Friday, February 19, 2016

The Future of National Liberation by Michael Walzer

In October 2004, the socialist magazine Janata reported on a conference in New Delhi on the condition of Muslim women; the conferees included feminists activists and (male) members of the Muslim Personal Law Board.

Naturally, the two groups disagreed, but what was most interesting was that ‘numerous women participants argued . . .from within the Islamic paradigm, quoting verse after verse from the Qur’an and citing traditions attributed to the Prophet to make their case for gender justice.” These women were a new force, says the Janata reporter; they had the “moral authority that feminists who are seen as alienated from their societies and traditions lack.”

The same claim can be made by members of Women Living Under Muslim Laws (WLUML), a feminist organization founded in the 1980s by women from a number of Muslim majority countries, including Algeria, whose work has reached to India, where Muslims are a very large minority. The members of WLUML are both religious and secular, and one of their central goals is to provide reinterpretations of Muslim laws relating to the status of women. The plural form (‘Laws”) is important to their project. They insist that there are different understandings and different enactments of what is always called Qur’anic law, not a single authoritative version delivered by learned men, as religious zealots insist. The plural for means that women can join the argument, and by joining the argument rather than standing outside it, they hope to win at least a hearing from religious Muslims, men and women alike. If they are learned, as many of them are, they can also be authoritative.

Amartya Sen lays claim to the same kind of moral authority for democrats and pluralists when he argues that the ideas of public debate and respect for religious differences have roots in ancient Indian thought. He provides many examples. Her claims that important modern ideas aren’t modern inventions; they were expressed long ago, though in different idioms. They are part of a common heritage that may have to be selectively rejected but that can also be selectively reclaimed. Western ideas about liberty and equality can be naturalized in India. It may well be true that the best arguments for gender justice and for democratic pluralism are secular and philosophical in character. But philosophy doesn’t rule the day here, the best moral and political arguments are ones derived from and connect with the inherited culture of the people who need to be convinced. Engagement with that culture is what Nehru’s critics mean by “negotiation.” They argue that secularization in the West derives from a political negotiation with Protestant Christianity, so they imagine internal arguments that might produce Hindi and Muslim versions of secular doctrine – and also of democratic, egalitarian, and feminist doctrines.

The feminist scholar Uma Narayan has worked out a theoretical version of these arguments in her book Dislocating Cultures. She takes on the charge that demands for gender equality represent “a capitulation to the cultural domination of a colonizing Western culture.” As Marx’s articles on India show, this charge can also be a boast: all good modern ideas come from the historically advanced countries of the West. It is certainly true that any leaders of the national liberation movements were Westernizers - I have provided many examples. But Narayan submits two important caveats here, with special reference to what was once called the “woman question.” First, when the liberation movements began ( in India in the late 19th century), gender equality was hardly a dominant ideology in the West, and second, Indian feminists can plausibly argue that their struggle for equality “is no less rooted in our experiences within “our cultures,’ no less ‘representative of our complex and changing reality than the views of Indians hostile to feminism.”

Liberation is a reiterative process: it doesn’t happen all at once for everybody inj the world; it happens again and again. But that doesn’t mean that each successive struggle is nothing more than an imitation of the struggle that went before. Yes, many Indian feminists did learn their feminism in the West but they also made in their own in the course  of their engagement with their Indian sisters.

Narayan’s book goes well beyond claiming that feminism has Indian roots. She argues for the cultivation of those roots and makes a very strong case for a connected and naturalized feminism – that is, a feminism embedded in national narratives and religious traditions. She helps us understand that liberation is always  the liberation of a particular group of people confronting a common history. Let me quote one summary statement of her position, which comes very close to the position I defend in this book.

It would be dangerous for feminists . . . to attempt to challenge prevailing views of “religion” and “religious tradition” purely by resort to “secularism.” Many religious traditions are in fact more capacious than fundamentalists adherents allow. Insisting on humane and inclusive interpretations of religious traditions might in many contexts be crucial . . . in countering the deployment of religious discourses for problematic nationalist ends.

This isn’t an argument about stooping to conquer. Narayan writes movingly about the importance of national and religious commitments in the everyday life of ordinary men and women; these commitments shape their sense of who they are and their understanding of the social world. She is proposing an honest and compassionate engagement with these men and women. They are pragmatic, political reasons for such an engagement: refusing it will “marginalize progressive and feminist voices whose . . . political interventions into the discourse of nationalism seem increasingly crucial.” There are also democratic reasons. Narayan quotes Virginia Woolf’s antinationalist lines from 1938: “As a woman I have no country. As a woman I want no country. As a woman my country is the whole world.” (Woolf must have been reading Marx on the working class.) Narayan argues that on the contrary, women do have a country; they share a fate with their fellow citizens, who need to hear their voices.

Particular engagements with particular cultures and histories, engagements of the sort Narayan calls for, produce particular versions of secularism and modernity. Most of the militants of national liberation imagined that they were struggling towards a single universal vision, with minor variations reflecting national/ cultural difference. Their visionary ideal was not different from that of the 19th century liberal nationalists like Giuseppe Mazzini, who saw each nation having its distinctive part in the universal orchestra – which would be playing one symphony. Marxists had a more radical singularity in view: the orchestra would consist of individual men and women liberated from both nationality and religion and playing in beautiful, spontaneous harmony. In  Capital, Marx described a factory operating on the same principle, engaged, of course, in universal production. But if modern, secular liberation is ‘negotiated’ in each nation, in each religious community, a highly differentiated universe is the necessary outcome. The orchestra might be cacophonous, requiring negotiations not only within each nation but between and among  them, too, but that is a subject for another time.

Traditionalist worldviews can’t be negated, abolished, or banned; they have to be engaged…

Consider now the Zionist case, the case with which I am most engaged. In Israel it seems clear that the negation of exilic Judaism has failed and that the leap to the biblical past and other efforts to find usable bits and pieces of the tradition serve only top produce a Jewish kitsch, which cannot compete with a revived Judaism. The claim to radical newness gives rise, inexorably, to a radicalized oldness. With Judaism as with Hinduism and Islam, the old oldness may have been more pluralistic, more accepting of difference (in practice if not doctrine), than either the secular liberationists imagine or the religious zealots admit. Maybe. But I don’t think that nostalgia is any more attractive in  Israel than in India.

Much needed to be, and still needs to be, negated: the fearfulness and passivity of traditional Judaism, the role of the court Jew, the dominance of the rabbis, the subordination of women. But alongside the ongoing work of negation, the tradition has to be acknowledged and its different parts ingathered, as the poet Bialik argued: collected, translated, incorporated into the culture of the new. Only then can traditional Judaism be pulled apart, its most important features – laws and maxims, ceremonies and practices, historical and fictional narratives – critically appraised. Only then can those features be accepted, or rejected, or revised, only then can they become the subject of ongoing argument and negotiation.

It is argument itself, with its varying outcomes, that constitutes the Gramscian equilibrium, not any single or final balance of acceptance or rejection. A person can be a radical critic of the religious tradition, as I would be, while still  ‘taking account’ of its value for the Jewish people (or the Indian or the Algerian people). But the commitment top ‘take account’ means a commitment to learn something about the world of one’s opponents. Giving up negation doesn’t mean acceptance, it means, again, intellectual and political engagement.

Writing from a religious perspective, David Hartman has made what might be called an equal and opposite argument: that Jewish Orthodoxy must ‘take account’ of the work of liberation and join the ‘universal struggle to uphold human dignity.’ That will not happen, he writes, until people who “view the Jewish tradition as the natural context in which to express their concerns’ commit themselves to “egalitarianism, human rights, and social justice.” A commitment of that sort would be as innovative and revolutionary as any that the secular Zionists envisaged; it would produce a revised Jewish law and a very different rabbinical leadership. Hartman’s project is one to which Zionist liberation has made a substantial contribution. Perhaps this gift relationship can work both ways. The recognition of tradition as a “natural context” for political engagement is missing in early Zionism (as we have seen); today, I want to argue, its time has come.

Since Zionism is a political movement, the most obvious area for engagement is politics itself. But Zionist negation was first of all a denial that there was a Jewish politics in the exile – or even a collective history. “Since our last national tragedy” – the suppression of the Bar Kochba rebellion in 1235 CE – “we have had ‘histories of persecution, of legal discrimination, of the Inquisition and pogroms, of . . .martyrdom,” but, wrote Ben-Gurion, “wee did not have Jewish history anymore, because the history of a people is only what the people create as a whole,” and, he insisted, the Jews created nothing in the centuries of exile.

In fact, the internal politics of the Jewish Diaspora, through which the people as a whole sustained itself, in scattered communities, without coercive power, for many centuries, is one of the most remarkable stories in the political history of humankind. Exilic politics was in its decadence when the Zionists arrived on the scene, and it had never been valued within the tradition itself. Committed to deference and deferment, dreaming of a distant triumph, the rabbis had little to say about the success of the semi-autonomous communities of the Diaspora, and they took no interest in the political lessons that might be drawn from it. This history could have provided an opening for Zionist writers, but they found the decadence of Jewish communal life a more useful subject and made no effort to overcome their ignorance of better days. For some of them, ignorance of exilic history, since it wasn’t a “real” national history, was a matter of principle.

Ahad Ha’am* at least acknowledged the better days. The sages, he wrote, “succeeded in creating a national body which hung in mid-air, without any foundation on solid earth, and in this body the Hebrew national spirit  had its abode and lived its life for two thousand years.” But the true achievement of exilic Jewry – “marvelous and unique,” Ahad Ha’am said – was to lose the singularity of “this body” and still survive in scattered fragments, “all living one form of life, and all united despite their local separateness.” These fine words were apparently not inspirational; I have not found in the literature of Zionism any discovery of the old Jewish communities, any extended effort to understand of exilic politics worked, or to honor the people who made it work, or to value the achievement. The laws, customs, practices ,and implicit understandings that made communal life of the exile possible – surely this is material for “ingathering”, and then for appreciation and critique, by a movement aiming at a new birth of communal life. Indeed, the experience of exile and then of emancipation-in-exile might well teach contemporary Israelis something of great importance: how different Jewish communities could coexist within the framework of a secular state, alongside other forms of difference, other (non-Jewish) religious communities. The new Israeli majority might learn a lot from the experience of the old Jewish minorities. . .

The liberationist position of the Zionists was clear in the new nation-state, there would be gender equality- even, as Herzl  predicted, equality in national service  (though the actual standing of women didn’t and doesn’t  always accord with the ideology). I have already described how religious revival challenges the very idea of equality and how surprised and unprepared the liberationists were for the willingness of many women to return to Orthodoxy and accept a version of the old subordination. They are almost equally surprised by the fierceness of the religious zealots’ attack on gender equality wherever it exists – even in the Israel army.

Egalitarian arguments will seem obvious to many readers, but simply reciting  the argument isn’t sufficient .Today religious women in every denomination of Judaism argue for equality in the language of tradition – and write wonderfully subtle and intellectually engaging reinterpretations of both the Bible and the Talmud. It may be a sign of the polarization produced by the secularists and zealots in Israel that a great deal of the early interpretative work was not doe there but in the Diaspora, especially in the United States. Indeed, much of the religious energy among American Jews today comes from woman, who make up a growing number of scholars in Jewish studies and, even more important, of ordained rabbis. Nothing similar is going on in Israel, where secular Jewish women aren’t interested in becoming rabbis and religious women wouldn’t dream of it (though some, I think, are beginning to dream.). . .

I haven’t meant to argue that the traditionalist counterrevolution could have been avoided, the paradox of national liberation overcome, had the Zionist, say, fully engaged the tradition from the beginning. But a full-scale engagement early on might have made for a stronger response to the counterrevolution than anything forthcoming today .It might have provided Zionism with a more elaborated, a more interesting, and a more democratic culture. And it might have improved the odds - it might still improve the odds – for the eventual success of Jewish liberation

*Asher Zvi Hirsch Ginsberg (18 August 1856 – 2 January 1927), primarily known by his Hebrew name and pen name, Ahad Ha'am (Hebrew: אחד העם‎, lit. one of the people, Genesis 26:10), was a Hebrew essayist, and one of the foremost pre-state Zionist thinkers. He is known as the founder of cultural Zionism. With his secular vision of a Jewish "spiritual center" in Israel, he confronted Theodor Herzl. Unlike Herzl, the founder of political Zionism, Ha'am strived for "a Jewish state and not merely a state of Jews".

About Jewish relationships to the native Arabs, a disappointed Ha'am wrote

We must surely learn, from both our past and present history, how careful we must be not to provoke the anger of the native people by doing them wrong, how we should be cautious in our dealings with a foreign people among whom we returned to live, to handle these people with love and respect and, needless to say, with justice and good judgment. And what do our brothers do? Exactly the opposite! They were slaves in their Diasporas, and suddenly they find themselves with unlimited freedom, wild freedom that only a country like Turkey [the Ottoman Empire] can offer. This sudden change has planted despotic tendencies in their hearts, as always happens to former slaves ['eved ki yimlokh – when a slave becomes king – Proverbs 30:22]. They deal with the Arabs with hostility and cruelty, trespass unjustly, beat them shamefully for no sufficient reason, and even boast about their actions. There is no one to stop the flood and put an end to this despicable and dangerous tendency. Our brothers indeed were right when they said that the Arab only respects he who exhibits bravery and courage. But when these people feel that the law is on their rival's side and, even more so, if they are right to think their rival's actions are unjust and oppressive, then, even if they are silent and endlessly reserved, they keep their anger in their hearts. And these people will be revengeful like no other.

Ahad Ha'am also saw a bleak future for the nascent new state. He wrote:

[But if things continue the way they are] ...the society that I envision, if my dream is not just a false notion, this society will have to begin to create itself in the midst of fuss, noisiness and panic, and will have to face the prospects of both internal and external war...]

1 comment:

  1. Traditionalist worldviews can’t be negated, abolished, or banned; they have to be engaged…