To see what is in front of one's nose needs a constant struggle.
--- George Orwell

Monday, March 3, 2014

Finding George Orwell In The Israel ‘Debate’ — And Why He Might Find Much Of It ‘Orwellian’

A semi invalid, in failing health for the last years of his life before dying in 1950, George Orwell was not a major voice on the Question of Palestine, the events leading up to the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, or the religious nationalism that drove it. 

What little Orwell actually wrote about Zionism however, did capture its core contradiction. In Notes on Nationalism, written in 1945 before the ravages of the Holocaust had become widely known, it should be noted, Orwell wrote that

Zionism is the nationalistic appeal for Jews to live in a Jewish state, specifically Israel. It is, however, a double-edged sword. Jews have historically felt deep opposition for hundred of years, even seen the Inquisition and the Plague, so getting them out of the continent could be seen as favorable. On the other hand, Israel had already been home to various ethnic groups for hundreds of years, so uprooting them in the name of Zionism could be seen as racist in nature.

Orwell also deplored the anti Arab prejudices of British Jews writing in another 1945 essay, “Anti Semitism In Britain,” that “many Zionist Jews seem to me to be merely anti Semites turned upside down.”   

No one has yet fused the science of literary forensics to algorithms that can predict social, political or moral opinions based on what someone might have written in the past.  So determining what the Orwell of then would think about Israel today comes with the risks that are always associated with historical projection or ideologically infused guessing. The dilemma is encapsulated in a back and forth that Norman Podhoretz had with Christopher Hitchens in Harper’s magazine in early 1983, readying for the upcoming, ominous year of 1984. Podhoretz maintained that Orwell would have become a neoconservative, and that he would be friendly to Zionism; Hitchens thought Podhoretz quite mistaken. (The Harper’s pieces, in January and February need a subscription, but a sense of the debate can be found here in a discussion that Ben Wattenberg had on PBS with Hitchens and with John Rodden, author of George Orwell: The Politics Of Literary Reputation.)

Having prophesized against “Israeli militarism” Orwell would probably be dismayed by the Israeli occupation of the West Bank now in its fifth decade. He would also certainly object to the religious messianism of settler movement, as well as to the ongoing colonization of Palestinian land, which is a violation of international law and American policy and threatens to make Israel into  an “apartheid nation” if it isn’t ended soon.  I don’t think he’d be any less chagrined by how Israel has left its largely secular roots behind to become the religious ethnocracy it is now, which puts one  set of citizens---20% in fact--- into  a subordinate position simply for not being Jewish, as the Jewish state endorses "ethnic privilege" across a wide swath of state policies, especially housing and education. The anti democratic drift of the country’s protections for free speech and other civil liberties ---censorship laws against calls of support for boycotts first and foremost---would chaff as well.  

As for the question whether “Zionism equals racism” Orwell would most likely say no. He’d add though that Zionism did in fact originate in the 19th century ideas on race that influenced Theodor Herzel, and that it has justified policies that are at the very least racialistic, which makes the distinction between the two one with little practical difference for Palestinians.  Having been sickened by the casual racism of his colonial contemporaries in Burma, I think Orwell would be disgusted by the racial contempt of the settler movement, echoed by Israeli hardliners like Ehud Barak, who talk about Israel being a “villa in the jungle” and the necessity of “mowing the grass” on a regular basis to keep the natives in the neighborhood from revolting.  In fact, Orwell might actually use Villa In The Jungle as a title for a novel along the lines of Burmese Days, although the similarity to the title of Leonard Woolf’s great novel of colonial Ceylon might preclude that.

Contrarian to the core, Orwell might actually sympathize with Israel’s precarious security situation, even if descriptions of it, such as this AIPAC video, are alarmist. There are in fact several hundred thousand Hezbollah rockets in Lebanon aimed at it from the north; Iran’s nuclear weapon program and annihilationist rhetoric  threatens from the east, Hamas rockets rain down from the south and the specter of Palestinian terrorism is always there. Yet Orwell would certainly not fail to point out that Israel has largely painted itself into this corner through strategic missteps and arrogance. The invasion of the Lebanon in 1982, which gave birth to Hezbollah, being is a perfect illustration of that perverse dynamic. 

Orwell might give credence to Israel’s defenders who say the Jewish state is being “singled out” by human rights groups, by the international pro-Palestinian movement and now by the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS). He would, no doubt find North Korea more “Orwellian” and almost all the Arab nations undemocratic and intolerant. I don’t think he would single Israel out as a “the defining moral question of our day," however, as the Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephens declared in a 2013 speech, linking Israel’s survival to that of the West’s. Although Israel is an international flashpoint, Orwell would have bigger fish to fry. The fate of liberal interventionism; the rise of Jihadism; globalization and its worldwide impact on workers and the relationship between capital and labor would be more compelling.  

Orwell hated all forms of political and moral double standards, so the exceptionalism at the core of  Zionism—and the cultural chauvinism attending it---would be off-putting because in the context of Israel's relationship to Palestinians it comes at the expense of basic moral fairness and often seems like a backdated effort to square a bloody historical circle by slapping a Star of David on it.  Zionist cheerleaders like My Promised Land author Ari Shavit, who think the dark side of Israel’s establishment as a Jewish State---a policy of forced expulsions during the fighting of 1948 enacted through the commission of civilian massacres and other war crimes, as well a refusal to allow the return of displaced Palestinian refugees after the ceasefire, what the Palestinians call the Nakba--- can be excused because it “allowed Zionism to live” would come in for an exceptional scolding. So would those Jewish American journalists who enabled for Shavit on his recent publicity tour for My Promised Land,  all of whom would call themselves liberal despite Shavit’s communal myopia. As for the exceptionalistic sloganeering of those still carrying on about Israel being  a “light onto the nations” or “healing and helping the world,” Orwell would probably just roll his eyes.

The current round of negotiations in the now nearly exhausted peace process would probably see Orwell putting pragmatism over principle, scolding the Palestinian leadership for its history of rejectionism and intransigence as much as the Israeli leadership for strategic footdragging. I think Orwell would say that a two state solution is the only way to achieve some measure of Palestinian self determination and to certify for once and for all, Israel’s legitimacy. Despite it being wholly justified under international law, the Right of Return would seem impractical; the single state that the right of return would inevitably bring into effect, would be dismissed as a dangerous pipe dream, especially given the toxic cycle of communal attack and counterattack that characterized the binationalism of the 1920’s and 1930’s during the British mandate. Orwell would most likely look askance at the idea of Israel needing affirmation as a specifically Jewish state, however, both for the cynicism it represents on the part of Likud for raising it so late in the game and for the illiberal identity politics behind the demand. And I think it’s safe to say he would see no small contradiction in a country dedicated to the separation of Church and State becoming that religious state’s primary benefactor, as Harry Truman did originally before being pressured by American Zionists.    


Orwell’s thoughts on the debate about Israel, especially on the American discourse, would be less ambiguous. He wrote the book on propaganda, so to speak, and the way in which language can be manipulated to serve it. And no one is better at illuminating the relationship between ideology and mental regimentation.

The contraints imposed on that discourse by a pro Israel orthodoxy would no doubt be a source of much grief.  He was a staunch believer in “free intelligence” at odds with “the smelly little orthodoxies contending for our souls,” as he said in one 1939 essay.  In another essay, one intended to be the preface to Animal Farm but which was instead published in the TLS in 1972 as "The Freedom of the Press”,  Orwell wrote that  

At any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question. It is not exactly forbidden to say this, that or the other, but it is 'not done' to say it, just as in mid-Victorian times it was 'not done' to mention trousers in the presence of a lady. Anyone who challenges the prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness.

Blunt but rarely bullying Orwell would recoil from the nasty tone of the debate, and the demonizing, defamatory tactics the pro Israel intellectuals have adopted against those who criticize or even question Israel, or the US relationship with it.  Bret Stephens calling for people like Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, as well as Tony Judt and Jimmy Carter to be "run out of polite society?" Jeffrey Goldberg putting Stephen Walt in the company of  “grubby Jew baiters" simply for pointing out that Goldberg, who has dual Israeli-American citizenship, had served in the IDF? John Podhoretz tweeting that Max Blumenthal, author of a book on anti democratic trends in Israel, sucks "the cocks of Jew haters and murderers?" It’s hard to imagine Orwell not seeing such insults as transparent attempts to stifle debate by redlining perfectly legitimate ideas and those who voice them---and crying foul. 

I can imagine the former colonial policeman casting a particularly cold eye on efforts of self proclaimed debate “cops” such as the New Republic's Leon Wieseltier who take it on themselves to police arguments about Israel and do so in the most heavy-handed and meanspirited way. In 2010 Wieseltier attacked blogger and former TNR colleague Andrew Sullivan on trumped up charges of anti Semitism even as he sniffed at the intellectual deficits of Sullivan's Catholicism compared to the more rigorous Judaism Wieseltier embraces. (Wieseltier expressed contempt for the doctrine of the Trinity--the central tenet of Christianity--- calling it a "crude" form of polytheism.) In effect, as Sullivan very deftly noted in response, Wieseltier committed an act of anti Catholic bigotry even as he was trying to establish Sullivan’s anti Jewish bias, which in the end Wieseltier wasn't able to do.  They don’t come more self regarding—and less self aware--- than Leon. As an apostate and a freethinker, Orwell would be appalled at this kind of intellectual viciousness, the sectarian defensiveness and the sectarian insularity, not to mention the vanity and plain hypocrisy.  

Orwell did not live long enough to experience McCarthyism but he would have deplored McCarthy-esque tactics of movement Zionism, especially its journalistic wing, such as the anonymous, evidence free charges hurled at Chuck Hagel by right wing columnists at the Wall Street Journal, the Weekly Standard and the Washington Post, who  took advantage of journalistic confidentiality to introduce unfounded smears into Hagel's confirmation battle. Likewise those who claimed "guilt by association" in that episode, maintaining that Hagel gave a supportive speech to an organization called the "Friends of Hamas," when the only reference for the group’s existence was a joke that a Daily News reporter had made about it.  

That pro Israel activists would maintain dossiers and blacklists of journalists and circulate them on listservs so that pro Israel comrades in the media could attack these journalists as anti Semitic, such as the listserv maintained by former AIPAC spokesman Josh Block, might recall the scheming Orwell wrote of in Homage To Catalonia---and be seen as just as contemptible. Pro Israel intellectual schomers, Hebrew for"guardians," such as Leon Wieseltier, also seem to endorse the rather un-American idea that someone accused of anti Semitism or of bias against Israel needs to prove his or her innocence by explaining why they are not hostile to the Jewish state or bigoted, as Wieseltier did here.   

In the same vein Orwell would deplore the abuse of history to serve ideological ends,  especially the alarmist historical exaggerations of those who likened Obama’s reluctance to intervene in Syria over Assad’s use of chemical weapons to the west’s capitulation in Munich in 1939;  those who compare the BDS movement to Nazi-era anti Jewish boycotts; and those like the Likud ministers who decry the  “Auschwitz Borders” of pre 1967 Israel, vowing to never allow a return to them.

There's still a debate about whether Orwell outgrew the anti Semitism that some say comes through in the crude way he characterized Jews in his earliest work, Down and Out In Paris and London, for example. And true enough, while still alive Orwell did think that the Tribune’s partisan coverage of Israel’s establishment as a state was excessive and that the journal had a “preoccupation with post Holocaust Jewish needs,” as his otherwise admiring colleague on the Tribune Tosco Fyvel has written in his memoir. But it’s hard to think he would have remained morally insensitive as evidence of that world-historical crime against humanity gathered through the 1950’s, even as he would resist its politicization, and the way the Holocaust is often deployed in the current discourse as a partisan argument ender to invalidate positions and ideas that the pro-Israel community finds merely politically inconvenient. He would find the taboos and sacred cows obvious---useful to bolster the orthodoxy but a barrier to clear thinking.


What Orwell might find most objectionable though is the debate’s  corruption of language. His essay  Politics and the English Language explores what he called  the special connection between politics and the debasement of language” in a way that resonates, and has endured well beyond the fascist era Orwell wrote from . 

In our age there is no such thing as "keeping out of politics." All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia. When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer.

He was particularly put off by the way polite society takes refuge in euphemism as a way to dodge inconvenient truths and spare sensitivities.

“Things like the continuance of British rule in India can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.

Orwell’s spirit was  invoked earlier in the week by Peter Beinart, now contributing a weekly column to the liberal Israeli newspaper Haaretz. “Where is George Orwell when you need him?” Beinart asked, highlighting the fault lines that were exposed at a prestigious Manhattan synagogue in the wake of a speech NYC mayor Bill DeBlasio made at an AIPAC fundraiser which was held behind closed doors at the Hilton hotel without the press corps that would normally follow DeBlasio being informed of the event. 

According to Capital New York, whose reporter was able to get in for mart of DeBlasio’s speech before being ejected, DeBlasio declared that a commitment to defend Israel “elemental to being an American, because there is no greater ally on earth.”  His City Hall “ will always be open to AIPAC, he told the audience, a list of which AIPAC refued to disclose. “When you need me to stand by you in Washington or anywhere, I will answer the call and I’ll answer it happily ’cause that’s my job.”

DeBlasio’s declaration of loyalty—and the rather idiosyncratic mayoral job description contained within it---raised a lot of eyebrows and prompted a letter of protest from a group of 700, mainly liberal New York Jews, among them Gloria Steinem Peter Beinart and two rabbis from the B’nai Jeshrun Synagogue. Their letter referred to AIPAC disparagingly as a “right-wing organization that strong-arms elected and other government officials to support brutal Israeli government policies.”
We understand that the job of mayor of New York is a complex one that often calls for your participation on the international stage, and we would not presume to define your job for you.  But we do know that the needs and concerns of many of your constituents–U.S. Jews like us among them–are not aligned with those of AIPAC, and that no, your job is not to do AIPAC’s bidding when they call you to do so. AIPAC speaks for Israel’s hard-line government and its right-wing supporters, and for them alone; it does not speak for us.
More conservative, pro Israel congregants at B’nai Jeshrun took issue with their rabbis for siging the letter, and issued their own open letter , which was posted on Commentary website.. The congregants told the rabbis that
Instead of signing the letter to the Mayor, you should have stood by Israel and urged its authors not to send it because it ran counter to the truth and to the tenets of tolerance that you have often preached.
AIPAC works with Congress and leaders in the Executive branch to support the government of Israel...As believers in democracy and because the government of Israel is democratically elected by the citizens of Israel, we support its duly elected government.
In his Haaretz column about the feud, Beinart said the letter’s use of the phrase “as believers in Democracy” was illuminating since
The key dispute between AIPAC and the (synagogue’s) rabbis is over whether American Jews should publicly challenge Israeli policy in the West Bank.
The incensed congregants say no because “as believers in democracy,” they publicly support the right of Israel’s “democratically elected” government to pursue whatever policies in the West Bank it desires.
Democracy means government by the people. Every single person in the West Bank lives under the control of the government of Israel.

The Israeli army – and the army of no other government – can enter every square inch of the West Bank. The Israeli government controls the West Bank’s borders. It controls the airspace. It controls the currency. At times over the past decade, Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip have elected representatives to a parliament. In 2012, the Israeli army placed the speaker of that (now-defunct) parliament under arrest.

My point is not about whether Israel has valid reasons for controlling the West Bank. It is merely that Israeli does control the West Bank. And it can only do so because Palestinians, who comprise more than eighty percent of the West Bank’s residents, cannot vote for the government that controls their lives.
He then goes in for the kill:

That’s why defending the legitimacy of Israeli policy in the West Bank by citing one’s belief in democracy is so Orwellian. Because Israeli policy in the West Bank is premised on the West Bank not being a democracy. Were the West Bank a democracy, it would cease being under Israeli control.

To use the language of democracy to defend Israeli policy in the West Bank is linguistic fraud. Such fraud is necessary because to honestly defend the denial of democratic rights, for 46 years, to millions of people because they happen to be Palestinians and not Jews, would require language too coarse for the Upper West Side….
…. It is this culture of euphemism – a culture which has corrupted Jewish America for decades – that Rabbis Roly Matalon and Felicia Sol are refusing to oblige. That’s why their behavior is so threatening. In the American Jewish world today, honest speech would constitute a revolution.

I actually think Orwell would find the Israel debate's most striking---and effective--- corruption of language in the way an overly expansive definition of anti-semitism is coupled with straw-man argumentation to transmogrify a politically inconvenient, "hard truth" into an "anti-semitic trope" or an anti Jewish "historical canard." As we saw in the controversy over the Economist cartoon in January, pro Israel censors were able to make the fact of the Israel lobby's undue influence over the US Congress into the lobby's control of the US Congress, which, as almost always in such cases, harks back to ideas of international domination and manipulation as outlined in the infamous Protocols of the Elders of Zion. A neat trick, and it quite often works. As an example of effective propaganda, Orwell might tip his hat, even as he scowled.    

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