Israel vs. Utopia

Joel Schalit
  • Review
By – September 16, 2011

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.

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