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Extremists in the Family

If you're center-left and Jewish, would you rather your son be a West Bank settler or an anti-Zionist writer?
Extremists in the Family

The subject came up at lunch recently, apropos of a writer for Mondoweiss who is apparently the son of people some of our guests knew. The young fellow spent some time in Gaza and has become a professional pro-Palestinian and anti-Israeli (not necessarily the same thing) activist. There was much clucking around the table about the shame, until someone asked the question: well, would it be better or worse to have a son who became an extreme left-wing anti-Zionist—versus having a son who became a right-wing settler?

I would not describe the people around the table as right-wing in general, nor right-wing within the specific spectrum of Jewish opinion about the “situation” in the territories. In the American context, these were liberal Democrats; in the Israeli context, these were probably Yesh Atid types with no love for Netanyahu. But the immediate answer of the bulk of the group was: the settler would be obviously preferable. He would, after all, still be “family” in some sense, even if wayward.

But the mere fact that the question could be asked suggests that, on some level, the group understood that the settlement project as a whole occupies extreme ground. That a “settler son” was the appropriate hypothetical to compare to the “traitor son.” And how do we really decide when, and in defense of what, or whom, extremism actually is a vice? And what are we supposed to do then, when the extremist is “in the family?”

This is an abstraction for most of us, because most of us aren’t in situations where extremism presents as a realistic option. If my son, when grown, decides to become a settler in the West Bank, or decides to become a pro-Palestinian agitator, either decision would require a conscious distancing from the life he was actually living, in America. If you are closer, physically, to an intense conflict where extremism naturally finds fertile soil, you will inevitably wind up with extremists “in the family.” And, probably, “traitors” as well, at least in the eyes of extremists.

Of course, the whole point of abstractions like “nationalism” is to create an emotional affinity that substitutes for actual proximity—to make us “feel with” people we don’t know, and see them as virtually family. Ditto with abstractions like “the proletariat” or “the victims of imperialism/colonialism”—the “traitor” has, in a sense, chosen not so much to affiliate with the “enemy” as to affiliate with an alternative imagined community, with its own rules for inclusion and exclusion, and its own extremists and traitors.

It’s probably possible to understand all of our substantive commitments as choices of who our families—literal or figurative—are.

So, returning to the question around the table: I think the settlement enterprise as a whole has been a catastrophe for the State of Israel. It’s obvious, to me, that a nice Jewish boy digging in somewhere in the West Bank is a far bigger problem for the State of Israel than a nice Jewish boy blogging about how Zionism was a historic crime and Hamas is part of the proletarian vanguard (or whatever). But, conceptually, “flipping” the valence on the two hypotheticals—calling the settler the “traitor” and the Mondoweiss-nik an “extremist”—doesn’t really work. Or, if it does, what it really amounts to is changing one’s own allegiances—from an allegiance to the Jewish nation to an allegiance to the “international left” or some similar abstraction.

There is always the alternative of simply writing off anyone who stays off the yellow line in the middle of the road. But inevitably this implies a thinning of all of one’s allegiances. Until you don’t really have a family, literal or figurative, left.

Far more difficult to say: no, these fellows are both, in some sense, family. But the harder path makes for more interesting discussions around the table.



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