Friday, May 25, 2007

Anarchy has its place

Junk art causes no harm,
and sometimes even amuses.

The same can't be said
for junk politics

It could have been the Tel Aviv Museum or London's Tate Modern, but this time we had plunked down our cash for admission to Vienna's Secession Building. We were intrigued by this 1898 edifice, with its gold cupola and Art Deco facade, and we vaguely knew there was some kind of Gustav Klimt connection. Sure enough, we found Klimt's famous "Beethoven Frieze" and felt we had got our money's worth.

Afterwards, strolling around the museum, we came across a mammoth, well-lit, white-walled room containing what is euphemistically known in the post-modern art world as an "installation." This one consisted of overturned chairs, shirts and trousers hanging askew on clothing racks or strewn on the floor, shoes thrown about helter-skelter and an open chest of drawers. Two guards patrolled the room in case some working-class philistine took it into his head to try and bring a semblance of order to the place by picking up the clothing or setting straight the overturned chairs.

I've been contentedly trained by my more cultured partner to enjoy the work of a Mark Rothko or a Piet Mondrian and, on a tolerant day, maybe even a Jackson Pollock; I've learned to enjoy colorful paintings that are little more than paint splotches dribbled on canvas - but I draw the line at "installation art," which seems to revel in mayhem, meaningless rebellion and nihilism.

Put it this way: Some folks consider a six-foot-high collection of wooden shipping pallets sandwiching construction debris and packaging material to be "art" - I don't.

But junk art is harmless. Sure, there's the question of whether tax money ought to be thus squandered, but those with nothing to believe in and no frames of reference also pay taxes. So, I say, let them have their overturned chairs, shipping pallets and moaning suitcases (trust me on this one). But in the political realm, I would not cede an inch to anarchy.

THE CHIEF imperative of any political system is stability so that citizens can pursue lives worth living. Everyone is "born free," but the reason, philosophers tell us, that human beings cede their natural-born and absolute freedom to a sovereign (the modern nation state, for example) is because the alternative, every-man-for-himself jungle would be beastly. It would mimic "the solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short" state of nature depicted by Thomas Hobbes in his 1651 masterpiece of political theory, Leviathan.

In other words, the anarchist idea that the authority of the state is inherently illegitimate and ought to be resisted is a prescription for sending humanity back to the early Stone Age.

To buy into the anarchist worldview requires a very special combination of naivete and nihilism. Still, though few in numbers, anarchists have made their raucous, often violent mark on society by hijacking the anti-globalization cause and, locally, by championing the Palestinians' war against Israel.

Most anarchists align themselves with the hard Left (though libertarian capitalist thinkers such as Ayn Rand and Robert Nozick were exceptions).
Generally speaking, anarchists share a wildly optimistic conception of human nature, believing that people are intrinsically good; and that if only the corruptive, coercive State would get out of the way, humanity's default temperament would lead it to mutual aid and utopia. Emma Goldman asserted in 1917: "Anarchy stands for the liberation of the human mind from the dominion of religion; the liberation of the human body from the dominion of property; liberation from the shackles and restraints of government."

In her 1931 autobiography, Goldman explained that such absolute freedom would be feasible because anarchy offers "the possibility of organization without discipline, fear or punishment, and without the pressure of poverty."

FRANKLY, I can more easily abide anarchy's pie-in-the-sky idealism than its down-to-earth hypocrisy. But in any event, I cannot forgive anarchists for having, in effect, made common cause with retrograde Islamist and Palestinian Arab terrorists.

Anarchist hypocrisy manifests itself in a myriad ways. You won't find anarchists jetting off to Moscow or Beijing searching for a confrontation with Russian or Chinese security forces. So what if those regimes are illegally trading weapons to Sudan for use by the Janjaweed militias in the Darfour genocide? So what if Russia and China are polluting the earth's environment with abandon while restricting civil liberties - killing reporters, blocking access to the Web? None of this tips the scales for "direct action" against Russia or China.

You won't find anarchists peacefully marching in any Arab capital, let alone looking for a "direct action" opportunity in defense of gay rights, women's rights or workers' rights. The most you can hope for is a limp Web site posting support for Egyptian textile workers.

Mugabe's reign of terror in Zimbabwe draws a yawn from the worldwide anarchist community. You won't see anarchists marching in the streets of Brazzaville to protest the exploitation of children kidnapped and forced to become soldiers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The mass starvation of Korean peasants carried out by the murderous Pyongyang regime doesn't elicit anarchist "direct action."

Nor does Iran's institutionalized oppression of women, execution of children as young as 14 or campaign against the Baha'i community serve as an incentive for "direct action." And, needless to say, anarchists are not rioting outside Iranian embassies to call attention to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's efforts to build nuclear reactors - let alone proliferate atom bombs - in the Middle East.

Come to think of it, as venues for rioting, anarchists prefer more comfortable Western settings - Scotland (2005), Davos (2000), Seattle (1999), Genoa (2001), Prague (2000), Madrid (1994), Nice (2000) and London (1999) - places where you're never too far from good food, hot water, the Internet and a not-unsympathetic media.

The next big anarchist circus will take place on the outskirts of Heiligendamm, a Baltic Sea resort in northern Germany, where leaders of the G-8 are scheduled to meet in June. It's tough to be a revolutionary.

THE MAJORITY of non-Arab foreign "activists" who come to Israel for "direct action" in support of the Palestinian war effort are anarchists. Israel offers that extra buzz of (self-inflicted) danger - you never know, you might slip under an army bulldozer and your suddenly meaningful life become fodder for a progressive playwright.

In fairness, we can't really expect foreign anarchists to know that had the Palestinian Arab leadership not defied the UN's 1947 plan for the Partition of Palestine, there would already be a Palestinian state alongside a truncated Israel. Or that - more recently - it was Yasser Arafat who launched the second intifada, in September 2000, by rejecting Ehud Barak's obscenely munificent peace offer. Or that before the IDF got a handle on the "free flow of Palestinian traffic," suicide bombers and drive-by shooters had slaughtered 1,130 Israeli bus passengers, caf and mall patrons and schoolchildren.

We can't expect anarchists to know that thanks to the barriers, checkpoints, fences, walls and ancillary "indignities" Palestinian Arabs now face, the number of Israeli fatalities is down dramatically, from 451 killed in 2002 to 30 last year.
We really can't expect foreign anarchists to be aware that before the current Palestinian violence, West Bank and Gaza Arabs could travel to Tel Aviv unimpeded (you'd see cars with the PA's green license plates all over the country) or that traffic between Gaza and the West Bank flowed freely.
Nor can we expect foreign anarchists to know that Arab terrorists relentlessly attacked Israel between 1948 and 1967 - before there was a West Bank "occupation."

I suppose a deeply-rooted ignorance of history is as essential to any genuine anarchist as a complete misreading of human nature.

I AM, HOWEVER, far less indulgent of Israeli-born Jewish anarchists. They know the deadly consequences of removing IDF blockades from roads connecting Palestinian Authority areas of the West Bank to thoroughfares such as Route 60, which runs up and down the spine of Judea and Samaria.

And yet these anarchists can be seen trying to remove those same barricades. Every Friday the Israeli anarchists join comrades from abroad and local Palestinian Arabs at the security barrier near Bil'in (just over the Green Line, in the vicinity of Modi'in Illit) for a choreographed "direct action." They know how many lives the security barrier has saved, yet they try to tear it down.
Israeli anarchists live at the furthermost anti-Zionist reaches of hard-Left lalaland. How else to explain why well-educated, financially comfortable Jewish young people would commit themselves to dismantling the world's only Jewish country (on the grounds that they oppose the coercive structure of the state), yet devote themselves to promoting, in its place, the building of what in all likelihood would be a violently coercive Islamist state?

They assiduously film, photograph and disseminate their violent encounters with the IDF, hoping to make it onto the Israeli evening news (and into the international media). Their modus operandi is to taunt the soldiers with some form of vandalism or violence; and then, in a sort of video ambush, "document" the troops "overreacting" to the anarchists' "direct action."

Good footage isn't hard to manufacture, and it was fairly predictable that producers of Israeli television news programs would allow "good pictures" to trump their news judgment.

Forced on May 9 to choose between another installment of the annual State Comptroller's Report on government efficiency or IDF soldiers and Border Police wrestling with anarchist women and poking male anarchists in the stomach with a rifle barrel south of Hebron, Channel 10 and Channel 2 both opted to lead their broadcasts with the action footage helpfully supplied by the anarchists.

DR. URI GORDON, who is both a scholar of anarchism and himself an anarchist, defended, in the course of a telephone conversation and exchange of e-mails, the behavior of Israeli anarchists. He said that Israel's 200 to 300 anarchists place greater importance on the journey ("direct action") than on the destination - a world without states or borders comprising communities where everybody lives in equality and mutual aid.

According to Gordon, anarchists champion a Palestinian state because the Palestinians are anyway living under the dominion of a state - Israel. Anarchists' commitment to human rights, he explained, must take precedence over their principled opposition to the state in general. You can't tell the Palestinians to live under occupation forever - which is why anarchists' solidarity with the Palestinians is worthwhile, even at the price of ideological inconsistency.
And anyway, Gordon argued, on a qualitative level, a Palestinian state is superior to the present situation even if it brings yet another state into existence.

Gordon complained that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has served as a sort of lightning rod for Islamists, as well as deflecting both Israelis and Palestinians to the wrong issues when they should be thinking about anti-capitalism, feminism and ecology.

Finally, by working hand-in-hand with the Palestinians via direct action, anarchists feel they are swaying Palestinian minds and showing them that not all Israelis support the occupation. Solidarity, he argues, is not about supporting those who share your politics, it's about supporting those who struggle against injustice. It matters little that their assumptions, methods, politics and goals differ from our own.

IN A SENSE, anarchists like Gordon have adopted Fatah's plan for the phased destruction of Israel: First dismantle the "occupation" of 1967, then the "occupation" of 1948.

His politics isn't intended as charity for the Palestinians, he explained, it's part of his commitment to building the non-chauvinistic society he envisions.
Such extraordinary inability to gauge reality, and the anarchists' odd blending of naivete and nihilism, does little harm when confronted in a museum art installation. But in the political sphere, muddled relativism and irrationality of this sort are lethal.

It may not be his intent, but Gordon's way will bring us not Emma Goldman's anarchist utopia but a Hamastan, Shari'a law, and the very centralized fascism anarchists claim to oppose.

Thankfully, however, unlike the world of museums, the civilized political realm encourages law, order and stability.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Brest-Litovsk and all that

A nation has a right - even and obligation - to transmit particularistic values

If H.G. Wells was right that human history is a race between education and catastrophe, then I am prudently running with the pessimists. Consider the poor return on the investment we Jews have made in perpetuating the memory of the Holocaust - museums, memorials, anti-genocide curricula and entire libraries weighted down by personal testimonies - only to discover that the forces of ignorance, or evil, prevail after all.

Each Holocaust Remembrance Day brings fresh disappointments: This year, former Sephardi chief rabbi (no less) Mordechai Eliahu put the blame for the destruction of European Jewry on the Reform movement for making God angry. Previously, another former Sephardi chief rabbi, Ovadia Yosef, explained that the murdered were "the reincarnation of earlier souls who sinned and caused others to sin and did all sorts of forbidden acts." They returned to be killed in atonement for their sins.

Such being the thinking of benighted "spiritual authorities," is it any wonder that a majority of Israeli youth (66 percent of high school students) prefer to focus on the universal rather than the "narrow Jewish" message of the Holocaust?

Should we be taken aback that one in four Israeli Arabs believes the Holocaust never happened? That a German bishop on a visit to Yad Vashem (of all places) could compare Ramallah 2007 to the Warsaw Ghetto? That more than a quarter of British young people "don't know" if the Holocaust is a myth; and that 31% of them would rename Holocaust Memorial Day the more generic "Genocide Day"?

Let them. Long ago, I came to the conclusion that Israelis should discontinue preaching "our" Holocaust to the outside world and stop schlepping every foreign dignitary who lands at Ben-Gurion Airport to Yad Vashem. That we should not much care how non-Zionist Jews, whether ultra-Orthodox or ultra-assimilated, spin their lessons of the Shoah.

SINCE 1945 the Jewish world has gone through a series of stages in grappling with memorializing the Holocaust. Historian Peter Novick, in The Holocaust and Collective Memory (a problematic book, yet well worth reading), examines how the Holocaust narrative became part of the collective Jewish consciousness.

In the wake of World War II, Holocaust memory was marginalized, compartmentalized; for Israelis there was a country to build; for US Jews there was a ladder of upward mobility to climb. Novick writes: "Between the end of the war and the 1960s, as anyone who has lived through those years can testify, the Holocaust made scarcely any appearance in American public discourse, and hardly more in Jewish public discourse - especially discourse directed to gentiles."

By the late 1960s and early 1970s (when violent Black and Puerto Rican anti-Semitism in the inner cities was at its peak), the memory of the Holocaust was redefined as a basis for a new Jewish identity: We had been victims once, but now "never again." This form of identity, I know from my own experience, evolved into ethnic pride, Jewish nationalism, pro-Israelism (in the wake of the 1967 Six Day War), and served as a catalyst for the Soviet Jewry movement.

Somehow by 1993, when Hollywood's Steven Spielberg came out with Schindler's List and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum opened its doors (with the federal government covering most of the operating expenses), the Holocaust had been transformed from a unique collective Jewish memory into a shared phenomenon of pop culture.

Today we're at the point where popular culture remembers the Holocaust as a manifestation of "man's inhumanity to man," while reactionaries (and the badly informed) dispute whether it ever really happened.
Novick argues that Holocaust remembrance is too complex for a single "bumper sticker" message to emerge. He's basically right. He's also correct that no one can impose a single "lesson" to be derived from the Holocaust on all Jews, much less all humanity.

On the other hand, as a society, Zionist Israel (at least) needs to establish parameters for understanding and perpetuating Shoah remembrance.Specifically, we don't want to see a repeat of the way Holocaust imagery was exploited by ultra-right-wing opponents of the Gaza disengagement, any more than we want young Israelis to comprehend the Shoah through post-Zionist lenses.

EVERY POLITICAL culture has a right - indeed an obligation - to politically socialize its youth.Thus if education is to defeat catastrophe, the beleaguered Israeli educational system needs to find a way to make sacred again that which has been profaned. We must abandon teaching the universalistic message of the Shoah - not because it doesn't have one, but because non-Israelis can be counted upon to promulgate it. No one but we Zionist Israelis can be counted upon to remember the Shoah as a unique tragedy of Jewish statelessness.

In the face of medieval-thinking rabbis, Iranian Holocaust-deniers and an indifferent, relativist world, I wouldn't shy away from a sort of Shoah "catechism," so that, at a minimum, Zionist-educated youth (secular, religious, left- and right-wing) know how to understand, and how to remember, what happened to the Jewish people between 1933 and 1945.

For instance, had I the ear of Education Minister Yuli Tamir, I'd suggest she encourage Israeli teachers to instruct our youth about events in Poland this very month 70 years ago. And to remind our youth that May 1937 was two years and four months before the Nazi invasion of Poland.

Thus they'd learn that on May 9, the Polish Medical Association resolved that Jews would no longer be eligible for membership. The Polish Lawyers Association decided to create a quota limiting the number of Jewish attorneys to 10% of its membership. And Fascist parties were marching through Warsaw in support of an "Anti-Jewish Month."

I'd want our young people to know that on May 13 the worst pogrom experienced by Jews in years burst out in Brest-Litovsk (today in Belarus). Perhaps they would also be taught that, as a result of Holocaust desensitization, the very word "pogrom" has lost its meaning: "an organized, often officially encouraged massacre" against the Jews.

The police of Brest-Litovsk - whose population was more than 50% Jewish - provided back-up as peasants raped, robbed and looted. What set off the violence was a report that a Jewish butcher, discovered illegally slaughtering meat, had stabbed a Polish policeman.

I DON'T KNOW if there was a Reform temple in Brest-Litovsk, or if the pogrom's victims had been reincarnated, but this I do know: The events of May 1937 were part of a long series of anti-Semitic outbreaks ignited in the wake of Poland's emergence as an independent state after World War I.

The country had come into being in 1918, with 19 million ethnic Poles despising the fact that they had been saddled with three million Jews. And so it was that by 1920, the Polish Army under Jozef Pilsudski (who himself was said not to be an anti-Semite) stormed through the Jewish communities of the Ukraine, slaughtering 30,000 Jews.

How many Israeli students know that in 1922 Polish Jews had to stay off the streets during democratic elections so their mere existence didn't enrage their Polish neighbors? Or, getting back to 1937, that Jewish college students were obliged to sit on segregated classroom benches (many preferred to stand as a form of protest)?

And how many Israeli students know that by 1937 a "cold pogrom" had systematically eliminated Jews from Polish economic life? That during the period between the two world wars, Poles made Jewish life utterly miserable? That the Polish oligarchy, gentry, Church and politicians shared a mutual interest in blaming Poland's economic depression and political difficulties on the Jews?

Who today recalls that Polish industries in which Jews were prominent (tobacco, shoemaking, liquor, matches, salt) were nationalized and Jewish workers summarily dismissed? One example: Of 2,800 shoemaking establishments, 2,060 were closed.Thus, prior to the Shoah, there had been an almost complete collapse of Jewish economic life. Before a single Nazi boot set foot in Poland, 80% of Jewish children in Vilna already had TB or anemia.

A Zionist education also requires the following knowledge: Even as Poland officially implored Britain to open the gates of Palestine so it could be rid of its accursed Jews, the Catholic primate of Poland, August Cardinal Hlond, was instructing his flock to boycott Jewish businesses.
THIS, THEN, was Poland in the "good times" before the Nazis came. Similar narratives played out elsewhere in Eastern Europe. One calamity washes away the memory of another.

It's bad enough that so much of post-World War I European Jewish history - the pogroms, the starvation, the institutionalized racism - has been forgotten, overshadowed by Hitler's war of annihilation that came afterwards. But the ultimate obscenity is that we should live to see the memory of the Holocaust itself perverted, desensitized and robbed of its Jewish character and Zionist message.

In the race between Zionist education and the catastrophic loss of the Holocaust's message for Jews, it seems to me that Israel's educational establishment needs to develop a core curriculum, acceptable across the political spectrum, from Hashomer Hatza'ir to Bnei Akiva, from Meretz to the National Union. Let each Zionist worldview bring its own nuances, so long as this fundamental and, yes, particularistic message is transmitted: that our statelessness set the stage for the Shoah, and only a secure Israel can increase the prospect of Jewish continuity in history.

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