Zionism and its Discontents

“I don’t think anything has been worse for the Jewish people than the state of Israel.” This statement sums up the position of American academic and activist Joel Kovel, who was in town [Vancouver] Sept. 20 promoting his new book, Overcoming Zionism.

Kovel, a longtime critic of Israel and its policies, was invited to speak in Vancouver by the Palestinian solidarity organizations Canada-Palestine Support Network (Canpalnet) and Boycott Israeli Apartheid Campaign (BIAC).


The talk, which took place at Simon Fraser University‘s downtown campus, drew a crowd of about 90 people. Kovel’s two-hour lecture was an extrapolation of his book, in which he argues that the inner contradictions of Zionism have led Israel to a “state-sponsored racism” similar to that of apartheid South Africa, which can only be overcome by the formation of a single-state, secular democracy and the elimination of the law of return.


Kovel decided to give his lecture the title Zionism and its Discontents. Evocative of Sigmund Freud’s book Civilization and its Discontents, the title refers to Kovel’s psychoanalytic treatment of the Zionist project and its outcomes.


“I recognized in my own upbringing a very constant refrain, which was [that], as Jewish people, we were ‘the light unto the nations’ – that we were a people who lived by a high ethical standard, for whom justice was the highest value and alike,” said Kovel, who grew up in a Jewish home in Brooklyn, N.Y. “I hold that that notion is real and persistent. On the other hand, it seems to be contradicted by real practices, practices that have to do with tremendous transgressions that are undertaken also in the name of a notion of being Jewish, and that has to do with the origins of the state of Israel and the ideology of Zionism.”


Kovel, a psychoanalyst, calls this internal contradiction “bad consciousness” and characterizes it as an essential feature of Jewish identity and critical for understanding Israel.


According to Kovel, problems between Jews and the local inhabitants of the region of Palestine only arose once Jews decided to form a nation-state. For Kovel, statehood means the legitimization of violence in the hands of an organization. He claimed that this requirement was irreconcilable with the Jewish claim of moral superiority and universal justice.


“Hence, they were facing a tremendous contradiction right from the start, and this contradiction led to various distortions, among them the claim that there were no Palestinians inhabiting the land,” said Kovel, referring to a quote by Golda Meir.


From then on, he continued, the Jewish state was on an irreversible path towards what he referred to as “a settler colonial process, reminiscent of the American takeover of First Nations’ lands or the Afrikaners’ conquering of South Africa.” In the process, he said, Jews would have to operate a policy of ethnic cleansing against the local inhabitants and create a state structured on what Kovel described as a form of racism.


Kovel went on to declare that Israel could not exist without the approval of the rest of the world and was particularly dependent on the goodwill of the global powerhouses – first the British Empire and now, the United States. He was also highly critical of the Israeli lobbying efforts in Canada, but especially in his home country, arguing that they possess unwieldy influence and ensure that the current unjust situation continues.


Kovel said that he has been encouraged by the recent openness to discussion of some of these issues in a critical way. He said that, until recently, he wouldn’t have felt comfortable writing the book, but that something in the environment has changed and that it is now more acceptable to criticize Israel and its treatment of the Palestinians. He acknowledged that his mother would have hated his book.


Kovel made no mention during his lecture of terrorist and other security threats against Israel. Following the lecture, he answered questions from audience members dealing with issues such as the differences between the Israeli and the international media’s willingness to criticize Israeli policy and what he described as the surprising compact between Israeli lobbying groups and representatives of Christian Zionism.


Kovel concluded by stating that, “The potential of Israel devolving into a fascist state is all too real” and that “AIPAC [the American Israel Public Affairs Committee] should be registered as an agent of a foreign power.”


Ron Friedman is a Vancouver freelance writer.

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