Thursday, February 3, 2011

Jews, Palestinians and Identity Politics

In his posthumous book The Memory Chalet the late Tony Judt, author of such highly regarded works as Postwar and Ill Fares the Land, describes his teenage experience in a left-wing Jewish kibbutz in Israel. Initially taken with the vigorous sense of purpose, egalitarian vision, and physical rigor, Judt became disenchanted with the movement’s “smugness of self-regard” and “ethnic solipsism.” He became wary of “true believers” of any kind knowing “what sort of price one pays for such intensity of identification and unquestioning allegiance.” Much to the dismay of his colleagues in the kibbutz he returned to his native England to attend King’s College, Cambridge. Because of his experience in Israel, he writes, “I was . . . immune to the enthusiasm and seduction of the New Left, much less its radical spin-offs: Maoism, guachisme, tiers-mondisme, etc. For the same reasons,” he continues, “I was decidedly uninspired by student centered dogmas of anticapitalist transformation, much less the siren calls of femino-Marxism or sexual politics in general. I was—and remain—suspicious of identity politics in all forms.” Judt through his long and distinguished academic career remained a liberal. His experience with “Labor Zionism” made him “a universalist social democrat.” He eschewed the rigidities of Marxism, Socialism, and Fascism alike. His commitment to social democracy is well described in Ill Fares the Land, which espouses the value of a government that is grounded in a commitment to the people’s freedom and at the same time intent on providing opportunities for citizens to rise from poverty, ignorance, and fear.

Identity politics are, of course, very popular these days. Everyone seems to be angling to portray themselves as the victim of someone or something. From the bewildering variety of liberation movements on the left to the tangled skein of the “Tea Party” on the right, everyone seems to be casting about for a villain—someone to blame for their misery and oppression. This is not to say, of course, that misery and oppression do not exist. Certainly there are economic, political and social forces that contribute to the suffering and rage of a variety of persons across the gender, ethnic, and class spectrum. Nevertheless, like Judt I am suspicious of identity politics. Such politics are characteristic of postmodernism, with its fragmenting allegiances and splintered identities. Someone once said that in the future we would all receive our “fifteen minutes of fame.” Today, perhaps, we will all be granted “fifteen minutes of victimhood.” The problem with identity politics, among other things, is that it abstracts me and people like me from the community as a whole. It requires me to declare exclusive allegiance to a particular sense of outrage and entitlement. It identifies everyone outside of my circle as “other” and by definition a threat. Rather than create sympathy and understanding it frequently produces resentment. It can, ironically, make the despised “other” feel victimized and put upon and thus contribute to further balkanization.

For years the left has espoused the cause of the Palestinians and denounced Israel. Good liberals could lose their union cards as political liberals if they said anything positive about Israel or raised questions about the actions of the Palestinians. Of course, the same is true of the right: Israel can do no wrong and all Arabs are terrorists. For me this is one of the worst and most dangerous manifestations of “identity politics” and “true believerism.” The “true believer” is not someone who has deep convictions about the truthfulness and appropriateness of their cause. A “true believer” needs more than conviction. A true believer needs an enemy. Their cause must always be in the right and the other side must always be unambiguously evil. I am sympathetic to the suffering of many in the Palestinian territories. I am saddened and appalled by the violence they frequently endure. That being said, I grow weary of some of their advocates apparent unwillingness to acknowledge the justified fear of the Israelis that their fragile democracy will be destroyed and their people once again slaughtered in an anti-Semitic purge. The Israelis have good reason to fear what is going on these days in Egypt. Identity politics are not serving the Middle East well. But true believers are incapable of seeing the world from the perspective of the other—be they Jews or Palestinians.

John E. Phelan, Jr.

1 comment:

  1. On this topic, as with others, it's hard to not wind up being a true believer. I'd rather not be one. It takes real work.