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A Different Israel | The Nation

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A Different Israel

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"How do you feel, being there?" my friend asked on the phone from
America. I thought a minute, looking out of my Haifa hotel window at the
moon rising over the sea. "Relaxed. I feel relaxed." This seemed to my
friend an improbable way to feel in Israel on May 28, 2002. And in one
sense, it obviously was. Many people urged me not to go--some out of
fear for my safety, some with a moralistic doubt as to whether I should
accept an honor associated with the state of Israel (an honorary degree
from the University of Haifa). About the first, I felt probably I was as
safe in Haifa as in Chicago. About the second, I was determined to
affirm the worth of scholarly cooperation in the face of the ugly
campaign, waged mostly in Europe, to boycott Israeli scholars and refuse
cooperation with them. (The campaign has led to the dismissal of Israeli
scholars from the editorial board of at least one major journal, and to
a general call to boycott Israeli scholars in publications and
conference invitations.) I was also planning to deliver a speech, with
the advance approval of the rector, that said the things I wanted to say
about the situation, in a polite, detached, but unequivocal way.

But relaxed, certainly, is not how I had expected to feel. On my one
previous trip to Israel, in the relatively good times of December 1995,
I had felt edgy all the time, skeptical as I am about muscular Zionism.
I converted to Judaism at the age of 21, and I felt then, as I do now,
that Judaism is above all a moral identity, connected to the love of
justice. I felt that I was dedicating myself to a program of moral
action aimed at realizing justice in the here-and-now rather than in
some dim Christian afterlife--that, as Moses Mendelssohn once wrote,
"The highest stage of wisdom is incontrovertibly doing that which is
good." More viscerally, I felt I was leaving an elitist WASP culture
that cared not one whit for social justice to join a liberal, socially
alert Jewish family that read I.F. Stone and The Nation.

For the sort of Jew I have ever since felt myself to be, Israel was a
source of much embarrassment. Reform Jews traditionally were
anti-Zionist on the ground that Israel is a moral idea, like Kant's
Kingdom of Ends, not a place. And even if the Holocaust has caused
Reform to moderate that position, it still explains a lot of the unease
many of us have with the idea that Jews would attach themselves to a
kind of nationalism that seems in tension, at least, with the
cosmopolitan goals of justice for all that (so I think) ought to be the
goal of a good Jewish life.

But in Haifa I felt relaxed. And the reason was not just the beauty of
the silvery beach, with the large moon above, or the high quality of the
philosophy department and the philosopher-rector, a man whose work on
emotions I have long admired. It was deeper, connected to the
ambivalence I have described. Haifa, and especially its university, were
simply a different Israel from any I had seen, an Israel that still
makes justice and peaceful cooperation its central goals and, to a
surprising degree, realizes those goals. The university enrolls about 20
percent Arab students (Muslim, Christian and Druse), and the faculty,
too, has many Arab members. The first priority of the philosophy
department, I was told, was to raise funds for an endowed chair for an
Arab faculty member to teach Islamic philosophy. We like to see
ourselves as an outpost of peace and reciprocity, people kept telling
me. And the rector, the dean of the law school and the board of
governors, holding their annual meeting the day of the ceremony, made me
feel that my own sentiments about peace and respect for all humanity
were theirs also, and real pragmatic goals of university policy rather
than just slogans. Campus life seemed remarkably peaceful, as Arab and
Jewish students continued to learn side by side and interact without
suspicion.

One great sorrow I heard repeatedly expressed: their feeling that as
Israelis they are being demonized by the world community, and their
efforts toward justice are simply not being recognized, their story not
being told. (Would the American Philosophical Association pass a
resolution opposing intellectual cooperation with Israeli philosophers?
I was asked, as a past president of the association and past chair of
its Committee on International Cooperation. I said I hoped not, and that
I thought it most unlikely, though I know that things are otherwise in
Europe.)

The city, too, seemed bent on something like peace. Its economy is
clearly suffering, and the Druse villages, dependent on tourism, are
particularly hard hit. (I had to get a jeweler's young daughter to go
find him so that he could open his shop--he had gone home because there
were no customers. I concluded that the purchase of a beautiful necklace
was a virtuous deed.) But once again, there is cooperation and even
amity. The Arab-owned restaurant that had been hit by a suicide bomber
has been rebuilt and is ready to reopen. Walkers stroll along the Louis
Promenade with their dogs, as if daily life still brings joy. Flowers
abound in the Bahai gardens below; perhaps Haifa was not such an
unreasonable choice for the worldwide headquarters of a religion
committed to peace and internationalism.

So, relaxed in my moralistic heart, I put on the academic gown for the
ceremony, and I added to it the little silver Star of David from
Tiffany's that a graduating PhD student gave me but that in my
anti-Zionistic frame of mind I never wear. I gave my speech about global
justice and the limits of nationalism, and then I sang "Hatikvah" like
everyone else. And for the first time that sort of speech and that song
did not seem to be so ill suited to each other.

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