The One-State Solution
A longstanding taboo has finally begun to fall. The more the United States sinks into a morass in Iraq, the more the Bush Administration leaps to do Sharon's bidding, the more fierce and wide-ranging the debate is likely to grow. How it will end, nobody knows. But where before it was all but impossible to have an honest conversation about Zionism, it is now becoming impossible not to. Of course, this taboo is largely an American invention. In other countries, the field has been much more open--including, irony of ironies, in Israel. As Tom Segev describes it in his lively ideological survey, Elvis in Jerusalem, Zionism has been under ideological and political assault in the Jewish state virtually from the beginning. Nearly everyone has had reason to find fault with it. In its early days Orthodox rabbis complained (in so many words) that it was an attempt to do an end run around God by returning from exile without divine permission. In the 1950s, a young journalist named Uri Avnery argued that Zionism was indelibly stained by the Diaspora it supposedly opposed and called for a more authentic Hebrew nationalism instead. Sephardic Jews from North Africa and the Middle East saw Zionism as a tool of the European-Ashkenazic elite, while post-Zionists like the historian Ilan Pappé have argued that it is fundamentally undemocratic and will have to fall by the wayside if Israel is ever to evolve into a normal pluralist state.
Even archeologists have gotten in their swipes. In the beginning, Israeli archeologists assumed that the Bible's tales of the patriarchs, the Exodus, Joshua's conquest of the Holy Land, etc., were broadly accurate and that the more they dug, the more the essential outlines would be confirmed. But, in fact, the opposite occurred. Not only was evidence lacking but archeologists uncovered a mass of countervailing data as well. As a University of Tel Aviv archeologist named Ze'ev Herzog wrote in the newspaper Ha'aretz in 1999, "The Israelites were never in Egypt, did not wander in the desert, did not conquer the land in a military campaign, and did not pass it on to the twelve tribes of Israel. Furthermore, the united monarchy of David and Solomon, which is described by the Bible as a regional power, was at most a small tribal kingdom." The Israelites were merely one indigenous culture among many. The idea that they had some sort of pre-eminent claim to the Holy Land has no basis in historical fact. Zionist archeology thus turns out to subvert Zionism.
Elvis in Jerusalem is valuable for a number of reasons, among them the insight it provides into the nature of Israeli politics. Israel is a heavily militarized ethno-state, to use Judt's term, but it is also a democracy, one that compares quite favorably in many respects with a played-out eighteenth-century republic like the United States. Israeli politics are serious, ideological and bitterly contentious. Where Jewish leaders in America have done their best to suppress debate, Israelis have let it rip. Ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians, Jewish religious intolerance, Zionism's various efforts over the years to make common cause with anti-Semitism--as Segev makes clear, topics that have been off-limits for years in the United States are fair game in the Jewish state. Americans, especially American Jews, should take a lesson.
Not that all of them will. Allan Levine's new book, Scattered Among the Peoples: The Jewish Diaspora in Twelve Portraits, is a relic of a less critical age. The story it tells is often a tragic one, yet the tone is bland and upbeat. Despite all that history has thrown at them, something "mysterious, indefinable, and even baffling" has permitted the Jews to pull through. They have persevered, Levine writes, "in the face of overwhelming odds and [have shown] an uncanny ability to do what is necessary so that each successive generation will endure." Even though the creation of the State of Israel in 1948 has led to a host of new difficulties, Levine finds something positive here as well. "Who would expect anything else," he asks, "of this intellectual, creative, industrious, and stubborn people?"
Self-regard like this is almost impressive. Yet Levine is fundamentally mistaken about the Jewish survival instinct: Far from uncanny, it has been as faulty as anyone else's. The persecutions of the Middle Ages were not their fault, obviously, yet the fact remains that Jewish fortunes in Central and Eastern Europe had plunged so low by the eighteenth century that recovery seemed all but impossible. With their ancient books and sterile legal debates, they seemed to be a lost people, which is why so many German Jews were desperate to convert. During World War II, Orthodox Jews allowed themselves to be lulled into complacency by the notion that "in every generation there arise those who would destroy us," as the Passover Haggadah states. This implied that Hitler was merely another in a long line of anti-Semites, one the Jews would outlast just as they had outlasted all the others. They were wrong on both counts.
Levine's belief in the virtues of staying put causes him to celebrate wealthy court Jews who held fast to tradition while faintly downplaying those intellectually rebellious "non-Jewish Jews," in Isaac Deutscher's famous phrase, who were the real glory of European Judaism. He is sympathetic to the rich Portuguese Jews in Amsterdam who drove the Jewish freethinker Uriel da Costa to suicide in 1640 and "had no choice" but to excommunicate Spinoza in 1656. He is admiring of the Rothschilds even though they used their wealth to finance the anti-Napoleonic alliance at a time when French troops were freeing Jews across the Continent. Because he sees it as representing Jewish continuity, Levine's attitude toward Israel is equally rosy. Israel has made members of the Diaspora "proud to be Jews again," he says, without offering evidence that Diaspora Jews ever felt to the contrary. Although recent events have caused some Jews to question their knee-jerk support for Israel, he is confident that "the legacy of the Nazis" will keep them within the fold.
This is history as the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations would have it: complacent, triumphal and devoted to unity as the highest virtue. Arthur Hertzberg's The Fate of Zionism is angrier, more dissatisfied and more argumentative--and therefore, in a sense, more Jewish as well. It takes aim simultaneously at the Zionist right and the anti-Zionist left, although in a way, unfortunately, that mainly succeeds in demonstrating the incoherence of those, like Hertzberg himself, who are in between.