When Truth Is Prohibited: Why Western Leaders Refuse to Call Jihadist Terror by Name

Academia has undergone an astounding revolution in the last half century: Whole disciplines have replaced their original vocation, the quest for truth, with the diametric opposite – a prohibition on truth.

 By Gadi Taub
(First Published in English in Haaretz, Dec. 20, 2015)

When all Narratives are Created Equal

A talented student of mine in a screenwriting workshop vented her frustration with her anthropology degree in a short screenplay she wrote. It was about a postmodern anthropology professor named Relativa Strauss (in Hebrew this actually sounds like a name) who sends a student, Dr. Blindman, on an expedition to the “Bibisi Islands” to study the pot-making ritual of a secluded indigenous tribe.

But it turns out the pots were bought at IKEA, the tribe was faked and the whole expedition was an elaborate experiment on the young anthropologist. The screenplay ends with Blindman, who has now seen the postmodern light, lecturing on the experiment conducted on himself.

Behind him, one can see his PowerPoint presentation, entitled “Anthropology as Subversion of Self: The Researcher as Object of Study, the Field as Metaphor, the Research as Redress.” The last line of the screenplay is the first line of Blindman’s lecture: “We are proud to present the self-alienation paradigm.”

If you want to understand U.S. President Barack Obama’s verbal gymnastics to avoid calling jihadi terrorism by name, or the rise of Jeremy Corbyn to the top of the British Labour Party, or the general reluctance of European leaders to admit there may be a problem with self-segregated Muslim communities in their countries, this screenplay isn’t a bad place to start.

We popularly call these tendencies political correctness and ascribe them to the West’s guilty conscience over colonialism, imperialism and oppressive treatment of Others and minorities (on racial, gender or sexual-preference grounds). That PC has more to do with tending to one’s guilt feelings than with stable moral principles is fairly obvious by now.

But if we needed a reminder, the National Women’s Studies Association in the United States gave us one. It recently voted to join the academic boycott of Israel on grounds of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. It didn’t occur to the association to boycott, say, Saudi Arabia, whose human-rights record is incomparably worse, not to mention its treatment of women. Of course, the Saudis are the Other, and Jews had the misfortune to be Others in the worst of times and to turn into Us at a time when that’s less and less fashionable.

But to fully understand the trend we have to look beyond politics to the intellectual foundations behind it, because the last half century has seen a revolution in academia nothing short of astounding. Whole disciplines have replaced their original vocation, the quest for truth, with the diametric opposite: an explicit prohibition on telling the truth.

This isn’t an institutional prohibition, of course. It grew out of a philosophical trend dedicated to the rejection of truth, reality and universal values like human rights. It’s called postmodernism, and its PR is good enough to conceal some of its more dire consequences.

The misleading way such views present themselves gives them a democratic aura. Once, we are told, we believed in objective truth. This justified us in imposing our views as absolutes on Others, and then in ruthlessly exploiting them. But now that we have matured and learned that there is no objective truth, only points of view, we have become more modest and tolerant.

Ironically all this was immensely magnified not by American doubts about American values but by America’s supreme confidence in them. Unable to imagine sincere antidemocratic beliefs, Americans especially found it persuasive that an attack on the universal aspirations of liberalism would make us more liberal, not less. We would simply extend equality from people to values, thus becoming sensitive not just to the political rights of Others and minorities but also to their cultures, self-esteem and moral views.

I’ll leave aside the glaring contradiction between equality among people and equality among values. Giving equal standing to the values of those who believe women are property does not promote equality. This should be obvious. Less obvious is that this ostensibly pluralistic worldview has been built on the imperative to deny what our eyes see.

Here’s an example of how this logic works, from a field I’ve already mentioned, women’s studies. It’s not enough, explains Joan Wallach Scott, a leading historian of gender, to write about women based on the categories of their time, say, as workers (or mothers or citizens), because this does not “effectively change established definitions of those categories.”

Thus the historian’s aim cannot be limited to “uncovering new information about women,” because this will only perpetuate past gender relations. Since “history’s representations of the past help construct gender for the present,” the historian’s task must change. He or she, it seems, must be faithful not to past facts but to future goals. Rather than describe the past, presumably, one must write narratives that consciously subvert it in the service of current agendas. Because the aim isn’t truth, it’s empowerment.

Foucault Said So

Views like these thrive, of course, under the assumption that there is no such thing as truth in the first place. But the result is that few students of gender get a reliable picture of the past, even of the history of feminism itself. Things that don’t promote empowerment are just dropped.

When I studied about gender at an American university – as it happens, I had the privilege of attending a class in Joan Scott’s seminar – I heard much about progressive pioneers of feminism such as Elizabeth Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, who also opposed slavery. But I don’t recall any mention of the largest women’s organization at the end of the 19th century during the struggle for the 19th Amendment – the Women’s Christian Temperance Union.

This was a reactionary, often racist, movement that wanted the vote for women so they could legislate sins like alcohol consumption out of existence. Since some of its leaders were content to see lynchings go on undisturbed in the South, mentioning the temperance union does not, of course, help the project of empowerment. So better to forget about it.

But if describing the world as it is is forbidden, because it presumably perpetuates its oppressive power relations, how must historians, sociologists, anthropologists or students of gender go about their work? Such postmodern academics rarely admit openly, as did Michel Foucault (when he was pushed), that what they recommend is the writing of useful fictions. Rather, they usually say that instead of describing the world, they have turned to analyzing how our discourse constructs it. We should avoid (the illusion of) reality and focus instead on “deconstructing” our means of perceiving it.

In this way the study of the Orient, for example, has turned into a virtual prohibition on studying it. We are told that Oriental studies have traditionally put West and East on two sides of a metaphorical microscope. The West has “constructed itself” as a “scientific subject” peering through the lenses of faux scientific objectivity at an indigenous “object” squirming helplessly – agencyless, as it were – on “our” glass slate. What we really should be doing is taking apart the microscope. In short, our own discourse, not the Other, is the proper subject of study.

Consider Edward Said. Said’s 1978 book “Orientalism” has nothing at all to say about the Arab and Muslim world, only about its descriptions by the West. Each assertion about the East is evaluated in relation not to the East but to the politics of the observer.

We shouldn’t ask “Is it true?” but rather what political interest lay behind saying it. Research is judged not against the world but against the researcher. We shouldn’t say the East brutalizes women, not because it isn’t true, but because it’s unflattering to the East and is therefore a suspected prelude to oppressing it.

Said was criticized by postmodernists more pedantic than himself. Homi Bhabha, for example, is even stricter in his prohibition on the truth (which does not exist). So in his view even Said’s depiction of depictions, i.e., Said’s account of Western texts about the Orient, is suspect because it duplicates, and so helps solidify, the very power relations it purports to resist.

Thus according to Bhabha we should insert more – how should one put it? – ambiguity into our descriptions. In simple English, we should depict the Orient in more flattering terms so as to change power relationships – apparently even retroactively, if need be.

Stripped of its obfuscating rhetoric about “radical epistemology” and the “deconstruction of categories,” the whole enterprise suddenly looks simple and crude. When I was a young journalist for Army Radio, I interviewed a prominent multicultural postmodern intellectual on a late-night talk show. Like many of his colleagues he said the Zionist establishment discriminated against Jews from Muslim countries, held racist views about them, and coercively replaced their identity with a Western-style national one. I don’t remember disagreeing about the fact of discrimination, though I think I said that despite it all, those immigrant groups were never against a Jewish national identity.

Deserting One’s Vocation

But this is not what stonewalled the discussion. That happened only when I asked if my interlocutor believed that Israel should have respected the patriarchal family structure that immigrants from Muslim countries brought with them. He called the question itself “racist.” To him, we are not to say such things regardless of their truth or falsehood because they do not portray an oppressed group in a good enough light.

This is how the study of the social world has morphed into the imperative to look away from it. Whole disciplines have become a continuous effort to purify their own discourse. They have turned inward.

This is what anthropologist Clifford Geertz called “epistemological hypochondria.” It is also a form of academic narcissism. Since there is no real world, only discourses about it, and since academics are the producers of discourse, they have elevated themselves to the status of Creators. And after ascribing such a sublime role to themselves, they grew worried and got stuck in the ritual of washing their hands lest the new reality they are to create will somehow be tinged by the old.

But what academics did is much less important than what they stopped doing. They have deserted their vocation. Their obsession with purifying their own conscience has pulled the rug out from under a serious study of society, which is the basis for any attempt at reforming it.

The price of this neglect is steep. Many of the current elites – politicians, journalists, jurists, authors and intellectuals – have been brought up in this stifling academic environment and believe it proper, even noble, to prefer their own sense of righteousness to actual responsibility for the lives of others. Neglect has been crowned as openness and tolerance.

For fear of Islamophobia we should not criticize the self-segregation of Muslim communities in the West. For fear of being labeled racist we should not consider restrictions on immigration. For fear of echoing something that might be construed as misogyny we should not discuss the abuse of domestic-violence complaints in divorce trials. For fear of damaging a student’s self-esteem we should not ask if he needs extracurricular help with mathematics. For fear of being suspected of supporting the settlements we should not mention the flagrant anti-Semitism of Palestinian schoolbooks.

Above all, we should never say that upholding Western values like universal human rights, even by force in some cases, is sometimes desperately needed by those many Others who suffer oppression, violence, terror and genocide.

Ask Nadia Murad Basee Taha, a Yazidi woman who recently testified before the UN Security Council about her unimaginably brutal treatment at the hands of the Islamic State. She pleaded with the council to intervene. I doubt that Taha would agree with gender theorist Judith Butler that jihadi movements like, say, Hamas, should be considered part of the “global left.”

Some observers – many in Israel – believe that now that terrorism has struck Paris and California, the West will wake up and realize that democratic values need active defense. But it’s doubtful whether such optimism is warranted. When the democracies’ immune systems are so slow to wake up from their beauty sleep, democracy’s enemies fill the vacuum. When the political left and center are so preoccupied with cleansing their own conscience, the extreme right rises in their stead.

This is true in the international arena, where reactionary powers like Russia and Iran are filling the void that the Obama administration has left in the Middle East. Meanwhile, in domestic politics, people like Marine Le Pen or Donald Trump are poised to reap the sour fruits of public fears.

Those who have been so careful not to criticize the Other because of their inflated fears of being labeled bigots have opened the door to real bigots. It’s doubtful whether they have rendered good services either to themselves or the Others they proclaim so loudly to care about.

Does Abbas Really Want Israel to Withdraw From the West Bank?

Published in Haaretz, Feb. 18, 2016

A Palestinian journalist I happened to run into recently in some smoking corner asked me, “What makes you think we will let you leave the territories? Who will protect us?” I assume that he was at least half-joking. But as a thought experiment, maybe it’s worth exploring the other half for a moment.

We can rephrase the question this way: Why should Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas sign a peace treaty with us in return for a state along the 1967 lines? The answer is, of course, so that he can liberate his people from Israeli military control and be free to rebuild their national life.

Only it’s not so simple. First of all, it would require giving up the Palestinian refugees’ right of return, for which any Palestinian politician would pay a heavy price. After swearing allegiance to this right so many times, and after immortalizing the refugee problem for three generations with the help of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, yielding on the right of return will without a doubt be regarded as capitulation and moral bankruptcy.

And what about some relief in the realm of human rights? These rights are the cornerstone of the Israeli left’s arguments against the occupation, but it isn’t certain that they are a PA priority. Although the Israeli occupation seriously undermines the Palestinians’ human rights, the Palestinian Preventive Security force isn’t exactly Amnesty International and it isn’t clear it will abuse those rights any less.

Moreover, if Abbas and his people fear a Hamas takeover – and after Gaza it’s hard to blame them – they can rely on Israel’s superior military strength for as long as we’re there. It’s certainly more comfortable for Abbas than battling Hamas on his own. They are his people, after all.

Right now the PA can compensate for this dependence on Israel by declaring that it will never stop the struggle for liberation from Zionist colonialism. But if the Palestinians are liberated from Zionist colonialism through an agreement to divide the land, the PA will have to reverse both sides of the equation; it will be losing the support of the Israeli bayonets while also looking as if it succumbed to them.

But above all, Abbas has surely looked around at what’s happening throughout the region and has noticed that Arab nation-states have been collapsing all around him. The assumption that a Palestinian national state will be an island of stability in the heart of this chaos is not obvious, to say the least. Young, tiny, with institutions that have not been groomed for nation-building and with a shaky economy that’s dependent on others, it would not be a particularly safe bet, especially when all that separates it from the Islamic State caliphates is Jordan, which has absorbed Syrian refugees in numbers that are almost equal to a quarter of its own population.

Last, but not least, a peace agreement would give Israel a gift the PA won’t be too happy to give. It would extract Israel from its biggest problem, the occupation, halt its increasing international isolation, and put an end to the internal debate that’s been eating away at the foundations of the Israeli consensus.

Given all this, why should Abbas exchange victimhood for an uncertain future that is liable to exact such a high price?

Could it be that all this has occurred to him? If so, perhaps we should start thinking of how to try and end the occupation without his help.

Or perhaps it was just a silly joke by a Palestinian journalist in a smoking area. We put out our cigarettes and went back inside to listen to the same old arguments – who is right, who’s to blame, who violated what, who built where, and who is lying.


Why the American ‘multicultural’ model falls apart in Europe and Israel

By Gadi Taub


So routine has the use of the word “multiculturalism” become, that it is now invoked to described a variety of different things. In some of its popular usages, it is merely a synonym for pluralism. There is of course no problem with this from a liberal democratic point of view. Originally, though, the term referred to something far more drastic, an offshoot of postmodern ideology. Thus, as postmodernism maintains that there is no truth, multiculturalism claims that all cultures are on par. In its own eyes, the multicultural stance is actually a broadening of democracy from human beings to values. It is not enough to acknowledge that all human beings are equal; true equality requires that we respect their cultures equally too.
This simple argument contains a contradiction: According equal value to cultures can have the effect of undermining equality among human beings, not only of expanding it. Granting equal status to a culture in which women are the property of men, or in which slavery is permitted, is not a broadening of democracy. But despite this flagrant contradiction, multicultural rhetoric has taken hold among large segments of the Western elite and has become the cornerstone of political correctness. Of “the Other,” one may speak only in terms that are (to a liberal ear) positive. In this conversation, the Other is usually perceived only as victim and as saint.
A close listening to the discourse of the progressive elements in Europe about the refugee question shows how deeply entrenched this viewpoint has become. What one is allowed to say is that cultural encounters are productive, that diversity enriches and that contact with otherness expands our horizons.
But there is something deceptive about this paean to multiplicity. It talks about otherness but refuses to look at it, declares diversity but presumes uniformity. In other words, it is a form of self-deception. Its (misleading) name notwithstanding, the posture known as “multiculturalism” rests on a unicultural assumption: that beneath all the misunderstandings, we all share the same basic liberal beliefs. In fact, the colorful cultural mosaic that espousers of such approaches create in their mind’s eye works only when it is not actually colorful. Or, it is perhaps better to say, the mosaic can exist only when all its parts are themselves enthusiastic about mosaics – only when all its elements share the same passion for multiplicity, and are equally delighted with diversity.
Paradoxically, when everyone believes in diversity, it does not really exist. Beneath the thin veneer of talk of multiplicity we find the liberal assumption of unity. Of course, if all “cultures” are liberal, there is no problem with this stance. However, if one of them is not liberal, this stance offers no solution. Thus multiculturalism offers us a solution only when we don’t have a problem.
Along with the rest of the West, we in Israel bought this misleading view, by which liberalism presents its unity as multiplicity, from the United States, under the auspices of academic fashions that come under different headings but are related. Of these the most widespread are postmodernism (the versions that gained traction in Western academia are saliently more American than French), critical theory (the most widespread versions are more American than Marxist), culture studies, gender studies, postcolonial studies and more. All of them are embedded in American liberalism, and with them we have also bought American liberalism’s lack of self-awareness. For American academics liberalism is so self-evident that it’s presence, like the air we breathe, is transparent and intangible.
God is a liberal
American liberalism, which developed within a migrant society, had to wrestle with the question of creating unity from multiplicity from its very inception. And it also found effective solutions. In America, too, the multicultural view involves self-deception. But in its case the self-deception was beneficial, juxtaposed as it was on the bedrock of a deep and far-reaching consensus.
The assimilationist forces in America are tremendous, and the pressures they exert on people to conform are powerful. In various ways, both de facto and de jure, assimilation demands that migrants accept the country’s basic moral values: individualism, natural rights, gender equality, democracy, capitalism and a contractual conception of society and human relations. This is a precondition for becoming part of the American dream. If you have other dreams, America will shatter them quickly and efficiently, lest they endanger the moral consensus. True, diversity has a place beneath this uniform liberal umbrella but there is no place outside its purview.
One of the important progenitors of the American formula that so adeptly transformed multiplicity into unity was Thomas Jefferson, who drafted the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom of 1786. By shifting the emphasis of the arguments for freedom of religion, Jefferson found a way to square the circle. He was not alone in believing in freedom of religion, of course. Most of the liberals of his time agreed that it was wrong for the state to intervene in the citizens’ beliefs. But their reasoning was, generally, that none of us has direct access to God’s intentions. As the government, too, lacks such access, it must not decide for us what to believe.
Jefferson, however, stood the formula on its head. His statute opens with the resounding declaration, “God hath created the mind free.” In other words, freedom of religion itself is divinely ordained. The reason we should enact it is not because we lack access to God’s intention, but precisely because we do. And so we know that God himself is a liberal. Thus was unity sanctified through the language of multiplicity.
Jefferson’s formula underwent multiple transformations. However, the relevant version for our purposes is the one that emerged from the failure of the student revolt movement in the 1960s, in the wake of young Americans’ serious disappointment with their country. It thus remains tinged with the bitter taste of that disappointment; and it brought with it the moral kitsch that turned self-flagellation into an easy, theatrical substitute for genuine self-criticism.
One great campaign
The revolt of the 1960s in the United States was many different things. But for a moment it seemed as though all its factions were one common outcry against a single adversary: “the system.” It was believed that the system, meaning the establishment, creates many types of wrong wherever it is involved: discrimination against blacks in the South, the war in Vietnam, male chauvinism, classification of gays as psychiatric patients or offenders deserving punishment, and so on. All these ills would be cured when the masses – the people – shook off its shackles. And then, in place of the uniform gray concrete of establishment oppression a thousand flowers would bloom, each with its own color and in its own way. The student movement, the civil rights movement, feminism, the gay community’s Stonewall demonstrations and the protest against the Vietnam War – all were part of one great campaign. Or so it seemed.
The first deep shock to this assumption of partnership came in 1966, when Martin Luther King, Jr.’s civil rights movement was taken over by advocates of “black power” and “black pride.” Stokely Carmichael was elected leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (the young branch of King’s movement) and immediately demanded that all its white supporters be expelled. The Black Panthers began to occupy front stage, and Malcolm X became a celebrity. Whereas King spoke in the name of common values and espoused integration, the generation of leaders who succeeded him derided him as a type of new Uncle Tom who kowtowed to the establishment in order to be accepted by whites. Integration itself became a pejorative, a symbol of forgoing self-respect and identity. Instead of integration, the young leaders called for voluntary segregation, pride in their distinctive identity, a separate culture.
Afterward came clashes between Black Power advocates and the feminist movement. In the last convention of the organized student movement, held in Chicago in 1969, the Black Panthers disparaged the feminists as “pussy power.” Furious, the women stalked out.
The protest against the war in Vietnam had a dynamic of its own. On its fringes, it morphed into unreserved support for the fanatic communism of North Vietnam. Some of the movement’s leaders sought, in effect, a military defeat for their own country, an approach that cost them the support of the moderate peace advocates. Shortly after the end of the decade, the diverse tributaries of the revolt appeared to have flowed into any number of directions. Everyone went his own way, and to his own struggle. For a time.
In the following two decades, they gradually regrouped under the auspices of academia and the banner of postmodernism. From social and political activism, the protest movement became an academic theory, and in theory all the struggles could again be seen as one. The postmodernist framework, as it was understood in America, would again conjure up the Jeffersonian magic: All beliefs have an equal place, on condition that they accept the equality of all beliefs. Pluralism would thus become a unifying force. The God of the new discourse, it seems, is himself pluralistic.
At first, the new postmodern spirit appeared to have a different impact on different veterans of the different 1960s’ struggles. The participants in the turbulent demonstrations against the Vietnam War found in Edward Said a new formulator of their opposition to imperialism and colonialism. According to the historian and literary scholar, the roots of Western colonialism and imperialism in all their incarnations lie in the patronizing Western discourse that “constructs” the West as a rational scientific subject and the East as a primitive object of “our” knowledge. In this way “we” justify our rule there. For those who had read Herbert Marcuse in the 1960s and Foucault in the ‘70s, this was easy to accept.
Feminism, in the wake of a crisis of its own, adopted what its advocates initially called “standpoint theory.” It too shifted the weight to the discourse and prioritized the concept of “gender” (which had made the rounds among the cognoscenti already at the end of the 1960s). As with Said, according to this view, knowledge concerning femininity and masculinity is produced by men from a masculine standpoint, and as such is intended to justify the existing inequality. And as with Said, here, too, discourse constructs Man as the subject and Woman as the object.
In the same manner, the Stonewall Inn struggle, in which the gay community demanded that the police get off their case, found renewed expression in the deconstruction of the psychiatric discourse and reincarnation in a new academic field that branched off from gender studies: queer studies.
The civil rights movement, the oldest of the ‘60s revolt’s manifestations, had no trouble adapting black separatism to the new terminology. The “hegemonic discourse” is “white,” and the way to uproot oppression is to extricate black culture from its influence. Social, political and economic problems were reincarnated as a discussion of identity, culture and discourse.
One by one, imperceptibly, all these notions converged, identified themselves in one another and started to rebuild, brick by brick, the old image of the common struggle against the “system.” That term was supplanted by a new one – “hegemonic discourse” – in which all the marginalized groups are victims, and therefore all are partners in the struggle to dismantle it. In this way, the separate distinctiveness of each movement became a basis defining what they all have in common. Black separatism, the feminine viewpoint, queer singularity and the thrust for self-determination in the Third World all fused into one vision by positing a common adversary and a strategy of struggle against it.
Hegemonic monopoly
Though the jargon was inflated and the formulations tangled, the thesis itself was catchy and simple. The core of the new paradigm is the idea that the dominant group (defined, in the wake of Antonio Gramsci, as “hegemonic”) possesses a monopoly on the manufacture of knowledge. This group creates the discourse that constructs the social world, in the service of its continued rule. The discourse styles itself “universal,” but this is only a way to justify its desire to impose itself on all the others.
Imagine, if you will, a central circle that contains the hegemonic group: white males who are European and straight. They are the ones who manufacture our knowledge, and that knowledge is intended to justify their dominant status. Now draw smaller circles outside the main hegemonic circle, each representing a group: women, blacks, gays and the Third World – and you have the format of the multicultural conception. Each of these groups needs to storm the center from a different direction, dismantle its discourse and replace it with a different, liberating discourse whose pluralism contrasts with the uniformity of hegemony.
It’s a model of alluring clarity. It’s elegant and spare. But what it gains in elegance, it loses in its inability to illuminate the complex reality of cultural encounters. Without a multiplicity of cultures, and when all cultures share a broad, deep consensus, as in the case of liberalism in the United States, the problems arise less frequently. But once one leaves the United States and enters realms in which such a consensus does not exist – Europe, for example, or Israel’s immigrant society – the model falls apart. There is no reason to assume, to put it cautiously, that the struggle of a Muslim migrant in Germany to preserve his identity in the face of the hegemonic center makes him a natural ally of German gays who advocate same-sex marriage.
The insularity of the ultra-Orthodox, or Haredim, in Israel in the face of the hegemony of the Zionist discourse does not necessarily advance the aspirations of Haredi women. Just as the campaign of Egyptian women against female circumcision is not necessarily a natural companion for those seeking to protect Egyptian identity against Western influences. Because, elegant models notwithstanding, not all forms of oppression emanate from the “hegemonic center.”
The confusion that the multicultural model creates can be glimpsed from within its own geometric pureness. It is analytically misleading. This is because the marginal groups it portrays – women, blacks, indigenous Third World peoples, gays, etc. – are not separate “groups,” but intersecting social categories. The model doesn’t work because the categories crosscut. It turns out, surprisingly, that there are women who are black, lesbians who are Arab, Haredim who are gay and so on. This is how the model conceals a simple fact: that some types of oppression emanate from the margins. But the margins are off-limits for criticism, of course.
In fact, when one peels the jargon off multicultural rhetoric, one finds an absurdity at its core. Saturated as it is with the liberal spirit, it nevertheless somehow assumes that liberalism itself is not liberal enough, whereas all the adversaries of liberalism are for some reason more liberal than it is. It’s not surprising, then, that an obfuscating jargon is needed to hide such a simple contradiction.
The Black Panthers were not feminists, Ho Chi Minh was not one of the Righteous Among the Nations, the Shas party’s rabbis are not defenders of the gay community’s rights, and the conclusion of Israeli occupation of the Gaza Strip did not make Hamas a human rights organization. The assumption that democratic pluralism and liberal freedom will necessarily emanate from the margins has no foundation in reality. The logical fault can be formulated in brief: The whole model rests on the moral kitsch that identifies victimization with justice. Unfortunately, however, in the real world, victims are not necessarily saints, still less saintly liberals.
Conscience of elites
But the multicultural model is not about reality, it’s about the conscience of elites. It ignores the fact that in a migrant society multiplicity is first of all the problem, not first of all the solution. For a society of this kind needs, in the first place, to lay the common foundations without which solidarity is untenable, a functioning political arena impossible and an equal access to resources inconceivable. Only afterward is basking in multiplicity meaningful. Contrary to the impression created by the rhetoric of multiculturalism, it’s an ideology that originates in the center, not at the margins.
In the current climate, it is prohibited, as we know, to say anything good about the Israeli melting pot. Indeed, its implementation is susceptible to criticism. But it should be remembered that its other side is equality and a sense of belonging, and that the two sides are interdependent. A common identity means solidarity, mutual responsibility, a shared destiny.
Mapai, the forerunner of Labor in Israel, also enforced economic equality aggressively. In contrast, the multiculturalists’ attack on the Israeli melting pot is part of the zeitgeist of the market society. The “privatization of identity,” as Prof. Daniel Gutwein termed these tendencies, is the cultural mirror of economic privatization, and the attack on the common ethos is an attack on the most important bulwark of the weak: widespread solidarity.
Multiculturalism is thus actually an attack on concrete equality, beneath a smokescreen of symbolic equality. It markets indifference as concern for others, narcissism as empathy, and preoccupation with the conscience of the elite as imaginary responsibility for the margins of society.


Published in Haaretz, April 9, 2016

Yitzhak Taub, 1927-2014

My beloved father, Yitzhak Taub, passed away on his birthday, January 17, 2014. I wanted this eulogy to be saved somewhere, even in this electronic day and age.

Had my father thought that I would stand on his grave and say he was a righteous man, he would not have been pleased. My father had an aversion to self-righteousness, and a suspicion of righteousness. If there was ever a moral lesson he insisted on – and succeeded in – teaching me, this is it: Gadi, beware of do-gooders.

So I’m not going to say he was righteous.

But then how to explain the fact that so many people looked up to him, for his opinion and judgment, with such deep respect, sometimes in awe?

We could say he was wise. And that’s true. He was exceptionally wise.

We could say he was generous, and that too is true. He was exceptionally generous.

We could say he was honest, and, indeed, his reputation for honesty reached far and wide.

We could say that he was independent minded, and once again, it would be true. He was uniquely free from the opinions of others, which is also what made him sometimes distant and hard to reach. But independence of mind too, is not it.

If I have to pick one word to describe what made so many people love him, and hold him in such high regard, that word would have to be “decency.”

I think that my father was decent to a very rare degree. I never met a more decent man than he.

Decency is a more modest and less flashy trait than righteousness. And it is more important too. Because decency knows how to balance, in a humane way, between abstract principles and two other things: recognition of human weaknesses, and loyalty. The ethical stance it describes is therefore deeper, wiser, than the coldness of principles when they stand alone.

It is not easy to balance these things, and they often collide. But my father knew instinctively, steadily, deeply, to choose the decent thing over others. And people were grateful for that. It is why so many can’t forget him, even those who knew him for a short while, a long time ago.

Decency is not a lukewarm compromise between principles and flesh and blood human beings. My father’s judgment was often piercing and stern, and his conclusions far from easy to follow. Decency sometimes demands lifting heavy weights, doing difficult things. But righteousness, as anyone who lived and walked and breathed in the twentieth-century knows, can easily turn to cruelty. Decency, though it can be stern, is never cruel. It leads to the human, and points away from the absolute.

My father had a sober faculty of good judgment even as a young child. He was born in Bratislava, in 1927, and lost his mother when he was 12 years old. Not long before her death, the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia, and my father remembered the German officers who came into his family’s apartment to ask for water. They needed it to cook pasta outside in the courtyard.

A thoughtful child who read newspapers, my father urged his own father, still broken from his wife’s death, to immigrate to Palestine. They traveled to and fro in ships, for months, and no country in the world would let them ashore.

I teach courses on Zionism and I’m familiar with the controversies over it. I know the different arguments to justify it, and I believe that when all is said and done, it is indeed just. But my own Zionism is instinctive. It precedes arguments. Because I cannot forget this picture: a Jewish boy, my father, who has only water under his feet, who has no piece of land under the sun to stand on.

After months of traveling, Yitzhak and Yahezkel Taub, my grandfather, arrived in the Land of Israel, as illegal immigrants. They were arrested by the British. My grandfather joined the British army, and my father was put in the care of a foster family, then in boarding school. He later joined the Palmach. He lost four fingers in one of the first battles of the War of Independence, on January 17, 1948.

He then completed his matriculation exams, and enrolled to study law and economics at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where I now teach. He eventually became a high ranking civil servant – the Secretary General of the Bank of Israel, then the head of Israel’s Securities and Exchange Commission. Being a Labor man, when Likud came to power he was replaced and henceforth barred from such high offices. He could have turned to the private sector, he got many tempting offers, but he flatly refused. He came here, he said, to build state and society, and he wanted to serve the public, in more modest ways, if need be. This wasn’t a hard choice for him. It was born of passion, not just a sense of duty. And when passion and duty converge, it isn’t hard to make up your mind. This is how, aside from his work in journalism, he became the CEO of Mosad Bialik, a public publishing company, entrusted with preserving and cultivating high culture. He retired from that job five years ago, at the age of 82.

It would hardly be a surprise that we – his friends, his children, his wife – cannot really grasp the fact that he is gone. The death of a father is not one discreet, circumscribed fact. It is a myriad of interconnected facts, because a father is woven into your fabric in countless ways, countless pictures, countless experiences, and many shades of emotions. To try and understand his absence is to try to imagine that fabric if all these were suddenly torn away. And you cannot do that. Not just because the one fact, his death, is difficult to grasp, but because tearing all these out of yourself means, in truth, that you would not be able to recognize your own self.

My father told me, after his bypass surgery, a few years back, that one intern came to him as he was recovering and said, “Mr. Taub, I held your heart in the palms of my hands.” He was very moved to hear this. I was moved to hear about it too. My father’s heart. I have never held it in my hands. But I will take it with me wherever I go. Because this heart, not the physical one, but the metaphorical one which was the inner life, the character, the wisdom and the emotions of this man, is woven into me – into us, his wife, his children, his friends – in numerous ways. This is why the fact of death, final though it may be, cannot tear him out of us. He is part of the materials from which we are made. And that part is important, central, if we are to navigate through life in his way, without malice and without self-righteousness.

My father lived the way he wanted to live, and he died more or less the way he wanted to die. Without becoming a burden to anyone, with no pointless suffering, surrounded by love. There are complicated and bitter good-byes. This one is not complicated. It is certainly not bitter. It’s only sad. My father knew how much we loved him, and he knew too that we know how much he loved us.

Regrettably, I don’t believe he’ll be watching us from above. But I can still wish ourselves that we would know in the future, that if he did, he would not feel we let him down.

May he rest in peace.

Israeli Counter-Intellectuals Take Aim at Academic Freedom

Here is one more thing in which Israel is imitating America: neocon tactics. American neocons think that American universities are overwhelmingly liberal, and so they have created alternatives in the form of think tanks designed to foster conservative thought. This, in itself, is not a bad thing. The Left often tends not only to preach to the converted, but also to argue only with the converted, and when one keeps only agreeable company, arguments tend to atrophy and criticism degenerates into self-righteousness. It has never been good for thought to go unchallenged.

But often such think tanks go so far in putting politics before inquiry that the thought they produce is crude, shrill, and smacks of dishonesty. Mark Lilla called such right-wing thinkers counter-intellectuals. A less-than-flattering term. When you put the cart before the horse, you may discover horses are not as good at pushing carts as they are at pulling them. Thought, too, is better at seeking political conclusions than it is at pushing a preconceived agenda. (Read the full article on the Dissent website…)

Mutual Unilateralism

The reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas is certainly bad news for peace. But this does not mean it is bad news as such. Because the most urgent need for the future survival of both Israel and Palestine is not peace. It is partition. And the reconciliation may actually be good news for the prospect of partition. It is perhaps time to embrace mutual unilateralism. (Read the full piece in The New Republic…)

Opposites Attract

It is an old adage that political opposites converge. But when it actually happens, it’s still a surprise. And in the last year or so, in Israel, it did: Extreme hawks on the right, and extreme anti-Zionists on the left, seem to have arrived at more or less the same plan for ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. (Read the full piece in The New Republic…)

Interview with Michael Weiss at Just Journalism

About Herzl, Zionism, the anti-Israeli and British Neo-Colonialism.

Here’s an excerpt:

MW: One of the more interesting points you make in your settlements book is that settlers seem to be echoing the sentiments of the anti-Zionist left in calling for a binational state. You quote Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook and Shlomo Aviner and others who make it plain that they’d rather see Greater Israel with an Arab majority than any division of land.  That the intelligentsia of the Yesha Council more and more resembles the collective wisdom of the London Review of Books might be taken for a sign of how just marginalised and discredited the settlement project is.

GT: I think that’s very true. Which is why recently some on the right have been arguing for annexation which will include full citizenship to all residents of the territories.

I have very little respect for that solution when it comes from them, just as I have little respect for it when it comes from anti-Zionists.

A look at Gaza, where the differences between Hamas and Fatah were settled by the use of arms, should help us all wake up from imaginary schemes of peaceful bi-nationalism. I don’t see how Gaza would have turned into a liberal democracy if only there was a Jewish faction added to the mix. What the one-statists are promoting is going to be a chronic Lebanon style civil war. And the odd thing is, how little the London Review has drifted from old colonial habits of mind. The natives – we Jews and Arabs – aspire to national self-determination. But the good ol’ Brits, never tired of carrying the White Man’s Burden, know that the natives are too barbaric to understand what the right form of self-determination should be for them. So until they grow up, we, Western intellectuals, will serve as their political parents, and impose on them the state we know they should want. Because it is Western and enlightened, of course.

For the full interview, at Just Journalism…

Plan B for the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

(This piece originally appeared in The New Republic print edition, on October 28th.)

It is more than likely that the negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) will reach a dead end. If not on the issue of settlements then on other matters. It’s not in the details, it’s in the big picture: Benjamin Netanyahu will not go as far as his predecessor, Ehud Olmert, and the Palestinians have already rejected Olmert’s generous deal. So it is probably a good idea to start thinking about Plan B. To do this, we Israelis must first set our priorities straight. (Read the full piece…)

Zionism: Land vs. Liberty

The importance of the settlement question goes even beyond politics. It is not just a matter of policy, it is also one of ideology. The question goes down to the very foundation of Israel’s existence because asking about settlement is really asking what Zionism should be: Is Zionism about liberty, or is it about land?

(Read the full piece in English, or go to the original version in German published in Die Zeit)