Israel at 60: Interview with Mitchell Cohen


While its faced its fair share of knee jerk reactions, unpleasantnesses, accusations of ethnocentrism, and other semiorrhea, Israel celebrated its 60th anniversary last month.  I just came across an interview with Dissent editor Mitchell Cohen from last month. Cohen touches on a number of interesting questions and issues. There are some particularly interesting exchanges:

Daniel Buarque: You point out in your article, “Anti-Semitism and the Left that Doesn’t Learn” (check it out, a fine article-SO), that Israel’s legitimacy is often questioned in the world because of conflicts in the Middle East and because of Israel’s relationship to the Palestinians. Should the rest of the world celebrate the sixtieth anniversary of Israeli independence? Why?

Mitchell Cohen: One of the points I tried to make is that Israel is subjected to double standards, especially on the left. Saying that gives me no joy: I identify with the left so my criticism comes from within the left. I celebrate the birth of the state of Israel because it represented the success of a national liberation movement. Here you have a people, the Jews, who had been persecuted for centuries, who had been the internal “Other” of the West. Their suffering culminated in the Nazi slaughter. From its origins in the late nineteenth century, the Zionist movement was pessimistic about the future of the Jews in the West and in Russia. Many liberals and leftists told them that they were too “particularist” and should put all their faith in universalizing political movements—communism or liberalism, for examples—but nobody can look back at the last century and say that the Zionists were wrong in seeing that emergency was at hand and that what might be called political Esperanto was wrong.

Cohen continues:

Back in the 1930s, David Ben Gurion, the head of Mapai (the Israel Workers Party), debated Vladimir Jabotinsky, leader of the Zionist right-wing (Benjamin Netanyahu is his heir). Jabotinsky insisted that a national movement had to be “pure” and free from all “foreign” ideas but Ben Gurion, who later became Israel’s first prime minister, insisted that any national movement could be good or bad—it depended on its social content, the type of society it sought to create. I agree with Ben Gurion’s view then that one must be a universalist and a particularist at the same time, even if that doesn’t always work easily and sometimes the effort fails. I am against both integral nationalism and integral cosmopolitanism.

I often disagree strongly with Israeli government policies. But recall that Israel was led by the social democratic left until 1977 when Menachem Begin was elected prime minister. One must distinguish policies of different governments and prime ministers from the Zionist project itself. Palestinian nationalism does not become illegitimate just because Arafat was a very bad leader. The Jewish state represents the successful reconstruction of a persecuted, brutalized, and murdered people, and that is why the world should celebrate its sixtieth anniversary. To do so doesn’t contradict a keen sympathy for the Palestinians Arabs or support for a compromise solution. For me, that would mean a two state solution, Israel and Palestine, and a return by Israel to the 1967 borders (more or less, depending on negotiations). So I would object strongly to “critics” who really seek to de-legitimize the existence of Israel in order to see it vanish. There are legitimate Palestinian grievances and they need to be addressed, but morally speaking they comprise only half the story.When asked whether or not this type of criticism (e.g. the de-legitimization of Israel’s existence to help wipe it off the map), Cohen responds:

…It troubles me that some of Israel’s loudest intellectual and political foes in the West make demands of the Jewish state that they make of nobody else and with a fervor that is not found when it comes to other topics. In the meantime, they don’t insist that the millions of Germans who lost homes after World War II in Poland or Czechoslovakia have a “right to return.” When Saddam Hussein butchered Kurds, they were barely interested.

Of course the regime in Iran poses a threat to Israel. Iran is a major and ambitious force in the region and it is run by religious extremists. I know critics of Israel say that you must “understand the context,” that is, Iranian resentment of Western imperialism. Well, Western imperialism was very bad but everything cannot become a matter of Western imperialism. In the nineteenth century a German Social Democrat, August Bebel, accused anti-Semites on the left of the anti-capitalism of fools and nowadays we have “the anti-Imperialism of fools.”

Here Cohen addresses the “let’s blame Israel for everything bad in the region position:”

…I often think that those who blame Israel for everything should study the last 500 years of Mideast history.

That is not to say that Israel is blameless. It has made some errors, including some very, very serious ones, such as the settlement policy. The right-wing in Israel has constantly—and too successfully—confused security and religious-nationalist issues. I think security matters are legitimate but not settling beyond the 1967 borders for religious or nationalist reasons. The Palestinian leadership is no less to blame. Arafat had a great opportunity in 2000 to make peace at Camp David—Ehud Barak made it clear that he was willing to go further than any previous Israeli leader—but the Palestinian chairman seems to have thought that he had to get everything he wanted before negotiations. Palestinians speak of al Nakba (the Disaster) of 1948, but their own leaders have been a disaster for them and the greatest disaster today is Hamas.

Read the rest here. There’s a cease fire in Gaza underway today, hopefully (to disregard my default position of utter cynicism, in the most general sense) it will be a first step towards a genuine encounter to work towards stabilization and peace in the region despite the trauma both sides have endured throughout the years (Kristof has an ok column in today’s NY Times).

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