The One-State Solution
Yet Jewish opinion may not be as rock-solid in support of a Jewish state as Hertzberg thinks, if Marc Ellis's new book is any indication. Ellis, who heads the Center for American and Jewish Studies at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, argues in Israel and Palestine: Out of the Ashes that Jews are torn between two poles: Judaism's traditional concern for ethics, and a Jewish state that makes a mockery of the very concept. Where the Nazis never succeeded in destroying "the very essence of what it means to be Jewish," Israel has undercut it "at a fundamental level" through its relentless assault on Palestinian rights. As a result, he says, the fault line in international Jewish politics now runs between tribalists who believe in smiting the Philistines harder and harder, and universalists who believe that it is in the Jews' best interests to support equal rights for Jews and non-Jews alike. "Instead of splitting apart around issues of geography and culture, a civil war of conscience has begun," Ellis writes--which, judging from the vicious arguments erupting nowadays at seders and bar mitzvahs, may very well be the case.
Ellis gives a nonsectarian twist to the old tradition of Jewish prophecy, in which it is the duty of the lonely voice of morality to lecture and berate the people for falling away from the ancient law. Indeed, Israel and Palestine uses this trope to head off in some remarkably radical directions. Everywhere Ellis turns, he sees a Jewish community badly compromised by its unprincipled support for an out-of-control Jewish state. He argues that the cult of the Holocaust, something that virtually defines Jewish life in the United States, has turned into an exercise in selective memory in which Jews recall the terrible things done to them while forgetting, or simply denying, the terrible things that they have done to others. Rather than mourning the demise of the Oslo Accords, he believes they died a deserved death. Noting that, under Oslo, Palestinians had to pass through Israeli checkpoints even while moving about in what is ostensibly their own country, he asks, not unreasonably, what the point of such a state is if the best it can offer its people is endless humiliation at the hands of a foreign power.
Ellis's heart is in the sort of solution that Hertzberg scorns: a single binational state for both Arabs and Jews. Rather than struggling to find just the right compromise between two nations claiming the same piece of territory--all but impossible under the best of circumstances--he believes in rendering such claims irrelevant. The goal is not some delicate, Lebanese-style power-sharing arrangement between competing warlords but a modern democracy structured in such a way that citizens do not see themselves primarily as Jews, Christians or Muslims but as workers, farmers, shopkeepers and so on. In their religious capacities, individuals might still look upon Israel/Palestine as sacred. But as citizens of a secular democracy, they would expect their state to serve the entire population irrespective of religion or ethnicity--and would complain bitterly if it did not.
The problem, of course, is how to get there from here, which is where Ellis stumbles. By basing his argument on Judaism's longstanding ethical tradition, he fails to recognize how ambiguous that tradition really is. While the Old Testament says some humane things about protecting widows and orphans, it contains enough tales of massacre and vengeance to fuel the fantasies of the most homicidal West Bank settler. To quote the historian Christopher Hill, the Bible is "a huge bran-tub from which anything might be drawn"--hatred no less than tolerance, war no less than peace, theocracy no less than democracy. If democratic secularism is Ellis's goal, then secular politics are the only way to achieve it. Instead of immersing themselves in separate religious traditions, Jews and Palestinian Muslims and Christians must join in a common tradition based on internationalism, secularism and democracy. Instead of burying themselves in ancient texts, they must understand the irrelevance of those texts to modern politics.
More religion, no matter how progressively construed, is the last thing this God-soaked piece of terrain needs. As attentive readers of the New York Times are aware, family law in Israel is in the hands of Orthodox mullahs--er, I mean, rabbis. But few really grasp all that this entails. To put it in American terms, imagine that you are looking to get married or divorced, or to adopt a child or undergo an abortion, or to bury one of your parents in a local cemetery, and that to do so you must first obtain the permission of your local Southern Baptist minister. Even Southern Baptists would be outraged. Yet, as Noah Efron makes clear in his stunning new book, Real Jews: Secular vs. Ultra-Orthodox and the Struggle for Jewish Identity in Israel, this and more are what Israeli Jews face on a daily basis. Take kashrut, the exceedingly complicated Jewish dietary laws governing what foods are forbidden, which can be mixed and which, such as meat and dairy products, must be kept strictly separate. As Efron, an American-born Israeli who teaches at Bar Ilan University near Tel Aviv, tells it, kashrut affects not only what Israelis eat but, thanks to an increasingly expansive definition being pushed by the Orthodox rabbinate, what they believe and say.
So Ronit Penso, a 40-year-old chef at the Jerusalem Hilton, discovered in 1999 after talking back to a mashgiah, or rabbinic inspector. As Penso tells it, the trouble started when the mashgiah demanded that she toss out a vat of artichokes she had just washed on the grounds that they might contain insects too small to be visible to the human eye. Since insects are treyf, i.e., unclean, the veggies, to Penso's annoyance, had to go. More trouble ensued when the mashgiah objected to the way she chopped parsley and lettuce. On most days, you chop them one way, he told her, but on the Sabbath you must chop them another. When she protested, the inspector told her to be quiet and obey. When she made the mistake of talking back--"Your job," she said, "is to give me instructions about kashrut, not to shut my mouth"--she was called a liar and a "Lilith," a reference to Adam's supposed first wife, who, according to rabbinic lore, was eternally punished for the crime of demanding equality with her husband. "The fact that a secular woman reached such a senior position, and in the kitchen of all places, made their blood boil," Penso recalled. Nonetheless, the hotel, anxious to keep its kosher certification, fired her, and a sex-discrimination suit filed on her behalf by a group called the Association for Civil Rights in Israel proved unsuccessful.