Israel vs. Utopia is a left-wing Israeli-American Jew’s attempt to parse out some subtle distinctions about the Israeli-Arab conflict. Schalit, who openly aspires to depth of analysis, believes that too much dialogue on the subject in the diaspora, both from the right and left, deals with a fantasy Israel, rather than t he one Israeli Jews and Arabs, and Palestinians deal with daily.
Schalit, a former editor of Tikkun magazine, feels that Israel’s ties to the U.S. have been very much to Israel’s detriment and longs for Europe’s embrace. While he regrets that France and England parted ways with Israel as punishment for the Six Day War, he thinks of their having done so as “enlightened.” The Israelis act like “colonial subjects of America” in his view. Despite the withdrawal from Gaza, which one would think he would have approved, he believes that there was a “lack of meaningful progress” during the Bush years.
In perhaps his most provocative chapter, he writes extensively on the rise of the word “apartheid” in left-wing circles to describe the situation in Israel, which he deplores as an inaccurate and obfuscating use of the word. It slowly becomes clear, however, that Schalit believes that word actually obscures the ‘fact’ that Israel has “devised a strategy for maintaining power over the Palestinians that’s more insidious than the South African model…” and “in some instances transcending, in terms of its cruelty… ‘apartheid.’” So much for subtlety. For someone intent on using accurate language, Schalit frequently falls back on inaccurate and hyperbolic metaphors for a complex and unique reality, such as describing Israel as an “extremely brutal Colonial occupation.”
His most telling (and damning) sentence comes toward the end of the book, however. “I am not sentimental about its (Israel’s) political existence the way I am, for example, about its cuisine.” The book is not without the occasional intriguing insight, but it is not a coherent whole. It is more a meandering pastiche of political analysis and a subjective expression of Schalit’s contradictory feelings about Israel’s situation, derived from his status as a “progressive” Israeli-American. His anguish is palpably sincere, and he himself is troubled by what he perceives as genuine anti-Semitism on the left, but his own bias is simply not subtle: America and Israel are invariably in the wrong, and not once does he suggest that the Arab nations or the Palestinians themselves may be even in small part responsible for the Palestinians’ plight. Just about every time Schalit says something somewhat interesting and not typically left-wing, he doubles back to reveal that, in fact, he really is to the left of most, and tiresomely so.