It’s no secret that Israel has a PR problem. Even the most fervent Zionists at this point admit as much, and the increasingly frenzied efforts of the Israeli state only confirm the feeling. The Kushner Affair seems to be only the latest in a string of propaganda catastrophes for Zion. Yet I also think it represents a turning point of sorts. While previous incidents like the Mavi Marmara or the Operation Cast Lead helped solidify the growing opposition to Zionist barbarism, Kushner’s blackballing led nearly the whole of the liberal class in the United States to unequivocally condemn the censoring of a critic of Israel. In what follows, I will attempt to lay out what I think the Kushner Affair represents for Israel and liberal opinion, by contextualizing it in a broader history of liberalism.
In Domenico Losurdo’s book Liberalism: A Counter-History, he argues that liberalism has always been far more compatible with domination than its own self-image would lead one to believe. Through an examination of the writings of Locke, Tocqueville, Mill, and other leading lights of the tradition, Losurdo shows that liberalism historically has functioned by establishing a ‘community of the free,’ to whom the vaunted promises of rights and privileges correspond, while those outside that restricted community were entitled to no such enjoyments. Locke, for example, did not believe that Africans or Native Americans deserved any of the rights he so carefully formulated for fellow Europeans. Tocqueville thought it perfectly appropriate to crush the workers’ rising in Paris in 1848 through the suspension of constitutional order, that the privileges of the liberal upper class might be preserved. In other words, for Losurdo, the traditional Marxist critique of liberalism – that it promotes formal equality in the face of substantive inequality – gives liberalism too much credit. Many of its leading thinkers were unwilling even to extend formal freedoms to those beyond the boundaries of the community of the free.
While this account has some problems (it seems difficult to differentiate liberalism and conservatism on this reading. Symptomatically, Losurdo includes Burke firmly in the liberal tradition), it is also tremendously suggestive. Losurdo demonstrates how liberalism’s naturalization of its social vision – the privileges of a restricted community – inevitably produces the pathologization so characteristic of liberal polemic. The right to dispossess the natives is obvious, and you’d have to be a madman or mohammedan not to recognize as much.
Though much of the book concentrates on the changing definitions of the community of the free, Losurdo is equally interested in the conflicts internal to liberalism and their consequences for the tradition’s future. The American Revolution is his first case study. Here, he shows how restrictions on those accustomed to considering themselves part of the liberal community – the colonists – led to fissures with England, which since the Glorious Revolution had been the standard bearer of liberalism. The course of the conflict itself involved debate over how this community should be defined. Samuel Johnson’s pithy reprimand to the colonists (“How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?”) is representative of the ways that British liberals sought to both brand the rebels as hypocrites and reinforce their own liberal self-presentation. At the same time, the colonists responded by pointing to the English involvement in the Atlantic slave trade, a practice the rebels held to be far more odious than merely owning a slave. In this way, both sides of the conflict attempted to brand their opponents as the illiberal force threatening to crush precious liberty.
This same pattern reoccurs in the American Civil War. Here, the slaveowners, who conceived of themselves as the most democratic and liberal ruling class in history, argued that the various Northern initiatives to limit the expansion of slavery constituted unacceptable aggressions against liberty. The rhetoric of the planter class, which represented abolitionists as deranged fanatics, fits the pattern as well. However, the Southern counter-offensive, whether in the form of the Gag Rule or Dred Scott or the Fugitive Slave Act, worked to antagonize the North all the more. Each of these Southern responses could be, and were, read as infringements on the Northern community of the free. As John Ashworth has written:
In the mid-1830s southerners were able to count upon some northerners to aid them in their war against the abolitionists. Again, however, the consequence was to strengthen the forces of antislavery. The pressure on northern legislatures to act against abolitionists alarmed many northerners who were themselves quite unconcerned about the plight of the slave but very concerned to maintain freedom of speech. The anti-abolitionist riots of these years, conducted by men who were taking their cue from the leaders of southern opinion, also created deep disquiet and tended to confirm the abolitionist claim that slavery disorganized the entire nation. Charles Sumner in 1836 wrote that ‘we are becoming abolitionists in the North fast: riots, the attempts to abridge freedom of discussion, and the conduct of the South generally, have caused many to think favorably of immediate emancipation who have never before been inclined to it.’ Ashworth, Slavery, Capitalism, and Politics in the Antebellum Republic, Vol I 143.
While Sumner exaggerated in describing the results of Southern maneuvers as increased abolitionism, it is certainly the case that the South’s efforts increased Northern antipathy. Both North and South conceived of themselves as liberal societies, but the planter class’s strategy for maintaining control only put more ammunition in the hands of those who sought to portray them as enemies of liberty.
In a nutshell, I think something similar is happening today with Israel. Like the Southern planter class, Israel defines itself, crucially, as part of the community of the free. This is an endlessly repeated theme in the hasbara – Israel is the only democracy in the region, Israel has women’s rights, Israel has gay rights, etc. Though Israel’s dispossession of the Palestinians has led many to argue that this self-image is a farce, Losurdo’s account demonstrates that, at the least, it is not an anomalous combination in the history of liberal states. At the same time, however, it is undeniable that Israel has, in seeking to preserve its status as the liberal utopia among the barbarians, adopted a whole slew of blatantly anti-liberal policies – a new set of gag rules.
In the US, this comes in the form of the attack on Kushner. Though censorship of criticisms of Israel is nothing new in the US (see Edward Said’s brilliant essay ‘Zionism from the Standpoint of its Victims’ for some perspective on how total this censorship once was), CUNY’s treatment of Kushner provoked an unprecedented outcry. The New York Times, no friend to Palestine, was on the case immediately, issuing an editorial denouncing CUNY and publishing an interview (with the wonderfully understated title ‘A CUNY Trustee Expands His View of What is Offensive) with the the lead Zionist bully that was clearly written to make him appear every bit as disgusting as he actually is. Other important liberal venues have jumped on the bandwagon as well.
As in the case of the conflict between North and South, the sympathy for Kushner in these publications has not, by and large, been based on sympathy for the Palestinians. Rather, it stems from outrage over the treatment of one of the finest representatives of liberal America. Kushner himself is no radical on Palestine, and he has repeatedly affirmed his support for Israel’s continued existence and his opposition to BDS. Indeed, his very timidity on the question has made CUNY’s offense all the worse in the eyes of the liberal class. If Israel’s defense is now coming at the expense of people like Kushner, it signals the potential for major conflict on the question within the liberal community.
This doesn’t mean that Israel is finished, or anything nearly so final. Rather, I think it is an important moment in the struggle against Zionism, and one whose structure is familiar in the long duree of liberalism. It signifies the moment when the actions of those outside the community of the free – abolitionists and slaves in the nineteenth century, Palestinians and solidarity activists today – succeed in pushing their demands to the point where they begin to create a crisis for the rulers. Then and now, the outcome of that crisis is uncertain, but its arrival is unquestionably to be welcomed.