The Hebrew Republic

The Hebrew Republic

Ongoing conflict in the Middle East continually reinforces tribalism, religiosity and messianic Zionism.


This essay is adapted from Kai Bird’s memoir, Crossing Mandelbaum Gate: Coming of Age Between the Arabs and Israelis, 1956-1978, published in April by Scribner.

My father was a Foreign Service officer, a diplomat and an Arabist who spent virtually all his career in the Near East, as it was called in the State Department. So I spent most of my childhood among the Israelis and the Arabs of Palestine, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. In the spring of 1956, when I was 4, Father was appointed vice consul at the American consulate in the Jordanian-controlled part of Jerusalem. Mother arrived a few weeks later, bringing my little sister and me. We soon settled into a rented house, newly built of the city’s famous gleaming white limestone, on a hill overlooking the stretch of "no man’s land" that bordered Israeli-controlled Mount Scopus.

Jerusalem was very much a divided city. A jarring series of ad hoc fences, walls and bales of barbed wire, running like an angry, jagged scar from north to south, separated East Jerusalem from West. Our house was a stone’s throw from the 1949 armistice line, and Mount Scopus was but an island of Jewish property in a sea of Arab territory. On some nights I could hear the random, not-so-distant tapping of machine-gun fire. "War and rumors of war seem to be the habit around here," my father wrote, "and waking up in the night to hear rifle fire is almost an every night occurrence."

To get to West Jerusalem one had to cross no man’s land, passing through the heavily guarded passageway known as Mandelbaum Gate. The gate took its name from a house that once stood on the spot, built by a family of Jewish immigrants from Byelorussia. I crossed through the gate nearly every day, past the barbed wire and the cone-shaped anti-tank barriers. Men with guns stood guard. The skeletal remains of armored personnel carriers and rusting tanks lay about as constant reminders of lost lives and past conflicts.

I know the dangers and the seductions of the Middle East. It is part of my identity. I grew up among a people who routinely referred to the creation of the State of Israel as the Nakba–the catastrophe. And yet I fell in love with and married a Jewish American woman, the only daughter of two Holocaust survivors, both Jewish Austrians. Gradually, over many years of marriage, I came to understand what this meant. One can’t live with a child of Holocaust survivors without absorbing some of the same sensibilities that her parents transmitted to her as a young girl. It is an unspoken dread, a sense of fragility, an anxious anticipation of unseen horrors. So the Holocaust–or, to use the more accurately descriptive Hebrew term, the Shoah–well, it too has become a part of my identity. The Nakba and the Shoah: the bookends of my life.

Although I went to college in the United States–Carleton in Northfield, Minnesota–I returned to the Middle East for a year in 1970-71 to study at the American University of Beirut. I went back again in my 20s as a freelance reporter, and I had many adventures before securing, in 1978, a tenuous part-time position as the assistant editor of The Nation. Three months later Victor Navasky suddenly became my new boss. Victor quickly became my journalistic mentor, teaching me the craft of writing editorials and how to inspire young freelancers to rewrite their wooden prose for the third or fourth time–all for a payment in "the high two figures." I called Victor my "rabbi"–a term Wall Street lawyers still use to describe the wizened partners who take young associates under their wing.

In December 1981 Victor and I edited a special issue of The Nation titled "Myths About the Middle East." Nearly three decades later, I would be guilty of false modesty if I didn’t claim a certain prescience in what we wrote. The editorial introducing this special issue could be published today without the change of a single word. We argued that the "greater threat" to Israel’s security was not Palestinian terrorists but the danger from within: "Israel’s democratic character–and its legitimacy and distinctiveness as a Middle Eastern state–is placed in increasing jeopardy with the passage of each day of military subjugation for 1.2 million Palestinians on the West Bank and Gaza. The more ‘successful’ Israel is in introducing a large settler population into the occupied territories, the closer it is to becoming a total garrison state."

We then observed, "Among the misconceptions obscuring the road out of the present impasse are those having to do with the nature of contemporary Zionism…. Did Zionism mean a homeland for all Jews? Was this homeland for Jews and no other people?" We answered by arguing that "after the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, it gradually became clear that messianic Zionism–with its assertion that all Jews are one nation, that the ingathering of the Diaspora is the raison d’être of Israel–was an outmoded or unrealizable idea." Obviously, most Jews around the world, including most American Jews, were not coming. Our editorial argued that Israel should define its citizens as Israelis–not Jews–and that therefore it made no sense to offer automatic citizenship to any Jew anywhere. (We suggested, however, that perhaps the Law of Return should remain applicable until the Holocaust generation had died out.)

In conclusion, we pointed out, "political Zionism succeeded in creating a state called Israel, a Hebrew nation in a part of historical Palestine." We cited Uri Avnery, the Israeli writer and peace activist who had proclaimed some years earlier that Zionism was dead. We also drew on the ideas of Hillel Kook (1915-2001), a former envoy of the Irgun, a Zionist paramilitary organization, who did more than anyone to rescue European Jews from the Shoah. I met Kook in Israel in 1978 and became captivated by his arguments for a secular understanding of Israeli identity–a national identity based on Hebrew language and culture, and not merely religion. In this "post-Zionist era" the conflict was not one between Arab and Jew but between Arab Palestinians and Hebrew Palestinians. Kook’s important distinction, we argued, paved the way for a two-state solution, based on territorial compromise between the Hebrew-speaking and Arabic-speaking Palestinians.

The problem–then and now–with this formulation is that messianic Zionism did not die with the establishment of the State of Israel. Unfortunately, messianic Zionism continues to thrive in the hearts of a sizable minority of Israelis–just as political Islam, under the banner of Hamas, has gained increasing support among Palestinians. And even the majority of Israelis still find it unthinkable to repudiate the notion that Israel is a "Jewish" state rather than a Hebrew-speaking secular state in which Jewish culture and religion are merely components of Israel’s national identity.

"Messianic Zionism’s claim of a Jewish right to Eretz Israel, the biblical Holy Land," we wrote in The Nation in 1981, "impels modern Israelis to conclude, as did an early Zionist, Dr. Arthur Ruppin, in 1936, ‘It is our destiny to be in a state of continual warfare with the Arabs.’" Messianic Zionism cannot afford to compromise, precisely because it claims to speak for all Jews, everywhere, and not just the Hebrews of Israel. The editorial quoted Golda Meir telling a group of battle-hardened soldiers on the Golan Heights in the midst of the 1973 October War, "If all the blood that was shed in keeping Israel alive was only for the 3 million [Israelis] of today, it is not worthwhile."

Such a sentiment is an obfuscation of reality. Meir’s messianic Zionism would have Hebrew-speaking Israelis fight and die on behalf of a non-Hebrew-speaking Jewish Diaspora that has no intention of ever making aliyah–immigrating (literally, "ascending") to Israel. This makes no sense, and furthermore, it belittles the interests of those Hebrew-speaking Israelis who are trying to make a life for themselves and their families in a country constantly at war. (In 1947 Rabbi Judah Magnes, then president of Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, said, "If I do not want a Jewish state, it is because I do not want perpetual war with the Arabs.")

If Israel had been at peace these past six decades, perhaps messianic Zionism would have naturally withered away. But there is no peace, and the ongoing conflict continually reinforces tribalism, religiosity and messianic sentiments. Paradoxically, Israel is being torn in two radically different directions. As the Israeli-American historian Bernard Avishai observes, "We are now in a society that is more democratic, more liberal, more secular, more Israeli–but yet, ironically, more Israeli Jewish." What he means by "Israeli Jewish" is "a Jewish culture that is more overtly halakhic"–that is, a society governed by rabbinical courts and religious ritual.

About 76 percent of Israel’s population–or 5.4 million people–define themselves as Jewish. But while most Israelis are still culturally secular, some 1.5 million others are divided into two main streams: the nationalist religious and the ultra-Orthodox, or haredim. And because of their high birthrates, the Orthodox community as a whole is growing rapidly. By definition, the Orthodox are antisecular, and over the years they have succeeded in imposing many of their archaic rules on the secular majority. They determine who is a Jew and who is not, and sometimes what is culturally forbidden. They have the political muscle to persuade the state to fund their religious schools. The ultra-Orthodox, primarily concerned with pursuing religious studies, get their young men and women exempted from military service. The national religious, for their part, form the backbone of the settlers’ movement to colonize the occupied territories, and they have moved in great numbers into the army, transforming that formerly overwhelmingly secular institution. Both the nationalist religious and the ultra-Orthodox ardently believe in their right to live in an exclusively Jewish state–which helps to explain why in some polls a near-majority of Israelis say they would like to see their government "support the emigration of Arab citizens." A small majority openly opposes equal rights for Israeli Palestinians.

This is, to say the least, a highly undemocratic sentiment. But it has become quite clear that the Orthodox cherish "state Judaism" over democracy. Even the Hebrew spoken by the Orthodox, saturated as it is with archaic religious concepts and overtones, seems to reinforce tribalism. For the Orthodox, all politics comes down to one question: is it good for the Jews? As Avishai observes in his deeply incisive book The Hebrew Republic: "You cannot live in Hebrew and expect no repercussions from its archaic power. You cannot live in a state with an official Judaism, in addition to this Hebrew, and expect no erosion of citizenship. You can, as most Israelis do, speak the language, ignore the archaism, and tolerate the Judaism. But then you should not expect your children to understand what democracy is."

I am under no illusion that Avishai’s–and the late Hillel Kook’s–argument for a "Hebrew Republic" will soon persuade the American public, let alone most Israelis. But the vision for a peaceful resolution to the conflict has been put forth by both Israeli and Palestinian leaders. My childhood neighbor Sari Nusseibeh, now the president of Al-Quds University in Jerusalem, and Ami Ayalon, a former head of Israel’s internal intelligence agency, the Shin Bet, co-signed in 2002 a simple one-page outline for a two-state solution that they have couched as a citizens’ initiative. It has now collected a quarter-million Israeli and just slightly fewer Palestinian signatories. As Ayalon put it, "The only way to force the leaders to finally sign a deal is by first winning over both peoples." Their plan calls for borders to be drawn on the basis of the 1967 lines, with possible exchanges of land on a one-to-one basis; the establishment of Jerusalem as the capital of both states, with Arab neighborhoods under Palestinian sovereignty and Jewish neighborhoods under Israeli sovereignty; and the return of Arab refugees only to the new Palestinian state, albeit with the establishment of an international compensation and rehabilitation fund, with Israeli participation, "in cognizance of the suffering" the refugees have endured. (A similar proposal, known as the Geneva Accord, announced shortly after the Nusseibeh-Ayalon plan by former Israeli cabinet member Yossi Beilin and Palestinian Authority negotiator Yasir Abed-Rabbo, also attracted wide domestic and international support.)

The Israelis and Palestinians need to see each other and acknowledge each other’s historical narrative. The Palestinians need to acknowledge the Shoah and come to understand that their adversary is heavily burdened by a history of victimhood. Likewise, Jewish Israelis need to accept the Nakba as a core part of the Israeli-Palestinian experience. We’re not there yet. We’re not even close. But at least for the Palestinians, the Nusseibeh-Ayalon plan implicitly contains an Israeli apology insofar as it requires the explicit participation of Israel in the compensation and rehabilitation of Palestinian refugees. Perhaps this is not enough for some Palestinians. Perhaps some symbolic quotient of "return" is also required. But a settlement along these lines would eventually transform the "Jewish state" into a democratic Hebrew Republic.

No one is ready to accept this scenario. But this is what should happen–and in time, I dare say, it will happen. I would like to think that before this century is over, Israel will become a republic with a constitution that guarantees fully equal rights for both its Hebrew-speaking and its Arabic-speaking citizens. Perhaps someday Israel’s language rather than its religion will define its national identity. Israel can gradually shed its theocratic aspects and erect a twenty-first-century "iron wall" between synagogue and state. A constitution will strip the rabbinical courts of any political powers or privileges. The physical wall that today divides Israelis from Palestinians living in the West Bank will be torn down. There will be no Mandelbaum Gates–but instead, open borders, free trade and a healthy, multicultural and economic interchange between all the peoples of ancient Palestine. There will probably be an Arabic-speaking Palestinian republic, quite possibly composed of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan and the West Bank and Gaza. All of this will be possible, even necessary, because a hundred years in the future "sovereignty" won’t mean what it does today. No doubt, many thousands of "Hebrews" of Jewish ancestry will be living in the Palestinian state–just as there will be a sizable number of Arabic-speaking Palestinians, Muslim and Christian, living in the Israeli republic.

Perhaps the two republics will be federated. But in some way, somehow, these two peoples will be living together and sharing a land once periodically drenched in blood. That’s my vision. I think its realization is inevitable, however unlikely it may seem today. But I am also certain that a hundred years from now, people will look back to the early twenty-first century and wonder at the fools who delayed peace with their messianic notions.


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