Monday, March 31, 2008

Political Landscapes: Anti-Zionism as a Cultural Code

Marko Hoare has a post on the redefined political landscape worth reading. I rather resent being lumped in with Bush in a broad "pro-Western" camp, but there's something to Hoare's post. Something that's been noted before by a number of others. Something that, even if confined to some outskirts - and I don't think it quite is, is worth discussing. I'm reproducing here something I had written for Newsvine some time ago. Some links go to Newsvine pages that may eventually disappear.

Reading an excerpt from Andrei Markovits's Uncouth Nation: Why Europe Dislikes America in the latest issue of Democratiya, I find myself instantly struck.
Over the last 35 years, a steady anti-Americanism and an uncompromising anti-Zionism which surely not always but most definitely occasionally borders on the anti-Semitic, have become key characteristics that both divide and determine political identity absolutely. They are "wedge issues" - clear articles of faith or "dealbreakers" -- whose importance overshadows, and even negates, many related components of the "clusters" that characterize such an identity.
Markovits goes on to describe himself, all the leftist and leftish causes he supports and the one thing that divides him from the left.
Yet I am increasingly avoided by leftists on both sides of the Atlantic owing solely to the two wedge issues mentioned above. As a reaction against this, I find myself having withdrawn from the established American and European lefts in whose presence I feel increasingly misplaced. I am not writing this to elicit sympathy for my increasing political marginalization but rather to make a point of how central anti-Americanism and anti-Zionism have become to virtually all lefts on both sides of the Atlantic - and beyond.
I am struck because this is my experience as well. Not in Europe, because I haven't been there in some 33 years. And not among my friends, with whom I've almost always been the furthest to the left. But here on Newsvine. I feel frequently compelled to write disclaimers and point out that I am a leftist. I've seen more than a few people, including some Newsviners I respect and plenty of others, assume otherwise. Following left-Zionist politics fairly closely, I've seen others express the same frustration and take the same tactics. Why do so many left-zionists feel that we must explain that we are not right-wingers? Because, in my experience, what Markovits says is absolutely true - Zionism/anti-Zionism has become a “cultural code.”

The other reason I am struck has to do with that phrase there. Markovits doesn’t use it (at least in the excerpt), but it aptly describes what he elaborates.
Codes are interpretive frameworks which are used by both producers and interpreters of texts. In creating texts we select and combine signs in relation to the codes with which we are familiar 'in order to limit... the range of possible meanings they are likely to generate when read by others' (Turner 1992, 17). Codes help to simplify phenomena in order to make it easier to communicate experiences (Gombrich 1982, 35). In reading texts, we interpret signs with reference to what seem to be appropriate codes. Usually the appropriate codes are obvious, 'overdetermined' by all sorts of contextual cues. Signs within texts can be seen as embodying cues to the codes which are appropriate for interpreting them… With familiar codes we are rarely conscious of our acts of interpretation, but occasionally a text requires us to work a little harder - for instance, by pinning down the most appropriate signified for a key signifier (as in jokes based on word play) - before we can identify the relevant codes for making sense of the text as a whole.
That’s a nice little definition of codes from an introduction to semiotics page. But let’s limit it a bit. More or less this same notion of codes was applied to cultures by the famed anthropologist Clifford Geertz. I first came across this notion reading Shulamit Volkov. Volkov wanted to understand why her father didn’t leave Germany before the Holocaust, and (with limitations noted in the review) argued that it was surprisingly difficult for Jews and especially non-Jewish Germans to understand what was happening around them.

Antisemitism acted as a cultural code as political lines shifted. The left and right moved about, exemplified best by Wilhelm Marr's transition from the liberal left to the reactionary right. Marr was the godfather of antisemitism, responsible even for popoularizing the term antisemitism (often even credited as having coined the term) and for forming the League of Antisemites. His pamphlets "The Victory of Jewishness over German-ness" and "The Way to Victory for German-ness over Jewishness" were significant in the formation of the German antisemitism that ultimately led to the Holocaust. I tried to describe some of what happened here. As a cultural code, antisemitism was often able to disguise itself as something else, eg. a critique of capitalism or a critique of communism. Often it was scapegoating modernity. What grew most visibly between 1879 and 1938 was not so much hatred of Jews, but the centrality of the Jewish Question in German politics.

Today, as is evident from Markovits, anti-Zionism is acting as that same sort of cultural code. It is being used to establish new political lines, the old ones shaken up by globalization and postmodernism. The old leftists are joining forces with political reactionaries and authoritarians, mostly "oppressed" authoritarians but also some Western racists in thin disguises. Many of the arguments surrounding it are the same as in pre-Nazi Germany. Just as today people argue over the "New Antisemitism," then they argued over whether antisemitism was different from the old, disrespected Judenhass.

Recently, Volkov herself tried to address (.pdf) what is happening now.

Is that what we are experiencing today? If indeed the joint anti-Zionist and anti-Israel language of the left in the 1960s and 1970s served as a cultural code to indicate belonging to the camp of anti-imperialism, anticolonialism and a new sort of anticapitalism, has it now lost its symbolic meaning? Is it now a matter of direct and full-scale attack upon the Jews? I do not know. Perhaps.
Setting aside for the moment whether anti-Zionism is inherently discriminatory toward Jews, let's focus on this. Anti-Zionism and anti-Americanism cannot be allowed to be used as cultural codes in this way.

1 comment:

Terry Glavin said...

Stumbled upon you. Been thinking the same things, especially about cultural codes and such: