Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Chaim Gans' "A Just Zionism: On the Morality of the Jewish State"

I have in my hands -- well, next to my computer -- not only one of the most interesting books ever written about the morality of political Zionism (and the morality of Israel's policies), but one of the most sensible and sensitive books ever written about Israel and Palestine. Although I don't agree with many of the author's arguments or conclusions -- he still cuts political Zionism and Israel too much slack, in my opinion -- I have no hesitation in giving him and his book a moral "heksher"/seal of approval.

In A Just Zionism: On the Morality of the Jewish State (2008, Oxford University Press), Tel-Aviv University law professor and moral philosopher Chaim Gans presents a defence -- albeit a limited one, as we shall see -- of the right of the State of Israel to continue to exist as it was founded, and of some of Israel's controversial laws and policies, e.g., the law of return. His arguments position him to the the left of the Israeli-Jewish consensus (including much of the Meretz party), but to the right of the post-Zionist crowd. Gans is a liberal nationalist, that is, he believes that nationalism is defensible because a common national heritage has great possibilities for enriching the lives and identities of individuals in a liberal state. So if you're a post- or anti-nationalist, this book is not for you. In fact, what I like about most about the book it that is assumes, for the sake of argument, the truth of the Zionist narrative of Jewish history and the legitimacy of liberal nationalism. The author then explores what justifiably follows from such assumptions. And his answers will not make make most Israel advocates happy, those who, like most of us, are content with fallacious and self-serving moral arguments.

Because of its importance I plan to discuss the book in a series of posts. I have also put a widget on the right side of the page for the convenience of people who want to buy the book. Let me say this upfront: if you are reading this blog, you should read Gans' book. And that includes anti-Zionists, non-Zionists, and ultra-rightwing Zionists. The only people who shouldn't read the book are those who don't like to follow, or can't follow, a philosophical argument, or those who don't care to read anything written by an Israeli. Whatever pennies I get from Amazon Associates I will donate to leftwing Israel-Palestine causes, so if you are a rightwinger, you may want to get the book directly from Amazon.

Here are some lines from the Introduction:

The purpose of this study is to present a philosophical analysis of the justice of contemporary Zionism as realized by the State of Israel, including Israel's territorial and demographic aspirations and the way it conceives of itself as a Jewish state. Specifically, I will examine the justice of contemporary Zionism in the light of the gap between a particular version of Zionist ideology that oculd be considered just and the situation today, which is a consequence of both current Israeli policies and the Zionist past. I will mainly focus on three components of this situation: the Palestinian refugee problem...; the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip...; and the policies of the State of Israel toward the Arab minority living within Israel's pre-1967 borders.

What Gans does in the book is to attempt to establish what is morally defensible and and reasonable about Zionism, and then compare it with the principles and policies of the Zionist state founded in 1948. Thus, for example, he argues from a liberal Zionist perspective in chapter one that the Jews constitute a people with a legitimate claim to national self-determination and self-rule -- but that this does not confer on them automatically a right to Jewish hegemony in a Jewish nation-state. Such a hegemony is only justifiable "circumstantially" and only applies to restricted domains of demography and security, and then in much more limited ways than implemented now. Nor must there always be a need for a Jewish nation-state in order to realize Jewish self-determination.

While Gans defends some of the special considerations that the Jewish state gives to its Jewish citizens, for example, in the sphere of immigration, he sharply restricts these special considerations and declares them in principle undesirable as permanent policies. Most of the time he picks apart the classic arguments used by liberal Zionists to defend Zionist policies of preference and discrimination. Those passages are, of course, my favorite parts of the book.

One final word: on the back cover there are two blurbs, one by American Jewish political thinker, Michael Walzer, and the other by Israeli philosopher, Avishai Margalit, both liberal Zionists. Margalit praises Gans' fairness; Walzer, Gans' meticulous presention of the arguments. Neither endorse the positions taken by the author, and I think that this is significant. It is a pleasure to read a book where, agree with the thesis or not, one can admire the intelligence and the moral sensitivity of the author.

Criticisms will follow.

3 comments:

Eurosabra said...

Just started in on it myself, after having finished _The Hebrew Republic_ a few months ago. I also have Gabi Piterberg's _The Returns of Zionism_ which is more in my field (cultural studies & literature.)

He certainly seems to be coming from the school of thought of Yael Tamir's _Liberal Nationalism_, which holds that two ethno-national states in Israel/Palestine would be acceptable, since particularist interests of each group would be guarded by each state. I also think I prefer his take on it to Gavison's view that Jewish state can guard Arab human and civic rights but need not privilege what she calls cultural/particularist "interests." A lot of those "interests" are key to how people experience the meanings of their lives. I am still going through the steps of Gans' arguments regarding cultural particularism, particularly since I have lived long periods (in Israel, France, and Germany) without daily use of my native tongue, and am wondering what "interests" is code for in an Israel which guarantees freedom of worship for all and Arabic some official status. States like France use linguistic assimilation as a shorthand for civic identity and citizenship. Arabic is already Israeli, and Israeli-Palestinian-Arabs already use Hebrew, although fluency may vary by generation. Do we need them to become "more Jewish?"

I am, however, heartened by the fact that Israeli citizenship's assimilationist drive functions much differently from that of 3rd/4th/5th Republic France's Algerian experiment. Israeli-Palestinians are citizens by birth and not a group of the select, nor are they asked to commit symbolic apostasy by disavowing Sharia in order to exercise that citizenship. (Algeria had no native Christians by 1830 apparently, so "indigene" =Musulman. Except when it didn't, when it meant "Jews.") Christian Israelis, culturally Greek, Russian, Armenian, or Arab, keep it from being a simple religious dichotomy. Shades of Gil Anidjar.

MelekhShaul said...

I've just read Chaim Gans article in today's Haaretz (23/06/09) with which I heartily agree. Knowing nothing about him I Googled him and then found this site. I haven't visited it for a couple of years, since a controversy over an Oxford Union debate. I glory in the title 'bad Zionist' by my closest friend, a Palestinian, but I'm still a Zionist, and that despite my disillusion and anger over the so-called Operation Cast Lead and the Israeli election result which had all the flavour of the 2nd Bush term 'theft' - except that Israel appears to continue to wallow in ingrained political weakness, where the US has reflected clarity determination to clean up and a re-engagement with its politics after 8 dead years.I am intrigued both by the original blog and Eurosabra's comment, because suddenly I discover a newer version of my 'bad Zionism' - liberal nationalism. I have to ask tho' are books by Israeli writers so scorned? Is that because Israel is generally held in such bad odour? Back to Gans and his book - is it feasible to imagine, and more than that, the mutual acceptance and then public recognition by Israel and Palestine of what Gans says in this article -"only an understanding of the justice of Zionism that includes a recognition of the right of the Palestinian objection, and only Palestinian recognition of the justice of their opposition to Zionism that also includes a recognition of its justified elements, can lead to a stable resolution of the conflict"? Or is this to be consigned to the ivory tower realms of academe?

conefor4200 said...

The American independence war was orchestrated by enlightened national leaders.
The next great, and even non-violent independence movement occurred in Hungary under the leadership of Deak, who objected the Kossuthian violance.
The United States of America has been based on the enlightened version of the Greco-Roman culture.
Zionism of Herzl gained inspiration of the Deak policies.
Israel is now the home of the ancient Judaic people, and can and must build the state on the principles of the Enlightenment.
The citizens must find unity, including the Israeli-Jews, Muslims, and Christians.