Is Zionism a failed ideology? This question will strike many people as absurd on its face. Israel, after all, is a nation with an advanced standard of living, a high-tech economy and one of the most formidable militaries on earth. In a little over half a century, it has taken in millions of people from far-flung corners of the globe, taught them a new language and incorporated them into a political culture that is nothing if not vigorous. If this is failure, there are a lot of countries wishing for their share of it.
But consider the things Israel has not accomplished. In his 1896 manifesto The Jewish State, Zionism’s founding document, the Austrian journalist Theodor Herzl predicted that such a country would be at peace with its neighbors and would require no more than a small professional army. In fact, Zionist settlers have clashed repeatedly with the Arabs from nearly the moment they began arriving in significant numbers in the early twentieth century, a Hundred Years’ War that grows more dangerous by the month. Herzl envisioned a normal state no different from France or Germany. Yet with its peculiar ethno-religious policies elevating one group above all others, Israel is increasingly abnormal at a time when almost all other political democracies have been putting such distinctions behind them. Herzl envisioned a state that would draw Jews like a magnet, yet more than half a century after Israel’s birth, most Jews continue to vote with their feet to remain in the Diaspora, and an increasing number of Israelis prefer to live abroad. Israel was supposed to serve as a safe haven, yet it is in fact one of the more dangerous places on earth in which to be Jewish.
Israel was also supposed to have been the final answer to “the Jewish question,” an issue that is as old as–and has virtually defined–modernity itself. Herzl emphasized again and again that hatred and competition would melt away once Jews removed themselves from their increasingly reluctant host countries, returned to their ancient homeland and took their place as separate but equal members of the international community. Yet anti-Semitism is mushrooming in the Muslim world and, based on anecdotal evidence, may be undergoing a resurgence in Europe and the United States. Is this because the world is intrinsically anti-Semitic and is therefore always looking for an excuse to bash the Jews? Or does Zionism bear responsibility in any way for the upsurge?
There is no doubt that the approach to such questions, especially in the United States, has reached a turning point. The collapse of Bush’s farcical “road map,” the Berlin wall that Israel is building deep inside Palestinian territory, the threats to exile or even assassinate Yasir Arafat and now the extension of hostilities to Syria–the old consensus is crumbling under the impact of such developments, and it is now possible to say things that would have been verboten only a few months ago. In Israel, Avraham Burg, former speaker of the Knesset, recently warned that if Israel wishes to preserve what little democracy it still has, it must either withdraw to its pre-1967 boundaries or grant full citizenship to the approximately 3.5 million Palestinians in the occupied territories, a step that would spell the virtual end of the Jewish state. Meron Benvenisti, the former deputy mayor of Jerusalem, has pronounced the two-state approach “inapplicable” to the problem of Israel and Palestine and is calling for a single binational state based on Arab-Jewish equality. In the United States the historian Tony Judt, declaring the Middle East peace process a dead letter in The New York Review of Books, says that the very idea of a Jewish state has become an “anachronism” in a multicultural world in which citizenship is increasingly separated from race, religion and ethnicity. “In today’s ‘clash of cultures’ between open, pluralist democracies and belligerently intolerant, faith-driven ethno-states,” he adds, “Israel actually risks falling into the wrong camp.”
A longstanding taboo has finally begun to fall. The more the United States sinks into a morass in Iraq, the more the Bush Administration leaps to do Sharon’s bidding, the more fierce and wide-ranging the debate is likely to grow. How it will end, nobody knows. But where before it was all but impossible to have an honest conversation about Zionism, it is now becoming impossible not to. Of course, this taboo is largely an American invention. In other countries, the field has been much more open–including, irony of ironies, in Israel. As Tom Segev describes it in his lively ideological survey, Elvis in Jerusalem, Zionism has been under ideological and political assault in the Jewish state virtually from the beginning. Nearly everyone has had reason to find fault with it. In its early days Orthodox rabbis complained (in so many words) that it was an attempt to do an end run around God by returning from exile without divine permission. In the 1950s, a young journalist named Uri Avnery argued that Zionism was indelibly stained by the Diaspora it supposedly opposed and called for a more authentic Hebrew nationalism instead. Sephardic Jews from North Africa and the Middle East saw Zionism as a tool of the European-Ashkenazic elite, while post-Zionists like the historian Ilan Pappé have argued that it is fundamentally undemocratic and will have to fall by the wayside if Israel is ever to evolve into a normal pluralist state.
Even archeologists have gotten in their swipes. In the beginning, Israeli archeologists assumed that the Bible’s tales of the patriarchs, the Exodus, Joshua’s conquest of the Holy Land, etc., were broadly accurate and that the more they dug, the more the essential outlines would be confirmed. But, in fact, the opposite occurred. Not only was evidence lacking but archeologists uncovered a mass of countervailing data as well. As a University of Tel Aviv archeologist named Ze’ev Herzog wrote in the newspaper Ha’aretz in 1999, “The Israelites were never in Egypt, did not wander in the desert, did not conquer the land in a military campaign, and did not pass it on to the twelve tribes of Israel. Furthermore, the united monarchy of David and Solomon, which is described by the Bible as a regional power, was at most a small tribal kingdom.” The Israelites were merely one indigenous culture among many. The idea that they had some sort of pre-eminent claim to the Holy Land has no basis in historical fact. Zionist archeology thus turns out to subvert Zionism.
Elvis in Jerusalem is valuable for a number of reasons, among them the insight it provides into the nature of Israeli politics. Israel is a heavily militarized ethno-state, to use Judt’s term, but it is also a democracy, one that compares quite favorably in many respects with a played-out eighteenth-century republic like the United States. Israeli politics are serious, ideological and bitterly contentious. Where Jewish leaders in America have done their best to suppress debate, Israelis have let it rip. Ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians, Jewish religious intolerance, Zionism’s various efforts over the years to make common cause with anti-Semitism–as Segev makes clear, topics that have been off-limits for years in the United States are fair game in the Jewish state. Americans, especially American Jews, should take a lesson.
Not that all of them will. Allan Levine’s new book, Scattered Among the Peoples: The Jewish Diaspora in Twelve Portraits, is a relic of a less critical age. The story it tells is often a tragic one, yet the tone is bland and upbeat. Despite all that history has thrown at them, something “mysterious, indefinable, and even baffling” has permitted the Jews to pull through. They have persevered, Levine writes, “in the face of overwhelming odds and [have shown] an uncanny ability to do what is necessary so that each successive generation will endure.” Even though the creation of the State of Israel in 1948 has led to a host of new difficulties, Levine finds something positive here as well. “Who would expect anything else,” he asks, “of this intellectual, creative, industrious, and stubborn people?”
Self-regard like this is almost impressive. Yet Levine is fundamentally mistaken about the Jewish survival instinct: Far from uncanny, it has been as faulty as anyone else’s. The persecutions of the Middle Ages were not their fault, obviously, yet the fact remains that Jewish fortunes in Central and Eastern Europe had plunged so low by the eighteenth century that recovery seemed all but impossible. With their ancient books and sterile legal debates, they seemed to be a lost people, which is why so many German Jews were desperate to convert. During World War II, Orthodox Jews allowed themselves to be lulled into complacency by the notion that “in every generation there arise those who would destroy us,” as the Passover Haggadah states. This implied that Hitler was merely another in a long line of anti-Semites, one the Jews would outlast just as they had outlasted all the others. They were wrong on both counts.
Levine’s belief in the virtues of staying put causes him to celebrate wealthy court Jews who held fast to tradition while faintly downplaying those intellectually rebellious “non-Jewish Jews,” in Isaac Deutscher’s famous phrase, who were the real glory of European Judaism. He is sympathetic to the rich Portuguese Jews in Amsterdam who drove the Jewish freethinker Uriel da Costa to suicide in 1640 and “had no choice” but to excommunicate Spinoza in 1656. He is admiring of the Rothschilds even though they used their wealth to finance the anti-Napoleonic alliance at a time when French troops were freeing Jews across the Continent. Because he sees it as representing Jewish continuity, Levine’s attitude toward Israel is equally rosy. Israel has made members of the Diaspora “proud to be Jews again,” he says, without offering evidence that Diaspora Jews ever felt to the contrary. Although recent events have caused some Jews to question their knee-jerk support for Israel, he is confident that “the legacy of the Nazis” will keep them within the fold.
This is history as the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations would have it: complacent, triumphal and devoted to unity as the highest virtue. Arthur Hertzberg’s The Fate of Zionism is angrier, more dissatisfied and more argumentative–and therefore, in a sense, more Jewish as well. It takes aim simultaneously at the Zionist right and the anti-Zionist left, although in a way, unfortunately, that mainly succeeds in demonstrating the incoherence of those, like Hertzberg himself, who are in between.
At its most elementary, The Fate of Zionism is about history as it might have been. Hertzberg, a rabbi, a former president of the American Jewish Congress and the author of such well-known studies as The French Enlightenment and the Jews, opens with a description of a Labor Party conference in Israel shortly after the 1967 war. The mood at the conference was euphoric. Israel had just achieved one of the most stunning victories in military history, and, as a consequence, Jews “could now fly to Mount Sinai or drive the short route from Jerusalem to the Sea of Galilee through what had been, just a few days before, the West Bank of Jordan.” For the first time in twenty years, they could pray at the Wailing Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem, the sole piece of the Second Temple the Romans had left standing in AD 70.
But then, Hertzberg writes, the guest of honor, David Ben-Gurion, arrived and proceeded to throw cold water over the festivities. By this point in his early 80s and living in retirement on a desert kibbutz, Ben-Gurion demanded that the speaker (who happened to be Hertzberg) cut short his remarks so he could take the podium. When he did, Ben-Gurion sternly told the party faithful that Israel was overextended, that it had bitten off more than it could chew and that it should return nearly all the conquered territory immediately. “The recent conquests were evoking dreams of grandeur that might be realized if the messiah were indeed about to appear,” Hertzberg writes, summing up the ex-PM’s remarks. But given that the messiah had not bothered to show up during the Holocaust, “Ben-Gurion did not believe that he might appear now to safeguard Jewish possession of the Sinai Peninsula, or even of the West Bank, the biblical Judea and Samaria.” Israel, as a consequence, should withdraw to more defensible boundaries while it still had time.
Hertzberg wishes Israel had heeded Ben-Gurion’s warning at the time. Thirty-six years later, not only does Israel find itself saddled with a captive population it cannot control, he writes, but the conquests have fundamentally altered the ideological balance. The problem has to do with the land itself. The Sinai and Gaza were relatively unimportant since, according to the Bible, they were never really part of the Holy Land. But Judea and Samaria, even more than Israel itself, are the real Israelite heartland. They are sites of the northern kingdom of Israel, destroyed by the Assyrians in 722 BC, and the southern kingdom of Judah, destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BC. Thus, the result of the conquest was not to provide the Jewish state with another bargaining chip in its dealings with its neighbors but, rather, to fuel the most far-out theocratic fantasies. Small but vehement sects like Ateret Kohanim began talking of blowing up the Muslim Dome of the Rock as a first step to restoring the ancient Temple of Solomon so that Jewish priests could once again sacrifice bulls and rams to the glory of Yahweh. The fact that an “unimaginably bitter war of religion” would ensue, Hertzberg adds, did not bother “the new messianists” a bit: “They feel free to engage in the most dangerous provocations because they are certain that they will be forcing God to come down to earth and give them victory.”
This is crazy, all right, which is why Hertzberg believes that withdrawing to pre-1967 boundaries is the first thing Israel must do to restore a degree of sanity. What’s more, he believes it is the only way to cope with what is known as “the demographic dilemma,” the fact that Jews now account for only 54 percent of the 10 million people under Israeli control between the Jordan and the Mediterranean, a razor-thin majority that is likely to disappear altogether during the next few years as the Palestinian birthrate, both in Israel itself and in the occupied territories, continues to outpace that of Israeli Jews. Virtually every major player in the Middle East has an idea of how to respond. Islamic fundamentalists would solve it by driving the Jews into the sea, Jewish ultranationalists would drive the Palestinians across the Jordan, left-wing secularists would like both groups to settle down together in a single nonreligious, nonethnic democracy, while liberal nationalists believe that the realistic way out is for two separate states to take their place side by side, with appropriate guarantees that neither will launch a sneak attack when the other is not looking.
But Hertzberg believes in none of the above. He believes that what Jewish ultranationalists are proposing is unthinkable, but also thinks that the two-staters are naïve for failing to recognize the depths of Palestinian hostility. He believes that advocates of binationalism like Noam Chomsky and the late Edward Said are even worse. While their ideas play well in intellectual circles in New York, London and Oxford, he argues, they are “wildly untrue to the real situation on the ground” and, in any event, are just an “elegant way” of accomplishing the old Palestinian goal of eradicating the Jewish homeland. “Make no mistake,” Hertzberg warns, “even the doves and the liberals in the Jewish community, even Jews like me who have been opposed to the creeping annexation of the West Bank since it began in the late 1960s, will never make common cause with those who want to put an end to the Zionist state.”
That settles that. The plan that Hertzberg puts forward might be described as “one state plus zero.” Specifically, he favors a little Israel with a sizable Jewish majority, but no state for the Palestinians until they learn to behave themselves, a process, he blithely informs us, that could take a “generation or two.” In the meantime, he proposes that Israel continue to patrol the occupied territories to insure that the worst weapons of mass destruction remain out of Palestinian hands, while the United States concentrates on intercepting the funds, from places like Iran and Saudi Arabia, that have enabled Palestinians to buy guns and explosives in the first place. America could then use the proceeds to provide schools for “young [Palestinians] that will educate them for useful lives but keep out of the curriculum the glorification of suicide bombers.”
For some reason, he believes that such a program will result not in more bombings but fewer. It hardly bears pointing out that Palestinians will not put up with another twenty-five to fifty years of slavery and that the Israeli right will not put up with the acts of terrorism that will inevitably ensue. Even liberal Zionists are at a loss over what to do, which is why resistance to Sharon has essentially collapsed.
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.
Real Jews is chock-full of stories that in America, for all its sins, would be simply inconceivable. There is Eduardo Campos, a 62-year-old Uruguayan immigrant married to an Israeli, whom ultra-Orthodox Jews tried to get fired from his job at the Vita food company merely because he is a Jehovah’s Witness. There is the Israeli ad company that yanked a poster for the Disney animated film Tarzan because an ultra-Orthodox watchdog group found the picture of the muscle-bound hero in a loincloth to be obscene. There is the Israeli dairy company that discontinued a line of children’s yogurts because ultra-Orthodox parents might have trouble explaining how the cartoon dinosaurs on the cover squared with a biblical tale of creation that supposedly occurred just 6,000 years ago. There is the health-and-fitness magazine that pulled an ad showing an attractive heterosexual couple arm in arm in workout clothes, because ultra-Orthodox pressure groups said it was improper to show physical contact between men and women.
In a Jewish state eternally bedeviled by the question of who or what is a Jew, power flows to “real Jews” whose identity seems least questionable. Rather than intellectuals for whom contradiction and ambiguity are the staff of life, it flows to Jewish warriors like Sharon and to religious zealots like the ultra-Orthodox, one-dimensional caricatures who have made a point of banishing all doubt. The very structure of a Jewish state gives such elements the inside track. Efron shows how secularists began by making seemingly minor concessions to the ultra-Orthodox, only to see them turn into a flood in the ensuing decades. In 1947, before Israel was even born, Ben-Gurion promised the Orthodox rabbinate that the Jewish Sabbath would be the new nation’s official day of rest; that kitchens in schools, museums and other public buildings would be kosher; that traditional Jewish matrimonial laws would be enforced; and that the ultra-Orthodox would have autonomy in educating their children (with the state footing the bill). In 1948, in the middle of a desperate war for survival, he exempted full-time yeshiva students from military service. According to Uri Avnery, Ben-Gurion felt he could make an exception because Orthodox Judaism was a relic of the Middle Ages and clearly on its way out. Yet when Menachem Begin lifted the lid on military exemptions thirty years later, the numbers promptly swelled. Today, Efron reports, more than 30,000 Torah students, 10 percent of all available military recruits, are exempted per year. There are more full-time Torah students, he adds, than at any point in Jewish history and possibly more than in all of Jewish history combined. Whereas most ultra-Orthodox men in America hold down regular jobs, most do not in Israel, thanks to generous government stipends. They are an economic drag on a society they refuse to defend.
Still, the question remains: Why should secular Israelis care? Yogurt containers, movie posters, the occasional uppity woman fired from her job–it’s very easy to overlook such things amid the daily grind. If an extensive government welfare apparatus is causing the ranks of yeshiva bukhers to explode, why curse the black-hatted brigades, as so many secular Israelis, according to Efron, do? Why not simply attack such perverse incentives through normal legislative means and move on? The answer is that it’s not so easy. The democratic and religious sides of Israeli society are at daggerheads and neither can afford to back down. Marc Ellis’s “civil war of conscience” is playing itself out on a daily basis over issues both great and small. From a secular point of view, Israeli democracy does not make religious intrusions less of an affront. It makes them more so, which is why passions are at full boil.
Under normal conditions, Israeli secularists would forge alliances not only with like-minded Palestinians but with others farther afield. But Zionism interferes not only by plunging society into a permanent state of war but by imposing a kind of conceptual prison. If not forbidden, contacts across religious lines grow very complicated in a “faith-driven ethno-state.” “You don’t understand,” educated, secular Israelis say when European and American friends criticize the latest Israeli outrage. “You don’t know what it’s like to live in a society where a bomb could go off any minute. You don’t know.” But that is exactly the point. The purpose of Zionism, and of nationalism in general, is to impose a barrier between one group and another, to limit contact and impede understanding. By emphasizing one aspect of human experience, the ethno-religious in the case of Israel, at the expense of all others, it hobbles communication with those outside the fold. The personality is truncated, and political options are reduced. Instead of freely deciding what is to be done, people are forced to follow the logic imposed on them by the state. Hounded by rabbis, terrorized by suicide bombers, hemmed in by nationalism, Israelis see no alternative but to throw in their lot with a strongman like Sharon. The logic is irresistible but suicidal–unless someone can figure a way out of the ideological cage.