Progressive pieties

In a time when Islamist extremism and its often gruesome consequences are a deplorably regular part of the news, it seems only reasonable to warn that “‘silent acquiescence’ to those ‘whose politics are based substantially on fantasy and theological wishes’ is dangerous.”
After all, fantasies – such as bizarre conspiracy theories that often reflect anti-Semitic sentiments – and “theological wishes” that claim all of the Middle East as “sacred” Muslim land are at the core of the ideology of groups like Al-Qaida or Hamas.
However, the warning quoted above was not uttered with Islamist radicals in mind. Once you know that this is New York Times columnist Roger Cohen approvingly quoting playwright Tony Kushner it’s not hard to guess who is accused of pursuing a dangerous political agenda “based substantially on fantasy and theological wishes.”
Roger Cohen may not like it, but it looks as if he was trying to prove that Melanie Phillips was entirely right to argue in her new book that we live in a world that is being “turned upside down.”
I’d say Cohen did a good job on this one.
To be sure, in Israel, as in many European countries or the US, one can find groups on the political fringes who advocate views that could well be described as reflecting “fantasy and theological wishes.” But anyone who believes that “fantasy and theological wishes” form the basis of Israeli government politics or Israeli public opinion is either woefully uninformed or willfully misleading.
Roger Cohen seems to think that chastising Israel for basing its politics “on fantasy and theological wishes” would make a useful contribution to the American political debate. It is perhaps rather revealing that Cohen feels the need to add: “Criticism of Israel is not betrayal of Israel.”
But, I suggest, criticism that is divorced from reality is not only a betrayal of Israel, but may also a betrayal of intellectual integrity.
The reality is quite plainly that Israel’s politics are first and foremost based on legitimate security concerns that have sadly been confirmed by countless acts of terrorism and war. And as far as “theological wishes” are concerned, I have no doubt that both Roger Cohen and Tony Kushner would be the first to sympathize with such wishes if Muslims had the same experience with Jewish custody of holy places as Jews have with Muslim custody of such sites.
Moreover, it’s not only about “theological wishes,” but also about a cultural heritage that is documented in countless archaeological artifacts and locations that Jews are expected to hand over to people who indulge in the most preposterous denials of the historic Jewish attachment to the Land of Israel in order to promote an agenda that is indeed based on little more than “fantasy and theological wishes.”
So why accuse Israel of something that is in fact a glaringly obvious problem of those who want to do away with the Jewish state?
There are plenty of examples to choose from. The Hamas Charter provides a rather grim example of the vicious mix of “fantasy and theological wishes” that has considerable appeal among Palestinians. And is there a better example of fantasy-based politics than the demands for a “right of return” championed by virtually all Palestinian groups? Indeed, this imaginary “right of return” that can supposedly be claimed by millions of descendants of Palestinians who fled a war of aggression started in their name is also often described in theological terms. A recent Fatah-statement issued on the occasion of “Nakba” day vowed that the “right of return will remain sacred for every Palestinian who was forced by the Zionist war machine to leave his or her home and land in Palestine.”
Two years ago, the Palestinian writer and literary critic Hassan Khader argued in a trenchant analysis of the “Nakba Narrative” that it “has assumed the authority and power of Truth, to the point that any consideration of the catastrophe in a different light or language functions as a violation of sacred principles.” Due to this sacrosanct status of the “Nakba Narrative,” Palestinians are in Khader’s view all too often unwilling to consider political choices in terms of costs and benefits, preferring instead to pursue an elusive concept of dignity “even if it causes the Palestinians to suffer more defeats, and adds calamity to catastrophe.” 
Of course, the “Nakba Narrative” is also sacrosanct for many pro-Palestinian advocates in the West, who – like Tony Kushner – consider the creation of Israel as a grievous mistake that entitles the Palestinians to demand that the Jewish state atones for its existence. Needless to say, many of the true believers in the “Nakba Narrative” feel that the only suitable atonement would be the Jewish state’s dissolution.
The fact that there can be no serious political debate on this basis, let alone realistic political solutions, seems to count for little as long as one of the most important articles of faith in the canon of progressive pieties holds that “criticism” of Israel must always be above criticism.
It seems clear that this view is widespread among the so-called progressive elites, but it also seems clear that these elites like to claim a similarly sacrosanct status for pretty much all their views. That’s arguably one reason why the progressive elites are attracting more and more criticism, both in the US and in Europe.