On January 12, the New York Times, carried an article by David Brooks on Jews and Israel. It so caught my eye, I decided to bring its conservative author to my class on the economic history of the Middle East. I sent my students the link to this article, asked them to read it carefully, and come to the next class prepared to discuss and dissect its contents.
My students recalled various parts of the NYT article but no one explained its substance. They recalled David Brooks’ focus on the singular intellectual achievements of American Jews, the enviable record of Israeli Jews as innovators and entrepreneurs, the mobility of Israel’s new class of innovators, etc. One student even spoke of what was not in the article or in the history of Jews – centuries of Jewish ‘struggle’ to create a Jewish state in Palestine.
But they offered no insights on Brooks’ motivation. Why had he decided to brag about Jewish achievements, a temptation normally eschewed by urbane Jews. In my previous class, while discussing Edward Said’s critique of Orientalism, I had discussed how knowledge is suborned by power, how it is perverted by tribalism, and how Western writers had crafted their writings about the Middle East to serve the interests of colonial powers. Not surprisingly, this critique had not yet sunk in.
I coaxed my students, asking them directly to explore if David Brooks had an axe (or more than one) to grind. Was there an elephant in the room they had missed? What was the subtext of the op-ed?
At last, one student moved in the direction of the missing elephant. David Brooks had not mentioned the ‘aid’ that Israel had received from the United States. Did my class know how much? Several eyebrows rose when I informed my students that Israel currently receives close to $3 billion in annual grants from the US, not counting official loan guarantees and tax-deductible contributions by private charities. Since its creation, Israel has received more than $240 billion in grants from the US alone.
We had grasped the elephant’s ear, but what about the rest of it, its head, belly, trunks, tail and tusks. My students did not have a clue – at least, so it appeared to me.
My students did not understand – or perhaps they did not show it – that no discussion about Israel, especially in the NYT , could be innocent of political motives. Israel is a contested fact, a colonial-settler state, founded on ethnic cleansing, a state of the world’s Jews but not of its Arab population. It continues to marginalize its Palestinians ‘citizens,’ to dispossess the Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and strangulate them in Gaza. Supported and coddled by the United States and other Western governments, Israel now faces growing protests from diverse segments of Western civil society. Churches, labor unions, professors, students, and other activist groups are calling on corporations and governments to divest from, boycott and sanction Israel. As always, but now more than ever, advocates of Israel continue to manufacture myths, opinions, and ‘facts’ that can cover for its crimes against the Palestinians and other Arabs in its neighborhood.
Isn’t that what David Brooks was doing, I asked my class, by painting Jews and Israel in the colors of pure glory?
I saw a few nods of recognition. But one student demurred. ‘Doesn’t everyone glorify his own country. The US too had engaged in ethnic cleansing. What is the difference?”
There are two differences, I submitted. David Brooks is glorifying Israel but he is not Israeli. More to the point, he is glorifying Israel to cover up for Israel’s present and projected crimes against Palestinians. He is covering up for Israeli apartheid that exists here and now.
At this point, many in my class gasped at what they heard. It appeared to be a voice quarried from the past. It was a defense of genocide quite commonly advanced in the previous centuries when European settlers were exterminating natives in the Americas, Oceania and Africa. ‘We had done so much better with the land than the natives.” Occasionally, such repugnant ideas from the past, which we think we have buried forever, leak into the public discourse. Perhaps, it is good that they do: they remind us that the past is not dead.
David Brooks starts his article with statistics to show that the Jews “are a famously accomplished group.” Do we need to be convinced of the accomplishments of the Jews? Is there anyone who contests this? So why does Brooks feel the need to support this with statistics? “They make up 0.2 percent of the world population,” he informs us, “but 54 percent of the world chess champions, 27 percent of the Nobel physics laureates and 31 percent of the medicine laureates.” Just in case, these comparisons failed to clinch the point, David Brooks offers more comparative statistics.
Does Brooks wish to rub in the point? Or is he saying, Look at all the great things we have done for you Gentiles. We are indispensable. Don’t you criticize what we do? Don’t you go against us? Or does he feel so personally inadequate, this forces him to seek comfort not in Jewish accomplishments – as he claims – but in Jewish superiority?
Alas, the Jews in Israel have not matched the achievements of the Jews in the Diaspora. The Jewish state contains close to 40 percent of the world’s Jewish population, but very few of the Jewish Nobel laureates are Israelis. Only nine Israelis in sixty-one years have won the Nobel prize. If we exclude the three ‘Peace’ laureates – wouldn’t you, if you knew who they are – that leaves six. Only three of these six were born in Israel, and one was born there while his parents were visiting relatives in Tel Aviv. Hardly a great total. Ireland, with a smaller population, has six Nobel laureates.
David Brooks knows this. “The odd thing,” he writes, “is that Israel has not traditionally been strongest where the Jews in the Diaspora were strongest.” Why has Israel fallen short? Blame it on the Palestinians and the Arabs. “Instead of research and commerce, Israelis were forced to devote their energies to fighting and politics.” Brook’s intent would have been clear even without my italics.
That was in the past, however. Israel is now bubbling over with innovation and entrepreneurship. Tel Aviv is now “one of the world’s foremost entrepreneurial hot spots.” Once again, statistics are offered to establish Israel’s leadership in civilian research and development. Israel’s more ominous leadership in military technology is not mentioned.
Moreover – and this is David Brooks’ point – this technological success “is the fruition of the Zionist dream.” Then follows another piece of chauvinism. Israel was “not founded so stray settlers could sit among thousands of angry Palestinians in Hebron. It was founded so Jews would have a safe place to come together and create things for the world.”
David Brooks disguises Israel’s second round of colonial expansion that began in June 1967 as a diversion from the main goal of Zionism, a distraction created by ‘stray’ settlers in Hebron. The close to half a million Jewish settlers in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, supported, financed, and protected by the world’s fourth most powerful military are minimized as ‘stray’ settlers in Hebron, who are a problem only because they are surrounded by ‘angry’ Palestinians.
Israel was founded – David Brooks asserts, invoking the language of Zionism – so Jews could have a “safe place” and create “things for the world.” Has Israel been a safe place for Jews? Safer than the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa, or even the Arab world before 1917, when the Zionist movement gained official sponsorship from Britain? Plausibly, the answer is, No.
One must also ask, What ‘things’ has Israel created for the world? What ‘things’ has Israel given to the Arab world, other than wars, massacres, ethnic cleansings, occupations, war crimes, and alibis to its rulers to create repressive regimes. What has it given to that other world – the Western world – that Brooks probably has in mind? Israel has jeopardized the strategic interests of Western powers in the Islamicate. On more than one occasion, it has brought the United States close to nuclear collision with the Soviet Union. The most valuable ‘things’ that Israelis provide to Western powers, to the United States in particular as an occupying power in Iraq and Afghanistan, are the technology and tactics they have been perfecting while crushing the Palestinian resistance. But David Brooks does not wish to talk about this.
Then comes the coup de grace. This is the blow aimed close to Brook’s primary target – the Arabs. Jewish and Israeli accomplishments must finally be placed against the terrible paucity of Arab creativity in the sciences, technology and entrepreneurship. Arabs are asked to declare the patents they have registered in the United States. The astronomical gap between Arab and Israeli patents can have only one cause. The Arabs do not have the “tradition of free intellectual exchange and technical creativity (my italics).” In true Orientalist style, blame Arab failures on Arab culture.
Ironically, the two countries Brooks picks to make his point – Egypt and Saudi Arabia – are the closest Arab allies of the United States. The US never wags its finger at the despotic monarchy in Saudi Arabia or the repressive dictatorship that has controlled Egypt for decades. The United States works to bring ‘democracy’ only to its enemies.
Yet for all its triumphalism and crude claims of superiority, the NYT op-ed ends on a disappointing note. Israel’s innovators – the sons of Zionist dreamers – bring no real commitment to Israel. Just a little instability, and they will vote with their feet. “American Jews used to keep a foothold in Israel in case things got bad here. Now Israelis keep a foothold in the U.S.” As remarkable as it is, Israel’s success is “also highly mobile.”
Is David Brooks the great friend of Israel that he must believe he is? All that any one has to do to destroy Israel’s economy, he writes, is “to foment enough instability so the entrepreneurs decide they had better move to Palo Alto, where many of them [Israelis] already have contacts and homes.”
What sad and strange thinking. Perhaps, this is what happens when a person gets trapped inside the nightmare that was sold to the Jews as the great Zionist dream. Brooks confirms that this nightmare cannot be saved by Israel’s technological prowess. Apparently, Israel’s greatest success story – its cutting-edge technology companies – are also footloose. They could be heading for the exits at the first sign of instability.
Technological prowess will not save Jewish apartheid – nothing will. But Jews can shore their lives and build a more promising future for themselves by discovering their common humanity with the Arabs, by making amends to the Palestinians, and learning to give back to the Palestinians what they have taken from them over the past nine decades.
The Zionists are prisoners of a bad dream: they must first free themselves, break free from the prison in which they can only play the part of tormentors, if they and especially their Palestinian victims are to live normal lives.
M. SHAHID ALAM is professor of economics at Northeastern University. This is an excerpt from his forthcoming book, Israeli Exceptionalism: The Destabilizing Logic of Zionism (Macmillan, November 2009). Contact me at email@example.com.