Salaita skewers liberalism in “Israel’s Dead Soul”

Steven Salaita is an associate professor of English at Virginia Tech who has written several books on the failure of liberal civil rights discourse to counter anti-Arab racism, particularly in the United States. In his new book, Israel’s Dead Soul, he evaluates the potential complicity between enlightened ideals and their opposite.

Salaita explores how civil rights discourse has been appropriated by Zionism, the belief that “Jews have the right to a nation-state in historic Palestine that is majority Jewish” (4), in order to legitimize cruel and indeed criminal policies against the Palestinian people. He also forcefully makes a plea — in the tradition of the late Edward Said — for the role of the intellectual as a dissident unaffiliated to power.

Salaita compiles a slew of quotations, some from impeccably liberal sources, lamenting the imminent corruption and/or destruction of Israel’s soul. Unimpressed, he opines that “[n]obody has ever mourned the condition of Israel’s soul without being deeply attached to Israel as an ethnocentric state.” The claim that a state has a soul is an attempt to idealize that state (in Salaita’s language, to “normatize” it) on the basis of “the nostalgia of an invented past … and historical cherry-picking” (3).

Liberal multiculturalism is too closely linked to the state (31), emphasizes tolerance and coexistence rather than political justice and equality, and therefore cannot be an effective site of restance (100). The inclusion and indeed celebration of Zionism within a multicultural context in reality “opt[s] to exclude Palestinians and other advocates of real democracy” (36).

Anti-Defamation League

From this perspective Salaita criticizes such Zionist organisations as Hillel, Taglit-Birthright, StandWithUs and The Israel Project. However, the powerful Anti-Defamation League (ADL) merits its own chapter. Founded in 1913, ADL has shifted over the course of the century from the worthy cause of combating rampant anti-Semitism to unconditionally supporting the racist Israeli state.

Salaita analyses the ADL’s own criteria for defining a hate group and finds that, for the most part, they apply to the organization itself: it perpetuates extremism and hatred, its beliefs can lead to violent attacks or terrorism, its actions can affect entire communities or even nations, it believes in racial superiority, it seeks to harm perceived enemies or to undermine American democracy, and it denies any holocaust, such as the Armenian genocide, that doesn’t involve Israel (67-9). Once again, by becoming harnessed to an ethnonationalist project, an ostensibly progressive organization becomes an essentially repressive one.

Turning to individuals, Salaita excoriates two prominent public intellectuals, Princeton University’s Cornel West and Georgetown University’s Michael Eric Dyson, whose scholarship is rooted in socially liberal traditions of black Christianity.

By stressing the liberal vocabulary of tolerance and coexistence while neglecting the colonial violence inherent in the Zionist project, West “decontextualizes the Israel-Palestine conflict … and reifies Israel’s placement in proper multicultural discourse as a legitimate exemplar of Jewish culture” (72). Not alone does West conflate Jewish culture with an oppressive state, Salaita writes, but he “implies that any type of moral transgression committed by Jews arises … from the corrupting presence of the Palestinians” (76).

Meanwhile, Salaita contends that Dyson reduces the conflict to competing moral ideals rather than “the settlement by foreign Jews of Palestinian land” (85). While Salaita concedes that the establishment of a homeland for Jews is in itself an idea “worth moral and philosophical consideration,” Dyson falls into the trap of equating this with “the idea of a Jewish state, as dictated by Zionism” (87).

Dyson and West, both of whom are constantly present on a number of mainstream media outlets, including National Public Radio and CNN, are singled out by Salaita as representatives of the phenomenon of political punditry, which he subjects to a stinging analysis. For pundits, “diversity and multiculturalism have become corporatized” and “can be used as marketing strategies.” They are “a propitious element of West and Dyson’s market niche, not an object of their critical attention” (91). Pundits are “vassal[s] of free market commerce” (80) whereas “all intellectuals should stand firm on the principle that colonization is never acceptable” (93).

It should be noted that since the completion and publication of Salaita’s book, West has taken an important step towards more radical advocacy of the Palestinian cause by endorsing the call for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel.

Pinkwashing and “homonational narratives”

In a chapter called “The Paradise of Not Being Arab,” Salaita focuses sharply on Israel’s self-branding as a modern gay paradise, in contrast to the supposedly backward and homophobic Arab and Islamic countries. This process entails what queer theorist Jasbir Puar calls “homonational narratives,” (96) whereby some homosexuals are complicit with oppression (“heterosexual national formations”) rather than opposed to it (113).

Salaita notes that Israeli gays are not allowed to marry, that one rabbi has described gay marriage as worse than the Holocaust, that Israel is home to many influential US Christian Zionists who are adamantly homophobic, and that a 2009 survey “found that 46 percent of Israelis consider homosexuals to be deviant.” With typically caustic humor, Salaita comments that “[i]f gay paradise refers to a nation wherein half the population considers [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] people degenerate, then maybe it is true that, in the immortal words of Meat Loaf, heaven can wait” (116).

In spite of these well-known facts, Israel’s foreign ministry enlisted Israel’s gays in a public relations campaign encouraging “harsher steps” against Iran in 2009. Salaita comments that “economic sanctions or military action against Iran … would result in increased persecution [of gay Iranians] in addition to the needless death of Iranian civilians of all backgrounds” (100). Ultimately, according to Salaita, Zionism’s crass message is “support gay people by becoming racists” (104).

After a lively digression on Zionist cinema, suggestively placed within a template provided by Joseph Conrad’s classic novella Heart of Darkness, Israel’s Dead Soul concludes with the provocative formulation that “Israel’s soul needed to die if the many peoples of the Near East are to continue living.” He reassures us, however, that such an eventuality “does not threaten Israel’s future; it portends the safety and survival of the Jewish and Palestinian people” (141).

While Salaita’s frame of reference may often seem narrowly American, the principles that he enunciates are generally applicable. European activists will easily be able to think of organizations on the ADL model, for example, whereby a seemingly progressive message is fatally compromised and ultimately negated by close linkage with the defense of Israel.

Israel’s Dead Soul is a densely-packed, sometimes knotty little book, that well repays reading and rereading. Salaita provides us with well-honed tools for diagnosing the errors of organizations and embedded pundits alike, as well as the weapons for combating them.

Raymond Deane is a composer and political activist.