Sunday, 29 July 2018

On Trump, Israel and Rhetoric

One thing that the recent spat between Donald Trump and the Iranian government made clear is that the US President's rhetorical style is closer to that of a Middle Eastern politician than one versed in American or European discourse. The hyperbole, the bombast, the self-congratulation and boasting are par for the course in a region that has not only produced dictators with a taste for the florid, like Gamal Abdel Nasser, Muammar Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein, but democratic demagogues such as Ariel Sharon and Benjamin Netanyahu. Trump's style is also closer to the international norm, at least outside the West, which perhaps helps explain his greater comfort in the company of Rodrigo Duterte and Kim Jong-un. It may also help explain his evident discomfort and uncertainty when dealing with Vladimir Putin, a politician who is all deal and no rhetorical art (Trump's schtick is not the deal but the blag). American critics who cite Trump's verbal brutality as evidence that the US polity is going to the dogs ignore that it's simply reverting to the global mean. Just as the McCarthy era was actually typical of American history, rather than an aberration, so Trump's rhetoric is as much a revival as a decline.

The charge of incivility against Trump, like the similar charge against the "dirtbag left" in the US and the "Corbynistas" in the UK, should remind us that verbal restraint is essentially an anglophone mode, albeit one that has heavily influenced continental European politics since the Second World War (De Gaulle was the conscious exception to this tendency and his legacy is visible in the verbal pretensions of Macron). The purpose is not merely to perform centrist decorum but more prosaically to provide a background contrast for the telling line or soundbite. This mode emerges with the popular press in the late nineteenth century and is then amplified by the arrival of radio in the early twentieth century. The need for compression in these media, at least in those countries where they were driven by commercial goals, meant that the monster speeches of the nineteenth century given by the likes of Lincoln and Gladstone gradually fell out of favour. While the old cadences lived on in the words of Roosevelt and Churchill, what mattered now was the memorable phrase or pithy witticism rather than a crescendo of moral outrage built up over hours.

Where the monster speech lived on was in dictatorships, often as a test of the loyalty of the immediate listeners as much as the stamina of the speaker. By the 1930s, this meant that civility was inversely-correlated with speech-length (it was wiped from collective memory by the "finest hour", which demanded short and punchy radio broadcasts, but Churchill was mistrusted in the pre-war years for his prolix style). By the 1950s, this economy reached its peak when a BBC interviewer asked Clement Attlee if he had anything else he wanted to tell the listeners, to which the Labour leader curtly replied "No". While anglophone politicians soon dropped this reticence under the impact that advertising and public relations were having on popular culture, they preserved the style of restraint, even when it produced the strangulated politesse of someone like Margaret Thatcher (or the mangled diction of Theresa May). Its finest practitioner may turn out to have been the urbane Barack Obama, who said little beyond the pious but at least kept it short. The key to understanding Trump's use of Twitter is that it allows him the luxury of uninterrupted speech in the manner of Fidel Castro. The soundbites (usually immediately forgettable) are incidental.

The parallel between Trump's rhetorical style and the norms of political discourse in the Middle East perhaps doesn't stick out as much as it should because those norms have been influencing American and European practice for some time, certainly from well before Trump appeared on the scene. The main source of that influence has been Israeli politics, specifically since the growth of the nationalist right in the 1980s and the left's abandonment of socialism for integration into the neoliberal order. Domestically, this saw an increase in viciousness and insult, in acrimonious division and bluster, but internationally it brought a more assertive and unapologetic style (Mark Regev, the current Israel ambassador to the UK is a notable example). Where arguments in support of Israel had previously centred on self-determination and democracy, principles that could obviously be applied to the Palestinian Arabs as well, they increasingly focused on the right of national defence and the civilisational benefits of free market capitalism, which enabled a broad consensus that was less vulnerable to criticism by the West. Central to this shift was nationalism. The dual claim made was that the Jewish people are a nation and Israel is their land, and that there is no such thing as a Palestinian nation and therefore no fixed land.

The word Zionism has changed its meaning over time. While it has always been a national project, its primary goal up until the 1940s was the establishment of a Jewish homeland, which meant that it was historically situated in the "national liberation" strand of nationalism and therefore viewed positively in leftist and liberal circles. Since 1948, and even more so after 1967, Zionism came to be associated with expansionary and exclusionary nationalism because of the occupation of the West Bank and the settler movement. Internationally, this has led to disillusion on the left and a positive embrace by the right. That the latter has become pro-Israel does not mean that its supporters are less antisemitic in their domestic context, merely that exclusionary nationalism contingently trumps Jew-hatred. For many on the nationalist right, Israel is admirable precisely because it has been aggressively nationalist for decades. The paradox is that though they conflate the two in their criticism of the left, the political right are perfectly capable of distinguishing between anti-Zionism and antisemitism because they have no problem being simultaneously Zionist (i.e. pro-Israel, as they define it) and antisemitic.

The problem for the left is that they have continued to use the word "Zionism", imagining that the world in general (and Jews in particular) will recognise that it has come to mean "bad" nationalism rather than self-determination. But as "bad" nationalism is "good" in the eyes of the right (including the Jewish right), this is a vain hope. The left would do better to simply retire the word and talk about Israeli policy within the framework of expansionary and exclusionary nationalism. The rhetorical parallel with Apartheid, particularly after the passing of the recent "national law" in the Knesset, is provocative but more pertinent than continuing to cite Theodor Herzl. While Israel hasn't passed any actively discriminatory laws yet, i.e. ones denying civil rights to groups based on ethnicity (as opposed to laws granting privileges to favoured groups such as ultra-Orthodox Jews), it has now established the principle of different treatment, something that has not been welcomed by the Jewish diaspora.

The Israeli government's encouragement of diaspora Jews to make Aliyah (to immigrate to Israel), notably the high-profile intervention of ministers after the Toulouse shooting in France in 2012 and the Porte de Vincennes shooting in the same country in 2015, has an obvious demographic motivation, but it also reinforces the idea that integration by Jews in countries other than Israel is impossible (the original ideological division between the Zionists and the Bundists before the Second World War), which in turn encourages the belief that a pluralist approach cannot work within Israel itself - i.e. the explicit belief that it can only be a Jewish state and the implicit belief that all non-Jews must therefore be considered second-class citizens. This is damaging enough within Israel, but it also makes diaspora Jews more vulnerable by suggesting that treating them as a distinct group in terms of rights is consistent with the general nationalist turn. A proposal in Austria to oblige Jews to register to buy kosher meat is not encouraging.

The tendency of the political right and centre to conflate criticism of the state of Israel with antisemitism risks debasing the latter's meaning to the point that people shrug when the term is deployed against them. But this isn't because of the reaction of the left. While some on the left downplay bigotry in their ranks by focusing on the presumed motives of those making the false equivalence, they aren't obviously dismissing the reality of antisemitism or its illegitimacy, even if they quibble about its frequency. Most on the left recognise that there is both a problem that needs to be addressed and that it is being exploited for partisan ends, specifically within the Labour Party, but the latter doesn't obviate the former. The bigger issue is actually the reaction of the political right, which can now dismiss the charge of antisemitism by pointing to its support for Israeli nationalism. That Benjamin Netanyahu can find common ground with Viktor Orban, a politician who has employed antisemitic tropes in domestic politics, shows how Jewish nationalism has increasingly come to be at odds with the interests of the Jewish diaspora (it is worth noting that the majority of Jews, 55%, do not live in Israel).

Netanyahu's attempt in 2015 to pin the blame for the Nazi programme of extermination on the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem was not just a trivialisation of the Holocaust. It was also part of the long-standing policy of framing the operation of contemporary Israeli nationalism in existential terms: if we don't pursue a national programme, we will be wiped from the face of the earth; the Nazis may be gone, but the threat remains from the Arabs and the Iranians. While this threat is not without foundation in rhetoric ("driven into the sea" etc), it remains hyperbole in practice. The state of Israel is no more likely to disappear than Switzerland is. The problem with this language is not its deployment in a Middle East where hyperbole is the norm, but its seeping into political discourse within the diaspora, such as the recent combined editorial by three leading Jewish newspapers in the UK accusing Jeremy Corbyn of personally presenting an "existential threat" to Jewish life. In reality, the greatest threat to the diaspora is a revival of exclusionary nationalism in countries like the UK, not the re-nationalisation of the railways. Jews who ostentatiously resign from Labour aren't boosting the electoral prospects of the LibDems or Greens but Tories prepared to countenance a no-deal Brexit that will stimulate xenophobic bigotry.

The debate (if it can be called that) over Labour's adoption of the IHRA definition of antisemitism has also seen the deployment of another rhetorical strategy honed in Israeli politics. Moving the goalposts - demanding further concessions or redefining the terms of an issue - has long been central to the Israeli state's dealings with the Palestinians. That a similar approach is now being adopted by the Labour right - e.g. MPs who previously supported the Home Affairs select committee's caveats over the IHRA definition now insisting that it be adopted unconditionally - is not the result of covert direction or conspiracy, but it has clearly been influenced by the rhetorical climate that has developed in Israel over the last 25 years and which has in turn affected the Jewish diaspora. What this means in Israel is that any further advance of the interests of the Palestinians is now unthinkable because it would be seen as a diminution of Israel as a national project: there is no space left for compromise. The idea that Israel's primary interest is peace died with Yitzhak Rabin in 1995. What this means abroad is that the diaspora cannot count on Israel to oppose the growth of a right-wing nationalism that it is itself a key exponent of. What it can count on is the denigration of the left as inherently antisemitic, which has the effect of alienating the natural supporters of the diaspora's rights.


  1. Regarding the definition of Zionism post-1948, wouldn't the most reasonable definition of a Zionist be someone who sees the state of Israel as being the collective property of all Jews (as opposed to only its own citizens)?

    In practical terms, that translates into support for the Law of Return...

  2. I think it would be fair to say that a Zionist before 1948 was someone who saw the potentiality of Israel as the common property of all Jews. The problem is that once Israel came into existence, Zionism started to divide between that older, inclusive ideal and a new exclusionary nationalism, which has led to tension between (some, not all) Israeli Jews and the diaspora. This is why I think the term has become redundant.