Thursday, October 28, 2004

American Perceptions of Zionism

Israel is one of the United States' closest allies in any part of the world, and is thus one of the foreign nations about which Americans are most familiar. It is ironic, in this regard, that Zionism, the movement and ideal that gave birth to Israel and continues to undergird its existence, is so little understood in the United States. Like any movement of historic importance, there is not one but many "Zionisms," as it has fragmented and metamorphed in moving between cultural, social, and geographic contexts. Even so, it is remarkable how little American images of Zionism (likewise diverse) resemble any of its real-world avatars.

In historical terms, Zionism was originally the product of a group of secular European intellectuals. The revival of a Jewish state could not perforce be a religious ideal in the rabbinic age, as no biblical models of Jewish statehood were truly amenable to modern politics- a Jewish state without a king, a temple or a priesthood was inconceivable to religiuos believers. Indeed, many orthodox Jews initially opposed any Zionist project in the pre-messianic age on principle as a form of heresy or apostasy.

Thus Zionism was originally a secular movement born among secular Jews, a fact that naturally raises the question "why a Jewish state disaggregated from Jewish religion?" The answer is that Zionism was one of a series of options developed by post-Enlightenment Jewish intellectuals in response to changes in European state and society. The opening of the ghetto and the admittance of Jews to the social and economic life of Europe created new problems and opportunities for European Jewry. One enticing possibility was assimilation- Jews could now opt to put aside religious garb, abjure adherence to restrictive dietary laws, and assume full citizenship in the new nation-states of Europe. Enlightenment ideals of humanism and tolerance promised a new era of full integration in a community structured according to "natural" rather than religious law. Zionism was born out of disenchantment with this promise, once it became evident that European society was pervaded by a new and pernicious form of secular anti-Semitism, a perception that was embodied for the foundational author of Zionist theory, Theodor Herzl, by the trial of Captain Alfred Dreyfus in 1894.

The fact that even a Jew who had divested himself of his "Jewish identity" sufficiently to serve in the French armed forces (an impossibility for anyone determined to live according to Jewish law) could be persecuted for his "Jewishness" persuaded Herzl and many others that assimilation was an impossibility. Jews would never be safe or able to live with true dignity in a nation in which they were not the majority. Herzl was thus moved to write his seminal work, The Jewish Nation (Der Judenstaat). It is crucial to underscore, however, that Herzl's ideal was not predicated on a reversal of cultural assimilation. The purpose of the "Jewish Nation" was not to allow "Jews to be Jews," but to give secular Jews like Herzl and Dreyfus a realm within which they could freely embody and act upon the modern ideals they had come to embrace without fear of anti-Semitic persecution.

This Zion did not bear any relationship with any image taken from the Torah or the Prophets, but was a new type of state conceptualized by thinkers whose principles owed more to Montesquieu, Hegel, Fichte, and Marx than to Moses, Isaiah, and Hillel. Though many voices have contributed to the concept of Zion over the course of the last 100+ years, the historical "mainstream" of Zionist thought has always been principally a strain of nationalist socialism. Herzl and his successors articulated the concept of the Jewish Nation in the same terms as non-Jewish intellectuals had constructed the emergent nation-states of 19th century Europe and America, as a transcendant ideal laying claim to the ultimate loyalties of the community that nevertheless was only tangentially related to purely "religious" values such as God or the Church. At the same time, socialism was perceived as a particularly progressive and amenable organizing principle of this new community, especially since most of its transplanted members would necessarily arrive in their new home effectively dispossessed. A common stake in the new land was the minimum inducement necessary to make the Zionist project at all practicable.

The fundamental principles of the new Zion were thus modernist, rationalist, and even atheistic in their initial conception. The progressive and antisectarian outlook of the early Zionist founders was reflected in their flexibility over the location of Zion. Any space on earth would be suitable to the national enterprise, demography, not geography was the definitive criterion of the Jewish Nation. Uganda and South America were two locations seriously pursued as possible alternatives.

In the end the situation of Zion in Palestine (and thus the metamorphosis of "Zion" into "Israel") was driven neither by the fundamental Enlightenment rationalism of the early Zionist founders or the intrinsically "Jewish" nature of Zionist ideology. Rather, Zionism itself fell into the orbit of the same antirationalist, Romantic forces that controlled the evolution of nationalisms throughout Europe and the Americas and that ironically had given rise to the same anti-Semitism the Zionist founders hoped to flee. Palestine inexorably became the pole star of the Zionist project because it was the one place to which the regionally and culturally diverse population of world Jewry had a common emotional affinity. While the ultimate realization of the Zionist dream would not have been possible without this shift, it has paved the way for the emergence of a religious Zionism that is wholly divorced from the secularist, socialist roots of the original movement. Because the modern Zion, despite its lack of resemblance to the "Israel" of Torah, is actually situated on biblical terrain (a condition deepened by the occupation of "Judea and Samaria," or the West Bank, in 1967), it has been embraced by some modern orthodox as the stage for a religious prophetic drama.

Americans looking at Israel are rarely able to distinguish between secular and religious Zionism. Because "Israel" is intrinsic to the sacred geography of most Americans they tend to assume that the Israeli nation is religiously constituted and that it embodies a sectarian mission. Even American Jews often fall into this misperception, believing that all Israelis naturally desire that the territorial boundaries of their nation conform to those of Solomon's domain. The foundational Zionist mission, to serve as a bulwark against modern secular anti-Semitism, does not require Israel to have specific or non-negotiable boundaries (indeed, it would have accomodated the placement of Zion in Uganda). Despite this fact most Americans assume that the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza is motivated by concerns of religion rather than those of strategic security.

The most intense adherents to this form of misperception in the United States are evangelical Christians. Indeed, their engagement with Zionism has been so intense in recent decades that they can be perceived as a new and influential species of Zionist who have transformed the ecumenical culture of Zionism itself. Their Zionism shares certain salient aspects with that of modern religious Israeli Zionists. For these groups the identity of Zion does not rest in such seminal institutions as the kibbutz or the Knesset, but in the restoration of Israel to its biblical borders and the reconstruction of the Solomonic Temple. These goals naturally preclude any end to bloodshed in the Middle East, and are thus profoundly distressing to most modern agents and observers of Mid East affairs.

It is unsurprising that, as is so often the case in all societies, Americans' perceptions of Israel and Zionism are conditioned more by their perceptions of themselves and their own values than by the objective conditions of the Middle East. For many if not most Americans "Zion" is the stage of a soteriological drama that expresses a fundamental yearning of the American psyche. Though there are many reasons why America's call to serve as a "fair broker" in the Israel/Palestine peace process have fallen short, the chronic American misperception of Zionism is certainly one, if not the most important cause. In order to broker wisely and effectively Americans must clearly understand the original rationale and historic mission of the Zionist project and must distinguish clearly between those Zionisms that are conducive to peace and those that make peace impossible.

Wednesday, October 06, 2004

Tariq Ramadan and Owen Lattimore: Deja Vu All Over Again

Arthur Balfour famously quipped that "history does not repeat itself, historians repeat each other," but the repetitiveness of historians' encounters with the state can descend to the depths of the surreal. At the outset of the Cold War the resounding cry of "who lost China?" convulsed U.S. politics. The victory of the Chinese Communist Party in 1949 and the flight of Chiang Kai-shek's government to Taiwan was not deemed an internal Chinese affair, but a failure of U.S. policy. The search for the source of this failure quickly became intense, and suspicion fell squarely upon one of a tiny handful of accomplished scholars of Chinese history then working in the United States, Professor Owen Lattimore of Johns Hopkins University.

Lattimore had spent his early life in China and was the author of the definitive history of China's relations with Inner Asia (Inner Asian Frontiers of China, 1940). In 1941, at the request of the Roosevelt administration he took up a post as advisor to Chiang Kai-shek at his wartime capital in Chungking. Lattimore was initially a great admirer of Chiang Kai-shek and was instrumental in negotiating China's parity as one of the "Big Four" in the Allied war effort.

Despite his distinguished record of scholarship and service, in 1950 Lattimore was accused by Senator Joseph McCarthy of being the Soviet Union's "top spy" in the United States. Lattimore's crime? By 1950 he had become deeply disenchanted with Chiang's Nationalist regime, which he judged to be irredeemably autocratic and corrupt. He became an advocate of official recognition of the People's Republic of China, a step he viewed as indispensible to the rational conduct of the United States' foreign affairs in Asia. These ideas brought him to the attention of the FBI, who received anonymous reports that he was spreading "sedition" among his students at Johns Hopkins.

Even at the height of the McCarthy era no U.S. court ever convicted Lattimore of espionage. All evidence of his being a "spy" was purely circumstantial. Despite these facts and the publication of a comprehensive study exhonerating him (Owen Lattimore and the "Loss" of China by Robert P. Newman), Lattimore's "treason" remains a fetishistic myth among the pundits of the far right even today.

Lattimore's experience is not most affecting because of the injustice done to one man. Rather, its deepest sorrow lies in the crippling distortion it produced in the American discourse on Asia at a critical moment in the nation's history. Agree or disagree with his perspective, Lattimore was one of a very few knowledgeable American voices equipped to intelligently comment on the rapidly evolving situation in mainland Asia. His persecution guaranteed that U.S. policymakers would receive a one-dimensional perspective of Asian history and politics, a situation that contributed to tragic errors in policy theaters throughout East, Southeast, and Central Asia.

If there is a lesson to be derived from Owen Lattimore's experience, the United States have evidently not learned it. Today America is confronted with a new enemy in the form of radical Islamist terror. The roots of this phenomenon are excruciatingly complex, far more so than those of the multifarious forces of Communism that drove U.S. policy during the Cold War. During that era nuanced critics like Lattimore were sacrificed to the destructive fantasy that Communism was a global monolith and that local cultural and historical conditions could be ignored in the formulation of U.S. strategy. Despite the suffering this obstinate misguidedeness produced, today America seems hell-bent on repeating the mistakes of the past.

Today the New York Times reports that Tariq Ramadan, an internationally admired and intensely prolific scholar of Islamic Studies, has been refused entrance to the United States, where he has been offered a teaching position at the University of Notre Dame. Though Ramadan is widely regarded as one of the most thoughtful and incisive commentators on Islam and its relations with Europe and America, the U.S. government evidently suspects him of some links to terrorism. Why? Just as in the case of Owen Lattimore, much of the "case against" Tariq Ramadan is circumstantial. Ramadan's grandfather, Hasan al-Banna, was one of the founders of the Muslim Brotherhood, a fundamentalist group established in Egypt in 1928. What is not circumstantial in the "evidence" concerning Ramadan is grounded in his scholarship. He does not hide his reverence for Islam as a living religion, nor does he refrain from criticiizing capitalism and globalization from an Islamic perspective. In the judgment of one European official who has (fruitlessly) investigated allegations against Ramadan, he has "dangerous ideas."

Like the persecution of Owen Lattimore, the rejection of Tariq Ramadan augurs an ill future for the United States. The polarization of the world into "us" and "them" camps on the basis of sympathies with or against Islam is even more destructively absurd than the Cold War red herring of "monolithic global Communism." An acknowledgment that the perpetrators of 9/11 were irredeemably malevolent does not necessitate the conclusion that their appeals to Islam may be safely discounted or ignored. President Bush is right that leaders like Osama bin Laden have "hijacked a great religion," but his bland assertion that those who find the teachings of Al Qaeda appealing "hate us for our freedom" is so simplistic as to be practically meaningless. The U.S. can not hope to effectively countervail the malice of Islamist extremists if we refuse to understand how their ideas might possibly resonate with the attitudes and experiences of at least some of the world's one billion+ Muslims. Now more than ever America desperately needs teachers and critics who can educate both policymakers and the public about the nature of Islam, its history, its diversity, and the values and aspirations of its adherents.

The fate of Owen Lattimore was a harbinger of destructive mistakes the U.S. would commit throughout East Asia. A half century later a similar tragedy of errors is being played out on the streets of Baghdad and Falluja. Is there hope that America will choose a different course today? The treatment of Tariq Ramadan will serve as a gauge of what we may expect moving forward into a dangerous century.

Sunday, October 03, 2004

Case in Counterpoint: Thomas Friedman on Iraq

Today's New York Times contains a new editorial by columnist Thomas Friedman, returning from a long leave of absence devoted to a new book project. In his first post-leave column Friedman returns to a theme on which he has expounded for much of the past two years: Iraq. On this score he cuts to the chase quickly, declaring dramatically that "we're in trouble in Iraq," that the Bush administration has "hugely mismanaged" the conflict, and that "as a result the range of decent outcomes in Iraq has been narrowed and the tools we have to bring even those about are more limited than ever." I can find very little in this assessment with which to take issue. However, as a long time reader of Mr. Friedman's column I can only wonder whether or why this state of affairs would come as a surprise to him.

In today's same column Friedman declares, "Being away has not changed my belief one iota in the importance of producing a decent outcome in Iraq, to help move the Arab-Muslim world off its steady slide toward increased authoritarianism, unemployment, overpopulation, suicidal terrorism and religious obscurantism." Again few could critique Friedman's professed goals. But one could well ask why anyone, especially someone as knowledgeable as Thomas Friedman, would ever believe that the achievement of these goals could be aided through the application of U.S. military power.

Later in the same paragraph Friedman sounds another note that will have become familiar to his readers, " time off has clarified for me, even more, that this Bush team can't get us there." This seems to be the consistent crux of Friedman's perspective- invading Iraq was the right thing to do, but it was unfortunately done in the wrong way by the wrong people. Reading his column one senses an implicit argument being made: in a Friedman Presidency the U.S. would have invaded Iraq, but it would have been done "correctly," so that all the bright promise tragically discarded by the Bush regime would have been redeemed.

I must confess my shock to find such a perspective coming from someone so knowledgeable about the history and culture of the Middle East. It would seem self-evident to any educated observer that Iraq is a society deeply divided along ethnic, regional, social, ideological, and sectarian lines. No one could reasonably excuse the mad excesses of Saddam Hussein's regime, but it would be equally unreasonable to deny that some part of its violence and brutality reflected the powerful centripetal forces always militating to tear Iraq apart. The notion that the U.S. could keep those forces in check after forcibly removing the lynchpin that had held Iraq together should have been a very tenuous and controversial one for any knowledgeable policy critic. Anyone who has studied the recent history of Vietnam, Lebanon, Somalia, the Balkans, and any number of other cases should have been intensely skeptical of the United States' ability to even hold a post-Saddam Iraqi nation together, much less to bring about significant gains in human rights, political liberalization, and other "progressive" agendas. Given what appears to me as the clarity of the message to be read in the historical record, I am deeply surprised and disturbed to see how much legitimacy Thomas Friedman has given to recent U.S. policy through his constant advocacy of even the theoretical wisdom of invading Iraq.

The case of Thomas Friedman is, I must admit, an object lesson that stands counter to my own personal philosophy and the central perspective of this weblog. My guiding principal in this forum is (and shall remain): "politics can not be conducted in the ignorance of the history and culture of foreign nations." Thomas Friedman can not, by any fair relative measure, be called ignorant of the history and culture of foreign nations. Even so, I would judge his political perspective and advice, at least with respect to Iraq, deeply flawed. The lesson? Knowledge of the history and culture of foreign nations is no guarantee of wise policy. Conceeding this fact, I would still defend the central proposition of this blog. While knowledge may not guarantee wise policy, ignorance does guarantee foolish and even destructive policy. The case of Thomas Friedman notwithstanding, I would contend that our current situation in Iraq is far more the product of ignorance of history and culture than the opposite.

Friday, October 01, 2004

The Many Faces of Iyad Allawi

Few historical actors acquire a social persona as intensely ambivalent as that of Iyad Allawi so immediately upon mounting the political stage. Richard III had to wait more than a century before Shakespeare fixed his villainy in iambic pentameter. The historical judgment on Chairman Mao has slid gradually along a numerical scale: he went from being the people's infallible savior to being "7 parts right, 3 parts wrong," to being "6 parts right, 4 parts wrong." If this trend continues we will eventally reach the point where the post-Long March CCP would have done just as well by flipping a coin. Even so, this erosion has taken time, and as Mao's stock falls among China's political cogniscenti his currency rises as an object of devotion in the popular religion.

By contrast, the newly minted Prime Minister of Iraq's interim government has almost as many faces as he has biographers. He is, by various accounts, an accomplished surgeon and ardent patriot, a quack fraud and craven puppet of the CIA, a near-martyr for the cause of Iraqi liberation, an inscrupulous opportunist to whose hands clings the blood of past Iraqi dissidents. Such a panoply may not aid clarity, but it does inspire a kind of respect. Hero or villain, we are left with little doubt that Iyad Allawi has done something to someone.

The cloud of ambiguity surrounding Allawi trailed after him when he, like many other Iraqis, crossed an ideological boundary in 1975. It was in this year that, for reasons which (like so much else about Allawi's personal chronology) remain murky, Iyad Allawi resigned from the Ba'ath Party of Iraq. This step set him on the road of anti-Hussein activist, and almost certainly resulted in a failed assassination attempt that hospitalized him for one year in 1978. Prior to his personal "de-Ba'athification," so say Allawi's detractors, he was a close associate of Saddam Hussein's and a willing collaborator in the crimes that brought the latter to power.

The truth or falsity of these allegations is far less interesting than what they themselves can tell us about the recent history of Iraq. The polarity between inscrupulous scoundrel and patriotric doctor may surprise, but this disjunction is no less ambivalent than the political and moral legacy of Ba'athism itself. Michel Aflaq, one of the Ba'ath Party's founders and its ideological pole star, wrote movingly on human rights, the dignity of the worker, and the need to overcome sectarian strife. Himself raised a Syrian Chistian, he propounded a vision of pan-Arab brotherhood and prosperity. At the same time that Aflaq served these high ideals, his thought pulsated with a none-too-latent undercurrent of Nazism. Pan-Arab unity was to be rooted in a radically racist and xenophobic doctrine of "Arab supremacism," the application of which had gruesome consequences for groups such as the Jews, Turkomans, and Kurds.

One can see where motives both pure and ill could naturally be attributed to those who would join such a movement. With 20/20 hindsight we may judge that anyone who colluded in any way with Saddam Hussein must have been either degenerately amoral or insanely misguided. Yet there may have been a time when the ascendancy of a movement that could accomodate both Hussein and Allawi, the scions of a Sunni shepherd and a Shi'ite merchant, seemed a ray of hope on Iraq's bleak political horizon.

The shaping of Iyad Allawi's life into a kind of personal morality tale will never be of any more than prurient interest. As the recent play Copenhagen suggests, it is entirely possible that the famous 1941 conversation between Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg was understood, even as it transpired, by the former as an invitation to join the Nazi war effort, by the latter as an offer of aid to the resistance. If a single experience can be clouded in such ambiguity, it is folly to suppose that the entire course of a man's life can be compelled to yield an unequivocal moral a la Aesop.

More intriguing is the larger systemic tale to be read in the shifting tea-leaves of Iyad Allawi's social image. The raw fact that Allawi and Hussein could move from being fellow travellers to mortal enemies tells the story of a movement that fell catastrophically short of its highest ideals and a society in the throes of a profound developmental crisis. The degeneration of Iraqi Ba'athism from a pluralistic coalition accomodating Iyad Allawi into a narrow oligarchy centered on Saddam Hussein's Tikriti kin is not, in the final and ultimate analysis, most usefully plumbed for information about the character of these two men. Rather, it speaks of a nation in which atavistic patterns of tribalism, regionalism, and sectarian chauvinism can so violently subvert efforts at unity and modernization as to leave the moral status of all but the most egregiously evil actors permanently shrouded.