Forging New Jewish and Islamic Democratic Identities

excerpted from the book

Democracy Matters

Winning the Fight Against Imperialism

by Cornell West

Penguin Books, 2004, paper


There is no doubt that the relationship of the American empire and the Israeli state is a special one. It was not always so. Nor will it likely forever be so. Most American political elites supported the Arab states in the late 1940s and early 1950s owing to oil. In 1956 President Eisenhower ordered Israel to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and Sinai Peninsula, which it had invaded and occupied, along with oil-hungry Britain and Nasser-hating France. Israel complied. The present U.S.-Israeli alliance did not emerge until the mid-i960s.. Soviet ties to Egypt and Syria pushed President Johnson closer to Israel. Meanwhile, Israel's fear of Arab threats to eliminate the Jewish state made it eager for U.S. support. The first U.S. offensive weapons systems sale to Israel-the A4 Skyhawk jet deal-was approved in 1965. When, in 1967, Egypt's Nasser closed the Strait of Tiran, the waterway that gave access to Israel's only port on the fled Sea, Israel launched its historic preemptive attack on Egypt and Syria-an attack that was approved by the CIA and the Pentagon during the visit of Meir Amit (Israel's chief of Mossad) on the eve of the action which led to the Six Days' War. The next fall the United States sold Phantom jets to Israel, making this weapon available for the first time to an ally outside of NATO, even before giving it to South Vietnamese forces who were fighting a war in which U.S. soldiers were dying daily. U.S. military sales to Israel were $140 million between 1968 and 1970. This jumped to $1.2 billion from 1971 to 1973. After the Israeli defeat of the Soviet client states of Egypt and Syria in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, U.S. military aid increased still further. In 1974 it totaled $2.57 billion. This massive shift to support for Israel took place not because U.S. officials were drawn to the just cause of the Israeli state but for cold war political and geostrategic reasons. Israel, a small and fragile state under siege, began to look like an important ally to the American empire because of U. S. dependency on foreign oil and fear of Soviet influence in Arab states.

Today Israel-a country of 6.5 million people-receives 33 percent of the entire foreign-aid budget of the American empire ($3 billion a year). Another 20 percent of the budget goes to Egypt, in part as a payment for not attacking Israel, and Jordan is the third largest recipient (comparable to India!). In short, more than half the budget concerns the security of Israel. The average African receives 10 cents a year from U.S. foreign aid. The average Israeli receives $500 a year. Only 0.2 percent of the U.S. GNP goes to foreign aid-by this measure America ranks last out of the twenty-two wealthiest countries in the world!

A conservative estimate of total U.S. foreign aid to Israel since 1949 is $97.5 billion. Israel has become a military giant (with nuclear weapons) in the Middle East, and yet that military might and the protectorship of the United States that has accompanied all the munitions have not come for free. Israel has paid a price: it has no peace or real security. Historically empires have looked to their allies to assist in their dirty work, and Israel played a key role in some of the most morally indefensible policies of the United States as it waged the cold war: providing arms, training, and intelligence sup port for the Somoza dictatorship in Nicaragua, the Afrikaner government of apartheid South Africa, UNITA thugs in Angola, and repressive juntas in Guatemala. Like Turkey, Greece, and South Korea, Israel became a frontline U.S. ally, and no other ally in the Middle East yielded such positive results.

As this strategic alliance developed and deepened, American elites and certain powerful factions of American Jewish leadership became so hardened in their partnership that they adopted a "broach no criticisms" position about Israel's actions in the conflict with the Palestinians, a stance that effectively silenced critics, including Jewish critics.

The painful irony is that the most significant and powerful group of Jews outside beleaguered Israel has not been free to engage in a robust debate about the policies of the Israeli government. There are indeed many prophetic Jews out of the 6.1 million Jews in America ('.8 percent of the U. S. population) eager to pursue honest, Socratic questioning of the hard-line position of the U.S. -Israeli alliance, but their voices are marginalized and their motives are often maligned. Mainstream Jewish leadership has suffocated genuine Jewish prophetic views and visions. In this way, the most visible Jewish identity in the Diaspora appears to many, here and abroad, to be an imperial identity whose security resides in military might and the colonial occupation of Palestinians. Yet in regard to domestic policy, American Jews have been the most loyal group-other than black Americans-to support civil rights and civil liberties. Jews have been a pillar for liberal efforts to support social justice for all in America, yet the issue of the Jewish state tends to muzzle their democratic energies.

The two major groups of the Jewish lobby are the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. The first group consists of 60,000 members and a staff of 130 and has an annual budget of almost $20 million. Widely known as AIPAC, it focuses on Congress, maintaining an office near Capitol Hill. It mobilizes hard-line Israeli supporters in nearly every congressional district and encourages its members to make significant monetary contributions to candidates of both parties (from conservative Republican Trent Lott to liberal Democrat Hillary Clinton), and it can torpedo candidates who criticize Israeli policies, like Cynthia McKinney in Georgia. The second group is composed of the heads of fifty-one Jewish organizations, including the three largest-the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (1.5 million Reform Jews and their 900 synagogues), the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (1 .5 million Conservative Jews and their 760 synagogues), and the Orthodox Union (600,000 Orthodox Jews and their 800 congregations). This group has a staff of six and an annual budget of less than a million dollars. And despite its political and ideological diversity, its leader for the past eighteen years, Malcolm Hoenlein, has been dubbed "the most influential private citizen in American foreign policy" by a former high-ranking U.S. diplomat. His fundamental aim is the security of the Jewish state. But the weight he puts on justice for Palestinians is suspect-even though many prophetic Jews in his organization want both security for Israel and justice for Palestinians. In short, those in the powerful Jewish lobby-though far from monolithic and certainly not an almighty cabal of Zionists who rule the United States or the world (in the vicious language of zealous anti-Semites)-are far to the right of most American Jews and are often contemptuous of prophetic Jewish voices. In fact, their preoccupation with Israel's security at the expense of the Palestinian cry for justice has not only produced little security for Israel but also led many misinformed Jews down an imperial path that suffocates their own prophetic heritage.

This suffocation is seen most clearly in the major sectors of the mass media. Mortimer Zuckerman, the new head of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, owns U.S. News & World Report and the New York Daily News. Martin Peretz, editor in chief and co-owner of the New Republic, is a defender of hard-line Israeli policies toward the Palestinians. The Sulzbergers, the more sophisticated and open-minded Jewish family who publish the New York Times, house the unofficial dean of American foreign-affairs journalism, the bestselling author Thomas Friedman, whose misrepresentations of the Middle East are legion (yet whose call to pull back on Israeli settlements is courageous). Needless to add, the far-reaching influence of the non-Jewish Rupert Murdoch (New York Post, Weekly Standard, Fox News Channel) is enormous. He is a stalwart of the imperial U.S.-Israeli lobby.

The dominant voices of the American Jewish lobby have, in fact, so eviscerated their own prophetic Jewish tradition that they have even embraced the support of conservative evangelical Christians. How ironic it is to see this Jewish lobby fuse with right-wing evangelical Christians whose anti-Semitism, past and present, is notorious, and whose support for Israel is based on the idea that the Jewish state paves the way for the Second Coming of Christ. The recent controversy over Mel Gibson's film The Passion of the Christ reveals the absurdity of this unholy alliance. To worship the golden calf of power and might is one thing. To unite with the heirs of the fundamental source of anti-Judaism in last two thousand years of Jewish history-whose literal readings of the New Testament reek of anti-Semitic views-is to reveal the depths of establishmentarian Jewish capitulation to the worst of the American empire.

The greatest Jewish philosopher of the twentieth century-Franz Rosenzweig-put the critique of idolatry at the center of his thought, as shown in Leora Batnitzky's brilliant Idolatry and Representation: The Philosophy of Rosenzweig Reconsidered (2000):

The Jewishness of a Jew is done an injustice if it is put on the same level as his nationality .... There is no "relationship" between one's Jewishness and one's humanity that needs to be discovered, puzzled out, experienced, or created .... As a Jew one is a human being, as a human being a Jew .... Strange as it may sound to the obtuse ears of a nationalist, being a Jew is no limiting barrier that cuts Jews off from someone who is limited by being something else.

Rosenzweig's powerful critique of Zionism-alongside his unequivocal support for Jewish security-is relevant for our time. He knew that the all-too-human idolizing of land and power trumps prophetic commitments to justice and yields little genuine security. This kind of idolatry tends to encourage imperial ambitions and colonial aims, as noted by Ahad Ha'am the towering critic, more than one hundred years ago after his visit to Palestine.

He wrote:

Some of the newcomers, to our shame, describe themselves as "future colonialists . They were slaves in their diasporas, and suddenly they find themselves with unlimited freedom .... This sudden change has planted despotic tendencies in their hearts, as always happens to former slaves. They deal with the Arabs with hostility and cruelty, trespass unjustly, beat them shamefully for no sufficient reason, and even boast about their actions. There is no one to stop the flood and put an end to this despicable and L dangerous tendency.

Similarly, prophetic Jewish giants like Albert Einstein and Leo Baeck, who in 1948 spoke "in the name of principles which have been the most significant contributions of the Jewish people to humanity," have chastised the myopic approach to the conflict. As they wrote in a letter to the New York Times in 1948:

Both Arab and Jewish extremists are today recklessly pushing Palestine into a futile war. While believing in the defense of legitimate claims, these extremists on each side play into each other's hands. In this reign of terror, the needs and desires of the common man in Palestine are ignored .... We believe that any constructive solution is possible only if it is based on the concern for the welfare and cooperation of both Jews and Arabs in Palestine.

They knew that a new democratic Jewish identity must be forged in the Diaspora that shatters all imperial mentalities and unleashes the prophetic energies of decent, justice-loving Jews and non-Jews. This democratic identity must mirror the very realities that have allowed Jewish success and upward mobility in America rights and liberties, merit and respect for all in a democratic experiment. Would American Jews elect to live in an America that bans interfaith marriage, guarantees a Christian majority to keep minorities as second-class citizens, and rules brutally over its adjacent neighbors whose property they daily annex? Does not the Jewish state ban marriage between Jews and non-Jews, discriminate against its Arab citizens, and subjugate Palestinians under occupation?

American Jews have been in the forefront of the fight for the rights and liberties of oppressed peoples, especially blacks. Where are those same prophetic voices when it comes to the rights of Palestinians within Israel and under Israeli occupation? This is a moment when progressive Jews are under severe attack and severe test. If ever there was a time in which the best voices of the Jewish world should be heard, it is now. The connection of much of American Jewish power to the most conservative elements in the American elite has allowed a downplaying of the suffering of the Palestinian people and a willingness to view the lives of the Palestinians as of less value than those of Jews or Americans. Thus we have the need to be at the same time unequivocal in our support for the security of Israel and fully committed to ending the subjugation of the Palestinians. Prophetic Jews can maintain both the demand for Israeli security and the call for an end to occupation, while also joining with non-Jews who are ready to support them. They can open up possibilities for a very important kind of progressive movement.

The tragic irony is that the deep faith of American and Israeli Jews in the American empire is itself idolatrous and dangerous. It is idolatrous because it makes the U.S. helicopter gunships that patrol the Palestinian West Bank and the U.S. -supported wall that separates Palestinians from Israel the dominant imperial symbols of an Israel founded in the name of the Israelite prophets. It is dangerous because it views America as the Jewish promised land, bereft of its own deep anti-Semitic impulses. Yet the truth is that just as the American empire chose to favor Israel for political and geostrategic reasons, it can abandon Israel for the same reasons. And if an oil-rich Arab country could do imperial America's dirty work better than Israel at a lower cost and with less controversy, Israel might well be sold down the river. Is there not a long and ugly history of Jews in the Diaspora - Spain, Egypt, Germany-succumbing to false security and assimilationist illusions as they deferred to respective imperial authorities? Is America so different? Do the depths of anti-Semitism in Western civilization and Christian-dominated societies not reach to the heart of America? What will happen when American imperial elites must choose between oil and Israel? Cannot these elites manipulate anti-Semitic sentiments among the American citizenry the same way they fan and fuel other xenophobic fears for purposes of expediency? The challenge of democrats is to keep track of all forms of bigotry-including anti-Semitism-and to unsettle the sleepwalking among the comfortable. This means working with and alongside our Jewish fellow W citizens in forging a new Jewish democratic identity here and abroad.

The recent waves of Islamic revitalization movements-be they fundamentalist or not-are a quest for a new identity of subjugated Muslims in response to failed secular nationalist experiments. These nationalist experiments-Nasser in Egypt, the shah in Iran, Saddam in Iraq-were unable to create and sustain a workable identity for Islamic subjects in the aftermath of imperial subjugation. And their respective links with the Soviet and American empires during the cold war widened the gap between the thuggish rulers and their Muslim subjects. With the collapse of repressive secular nationalism at the top, the Islamic revival mobilized the masses and gained state power. This revival was guided by a particular kind of Islam-a clerical Islam rooted in the religious identity of people and responsive to the pervasive anxieties unleashed by the failure of secular nationalist ideology in the wake of a colonial past.

In this sense, recent Islamic revitalization movements are not mindless revolts against modernity or blind expressions of hatred toward America. Their eager appropriations of modern technology (possibly including nuclear weapons) or selective infatuations with American culture (especially music) undercut such fashionable clichés. Rather, turbulent rumblings in the contemporary Islamic world-with a population of one billion people-are fueled by fears of cultural deracination and fanned by hopes for material security. The quest for an Islamic identity shuns the uprootedness and restlessness of the modern West and the licentiousness and avariciousness of the American empire. It is similar to any other modern fundamentalist response to certain aspects of modernity, be it Christian, Judaic, or tribalistic. Yet religious traditions are here to stay, and the question is how to support prophetic voices and forge democratic identities within them in our day.

Identity in the highly developed world is often a subject of leisurely conversation and academic banter. In the poor developing world, identity is a matter of life and death. Identity has to do with who one is and how one moves from womb to tomb-the elemental desires for protection, recognition, and association in a cold and cruel world. Like the traditions of belief of most peoples of color in the Americas, religious traditions of oppressed peoples in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia posit the modern West itself as an idol to be suspicious of and distant from. Their major exposure to and encounter with the modern West was its imperial face-a boot on one's neck. And although they might long for the conveniences and comforts of modern capitalist technologies, they are mindful of Western capitalism's sterling rhetoric and oppressive practices and they abhor the pervasive materialistic individualism and destructive hedonism. This is not a childish rejection of modernity but rather a wise attempt to enter the modern world on one's own terms.

Clerical Islam and legalistic Islam have a history and their history resurfaces with power at specific moments. The present form of clerical Islam is an authoritarian effort to secure an Islamic identity and to run modern nation-states given the collapse of secular nationalism and the defeat of earlier European imperialisms in the Islamic world. Like rabbinical Judaism or Catholic Christianity, clerical Islam is in no way the essence of Islam-or its only form. Similarly, Islam, like all religions, has always incorporated non-Islamic and nonreligious sources that often appear to the believer to be purely Islamic. No modern religion can survive without learning from modern science, modern politics, and modern culture. Every modern religion accepts Newton's law of gravity, Weber's role of bureaucracies, and contemporary musical instruments in its rituals. All religions are polyvalent - subject to multiple interpretations under changing circumstances. Islam must be understood, by both non- Muslims and Muslims, as a fluid repertoire of ways of being a Muslim, not a dogmatic stipulation of rules that govern one's life. Or, to put it another way, every dogmatic set of rules now espoused by the dominant clerics was once a challenge to an older dogmatic set of rules.

The new dogma has simply become so routinized and ossified that it conceals its former contingency and insurgency. In this way, even to be a dogmatic traditionalist is to be part of a dynamic history and ever-changing tradition. This understanding of the fluidity of Islam is required in order for a democratic Islam to challenge the authority of Muslim clerics and Islamic jurists who attempt to naturalize and fossilize their prevailing edicts and decrees. The clerics and jurists themselves constitute forms of authority that result from earlier struggles over the role of clerics and who can be a jurist. The fundamental aim of authoritarian clerical Islam today is to procure an identity and secure a stable society over against the bombardments of the modern West, and the internal failures of past nationalist and imperial regimes.

... like Israel, Turkey is a satellite of the American empire generally willing to do imperial America's dirty work in the Middle East, even as America looks the other way regarding Turkey's vicious treatment of Islamic Kurds.

Many Muslims see Turkey's model as a form of U.S. -supported, anti-Islamic nationalism to be shunned and rejected. Turkey's militaristic nationalism supported by the American empire represses Kurdish nationalism with a vengeance. This replay of European nationalist ideologies does not bode well for the Islamic world. The same dynamic holds in Pakistan, Indonesia, Morocco, and Egypt- all allies of imperial America. It is no accident that when these countries, like Israel, violate international law, imperial America looks the other way. The examples of Turkey's seizure of two -fifths of Cyprus, Indonesia's of East Timor, Morocco's of Western Sahara, and Israel's of Palestinian lands make the point. Such colonial conquests do not generate a mumbling word from imperial America in the United Nations or anywhere else. Only when the interests of the American empire are at stake-as in Saddam Hussein's barbaric actions in Kuwait or Kim Jong Il's vicious threats in Korea-does U.S. moral rhetoric about freedom surface. The repressive clerics in the autocratic Islamic states know this-and they are right. Yet even as this clerical Islam is attractive to many Islamic peoples in comparison to failed secular nationalism, this same clerical Islam is ruthlessly and horribly autocratic and is suffocating the democratic energies in the region.

Therefore, the present task is to undermine the authority of the Muslim clerics on Islamic and democratic grounds. Western-style democracy has no future in the Islamic world. The damage has been done, the wounds are deep, and the die has been cast by the hypocritical European and nihilistic American imperial elites. There is simply no way to turn back the hands of time. The West had its chance and blew it.

There are three basic efforts to democratize the Islamic world by Muslims themselves. The first endeavor is to show that Islamic legalistic conceptions of justice ('adl, or procedural justice, and ma'ruf, or substantive justice) are compatible with democratic conceptions of justice. This is a fascinating and pioneering attempt to show that the Qur'an can be interpreted to support democracy. The complex relation of justice to revelation looms large. Does justice flow from divine revelation, or does justice exist apart from divine revelation? Furthermore, is justice an abstract ideal that puts forth rules that regulate a society (as the great political philosopher John Rawls would argue), or is justice one virtue among others to be balanced with them in the lived experience of Islamic peoples? What if these other virtues-like piety and temperance-downplay, contradict, or curtail democratic conceptions of justice? The pioneering work of Khaled Abou El- Fadl here in America best exemplifies this important tendency in contemporary Islam, in works such as The Place of Tolerance in Islam. His article in the Boston Review is a good place to begin:

A case for democracy presented from within Islam must accept the idea of God's sovereignty: it cannot substitute popular sovereignty for divine sovereignty, but must instead show how popular sovereignty-with its idea that citizens have rights and a correlative responsibility to pursue justice with mercy-expresses God's authority, properly understood. Similarly, it cannot reject the idea that God's law is given prior to human action, but must show how democratic lawmaking respects that priority.


The second effort does away with all appeals to Islamic law-it is an Islam without Shari'a ... Islamic women often promote this endeavor in order to undercut the deeply patriarchal character and content of Islamic law. On this view, Islam is more an open-ended way of life and less a set of rules to obey. It harkens back to the early days before the rise of clerical Islam. It also allows a more free-flowing connection with democratic sensibilities, much like the practice of tolerance in the first Islamic state in 6, established by the Prophet Muhammad himself in his compact of Medina, which insisted on mutual respect and civility between Jews and Muslims. He enacted a constitutional rule that was based on a principled agreement between the Muhajirun (Muslim immigrants from Mecca), the Ansar (indigenous Muslims of Medina), and the Yahud (Jews). This federation authorized that the different communities were equal in rights and duties. In this way, the first Islamic state stands in stark contrast to the anti- Semitic practices of most of the autocratic Islamic states of our day.

The last major effort is found in the rich and revolutionary writings of Mahmoud Mohamed Taha (himself murdered by the Nimeiri regime in Sudan for his visionary and courageous works). For example, in his manifesto, The Second Message of Islam, Taha conceives of Islam as a holistic way of life that promotes freedom - the overcoming of fear - in order to pursue a loving and wise life. As in the second effort, he and his disciple Abdullahi Ahmed AnNa'im discard the Shari'a and replace it with the Meccan revelation. Taha's conception of the good society rests upon economic equality (egalitarian sharing of wealth), political equality (political sharing in decisions), and social equality (no discrimination based on color, faith, race, or sex in order to provide equal opportunity for cultural refinement). Similar to the Prophet Muhammad, Taha revels in difference-or promotes diversity-in order to constitute a more fair and equal society. Anouar Majid's superb text Unveiling Traditions: Postcolonial Islam in a Polycentric World is a must-read. In that book he writes:

My examination of postcolonial theory and the Arab identity deployed by nationalists to counter imperialism might... help explain why a progressively defined Islam-one that is democratically available to all-may be a desirable option for Muslim peoples . ... Islamic cultures-like many of the world's cultural traditions-could help "provincialize" the West and offer other ways to be in the world

More broadly, this book tries to challenge secular academics to include the world's nonsecular expressions as equally worthy of consideration and valid alternatives, and Muslim scholars to rethink their attachments to texts and canons that have obscured the egalitarian and viable legacies of Islam.

At the moment, those views are but voices in the wilderness

... the colossal presence of the American empire in the Jewish and Islamic world-especially its dependence on oil-muddies the water. It silently condones autocratic Islamic states and openly green-lights Israeli hard-line colonial policies. And even as it embarks on an imperial-monitored democratization in Iraq, its heavy hand is felt among those who are glad that the dictatorial Hussein is gone, but suspicious of U.S. strategies and goals. The ugly effects of this heavy- handedness were expressed eloquently by the moderate Iraqi cleric Ghazi Ajil al -Yawar, who is quoted in an article in the New York Times Magazine: "The U.S. is using excessive power. They round up people in a very humiliating way, by putting bags over their faces in front of their families. In our society, this is like rape. The Americans are using collective punishment by jailing relatives. What is the difference from Saddam?"

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