on March 21, 2006
A Critical Response to Strangers in the Land: Blacks, Jews, Post-Holocaust America
Since I began intensively studying the Israel-Palestine conflict nine years ago, I have (as a Jew) also been concerned with its historical and current effect on relations among blacks and Jews in this country. These relations have reflected the influence that neoconservatism, originating primarily among Jewish intellectuals, has had on mainstream (liberal) Jewish institutional life and political culture in America, and the manner in which Jewish-identified aspects of neoconservatism (opposition to affirmative action, support for Israel, an obsession with alleged anti-Semitism and now "Islamo-fascism") have been adopted by a broader culture of white racism and class privilege, with obvious dire effects both domestically and globally. What began as one aspect of the white ethnic intellectual backlash in the 1960s has evolved, been appropriated, and become central to the domestically ruthless and globally violent ideology of the current administration, with a concurrent black-Jewish subplot that has been much discussed but not adequately understood.
It is in this context that I was intrigued to discover a massive 527-page work of scholarship called Strangers in the Land: Blacks, Jews, Post-Holocaust America by UCLA English professor Eric Sundquist (Belknap-Harvard, 2005). Upon obtaining this book, however, I was quickly disappointed to find-in spite of many insightful analyses of literary works-a clear unwillingness to seriously engage the central issues noted above. While I will leave it to others to judge whether Strangers in the Land succeeds as a work of cultural/literary criticism, I would suggest that it is an utter and insidious failure of political criticism. Moreover, I think that it is as a work of political criticism that it will be (and should be) primarily received. As such, this book stands as an apology for neoconservatism and its support for white privilege in America, as well as its support for the Zionist project in all its aggressive criminality, now coming to a head as any possibility of viable Palestinian state is being destroyed. In this context, Sundquist shows a marked lack of compassion for the dire plight of the Palestinian people, and-given his obviously considerable scholarly skills-demonstrates a seemingly willful innocence of the implications of historical scholarship, human rights reports, and diplomatic records now freely available, most recently summarized by Norman Finkelstein.
In summary, Sundquist views neoconservatism as rather benignly emanating in the 1960s from liberal Jewish intellectuals understandably caught amongst a dedication to the meritocracy, Jewish group interests, and the threatening demands of what he sees as anti-Zionist and incipiently anti-Semitic advocates of Black Power. Sundquist reduces Black Nationalist, Black Power, Pan-African, and Third World Liberation movements, and specifically the leadership of Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael, to demagogic, venal, anti-Semitic opportunism and bigotry. Sundquist adopts a boilerplate Zionist narrative of the history of Palestine and Israel that would not pass muster in any college classroom worth its name, which romanticizes Israelis and denigrates Palestinians. While maintaining a scholarly tone and engaging in prodigious amounts of research, Sundquist ultimately refuses to seriously engage the critical scholarship which he references, from the work on Jewish whiteness of his UCLA colleague Karen Brodkin, to Manning Marable's careful scholarship on African-American political movements, to the new Israeli historians, and to Edward Said and Rashid Khalidi.
All this is done in the framework of a purportedly unbiased treatment of Black-Jewish relations. But two examples will be quoted of Sundquist's peculiarly jaundiced notion of "balance" in his treatment of black-Jewish and Israeli-Palestinian issues:
"(Meir) Kahane's views were all the more remarkable for being borrowed from the same black nationalism the JDL (Jewish Defense League) meant to oppose. The paperback jacket of Kahane's "Never Again!," an exposition of JDL militancy, rightly compared the book to Cleaver's "Soul on Ice" and "The Autobiography of Malcolm X." The JDL's symbol, a clenched fist issuing from a Star of David, mirrored the clenched fist of Black Power. Consciously styling themselves "Jewish Panthers," members undertook armed community patrols...Underscoring the parallel, Kahane declared that the JDL did not differ from the Panthers in wanting to instill self-assurance and pride in young people..." In the face of Black Power's demand that Jews acquiesce to policies inimical to their own interests, and wary of their precarious position in a nation still for the most part ruled by a Protestant elite, many Jews may well have felt hemmed in by the "politics of powerlessness." "(p. 357-59)
This passage is reflective of Sundquist's tone throughout the relevant sections of the book: blacks threaten innocent Jews, who do not partake in the racism of other whites, and just want a "color-blind" society based on merit. Some Jews understandably react negatively to black betrayal. Black Power-the basis of this betrayal-was an insidious force sui generis, and a corruption of Martin Luther King's movement which was supported by most Jews. Some Jews have of course over-reacted. But Stokely Carmichael and Malcolm X are to be equated (or worse) to Meir Kahane, and Kahane was simply reacting to their provocations. These black leaders-viewed by Sundquist as stereotypes of threatening black males rather than evolving socialist revolutionary political leaders, are more deserving of harsh criticism and dismissal than someone who immigrated to Israel to lead the most vicious and openly racist aspect of the Jewish settler movement.
"Whether or not the massacre (at Deir Yassin in April, 1948, during which Zionist forces led by Menachem Begin killed 100 Palestinian villagers, including old men, women, and children) was intended-at least some dimension of it, such as killing all the men of the village apparently had been discussed-remains a vexed question. ...Whatever the explanation for the killings at Deir Yassin, there is little doubt that the Palestinian Jews, soon to be Israelis, used the threat of other Deir Yassins, coupled with less fearsome raids on individual villages, as psychological warfare. If the killings led to wild rumors about Jewish determination to exterminate Arabs, however, such rumors were made credible less because of the way Jews conceived of the war than because of the way a number of Arabs did. Ahmed Shukeiry, aide to the Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, envisioned "the elimination of the Jewish state," while Abd al-Rahman Azzam Pasha, the secretary general of the Arab League, looked forward to "a war of extermination and momentous massacre" and declared that "it does not matter how many (Jews) there are. We will sweep them into the sea." Joined with other factors-the early flight of the wealthy elite, Arab calls for women and children to evacuate, and the dissolution of Palestinian military leadership-fears that Israelis were bent on waging such a war, a mirror image of the declarations of Arab leaders, were a decisive factor in the momentous outflow of Arab refugees in the months to come. Responding to concerted attacks by five Arab nations bent on destroying the Jewish state, Israel captured some 30 percent more territory than it had been granted by the United Nations. With the exodus of the Arabs, a Jewish majority was created. So too, the "Palestinian problem," the approximately 700,000 Palestinians who fled or were expelled from their homes in Palestine, most expecting to return after Arab nations had driven out the Jews ... " (p. 374-375)
This virtually propagandistic obfuscation is typical of Sundquist's treatment of Israel and Palestine throughout his historical account, from 1948 to 1967 to 1973, with Israel's survival always assumed to be at stake from hateful Arab nations. The most significant and brutal Jewish massacre of Arabs is buried in a sea of equivocation (including a veiled reference to the myth of "Arab broadcasts") in a selective and distorted historical context-without regard, for example, to what is now known about Zionist plans for transfer (carried out before and after Deir Yassin), collusion between Zionist leaders and the leader of Trans-Jordan (Emir Abdullah) to prevent the formation of a Palestinian state, or the tepidness of Arab intervention, arguably not a serious threat to the nascent but already well-armed Jewish state. Again, in spite of the Sundquist's references to new Israeli historians like Avi Shlaim and to Rashid Khalidi, he seems unwilling to seriously address the implications of what is now conventional scholarly wisdom, which well explains the ongoing destruction of Palestinian national aspirations.
In his narrative context, both American and Israeli Jews-including the worst sorts of neoconservatives and Likudniks (although not always clearly distinguishable from liberals and Laborites)-maintain an essential innocence and humanity; black Americans and Palestinians, on the other hand, are seen as easily manipulated by the demagogic appeals of their leaders, who ultimately undermine whatever legitimate aspirations their followers might have, which can best be served (according to Sundquist) by traditional liberal activism (as defined by Jews). In tracing what he sees as the naïve and unwarranted affinity of black nationalists for the Palestinian cause, Sundquist casts aspersions on third world liberation movements as antithetical to the centrist, domestic liberalism with which he, and in his view most Jews, rightly identify. African-Americans, according to Sundquist, have been betrayed by their leaders, whose criticism of Jews is self-serving and impractical at best, and anti-Semitic and violent at worst. Ultimately, Sundquist collapses James Baldwin, Malcolm X, and Stokely Carmichael onto Louis Farrakhan, Leonard Jeffries, and Tony Martin.
At bottom, Strangers in the Land fails as a work of political criticism not only due to a careless rendering of reality in the Middle East, but due to an unwillingness to entertain the notion of a peculiarly Jewish intellectual and ideological contribution to white racism and the maintenance of white privilege in this country, including the projection of racist attitudes onto the Israel-Palestine conflict, and onto western relations with the Arab and Muslim worlds. While the notion of Jewish racism is absent from this book (as if the experience of discrimination and the Holocaust makes such a thing unthinkable and impossible), an indigenous anti-Semitism is assumed to be long-standing, central, and substantial in African-American culture. Sundquist has thus written a book that accepts the basic assumptions of neoconservative ideology, with all of the racist baggage that that implies at home and abroad. In these narrative confines, there is no objective place to stand from which to understand the peculiarly Jewish-American contribution to this ideology, and to propose a new interpretation of Black-Jewish relations based at least partly on Jewish self-criticism, including criticism of what has turned out to be a morally and politically disastrous Jewish state.