In today’s New York Times, Edward Rothstein tackles Tony Judt’s incendiary New York Review of Books article, Israel: The Alternative . Rothstein’s critique of Judt’s thesis that Israel as the Jewish homeland is obsolete is at Seeking an Alternative to a Jewish State. Rothstein’s aim is to point out that while Judt’s claims may be overstated they are hardly more radical than the views of Israel’s own intellectuals and political thinkers. I think it is important to point out to those who believe that Israel and Zionism are monolithic entities that there are a wealth of political perspectives expressed in Israeli society from the most bellicose and triumphalist to the most dovish and tolerant. Rothstein writes:
Mr. Judt’s conclusions are also no different from some offered by Israel’s most accomplished intellectuals and no more caustic. In fact, in the Dec. 4 issue of The New York Review, Mr. Judt, responding to his critics, echoes Lenin and describes American defenders of Israel as “useful idiots.” He also argues that they don’t recognize that Zionism is now “the dogma of intolerant, belligerent, self-righteous, God-fearing irredentists.” He actually sounds Israeli.
He notes that while American Jews were cancelling their NYR subscriptions, Israeli letter writers “welcomed the disagreement.” He cites an Israeli playwright, Joshua Sobol, who also envisions replacing Israel with a Jewish-Arab state. And in a letter, the Israeli writer Amos Elon praises Mr. Judt for “cutting through a forest of cliches” with his proposal.
In August, in interviews in Haaretz, two leftists Israelis, Meron Benvenisti and Haim Hanegbi, went even further in their expressions of disgust with Israel’s sins and settlements. “A Jewish state can no longer exist here,” Mr. Hanegbi says. Mr. Benvenisti, who has long argued about the baleful demographic consequences of holding onto the West Bank, sees a binational state as inevitable: “The Zionist revolution is over.”
And in Yediot Aharonot, the Israeli daily, Avraham Burg, a Labor Party member of parliament and its former speaker, was just as blunt when he said: “The Zionist revolution is dead.” His indictment was translated in The Forward, then reprinted in The International Herald Tribune and The Guardian and translated again for Le Monde and Süddeutsche Zeitung.
“We were supposed to be a light unto the nations,” Mr. Burg concluded. “In this we have failed.” Instead, he wrote, Israel is constructed with “scaffolding of corruption” and “foundations of oppression and injustice.”
What I find especially shocking about Burg’s comments is that he was the son of the longtime leader of the National Religious Party. His father was one of the Israeli leaders “there at the creation.” The younger Burg sucked the Zionist dream with his mother’s milk. Then he became one of the most powerful leaders of the Labor Party. For him to turn in this direction is indeed dispiriting to those of us who retain hope that someday a moderate, tolerant form of Zionism will come to terms with the Palestinian people and their national aspirations.
Rothstein correctly notes the wild and exagerrated character of some of these Israeli critiques of Zionism:
Like Mr. Judt’s essay, these proclamations are not policy analyses…they are instead moral ultimatums, bitter and sweeping. Mr. Burg may harbor some hope, but the others declare that nothing else is possible, and if that is painful, well, the suffering suits the sin.
Brit Shalom and the Roots of Bi-Nationalism
There is, though, something cartoonish in the indictment. In fact, the self-blame and binational impulse are only partly responses to current problems. In his new book, The Fate of Zionism (HarperSanFrancisco, $19.95), Arthur Hertzberg refers to the “tension between the universal and the particular at the heart of Zionism.” A binational country (the goal of Brit Shalom founders Buber, Magnes and Scholem) promises to eliminate Zionist particularity, shedding it for the sake of a universalist vision.
This tension was present from the very start. In The Jewish State: The Struggle for Israel’s Soul (Basic Books, 2000), the scholar Yoram Hazony followed one of its strands. Theodor Herzl, he points out, advocated Jewish sovereignty. But such imposing figures as Martin Buber, Judah Magnes, Gershom Scholem and other German Jewish settlers in Palestine, in forming Brit Shalom in 1925, opposed Jewish political power, hoping at most for what Buber called a “binational social political entity” binding Arabs and Jews.
That vision persisted, even when it was clear neither party found it attractive (though responsibility for the failure was often laid at the feet of the Jews). When Arabs massacred Jews in 1929, for example, Buber said Jews had provided “the motive for the religious fanaticism.” As late as 1958, Buber accused the Jews of mistakenly following the way of power, saying that the “Jewish people preferred to learn from Hitler rather than from us.”
But the notion that by renouncing one’s identity that a root cause of hatred might be eliminated is also a familiar response to anti-Semitism. Could that lie behind the binational impulse as well? Mr. Judt practically acknowledges as much when he suggests that Israel embarrasses some Jews and inspires what he refers to as misdirected attacks on them.
Here I think Rothstein stumbles. Saying that Brit Shalom advocated a renunciation of Jewish identity is a willful misunderstanding of its real goal. What Buber wanted to renounce was the Jewish impulse toward state power exemplified by Jabotinsky and Ben Gurion from the right and the left. Brit Shalom wished for Jews and Arabs to find a way to live together that involved mutual appreciation and tolerance of their respective religious traditions. Bi-nationalists believed that it would be far better for Jews and Arabs to live together in a confederated state on the order of Switerland than it would be for each community to break apart and create separate loci of political power. For Jews to build their own state, maintain their own army and weave their religious institutions into the state appartus–Buber felt that all of this would drive Jews far from Arabs and remove the ability for peace and rapprochment. And who can say that he was wrong?
In truth, had there been the will on both sides and the moral and political leadership to embrace the bi-national vision, the history of the Middle East would be hugely different.
But to those like Judt who argue that bi-nationalism today is the answer to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I say they are tilting at windmills. With religious and political extremists dominating the discourse both among Israelis and Palestinians, how can anyone seriously believe that a bi-national state in which each side renounces its wish to dominate the other is really possible or even desirable?
I say that the best we can hope for now is for the two peoples to eventually live in their own separate states. Perhaps at some point in the future there will be enough trust, tolerance and economic cooperation between the two sides so that ties might be strengthened. But this is something that will not come easily or soon.