Joel Kovel is both a scholar and an activist. In the former capacity he has published nine books and over a hundred articles and reviews. His books include White Racism, which was nominated for a National Book Award in 1972; A Complete Guide to Therapy; The Age of Desire (in which his work in the psychiatric-psychoanalytic system is detailed); Against the State of Nuclear Terror; In Nicaragua; The Radical Spirit; History and Spirit (1991); Red Hunting in the Promised Land (1994), a study of anticommunist repression in America; and The Enemy of Nature: The End of Capitalism or the End of the World (Zed, 2002). Since 2003 he has been Editor-in-Chief of the quarterly journal Capitalism Nature Socialism. His most recent book, Overcoming Zionism, created a censorship struggle when the University of Michigan Press temporarily banned its distribution.
Revolution: Many people today are familiar with the state of Israel. They are also acquainted with Jewish people and know something about the Jewish religion. But what is Zionism?
Joel Kovel: The word has a very long history, Zion being the land promised to the Israelites in the Bible by their god. Once the Jews lost their temple in the first century and scattered over the earth, the idea of returning to some sort of homeland was always present. The modern history of Zionism begins late in the 19th century when it took the form given to it by Theodore Herzl: that the destiny of the Jewish people could only be fulfilled in a nation-state, which, as it turned out, had to be in historic Palestine. So Zionism is an ideology that supposes that notion, and ties it to the well-being and fulfillment of Jews everywhere. It caused the Jews who believe in it to embark upon state-building in historic Palestine. It still is the organizing ideology of the state of Israel and of great portions of the Jewish community in our country and elsewhere.
Revolution: In your book you make a major point that Zionism is a racist ideology. Could you explain that?
Kovel: It is necessarily a racist ideology if you think about it, but most people aren’t allowed to think about it thanks to powerful Zionist repression. If you are building a state on land that is not yours, and the land is habitable, then it’s going to have inhabitants, and these people are not going to enjoy your presence and are not going to turn over their land voluntarily to you. So the state-building for the Zionists is a question of conquest of indigenous peoples, which parallels in many ways the entire imperial-colonial movement of Western civilization. And typically, when you gain such a state through violence and illegal means, you then have to make it seem legitimate. And the best way of doing that is to claim that you are conquering an inferior people who weren’t entitled to full human rights, or who are barbarians, who are not civilized, or who are terrorists by nature. In any event, it involves imposing a kind of degraded human nature to the people you are displacing and conquering, and that’s the essence of racism. Racism plays out in the entire history of the state of Israel, which entails a continuous project of ethic cleansing and the racist reaction to that, which seeps throughout Israeli society as a whole.
Revolution: What about critics who say that criticism of the state of Israel is anti-Jewish or anti-Semitic?
Kovel: There is no a priori reason for equating the two. I’m by no means the only person of Jewish extraction who dislikes the state of Israel. In fact, it’s been odious to many, many Jews, including many highly religious Jews. I’m not one of them, of course; nevertheless many orthodox Jews feel the state of Israel is an abomination for various reasons that I don’t necessarily share. The point is that you don’t have to be non-Jewish to be against Israel. The charge of anti-Semitism derives from the Zionist belief that Israel is the only real fulfillment of being Jewish; yet that’s a very dubious proposition, and to go against it is has nothing to do with the existential hatred of Jewishness (“Judaeophobia”) which underlies real anti-Semitism.
Anti-Semitism, like all racisms, removes people from their history. Yet real criticism of Israel is a method of adding history, of looking at Israel historically, of looking at the Jewish people historically. So it’s non-racist at the core to criticize Israel if you do so in the spirit of open inquiry. Of course, anti-Semites will criticize Israel also, but not in the spirit of an open, historically grounded critique.
Revolution: What do you say to people who say that because of their own history of persecution, Jews need a state to which they can go and live in safety?
Kovel: Well, I think it’s a terrible idea. Even if it was a reasonable idea at one time, sixty years of the state of Israel have certainly demolished it. You just have to look at the history of Israel and the sixty years of blood and fire it has brought about. It’s the only part of the earth where Jews are actually in danger now–a direct result of the necessity of conquest and ethnic cleansing and the reaction on the part of those conquered. Zionism can never have any moral legitimacy, simply because it requires taking somebody else’s country for the purposes of your so-called “god-given space.” Jews have indeed often been traumatized, and the trauma reached a crescendo in the great Holocaust, but there is no moral justification for treating somebody else badly just because you yourself have been treated badly, especially when the party you are treating badly is innocent of any history of hurting you, which has certainly been the case with the Palestinians. It may be understandable, especially after the Holocaust, that the Jewish people would arrive at the idea about needing a state for security purposes and a haven against persecution. It’s understandable, but that doesn’t mean that it’s right, intellectually, historically, or morally. It’s not.
Revolution: You have made the charge that Israel treats Holocaust survivors living there worse than almost any other country in the world. Can you amplify on that?
Kovel: It’s not in Overcoming Zionism because I only learned of it since publication. Last summer charges were made by Holocaust survivors, almost 250,000 of them in Israel, that they have been treated abominably by the Jewish state. This despite the fact that the state of Israel legitimates itself on the grounds that it is a place where Jewish victims of persecution can live safely and happily in their later years. But one of the things that marks Israel is an increasing neo-liberalization, which translates into a widening of the gap between rich and poor, with an accompanying increased heartlessness. The Holocaust survivors do not contribute to what Israel needs, which is military power and technical prowess: they are just useless old people. Israeli society is deeply indicted by the neglect of these people, whose survival was the occasion for the establishment of Jewish state in the first place.
Another level of irony is that as Israeli Holocaust survivors protest their own government, they find reason to praise Germany. Many have stated that they prefer to go back to Germany to finish their years in a country that would at least recognize their human rights. Furthermore, Germany gave Israel about $80 billion to take care of its Holocaust survivorsâ€”guilt moneyâ€”and apparently Israel has siphoned off a lot of that and used it for military purposes. They took the money that was supposed to be for Auschwitz survivors and built their weapons systems. It’s a phenomenally corrupt place.
Revolution: Do you see any relationship between Zionism and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism?
Kovel: If you take those two phenomena, you can see that Zionism preceded Islamic fundamentalism, but it doesn’t explain Islamic fundamentalism. There is no doubt that it is a major contributing factor in the growth of Islamic Fundamentalism, probably the leading factor in that it generated widespread hatred and distrust across the great swath of people who comprise the Islamic worldâ€”over a billion people in all of whose countriesâ€”there is this burning resentment first at Israel and second at the United States for being Israel’s patron. People like Osama bin Laden, he is very explicit in saying that what he is doing is to punish the U.S. and Israel for what they have done to the Arab world. It’s a very abiding emotion, quite understandable, and the emotion itself is quite legitimate, although it doesn’t excuse violent behavior, but it’s perfectly understandable to feel this way. Understandable to try to build your own purified society, Islamic fundamentalist society, since the Western model has been proven to be treacherous and destructive to their form of life. Yes, it’s not that Zionism caused Islamic fundamentalism, but of the factors that did cause it, I would give Zionism primary place.
Revolution: The United States government has taken enormous interest in the development and protection of Israel and spent enormous amounts of money in its support. How do you see that? Is this something that is caused fundamentally by what’s known as the Zionist lobby in the United States? Or is it also something that relates to the fundamental interests of the United States in the Middle East? How do those things fit together in your view?
Kovel: It’s a very difficult, complex question. It’s a complex question that has no clear-cut, clean answer. It’s the interaction of many factors, including mistakes that were made. In the early years of the state of Israel, there was a certain amount of sympathy for it, to be sure, but also great opposition to the state as a cat’s paw of the U.S. because it’s made American imperialism’s job in that part of the world with its great oil wells very, very difficult. We just discussed how Israel inflamed the Arab masses and the Arab nation states.
This also was a component of the cold war, where the U.S. and Russia were vying for favor in that part of the world. It should be pointed out that the Soviet bloc was also a supporter of Israel in its first years, so there was some competition on that ground. Later Israel was seen as a counterpoise to Soviet power in the region and began to achieve legitimacy on that account. Also, when the war of 1967 revealed Israel to be by far the dominant military power in the region, U.S. security elites decided that this would a very useful partnership on many different levels.
Throughout all of this, you had the operations of what is roughly called the Israeli lobby or the Zionist lobby, but it’s no simple organization. It is a network of organizations with very powerful currents flowing through the base of U.S. society, which consider the Jews and Israel to be one of the “us,” because the U.S. was actually founded on the same Old Testament mode. At the same time there was very little sympathy for the Arab world. The antagonisms between Europe and the Arab world that go back at least to the Crusades had by no means diminished and Israel became a rallying point for going that antagonism yet further.
And throughout all this you find these extremely powerful Zionist groups that are growing by leaps and bounds in this country, taking a tremendous role in manipulation and invasion of the U.S. state apparatus, and many levels of civil society including the media and entertainment industry, academia, and the like. It’s highly, highly organized, but it’s not the case that they are determining U.S. foreign policy. That kind of policy is determined by the basic strategic interests of the U.S. ruling class. But it is the case that they are a very important component in the mixture that determines that foreign policy, including in the composition of the U.S. ruling class, which over the last 15 years, and certainly during the second Bush administration, has itself become increasingly Zionist.
So you have a very intricate issue. There is no question that there is a huge interpenetration of the security elites of both Israel and the United Statesâ€”people who serve across the lines. The actual formulation of foreign policy is made at a level where geo-strategic necessities are very much subject to patterns of belief and ideology. A ruling class doesn’t simply act on a materialist foundation, they also believe in certain things. And the things they belief in in this case are highly determined by the affinity between Zionism in general and Zionism in Israel, and also the fundamental ethos of the United States.
Revolution: You referred to the growing Zionism of the Bush administration. One phenomenon we have seen recently is the development of Christian Zionism in this country. Can you comment on the relationship between Zionism and the whole Christian fascist movement in the U.S.?
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Kovel: The right has become increasingly driven by religious themes. This was not the case with the traditional “paleo-conservatives,” who were hostile to evangelical movements and often anti-Semitic. But for complex socio-political reasons, this has become greatly changed. There is no question that the Bush II administration rests on a political basis of hard-core Christian fundamentalists, exemplified by Mike Huckabee, prancing around the country talking about creationism and the literal truth of the Bible. Fundamentalists have played a major role in U.S. politics since 1980. And they play a huge role in the George W. Bush administration partly because the second Bush shares fundamentalist beliefs. He himself is very sympathetic to that point of view and has surrounded himself with people of like mind.
As the present Bush regime embarked upon its policy of aggressive preventive wars, it needed a cadre within the administration who saw things the same way. After all, Bush and Cheney can’t implement their policy if their immediate underlings don’t have the same opinion. So they recruited a network of so-called neo-conservatives, some of whom are Christians, many of whom are Jewish, and all of whom are ultra-Zionists. Zionism is the glue that holds together the infrastructure of the U.S. foreign policy elites, and has been a necessary factor in the planning and execution of the Iraq war. There is no question about it. Now we are seeing the coming decline of that Christian fundamentalist movement in the United States, and it will be interesting to see how and whether this reverberates within Jewish Zionism itself.
Revolution: The news around Israel and Palestine recently has been dominated by speculation over the creation of a Palestinian mini-state. Your book, Overcoming Zionism, opposes any two-state solution. Why?
Kovel: First of all, this is a matter that has ultimately to be resolved by the people on the ground, the Palestinians and Jewish Israelis themselves. But in my view, the two-state solution is politically wrong and morally wrong, and in any case, impossible. The alternative, which is the transformation of Israel along the lines of what befell apartheid South Africa, is extremely difficult, and not on the immediate horizon. But interest in a “single democratic state” is growing, and the goal is quite feasible if there is enough arousal around the world.
The two-state solution is unworkable in the first place because Israel has destroyed the physical and political possibilities of building a coherent state for the Palestinian people, thanks to its brutal occupation. This has entailed the invasion of Palestinian land by 450,000 Israeli settlers, along with putting up monstrous walls and Jews-only roads that simply reduce the ever-diminishing Palestinian lands to fragments. To build a viable Palestinian state on such a basis is impossible; or, from another angle, would require dismantling Israel.
In addition, the logic of the two-state solution proposed by ruling powers is not one in which the Palestinians get a genuine state with sovereignty and its own foreign policy. It is better seen along the lines of the “Bantustans” such as South Africa installed during its apartheid era, which were reservations where the indigenous people could live in relative quiet as a controllable labor force. This of course would be better than the present occupation; for all its awfulness, South African apartheid was less inhuman than Israeli Zionism, whose goal is the annihilation of the Palestinian people. Nevertheless, the indigenous would live a life of extreme poverty and powerlessness in the given two-state proposals. Israel is already very much in the category of apartheid South Africa; and if it gets its two-state solution, it will go even further in that direction. The two-state solution that is proposed is along the lines of a Bantustan solution that merely raises Israel to an approximation of the South African apartheid regime.
What’s basically wrong to my view is preserving the state of Israel in the Jewish-Zionist form that has evolved over the last 60 years. As I have tried to explore in my book, this is an inherently contradictory formation that can only survive by attacking its neighbors, and through an expanding racism. So a two-state solution which retains the Jewish state as it is now may well become a prelude to the transfer of the Palestinian Arabs out of Israel proper into the Palestinian state, a horrific situation.
The one-state solution poses many difficult problems, and nobody knows exactly how to bring it about. But it has one huge advantage over the two-state solution, namely, that it builds the notion of universal human rights and democracy into the foundation, so that you can place ends and means into a logical connection to each other. The one-state solution demands, however, that the state of Israel be transformed into a state that is no longer of, by, and for the Jewish people, but for all its citizens. And I think this is a very good thing. I think it would be good for the Jewish people themselves, who have been harmed by years of Zionist triumph. This has turned them into brutal conquerors who have lost a great deal of the civilizing values acquired over the centuries as a persecuted minority in Europe. At least there were great accomplishments and achievements among the European Jews, especially after emancipation in the early nineteenth century. The main accomplishments of the state of Israel, however, have been militarism, conquest, and racism. This is as bad for everyone.
I want to emphasize that for me the one-state solution should be a transition to a no-state solution. The example of apartheid South Africa’s transformation is a very cogent one and poses serious questions. South Africans overcame a racist form of society in good measure through a pact with transnational capital, especially the International Monetary Fund, with ruinous aftereffects. So the larger question I want to pose is this: In building a single state, we must work to make sure that state has a socialist content. It needs to be a state beyond capitalism, which means it will be a state beyond class, and therefore will ultimately cease to be a state. We understand that such a development is not around the corner, but it has to be the kind of thinking that animates us as we plan ahead for a society worthy of human beings in Palestine and Israel.
Revolution: What’s been the reception to your book, Overcoming Zionism? Both the positive and the attempts to censor it.
Kovel: The “official reception,” including that of the left press and left-liberal press, has been to ignore it. As of this date, Overcoming Zionism has not had any kind of review in any publication with a widespread circulation. This exclusion was aggravated last summer when the book was overtly attacked by the Zionist lobbies in Michigan, where it is distributed by the University of Michigan Press. As a result of that attack, the book was actually taken out of circulation, in other words, banned. This provoked a highly successful campaign from people on the left. Through pressure from the Committee for Open Discussion of Zionism [codz.org] we succeeded in getting the book restored, and also securing the contract with the actual publisher, Pluto Press of London, though this threat is ongoing. On the whole, this proved a good development. It meant my book was dangerous to people I wanted it to be dangerous toâ€”namely Zionists and the Zionist lobbyâ€”and they took it seriously enough to try to ban it, most likely because they thought that simply ignoring it wouldn’t work.
It should be said also that the book has been widely read. People are constantly coming up to me saying that they like it, and that it has made a difference in their lives. It has appealed emotionally to them and it gives a chance to become conscious of certain thoughts that had been tabooed, namely, that Israel does not have the right to existâ€”because no state has an inherent right to existâ€”or that Zionism is a racist doctrine. These are two ideas that are not supposed to be thought, much less talked about. There are serious consequences to say that Zionism is racism or that Israel doesn’t have a right to exist. But now people are increasingly able to talk about that. To help bring these ideas forward is a big advance, and so I’m quite happy with the book’s reception.
Revolution: What further do you think needs to be done to put an end to this outlawing of any critique aimed at getting at the truth? How can people work together to break through this climate of repression?
Kovel: You need a widespread network of groups in civil society, local groups that challenge the local suppression, send speakers into high schools, and then, when as often happens when someone in the local Zionist, pro-Israeli community tries to stop, then you protest it. It’s a constant fight. It’s a very worthwhile fight that’s now getting to the point where we are beginning to win these issues. It’s a very widespread fight. I just learned the other day that at a school called McMaster University, the student union has banned the use the word apartheid in connection with Israel. It’s like the Middle Ages out there. You can’t talk about the devil. It’s fantastic, the extent to which repression is mobilized in the defense of the fundamentally illegitimate, in my view crumbling, Zionist consensus.
Each instance has to be met by resolute counterattacks. By protesting out in the streets, by writing letters, holding public meetings, using community radio stations, the Internet, a lot of powerful tools. There is a great deal that can be done, and it’s already having an effect. I spoke recently in Berkeley, California, to a really large audience that was extremely enthusiastic. There were no Zionist protesters anywhere. Of course, this was Berkeley, but they couldn’t have done that a couple years ago. So the more you do it, the more it can be done.
On top of that, we have to begin to introduce the suppressed question of boycotts, divestments, and sanctions against Israel, to make Israel suffer for its persecutions of Palestinians. Build a court of public opinion on an international basis that brings Israel to heel concerning injustices and criminal activities. This requires the internationalization of the struggle. So the first point is that the struggle should be done locally. Then there should be connection across national boundaries. There should be a growing movement that leaps across national boundaries and connects people, particularly with the UK and Canada, and increasingly elsewhere. There is a movement in India starting to form. The internationalization of a movement against Israel that takes the form of boycotts, divestments, and sanctions.
And the last thing you need, is you have to support UN Resolution 194, which is to insist on the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homeland, which is a very basic principle of international law, something the powers-that-be, Israel and the United States, would never contemplate; the Zionists fight every inch of the way. But, again, it’s something that can be fought for. If you fight on all these fronts, you can begin to see a change
Revolution: Looking ahead now to the future, and from the standpoint of the liberation of all humankind, what do you think would actually need to happen in Israel in order to bring about the possibility of a secular democratic state?
Kovel: First of all, the situation at this moment is not favorable to that within Israel. The Israeli left is weaker than it has been. One reason is that increasing numbers of progressive people are emigrating from Israel, leaving behind a more backward section of the population. There are quite a few in-migrants from Russia, many of whom are not even Jewish, about 300,000 non-Jewish Russians, some of whom have started anti-Semitic activities. The basic point is that Israel has a very weak left. But I think links have to be kept to that left. There are still a lot of very good people, and very good movements among younger people in Israel, who are taking a great deal of action into their own hands in solidarity with the persecuted Palestinians in the territories, especially the West Bank.
There is a great deal of movement of Israeli youth. Not tightly organized, but nonetheless expressing a better human sympathy, going out there and helping Palestinians with their olive harvestâ€”the settlers try to tear that downâ€”helping Palestinian kids to school or setting up alternative schools, or building cultural organizations. That’s the saving remnant in Israel. I think that as the worldwide movement against Zionism grows and takes on an increasingly organized form, it will induce changes within Israel. It’s tough to say what these will be, because it’s a very, very right-wing militarized state. But one thing is for sure. There is a sense of tremendous crisis in Israeli society. They don’t really know where they are heading. They have all the power and strength in the world, but they are a spiritually barren, brutalized society, riddled with racism.
It’s an open question: can this very, very backward, confused people somehow be rallied to take on its own liberation? The situation in South Africa, for instance, featured a much more highly organized left during the anti-apartheid struggle than we see now in Israel. Nothing of the sort of the ANC, nothing of the sort of Communist Party, trade union movements which were very powerful. There is a peace movement, but it’s very weak. However, I think it is safe to say that there will be major changes ahead and if we work faithfully, we will induce those changes in a good direction.