Sarah Irving

I do things with words, mainly English and Arabic

The Boyarins on ‘the Lebensraum rhetoric on the part of mainstream Israeli politicians’


It’s my great privilege at the moment – and somewhat of an irony and cause for shame, given that the Cameron government’s efforts to destroy every remnant of a social contract in this country took another step forward this week – that I am basically being paid to read and think and write. I’m acutely aware that it is a gigantic luxury at this moment in time, and one which won’t last for ever. Perhaps, then, it’s part of the duty that comes with that privilege to share some of the potentially useful and fascinating bits of thought and insight that this privilege gives me access to. Today’s highlight has been a typically wide-ranging (St Paul to Heidegger to Israeli state fascism) article by the Boyarin brothers. These are a formidable pair of intellectual brains – I can’t imagine how intimidating the Boyarian family dinner-table must be! – but here is an excerpt:

Within Israel, where power is concentrated almost exclusively in Jewish hands, this discursive practice has become a monstrosity whereby an egregiously disproportionate measure of the
resources of the state is devoted to the welfare of only one segment of the population. A further and somewhat more subtle and symbolic example is the following. That very practice mentioned above, the symbolic expression of contempt for places of worship of others, becomes darkly ominous when it is combined with temporal power and domination-that is, when Jews have power over places of worship belonging to others. It is this factor that has allowed the Israelis to turn the central Mosque of Beersheba into a museum of the Negev and to let the Muslim cemetery of that city to fall into ruins. Insistence on ethnic speciality, when it is extended over a particular piece of land, will inevitably produce a discourse not unlike the Inquisition in many of its effects. The archives of the Israeli General Security Services will one day prove this claim eminently, although already we “know” the truth.
We are not comparing Israeli practice to Nazism, for that would occlude more than it reveals and would obscure the real, imminent danger of its becoming the case in the future; the use of Lebensraum rhetoric on the part of mainstream Israeli politicians and the ascent to respectability and a certain degree of power of fascist parties in Israel certainly provide portents of this happening. Our argument is rather for an as yet un-realized but necessary theoretical compatability between Zionist ideology and the fascism of state ethnicity. Capturing Judaism in a state transforms entirely the meanings of its social practices. Practices that in Diaspora have one meaning-for example, caring for the feeding and housing of Jews and not “others”-have entirely different meanings under political hegemony… The inequities – and worse – in Israeli political, economic, and social practice are not aberrations but inevitable consequences of the inappropriate application of a form of discourse from one historical situation to another.

(Boyarin and Boyarin, Diaspora and Jewish Identity, Critical Inquiry Summer 1993 712-3)

I like this particular bit of the article partly because it is about something I’m wrestling with at the moment – the links between place and ethnicity and identity and political claims and exclusivity – but also because I think it’s a useful questioning of the sloppy use of the word ‘Nazi’ to describe the policies of the State of Israel in Palestine. I’m not disputing the vileness of those policies (and practices), I’m just sceptical of whether sweeping historical comparisons are useful, beyond propaganda.
The full article is 69 Diaspora (1993)(pdf) – anyone who wishes to give me grief about copyright, it was posted online by one of the authors. Go hassle him instead.

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This entry was posted on April 2, 2013 by in Middle East, Politics and tagged , , , , , , , , , .
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