November 9, 2009

Book review: "Israel vs. Utopia," by Joel Schalit

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Israel vs. Utopia, by Joel Schalit

Israel vs. Utopia
By Joel Schalit
Akashic Books / ISBN: 978-1-93335-487-3

As regular readers know, in the last couple of years I've been trying to teach myself more about the Middle East and Southeast Asia, regions of the world in which I had an almost complete ignorance until Bush started bombing the sh-t out of them in the early 2000s. And in this I am very typical of the American population in general, a famously myopic nation that has a long history of meddling in affairs it neither understands or indeed even wants to understand, then scratching its collective head in confusion whenever things don't work out in the neat, tidy way their leaders promised them. Ever since Bush and the neocons screwed things up so badly over there in the previous decade, it seems that more and more Americans are finally coming out of their fog of ignorance and choosing to actually learn something about the countries we've been so gleefully destroying, even if this new crowd of the enlightened still represents only a tiny fraction of the US population in general, and even if our ignorance was so total that many of us now have to start with grade-school primers on the subject.

And thus enters Joel Schalit and his remarkable new Israel vs. Utopia, a book specifically designed for Americans and that will make many others think, "J-sus, is the average American citizen really this f-cking stupid?" And the answer of course is, "Yes, the average American citizen really is this f-cking stupid," as referenced by the very title of the book itself -- that most Americans are raised from birth to think of Israel as a happy, noble funland, a Jewish version of America basically, a nation whose citizens can literally do no wrong, a population absolutely barred from criticism no matter what they do because after all, didn't those poor people get picked on enough by those mean ol' Nazis 75 years ago? As this small-press journalist and nuanced intellectual shows us, the reality of modern Israel is in fact much more complicated than most Americans realize, that not even every Jew agrees on what the proper role of the nation should be in that region, and that indeed there have been several events over the decades by the Israeli government legitimately worthy of condemnation, basic human-rights violations that deserve to be divorced from the larger question of simply whether Israel has a right or not to exist.

After all, Israel as even a concept has been controversial since its very formation: an entire nation essentially created from scratch in the aftermath of World War Two, capitalizing on worldwide sympathy for the Holocaust that had just killed six million of their numbers a few years previous, there was already an immediate problem just with the founding of this new country in 1948, in that it was to be located in an area of the world already occupied by several million Muslims and other Arabs, a region known historically by those people as "Palestine" and just as important to them as "Israel" is to Judaism. (In fact, for Americans who need a primer even more basic than this, that's essentially what this entire argument boils down to -- that many of the founding events of both Judaism and Islam occurred on what are sometimes the same exact geographical locations, leading essentially to a 5,000-year-old children's game of, "We were here first!" "No, WE were here first!") Something had to be done with these several million Arabs who were already living in the area where Israel was to be established; and so just like European settlers and Native Americans in the 1800s, these Arabs were essentially removed by force, which just like our own "Manifest Destiny" days was then justified with statements like "God told us to," a process that continues to this day and is basically what people are talking about whenever they discuss the "resettlement" of places like the "West Bank."

As Israel has grown and matured in the last 60 years, then, there has basically developed two political wings among Jews, just like in any other country you can name -- there are the liberals, who are growing to have more and more problems with this systemic resettlement and even just the increasing militarization of Israel in general, and then there are the conservatives, who see these developments as an unfortunate but necessary element of Israel being a sovereign nation to begin with, lest another Holocaust is to occur down the line (which they argue is exactly what hardline Muslims would love to see happen, an argument that is helped immensely every time someone like Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad opens his mouth in public to deny that the original Holocaust even happened in the first place). And thus does this issue heavily flavor all the various other political issues going on within Israel these days, from what the nation's relationship with the United States should be, to how much power the Jewish "diaspora" scattered around the planet should have in daily Israeli affairs (because that's yet another important thing to understand about all this, that the Israeli government officially considers every Jew on the planet to be an official citizen of Israel, whether or not they actually live there, giving people who live thousands of miles away and with almost no stake in local repercussions an inordinate amount of power over the country's political affairs).

What Schalit does in Israel vs. Utopia, then, is rework and reprint a whole series of essays and articles he's written over the years on these various issues, tying them together into a narrative whole in order to help us clueless Americans make sense out of all the questions being raised and discussed. And in this he does what I think is a great job, going out of his way to present as fair a look at both sides of these issues as possible, despite his unhidden bias from being a liberal himself; and in fact, that's something important for you liberals to know, that this book isn't just some big circle-jerk designed to automatically support every opinion you've ever had on the subject of Middle East relations. This is part of the reason Schalit even wrote the book, according to his introduction, was to help him as an individual better understand and appreciate the arguments being made on the other side of the political table; and indeed, there are moments in this book where one can clearly understand why a citizen of Israel might feel perfectly justified in violently removing several million people from their borders simply because they can, or why they would feel compelled to support a monster like George Bush during his administration despite being personally horrified by his bomb-and-torture cowboy approach to foreign policy.

But like I said, the main point of this book even existing is not necessarily to take sides on these complicated issues but simply to explain to us brain-dead Americans that they exist in the first place; and in this, Israel vs. Utopia does a particularly fantastic job, both holding our hand and letting us make up our own mind concerning a whole myriad of recent developments that in many cases we didn't realize was even going on in the first place. Like, did you know that many Jewish conservatives now see the increasingly secular Western Europe as actually more sympathetic to the Islamic cause than the Israeli one, especially now that Muslims are making up a bigger and bigger percentage of the EU's population with every passing year, even to the point of creating such desultory terms as "Eurabia" and accusing such mainstream newspapers as the UK's Guardian of being its official mouthpieces? Or that a common way for these conservatives to shut down even mere conversations about these issues is to accuse anyone critical of the Israeli government of being anti-Semitic in general, and to equate any specific problem a person might have with a specific Israeli political policy with a more general accusation that that person doesn't think Israel should exist in the first place? No, neither did I! They are eye-opening things to read about, in a country like ours where Judaism is still mostly defined through concentration camps and "Seinfeld" reruns, a country where the concepts of Judaism as a religion and Israel as a sovereign nation have become so complexly entwined that it is considered an unpardonable sin to speak critically of either; and it is under these circumstances where this book particularly shines, even as these same essays when read by people actually residing in the Middle East will I suspect produce yawns and angry declarations of, "...Well, duh."

It's for these reasons that Israel vs. Utopia gets such a high score today, but one that comes with a big caveat -- that that score is to be applied mostly to an American audience only, and specifically only those Americans who are purposely seeking more information in their lives these days concerning the complicated issues endemic to the Middle East. To these people, the book is nearly perfect; but to all others, it will come off anywhere from boring to pedantic to simply incomprehensible. Despite its big recommendation today, caution is still definitely advised.

Out of 10: 9.7

Read even more about Israel vs. Utopia: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari

Filed by Jason Pettus at 2:58 PM, November 9, 2009. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Nonfiction | Reviews |