This article is part of The Nation’s 150th Anniversary Special Issue. Download a free PDF of the issue, with articles by James Baldwin, Barbara Ehrenreich, Toni Morrison, Howard Zinn and many more, here.
Thirty-three years ago, Victor Navasky and I crafted an unsigned editorial for a special issue of The Nation devoted to “Myths About the Middle East” [December 5, 1981]. Sadly, it remains prescient: “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 in 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 also argued 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.”
Our editorial merely prefaced a collection of astute observations by Boas Evron, Edward Said, Christopher Hitchens, Edward Mortimer, Sadik Al-Azm and Michael Reisman. It was our intent to have each of these public intellectuals demystify what we believed to be the fundamental problem in the Middle East: the question of national identity. Collectively, they explored post-Zionism, the evolving nature of Israeli identity versus Jewish diaspora identity, Palestinian identity, anti-Zionism versus anti-Semitism, and the status of the occupied territories under international law. Nothing essential to the Arab-Israeli conflict was left unexamined—and, unfortunately, everything written all those years ago remains acutely relevant to our current predicaments.
Identity continues to be the problem in both Israel and the Arab world. The myth persists in Israel today that the early Zionists were trying to create a “Jewish state.” They were not. They tried and in fact succeeded in creating a new national identity for those Jews who wished to leave the diaspora. They became Israelis, living in a Hebrew-speaking republic. And yet, today, Israel is both more secular—think of the beaches of Tel Aviv—and more theocratic and Orthodox in its Jerusalem enclaves. The reality is that Israel is a multi-ethnic, multireligious society, and it makes no sense to insist as a precondition for peace that its neighbors recognize it as “the Jewish state.” Such a precondition is merely another obstacle erected by a prime minister who opposes a two-state solution.
As Boas Evron warned thirty-three years ago, “the promise of Israel as a ‘haven for the Jewish people’ has been proved false.” Whereas the Jewish diaspora has flourished in America and elsewhere, the Jewish population of the Hebrew-speaking republic known as Israel lives in a besieged state of mind. Its current prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, warns repeatedly of the risk of “another Holocaust.” And since we live in an era when even plutonium suitcase bombs are technically feasible, and since Israel has never defined its borders or negotiated a genuine peace with its neighbors, the fear of a nuclear event in this dangerous neighborhood is not just another paranoid symptom of an admittedly often demagogic Israeli politician.