At the beginning of Philip Roth’s raucous 1993 novel Operation Shylock, the narrator–a novelist named Philip Roth–receives a call from a friend in Israel, the novelist and Holocaust survivor Aharon Appelfeld. A man who calls himself “Philip Roth” and describes himself as “an ardent Diasporist,” Appelfeld tells him, has just met with Lech Walesa in Gdansk, urging Ashkenazi Jews in Israel to return to their European countries of origin, including (a Jewish joke if ever there was one) Poland. Translating from an article in an Israeli newspaper, Appelfeld quotes “Roth” as saying:
The so-called normalization of the Jew was a tragic illusion from the start. But when this normalization is expected to flourish in the very heart of Islam, it is worse than tragic-it is suicidal. Horrendous as Hitler was for us, he lasted a mere twelve years, and what is twelve years to the Jew? The time has come to return to Europe that was for centuries, and remains to this day, the most authentic Jewish homeland there has ever been, the birthplace of rabbinic Judaism, Hasidic Judaism, Jewish secularism, socialism-and on and on. The birthplace, of course, of Zionism too. But Zionism has outlived its historical function. The time has come to renew in the European diaspora our preeminent spiritual and cultural role.
“What swell ideas I have,” Roth the novelist says to Appelfeld. “Going to make lots of new pals for me in the Zionist homeland.” ” ‘Anyone who reads this in the Zionist homeland,’ said Aharon, ‘will only think, “Another crazy Jew.”‘”
The Roth impersonator’s radical proposal is, of course, played for laughs. Israel is a fact of life, and though many of its Jewish citizens have immigrated to Europe and America, fleeing Palestinian suicide bombers and Israel’s orthodox religious establishment, most Israeli Jews of European origin are in no hurry to return to their former homes, least of all Poland, where a half-century ago they were nearly exterminated by the Nazis. (Just imagine the slogan: Next year in Warsaw!) Roth’s imposter is obviously a freak, a demagogue, peddling another crazy solution to the Jewish question to anyone who cares to listen. But, as Roth knows, “crazy” solutions to that insoluble question have been implemented before, most notably Theodor Herzl’s project to resettle millions of Jews in a homeland most of them had never seen in two thousand years; a homeland that, moreover, was now home to another people. “The construction of a counterlife was at its very core,” Roth’s alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman, once observed of Herzl’s Zionism. “It was a species of fabulous utopianism, a manifesto for human transformation as extreme–and, at the outset, as implausible–as any ever conceived.”
Although Roth’s impersonator in Operation Shylock is depicted as a crackpot, Roth–who mischievously subtitles the novel “a confession”–cannot quite shake the shadow of his doppelganger. Soon after landing in Israel, in pursuit of the man who has stolen his identity, he begins impersonating his impersonator, with manic brilliance: “Better to be marginal neurotics, anxious assimilationists, and everything else the Zionists despise, better to lose the state than to lose your moral being by unleashing a nuclear war. Better Irving Berlin than Ariel Sharon. Better Irving Berlin than the Wailing Wall. Better Irving Berlin than Holy Jerusalem! What does owning Jerusalem, of all places, have to do with being Jews in 1988?”
This is, in fact, a question on the minds of many secular, progressive Jews in 2004, when the security of Jews in Israel and the diaspora-not to mention the human rights and national aspirations of the Palestinian people under Israeli occupation-have fallen hostage to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s vision of a Greater Israel, a super-armed bunker state, governed by right-wing ideologues and ruling an archipelago of Palestinian ghettos surrounded by a barbed wire “security” fence.
Contrary to what the Jewish establishment would have us believe, to raise this question is not to call for driving the Jews of Israel into the sea, or, for that matter, back to Europe. The question today is not whether Jews will remain in Israel-Palestine, but where (within the 1967 borders or in a Greater Israel?) and on what terms (in an increasingly theocratic state in which Palestinians remain second-class citizens, or in a democracy based on Arab-Jewish equality?) they will do so. But the impersonator’s critique of Zionism-of its romantic attachment to the soil, its glorification of military might and undisguised contempt for the gentle values of the diaspora, its oppressive treatment of Palestine’s indigenous inhabitants-contains flashes of undeniable insight. The Zionist solution to the Jewish question has created a whole new set of problems, which it has so far proved incapable of solving. As with the fool in King Lear, there is wisdom in his lunacy.
Like Roth’s impersonator, Jewish critics of Zionism and Israel have been treated by the Jewish establishment as, at best, innocent oddballs, naïve about the ever-present danger of another Holocaust, and too soft to inflict the brutalities necessary for the preservation of “Jewish democracy” in the Arab world-a “tough neighborhood,” as Thomas Friedman constantly reminds us. At worst, such critics have stood accused of being irresponsible, crazy and “self-hating,” if not downright disloyal.
I prefer to see them, however, as heirs to a prophetic Jewish tradition of moral criticism, and to the secular, cosmopolitan ideals of the Enlightenment, grounded in a commitment to human equality and solidarity. By opposing the injustices committed in their name, they have shown that there is another way of honoring the memory of Jews who perished in the pogroms and concentration camps of Europe, and that a concern for the fate of the Jews need not come at the expense of the Palestinian people. This book, a collection of writings by Jewish dissidents, pays tribute to a tradition of which few Jews–and even fewer non-Jews–are aware. This is no accident. The Jewish establishment and Israel lobby have done their best to suppress the dissident tradition, and, where they have failed, to vilify it. In these efforts they have enjoyed lamentable success. Today most non-Jews take it for granted that to be Jewish is to support Israel unconditionally. In the Arab world, which has experienced an alarming increase in anti-semitism since the outbreak of the second intifada–perhaps Sharon’s most impressive achievement–Jewish critics of Israel are a curiosity. “Are there other Jews like you?” a wide-eyed Palestinian woman once asked me in Lebanon, as if I were an exotic bird. The confusion of Judaism and Israel–a confusion that has placed Jews abroad at increasing risk amid Sharon’s ruthless campaign of repression in the Occupied Territories-has been consciously sown by the Israeli government, which seeks to equate all criticism of Israel with anti-semitism.
As I have indicated, Jews themselves have not been immune to such criticisms-a cause of understandable anguish on their part. The title of this book, Prophets Outcast, borrowed from the historian Isaac Deutscher, himself a great Jewish dissident, is meant to underscore the terrible price these remarkably prescient men and women have paid for speaking out. Far greater, however, is the price the world has paid for ignoring their warnings. Over the last century, these writers have predicted with uncanny precision the steady deterioration of Arab-Jewish relations under Zionism, the seemingly inexorable drift toward territorial expansionism and theocratic fanaticism in Israel, and the consequent erosion of Jewish ethics. Their dream of Arab-Jewish fraternity, either in the form of two sovereign states or in a single binational state, lost out, tragically, to Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s vision of an “Iron Wall” between Israel and the Arab world. Jabotinsky’s vision has recently found physical expression in Sharon’s “security” fence, an apartheid wall that, by cruelly disrupting the lives of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, will only breed more insecurity for the Jews it purportedly protects.
But prophetic words, valuable though they are, are not the only legacy of these Jewish dissidents. The rise of a radical protest movement in Israel, where young men and women are refusing to serve in the Occupied Territories, is a homage to their influence. The revival of binationalism among progressive Jews and Palestinians is another, although, for now, a binational state in Israel-Palestine remains a distant dream. It is my hope that Prophets Outcast will contribute, in some small way, to rescuing this noble Jewish tradition from what Edward Thompson, the great historian of the English working-class, called “the condescension of posterity.”
I began editing this book a year ago, in a state of despair over the situation in Israel-Palestine. There was open talk of “transfer,” Israeli code for expelling Palestinians from their land, in Sharon’s cabinet, one of whose members, Housing Minister Effi Eitam–a racist, right-wing zealot who heads the National Religious Party–was describing Palestinians as a “cancer.” The Bush administration, backed by the Israel lobby and Christian evangelicals, was giving its full support to Sharon, with a few minor quibbles. The Jewish establishment, meanwhile, was practicing a form of McCarthyism against critics of Israeli policy. Roger Cukierman, the leader of the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions in France and a prominent Likudnik, remarked that when Sharon visited France shortly after September 11, “I told him it was essential to get a Minister of Propaganda, like Goebbels.” To express sympathy for “the other side” in this climate was to court accusations of “being with the terrorists,” even if you were Deputy of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, who was booed at a pro-Israel rally for expressing a few kind words about the suffering of ordinary Palestinians.
You might wonder why I have chosen to speak out on the subject of Israel. I am an American Jew, not an Israeli. Some readers are probably grumbling, Who are you to judge Israel? You don’t live there. Point taken. But I find it more than a bit curious that Israel’s supporters welcome the solidarity of American Jews who don’t live there either. And so the question can be thrown back at them: Who are you to praise Israel? The fact is, as a Jew and as an American, you are involved in the debate over Israel-Palestine whether you like it or not. The American Jewish establishment and the Israel lobby both claim to speak in your name. Israel, for its part, defines itself not just as a Jewish state, but as the state of the Jewish people, whose demographic majority must be maintained by whatever means necessary, including transfer, which nearly half of Israeli Jews have said they would support. And each year, over $3 billion in American tax dollars flow to Israel, which provides such useful services to our government as training in counter-insurgency and “interrogation” methods to the troops in Iraq. If you don’t want to be a party to all this-if you believe that it is rotten for everyone involved, Israelis, Palestinians and Americans-you have no choice but to speak out.
Like most American Jews, I had a Zionist education. In the Sunday school I attended at a Reform Synagogue in Massachusetts, we read about the “birth” of Israel, but not about the expulsion of Palestinians; Zion, after all, had been a barren country, waiting to be rediscovered by hardy Jewish pioneers, “a land without people for a people without land.” We were told of the glories of Israeli democracy–but not of its peculiar limitations: for instance, the ways in which it denies equal rights to Palestinian citizens of Israel (the “Israeli Arabs”), in effect turning them into internal exiles. We were told of Arab terrorism, which was real enough, but never of what provoked it. We were told that not only the Arabs but the goyim could never be trusted, and that the only conceivable reason someone would have for faulting Israel was animosity toward the Jews. We were taught to think of ourselves as eternal victims, despite the obvious affluence of our suburban surroundings.
I never quite came to think of myself in these terms, being the son of liberal, assimilated Jews who’d marched in civil rights protests, opposed the Vietnam War, and detested ethnic tribalism, no matter who practiced it. My own brand of Zionism, insofar as I had one, was based on the worship not of Herzl and Ben-Gurion, but of Woody Allen, Franz Kafka and Bob Dylan. As a teenage leftist and reader of The Nation, I didn’t think “their country, right or wrong” was much of an improvement over “my country, right or wrong.” In any event, my causes were putting a stop to American intervention in Central America and ending Reagan’s “constructive engagement” with South Africa. The mystical romance of “the land of Israel” and singing Ha Tikva never did much for me. Still, the indoctrination had its effects. When the first intifada erupted in December 1987, my first impulse, as a nice Jewish boy, was to defend Israel. The Arabs, after all, were “terrorists,” I mindlessly told my high school history teacher, a left-wing Vietnam veteran who’d become my mentor. Yet I felt ill at ease in my views–or rather, in my half-digested prejudices. The televised images of Israeli soldiers shooting Palestinian children for throwing stones and harassing old women at checkpoints reminded me of pictures I’d seen of the Soweto uprising. And what did I know of “the Arabs”? The only real Arab I knew was my Lebanese friend Jackie, whom our classmates taunted as a “Puerto Rican Jew”–a Semite, like me. My history teacher gently admonished me to read up on the subject.
I followed his advice–and discovered, with a mounting sense of outrage, followed soon thereafter by sorrow–that I had been fed a series of nationalist myths. To my delight, however, I discovered that some of the most eloquent critics of Israel were Jews like Isaac Deutscher, Simha Flapan, Avi Shlaim, Noam Chomsky, IF Stone, Pierre Vidal-Naquet, Amira Hass and Gidon Levy. Their work corroborated the findings of Palestinian writers and historians like Edward Said, Rashid and Walid Khalidi and Ibrahim Abu-Lughod, whom I also came to admire. Yet these Jewish critics were not romantic fellow-travelers, cheerleaders of another people’s movement. They wrote as Jewish humanists, with an anguished understanding of how the question of Palestine fit into the narrative of Jewish history. While insisting on the essentially colonial nature of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a struggle between a settler-nationalism and an indigenous one, they also recognized that this was no run-of-the-mill colonial war. They had, in other words, a sense of the tragic. Deutscher, a Polish-Jewish Marxist, captured it best, in a brilliant parable:
A man once jumped from the top floor of a burning house in which many members of his family had already perished. He managed to save his life; but as he was falling he hit a person standing down below and broke that person’s legs and arms. The jumping man had no choice; yet to the man with the broken limbs he was the cause of his misfortune…. A rational relationship between Israelis and Arabs might have been possible if Israel had at least attempted to establish it, if the man who threw himself down from the burning house had tried to make friends with the innocent victim of his jump and to compensate him. This did not happen. Israel never even recognized the Arab grievance. From the outset Zionism worked toward the creation of a purely Jewish state and was glad to rid the country of its Arab inhabitants.
Unlike Israel’s champions, Jews like Deutscher seemed to share my view of the world. They were secular, cosmopolitan, tolerant of diversity and appalled by social injustice. Most were on the left, and many were socialists.
Around the time that I discovered Deutscher’s book The Non-Jewish Jew in my father’s library, my liberal parents were finding their sympathies for Israel sorely tested by the growth of settlements, the repression of the intifada, and by the rise of the radical religious parties in Israel, with their power to define who (and what) is and is not Jewish. A year into the first intifada, they stopped giving money to the local Jewish Federation, concerned that their donations were going to support the creation of more settlements. The federation wouldn’t let them off without a fight. First there were the calls to the home, then there were visits from “representatives.” Finally a man from the federation showed up at my father’s office, accompanied by an Israeli general on an American tour. They proceeded to tell my father he had no right to criticize Israel, no right to ask how his money was being used-and no right to stop giving. My father showed them to the door.
“Who have you been talking to?” they asked him on their way out.
He had been talking to his son.
I can anticipate the protests of some readers. Isn’t Israel a democracy–in fact the region’s only democracy? Indeed it is–for Jews. As the sociologist Baruch Kimmerling notes, Israel’s democracy, for all its vitality, remains a Herrenvolk democracy, based on blood rather than citizenship. Today, democracies are judged not only by the freedoms they extend to their citizens but, more crucially, by the exceptions they make. It is revealing that those who praise Israel as the “only democracy in the Middle East”-a line most American politicians have committed to memory-have no wish to extend full citizenship rights to the Arabs within its 1967 borders (a fifth of Israel’s population and rapidly growing), much less to Palestinians under occupation. In fact, the call for Israel to become a “state of all its citizens,” raised by the Arab Knesset member Azmi Bishara, is considered tantamount to a call for “the destruction of Israel.”
But isn’t Israel a sanctuary for the Jewish people, a guarantee that Jews will always have a place to go if there is another outbreak of virulent Jew hatred? There is no denying that Israel once provided a refuge for Hitler’s victims, a “Jewish hospital in which Jews could begin to recover from the devastation of that horror,” as Roth’s impersonator puts it. Leaving aside the question as to why this sanctuary should come at the expense of the Palestinians, who played no role in the Holocaust, it is by no means clear today that the existence of a Jewish ethno-state in the Middle East makes Jews safer today, or whether it actually exposes them to greater dangers. What is clear is that, as the Israeli peace activist Uri Avnery recently observed, Israel under Sharon has become a “laboratory for the growing of the anti-Semitic virus.”
But haven’t the Palestinians committed vile acts of terror? Do they not share some of the blame for the current impasse? Have they not been terribly misled?
The answer to all these questions is yes. Since their expulsion and dispersion in 1948, the Palestinians have suffered a terrible ordeal and, much like the Jews, they have been in many ways hardened, not ennobled, by the experience. As Frantz Fanon once pointed out, “the native is an oppressed person whose permanent dream is to become the persecutor.” Some Palestinians have found an awful and quite literally self-destructive way of achieving this “dream” in the suicide bomb. The Palestinians have not enjoyed the visionary leadership of a Mandela-but then who has, besides the South Africans? Neither the suicide bomb nor Arafat’s leadership is the principal obstacle to peace, contrary to the claims of the Jewish establishment and of a distressing number of self-described liberals. The main roadblock is the Israeli government’s effort to pursue what Kimmerling calls “politicide,” an organized campaign of land confiscation, harassment and violence whose ultimate goal is to destroy the Palestinian will to achieve self-determination. The infernal logic at work today should be obvious by now: Sharon’s campaign of politicide fosters terror, and terror reinforces Sharon. The primary responsibility for breaking the current cycle lies with Israel, the vastly more powerful party.
What, then, is to be done?
The writers in Prophets Outcast do not speak with one voice. They form a polyphonic ensemble of Zionists, anti-Zionists, and non-Zionists, as well as anarchists, liberals and Marxists. Some espouse a two-state solution, others a binational Arab-Jewish state. What they do share is a commitment to genuine, peaceful coexistence between the Arabs and Jews of Israel-Palestine. As the Syrian poet Adonis, an Arab dissident who is a spiritual cousin of these prophets outcast, once said to me, “Israelis and Palestinians must find a way to live together. Whether it is in two states, one state or a federation, is up to them. But they must find a way to live together.” Prophets Outcast does not propose a political framework for resolving the conflict. This is, in form as well as spirit, a Jewish book–a book of questions rather than answers. Readers in search of a unified critique will have to look elsewhere. The emphasis here is on exemplary, individual acts of moral protest, not on ideological rectitude. As Hannah Arendt observed, “in the darkest of times…illumination may well come less from theories and concepts than from the uncertain, flickering, and often weak light that some men and women, in their lives and works, will kindle under almost all such circumstances and shed over the time span that was given them on earth.” For too long, the Jewish left has been splintered into sectarian camps that have wasted precious energy on quarrels with little echo in the real world. This is no time for petty feuds over doctrinal purity, but for organized resistance to the Occupation, both in solidarity with the Palestinian people and out of concern for Jewish security. The narcissism of small differences is a luxury we can scarcely afford.