SOLAR PLEXUS - A site devoted to to understanding the world we live in and to making a difference.
A site devoted to to understanding the world we live in and to making a difference.
Leftwingers characteristically cast a more critical eye on their own societies than on others. At its best it reflects an idealism and energetic optimism regarding the possibility of social improvement and is a welcome antidote to uncritical nationalism and xenophobic impulses. The downside is the loss of proportion, a kind of doctrinaire idealism (even Utopianism) insulated from reality and a consequent failure to recognise the achievements of one’s own society. Carried further it becomes more destructive than beneficial and at its extreme it turns into a messianic absolutism and betrayal.
With this loaded introduction, I have the pleasure to introduce a leftwing academic of the more admirable kind, “Prof Emeritus Gideon Shimoni”. He was born and educated in South Africa but emigrated to Israel in the 1960s where he was a former head of the Hebrew University’s Institute of Contemporary Jewry, and held the Shlomo Argov Chair in Israel-Diaspora Relations. Among his books are The Zionist Ideology, (1995) and Community and Conscience: The Jews in Apartheid South Africa, (2003) both published by Brandeis University & University Press of New England. Prof Shimoni’s personal integrity and courage is illustrated by the following:
Alon Liel, former Israeli Ambassador to SA, had this to say at the Jerusalem Conference around the time of Obama’s only visit to Israel: “If you, President Obama, intend to come here for a courtesy visit — don’t come. Don’t come! We don’t need you here for a courtesy visit,” Liel said. “You cannot come to an area that exhibits signs of apartheid and ignore them. That would simply be an unethical visit. You yourself know full well that Israel is standing at the apartheid cliff. If you don’t deal with this topic during your visit, the responsibility will at the end of the process also lie with you.” Only Professor Shimoni challenged the application of the term Apartheid with regard to Israeli policies which he said was “rather unfair and lacks intellectual honesty.” He argued that “from land theft to various draconic [sic] restrictions, as much they are worthy of condemnation — they are not apartheid,” which he called a “rhetorical weapon…to demonize and excoriate the State of Israel.” (This exchange can be found here.)
This was a brave action which directly challenged the simplistic sloganeering of the group organising the conference but is in keeping with all that I know of his meticulous scholarship and careful, honest evaluations of the evidence. That said it does not automatically follow that Shimoni is right, and this post will largely be devoted to an article he sent to me addressing the fundamental justification for the establishment of Israel.
But before we go there a brief diversion. I sent the following letter recently to the Cape Times:
“In the interesting coverage of the Nobel Prize winners of 2013 (by the Cape Times), some pertinent information has been omitted or minimised which may be of interest to South African readers. Michael Levitt one of the 3 co-winners of the Chemistry prize for modelling complex chemical reactions, was born, raised and educated in Pretoria until he went to Kings College, London to obtain his BSc.
Levitt, along with his Israeli born co-winner, Arieh Warshel, were together at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel for a number of years where they started on the work which ultimately yielded the Nobel Prize. The third winner, Martin Karplus, was an Austrian Jew by birth and fled prior to the Nazi invasion of his country.
Even more dramatic is the history of Francois Englert, co-winner of the Physics prize with Peter Higgs for their theoretical work on the acquisition of mass by subatomic particles. He was a Holocaust survivor hiding during the war in orphanages and children’s homes. Amongst his different appointments he is Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Tel Aviv University.
The Nobel Prize for Medicine or Physiology went to two Jewish Americans, Randy Shekman and James Rothman, and a German, Thomas Sudhof. Two Israelis, Howard Cedar and Aharon Razin, were in the running
A fact, which can only be missed through selective blindness, is that of the 8 Nobel Prizes in the sciences 6 were of Jewish origin this year and most of them worked in the USA, while 3 had Israeli affiliations. Jews who make up about 0.2 % of the world’s population have been awarded about 20 % of the Nobel Prizes – at least a 100 fold over-representation.
Israel, a country of about 7 million continually embroiled in existential conflict, has produced over 10 Nobel Prizes in the hard sciences and economics and a number of near misses. It has a remarkable list of outstanding achievements in all branches of technology, agriculture and economics which can be accessed here (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Israeli_inventions_and_discoveries) and is ranked at the top of international indices on matters relating to innovation and expertise. Yet it continually loses some of its top achievers to greener pastures in the USA and elsewhere.
Instead of the tired slogans and dishonest rhetoric which characterises the media debate around Israel, intelligent readers should be better informed about what makes Jews as a people and Israel, specifically, tick so effectively. Perhaps as we enter the existential challenges of the 21st century in which whole countries are being consumed by conflict caused by scarce resources and fanatical movements, it may be worth asking how Israel has managed so effectively to reconcile its own shortage of resources and massive diversity of languages, worldviews, ethnicities and historical experiences to create a functional democracy in a region notable for its absence.”
The Cape Times did not publish it and Bev Goldman kindly consented to forward it to the many national editors on her distribution list. In the end it was published only by the Saturday Star (in truncated form with the last 2 paragraphs omitted) and in full by the M & G. I have no idea how many turned it down.
Returning to the core of this post, I am pleased to respond to Prof Shimoni’s academic paper (The Discourse on “Right to the Land of Israel” in Zionism and Israel) below because it cuts to the heart of the Western Left’s rejection of Israel. Beneath all the slogans and rhetoric about the “settlements” and “occupation” and other alleged Israeli “sins”, is the belief that the whole Zionist enterprise is fundamentally flawed: that it represents a colonial theft of land rightfully belonging to the Palestinians and while realism may dictate that the fact of Israel’s presence cannot be reversed (though many would like and work towards that outcome), they will always regard it with distrust and repugnance. Some of this arises from outright anti-Semitism. Much of it reflects abysmal ignorance and selective evidence and the significant remainder derives from a doctrinaire “universalism” applied especially to the West and to Israel in particular. In this formulation, anything smacking of “ethnic particularity” is suspect – again applied with remarkable alacrity to Israel.
Prof Shimoni in his article offers his personal evaluation of the arguments for the legitimacy of Israel’s existence. While broadly agreeing with his conclusions I, in turn, will challenge elements of his analysis and will assert that it reveals the downside of Western leftwing idealism. In fact, I go further to claim it is an academic analysis divorced from the contextual realities of the region and it thus constitutes an inadequate basis for the defence of Israel against her enemies. (To conserve space I have not published the full article here but it is available on a separate page on this site – see above. I strongly urge readers to read it first and to keep it handy when going through this response)
My response to Prof Shimoni’s paper
I am going to respond initially point by point and only thereafter attempt to briefly summarise my broad position. I should start that in its very tone Shimoni’s paper reflects the constant angst of the leftwing intellectual when faced with the messy human shortcomings of his own side and his relative comfort when confronted with the worse sins of the other: in short, the reversal of the “mote and beam” parable, so characteristic of idealists in the West. I know because I’ve been there and still have to wrestle with it at times.
But to more substantive challenges:
Conclusions: I can only repeat that within the ideological world occupied by Prof Shimoni, his is a brave and even anguished voice for some justice. But his world is a flimsy construct which cannot withstand serious scrutiny and will crumble under the impacts of the only too real challenges facing Israel. His anguish would be lessened and his vision restored by discarding the ideological blinkers which blind him to the justice which Israel seeks and deserves. There is nothing in his paper which persuades me that his final statement “The bitter truth is: Today it is all about pushing the other off the plank” applies to the Israelis and not to the Palestinians. My advice to the Israelis is that you better hang onto the small portion of the plank left to you because most of the world won’t give two hoots when you are pushed into the Mediterranean which is the undoubted aim of your enemies. In my view Prof Shimoni has not adequately internalised that reality and its implications.
I would be especially interested in responses – and in particular from Prof Shimoni himself.