As Israel reaches mature middle age, Susan Greenberg asks whether the existence of a Jewish state has been good for the Jews. It is time to think aloud about costs as well as benefitsby / June 20, 1998 / Leave a comment
Published in June 1998 issue of Prospect Magazine
Jews are generally so aware of how dramatically the outside world can impinge on their well-being that for many of them all events are classified as “good for the Jews” or “bad for the Jews.” On the 50th anniversary of the creation of the state of Israel and the attendant public fuss, I am applying this question to Israel itself. I want to argue that it has been bad for the Jews, not so much because of its implications for middle east politics, but in a broader sense, revolving around the difficult relationship between an official and unofficial identity.
My intention is not to question the existence of Israel. I know from my family’s own history why people felt Israel’s existence to be necessary, and even its fiercest critics have largely accepted that the Jewish state is a fait accompli. But there have been costs as well as benefits to Jews in this creation. If we cannot think aloud about them now, as Israel reaches mature middle age, when can we do so?
My main thesis is this: Israel is bad for the Jews not simply because of the way things there have turned out, but inherently so. People have argued before about the dulling effect of an official Jewish identity. George Steiner’s argument about the loss of creativity has a resonance among many diaspora Jews who, in the safety of postwar western societies, have enjoyed the edge their “otherness” gives them. But I would go further and say that it is survival, not simply creativity, which is at stake. Israel is meant to make us more secure but it actually makes us more vulnerable. If there is such a thing as a collective unconscious-and Jews tend to talk as if there is-then we have spent centuries developing one kind and are now being forced into another which, in the long run, will not stand us in such good stead.
What is there in the old state of mind which is so attractive? For me, there are two elements. The first is being at the margin, an awareness that one can never assume that the rest of the world sees the world in the way you do. Another attraction is the old unfulfilled desire for a homeland, which carried with it a deep sense of yearning. Both of these can be a source of anxiety, but they also create a space in the mind for possibilities, for an openness to the thought that what will be might be different from what is. This can lead to a messianic or revolutionary philosophy, but most of the time it provides the basic building blocks of open-mindedness and an ability to question given truths.
Without these two qualities we are more vulnerable. They are the qualities which have given Jews resilience and moral strength. Without them, we are liable to lose the habits of tolerance and imagination, the ability to make alliances-the very flexibility, indeed, that is the key to survival in the modern world.
There is a religious version of this argument: that belief in Israel has replaced the belief in God, which helped the Jewish people survive centuries of adversity. “The political empowerment of Jewry has brought about a major shift in consciousness that threatens the very existence of Judaism as a living faith,” complained Rabbi Dan Cohn-Sherbok, professor of Judaism at the University of Wales, on the 50th anniversary. “But Israel is not an ultimate insurance policy.”
His answer is to regain humility: to wrestle again with God, give heed to the quest of other groups for human dignity, including the Palestinians, and refuse to put one’s own political interests-one’s state-before all other considerations. I am arguing for something similar, in a non-religious way.
To many people in Israel these arguments provoke only impatience. Look where tolerance and universalism got us, they argue. Why should the world expect Jews to be better than the rest of humanity? Just treat us like any other nation.
But Israel has never been just like any other nation. In all nation states individuals negotiate a “fit” between their own identity and the official one connected to their passport. It is part of the constant way in which we try to work out the links between how the world sees us and how we see ourselves. But the relationship of Jews to a Jewish state is especially complex. Jewishness cannot be reduced to Israeli-ness. At the same time, even without an Israeli passport every Jew is obliged to have a point of view about the state, if only because of the things done by Israel in the name of the Jewish people.
Israel was based not on an ethnic identity but a religious one, yet it was conceived as a secular state. This was possible because Jewish identity has always been more than a set of spiritual beliefs; much of the religion itself is about how you live everyday life in a community. Moreover, after the Holocaust it was understood that a Jew’s identity was always liable to be defined from the outside. However nuanced the shadings of their definitions, all Jews suffered the same fate under the Nazis.
Now, with a Jewish “homeland,” it is up to Jews to define Jewishness. And definitions, linked to temporal powers that come with a nation state, lead to official, permitted identities and unofficial, disputed ones. They lead to internal divisions far worse than any external threats.
Even those who say they want Israel to be treated as an ordinary nation are ambiguous about it. In the same breath they argue both for the same (low) expectations of Israeli behaviour as of other states, and for special status. They justify the latter with the cry: “Look at what we’ve been through!” and are reluctant to relinquish it.
Unofficial special status is interesting, but officially it does not work. Invested in law-making authorities, it sounds like institutionalised discrimination, special pleading, or a romantic pre-modern isolationism. It has resulted in the worst of all worlds, making Jews simultaneously victim and aggressor. At least before Israel’s existence Jews were the injured party. Now we have the neuroticism of victimhood without its virtue.
We cannot have this cake and eat it. Either we are special, in which case we should shoulder the responsibilities to others which come with it; or we are the same, in which case we should fight to be treated the same everywhere in the world, and to treat others the same where it is in our power to do so. Either way, there is a requirement both practical and principled to aim for fairness. We should treat Palestinians with respect, for example, because it is good in itself and because we should do as we would be done by.
Jews themselves have long argued about the benefits of establishing a Jewish state. But in the end, it seemed the lesser of all evils. Now, certain things are clearer. First, the existence of a Jewish state does not eliminate anti-Semitism. For a while military victories helped displace old stereotypes of the weedy urban Jew, the perpetual victim. But new stereotypes arose in their place, because people need scapegoats and anti-Semitism provides a resonant supply. The effort to fight it must take place on other levels.
Second, while Israel may be a relatively safe and attractive place for many Jews, it is hardly a safe haven as long as conflict continues with Arab neighbours. It is secular America, with its strong protection for individual rights and clear separation of church and state, which has been the most fertile soil for Jewish advancement and freedom.
Finally, it is clear that the process of definition will be a painful battle. Many Jews are in uproar over the efforts of minority religious authorities to impose a punitively narrow measure of Jewishness. If they succeed in imposing their will, Jewish identity will be under a control far tighter than ever before. Taken to its logical conclusion, it would lead to something horrifying for most Jews: a theocracy of simplistic certainty which pays no heed to Judaism’s longest religious tradition, the questioning mind.
(The “religious” political parties first learned to use their leverage in fragile coalitions following the airlift of black Ethiopian Jews to Israel in the 1980s, when their authority, and the whole Zionist project, was challenged by the emergence of such a radically different group of Jews.)
Everywhere in the world, the idea that group identities can only be satisfied by enshrining them in a physical entity has been put to the test and found wanting. It is the multi-identity states which have found a way for people to mix on equal terms that have done well. Because once you limit yourself to expressing your identity in blood and soil, it is more likely to bump into other people’s physical blood and soil. Modernity is partly a quest to resolve this issue. Assimilation, despised by many Jews for letting them down in Nazi Germany, has been largely discarded as a model for coexistence in western societies and replaced by a search for other ways to live fairly with difference.
However, these “other ways” are rarely applied to Israel. A mixture of factors-especially guilt-stops Jews and non-Jews alike from questioning the blood-and-soil model which has proved disastrous everywhere else. In other countries we recognise jingoists who wrap themselves in the flag and present their own interest as the national interest. When the same thing goes on in Israel, everyone agonises about how to respond.
A key element of the blood-and-soil approach in Israel is the policy of “return” to the Jewish homeland. This priority has led to some grotesque situations. In Romania under the dictatorship of Ceaucescu, for example, Chief Rabbi Moses Rosen was one of the worst collaborators. But Rosen was excused everything because he “got the Jews out.” After Ceaucescu was toppled, I visited Transylvania and spoke to a Hungarian-speaking Romanian Jew, one of the few still there aged under 50, who was bitter about Rosen’s legacy. “What’s so great about pulling out a culture which has lived here for hundreds of years, leaving a big hole? All my friends are gone now,” he said. “Why didn’t Rosen fight for things to be better here, like Tokes?”-the ethnic Hungarian pastor who led protests during Romania’s 1989 revolution.
It is time for the world’s Jews to stop sawing off the branch on which they sit. It is not simply that Israel cannot solve all their problems. Israel is stopping Jews from looking at the world in a creative way and making the kind of alliances against prejudice which will protect them in the long run.
Jews should not be made to feel embarrassed about decoupling Jewishness from Israel and give room to the debate about identity. They should fight against prejudice on principle and aim to make it possible for Jews everywhere to breathe easy. They should help promote asylum rights so that all people, Jews and non-Jews alike, can flee to safety if necessary. This will provide a firmer and more secure protection than a blood-and-soil state. It is not perfect-but then nothing is.