Patrick Henry and the Palestinians


“We must fight! An appeal to arms and to the God of hosts is all that is left us! They tell us, sir, that we are weak; unable to cope with so formidable an adversary. But when shall we be stronger?” Patrick Hanry gave his March 1775 speech to rouse Americans to take up arms.

I was reading this speech while teaching a class on American culture to Palestinians and realized, as I kept reading, that it resounds today in a different context, in a different place. “When will we be stronger? Will it be the next week, or the next year? Will it be when we are totally disarmed, and when a British guard shall be stationed in every house?” A British guard in every house, the class wondered whether this was an allusion to an Israeli soldier in every Palestinian house.

Patrick Henry speaking to the Virginia Convention in 1775

Patrick Henry speaking to the Virginia Convention in 1775

“The millions of people, armed in the holy cause of liberty, and in such a country as that which we possess, are invincible by any force which our enemy can send against us,” said Henry. Surely Hamas speaks this way when it explains to people why the will of the people shall not be defeated. “There is no retreat but in submission and slavery What would they have? Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!” Henry was a radical in his declarations.

It was the reference to death that got me and the reference to God. Patrick Henry, that American religious fanatic? Liberty or death. He was speaking about martyrdom. He was speaking in a way of course that most Westerners no longer speak. But it is also a way that when Palestinians speak that way, they are accused of incitement. Ralph Waldo Emerson, the famous American essayist and poet, said of John Brown “his suffering shall make the gallows glorious like the cross.” Powerful words. Didn’t the union army march into battle singing “John Brown’s body”? These were days of martyrs and martyrdom. Some have called John Brown “America’s first terrorist.” Was Patrick Henry a terrorist? Would he have been today? What about Samuel Adams and his ‘sons of liberty’?

A related issue that comes to mind is Thomas Paine, another lion of the revolution. He noted that “A government of our own is our natural right.” Self-determination. That was a key American concept through to today, one explicated and articulated by Woodrow Wilson. If Mahmoud Abbas says “a government of our own is our natural right,” how does this sound in an American context? How does it sound in an Israeli context?  Is there an American solution to the Palestinian issue and why historically hasn’t their been?  Why were the values of Patrick Henry, Thomas Paine and others rejected in favor of a different lens through which to see Israel and the Palestinians?

It brings back this notion argued by some American Jewish activists who insist that the “liberal” values of US Jews and Israel are not compatible

The 1948 letter Arendt, Einstein and other Jewish left-leaning intellectuals signed

The 1948 letter Arendt, Einstein and other Jewish left-leaning intellectuals signed

This was brought up by John Judis in his book ‘Genesis.’ But to understand this notion one has to go back and understand what was the connection between “liberal” US Jews in the 1950s and Israel. The Jewish left in the US supported Israel’s Labor Zionist left in the 1950s because they believed they were cousins in socialism. When Hannah Arendt, Albert Einstein and many other left-leaning American Jews signed a letter to the New York Times on December 4, 1948 condemning Menachem Begin they made clear their politics. They claimed that his Herut part was “closely akin in its organization and political philosophy to Nazi and fascist parties…terrorist, right wing, chauvinist.” They claimed that Herut “preached an admixture of ultra-nationalism, religious mysticism and racial superiority like other fascist parties…on the Italian fascist model.” But what of Labor Zionism? They claimed the Herut was bad because it “had no part in the constructive achievements in Palestine, they have reclaimed no land, built no settlements and only detracted from the Jewish defense activity.”

The relationship between this Jewish “left” and Israel was primarily a political relationship of like-minded socialists. Let’s remind ourselves what this “left” believed in Israel in 1949. Aryeh Gelblum, writing in Haaretz that year parroted a typical Labor Zionist view when discussing the immigration of Jews from Arab countries. “It is an immigration of a race until now unknown in Israel…we face people whose primitivism is at a record, their level of knowledge borders with absolute ignorance…incapability of any spiritual idea…generally are only a little better than the level of the Arab, black and Berber natives of their countries of origin and definitely at a lower level than Palestinian Arabs.” Remember now that self-defined “liberal” Jews in the US who were against Herut had claimed it supported racial superiority. But here is one of Israel’s major left-leaning newspapers with a fascist race-ladder theory, based on eugenics and the discredited European ideas of white racial superiority. Gelblum went on; “in the living quarters of the Africans you will find filth, gambling, drinking and prostitution; many of them are plagued with eye and sexual diseases…[they] lack an ability to adapt to life in Israel and primarily chronic laziness and rejection of work…this immigration is unlike lower human material from Europe, their children have no hope either to raise their cultural level in the depth of their ethnic identity.” Human material, ethnic identity: fascist and socialist terms.

This was how Israelis at the elite socialist level spoke of Arabs and Sephardic or Mizrahi Jews and Africans; they called them “semi-barbaric” and “primitive”; “ignorant and superstitious.” Even Abba Eban said that immigration of Jews from Arab countries and the Arabs in Israel would “force Israel to equalize its cultural level with that of the neighboring world…our object should be to infuse them with an Occidental spirit, rather than to allow them to drag us into an unnatural Orientalism.”

Yemenite Jewish immigrants in 1949, they were called "barbaric" and "primitive" by leading Labor Zionists

Yemenite Jewish immigrants in 1949, they were called “barbaric” and “primitive” by leading Labor Zionists

This was Labor Zionist Israel, up close and personal. Sammy Smooha reveals a 1965 survey where 64% of “Ashkenazi” respondents claimed “Arabs will not reach the level of progress of Jews.” Hannah Arendt was also a believer in the racial superiority of Jews from Europe. When she was in Jerusalem in 1961 she wrote to her German philosopher friend Karl Jaspers: “On top, the judges, the best of German Jewry. Below them, the prosecuting attorneys, Galicians, but still Europeans. Everything is organized by a police force that gives me the creeps, speaks only Hebrew, and looks Arabic…they would obey any order. And outside the doors, the oriental mob, as if one were in Istanbul or some other half-Asiatic country.”

So when Judis writes about the “Jeffersonian” ideals of Harry Truman and contrasts him with American Zionists of the 1950s and tries to show that their liberal ideals at home, for instance on Civil Rights, were not compatible with Israel’s founding ideas, he is on to something, but he makes a mistake. He claimed “as a Jew I am bothered by Israel’s occupation of the West Bank.”

But the problem is one of misunderstanding left-leaning US Jewish relations with labor Zionism. Labor Zionism was not nearly as democratic as it is given credit for. It wasn’t “Jeffersonian”, it wasn’t “liberal.” Beinart has written: “the leaders of American Jewry would have been horrified to imagine a day when the most powerful Jewish organizations were indifferent to whether democratic values governed American life and whether those values govern the Jewish state.”

But the misnomer is the myth that these values underpinned 1950s Israel. What one must understand is that the oft-mentioned connection between left leaning US Jews and Israel in the period before 1967 was an ideological connection based on socialism, not on Jeffersonian ideals. Einstein and Arendt had political bedfellows in Israel; they had all been born in Europe, their views were European and socialist. Little of what Arendt believed in had to do with democracy, and certainly not American-style democracy. These fellow travellers were not American democrats, they were social democrats of the European variety, ideologues of the “total state” where the propaganda posters of the “working man” and the “human material” were common. Americans never spoke in terms about “human material.” Only European socialists and communists and fascists spoke that way.

Socialist posters in Europe in the 1930s: Nothing American here.

Socialist posters in Europe in the 1930s: Nothing American here.

People tend to project backward the current “left-right” divide in Europe, the US and Israel and pretend that all these “lefts” are the same. But they are not. The “left” of Emma Goldman and many other “labor leaders” in the US, some of whom were Jewish and whose Jewish and political roots in Europe played a role in their political orientation, in the early 20th century had nothing to do with what the US left became in the 1950s and 1960s. These outsiders who tended towards communism and mass-total-state style European ideals of socialism, glorifying the “human material” caricatured in Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, were not American democrats. They were European socialists.

The language of Labor Zionism and European-rooted Jewish liberals in the US in the 1950s created a cultural bond. Abba Eban and his friends in the US had a common language, but it wasn’t an American one. It had nothing to do with James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, Abe Lincoln or Patrick Henry. It had to do with Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Karl Marx, Antonia Gramsci, “left Hegelianism” and all the other continental philosophers. Yes, America’s founders had been influenced by the enlightenment as well, by men like John Locke, English speakers of course.

John Locke, an American-style liberal and advocate of natural rights

John Locke, an American-style liberal and advocate of natural rights

One has to understand the clear divide to look back now and understand the kulturkampf that has come about between “liberal Zionism”, Israel and the Palestinians.   Do Americans like Peter Beinart, drawing on the European Jewish tradition of Ahad Ha’am and Labor Zionism, support Palestinians? They are mostly interested in reforming “their” Jewish state. It is an internal Jewish argument about the “morality” of the total-state. It is about ideological cousins not universal ideals of natural right. They want more kibbutzim, less “settlements”, because theirs is primarily an argument over what type of settlement, i.e competing settlement movements; just as Arendt and Einstein opposed Herut, not actually because Herut had a different racial view of the world (as was shown, Arendt had a racial superiority complex as well), but because it was “their” political movement against another.

When you look at those who advocate a withdrawal from the West Bank in “left” circles in Israel or the US, you almost never find anyone who advocates it based on universal ideas of natural right and self-determination. They don’t articulate: “A government of our own is our natural right.” In the opposite, you find in Israel that those who support the Bedouin, support an “indigenous” right, or what one might call a “white man’s burden” right. They tend to view Palestinians as second-class citizens in need of saving.

As such, the withdrawal from the West Bank is often supported as a way to “save Zionism” precisely because it is an internal Jewish political conflict over the “soul” of Zionism. Will Zionism be more kibbutzim, more acceptance committees, more Gelblums and Arendts, or more Begins. It has nothing to do with a universal concept of rights and democracy. Withdraw to save Zionism, they say, not withdraw because Palestinians have rights. You won’t find among the “left” any who support providing greater political rights to Palestinians, precisely because the manifesto is often about denying rights to Palestinians and their Jewish opponents in the “ideological battle.”

Is the debate about Israel really about Palestinian rights?

Is the debate about Israel really about Palestinian rights?

That is why Patrick Henry can be so well understood in the Palestinian context and why so many of those on the “left” would never acknowledge this fundamental inconsistency between American values and Israeli values. Once one is freed from the chains that binds the debate to a dialectic that posits that “Israel before 1967 was pure and was supported by the left in the US” and “Israel after 1967 is impure and has nothing in common with liberal values”, one can begin to see that the Israelocentric view of “pure” and “impure” is problematic because it denies the Palestinians as part of this world view. Tragically there is, among the supposed “left” in Israel a lobby that wants a state that is entirely Jewish and entirely secular and “left.” That is the fantasy. It is profoundly not “left”, although it claims to be.

It would be better to examine the Palestinian issue based on a view of natural right and universal values, rather than through the lens of “left-right” and Israel. The hijacking of history has, for too long, put the Palestinians in an orbit around Israel, so that they exist primarily in relation to Israel, their political rights are dictated by whether it fits Israel’s security needs, or whether it fits the needs of a political discourse in Israel.

One response to “Patrick Henry and the Palestinians

  1. I would go even further than you–*all* politics is essentially tribalism, occasionally dressed up in grand philosophical attire. That includes the politics of Locke (whose Second Treaty of Government justified slavery) and the American Revolutionaries, who were fighting for the political advancement of their own upper-middle-class constituency much more than for any of the universal rights and freedoms that, for example, only belonged to property owners. It also includes the politics of Begin and his religious and Mizrachi allies, who were interested in climbing the Israeli socioeconomic ladder every bit as much as the Labor/Ashkenazi elite were interested in holding them down. And it includes the Palestinians, who have no interest in a universal right of self-determination–it was offered to them three times, and refused, after all–but rather seek to defeat and subjugate their wealthier, more powerful Jewish neighbors.

    Don’t get me wrong–I’m as staunch a defender of democracy as you’ll ever find. But the value of democracy isn’t that it embodies any grand universal ideals–on the contrary, it merely provides a framework in which naked tribalism can safely and civilly run amok. Its one true strength and virtue is that nobody’s tribe is excluded, and all may participate equally in the selfish battle for power and spoils that tribal politics is and always will be.

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