The return of the colonial: Laor’s “The Myths of Liberal Zionism” reviewed

The West has been sold a bill of goods. Burnished bronzed Jewish soldiery protecting settlers founding kibbutzim in a decadent, violent backwater in the Near East, terraforming the desert into farmland, steadfastly creating a cosmopolitan outpost in the center of Barbary — beautiful, innocent, pure, a perfect redemption for the West’s historical sins against European Jewry. Decent if saccharine and overwrought ad-copy for Zionism, and it’s gone over well for decades in Paris, New York, Brussels and Berlin. Like most ad-copy, it has been dishonest. Unlike most ad-copy, it is outright mendacious, something like 1940s cigarette ads advertising tobacco’s salubrious effects. And Zionist intellectuals are having increasing trouble covering up an increasingly evident truth: that Zionism should be slapped with a label reading: caution, settler-colonialism, type two — ethnic cleansing and extermination — this ideology may be harmful to the native population.

Earlier Zionists were not in the business of molly-coddling modern Western sensibilities. They were honest, unaware or indifferent to the fact that the archival record they left behind would be trouble. Take revisionist Vladimir Jabotinsky’s scorched forthrightness: “colonization must … proceed in defiance of the will of the native population … an external power has committed itself to creating such security conditions that the local population, however much it would have wanted to, would be unable to interfere, administratively or physically, with our colonization.” Ideology hasn’t changed much, but the West has. So Israeli new mandarins have to try to sell settler-colonialism to Western states with populations that increasingly regard Zionism’s spiritual core and physical reality as somewhere on the spectrum between mildly embarrassing and overtly revolting. It is those mandarins that anti-Zionist Israeli poet Yitzhak Laor meticulously vivisects in The Myths of Liberal Zionism.

Laor is not much for structure. He wanders and weaves. The book was originally published in Hebrew, and then translated to French; the myths referenced in the book’s title are intended to muck up the minds of a European audience. As Laor writes, “We are not really talking to the United States, maybe because we take its love for granted” (xii). Laor explores differences between the United States and Israel, the most important of which is the Holocaust, and its central role in communal binding for the American Jewish community, the bastion of ideological support for Israel.

Laor begins with an exegesis of the Zionist depiction of Israel — the national self-image as a vulnerable child. As the embodiment of Israeli nationalism, the Israeli soldier is imagined as utterly innocent: a naif. History happens to children. Adults make history happen. Israeli soldiers “ask for a different kind of adoration, love and warmth. They arouse, they are supposed to arouse, a desire to protect them, to defend them” (xvi). So the soldiers are children in need of a guardian, so too is Israel. This is the image Israel presents to the world, to America and to American Jews: we are all wards of an ascendant American Jewry, a responsible American Jewry, because it is Israelis that die to protect Jewry. As Laor continues, “The soldier, as a good grandson, is extremely important if we are to understand the Israeli manipulative narrative: we are the grandchildren that the United States and American Jews are often being called on to feel sorry for” (xvii).

This carefully crafted vulnerability is vital nonsense. Nonsense because Israel is a military titan with a nuclear trump card, vital because a vulnerable child demands succor and nursing. Precisely the correct image for a dependent client-garrison-state — the correct description, despite the analysis du jour in the solidarity movement that elides the materialist reasons for American and European materiel and diplomatic support for Israel.

The soldier is also a figure out of the Aryan imagination. Hebrew literature of the 1940s to 1970s is replete with blue-eyed blondes, at a time when the Israeli Jewish demographic, Ashkenazi and Mizrahim, was hazel to obsidian. Laor is quite clear: this Jew doesn’t exist. He is a stand-in for the real Jewry of Israel, the majority, Arabs, many of the Ashkenazi minority, descendants of refugees from the Shoah. This is particularly annoying for Zionist Arab Jews, who cannot relate to their past except as undispellable shame, as in the case of Israeli playwright and novelist A.B. Yehoshua, perpetually bummed at being a Sephardic Jew.

When oppression and dispossession map over ethnic lines, binding a community to a racially-conceived state requires racism, an abiding hatred of an “Other” — in this case the Palestinian Arab. This becomes even more important when that Other is closer to the Sephardic Jewish population than to the dominant population, the Ashkenazi Jewish elite, the true beneficiary of Israeli racism. Israel is the second most unequal advanced industrial economy in the world, with 40 percent of its stock market owned by a handful of families, overwhelmingly Ashkenazi. Racism glues together a national identity in lieu of cultural or class-based links which could bind Jewish Arabs to Palestinian Arabs in different and dangerous communities of identity.

This racism is codified in Zionist ideology, and so a consistent anti-racism is anti-Zionist. Such truisms don’t go over well much of anywhere. Laor quotes Ilan Greilsammer writing in Le Monde: “It is enough to be an anti-Zionist, a-Zionist, post-Zionist, or a new historian who describes the massacres perpetrated by the Jews during the war of 1948 to be welcomed everywhere with open arms.”

Laor continues: what “Greilsammer is really driving at is the following: in any other place in the (white) world, a state of all its citizens would be a reasonable democratic and republican solution, a legitimate political idea — but this does not apply to Arabs … it is the role of the Jew, within French racism, to articulate such disdain toward the Arabs. This is the return of the colonial” (56-57). The assault on anti-Zionism segues neatly into an assault on anti-Zionism’s moral groundings: anti-colonial universalism. In the neo-colonial present, radical equality threatens a radically unequal world. How to smuggle in colonial ideology? Easy: behind an anti-“anti-Semitic” discourse, from behind which anti-Arab racism can decorously emerge. And it is from this perspective that a Zionist Israeli acts as cipher for European bigotry, and explains the extent of the branding operation.

The core of the change in Jewish identity that Laor describes is “The metamorphosis of the Jew from non-Westerner to candidate-as-Westerner … the most central part of Israeli ideology” (xxiv). Through Zionism, Jewry is immured from its history: the perennial tax-collector and merchant, lingering far too obviously in the interstices of European culture. Through Zionism, the Jew becomes almost-European. Through the sabra, Israel becomes schizophrenically strong and weak: “the sabra … as a victim of circumstances, or a victim of the cruelty of the generation before him, or of the cruelty of Jewish history. In short, he was expected to be cruel, yet his cruelty was forgiven ‘in advance’ for he was the historical answer to the riddle of Jewish history” (xxii). How to solve the riddle? Simple. Though cleansing and renewing violence.

And the Jew-as-probationary-Westerner is doing excellent yeoman work in thrashing the natives. He is permitted and expected to be cruel, in response both to historical cruelty and because Israelis are not in Europe, where the natives are slightly more in line. “What our leaders asked for, it seems, was not the Rights of Man, but the right to belong to the elite. We can now participate in violating the rights of others” (35). Now that Israel is a grown-up nation-state, playing with the adults, its people can enjoy the privilege of at least border-Westerners: cluster-bombing brown folk. Laor knows that this is good work. Constant conflict is good money, good for scaring up oil prices, good for weapons sales. “Why disarm ourselves if the fences not only help us be safe, but also help us stay in ‘the West’? Or, in the words of the future historian: Why think of peace, if the price we will have to pay in return is a heterogeneous life?” (xxix). Future historians may be less demure about the way Israel has ideologically stabilized itself and its bigotry vis-a-vis the needs of its political economy and its insertion into mercantilist neo-liberalism.

Mass-murder in the global South is an organic part of European history, tied to the development of capitalism. But prattle about capitalism and death does no good for the defenders of European capitalism. Nor do narratives linking Victorian genocides to the genocides of the Third Reich. The European community would rather not see the Holocaust as a product of European civilization and its Romantic obsession with national purity, the output of colonialism and an endogenous process of violent state-formation. Instead, the Holocaust is outside history, for both Israel and Europe. As Laor explains, for Israel, this is convenient because it re-writes Jewish history in a floating arc of “national continuity which begins with the rise of Nazism, continues with the war and terminates in the construction of the memory of the (Jewish) victims” (23). For Europe, this is convenient because it places the Holocaust in a mausoleum marked “Human Suffering,” so ostentatiously elaborate that we are meant to not notice that the monument has walled off the Holocaust from the genocides the West perpetrated in the global South, privileging it, privileging Jewish suffering, now a sort of suffering of full human beings since the Jewish people — via Israel — are probationary Europeans.

Laor reserves a particular revulsion for the intellectual artisans toiling away within Israeli society. Like Viktor Klemperer, he highlights the treason of the intellectuals as the worst betrayal. He quotes Amos Oz as writing that the Israel-Palestine conflict is, “in other words a conflict between two causes where both are as just, one as the other.” What can Laor say? He says nothing. Or Claude Lanzmann, maker of the movie Shoah: “They have autonomous territories, an armed police force, weapons are everywhere” (37). While Israeli soldiers beat children to death, children with minds tortured by “memories of mothers screaming with fear, babies who never saw anything but armored trucks near home” (39). Or on Camp David, Laor highlights “the role played by the Zionist left in cementing the anti-Palestinian public perception so common today” (40). Here again is Oz: “he has incited his people against Israel and against the Jews. Finally, he has initiated this recent burst of hateful violence,” meant to wrack Jews with suffering. “The Palestinian people are suffocated and poisoned by blind hate” (42-43). Laor knows that Oz laid the symbolic ground for 5,500 Palestinian and 1,000 Israeli dead during the second Palestinian intifada. Oz scribbles away with the blood of the dead on his quill and Laor loathes him for it.

Laor detests Oz for another reason too. Judaism as a breathing culture has been suffocated by the new Zionist Israeli narrative. The old narrative of Eastern Europe Jewry has had to be decimated. This has meant the destruction of a special memory: Holocaust-surviving, the remnant of eastern European Jewry. Laor is the descendant of survivors of the Shoah, with a tincture of Maghrebi Jew. He is everything the Israeli imaginary attempts to erase or to spit upon. Livid, Laor absolutely refuses to condescend to the culture or the memories of Shoah Jewry. When Oz describes annihilated European Jewry as opera and ballet-viewing, poly-lingual cosmopolitans, Laor explodes: “This is simply the desecration of the memory of the victims of the Holocaust, most of whom never went to the opera, never read European poetry” (113).

As Laor writes, “The real people, those who never frequented operas or concerts, those who were deported en masse to the camps and to their deaths, were not ‘ideal’ in any sense. They loved their spoken language, their world which was burnt down; they were real” (114). Oz hates the real, because reality is intolerable to the Zionist, thief of Jewish history, abuser of the Holocaust. For the Israeli Zionist, Laor has many damning words. Maybe this is an attempt to heal the culture. For American Zionist Jews, who need this book so badly, who will react to its publication like a blind man to Medusa? “I can hardly find appropriate words for them,” for those who pay for the weapons that kill children, for those who will never live in their insurance-policy patch of land in the Levant (xxix). I can find appropriate words for Laor’s book: it is a gift, incredible and beautiful, so wonderful that I am sure that the American Zionist community will spurn it. No one wants to read the words that will be the epitaph on the gravestone marking the burial site of your communal imaginary.

Max Ajl is a writer living in Gaza. He has written for Adbusters! and The New Statesman, among others, and blogs on Israel-Palestine and ecological issues at

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