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Jadaliyya: What made you write this book?
Steven Salaita: I'd been wanting for a long time to systematically explore the idea of Israel's soul being in some sort of crisis. The decline of Israel's soul is a notion much ridiculed by those opposed to Zionism, and I thought it would be fun and illuminating to articulate why such ridicule exists—and why it is completely justified.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does it address?
SS: It is a basic discourse analysis of some of the basic philosophical and moral tenets of Zionism. I also try to identify some of the assumptions underlying certain liberal positions within Zionism that its advocates usually disclaim or whitewash. In particular, I'm critical of the profound need of Zionists to invent a moral rationale for ethnonationalism, which is very often where the discourse of a compromised soul comes into play. I look at movies, gay rights discourses, campus activism, and civic organizations to illustrate some of the ways that Zionists attempt to humanize colonization by conflating it with Jewish culture.
J: How does this work connect to and/or depart from your previous research and writing?
SS: It is more or less consistent with much of my work in the past. I have always been interested in exploring the performances of Zionism as an innocent articulation of Jewish peoplehood rather than as a political movement supportive of juridical iniquity.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
SS: I would be honored for anybody to read it. As to impact, I hope it enters into an ongoing conversation about what it means to pursue justice through the demands of decolonization.
[Steven Salaita. Image from the author's website.]
J: What led you to focus specifically on the failures of Zionism as a political and ethical discourse in this book?
SS: I am always shocked at how effectively Zionism is made to stand in as a symbol or synecdoche of Jewish culture, a conflation that strikes me as sinister, not to mention false on an elementary level of historical reality. I want to unpack the notions of birthright and exclusivity that underline Zionism and think about ways for the different peoples of the Holy Land to subsist in a legitimately democratic system. Zionism is an anachronism, a holdover from an old era of European colonization. It does not come anywhere close to fulfilling its own promises of democracy and progressiveness. The entire movement and its various ideologies are built on lies and mythologies—and not very convincing or compelling lies and mythologies, at that.
Excerpt from Israel’s Dead Soul
On an ordinary day in the spring of 2008, I was navigating throngs of thirsty and hungry students between classes at Virginia Tech’s Squires Student Center, in pursuit of a watery but much-needed cup of coffee. After emerging from the energetic and impatient crowd, I saw that I had a bit of time before my next class and decided to drop by the multicultural student office down the hall so I could chat with its director, a friendly and intelligent man. My friend wasn’t in the office, but the trip nevertheless ended up being instructive. Adorning the modestly sized anteroom of the multicultural center were dozens of IsraelI flags in various sizes, covering nearly every visible surface of the room, along with pamphlets extolling Israel’s exceptionalness or decrying its poor reputation and continually embattled status. It turned out it was Jewish Awareness Month at Virginia Tech, but I had difficulty understanding what awareness of Jewish culture has to do with puffery of a nation-state and recapitulation of its propaganda. I had even more difficulty understanding why the promotion of Israel would be housed in an office devoted at least nominally to intercultural understanding and the elimination of racism. My goal in this chapter is to use systematic cultural and political analysis to make some sense of these phenomena, particularly the ways that Israel and Jewish culture are conflated to varying ends and with varying levels of sincerity.
I should make clear that I’m skeptical of the utility of any multicultural office in a university setting as an agent of justice. There are many reasons for this skepticism. The primary one is an understanding that most offices of multicultural affairs are entrenched institutionally and therefore beholden to institutions, not to the people most in need of intervention (minority students, poor students, underpaid support staff, landscapers and janitors, and so forth). I also find problems with many of the philosophical and political manifestations of multiculturalism as an attitude and a prescription for social interaction. These are matters I examine later in this chapter and throughout this book. I add a qualification here: although I am pessimistic about the possibilities of extant multicultural discourses as an antidote to racism, I am not at all opposed to the creation of spaces under the rubric of multiculturalism where students and staff can hang out, hold events, and create educational programs. Such spaces are useful and necessary. I simply don’t see them as transformative structurally vis-à-vis the institutions in which they are housed. There are other ways to think about the effective contestation of racism and the constructive exchange of cultural practices; I consider some of these other ways in my analysis of the political uses of cultural identity.
As to Virginia Tech’s multicultural office, I was disturbed to see what for many students are symbols of ethnic cleansing festooned all over one of the designated safe spaces on campus. (The “safe space” is another liberal concept I find troublesome. Does its existence mean that hate is justified everywhere else? Or that discomfort is verboten?) I wasn’t terribly surprised, though, because I know that on college campuses support of Israel is a prerequisite of responsible multicultural citizenship. The director of the multicultural office probably doesn’t have strong feelings about the Israel-Palestine conflict (I am venturing a guess here; despite our friendship, it’s not something we’ve ever discussed). And he would never consciously be party to an act of cultural insensitivity. His willingness to display a controversial symbol in an office dedicated to students of color simply reflects the success Zionists have had in marketing Israel as a quixotic experiment appropriate for multicultural celebration. Israel is a natural outcome of multicultural consciousness, according to many Zionists, and so it is perfectly normal to include (or privilege) it in proud displays of diversity.
I considered telling my friend that the display of Israel’s flag is inappropriate because for some it signifies hostility and because celebration of a settler-colonial state shouldn’t fall under the purview of a multicultural office (or any institution with moral decency). I ultimately demurred, however, for a few reasons: it is not my business to tell another person how to run his office; the level of Zionist entrenchment on our campus is such that it would take a superhuman effort to dislodge it; and a superhuman effort to dislodge Zionism from a multicultural office is not the best place to direct our energy, because even if such a move were to be successful, it’s not always the most fruitful site of contestation. I would like to dislodge Zionism from political systems instead.
These aren’t easy goals to work out. They are accompanied by a variety of ethical and strategic complexities that demand careful analysis. This chapter undertakes that sort of analysis, which I extend throughout the remainder of the book. In particular, I examine the relationship between discourses of multiculturalism and celebration of Israel. This relationship is most frequently cultivated in the context of liberal democratic notions of progress and modernity. As enlightened as advocates of these notions fancy themselves, they are ideas in fact deeply connected to the colonial epistemologies of an era that never quite achieves the status of bygone.
[Excerpted from Steven Salaita, Israel’s Dead Soul. Copyright @ 2011 by Temple University Press. Reprinted with the permission of the author. For more information, or to purchase the book, click here; for Steven Salaita’s website, click here.]
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