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If Benjamin Netanyahu were to abandon Israeli politics for Medieval Scholastic philosophy, he could begin by reformulating a notorious conundrum about angels.
In the Middle Ages, inquiring minds wanted to know how many angels could fit on the head of a pin.
The answer depends on the properties of angels. If they have no spatial dimensions, as the wisest of the Schoolmen believed, then there is room, even atop a vanishingly small surface, for infinitely many of them to fit.
If there were angels, that is.
Since the dawn of the modern era, hardly any reasonably sensible and informed person has believed that angels exist, except perhaps in some vaguely metaphorical sense.
Therefore, when the idea is to depict a question as both ridiculous and arcane, “how many angels can fit on the head of a pin?” gets trotted out.
This has been going on for centuries.
Netanyahu’s “existential threats” are like angels; they don’t exist either – except perhaps in the way that rhetorical exaggerations and other figures of speech do.
No doubt, there are theologians who would still say that they believe in angels, though, as the saying goes, only God knows what they have in mind.
Only the terminally benighted truly believe. In America, there are frighteningly many benighted people; when pollsters ask about angels, the results are distressing.
It is different with Zionists. Most of them seem reasonable enough, but nearly all of them believe, quite literally, that Israel faces many, potentially infinitely many, “existential threats.”
How could they not? The Israeli propaganda mill and its echo chambers around the world tirelessly promote the idea.
It isn’t just Israel that is threatened either; sometimes, it seems, the entire “Jewish nation” is.
What that might mean, again, God only knows.
No one had even heard of nations (in the relevant sense), much less thought that they existed, before the nineteenth century. The idea is a creature of German Romanticism.
For several decades now, it has been widely understood too that nations are socially constructed “imaginary communities.”
Like angels, they do not exist in the way that material objects do. Indeed, they do not exist at all, except as fictions, contrived for political purposes. Angels are contrived for theological purposes.
This is not the only difference. Only the planet’s most backward folk still worship angels; nations are worshiped everywhere – not in so many words, but in effect.
They are the gods of the modern age. Nationalism — the new idolatry, as the Biblical Prophets might say – has become a universal religion.
Thus Jewish nationalism, Zionism, effectively hijacked Judaism many decades ago, leaving only the “ultra-orthodox” – in Israel they call them haredi – to carry on as if nothing has changed since the eighteenth century.
Outside their self-imposed ghettoes, Zionism and Jewish identity have become inextricably mixed.
What is especially odd about this is that the Jewish nation – comprised of people who share, or shared, a common religion, but not a common language, territory, or culture is more imaginary than most. Even claims of common descent, though widely believed, are, to say the least, dubious.
To be charitable to Netanyahu and his ilk, let’s therefore say that it is just the state of Israel that faces “existential threats,” not some larger imaginary entity.
And, since the state form of political organization is also a modern creation, and the idea of a “nation state” did not – indeed, could not – emerge before notions of nationality became established, let’s not dwell either on Netanyahu’s ahistorical and thoroughly muddled contention that Israel is “the nation state of the Jewish people.”
It will be enough to focus just on “existential threats” facing the state of Israel.
Did Netanyahu think this up all by himself? Lexicographers and historians should investigate because whoever did deserves an A+ in Public Diplomacy School.
This is why I wouldn’t rush to credit the Bibster; he ain’t that smart.
But, even if he is only standing on the shoulders of giants, he deserves credit for recognizing their genius.
The power of the idea derives in part from its vagueness.
What exactly is threatened?
It could be the physical existence of Israelis or, since they are the only Israelis that matter to Netanyahu and the others, the eighty percent of them that identify as Jews.
That would be a dreadful prospect – a reason to be perpetually on guard and a cause for what existentialists called Angst. “Existential threat” would be a fine way, a doubly fine way, to describe the situation.
But there are no credible threats like that in the offing; none, anyway, that affect Israelis more than anyone else.
The physical existence of human beings is always in peril, and, in a world where environmental catastrophes loom and nuclear weapons abound, the peril is greater than it used to be.
But, notwithstanding Israel’s several hundred nuclear weapons and the disposition of Israeli governments to go to war whenever the opportunity arises, Israelis have no particular reasons to be fearful.
They may think they do, however; we Jews are conditioned that way by history. And, I gather, Israeli schools drive the point home relentlessly; so do Jewish schools abroad. Marshaling evidence is child’s play.
No matter that Christian anti-Judaism is a spent force; that modern anti-Semitism suffered an historic defeat in World War II, or that, Muslim hostility is reactive, not historically ingrained. The morbidly fearful will fear.
But the facts are what they are: if Israelis are in any greater physical jeopardy than the citizens of other states, it is only because of the wars they initiate.
Perhaps, then, what is in peril is only the material wellbeing of Israelis.
Since, according to the Rand Corporation, average per capita income for Israeli Jews is about $44,000 per year – not much lower than for citizens of Great Britain, New Zealand or even Germany – and since this level of prosperity depends to an unusual extent on the active support and cooperation of other countries, it could indeed be argued that the material well-being of Israelis is more precarious than is normal for citizens of capitalist states.
But this hardly rises to the level of anything that could plausibly be called an “existential threat,” even if only for rhetorical effect.
In any case, hardly anything Netanyahu and the others say suggests that they fear for the Israeli economy. It could come to that, as the BDS movement grows, but this is not on the horizon for now.
What worries them instead – insofar as they are not just pretending to be worried — are threats to the legitimacy of the regime they superintend. They fear for its continued existence.
Their fear is that the state of Israel’s fundamental nature – its ethnocratic character – could, before long, be radically transformed.
Fair enough; they have reason to worry.
It bears mention, though, that almost every regime in the history of the world has faced existential threats in this sense. Sometimes the threats come from within; sometimes from outside forces.
Most of these “existential threats” are easily withstood. Occasionally, they are not.
Yet no one before Israeli propagandists in the Netanyahu era talked about even the most extreme examples in such dramatic terms – not in the face of revolutions and wars; not even in reference, say, to the world historical transformations that turned the Soviet Union and China into capitalist states.
However, thanks to the Israeli propaganda machine, the expression is now in general currency. Even so, the Israelis seem to want to reserve it for themselves.
This makes sense: if fundamental regime change is the crux, the United States is the greatest serial existential threatener in the world today.
And however he feels about Obama, even Netanyahu is reluctant to rub the American government the wrong way. That would be foolish even by his standards, inasmuch as the regime he wants to maintain depends on American largesse.
But no matter what “existential threats” threaten, the notion remains problematic through and through.
And yet, if Netanyahu et. al. are right, Israel faces “existential threats” all the time.
How many? That depends; but always at least one, and often quite a few.
This is possible because, with existential threats being no more real than angels, infinitely many of them can fit on the head of a pin – where they can be called upon as needed.
Were Netanyahu and his fellow ethnocrats made aware of the similarities between their thinking and the speculations of Medieval Catholic theologians, it would surely irk them no end.
Well-founded historical grievances would be the least of it; especially now that Zionists have discovered how useful Islamophobia can be, and have therefore taken to rallying the “Judeo-Christian” world against evil Islam.
A bigger factor is that they think that they, not the Catholics, have God on their side – whether they believe in God or not.
And more irksome still: there is that pesky Pope Francis who has made justice for Palestinians a prime Vatican concern. It is not hard to imagine Netanyahu, like Stalin, asking how many divisions the Pope commands.
Even so, the comparison with Scholastic theology has, or could be seen to have, a silver lining.
Had he paid more attention at Cheltenham High or MIT to what the smart kids were talking about, Netanyahu himself might now be pointing this out.
He might now be kvelling over how it was Georg Cantor (1845-1918), the inventor of set theory and of modern understandings of the infinite, who named the conception of infinity that the Schoolmen had in mind: aleph-naught.
Aleph is the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, and Cantor very likely had Jewish ancestors.
How many “existential threats” can fit on the head of a pin? The answer, it turns out, is aleph-naught.
And so, voilà: ethnocratic chauvinists can be proud.
* * *
Those “existential threats” are there, comfortably ensconced on the head of a pin, available for use when Israel needs them.
And Israel does need them — to keep its fractious citizenry, the Jewish eighty-percent of it, in line, and to keep the money flowing in from abroad.
Without them too, Israel’s lobbies would run out of steam – even the biggest and scariest of them all, the one that owns the United States Congress.
Netanyahu should therefore thank God for Hamas and Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad, and for every anti-Israel incident that his propagandists can blame on eternal anti-Semitism.
Back at Cheltenham, Netanyahu must also have heard of the Aesop fable about the little boy who cried wolf. Or maybe his colleagues heard about it in their own schools.
In any case, Netanyahu and his posse like to use their “existential threats” sparingly, keeping all but one or two at a time in reserve.
This is why most of the “existential threats” Israeli propagandists concoct are soon forgotten.
They are the functional equivalents of “plain angels” — the Hebrew word is malakhim — low order messenger angels whose exploits the sacred texts seldom bother even to record.
And this is why the Iranian Revolution came as such a godsend.
Except for Turkey, the Shah’s Iran had been Israel’s only friend in the Middle East. Its importance to Israel paled in comparison to the United States and Canada and a few guilt-ridden European countries, but Iran was a significant ally nevertheless.
Even after the Iranian people handed the Shah his just deserts, and even as the theocrats who succeeded him were attempting to parlay virulently anti-Zionist rants into regional influence, the alliance survived – surreptitiously.
It was not until the Soviet Union expired and the first Bush War against Iraq rendered Israel’s strategy of encircling the Arab world with non-Arab allies superfluous, that Israeli governments found it expedient to turn Iran into Public Enemy Number One.
An Intelligent Designer could not have fashioned a more suitable enemy: Iran is big enough and powerful enough to be scary, but also far enough away to pose no real threat.
And, for icing on the cake, it has an ongoing, slow moving, nuclear program. The Iranians probably never intended to get nuclear weapons out of it; this has certainly been their position in recent years. But the very thought that they could was all Israel needed.
With Iran, the Israelis got themselves an existential threat worthy of the name, one that has been good for more than two decades. They also got the United States and Europe involved in efforts to assure that Israel would remain the only nuclear power in the region.
Israel’s nuclear monopoly helps secure it carte blanche to do whatever it pleases to Palestinians and, when the occasion arises, to nearby states, Lebanon in particular.
An Iranian bomb, just by being there, would threaten these prerogatives; it might even deter Israeli predations.
But only a fool – or a Zionist – could think that it would threaten Israel itself any more than nuclear weapons anywhere in the world already do.
Netanyahu does not want Israel deterred. Neither does he want Israelis or those “diaspora” Jews who reflexively take Israel’s side to stop worrying that, but for his steadfastness, the end would be nigh.
Too bad for him therefore that he overplayed his hand. His arrogance has been so monumental that, in reaction, even Barack Obama is now on the brink of overcoming his morbid fear of the Israel lobby – not completely, but enough to keep Israel from derailing American, European, and Russian efforts to move towards normalizing relations with Iran.
And so, it has dawned on the Israeli government, its defenders abroad, and the servile media that do its bidding that Iran’s usefulness is coming to an end; that the time for a new existential threat has come.
* * *
As recently as a year ago, the BDS movement would have seemed an unlikely candidate.
Called into being by leading figures and organizations in Palestinian civil society, BDS began some ten years ago. However, in the United States and probably also in Europe, it is only in the past few years that people not actively engaged in Palestinian solidarity work have become aware of its existence.
Gandhi is reputed to have said: “first they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, then you win.”
BDS is now in that third stage.
It should therefore come as no surprise that the Israelis have put out the word that BDS is anti-Semitic.
The fact that, according to published reports, at least twenty percent of all BDS activists in the United States are Jewish, or that many informed observers consider this figure low, hardly matters; they are all just “self-hating Jews.”
This may be good enough for The New York Times and National Public Radio and other mainstays of the Zionist echo chamber. But no one who is paying attention is fooled.
What is fueling the rise of the BDS movement are Israeli efforts to break the back of Palestinian resistance – so that the majority of Palestinians remaining in the Promised Land will up and go, ceding the entirety of Mandate Palestine to the Herrenvolk.
After three assaults on Gaza in six years, and with the election of a virulently reactionary government that includes overtly racist members, the remarkable thing is that BDS is not farther along.
It probably will be farther along soon, if, as seems likely, Israel launches a fourth attack on Gaza within the next few months.
Netanyahu needs a war because the coalition he cobbled together after the last election is hanging by a thread. With a war, he could find himself leading a government of national unity.
One factor holding BDS back is the fact that the movement is diffuse. This makes it hard for those who want to participate to know precisely what to do.
Boycotts are non-violent acts of conscience that usually require little, if any, organization. In this case, though, more organization would help – because, for one thing, it is not always clear what to boycott.
This was less a problem with Apartheid South Africa, and it was no problem at all, back in the sixties, when, for example, the United Farm Workers called for a boycott of California table grapes.
But apart from items conspicuously marked as Israeli-made in order to appeal to consumers for whom this is a plus, and several widely available brands of hummus, it is not clear what, if anything, to avoid.
There is a deeper problem, however.
Should the boycott extend only to goods and services produced in the Occupied Territories? Or should it cover Israel too?
The answer hinges on the desirability – and feasibility – of the so-called two-state solution.
For anyone who supports the ideals promoted, for example, in the French and American Revolutions, the two-state solution is problematic.
As conditions in the region deteriorate and the consequences of America’s Middle Eastern wars continue to unfold, it is conceivable that theocrats might someday gain control of the Palestinian national movement.
But, for now, the Jewish state is the problem. The only way that a state can be both Jewish and also liberal and democratic is if its population is majority Jewish in the way that, for example, Denmark’s population is comprised mainly of ethnic Danes.
That can only happen if Israel exists within some close approximation of its 1967 borders.
Thanks to the ethnic cleansing that has already taken place, a Jewish majority could likely be sustained within those confines. It cannot be sustained within the entirety of Mandate Palestine.
Scaring up Jewish immigration from Europe, North America and Australasia could help offset the population imbalance — in theory. But hardly anyone eligible to immigrate to Israel under its Law of Return, who is not already there, wants to go. It would take a lot to scare them into changing their minds.
The key, therefore, is giving up the land taken in the 1967 war. The Israeli Right is vehemently opposed; it always has been. Most other Israelis are too.
The Hebrew language and the culture based upon it – along with a “civil religion” derived from the Jewish tradition that recognizes Jewish, not Christian or Muslim, holidays and the Jewish day of rest – are, by now, securely established.
A Jewish majority state is another matter.
Neither a Jewish majority nor a Jewish state were ever essential for cultural Zionism’s goals to be achieved.
But cultural Zionism has long been coopted into the Zionist state-building project. Formerly a thriving concern, it effectively disappeared without a trace. Or so it seemed.
Lately, though, under the aegis of Netanyahu and those who think like him, the state-builders have heaped so much discredit upon political Zionism’s aims, and so much opprobrium upon themselves, that all bets are off.
By digging in their heels, in defiance of what Thomas Jefferson called “a decent respect for the opinions of mankind,” they are doing themselves in.
Could a cultural Zionist renaissance then be in the offing?
Perhaps. For those of us who support the historical achievements of the French and American revolutions, this would be a welcome development indeed.
But, in view of attitudes prevalent in Israel and among its supporters abroad, the prospect would not now be any more likely than it was ten or twenty years ago, if a viable two-state solution could be achieved. This is a very big if.
Liberal Zionists, and well-meaning, realistically minded non-Zionists around the world, used to maintain that a two-state solution is not only achievable, but inevitable. Many still do.
They insisted too that, in the world as it is, this is the best and most just (or least unjust) outcome that Palestinians can hope to attain.
Leaders of Arab states and the Palestinians themselves, to the extent that they had independent political representation, would, from time to time, take exception. But they knew in their hearts that the Zionist colonizers would never go back to from where they came; that they were in Palestine to stay.
This is why, since the early 1970s, the idea that a Jewish and a Palestinian state should coexist side-by-side has enjoyed wide international support.
Except for those Middle Eastern states that opted out for show but not for real, and for the real “rejectionist front” – Israel, of course, and the United States and countries it bullied into going along — there has been, from that time on, an international consensus favoring a two-state solution.
Odd as it may seem today, this marked a great leap forward for the Palestinian cause.
Until then, the Palestinians, not the Israelis, were the problem.
This was the case even in “progressive” circles; indeed, it was especially the case there.
The Communists were all for a Jewish state – especially in Israel’s first years, when Stalin wanted to drive the British out of Palestine. But long after Stalin had become a bitter memory, the Soviet Union’s fondness for Israel remained strong.
From time to time, Soviet governments would subtly encourage expressions of anti-Semitic attitudes; and, for geopolitical reasons, Soviet governments would sometimes inveigh against Zionism. But Soviet support for Israel never wavered.
The broader, non- and anti-Communist Left was pro-Israel too, and, with few exceptions, indifferent to the Palestinians’ fate.
More than twenty years after the Nakba made refugees of tens of thousands of Palestinian men, women and children, the idea that Palestinians too deserved a state had not yet even caught on.
This only began to change after the Six Day War and after an independent Palestinian national movement started to take shape.
Only then did the world’s most steadfast defenders of universal human rights and foremost champions of anti-colonial national liberation struggles begin to find the presence of an ethnocratic settler state in Palestine and the stateless condition of Palestinians problematic.
A case in point: by the 1960s, Jean-Paul Sartre was probably the most preeminent – and certainly the most uncompromising — left intellectual on earth. He defended anti-colonial struggles everywhere, boldly and cogently justifying the revolutionary violence of “the wretched of the earth.”
He sided against France and with the Algerian National Liberation Front in Algeria’s war of independence, and with the Vietnamese fighting for freedom from American domination.
In 1967, along with Bertrand Russell, he co-chaired the Vietnam War Crimes tribunal called by independent investigators in Denmark and Sweden.
And when the French authorities cracked down on “gauchiste” (far left) revolutionary groups in France after May 68, he placed himself on the front lines of the resistance.
And yet, he famously declared, during the Six Day War, that if Israel’s existence was threatened, and if only America could save it, he would be among the first to shout: “vive le Président Johnson.”
He was not alone. Blame it on attitudes shaped in Resistance struggles during the Second World War and on memories of the Nazi Judeocide, but, for nearly two decades after the Second World War ended, the vast majority of leftwing thinkers in the West steadfastly refused to apply to Israel standards that they never hesitated to apply to their own countries and to the rest of the world.
This is why it never quite registered that establishing a European colonial regime in the heart of the Middle East, at a time when the old colonial empires were beginning to crumble, was not such a great idea.
To be sure, it may have seemed necessary at the time – thanks to the combined efforts of Western governments and the Zionist movement.
Their aim was to send survivors of the Nazi Judeocide to Palestine, rather than to the United States and other Western countries where the vast majority of them would have preferred to settle, and where they could have been easily absorbed.
The Zionists and the Americans and the others made sure that there was no alternative. Their efforts made a bad idea look good.
This might as well be ancient history now. The colonists and their descendants have been in Palestine for three or four generations; the Zionists who came before them have been there several generations more. By now, ethnic Jews belong to the land, just as the people they displaced and their descendants do.
Hebrew is now the first or the adopted language of more than eight million people, and a distinctive Israeli-Hebrew culture has taken root and flourished. What happened decades ago is, like the European conquest of the Americas, irreversible.
But the future of the state established in 1948 is not nearly so secure. For decades it seemed to be, but it never truly was.
Now that settlement expansion has put not only the desirability, but also the feasibility, of a two-state solution in jeopardy, the indefinite continuation of a Jewish-Israeli state, as distinct from a Jewish-Israeli culture, has become an open question.
This “fact on the ground” has implications for BDS that explain why BDS makes Netanyahu and those who think like him more than usually unhinged.
Insofar as a two state solution remains feasible, it would make sense, for those who consider it the best of all feasible outcomes, to confine the boycott to goods and services produced in the Occupied Territories.
This would encourage Jewish Israelis who would be willing to live alongside a Palestinian state to mobilize against the settlements.
On the other hand, a boycott directed towards all Israeli products would drive all but the most principled and clear-thinking Israelis into the clutches of Netanyahu and his co-thinkers — in much the way that the attack on the Pentagon and World Trade Center caused all but the most principled and clear-thinking Americans to support George Bush and Dick Cheney’s wars, at least for a while.
But if a two state solution is no longer feasible, then it is all of Israel, not just the Occupied Territories, that BDS ought to target.
In that case, the two-state solution would only be what critics of “the peace process” have been saying it always has been: a smokescreen that permits the settlement movement to expand and fester.
Netanyahu and his political allies, along with all their predecessors since the settlement movement began, have been doing their best to block Palestinian national aspirations.
Their objective, obviously, is to establish Israeli-Jewish sovereignty over the entirety of Mandate Palestine, and to expel as many Palestinians as they can.
This is why they maintain Gaza as an outdoor prison, why they decimate it periodically, and why they have never stopped ethnically cleansing the West Bank.
There are “moderates” and even self-described “leftists” in the Israeli political class, and in Israeli civil society, who would not agree that blocking a two-state solution is their express objective. But the proof is in the pudding: an honest observer can draw no other conclusion.
And if they have not already done enough to make a two-state solution impossible, they are close as can be.
In short, Netanyahu’s Israel has made BDS morally imperative.
And it is causing the movement it effectively created to take a form that does indeed threaten something in a way that the word “existential” actually does describe: the ethnocratic regime that Netanyahu and his co-thinkers champion and superintend.
According to its propagandists, Israel faces infinitely many “existential threats.” This is nonsense, of course – or, rather, it would be except that Netanyahu and the people around him have, in effect, caused one purported existential threat, this latest one, to come to life.
Netanyahu is good at navigating the dark waters of Israeli politics, and he is a past master at romancing and servicing ethnocratic plutocrats. Sheldon Adelson is the best known and the most noxious, but he is not the only one.
And were he to exchange what Renaissance critics of Medieval Scholasticism called la vita activa, the active life of political engagement, for la vita contemplativa, a life devoted to philosophical reflection, he could show those too-clever-by-far papist Schoolmen a thing or two too about what can fit on the head of a pin.
But his real gift, it seems, is necromancy, conjuring something out of nothing – breathing life into phantasms that go on to change the course of events.
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).