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 Susan Greenberg / 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 as…