The strange disappearance of Joseph Massad
Last week, I commented on Columbia professor Joseph Massad’s essay in al-Jazeera, “The Last of the Semites”:
[Massad’s] essay — of that length by virtue of the fact that no-one seems to have thought to edit it down — hinges on that old idea that Zionism is racism. In this case, Massad applies this cliché not just in the usual way to indicate prejudice towards non-Jews. No, he believes Zionism is explicitly anti-Semitic. Zionism, according to Massad, emerged not as a response to European anti-Semitism but in sympathy with its racialist precepts.
Since last Tuesday, prominent journalists including Jeffrey Goldberg, John Podhoretz, and James Kirchick picked up on Massad’s piece and shared it about for all to see, while my critique was mentioned in media outlets like The Jerusalem Post and The Washington Free Beacon (a magazine I don’t believe I would appear in under ordinary circumstances — Bill Kristol doesn’t strike me as a Meretz guy). Well, as of yesterday, Massad’s essay is no longer available, it having been taken down from the web by al-Jazeera without explanation or notice.
And this is exactly the wrong thing for al-Jazeera to have done. First, denying people the right to read this disgraceful, unlettered essay also denies people the right to find out just what a horrible little man Joseph Massad is — which, is a useful public service for al-Jazeera to be engaging in. Second, if al-Jazeera feels it made a bad call by lending its imprimatur to the original work unedited (which, by removing it, is evidently the case), they should be made to pay for that mistake. Either, they should have kept it up on the website with an addendum, or if they absolutely had to take it down, they should have provided a note with reasoning for why exactly Massad’s essay was palatable to them on Tuesday but spoilt by Sunday. The current situation is unsatisfactory for supporters and opponents of Massad’s screed.
Joseph Massad’s problem with rooted cosmopolitans
Joseph Massad’s op-ed, “The Last of the Semites”, demonstrates above all that the Columbia professor knows very little about not a lot.
His essay — of that length by virtue of the fact that no-one seems to have thought to edit it down — hinges on that old idea that Zionism is racism. In this case, Massad applies this cliché not just in the usual way to indicate prejudice towards non-Jews. No, he believes Zionism is explicitly anti-Semitic. Zionism, according to Massad, emerged not as a response to European anti-Semitism but in sympathy with its racialist precepts:
When Zionism started a decade and a half after Marr’s anti-Semitic programme was published, it would espouse all these anti-Jewish ideas, including scientific anti-Semitism as valid. For Zionism, Jews were “Semites”, who were descendants of the ancient Hebrews. In his foundational pamphlet Der Judenstaat, Herzl explained that it was Jews, not their Christian enemies, who “cause” anti-Semitism and that “where it does not exist, [anti-Semitism] is carried by Jews in the course of their migrations”.
Zionism, Massad thinks, was anti-Semitic not only of this reason but because it represented a “continuation of the Haskalah quest to shed Jewish culture and assimilate Jews into European secular gentile culture,” which of course is a total perversion of Jewish history and what Herzl actually thought and wrote.
In part, the Haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment, was related to assimilation but in the main it was an attempt to synthesis traditional Judaism with the modern ideas of the Enlightenment, including liberalism, nationalism, egality, and emancipation. Zionism emerged throughout the nineteenth century (not bang on 1897, as Massad understands it) as a product of this intellectual and cultural shift in the sense that its claim was that Jews are equal to all others and as deserving of statehood as anybody else. It is not, as Massad seems to think, some declaration of Jewish supremacy.
But it is also a by-product of the Haskalah: it is a reflection of the actual, lived Jewish experience in nineteenth-century Europe, and the waves of anti-Semitism that came with Jewish emancipation and entry into the professions from which Jews had previously been barred. Massad doesn’t seem to wish to acknowledge that anti-Semitism affected Jews in this way, at all.
Why I am a (Liberal) Zionist
I am not Jewish, but then again, neither were most of the volunteers at Ein Hashofet, a kibbutz located somewhere between Haifa and the Sharon plain. It had been founded during the Arab Revolt of 1936-39 by immigrants from Poland and the United States who were of the Left-wing Hashomer Hatzair movement. The first settlers had to manually drain the land and plant trees to make it viable, while residing in tents, eating meager meals, and using communal showers and toilets. They were also required to defend the fruits of their labors, not only during the revolt but also the War of Independence, during which the nearby kibbutz of Mishmar Ha’Emek was attacked by the Arab Liberation Army.
I would have made a terrible Zionist pioneer. After arriving from Tel Aviv, I managed to last a week as a gardener, working with power tools and doing tasks no more arduous than raking up dead brush before I started pleading for a change of scene. “Not everyone can be a gardener,” Roni, my extremely kind and understanding boss, told me. “Not everyone can be a writer.” He may have been humoring me with that one. So, for the remainder of my time at Ein Hashofet I worked in the main factory, which manufactured ballasts and transformers for fluorescent light fixtures (someone has to), spending hours hanging the near-completed items on hooks and reading Amos Oz novels during downtime.
Based on my observations, it is fair to say that people rarely have clear reasons for leaving behind the comforts of home for a few months of toiling under the hot sun. All the volunteers seemed to be trying to run away from something or leave something behind. Or they were searching for something, looking to remake themselves. Some didn’t seem to know why they were there at all. Others were simply looking for a good time. Arak was complementary at the kibbutz pub, so if you were so inclined, what could be better?
My own motivations were clearer. For me, the kibbutz was a place where I could explore my early attraction to Israel, which was more instinctive than anything else, and grounded in an understanding of Middle Eastern history. The time I spent exploring and putting something back into the land was a formative experience, the beginning of something larger. At Ein Hashofet, I began a greater examination of Israel—its history, its political and social divisions, its culture—out of which arose a deeper commitment to the ideology of Zionism itself, albeit from a goyishe perspective.
Not being Jewish inevitably means that I have a different relationship with the Jewish state than people who are. That much is inescapable. I do not have a direct, historical connection to Israel through lineage or conversion. No one in my family lives there. I am not entitled to make aliya. I will never have to serve in the IDF.
The most obvious result of this is that it has made me a secular Zionist. Indeed, in the earliest expression of my Zionism that I can find—a letter toThe Times from June 2010, at the time of the Mavi Marmara incident—I called Israel a “secular miracle,” an earnest phrase that does not necessarily make a great deal of sense. What I mean by it is that, while I appreciate that Jews of all denominations are able to practice their faith openly, actively, and vibrantly without fear or compromise (almost, anyway), the Israel I admire is to be found in the achievements of man: the kibbutz, the Knesset, and the novels of Oz and David Grossman.
David Ward just keeps going on and on…
I’m not sure who is on David Ward’s web or communication team — or even if there is such an outfit — but whoever they are, I would have them all fired, if I were him.
As if it weren’t enough that the Member of Parliament for Bradford East accused the Jewish people of failing to learn the lessons of the Holocaust and perpetuating a second Shoah against the Palestinians, and then, when people got upset that he said that, dug deeper by charging an insidious and unnamed politico-media “machine” of being out to get him, Ward (or his team) have lent their imprimatur to an article by an unknown, unhinged anti-Zionist blogger named John Hilley, in which the following is stated:
Some still insist that Ward’s key ‘mistake’ was to use the word “Jew” instead of “Zionist”. And this, as his apology indicated, has now been unambiguously acknowledged.
Just to remind you, this is what Ward originally said, but with “the Jews” now replaced by “the Zionists”:
Having visited Auschwitz twice - once with my family and once with local schools - I am saddened that the Zionists, who suffered unbelievable levels of persecution during the Holocaust, could within a few years of liberation from the death camps be inflicting atrocities on Palestinians in the new State of Israel and continue to do so on a daily basis in the West Bank and Gaza.
Any better? Hardly. Had he said that, the motivation behind the words might have been a little clearer — his utter contempt for the Jewish state more evident — but in so doing he would merely have been mimicking the language of people like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Mohammed Morsi, who use the term Zionists place of Jews in an unsuccessful attempt to mask their latent prejudices.
Hilley, who Ward in effect endorses by reposting his trash, also states that Israel — the Zionists — are responsible for “sixty years of ethnic cleansing, mass IDF murder, settler takeovers, apartheid transfer policies and the continued prison camp siege of Gaza.” Does Ward believe this nonsense to be so? Hilley thinks that Ward’s downfall was a result of “the Zionist lobby and many” in the “liberal commentariat” who seek to prevent any criticism, and endorses Noam Chomsky as well as Norman Finkelstein’s book on the “Holocaust industry”. Does Ward agree with Hilley on this, too?
Should Ward fail to make any adjustments after this, at least we can’t say we don’t know where he stands.
Can we call Mondoweiss anti-Semitic yet?
Earlier this year, a minor tiff broke out in the pages of The Atlantic (a fine publication to which I occasionally contribute), after Armin Rosen published an article which asserted that Mondoweiss“often gives the appearance of an anti-Semitic enterprise”. Robert Wright found Rosen’s piece “McCarthyite” in character, deeming Mondoweiss to be merely “an edgy website that is highly critical of both Israel and Zionism”.
Wright took umbrage with the idea of guilt by association: the notion that, if someone deems a publication or institution to be anti-Semitic, all those connected to it must be anti-Semitic as well. In Rosen’s article, Alex Kane – then a staff writer, now an assistant editor – was chided for not publically challenging Mondoweiss’ “lunacy”, while acknowledging that he is not responsible for the work of other writers. The latter point here is worth stressing: Kane holds political views that verge on the repugnant, including the idea that Zionism “helped drive 9/11”, but in general he appears to be a perfectly acceptable individual.
The question apposite to the one Wright raises and challenges is the far more interesting and important one, however. It is also one which underscores Rosen’s piece, namely if a publication or institution chooses to lend its imprimatur to an article or series of articles that can be deemed anti-Semitic – and Rosen cites numerous examples of questionable work – can said organisation be characterised as anti-Semitic as a whole?
Rosen and Wright’s particular quarrel is dead, and since I have no desire to reanimate it, I shall refrain from picking a side. Thus, I shall place my loaded gun upon the mantelpiece, and merely note that when all was said and done, Andrew Sullivan came down on the side of Wright and Mondoweiss.
For those not familiar with Mondoweiss, it is (in its own words) a “news website devoted to covering American foreign policy in the Middle East, chiefly from a progressive Jewish perspective,” which seeks to publish “a diversity of voices to promote dialogue on these important issues”. Herein lays the first canard, for claims of plurality are negated by its other commitment to “offer alternatives to pro-Zionist ideology as a basis for American Jewish identity”. Whatever diversity there is on Mondoweiss is akin to an argument between the Judean People’s Front and the People’s Front of Judea, for I have yet to read one article on said site that has been favourable to Israel.
Then again, this is understandable. The site’s founders, Philip Weiss and Adam Horowitz, are anti-Zionists. It is a political position which influences the way in which Mondoweiss addresses the important questions pertaining to the future of Israel and Palestine. Anti-Zionism informs the articles they select for publication and the commentators they choose to hire. It colours their coverage of the news coming out of the region, suppressing Israel’s achievements or pleasant news regarding the two-state solution, while augmenting the most awful effects of the occupation, and promoting developments which indicate things might be moving in the direction of Isratine and the death of the Jewish state.
Anti-Zionism – or, to put it other way, the belief it was a mistake to have created Israel in the first place; that Israel is not and can never be the answer or even an answer to the Jewish question – is, it goes without saying, a very problematic ideology. It constantly requires one to walk the thin line between disbelief in a Jewish state, and anti-Semitism, since anti-Zionists must constantly be forced to answer the question of why it is that Jews – and only Jews – are the only national group not entitled to a state of their own. One’s answer to that question says a good deal about a person’s character, for good or for ill.