Omelas and the political theology of Israel
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Recently, speaking with Dan Evans and James A. Smith about the matter of the left and Palestine, I invoked a short story by Ursula Le Guin, “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.” In that tale, the master realist describes a city of relentless joy and of unending peace, devoid of misery, poverty, or unnecessary suffering of any kind.
Of course, to say there is no unnecessary suffering is not also to say there is no suffering. Somewhere in the city, imprisoned in a windowless room, is a malnourished and abused child upon whom all the enlightened abundance of the people is founded:
They all know it is there, all the people of Omelas. Some of them have come to see it, others are content merely to know it is there. They all know that it has to be there. Some of them understand why, and some do not, but they all understand that their happiness, the beauty of their city, the tenderness of their friendships, the health of their children, the wisdom of their scholars, the skill of their makers, even the abundance of their harvest and the kindly weathers of their skies, depend wholly on this child's abominable misery.
The brilliance of Le Guin’s story is her avoidance of direct allegorical correspondence. While the child stands for the founding violence of a state, it can easily be any (and every) founding violence of any and every state.
Every state has its foundational violence. Not just the violence of its founding, but the violence upon which it continuously founds itself. For one group to be in power, other groups must have been defeated and constantly defeated. You cannot have a life without naked violence if you also intend to have a state, no matter how much we might dream of things being otherwise.
Just as every state has its foundational violence, every state also has its sustaining myths. Though it speaks to every state and every society, I invoked Ursula K. Le Guin’s story specifically in relation to Palestine and Israel. In May of this year, a different Ursula — Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Union — gave a speech praising the State of Israel for “making the desert bloom.” That Ursula’s words were a quote from the defense of the founding violence of Israel by one of its former Prime Ministers, Levi Eshkol, who said:
“It was only after we had made the desert bloom and populated it that they became interested in taking it from us.”
The “they” in Eshkol’s statement refers to the Palestinians, who, according to a rather common belief in Israel, had never attempted to “improve” the land where they live. Because they had not done so, those who did so later therefore had more “right” to the land, and any bad feelings the Palestinians might have is merely jealousy.
There’s much to say about this framing. First of all, anyone who’s ever actually been to a desert knows they are not empty wastelands devoid of life or people. Palestine was already full of people and of life, as was the Negev, but these were a kind of people and a kind of life which didn’t fit into what the newcomers had been looking for.
This is a problem we’ve seen before and in many, many places. Newcomers to the Americas believed the forests and prairies were fully unoccupied and uncultivated, because they were looking only for the signs of brute management (fences, plowing, clear-cutting) to which they’d become accustomed. To them, it was all empty and left to waste.
If anything, the “desert bloom” is merely Adam Smith’s logic of “improvement,” an understanding of property relations which assigns moral right of land ownership to those who increase its productivity and therefore their own wealth:
The colony of a civilised nation which takes possession either of a waste country, or of one so thinly inhabited that the natives easily give place to the new settlers, advances more rapidly to wealth and greatness than any other human society. The colonists carry out with them a knowledge of agriculture and of other useful arts superior to what can grow up of its own accord in the course of many centuries among savage and barbarous nations.
We know now that none of these places were truly “waste country.” Peoples already in those lands had been carefully planting specific trees in forests and setting controlled fires to “manage” the land. The thing is, so also did ancient peoples in Europe. It’s suspected, for example, that the incredibly rich soil in the Ukraine and parts of Germany and Poland is the result of managed grassland fires, and hazelnut forest cultivation likely made up more than 40% of mesolithic peoples’ caloric intake.
It’s not just forests, however, nor ancient Europeans. Arabs in Iberia created extensive irrigation systems and used non-intrusive (and thus barely-visible) cultivation practices, to make apparently “desert” places “bloom,” just as they’d done in Africa and the Middle East.
In their references to the bloom of the desert, both Ursula von der Leyen and Levi Eshkol were echoing David Ben-Gurion, who himself hadn’t come up with the term. Instead, it’s from the Book of Isaiah, a part of the Bible oft-cited to back up Zionist politics with divine prophecy:
The desert and the dry ground will be glad.
The dry places will be full of joy.
Flowers will grow there.
Like the first crocus in the spring,
the desert will bloom with flowers…
…Those the Lord has saved will return to their land.
They will sing as they enter the city of Zion.
While Zionism started out — and is still often described — as a secular movement, and while Israel declares itself a secular liberal democracy, all political orders have the same features as theological ones. Every state has not just a founding violence, but also a founding mythology.
To hold any position and power in the minds of its citizens, a state must situate itself within a cosmology that its people recognize. They must recognize themselves as part of the state and also subject to it, and they must also recognize its existence not just as a fact but as a fait accompli. Like a god, the state must seem eternally-present to those within it, its origins obscured in the non-linear morass of mythic time. Though they might admit and even yearly celebrate its founding, its subjects must be made to feel as if it has always existed and will always do so.
Often, especially if the state is quite old, the theological aspects of a state’s politics become quite obscured, just as its founding violence fades into distant memory. When you’re subject to the state, it can be quite hard to even notice these mythic aspects.
From the outside, though, it’s much easier. That’s why it’s quite common to hear pro-Zionist Israelis deny there is anything mythic or theological about the State of Israel, just as a United States citizen might have trouble acknowledging that there’s anything religious about “In God We Trust” printed on all the currency.
The similarities shared between the United States and the State of Israel do not end there. Both were founded upon “empty” land previously governed by British mandate and quickly filled with religious zealots certain the land had been “promised” to them by their god. Subsequent settlements in each place — the kibbutzim, the associations and joint-stocks — were soon constructed from the utopian socialist fantasies of Robert Owens and Charles Fourier. And perhaps more importantly, both were shaped early on by the inverse ethic of the “righteous victim,” justified in all subsequent acts of violence through unshakeable ressentiment.
The similarities in the myths diverge, though, since none but the most deluded in the United States would claim its founding was a “return” of a people to land from which they came. There is also delusion in the Israeli claim, but this is through omission of an important reality which doesn’t fit with the religious texts.
The Hebrews did indeed once dwell in part of the land now called Israel, but they never dwelt there alone, nor were they ever the genetically or religiously distinct people the Biblical and Zionist narratives paint them to be:
Because archaeology ties identity to territory, the questions asked of it are often animated by contemporary geopolitical concerns. Armed with potsherds and inscriptions, ethnic groups or states can tell stories about the past that enable them to make claims about who they are and where they belong in the present.
But that logic relies on our ability to define group identity through time, which has become even more fraught as the character of the nation-state adapts to flows of migration. What makes the French of today the same as the French of the seventeenth century or the Gauls of antiquity? Genetic makeup? Shared language, practices, and traditions? Or the accident of living within shifting French borders? The very notion of primacy—the claim that “we were here first”—depends on being able to define who “we” are. At the time when David’s sons and grandsons were ruling in Jerusalem, for example, the Judaeans were polytheistic; Judaism as we understand it today did not coalesce until the third or second century b.c. (emphasis mine).
Quite a lot of effort has been put into attempting to prove aspects of the Biblical narrative of the Jewish people, and very little of it ever comes out the way Jewish and Christian literalists would like it to:
In the last quarter century or so, archaeologists have seen one settled assumption after another concerning who the ancient Israelites were and where they came from proved false. Rather than a band of invaders who fought their way into the Holy Land, the Israelites are now thought to have been an indigenous culture that developed west of the Jordan River around 1200 B.C.
Abraham, Isaac, and the other patriarchs appear to have been spliced together out of various pieces of local lore. The Davidic Empire, which archaeologists once thought as incontrovertible as the Roman, is now seen as an invention of Jerusalem-based priests in the seventh and eighth centuries B.C. who were eager to burnish their national history. The religion we call Judaism does 'not reach well back into the second millennium B.C. but appears to be, at most, a product of the mid-first.
At best, the ancient kingdom of Israel was actually only a small “hilltop kingdom” which co-existed with other tribal groups in a rather cosmopolitan way. It was only much later, under “King Josiah,” that the Hebrews tried to distinguish themselves from the people around them through naked violence:
Storming through the countryside, Josiah and his Yahwist supporters destroyed rival shrines, slaughtered alien priests, defiled their altars, and ensured that henceforth every Jewish sacrifice take place exclusively in Jerusalem, where the priests could exercise tight control. The result, the priests and scribes believed, was a national renaissance that would soon lead to the liberation of the north and a similar cleansing there as well.
It was during this period that much of the early parts of the Old Testament were written as attempts to establish a mythic past justifying the current order.
Again, every nation does this to some degree. Children in the United States, for example, are taught to believe the nation was founded by “pilgrims” escaping “religious persecution.” This myth of course obscures the much less comfortable reality: the Puritan “pilgrims” had been so violent to other Christians in Europe that no country — even the tolerant Dutch — would allow them to live there any longer.
There’s another peculiar aspect to the founding myth of Israel, that it was an “escape” from the race-science that had gripped Europe and led to the Nazi regime. In reality, Zionism itself, beginning with its first founder, embraced and even perpetuated false conceptions of the Jews as a ethnically- and racially-distinct people.
In fact, the very idea of Jews being a “people apart” is a recent European invention:
But it was probably not until early modern Poland that Jews truly became the people apart of Zionist lore. At a time when Italian Jews were still inviting Christian friends to weddings, circumcisions and musical soirées (much to the Church’s chagrin), Polish Jews spoke a different language, wore different clothes, sported sidelocks and beards and, thanks to the Kabbalah, thought of themselves as existing on a higher spiritual plane. The gulf separating them from the surrounding population had never been greater. What Zionism regards as an eternal aspect of the Jewish condition was actually a product of early modernity.
This modern sense of being distinct, different, and separate from all other peoples was what led so many early Zionists not only to accept but also perpetuate race-science in their own political dreaming. Perversely, eugenics and the language of “degeneracy,” both of which led to a mass extermination campaign against them, were core founding ideas of Zionism itself:
According to Joachim Doron, Central European Zionists embraced the perception of Jews as a race, since it allowed them to replace religion, both as a source of legitimacy and as an integrative force, with a scientifically sanctioned notion of common biology as the ground on which to base the national identity (1980: 404). Since the rise of the Zionist movement coincided with the growing popularization of eugenics, it is hardly surprising that Zionist men of science - most of whom were either born or educated in Central Europe - appropriated the eugenic idiom to describe the Jews as a race undergoing a process of 'degeneration', and the national project as a path toward ‘regeneration’ and 'racial improvement' (Efron 1994; R. Falk 2006; Hart 2000).
Jewish 'degeneracy' had been a persistent idea since the emancipation debates in France and Germany in late eighteenth century (Hess 2002: 6, 15-16). Zionists were not unanimous in their position on this matter, but most of them agreed that even if the Jews were not yet degenerate, given their present ways of life and living conditions, their physical and mental stock was constantly deteriorating. However, they rejected a deterministic explanation, which anchored Jewish degeneracy in the fixed characteristics of the race, and instead embraced explanations which emphasized external influences of history, environment, and culture.
Of course, none of this fits well with the sustaining myths of the State of Israel. Perhaps then it will not surprise you that the Jewish Israeli author of the above-quoted academic paper, Dr. Dafna Hirsch, senior lecturer at the Open University of Israel, is included in a target list created by a far-right Zionist group in Israel previously funded by American Christians.
The religious belief in distinct races and eugenic principles didn’t go away in Zionist political theology, even after the world saw the ultimate manifestation of such ideas in the Holocaust. Obsession over tracing and bettering genetic bloodlines has included attempts to prove historical priestly lines (the Cohen modal haplotype and “Y-Chromosomal Aaron”), and has also led to something even more perverse: corpse sperm-retrieval of dead soldiers:
A soldier’s spouse will be permitted to get impregnated by his sperm, on condition that the soldier didn’t object in writing. Likewise, if a soldier has no partner, the parents are authorized to ask a court to be able to use the sperm to impregnate a willing woman (emphasis mine).
The bill also outlines restrictions. The parents won’t be allowed to make use of their deceased son’s sperm with more than one woman. Likewise, a child born according to this law will be the son of the mother in every regard. She will be the child’s sole guardian. Moreover, a child born using the deceased soldier’s sperm will not be considered an army orphan.
Notably, the recent struggle between the Israeli Defense Forces and Hamas has led to a unique kind of crisis:
As the scale of the tragedy from the Hamas onslaught on Saturday became clear, with hundreds of young men — both soldiers and civilians — among those killed, embryologists and IVF specialists report being called to quickly try to perform posthumous sperm retrieval (PSR) on an unprecedented scale…
… Dr. Yael Harir, an embryologist at Kaplan Medical Center in Rehovot, said that she usually does only a couple of PSR procedures a year. Although she declined to give the specific number of procedures done at Kaplan in the last few days, Harir indicated that it was sizable.
“When you have to do this procedure on corpses, the staff finds it difficult physically and emotionally,” she said.
Harir reported being contacted by colleagues at other hospitals asking for guidance on how to do PSR. “There is no protocol for coping with the preservation of sperm in such a large scope. We had to figure out how to cope with the situation and assess what equipment we had to do so many procedures in parallel,” she said.
But for many, it was too late.
As I wrote earlier, it’s important to remember that it is much easier to see the founding myths and political theology of a state from the outside. As absurd and grotesque as many of these things seem, they are likely quite invisible to those subject to the State of Israel and captured by its cosmology.
Archeological, religious, economic, and even race science have all been employed towards the impossible mythic task of making righteous the founding violence of the State of Israel. But this is not really different from the situation of any state in the world: each must find a way to justify why they deserve the benefits and the utopian aspects of their societies and why someone else must suffer for their state to exist.
This is why the situation of Israel and Palestine remains so intractable, and will likely continue to be so until an explosive regional (or possibly international) war forces the mythic finally to confront the real.
When all the justifications for the “necessary suffering” of the child locked in a basement — in this case, millions of children in an open-air prison — finally fall away, only then might Omelas/Israel transform itself into something else. But this is also the same for every person in every modern state: accept the myths, or walk away.
Each alone, they go west or north, towards the mountains. They go on. They leave Omelas, they walk ahead into the darkness, and they do not come back. The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness. I cannot describe it at all. It is possible that it does not exist. But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas.
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