Born in 1936 in Brooklyn of Ukrainian Jewish parents, Joel Kovel is the author of 10 books and over 100 articles. He practiced psychiatry and psychoanalysis for 24 years, abandoning them in the mid-1980s partly because of dissatisfaction with the US health care system and partly because of his intensified and multifarious political activism on the left. Describing himself as an “eco-socialist,” in 1998 he was the Green party candidate for Senator from New York and two years later sought that party’s Presidential nomination, losing out to Ralph Nader. Since 2003 he has been Editor-in-Chief of the quarterly journal, Capitalism Nature Socialism.
Overcoming Zionism, his first book on the question of Israel, is a contribution to the growing body of literature advocating “a single democratic state in Israel/Palestine.” However, while Kovel’s subtitle is longer than his title, it is the devastating critique of Zionism that occupies eight of the book’s ten chapters. What is unique about Kovel’s project is its multi-perspectival nature: he demolishes Zionism from historical, political, cultural, environmental, ethical, and psychological perspectives, and still has space left for elegant invective and stimulating digression. In a word, his argument isn’t merely empirical, but in the broadest sense philosophical and often requires considerable concentration from the reader: such concentration is amply rewarded.
Zionism seeks “the restoration of tribalism in the guise of a modern, highly militarized and aggressive state.” It “cut Jews off from what history they did possess and led to a fateful identity of interest with antisemitism, which became … the only thing that united them.” It “fell into the ways of imperialist expansion and militarism, and showed signs of the fascist malignancy.” Zionists and their ilk — those who build literal and metaphorical separation walls — are “the splinters under the skin of humanity.” In short, “if you sign on to the idea of a Jewish state, you are taking the particularism that is the potential bane of any state, mixing it with the exceptionalism that is the actual bane of Judaism, and giving racism an objective, enduring, institutionalized and obdurate character.” Israel, he concludes, has “turned itself into a machine for the manufacture of human rights abuses.”
This is no mere gratuitous catalogue of execration, however. The reference to “exceptionalism” is essential to Kovel’s analysis. Exceptionalism leads at all times to racism. Just as anti-Semites single out the Jews from the rest of humanity as objects of hatred, Zionists accept the Jews’ destiny as “a people apart” and deduce from the history of Jewish suffering a right to transcend the laws of humanity, subjecting the Palestinians to unspeakable brutality with apparent impunity.
Exceptionalism brings separation (for which the Afrikaner word is “apartheid”), but also alienation and estrangement. Chaim Weizmann, Israel’s first president, called Palestinians “the rocks of Judea … obstacles that had to be cleared on a difficult path,” a remark, Kovel observes, that “also devalues the landscape and undercuts Zionism’s romanticisation of the Palestinian earth, tipping the balance toward the domination of nature.” Thus Kovel neatly introduces his critique of Zionism’s disastrous ecological record: “Estrangement … is the human form taken by ecological breakdown; it is a failure of recognition between human agents, which … splits humanity from nature as well as itself. It follows that the most severely estranged society will also be the most subject to eco-disintegration.”
Another key concept here is bad conscience: indeed this book stems from a lengthy 2002 essay called “Zionism’s Bad Conscience.” Kovel points out that on three occasions the Israeli state has been led by a former terrorist: Menachem Begin (prime minister from 1977-83), Yitzhak Shamir (1983-92, with a break in 1984-6), and Ariel Sharon (2001-6). This record “does tend to vitiate the obsessive harping on Palestinian terror” and “is combined with obsessive claims of democratic virtue and appeals to the ancient sufferings endured by Jews and their high ethical standards.” The need to patch over the split between “the powerful ethical component to Judaism” and “the commission of dreadful crimes and the honoring of those” who have perpetrated them leads to “a species of collective conscience … As it grew into a state …, the conscience needs of Zionism grew with the state’s need for legitimation and became more complex and internally riven.” In such a conscience “a kind of badness, a sense that something is noxiously wrong, persists within the social body.” It is also “a conscience that works badly, impeding internal development … Badly, too, in that it brings evil and suffering into the world and propagates them.”
Kovel’s rich analysis of the workings of this bad conscience uncovers it throughout the Israeli body politic, as well as in the propaganda discourse that seeks to legitimate the crimes of Zionism to the world. A vivid case-study is provided by the “new historian” Benny Morris, a self-proclaimed “leftist” who in January 2004 in a notorious interview with the Ha’aretz journalist Ari Shavit claimed that Ben-Gurion should have finished the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians, that Palestinians should be put in cages, and that “the great American democracy could not have been created without the annihilation of the Indians.”
Kovel comments: “Morris realises that the Jewish state would not have arisen without committing massive terrorism, but he is stunned and falls into the black hole of race hatred to justify the deed …” The acceptance of responsibility and mutual recognition constitute “a recovery of memory that is also a recognition of history — the recognition Benny Morris couldn’t stand when he turned away from the truth he had uncovered about the Nakhba, and toward his nihilist and paranoid defence of Zionism.”
Clearly if the dis-integrative tendencies inherent in Zionism are to be counteracted, then re-integration must be sought via the one-state solution. Kovel itemises the factors that render the conventionally advocated two-state solution both physically impossible and morally unconscionable. For Israeli (and pro-Israeli) discourse “the notion of ‘Two-State’ simply means … the continued aggrandizement of the Jewish state along with a more or less negligible ‘other state’ on an ever shrinking fragment of land … Thus if the basic condition for a Two-State solution is that there be two functional states on the ground, the Two-State solution has been annihilated.” It has become “a script for the posturings of statesmen, the filling of airtime on the networks and column-inches in the press …”
Kovel rejects “the whole idea of a volkisch state for any singular kind of people … simply because … people do better when they are mixing and mingling in conditions of a rich diversity.” He finds “an Islamist state as objectionable as a Jewish state” but is more concerned about transforming the latter because “my people and my country are responsible for Zionism’s success …” He claims that the US/Israel axis (which provokes him to the characteristic query: “as with the discoveries that certain dinosaurs had two brains, one in the head and one in the tail, just where does the executive thinking arise?”) “has been over the years by far the most powerful indirect cause for the rise of political Islam in its theocratic form … a Westerner who wishes to undercut the power of Islamic fundamentalism cannot do better than work for the overcoming of Zionism.”
Given the length and depth of the critique of Zionism and the concomitant argument against two states, some readers may feel that the case for a single “secular-universal state” — which Kovel dubs “Palesreal” — is made a little perfunctorily. However, it is the logical culmination of everything that comes before, and clearly Kovel did not see it as part of his brief to explore in excessive detail the modalities for establishing such a state. He lays down three practical principles for activism: “Speak the truth about Israel” — i.e. counteract the propaganda of “the tentacular Zionist lobby;” “Deprive the Zionist state of what it needs” — i.e. cultivate academic, cultural and economic boycotts; and “Bring Palestinians home” — i.e. foreground at all times the Right of Return of Palestinian refugees.
From an activist point of view, one of the dilemmas has always been whether to advocate explicitly a two-state or a one-state solution. Most solidarity campaigns deliberately avoid taking a stance on this issue, which is deemed best left to the judgment of the Palestinians themselves. However, as Kovel points out, the logic of repeatedly emphasising the Right of Return “contain[s] within itself both the necessary and sufficient condition for bringing down Zionism in an entirely peaceful way” and seeks to overcome Zionism “by dissolving the logic of Jewish exceptionalism and particularity.”
Kovel believes that “the world would be a far better place without Zionism.” Nobody reading this invaluable book can come away with the illusion that universal values are not at stake in the campaign against Israel’s crimes, and Western governments’ backing for them.
Raymond Deane is a composer, and a founding member and former chairperson of the Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign.