by Ken Freeland
A review of Overcoming Zionism: Creating a Single Democratic State in Israel/Palestine by Joel Kovel (pictured) (2007), Pluto Press, ISBN-13 978 0 7453 2570 5, Paperback $20.48 at Amazon.com
AMAZON.COM likes to tell its book-buying customers which books other customers also bought who purchased the same book, and I typically glance at this unsolicited information with bemused detachment (Oh really? But do they have my taste, interest and background?) but occasionally, when the subject matter is particularly controversial or arcane, with piqued interest (Well, maybe there is some great book on this subject that these other folks know about that I am missing out on!). One book that caught my attention this way is Overcoming Zionism: Creating a Single Democratic State in Israel/Palestine by Joel Kovel. I didn’t know Joel Kovel from Adam when I ordered this book on a whim, but I have a keen interest in the single-state solution to the problem of Zionism, and so the way he worded his title caught my interest. I duly ordered it, expecting it to contain an apology for a single democratic state in Palestine, one that might fortify my own view and give me new ammunition to use against skeptics, and die-hard two-staters.
That old saw that you can’t judge a book by its cover (or its subtitle) certainly held true for this one: Of course, the author does unequivocally advocate a single democratic state of all its citizens for Palestine/Israel (“Palesreal” as he provisionally refers to it, but I personally prefer how some wags dub it: “Palestein,” which makes me laugh out loud.) But very little of his book is really about that. When I first began reading it, I quickly began to suspect that it was little more than an autobiographical account, yet another Jewish apology for Jewishness with lip-service criticism of Israeli behavior — my critical cockles were fully raised.
But I could not have been more mistaken: Never in my life have I read such a disarming book! Thanks to it, my seasoned distrust of so-called progressive Jewish intellectuals (who always seem to turn out to have a soft spot for racist Israel) has been resolved, for here, in this man and in this book, I have encountered the 21st century reincarnation of Israel Shahak, that first great (Jewish) writer to expose from within the perfidy and counterfeit nature of Zionist Israel, and its relation to Judaism and to a very checkered Jewish history. Joel Kovel takes up where that late, great scholar left off, but interestingly, while he holds absolutely no quarter for Zionism, he does lead the reader to a reasonably sympathetic understanding of how this pernicious ideology could have developed in the first place. This ability to appreciate Zionism from the inside out is invaluable in enabling us to learn how this pernicious belief system can be dismantled, and this, of course, is the author’s ultimate and unstinting purpose.
A more accurate title for this book might be “The Psychopathology of Zionism.” In the bulk of its 299 pages, Kovel meticulously deconstructs Zionism’s deranged psychology, and the reader very soon appreciates that this author’s long years of education in psychiatry and psychoanalysis were not spent in vain. Successfully dealing professionally with the mentally disordered prepared him, in a way no other profession could have, to analyze that sickest puppy of all: Judeo-Zionism. In his comprehensive deconstruction of this world menace, Kovel pulls no punches. Unlike many non-Jewish writers who tiptoe around some of the landmines that are sure to explode into charges of “anti-Semitism” against those who take things too far for the ADL-types (and the many publishers who censor in fear of them), this author does not pussyfoot around anything, and his straightforward, candid recounting of Jewish history, warts and all, and of Zionist perfidy, are as refreshing as they are rare in Jewish (or any other) authors.
But how did Jewish Joel Kovel slip through the fine sieve of Zionist indoctrination? Don’t all Jews imbibe it with their mother’s milk? Well, this particular Jewish lad seems to have had a “wet nurse” in the person of his Aunt Betty, who had rejected Judaism at an early age, so completely that she left strict orders not to be given a Jewish funeral, to the great consternation of her kin. She turns out to have been the significant other in his life, and her death during his formative years snapped the last thread of his already tenuous identification with Judaism.
His father was a wing nut — “almost a fascist” — who opposed Zionism “for all the wrong reasons.” He was a dyed-in-the-wool, all-American Cold Warrior, you see, so the socialist veneer of Zionism (which was not so clearly understood as mere window dressing in its earlier days) incensed him. So of these two significant others, both of whom were extremely strong-willed and unafraid to hold unpopular opinions, his male role model was rooted in America, not Israel, while his significant-other female had rejected the family religion. The budding Joel Kovel took the best of both worlds and in turn rejected both Judaism and Zionism (the latter for reasons opposite to those of his father: because Zionist particularism trashes socialist universalism, and because the grafting of Zionism to capitalist imperialism made it antithetical to the project of socialist liberation from this war-mongering death phase of capitalism).
Now, I realize that this last statement is not going to sit well with every potential reader of Overcoming Zionism, and so, while I cannot sing the praises of this book loudly enough, I also need to add that it is not for everyone. Do not order this book for that right-winger on your Christmas list… get him Jeff Gates’ Guilt by Association instead. But, for anyone to the left of, say, Barack Obama; for that progressive anti-war friend of yours who circumlocutes whenever you bring up the subject of Israel; and most importantly, for that Jewish acquaintance who thinks that Israel can do no wrong (or better yet, who has intimated a few unsettling doubts s/he has about Israel) — this book is tailor-made. To the progressive it demonstrates conclusively that Israel is a willing partner in the very imperialism s/he anathematizes… to the Zionist-oriented Jew it shows him how deep is the hole that has been historically dug for Jews by Israel, and convinces him that there is no way out of it except to reject Zionism root and branch. “The overcoming of Zionism is its dissolution.”
Here is a sampler of some of the more valuable insights I gained from this masterful work :
“Nationalism is bad enough, but it can be sublimated through devices like the World Cup. Nationalism by divine decree — whether Judaic, Islamic, Christian or Hindu — and exercised with state power, is a living nightmare.” (p. 6)
“For the Orthodox nationalist, G-d’s will trumps Man’s conscience. This lifts the burden of guilt, or more often, keeps it from arising in the first place. The land is ours because G-d said so: all is justified; case closed. The codicil attached to this is barely stressed though it is strenuously lived out: that the fact of ‘G-d telling us so’ means in practice the submission to Rabbi this or that telling us so on the authority of the Halakhah [the entire body of Jewish laws and traditions]. These Jews wish to live like their medieval forebears, in rabbinically supervised communities within a larger state — which, as it turns out, finds them very convenient for its purposes.
“This is an escape without transcendence, even if one is never going to convince a religious nationalist, engorged with the feeling of spiritual power, of the fact. Escaping the onerous strictures of bad conscience is to remove the restraints upon the will except for those legislated from within the tribe through its rabbinical chiefs. It is to set up a downhill path at the end of which stand Meir Kahane and Baruch Goldstein. For such people, conscience is directly turned into enmity, and its judgmental quality turns into paranoia.” (pp. 180-181) [The foregoing calls to mind that title of Erich Fromm’s famous study of the last generation: Escape from Freedom. Indeed, it seems to be Kovel’s subtext that Zionism represents exactly the Jewish rejection of Enlightenment values, together with the emancipation of Jews that they engendered.]
“All human beings are equivalently unique; and anybody who fancies himself chosen by God is by that measure fallen. It is impossible to ground the notion of exceptionalism in any spiritual value inasmuch as the ground of spiritual value is the universality of our being within nature….
“The finer minds of the [Jewish] faith have sought to inflect the Covenant so that it means that Jews are obliged to develop themselves spiritually and ethically. Well and good, but at some point this higher development has to lead to a jettisoning of the Covenant itself. For once it is fulfilled, the sense of specialness can no longer be maintained without corrupting the Jewish faith.” (pp. 200-201) [Here as elsewhere in his book Kovel seems not far from Christian catholic thinking.]
“Justice is grounded in truth, and truth inheres in the whole of things, which is not a homogeneous totality but the contradictory, dialectically moving ensemble of the real. There is therefore no single truth, but there are greater and lesser truths. The obligation for people of good will is to find the greater truth and to speak it to the power that would suppress it. And one of the greater truths is that there is such a power. For present purposes we may locate its surface in the tentacular Zionist lobby, extending from the upper echelons of the American and Israeli security apparatuses through the chambers of civil society. It follows that every particle of truth about Israeli violations of human rights should also be an exposure of the Zionist lobby. Every truth about Israel needs to be an exposure of the lie that keeps pumping up the leaky gas bag of its legitimacy.
“The Lobby intimidates, especially in the United States whose transformation must therefore be a goal of anti-Zionist politics. But once exposed, it can be confronted. Telling the truth about the Lobby is not mere recitation; it should be a guide, rather, to bringing down its corrupt and illegitimate power. We need a campaign to force the Lobby to register as an agent of a foreign power; and another to build data banks to expose those who collaborate with it; and to eliminate the special privileges enjoyed by Israel as tax breaks, technology transfers, indeed, the whole grotesque edifice of handouts, loan guarantees, technologies of death, and the like, which burden US taxpayers while bringing endless misery and destruction to Palestine and Lebanon; and to protest Israel’s nuclear arsenal and bring it under international control; and to keep bringing suits for violation of human rights against the likes of Avi Dichter and Moshe Ya’alon; and to insist that the media carry alternative views, and to build alternative media that do; and to expose the Israeli ‘spies’ who clustered around the events of September 11, and to re-open investigation into the attack on the USS Liberty in 1967.” (pp. 232-233) [Here we see how neatly Kovel’s Overcoming Zionism and Gates’ Guilt by Association , both anti-Zionist classics in their own time, reflect one another in their perspective, approach and conclusions, while the latter approaches the question of the Israeli-Zionist threat to America from the purely socio-political angle, while the former stays focused on its moral and psychopathological aspects: each is first an exposé and then a battle plan, like two valiant armies trapping the common enemy in a pincers movement; both might be said to be arguing that when it comes to anti-Zionism, faith without works is dead.]
Lest anyone should think that the ever-vigilant Zionist watchdogs gave the good professor a free pass for his trenchant criticism of their pathological belief system, rest assured that he has paid his dues: Just as Norman Finkelstein (author of The Holocaust Industry) was railroaded out of his academic position (even more incongruously by a Catholic university) for his anti-Zionist views, Joel Kovel lost his special professorship at Bard College, he reports, as a direct result of his anti-Zionist activism and publications. The decision to remove him was made by the College’s president, Leon Botstein, director of the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra since 2003, and by others with clear conflicts of interest. Those interested in the sordid details of Professor Kovel’s forced retirement can read the details on his Web site: http://www.joelkovel.org/archives.html
In the end, what must be said of Joel Kovel is that he is the real McCoy …a true mensch. This Yiddish term, connoting decency, uprightness, fortitude and firmness of purpose, has almost lost all reference to real individuals in modern times, but Joel Kovel has solidly demonstrated that this is not an archaic concept… there is at least one Jew today who deserves the sobriquet. Get this book and see for yourself!