The State of Zionism | The Nation


The State of Zionism

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Just as Zionist concepts and principles were translated into Israeli law and institutions, so its passion--its "prayer"--persists as a dominant mindset, shaping national policy and systematically deforming Israel's dealings with the Palestinians and neighboring Arab states. For who are the Palestinians--who are the Arabs?--in a worldview transplanted from the Jewish historical experience in Europe to a region that, for reasons having nothing to do with European anti-Semitism, is hostile to the presence of a Jewish state? Certainly, as neighbors and enemies, the Arabs are real. But simultaneously they are demonic characters in a recurring nightmare: cossacks on horseback attacking the shtetl, jackbooted Nazis enacting another Kristallnacht. It is difficult enough to make peace with flesh-and-blood enemies. But how do you negotiate with ghosts? How can a phantom be a partner for peace?

About the Author

Brian Klug
Brian Klug is senior research fellow in philosophy at St Benet's Hall, Oxford and member of the Faculty of Philosophy...

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In 1879 the German journalist Wilhelm Marr, a former socialist and anarchist, founded an organization that was novel in two ways.

And what is Israel in this phantasmagorical landscape? Not merely a state at odds with its neighbors but the persecuted "Jew among nations," as Alan Dershowitz and others argue. The trouble with their argument is that the more it succeeds as a defense of Israel, the more it fails as a defense of Zionism; for if Israel is the old Jew writ large, an eternal victim of an eternal anti-Semitism, then the movement has failed its own test. Herzl's vision was not to export the so-called Jewish question from Europe to the Middle East but (as Olmert reminded the Zionist Congress) to solve it.

There are, to be sure, critics of Israel who are motivated by hatred of Jews, just as there are Arab and Muslim opponents of the state who have embraced The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and Holocaust revisionism to underwrite their hostility. But by and large, both the fate of the state and its reputation are more in its own hands than we are led to think by "defenders" of Israel who, lovingly polishing its image as if this were its very being, cannot bear to hear that Israel is ever culpable. Not that they view the Jewish state as powerless in its own defense; on the contrary, the critical difference between the "new" Jew and "old" (as they see it) is that tough Israel does not go like a lamb to the slaughter. But nor (they insist) does it go like the slaughterer to the lamb; not even when the IDF launches airstrikes against targets in densely populated civilian neighborhoods in Gaza or invades Lebanon and lays waste its infrastructure. In the dominant mindset that I am describing, Israel's hand is forced by hate-filled enemies, and nothing it can do will assuage that hate.

Thus, paradoxically, the reliance that Israel places on power derives from its sense of powerlessness: the conviction that it is condemned to be hated, that every apparent thaw in its relations with its neighbors is a cunning Arab stratagem and that the Palestinians are simply waiting to throw the Jews into the sea. This, mutatis mutandis, is the same conviction about Europe that gave rise to Zionism in the first place. Sticking to its stock narrative of the Jewish past, this state-cum-movement is frozen in time on the shifting "stage of history," in Olmert's phrase.

In his recent account of the Arab-Israeli conflict, Scars of War, Wounds of Peace, former Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami observes, "Israel could never really decide whether she was an intimidating regional superpower or just an isolated and frightened Jewish ghetto waiting for the next pogrom to happen." Deep down it is both: the "old" Jew within the "new," the implacable despair coiled like an incubus inside the Zionist hope.

Yet according to the Zionist script, it is hope triumphant: The wandering Jews have come home, and the Citadel of David has fallen into their hands. In Booking Passage, a study of the "poetics of exile and return" in the modern Jewish imagination, Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi locates Zionism on the mental map of a people who, for 2,000 years, have seen themselves as "on the road," forever longing for Jerusalem. What happens when spiritual longing is replaced by material fulfillment? What becomes of Zion, "the beating heart" (Olmert) of the Jewish people, when it is possessed, when its status changes from poetic center to capital city? Can its heart continue to beat? Or does it atrophy into a trophy that must not, at any cost, be surrendered? The Zion of the Psalms lies on the horizon, where heaven and earth appear to meet. "When this poetic image denies its status as poetry," writes Ezrahi, "it makes such claims on the political imagination that the 'final status' of Jerusalem becomes non-negotiable."

If in this triumphalist script Arabs in general are the foil to the "miracle" of Israel's birth, then the 1.4 million Israeli citizens who are Palestinian (about a fifth of the population) are the remnant within. They are "insider outsiders," a phrase with historical resonance for Jews. (The nearly 4 million Palestinians in the occupied territories and East Jerusalem, neither inside nor outside, are left in limbo.) Thus, the national myth divides the Israeli people against itself. As do the symbols of state. Hundreds of thousands of Arab children in Israeli schools "are expected to sing an anthem that ignores their very existence," as veteran peace activist Uri Avnery wrote after this year's Yom Ha'atzmaut (Independence Day). There are many Israelis for whom "Hatikvah" means despair.

Yet Palestinian citizens of Israel ("Israeli Arabs") are not just figments in another people's narrative. As Ezrahi points out, they are themselves "narrating subjects" with a stake in the country they call home: Israel. In an eloquent appeal for inclusiveness, she refers to "the Arab voices that have begun to be heard." Yet there is reason to think that Azmi Bishara, the leader of the Arab Balad Party and a former Knesset member who is now in exile to avoid prosecution on charges of treason, is being pursued for "aiding the enemy" during the most recent Lebanon war primarily because he has promoted the view that Israel should become a "state for all its citizens." Yuval Diskin, head of the Shin Bet security service, has reportedly gone so far as to describe Israeli Palestinians as a "strategic threat" to the state. And recent documents calling for recognition and equality, such as the "Future Vision" report by the Committee of Arab Mayors in Israel, have largely fallen on ears deafened by fear.

These documents are not the last word on how Israel should reconfigure itself. But the fear they inspire inhibits open debate. Au fond, it is Israel's fear of abandoning its Zionist script; fear of being a normal country, one that is home to all its citizens; fear of equality, of an inclusive and open-ended society that evolves into something that is and is not Jewish. But if Israel cannot give up this fear, what hope is there for the future? A state that does not believe in its own possibility, except as a perpetual interloper at odds with its neighbors, has no future.

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