Epistemology – studying the nature of knowledge -- is one of those words that academics love and normal people don’t. But thinking about thinking challenges us to understand how people understand things, sensitizing us to assumptions and distortions.
It is important to realize that the systematic, longstanding campaign to destroy and delegitimize Israel has created a zero-sum, dualistic epistemology. Israel’s enemies can see Israel only as bad; in reaction, some friends see Israel only as good. With a complex democracy in a dangerous neighborhood viewed through this good or evil, black and white lens, reality becomes distorted. The messiness of life, brimming with nuances and paradoxes, vanishes. While we may not need 50 shades of grey (for SO many reasons), we do need a broader, richer, deeper palette for portraying the Jewish State.
On the radical Left these days, the need to see Israel as all evil is so great, that anything positive threatens the entire worldview – making every supporter an enemy. This extremism spawned the ridiculous notion of “pinkwashing,” that Israel’s progressive attitude towards gays is somehow an attempt to cleanse its position regarding the Palestinians. The compulsion to create this notion of pinkwashing proves the bigotry shaping much modern anti-Zionism. The assault on Israel is so relentless, the portrait so negative, that any deviations create cognitive dissonance weakening the entire position.
Similarly, this upside-down black-white worldview caricatures Israel’s supporters as wicked or stupid. One fanatic blogger, appalled that a young African-American student activist named Chloe Valdary dares to support Israel, demeaned her with two racial slurs in one short tweet. “They finally did it: found a Negro Zionist: Uncle Tom is dancin'' for joy!” Richard Silverstein tweeted recently. While ranting against this University of New Orleans student, Silverstein wrote that if pinkwashing exploits sexual preference “to promote Israel’s interests,” and greenwashing exploits the environment, “Chloe Valdary is part of a phenomenon that may be called ‘blackwashing’ since she and the Lobby are exploiting race and color on Israel’s behalf.”
This anti-Zionist need to insult suggests that contempt for Israel transcends reason, serving as the world’s Trendiest Hatred. Anti-Zionism is increasingly a linchpin of Far Left identity, an identity marker broadcasting radicals’ rejection of racism-colonialism-imperialism. Any deviators are traitors to be intellectually Mau-Maued, just as any facts that might inconveniently complicate the picture must be dismissed or reframed. To 1960s radicals “the personal was political”; today’s Israel-haters make the political very personal.
Unfortunately, harsh critics within the Zionist camp also feed this all-or-nothing, black-white epistemology. The Ha’aretz editorial page is a prime perpetrator of this insanity. Israel seizes lethal missiles being smuggled on an Iranian ship – and Gideon Levy’s centerpiece oped complains: “Israel, which is armed with almost every kind of weapon in the world, does not allow others to arm themselves with even a little of what is has” – as if the IDF’s job is to ensure weapons parity in the Middle East with all the terrorist groups who also aim at Ha’aretz’s precious Tel Aviv bubble. According to Ha’aretz, the AIPAC conference was simply “an echo chamber of self-righteous axioms and simplistic thinking,” Netanyahu’s government is purely “racist,” and Israel is a sinking ship with “ever-growing numbers” of Israelis liberals leaving because of Israel’s “right-wing nationalism” – yet Israel’s population grows.
While repudiating these simplistic attacks, while wondering why organizations like the Jewish Agency and the Jewish Federations of North America continue bankrolling Ha’aretz with big vanity ads whenever their boards assemble in Israel, I also fear the counter-reaction. The unreason of many Israel critics must not shut down legitimate criticism of Israel. Anti-Zionist hatred does not make any complaint necessarily anti-Israel or anti-Semitic.
Setting Israel up as perfect is foolish, immature, and self-destructive. Israel’s legitimacy is not based on a false perfectionism. It stems from the Jewish people’s collective rights to a homeland, paralleling many national land claims. We should expand our vocabulary. Just as we lose by only using the word “settlements” to describe a range of Jewish communities, some revived historically, others built for security, others making an ideological stand, we lose by having a binary world of pro-Israel versus anti-Israel forces. The pro-Israel community should be a big broad messy coalition, with hawks and doves, left and right, religious and non-religious, Jewish and non-Jewish, tough-love types who want American pressure and independent types who don’t.
Seeing Israel through a rainbow of colors – or with shades of grey – can be mind expanding. The Hadassah hospital crisis no longer becomes a chance to bash generous American Zionist women as dupes or to nationalize this national treasure, but to push forward with creative solutions that keep the hospitals independent but more fairly funded by the government. The massive half-million man Haredi march against the draft remains a challenge to a democracy’s basic right to reinforce the draft with criminal penalties – but also becomes a moment to contemplate the powerful assertion of democratic rights when 500,000 citizens exercise their freedom to speak and assemble. The AIPAC convention no longer looks like a one-sided rightwing revival but a complex, multifaceted, liberal to conservative, Democratic-Republican Israel-fest. And the Palestinian problem no longer becomes an arena for posturing, foot-dragging or obstacle-placing but a chance to pursue peace boldly, aggressively, creatively – and self-protectively.
In the limited, distorted vision of the delegitimizer, every Israeli challenge, every Israeli dilemma, and every Israeli mistake provides further proof of Israeli, Zionist and Jewish perfidy. Seeing Israel more fully makes every mess – and problems are inevitable – an opportunity to stretch, to grow, to make history as a great Jewish democracy. I, for one, would rather live in that rich, nuanced world of the Zionist dreamer than the pinched, harsh world of the Israel-hater.
Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and the author of eight books on US History, including, most recently, Moynihan''s Moment: America''s Fight Against Zionism as Racism, published by Oxford University Press.