Thursday, September 29, 2005

In a Lighter Vein: The New York Review of Books and I

I maintain my subscription to the NYRB because it is a vital source for following the recent publication of important books and intellectual trends in liberal academia. NYRB content is always intelligent, usually liberal but rarely radical. In short, it is serious stuff and generally cannot be dismissed irrelevant. However, it must be analyzed and criticized. Easier said than done, especially as the NYRB somehow conveys that any serious student of a pertinent subject would actually need to read most of the books mentioned in the articles or featured in the no less impressive ads of the distinguished academic publishing houses.

So you come out of reading the NYRB with a troubling sense of inadequacy, uncertain that you could really critique what needs criticizing and frustrated by the certainty that you just don’t have anywhere near the time (or maybe not even the talent) required for what appears to be an almost Herculean task.

My senses of inadequacy and frustration (and I am quite certain that I am the only one with this kind of response) were heightened and deepened when thumbing through a the recent issue (NYRB – September 22, 2005). Staying on top of the NYRB is almost a personal challenge for your correspondent, a progressive Israeli Jew in the Middle East, and an activist in the peace movement. In short, I should be abreast of what intelligent people are saying and writing on the ME and related subjects.

Thumbing through a recent issue of the NYRB (September 22, 2005) will help in understanding my “problem”.

Here Goes

On the cover: Banner: Adam Shatz: ‘The Jewish Prison’;
Selling September 11 by Jonatah Raban;
Christian Caryl: Why Suicide Bombers Do It.

So it is clear from the beginning that the mission is not going to be easy – there are already three major articles related to my subject and who knows how many books will be scanned. Inside the front cover: University of Michigan Press presents new titles. The first is ‘The One State Solution by Virginia Q. Tilley with a warm recommendation from Tony Judt, who has written much of excellence on the subjects of our interest.

September 11: The article by J. Raban is rather disappointing. Its main point is that the Bush administration has used 9/11 to gnaw away at democratic foundations in the United States. However, there is arather exaggerated attempt to analyze all these effects from a Seattle-specific perspective. The author’s residence in that city is insufficient to justify such a narrowness of approach. Raban doesn’t deal much with the ME and that is really not a fault, but there is very little new thinking on what’s happned in the United States. One senses an editorial need to feature something on 9/11.

Nothing of relevance is advertised by Yale UP. Palgrave Macmillan publisher presents ‘Future Jihad – Terrorist Strategies against America’ by Walid Phares. There are short blurbs from a Fox news analyst and a West Point lecturer. Maybe we can get along without this one.

A new periodical is on its way with the vulgar and provincial name: The American Interest. One assumes that the goal is to identify the American Interest in order to pursue it. It may not have occurred to the promoters that others might be interested in defining the American Interest precisely in order to oppose it. There are quite a few big names on the editorial board and on the global advisory council, but not a single liberal or progressive one. The presence of Professor Itamar Rabinowich, former Israeli ambassador to the United States, whose main claim to fame is his ability to parley his academic status into high profile jobs, provides very little comfort.

The University of Pennsylvania Press has issued a collection of articles under the title “Exile and Return Predicaments of Palestinians and Jews. Two academics of note – Ann M. Lesch and Ian S. Lustick are probably involved in an attempt to balance seemingly mutually exclusive rights. I think to myself that the predicaments are, or should be, clear by now. Rescue should be the name of the game. The same publisher is offering “Landscape of Hope and Despair –Palestinian Refugee Camps’ by Julie Peteet, for those who are weak on the Palestinian side of the predicament. This may be hard reading for some of our [patriotic] Jewish brethren and hence is recommended especially for them. Less directly related, but of relevance for the broad view, is the book, ‘Crimes of the Holocaust’, by Stephan Landsman on the difficulty of prosecuting crimes against humanity. Three books worth serious attention from one publisher!

Columbia University Press is publishing ‘Portrait of Jacques Derrida as a Young Jewish Saint’ by Helen Cixous. Here is an example of a link that we simply had not noticed before. It doesn’t appear related to the ME conflict. But since we know so little about Jewish Saints, young or old, we cannot be certain that there are no important insights to be gained therein.

We hit the jackpot at the University of California. Six (!) out of ten books advertised deal directly with our subject and yet another deals with Iraq: ‘Beyond Chutzpah’, by Norman G. Finkelstein should be able to make a decent case for the ‘misuse of anti-semitism.’ Recommendations by Amy Goodman and Baruch Kimmerling will not prevent a barrage of hate reviews, which should make the book all the more relevant. Willian B. Quandt writing on the ‘Peace Process’ will represent that wing of the United States diplomatic thinking exiled by GW and the neo-cons. ‘100 Myths About the ME, by Fred Halliday will, I guess, turn out to be required reading’. David Cook on ‘Understanding Jihad’ and Melani Mcalister on ‘Epic Encounters or Culture Media and U.S. Interests in the ME’ come with serious recommendations. Knowing Dan Rabinowitz, ‘Coffins on Our Shoulders’ by him and Khwala Abu Baker should be a definitive exposition on the subject of ‘Israeli Palestinians’. Six out of ten books from the University of California Press!

Four books from Cambridge deal with Jihad, Al Qaeda, The Conservative Debate on Iraq and the Torture Debate. It might be safely assumed that if we ‘are not in the heart of the ME’ in these books, we are not too far off.
A particularly fascinating title comes from Cornell University Press; ‘Orientalism and the Hebrew Imagination’ by Yaron Peleg. This is a narrative around the politics and culture of early Zionism. I really cannot tell if Einstein on ‘Race and Racism’ from Rutgers has anything on Zionism and the ME, but Einstein is important enough to see if and how he deals with the Jewish-Zionist complex.

Why Suicide Bombers Do It

In one of those excellent review essays at which the NYRB excels, Christian Caryl surveys seven (7!) books that deal with the suicide bomber phenomenon. One of the books, still to be published, is by an Israeli author, Ami Pedahzur. There is one clear lesson from the survey for us in Israel. The Israeli tendency (part natural, part manipulation) to see suicide bombing as a uniquely horrific expression of the warped Palestinian mind’s peculiar attraction to violence is baseless. Pedahzur’s book, it seems, fits into this general demystifying approach. It seems that some important observers, such as University of Chicago political scientist Robert A. Pape feel that the suicide bombers can present a coherent, even compelling case for their actions and methods. At any rate Pape doesn’t hesitate to suggest withdrawal as the best answer to this kind of protest against occupation. Now a Marxist would argue that suicide bombing against civilians is counter productive since it would tend to solidify support for the occupier, but Pape doesn’t hesitate to vindicate the horrible tactic by suggesting that the best thing for any occupier confronted by a serious wave of s/b/ is to get the hell out of there.

The University of Florida Press has published ‘Biblical Interpretation and Middle East Policy’ by Irvine H. Anderson. Perhaps it might be helpful in analyzing the poisonous impact of U.S. Christian fundamentalism on U.S. policy.

Self-Imposed Prison

The Jewish Question is the name of a delightful and insightful review article by Adam Shatz, the literary editor of the Nation on ‘The Jewish Prison: A Rebellious Meditation on the State of Judaism’ by 85 year old, Jean Daniel

It is undoubtedly the jewel in the crown of this issue. Daniel’s secular Jewish trajectory is not all that rare in the Jewish world. Jews on the left who had enough ideological independence at their disposal were uncomfortable to say the least when the Soviet Union and Arab nationalism got into bed together. The June 1967 War was a watershed event and many Jewish intellectuals were horrified that Israel, whatever its transgression would pay the ultimate price for one of the twists and turns in world politics. Somewhere along the line, those same intellectuals had to come to grips with the new realities of Israel’s resulting ‘liberal occupation.’

To make a very long story short, Israel was increasingly giving the Jews and Judaism a bad name. No wonder that more and more secular humanist Jews, of whom Jean Daniel is an outstanding and stirring example were impelled to disassociate themselves from Israel’s ruling politicians and the official leadership of organized diaspora Jewry, which opted for the total confinement within the walls of a chauvinist Israeli identity. This is the prison referred to by Daniel who charts the various paths by which Jews renounce their moral stature and their independence of judgment.

Unfortunately or not, when the Zionists crack the whip, almost anyone who wishes to survive within the organized Jewish community stays in line. Many Jews who really know better prefer the good will of their neighbors and communal brothers and sisters to getting into a bitter, always emotional and often hysterical, confrontation with their neighbors.

One of the additional reasons that humanist Jews have become disgusted with Zionism is that its representatives keep on insisting that nothing radically wrong has happened and that somehow all the smashed pieces will be reassembled. In comparison, the disappointment over the failure of the Soviet regime was greater, harsher and deeper. But there was nobody around who kept insisting that this was a momentary shift in national strategy. In this sense, the failure of the Soviet Union paved the way for new beginnings. In Israel-Palestine, we are encouraged to believe, a slight shift in parliamentary politics would be enough to put the country back on a moral trail. There is very little, if any, sincere soul searching among the Israel boosters over how Zion’s light unto the gentiles has turned into the long dark night of occupation.

Thus we arrive at that absurd point where any criticism of Israel is categorized as blatantly anti-Semitic, or unconsciously anti-Semitic, or anti-Semitic, in practice, whatever the intention of the critic. It may be difficult to include Jean Daniel in the growing legions of the anti-Semites, but have no fear the campaign is on. The Israeli lobby doesn’t want any humanist and independent Jews, however prominent, in the Jewish community. You either line up or get out.

Jean Daniel has, as Adam Shatz so brilliantly writes, refused to prefer tribal loyalty to the universal application of justice. And the pursuit of justice happens to be a core belief of Judaism.

One Last Book that Has to Be Read

Alan Dershowitz is an author who does very well in the commercial bookshops. So his ‘The Case for Peace – How the Conflict Can be Resolved’ (Wiley) has to be closely monitored. Amos Oz tells that he ‘read it with thrill.’(?) I will be quite surprised if this book is anywhere as even handed as it presents itself to be.

I would like to stress that the few lines of response from me about the books mentioned are not intended to come in place of a genuine review. But that is an important aspect of the problem.