A Different Israel

A Different Israel

“How do you feel, being there?” my friend asked on the phone from America…


“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.

Dear reader,

I hope you enjoyed the article you just read. It’s just one of the many deeply reported and boundary-pushing stories we publish every day at The Nation. In a time of continued erosion of our fundamental rights and urgent global struggles for peace, independent journalism is now more vital than ever.

As a Nation reader, you are likely an engaged progressive who is passionate about bold ideas. I know I can count on you to help sustain our mission-driven journalism.

This month, we’re kicking off an ambitious Summer Fundraising Campaign with the goal of raising $15,000. With your support, we can continue to produce the hard-hitting journalism you rely on to cut through the noise of conservative, corporate media. Please, donate today.

A better world is out there—and we need your support to reach it.


Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

Ad Policy