The notion that there is something ‘mythical’ and ‘mystifying’ about the foundation of Israel is common enough. Either it is insinuated that the promise of the land is untrue, or perhaps even unfalsifiable; or else, it is suggested that founding a secular state on such a mystical premise, is fundamentally hypocritical and disingenuous.
There are two ways to critique these allegations. One is to deny their truth or validity; another is to question how one-sided they may actually be in relation to how other nations are discussed. In this article, I would like to suggest that the allegation of an ‘ideological’ origin or foundation of the state of Israel is deeply problematic, when you consider that there is hardly a single state on the face of the earth who could meet the high standard to which Israel is being held.
There are innumerable examples, both in ancient myths and in modern political discourse, of foundations of states or peoples that are ‘untrue’ at worst, or ‘half-truths’ at best. Whether flat-out lies or mystifying and illusory poetic conceits, human beings always like to justify the special status of their people or nation. Surely it must be recognized that to single out Israel is to practice a genuine exceptionalism: one which insults and degrades Israel, Israelis and (by means of typical antisemitic strategies of insinuation and conflation) all Jews.
For example, Debito Arudou’s Embedded Racism: Japan’s Visible Minorities and Racial Discrimination (Lexington Books, 2015, p. 17) says:
Although an “outsider” could be anyone not from, say, one’s own family or village, the concept was expanded as Japan morphed into a nation-state to make all “Japanese” into “insiders.”
It is too easy for antisemites to sneeringly dismiss Jews as a ‘chosen people.’ Whether or not they accept the patient attempts of Jews to explain what ‘chosen’ means in the context of how many Jews themselves understand the term, they ought at least to not hold Jews to a higher standard than others. Is this not a fair suggestion?
And as for ethnocentrism, the scholar Frank Dikötter has written much about the history of racism in China; this purportedly ‘Western’ and ‘capitalist’ construct is more universal than it may appear. See his The Discourse of Race in Modern China (London, Hurst, 2015).
The founder of modern China, Sun Zhongshan (Sun Yat-Sen) stated that his ‘Three Principles of the People’ san min zhu yi 三民主义 were designed to for the ‘salvation’ of China.
To put this in context: in the late Qing and early Republican (i.e. final decades of imperial China plus the Guomindang/Kuomintang period), the themes of ‘salvation’ and ‘deliverance’ were found in a number of writers; including Kang Youwei, who appears to have considered himself the new sage whose mission was to save China, if not the entire world as well!
I do not intend to mock or sneer at such political rhetoric; but merely to point out that the notion of ‘saving’ a nation is no less unfalsifiable or equivocal or semantically problematic than the rhetoric surrounding the foundation of Israel.
Has China been saved? Well, it still exists, certainly. But how would one know if it has really been saved? By what criteria would one judge this question?
Perhaps it is best not to be too literal… as Ludwig Wittgenstein might say, there is nothing to say, so this matter must be passed over in silence.
But who will have the evenhandedness, the equanimity and the generosity of spirit to do the same for Israel; and for anything in its foundational mythology and historiography that is not strictly a matter of literal fact?
Later still, after the Communist revolution, Deng Xiaoping succeeded Chairman Mao, and then Jiang Zemin succeeded Deng. Jiang Zemin famously coined the ‘Three Represents’ (sic) san ge dai biao 三个代表.
According to the notion of the Three Represents:
The party must always represent the requirements of the development of China’s advanced productive forces, the orientation of the development of China’s advanced culture, and the fundamental interests of the overwhelming majority of the people in China.
Once more, it’s hard to say to call one-sidedly true or false these three ideals of how the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) can and does ‘represent’ the Chinese people and their ideals.
I will not say how far the Party does or does not represent these three. Indeed, I am not convinced a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to all three of these questions will really get us very far. Even defining some of the terms is perhaps a challenging enough prospect. But perhaps the task of choosing and balancing and trading-off the CCP’s relative degrees of success in honoring these is even more so?
But either way, it is hard to see why a retrospective ‘rationalization’ of the foundation of Israel need fare worse by critical and sceptical figures than the Three Represents; which latter are hardly ‘lies’ or ‘falsehoods’ in the strict sense.
And what of the USA as a ‘City Upon a Hill?’ The USA has often set an excellent example to the rest of the world; while at other times, Washington governments have acted appallingly, including (but not limited to) the self-seeking adventurism of Vietnam and of the conveniently-monikered ‘War on Terror.’
And, of course, it must be asked:
How many left-wing critics of Israel are willing, for the sake of consistency, to abandon the Utopian idealism and American Exceptionalism of humanitarian interventionism?
These foregoing examples are not intended as direct attempts to engage with the question of how far the ‘foundational mythology’ of Israel may or may not be valid: in what sense, by what criteria, or indeed, ‘who decides?’ Instead, I have been striving to demonstrate how the notion of ‘Israeli exceptionalism’ actually cuts both ways. It seems to me that Israel is indeed held to a higher standard than other nations. And even though there may be some who criticize the origins of Israel and its founding myths as well as those of other nations, I am very far from convinced that this is universal.
Is Israel the only nation on earth not permitted to have a ‘problematic’ or ‘illusory’ foundational mythology?
I am also inclined to add that if contentious national origins or foundations really are so common, then the act of appealing to such a matter as justification for delegitimizing the state and nation of Israel today must appear intrinsically suspicious.
But perhaps that is a topic for another day.