For Tom at seventy in Zion
Sergio Sierra was born in Rome in the winter of 1923. When he was twenty-six years old he received rabbinical ordination, after which he assumed a rabbinical post in Bologna, where he assisted in the reconstruction of the shattered Jewish community. The embers of history’s wildfires had not yet cooled. The great synagogue in Bologna, built by a well-known local architect in a sensitively adapted Art Nouveau style, had been destroyed in a bombing raid in 1943, and it was not until a decade later, and under Sierra’s supervision, that its restoration would be complete. Sierra served in Bologna until 1959, when he left to take up a prominent pulpit in Turin, and to direct its rabbinical college. His talents were not only clerical. The community rabbi also published erudite papers in scholarly journals on modern and medieval themes in Jewish literature. He produced a translation into Italian of Rashi’s commentary on Exodus, and a translation of Bahya ibn Paquda’s eleventh-century masterpiece Hovot Ha’Levavot, or The Duties of the Heart, a monument of Jewish reason and piety, and a translation of Keter Malkhut, or The Kingly Crown, an epic philosophical prayer in rhymed verse by the eleventh-century poet Solomon ibn Gabirol, who has been beloved by readers of Hebrew for a millennium. He also produced a critical edition of one of the most curious works of medieval Jewish literature, the Hebrew translation of Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy by an early fifteenth-century Jew in Perpignan named Azariah ben Yosef ibn Abba Mari, also known as Bonafus Bonfil Astruc, who fled to Italy from persecution in southern France and was one of the very last figures of the golden age of Provencal Judaism. Sierra was yet another of the many rabbinical figures in the annals of Judaism who managed to combine a pastoral calling with an intellectual one, leadership with learning. He served in Turin until 1985, and in 1992 he moved to Jerusalem, where he died in 2009.
In Rome, immediately after the war, when he was twenty-two, Sergio Sierra bought a book, a small book, about a hundred pages long, and small in format too. It was a translation into Hebrew of Theodor Herzl’s The Jewish State. It had been published a year earlier in Tel Aviv under the auspices of the Department of Youth Affairs of the Zionist Federation, and the fine translation was by Asher Barash, a distinguished Hebrew writer and editor who came to Palestine from Galicia in 1914 and became a founding father of Israeli literature. (He was also the author of perhaps the first Hebrew work on literary theory, which is a terrible responsibility to bear.) When the young man acquired the volume, he proudly stamped his name and address all over it, including on the dust jacket, right above the canonical image of Herzl with his weirdly Assyrian beard. I know all this because I discovered the book in the basement of an antiquarian bookshop in Jerusalem. No doubt Sierra’s heirs had rid themselves of his library. We latecomers fill our shelves from the philistinism of the sons and the daughters.
But I did not acquire this book — I did not seize on it — for bibliophilic reasons. Herzl in Hebrew is not hard to find. And at the time I had no idea who Sergio Sierra was. What happened was that I opened the book and was shaken to my core. On the front endpaper Sierra had inscribed his name in Italian and in Hebrew, Sierra Yosef Sergio, in a fine hand, and next to his signatures he recorded the date of his purchase. “1945,” he wrote — but not just that; he also underlined “1945” — but not just that; next to “1945” he also added an exclamation point. “1945!”
The exclamation point undid me. The entirety of a man’s spirit and the entirety of a people’s spirit was in it. It denoted astonishment: we are still here. It denoted ferocity: we really do intend to exist. It denoted resolution: we are still in our fight for the mastery of our fate. It denoted vitality: even now we are strong. It denoted politics: a state will be ours. And it denoted incredulity: could it really be that on the morrow of the greatest catastrophe in the history of these intimates of catastrophe there appeared this book in this language from that city and that land, and it made its winding way to the trembling hands of this ashen Jew? The young man was a believer, and the exclamation point was, for him, a punctuation of providence. I see no metaphysics in it myself, but I do not have the effrontery to deny the intimation of the miraculous that it granted in the rubble.
In all the years that I have been its custodian, I regularly turn to the little volume to behold the exclamation point. The sight of it fortifies me and refreshes my purposes. Emphasis is one of the central activities of identity. We are known by our emphases. The emphatic gesture of Sergio Sierra in Rome in 1945 has an elevating effect. And also an emboldening one, because we have reached a troubling point in time, less than a hundred years after he penned his inscription, in which the exclamation point must be defended. Was its truth obvious in 1945? It is obvious no more. The despisers of the principles for which it stands are growing in number, not least among Jews. Where there once was an exclamation point, there is now a question mark.
The story that I have just told would be dismissed by Omri Boehm as “Zionist Holocaust messianism.” Boehm is the most recent in a long line of critics of Zionism who have attributed its success to the Holocaust, when in fact the structures of the Israeli state were built before the Shoah, and the only “upside” of the catastrophe for Israel was to buy it a few guilty decades of sympathy in the world. Boehm’s formulation is incoherent: there are indeed messianists among those who call themselves Zionists, but Zionism represented a repudiation of Jewish messianism, which it disavowed in favor of a new conception of Jewish agency in history. And there is no such thing as “Holocaust messianism,” which is a vaguely obscene phrase. In Boehm’s view, the utility of the Holocaust for the Jews — we are again skirting obscenity: imagine a serious discussion of the utility of slavery for black people — is that “the Holocaust remains opaque to reason and stands outside of normal politics.” He explains: “Emerging from this ahistorical transcendent mystery, Israel remains beyond universalist politics and moral critique.”
To establish this claim, he devotes many pages in his book Haifa Republic: A Democratic Future for Israel, a rich document of the new thinking about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, to Elie Wiesel’s theological response to the Holocaust, which he associates with the writer’s lifelong disinclination to criticize Israeli policies. This is nonsense. No, not the bit about Wiesel’s apologetic attitude toward the Jewish state, whose existence he (and survivors like him, and the children of those survivors) could never quite treat as a natural fact of world history. It is true that the large-souled Wiesel disliked controversy and might have played a more helpful role in those moments in Israel’s history when its conduct was worthy of “moral critique.” There were times when I beseeched him, futilely, to do so, to teach, to castigate, to clarify, because many Jews were confused and angered by certain Israeli actions; and once I came to him with a bundle of Biblical and rabbinical texts — he knew them all, of course — that taught the obligation to criticize one’s own. About these matters we agreed to disagree, because we detected in each other the same over-arching love.
But Boehm is hiding behind Wiesel so as to propagate a caricature of Zionism and its ethos. The response to the Holocaust in the Jewish world was not primary theological, even if the catastrophe did crush many frameworks of explanation. (For whom is suffering of such magnitude not a mystery?) There was certainly nothing “ahistorical” or “transcendent” about the nationalism that roused the Jewish people and established a state. Zionism and the state that it created were among the greatest triumphs of secularization in the modern era, a resounding historical and philosophical rupture, a genuine discontinuity, even if the social authority of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel is a hideous anachronism that should be abolished right after tomorrow morning’s prayers. Zionism, and Israel, is assuredly not “opaque to reason,” though a sickening amount of unreason now flourishes within it. Jewish nationalism proceeded not only through settlement or force; it grew in reasoning, in argumentation, in persuasion, addressed to both Jews and non-Jews, since its very inception. Nor does it stand “outside of normal politics.” It is a cauldron of normal politics, whatever one’s view of the current brew. Its founding documents are an application of “universalist” values to a particular people — a tense enterprise, but an admirable one. The Jewish state is not an occult entity and it is not immune from criticism. No state and no movement and no person is exempt from the duty of self-justification, especially about the treatment of others. Like generations of Israel’s critics before him, Boehm complains that criticism is forbidden. Meanwhile whole careers are made out of it.
I have never met a Zionist who would not have preferred to persevere in the nationalist cause for another hundred years and Auschwitz not happen. Indeed, the tragic element in the relationship between the Holocaust and Israel is that the chronological order of extermination and statehood was not the reverse of what it was. If Zionism had accomplished statehood — which was not its common goal until 1942, owing to the excruciating events in Europe — a decade earlier, millions of Jews — millions of human beings — might have been saved. Can we all agree to react unambivalently to this fantasy, to share this regret? I wonder. We are witnessing instead an outpouring of lofty regret that Israel was created at all. This nasty ruefulness is owed to certain views of the Palestinian problem, not all of which are entirely incorrect. Fifty-three years of occupation, with no end in sight, is a miserable reality, violations of rights and laws are commonplace, heartlessness abounds, and the frustration is overwhelming. A feeling of despair about the plausibility of a two-state solution, an Israeli state and a Palestinian state, is everywhere, and it suits the cynical and irresponsibly short-term interests of both the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority. There are no heroes in the leaderships of this conflict.
Now the feeling has been turned into an idea, known as the “one-state solution.” In such a state, as Boehm describes it, Jews and Arabs in the territory between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea would each enjoy “a sub-sovereign political autonomy with a constitutional federative structure.” He has written his book to call for the end of Jewish sovereignty and the invention of a Switzerland in the Levant. The dissolution of a state — an actually existing state, not an ideological or political hypothesis — is a high price to pay for a release from exasperation. If this were medicine, we would call it quackery and demand an investigation. “At some point”, Boehm declares, “one must admit that the two-state dream has faded into a two-state illusion.” Nowhere does he prove that this is really so. He shows only that the two-state solution will be difficult to enact, and that the political will to enact it is now lacking. Is this not true also of the one-state solution, which upon inspection may be no solution at all? But I am getting ahead of myself.
The pertinence of the Holocaust to an understanding of Israel is not as a demagogic shield against disagreement, or as a sanctuary for yet another cult of victimization. Nothing large or lasting was ever built on self-pity. In this context the Holocaust stands for a particular lesson about Jewish history, and Zionism is nothing if not a conclusion drawn from Jewish history, or more precisely from the experience of the Jews in the exile. I do not mean to say that the exile was one long death camp. The exile was not completely (in the famous word of a great historian who hated the notion) lachrymose, not at all. But it was lachrymose enough. The frequency of Jewish wretchedness in the exile, of discrimination and oppression and violence, urgently broaches the question of Jewish security and insecurity. Jews in the exile were sometimes happy and sometimes unhappy, and they attained to extraordinary heights of thought and literature and spirituality, but they were generally unsafe. There were no havens. They lived in perennial vulnerability and permanent subordination.
For some writers and scholars, from George Steiner to Daniel Boyarin, the powerlessness of the Jews was morally glamorous, and their “subaltern status” was the condition of their cultural refinement; and it is certainly true that if the Jews over many centuries did not commit certain crimes, it was partly because they lacked the power to do so. But powerlessness does not confer purity. It confers pain and death. There is no virtue in vulnerability. The Holocaust was the worst that happened to the Jews in exile, but — contrary to Jewish theologians and historians who numinously insist upon its “uniqueness” — it differed from earlier persecutions in degree but not in kind. The Nazis innovated new methods for old evils. The helplessness of the Jews in Europe in the 1930s and 1940s is unbearable to contemplate, but so is their helplessness in Ukraine in 1648, and in the Iberian peninsula between 1391 and 1497, and in Germany in 1298, and in the Rhineland in 1096, and in many other times and places that are too numerous to list here. They are plentifully documented in the annals of Jewish tears. There are many differences between these specific events, which it is the duty of historians to mark, but they should not obscure a certain bleak political commonality.
Sooner or later Jews were going to see that for their own good they needed to acquire politics and power. But nowhere in Boehm’s book, or in any other espousal of the “one-state solution” that I have seen, is there a shred of interest in the question of Jewish security. In one passage Boehm writes sneeringly that “Israel is designed to protect Jewish ethnicity, Jewish blood,” as if the Zionist insistence upon self-defense is racist. (This slander reminds me of the awful charge that is sometimes made against the motto that “black lives matter.”) No, brother; not Jewish blood, Jewish bodies. They need to be protected, not only on the grounds of their human rights, which even people with armies possess, but also if they are to reconcile with their neighbors. Anyway, the power of the State of Israel was not developed for purposes of conquest and expansion, even if that power, like all military power, has sometimes been abused.
The military strength of the Jewish state is an ethically and empirically warranted dispensation. Self-defense is a corollary of self-emancipation, or “auto-emancipation,” which was the founding axiom of Jewish nationalism. Is it really necessary to be reminded that Israel has vicious and lethal enemies, and that a large portion of the enmity that it has encountered has been provoked not by its actions but by its existence? There are many ways in which the Holocaust has figured too prominently in contemporary Jewish identity, but it is cheap of Boehm to describe Zionism as “a sort of Angst-based mythical Holocaust messianism.” There is nothing mythical about the suffering and the Angst is real. Jewish anguish is not the only anguish that counts, of course, but it must not be coldly discounted, especially by people who pride themselves on the exquisiteness of their empathy.
The internecine Jewish debate about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is sometimes portrayed as a quarrel between those who care about Israeli security, the hawks, and those who care about Israeli morality, the doves; but in truth security is itself a moral duty. I wish the rulers of Gaza would grasp this. Safety, too, is a right. Ensuring it is one of the primary duties of government. (As long as thousands of rockets are launched into Israel, the Iron Dome system, and the consequently low casualty statistics in Israel, is not an unfair advantage; it is the evidence of a state’s seriousness about protecting its population.) For this reason, there is also nothing ethically scandalous about the insistence that there must be a Jewish majority in Israel. This is not an undemocratic majoritarianism, unless one holds that all majoritarianism is undemocratic. After all, there will be a majority in a one-state entity, too — a Palestinian majority, which does not seem to trouble the proponents of the exciting new idea. For some reason they are confident that a Palestinian majority will fulfill the ideal of equality more scrupulously than a Jewish majority has done. They have not yet disclosed the historical basis for their optimism.
Until the political borders and the ethnic borders of a polity — state, province, canton, district, whatever — coincide and perfect social homogeneity is achieved within a single political framework, which will never happen, and for the sake of the moral and cultural development of the citizenry should never happen, there will be majorities and minorities, and the supreme responsibility of a diverse polity will always be to regard minorities democratically, equally, in full and active recognition of their rights. A multiethnic state, which is what all states are, whether they know it or not, cannot escape this duty, which will require it, in the name of social peace and common decency, to control the maximalist and authenticist and exclusivist incitements of each of the groups within its borders. This is the case with the State of Israel, and it will be the case, inshallah, with the State of Palestine, and it would be the case even with the State of Isratine, which was the name that Muammar Qaddaffi gave to his proposal for a binational federated one-state solution for Israelis and Palestinians. (#StrangeBedfellows.) What will determine the justice of any of these compound political entities will be their determination to deploy the principles and the practices of democracy to resist the temptation of ethnic tyranny. There is nothing anti-democratic about the nation-state. It all depends on the character of its governance.
The concern about Jewish numbers is nothing more sinister than a concern about Jewish security. The nightmare is simple: it is that one day Jews will need to flee to safety and a majority non-Jewish government will deny them entry. There is nothing paranoid, or even fanciful, about such a scenario. It is not “ethno-nationalism,” it is prudence. One of the more outrageous aspects of the new proposal to abolish the Jewish state is that it is being advanced at precisely the moment when anti-Semitism is dramatically on the rise. The old crisis that Zionism was conceived to address, the primal emergency, is back. The higher rates of Jewish emigration to Israel in recent years have been a classical flight for safety, and the highest numbers of Jewish emigrants over the last decade have come from countries whose Jewish communities have been shaken by anti-Jewish violence. Jews and Jewish institutions are being attacked on the streets of many cities, often in the name of Palestine. When Prime Minister Netanyahu — how nice it is to type those words retrospectively! — told the Jews of France to “come home,” he was speaking uncontroversially from the standpoint of Jewish history. (Uncontroversially, that is, for those who have given up on the pluralistic prospects of France. The other French Jews, the majority of them, the ones who have chosen to remain in the fight for the Enlightenment traditions of the country, are certainly in a good fight.)
Why aren’t Ilan Halimi and Sarah Halimi household names? Jews are still in need of refuge and Israel is still a refuge for Jews. But anti-Semitism does not particularly interest progressives, because it interferes with too many of their dogmas. Never mind that what happened at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh was exactly what happened at Mother Emmanuel church in Charleston. The parallel is ideologically inconvenient. Jews, you see, are white (even when they are brown or black), strong, and privileged oppressors, and they are most perfectly exemplified by Israeli soldiers who shoot at Palestinian children. And so the Jews have been stricken from the canonical roster of threatened groups and scorned identities. It is now considered inclusive to commemorate the painful past of every group except ours. We have the unique honor of being disqualified from intersectionality. Who needs Israel, anyway?
For Boehm, who is an Israeli philosopher in New York, Jewish majoritarianism is another example of the “bad faith” of liberals, their way of concealing their own acquiescence in ethnic hegemony. In his account, there are only two parties to the debate now: those who are for his “federal binational republic” and those who, whether we know it or not, are objectively for ethnic tyranny and ethnic cleansing because we support the existence of a Jewish state. He detests us, the hawkish doves, the democratic statists, the liberals. His hatred of Israeli liberals is tiresome in the old radical way, according to which liberals are progressives who dare not speak their name or reactionaries who dare not speak their name, but they must in either case be destroyed. Of course liberalism is no more a sign of cowardice than progressivism is a sign of courage. (These days the percentage is in progressivism.) And modern history provides abundant evidence of the calamitous consequences of the radical contempt for liberalism: it has regularly assisted in bringing the worst to power.
In support of his exercise in simplification, Boehm reverently cites that most dubious authority on Jewish and Zionist subjects, Hannah Arendt, who in 1944, after the Zionist Organization of America adopted a resolution calling for a “democratic Jewish commonwealth” in “the whole of Palestine, undivided and undiminished,” grimly proclaimed that Revisionist Zionism was now “victorious.” In her view, Zionism turned into fascism when it desired a state. “Seventy-five years later,” Boehm writes, “we can see that Arendt was dead right about the collapse of Zionism into its hard-right Revisionist interpretation.” Yet a student of history can see no such thing. Only three years later those same rapacious Zionists joyfully agreed to accept only a part of Palestine, very divided and very diminished, for their commonwealth, when they accepted the United Nations resolution of partition. (The Palestinians were the Revisionists.)
For the haughty Arendt, as for Boehm, all distinctions are erased: everything to the right of the left is the same. I am reminded of a heated argument I once had with Amos Elon when he loudly announced over dinner that he would not vote in the Israeli election of 1992 because there was no difference between Yitzhak Rabin and Yitzhak Shamir. A year after Rabin beat Shamir, the Oslo accords were signed. Boehm, like the Israeli right, gloats over the failure of that breakthrough. We liberals mourn it, its flaws notwithstanding, because we know how difficult it is to accomplish even a little good and to push evil even a small way back, and because the status quo, which Boehm deplores, really is deplorable. But David Grossman and Moshe Halbertal are not standing in the way of its amelioration.
The argument for the one-state solution comes with a politics of memory. Or more precisely, with a politics of anti-memory. Its proponents contend that the stasis between the Israelis and the Palestinians — no, there is no stasis, the situation constantly worsens — is the result of Jews remembering too much or remembering too little. Naturally Boehm trots out Nietzsche on the abuse of historical consciousness and the inhibiting effects of memory, though he, like everyone else, has events that he chooses to remember and events that he chooses to forget. He twice quotes, and twice misreads, Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi’s haunting question, “Is it possible that the antonym of ‘forgetting’ is not ‘remembering,’ but justice?” Yerushalmi was not, to put it mildly, hostile to memory; he wrote an entire book lamenting the failure of more critical modes of historical awareness to do for a living culture what memory once did. The point of his remark is, quite obviously, to suggest that remembering is a condition of justice, which cannot be advanced by forgetting.
Boehm, by contrast, calls for forgetting. “It is time to restore a binational Zionism — with a strong notion of equal citizenship in a one-state solution,” he writes. “One way we can do this is by developing an art of forgetting, a politics of remembering to forget the Holocaust and the Nakba in order to undo rather than perpetuate them as the pillars of future politics.” There are two chapters in Boehm’s short book about this summons to forgetfulness, one about the Holocaust and one about the Nakba. Both of them, a little comically, are about the Jews. We remember our disaster too much and their disaster too little. But there are no injunctions to the Palestinians about the selectivity of their own memories, about their interpretations of their own historical narrative and its political uses. Why would there be? They have the past right, because they are the victims, without historical capability, with no good or bad choices that are relevant to the discussion, just the brutalized objects of Jewish representations and troops. The memories of victims are simple and sacred.
For many decades I used to wander like an itinerant fire-and-brimstone preacher among the Jewish communities of America, chastising my brethren for certain failures that in my view imperiled the future of our people and our culture, and one of those failures is their inability, or their refusal, to understand what the events of 1948-1949, and more generally the raising of a modern society in the sands, meant for the Palestinians. In school, a fine Zionist school, I was taught that the Palestinian refugee problem was created by the flight of Palestinians at the behest of their leaders. Even before Benny Morris settled the question once and for all, I suspected that the explanation was too tidy and too self-exculpatory. I am the son of refugees, and I have always associated refugee status with prior cruelty.
Moreover, I do not believe in the innocence of states, of any states; even in a just cause, innocent blood is spilled. (About this the pacifists are right.) The war of 1948-1949 was a just war for the creation of a state that had a right to exist and a need to exist, and also a war of self-defense, but massacres and expulsions were perpetrated. We must not lie, especially to ourselves. The mythmaking powers of national feeling are well known, and they must be corrected by historical and ethical accountings. None of this, of course, absolves the Palestinians of their own mythmaking, and certainly not of the many repulsive falsehoods that their leaders have promulgated over the years about the Holocaust and the Jews. Still, as Amnon Raz-Krakotzkin has incontrovertibly observed, “Israel, a state of refugees, was built on the creation of a state of refugeehood.” One has an obligation to become acquainted with the people with whom one will always live. It is past time for Jews to know, and to honor, the Nakba.
“The art of forgetting” is no more a guarantee of mutual respect than the art of remembering. Atrocities have been the work of people who believe that they are nullifying the past and beginning again, just as they have been the work of people with ancient grievances to avenge. (Sometimes they are the same people.) Collective memory needs to be carefully and morally managed. I want Palestinians to remember the Holocaust and Israelis to remember the Nakba, because otherwise they will not comprehend each other. I want Jews to remember the Holocaust and Palestinians to remember the Nakba, because otherwise they will not comprehend themselves.
Moreover, the culture of Zionism was already quite practiced in the “art of forgetting.” I do not refer only to its tendentious interpretations of Jewish life in the exile. Revolution requires a sensation of newness, and so it always erases and exaggerates. Thus, to choose a prominent example, in 1942 the Hebrew writer Haim Hazaz wrote a short story — an essay in fictional form, really — called “The Sermon.” It describes a fiery statement given to the central committee of a kibbutz by an otherwise meek member of the community named Yudka, which can almost be translated as “Jew.” “I wish to announce,” he tells his comrades, “that I am opposed to Jewish history.” And more: “I do not respect Jewish history…No, ‘respect’ is not the word. It’s what I said: I’m against it.” And more: “I don’t accept it…Not a single detail. Not a single line, not a single point. Nothing, nothing…None of it!” Also sprach Yudka!
This program of revolutionary amnesia, this ferocious rejection of inherited ways, this contemptuous avant-gardism, did not work out so well. It was eventually responsible for bitter fissures in Israeli society and culture, and for the slow collapse of Labor Zionism. No arrangements between the peoples in the land will succeed that are based on the denial of the wounds that they seek with those arrangements to heal. The most that we may permit ourselves to dream of is a coexistence of traumas, of haunted communities.
The meaning of national identity is not only morbid. One of the blandishments of security is the protection of immanent flourishing cultures. It is well known that alongside “political Zionism” there was “cultural Zionism”, though the former also had cultural preferences and the latter also had political preferences. The political preferences of cultural Zionism have played an important part in the argument for a one-state solution. A distinction is drawn between cultural self-determination and political self-determination, between cultural self-determination and statehood. Statehood, it is said, is not required for cultural fulfillment, for Zionist fulfillment, for Jewish fulfillment. There is some truth to this claim, as the early history of Judaism illustrates: it was Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai, when he petitioned the Roman commander of the siege of Jerusalem to grant him a small coastal town for the creation of an academy of Torah and never mind the fate of the commonwealth, who made Judaism as mobile as the soul and thereby freed Jewish culture from what might be called the Ozymandian anxiety. We have learned about many cultures from their ruins, but Jewish culture is not one of them.
So isn’t cultural self-determination Zionism enough? The question has been posed heroically by Peter Beinart, in his timely journey leftwards. If the world were flat, Beinart would have fallen off it a long time ago. He has a reputation for courageous dissent against the Sith Lords of the American Jewish community, which is why he is the darling of Jewish millenials everywhere. “You know,” he once scolded me, “criticism can be an expression of love!” Actually, I did know this. “Yes, it can,” I replied, “but it cannot be the only expression of love.” Beinart is deeply worried that his rejection of a Jewish state — “I No Longer Believe in a Jewish State,” he grandiosely proclaimed in the New York Times — will be mistaken for a rejection of Zionism. He aims for heresy, not apostasy. That is why, for example, he has a strange habit of ornamenting the expression of his views with assurances about his religious observance. One afternoon I found him on CNN screaming at a conservative pro-Likud interlocutor that he worships in an Orthodox synagogue and even leads the prayers there. So what? I presume that many of the worshippers in his synagogue disagree with him, since it is an Orthodox congregation. When they lead the prayers, are they right? Beinart is just shul-washing.
In order to prove that he is not anti-Zionist or post-Zionist, Beinart must locate a definition of Zionism that will give him cover, and identify a current of Zionism that would be satisfied with a political objective short of Jewish sovereignty. As it happens, the history of Zionism is rife with non-statist conceptions of Jewish self-determination. Neither Herzl (the title of his momentous book notwithstanding), nor Pinsker, nor Ahad Ha’am, nor Jabotinsky (some of the time), nor Berl Katznelson, nor David Ben Gurion (some of the time), nor any of the other titans of Jewish nationalism were animated in their work by the goal of sovereignty — until the Biltmore program of 1942, as I noted earlier. It is worth noting that the Biltmore program made no mention of a “Jewish state,” but called for called for “ending the problem of Jewish homelessness” by “establish[ing] a Jewish Commonwealth” which “welcomes the economic, agricultural, and national development of the Arab peoples and states.” A terrible hardening!
Beinart relies heavily for his new thinking — if his thinking seems so fresh, it is because his knowledge is so recent — upon a splendid book called Beyond the Nation-State: The Zionist Political Imagination from Pinsker to Ben-Gurion by the Israeli intellectual historian Dmitry Shumsky, whose previous study of Zionism in early twentieth-century Prague skillfully shed light on the origins of bi-nationalism. With exquisite scholarship, particularly about Pinsker and Jabotinsky, Shumsky shows that statism was a late development in Zionism, which pictured the Jewish homeland to which it aspired in sub-statist or bi-nationalist terms, and mainly as autonomy within a larger political framework. Shumsky’s analysis seems unimpeachable to me, and also to Boehm, who quotes him at enormous length. But Shumsky’s narrative does not quite provide the Zionist alibi that one-staters and “cultural Zionists” such as Boehm and Beinart seek.
For a start, the broad outlines of Zionist political thought, its evolution from autonomy to sovereignty, have long been familiar. I learned about the bi-nationalist tradition in Arthur Hertzberg’s seminar on Zionism fifty years ago. Shumsky has discovered new trees in an old forest. More importantly, there is a plain historical explanation for the trajectory of the Zionist political imagination. It is that all these figures, all these builders, lived and worked in imperial circumstances. The Ottoman empire and the Hapsburg empire were the contexts in which the idea of a Jewish homeland was first developed. It was conceived in the terms of its time, on the model of those tolerant multi-ethnic entities, in which the civil and cultural autonomy of ethnicities flourished in the absence of political power, which was held exclusively by the imperial authorities. The Nationalitätenstaat, or “states of nationalities,” that inspired Zionist intellectuals and activists was a notion of Austrian Marxists who were promoting the benign imperial conditions in which they lived into their ideal. The question of sovereignty, in other words, was moot. Shumsky is perfectly clear about this.
But the empires are gone now. Is it progressive to be nostalgic for them? When the empires collapsed, sovereignty became possible for the nations that they contained and states were formed, as would happen again later with the end of the British empire. Subordinated peoples began to associate self-determination with political power. The Palestinians — who were subordinated to Arabs before they were subordinated to Israelis — would eventually express a similar desire. The vocabulary of self-determination had changed. And in the case of Zionism, there was another reason for the escalation of its political ambition. Its name was Hitler. Is it really any wonder that in 1942 the Zionists chose statehood? Was a rescue from extermination to be found in autonomy? Would a millet have saved the Jews?
In the judicious conclusion to his book, Shumsky presents his own assessment of the relevance of pre-statist Zionism to the contemporary predicament. He notes “the ever-increasing pervasiveness of a bi-national existence between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea resulting from the repeated failures of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians and the constant expansion of the Israeli settlement enterprise beyond the Green Line.” In the light of these discouraging developments, he continues, “one is sorely tempted to pluck the Nationalitätenstaat formula from the Zionist past, to rescue from oblivion the repressed and deliberately forgotten attachment to mainstream Zionism, and to place them squarely on the Israeli and international agenda as the old-new federative alternatives to the apparently no longer viable two-state solution.” This is precisely what Boehm and Beinart and the other high-minded nullifiers of Israel are proposing. But Shumsky is not one of their company. We “would be well-advised to beware of such temptations,” he cautions.
After all, following many generations of a bloody national conflict and given that Israel’s ongoing control over the occupied territories both Israelis and Palestinians continue to live alongside one another in separate institutional constellations, it is by no means certain that an attempt to reapply the binational models that occupied a central position in the political imagination during the Ottoman and British Mandate periods would meet the current “living concerns” of the two peoples…. Zionism’s conceptions of national self-determination were never subject to a single static political model but were rather reformulated at each given point in time in line with changing historical circumstances.
(I wish the same historical flexibility could be imputed to the leaders of Palestinian nationalism.) Finally Shumsky elects to disobey the title of his own book and arrives at the sober conclusion that “Israel’s political consciousness would do well to embrace the notion of the division of the Land of Israel/Palestine into two nation-states.”
Boehm’s advocacy of the autonomist option leads him in an unexpected direction — to the admiration of Menachem Begin. In 1977, after Anwar Sadat’s magical visit to Israel, Begin prepared a plan about the Palestinians for the imminent peace negotiations. It was called “Home Rule, for Palestinian Arabs, Residents of Judea, Samaria, and the Gaza District.” It was a surprising proposal. Most surprisingly, perhaps, it insisted that the question of sovereignty be left open. Though “security and public order” in the territories would remain in the hands of Israel, the plan terminated the Israeli military government in the occupied territories and established a Palestinian civil authority, headquartered in Bethlehem, whose officials would be democratically elected and provide “administrative autonomy.” It extended a choice of citizenship, full citizenship, for Palestinians in Israel. Palestinian refugees would be permitted to return “in reasonable numbers,” as determined by a joint Israeli-Palestinian-Jordanian committee. Palestinians in the occupied territories would enjoy “free movement and free economic activity,” including the purchase of land, as would Israelis dwelling there. Boehm affectionately, and ludicrously, declares that Begin’s “autonomy plan” should more properly be called “the one-state program.”
Boehm blames the scuttling of Begin’s plan on — who else? — Israeli liberals, who, “deferring to the two-state orthodoxy,” denounced it because they suspected that it was the prime minister’s attempt to fob off the problem of the West Bank on an Austro-Hungarian fantasy. Given Begin’s ideological and oratorical record, there were grounds for such a suspicion. I shared it myself, though I hoped ardently that I was wrong. For there was another element in Begin’s plan that encouraged me: “these principles will lend themselves to re-examination after a period of five years,” he stipulated in his famous speech to the Knesset in 1977. I remember thinking, a Palestinian flag could fly over a Palestine in 1982! Of course it did not come to pass, but not because of anything uttered by Amos Oz. The opportunity was squandered because Yasser Arafat refused to consider Menachem Begin’s proposal.
The Palestinians turned autonomy, “the one-state program,” down. The rais chose instead to give hysterical speeches and interviews about sumud, or steadfastness, in the PLO’s war against the fascist and colonialist enemy. “The Palestinians,” Boehm writes, “seeking sovereignty, rejected it.” But they did not dismiss the plan because they were seeking sovereignty. They dismissed it for a deeper and less reputable reason: they were not prepared to recognize and to respect the being in the world of Israel. And Boehm’s six words about the Palestinian rejection of Begin’s plan are just about all there is to be found in his book about the role of the Palestinians in the story of the infernal stalemate, which is typical of the progressive prejudice in the discourse about the conflict. This manifesto for a state of two nations is about only one of them.
Why are Boehm and Beinart so confident that in a single state the lions will lie down with the lambs? What do they know about them that the rest of us do not? Boehm calls his utopia the “Haifa republic” in homage to the decades of Arab and Jewish coexistence in the northern coastal city. There “you get a glimpse of what Palestinian-Jewish cohabitation could one day look like.” He is somewhat prettifying the place. Arabs constitute only twenty-five percent of Haifa’s population: the harmony of the city is owed in part to the small size of its minority, which does not threaten its majority. One of the reasons that we reactionary proponents of the two-state solution long for the establishment of a state of Palestine alongside the state of Israel is so that the minority numbers in both states will make neither of the majorities jittery. The jitteriness of majorities promises trouble. Also, Haifa is not quite the idyll that Boehm depicts. It experienced its own share of the awful Arab-Israeli violence of last year. The assumption that a union of Israelis and Palestinians in a single country is an easy prescription for peace is delusional.
Beinart, who could use a little sumud of his own, peddles different reassurances. In an essay in Jewish Currents, he moistly reports that “a new generation of Palestinian activists has begun advocating one equal state between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.” He has seen the future and it works. Of course it is no wonder that Palestinians, young or old, would endorse the idea of a single state, because that state, owing to demographic realities, will be Greater Palestine. This is the dishonesty in the argument: to be for one state is to be for a Palestinian state with a Jewish minority. Time, as two-staters have grown hoarse from warning, is not on Israel’s side. Still, I have met a few such young Palestinians and they do indeed represent a break with the immobilism and the illiberalism of the Palestinian establishment. I do not doubt their commitment to the principle of equality, even if I cannot suffice with it. It is certainly a thin reed with which to dismantle a state.
I used to pin my hopes on new people, on new generations. I have since discovered that all the generations contain all the varieties of human types, and that people change. In 1993, a few days after the handshake at the White House, I met with Nabil Shaath, one of Arafat’s key advisors and an architect of the Israeli-Palestinian rapprochement. He was a worldly man, a rational man, a successful businessman, a longtime member of Fatah who became a minister in the Palestinian Authority. We had become friends, I liked him, and I brought him to lunch at the infamously Zionist magazine where I worked. He arranged for a few Israeli and American Jewish advocates for peace, including myself, to meet with Arafat at his hotel in the evening after the handshake. The chairman, he said, wanted to thank us. (Every negative impression I had of Arafat was confirmed by those few hours on the sofa.) At our meeting after the signing ceremony, Nabil spoke in noble and eloquent terms about Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation, and about building democracy in Palestinian society. He also talked with uncanny moral and historical sensitivity about the Holocaust. I was exhilarated. Then he moved to Ramallah and became one of the worst kleptocrats in the region and issued despicable pronouncements about Israel.
Equality may be honored, or dishonored, in one state as in two states. What will tell is the prestige of the principle in the respective political cultures. The enumeration of rights “without distinction of religion, race, and sex” in the Israeli Declaration of Independence has not always been realized in the state that it launched, but it furnished the intellectual, legal, and social foundation for the quarrelsome and reformist politics, the persistent critique of inequality, that has characterized the public discourse of that state, rather in the way that the American Declaration of Independence provided the grounds for criticism of certain repugnant passages in the American Constitution; and Israel’s founding document stands as a lasting rebuke to the contemptible “Nation-State Law” that Netanyahu and his xenophobic supporters manufactured a few years ago. There is a struggle taking place in Israel for the values that will define it, and the struggle is by no means lost. And there are resources for it, for the humane side in it, in the Zionist tradition itself. (“Do you, like the medieval inquisition, fail to understand that diversity is life, and that only death is featureless?” Leon Pinsker wrote that golden sentence in 1861 in a short-lived journal called Sion.) But “cultural Zionism” cannot make a contribution to a struggle over the direction of a state that it wishes to obliterate.
The political culture of the Palestinians, by contrast, has so far been, let us say, a stranger to the Enlightenment. I do not say this to offend, or with glee. The happiness of my people depends in part on the philosophical condition of the Palestinian people. In the internecine Palestinian war between democratizing forces and theocratizing forces, we, I mean Jews and Americans, must unflaggingly support the former. “If you believe in equality, how can you create a state which claims members of a certain race, or certain religion, belong to it more than others?” Beinart asked in an interview. He was right. He was referring, of course, only to Israel. But it is, in fact, a perfectly Israeli question. Beinart flatters himself about his moral fineness. Political Zionists and two-staters are plentifully to be found in the ranks of the egalitarians. Why are his professions of this shared belief any more credible than ours? Is his formula really so spotless, so devoid of dangers? Can one injustice be righted by another injustice? The Palestinians have for a long time asked that piercing question, but some of their tribunes should ask it also of themselves.
His interviewer aptly inquired why Beinart’s denunciation of sins against equality does not extend also to Muslim countries, which have not exactly covered themselves in glory in this regard; and the question reminded me of my own disgust with the reticence of the left about Syria, Ukraine, Belarus, Myanmar, Hong Kong, Cuba, and the other locations of authoritarian horror. How in good conscience can one march for Palestinians and not for Syrians? “True,” Beinart replied, “there are other countries who violate this principle. In my opinion, they need to be reformed.” Yes, reform them! But he is not demanding that Israel be reformed. He is demanding that Israel be eliminated. Beinart is breaking new ground in progressive politics: he is cancelling an entire country. I know of no other state whose unjust treatment of others has thoughtful people calling for its erasure. There are concentration camps in China.
The Israeli occupation of the West Bank, which originated in a war for survival, has been transformed by religion and chauvinism into a moral disgrace for a state that calls itself, and largely is, open and lawful; and the unceasing settlement of the West Bank has been perhaps the greatest strategic blunder in Israel’s history — a nuisance from the standpoint of security, and utter madness if the Israelis are ever genuinely to coexist with the Palestinians. The Palestinians deserve security, and dignity, and identity; and the attributes of nationhood, which include political ones. But no amount of sympathy for the Palestinians warrants this amount of antipathy for the Israelis. They, too, deserve security, and dignity, and identity; and the attributes of nationhood, which include political ones. It has long been known that nationalism is an affair of collective subjectivity: one people cannot dictate to another people how they should represent themselves to themselves, or to others.
Brit Shalom was an association of formidable Jewish intellectuals, founded in Jerusalem in 1925, that advocated a binational state of Jews and Arabs in Palestine. Martin Buber was its most famous member, whom Peter Beinart likes to cite as his precursor. In the end nothing came of it, because it found no Arab interlocutors: it was a conversation that Jews were having with themselves. As Arthur Ruppin, the sociologist who was its chairman, remarked in a letter, “what we can get [from the Arabs] we do not need and what we need we cannot get.” In 1936, in a volume of essays called Jews and Arabs in Palestine, Ben-Gurion made a comment about Brit Shalom that is worth pondering. “We oppose Brit Shalom,” he wrote, “not because of its desire for peace with the Arabs, but because of its attempt to obliterate the Jewish truth, and to hide the Jewish flag as a price for peace.” There was nothing mystical about his statement, though “the Jewish truth” is a locution that can make a liberal squirm. Its secular meaning is simply that people are fulfilled, as individuals and as groups, in their particularity. Peace is gorgeous but contentless. We seek peace, and the security that is the premise of peace, as the setting for self-fulfillment.
Jewish peoplehood is one of the most ancient facts of recorded history, and Jewish nationalism is the modern interpretation, according to the protocols of modern politics, of Jewish peoplehood. The people called the Jews constitute a primordial and independent element of the world, irreducible to its other elements, converging with them and diverging from them, and through all the convergences and the divergences remaining themselves and no other, changed but the same. Their story is one of the sublime human stories, and it deserves to command the attention and the esteem of all peoples. After they were expelled from their commonwealth and made slaves and subjects and serfs, with self-governance gone, the Jews learned to live in many cultures and many circumstances, and to combine adversity with vitality. To the world they offered a certain vision of God and goodness, but of the world they asked only to be allowed to be themselves. Yet their demand for apartness, their perseverance in their beliefs and their practices, was more than the world was willing to grant, because the insistence upon difference defied the need of other faiths for universal vindication, even by means of coercion. Suffering became a regular feature of the Jewish exile. The suffering never determined the substance of Jewish peoplehood, or of Jewish religion, not even in the worst of times. But the suffering had to stop, and nobody except the Jews themselves was going to stop it. The people that taught the world about the relation between history and redemption chose to act on their own idea, splitting themselves for the sake of saving themselves. Their self-reliance was both a revolution and a restoration. And so one day, long after they were supposed to have disappeared, in the very land from which they had been banished by empire, the wounded and hopeful people raised a flag. Insofar as “the Jewish flag” is the symbol of this saga — of the end of the suffering, of the reversal of the vast misfortune, of the efficacy of the victims against their own victimization, of the failure of misery to crush a civilization, of the beautiful stubbornness of purposeful survival, of the accession to freedom of the perennially unfree — insofar as the Jewish flag represents all this, then it represents more than statehood, it represents the energies and the potencies of a magnificent people, and it cannot be denied. It has flown over war and over peace, over stirring victories and wise compromises and sordid mistakes. Nobody is without guilt. Power will always be a challenge to wisdom. Introspection is another name for self-rule. Pity the people who need to suppress others to become themselves; pity them and resist them.