The name Ze’ev Maghen will not ring a bell with you, and there’s no reason why it should. Maghen is an academic at Bar-Ilan University outside Tel Aviv, where he acts as the chair of the Department of Middle Eastern History and a research associate at the Begin-Sadat Centre for Strategic Studies. (You will no doubt recall the duo of Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat from that March 1979 windswept ceremony on the north lawn of the White House, as shouts of Palestinian protesters drifted across there from Pennsylvania Avenue.)
Ze’ev Maghan is popping up in my column this week not because he’s an unabashed Islamophobe who should be berated for his racist effusions — in Israel, Islamophobes are a dime a dozen — or even because he’s a latter-day Bernard Lewis, the well-connected neo-conservative historian who specialised in Middle Eastern studies and was notable for his public debates with Edward Said, who accused him, along with other Orientalists, of misrepresenting Islam in his work.
Lewis, who was of the Jewish faith and an ardent Israel advocate, responded, seemingly with a straight face, by defending Orientalism as a “facet of humanism”. (That was years before the man died at age 101 last year.)
Back to Ze’ev Maghen, a name that came up in a conversation I was having last week with a friend who teaches at the Centre for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University in Washington, who suggested I read a 2012 book written by this aspiring Bernard Lewis clone, a book that would explain, albeit indirectly, why Israeli society today is afflicted with routinely fractious politics and an openly racist political culture.
Forget the melting pot
The book comes with the beguiling title John Lennon and the Jews: A Philosophical Rampage, and takes off by deriding John Lennon, the peace activist and Beatles’ songwriter and co-lead vocalist, for his Utopian vision of a world without borders, without nationalist passions, without wars, a world where we share our humanity. (Well, what do you expect? Lennon was a Flower Child and a product of his Sixties lifestyle.)
Then Maghen propounds a counter-argument that would make progressive Jews wince and members of the supremacist Aryan Nation gloat. Forget racial heterogeneity, this Israeli academic writes. Forget the melting pot.
Frenchmen should stay French, Dutchmen Dutch, Irishmen Irish, and so on. And Arabs should most decidedly stay Arab. But above all, Jews should not only stay Jewish but jealously guard their Jewishness.
If you’re a Jew, he declaims, stay Jewish. Being Jewish lifts you from all that is uninspired and humdrum, all that is dull and mundane.
Being Jewish removes you from “the drudgery of daily life” and elevates you to a sphere that is “powerful, exciting, fathomless and beautiful”. And, yes, if you’re Jewish, “you happen to have lucked out”. And on and on it goes. From time to time, to justify his subtitle, he would throw in the odd “the bifurcation of values and facts” and “the challenge of rationalism”. Oh, Please!
What we have here is not just a “failure to communicate”, as Paul Newman was warned against doing in Cool Hand Luke; we have here a book whose style of writing is straining to sound hip but comes across as hick, whose title is meant to be catchy but is in fact sententious, a book that advances a thesis that the author wants you to view as sophisticated but, from the get-go, is in fact an insufferable racist rant.
That’s the point. The book is relevant only to the extent that, as my Georgetown friend suggested, it echoes the very ethos of Israeli political culture today, a political culture where progressive Israelis began to be sidelined as far back as the time when Menachem Begin scored his electoral victory in 1977, and in our time they effectively became an anachronism.
The truth is that if you’re an Israeli Jew today you don’t happen to have lucked out.
That Israel has morphed into an openly, brazenly, unapologetically apartheid state, with racism an institutionalised force anchoring its social system, is a fact that even Israelis do not deny — indeed do not want to deny. Pity these wretches!
Historical imperatives may already be catching up with them, American support — support they rely on for their survival — may already be eroding, and the accounts between them and their Palestinian victims may soon have to be balanced. But these folks, like apartheid South Africans and segregationist Southerners in their heyday, are out to lunch.
Fawaz Turki is a writer and lecturer who lives in Washington and the author of several books, including the Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile.