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BDS, Israel, and the World System

posted on: Jan 20, 2016

BDS, Israel, and the World System

Joshua Sperber

The Institute for Palestine Studies


AN IRONIC OUTCOME of Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent electoral victory is that his duplicity has convinced many observers that Israel might have finally gone too far. On the day after the election, U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation director and Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) supporter Yousef Munayyer declared that Netanyahu’s victory will “further galvanize the movement seeking to isolate Israel internationally” since the election has convinced the world that Israel is incapable of changing from within. [1] However, assuming that BDS is capable of isolating Israel, is a weakened Israel necessarily desirable? More importantly, is it something that those devoted to human liberation should spend their energy fighting for? This essay argues that it is not and they should not, not because Israel’s outrageous oppression of Palestinians should be accepted, but because the way that Israeli oppression is criticized and Palestinian freedom is articulated ultimately reinforces the global institutions whose inevitable manifestations BDS condemns.

BDS of course did not develop in a vacuum. Indeed, the movement, which represents a series of strategies designed to force Israel to comply with international law, shares many assumptions with prominent critical analyses of Israel. In order to adequately discuss BDS then, it is necessary to also address the analyses on which its strategies are based, as well as an unusual phenomenon characterizing such analyses. John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt’s article and eponymous book The Israel Lobby, for instance, discard the neorealist premises that the authors have built careers upon and instead advance the type of liberal pluralist argument that Mearsheimer and Walt normally criticize. [2] In a similarly uncharacteristic manner, many leftist accounts of Israel jettison economic interpretations—that is, the bread and butter of Marxist interpretive frameworks—in favor of either political-cultural analyses or the type of liberal pluralism so anomalously advanced by Mearsheimer and Walt. Why, then, do diverse groups of authors abandon their traditional interpretive frameworks when it comes to Israel? Mearsheimer himself has noted that “I cannot reconcile this contradiction . . . my theory sometimes doesn’t work.” [3] Leftist writers, by contrast, generally do not account for their exceptional treatment of Israel and instead appear to take for granted that the usual methods are not relevant to discussing the Jewish state. [4]

Israel—due in part to its relative youth, its role as a quasi-colonial “outpost” in a volatile and prominent region, its far-reaching political-cultural symbolism and rhetoric, and its close relationship with and enormous reliance on the United States—arguably appears unique. However, the claim of Israel’s uniqueness, which corresponds to Israel’s own self-description, is often more assumed than demonstrated. In material reality Israel is merely one of approximately two hundred nation-states, occupying space in an international system with laws and norms, which are violated, depending on the circumstances, by all states from time to time. Moreover, Israel is a capitalist state functioning—frequently quite profitably—within a global capitalist system, and it is therefore required to conform to the implicit and explicit principles and guidelines of international economic structures, pressures, and demands, which have measurable consequences on its foreign and domestic economic and political decision-making.

While Mearsheimer and Walt’s thesis on the Israel lobby provoked much debate, few critics asked what would have happened if the two authors had stayed true to form and subjected Israel to their usual brand of neorealist analysis. Similarly, what would it look like if leftist observers applied to Israel the Marxist political-economic analysis that leftists regularly use to examine everything from the media to elections to culture? While neither neorealism nor Marxism is sufficient to comprehensively explain a subject as complex as a modern nation-state, taken together these theories go a long way toward explicating Israel’s historical development and current conduct in the Palestinian territories. Such an analysis, it should be noted, need not normalize, and thereby justify, Israel’s increasingly brutal treatment of the Palestinians. On the contrary, identifying Israel as an unexceptional and necessary component of the international system functions to, more than anything else, radically indict that system.

* * *

Mearsheimer and Walt’s discussion of the Israel lobby was politically intrepid (the Atlantic refused to publish the article after having originally commissioned it) but conceptually unadventurous. The authors argue that a powerful constellation of organizations—most famously, or notoriously, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations—coerces the U.S. government into doing what it otherwise would not: supporting Israel with massive financial, military, and diplomatic support. The authors note that such domestic lobbying represents the same liberal pluralism (that is, the notion of domestic interests competing to influence a supposedly neutral state) engaged in by other national lobbies, but that due to its enormous effectiveness, the Israel lobby successfully leads the United States to engage in counterproductive activities that are undermining its own reputation, interests, and security.

There is certainly reason to believe that a powerful Israel lobby helps shape U.S. academia if not foreign policy. Seemingly every year another academic is refused a university position for making critical comments about Israel, and McCarthyist organizations such as Daniel Pipes’s so-called Campus Watch have boasted of their surveillance and harassment of critics of U.S. foreign policy concerning Israel. Additionally, even a casual observer of U.S. news can see that Israel often enjoys coverage ranging from milquetoast criticism to slavish defense. And it is of course well-known that the United States provides Israel with approximately $3 billion of support annually, has vetoed over one hundred United Nations resolutions censuring Israeli violations of international law, and that the two countries’ policies are closely linked. However, all of these facts take on different implications when viewed in broader context. Turkey (among other countries) also attempts to manipulate U.S. discourse and policy, objecting, for instance, to U.S. discussions (in academia) and commemorations (in government) of the Armenian genocide. Further, U.S. media coverage treats not only Israel with kid gloves; the mainstream media is seemingly incapable of providing systemic criticism of not only U.S. foreign policy objectives but also those of other U.S. allies including but hardly limited to the United Kingdom, Australia, and Canada. And while Israel does receive enormous amounts of funding from the United States, this is hardly unusual, as the United States supports numerous countries, including states with even worse human rights records such as Egypt, Colombia, and Ethiopia, countries not known for their robust Washington lobbies. The largest recipient of U.S. support in 2013 was Afghanistan, which ought to problematize the very notion of so-called U.S. “support” in the first place.

In short, the Israel lobby thesis constitutes a post hoc ergo propter hoc argument, mistaking correlation for causation. Empirically, the thesis is forced to discount the numerous cases in which the Israel lobby failed to determine U.S. policy. The Israel lobby has repeatedly failed to prevent the United States from delivering arms to Middle Eastern rivals; the Pentagon has successfully demanded that Israel halt domestic arms production (famously canceling Israel’s Lavi program) [5] and overseas sales that were perceived to threaten U.S. national security, terminating, for instance, Israel’s Phalcon deal with China in 1999 and Israel’s attempts to sell anti-aircraft missile technology to the Chinese in 2005; [6] Israel has been wholly unsuccessful in its attempts to persuade both the Bush and Obama administrations to attack Iran [7] or even green-light an Israeli attack; and its recent efforts to convince the United States to wage war in Syria have ended in total failure. [8] When the United States does do what Israel wants, as it often does, it is not because the lobby has caused it to do so but because it is in the United States’ interest to do so.

Normatively, it should be noted, the Israel lobby thesis is quite naive, as it takes for granted what high school civics courses teach but what the Constitution’s framers disdained and labored to obstruct: a democratic government that is designed and intended to address the concerns of the majority of its citizens. If the U.S. population is unable to successfully lobby Congress to create a more progressive tax code with increased taxes on the superwealthy and corporations, provide a single payer health plan, or enhance environmental regulations—among other policies enjoying majority support—what makes critics think that the populace can dictate the government’s foreign policy decisions, including the treaties and military decisions conducted by an even more electorally insulated commander in chief?

Moreover, as Joseph Massad has noted, [9] the Israel lobby thesis (with its suggestion of a corruption or deviation from the norm) ignores the history of U.S. foreign policy, which has been characterized by routine support for dictators, coups against democratic populists, and direct military assaults, at one time or another, in not only the Middle East but also throughout much of the world. The thesis in this regard is deeply conservative, as it rehabilitates the United States’ international image by suggesting that, were it not for the lobby’s influence, the United States would conduct a disinterested or even benevolent policy in the Middle East. After all, there is no hyperbole in noting that the United States was built on a genocidal Western expansion and that it accrued enormous wealth through a brutal system of racist chattel slavery for which it has never paid reparations. Why then would the United States, which has dropped atomic bombs and deployed Agent Orange and depleted uranium on civilian populations, and which has just recently “tortured some folks,” care about the well-being of Israel’s victims?

* * *

Neorealism, according to Mearsheimer, is based on five core assumptions: an anarchic world system (which indicates not chaos but merely the lack of a central authority); all states can harm one another; states cannot know what other states will do; the fundamental aim of states is survival; and, states are rational. Taken together, these five factors produce the security dilemma, in which states relying solely on themselves within a self-help system will inevitably and understandably fear, and therefore attack, rivals. [10] The tragedy, then, is that such fear and aggressiveness are both inevitable and, from a state’s perspective, rational within the logic of a zero-sum game system. [11]

Neorealists disagree over how states attempt to secure their survival and seek power. Offensive realists, including Mearsheimer, argue that states look to establish regional hegemony, which not only secures their survival but positions them to expand their influence into other regions (the United States being a classic example), securing their survival even further. Defensive realists, by contrast, argue that states do not seek hegemony, which entails significant risk, but tend to seek equilibrium, or a balance of power, by balancing out, either alone or in alliance with other states, stronger powers. While Walt has asserted that balancing is far more common than bandwagoning (the practice of weak states, in order to protect themselves, joining forces with stronger ones, which can be self-defeating insofar as these weak states can thereby strengthen states that can later turn on them), bandwagoning nonetheless occurs. [12] And though Israel (fighting five major wars and innumerable conflicts since its 1948 birth) resembles a would-be hegemon, the tenuous origins and trajectory of its relationship with the United States, though it may be difficult to recall, reveal a form of bandwagoning.

From its inception, Israel has sought to make itself indispensable to the mightiest country in the world. The United States was ambivalent about Israel before 1967, as the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was concerned that military support for Israel could undermine United States relationships with Turkey, Greece, and Iran, endangering the United States’ control of key oil routes. [13] Seeking foreign capital (in its first decades Israel was highly dependent on foreign donors and then German reparations) and acutely aware of its geopolitical vulnerability, Israel made an intense effort, with little initial success, to convince the United States of Israeli functionality and reliability. In 1951, Haaretz editor Gershom Schocken wrote:

Israel had proven its military might in the War of Independence, so making it somewhat stronger could help the West keep the political balance in the Middle East. According to this view, Israel would act as a watchdog. It wouldn’t become aggressive against the explicit wishes of America and Britain. But, if, for whatever reason, the latter were to turn a blind eye, Israel could be counted on to punish those neighbours whose attitude towards the West had become a little too disrespectful. [14]

David Ben-Gurion repeatedly sought to put Israel in service to the United States (offering, for instance, to secretly aid the United States in the Korean War)—efforts that the prime minister’s biographer described as “pathetic and shameful.” [15] Israel did not win enthusiastic U.S. backing until its overwhelming victory in the June 1967 war, in which it destroyed the reputations of both Nasser and Arab nationalism while dealing a blow to the Soviets’ growing regional influence amid the United States’ preoccupation with Vietnam. Israel has been the world’s largest recipient of U.S. aid (totaling approximately $100 billion) ever since, enjoying steadfast diplomatic support from the world’s most powerful country. [16] And Israel has worked to earn its keep, balancing countries that are hostile to or could conceivably threaten U.S. interests in the Middle East and operating as a pivotal U.S. arms conduit. Enabling U.S. administrations to circumvent national and international law, the CIA subcontracted the Mossad to execute tasks that the U.S. Congress could not “stomach.” [17] Israel has helped arm, and in some cases provided training and logistical support to counterinsurgency death squads in, apartheid South Africa, Iran, Uganda, Ethiopia, Yemen, Morocco, Nigeria, Panama, Chile, Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras, Zaire, Botswana, and the Philippines. Israel has also played a critical role in conflicts throughout the region, including facilitating the United States’ covert arming of official enemy Iran in the Iran-Iraq War (the United States’ aim was to prevent the rise of a regional hegemon, and it sought, by arming both sides, to prolong the nearly decade-long war in which approximately one million people were killed). Perhaps most importantly, Israel, alongside Egypt (not coincidentally, another recipient of enormous U.S. aid, and which Walt himself has labeled a U.S. “bandwagoner”), has enabled the United States to effectively secure control of the Suez Canal and thereby the Mediterranean, a precondition for global power since antiquity. Why then, we might ask the lobby’s critics, would the United States want a weakened Israel? While observers are undoubtedly taken aback by Israel’s occasionally contemptuous conduct in its dealings with the United States, such entitlement does not reflect the power of the Israel lobby but the fact that the United States, which has a profound incentive in preventing regional political unity or the emergence of a hostile hegemon, depends on Israel to sustain a status quo that Washington finds enormously beneficial. And Israel has fervently worked to both produce this dependence andensure that it does not wane.

* * *
While neorealism, a theory designed to explain “a small number of big and important things” [18] in general and war in particular, can explain significant aspects of Israel’s historic development and its relationship with its neighbors and the United States, it is not designed to address domestic phenomena or the specific workings of power in anything other than highly abstract and generic terms. Accordingly, neorealism has no interest in the Israel lobby, or any other lobby for that matter, which is why Mearsheimer and Walt had to abandon their theory in order to try to explicate the Israeli “special case.” Realism (which holds that little has changed in international relations since Thucydides’s account of the Peloponnesian War) also has little interest in the workings of global capitalism and the demands it imposes. Therefore, in order to understand the specific mechanics of the global system in which Israel resides—that is, the exigencies of capital accumulation amid global competition—we need to employ an additional theoretical framework.

Although Mearsheimer and Walt employed a liberal pluralist analysis of the Israel lobby, liberalism’s treatment of capitalism fundamentally contradicts neorealism’s general conception of power, as liberalism tends to view markets as enabling absolute gains that, if developed rationally, can benefit all parties. Such a harmonious—“everyone wins”—conception, however, is at odds with neorealism’s understanding of power as inherently relative. Indeed, when called to do so, neorealists have noted that markets and resources are finite and thereby frequently constitute a zero-sum game in which one state’s access is predicated on another’s exclusion. [19] Marxism, then, is far more consistent with neorealism’s conception of power and provides a far more effective supplement to an analysis of Israeli historic development. For it is only Marxism that translates neorealism’s emphasis on abstract power into power as it exists in the world today: state competition for control of capital accumulation.

However, with exceptions, [20] Left analyses of Israel that employ radical political economy are relatively rare. Many Left accounts of Israel in fact exchange political-economic analyses for political-cultural ones, stressing, for instance, the special, rather than general nationalistic, character of Zionism. Such accounts often invoke Israeli polls demonstrating the Israeli public’s support for Israel’s wars, as if Israeli jingoism is exceptional and as if common Israelis decide, rather than merely justify, state policy. [21] Relatedly, many Left accounts rely on liberal pluralist arguments in order to focus, like Mearsheimer and Walt, on the Israel lobby. For instance, prolific Marxist writer Paul Street, who has elsewhere subjected the United States to withering anticapitalist critique, has complained that the bulk of the U.S. establishment is held “captive to the savage racist and sociopathic occupation and mass-murder state Israel has become.” [22]

Thus, when Left critics of Israel do address economics, they typically do so by isolating the role of the Israel lobby rather than by examining Israel’s place in the international economy. Such accounts emphasize that the Israel lobby functions through amassing enormously concentrated wealth that it channels into an increasingly unregulated electoral system. However, it is merely presupposed that the huge investors constituting the Israel lobby are primarily motivated by national or religious affinity for Israel (if not so-called dual loyalties), rather than the self-interest that enabled these individuals to amass such wealth in the first place. As Michael Massing notes, the key individuals driving the Israel lobby represent a remarkably wealthy and minuscule fraction of U.S. Jews, who are not only far richer but also far more hawkish on Israel than the U.S. Jewish population in general. [23] A key factor influencing support for Israel, then, is not merely whether you are Jewish (Christian Zionists also support Israel, with a significantly different religious-political agenda) but whether you are wealthy. Any analysis of U.S. support for Israel, including the machinations of the Israel lobby, therefore needs to also situate Israel within a global political-economic process based on the needs and demands of investors.

The most prominent example of contemporary Left criticism of Israel is of course BDS itself. BDS, which reflects the work of sincere, devoted, and at times courageous activists, should be credited for raising awareness of Israel’s abuse of Palestinians. But BDS, which looks to an imperialist system to resolve problems that imperialism has produced, is neither radical nor liberatory. Indeed, BDS supporters demonstrate a fundamental weakness in their position when they are unable to adequately answer why, given that Israeli violence is contingent upon U.S. support, BDS doesn’t oppose the United States itself? [24] The answer, reflecting political impotence that should be interrogated rather than accommodated, is that those who support peace and justice do not have the power to make the United States do what they want. Instead of addressing the implications of this reality, however, BDS advocates either blame their powerlessness on the Israel lobby or sidestep the question of their powerlessness altogether, ultimately proceeding by ignoring the United States and targeting its Israeli client. [25] But if activists are powerless against the U.S. patron, what makes them believe that it is worthwhile to exert power against the Israeli client? Clients, the history of the modern Middle East demonstrates, can be replaced. Moreover, targeting Israel (the client) instead of the United States (the patron) mystifies the source, and purpose, of the power that activists ostensibly seek to challenge; the problems in the Middle East did not begin with the creation of Israel and would hardly cease with its disappearance. And considering that U.S.-based BDS activists are so powerless against their own state—the oldest living democracy, after all—why should Palestinians be encouraged to create one of their own? It is significant that many U.S. leftists, who rightly condemn their own society’s violence and poverty, and who have recently witnessed their government’s brutal protection of the status quo during the coordinated police actions that crushed the Occupy Wall Street movement, deem good enough for Palestinians what they themselves are compelled to protest.

It is similarly significant that BDS attempts to wield sanctions, a form of “soft power” that states use to bend other states to their will, against Israel. For sanctions to become something other than a mere moral position, they require states to enforce them. But under what circumstances would, say, the United States or United Kingdom apply sanctions against Israel? Do BDS supporters really believe that the Obama administration shares their moral concerns about Palestinian suffering? What does it imply that sanctions, taken to their logical conclusion, promote a role reversal in which the Palestinian Authority (PA) would become a U.S. proxy and Israel would become a sanctioned “rogue state”? And as long as sanctions are “an essential part of demonstrating disapproval,” [26] why not express this disapproval in a manner that does not invoke and thereby reinforce the international system of which the Israel-Palestine catastrophe is but a part?

The most controversial aspect of BDS is its support for the Palestinian right of return. Norman Finkelstein has criticized BDS in this regard, claiming that the right of return’s arguably de facto establishment of a Palestinian state would put an end to Israel. [27] Strangely, however, Finkelstein’s objection is that such an outcome would be inconsistent with international law and popular opinion. In the first case, as many BDS advocates have noted, BDS’s call for the right of return is in fact in line with UN Resolution 194. In the second case, it is reactionary in the extreme to suggest that political demands should conform to the attitudes and prejudices of mainstream opinion. In fact, the greatest historic advances have resulted precisely from challenging rather than accepting dubious popular beliefs, and BDS’s call for the right of return reflects the elementary bargaining tactic of asking for a great deal in order to receive something at all. Per contra Finkelstein, BDS is not problematic for being unrealistic or unpalatable to the masses but because it is deeply conservative.

* * *
One reason why so many leftists eschew radical political economy in their analyses of Israel is that Israel does appear to represent a case of security concerns trumping economic well-being, a point that is sometimes made regarding Israel’s violent and costly suppression of Palestinian independence. Rejecting the neoclassical economic presumption of aggregate measurement, however, Jonathan Nitzan and Shimshon Bichler’s The Global Political Economy of Israel arrives at fundamentally different conclusions. Basing their argument on the neo-Marxist notion of differential accumulation, Nitzan and Bichler argue that not only are instability and stagflation not inimical to economic expansion, but that there exist entire regimes (that is, global and broadbased social and economic paths, rather than discrete national policies or corporate strategies, to differential accumulation) that are devoted to such expansion. Significantly, these regimes are not based on absolute growth but on the more important relative gains of “beating the average.” Specifically, the global economy has oscillated between breadth regimes and depth regimes that, though not mutually exclusive, tend to advance at one another’s expense. Breadth regimes are characterized by increased (or “broadened”) hiring, economic expansion, mergers and acquisitions, low inflation, political stability, and limited social conflict. Depth regimes, by contrast, do not feature increased hiring but rather extract “deeper” productivity from existing workers and these regimes typically feature stagflation and—amid heightened competition for profit—intensified social conflict and a greater likelihood of war. Buttressing their argument, Nitzan and Bichler use an array of charts to show that every time depth regimes entered a “danger zone” of sustained negative differential accumulation, which occurred in 1967, 1973, 1979, 1980–88, and 1990–91, “energy conflicts” erupted. [28]

Delineating Israel’s evolution through global capitalism’s breadth and depth regimes, the authors compare early Israel to Hong Kong and Singapore, all economies whose significant capital inflows enabled them to rapidly achieve large productivity gains without first developing agricultural surpluses. While Israel was therefore initially plagued by excess capacity, by the mid-1960s the Israeli economy had merged with the global economy’s general pattern of growth.

Thus, when the world entered a depth regime following the 1973 glut, so did Israel, whose increasingly transnational dominant capital responded with regressive redistributive policies via intensified military spending and the expansion of the financial sector. Contrary to neoclassical assumptions of aggregate wealth and measurement, Nitzan and Bichler’s emphasis on differential accumulation points to a faction of transnational capital that embraced inflation, stagnation, and instability as long as arms prices outpaced the rate of inflation and could be purchased by oil-rich buyers. The epicenter of this “massive differential accumulation bonanza” enjoyed by the depth regime’s “Weapondollar-Petrodollar Coalition” was the Middle East (where the recently privatized international weapons industry relocated following the United States’ departure from Southeast Asia). [29]

However, the end of the Cold War and the rise of the tech bubble brought an abrupt end to the global depth regime that, with the help of U.S. arms contractors concerned about global overproduction, “brought Israeli military firms down to their knees.” [30] While this reduced the likelihood of an Israeli-launched war, Israel’s reinvention as a major high-tech player simultaneously increased domestic unemployment and inequality. Moving away from high price arms exports, Nitzan and Bichler note, Israel now focused on attracting foreign investment by providing firms enormous subsidies through state-funded research and development, low tax rates, and a workforce containing the world’s largest percentage of engineers.

Notably, Israel’s rising inequality, beginning in the 1970s, helped delegitimize the liberal Labor government, as Labor increasingly could not reconcile its Keynesian policies with the emerging neoliberal economic demands of a changing world economy. The conservative Likud exploited the growing distance between Labor’s rhetoric and policy and won power in 1977, a process that was soon paralleled in Thatcher’s Britain, Reagan’s United States, Kohl’s Germany, and, after much initial resistance, socialist Mitterrand’s France. However, in Israel the turn to reactionary conservatism furthered the growth of hyper-religious, nationalist, and racist political movements that angrily justified the government’s expansionism in general and settlement-building in particular.

At the same time, the shift from arms exports and volatility to high-tech development and stability, featuring the desire for a so-called peace dividend, was reflected in Israel’s apparent willingness in the Oslo accords to make a deal with the Palestinians, albeit one in which Palestinians would have been granted, as Edward Said noted, settlement-encircled “bantustans” whose borders, water, and airspace would have been controlled by Israel. [31] That is, Israel was never prepared to permit any degree of Palestinian independence or economic activity that would challenge, rather than subsidize, the more powerful Israeli economy and state.

The dramatic collapse of the tech bubble in 2000, followed by the 2006 election of Hamas and the implosion of the global economy in 2008, ended whatever remained of hopes for a meaningful peace. While most descriptions of Israel’s repeated military attacks on Gaza focus on the 2006 election, such accounts permit the election’s obvious political significance to obscure its economic implications. Israel justifies its routine attacks on Gaza—normalized and naturalized as “mowing the lawn”—by referring to Hamas’s refusal to recognize Israel’s right to exist. However, amid an intensive depth regime, Israel nevertheless has an incentive to increase its arms industry’s differential “accumulation through crisis” by not only periodically bombing Gaza but also by using the opportunity to showcase its military equipment to international buyers willing to pay high prices—allowing Israel to “beat the average”—for Israeli exports that can now be marketed as “battle tested.” [32] Simultaneously, Israel signals to not only Hamas but also the international community that it is ultimately content to maintain a situation in which there is no Palestinian economic growth over a situation in which Palestinian economic growth—potentially benefiting from an open harbor and recent offshore oil discoveries—under Hamas challenges rather than buttresses the Israeli economy.

Nitzan and Bichler’s analysis is hardly perfect. For instance, their description of an arms-oil coalition determining state policy, including manufacturing energy conflicts, resembles the liberal pluralism that characterizes states as blank slates that can be “taken over,” rather than discrete institutions with intrinsic characteristics and requirements. Similarly, their description of a synthesized state-capital nexus is partly based on the well-known phenomenon (for example, Bechtel and Halliburton) of politician-civilians passing through the public-private “revolving door.” Suggesting that because the same individuals work in different institutions, those institutions must have similar, if not identical, aims, Nitzan and Bichler express an uncharacteristically liberal belief in individuals’ ability to overcome the constraints and demands of the institutions of which they are mere stewards, a theory that does little to account for dramatic bipartisan foreign policy continuities.

Just the same, Israel’s recent assault on Gaza, and much of the formal international condemnation of it, suggests that, to use Nitzan and Bichler’s language, depth and breadth regimes are currently colliding over access to Israel-Palestine. While Israel would in all likelihood prefer a cowed Fatah and “peace” to an insubordinate Hamas and war, the Israeli and U.S. arms industries (given that approximately 75 percent of U.S. aid to Israel is designated for purchases of U.S. arms) are nonetheless major beneficiaries of Israel’s military attacks on Gaza, which perversely contribute to the differential accumulation of powerful international actors.

It is not, however, to ignore the appalling brutality of Israel’s mass killings of effectively imprisoned Palestinians to note that breadth, or so-called productive, investment is merely the other side of the capitalist coin (interestingly, leftists who routinely condemn the type of waterfront investment transforming, for instance, Williamsburg in New York City, have no criticisms of plans that would “gentrify” Gaza’s port). Under both breadth and depth regimes, human beings are a mere means to the end of capital accumulation, which will ultimately take whatever form it can.

* * *

To return to the question posed above, why then do so many critics abandon their conventional analytic frameworks for interpreting the world when it comes to Israel? I argue that such interpretations result from a convergence of two phenomena: the existence of generally unquestioned yet problematic liberal-left ontologies and a widespread erroneous perception of Israel’s uniqueness.

Broadly speaking, the Left promotes concepts that are neither designed nor intended to advance its interests. For instance, Judith Butler has written, “The BDS movement has become the most important contemporary alliance calling for an end to forms of citizenship based on racial stratification, insisting on rights of political self-determination for those for whom such basic freedoms are denied or indefinitely suspended, insisting as well on substantial ways of redressing the rights of those forcibly and/or illegally dispossessed of property and land.” [33]

But one need only examine the contemporary world to doubt the merits of citizenship.While it is undeniably oppressive to be excluded from citizenship (the production of a defining outside is part and parcel of citizenship’s raison d’être), Jewish Israeli citizens are subject to the same domination, vulnerability, and exploitation that nearly all members of modern states are. Not merely neoliberalism but capitalism has maintained the existence of an exploited Jewish Israeli working class that has to appease bosses at the threat of hunger and landlords at the threat of homelessness. [34] Proactively demanding such a status for all does little other than subordinate notions of liberation to a fetishized regressive egalitarianism.

Further, the historically and explicitly tractable nature of rights does not prevent Butler from demanding that they be restored to Palestinians. But who grants these rights in the first place, and who has the power to restore them? And who retains the power to suspend them again if they see fit, as they are suspended now? Articulating a historically grounded skepticism of rights, Giorgio Agamben has suggested that:

It is time to stop regarding declarations of rights as proclamations of eternal, meta-juridical values binding the legislator (in fact, without much success) to respect eternal ethical principles, and to begin to consider them according to their real historical function in the modern nation state. The same bare life that in the ancien régime was politically neutral and belonged to God as creaturely life . . . now fully enters into the structure of the state and even becomes the earthly foundation of the state’s legitimacy and sovereignty. [35]

While the Left tends to invoke citizenship and rights as defenses against institutional power, it by contrast generally acclaims democracy as an unquestioned good. And the Left’s indignation concerning Israel arises from, as much as any other factor, the fact that Israel, notwithstanding restricted Arab representation in the Knesset, is not democratic. Israel, besides having declared itself “a light unto nations,” is one of the last liberal states to grant formal rights to its predominantly European-descended majority while denying these rights (from property and marriage rights to the right of return) to its predominantly indigenous minorities (namely, Arabs and other non-Jews) who constitute 25 percent of the Israeli population proper. The resemblance between this de facto and de jure legal, political, and social discrimination and nineteenth-century European colonialism, as well as apartheid South Africa and the Jim Crow South, encourages the anti-racist Left to view Israel as a particularly hypocritical and offensive relic of an unacceptable and bygone era. It is precisely this relationship between a ruling group of predominantly white and biologically defined Jews and an excluded group of mainly Muslim people of color that makes Israel salient in the Left imagination. There are numerous reasons why there have not been prominent leftist protests of Saudi Arabia or Chad, countries with horrendous social divisions and oppression, but chief among them is that in these countries the rulers by and large look—at least to most observers in the Global North—like the ruled. And it is in part the largely unquestioned fealty to the concept and practice of democracy that prevents the Left from composing a genuinely radical critique of the world, and a fortiori Israel, as it exists today. That the desire for democracy is ubiquitous should, but apparently does not, raise concern among leftists whose protest chant of “This is what democracy looks like” comfortably coexists with warmongering presidents’ vows to bring democracy to the Middle East. While leftists are enamored with the notion of the demos ruling themselves, they spend less time examining the content and purposes of this rule. Fixated on the who and the how rather than the what and the why, leftists valorize mere proceduralism, a form without content.

The devastating, if not absurd, consequences of the Left’s fixation on democracy were recently on display in Greece, where the left-wing coalition, Syriza, was seen as scoring a partial victory over the European Union (EU) when the latter permitted the socialists to self-manage the EU’s austerity program, which of course does nothing to challenge poverty as such and on the contrary ideologically reinforces it as an unavoidable fact of life. And leftists of course frequently compare Israel to South Africa and invoke apartheid’s demise as an inspiring model to emulate. It need not defend racist South African rule, however, to note that South African poverty is as devastating today as it has ever been, but because this poverty is administered by putative representatives of the majority population, the Left, and the world as a whole, take far less notice. That leftist supporters of Palestinian nationalism invoke such models of self-administered poverty as examples of radical politics indicates that the Left, beholden in spite of itself to a form of identity politics, has in effect adopted the economic and political interests of a Palestinian ruling class that is eager to exploit Palestinian workers without external interference. At best, such a stance reveals a fatal paucity of political imagination.

* * *

However, problematic liberal-left assumptions are ubiquitous and therefore cannot of themselves explain the Left’s idiosyncratic treatment of Israel. This treatment results, I argue, from the convergence of these liberal-left presuppositions with a prevailing perception of Israeli nationalism itself, a perception that should be distinguished from the prosaic material reality of the historical development of Zionism and the Israeli nation-state. The modern project of the nation-state fuses the two institutions that compose its name, but while states, whether dynastic, monarchical, or papal, have existed for millennia, the concept of the nation did not develop until the late eighteenth century. And whereas the state is a territorial fact, the nation is socially constructed, an “imagined community” that bases its legitimacy and authority on an ancient “tradition” that paradoxically could only have been “invented” under modernity. The inherently contrived nature of the nation was perhaps best evinced by Massimo d’Azeglio’s well-known pronouncement following Italy’s 1862 unification, “We have made Italy. Now we must make Italians.” Nevertheless, throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, nationalism, defined as real, became “real in its effects.” Nationalism both produced and articulated the collective self-identification and political aims of, most prominently, independence movements that defined themselves in opposition to the multinational Hapsburg, Ottoman, and Romanov empires that collapsed following World War I and the European and Japanese colonial empires that collapsed following World War II. Notwithstanding the role of key economic factors, these national independence movements evolved politically in part as reactions to rule by perceived interlopers in particular geographic areas, whether in Serbia, Kenya, Vietnam, or India.

It is not difficult to view Zionism as being distinct in this regard. A minority nearly everywhere but a majority nowhere, Jewish nationalists did not fight for control of any of the lands where they resided except for late Mandatory Palestine, where most Jews were relative newcomers. Instead of constructing a national identity within the context of a localized and concrete struggle with a dominant power that they sought to win independence from, Zionism invoked a globally diffused religious-ethnic-cum-national identity whose demand for a state (whether in Argentina, Uganda, or ultimately Palestine) was initially distinct from any single, ongoing, territorially specific struggle. That is, instead of adopting nationalism as the language of its political struggle, Zionism sought a specific and winnable political struggle that would enable it to implement its nationalism. This was a nationalism that, instead of defining itself against the Habsburgs, French, or British, sought in this respect to define itself far more abstractly against all. [36] Zionism in fact exploited this imagined abstractness in order to mystify its ethnic cleansing of indigenous Palestinians whom it universalized as “mere” Arabs. [37] Whereas the contemporary Left indeed criticizes Zionism for having achieved its national independence at the expense of the indigenous population, I am suggesting that it is this notion of Zionism’s abstractness that ironically helps account for the perceived precariousness of Zionism’s legitimacy outside of the conservative biblical imagination.

Such abstractness was only reinforced by the explicit contingency accompanying Israel’s creation. Israeli statehood was dramatically established with the UN’s 1947 vote, which was influenced by sympathy from the “international community” (more accurately, the Great Powers) for what remained of European Jews following the Nazi genocide. The problem with such a “gift,” however, is that everyone knows that gifts can be withdrawn, a perception that to some extent characterizes Israel as an anomalously tenuous member of the “family of nations.” There was a revealing presumptuousness in the Great Powers’ resolution of the Jewish Question at the expense of, not European Christians who had historically persecuted Jews as such, but, Muslim Arabs who had historically been far more tolerant of Jews whom they either treated as one minority among others or respected as a fellow “People of the Book.” As Israel’s abuse of Palestinians has become more visible and abhorrent, it is difficult for its critics not to wonder whether Israel is forfeiting the goodwill that enabled it to become a state in the first place.

To be sure, the Zionist lesson of the Judeocide at first glance appears convincing, although not in the manner in which the defenders of a Jewish state imagine. If there is a common denominator in the Nazis’ conceptions and persecution of Jews it is that of nationless-ness. The Nazis conceived of Jews as, in the pseudo-scientific language of the day, an unassimilable “virus” that attacks not merely the “host” but the “host’s” very “immune system.” [38] More specifically, Nazi ideology conceived of the Jews as less of an “actual” race than an “anti-race” existing outside of the Nazis’ carefully constructed racial hierarchy. [39] Simultaneously, the Nazis feared Jews as the personification of Judeo-Bolshevism, a historical force that was understood as an existential threat to Germany’s borders, national identity, social relations, and statehood. The common characteristic uniting these seemingly disparate categorizations is that they both define the Jew as intrinsically international or, more precisely, nationless. I argue that it is only through examining the Nazis’ dread of nationless-ness that we can reconcile the apparent contradiction in the Nazis’ description of the Jew as both international communist and global capitalist. Similarly, it is only through the idea of nationless-ness that we can adequately account for the Nazis’ ferocious persecution of their second-most hated enemy: the Gypsies, of whom half a million were murdered. And Nazism, lest we forget, represented nationalism par excellence.

It is then mindless if not cruel to conclude that the appropriate response to the Nazis’ genocide is the creation of yet another state rather than the radical criticism of nationalism and the system of nation-states itself. For the creation of Israel has not only led to the oppression of non-Jews but has also failed to protect the security of its Jewish citizens; Netanyahu’s exhortations to European Jews to immigrate to their supposed haven are belied by his perpetual warnings of an impending Iranian nuclear attack. Moreover, it is not only Jews who have been destroyed by nation-constructing or empire-building states but also Native Americans and Armenians in addition to a great many others. In this regard, the “lesson of the Holocaust” is more relevant to the terrible vulnerability of the stateless and putatively unassimilable Palestinians than it is to Israel, which in the final analysis is defined less by any supposed Jewish essence than by the economic and political demands that confront all states. As Nicholas De Genova has asserted, “The heritage of the Holocaust belongs to the Palestinian people. The State of Israel has no claim to the heritage of the Holocaust. The heritage of the oppressed belongs to the oppressed, not the oppressor.” [40]

But if it is unreasonable to suggest that the solution to Jewish suffering is a Jewish state, it is just as unreasonable to suggest that the solution to Palestinian suffering is a Palestinian state. Expressing a weariness of the notion that the only alternative to being a victim is to become a persecutor, Jean Genet has asserted, “The day when the Palestinians become institutionalized . . . I will no longer be at their side. The day the Palestinians become a nation like the other nations, I will no longer be there.” [41] Such a stance hardly entails inaction. On the contrary, it expresses an understanding that human liberation will result not from joining the very institutions that are responsible for mass suffering but from criticizing their fundamental purposes and, through this criticism, articulating a world worth fighting for.

Joshua Sperber is a doctoral candidate in the political science department at the City University of New York (CUNY) Graduate Center.

1 Yousef Munayyer,“Netanyahu’s Win Is Good for Palestine,” New York Times, 18 March 2015,…. See also Evan Serpick, “Embracing Israel Boycott, Jewish Voice for Peace Insists on Its Jewish Identity,” Jewish Daily Forward, 28 March 2015,….

2 John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, “The Israel Lobby,” London Review of Books 28, no. 6 (23 March 2006): pp. 3–12, While Mearsheimer and Walt’s article was published one year after BDS was announced, the Israel lobby thesis is not new. See, for instance, Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair, eds., The Politics of Anti-Semitism (Oakland, CA: AK Press, 2003). However, Mearsheimer and Walt’s treatment is the most developed and prominent statement of the argument, which is why I focus on it.

3 John J.Mearsheimer,“Realism and the Rise of China,” YouTube video, comments he made in the question period following his lecture, Koç University, Istanbul, 10 October 2012,

4 Examples of Left critics of the Israel lobby include James Petras, Phyllis Bennis, Naomi Klein, Ali Gharib, Roane Carey, Andrew Levine, and Medea Benjamin.

5 Barbara Opall-Rome, “In Israel, Residual Resentment over Nixed Lavi Fighter Program,” Defense News, 1 October 2013,….

6 P. R. Kumaraswamy, “At What Cost Israel-China Ties?”Middle East Quarterly 13, no. 2 (2006): pp. 37–44.

7 Dov Waxman, “Where’s the All-Powerful Israel Lobby Now?,” Haaretz, 31 December 2013,

8 Brent E. Sasley, “Implications of AIPAC’s Lobbying on Syria,” The Daily Beast, 12 September 2013,….

9 Joseph Massad, “Blaming the Lobby,” Al-Ahram Weekly, 23–29 March 2006.

10 The security dilemma is a term that was coined by the German scholar of international relations, John H. Herz, in his 1951 book Political Realism and Political Idealism: A Study in Theories and Realities (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press). It refers to the spiral in which a state’s actions to heighten its security (for example, enhancing military strength) leads others to respond with similar measures and therefore heightens rather than reduces tension.

11 John Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (New York: Norton, 2003).

12 Stephen Walt, The Origins of Alliances (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1987).

13 Much of the following section is based on Jonathan Nitzan and Shimshon Bichler, The Global Political Economy of Israel (London: Pluto Press, 2002).

14 Quoted in Nitzan and Bichler, The Global Political Economy of Israel, pp. 239–40.

15 Quoted in Nitzan and Bichler, The Global Political Economy of Israel, p. 240.

16 Between 1949 and 1966, the United States never provided Israel with more than $100 million annually and, in particular, little of it in military grants and loans. See Jeremy M. Sharp, U.S. Foreign Aid to Israel (Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service, 10 June 2015),

17 Nitzan and Bichler, The Global Political Economy of Israel, p. 241.

18 Kenneth N.Waltz describing neorealist structures in “Reflections on Theory of International Politics: A Response to My Critics,” in Neorealism and Its Critics, ed. Robert O. Keohane (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), p. 329.

19 See John J. Mearsheimer, “The False Promise of International Institutions,” International Security 19, no. 3 (Winter, 1994–95): pp. 5–49.

20 A limited sample of diverse critical Left writings on Israel would include Abu-Manneh Bashir, “Israel in the U.S. Empire,” Monthly Review 58, no. 10 (March 2007), and, in addition to Nitzan and Bichler, works including Noam Chomsky’s The Fateful Triangle: The United States, Israel, and the Palestinians (Boston, MA: South End Press, 1983); Gershon Shafir’s Land, Labor, and the Origins of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, 1882–1914 (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989); Joel Kovel’s Overcoming Zionism: Creating a Single Democratic State in Israel/Palestine (London: Pluto Press, 1987), chapter 5; Laurence J. Silberstein, ed., Postzionism: A Reader (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2008); and Ilan Pappe’s A History of Modern Palestine: One Land, Two Peoples (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004).

21 See, for instance, Ben Lorber, “In Max Blumenthal’s ‘The 51 Day War,’ Life in Gaza Looks Bleak, but Resistance is Growing,” In These Times, 15 June 2015,….

22 Paul Street, “Israel, Gaza, and the False Face of Barack Obama,” CounterPunch, 8 August 2014,….

23 Michael Massing, “Deal Breakers,” American Prospect, 20 February 2002,

24 Noam Chomsky, among others, has addressed this question, asking, “If we boycott Tel Aviv University because Israel violates human rights at home, then why not boycott Harvard because of far greater violations by the United States?” Noam Chomsky, “On Israel-Palestine and BDS,” Nation, 2 July 2014,

25 For instance, the BDS website notes, “World governments have failed to end their support for Israel’s crimes or put pressure on Israel to comply with international law and human rights. By working together on focused consumer boycotts and campaigns against the companies and institutions that help Israel to commit its crimes, the Palestinian-led boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement is a powerful and strategic tool for isolating Israel.” See “Join the BDS Movement and Make an Impact,” BDS Movement, accessed 2 September 2015, Also see Omar Barghouti, “The BDS Movement at 10: An Interview with Omar Barghouti,” by Adam Horowitz and Philip Weiss, Mondoweiss, 9 July 2015,

26 “Introducing the BDS Movement,” BDS Movement, accessed 27 March 2015,

27 Norman Finkelstein, “Arguing the Boycott Divestment Sanctions Campaign with Norman Finkelstein,” interview by Frank Barat, vimeo posted by HuffPoMonitor, 14 February 2012,

28 Nitzan and Bichler, The Global Political Economy of Israel, pp. 15, 173, 235–38.

29 Nitzan and Bichler, The Global Political Economy of Israel, p. 25.

30 Nitzan and Bichler, The Global Political Economy of Israel, p. 30.

31 For instance, see Edward Said, The End of the Peace Process: Oslo and After (New York: Vintage Books, 2001), p. 13.

32 Shuki Sadeh, “How Israel’s Arms Manufacturers Won the Gaza War,” Haaretz, 12 August 2014,; Shuki Sadeh, “For Israeli Arms Makers, Gaza War is a Cash Cow,” Haaretz, 11 August 2014,

33 Judith Butler, “Academic Freedom and the ASA’s Boycott of Israel,” Nation, 8 December 2013,….

34 See, for instance, Paul Krugman, “Israel’s Gilded Age,” New York Times, 16 March 2015,….

35 Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998), p. 127.

36 This self-definition—which is redolent of the mythos of “a people without a land, and a land without a people”—should be distinguished from the actual historic development of twentieth-century Jewish nationalism. For instance, Zachary Lockman has examined the ways in which Jewish and Palestinian nationalisms interacted with and helped mutually constitute one another from 1906 through the British Mandate. Baruch Kimmerling similarly has examined aspects of the interrelational historic dynamic between Zionist settlers and Palestinian Arabs. See Zachary Lockman, Comrades and Enemies: Arab and Jewish Workers in Palestine, 1906–1948 (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1996), and Baruch Kimmerling, Zionism and Territory: The Socio-Territorial Dimensions of Zionist Politics (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1983).

37 Rashid Khalidi has shown that the construction of Palestinian nationalism emerged during the Ottoman period and transcends its twentieth-century relations with Zionism. See Rashid Khalidi, Palestinian Identity: The Construction of Modern National Consciousness (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999).

38 Mary Felstiner described these concepts in her course, “Holocaust and Genocide,” San Francisco State University, San Francisco, California, Spring 1999.

39 See, for instance, Michael Burleigh and Wolfgang Wippermann, The Racial State: Germany, 1933–1945 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991).

40 Nicholas De Genova, speech at a pro-Palestinian sit-in, Columbia University, New York City, 18 April 2002.

41 Quoted in Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000), p. 109.