The Delegitimization of Israel

No one could be as smart as David Brooks thinks he is or as dumb as he seems to be; and anyone who does not regularly read New York Times and Washington Post op ed pages would have a hard time believing that anybody could write columns as silly as his.

Still, the piece he wrote to greet the New Year (it was published January 2 in The New York Times) was in a class by itself. Unlike Brooks’ usual fare, this one was not about showing off his purported smarts and deep thoughts. It was about Benjamin Netanyahu. .

It was enough over the top to reveal volumes about the desperation Israel’s defenders, the true believers among them, now feel. This is why that otherwise unremarkable column is, inadvertently, of some interest.

Lately, there have been many more egregious displays of desperation: the University of Illinois’ revocation of its offer of employment with tenure to Steven Salaita for “uncivil” twitter comments about the Israeli assault on Gaza is a case in point. Salaita’s legal case is so strong that he is likely to prevail in the end, even with a judicial system dominated by right-wing ideologues. But, for now, score pro-Israel donors one, Salaita zero.

The largely ineffective demonstrations at the Met against performances of “The Death of Klinghoffer” are another example. There are countless others.

Brooks’ case is special, not for its egregiousness — by Times standards it is almost par for the course – but for its desperate attempt to restore the reputation that Israel enjoyed not long ago in mainstream public opinion.

No one has done more to undermine that reputation – and therefore to hasten its passing – than Netanyahu himself.   The irony is beyond Brooks’ comprehension, but it would be hard to deny.

Brooks’ piece exudes nostalgia – for a world in which King Bibi, as Time Magazine called him, was so admired that Congress would jump up and down in adoration and the White House would quiver.

Congress is still in Netanyahu’s pocket and the White House still quivers. But now they do it for the money; the public is no longer jumping up and down behind them.

Somewhere in the recesses of his prefrontal cortex, even David Brooks has figured this out.   He is worried about it too; and when he worries, he becomes more than usually ridiculous.

Over the years, Brooks’ pro-Israel bias has been extreme even for The New York Times. When the news came out several months ago that his son serves in the Israeli army, nobody was especially surprised. The good soldier Brooks is one of what may be as many as a thousand “lone soldiers” — Herrenvolk from abroad, mainly the United States – without parents that reside full time in the Promised Land.

The father does his part too, inasmuch as the pen is still mightier than the sword. At least, he tries.

But even for a propagandist more skilled than Brooks, Netanyahu would be a tough sell.

To a disinterested observer, Netanyahu can hardly fail to seem shallow and stupid. The American politician he most resembles is George W. Bush. Though their villainy is comparable, even Dick Cheney has more depth.

However, in Brooks’ mind, Netanyahu is a formidable and complex figure – like Nixon, Kennedy and Churchill. On Brooks’ telling, it would take the Orson Welles of Citizen Kane or, better yet, a Greek tragedian or Shakespeare himself to capture Netanyahu’s essence.

Part of this is Brooks preening himself as usual, dropping names and showing off how much he knows (or thinks he knows). Even so, Brooks’ panegyric is crazy.

There is an ancient proverb, mistakenly attributed to Euripides: “those whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad.” Could the gods have set their sights on David Brooks?

Surely, even gods that have been dead for millennia have standards.

A more formidable foe, one more worthy of divine attention, is the Israel lobby itself – not just the corner of it occupied by David Brooks.

The hypothesis fits the data: the craziness emanating out from Zionist quarters becomes more stupefying by the day.

I am not talking about liberal Zionists; their problems are different, as we will see.

And neither am I talking about American Jews and others who might answer tendentiously worded survey questions in ways that suggest Zionist sympathies.

Despite the unrelenting efforts of well-funded Jewish religious and educational institutions, and despite the active cooperation of public opinion shapers of all stripes, most American Jews, like most Americans, know little about Israel and care less.

The craziness I am talking about comes from Israel’s most perfervid supporters; the ones who are especially retrograde, racist or at least Islamophobic, and vile.

Those who follow the scene closely – as I do not, I don’t have the stomach for it – might conclude that Brooks’ paean to the Bibster hardly even stands out compared to the new normal in their quarters. Perhaps so. But Brooks’ column is still remarkable for the light it sheds on the nature of their desperation.

It is a desperation born of fear of losing public support. The Israeli onslaught on Gaza last summer seems to have brought this fear to a head.

There is little doubt that, despite the best efforts of the entire corporate media system, Gaza had an impact on American public opinion. All indications are that it has had a far greater impact on public opinion in Europe. It has certainly affected the attitudes of European governments.

Something like this was bound to happen eventually. Israel has been exhausting moral capital from the moment of its inception, and there is a limit to how long a country can get by on empty.

Congress will be the last to bolt, with the White House close behind.   But bolt they will – someday.

Unless Israel changes its ways, a time will come when even as “indispensable” a nation as ours, a superpower that regularly gets away with whatever it likes, will find it too costly to keep on cleaning up after Netanyahu and his successors.

At some point, King Bibi will lose an election – it is unlikely, but it could even happen this March. But, unless circumstances change in unforeseeable ways, his spirit – and his policies — will live on even after he stops mattering; and Israel’s standing will continue to deteriorate.

This is understood in Israel; even the object of Brooks’ adoration seems to grasp the idea. Why else would he – and his propagandists – babble on so much about the “existential threat” of “delegitimation”?

* * *

Political legitimacy is a venerable philosophical topic. From the time the modern nation state began to emerge in tandem with the capitalist reorganization of European feudal society it has been Topic A.

Theories of political legitimacy come in two, not always distinct, flavors.

Some are mainly descriptive; they explain why it is that members of political communities believe that they ought to obey the authorities that rule them; or they explain why, when this is so, others, outsiders, acknowledge their authority.

Others have a normative focus; their interest is not so much with the forms and limits of authority claims that are regarded as legitimate, as with the conditions under which those claims meet defensible standards of rightfulness.

From the dawn of the modern era until the present, these issues arose mainly, or exclusively, within political communities. What distinguishes the state from other forms or political organization is, as Max Weber famously put it, that states exercise monopolies of legitimate – that is, believed to be legitimate — means of violence.

The basic questions therefore became when, and under what conditions the means of violence become monopolized and when, if at all, this happens rightfully.

Many views are conceivable. According to some, political authority relations can never be rightful or are rightful only under conditions so stringent that they can never be implemented in the real world. According to others, whenever authority exists, it is as rightful as can be.

With the emergence of international institutions in the twentieth century, international recognition — and the legal superstructure built upon it — has taken on new importance. Still, what matters most is what happens within political communities, not what happens between them.

The Palestinian struggle for statehood illustrates this point. There are now one hundred thirty-five member states of the United Nations that recognize Palestine, and nearly all the others would too if the United States would drop its opposition.

But no one would conclude, on this basis, that a Palestinian state already exists. It does not now exist because the territory the Palestinian Authority ostensibly governs is occupied by Israel. Israeli, not Palestinian, institutions control the means of violence there.

Israel, on the other hand, satisfies all the pertinent criteria for legitimacy. It is as legitimate – or not – as any state can be.

Nothing anyone is doing or could do from abroad could affect this in any way. Even were all the countries in the world that recognize Israel to withdraw their recognition, and even were the United Nations to rescind its own, the Israeli state would still exercise a monopoly of the means of violence within its territory and over the population it governs.

The only way that Israel could lose legitimacy in any of the term’s recognized philosophical senses would be if Israelis themselves stopped regularly obeying the commands Israeli authorities issue, so that internal order breaks down.

Obviously, this is not what Netanyahu is worried about; that anything like this would happen is even less likely than that international recognition would somehow be withdrawn.

Of course, nothing lasts forever; states do suffer through legitimation crises, when citizens lose faith in their governments. Regimes – not just governments, but also basic institutional arrangements — sometimes change. In extreme cases, revolutions happen.

And under various kinds of internal and external pressure, territories sometimes secede from states, and states sometimes splinter into pieces. There have been plenty of examples of these phenomena in recent years.

However, it is far from clear what role, if any, delegitimation played in any of these developments – at least if “legitimacy” is understood in its accepted philosophical senses.

However, for good or ill, the word has lately been taken up and used with more regard for its expressive connotations than its strict philosophical meanings. The propaganda efforts of Israeli governments have had much to do with this phenomenon, as they have with another expression lifted out of the philosophical lexicon: “existential crisis.”

The left has bought into this usage too. Perhaps the most insightful example is the use made of the idea by Richard Falk in Palestine: the Legitimacy of Hope. But even in Falk’s hands, “legitimacy” doesn’t quite mean legitimacy. It means support.

What worries Netanyahu and those who think like him is that people in the United States and around the world will stop according Israel carte blanche to do what it pleases to Palestinians and to its neighbors in the region.

Their worry is that people will come around to the idea that while a Jewish state in Palestine may have seemed like a good idea in 1948, it no longer does.

This would pose a threat to the existence of Israel “as we know it,” but hardly an “existential threat” of the kind that a bona fide existentialist would recognize. Before Israeli propagandists pilfered the term, no one else would have spoken this way either.

The idea seems to be that a serious diminution in U.S. and world support for Israel would make the continuing existence of the regime there difficult or even impossible. This claim is plausible enough to worry people who want the status quo to continue.

And so, they use words that suggest that the Hebrew-speaking culture that Zionist settlers developed and perhaps even the physical existence of Israel’s Jewish population would be in jeopardy if Israel were “delegitimated.”

More likely, just the opposite is true: were withdrawal of support to force Israelis to make peace, Jewish Israelis and Jewish Israeli culture would be more secure than it now is.

But the indefinite continuation of Israel as a Jewish state – a state of, by, and for Jews, regardless of the ethnicity or nationality of the peoples living there — might indeed come undone, especially if the idea is to maintain a Jewish state over the entirety of Palestine, from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea.

According to reputable polling data, this is what most Israelis want. Even many of those who say that they favor a “two state solution” see a Palestinian state as a demilitarized conglomeration of tiny Bantustans, dominated by Israel.

There is, of course, a “solution” that appeals to increasingly larger numbers of Israelis: establish an Apartheid regime, not just in those parts of the occupied territories that Israeli settlers have yet to take over, but throughout the entirety of historical Palestine. Overseas Zionists of the David Brooks variety may not all realize it, but this is where their position leads.

Liberal Zionists oppose this outcome, but on what basis? The idea that a state, made up of settlers from elsewhere, could be implanted into an already populated area, and that that state could somehow be both Jewish and democratic, is problematic at best.

Liberal Zionists have done their best to straddle the contradiction. They have succeeded to the extent that a very unusual set of circumstances has cooperated.

But times change. Circumstances are not cooperating anymore.

When liberal Zionists talk about a state that is both Jewish and democratic, what do they mean? Being and remaining “democratic” is not the problem. There is little danger that, for the foreseeable future, Israel, no matter what it does to Palestinians, will continue to hold free and fair elections, and maintain a parliamentary system of government.

But “democratic” in the phrase “Jewish and democratic” really means liberal; it means upholding liberal ideals of equal citizenship. The state of Israel already falls seriously short on this account; a full-fledged Apartheid state would fall much shorter still.

What about “Jewish”? The reference is plainly not to the Jewish religion, Judaism. The first Zionists were atheists, as are many Zionists today.

Jewish piety has always had more to do with observance than belief and, in the modern world, observance often has more to do with ethnic identification than “faith.” In concocting a Jewish identity, religious observance was often the only material at hand. Even so, Zionism was never a theocratic movement.

“Jewish” therefore does not mean what “Islamic” means in, for example, “The Islamic Republic of Iran.”

To be sure, a few recent vintage “fundamentalists,” mostly joined to the settlement movement, have taken up the Zionist cause in the past few decades.   But this development, disturbing as it is, changes nothing fundamental; the illiberalism inherent in the Zionist project has nothing to do with religious sectarianism.

It has everything, however, to do with ethnocentrism.

It is widely understood, these days, that ethnic groups or, inasmuch as the difference is not clear-cut, nations, are “imagined communities” – not found in nature but more or less deliberately socially constructed.

Forging ethnic or national identities is easier when there is a common language and a common culture, and among people who share a land. None of this was the case with Jews at the time of Zionism’s rise. There were sub-communities in which some of the right ingredients were in order, but the only thing that all the world’s Jews had in common was Judaism.

Zionists and Jewish nationalist historians before them would also sometimes claim that, in addition to religion, the world’s Jews are joined by bonds of common descent – from the inhabitants of Judea and Samaria in Biblical times.

There are people today who, without much regard for evidence, still uphold the idea that all the world’s Jews (except for converts) come from a common stock, expelled from Palestine two thousand years ago. But hardly any informed person nowadays believes that this is literally true.

The idea is a vestige of the Christian myth of the “wandering Jew,” expelled from the Holy Land and condemned to exile for his sins. It is only when it comes to naming those sins that Jewish nationalists and Christian theologians part ways. For the nationalists, the pertinent sins have nothing to do with killing Christ or refusing to acknowledge his divinity.

In any case, for liberal Zionists – and indeed for all Zionists and for many others as well — “Jewish” refers to an ethnicity. A Jewish state is a state shaped and populated by persons who are ethnically Jewish.

Such a state could have democratic – and liberal — institutions and laws if and only if Jews are the only ones there or the only ones whose interests need be taken into account.

Otherwise, a Jewish state would be an ethnocracy, a state in which one ethnic group rules over everyone else. An ethnocracy can never be genuinely democratic in the relevant sense; it can never be a state of all the people over whom it exercises a monopoly of the means of violence.

The liberal Zionist idea was that Israel would become a Middle Eastern Denmark – or, rather, that it would be like Denmark was before it ceased being as ethnically and culturally homogenous as it had been. Nowadays, even Denmark is not like Denmark.

This was a difficult enough ideal to maintain when Palestinian resistance was comparatively quiescent. Since at least the time of the first Intifada, maintaining it has become impossible.

Arguably, Israel could become more like a normal liberal democracy were it to renounce the goal of establishing a Jewish state in all of historical Palestine. But then the state might have to be smaller than any Zionist, liberal or otherwise, would be likely to accept.

Given demographic realities, it is unclear at this point whether even retreating back to Israel’s internationally recognized pre-1967 borders would be enough to assure a robust Jewish majority in the long run.

A “two-state solution” of this kind may have been feasible once, when there were fewer “facts on the ground.” By now, however, it looks like there is no way to get from here to there; the settler movement has been too successful.

And so liberal Zionists are coming to the realization that the only way Israel can survive as a Jewish state in the long run is by suppressing the political and national rights of the majority of people living within the borders it craves. It can be, as they say, Jewish or democratic, but not both.

It could hardly ever have been otherwise. Zionism was a colonial project aimed at establishing the supremacy of ethnic Jews over the land’s indigenous population.

Therefore, from the outset, Israel was an ethnocratic settler state. Liberal Zionists could deny this reality for a while; they could live with the contradiction. But those days are over.

For liberal Zionists, this leads to quiet, or not so quiet, desperation. For David Brooks, led to an over the top Netanyahu panegyric. The fate of liberal Zionism is tragic; the writings of David Brooks barely rise to the level of a coarse comedic rant.

They are revealing though because they lay bare the desperation America’s and the world’s less kind and gentle Zionists are feeling nowadays, as Israel, in Netanyahu’s sense, “delegitimates” itself.

ANDREW LEVINE is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).

ANDREW LEVINE is the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).