Swans Commentary » swans.com April 24, 2006  



Ethnic Nationalism Versus Common Sense
Response to a Zionist Book Review


by Michael Neumann





[ed. This is a response to Dr. Jacob Amir's review of Michael Neumann's The Case Against Israel.]


(Swans - April 24, 2006)  Jacob Amir's review of The Case against Israel is an almost textbook case of common sense crushed by ethnic nationalism.

Amir says:

...there is not a single case in the whole of recorded history that a people lost its territory, was dispersed all over the world for more than 1900 years, and in spite of that, did not disappear from the world stage. It was able to preserve its historical memory, its religion, its strong emotional attachment to what it calls Eretz Israel (later known as Palestine). That is why on Passover, a Jewish family in Yemen, or in Russia, or in Germany, or in Morocco, would say "Next year in Jerusalem." Without that common historic memory and this attachment to the land, the Zionist movement would not have existed because the Jewish people would not have existed. Zionists did not have to "form" an ethnic group in Palestine. It simply gave the Jewish people the push to strive to reestablish its sovereign nation state in the place of its origin.

This is a treasure-trove of nonsense. The Jewish people could not possibly have striven to reestablish its sovereign nation state in its place of origin. For one thing, the states of Biblical times were not nation states, because their sovereignty belonged to individuals or castes rather than nations or peoples. For another, the "place of origin" was in no reasonable sense of the expression known to anyone. At the moment, one authoritative account of Biblical archaeology in Palestine is articulated by Israel Finkelstein and Neal Asher Silberman, The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology's New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts, New York (Simon and Schuster) 2003. According to these Israeli archaeologists, the Biblical kingdom of Israel (a) probably existed for only a few decades, (b) covered only a small fraction of Palestine, (c) did not produce most of the monuments traditionally associated with Israel, (d) was more of a tribal holding than a kingdom or political entity of any sophistication, (e) was not even Jewish in any Biblical sense because, apparently, much of its population worshipped Canaanite gods. Finkelstein and Asher also assert that much of the so-called "historical" memory of the Jewish people, including slavery in Egypt and the exodus, are most likely stories made up out of the whole cloth. Finkelstein and Asher may eventually be proven wrong, but it hardly matters: the fact is that Jews today can have nothing which counts as historical memory because any "memory" -- surely a figurative term -- they might have is not historically authenticated.

Amir tells us that Jews say "Next Year in Jerusalem." One should beware of making this claim carry more weight than it can bear. In the first place, millions of Jews say no such thing, or don't take it at all seriously, because they are secular. In the second place, many of those who do take it seriously are anti-Zionist orthodox Jews, who deplore nationalist interpretations of the phrase. These Jews believe that Jerusalem can be rebuilt only when there is a spiritual renewal of Torah Judaism, and they see in Israel the virtual antithesis of such a renewal. At the other end of the orthodoxy spectrum, progressive Jews create Haggadahs which omit the saying for different reasons. One such example (the authors, Dara Silverman and Micah Bazant, run a "Haggadah Zine") contains the following instructions to Jewish readers:

Reader: At the end of the seder, Jews have always vowed to one another: "L'shana haba-a bi-Y'rushalayim/ Next Year in Jerusalem!" Why does the seder end with this vow?

Reader: For Jews, forced into diaspora two thousand years ago, wandering always in countries which were sometimes safe harbors and sometimes nightmares, the dream of Jerusalem was more than the city itself.

Reader: To dream that next year we would be in Jerusalem is to dream of a land and a time of autonomy, safety, self-determination, the right to one's own culture and language and spirituality, to live on land that can't be taken from you by the whim of an outside power. To live with the basic right to be who you are. Jerusalem comes from the same word root as "shalom" which is usually translated as "peace" but actually means "wholeness."

Reader: But this year, in Jerusalem, wholeness is very far away, and the news seems to be worse with each passing day. Still, when we look for the sparks of resistance, we see them everywhere. Fed by an aching for justice, some sparks have already grown to small brush fires, and grow in strength each day.

This year we say instead: L'shanah ha-ba'ah b'olam b'shalom! Next year may we all live in a world of peace!


In the third place, the practice of saying "next year in Jerusalem" does not date from ancient times. It became part of the Passover Haggadah during the Middle Ages, centuries after the diaspora. In the fourth place, Amir neglects to tell us that Jews -- some Jews -- repeat the phrase, not only in "Yemen, or in Russia, or in Germany, or in Morocco," but also in Jerusalem itself. This pretty clearly indicates that the phrase shouldn't evoke the tanks and barbed wire of a military occupation, but the spiritual revival of Jewry in a spiritual Jerusalem. Even when the spiritual Jerusalem is identified with the geographical Jerusalem, it is meant to be in a world transformed by the coming of the Messiah, not by the coming of the Haganah or the Israeli Defense Force.

In the fifth place, opponents of Zionism have never worried about Jews going to Jerusalem, next year or any other year, nor does anyone worry about Jews remembering Jerusalem. The worry is about the imposition of Jewish -- secular Jewish -- ethnic sovereignty in Palestine. This is hardly what is promised in or authorized by the Haggadah. Even if it were true that Jews were united by a longing for and memory of Jerusalem, this certainly does not entail even the desire for an ethnically Jewish secular régime governing as much of Palestine as Jewish politicians and armies could capture. It does not entail the Zionist project.

Yet the greatest nonsense is none of these things, but the notions of entitlement they presuppose. Picture this. On the one hand, you have a bunch of people living in Palestine. Their fathers and grandfathers and great-grandfathers most likely lived there too. They make their living there; they make their lives there. From far away appear some Europeans -- European Jews. They declare their intention to establish a state controlled by those who are, on some definition or other, ethnically Jewish. This will be a sovereign state, holding the power of life and death over all non-Jews within its borders, and those borders are intended eventually to comprise all of Palestine.

How is this project justified? How does it come to pass that this group of mostly secular Jews, this ethnic nationalist movement, might have acquired the right to say which non-Jews shall stay or go, live or die, in Palestine? According to Amir -- and putting aside all the other nonsense that surrounds his claim -- because, well, these folks really, really wanted that. They even said they wanted to, yearly, for a hell of a long time! Well, they didn't actually say that, but they said they wanted to be in one of the cities of Palestine next year, as you or I might say we really, really wanted to see the old family homestead outside Gary, Indiana next year, or to visit our mother's grave in Warsaw next year. That would be a strong basis for your claim to hold the power of life and death over all Americans or Poles, wouldn't it?

This would be laughable were it not for its repugnant undertones. The world is full of people who lack food, clean water, protection from the violence of their neighbours. Here we have some other people who want more than that, who speak of their terrible longing for a country of their own. Well, let me tell you something, as a Jew who grew up among Jews. The terrible longing for Jerusalem is no more intense, no more heart-rending, than the terrible longing to win the love of Angelina Jolie. If someone tells you otherwise, that person is a liar.

Supposing there is some longing for bogus historical resurgence, supposing there is some desire for a Jewish state -- what exactly is the moral stature of these desires? Is it enough to give you powers of life and death over other people who have done you no wrong? Is it enough to justify a state which starves and kills, on a daily basis, not only its enemies but innocent people, including small children? Is the frustration of these desires, this "pain," to stand with hunger and sickness and violent death as a matter of moral urgency? These questions are useful for distinguishing ethnic nationalism from morality, religion, and common sense.

Finally, Amir says I have an anti-Israel bias. Why? That I find Israel and Zionism to be in the wrong no more convicts me of bias than that anyone finds anything or anyone to be in the wrong. A minimally fair-minded person, even when biased in favor of a state or individual, can come to believe that state or individual is to blame for something. That's what happened to me when I investigated the Israel/Palestine conflict.


· · · · · ·


Please consider helping us financially. Support Swans!

· · · · · ·


Internal Resources

The Case Against The Case Against Israel - Jacob Amir - April 10, 2006

Dr. Jacob Amir's Letter to the Editor

Michael Neumann's The Case Against Israel - Gilles d'Aymery - December 2005



About the Author

Michael Neumann is a professor of moral and political philosophy at Trent University, Peterborough, Ontario, Canada.



Please, feel free to insert a link to this work on your Web site or to disseminate its URL on your favorite lists, quoting the first paragraph or providing a summary. However, please DO NOT steal, scavenge, or repost this work on the Web or any electronic media. Inlining, mirroring, and framing are expressly prohibited. Pulp re-publishing is welcome -- please contact the publisher. This material is copyrighted, © Michael Neumann 2006. All rights reserved.


Have your say

Do you wish to share your opinion? We invite your comments. E-mail the Editor. Please include your full name, address and phone number (the city, state/country where you reside is paramount information). When/if we publish your opinion we will only include your name, city, state, and country.


· · · · · ·


This Edition's Internal Links

JFK, Detective - Hank Bunker

Italy: A Poll To End Polls - Peter Byrne

A Farmer In A Dell - Milo Clark

The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict - Jacob Amir & Gilles d'Aymery

Is The Israel Lobby Effective? - Philip Greenspan

A Helmet For Dung Collectors - Yugoslav Memories - Walter Trkla

The Age Of Olivier - Book Review by Charles Marowitz

Collateral Damage - Book Review by Martin Murie

The Refugee - Poem by Michael Doliner

I Am Potus - Poem by Michael Doliner

The Insurgent Word: Signs - Gerard Donnelly Smith

Judas Gospel: A Major Revisionary Approach To Easter? - George Beres

The Only Road To Scottish Socialism Is Independence - Joe Middleton

Blips #35 - From the Editor's desk

Letters to the Editor

· · · · · ·


[About]-[Past Issues]-[Archives]-[Resources]-[Copyright]



Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
URL for this work: http://www.swans.com/library/art12/mneu02.html
Published April 24, 2006