Book Review: Overcoming Zionism by Joel Kovel

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 Judaism, and its destiny became the restoration of tribalism in the guise of a modern, highly militarized and aggressive state,” which they implanted in the center if Islam. Herein lies the tragedy.

At the turn of the 20th century, a Zionist conference in Vienna delegated several rabbis to travel to Palestine on a fact-finding mission. The rabbis cabled back, “the bride is beautiful, but she is married to another man.” Kovel writes incisively of what ensued. The “tremendous struggle” to dislodge Palestine’s inhabitants would involve three great difficulties:
the resistance of those who stood in the way and would have to be displaced; the exigencies of geo-politics; and one’s own inner being, which would have to be retooled from the self-image of an ethical victim to that of a ruthless conqueror. All of these obstacles could be dealt with by signing onto Western imperialism and capitalism.

Jewish suffering and persecution became justification for aggression in asserting the “outlandish claim to a territory controlled 2500 years ago by one’s putative ancestors.”
The Israelis took 78% of the territory in l948 and the remaining 22% in l967. The logic of Zionism – to create an ethnically pure Jewish state – led to organized terrorism; “the essentials had been put in place by the mid-1930s” and the opportunity came in l948. The leaders of Zionism, Chaim Arlosoroff, Vladimir Jabotinsky, and especially David Ben Gurion, quietly articulated the need to drive the Arabs out. South African Prime Minister Henrik Verwoerd said in l96l something the liberals wouldn’t: that the Zionists “took Israel from the Arabs after the Arabs had lived there for a thousand years. In that, I agree with them, Israel, like South Africa, is an apartheid state.” When the smoke lifted in l948, 531 Arab villages had been destroyed, some 750,000 Palestinians driven out. In l948 Menachem Begin (later Prime Minister of Israel) organized the dynamiting of the British headquarters in Jerusalem, killing 88 persons, including 15 Jews. That year also saw the terrorizing of the village of Deir Yassin. With Begin in command, Yitzhak Shamir – who was also to become a PM and whose frankly fascist organization the Stern Gang had actually made overtures to the Nazis to create a Jewish state along totalitarian lines – took part in the operation. The terror at Deir Yassin was a decisive factor in the Arab exodus. The ethnic cleansing had been clearly planned by the Zionist leadership, as Israeli historian Ilan Pappe has documented. Thus the Zionists established Israel with a crime against humanity.
Ariel Sharon, the third Israeli terrorist PM, was actually found guilty by an Israeli court for permitting the Sabra and Shatila massacre in Lebanon in l982, where as many as 3000 Palestinian refugees were killed. In l953 Sharon led a cross-border raid on Qibya, Jordan, “in which the community was reduced to rubble, with 45 houses blown up and 69 people killed, the majority women and children.” He repeated his mass murder in Lebanon in 2006, using US-made cluster bombs. It is truly remarkable, as Kovel points out, that a terrorist could ascend to national leadership three times and “scarcely anybody has bothered to ponder its meaning.” Kovel notes the consequent bad conscience of the Israelis and remarks on how their resulting feelings “become projected and turned into the blaming of others” – whether these be expropriated Palestinians or critics of Israel, who are then labeled as antisemites and/or as that curious entity, the “self-hating Jew.”

Israel, as a racist state, discriminates in the critical areas of immigrants, settlements, and land development. Any Jew in the world who can show that his grandmother on his mother’s side was Jewish may obtain automatic citizenship, yet the Arabs expelled in l948 and l967, despite international law and United Nations resolution 194, are not permitted their right to return. 92% of the land in Israel is administered by The Jewish National Fund, which does not allow its use by non-Jews.

Racism is in the nature of a colonial settler state. What is remarkable is the degree to which Zionists deny this. Kovel gives examples of a top Israeli general calling Palestinians “drugged cockroaches in a bottle”; he cites a 2006 poll showing that more than two-thirds of Israelis would refuse to live in the same building as Arabs and that the idea of deporting Arab citizens is popular. Many Jewish soccer fans curse and attack Arab members of their national team.
Kovel writes, reminiscent of Thomas Jefferson, that no state has an absolute right to exist, hence all states are to some degree illegitimate; he adds that states may be relatively or absolutely illegitimate, and that a racist state is illegitimate. Israel, being an exclusively Jewish state, is a racist state. He concludes that “the problem then is with Zionism and the Jewish state as such, and not its illegal occupation of the West Bank.” The point is to change it, “to dissolve the Jewishness of the state. For this, one does not smash or trample Zionism; one overcomes it and frees people from its chains.”

He goes beyond the two-state solution, necessarily, because by steady aggression and aggrandizement the Zionists have whittled the Palestinian territory down to 8% of what it was in l948, leaving the natives with a negligible fragment, without much water, polluted, economically unviable, denuded of its agriculture, isolated by Jewish-only roads, and partly encircled by an obscene wall.

What to do? Speak the truth about Israel. Expose the Zionist lobby. Force it to register as an agent of a foreign government. Bring lawsuits for violations of human rights, as the Center for Constitutional Rights did against an Israeli general for mass killing in a village, or against the US Caterpillar company for making gargantuan bulldozers sold wittingly to the Israeli army for the express purpose of house demolition (one of which, ran over and killed Rachel Corrie, to whom Kovel partly dedicates his book). Place Israel where it belongs, in the company of apartheid South Africa. Cut the threads of Israel’s support system; boycott it academically, economically, and culturally.

Palestinians are the largest and oldest refugee population in the world. Central to the campaign against Zionist Israel is to support their right of return. Zionism can thus be brought down in an entirely peaceful manner. The Right of Return is more basic than liquidating the occupation, which would leave the Zionist state unchanged. The Right of Return would require the end of the occupation as a pre-condition and can directly undo the Jewishness of the state with the returnees having full and equal rights. Even now, counting the occupied territories, the population is roughly 50/50, Jew and Arab.

The new state – “Palesrael” – could reshape itself according to the South African anti-apartheid precepts of recognition and responsibility, which point to a society organized along essentially non-capitalist lines. Kovel knows that this will not come easily and that the outcome will depend partly on unforeseeable convulsions in the outside world. He concludes: “Such is the reality facing dreamers for a better world: a slim chance, and a long haul. As ever, it is the journey that counts, the seeking of good conscience, good will, and good comrades.”

This is a rich, multi-layered book, reflecting the author’s wide reading and travel. Kovel’s background as a psychiatrist is evident in his wise understanding. Judaeophobia in Nazi Germany “draws from a time when Jews were, if not blameless, at least powerless and were made to pay the debts demanded by the anticommunism of the fascist state and by Christendom’s bad conscience.” He calls it “intellectual barbarism” to take current criticism of Israel as “antisemitism,” but he well understands that given a situation of invasion and occupation of another people’s land, it is not surprising to find “the whole spectrum of human responses … ranging from emancipatory and nonviolent expression to crude atavisms including racist belief.”

Israel has become, in Kovel’s view, the most dangerous place on earth for Jews. It now has the largest gap between rich and poor in the whole industrialized world. Forty percent of the population lives below the poverty line. Half of Israeli families cannot meet their monthly bills. Kovel reports that the immediate cause of this has been a fierce neoliberal assault on the poor and the public sector, which has left Israel with “the worst primary and lower secondary education in the Western world.” Socialist ideals lie in ruins. As a result, a serious amount of emigration is taking place, with some 760,000 Israelis living abroad in 2004. Jews leaving Russian prefer, ironically, to go to Germany.

I think that if persons concerned about the problems of Jews and Zionism could have but one book on the subject on their shelf, it should be this one.

Michael Steven Smith
National Lawyers Guild, Member of the NLG fact-finding committee in Israel/Palestine, 1985

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