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The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2019

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MAR 2019 Issue
Field Notes

Repeating Israel

Many years have passed since Israel was earnestly held up as "a light unto the nations," whether in a religious or more secular-utopian sense. This seems to be changing in the last few years, but with a horrific ironic twist. After the extreme right-winger Jair Bolsonaro's triumph in the Brazilian election, one could read the usual reports of street celebrations, dotted in this case with acts of violence (by law enforcement too) in the spirit of the new president. What was unusual about some of these displays of joy was that Bolsonaro supporters were seen waving flags of Israel as they violently ripped through the streets. As if Israel, as a cultural figure, is somehow a condensation of all that Bolsonaro's victory promises them.

The Brazilian far-right case is not the only one: new right-wing leaders and their supporters in Europe have been expressing strong support for Israel for several years now. The apparent paradox of pro-Israeli antisemitism, not uncommon in Hungary for example, has been amply documented and discussed. The Israeli right—trying to cozy up to its somewhat unexpected international supporters—has itself been inching closer to explicit antisemitism in recent months, with such phenomena as Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's joining the antisemitic attacks on George Soros and expressions of anti-refugee sentiments in solidarity with the shooter at the synagogue at Pittsburgh. All manner of strange, ad hoc repression mechanisms are developed by the Israeli right to deny the antisemitic odor of it all: "They're not really Jewish, since they're not orthodox;" "it was their attitude towards immigrants that drove the shooter to do what he did"—two chilling examples of not-so-far-right-wing Israeli responses to the Pittsburgh attack. Is this a new Axis of Evil forming in front of our very eyes?

In the European case, one could argue that it was the Second World War that made support for Israel a political issue in the first place, to be fought over by left and right. But this kind of support for Israel doesn't at all account for the Brazilian case, or for murderous Duterte's warm visit to Israel. This identification with or support for the Jewish state therefore seems a bit odd, not entirely decipherable using the older ways of thinking about Israel. And it is made stranger if one considers that the direction of cultural flow—of TV shows, films, and all manner of fashions—is predominantly into Israel, not from it. Israeli culture itself is increasingly becoming indistinguishable from the American cultural trends that influence it, and what breaks out of the local orbit is already tightly tailored to the tastes of the Globaliberals (capitalism takes care of that). So it is not that some Israeli "authenticity" somehow made it to Brazil or to the Philippines, making these countries' peoples fall in love with the Israeli Thing. Why, then, Israel?

I suggest this explanation: that what we see in these cases is not exactly expressions of solidarity, but something different. These are attempts to repeat Israel in some way. In many of these cases, Israel is a sort of example to be followed, an urtext for imitation. One doesn't have to go live among the fascists to see that Israel for them stands for "Making [insert country's name] Great Again," for intensifying discrimination based on race, gender, ethnicity, religion, national divides in the name of some original hardworking, god-fearing volk. But this explanation is a too-fast generalization based on universal ethical "values," reified in the code used by liberal media outlets to bunch the enemy together. What it misses, thinking in terms of abstract universals, is the particularity of the repetitions of Israel: Bolsonaro supporters hate northern Brazilians and transgender people, not ethnic and sexual Others; the Hungarian far Right hates George Soros and Muslim refugees, not religious minorities. But if this is how they talk and think about who they hate, how can Israel be a source of inspiration? Even the slightly more concrete "Muslim hatred" or "immigrant hatred" doesn't really unify all these cases—which sometimes can't be reconciled at all: anti-Semites cannot be on the same side as Jewish Israeli racists, whom they should hate, at least in principle. How can Israel, infamous first and foremost for the oppression of Palestinians (and hardly for the oppression of Jews) be a role model for all of these widely-diverging cases? One would really have to drink long and deep from the liberal Kool-Aid to believe that there is some Spirit of Other-hatred, manifesting itself in all these cases, as in some caricature of Hegel.

But what exactly do I mean by that? Isn't it possible that right-wingers all over the world have simply adopted a political strategy that they identify with Israel? My answer here is that this might be very true, but it doesn't in fact answer the question: why would this successful adoption only happen now? Israel must have been a light unto the global rightwing for quite a while. Why only now are these strategies adopted? So then the question becomes: why have these forms of oppression and marginalization suddenly become so effective? Why are so many falling under their spell now, all of a sudden? It is in this sense that the idealistic explanation isn't satisfying, for what we need to understand is precisely the sudden popularity of doing Israel in your own country.

How, then, can they all be repeating Israel? Against the contemptuous sneers of nominalistic historical thinking ("no one historical event is identical to another"), one should insist that there is nothing inherently stupid or reductive or false about thinking in terms of historical repetitions. This is definitely not the place to get into a philosophical debate about historical narration, but a little detour is inevitable. To be sure, there is something scandalous about such repetitions, when they first occur to us. One's first impulse is to think that it's the devil that tempts us with such reductive caricatures of historical patterns. But it is not too hard to suggest another source for this scandal of the mind, one whose strongest articulation today can be found in Slavoj Žižek's thinking (itself based on Lacan, Hegel, and Marx). The explanation goes like this: what is so scandalous is that the first event did not signify anything of this sort before the repetition came along. Only with the second event did the first one become the original event, retroactively. The scandal is precisely in the fact that the cause of the first event is in its future: it is the second event that retroactively produces the repeated first event (before the repetition, the first event was a completely different thing, if it signified anything at all). No wonder such retroactive production of history delivers a shock to our mind, at the moment it happens.

So: that far-right movements and governments around the world see themselves as repeating Israel is not so easily explainable; but on the other hand, it is also not necessarily stupid or reductive (it is just not nominalistic and not linear, which is actually extremely sophisticated). Therefore, the question persists: in what sense are all these cases repetitions of Israel?

The fact that there is no explicit, concrete, theme that ties these repetitions to the O.G. neo-fascism of Israel should direct us to look for what is repeated somewhere else. It could be a good indication that what is being imitated should be understood in terms of a response to some repressed common situation, with the right wing "strategy" itself being a response to something.

In other words, what is being repeated might be a response to something not articulated, but common to all of these cases. This commonality is far from some mysterious spirit of hatred; rather, it is a very mundane but an all pervasive system: global capitalism.

It is time now to make a highly unpopular claim: that "the conflict"—between Israel and the Palestinians—was always a site, both discursive and real, in which class antagonism was played out. This is apparent when one considers a claim popular among the Israeli "radical" (read: not anti-capitalist) left: that the Occupation has somehow managed to insert itself into every dimension of both the colonized and the colonizer, sometimes in very sneaky forms. All manner of injustice, cruelty, social neglect, and personal animosity are to be traced, in this view, to the original sin—the colonization of Palestine. It is precisely in this way, for example, that the well-known Israeli author David Grossman ends his book The Yellow Wind.1 The book is an account of Grossman's travels through the West Bank in 1987 (20 years after its occupation by Israel). It includes conversations that Grossman had with Palestinians and settlers, interviews, short stories, some investigative journalism—an interesting mixture of genres and forms of engagement, all designed to show how multifaceted the occupation is. Undoubtedly, what's left of the Israeli left would swear by Grossman's commitment to seeing the Occupation as a cause whose effects can be traced in every realm of Palestinian, but also Israeli, life. Grossman's intervention would definitely count as a smart idealism, to use Lenin's terminology (opposing such intelligent idealism to "stupid" or reductive materialism, which leaves no room for non-economic causes); it, and other interventions like it, gave us the 1990s Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process, for all its flaws and eventual failure.

But what is the problem of seeing the Israeli Occupation as leaving its mark on all Israeli life? The problem is that in the more distant and structural cases—say, the effects of the occupation on public housing or university research in Israel—one would always have to pass through economic considerations in order to demonstrate the effects of the Occupation. These can no longer be explained in terms of personal ethics but require reference to to some non-conscious forms of mediation. Thus, for example, Israeli sociologists in the 1990s, such as Baruch Kimmerling, characteristically appealed to Israel's perennially growing military budget to explain the lack of funding for welfare programs and other social services. (It was only years later that it became obvious that the lack of funding was simply the budding of Israeli neo-liberalism, which happened, not coincidentally, at the exact same time.) The most complete form of this argument can be found in the writing of Jonathan Nitzan and Shimshon Bichler, who set out to show that Israeli capitalism as a whole depended for its survival—up until the '90s—on armed conflict.2

But with Nitzan and Bichler one has already moved away from seeing the occupation as the great cause of the ills of Israel. Or as Nitzan and Bichler like to put it: what their research shows is that the Israeli oppression of Palestinians is an internal condition for the continued existence of Israeli capitalism. It is important to notice how the Occupation and capitalism almost imperceptibly switch places here. At first, economic considerations seem simply to explain how the Occupation affects every realm of life. But it is in fact, as Nitzan and Bichler show, capitalism that is the true cause with the Occupation as its expression or effect.

This materialist argument—that capitalism determines the oppression of Palestinians, and that it is capitalist system that is the dominant determining instance of Israeli society—is, of course, highly controversial. It deserves space, if only because it is so rarely made today (this rarity testifying more than anything to the near-absence of Marxist analyses of Palestine/Israel). The argument has two sides. The first is a more material (or, in classical-Marxist terms, an "infrastructural" one). The connection between wage-economy in its neoliberal form and the Occupation is not hard to find: declining wages, rising housing costs, and the erosion of social benefits turn ethnic and religious divides into economic advantages. It pays to hate Arabs when this hatred gives you a better chance of getting a less-shitty job. And more than that: As Daniel Gutwein argues, the explosion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank is precisely the result of neoliberal transformation.3 The settlements provide cheap public housing (and a lot of government jobs!) to all those Israelis who can no longer afford to live in Israel, as a result of its neoliberalization. Yes, the first settlements were established for ideological reasons. But these small collections of ramshackle huts were never an obstacle to anything. Only after the rapid growth of the settlements into stone and concrete towns—a process that only began in the late 1980s and '90s—did they begin to be a problem for peacemaking. And there can be no doubt that the rapid growth of the settlements was driven by rising housing costs, eroding wages, and a grand erosion of social benefits and public housing projects. One can say that the construction of West-Bank settlements was a (temporary) spatial fix for the contradictions of capitalism in Israel. In this way, the theft of the Palestinian homeland is precisely a result of the need to save capitalism. So goes the infrastructural argument.

But what about the "superstructure?" It is visible in the fact that "the Occupation" has always been the discursive space in which repressed class antagonisms have played out in Israel. Or, to put it in a more ontological way, "the Occupation" has always been how Israelis live class antagonism, a formulation that fits the Althusserian notion of ideology as practices that make one's reality cohere. The repression of class antagonism in political discourse is something we are familiar with from non-Israeli contexts. This repression is even more severe in Israel, whose founders claimed to have created a classless society, one in which class antagonism has been solved (one gets the chills when one realizes how quickly neoliberals have refitted this argument for their own purposes). In this situation, antagonism must be mediated (or sublimated, to use the Freudian term) differently into political discourse—it must be coded in non-class terms, which need to be available to consciousness as so many inherited symbols, as in Freudian dream interpretation. One can also think about this mediation along the lines of the Maoist distinction between primary and secondary contradictions: class antagonism being the primary contradiction, manifesting itself in the antagonism over the Occupation. Or, to take a literary tack, one can follow Jameson in speaking of a system of registers of interpretation, in which ideological antagonisms (including ones about class!) necessarily express what is essentially unrepresentable: the Real of the capitalist social form. What better indication that the repressed referent of "the Occupation" is capitalism itself, than its characterization as a system whose effects are registered in every realm of life? As Žižek would put it, this formal characteristic itself is the key to uncovering the secret referent. In other words, there's no better indication of how unbearable capitalism has made life for Israelis than their ever-growing hatred of Palestinians.

Of course, any of these options is bound to make liberal-leftists extremely angry. There is nothing cool or level-headed in the way they treat such ideas (going way beyond merely opposing them). The anger and ridicule leveled at such a materialist position are identical to those provoked in cases of all-too-quick revelation of what stands behind a symptom. Liberal contempt is the best indication that one has touched some repressed content. The liberal, in both senses of the saying, doth protest too much.

And now I can finally return to the international repetitions of Israel, to hypothesize that what is being repeated, "strategically," in form rather than in content, is a response to a common (repressed) situation. I stopped earlier at the following question: why has this response become so popular now? Why has this "strategy" for the right suddenly found so many adherents? After our detour through the relation of the Occupation to capitalism, that common situation is more clearly recognizable as that of contemporary capitalism itself. The more global neoliberalism robs people of hope for a better life, the more Israel is imitated. It is hardly surprising that the historical revival of the right seems to have started in the peripheries of global capitalism, rather than in its core. For it is in these peripheries of the system that the consequences of global capitalism are felt earlier and stronger. The slave, as usual, knows better than the master what is going on. Repeating Israel, then, is the repetition of a response to the conditions of life under capitalism today, in which any hope of a good life seems more and more distant, and in which talking about getting rid of capitalism is still hardly acceptable. Alternatives to this symptomatic repetition require that the ban on talking about alternatives to the rule of capital be lifted. Here our work is cut out for us.

  1. David Grossman, The Yellow Wind (New York: Picador, 2002, originally published 1986).
  2. For a detailed account, see their Shimshon Bichler and Jonathan Nitzan, The Global Political Economy of Israel (London: Pluto Press, 2002); For a summary of their argument, see Shimshon Bichler and Jonathan Nitzan, "Arms and Oil in the Middle East: A Biography of Research," Rethinking Marxism 30, no. 3 (2018): 418–40.
  3. Daniel Gutwein, "He'arot al hayesodot hama'amadi'yim shel hakibush [comments on the class foundations of the occupation]," Teoriya ubikoret 24 (2004): 203–11; For an edited English version, see Daniel Gutwein, "Some Comments on the Class Foundations of the Occupation," Monthly Review Online, June 16, 2006, https://mronline.org/2006/06/16/some-comments-on-the-class-foundations-of-the-occupation/.


Oded Nir

Oded Nir teaches courses on Israeli culture and society at Queens College, CUNY. He is the author and editor of multiple essays and volumes on Israeli culture and history, and Marxist theory.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2019

All Issues