[News] Liberal Zionism and the ethnonational imperative

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Wed Dec 30 13:37:42 EST 2015

  Liberal Zionism and the ethnonational imperative

Steven Salaita <https://electronicintifada.net/people/steven-salaita> 30 
December 2015

I recently shared a stage with Columbia University 
<https://electronicintifada.net/tags/columbia-university> professor 
Joseph Massad <https://electronicintifada.net/people/joseph-massad> and 
listened to him vigorously condemn anti-Semitism, deconstructing with 
his characteristic acuity the problems of conflating Jewish peoplehood 
with the conduct of the state of Israel.

Zionists often usually charge Massad with a number of sins including 
anti-Semitism, accusations raised loudly in the context of a decade-long 
campaign of defamation that aimed to get him fired.

Massad’s predecessor at Columbia, Edward Said 
<https://electronicintifada.net/tags/edward-said>, once referred to 
himself, proudly, as a Jewish intellectual 

Said eloquently castigated any articulation of anti-Semitism and 
demanded that it be no part of Palestine’s national movement. Zionists 
often deemed Said anti-Semitic and spent countless hours attempting to 
get him fired, too.

Ali Abunimah, another Palestinian luminary, so robustly criticizes 
anti-Semitism that right-wing anti-Semites accuse him of being a covert 
Zionist, unaware perhaps that they’re reproducing a feature of Zionism.

Last week, Avi Mayer <https://electronicintifada.net/tags/avi-mayer>, an 
American settler in Palestine who works for the propaganda arm of the 
Israeli government-backed Jewish Agency 
<https://electronicintifada.net/tags/jewish-agency>, alleged 
anti-Semitism against Abunimah 
Abunimah’s transgression was to insist that the Jewish holy day of Yom 
Kippur not be conflated with a celebration of Israel.

A significant community of Palestinian intellectuals, journalists and 
activists loudly disdains anti-Semitism and desires democratic 
coexistence with Jews. Members of this community frequently sustain 
slander as anti-Semitic and are targeted for recrimination or even 

It makes no sense – except in the context of liberal Zionism, where it 
is perfectly sensible.

    The horror of democratic coexistence

That Zionists accuse adamant critics of anti-Semitism of being 
anti-Semitic isn’t actually a disconnect; it is a vital feature of 
Zionism, especially visible in its liberal incarnations.

Take Mayer’s claim against Abunimah. It’s easy (and tempting) to dismiss 
it as the paranoid dishonesty of a dullard whose vapidity surpasses his 
acumen, or, if we are to be more generous, as the preening war cry of a 
professional colonizer, but Mayer’s duplicity is systematic.

We must take it seriously even if we cannot extend the same courtesy to 
its purveyor.

To make sense of this bizarre sensibility, we should explore how Zionist 
notions of anti-Semitism function in relation to iniquitous norms of 
citizenship in Israel.

According to the logic of settler colonization, anti-Semitism is located 
not in hatred of Jews, but in the refusal to accept Israeli iniquity.

Those who disassociate Israel from Judaism frequently field false 
accusations of anti-Semitism. Those accusations don’t generally result 
from misreading. It’s precisely the disassociation of Israel from 
Judaism that so disturbs people who view Zionism as an atavistic duty.

The Zionist ideal of a state exclusive to Jews, as defined by a 
theocratic bureaucracy, reduces culture and history to the fanciful 
motifs of ethnonationalism.

Jewish peoplehood is thus contingent on fealty to Israel. Delinking 
Jewishness from Zionism constitutes a grievous act of anti-Semitism. All 
forms of Zionism, no matter how progressive they sound, rely on that 

When Palestinians support democratic coexistence, which requires equal 
rights and nonsectarian citizenship, they implicitly desire the end of 

When Zionists reduce Israel to emblems of cultural uplift (Jewish 
redemption, biblical fulfillment, ethnic refuge, enlightenment of other 
nations), they elide its presence as a state that behaves in relation to 
certain geopolitical realities. It becomes exceptional and sacrosanct. 
It fulfills the exclusive destiny of an anointed few, sorted from the 
unchosen through the blunt rites of biology. (All forms of 
ethnonationalism do the same.)

The state’s critics, then, are not seen to be maligning unjust policies, 
but as performing acts of cultural insensitivity.

    The Palestinian menace

Those of Palestinian origin are especially prone (and vulnerable) to 
charges of anti-Semitism. Israel’s propaganda technique of 
conceptualizing Palestinians as beholden to inveterate Jew-hatred 
initiates the oft-repeated assertion that mindless violence 
motivates Palestinian resistance.

The technique also serves a more insidious purpose. For Zionism to 
function, Palestinians must disappear or become anti-Semitic.

The Palestinian who welcomes the opportunity to share a nation and a 
national identity with Jews exposes the irreconcilable contradiction of 
Zionism, that something called a “Jewish state” can also be a legitimate 

The Palestinian puts the Zionist in the unusual position of exemplifying 
what the Palestinian is supposed to embody: tribalism, irrationality, 
belligerence, fanaticism, chauvinism, superstition.

It is easier to either ignore Palestinians or defame them based on the 
Zionist’s peculiar obsession with ethnic purity.

These ethical contortions make little sense to those with worldviews 
that accommodate compassion, but we’re dealing with ethnonationalism, 
which values group supremacy above all other considerations.

    The necessity of liberal slander

In the months after being fired from a tenured professorship at the 
University of Illinois 
<https://electronicintifada.net/tags/university-illinois> in August 
2014, for condemning Israeli war crimes, I was periodically aggravated 
that some commentators were unwilling or unable to recognize that my 
supposedly anti-Semitic tweets actually defend Jews against essentialism.

In those tweets, I warn against conflating an entire community with the 
behavior of a nation-state busy showering civilians with bombs and 
chemical weapons, a warning I offer in much of my work.

Yet Cary Nelson <https://electronicintifada.net/tags/cary-nelson>, Todd 
Gitlin <https://electronicintifada.net/tags/todd-gitlin>, Mira Sucharov 
<https://electronicintifada.net/tags/mira-sucharov>, David Myers 
Michelle Goldberg 
<https://electronicintifada.net/tags/michelle-goldberg> and other 
liberal Zionist academics and pundits all declared or suggested that I 
had disparaged Jews.

It was remarkably frustrating. These folks could obviously read, even if 
not competently. They all have impeccable credentials, but I tried not 
to hold that against them. I couldn’t understand their phonic 
malfunction until I forced myself to think like an apologist for ethnocracy.

The political identity of liberal Zionists is filled with acute 
incongruity. They cannot consume or disseminate ideas without the 
magical benefit of denial. Disassociating Judaism from Israel renders 
Zionism superfluous. That kind of disassociation requires one to rethink 
the commonplaces of Israel’s self-image. It is more convenient to 
outsource failures of imagination to the Palestinian.

The liberal Zionist must constantly choose between a self-professed 
commitment to democracy and protecting Israel’s reputation.

When pressed, the liberal Zionist always chooses to protect Israel’s 
reputation. That choice defines liberal Zionism.

    The ethnonational imperative

This mentality is evident in, say, the asinine interpretation of 
Abunimah’s tweets 
and in the career-long nonsense Edward Said endured.

Every Palestinian activist or intellectual who delinks Zionism and 
Jewishness – which is to say, nearly all of us – suffers the conflicted 
rhetoric of colonizers pretending to be enlightened.

The problem isn’t that liberal Zionists ignore what Palestinian 
activists and intellectuals actually say. They listen closely, in fact. 
They’re merely terrified to hear the native express a desire for 
equality. If actualized, that desire would force the destruction of an 
ideology they refuse to abandon.

I term this phenomenon the ethnonational imperative, which explains 
spurious accusations of anti-Semitism not as an inability to comprehend 
the delinking of Zionism and Jewishness, but as an inclination to link 
them permanently and to punish those who do not.

It does little good for a victim of the ethnonational imperative to 
insist that he or she refuses to define a complex and multivalent 
community in relation to a perpetual human rights violator. Such 
insistence will only intensify accusations of anti-Semitism.

I have no pithy alternative on offer. I can only represent my own 
experience and identify which approaches suit me at the moment.

Others exist in different circumstances. I encourage them to think 
closely about strategies that allow them to continue speaking from 
positions of belonging and to retain the dignity of the Palestinian 

I will no longer respond to accusations of anti-Semitism by appealing to 
my accusers’ sense of fairness or discretion. They don’t raise those 
accusations to foster reconciliation or dialogue, to use the favored 
parlance of the liberal Zionist. They do it to cause harm.

The impulse, even when unstated, is to center themselves as stewards of 
Palestine’s destiny. In the meantime, their recalcitrance prolongs 
heinous suffering.

I am willing to work out difficult ideas with ideological opponents, but 
I have no interest in forestalling the liberation of Palestine to 
accommodate the colonizer’s identity crisis.

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