is more than a successful British ploy.  It took deep roots when Gamel Abdel Nasser fashioned it into a ideology of resistance to Western colonialism, not to mention a convenient tool for extending Egyptian power.  As an oppositional creed, everyone from Berbers who hate ‘the Arabs’ to Egyptians who despise them to Palestinians who feel abandoned by them will proudly claim their Arab identity against the insults and depradations of the West.

Yet all know better.  There are inhabitants of the Arabian peninsula who may plausibly be called Arabs.   Most other Arabic speakers have little in common with these ‘Arabians’, and little sympathy for their culture or traditions.  As for ‘Arab nationalism’, no longer is there a Nasser to fashion it into a progressive force; it has withered on the vine.  Yet if Arab ethnic nationalism never gained enough force to harm others, it gained enough prominence to put the so-called Arab world at the losing end of moral ascendency.

The Arabs, understood as the ensemble of Arabic speakers, are by no stretch of the imagination ‘a people’.  They pay a heavy price for this dubious self-description.  On the one hand, it associates every Arabic speaker with every crime of every other Arabic speaker – this holds even for some whose native tongue isn’t Arabic but who live in officially ‘Arab’ countries.  It is as if the Sudanese ‘Arab’ militias were the armies of a ‘people’ encompassing the Syrians of Tyre and the Berbers of Marrakesh.

Perhaps this bad press is a mere annoyance.   But there is worse.   Not only the rest of the world but ‘the Arabs’ themselves have come think they are somehow a hopeless case:  why on earth can’t they unite?   Why don’t they do more for the Palestinians?   Why the endless bickering and mistrust?  ‘The Arabs’ in these respects seem like perennial losers incapable of self-government, markedly inferior to ‘the Jews’.   This impression is only partly countered by savvy remarks about an ‘Arab street’, always on the verge of rising up against their rotten rulers, yet never, it seems, more genuinely committed to the Palestinians than a fan club to their favorite football team.   To the extent that unsustainable attempts at constructing an Arab identity have contributed to the decline of Middle East secularism, they have also contributed to the rise of fanatical religious extremists.   This too has hurt the Arabic-speaking world.

Not only does Arab nationalism make ‘the Arabs’ look bad; it also obscures what is good.   When Arab states support and sustain the Palestinians, it is much more from genuine altruism than from bogus racial solidarity.  But to the extent that Arabs do not do all that is expected of them – do not take in the Palestinians, do not invite them in as fellow-Arabs, the reason is simple.   The Palestinians are not fellow-Arabs.   They have no home, no ‘homeland’ if you like, but Palestine.   Wondering why their ‘brother Arabs’ do not to take them in makes as much sense as wondering why Northern Irish Protestants would not welcome as brothers their ‘fellow Anglophones’ from Dublin or Watts or the slums of Kingston, Jamaica.

The ethnic nationalism of the Zionists is a big success; that of ‘the Arabs’, to their credit, a big failure.  Perhaps we overestimate the extent to which the West can contribute to resolving the Israel/Palestine conflict, not least because we are so dead set in regarding the ‘Arab world’ – which has given Israel a bloody nose on more than one occasion – as a bunch of losers.   But certainly Western peacekeeping initiatives, especially from Canada and the US, are undermined by the painfully obvious efforts of our leaders not to adore the Israelis too passionately, and not to despise ‘the Arabs’ too thoroughly.  Unfortunately ‘the Arabs’, now fond of their fictitious identity, are complicit in creating this bias.

This has to change, but it cannot change without abandoning the revolting principles we have so blindly espoused.  That will not be easy.  We are so bemused by the lovely vision of peoples determining themselves, we cannot see that ethnic self-determination is, in the real world, a quest for racial sovereignty, not a bid to enter some international folk dancing festival.   We take the Zionist adoration of Israel, its commitment to racially Jewish rule of Palestine, as a paean to freedom and human rights.  We look up to Israel for precisely what should make us abhor it.   The ‘self-determination of peoples’ is a poison set in the very heart of our humanitarian ideologies.    Neutralize it and Israel will lose its moral ascendency.

MICHAEL NEUMANN is a professor of philosophy at a Canadian university.  He is the author of What’s Left: Radical Politics and the Radical Psyche and The Case Against Israel.  He also contributed the essay, “What is Anti-Semitism”, to CounterPunch’s book, The Politics of Anti-Semitism.  He can be reached at mneumann@live.com


(*) http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Politics/return.html

I am not the first Jew to find the founding concept of Zionism unacceptable, and long ago a much more committed Jew went further than I.   Lessing J. Rosenwald, president of the American Council for Judaism, expressed himself as follows – in 1944:  “The concept of a racial state – the Hitlerian concept- is repugnant to the civilized world, as witness the fearful  global war in which we are involved. . . , I urge that we do  nothing to set us back on the road to the past. To project at this time the creation of a Jewish state or commonwealth is to launch a singular innovation in world affairs which  might well have incalculable consequences.”

(**)Even countries that appear to discriminate on the basis of ancestry do not in fact do so.  For example, the UK’s ancestry visas do not: “The visa enables people aged 17 or over whose grandparents were born in the UK to come for four years and eventually apply to stay”  (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1579415/Britain-may-abolish-ancestry-visa.html)    So the ultimate criterion is residence, not ancestry.  Not so Israel.

(***)The Ministry of Justice, March 2009, commenting on whether Israeli citizens can bring spouses to Israel if they come from a ‘hostile country’ or from the occupied territories:  http://www.avnery-news.co.il/english/index.html


Michael Neumann is a professor of philosophy at a Canadian university.  He is the author of What’s Left: Radical Politics and the Radical Psyche and The Case Against Israel.  He also contributed the essay, “What is Anti-Semitism”, to CounterPunch’s book, The Politics of Anti-Semitism.  He can be reached at mneumann@live.com