The Guardian published a review last week by Nick Cohen of a new book called The Left’s Problem with Jews. Cohen’s review was predictable enough, and the book itself, written by Dave Rich of The Community Security Trust, is not the focus of this op-ed.
Instead, I want to draw attention to a short excerpt from Cohen’s review, which is instructive in what it illuminates about the current debate on anti-Semitism and the Left, as well as broader questions about Zionism, anti-Zionism, and the Palestinians’ ongoing struggle for self-determination.
In a short article, Cohen devotes a chunk to a straw man definition of anti-Zionism. He writes:
From the 1970s on, opponents of Israel had to decide whether anti-Zionism meant a fulfilment of Palestinian national rights via a two-state solution, which recognised that Palestine was the focus of competing Jewish and Arab nationalisms, or whether it required them to support a war to the death, which would lead to an ethnically and (with the rise of Sunni fundamentalism) confessionally pure state.
Here, Cohen sets up his all-important false binary of either a two-state solution that preserves Israel as a “Jewish state”, or, one, “pure Sunni” state.
But what about a single, democratic and decolonised state? It would seem Nick Cohen doesn’t think Palestinians are “civilised” enough for that.
No right of return
Naturally, as he went on to write, Cohen is adamantly opposed to Palestinian refugees returning home. Why? On the basis that they “would destroy it [Israel] as a Jewish state”. Which begs the question: who here is actually defending the idea of an “ethnically…pure state?”
This kind of projection by Israel’s apologists is particularly noticeable when talk turns to the idea of a democratic one-state solution.
“The Palestinians would kick the Jews out!” say the supporters of a state that was established through ethnic cleansing, and which continues to carry it out to this day.
“Jews would be second-class citizens!” say apologists for a state where Palestinian citizens face systematic inequality, and whose armed forces keep millions of stateless Palestinians under an even more explicitly discriminatory military regime.
Cohen’s argument reminded me of remarks by Yiftah Curiel, Israeli embassy spokesperson, at an Oxford University debate earlier this year. “A one-state goal,” he said, “has already been tried, and it’s called Syria.”
Where does one even begin to describe the differences that make any such comparison, at best, facile and simplistic? At worse, it is simply racist; the unspoken assumption – or not so unspoken, in Cohen’s case – is that Arabs don’t do democracy.
Cohen’s defence of actual ethnic cleansing by invoking a hypothetical, future ethnic cleansing is not his only example of projection. Perhaps his favourite axe to grind is what he sees as common cause made between the Left, or “progressives”, and “supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood.”
Yet it is Cohen, as a self-professed liberal, who finds himself in alarming company when it comes to defending Israel’s ethnocracy.
Last week, for example, Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman, settlement-resident and head of hard-nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party, spoke to students at Ariel University (located deep in the West Bank) and reiterated his well-known support for a population and land swap of settlers and Palestinian citizens of Israel.
Why? Well, as Lieberman put it, it is unacceptable for Jewish settlers to be removed from the West Bank in a peace deal, only for Israel to be left with all those Palestinian citizens messing up the demographics of a “Jewish state”.
“Abbas doesn’t want one Jew in his territory while we are expected to become a bi-national state,” he said.
This opposition to “bi-nationalism”, or indeed to any solution where Israel’s artificially, and violently, created “Jewish majority” is not ring-fenced (pun intended) and guaranteed in perpetuity, is a view shared by everyone from Lieberman to the likes of Israeli opposition politician Tzipi Livni.
For Livni, “peace and two states for two peoples” is “an imperative”, so as “to avoid the statistical demographic issue of Palestinians outnumbering Israelis,” and in order to “preserve the Jewishness of Israel’s Jewish and democratic state model.”
Or, as Livni once told Tel Aviv school students, “once a Palestinian state is established”, she can turn around and tell Palestinian citizens of Israel: “the national solution for you is elsewhere.”
Nick Cohen would be nodding along in approval. For what unites the diehard defenders of Zionist settler colonialism, whether “liberals” or “hawks”, and regardless of their opinions about anything else, is simple: anti-Palestinian racism.
Middle East Eye