Wednesday, August 16, 2006


Jews for Justice - sycophants and collaborators, polluting European Jewry?

I've alluded before to Marxism's tradition of vigorous - at times venemous - polemic, starting with Marx himself, who was no shrinking violet. Norman Geras, however, is very much of a current of Marxism of a more humble kind, if I can put it that way. Usually his argumentative style is characterised by restraint and sweet reason, if not denying itself - or the reader - all the pleasures of polemical bite.

So like one commenter at Katheder blog I was taken aback in a small way by the raw resentment I sensed in this letter Norm co-signed with Shalom Lappin and Eve Garrard. This paragraph above all reminded me of a kind of Marxist (or Marxist-Leninist) rhetoric I would never have associated with Norm:
We are confident that when the history of this period is written and the widespread loss of political reason that characterizes our age is finally recognized, your group will be properly consigned to a footnote in the long and dishonourable tradition of Jewish sycophancy and collaboration with hostility that has polluted the margins of European Jewry over the generations.
Clearly I'm not, so far, making any substantial criticism of the piece, rather than expressing surprise at its tone (in large part given by the accusatory use of "you..." at the start of each sentence). But to make one substantial point, this seems a strange criticism to me:
Your deep concern for Jewish principles of justice and compassion do not lead you to step forward as Jews in order to condemn the genocide in Darfur, the blood-letting in the Congo, the massacres in Chechnya or any other cases of massive human rights violation far surpassing the brutality of Israel's occupation of the Palestinians.
At the risk of getting snarky here myself, what part of "Jews for Justice for Palestinians" doesn't make it clear that the particular concern - the raison d'etre one might say - of this organisation is to work against injustices imposed upon Palestinians by the Israeli state? In that context, whataboutery seems as ill-judged as if I were to ask, say, the Red Cross why they didn't seem to care about cancer victims.
(Admittedly the organisation is also condemning Israel's policies against Lebenese, but, firstly, this is hardly unrelated to Palestinians and, secondly, we can take it that JJP is animated not by a strange and arbitrary affection for Palestinians as above Chechnyans etc., but rather by a special concern with Israel qua the Jewish state.)

"Your deep concern for Jewish principles of justice and compassion do not lead"

"Your deep concern ... does not lead" they should have written. I wouldn't make anything much of this little slip, though it's odd, coming from Norm and his mates. Having read a lot more of Norman Geras in the last couple of years than I ever did in his NLR days, I have this impression:

that he's very good, almost incontrovertible, on his chosen narrow ground of how people make arguments and the linguistic strategies that they use (in English). He zooms in on the dodgy sentence in a Guardian editorial, no problem. But his focus is so narrow and so linguistic, that it often misses the important political and historical questions. The arguments he makes stay as linguistic and moral; any chance of a real explanation is lost. Take Iraq or the present war in Lebanon: Norman Geras chisels away in defence of US/Brit or Israeli actions, finding a passage in some speech of Blair that gives a good moral framework to the things he wants to defend. But with all this effort of moral-philosophic argument he misses the larger picture. What have these players been doing for the last 20 or more years? Look at the whole recent history of Israel and the Lebanon, Israel and Palestine. The picture shifts. We can see beyond the immediate incident of a rocket fired into Israel, and a retaliation. But Norman Geras doesn't lift his head to take this wider look.
Interesting. Failing to give proper weight to, or to judge correctly, the concrete politics of, say, the war in Iraq (as opposed to the abstract moral case for a war) is certainly a criticism that many have made of pro-war left types. But I wonder how much of what your talking about arises out of the nature of a blog - the medium tend towards a small-picture focus perhaps?
Right. It could well be that this is a limitation of the the daily blog. You read the Guardian over breakfast, are intensely annoyed by yet another thinkpiece by Madelaine Bunting (or whoever), and fire off a salvo to your blog-provider a few minutes later.
The people writing only every week or month (for example on Open Democracy) evidently don't feel the need to spend time slapping down irritating Guardian columnists.
But apart from the problems of having to publish instant arguments, I do think the limitation of Norm and Eve Garrard (especially) comes also from their moral-philosophical-linguistic approach. Somehow they end up in a bubble of language -- rather like the Postmodernists. I wonder if it's at work also in the books he/they have written?
(By the way, that was me, at a slightly greater degree of anonymity, who wrote the last comment. Having trouble with the Blogspot procedures.)
I'm currently reading an article by GA Cohen and, right enough, there's always a danger that all that semantic rigour just ends up putting the anal into analytic philosophy, if you'll firgive the gag.

If you're interested in what he's like in a longer form there's a few articles by Geras available at the Socialist Register archives. They're pretty good, I'd say, especially the 1989 one.
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