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Hebrew U Philosophy professor denounced by colleagues as traitor for maintaining Israel was not born in sin at the expense of the Palestinians

March 19, 2010

Left in Zion

A philosopher who did not set out to be a Zionist polemicist stirs anger and debate.

Interviewer: Elliot Jager

Elhanan Yakira, professor of philosophy at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, has all the credentials of a man of the Israeli Left: born and raised in Tel Aviv as a Zionist and socialist , a lifelong secular Jew, an opponent of West Bank settlements, an advocate of government intervention in economic policy. Yet many of his colleagues on the Left denounce him as a right-winger and a traitor.

Why? Because he maintains that Israel was not born in sin at the expense of the Palestinians Arabs and that it has a right to exist as a Jewish state. Yakira's  critique of his fellow leftists, Post-Zionism, Post-Holocaust (subtitle: "Three Essays on Denial, Forgetting, and the Delegitimation of Israel"),  was rejected by five Israeli publishers before finally being brought out in 2007-- only to be greeted in the Hebrew press by a months-long silence. The controversy, when it at last erupted, was fierce; Yakira, a philosopher who did not set out to be a polemicist, had started a debate on the Left.

In April, Elhanan Yakira will be speaking in the United States about the English-language edition of his iconoclastic work, just published by Cambridge University Press and carrying endorsements by, among others, Michael Walzer and Fouad Ajami.  We talked in the living room of his Jerusalem home .

In Post-Zionism, Post-Holocaust, you coin a phrase, "the community of opprobrium." Members of this community maintain that Israel exploits the Holocaust to justify its illegitimate existence, and that the Jews have been doing to the Palestinian Arabs what the Nazis did to the Jews.  In brief: blame Israel and the Jews first. 

Well, I should explain that the Hebrew essays- only later did they become a book - were intended as a polemic against the Israeli community of opprobrium.  As I worked on the English edition, it became clear that the Israelis are nurtured by an international community: a huge subculture devoted to the de-legitimation of Israel, the Zionist idea, and the Jewish nation. What I did in the book was essentially to take one element of this campaign-the manipulation of the Holocaust-and show how it was morally and intellectually wrong.

Who are the big names in the Israeli community of opprobrium?

There are so many, and no doubt most of them are unfamiliar to English readers.  Haifa-born Ilan Pappe, who now teaches in England, completely embraces the Palestinian narrative. There is Yehuda Shenhav, who has a new book out challenging the right of Israel to exist even within the 1967 "Green Line." I devote part of my book to Adi Ophir, former editor of the post-modernist Hebrew journal Theory and Criticism and an academic at Tel Aviv University and the Shalom Hartman Institute. There is also Oren Yiftachel at Ben-Gurion University, who speaks of Zionism as a "colonialism of refugees" and "creeping apartheid."  Then there is the Haaretz crowd, including Amira Hass and Gideon Levy. Outside Israel, a key name is the historian Tony Judt, with his advocacy of a bi-national state.

The community refers to Israel's presence in Judea and Samaria as, in your words, "occupation with a capital O."

To be perfectly frank, I accept much of their criticism: the settlement situation is catastrophic. But what the capital-O crowd advocates is the now fashionable "one-state solution." It's completely unworkable. Daft! They also refer to Zionism as guilty of "original sin." Their opposition to Israeli policies is so visceral that it carries them to the point where they support policies that are, in effect, annihilationist.

You write that "there is not much point in talking with the anti-Zionists."

That's right. There is no point. They can't be swayed by facts. Their anti-Zionism has a structural affinity to anti-Semitism. It is irrational. I don't want to speculate or indulge in psychoanalytic explanations. Instead, what I do in the book is to talk about anti-Zionism.

It is a condition that seems to have permeated the Israel Left.

It's actually a complicated picture. I am convinced that the silent majority on the Israeli Left is not anti-Zionist. That is certainly the case in my department at the university. But the anti-Zionists are highly mobilized. They combine ideological zeal with academic pretense—or, rather, their academic work is placed at the service of their ideology. These instructors have created an uncomfortable climate in the classroom. I myself never use my lectures as an excuse to propound my political views.

Over time, not only have the academic anti-Zionists had a devastating influence in the universities, but everything they say is nurtured and amplified by the media and the international community of opprobrium. It's a vicious circle. The non-Israelis point to the Israelis in justifying their own anti-Zionist line. For their part, the Israelis basically direct their efforts toward the outside world, which rewards them by inviting them to travel, speak, and publish their academically worthless rubbish.

Let's talk about Hannah Arendt (1906-1975), to whom you devote an entire chapter in your book. By coincidence, the first Hebrew translation of her magnum opus, The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), is just out in Hebrew. In reviewing it, Shlomo Avineri has said that she was not tainted by Jewish self-hatred but was "a proud Jew."

I agree; she was a proud Jew. She was also a complicated Jew, and extremely ambivalent about her own Jewish identity. Though at times in her life she operated in a very Jewish milieu, she knew very little about Judaism.  She grappled especially with, on the one hand, the need for Jewish political expression through a state and, on the other hand, her opposition to Jewish particularism. Still, until her death—we can't speculate beyond that—I don't believe she would have challenged the right to Jewish self-determination or countenanced calls to dismantle the state of Israel.

You refer to her Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963) "a bad book" and "morally scandalous."

Well, she talks about things she doesn't understand. Her portrait of Adolf Eichmann was harnessed to her larger polemical aims. The concept of the "banality of evil," which she made famous, wasn't even hers. It originated with the German philosopher Karl Jaspers—who by the way stood courageously by his Jewish wife against the Nazis. Jaspers went on to write a book about German guilt, which Arendt read. The term "banality" appears in his letters to her.

Moreover, the Eichmann book does not propound a real theory. What she said about the "banality of evil" was intellectual gymnastics, pathetic nonsense.

In the controversy over Eichmann in Jerusalem, Arendt was accused by her friend Gershom Scholem of lacking ahavat Yisrael, fidelity to the Jewish people.

Yes, she had this inner conflict about her Judaism and about Israel. She grappled with the place of the Jew in European culture. Her writings are often interpreted as relating to the place of Jews and of Israel on the global stage, but in fact she was addressing the dilemma of how others, particularly Westerners, understand Jews and Jewish identity. Her life was the embodiment of this dilemma—which has now been transferred to Israel and within Israel.

So what was her answer to the Jewish problem?

Integration. But I am not sure she had a coherent position. About Zionism, as I say, she was always ambivalent. That ambivalence was Hannah Arendt.

An ambivalent thinker with an incoherent position, yet an icon whose writings are constantly invoked by the community of opprobrium.  

Exactly. An entire Arendt hagiography has evolved. My feeling is she would not appreciate being so used, but it is mind-boggling how many anti-Zionist Jews and Israelis, relying partially on her work, play such an important role in the campaign against Israel. 

What impels some Diaspora Jews to lead the charge against Israel? You contrast them with the Chinese Diaspora, which appears to react with equanimity to the truly egregious human-rights violations of Beijing.  

Yes, the Jews, unlike the Chinese, somehow feel pressured to dissociate themselves from their ancestral homeland.  You'd have to ask the one-state proponent Tony Judt or the philosopher Judith Butler, who is pushing the anti-Israel boycott, to explain what motivates them and why they are emotionally invested with Israel to such an unhealthy degree.



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