Why Israel Must Choose Justice

Why Israel Must Choose Justice

Without it, no state can endure as a representative of the Jewish nature.


The following speech was delivered on June 25. The Jerusalem Prize honors literary achievement in the field of freedom of the individual in society. –The Editors

I wish to thank you for this honor and for allowing me to join the distinguished list of authors who were past recipients of the Jerusalem Prize. The awarding of this prize in recognition of my work as a writer also cites my activities in defense of civil rights. As a past president of International P.E.N., the association of writers from around the world committed to the defense of the freedom to write, I have visited many countries with various political systems, at times to try to get writers out of jail, at other times simply to reinforce local P.E.N. centers in their struggle, quite often, to continue to exist. To tell the truth, I never wanted to spend time away from my desk, but it may be that as a Jew of a certain generation I was unable to forget the silence of the 1930s and ’40s, when Fascism began its destruction of our people, which for so long met with the indifference of the world. Perhaps it is because I have tried to do something useful to protect human rights that I know how hard it is to make good things happen. At the same time, my experience tells me that most people by far continue to believe in justice and wish it to prevail.

Because I have at least a sense of the many terrible contradictions in Israel’s situation vis-à-vis the Palestinians, I am also conscious of my distance from the day-to-day realities. So I am not going to lecture or try to persuade. The fundamentals of my views are simply that Israel has the right to exist, and the Palestinians likewise, in a state of their own. With the expansion of settlements I have witnessed, initially with surprise and then with incredulity, what seemed a self-defeating policy. I am not going to pursue conflicting arguments with secondhand knowledge, but merely to say the obvious–that the settlement policy appears to have changed the very nature of the Israeli state and that a new birth of a humanistic vision is necessary if the Jewish presence is to be seen as worth preserving. To put it perhaps too succinctly–without justice at its center, no state can endure as a representation of the Jewish nature.

I might fill in some of the background of these views, because this background is what provides the stark contrast for me with the present tragic situation. I have not been without some small experience with political Israel. I was invited to attend the Waldorf dinner in 1948 to celebrate the Soviet Union’s recognition of the State of Israel, which was the first and for a time her only international acknowledgment. The very idea of a nation of Jews existing in modern times was hard to imagine then. It was almost as though a scene out of the Bible were being re-enacted, but this time with real people smoking cigarettes. Imagine! Jewish bus drivers, Jewish cops, Jewish street sweepers, Jewish judges and the criminals they judged, Jewish prostitutes and movie stars, Jewish plumbers and carpenters and bankers, a Jewish president and parliament and a Jewish secretary of state. All this was something so new on the earth that it never dawned on me or, I think, on most people, that the new Israel, as a state governed by human beings, would behave more or less the same as any state had acted down through history–defending its existence by all means thought necessary and even expanding its borders when possible. In 1948, from the prospect of New York at any rate, the very idea of a Jewish state was defensive, since it was under almost perpetual attack. It existed at all as a refuge for a people that had barely escaped a total genocidal wipeout in Europe only a few years earlier. And so it was, I think, that the predominant sense of things at that Waldorf celebration was that, having passed out of the control and domination of others, the time had come for Jews to act normal.

Naturally, it never occurred to most people, certainly not to me, what normal really meant. In that ebullient Waldorf moment and afterward one heard little or nothing of the dark side of the history of new states, especially their sharp collisions with other peoples in the same or contiguous areas. For some years, especially in the United States, a certain idyllic Israel existed in the public imagination, and for some it probably still does. The Israel of the kibbutz, of the rescued land, of the pioneers and the pioneering cooperative spirit reminiscent of summer camp. There was inevitably a lot of psychological denial in this picture, just as there always is in the nationalist picture of any nation. I was not a Zionist, but I certainly participated, however unwittingly, in this kind of denial–although it did seem rather odd to hear Golda Meir responding to a question about the Palestinians by saying, “We are the Palestinians.” But this seemed about as harmless as the American President’s habit of resolving the harsh inequalities in American society by pridefully declaring, “We are all Americans.”

The Jewish obsession with justice goes back to the beginnings, of course. Job, after all, is not complaining merely that he has lost everything; he is not some bourgeois caught in an economic depression. His bewilderment derives from a horrendous vision of a world without justice, which means a world collapsed into chaos and brute force. And if he is called upon to have faith in god anyway, it is a god who in some mysterious manner does indeed still stand for justice, however inscrutable his design may be.

Israel in that Waldorf moment meant the triumph of sheer survival, the determination to live a dignified life. Israel also signaled the survival of a temperament, the continuing Jewish entanglement in the mesh of life, and somehow the Jewish engagement with eternal things. In short, Israel was far more than a political entity, let alone a geographic place, probably at least in part because it was so far away and the distance turned it into something approaching an artistic expression, a sort of bright vision of productive peace.

However it may have evolved, it appears at this distance that from the assassination of Rabin onward the settlement policy and the present leadership’s apparent abandonment of Enlightenment values before the relentless suicide bombings and the inevitable fear they have engendered have backed the country away from its visionary character and with it the Waldorf prospect of a peaceful, progressive, normal society like any other. What is left, so it appears, is its very opposite–an armed and rather desperate society at odds with its neighbors but also the world. That it remains the only democracy in the area is easily glossed over as though this were not of great consequence, such is the hostility surrounding the country in many minds. Maybe the hypocrisy in this conflict is no greater than usual, but it is certainly no less.

Is it because the country is the country of the Jews that this hostility has found so little resistance? I think so, but not for the obvious reason of congenital anti-Semitism, at least not entirely. It is also because the Jews have from their beginnings declared that god above all means justice before any other value. We are the people of the book and the book, after all, is the Bible, and the Bible means justice or it means nothing, at least nothing that matters. The shield of Israel, it seems to me, was that here in this place a kind of righting of the scales of justice had at last taken place, this people had in fact survived the mechanized genocide and had come back to once again work the land and raise up new cities. This Israel, in my experience, soon earned the admiration and respect of people, many of whom, to my knowledge, had had no special regard for Jews or were even hostile to them. This refusal of death and embrace of life resonated out into the world, and it seems to me now as it did half a century ago, this was Israel’s shield, quite as much as her valor in arms.

It may be futile to argue with a repeated story that every modern nation has gone through in its development–a democratic system for its own citizens, and something quite different for others outside its physical and psychological boundaries. Israel’s misfortune, as the current leadership and its partisans no doubt see matters, is the lateness of its arrival on the scene, long after a colonial mentality was thought not only normal but praiseworthy. Whole long blocks of very solid buildings still stand in London, Vienna, Paris, which were once filled with offices whose function was the administering of the lives and fates of peoples thousands of miles away in climates that no European would ever see. Post-Rabin Israel, no doubt as an act of defense, is nevertheless asking not only that the clock stop but that it turn backward to allow Israel’s expansion into lands beyond its borders.

Finally, I believe it would be a mistake to attribute so much of the world’s resentment of this policy to anti-Semitism. The United States, incredibly to most Americans, is experiencing a very similar aversion in the world, and very possibly for similar reasons. The American Administration has turned an extraordinarily hard and uncompromising face to the world, and along with a certain arrogant self-righteousness in its tone has alienated a lot of people who only a short while back were genuinely commiserating with us over the bloody attacks of 9/11. It was not long ago, after all, that the French–yes, the French–were declaring in some banner headlines, “We Are All Americans Now.”

It may have struck some of you that what I have been talking about is basically public relations–the impact of Israel as an image before the world–rather than the hard questions of security and new arrangements with the Palestinians. But my inspiration in this goes a long way further back into history than the public relations industry. Thomas Jefferson, writing the American Declaration of Independence, inserted into it a phrase no doubt to help justify the new democracy’s decision to break away from the British Empire. Thus he hoped to appeal to the forbearance of a hostile world of monarchy and imperialism. The Declaration, he said, was written “In decent respect for the opinions of mankind….” In short, the weak, newly born society needed the world’s friendship or at least its toleration even as it was prepared to go to war for its independence.

There too something unique was being ushered into a largely hostile world; the British were the enemy and French support was purely strategic, the monarchy having no use for this new democracy whose influence it suspected might endanger the regime. But Jefferson and his friends understood and accepted that no nation can for long endure, whatever the urgency of its defenses, with less than respect, let alone contempt, for the rest of mankind in its longings for justice and equity for all. But my own belief is somewhat less than pessimistic. A nation’s history does count a great deal in determining its future. Jewish history is extremely long and is filled, as I have said, with an obsession with justice. It is a terrible irony that, in a sense, the State of Israel today is being attacked by those wielding visionary ideals that were born in the Jewish heart. It is time for Jewish leadership to reclaim its own history and to restore its immortal light to the world.

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