Archive for January 2007

Book Review: Overcoming Zionism by Joel Kovel

Saturday, January 13th, 2007

This review was written for Socialism and Democracy
( and will appear in the journal’s November 2007 issue (no. 45; vol. 21, no.3).

Joel Kovel, Overcoming Zionism: Creating a Single Democratic State in Israel/Palestine (London and Ann Arbor Pluto Press, 2007).

Joel Kovel has given us an impressive and important book. Its first printing sold out without a single review, major or otherwise. Nevertheless word of this extraordinary work is spreading. The taboo in the United States (not Israel) against seriously discussing and criticizing Zionist Israel has been broken with the publication of Jimmy Carter’s bold book labeling the situation in the Occupied Territories “apartheid” and with the exposure by prestigious professors Mearsheimer and Walt – in the London Review of Books after rejection by the Atlantic Monthly – of the power of the Israeli lobby. Kovel, by focusing squarely on how to “overcome” Zionism, takes the discussion exactly where it needs to go from there. He writes beautifully, even poetically, not just on Zionism’s sordid history, but on its ideology, its ethics, and even on the terrible ecological devastation in Israel itself, where every river is polluted, some to lethal levels. And he writes with courage and hope.

Kovel believes that the creation of Israel in l948, as a colony of settlers who established an exclusively Jewish and discriminatory state, has created a multi-faceted disaster – “a dreadful mistake” – that should be undone, with Israel de-Zionized and integrated into the Middle East. His solution is stated in the book’s subtitle and restated in the title of the last chapter: “Palesrael: A Secular and Universal Democracy for Israel/Palestine.” This is an elegant solution, and he lays out an action program to accomplish it.

How did Kovel, a Jew from Brooklyn, the oldest son of Ukrainian immigrants who did well – moving with Joel to “the purgatory of Baldwin, Long Island” – come to this radical critique and equally radical solution? Joel graduated from Yale and became a successful psychiatrist. He taught at medical school before switching careers and taking a social science professorship at Bard, where for a time he held the Alger Hiss chair. He is still there, the only Marxist on the faculty. This book is not going to further his career.

“What kind of Jew am I?” he asks, and answers “a very bad one.” More accurately, he defines himself as what Isaac Deutscher called “a non-Jewish Jew.” Not that he is not spiritual; he writes of reaching for the infinite. But he is not religious. Being part of a sect is too narrowing and confining. He identifies with the Jewish heretics who transcended Jewry, but who are nonetheless part of the Jewish tradition – he lists Spinoza, Marx, Freud, Proust, Einstein, Kafka, Wittgenstein, and Luxemburg – and for whom “the true glory” of being Jewish is to live “on the margin and across boundaries.”

Kovel writes that the ethical reference point for Jews is the tribal unit. Since ancient times they set themselves off as “a people apart,” chosen by Jehovah, with whom they have a covenant. In Kovel’s view, “Zionism’s dynamic was drawn from the most tribal and particularistic stratum of (more…)

The Magical Animal

Monday, January 8th, 2007


We bought Charlie almost fifteen years ago. We hadn’t intended to buy a bird. It was supposed to be a zoo visit. Debby found out about this cool place in Tribeca, The Urban Bird. All the baby birds for sale were just out there, standing on perches, sleeping in little cozy nests. No cages. Just young parrots – all kinds, sizes, and colors. Green ones from South and Central America; white ones from Australia; blue and scarlet ones from Indonesia; and Charlie, a grey one with a red tail from Central Africa. Charlie was featherless at the time and living above the store in the nursery. But I am getting ahead of my story.

All the birds in the store were babies, with one exception. One old bird was living in a cage, hanging high from the ceiling, in the back of the store, commanding a view of all who entered. I opened the door and Eli, our son, age ten, and I walked in. Debby lingered by the cash register reading a New Yorker article about this “only in New York” place.

The old bird spotted us. He was old and bitter. The two guys that had owned him had abandoned him when they split up. He saw us and yelled out “I’ve got a yeast infection.”  ”What?”, said Eli, looking up first at the bird and then at me. Before I could answer the bird added a “fuck you.” Instantly Eli responded, “Dad, can we get a bird like that one?” And so we did.

Parrots bond with one mate for life. Since we were part of the flock it would be one of us and with Eli at camp, it would be me or Debby. The issue was settled when Charlie, sitting on my index finger, bent down and bit me. “You son- of- a- bitch,” I exclaimed and reflexively dropped the poor bird. He never forgot it. And he bonded with Debby. He even tries to feed her, so that she will lay a good egg.  Even though she rebuffs his attempts, he still loves her.  And when he is mad he still says ” you son-of-a-bitch” in my voice.

Along with Charlie we had an outsized grey cat named Moe. Charlie was smarter than Moe and used to mess with him. “Come here Moe,’ he would command, in my tone of voice. Moe would wander over. And Charlie would wait until he got over to his cage and say “You grey son-of-a-bitch.”

When Eli would practice guitar in the living room where Charlie lives in his cage he frequently would meet with Charlie’s free associations. Once a day Charlie unburdens himself with every phrase he knows, going on and on until it could make you crazy or you leave the room. That’s how he learned how to say “I’m gonna kick your ass.” Eli would yell that at him, hoping he would shut up, but to no avail.

On the morning of 9/ll I was supposed to meet my friend John Pellaton for breakfast at Windows on the World, atop of Tower Two at the World Trade Center. We were to meet at 8:00 o’clock. The first plane hit the building at 8:40. But John had a meeting and called just before to cancel. So we were still at home at the time the crash shook our apartment. When it shook it again for the second time we thought we were being bombed. With the big cat and Charlie we weren’t very portable, so we stayed put the first night. Everyone in our building left, except for us, Moe, Charlie, and a blind bass player on the 6th floor. The FBI rousted us the next morning. (more…)