In 1999, Karen Knierman picked up a free mug at her first big astronomy conference, just before she started grad school. It bore the logo of an ambitious observatory, designed to peer at the most distant galaxies in the universe: NGST, short for Next Generation Space Telescope. The mug was on Knierman’s desk in 2002 when NASA made a surprise announcement: NGST was going to become JWST, after James Webb. Knierman sipped from her suddenly out-of-date mug and wondered, Who?
That was the prevailing reaction among scientists at the time. Webb, who died in 1992, was more of a behind-the-scenes manager than a space-science star; he had served as NASA’s second administrator, in the 1960s, during the run-up to the Apollo moon landings. But scientists went with the rebrand. Work on the telescope continued. Scientists got new merch, new mugs.
JWST, an enormous $9.7 billion observatory with 18 mirrors coated in gold, is scheduled to launch into space this December. It’s the scientific successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, which completely altered our view of the universe. Scientists around the world are ready to see JWST go; the telescope has been over budget and behind schedule for years. But rather than focusing on that long-awaited triumph, they’re caught up in a controversy over the 20-year-old naming decision.
More than 1,200 people, including professional scientists who have applied for observing time on JWST, have signed an online petition asking NASA to rename the telescope. Webb, critics say, is the wrong namesake for an instrument meant to inspire future generations of scientific thinkers. They point to archival, publicly accessible documents that show that, during his pre-NASA tenure at the State Department in the early ’50s, Webb attended a meeting about policies that discriminated against LGBTQ government employees. Other documents show that NASA, under Webb’s watch, engaged in discriminatory firing.
In response to that outcry, NASA conducted a review of historical documents, searching for evidence of Webb’s direct involvement in the discrimination against or dismissal of LGBTQ employees. Apparently, the agency failed to find it: Last month, without releasing any additional information, NASA’s current administrator, Bill Nelson, announced that JWST would stay JWST. “We have found no evidence at this time that warrants changing the name,” Nelson said in a statement.
If JWST had launched earlier, its name might have escaped this level of scrutiny. But it’s 2021, and NASA has spent the past few years making a concerted effort to recognize scientists—many of them women and people of color—who have been overlooked in space history. The name of this telescope is one of the most important NASA will choose: Years from now, the name Webb might be just as well known as Hubble, another symbol of human accomplishment. Usually, NASA consults the space community in decisions like these, reaching for names that will resonate widely; in this one, the agency has relied, more than once, on top-down decision making and failed to show its work.
Now, instead of the glossy narrative it had planned for the launch of one of its most expensive projects, NASA has a problem. Even after Nelson’s announcement, scientists and others in the space community are still asking for answers. The controversy has followed JWST to its launch site in French Guiana, on the north coast of South America, where it arrived earlier this month by ship from California. And it will hover in the background as the telescope launches into space and settles into its faraway orbit, unfurling piece by piece, its radiant hexagonal mirrors ready to greet the universe. Even there, a million miles away from Earth, the telescope may still be weighed down by its terrestrial baggage.
The concept for JWST, née NGST, emerged in 1989, months before the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope. NASA had high hopes for Hubble, but officials wanted to think ahead. The next instrument, they decided, would be even more powerful, able to scan the cosmos in special wavelengths that would reveal the light of ancient stars and galaxies that whirled into existence not long after the Big Bang.
With that kind of job, the name Next Generation Space Telescope seemed pretty boring to Sean O’Keefe, who was the NASA administrator in 2002. NGST, O’Keefe told me in a recent interview, was poised to dramatically alter our understanding of the universe and our place in it, a task that felt to him as seminal as the Apollo moon landings, which Webb championed. “Here was somebody who was really engaged in something roughly akin to the promise of what [the space telescope] could do,” said O’Keefe, who is now a professor at Syracuse University. Though the two men never met, O’Keefe admired Webb for his Apollo-era management, and for his push to invest in space science even as NASA focused on human spaceflight. So, as administrator, O’Keefe made a unilateral decision to rename NGST.
Usually, the names of space telescopes are chosen through a formal process, with time for discussion and debate, Heidi Hammel, a planetary astronomer at the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, told me. But with JWST, “none of us in the science community were involved,” said Hammel, who in 2002 was a member of a group tasked with outlining the observatory’s science priorities. And NASA had a long tradition of naming its space observatories after scientists—Hubble, Chandra, Spitzer, Compton—but Webb was an administrator. Patrick McCray, a historian at UC Santa Barbara who sat in on early meetings about the observatory, told me that O’Keefe’s decision to honor an American bureaucrat put off some scientists at the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency, with whom NASA is working on the mission.
The current concerns about Webb’s character didn’t surface until 2015, in a pair of blog posts, and the discussion in the space community intensified as JWST’s launch date approached. The astronomers behind the new petition point to Webb’s leadership at the State Department during the Lavender Scare, a turbulent period that led to the firing of dozens of LGBTQ government employees. And they say that Webb was the head of NASA when the agency fired an employee because of his sexual orientation in 1963. After the employee was arrested by local police in Washington, D.C., on suspicion of being gay, a NASA security officer had brought him to NASA’s headquarters and interrogated him further before letting him go.
NASA looked into these allegations in a review that began in March 2021. Brian Odom, the agency’s acting chief historian, worked with an outside historian NASA hired for the effort. Odom told me that the historians searched for evidence that suggested Webb’s involvement beyond attending meetings where senior officials discussed Lavender Scare policies, something demonstrating that he was not a mere onlooker, reflecting the widespread homophobia of the federal government at the time, but a participant who actively pursued a purge. Odom said they looked for “action that is ordered by Webb … where we see a chain of command, where we see actions are made. That could have taken the form of a memo, some sort of correspondence, a letter from Webb to somebody else where he discusses next actions to be taken.” Odom said that they haven’t yet found any evidence that meets that standard.
Other historians I spoke with argue that Webb was, at the very least, an accomplice to discrimination, even if no physical evidence of it exists. “If you are the second in charge at the State Department and your agency implements a policy that destroys lives, that destroys careers—of course he’s complicit in that,” said Audra Wolfe, a historian who wrote about Webb in her book about Cold War–era policies, Freedom’s Laboratory: The Cold War Struggle for the Soul of Science. Webb is far from the only figure NASA has revered who could be accused of complicity. The Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama bears the name of the secretary of state who led the department in the late 1940s as the Lavender Scare took shape. And the Kennedy Space Center honors a president whose administration tried to filter out LGBTQ people applying for government jobs, according to the historian David K. Johnson’s book, The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government. But for some JWST critics, the significance of a space telescope’s name is greater than a space center. Only one of those is a once-in-a-lifetime project that will be flung a million miles from Earth to uncover the wonders of the universe.
Odom said he presented his findings to Nelson in a series of conversations. There is no formal, written report. This was a surprise to many astronomers, including members of the Astrophysics Advisory Committee (APAC), a NASA group that considers matters including scientific objectives and workplace culture. They expressed concern when Odom told them in a recent meeting that no report existed. “It feels a little insufficient to just present findings without presenting the basis for those findings,” Lou Strolger, an APAC member and a scientist at the Space Telescope Science Institute, the American organization that oversees JWST, said at the meeting. “I think a report would be warranted.” When I checked in with Odom last week, he said he would compile a report only if Nelson asked for one, and the administrator so far hasn’t. (Nelson’s office declined to comment on the potential release of a public report.)
None of this has eased the frustrations of the astronomers behind the renaming petition. One of them, Lucianne Walkowicz, resigned from APAC, citing NASA’s lack of transparency about its internal review of JWST’s namesake. It “sends a clear message of NASA’s position on the rights of queer astronomers,” Walkowicz explained. Sarah Tuttle, an astrophysicist at the University of Washington who is bisexual, agrees. “I’m not going to burst into tears whenever I say ‘JWST,’ but it is one of a large number of reminders that say, ‘Yeah, you’re not really who we’re talking about here,” Tuttle told me. “It’s an accumulation of many Do you belong? Do you belong? We don’t think that you belong that, over time, is wearing.”
I asked Tuttle whether the review could have turned up information that shifted her view on JWST. Perhaps, she said, if the investigation had uncovered evidence that Webb had pushed back against any of the government’s discriminatory actions—for example, if the security chief who interrogated the fired NASA employee had faced any consequences. But it probably wouldn’t have changed her stance, or that of other critics. “We feel his overall history is complicated and complicit enough,” Tuttle said, “that it is unlikely we would become Webb enthusiasts.”
The story of the space telescope and its controversial namesake isn’t over. NASA’s review of historical documents is not, strictly speaking, complete: Odom said that because of COVID-19 restrictions, he and the other historian (whom Odom declined to name) couldn’t access the Truman Presidential Library, in Missouri, where some of Webb’s papers are stored. NASA has kept this historian on contract to continue digging. “If new evidence comes to light about James Webb’s role in the Lavender Scare, then NASA will respond to that new evidence,” Odom told me.
The agency has clearly been paying attention to the increased scrutiny on these types of decisions, about names meant to honor figures from the past. Last year, NASA renamed its Washington, D.C., headquarters in honor of Mary Jackson, the agency’s first Black female engineer. Also last year, it renamed a planned space telescope in honor of Nancy Roman, NASA’s first chief astronomer. But some marks of the less-than-perfect past are untouched. A bust of Wernher von Braun, the engineer who developed rocket technology for Nazi Germany before doing the same for the United States, stands on the grounds of Marshall Space Flight Center, which von Braun ran in the 1960s. NASA’s Stennis Space Center, in Mississippi, is named after Senator John Stennis, who was a staunch proponent of segregation in the 1950s. (Some in the space community have argued for renaming that too.)
The Roman Space Telescope, meant to be JWST’s successor, was named in the usual way, through a deliberate process with outside input. “We really made sure to have buy-in from the science community,” Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator for science missions, told me in a recent interview. There was no doubt that the space observatory, like so many others, would take the name of a scientist. Whatever your opinion of Webb’s history, the administrator is an incongruous choice for such a project, and NASA could have avoided the controversy if it had stuck to its own tradition 20 years ago. O’Keefe, for his part, stands by his decision, saying he doesn’t believe there’s any evidence that shows that Webb was directly involved in discriminatory policies. Some scientists agree, and earlier this year an astrophysicist publicly argued that Webb cannot be definitively condemned.
When I asked Zurbuchen whether NASA should have a do-over with JWST, he demurred. Nelson made his call, Zurbuchen said, and “I think it’s important to move forward and move on.” But at a virtual NASA-led town hall last week, Zurbuchen seemed to take a softer stance. “This is a disappointment to some or even many—and, you should just know, perhaps even people around this call right now,” he said, looking around at his colleagues in the conference room with him at NASA headquarters.
Even people at the highest echelons of space science seem determined not to let the matter drop. Two senior leaders at major space institutions that work with NASA, who were granted anonymity in order to speak candidly, told me they plan to directly convey the discontentment they have heard within the community to NASA leadership. They said they are still hopeful that NASA will reconsider the name, before or after launch. Post-launch rebranding has happened before: In 2018, NASA renamed an observatory that had been in space since 2004 to honor the mission’s lead investigator after his death. If an administrator can choose to change a mission’s name at any point—if all Nelson has to do is say the word—why should Webb critics give up the fight?
The debate over JWST’s name is starting to look as seemingly endless as the budget problems, delays, and poor management that have plagued the mission for years. Audra Wolfe, the Cold War historian, believes that Webb himself, who wrote a wonky book about managing space programs, would probably bristle at being associated with a program beset with so many issues. At this point, the project has been delayed so long that the original NGST merch isn’t just outdated—it’s practically antique. “I’d joked over the years that [the observatory] couldn’t launch until the logo wore off,” said Knierman, who is now an astrophysicist at Arizona State University. JWST is now less than two months away from its grand exit from Earth, and the telescope’s old, generic name has nearly disappeared from Knierman’s mug. In its place is a little black smudge, so small and distorted, it looks almost like a stain.
Bernard-Henri Lévy is a French philosopher who wears elegant suits, cites Hegel, and visits war zones. The first part of his new book, The Will to See, references conversations with Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, Michel Foucault, and Gilles Deleuze, among other French postmodernists; the latter part describes horrific scenes of violence in Somalia, Nigeria, and Ukraine, among other places. We in the English-speaking world are not accustomed to this combination of themes, and our first instinct is to snicker.
Those so inclined should go right ahead, for there is no insult, no criticism, no mockery that you can direct at Lévy that he has not already heard and probably cited, somewhere, in a self-deprecating comment. The list of his detractors is very long, and the terms they use are not kind: “Pomposity and self-promotion are his vices,” wrote Paul Berman, as far back as 1995. In the book as well as a new documentary Lévy has written and co-directed, also called The Will to See—now showing at film festivals in English, and perhaps to be more widely released next year—he makes several wry references to the opprobrium his various engagements have inspired (“There is the war in Libya, of course, for which I have been lavishly criticized”). But don’t let the instinct to insult him overwhelm you, for the book and the film raise questions that are rarely posed so starkly. Do people in the wealthier, more fortunate parts of the world owe anything to those who live in the poorest and unluckiest places? Should we interest ourselves in the fate of people fighting wars that we don’t even know exist? What do we accomplish by describing and filming them? Should we try to help?
Not so long ago, some of these questions seemed to have clear and obvious answers, at least to the people who dedicated their lives to thinking about them: Yes, telling the world when an atrocity is unfolding is always important. But the war in Syria and the immense indifference it provoked, alongside the anger so many Americans and Europeans directed at the refugees it produced, led even seasoned war correspondents to doubt the value of their chosen profession. In 2019, Paul Conroy, the photographer who accompanied Marie Colvin, a celebrated reporter who was killed in Syria, told an interviewer that both he and Colvin had once believed their work mattered: “We thought the world would go, ‘Hang on, this army is going to destroy civilians here … We have a moral responsibility to stop the slaughter.’” No longer. There is, he has also said, “not a single photograph I could take now that would make a difference.”
This change has many causes, starting with the information overload that has led to information apathy—a condition encouraged by the transfer of all reporting and photography from the pages of newspapers and magazines to the tiny screens of phones where they are hardly visible. The aura of failure that both fairly and unfairly surrounds the American and Western interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan has also led some to conclude that we can’t, or shouldn’t, do anything to help anybody anywhere; that to try is either wasteful, cynical, or imperialist. Therefore, this argument goes, we should not interest ourselves at all.
Partly as a result, politicians across the democratic world, on the left as well as the right, have decided that there are no votes in foreign policy. President Joe Biden followed Donald Trump’s lead and exited swiftly from Afghanistan. Recent German elections scarcely mentioned the outside world at all. Thanks to Brexit, the only important political conversations in Britain nowadays are about Britain. The global pandemic reinforced this inward turn in country after country, literally forcing people into their homes. For more than a year, we talked about the coronavirus. We spoke very little about the places in the world where the virus is a secondary evil, a threat to life much less acute than the next bombing run, the next terrorist attack, the next raiding party.
Lévy doesn’t merely object to this new provincialism; he utterly rejects it, even taking risks with the coronavirus to explain why. He made most of the trips described in the book and the film during the pandemic, including one to Moria, a sprawling refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos. “All the rest of Europe is obsessing over public health and hygiene and how often we wash our hands,” he observed. “Moria is beset with infection, corruption and stench, with little water to be found.”
In Paris, the virus shut down the city. In Moria, refugees had other things to worry about. Lévy draws further contrasts too. His film switches back and forth between charming vistas of New York and Rome, deserted during the pandemic, and scenes of traffic and chaos in Mogadishu and Tripoli. He shows us a peaceful village in France, almost empty, as well as a village in Nigeria where people are loudly mourning neighbors and relatives who have been murdered by fanatical Islamist raiding parties. He offers himself as a contrast too, and remains solemnly dressed in a black suit and immaculate white shirt even as he is rappelling down cliffs with the peshmerga, the army of Iraqi Kurdistan. Everywhere he goes, he meets people who want contacts, visas, access to the Western world. He finds himself scribbling names and phone numbers on bits of paper. When he comes home, he asks himself: Did I do enough?
Because of his celebrity as well as his persistence, Lévy can sometimes direct public attention to foreign crises and even catch the interest of French presidents. Each one of his interventions requires its own assessment—did it succeed, did it fail, or (in most cases) is the result somewhere in the middle? He isn’t delving into those questions in his new book and film, so I won’t either. Besides, each one of these stories should prompt separate arguments. Any outside response to the civil war in Libya should be very different from any outside response to the killings of Christians in Nigeria, even though both deserve thought and attention. If one lesson is to be drawn from Western and American interventions in other parts of the globe, it is that treating each of them as one-size-fits-all terrorism operations was the wrong way to go about it. Military intervention, especially if it involves drones and bombs rather than boots on the ground, is not the only answer, even if it seems the simplest.
But do the failures of the U.S. military in Afghanistan mean that the rich world should withdraw altogether? Lévy argues vociferously that it should not. He is not calling for specific interventions, let alone military interventions, just public interest and attention: Whatever the solutions are, we should strive to be part of them. This is not a popular argument. On the contrary, at the moment we are heading rapidly in the opposite direction—toward isolationism and disengagement. “Never in the modern age,” he writes in his book, “has humanity been so separately from itself, so divided.” It’s almost as if the quantity of information theoretically available about the world expands at the same rate as our interest in using that information declines.
This is a disaster, not just for the poor, but for the rich world too. Lévy points to the “incivility, cruelty, racism, and anti-Semitism” now rising in Europe and America—all sentiments born of indifference to the fate of other people. When we harden our hearts to refugees or to victims of genocide, then we reduce our ability to empathize with people who live next door to us too. When we stop caring about what happens to faraway members of the human race, then we also stop caring about those closer to home. Ambivalence, nihilism, and cynicism are part of this package too.
Lévy believes this trend is reversible. That’s why he keeps traveling, despite the criticism he faces, and that’s why he keeps writing books and making documentaries. And he does have a large audience, a following among people who are not indifferent to stories from far away. When The Will to See was shown on the French channel Canal+ last summer, and then again on French public television, it drew robust viewership. Lévy’s belief is that connection between people is possible, that bad stories can be changed to good ones, that engagement does matter.
So much is working against the return of empathy to the public sphere that it is easy to be skeptical of this message, to respond with sarcasm or scorn. But before anything can change or improve, someone has to believe that change and improvement are possible. Pessimism is easy but irresponsible, because it implies that nothing can or need be done. Optimism is much more difficult and risky, but without it we can’t see a better future. The Will to See offers precisely that kind of difficult optimism: Both the book and the film call on people not just to see the world, but to be moved and interested by what they find there, and to do something about it.
Some cuckoos are born assassins. Within a day or two of hatching, the infant birds—still blind, pink, and featherless—will start to evict the other residents of their nest, hurling them over the edge and to their death.
Technically, the evictions they carry out are from living quarters that aren’t even their own. The cuckoos are parasites, strategically placed by their mother into the abode of another species so they can mooch their way through adolescence. The more of their foster siblings they kill in cold blood, the more food and attention they can con out of their adoptive parents.
The acts are ruthless, but also remarkable physical feats. Fresh out of their shells, the birds are jacked, capable of hoisting hefty eggs or chicks—including some that weigh about as much as they do—onto their back before throwing them out like trash. “It’s like a newborn baby lifting a bowling ball,” Stephanie McClelland, a biologist at the Royal Holloway University of London, told me. “It’s just crazy.”
By peeping on cuckoo chicks during development, McClelland and her colleagues have homed in on one of the major strategies these birds, and several others like them, use to achieve their super-swole status at such a young age. In a new study, they describe how the animals exercise as embryos while they’re still incubating in the egg, a sort of prenatal CrossFit that preps them for the slaughterous rampage that follows. “It’s a home gym in the egg,” Mark Hauber, a biologist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who collaborated with McClelland on the study, told me. By the time these birds hatch, their foster siblings already don’t stand a chance.
The notion that embryos can wriggle around in the womb or egg isn’t new. Human pregnancy is a prime example: Fetuses spend months executing a mix of twitches, stretches, and kicks that are thought to be an in utero trial run for the motions “they need to survive after birth,” Niamh Nowlan, a developmental-biomechanics expert at University College Dublin, told me. The situation isn’t all that different for birds, which start flexing their muscles just a few days after their egg is laid. These little full-body bootcamps are vital: Animals that skip their pre-birth workouts tend to emerge with bones and muscles that are weak and underdeveloped.
McClelland and her graduate adviser, Steven Portugal, decided to check if embryos could push that trend in the other direction—adding on exercise to the standard regimen of squirming, perhaps as a way to ensure that they’re born extra buff. If any animals were good candidates for pumping prenatal iron, they figured, cuckoos and other nest-invading birds, formally known as brood parasites, might be among them, given what they get up to in infancy.
Proving that, though, wouldn’t be easy. That’s because dozens of bird species are thought to engage in some form of brood parasitism, each with their own violent flair. Some, like the common cuckoo, are egg-tossing executioners; others, like the cowbirds that Hauber studies, let their host siblings survive, but still jostle them out of the way to beg, loudly and insistently, for food. Most macabre of all might be the lesser honeyguide, a fanged felon that will stab its nest-mates with the piercing-sharp hook that adorns the front of its beak or “shake them like a terrier” until they drop dead, Claire Spottiswoode, a biologist at the University of Cambridge and the University of Cape Town who studies honeyguides, told me. If McClelland wanted to find a connection between pre-hatch calisthenics and the shredded status of brood-parasite chicks, she’d need to spy on a whole lot of embryos while they were still in their shells.
So McClelland enlisted Hauber, Spottiswoode, and several others to help her out. The researchers spent several years collecting the eggs of 14 bird species—some parasitic, some not—scattered across three continents. Using a device called an Egg Buddy, they beamed harmless lasers into their specimens, and tallied up how much the embryos were shifting around. The work was sometimes grueling, and not just because they were dealing with bloodthirsty birds: While gathering data in a rural region of Illinois, McClelland’s mobile laboratory, full of equipment and chemicals, was mistakenly flagged by locals as a meth lab.
But the project yielded exactly the results McClelland and her colleagues were hoping to see. While inside their egg, most brood parasites tended to fidget about more often than the host birds they tormented, especially during later stages of incubation. They were also jigglier than closely related birds that were raised by their own parents. Brood parasitism is thought to have arisen independently at least seven times in the avian family tree; “to see a similar pattern” across species and continents makes the team’s results especially compelling, Iliana Medina Guzman, a brood-parasite expert at the University of Melbourne who wasn’t involved in the study, told me.
The results aren’t totally ironclad. Nowlan, who wasn’t involved in the study, pointed out that the researchers weren’t able to check how the chicks in each species actually turned out, making it hard to confirm whether in-egg gains actually did produce brawnier birds. And the movement gaps among species also weren’t huge—more the difference between two casual weight lifters than a bodybuilder and a couch potato. Still, “when you look at a small difference in embryo movement or muscle development, it compounds on itself,” says Facundo Fernandez-Duque, an avian biologist who is advised by Hauber but wasn’t involved in the study. For a weary cuckoo chick, a few extra strength-training sessions might make all the difference between booting its fourth and final nest-mate and having to share its chow.
For Spottiswoode, the link feels intuitive, like confirmation of the years of work she’s done in the field, examining and handling murderous birds. Freshly hatched honeyguides even feel kind of toned. “They have an almost rubbery quality to them,” Spottiswoode said. That sinewy stuff is exactly what makes the baby birds’ bods so lethal. Even clutched in human hands, they’ll lunge and snap and fling their fangs about, “trying to find something, anything, to bite,” she said. Sometimes, survival of the fittest really does mean the fittest.
May Sarton was a novelist and an avid keeper of journals, but she considered herself a poet above all else. Novels and journals, she said in 1983, are concerned with growth over time, but “the poem is an essence … it captures perhaps a moment of violent change but it captures a moment.” In “Poem in Autumn,” she seizes just that: fall’s fleeting turning point between a memory of warmth and the cold’s inevitable creep. In that suspended instance, she sees the leaves, “touched by death,” take on a shining gold.
In the first stanza, we know death to mean the coming winter. The leaves won’t survive it—they’ll shrivel and fall—but they burst with vivid color on their way out, almost as if they’re aware that time is slipping away. In the second stanza, though, Sarton is no longer talking about foliage: Now it is we, human beings, who are touched by death. We know the end is coming, and that knowledge changes something in us—our senses are heightened, our heartbeats amplified, our grief transmuted into radiance. She is capturing a moment of change, yes—but a moment can last a minute, a season, or a lifetime.
In the imagination of the Christian West, Jews have been forced to fill every role. For 2,000 years, they have been seen as the ultimate shape-shifters: craven, feeble, abject, weak, and humiliated, but also powerful, conspiratorial, and demonic. They are the prime, indeed fatal, danger to the societies in which they live: arch-capitalists and arch-revolutionaries. Jews are a symbol, a metaphor, an essence. So it should come as no surprise that the state of the Jewish people, where almost half of the world’s Jews live, is also viewed in this way. Israel is both an obsession and an abstraction—as the Jewish people have been for much of Western history.
Israel is unusual in that it existed as an idea before it existed as a nation-state. Today, it is also unusual, even remarkable, for lacking internationally recognized borders—an indispensable marker of sovereignty—and for decades it has been depriving Palestinians in the occupied territories of political rights and freedom. “After 1967, Israel stopped becoming a normal nation-state,” Arnon Degani, a Hebrew University history professor who is a member of the anti-occupation veterans’ group Breaking the Silence, told me recently. “Time passed on, and Israel becomes more and more abnormal.” Leftist Israelis—many of whom define themselves as Zionists—call the occupation criminal, atrocious, unbearable; their critique is broader, and deeper, than most of what you read or hear in the United States. As a result of the occupation, the literary critic Nissim Calderon told me, “Wider and wider circles of life, both for Israelis and Palestinians, become infected with cruelty.”
But the peculiar ways in which Israel has been historically viewed—and the ways in which, in the most recent Israel-Hamas war, it was depicted as an almost metaphysical evil—have deeper, and other, roots. “The reality of Israel is, in large measure, a projection of fantasies, both by those who want to love the place and those who are consumed by hatred for it,” wrote the Israeli American writer Joel Schalit. Or, as Etan Nechin, an Israeli journalist who edits The Bare Life Review, a journal of immigrant and refugee literature, argues, “The left thinks that Israel exists only on a highly ideological-political level. There are no people in it. It’s only a tabula rasa.”
Any useful analysis of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict requires engaging with an unresolved, frustratingly complex, grievously resilient struggle between two national movements, each with a justified claim to the land. Once that effort is abandoned, a vacuum ensues. It is filled by the transformation of a country into a metaphor; by the rewriting (or ignoring) of history; by Manichean thinking; and by the conversion of language into a means of performance rather than a description of reality.
Leftist theorists have a long tradition of turning the Jewish people into an abstraction. In his 1843 essay “On the Jewish Question,” a very young Karl Marx wrote that, because Judaism’s essence was “practical need, selfishness … haggling and money,” a truly free world would entail “the emancipation of humanity from Judaism.” Some—including the Marxist philosopher with whom I live—argue that this essay isn’t anti-Semitic, because Marx wasn’t addressing actual Jews but rather Jews as the symbolic essence of capitalism. But this is precisely the point, and the problem: As many racial-justice theorists have pointed out, transforming a people into a concept is an act of dehumanization.
Since Zionism’s inception, the left—following Marx—has often projected its fixations onto Israel and the state’s political conflicts, and thereby sorely misunderstood them.
Hannah Arendt and Arthur Koestler were each, in their different ways, exemplars of this propensity. Both traveled to the pre-state Yishuv (and then to Israel), both had extremely conflicted attitudes toward Zionism and Israel, both can be categorized as having been, at various times, Zionists and anti-Zionists. Arendt was a rhapsodic supporter of the Yishuv, though she opposed partition, hated David Ben-Gurion, and was a fierce critic of the Zionist movement. Her fears that Israel would devolve into ethnic nationalism, and would find itself in constant conflict with its Arab neighbors, proved astute—painfully so. But she rejected the prism of either colonialism or imperialism. Instead, she perceived that the early Zionists had created something new: History is not merely a series of repetitions. “The building of a Jewish national home was not a colonial enterprise in which Europeans came to exploit foreign riches … at the expense of native labor,” she wrote. The Yishuv “could not possibly fit into the political scheme of imperialism because it was neither a master nor a subject nation.”
Yet Arendt also tended to view the new state through the catastrophic lens of German history. Visiting Israel for Adolf Eichmann’s trial in 1961, she wrote, “The parallels are fatal, particularly in the details.” Actually, it’s hard to think of two nations that were—and are—less parallel than Germany and Israel. This mistaken identification led her to prophesize a series of disasters for Israel that were wide of the mark. Statehood, she insisted in 1948, would lead to the Yishuv’s collapse, though the opposite proved true; later she warned of a possible military dictatorship, isolation, cultural sterility, and domination by the Soviet Union. And her understanding of Palestinian politics—an essential part of the equation—was virtually nil.
Arthur Koestler—fervent Communist, fervent anti-Communist—became enamored of militaristic Revisionist Zionism as a university student, and in 1926 he had a brief, unhappy stint at a Zionist commune in Palestine. (In fact, his comrades expelled him.) Like Arendt, Koestler transferred the traumatic European politics of the interwar period—especially its leftist politics—onto Israel. This meant that he misunderstood quite a lot. He viewed the strife between Labor Zionists and Revisionists as a replay of the deadly Stalinist-Trotskyist antagonism of the Spanish Civil War. He believed that Hebrew (which he failed to master) would separate Israelis from European culture and prove intellectually sterile. He charged Ben-Gurion with establishing a “totalitarian” regime, and compared what he called “Haganahism” to Nazism and Stalinism. In his view, interest in Israel would wane: He predicted that 50 years after its founding, “few will take an interest” in Israel’s birth or would dispute partition, and that Israel would ultimately “become an entirely ‘un-Jewish’ country”—a prospect of which he highly approved. He turned out to be far less prescient than Arendt.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, a new theory emerged among leftist anti-Zionists: Jews who had fled their homes in the Arab world—Iraq, Yemen, Morocco, and elsewhere—would unite with Palestinians to overthrow the presumably oppressive Zionist state and establish … well, something else. These leftist activists assumed a natural—that is, ethnic—affinity between Palestinians and Jews from the Arab world. After all, both were apparently non-European (or, in today’s parlance, “people of color”). The theory proved catastrophically wrong, because it ignored the discrimination—and, sometimes, violence—that Jews had experienced in Arab countries, and the enmities that led many of their Muslim Arab neighbors to drive them out. Today, Arab countries have virtually no Jewish citizens, and Mizrahi Israelis constitute a key part of the Israeli right’s base.
When a country—or a people—is treated as a blank canvas, almost anything can be painted onto it. Israel’s victory in the 1967 War—which birthed the occupation—transformed the country, in the eyes of the global left, into the colonialist, imperialist, racist, even fascist monster of the Middle East: “the new Shylock of the non-aligned world,” as the socialist-Zionist Simha Flapan wrote at the time. This was true in both Europe and America. Just two months after the war—when there was still free movement between the conquered territories and Israel, when there were virtually no settlements, and when the occupation was far from certain—the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee accused Israelis of “imitating their Nazi oppressors.”
This tendency to veer from vehement but rational political criticism to grotesquely engorged vilification was most extreme in the theory and practice of the West German New Left. The tormented descendants of the Auschwitz generation aligned with Palestinian terror groups, and—irony of ironies—designated Israel as the fascist, genocidal successor to the Third Reich. The Israeli German historian Dan Diner has termed this bizarre equation of Germans and Jews an “exonerating projection”: an attempt to normalize Nazism by transposing it onto its victims.
Something similar is happening with the delegitimizing charges of “imperialism” and “settler colonialism” that some members of today’s left in Europe and the U.S. hurl against Israel, the historian Benny Morris told me. “The liberal left feels guilty about its past crimes,” said Morris, whose book The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947–1949 is a canonical work in revisionist Israeli history. “And this is projected onto current conflicts, especially the Israeli-Arab conflict.” He added, “There’s a basic anti-Semitism in the West and a basic obsession with the Holy Land in the Christian West. And these two things make it impossible for anybody to look at Israel in a neutral way.” Seventy years after its founding, Israel is regarded (by Jews and non-Jews, right and left, West and East) as a cause, a tragedy, a miracle, a nightmare, a project—one that is highly provisional and should perhaps be canceled. Is there any other sovereign nation, from the most miserable failed states to those that are flourishing, of which the same can be said?
Once specificity vanishes, metaphors bloom. One of the left’s favorites is Israel–as–South Africa. The Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, for instance, is built on the insistence that Israel is a replica (or, in Arendtian terms, a “parallel”) of South Africa pre-1994. In this view, because an international boycott isolated South Africa and helped end apartheid, an international boycott will isolate Israel and help end the occupation (or, perhaps, end Israel itself, as many BDS supporters seem to hope). But the two countries aren’t really the same, and a strange thing has happened: In the years since the BDS movement was founded, Israel has become less isolated from other nations, its economy has flourished, and Arab Israelis have made impressive gains in education and employment—even as the occupation has become more entrenched. Something is wrong with the metaphor. Still, BDS soldiers on, routinely proclaiming its victories. It is doubtful, though, that a boycott of Israel—even by Sally Rooney!—will persuade most Israelis that the occupation should end, any more than a boycott of the United States would have convinced many Americans to dump President Donald Trump.
Accompanying obfuscating metaphors are profound distortions of history—or, rather, anachronistic readings of it. The socialist magazine Jacobin, for instance, confidently states that Israel was “born out of nineteenth-century European imperialism.” The inhabitants of the Yishuv were a varied lot, but many, indeed most, were immiserated refugees fleeing oppression and then extermination: “Israel is the State of the displaced person,” the decidedly non-Zionist Isaac Deutscher, a Marxist historian, noted. The contemporary left has somehow transformed these refugees into wily, powerful, “non-indigenous” imperialists who sat in Kyiv and Vilnius, scheming to steal land from Arab peasants. (It is baffling to hear leftists, the great defenders of refugees and immigrants, divide the inhabitants of Israel and Palestine into those who deserve to build a life there—the “indigenous”—and those who don’t.)
Rather than imperialism, modern Zionism was rooted in the national-liberation and socialist movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In particular, the kibbutzim were hailed by leftists as the purest form of anti-authoritarian communism—built, as a delighted Deutscher wrote, “by the self-sacrifice and courage of idealistic intellectuals and workers.” But apparently Deutscher was wrong; another Jacobin writer now informs us that the kibbutz movement embodied the “negation of socialism” and the sin of “ethnic separatism.”
The ethnic-racial lens is a particularly inapt frame through which to view the unique circumstances in which Zionism developed. The Hebrew Labor movement—the spine of the state—was based on the principle that Jews must earn the right to the land through their own self-sufficient labor and that they could not exploit Arab workers; they refused to become bosses of Arab workers or peasants. Yet for Jacobin, this epitomized contempt for Arab labor as “a primitive mode of production unfit for the proletarian revolution” and “the total racialization of the class struggle,” an almost comic misreading. As the journalist and historian Bernard Avishai pointed out to me, Hebrew Labor was “in many ways the opposite of classical colonialism … The left never understood that the ‘colonial project’ [of Israel] was basically a desperate effort to create a Jewish cultural life that would be resilient enough to survive the modern world.” He adds that the Zionists “were afraid to become Arabic-speaking overseers of Arab labor. So by the time of the second Aliyah, there were collective institutions that excluded Arabs … That looked like a racist thing, but so does affirmative action look like a racist thing, if you don’t understand its purpose.”
Along with the misreading of history is its essentialization: Zionism is a project “of systemic, massive violence,” one recent BDS petition contends. The extraordinarily tangled history of the Zionist movement—which includes Marxists and capitalists, peacemakers and militarists, secularists and believers, humanists and racists—is actually a consistent record of being “inherently violent,” according to a student group called Michigan in Color. (Whether the Palestinian movement has an “inherent” character remains unexplored.) Zionism is depicted as a kind of iron cage—stamped from the beginning, so to speak—instead of a fluid political movement that developed in dialectical relation to world events. Such essentialist views have traditionally been expressed by historians who believed in the German concept (later embraced by the Nazis) of the Volksgeist; it is startling to hear them propounded by progressives.
And Zionism developed, especially, in relation to the national movement of its neighbors, the Palestinians. Their agency, too, has been erased; instead, they are depicted in cartoonlike form as either mighty, unbowed anti-imperialist warriors or innocent, reactive victims. In fact, leftists seem as uninterested in the rich texture of Palestinian politics as they are in Israeli politics. A wide range of views exists among Arab Israelis and Palestinians in the occupied territories; the American left might at least notice that Arab Israeli leaders such as Ayman Odeh, the head of the Arab Joint List, and Palestinian leaders such as Marwan Barghouti, now imprisoned on multiple terrorism charges, both support a two-state solution.
In the Israel-Hamas war last May, the “racialization” of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—the latest use of unilluminating metaphors and false symmetries—became widespread. “From Ferguson to Palestine!” appeared on posters and petitions and rang out at demonstrations. The Black Lives Matter movement—and African American oppression in general—was repeatedly likened to, or even conflated with, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. According to the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights, residents of Ferguson, Missouri, and those in Palestine both face “an occupying force.” An activist with the progressive American Jewish group IfNotNow confidently explained to TheNew York Times that racism in America and the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians amount to “the exact same system.” Zellie Thomas, a Black Lives Matter organizer in New Jersey, asserted at a pro-Palestinian demonstration, “We know occupation; we know colonization.” The contemporary American obsession with race and skin color, in which politics reduces to stark racial categories and racial categories reduce to even starker moral ones, was transposed to a country and a conflict in the midst of the Arab world.
But is the situation of a stateless Palestinian living under the corruption and ineptitude of the disempowered Palestinian Authority, or ruled by the jihadist authoritarians of Hamas in isolated, besieged Gaza, meaningfully analogous to that of a Black citizen in 21st-century America? If not, what do the words occupation and colonization signify, other than linguistic bravado? This is a form not of solidarity but of self-regard. And surely the Palestinians deserve far more than this—deserve, that is, to be seen within the political and moral context of their own society, movement, and history rather than as a projection or pawn of American preoccupations.
This transposition of a national conflict between two peoples into a racial one strikes many Israelis as, in the words of the historian and journalist Gershom Gorenberg, “insanely absurd” and “embarrassing.” In reality, Israel is one of the most multicultural societies on Earth, composed of immigrants from around the world; anyone standing on a Jerusalem street for half an hour will see Jewish Israelis, born in countries from Scandinavia to the Horn of Africa, who, naturally, range widely in appearance. It is estimated that a majority of Jewish Israelis are descendants of those who fled, or were kicked out of, the Arab or Muslim countries in which they had lived for centuries; they are more likely to hail from Morocco than from Germany. Arab Israelis and Palestinians also vary widely in appearance, which is why so many Jewish Israelis are indistinguishable from so many Palestinians.
The Ferguson metaphor is no more useful than the South African one, and it illustrates the great weakness—and the great temptation—of metaphorical thinking in general: It offers ready-made analyses and ready-made solutions. “The problem with analogies,” Gorenberg told me, “is that they take something you don’t understand, equate it with something you do understand, and make you think you understand it.”
Once language is unmoored from reality, it can become unhinged, which may be why the old, ugliest eliminationist rhetoric that the Palestinian Liberation Organization used before the Oslo Accords circulated widely among purported progressives during the last war. An organizer for Students for Justice in Palestine pithily explained at a rally, “Zionism is genocide. Zionism is racism. Zionism is violence.” In 2016, the Movement for Black Lives accused Israel not only of exploiting and oppressing the Palestinians, which it is, but also of committing “genocide.” The union of New Yorker workers tweeted its solidarity with Palestinians “from the river to the sea” without, apparently, understanding that the phrase has traditionally implied the elimination of Israel. (The union later deleted the tweet and apologized.)
In statements and petitions, the words racism, imperialism, colonialism, settler-colonialism, apartheid, capitalism, and genocide were clotted together into a smorgasbord of evil, as if the writers couldn’t decide which to choose. I received many of these petitions. They reminded me of George Orwell’s warning, in “Politics and the English Language,” about the intimate connection between debased political language and debased political thought: “As soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated hen-house.” The intent is not to make a political argument—to explain, to convince—but to elicit Pavlovian reactions of disgust, thereby bypassing actual thought.
The recent equation of African American oppression and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been hailed as a triumph of intersectionality, whose proponents aim to build international solidarity across barriers of class, race, gender, and nation. And sometimes, they do. But in the current case, the theory has been used (or, I would argue, misused) to occlude complex realities, negate history, prevent critical thinking, and foster juvenile simplifications.
Intersectionality’s original theorists were Black women who developed nuanced arguments about the tangled political, legal, social, historic, and structural factors that undergird inequalities. Thus, a truly intersectional approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would, of necessity, incorporate the Jewish people’s torturous history of expulsion, pariahdom, statelessness, and genocide. A truly intersectional approach would incorporate the realization that, while Israel is far more powerful than the Palestinians, it is an often besieged minority within the larger Arab and Muslim worlds—something of which even the most left-wing Israelis are acutely aware. (As Nissim Calderon, who has been an anti-occupation activist for 50 years, explained to me, “In the reality of the Middle East, without a state, we will be murdered. By Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas—everyone.”)
A truly intersectional approach would recognize Israelis’ need for, and right to, security. An intersectional left—or a simply honest one—would not delicately turn away from the religious sectarianism, violent repression, and anti-feminism of Hamas and Islamic Jihad. It certainly could not dismiss discussion of Hamas’s rockets as, in the words of Scholars for Palestinian Freedom, “stale talking points.” A truly intersectional left might notice that the recent Arab Lives Matter movement, organized by Israel’s Arab citizens, is angrily demanding more police protection in response to the alarming surge in crime, including murder, in Israel’s Arab-majority towns. Apparently, Taibeh and Minneapolis aren’t quite the same.
Instead, what we now have is a kind of deformed intersectionality—intersectionality lite—in which the theory has been robbed of its challenging nuances and flattened into a starkly reductionist insistence that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is Manichean. Or even, by a sleight of hand, that it doesn’t exist at all; as a Canadian Green Party lawmaker recently tweeted, “There are no two sides to this conflict, only human rights abuses! #EndApartheid.” Of course, the right is no different from the left in finding something comforting, or at least comfortable, about this sort of dichotomous vision. Right-wing American supporters of Israel—including many members of AIPAC, for which the Jewish state is a perpetually innocent dream palace—are equally facile, and willfully blinkered, in their views.
There is another problem with intersectionality, at least in the way it is now being used. It, too, is a kind of conceit—an updated version of “We Are the World.” As the political theorist Michael Walzer told me, “Intersectionality is a genuinely useful idea. But there is no intersection between American Blacks and Palestinians. The moral significance of solidarity is that it extends solidarity to people with whom you have no intersection. Intersectionality is an entirely different idea from internationalism.” The Israeli journalist Etan Nechin observed to me that the American left’s discourse on Israel is “an offshoot of identity politics, with emphasis on ‘me.’ But internationalism was never about that.” To support other peoples or movements because they are somehow “like” you—or because they “look like you”—betrays the traditional ethos of internationalism.
And in the Manichean imagination—and this, I think, is its greatest sin, if I can use that word—the democratic forces within Israel, both Jewish and Arab, are rendered literally invisible, as if by a perverse magic trick. In Haaretz, Nechin recently charged that those on the American left—and particularly the Jewish American left—“dismiss realities on the ground in Israel and Palestine entirely, and instead offer high-minded ideological critiques.” As for ending the occupation, American leftists “expect … if that day comes, [that] it won’t be because of the work of decades by the Israeli left, but because Americans boycotted SodaStream.” Gone missing are “the hundreds of thousands of union workers, writers, doctors, teachers, activists, and everyday people within the Green Line who protested the Jewish Nation State Bill, or go out on a Friday afternoon to stand in solidarity next to their Palestinian neighbors.”
Today’s left, and today’s liberals, are in a bit of a pickle—or at least in a state of moral and theoretical disarray. I don’t exempt myself from that. It is extremely hard to figure out how to extend solidarity—in real, not rhetorically grandiose terms—to Syrians and Afghans; to democracy activists in China, Nicaragua, and Hong Kong; to horrifically endangered peoples such as the Uyghurs and Yazidis and Rohingya. Ending the occupation, and strengthening endangered democratic institutions in Israel, are goals that rank high on the list of political urgencies for some of us.
In the current, often bewildering international context, the venomous attacks on Israel qua Israel offer a seductively easy, morally antiseptic—and, I would add, appallingly self-absorbed—way to intervene in foreign affairs. The hysterical hyperbole, the self-referential projections, the lazy conflations, the warped histories that abound today: All substitute for solidarity. What is needed, I believe, is an entry into the world of political thought, whose foundation is the ability to make distinctions within the context of history rather than to crush them.
So no, Palestine isn’t Ferguson, Israel isn’t South Africa, and Zionism isn’t white supremacy. As Arendt wrote, the activity of thinking—the very basis of politics—begins with the knowledge that “A and B are not the same.”