Tuesday, May 3, 2016

What Would Buber and Heschel Say? An Apologia for Ken Livingstone

Martin Buber, ca 1900
Abraham Joshua Heschel

In Great Britain they will have elections this Thursday and they are having a row over the question “Is anti-Zionist criticism anti-Semitism?” This has initially resulted in the suspension of two prominent Labor members of Parliament, and then it snowballed into a larger purge of more than 50 party members for making allegedly anti-Semitic statements. All this comes on the eve of an election in which Labor is projected to lose as many as 100 seats. It raises questions about what is anti-Semitism, what is Jewish identity, and what is Zionism?

It all started when a political muck-racking site--Guido Fawkes—unearthed a number of 2014 Facebook posts by Labor Party MP Naz Shah that were critical of Israel. Those posts included a map of Israel superimposed on a map of the U.S. with the suggestion that Israel should be moved to the U.S. and riffs relating to this fantasy. Shah was promptly accused of anti-Semitism. She apologized for her postings, noted that they pre-dated her election to Parliament, and professed that they do not reflect her considered views. Nevertheless, political pressure was brought to bear and Shah was suspended from Parliament by Labor Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn pending an investigation.

It bears mentioning that Shah’s Facebook postings were not an actual suggestion. They appear to be ironic commentary on the very close relationship between Israel and the United States. But Shah obviously has negative feelings about the existence of Israel in the Middle East. She is anti-Zionist.

In the meantime, long time Labor Party member and former mayor of London Ken Livingstone came to Shah’s defense. She is not anti-Semitic he said. Although many Labor MP’s have expressed concern for the rights of Palestinians over the years, and they sometimes have said harsh things about Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, Livingstone says he has never heard any Labor Party MP say anything anti-Semitic.

In defending Shah Livingstone said: “Let's remember that when Hitler won the election in 1932, his policy was that Jews should be moved to Israel." This comment immediately made Livingstone the center of the controversy and, in turn, led to Jeremy Corbyn suspending him as well.

Livingstone’s statement has left even his most sympathetic critics scratching their heads. What could he have been thinking? At Mondoweiss Robert Cohen (a Brit) says that, although he does not believe the British Labor party has a problem with anti-Semitism, he implies that the statements by Shah and Livingstone are anti-Semitic, and he counsels critics of Israel to stay away from self-made bear traps like mentioning Hitler and Israel in the same sentence, or questioning Israel’s narrative of national self-determination, or to suggest “Zionist control” of anything (like pointing out Zionist efforts to equate criticism of Zionism with anti-Semitism?)

At +972 Magazine Gilad Halpern (an Israeli) notes that, in addition to Livingstone getting some of the key facts wrong in his sentence—like Hitler did not come to power in the 1932 elections (he was appointed chancellor in January 1933) and Israel did not exist until 1948—there is something mysterious about what relevance Livingstone had in mind:

Livingstone has a "dubious" record of downplaying quasi anti-Semitic statements, says Halpern:
The reason [Livingstone] came under so much fire was the subtext: assuming that issue had some relevance for 2016 Britain, he was talking about the present, not the past. It was his underlying intentions that were called into question. Why on earth would one evoke Hitler’s supposed warming to Zionism in a debate about contemporary politics, if it wasn’t to draw some sort of parallel, as awkward and far-fetched as it may have been, between Zionism and Nazism? And why would he allow himself to be dragged into a debate about the Holocaust at a time when his party is bending over backwards to fend off accusations that it is teeming with anti-Semites? Livingstone, an astute and experienced politician, took a plunge into an empty pool. While all this might have been a slip of a tongue from a politician who’s no stranger to controversies, it is pitted against a dubious backdrop of his consistent effort to downplay positions within his party that could be branded, if not downright anti-Semitic, as bigoted and hateful.

A Search for Relevance

Livingstone, however, has said that he accepts Israel and supports a two-state-solution. He has also said that it would have been better if Britain and the US had opened their doors to Jewish refugees rather than to support the creation of Israel in '48. At minimum, we must acknowledge that a statement that the U.S. and Britain should have thrown open their doors to Jewish refugees from Hitler is manifestly not anti-Semitic.

Here is what Livingstone said on a panel in London on January 2, 2013 (starting @10:21):
Nobody disagrees with the academic concept that the Jews have a right to a state. What they didn’t have a right to was the displacement of the Arab community. We now live in a world where the reality is there is an Israel. I would not have created an Israel, but there is an Israel there. I support the concept of the two-state-solution. I want to see the ending of the wall and the separation, so there is an economic link (inaudible) there now (as) exists between France and Germany.

But it was a travesty. And the main force driving American policy makers in actually getting the UN vote to create the State of Israel is they were too frightened of anti-Semitism in America and Britain to do what we should have done, which is open our doors to the refugees from Hitler and to welcome them into Britain and America; not, because of our fear of anti-Semitism, actually displace an established Arab population who have spent the last 60 years living in degrading conditions and subject to constant violence.
Zionists don’t like to hear such talk (e.g. Jonathan Freedland who did not characterize Livingstone's comments fairly), but it is not anti-Semitic. In the context of the question whether it would have been better to welcome Jewish refugees from Hitler in the U.S. and Britain instead of forming the state of Israel, it is historically relevant to note that the Nazis were cooperating with Zionists in the early 1930's to transfer Jews to British Mandate Palestine.

It is also relevant to note, that German National Socialism was objectionable not only because Hitler wanted to exterminate the Jews, and because Nazi Germany turned into a genocidal war machine; it was also objectionable for its ideology of building a national homeland for the German people at the expense of all competitors to the land. This ideology was about more than extermination of the Jews: it included plans for the mass starvation of 30 million Ukrainians to make room for German settlement. And it’s worth noting that the idea of a Jewish homeland for Jews in Palestine does bear some uncomfortable parallels to this Nazi ideology separate and distinct from the horrors the Nazis committed during the war, and without making any comparison between Nazi atrocities and anything Israel has done or may do.

It is worth recalling, as Livingstone’s observation about Nazi and Zionist collaboration does, that European anti-Semitism helped with the creation of Israel. See, for example THIS article by Siddhartha Shome.

We usually think of this “assistance” as hatred and intolerance of Jews in Europe forcing Jews to create Israel as a Jewish state wherein Jews can take refuge. In other words, anti-Semitism created (and continues to create) the need for a Jewish state and was the impetus for its creation. For the anti-Semitic Western powers (even after the war), voting for the partition of Palestine was a way to rid themselves of Jews living in displaced persons camps in Western Europe.

But there is a flip side to this. “It is the job of Zionism,” declared Ben Gurion, “not to save the remnant of Israel in Europe but rather to save the land of Israel for the Jewish people and the yishuv” (see Shomes article at note 3). The gateway to the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem has an inscription, in Shome’s translation: “I will put my breath into you and you shall live again, and I will set you upon your own soil.” In other words, Jews living on their own soil: Jewish blood mingling with Jewish soil protected by Jewish power. It’s not a recipe that bodes well for non-Jews living in the land.

Anti-Semitism helped to create the modern state of Israel, but in non-trivial ways, anti-Semitism also  infected the ideology of this project.

A matter of Jewish identity

Chris Cook of the BBC interviewed the prize winning Jewish novelist Howard Jacobsen about the Livingstone flap. Like many, Jacobsen felt personally attacked by Shah’s and Livingstone’s statements. He felt they were being anti-Semitic.

Jacobsen is a Jew living in England. He is a British citizen, a successful novelist; winner of the Mann Booker prize. He doesn’t believe in God and he doesn't go to Shul. But for him, Zionism—a Jewish state in Palestine—is central to his identity as a Jew. So when he hears criticism of Zionism, of the Jewish state, he feels it as a personal attack.

What would Buber and Heschel Say?

The question, of course, is what kind of state? Martin Buber who emigrated to British Mandate Palestine from Germany in 1938 noted that Jewish identity is a unique hybrid between a religious and a national form. His “national form” included a Jewish collective in its own land, but he did not mean  by this a modern nation state. He argued for population parity and a bi-national state. He did not conceive of Jewish identity as requiring a Jewish state run by and for Jews, with Jews having superior rights over everyone else—which is what modern Israel has turned out to be.

From the Stanford Encyclopedia of philosophy:
At the theoretical core of the Zionism advanced by Buber was a conception of Jewish identity being neither a religious nor a national form, but a unique hybrid. ... Buber rejected any state-form for the Jewish people in Palestine. .... Buber embraced Zionism as the self-expression of a particular Jewish collective that could be realized only in its own land, on its soil, and in its language. The modern state, its means and symbols, however, were not genuinely connected to this vision of a Jewish renaissance. While in the writings of the early war years, Buber had characterized the Jews as an oriental type in perpetual motion, in his later writings the Jews represent no type at all. Neither nation nor creed, they uncannily combine what he called national and spiritual elements.

In his letter to Ghandi, Buber insisted on the spatial orientation of Jewish existence and defended the Zionist cause against the critic who saw in it only a form of colonialism. For Buber, space was a necessary but insufficient material condition for the creation of culture based on dialogue. A Gesamtkunstwerk in its own right, the Zionist project was to epitomize the life of dialogue by drawing the two resident nations of Palestine into a perfectible common space free from mutual domination.
Here’s what we coincidentally talked about in Talmud class the other day. The Jewish religion as practiced in Temple days was local. The sacrificial cult could not be exported; you couldn't conquer other lands in its name. After destruction of the Temple, there was a transfer from the land to Torah: the Jews became bound to Torah the way they once were bound to the land.

In creating Judaism, the Rabbi’s made the religion portable. But the religion, of course, maintained a strong metaphoric connection to the land. Most Jewish holidays are metaphorically connected to the land. The creation of the modern state of Israel has mucked up all the metaphors.

The Polish-American theologian and Jewish philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel also pointed out that Judaism revolves around three sacred entities: God, Torah, Israel. But for Heschel, like Buber, “Israel” doesn’t mean a modern nation state with a Jewish army and police force and courts to enforce Jewish primacy over everyone else in the land. For him, “Israel” is more like peoplehood: the Jewish people past and present and future.

Judaism, says Heschel, is a complex structure. It can be characterized exclusively neither as a theological doctrine, nor as a way of living according to the Law, nor as a community. A religious Jew, according to Heschel is a person committed to God, to his concern and teaching (Torah), who lives as part of a covenant community (Israel).

Howard Jacobsen, like so many Jews today, has neither Torah nor God, but he has Zionism: and by Zionism he means the modern state of Israel with a Jewish army and Jewish police and Jewish courts to privilege Jews over non-Jews and to perpetuate Israel as a “safe haven” for Jews like him to go to (if he ever wanted to).

Rather than God-Torah-Peoplehood, or walking humbly with your God and having some presence in the land, a lot of modern Jewish identity in Britain, the U.S., Canada, Australia revolves around anti-Semitism (the Holocaust) and Zionism (the modern state of Israel). And by Zionism they don’t mean the gentler kinder version of Buber, but the militarized, paranoid, life-boat version of Netanyahu’s Zionism. 

I think Buber and Heschel would say that’s not going to carry the religion through the next millennia.


  1. The demographic die has mostly been cast. During the last century Nazism, Anti-Zionism and Zionism have mostly wiped Judaism out as a global religion. In the United States the liberal form of the religion is shedding members at a frantic pace through non observance and intermarriage. The more conservative forms already have a membership tied to Israel and getting more so.

    The religion is becoming a tribal state church. Jews are acting like Israeli expats. We are in a transition period. By 2100 the direction will be obvious outside of looking at the statistics. By 2200 few will remember it was every different.

    The religion doesn't need to last another millennia.