The Six-Day-Plus-Forty-Year War
Reflections on the Fortieth Anniversary of the Six-Day War
In the world of 20th century logic, the barber’s paradox is a classic:
The village barber (who is male) would shave everyone who lived or worked in the village, who did not shave himself. Who shaved the barber?
The barber, on the one hand, must shave himself because he worked in the village. On the other hand, he couldn’t do the shaving, because he only shaved those who did not shave themselves.
There is a logical solution to this paradoxical mess. The answer: there is no such barber! Remember this solution: There is no barber.
A Brief History to the Longest Short War
The first shots of the Six-Day War were fired on June 5, 1967. The story of the war begins well before then.
By the late 1950s, Israel began work on its ambitious National Water Carrier project that would bring the fresh water of the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee) down to the arid but fertile soil of the Negev in the South. Arab nations—Syria in particular—were quite upset by this development, and began guerilla operations to halt the project. Their efforts were not especially effective. In 1964, Syria came up with a different tack. They began to divert the headwaters of the Jordan River, which were within Syrian territory.
Israel could not attack the diversion work without it being seen internationally as cross-border aggression. (The Jewish State had been slapped diplomatically by the U.S. following its coordinated invasion of Egypt in 1956, with England and France, in order to keep the Suez Canal open. It could not risk a similar crisis.) It hit upon a clever method, by sending tractors into the ‘no-man’s land’ that had been left unsettled on the border between Israel and Syria following the 1948 War of Independence. Syria shot at the tractors cultivating the disputed land, and then Israel retaliated by hitting at the water diversion equipment.
Within a year, Syria basically abandoned its Jordan River diversion program, but the border skirmishes did not let up. By the middle of 1964, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) had been started by Yasir Arafat, and with Syrian (and Egyptian) financial and logistical assistance. PLO raids on northern border villages and kibbutzim became a regular fact of life in 1965-66.
The PLO was clearly launching its raids from Syrian and Jordanian territory. Israel’s response was both air strikes on PLO bases, and warnings that Syria, in particular, would be held responsible and thus liable to military attack on Damascus itself. Syria, for its part, took the threat seriously, and felt that it was taking the brunt of the confrontation with the Jewish State on behalf of all Arab nations. Egypt received most of the criticism for maintaining the status quo with Israel that had been in place since the Sinai campaign of 1956. A U.N. Expeditionary (peacekeeping) Force (UNEF) had patrolling the border since.
In December 1966, Egypt signed a defense pact with Syria, but the skirmishes—PLO raids and Israeli retaliatory strikes—did not let up. In early 1967, Syria began to claim—backed up by the USSR—that Israel was massing troops along its northern border. Israel categorically denied the charge. (Syria’s claim was indeed false. Was this due to faulty Russian intelligence, or more mischievous intentions?) An air battle in April, in which Syria lost a number of MIG fighters, plus some Israel leadership chest-thumping on Independence Day in May, reinforced Syria’s fears that an invasion was imminent.
Political pressure mounted on Egypt. What was Nasser going to do as a result of the recently-signed defense pact? On May 15, he sent two army divisions into the previously de-militarized Sinai, and the next day, he ordered the U.N. troops to leave. A week later, Egypt announced it was closing the Straits of Tiran, thus closing off Israel’s southern sea route from the port of Eilat. Israel first turned to the U.S. for support, as it had indicated to Israel it would have unfettered shipping access in return for its withdrawal (along with Britain and France) in the 1956 campaign. The U.S., for various reasons, could not help.
On May 30, Egypt signed a defense treaty with Jordan putting King Hussein’s forces under Egyptian command, and began to move troops onto Jordanian territory. For Israel, this was the last straw. In the early morning hours of June 5, the Israeli air force attacked air bases in Egypt, Syria and Jordan.
Four Days Plus Two
The attack absolutely neutralized the Arab air forces. Israel had complete freedom in the skies as it mobilized its ground forces particularly against the Egyptian army massed in the Sinai. Even as it was being routed on the first day of battle, Radio Cairo began broadcasting reports of great Egyptian victories! On the strength of these reports, Jordan began shelling Jerusalem and overran a U.N. camp on the border between East (Arab) and West (Israeli) Jerusalem. Syria, for its part, mounted an attack on a northern kibbutz that was quickly repulsed.
On June 6, with the Egyptian army mostly in retreat, Israel started a three-prong campaign through the West Bank. By the end of the day, Egyptian and Jordanian forces were experiencing a rout. The U.N. Security Council started to debate a cease-fire resolution on that day. When, on June 9, Egypt, Jordan and Syria pressed for a halt to hostilities, a resolution was voted on. Israel already had control of the Sinai Peninsula as far as the Canal, and all Jordanian territory west of the Jordan River.
Syria, following its initial unsuccessful raid on the first day of the war, had essentially stopped fighting. After being spurred to action by the Radio Cairo pronouncements, the government learned from Soviet sources that the reverse was true. Troops remained billeted in camps well north of the border with Israel, but artillery fire continued to rain down from positions on the Golan Heights. With the U.N. cease-fire resolution in place, the Israeli cabinet engaged in an intense debate about what do with Syrian emplacements on the Heights. On June 10, General Moshe Dayan ordered an attack on Syria, and within two days, the Golan Heights had been cleared of its “Maginot Line” set of bunkers and fortifications. The Six-Day War was over.
How Everything Went Wrong
Hindsight is a powerful vision. The Israeli victory over the armed forces of four nations (Iraq had forces stationed in Jordan) in functionally three days of fighting, that led to the reunification of Jerusalem, a five-fold expansion in territory, and a doubling of its population, seems both remarkable and inevitable. Since 1948, Israel had proven to be a superior fighting force in military discipline, technical accomplishment and strategic vision. Although having much larger forces, no individual front-line army could match up with Israel’s. Further, the years between 1949 and 1967, gave ample evidence that the Arab nations were quite incapable of forging the political and military unity necessary to mount a potentially successful attack on the Jewish State.
While there was a considerable amount of rhetoric boasting the Arab intent of driving the Israelis ‘into the sea,’ the evidence regarding Egyptian, Jordanian and Syrian military actions in late 1966 through May ’67, indicates that none of these nations actually wanted to go to war. Egypt, particularly, with the largest army and population, was leery of a full-scale military encounter. Throughout all the low level fighting—guerilla raids and retaliations—that inflamed Israel’s borders with Syria and northern Jordan from 1964-66, Egypt kept its own lengthy boundary, including the Gaza population, quiet. It was prodded into a defense pact, first with Syria, and then with Jordan, by pressures mounted by Arab countries, and by its own self-image as the leader of the Arab world.
Syria and Jordan were beset more by internal pressures of displaced Palestinian populations and domestic sympathizers. Their leadership knew that they could hardly confront Israel directly—Syria’s complete failure to halt or appreciably slow down Israel’s National Water Carrier project in the late 50s, early 60s, was ample proof of that—but neither could they do nothing. The support and encouragement of the PLO was thus mostly a domestic policy rather than some serious effort at driving away the Jews.
No nation, individually or collectively—including the State of Israel—wanted to have a war in 1967. Yet, step by step, as a result of national pride, bravado, poor intelligence and wishful thinking, war came.
Ironies abound. Water precipitated the initial tension, specifically between Israel and Syria, but the causa belli were the actions of Egypt in removing U.N. troops and closing the Straits of Tiran. Nasser, however, never put his armed forces into an offensive posture. Up until June 5, he did not actually want to engage in a hot war. He nonetheless backed Israel into a corner. The status quo that had provided stability—if not real peace—in the Gulf of Eilat for the previous ten years, had been completely upset by unilateral moves on Egypt’s part. Egypt was not going to back down. The U.S., England, France and other interested parties were not going risk military personnel or diplomatic capital in forcing Nasser to do so. Israel was either going to have to accept the loss of Eilat as a port, or push the Egyptian army out of the Sinai.
In the end, Egypt lost the entire Sinai Peninsula, and Jordan, all of its holding west of the river. Syria, who had pulled both Jordan and Egypt into the confrontation, lost the least amount in territory and personnel.
… And Israel
Then there is Israel. The Jewish State clearly did not want war. It did want peace within the status quo of the 1949 Armistice. This meant secure shipping lanes through the Straits of Tiran, and the opportunity to develop internally through such projects as the water pipeline from the Galilee to the Negev. The creation of the PLO in 1964, did indeed present a new problem. Israel’s response could be characterized as compellence (the opposite of deterrence): it would retaliate tit-for-tat when attacked, but would also threaten to harm Syrian and Jordanian national interests, if their governments did not act to restrain military activity.
While Israel was pulled into full force military action by Egypt’s maneuvers, we can wonder just how long the low-level conflict on the northern border could continue without ultimately blowing up into a war. Syria and Jordan, while hardly wanting a direct military confrontation with Israel, could not pressure Palestinian guerillas without suffering serious political consequences. Israel, for its part, could threaten strikes at Damascus for only so long before its own integrity was questioned. Perhaps war within a few years of June, 1967 was inevitable.
The outcome of some other war would have been different, but I am confident (once more, basking in the glow of hindsight) that Israel would have experienced a victory. I can remember the months and weeks leading up to the war, and taking seriously, along with everyone else, the incessant Arab claims about destroying the Jewish State. It was nerve-wracking and not-a-little upsetting. Even when the war was over in a flash, the results seemed to be mostly miraculous, rather than what they obviously were: empty belligerent rhetoric from Arab nations who could not possibly defeat the Israeli armed forces. Nasser was quite right in his desire to avoid a full-scale confrontation. He simply got swept, almost irresistibly, into a disastrous escalation.
The war came, and within five days Israel’s territory increased five-fold, its population virtually doubled. Even amid the shouts of celebration and the powerful experience of being able to touch the Western Wall in the old city of Jerusalem, many Israelis recognized that the war’s outcome was a mixed blessing. On the positive side, disaster had been averted, Jerusalem had been reunited, and the territories gave the Jewish State ‘strategic depth.’ It would be much harder to enemy troops to threaten the population centers of Tel Aviv, Haifa and Jerusalem.
The negative side was both obvious and subtle. The obvious disability that arose from victory were the few million Palestinian Arabs residing in the West Bank and Gaza Strip (the Sinai and Golan had small populations of Syrians, Egyptians, Druse and Bedouin). In a flash, Israel had become an occupying power.
The immediate response among Israel’s leadership was to negotiate a restoration of the territories (with some revisions) back to Egypt, Jordan and Syria, in return for a secure and stable peace. The concept was reinforced in the UN Security Council’s famous Resolution 242. The idea was virtually obvious; its implementation virtually impossible.
Following the war, the Arab nations wanted to have their lands restored, but they wanted to have them brought back in the fashion in which they were lost—by the sword. Negotiations were out of the question; sheer human pride dictated this attitude. The Arab nations, on the other hand, realized that they did not have the wherewithal, either in war technology or political unity, in order to mount a successful counterattack. The result was a paralytic condition: neither negotiations nor war. Israel’s great bargaining chip just sat there, becoming an increasingly heavy burden. If, in June 1967, the scorecard looked like Israel had won and the Arabs had lost, over the next few years, it would become increasingly clear that everyone had lost.
Still in the Wilderness
Forty years resonates as a time span in Jewish thought and tradition. It represents the sojourn in the wilderness, the number of years in which the Israelites were delayed in being able to settle in the Land promised them following their liberation from Egypt. Forty years have now elapsed since the lightning victory of the Six-Day War, and Israel appears to be nowhere near out of the wilderness. It is possible to argue that Middle East is no closer to some peaceful settlement than they were on the eve of June 5, 1967. Let us take inventory. What has changed since that fateful war? What has not?
I believe, on the whole, Israel is closer to being out of the wilderness than it was in June 1967. Although militarily sound and self-sufficient forty years ago, its diplomatic status in the world was mostly uncertain. It was a socialist country that was mostly shunned by the Soviet Union and the socialist world. Its relations with the US and Western nations was not especially firm, and obviously it had no relations at all with any Arab state. Today, not only does Israel have formal diplomatic relations with Egypt, Jordan and Morocco, but most of the world’s nations—including Russia, China and Saudi Arabia—have affirmed their acceptance and support for the Jewish State, at least within the 1967 ‘Green Line’ borders.
After forty years, therefore, the 1967 borders of Israel have become the de facto internationally recognized boundaries of the Jewish State. Moreover—and this is a critical point—many Arabs, both leadership and the general populace, no longer feel the need to win back the territories lost through war! Back in 1967, Israelis could imagine in the euphoria of their stunning victory that peace was at hand. This was fantasy. It is fantasy no longer.
Yet, the way out of the wilderness remains distant and uncertain. Over a forty year period, attitudes change, and sometimes harden. There have been a number of significant and complicating trends that continue to make the establishment of a stable solution daunting.
Politics By Other Means: The Apparent Role of Religion
Both Zionism and Palestinian nationalism are secular movements. Following the Six-Day War, a Shofar was sounded at Jerusalem’s Western Wall, and prayers of praise to God could be heard throughout the land, but the everyday considerations of the Israeli government (which was Labor/Socialist at the time), and most of the population were distant from traditional Jewish practice and thought.
From the outset, Israelis moved into occupied territories. Among the early settlements were the Jewish Quarter of the old city of Jerusalem, a region southeast of Jerusalem called the Etzion Bloc, that had to be abandoned in 1948, and a string of military bases along the Jordan River. Settlers also moved up on to the Golan Heights and into border areas in the Gaza Strip and in the northeast Sinai. All of these settlements reflected historical or strategic concerns. The only settlement that clearly represented a religiously motivated reclaiming of the land was a small group that moved into Hebron.
The first significant change in settlement patterns occurred in 1976, when a religious community, Gush Emunim [Bloc of the Faithful], established a village in the north-central region of the West Bank. Gush members understood themselves as being the new wave of Zionist pioneers, now completing the work of the old wave that came to the land at the beginning of the century. They framed their activity in classic religious Zionist language; that the taking of God’s promised land was a vital step toward the coming of the Messiah.
The Labor government at the time voiced its disapproval of the new settlement, but chose politically to do nothing. A year later, after 29 years of continuous rule, Labor control of the government gave way to a right-wing coalition led by Menachem Begin. Begin was no more religiously observant than his Labor Party predecessors, but he was also less ideologically opposed to traditional Jewish religious thought. Further, as a matter of political philosophy, Begin’s Likud Party did not consider the territories as bargaining chips, but rather as land legitimately won in a war it did not seek to fight in the first place. The attitudes of the new ruling coalition and Gush Emunim were aligned, and settlement in the West Bank and Gaza began to grow. New neighborhoods were built on West Bank territory surrounding Jerusalem.
On the Palestinian side, the PLO strove to maintain a fundamentally secular approach. The coalition of clans and political sects that formed the PLO, and its deliberative federation, the Palestine National Congress (PNC) included Christians as well as Muslims. The proclaimed goal was a secular, democratic State in which no people—Christian or Muslim, Arab or Jew—would have special privileges. Indeed, throughout the Arab Middle East, religion was kept on the margins in favor of cultural-linguistic nationalism. Muslim entities, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, were often severely suppressed.
The first indication of change took place in Lebanon, where a Maronite Catholic minority (but a plurality of all religious sects) was challenged regarding its political dominance. Explicit religious sensitivities—particularly on the part of a combined Sunni and Shi’ite Muslim coalition—fomented civil war in 1976. The major change, however, took place with the Iranian Revolution in 1979. With the fall of the Shah, an assertive (Shi’ite) Muslim Republic was formed, in which religious leadership (ayatollahs and mullahs) would have a privileged position of influence. Political Islam had arrived.
Islamization has now affected the entire Arab world. While only Iran (non-Arab) is explicitly Islamic, every Arab government has had to express Muslim bona fides, and work to make peace with Islamist elements. Among the Palestinians, Islamic Jihad and Hamas have become influential players within the community. Hamas, of course, took a majority of seats in the January 2006 Palestine Authority (PA) elections, although the Presidency has remained in principally secular hands.
The Israel-Palestine conflict has therefore been increasingly determined by opposing forms of religious nationalism: a predominantly Orthodox Jewish settler movement and the Islamist Hamas and jihadi movements. Fired by religious certainty and self-righteousness, they have posited maximalist solutions and made compromise appear to be more difficult.
The Sword and the Dove
Has religion been introduced into the Israel-Palestine confrontation in the years since the Six-Day War, and with it have opportunities for a stable, just and peaceful settlement receded? The answer to this contention is both yes and no. It is evidently clear that religious expression has played a greater role in the Israel-Palestine debate in recent years. One, however, must ask why this is the case? Further, why does the religious impulse seem to be associated with hardening of positions rather than with looking for areas for reconciliation?
There is no evidence that devotion to religious (specifically Jewish and Muslim) life has grown over the past forty years. The percentage of Israelis and Palestinians who consider themselves to be Orthodox Jewish or Islamist has remained a relatively small minority; perhaps 20-25% of the population. These numbers, however, have become more significant, and there are a number of factors for this development.
Although both Judaism and Islam have strong theopolitical traditions, religious observance through much of the twentieth century tended to be mostly personal. The political and sociological pressures of modernity, and particularly, of nationalism, had tended to push religion out of the public square. This circumstance had been especially true for conservative religion which tended to focus on individual devotion and spiritual purity as protection in an irredeemably immoral world.
We are well aware that toward the end of the century, conservative religion began to move outside its personal shell, and began to take its place as an influence in public debates. The twin— and perhaps coincidental—phenomena of the Iranian Revolution and the emergence of the Moral Majority as part of Ronald Reagan’s decisive presidential victory, heralded the change. The public religious message (both in the U.S. and throughout the Middle East) has been that some perceived moral waywardness in the society had to be stemmed. While religious devotion and observance might not have increased, the message could be popular beyond a core base, especially when there has been a perception of economic stagnation or of governmental corruption. Religious leadership carries a sense of purity with respect to an aura of incorruptibility, and a basically populist message that derides the expertise of so-called academic or professional elites. The success of Hamas among Palestinians is a clear example of this combination of anti-corruption and populism.
In Israel, the dynamic has been somewhat different. From the founding of the State through the Six-Day War and its aftermath, the Labor Coalition maintained a powerful grip on the electorate. Labor’s popularity was first assaulted by the trauma of the Yom Kippur War in 1973. Israel’s ultimate victory came at the cost of relatively high losses in personnel and equipment, particularly in the first few days of the Egyptian attack. A combination of ill will brought about by perceived government failures regarding that war, a minor financial scandal and the sheer longevity of Labor’s rule, led to ultimate defeat. In 1977, a coalition made up of nationalists and free market proponents, Likud, won a plurality of the seats in a general election. Under long-time leader Menachem Begin, the right-wing parties created a government that won re-election in 1981.
Likud’s predominance began to fade, particularly after the fallout from Israel’s incursion into Lebanon in the summer of 1982. When elections were called in 1984, the two major parties were virtually equal. A power-sharing arrangement was set, but the divergent attitudes regarding foreign policy and the disposition of the territories inevitably pushed such a coalition apart. In order to create ruling governments, both sides turned to the ‘religious parties,’ particular the ultra-Orthodox United Torah and Shas parties [the latter represents Sephardi interests]. Although there was a pronounced reaction in 2003, to Orthodox influence that pushed the religious parties out of the ruling coalition, their roles as power brokers in the nation’s severe political split has begun to grow again.
Militant vs. Mediating Religion
Is religion an impediment toward creating a stable peace in the Middle East? I do not believe so. The brief against religion includes both the appearance of militant Islam and an association of intense Israeli nationalism with Orthodox Judaism. This is true, but it is also a rather small percentage of the populations on both sides of the line. One does not need religion in order to have ‘religious certainty.’
A much more important discussion regards what religious tradition brings to bear on the conflict. Many observers assume that Jewish dedication to the Land is based on the biblical narrative that describes God’s promise to Israel. This consideration represents a very superficial understanding of Jewish thought. For the most part, the divine promise is highly qualified. Israel’s hold on the Land is dependent not on strength of force or military security, but rather on internal justice. Post-biblical literature after the destruction of the second Temple is even more ambivalent. Thus, the most vociferous opponents to the State of Israel are also among the most fervently Orthodox Jews.
The Muslim attitude is equally ambiguous. There is no Muslim literature that refers to promised or sacred land. Of greater concern is the Muslim principle of the ‘ummah, the community of believers. This concept tends to privilege the hegemony of any place with a significant Muslim population. It is also a point in which religion and politics become intertwined. In domains such as the Indian sub-continent, Muslim and non-Muslim communities (Hindu and Buddhist) have negotiated arrangements that respected each other’s practices and beliefs. In brief, Islam does not demand control or domination of any parcel of land, assuming that land is ruled (by whatever authority) with justice.
Religious expression, particularly appeals to God in houses of worship that the ‘enemy’ be smite down, is nevertheless widespread. It is, for the most part, the appearance of religion given over to a primal sense of militancy, in which, inevitably, both sides are the victims in search of divine justice! Yet, there are also powerful counter-messages of showing compassion even to one’s enemies. Jewish and Muslim Arab groups regularly engage in outreach efforts to the other side as part of a religious imperative, even as they might insist on a maximalist solution.
In the final analysis, religious observance has become the source of profound contradictory attitudes and actions. As a very apt example, Hamas remains unalterably opposed to the continued existence of the Jewish State. At the same time, it has been mostly careful about maintaining a cease-fire with Israel. (Indeed, there has been more violence between Hamas and Fatah in recent months.)
Possibilities and Impasses
The outline of a final peace solution is pretty clear. It is roughly the borders that existed on June 4, 1967. Already the international boundary between Israel and Egypt has been restored, and the Gaza Strip, while not being returned to Egypt, has been removed from Israeli oversight. The Golan Heights continue to be offered as a bargaining chip. When serious negotiations were being carried on in the late 1990s, most Israeli experts noted that, with proper security agreements in place, the Heights no longer represented a serious strategic location for either Syria or Israel. Even Jerusalem, which has been dramatically altered over the past forty years by the creation of new Jewish neighborhoods in what was West Bank territory, remains functionally divided into Arab and Jewish sections. With some careful and creative urban planning, the city could formally be parceled out between Israel and a Palestinian State. Much more serious negotiations are required to re-establish the borders that used to define the West Bank, but the indicators of a workable solution are in place.
We know where ‘A’ is (the current occupation), and roughly where ‘B’ is (a realistic negotiated settlement). The daunting problem remains: getting from ‘A’ to ‘B’. An Israeli scholar, Moshe Habertal, put it this way in a recent lecture: Polls have consistently shown that about 60% of both Israelis and Palestinians would accept a settlement roughly along the lines of 1967 Green Line. About 80% of that 60%, however, does not believe that the other side exists!”
The confrontation between Israel and the Arabs has come full circle to the circumstances leading up to June 1967. I mean by this more than a realization that the original armistice borders of the State of Israel represent a reasonable basis for an enduring settlement. The path to an equitable solution is fraught with such potential impasses that there is at least as much likelihood of further violence as there is for the creation of enduring peace. After all, no one—Israel, Egypt, Syria or Jordan—wanted there to be a full-scale war. They acted cautiously and defensively throughout 1966-early 1967. And yet war occurred.
Since then, there have been three significant military engagements and two violent uprisings: Yom Kippur (1973), Lebanon (1982), the first intifada (1988), the second intifada (2000-02), and Lebanon again (2006). [Only the Yom Kippur War, however, involved a full mobilization of armies.] In between these flashpoints, guerilla raids, terrorist attacks, suicide bombings, rocket strikes and retaliations have continued virtually unabated. This state of affairs has been absolutely miserable for the Palestinians, and none too good for the Israelis.
Giant Steps Backward
First, the Palestinians. During the years of the Oslo process, while the Israeli economy grew at an annual rate in the double-digits, the Palestinian economy shrunk dramatically. This circumstance took place even as institutions such as the European Union poured billions of dollars into the Gaza and West Bank in order to facilitate the creation of an economically viable Palestinian State.
Part of the problem was due to a shift in Israel’s economy. Recognizing that West Bank and Gaza Palestinians were going to be engaged in their own nation, Israelis began to reduce its dependence on Palestinian day labor (predominant in construction and agriculture) in favor of importing workers from Southeast Asia and elsewhere. The territories, however, could not absorb the excess labor. Corruption, weak leadership, the absence of planning, an inflexible social order—what have you—all contributed to making the situation worse. I have always felt that the intifada that erupted in September 2000— ostensibly in reaction to Ariel Sharon’s show of force on the Temple Mount—arose in good measure as a result of the intense frustration felt by average Palestinians to the strides backward that had occurred through the years of negotiating that ultimately ended up with nothing.
Yet, as bad as the Palestinians had it in 2000, it has only become worse. Investments and foreign aid has been reduced, particularly after the Hamas victory in January 2006. A virtual civil war between supporters of Hamas and of Fatah (the old PLO) has been patched up in a very fragile agreement mediated by Saudi Arabia. Nevertheless, Palestinians have a much better chance being killed or injured by another Palestinian than by an Israeli.
Israelis have fared much better than the Palestinians over the past forty years, but it has hardly been all sweetness and light. The administration of the territories has continued to be monumentally difficult, draining both morale and material resources. Although the U.S. has been consistently supportive and generally sympathetic to Israel’s situation, the Jewish State has had to endure regular condemnation from much of the world’s community of nations, at best, and outright isolation, at worst, for its ongoing occupation.
Over thirty years ago, an Orthodox rabbi (whose politics are moderate tending toward conservative) responded to a question about territorial compromise following the Yom Kippur War with the observation that “it is obvious that Israel cannot afford to lose a war; it should also be clear that Israel cannot afford to fight one either.” This has turned out to be a prophetic insight. While it has be demonstrated with every military encounter since the 1948 War of Independence that Israel is the dominant force in the Middle East, each clash since the Six-Day War has been profoundly upsetting emotionally and politically.
No ruling government, regardless of its apparent success in overcoming one attack or another, has been able to survive very long afterward. The Yom Kippur War greatly compromised the Labor government. Menachem Begin retired, and Likud soon lost control after the 1982 incursion into Lebanon. Likud was shaken again by the first intifada, and Ehud Barak’s Labor coalition fell with the second one. Now, Prime Minister Olmert is profoundly unpopular following last summer’s ‘rocket war.’
With each of these instances of violence (the last real “war” was in 1973, when Israel had to engage in a full mobilization of its forces), Israel endured relatively few casualties—particularly when compared to the other side—and short term setbacks to its economy. Yet, the costs in international standing, political stability, and any sense of well-being has been enormous. Over the past forty years—the past sixty years!—Israel’s existential security has not been seriously challenged; its psychic security, however, has taken a beating.
A Way Forward
The Six-Day War and its forty year aftermath is the very definition of paradox and irony. It was the war that no one wanted. It has been loss and humiliation for its losers; pain and isolation for its winner. One is reminded of the end of the classic 1980s film, War Games. The supercomputer is bringing the world closer to nuclear destruction, when it is convinced that the only way one can win that game is not to play at all.
The game, however, is being played. The paradoxes that assign misery to both winners and losers need to be overcome in some other fashion. Remember the barber’s paradox presented at the beginning of this essay? The only way to solve that dilemma was to question the veracity of the original premise (that there is a barber who shaves all those who do not shave themselves). This is no barber.
Israeli military and diplomatic policy has tended to operate on the assumption that there is a Palestinian entity that is capable of eliminating the Jewish State. This is Israel’s barber. It does not exist.
Are there Palestinians who fervently wish for the disappearance of Israel? Obviously there are. With Qassam missiles reigning down in the neighborhood of Sderot; with the ongoing potential of terror attacks, Israeli lives and property continue to be in danger, as they have been since the founding of the State. What is not in danger is the existence of the State itself.
The Israeli government—whichever party or ideology is in power—is obligated to do what it can in order to protect the lives and livelihood of its citizens. As long as there are cross-border attacks, there is going to some type of response. Yet, it is critical to recognize that no Palestinian attack will actually threaten the Jewish State, and further, that the only ones who can definitively bring these attacks to a halt are the Palestinians themselves! While internal politics will always dictate a response to attack, anything more severe than a greatly restrained retaliation is almost certainly counter-productive.
Is peace possible? Of course it is! Although it is probably in a more distant future than anyone wishes, the path to peace has already been drawn. The method to moving down that path is threefold:
Confidence—Israel is simply not operating under any serious external danger. Incidents, whether suicide bombs, Hizb’allah or Hamas missiles—however upsetting—should never be exaggerated into something that resembles a threat to the Jewish State.
Negotiations—For sixty years, Palestinians killed as a result of attacks on Israel have died thoroughly meaningless deaths. Not one bomb, rocket or rifle shot has brought them any closer to their vision of a Greater Palestine, or even to a return of the 1967 boundaries. The violence option has proven to be no option at all. Nothing positive will happen until both sides sit down to talk.
Realism—At the end of the day, Israel, whatever the contours of its international borders—returning precisely to the lines of June 4, 1967, or (far more probably) some trade-off of West Bank and northern Negev territory, or something else—the Jewish State will find itself in the midst of a large Arab population. Even before any steps are taken regarding a final peace agreement, Israel must take clear and definitive steps to assure the civil rights of its own Arab citizens, as well as find ways to treat the Palestinians more as neighbors than as enemies.
World War I formally began with the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in mid-August 1914. An armistice was signed on November 11, 1918, but many historians have suggested that the war really did not end until almost exactly seventy-one years later—November 9, 1989—when the Berlin Wall was breached.
A battle between Israel and the armies of Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Iraq began in the early morning hours of June 5, 1967. A cease-fire agreement was concluded six days later. In reality, we all know that the war has continued virtually unabated for the past forty years. We all look forward to the day when the Six-Day War is finally over.
Between Hope & Despair
In January 2001, George W. Bush was inaugurated as President, ending the eight-year Clinton Administration. In early February, Ariel (Arik) Sharon was elected handily as Prime Minister of Israel over the incumbent Ehud Barak. Israel was dealing with a resumption of Palestinian violence as the dramatic moves toward a peace arrangement had stalled. For many Israelis the choice of Sharon was mostly a repudiation of Barak, and for some it was a vote done in accordance with the old adage “only Nixon could go to China;” that a conservative leader can carry out the decisions that a liberal cannot do.
In January 2009, Barack Obama was inaugurated as President, ending the eight-year Bush Administration. In early February, Israelis voted for a coalition led by Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu, rejecting the incumbent Kadima Party and its leader, Tzipi Livni. Israel was dealing with Palestinian violence, as its dramatic move toward effecting a political accommodation with the Palestinians appeared to have failed. The vote reflected the general unpopularity of outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert (who had taken leadership when Sharon suffered a stroke), and for some, the vote for Netanyahu was done in accordance with the old adage “only Nixon could go to China.”
2009, however, is not 2001. The elections of George W. Bush and Arik Sharon eight years ago, could be considered a confluence of interests. They both represented a retreat from the focused negotiations of the Clinton years. Both leaders agreed that the future included the existence of an independent Palestinian Arab State on some —indeed most —of the land captured by Israel in 1967. Both also were interested in projecting predominating American/Israeli influence and control over their spheres of influence. They were prepared to draw the maps themselves. Thus, Bush ultimately ceded any serious involvement in Israel-Palestine relations to Sharon himself, and set about on creating a political makeover along the Persian Gulf.
Whatever one might have thought at the outset regarding the moral or political values of these two leaders’ visions, we can say in retrospect that they did not work. Bush finished his term of office with virtually unprecedented unpopularity both in the U.S. and throughout the world. Ehud Olmert’s approval rating was even lower.
In 2009, however, Barack Obama’s ascension to the Presidency represents a turn away from unilateral assertion of self-defined interests, toward more accommodation and cooperation in its foreign policy. Yet, as the militancy of the American electorate has begun to wane, the Israeli electorate hard line has appeared to stiffen. In the 120 member Knesset, following the February 10 election, sixty-five are considered to be reliably nationalist and loathe to engage in territorial compromise, while only forty-four would consider compromise. (The other 11 seats are held by the predominantly Arab parties, who historically do not take part in any Israeli government.) The confluence of interest between Israel and the U.S. that defined most of the first decade of the century is now beginning to diverge.
We can go further. American Jews overwhelmingly supported Obama, the mixed-race son of an African Muslim, while roughly 60% of Israeli Jews backed political parties that promote further restraints on the country and region’s Arab population. Should we be concerned about a break in America’s (and American Jewish) relations with Israel?
2009 is not 2001, and Israel is not the U.S. The Bush Administration had greatly oversold the danger that the U.S. was facing, and Americans were tired of chasing phantom WMDs. The threat posed by a reprise of 9/11, could be handled in a much better way than wiretaps, waterboarding and troops posted in Baghdad. Militancy and anger had been mostly drained out of the electorate; we were rather prepared to embrace calmness and hope.
For Israelis, the danger has been more palpable and real. They negotiated through the 1990s, and had their proposals both rejected and met with a spike in terror violence. They engaged in unilateral withdrawal, and were repaid with radicalization and indiscriminate rocket fire. As American anger lessened (or, more properly, was directed toward banks and insurance corporations), Israeli anger and frustration has increased.
Since 1967 in particular, there has been a fault line that has run through the middle of the Israeli electorate: territorial compromise or no territorial compromise. The issue has remained at the surface of policy debates and political posturing for over forty years, but the underlying arguments have shifted over time. A dominant theme has tended to be the pragmatics:
Can Israel afford to lose the strategic depth provided by the territories acquired in 1967? Prior to the Six-Day War, Israel’s width from the Mediterranean to the Jordanian (West Bank) border could be as little as ten kilometers. The Golan Heights represent strategic command of the Hula Valley.
Or, how much stable and secure peace can Israel gain for how much territory returned? Through the 70s and early 80s, this conversation was mooted by the unwillingness of the frontline states to negotiate (Egypt, of course, became an exception.) When Jordan ceded rights to the West Bank to the PLO, then Israel refused to deal until the 1993 Olso agreement. At that point, the argument in Israeli circles centered on whether Arafat (or his successor) was capable of being a real negotiating partner with sufficient willingness or ability to stand behind any agreement.
These debates tended to mask profound ideological differences. Let us set aside the practical issues, and look at the underlying assumptions.
I. God and Israel
The best known of the ideological positions has been the so-called Biblical argument. Israel (from the Jordan River to the Sea) was promised by God to the Jews. The argument is then bolstered by the dual events of 1948 and 1967. First, against apparently overwhelming odds, a small band of Zionist settlers and Holocaust refugees, operating over and against a British imposed arms embargo, nonetheless beat back the combined armies of six Arab nations in order to create the first independent Jewish state since the failed Bar Kokhba revolt in the second century.
Then, once again facing virulent threats “to throw the Jews into the Sea,” Israel not only warded off the three-prong attack of Egypt, Jordan and Syria, but also regained the biblical lands of Judah and Samaria and a reunified Jerusalem. How could anyone doubt that such miraculous events —particularly occurring so soon after the disaster of the Holocaust —were indeed proofs that God was keeping the divine promise to God’s Chosen People?
There are a number of ironies that arise from this argument. It is held, as one would expect, by those who most expect to see God’s Hand in historic events. Such a position is mostly found among more conservative religious believers. Among Jews, the divine promise theory would be most congenial to the Orthodox, and, indeed the settler and the maximal nationalist groups in Israel tend to be religiously traditionally observant.
Orthodox Jews represent only about 20% of Israel’s populace (not dramatically different in size than Israel’s non-Jews). Further, the religious nationalist camp is only a portion of the total Orthodox population. Many of the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) are either non-Zionist, as they are categorically opposed to a Jewish State that is not governed strictly in accord with halakha, or anti-Zionist, as they believe that no legitimate Jewish State can come into being until formally announced by the coming of the Messiah.
Actually, the divine promise basis for support of Israel, including its hold onto acquired territories, is promoted mostly by conservative Christians. Christian Zionism, the belief that God intends that Jews should return to the “Holyland,” whether as a prerequisite for Christ’s return or not, is centuries old. Its sources, arising among early Reformation and Enlightenment thinkers, are quite independent of any Jewish belief, and substantially pre-date the modern Zionist Movement. Israel’s military successes in 1948 and 1967, therefore fit neatly into this particular Christian mindset, and make the American evangelical community among the most vociferous supporters of a Greater Israel.
The question of God’s promise to the Jews becomes a lightning rod in debates over Israel. Its defense by conservative Christians (on Scriptural and theological) grounds, leads to widespread opposition: Islamists question the promise by questioning the Scripture itself. Liberal Christians and secularists are made uncomfortable by what they see as theological naiveté, or worse, strong-arming. To a lesser or greater extent, Israel is opposed because the Scripture or the very use of the Scripture is challenged. Meanwhile, relatively few Jews are employing the argument from God’s promise at all!
II. Refuge or Redemption
Religion plays an undeniable role in the Middle East, but I would argue that its positive value has been greatly underestimated. In Israel, however, the central ideological fault line is best framed outside of any religious issue, but rather over the nature of anti-Semitism.
Early modern Zionist thought generally focused on the issue of liberating Jews from the Jewish question. The question was: what place do Jews have in Europe? And the Zionist answer was: none. Removing Jews from Europe and placing them where they could have their own land and language would solve the Jewish question both by freeing Europe of Jews and reintroducing them into the modern political world as a nation among nations.
These Zionists were practical dreamers. They were fired by the ideal of a normalized Jewish life freed of the systemic disabilities of being a mostly despised minority in someone else’s land. But, they were not so ungrounded that they did not think through the political, economic and social difficulties that needed to be surmounted in order for their dream to take root. Idealism was continuously tempered with pragmatism.
Although a chief rallying cry among the early Zionists was “a land without people for a people without land,” they fully knew that the land was not people-less. While most of the Jews who made aliya in the half-century or so before the founding of the State were singularly myopic regarding the reality of the indigenous population —they sought to separate and isolate themselves as much as possible from existing Arab settlements —they recognized that the Jewish State they envisioned would have to be constructed around, and not on top of them.
Thus, the Zionist settlers built new neighborhoods outside the protective walls of Jerusalem, and created new communities up along the coast from Jaffa. They eschewed the built-up villages along the central spine of the Land, and instead struggled to reclaim the uninhabited swamplands along the Mediterranean coast, or the arid, but potentially fertile lands of the northern Negev. In brief, they went where the Arabs were not, including a concerted effort at purchasing lots from absentee owners. Their eyes were on the prize: an independent State for the Jews. Territorial compromise was a small price to pay in service of this goal.
This brief summary of history reflects the dominant stream of Zionist thought. There was, however, a significant dissenting opinion. While the main thrust of Herzlian Zionism proceeded from the notion that a Jewish State on its own land could solve the problem of endemic anti-Semitism, the alternative view —classically referred to as Revisionist Zionism, and associated with Vladimir (Zev) Jabotinsky —asserted that nothing could solve the problem of anti-Semitism. Jews needed a land of their own, not in order to be able to take their place as a nation among nations, but rather in order to assure the survival of the Jewish people.
Revisionist Zionists were not looking for a way to reduce or eliminate anti-Semitism. They wanted Jews to have the means in order to protect themselves from it. In this vision, the prize is less nationhood as it is security. Mainstream Zionists might have wanted to work around the indigenous population, believing that a normalized Jewish nation could exist peacefully beside any normalized Arab entity. Revisionists envisioned no such peace and simply wanted them cleared out.
This divide is more and less severe than it appears. Both Zionist visions focus on the matter of Jewish nationalism, a concept that intrinsically brackets out the non-Jew. Mainstream Judaism has been historically more aware of and sensitive to the existence of a non-Jewish population on the land, but no less than the revisionists, they sought to develop a State that was substantially free of non-Jews.
In this regard, the fundamental debate between mainstream and revisionist thinkers is now, and has always been, a matter of just how much land can the Jewish people commandeer and control to the discomfort and/or exclusion of other peoples.
While both sides promote an essentially exclusivist Jewish national development, the fundamental difference resides, I believe, in their attitudes toward anti-Semitism. Mainstream Zionist thought was founded on the notion that, with proper conditions —namely a separate Jewish State —the underpinnings of anti-Semitism would wither and disappear. Revisionists were certain that anti-Semitism was a permanent and ineradicable component of the human condition: as long as there were Jews anywhere in the world, there would be anti-Semites.
On one side, therefore, a hope is held out that some formula might be found by which Israel, as a Jewish State, will become fully accepted in the family of nations, including its neighbors. The other side, however, sees no realistic hope. Instead, the most that can be expected is a begrudging accommodation of Israel’s existence, based on the fact that the world (Arab and the rest) have no choice.
We see this clash exemplified in the political dance between Kadima and Likkud following the 2009 elections. Kadima insisted that Netanyahu agree to the two-state formula (an independent Palestine) before it would agree to enter into a unity government. Netanyahu has refused, although he has spoken about support of Palestinian economic and cultural aspirations. Kadima is reflecting classic mainstream Zionist thinking in the form that an independent and viable Palestinian State is the sufficient and necessary step for the acceptance of Israel in the region. Netanyahu’s response is ambiguous, and suggests (at least to me) that some members of his party (including himself) accept this formulation, but others remain convinced that no amount of accommodation will slake a fundamental animus that Arabs (and virtually everyone else) have toward Jews. Giving the Palestinians a State of their own, therefore, will solve nothing.
There was a time —not that long ago —when the broad outlines of a stable peace between Israel and its neighbors was pretty clear, at least in the minds of most Israelis. In 1999 and 2000, the Barak government was negotiating a substantial return of the Golan Heights in return for diplomatic relations with Syria, and the re-division of Jerusalem in order in order to accommodate a capitol city for an independent Palestine Authority. Opposition to these initiatives was muted, although both would have been considered politically and strategically impossible concessions just a decade earlier. Mainstream Zionist thinking overwhelmed revisionist attitudes in the Israeli electorate.
Even after both negotiations fell apart, the general consensus still supported notions of territorial compromise in favor of peace. Thus, the Sharon government’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, and continued talk of a two-state solution were broadly confirmed in subsequent elections (March 2006). Three years later, and the vision of ten years earlier has been greatly blurred. An increasing number of Israelis are entertaining the notion that maybe the revisionists were right all along.
The revisionist Zionist position requires serious consideration. Maybe peace, at least in the sense of reconciliation and mutual recognition of the other, is not possible. Every step toward accommodation seems to be met with two steps back. Moreover, anti-Semitism in the world seems not to have abated at all. Israel is singled out for fierce criticism well out of proportion to its actions, especially in a world where mass killings and systematic oppression of local populations is widespread. Maybe all Israel can do is take the steps necessary that ensure it can protect itself from a regular and endless assault on its existence —at least until the Messiah decides to show up.
Is this bleak prognosis really the case? A short answer is: yes, if this is how one wishes to frame the fundamental relationship between Jews and the rest of the world. If one believes that it is now, has always been and will always be a constant battle of survival against unappeasable enemies, then one can always find evidence to support this worldview.
Years ago, I averred that any approach to the Middle East must not resort to a recitation of the “facts,” because there are none. There are only interests. That is, we cannot adequately tell the difference between what we believe to be the case, and what we wish to be the case. I want to suggest a different frame for understanding and dealing with the current hostility being expressed regarding Israel.
Doing so is not merely a pious preference. It is also a philosophical choice. Jabotinsky’s opposition to mainstream Zionism did indeed serve an important purpose of countering an unwarranted optimism. As we are well aware, the creation of a Jewish homeland did not bring about an end to anti-Semitism; it did not necessarily even reduce its presence in the world. At its heart, however, revisionist Zionism is solely the negation of a negation: anti-anti-Semitism. It is pure reaction in its outlook, therefore, unable to evoke a positive future, unable to provide hope.
So, let us return to the current situation and look at it with hopeful, if not wildly optimistic eyes.
The Jeering Section: Anti-Israel Attitudes Beyond the Arab World
No good turn goes unpunished. For most of the twentieth century, the Zionist project in Israel (both before and after the founding of the State) was socialist. Its dominant institutions were the Jewish National Fund (Keren Kayemet) which owned land on behalf of the entire Jewish people, and the powerful and influential Labor Federation, the Histadrut. The kibbutz, a uniquely successful collective settlement, and the moshav, equally successful but more modestly socialistic, produced most of the Zionist leadership, political and military.
While the Jewish State is hardly as labor socialist as it was through most of its history, many elements, including universal health care and a weaker but still robust Histadrut, remain in place. Nevertheless, Israel tends to be demonized throughout all the world’s liberal-left institutions. Compounding this state of affairs is that the American Jewish community continues to be overwhelmingly liberal. The individuals and groups with which Jews are most socially and politically comfortable, are also the fiercest critics of Israel.
This circumstance is deeply problematic, but needs to be put into a proper perspective. Liberal-left animus to Israel arises, I believe from two different sources; one is more contingent and the other systemic. The contingent source is the intertwining relationship between Israel and the U.S.
Israel and the United States are attached at the hip. American foreign policy cannot stray too far from fundamental support of the Jewish State. This is the case both because most of the American public tends to be more sympathetic to Israel than to the Arab nations, and because U.S. foreign policy values stability. Israel, as a well-functioning democracy, is far-and-away the most stable political entity in the Middle East. It is the only nation that can tolerate socially and politically a complete change in its government, without giving in to violent recriminations and radicalized policies. Israeli leadership —liberal and conservative —recognizes in return that they cannot stray very far from American interests. Thus, the Israeli Prime Minister, whoever it may be, is inevitably one of the first voices in support of an American foreign policy initiative.
The principal ramification of this relationship is that Israel is irrevocably bound to the ups and downs of America’s standing in the world. Note that during the years —particularly the 1990s —that the U.S. is perceived as a force for peace and justice on the international stage, criticism of Israel becomes more muted. The Bush White House brought about a decline in America’s standing, and with it, attacks on Israel increased. I would imagine, therefore, that even with a more right-leaning government, Israel will enjoy a measure of reduced disapprobation during the Obama Administration.
The second element is more systemic. While many observers have commented on left-liberal criticism of the Jewish State as being a manifestation of a new anti-Semitism, I think this point-of-view only tends to cover up the real and continued persistence of the old anti-Semitism. The left-liberal position, while being unhelpful, is something else.
Classic anti-Semitism is rooted in fear. Jews are the perpetual “other.” Their presence in society is disrupting at best, but often considered a cause for suspicion. In its milder forms, the anti-Semite wishes to control the activities of the Jews, generally keeping them away from the institutions of culture and society. In more pernicious forms, the anti-Semite calls for their eradication (expulsion or death). This type of anti-Semitism persists mostly among radical ideologues of all stripes. For them, Jews in their midst are a violation of their sense of proper order.
For many on the liberal-left, Jews are not a source of fear or distrust. Many left-of-center individuals will express an appreciation of Judaism. The problem arises out of a pernicious philo-Semitism: an idealized and thoroughly unrealistic impression that Jews should somehow be better than all this; in particular, that that they are better than harboring nationalistic ideas. The issue is not Israel’s policies with respect to Arabs, but rather that Jews should have sullied themselves in something as sordid as engaging in nation-building. Leave such more primitive concepts as ‘nation’ to lesser folks, like the Arabs. Certainly, some hard-line leftists want Israel and Jews to disappear. But, this is because they want all divisive labels to disappear into a world of universal undifferentiated humanity. And, they want the Jews to lead the way!
This liberal attitude is a two-edged sword. It can, on the positive side, serve as a goad against complacency. Israel’s policies can be better, smarter, more effective in achieving a durable and secure peace. The negative side is its thorough lack of realism regarding Jews and Judaism. For the most part, this problem can be ameliorated by continued contact.
A case in point: a number of mainline, basically liberal Protestant Church judicatories, have had proposals placed before their assemblies calling for a harsher attitude toward Israel, usually through divestment of firms and institutions that do business with or in the Jewish State. All of these proposals have been voted down in general assemblies. The delegates at these assemblies are mostly congregants who, in interfaith programs and other forums, have simply come to know Jews and Judaism better.
Tough Neighborhood—Palestinians and other Arabs
The assault on Israel from liberal or socialist critics is, at the very most, irritating. It is not, however, dangerous. Most of the criticism is shallow, inconsistent, or mostly misdirected, expressing rather a coded opposition to American policies. Israel’s real problems are exceedingly closer, and are to be found in the neighborhood in which it resides.
Israel-Arab/Palestinian relations are the central issue with respect to the long-term health of the Jewish State. Its significance is two-fold. First, however one envisions the future, at the end of the day, Israel remains in the midst of an Arab, overwhelmingly Muslim world. Further, the resolution of tension between Israel and the Arab nations is a necessary, if not sufficient, element in the international pursuit for peace and stability throughout the region. Many of the headaches arising in the Middle East —Sunnis and Shia in Lebanon and Iraq, the Kurds in Iran, Iraq and Turkey, deeply unrepresentative and/or oppressive governments, and a host of tribal rivalries —exist quite independently of the challenge of a Jewish State. None of them can be tackled adequately, however, until peace with Israel is worked through.
I believe the situation looks far worse than it actually is. In the 1939, the renowned Jewish philosopher Martin Buber wrote a letter to Mohandis Gandhi. Gandhi, already famous for his doctrine of non-violent resistance, was urging the Jews to engage in the same tactic in face of the rise of Nazism. He particularly opposed the Zionist solution of taking refuge in Israel. Buber replied to this last point with the following:
[Y]ou come and settle the whole existential dilemma with the simple formula: “Palestine belongs to the Arabs.” What do you mean by saying that a land belongs to a population? Evidently you do not intend only to describe a state of affairs by your formula, but to declare a certain right. You obviously mean to say that a people, being settled on the land, has such an absolute claim to the possession of this land that whoever settles in it without permission of this people has committed a robbery. But by what means did the Arabs attain the right of ownership in Palestine? Surely by conquest and, in fact, a conquest by settlement. . . Thus, settlement by force of conquest justifies for you a right of ownership of Palestine. . .These are the consequences that result from your statement in the form of an axiom that a land belongs to its population. In an epoch of migration of nations, you would first support the right of ownership of the nation that is threatened with dispossession or extermination. But once this was achieved, you would be compelled—not once, but after the elapse of a suitable number of generations—to admit that the land belongs to the usurper.
There is no record of a reply by Gandhi. Buber’s argument, however, was both forceful and prescient. By the beginning of this century, the existence of Israel as the Jewish State has been taken for granted among the nations of the world. Most telling was the reaction to Hamas’ election victory in 2006. Every world power —in particular Russia, China and Saudi Arabia —publicly expressed their concern that the new Palestinian legislature reaffirm the two-State solution that had been the basis of negotiations since Oslo. After a century of occupation in Palestine/Israel (the means of occupation, whether just, unfair or some combination, is beside the point), Jews have indeed become identified with the land.
The Special Case of Hamas
The Islamist Palestinian party, Hamas, continues to be quite vocal in its rejection of the Jewish State. The recent Gaza operation, however, highlights the severe limitations under which Hamas operates.
In 2008, Israel and Hamas worked out a six-month long cease fire, which effectively ended the firing of rockets into the border town of Sderot. The agreement expired in mid-December and indirect talks through Egypt failed. The rockets began to pour down on Sderot again. At the end of the month, Israel began a comprehensive operation to shut down the rocket fire.
While Israel had pulled out of Gaza in 2005, it continued to maintain control of the borders, attempting to restrict the importation of war materiel. The blockade became more intense when, in January 2006, Hamas won its legislative victory. A year later, Hamas fighters routed Fatah supporters and took sole control of the Strip. Smuggling tunnels were dug —hundreds of them —in order to beat the blockade. All sorts of goods were brought through the tunnels, including, of course, the rocket-making materials. Many defenders of Hamas have argued that the rocket fire into Israel is resistance to the blockade.
That Hamas and other Gaza Palestinians would want to resist the stranglehold that Israel (with the support of the U.S., Europe, Russia and the U.N. —the “Quartet”) put on the territory is hardly surprising. The large tunnel smuggling project moreover is understandable within the same context. Firing unguided and mostly ineffective missiles at nearby Israeli communities, however, does not seem to be a meaningful response. Indeed, it appears that Hamas’ tactics were designed precisely to provoke some sort of Israeli reaction. When the assault was over, most of the Palestinian deaths were of non-combatants. Very few direct confrontations between Hamas fighters and Israeli soldiers were recorded. I believe that most plausible explanation is that Hamas strove to avoid military causalities in favor of building up as many injuries and deaths among Gaza residents as possible. With cold-eyed cynicism, they goaded Israel into unleashing a fearsome attack that would mostly inflame greater anger and hostility toward the Jewish State. And Israel complied!
On one level, Hamas achieved a goal of creating increased tension between Israel and allies such as Turkey. The tactic, however, more acutely reveals that the party has backed itself into a corner. In 2006, Hamas realized great success in general elections on a message that it could restore dignity and independence to a Palestinian Authority that was rife with corruption. At the same time, they took the triumphalist position of Islamic hegemony throughout the Middle East, i.e. the disappearance of the Jewish State. The latter, however, fairly counteracts the former.
By putting up a rejectionist front, Hamas reinforced Israel’s interest in controlling Gaza. Rather than creating better conditions for acquiring economic and social independence, a broadly observed blockade rather served to impoverish the population further, creating more breakdown in society, and necessitating increased aid and relief assistance from the U.N. and other agencies. By the end of 2008, Hamas’ standing in Gaza was dropping precipitously. Provoking a war with Israel could and did restore its standing, but also did nothing to benefit the beleaguered Gazans. Thus, Hamas’ bind: it cannot begin to improve the lot of Gaza without reaching some accommodation with Israel, and it cannot retain its fundamental value of Islamic hegemony without forsaking its responsibility toward the welfare of the people.
Back to Religion
Hamas’ dilemma is caused by its ideological commitment to the end of the Jewish State. The party is broadly identified as a Islamist faction —an offspring of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood —and thus the enduring hostility to Israel is treated as being religious. I want to respond to this notion in both a narrow and broad fashion. The narrow question is whether Jewish hegemony in the midst of Arab territory is actually anathema to the Muslim religious thought. The broader issue is whether religion in general serves to retard or promote the possibility of a stable peace and a secure Israel.
Islam and the Jewish State
It would be foolhardy to suggest that there is no connection between Islam and enmity toward Israel. The most explicitly religious elements in the Muslim world —particularly Hamas, Hizb’allah and Iran —are among the most strident in their opposition to the Jewish State. The more secular entities have been more pragmatic: Jordan and Egypt have formal diplomatic relations; Syria and the Fatah branch of the Palestine Aurthority are willing to engage in negotiations. Yet, the connection between Islam and principled anti-Zionism is not particularly obvious. Consider, for instance, that one of the most conservative Muslim communities, Saudi Arabia, has publicly accepted the concept of the Jewish State (within the pre-1967 borders).
Islam is over 1300 years old and encompasses a population of roughly one billion people. The Qur’an, like the Bible, is not internally consistent. Thus, similar to Judaism and Protestant Christianity, Muslim ideas and practices, though reflected in a sacred text, are wide open to interpretation, unimpeded by a formal hierarchical structure (such as the Vatican). Most religious positions are a meditation between the text and faithful readers, who are always subjected —consciously or not —to contemporary social and cultural currents, as well as to their own predispositions.
In brief, the Qur’an does not provide an explicit set of concepts regarding either Jews or their claim to the land of Israel. One can find, for instance, statements such as the following (Sura 21, lines 71-2): “We (God) delivered him (Abraham) and his nephew Lot to the land which We have blessed, and We bestowed upon him Isaac, and as an additional gift, Jacob. . .” The implication here is that the land (Israel) was given by God to the line of Abraham that passed through Isaac and Jacob. Of course, the text need not be read in this fashion, and the Qur’an is filled with assertions about Jews that are both approving and condemnatory. A Muslim attitude on the issue of Israel is formed by factors that reside outside the text itself.
I think that the principal factor is Islam’s relationship with the secular West. (I have discussed this issue at length, but from a different angle in the essay “After 9/11.”) The Arab world has been on a multi-century losing streak. Since the early nineteenth century, most of the Middle East and Northern Africa have been under European domination. As the colonial and mandate powers began to retreat following World War II, Israel, made up substantially of European Jewish immigrants, beat back local opposition and a combined force of five Arab armies, to establish their independence. Arab forces were overwhelmed again in 1967. From a military standpoint, Israel continues to dominate the region. While Zionists view the founding of Israel principally as a matter of historic Jewish national aspirations, Arabs may see those same Jews as an extension of Western and European suppression of Arab and Muslim freedom and dignity.
One of the clearest manifestations of the identification of Zionism with the West is in the phenomenon of Muslim anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism has definitely risen throughout the Muslim world, but it is mostly imported. The Jews depicted in Arab-language anti-Semitic tracts are always iconically Ashkenazi, and dark mutterings of some international cabal of Jews is drawn from the Tsarist-era Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Although Jews have lived in the Arab-Muslim world throughout the entire history of Islam, the “Jew” is unmistakably European.
Islam, like all religions, serves a primary organizing agent for communities of like-minded individuals. As such an agent, it can go in either of two directions with respect to its historic relationship to the West. It can serve as bulwark in opposition to Western secularizing and modernizing forces, or it can enter into a form of dialogue with Western modernity and engage in theological reform. The former is best expressed by the implacable anti-modernism of the Taliban and other Muslims particularly in rural Pakistan and Afghanistan. The latter is found among Muslim thinkers in Europe and North America.
There is also a middle ground: an enduring skepticism regarding the enticements of Western ideas, but also a forsaking of hostility. This approach entails both conservatism and pragmatism, and thus a slow internalized reform that eschews any radicalism. I believe that most of the Muslim Middle East, including Iran, falls into this broad middle ground.
Religion: Prod or Obstacle?
Hamas and Hizb’allah are often characterized as being radical Islamists or Muslim fundamentalists, and thus are generally grouped with al-Qaida and the Taliban. There are, however, some elemental differences. The latter operate in mostly rural and intensely conservative regions where any foreign or modernizing tendencies are going to be treated with deep suspicion. Hamas and Hizb’allah draw from a much more diverse population. While undeniably conservative, they are much more open to both modernity and diversity. One useful indication of the distinction is that the Palestinian and Lebanese Islamic movements are nowhere near as virulently misogynistic as those in South Asia.
Undoubtedly religion in the region of the world where Judaism, Christianity and Islam arose is somewhat more open to messianism than elsewhere. Thus, there are hard-liners among all three religions who enthusiastically believe that the apocalypse is just around the corner, and that now is no time to compromise or retreat from one’s comprehensive vision of their faith triumphant. The Palestinian peace activist Mohammed Dajani Daoudi has referred to such as attitudes as the Big Dreams that only serve to quash the Small Hopes of steps toward enduring peace.
Where otherworldliness and/or despair exist, religion can help preserve and exacerbate these conditions. The Middle East’s long history of colonial domination by Europe, and the even longer history of anti-Semitism are a ripe medium for Muslims and Jews to have just these feelings. Yet, most of the Jewish and Palestinian population neither act on nor articulate such emotions. The reason for this moderation arises out of religion as well.
Religion —let me focus on Islam and Judaism —both invite passion and attempt to restrain, or at least focus it. Rhetoric is permitted to be far more extravagant than action. While heads are occasionally in the clouds, feet are supposed to be planted firmly on the ground, as religious principles are designed to serve the realities of life. In brief, neither Judaism nor Islam is about bringing the Messiah —only God can do that —but rather about how to live in the unredeemed world that exists until the Messiah comes. Such a life requires tempering ideals with reality.
Here are two brief observations: On Purim 1993, Baruch Goldstein burst into the central mosque of Hebron and killed two dozen worshippers. His grave in the intensely nationalistic religious Jewish settlement enclave near Hebron is treated with veneration to this day, but Goldstein’s murder spree has never been duplicated. The acts of Jewish settlers, fired by religious zeal, can be characterized as racist and disgraceful. It includes harassment of local Palestinians, vandalism and sometimes the throwing of stones. With the pronounced exception of Goldstein, it stops short of serious harm. Religious zeal tempered by religious discipline.
The second observation is drawn from a March 2009 news article on Khaled Meshal, Hamas’ most public leader. The article was prompted by the formation of a new Israel government by Benjamin Netanyahu. Meshal had survived a botched assassination attempt in the late 1990s, when Netanyahu was last Prime Minister. The key sentence in the article was a quote by Meshal cautioning observers to evaluate Hamas on what they do, rather than what they say. Language is one thing, but action is much more important.
Religion brings one more very important virtue to the effort to bring peace to Israel and its neighbors; it embodies hope. Yes, religion itself can be captured by despair —evidenced by suicide bombers who shout “God is Great” before detonating themselves and all those around them —but mostly religion works to overcome despair.
Currently, most of the Arab Middle East is wallowing in self-pity and despair. The circumstance is lethal and has proven to be considerably more self-destructive than effective. Israelis, on the other hand, are beset by frustration. While not nearly as damaging, it only retards any constructive effort to move forward. There is very little Israel can do to alleviate the current Arab condition, but that is no reason to act on its frustration.
The Jewish State has indeed become a normal member of the family of nations. It is only its borders that continue to produce upheaval. With a calmer, more thoughtful and less easily demonized administration in the United States, one can hope for progress.
The More Things Change …
Abiding Ideas on Israel/Palestine
” … To Go Somewhere, You Need to Run Twice as Fast!”
In 1917, the British Foreign Secretary, Arthur Balfour, signed a declaration on behalf of the British Government, which stated in part:
His Majesty’s Government view with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavors to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of the existing non Jewish communi¬ties in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.
A few years later, Great Britain had taken control of Palestine and Trans-Jordan as a League of Nations mandate, and thus could effect the sentiments of the Balfour Declaration. The influential Zionist thinker, Ahad Haam responded in a 1920 essay: “The national home of the Jewish people must be built out of the free material which can still be found in the country itself, and of that which the Jews will bring in from outside or will create by their work, without overthrowing the national home of the other inhabitants.”
Now in the next century, Ahad Haam’s assertion continues to be at the heart of debates, arguments and violence regarding the borders of the “national home for the Jewish people.” Slightly less than three decades after Ahad Haam wrote this essay, the Jewish homeland became a State. About two decades later, the size of the State grew five-fold as a result of the lightning victory of the Six-Day War. And in the subsequent decades, boundaries have continued to change. Israel has been able to establish direct relations with two of its bordering nations, and with a Palestine Authority. Yet, Ahad Haam’s concern remains. For every step forward-treaties with Egypt and Jordan, the Oslo Accords-there are steps back-Hamas and radical Islamism, proposals for disinvestment by mainline Protestant churches. Circumstances are regularly changing in the Middle East, and somehow they are also remaining disturbingly the same.
For this reason, I want to call your attention to two essays that I consider seminal commentaries on Israel and its relations with its Arab neighbors. One outstanding feature of both articles is that they are old. They were written in the years between the 6-Day and Yom Kippur Wars. Israel was refusing contact with the Palestine Liberation Organization, and yet it could negotiate with its immediate neighbors (Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon and Syria) only either secretly or through third parties. On the other hand, the Six-Day War had established Israel’s uncontested military superiority. The increase in territory had given it significant bargaining power. The essays therefore respond to the reality of Israel’s political, military and diplomatic circumstances at that time, and yet also dig much deeper in order to reveal some fundamental truths. They were timely in the years in which they were written, and they are timely today.
I. A Letter to All Good People
The older of the two, A Letter to All Good People, was written in August 1968, for the Hebrew newspaper, Yediot Ahronot, it was translated and published in the periodical, Midstream, in October of that year. The author was Amos Kenan, a journalist and writer who had participated in militant (some would say terrorist) activities against the British Mandate. Given this background, the polemic he wrote in 1968, a little more than a year after Israel’s size and population had grown dramatically following the Six-Day War, might seem surprising.
In 1968, the Labor Coalition was firmly entrenched as the dominant party of Israel. (Golda Meir was Prime Minister.) The kibbutz was still a prominent and influential symbol of a society that was definitively socialist. “All Good People” in the title of Kenan’s essay, therefore, refers to the prominent socialist thinkers and leaders of the time. The article is subtitled, “To Fidel Castro, Sartre, [Bertrand] Russell and All the Rest.”
One would think that Israel would have enjoyed a level of sympathy and political solidarity with the socialist block of nations and their chief supporters. The opposite was the case. The Soviet Union and its allies sided with the Arab nations even before the June 1967 war broke out. The opposition to Israel was fundamentally and disturbingly profound. Kenan relates this incident: an Israeli submarine in the Mediterranean sent out a distress call. British, Greek and Turkish ships participated in a search for the sub and its crew. A nearby Russian fleet not only did not participate, but the Arab language broadcasts of Soviet radio denounced the fleets that did. During World War II, even Nazi U-boats would provide material assistance to survivors of ships sunk in military encounters. As Kenan wrote, “but the glorious days of Nazi humanism are apparently over.”
Kenan did not connect this egregious state of affairs with anti-Semitism. “I have never believed that the Soviets are guided …by such powerful and sincere emotions …” He thought it was a rather simple cynical and pragmatic calculation: the Arab world with its population, oil and strategic value vs. a small, materially poor state whose political support was mostly from Europe and the West. (Perhaps we ought to add as well that Arab dictatorships and autocracies made for far cleaner lines of connection than the messy democracy of the Jewish State.)
In order to sustain such cynicism, Kenan noted, otherwise good people had to create powerful self-deceiving myths; myths that simplified the conflict to cardboard stereotypes. Israelis were, to a person, foreign imperialist invaders. The Jewish experience in Europe and the development of Zionism had to be studiously ignored. Religious and secular, Eastern European, North African and Middle Eastern Jews had to be lumped together. Israeli Jews as individual human beings had to disappear altogether.
Kenan wrote with vigor and emotion. He was angry and frustrated, but-and this is why the essay resonates to this day-he did not despair. He knew that good people (they need not all be socialists, but this was the ironic condition of 1968) cannot sustain madness forever. He therefore concluded his ‘Letter’ with a powerful statement that combined both hope and challenge:
I want peace peace peace peace, peace peace peace. I am ready to give everything back in exchange for peace. And I shall give nothing back without peace. I am ready to solve the refugee problem. I am ready to accept an independent Palestinian state. I am ready to sit and talk. About everything, all at the same time …. But peace. Until you agree to have peace, I shall give back nothing. And if you force me to become a conqueror, I shall become a conqueror. And if you force me to become an oppressor, I shall become an oppressor. And if you force me into the same camp with all the forces of darkness in the world, there I shall be.
In this fashion, Kenan sharply distinguished between that which Israel can and cannot do. It cannot change the minds and attitudes of its detractors by engaging in any form of modified behavior. The other side-Arabs, Palestinians and their supporters-have constructed an image of Israel and its inhabitants that is completely separated from any set of facts. Until “our good friends” are prepared to deal honestly and forthrightly with Israelis as members of civilized society, until they take the responsibility upon themselves to shatter their own self-deceptions, Israel gains absolutely nothing in modifying a hard-line stance. At very worst, they are acting just as their enemies expect. And acting any other way is treated either as deception or capitulation.
Israelis can-indeed, must-on the other hand, realize that this madness will not endure. At some point in the future, the folly of making believe that a certain group of human beings are really not human will subside; if for no other reason than it has achieved nothing. At that moment, negotiations will commence, and at the moment, it becomes critical that Israel realize that the aim is genuine peace for the Jewish State, and not the shape of its borders.
The Dynamics of Power
Before drawing any more lesson’s from Kenan’s letter, we will turn to the second essay. This one was written in 1972, by Meir Pa’il. Pa’il was a member of Israel’s Knesset at the time. He achieved a doctorate in history and military studies from Tel Aviv University, but had spent most of his career in Israel’s army. (Unlike Kenan, Pa’il was a member of the conventional defense group, the Palmakh, in the years leading up to Independence.)
The essay he wrote, called The Dynamics of Power, was offered as a part of a summer symposium organized by the Institute for Judaism and Contemporary Thought, which in turn had been organized by Bar Ilan (modern Orthodox) University in Israel. Papers and responses were published in a book, Modern Jewish Ethics, edited by the late Professor of Philosophy at Brandeis, Marvin Fox.
Pa’il’s essay includes extended passages written by Israeli soldiers relating certain encounters they had had while policing the territories since the end of the war. Each one of them, in Pa’il’s estimation, represented not only an example of military and security decision-making, but also of confronting an ethical quandary. What, for instance, do soldiers do when pursuing armed Palestinian militants in the Samarian hills. The militants appear to enter a cave, but as the soldiers approach, there is an unarmed Arab woman standing in front of the cave. The woman is clearly acting as a human shield. The soldiers can either shoot her down, or risk death themselves by pushing her out of the way.
How the soldiers respond to this situation is critical. Since the creation of Israel’s Defense Force in 1948, the army has had an extraordinary doctrine, taharat neshek [purity of arms]. The doctrine makes each individual soldier responsibility for his or her own actions. Unlike the German soldiers of World War II, they cannot resort to claiming they were merely following orders, if they knew those orders to be illegal or unethical. The doctrine also clearly prohibits the killing of unarmed opponents, and even of shooting at enemy unless one was clearly at risk.
Purity of arms had been conceived and designed by Israel’s military leadership with respect to conventional warfare. How, one could legitimately ask, can the doctrine be preserved in the context of the guerilla war conditions in which Israeli soldiers now found themselves? One answer, obviously, is to scrap the doctrine altogether. Pa’il wanted to argue that such an option should be vigorously opposed. To the contrary, he wanted the doctrine to be preserved as much as possible, even in the changed and clearly more dangerous circumstances that had been created since the acquisition of the territories.
For Pa’il, purity of arms represented two decisive and important considerations for the Jewish State. The first relates to the specific Jewishness of the State. Israel is not just a political entity, and therefore how it conducts business with its citizens, friends and enemies cannot be just like every other nation. Curiously, Pa’il did not consider whether purity of arms was not just a Jewishly informed ethical doctrine, but also a pragmatic element in Israel’s military success. In 1948 and 67 (also, we may add, in 1973), the outcome of Israel’s battle with an array of invading armies was hardly assured in Israel’s favor. The Arabs had more personnel and equipment. Their war machinery was at least as sophisticated and as powerful as Israel’s own. In 1948, the Arabs were beaten back, and in the subsequent two wars fairly routed. Purity of arms as a doctrine certainly did not impede the Jewish State’s success. It probably did not even debilitate it, and might well have enhanced it. Pa’il recognized that the success of the doctrine-and perhaps its value-cannot be assured in the same way when the war is unconventional. Thus, purity of arms could not be simply a pragmatic choice, it was a measure of the values that the Jewish State set for itself, even in the face of the dangers that the doctrine posed.
For me, however, the second consideration is more poignant. Pa’il noted that Israel’s standing army is relatively small. A career in the military is rare. The Israel Defense Force is rather a citizen army, in which virtually everyone between the ages of 18 and 55 are drafted, and could be called upon at any time in order to serve. Almost all 18-year-old Israelis enter the Defense Force full-time for two or three years. They then are on reserve duty, periodically giving up three-to-four weeks of the year to active service. At the time of national emergency, any or all of them could be called up, and expected to join the troop or department to which they are assigned.
How, Pa’il pondered, does a society in which almost every adult is part of the Armed Forces, avoid becoming militaristic in the very fiber of its culture? The answer, he suggested, is in the doctrine of purity of arms. The ethical challenges of the doctrine, trying and dangerous as they might be in the midst of an opposing culture that has a very different idea regarding life and property (Pa’il provided an illuminating anecdote on this matter), are central-critical-to maintaining a necessary sense of humanity in a beleaguered society.
The two essays are dissimilar. Kenan addressed his message outward to non-Jews, non-Israelis; Pa’il spoke specifically to Israelis and Jews. Precisely for this reason, I think the two articles combine to produce a powerful and enduring message. Kenan notes that we are not the problem. Israelis are hardly blameless, but their actions and policies do not operate in a vacuum.
When initially writing this paper (March, 2004), the news reported that Israel had successfully assassinated Hamas founder and leader, Sheik Abdul Yassin. The reaction has been predictable. Palestinians vowed revenge, and suggested darkly that now things are really going to get bad. The rest of the world was merely condemnatory. Of course, at the very same time, a massive operation was taking place on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border designed to kill an ‘Al-Qeida leader, and the European Union had just convened to discuss more aggressive ways in order to combat the sort of terrorism that had just rained on Madrid. Killing avowed and unrepentant terrorists (Sheik Yassin made no secret of his avid pursuit of suicide bombing operations in Israel) is permissible, unless it is done by Israel.
Like Kenan, I refuse to connect this apparent double-standard to anti-Semitism. The real contempt is not being directed at Israel, but rather at the Palestinians and the rest of the Arab world. The West (Europe) expects a certain civilized behavior from Israel. They want Israelis to act as they themselves hope to act: with humanity, care and restraint. They have no expectation of the same from the Arabs. If there is going to be a peaceful solution, it is going to require Israeli action. They are after all democrats who have a record of respecting the rule of law and protecting human rights. Thus, when Israelis respond to violence with violence, to anger with anger, it is disappointing. Such bloody actions on the part of Arabs is neither surprising nor disappointing. Nobody expects anything else from them. (More on this below.)
Kenan discerned a form of madness operating in the world when it came to Israel, an assertive, almost maniacal air of unreality. Palestinians and their supporters refuse to deal directly with the crushing oppression and corruption that corrodes their society, and rather place all the blame on the Jewish State. (Again, Israel is hardly blameless, but is it completely blameworthy?) As long as the madness persists-the refusal to take personal and corporate responsibility is trumpeted as a virtue-there is really nothing much that Israel can do, except-and this is a critical ‘except’-be prepared for real and enduring compromise when the madness finally clears.
It is frustrating, almost crushingly so, to watch a people seem to prefer continued impoverishment, violence and humiliation. It is doubly frustrating, because whatever our good intentions, there is probably not much we can do about it. Palestinians are going to have to find their own way. Yet, in spite of all, it is critical to expect that the madness will pass, maybe not in the next few years or even a generation, but it must and will pass. Then, the plan that was on the table at Camp David in 2000, will have to be resubmitted and renegotiated.
But, what does Israel do while waiting for the madness to pass? This is the message of Pa’il’s essay. Since its founding, and for the foreseeable future, Israel has had to be a militant society, a State in which almost every able adult is formally inducted in the Armed Forces. It is a nation of citizen warriors. The fundamental issue, as Pa’il sees it, is how to keep a militant society from becoming a militant culture.
The concern here is not merely one of preference. Jews survived for nearly two thousand years, and most Jews continue to survive today, without living in a land and sovereignty they can call their own. A Jewish State is a radical departure from Jewish existence, even as it was a radical return to early Israelite history. The nation cannot be justified merely as a refuge for a particular people. It must be more than a State of Jews, but also be in some fundamental, if elusive, way a Jewish State.
Through centuries that were punctuated by oppression, persecution and exile, Jews had been able to maintain and promote certain values regarding justice and compassion. Jewish communities had refused to allow the enmity of the surrounding Gentile societies to define or manipulate those values. It was always a struggle, and certainly some Jews and communities did not handle the pressure well. The State of Israel is also a Jewish community enduring the pressures of the enmity of the surrounding Gentile societies. It is central to its very identity as Jews that they continue to affirm their historic values.
Meir Pa’il added one other distinctive consideration: the Jewish community of Israel, rather than being nearly helpless in the face of its neighbors, as had been the fundamental reality for the previous two millennia, is quite powerful. Pa’il made this observation in 1972. Israel is, if anything, considerably more powerful with respect to its neighbors today. Not only are the values, embodied in doctrines such as ‘purity of arms,’ critical to the spiritual health and welfare of the nation, they are probably easier to maintain than had been the experience of previous Jewish communities.
The madness that Amos Kenan described over thirty-five years ago, still infects the souls of too many people. I would surmise that Kenan himself would be quite surprised that the stalemate has lasted so long. As long as the madness endures, there is only so much that an Israeli government-liberal or conservative-can do. Peace cannot be imposed on a people who refuse to live in peace. Security and retaliation-actions that can be heavy-handed and bloody-remain the order of the day. We can hope for peace, plan for peace, imagine what it would be like when there is peace, but until the other side is also prepared to live in peace as well, the iron glove must be used. Ariel Sharon might not be my cup of tea, and perhaps he is not yours either. The Sharon Government, however, has been hard-edged, assertive, and yet carefully measured in its response to suicide bombings and other attacks. Their military actions cannot be seriously faulted.
The challenge, and the failure, for the Government is not in its endeavor to keep its populace safe. As long as the other side refuses to come to its senses, Israel must employ its military response, but not be limited to it. Every effort must be spent to maintain a moral and humane balance. “Purity of arms,” I understand, has become a doctrine in name only, invoked in army induction ceremonies, and then ignored. Perhaps, it needs revision in order to be relevant to the guerilla-style conflict that Israel has had to fight since 1967. Regardless of its precise relevance, it definitely needs to be reinvigorated. Further, Israel must balance its severity in the territories with a much more consistent program of affirmative action and material assistance to its own indigenous Arab citizenry.
Finally, we must take note of both Pa’il and Kenan’s confidence. Pa’il recognized that Israel is truly powerful; powerful enough to risk being humane even with its relentless enemies. Kenan was certain that the frustrating and extraordinarily self-destructive mad irresponsibility of the Palestinians and their supporters will indeed come to an end. Israel and its supporters must always be prepared for that certain eventuality (if it is not certain, why continue to
live in a ghetto behind a high barrier?), with acts of loving-kindness and peace.
“Are the Jews congenitally unsociable and rude, or are they this way as a result of having been segregated into ghettos?”
This quote is by the historian Leon Poliakov, and cited in a book by Thomas Cuddihy, called The Ordeal of Civility. The reference is to the European attitude toward Jews as they moved into general European society in the early nineteenth century. Today, virtually the same question is raised about Arabs: are they congenitally violent, or are they this way as a result of their social conditioning?
Both the left and right wing of Israeli politics, and their international supporters, want essentially the same thing for Israel: a Jewish State substantially free of Arabs. The right wing dreams of holding onto the territories and of pushing the resident Palestinians out. The left wing wants to drop the territories altogether so that the Palestinians are effectively in some other country. Neither side can contemplate a single confederated state comprising all territory from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River.
The reason for this is not merely a wish to maintain Jewish hegemony over the ancient land of Israel. It is also a profound lack of trust in the Arabs. Consider that Jews live comfortably in the U.S., Canada and Western Europe (one of the fast growing Jewish communities is in Germany, of all places). Like all human beings, Jews prefer to live where they feel they can have modicum of security and opportunity without having to suppress or deny their Jewish identity. These nations, along with Israel, provide such assurances. The Arab world manifestly does not.
Neither liberal nor conservative Israelis (nor you and me, I would guess) hold the Palestinian or any other Arab society in high enough regard that we would expect them to be respectful of Jewish cultural and societal concerns. The problem is not to be found in history, when Jews found religious and communal freedom in Muslims societies. Nonetheless, the overriding issue today, raised overtly or implied in every Jewish conversation, all across the political spectrum, regarding Israel in the Middle East, is whether the Arabs are organically or merely socially incapable of creating a civil society.
From the early nineteenth century through the years of the Nazi Third Reich, Europe was beset by the “Jewish problem.” Today, we are beset with the “Arab problem.” The Jewish problem was not wholly out of Jewish hands to be solved. Throughout that century-and-a-half, Jews worked hard, individually and corporately, to establish themselves as productive members of the larger society. In the same fashion, the solution to the Arab problem lies in good part in Arab hands. We cannot give up on the notion of Arabs creating a democratic liberal (that is, tolerant and respectful society). Neither can we extend all trust and good will to them until they actually produce such a society.
Israel-Palestine, Now and for the Foreseeable Future
The primary thrust of this essay is that certain very fundamental aspects of the conflict between the Jewish State and the region’s Arab population have not changed. We must be aware, I believe, of these basic issues; concerns that both define the current status of the impasse, and the outlines of a future settlement. The underlying concepts have not changed. Indeed, they have really not changed since the rise of Zionism and a competing Arab nationalism. Other very important elements regarding the conflict, on the other hand, have indeed changed.
Prior to 1973, as already noted, the two parties to the conflict did not talk to each other. More to the point, they did not recognize each other’s existence! No Arab country would use the word “Israel” in either print or speech, preferring “the Zionist entity,” implying its transitory nature. The State of Israel not only considered communication with the Palestine Liberation Organization inappropriate, they made any formal or informal contact illegal. Egypt and Israel have had direct formal contact since 1975; Israel and the Palestinians publicly since 1993. The sides both talk to and fundamentally recognize the existence of the other.
Make no mistake: there is a small, vocal and not insignificant minority among Palestinians and Jews, who have not made peace with the reality of the other side. They are the tail that wags the dog. The persistence of their activities in word and deed continues to affect the perception of sincerity on the part of the respective sides. Palestinians who have come to accept the fact of a Jewish State on some piece of territory between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River, remain suspicious of Israel’s acceptance of an independent Arab state on the rest of that territory. And Israelis who are quite willing to support the abandonment of settlements throughout the West Bank and Gaza, are nonetheless unsure whether the Palestinians will accept a withdrawal as the end of the conflict, or just the first step in the overall elimination of the State.
The bigger mistake we can make, however, is to ignore the fact that it is a tail wagging a dog. Surveys have consistently revealed that a substantial majority of both Israeli Jews and Palestinians agree on the basic outline of a two-state settlement, and this position is not just tactical, but also a sincere recognition of the reality of two peoples and two nations. This state of affairs, that has been the case since 1993, and has persisted even in the violence and breakdown of relations that occurred in the first part of this decade, represents a sea-change in opinion from the past. Kenan and Pa’il were essentially voices in the wilderness, and the turn in Palestinian opinion is even more recent.
The prospects for an enduring settlement are admittedly less good than they were in the late 1990s, but considerably better than any time before 1993. The door is wide-open for leadership from the Palestine Authority and Israel to walk through. I think that we supporters of Israel who envision a just settlement, must nonetheless concede that, at this point in history, we need to have the Palestinians walk through that door first.
Peace will not happen until a Palestinian leadership actually responds to the needs and desires of its people, and prepares in good faith to make the compromises necessary for a settlement. There is nothing that Israel can do for the sake of a final peace-and this includes abandoning or even reducing settlements-before the Palestinians show they are ready. (The question of what to do with settlements and settlers prior to the resumption of genuine negotiations is a different sort of issue. It is not, however, a productive gesture of good faith, particularly if there is no evidence of any faith on the other side.) What Israel can and must do, is be ready. Peace will come, and Israel must work to be the sort of humane, democratic society as embodied in its own Declaration of Independence, that is worthy of receiving that peace.
Iraq: Mid-Decade Assessment
Five years ago, before the first shots were fired in the second Persian Gulf War, I wrote: “The Bush Administration wants to get rid of Saddam Hussein in the worst way.and they are going about it in the worst way!” Little did I know that this was an understatement.
By this point in time it is no longer especially insightful or politically courageous to call the U.S. adventure in Iraq a massive boondoggle. Outside of a very tiny coterie of Bush supporters, no one—not even those who might approve of American military actions right now—have been consistently in favor of this expensive, deadly, messy and extraordinarily inconclusive incursion. As the five year anniversary of Operation Shock and Awe approaches, let us take stock, particularly with respect to how this misadventure has affected Jews and Israel.
How did this happen?
First, it is worth remembering that there were very good reasons for getting rid of Saddam Hussein. Saddam was a moral monster. Paul Berman, a liberal writer and political thinker, noted back in 2003, that military action against Saddam was nearly inevitable. Since the conclusion of the first Gulf War in 1991, Iraq had been under severe restrictions. In addition to the weapons inspections that had destroyed virtually all of its war-making capability by 1998, and the no-fly zones in the north and south parts of the country, there were the economic sanctions that thoroughly crippled Iraq’s economy. Trade and investment in the nation was virtually nil. A U.N.-administered oil-for-food program was supposed to assure a minimal safety net of necessities for Iraq’s population.
What funds Iraq could acquire, particularly through corruption of oil-for-food, was going toward maintaining Saddam himself and a thin layer of the country’s politically connected elite. The Kurds in the north had worked a modus vivendi with Baghdad that permitted them some autonomy and a modest level of material well-being. The rest of the nation—its central, western and southern regions—were suffering.
The deprivation throughout Iraq was becoming enough of an international issue that in the early part of the decade, the pressure was growing to have the sanctions lifted. Uncovering the corruption in the U.N. program was certainly did not help. In late summer 2001, the situation was already coming to a head. In essence, Saddam was winning. By employing increasing oppression and tolerating intolerable levels of misery throughout the country, he was forcing world opinion to drop the sanctions. His grip on the nation would then be that much stronger. The sanctions might be lifted but the misery would only increase, and Saddam’s sons—probably worse than their father—were growing in power within the country. Something had to give.
The attack of 9/11, I believe, was less a catalyst to action on Iraq as it was a complicating agent. The problem of Saddam and sanctions was put temporarily on a back burner as the U.S., and the world, turned its focus on ‘al-Qaida and its host, the Taliban of Afghanistan. Through the balance of 2001 and early 2002, Iraq was not particularly in the news, but the problem Saddam posed within a human rights perspective had hardly gone away.
It is my sense that most readers of this essay were not especially aware of—or at least at this point five years later, had forgotten about—this particular burgeoning crisis over Iraq. The debate that began to brew in earnest during the summer 2002 regarding Saddam and Iraq highlighted terror links to ‘al-Qaida and weapons of mass destruction. Let me state my firm belief that neither terrorism nor WMD were a reason for the war.
After 1991, Iraq had been thoroughly inspected regarding its weapons cache, and by 1996, it had been sufficiently cleaned out of any capacity to engage in aggressive war-making. Even as the inspections had ended in the late 90s, the nation remained under intense scrutiny. In 2002, with fevered cries arising from the Administration that Saddam is building a massive stockpile of non-conventional weapons, many expert observers quietly stated that there was no evidence for such claims, and it was highly unlikely that he had anything useful or dangerous.
Were the CIA and other intelligence agencies wrong in their claims? Did the Bush Administration really thinking Saddam was building up a new chemical arsenal or producing nuclear bombs in the basement of one of his palaces? I frankly doubt it. The war began in mid-March, cutting short a new U.N.-mandated inspection regime that had been operating since the fall, precisely because the Administration could not afford to have the inspectors look too long, and therefore increase doubt that any WMD would be found!
Yes, I believe Bush, Chaney, Tenet, Rice, et. al., were lying. Yet, I do not believe this conclusion is as damning as it would appear. The White House’s aim was to make war is Iraq. People do not support war—that is, putting themselves and loved ones in harm’s way—without a strong belief that there is something worse than a number of soldiers’ deaths. The public, or at least a sufficient number of them, had to be convinced that the sacrifice of a few (or even many) American deaths was worth the outcome. If the value of removing Saddam was sufficiently high in philosophic, political, and/or long-run strategic terms, then the ruse of claiming that the U.S. was in physical or existential danger might be worth it. (You might think I am claiming that it is legitimate to assert the ends justify the means. In this case, the means is not lying or dissembling about WMDs, it is placing individuals in physical danger. Such determination always requires a difficult balancing of values: how many soldiers should die for what end?) WMDs were therefore an excuse, but not a reason for the invasion.
A number of reasons, however, can be put forward:
Winners and Losers
I think it is clear that all of these reasons—and the first one I mentioned regarding the sanctions crisis—contributed to the decision to invade Iraq and remove Saddam. In hindsight, however, it is also clear that the serious thinking regarding invasion and ‘regime change’ only extended to roughly May 1, 2003, the day President Bush landed on the aircraft carrier festooned with the banner “Mission Accomplished.” Thomas Ricks, the Washington Post journalist and author of one the nearly uncountable books on the Iraq war, Fiasco, has remarked that the Administration prosecuted the war and its aftermath with exclusive consideration of best case scenarios. He added that one does not even plan a wedding that way!
And once more with clarifying hindsight, this situation seems to fit the personalities and aims of the three principal promoters of the war: Rumsfeld, Chaney and Bush.
Donald Rumsfeld became Secretary of Defense in order to recast America’s armed forces. He wanted to reduce its reliance on military personnel, halt spending on materiel designed to support a large ground force, and pour spending in the newest technologies. For him, Iraq represented an excellent stage in which to prove the capabilities of a slimmed down but highly advanced attack force. (Primitive Afghanistan was hardly a good example.) So, within weeks, Iraq regular army and elite guard had been routed. Old-time military commanders, like General Anthony Zinni (who had pushed for an invasion force of over 300,000) and by implication Colin Powell, were rebuffed. The Rumsfeld Doctrine had succeeded admirably. By May 1, Rumsfeld’s goals had been achieved, and I would guess that as far as he was concerned, the management of Iraq was now someone else’s responsibility. [I think of the line by the satirist Tom Lehrer regarding the noted émigré German rocket scientist: “I send them up/Who cares where they come down/That’s not my department/says Werner von Braun.]
Vice President Dick Cheney has been untiring in his promotion of the unfettered power of the Executive Branch in time of war. He also seems to believe that it always a time of war. The enemy is always at the gates. Some call this attitude the paranoiac style. I think rather it suggests a thoroughly pessimistic and dyspeptic view of humankind. Life, at very best, for Cheney is nasty, brutal and short. Thus, it is only prudent to get them before they get you. Planning after the invasion of Iraq, in his mind was probably a useless waste of time. Even the most thorough and carefully thought out plans would probably fail. Why bother?
Finally, there is President Bush, certainly the laziest person intellectually to occupy the White House in the last hundred years. The track record of this entire Administration has been to take the easiest line of action; that which requires the least amount of serious planning and follow-through. Ideas have been promoted—hydrogen power, stopping genocide in Darfur, promoting a Palestinian State, privatizing Social Security, among many others—that were pronounced in earnestness and then quietly dropped. It strikes me moreover that Bush is a firm believer in karma. He was an accidental President, and his re-election was the narrowest of any returned incumbent in American history. For Bush, as Rumsfeld once put it, “stuff happens.” He seems perfectly willing to allow some long-term perspective of history—well after he is dead and gone—to judge whether anything in this oddly detached Presidency is to be praised.
Because they have been unapologetic and basically impervious to criticism, these three have come out as more winners than losers. Bush and Cheney got two full terms and control of Congress from 2002 through 2006, which, if nothing else, has allowed for the near creation of a radically conservative Supreme Court. Rumsfeld, as noted, got his chance to display his military doctrine.
As for losers, one can say it is virtually everyone else (except perhaps for all the executives of all the privately contracted services and corporations who have done fairly well on the taxpayers’ dollars.) Among the bigger losers (again, not counting the thousands of soldiers and Iraqi civilians who have been casualties of this war):
1. Democrats, at least initially. What began as a non-partisan debate with liberals and conservatives on both sides of the issue of invasion, was masterfully made partisan by the Administration. The Democratic Party was pushed into a corner, unable to overcome the patriotic hype and jingoistic bluster.
One can say the Republicans, more recently, have been losers, too, but the loss of both houses of Congress in 2006, and potentially greater setbacks in 2008, might be laid as much to corruption, overreaching on social issues (as in the Terri Schiavo affair), and poor management of the economy, as to the debacle in Iraq.
2. Paul Wolfowitz. More than anyone else, Wolfowitz embodied the neo-conservative foundation for a pre-emptive attack on Iraq. He was also the most consistent voice in the Administration for having the removal of Saddam be the basis of a democratization of Iraq. In the end, he lost out in three ways: first with having to leave the Dept. of Defense, then being pushed out of the presidency of the World Bank, and finally in the ineptness in which the post-war process has been handled.
3. The Generals and the Intelligence Agencies. Colin Powell had to endure both the rejection of his doctrine of engaging the enemy with overwhelming force (a position that was supported actively or tacitly by virtually every Army commander), and the embarrassment of a weakened and ineffective Department of State. The CIA, NSA, FBI, and the rest of intelligence establishment, in its inability to resist the insistent demand for “cooked” data, have been widely denounced as politicized and/or ineffective.
4. The U.S. Economy. The invasion of Iraq and its aftermath has already used up a half-trillion dollars in direct costs, and perhaps as much or more in related expenditures (health care, lost employment time, etc.) As large as these figures are, they represent a small percentage of the total domestic economy, yet they undoubtedly deform the American market in ways that can hardly be considered good.
The analogy might be the Vietnam War, another war of choice prosecuted with no concomitant demand for economic sacrifice on the part of Americans (some of you will remember “guns and butter.”) As the American military commitment wound down, the U.S. endured an extended period of economic pain. I have no direct knowledge of any authoritative analysis linking that war with the malaise of the 70s, but I strongly doubt that the two phenomena were purely coincidental.
5. Finally, Israel.
The Lost Seven Years
Indulge me for a moment while I quote from a letter I sent to Rabbi Eric Yoffie, President of the Union for Reform Judaism, in March 2003, just before the bombing started. In the previous fall, the URJ Board had voted to endorse a pre-emptive attack on Iraq, but only if certain conditions had been met. As war had become virtually inevitable, I wrote my colleague questioning what the URJ was going to do as the attack was coming and almost none of the conditions had been obtained. Near the end of the letter, I added the following:
I fear that the benefits for Israel are to accrue only if something close to the very best case scenario is achieved: the victory is quick and relatively painless, Iraqis do truly feel liberated and not invaded, the population mix of Sunni, Shiite and Kurds remains stable and cooperative, other Arab states feel constrained to suppress groups that might be bent on suicidal terror against American interests, the costs to the American economy turn out to be relatively low, and certain material benefits such as lower oil costs are realized very quickly, and the sullenness, fear and resentment felt in Europe and elsewhere over this display of American might dissipates in the face of the overall good feeling that would arise from the fall of such a tyrant.
These circumstances, not impossible but hardly assured, would free American administrative, political, economic and diplomatic resources in order to focus on providing for a stable and safe Jewish State.If less than the best-case is realized, however—excessive bloodshed, an administrative nightmare in Iraq, continued economic uncertainty, increased incidents of terrorism (whether successful or not; even failure can heighten anxiety)—and at best, the U.S. will continue to be too distracted to assist in the continued stalemate that grips the Israel-Palestine crisis.
And in something akin to worst case, a prolonged conflict and worsening economic conditions in the States, and it is not hard to imagine a beleaguered Administration playing the Israel/Jewish card by sacking Wolfowitz, Feith and Perle, and muttering about Sharon’s pressure. I repeat, is this military action specifically in the way it has been brought about, really good for Israel and American Jews?
I think we can conclude five years later that the prediction of the first paragraph clearly did not happen, the second paragraph clearly did, and the third paragraph has come uncomfortably close. From the start of the Bush Administration, the Oslo Peace Process that had defined the Israel-Palestine negotiations for the previous seven years was at an end. The process had already taken a blow from the failure of the 2000 Camp David talks among Arafat, Israeli PM Barak and Clinton to reach some resolution, and were hurt further by the violence of the ‘al-Aksa intifada’ that began at the end of September. The negotiations, however, continued between Israeli and Palestinian representatives—with American mediation—continued all the way to the day before Bush’s inauguration.
Continuation of negotiations was going to be disrupted anyway as a new Administration sorts out its own personal and diplomatic style. In the case of Bush, however, the mantra appeared to be that whatever Clinton did, they would do something else. A serious and sustained American effort, a la Oslo, was over.
This ‘benign neglect’ was only exacerbated by first, the upheaval brought about by 9/11, and then, the campaign in Iraq. American interests and focus had definitively turned from Israel-Palestine, which for decades had been both the emotional and geographic center of tumult in the Middle East, to a nation that was on edge.
It certainly appeared that Bush was giving Ariel Sharon (who succeeded Barak only three weeks after Bush succeeded Clinton) a relatively free hand in which to deal with the spate of violence—particularly suicide bombings—that plagued the Jewish State in 2001 and 2002. And thus, many observers concluded that Bush was more “pro-Israel” than either of his two predecessors (that is, more pro-Israel than his own father!) It was equally true that the White House was also abandoning any influence it might have brought to bear on the Palestinian Authority, making them considerably weaker in any effort to restrain the more radical and nihilistic elements. At the same time, it was abandoning Sharon, leaving him with the extremely difficult task of stopping terror violence against Israeli citizens while avoiding undue oppression that could only make the situation worse. Sharon was not up to the task, although he handled the near impossible circumstances much better than I expected.
In getting bogged down in Iraq, the Administration did not play the Israel/Jewish card, but the card has been played! From the start, some opponents of Iraq adventure have suggested that the real impetus behind the invasion was Israel. The continued identification of the White House Iraq policy with neo-conservatives, and neo-conservatives with certain prominent Jews was enough to place the Jewish community in the center of the debate.
In the subsequent years, with the U.S. stuck in Iraq, and the circumstances for Palestinians having become increasingly frayed, there have been signs of growing frustration among prominent mainstream institutions with both Israel and the American Jewish community. The Episcopal, Presbyterian and United Methodist Churches have all seriously contemplated a divestment policy aimed at punishing Israel for its reputed oppression of Palestinians. Former President Carter wrote a book that foolishly and intemperately accused Israelis of engaging in apartheid. Finally, two well respected political science scholars, Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, produced an academically sloppy and superficial work attempting to detail how an Israel Lobby was strangling U.S. policy in the Middle East.
No, the Bush Administration has never gone as far as actively fostering the notion that the fix we are in in Iraq can be laid at the feet of Israel and Jews. In a mixture of anger and incredulity over the mess—both the violence in Iraq and the missed opportunities in Israel/Palestine—some otherwise thoughtful individuals have made the spurious connections for them.
I hope you can recognize that my remarks are not partisan. Either a President Al Gore or a President John McCain (if the Republican primaries in 2000 played out differently) might have had to make military decisions regarding Iraq, and undoubtedly would have handled the situation much better. Rather than being partisan, my remarks are ad hominem. The boondoggle that is Iraq can be laid squarely at the feet of George W. Bush.
There is both bad news and good news in this conclusion. The bad news is the plethora of bad news that has occurred regarding Iraq, the U.S. economy, the Middle East in general, and the hundreds of thousands lost and shattered lives, particularly since “Mission Accomplished.” The good news is that in the big picture of international relations, it is really nothing (nicht gornicht). However, low esteem for the United States might have fallen throughout the world, no nation dropped or degraded its formal relations with America. Even after six years of mostly observing a deteriorating situation in the Palestinian territories, the Administration could summon Arab leadership—including Saudi Arabia and Syria—for a conference intended to restore negotiations toward two states.
The last five-to-seven years have been like a bad dream. On January 20, 2009, regardless of who is sworn in as the next President, it is realistic to believe that we can begin waking up.
The Road to Iraq
Costs, Risks & Responsibilities
The Argument for Intervention
The Bush Administration wants to get rid of Saddam Hussein in the worst way. And they are going about it in the worst way!
One of the really sad aspects of the current worldwide crisis is that there have been cogent and thoughtful arguments made in favor of potential military intervention in Iraq, and they have been mostly put forward by people who are known for a liberal bent. Virtually no one anywhere is defending Hussein. Saddam Hussein is no Hitler, and this is not a replay of a 1930s scenario regarding military engagement with Germany or appeasement. (More on this later.) Hussein, however, is a Stalin. The danger he personally poses within Iraq, the region and beyond cannot and should not be minimized.
There have been some popular but weak arguments to suggest that the US should nonetheless not bother with Hussein and Iraq. Let me touch upon them:
1. Osama bin Ladn and al Qaeda and North Korea, among others, are bigger threats. When one is fundamentally opposed to one course of action, it is common ploy to suggest that there are more important and pressing concerns. Terrorism has been brought home as real and pressing threat since Sept. 11, and there is no good connection between Iraq and al Qaeda (nor should we expect there to be). North Korea is possibly more Stalinist than Iraq, and might well already have nuclear armaments. China, the scourge of AIDS, rising homelessness in New York City, there are always problems. Their existence and the need to deal with them, however, do not negate the issue of Saddam Hussein.
2. Hussein was a U.S. ally and client in the 70s and 80s. This is hardly a secret, but so what? Hindsight is 20/20. The U.S. made different calculations then, or we misunderstood just how venal Hussein was, or Saddam Hussein changed. I think it is a combination of all three. Ba’athist philosophy (the political movement that supported both Saddam in Iraq and Hafez ‘al Assad in Syria) was predicated on pan-Arabism. In due time, the thinking went, there would be a single political unit encompassing all the Arab speaking people from Morocco to Iraq (including the land of Israel). Saddam Hussein clearly imagined that he could one day be the natural leader of this massive state. Through the 1970s, he sought to build up the fortunes of the Iraqi people, instituting universal education, modernizing industry and agriculture and building up the country’s infrastructure, all in the expectation that Iraq would be the vanguard, and Baghdad would once again be the center of the Arab-speaking world.
The 1980 attack on Iran should be understood as not simply some effort at a territorial expansion, but rather as the principled defense of the Arabs against a Persian religious chauvinist, whose aggressive Shi’ism was threat to Arab unity. Imagine his disappointment and anger, when none of the other Arab nations came to his aid. I would surmise that Hussein concluded that the heads of the Arab States were all corrupt and petty, more interested in their own fiefdoms than in the glorious future of Arabdom. (This perception ironically is close to that held by most progressive observers of the Middle East, and by Osama bin Ladn!) With his prosecution of the Iran-Iraq war, his treatment of internal opposition and interest groups, and the invasion of Kuwait, we witnessed a single-minded leader move from preparing a population to be a vanguard to bending his every effort toward fighting all enemies, real or imagined.
Whatever the U.S. policy mistakes of the 80s and earlier, it is not the 80s any longer. The circumstances and threat Hussein poses is quite different.
3. Yes, Saddam Hussein should go, but not by the U.S. Ideally, the Iraqis themselves should throw Hussein out, as should the North Koreans Kim Jong Il, the Burmese their military junta, and the Serbs should have deposed Milosovic. It does not happen that way. The American revolutionaries, even with an oppressive government an ocean away and whose military was stretched by other colonial adventures, required the assistance of the French in order to be successful.
OK, the Iraqis need help, but why must it be the U. S.? If military force is necessary (the ‘if’ is important, but more on that below), the American military is by far the best equipped to do the job with the greatest efficiency and the least collateral damage. The research and development portion of the American defense budget alone is larger than the combined military expenditures of most of Europe. Some other armed force, European or Arab, could probably do the job. It would take a lot longer with a far more casualties. The U.S. military, further, is so much more advanced than any other army, any coalition would be only a fig leaf. As in the Persian Gulf in 1991, and in Kosovo and again in Afghanistan, the principal fighting would be done under American command.
4. Finally, Why Iraq? Why now? To which the simple answer is: Why not, and if not now, when? The U.S., from the time of its founding, has asserted a promotion and defense of fundamental human rights. (“When in the course of human events.We find these truths to be self-evident.”) Throughout its history, the government has tended to shy away from this proclaimed value, and other times it has liberally mixed it with heavy doses of self- or special-interests. It has nonetheless been a persistent value, and has its place among the considerations for both domestic (civil rights, suffrage, child labor laws, etc.) and foreign policy. Some might object that is imposing Western values on other societies. One does not have to be an absolutist or a chauvinist to recognize that certain values that pertain to the dignity of each person’s body, mind and spirit might be universal.
More to the point, I think, is the issue of what one can do when. Universal human rights might be asserted for everywhere, but they cannot always be implemented everywhere at the same time. Consider North Korea and Iraq. Which has a better chance of being freed from tyranny? North Korea is impoverished with a highly regimented and poorly educated population. Iraq has considerable natural resources, a rather loose societal and economic structure and relatively good education. If the police state were removed (one way or another) from both states, I imagine Iraqis might experience some genuine political freedom, while North Korea would probably move into another form of debilitating autocracy, like Belarus or Liberia.
The call for greater human rights in Iraq has been made in certain circles for nearly twenty years now. The voices were muted and mostly lost in the mixed of issues ranging from the waning Cold War, militant Iran, emerging China, and the Oslo peace process. Two developments have changed the perspectives. First, there was the bombing of Kosovo, a sustained military action on the part of the U.S. and NATO specifically in response to a human rights crisis. The intervention opened the door in American political debate for future similar actions. The second was September 11. The American body politic was prepared for the use of force within the context of self-defense, even if the threat was no longer clear and immediate. The time is right. If Saddam Hussein could have been forced out of power years ago – even before the Gulf War – -it should have been done.
How Not to Go to War
The case for intervention in Iraq is admittedly pragmatic and inconsistent. It has at its core, however, a fundamental concern for human rights, and the recognition that, on the one hand, Saddam Hussein is irretrievably a potential source of a great deal of human suffering, and, on the other hand, that his removal presents a realistic possibility of genuine good. This assessment leaves just one strong argument in opposition: the Bush Administration is in favor of it!
Without a doubt, this administration makes very many people ill-at-ease. Although the White House repeats continuously that it is speaking with moral clarity, it is precisely its morality that is in doubt. At heart, it has been the shifting reasons and rationales for attempting this intervention. Is it to stop terrorism? To make a rogue nation comply with U.N. resolutions? To bring freedom and democracy to a beleaguered people? To protect the American people from an imminent or potential threat? All of these reasons have been proffered. The fundamental problem is not merely that as rationales they are not quite in consonance with each other, nor necessarily supported by the facts on the ground, it is also that they give the unmistakable aura (whether actually true or not) that the real reason is being hidden.
There are at least three unspoken motivations for military action against Iraq: completing the job that Bush senior left unfinished, gaining control of the second largest oil reserve in the world, and allowing Israel to have unfettered dominion over the West Bank and Gaza. The White House and supporters have firmly rejected these notions as aims. Maybe this is the case. Unfortunately, these statements have not been backed up with any clear policy or action that would confirm that the accusations are unfounded.
Completing “Daddy’s” war frames the confrontation with Iraq as basically America’s fight. The Administration’s slowness and diffidence regarding the assembly of a broad international coalition continues to give the impression that the U.S. is prepared to go it alone.
In the last State of the Union address, Bush did make a gesture toward reduction of dependence on oil by announcing a dramatic increase in funding for hydrogen cell research. Not only has the initiative turned out to be much less than it first appeared, it has not been accompanied by any other effort reduce (or even to slow an increase in) oil usage. Such lack of concern about energy consumption is particularly unseemly in an Administration whose two top positions are held by people heavily involved in the oil industry.
Finally, the focus on Iraq has represented a clear shift away from Israel-Palestine, which seemed to occupy most of the world up through the first half of 2002. Administration efforts to move toward resolution or even reduction of the violence and tension in that region has always been fitful, and has essentially disappeared. In the dissolution of the Oslo process, Israel has reasserted real and potential authority over the West Bank and Gaza, and the U.S. has shown mostly indifference.
For many, the argument in support of intervention has had to be promoted in spite of the White House, rather than in line with it.
Sideline: Saddam and Hitler
The pivotal point of the debate over Iraq has been over Saddam Hussein’s intentions. Hussein did use chemical weapons on Kurds in the latter years of the Iran-Iraq war. He did invade Kuwait. He has maintained a cruel and oppressive police state. He has sought nuclear armaments, and had a stockpile of chemical arms. What we know he had was mostly destroyed by the mid-90s, along with much of the weapon-making capability that Iraq had in the 80s. It is however quite naïve to suggest that Iraq is currently defenseless and no longer dangerous. There are weapons and a capability that has not been accounted for since inspectors left the country five years ago. The critical question that has animated much of the argument over intervention has been just how dangerous is Hussein and Iraq now, and how dangerous will, or can, they become.
Those who suggest that the danger Iraq currently and potentially poses is overblown, are countered with charges of appeasement. More than once, a commentator or defender of pre-emptive action has drawn a parallel with England (Chamberlain) and Germany (Hitler) in the 1930s. Without casting judgment on the advisability of intervention, the connection with Hitler is specious.
First, Hussein is no Hitler, either in deeds or attitude. As I noted before, he is probably closer to Stalin, which many people might conclude is bad enough. More to the point, Iraq is not 1930s Germany. In 1938, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain went to Berlin and met with the relatively new (five years) Chancellor of Germany, Adolf Hitler. He negotiated away the German-speaking portion of Czechoslovakia-Sudetenland-and declared as a result that ‘peace in our time’ had been achieved. A leader of the Conservative opposition in England, Winston Chuchill, strenuously objected to the negotiation. A little over a year later, Europe was plunged into war.
Conventional thinking has sided with Churchill, particularly in his heroic resistance to the German air assault in 1940. Chamberlain is treated as the naïve, foolish gentleman who frittered away the excellent opportunity to stop Hitler much earlier. One cannot disagree that the Prime Minister was excessively optimistic in his assessment of peace, but he might not have been so naïve or foolish.
Germany might have been defeated and impoverished following the First World War, but it was nonetheless the most sophisticated and powerful industrial society in Europe. It had excellent natural resources and superb technical expertise. In the five years that Hitler assumed power, he had begun to bend those talents and material toward rebuilding a war machine. By 1938, Germany was considerably more formidable than any other single European country. Chamberlain undoubtedly knew this. Even in a coalition with France and other European countries, military confrontation would have been risky. In essence, he was negotiating from weakness. Only some concession would undercut the pretext for war that Hitler was probably looking for, and buy the time necessary for Great Britain to begin a rearmament campaign of its own. Yes, Chamberlain underestimated Hitler’s malevolence and megalomania. Churchill, however, was the recipient of the wherewithal that his disgraced predecessor had begun to assemble, that allowed him to check the German onslaught in the first place.
Saddam Hussein is no Hitler, and Iraq is not 1930s Germany. The U.S., not to mention most of the rest of Europe, are not negotiating out of weakness. Hussein’s leadership would be obliterated in a manner similar to the Taliban of Afghanistan if his country were actually materially connected to a terror attack anywhere in the Western world. Opposition to war in Iraq may or may not be the best course, but it certainly is not a form of 1930s appeasement.
The Irresponsibility of Responsibility
To summarize up to now, a good (both in the sense of being sound, and representing an ethical standpoint) argument can be made for action in Iraq. The argument, however, has been more hindered than promoted by the policies and pronouncements of the Bush administration. What is going on here?
I want to look at this issue from two sides. The first is a guess about how things have become so bad. The second represents even greater speculation about whether things are not as bad as they seem. Please note that I am placing myself firmly out on a rather flimsy limb. I have no idea what President Bush or his most influential advisers are thinking (if they are thinking at all). So far, however, no shots have been fired. Only when there is a resolution, one way or another, of the current situation, will truly reasonable analysis be possible. So, what I am doing now is more a meditation on possibilities. I think there are useful lessons and insights even in this highly speculative exercise.
Why is the situation so bad, with much of the world (including steadfast ally England) thinking that the U.S. is much more of a danger than Iraq? I start with the NY Times obituary of Walter Rostow a few weeks ago. Rostow was one of the “best and the brightest,” David Halberstam’s expression for the Kennedy-Johnson era foreign policy team that dragged the U.S. into the muck of the Vietnam War. Rostow himself might have been the best and brightest. He has always been identified as one of the most persistent and articulate promoters for increased involvement in Southeast Asia. He was supremely confident and highly optimistic in the probability of success in his policy decisions. The Times obit noted that Rostow chose not to discuss Vietnam very much after he left public service, but he never retracted his position that his advice was not sound, only that it was not properly or sufficiently enthusiastically implemented.
Rostow’s example represents two significant flaws that might currently underpin the Bush approach to Iraq. The first is the combination of optimism and confidence. Such an attitude does not arise out of foolhardiness. I do not doubt for a moment that Rostow was a thoughtful and insightful individual. No, I think the flaw is a deeper one that arises from a fundamental misunderstanding of power and leadership. I will explain through an anecdote:
A number of years ago, I participated in a workshop on leadership. The facilitator presented us with the problem that sought to emphasize the difference between positions and interests. Two people are in a library on a hot day. One opens the window. A few minutes later, the other shuts it. The first opens it again. The second shuts it, and so it goes. Clearly, these are their positions: one wants an open library window, the other shut. Their interests are however, that one is hot and wants ventilation. The other has papers spread on a table that are disturbed by the draft caused from an open window.
The facilitator then asked for a solution. Someone suggested that they open another window. “Very good,” the facilitator said. “Now, come up with other solutions.” At that point, I asked why. If we have come up with a perfectly good solution that satisfies both sides’ interests, why should we look further. The facilitator answered, that one should never be limited to just one good solution. Perhaps, no other window in the library will open.
The Administration seems to have hit upon what they consider to be a perfectly adequate solution to the perceived problem, and all other avenues – some potentially better, others not as good – have been bracketed out. [As one pundit put it: When you have a hammer in your hand, everything starts to look like a nail.] This attitude, exemplified by Walter Rostow, leads to the second flaw, a cramped understanding of responsibility.
Responsibility has two connotations. One is the standard of achievement (or failure) for a current situation. Who’s responsibility is the current crisis in Iraq; meaning, who takes the credit or blame. The second is in connection to “response,” specifically the obligation to respond to a need or request. Inherent in the second connotation – and masked in the first – is an awareness of another entity making the request to which you respond. At its heart, responsibility must always start with response.
If responsibility begins with response, then we should ask: respond to what? Respond to whom? When everyone exercises responsibility, they are responding to something. The failure that was exemplified by Walt Rostow, and seems to be repeated by the current Administration, is an unwillingness to respond enough. The beginning of responsibility is in responding to everything. There are the urgings of supporters and the demurrals of opponents; there is history, tradition, and broadly accepted standards of conduct; and there is the prompting of your own heart. All must be listened to; all must be taken into account and evaluated. And even as a course of action is determined, responsibility demands that one continue to respond, to hear all the voices. Throughout the whole process, from the initial demand to act through its final resolution, responsibility never ends.
Most of us tend to limit our responsibility. We choose a course of action, sometimes barely aware of what combination of demands, exigencies and prejudices led to the choice, and then bracket out any arguments or developments that might halt or alter our action. And if it fails, so sure are we of the initial rightness of the course, we can only blame others or circumstances beyond our control. Hence, Walter Rostow remained unapologetic.
There is one other dynamic in this ir-responsibility: as one has more power and authority, the personal sense of responsibility – which actually should become greater, as more people are potentially affected by the decisions made – tends to reduce. The “response” of responsibility often becomes more limited, more circumscribed to a smaller circle of voices. In its place is a sense that the decision made and the action taken is the responsibility itself. Hence, the Bush Administration strenuously claims that it is exhibiting the responsibility of its great power, all the while it is less and less willing to respond.
On the Other Hand
The great sage Hillel used to say: Do not judge another person until you have stood in his place [Avot 2:4]. Much of this essay has comprised a judgment of the Bush Administration as it seems to rush toward military intervention in Iraq. From my observation post, I tend to see an arrogant, irresponsible and muddled exercise of power. This assertion is reinforced by the impression of an intellectually lazy, authoritarian President, whose advisors are firmly embedded in the military-industrial complex. Must we conclude that there is no considered thoughtfulness operating within the White House; that the Administration would actually commit to a war for which the risks that would arise from anything but the absolute best-case scenario are so enormous and far-reaching? Are they all that venal and/or stupid?
I could be wrong, but I really wish to believe this is not the case. Let me, therefore, attempt to lay out a scenario that suggests some modicum of insight, wisdom and prudence within White House policy. I do so for the reasons I have already laid out. We must consider alternatives, and we must take seriously all the voices speaking to us, even – especially – those we might find objectionable, if we are going to be responsible.
To begin, what do we really want? It is not the disarmament of Iraq. Any reasonable examination of the facts at hand suggest that Iraq is not currently particularly dangerous. It had its arms cache and manufacturing capabilities rather thoroughly dismantled as part of the earlier inspection and disarmament protocol following the Gulf War. We can assume that Hussein has indeed been trying to hide some chemical or biological weapons, but they are almost certainly only a portion of the capacity he had in the 1980s, and they are old and degraded. Disarmament would be only a marginal reduction of the threat that Iraq poses today.
What is really wanted is the removal of Saddam Hussein from power. Like Milosovic in Yugoslavia, Mobuto in Zaire, Marcos of the Philippines, Suharto in Indonesia, Hussein is an irredeemable scourge to his own people. Further, the misery that resides within Iraq has in the past spilled out beyond its borders. As long as Saddam Hussein resides in control there can only be further misery and danger. Sooner or later, Hussein must go. Why, for the sake of people’s lives should it be later?
For the sake of people’s lives, however, how can it be earlier if the only means of accomplishing that is war? Although it both prolongs misery in the country and creates some heightened risk outside it, the current containment (that is, the later removal of Hussein by age, illness or palace coup) of Iraq in which it is maintained as a relatively impoverished and weak power, is certainly preferable to the ravages of war. The alternative is a high-probability campaign of pressuring Hussein to leave on his own.
The key to a campaign is dependent first on the belief that Hussein is not suicidal. This surmise tends to fit into his history of him doing whatever he can do in order to remain alive. Thus, an effort must be mounted to create a truly credible threat to his life; not assassination, of course (a terrible precedent), but rather invasion with the aim being the elimination of Iraq’s regime. This threat requires two elements: a recognizably powerful nation making nothing but hawkish noises, and an initial and “principled” opposition so that military action is not set off prematurely. Then, the pressure must be steadily raised. The threatening power must be loud, shrill, virtually obsessive in its wish to flatten its enemy. The opposition must appear to be restraining the power by the skin of its teeth, yet also permitting a process that moves forward that continues to put pressure on Iraq.
Regime change cannot be publicly called for in the international arena, but a thorough disarmament can. Of course, the method by which this disarmament is going to take place is designed to be flawed in and of itself, so that the inspection group can never actually certify that the goal has been achieved. Remember, disarmament is not the goal; regime change is. The “principled” opposition will one-by-one sadly and reluctantly conclude that Iraq’s defiance of U.N. resolutions is irremediable, and agree that military intervention is necessary. Hussein will be pushed to the end of its rope, with only the choices of certain death and destruction, or an honorable retirement in some willing host country left.
If this is the plan, then the Administration’s role is precisely to seem impetuous and irresponsible. Nations such as Germany, Russia and maybe even France (I personally think that Russia is the linchpin) take the principled opposition role, preparing to turn at the proper moment. Saddam Hussein goes into exile, and the international community both pats itself on the back and praises the U.S. for its restraint.
Is this scenario fantasy? Perhaps, but it also saves me from having a blinkered opinion of the Bush Administration, which is so satisfying on other grounds. Further, for all its noise about going into Iraq alone, and for all its build-up and preparations for war, the Administration continues to allow the diplomatic process to move ahead. The hot dusty weather in Iraq is fast approaching and no shot has yet been fired.
In many ways I believe that thoughtful Jews have been backed into a corner. What do you do when a right intention is backed for all the wrong reasons? Any initiative involving the Middle East must be of close interest to Jews. There are always implications for Israel.
Official Israel, whether Labor or Likud, has expressed support for the American position. What else can they do? The U.S. has been a consistent supporter and patron of Israel’s interests. Whatever private reservations any Israeli in a public position might have, it would not be wise to voice them. I have no doubt, however, that there are concerns.
A neutralized Iraq can only be a good thing. Iraq, particularly its Ba’athist ideology, has been one of the most consistent and strident opponents of Israel’s existence. The removal of Saddam Hussein would definitely relieve Israelis of a constant source of anxiety. It might relieve them of having to deal with the Palestinians as well. President Bush has said that he will concentrate on a Palestinian State once Iraq is disposed of. Even the most optimistic outcome in an Iraq war would leave the U.S. to be heavily occupied with clean up and nation building for a number of years to come. From the start, the Bush Administration has been reluctant to do anything with this issue, except in the most superficial way. The loss of a good patron and important supporter in Saddam Hussein will leave the Palestinians severely crippled. Their aspirations would be dependent more than ever on the good will of the Israelis themselves. I think this situation might engender one of the most significant internal crises since the 1982 incursion into Lebanon.
This circumstance is based on a very good outcome in the ouster of Hussein. Anything less than good – military setbacks, severe terrorist reactions, volatility or chaos among the liberated Iraqis, a severe American backlash to the cost and violence of being in Iraq – and the situation becomes more parlous for Israel. Palestinian militants will certainly take heart. Europe, much more important to Israel’s political and economic fortunes than normally recognized, might wish to be more distanced from the U.S. and its dependent Jewish State. The worst-case would be a White House so beleaguered by events not quite turning out as they optimistically predicted, attempting to find political cover by intimating that their actions were being driven by Israel and its American supporters (read Jews) all along. We, Americans and Jews, have been pulled into a very high risk game.
The natural thing to do is to cast blame: it is the fault of
We must remember that Bush did not invite the attacks of September 11, and Saddam Hussein did not order them. Yet, the spectacle and tragedy of that day, combined with a massive complex of other events, has thrown the two into direct confrontation, and also has drawn most of the rest of the world into the crisis. Just because the current predicament can be laid to the irresponsible belligerence of the White House and the irresponsible cruelty and defiance of the Iraqi leadership, our own responsibility is not relieved.
We must discern and declare our own interests. I do not mean our position, pro or against the White House, but our interests. How do we balance our wishes for security and well-being, with the traditional rights and safeguards of our country? How do we envision a peaceful and secure Israel in the midst of the Muslim Middle East? How are cruel and dangerous tyrannies to be opposed and suppressed? It is our responsibility to speak our opposition to the Administration’s bullying preparation for war, while acknowledging the validity of its (and America’s) concerns about a potential source of anxiety and insecurity. It is our responsibility to evaluate the risks and costs of armed intervention in Iraq, with the risks and costs of the current program of containment, and to recognize that the choice is neither obvious nor simple. Finally, it is our responsibility to dream dreams-of a secure Israel in the midst of a stable and democratic Middle East, and of a prosperous and just United States-without either giving up on our dreams because they are fantasies, or assuming because we can dream them they must become real.
There are plenty of dreams out there, and we all must wake up.
Seven Fat Years
In September 1993, Yitzhak Rabin and Yaser Arafat stunned the world by announcing that they had agreed to the accords that established the framework for a peace process between Israel and the Palestinians. In September 2000, the Israelis and Palestinians become engaged in widespread violence and fighting such as had not been experienced in the region since the days of the Intifada uprisings of a dozen years before. The peace process seems to be lying in tatters.
Almost to the day, the process known as the Oslo Accords lasted for seven years. The length of time recalls the seven years in the Joseph story. There, Joseph predicts before Pharaoh that Egypt and its environs will enjoy a span of productivity followed by a period of famine. Have we just concluded another span of seven fat years?
From the start, it is worth considering—as many have—whether the last seven years should be called fat at all. There has been antagonism to the Oslo Accords from the time they were first articulated. From the Israeli and Jewish point of view (the two are not synonymous, but more on that some other time), the opposition can be expressed into two general lines of argument. One is an idealist position: that it is simply impermissible to surrender any of the land captured in 1967, either because Israel has a right of conquest, or—more commonly expressed—giving up the land contravenes God’s promise as exemplified in the miracle of 1948 and 1967. The second position is more social-political, arguing that the Palestinians are simply not sincere. Negotiations, for them, do not represent a real attempt of arriving at some accommodation for two peoples to share the same piece of land, but rather a tactic in pursuit of their ultimate goal, the destruction of the Jewish State.
However reasoned, the opposition stance posits that the last seven years have not been fat, but rather a mirage. The breakdown in the process represented by the latest wave of violence serves triumphantly to support their point: Now all Israelis, Jews and their supporters know for sure that there never was a peace process at all.
Some long-time defenders of the Oslo Accords and the subsequent negotiations appear to have conceded the point. They argue however, that the past seven years have nonetheless been modestly fat. Yes, it might be true that the whole process was a sham, that Arafat never had either the ability or the interest in forging a territorial accommodation along the lines envisioned by Oslo. But until the September breakdown, this was not clear. The process showed the world that Israel was indeed an honest partner in the search for peace, and not a remorseless oppressor of an indigenous people as the Arab world had been claiming. Since 1967, world opinion had tended to support the prospect that Palestinians and Israelis must talk directly with each other in order to work out their differences. Starting in 1993, and for the next seven years, Israel and Palestine actually did talk. They tried, it failed, and now all Israelis and all but the world’s most biased observers will know who is at fault.
Before pursuing an alternative view of events, let us accept the proposition suggested above that Oslo is dead, the peace process is over. What now? In this context, a number of scenarios can be suggested, but they all have at their root that the Israel-Palestinian issue is now at a stable impasse. Palestinians and Arabs will want the Jewish State to disappear. They will agitate in international forums and occasionally launch military expeditions. Neither, however, will be successful. They were not successful in four wars. They were not successful in numerous terrorist attacks. They were not successful even in the 70’s and 80’s when Palestinians enjoyed their widest and most sympathetic support on the world stage. This sometime violent, sometime tense, almost always anxious impasse will last
Until when? What indeed are the conditions that will bring the impasse to an end? This is not an insignificant question. In strategic encounters, one must work through an end-game. What is the Middle-East end-game?
We can conceive of some absolute conditions: the Messiah comes; Palestinians and Arabs give up and formally renounce any national claim to the Land; or, conversely, Jews give up and renounce their Zionism. There are factions who consider one or another of these solutions realistic and inevitable. A few of these are apocalyptic in their thinking, expecting their vision of a lasting “peace” in the Middle East to be just around the corner. Many others have no particular timetable. They sense that the stalemate in the region will go on for a long time—generations, maybe even centuries—but that the only possible ultimate solution is that only one people, Palestinian or Jew, will end up in full control of the Land.
These positions are sobering. They are hardly disconfirmed by the events of recent weeks. Territorial compromise and reconciliation between two peoples does not seem possible. Perhaps we must stand fast and wait; either until God intervenes or the other side simply gives up. Patience is often a virtue, but too much inactivity in a region filled with cycles of violence and dislocation leads to despondency and depression.
I personally witnessed this sense of near paralysis when visiting Israel in 1988, during the height of the Intifada. Speaking with Israelis from diverse social and political backgrounds, I would hear recurring themes of an existential helplessness. They did not want to annex the West Bank and Gaza territories, because they did not want to absorb a large angry Arab population. Nor were they prepared to withdraw from the territories for they feared the security consequences. Further they tended to reject schemes of attempting to expel or “transfer” the Arabs out of the area as wholly impractical and nearly impossible to carry out. For the most part, they simply wanted to wake up one morning with the whole problem solved.
Some observers and commentators have been suggesting that the most recent clashes represent a new Intifada. I wonder how many Israelis really want to go back to the conditions and feelings of 1988?
Are there less absolute conditions that would allow for a reasonably stable solution to the crisis of Israel-Palestine? I believe there are, but I also believe that they require a different attitude toward the past seven years than described above, and a different attitude regarding the peace process as well.
To begin, let us revisit 1993. By that year, the Intifada had long run its course. In 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait. The significance of this event should not be underestimated. Whatever differences were to be found among the members of the Arab League—and they were profound, particularly with Egypt’s separate peace with Israel—nothing was more devastating to Arab unity than this invasion. The unwritten pact among Arab nations had been to respect national territorial integrity, no matter how arbitrary the borders might have been. (Most had been dictated by European powers during their colonization of the region.) The Iran-Iraq War of most of the 1980’s fell outside this understanding since Iran is not regarded as an Arab nation. More to the point was Syria and Lebanon. No matter how much Syria manipulated Lebanese internal affairs, it never made any claims on its territory.
Then Iraq attempted to swallow up the sovereign country of Kuwait, and Arab unity was rent asunder. Following the Persian Gulf operation, President Bush tried to take advantage of increased U.S. influence in the region by creating the Madrid conference, in order to force direct negotiations between Israel and its erstwhile allies—including Syria and Saudi Arabia!—in the war against Iraq. The conference turned out to be a sham, as neither Israel, led by a Likud coalition under the leadership of Yitzhak Shamir, nor the Arab nations were really interested in any substantial conversation. The Palestinians were cut out of this process. Not only was Israel still formally adamantly opposed to any direct contact, but they had been on the wrong side of the Persian Gulf conflict.
In the 1992 Knesset elections, Rabin replaced Shamir as head of the government. Little was expected to change. Rabin had been the architect of a severe response to the Intifada. Sometime before leaving office, Shamir had suggested that the Arab-Israel conflict could last another thousand years. The change of government did not suggest any re-evaluation of this assessment.
Then Rabin suddenly revealed that his iron glove covered a velvet hand. Even as he was prosecuting the strong military response to Palestinian uprising, he had established secret and direct contacts with Palestinian leadership. Regardless of one’s opinion of the Oslo Accords, there is no doubt that the announcement of their existence in September 1993, pulled everyone out of a general torpor. Supporters and detractors on both sides were energized. Either they saw in the process the route toward a firm and lasting peace, or they felt that they must act in order to thwart a dangerous and probably disastrous course of development.
Either way, everything changed. The past seven years have been bloody. There have been suicide bombings and death-dealing retaliations. Some analysts have noted that the body count from the bus bombings and other attacks in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem was larger than in all the years since the 1982 invasion of Lebanon. But the target of these attacks, and of the few notable Jewish actions against Arabs, was no longer so much the opposing people as the peace process itself.
Outside of the violence, other developments were extraordinary. Jordan and Morocco joined Egypt as Arab nations with diplomatic relations with Israel. Tunisia allowed an Israel-interest section to open, a level just below an embassy. About a dozen non-Arab Moslem countries also established formal relations. Another 20-25 countries that had broken off contact in the years following 1967 restored them. A number of Arab nations dropped their secondary and tertiary embargos of trade with Israel. Israel’s population grew dramatically, both from the large immigration from the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia, and from the drop in Jewish emigration. Increased favorable trade ties with Europe and the Far East brought about growth in the economy and general raised standard of living. In many ways, the past seven years have been fat.
Perhaps in the context of the benefits of the Oslo Accords, the peace process has been quite popular among Israelis. In 1996, Shimon Peres was ousted by Binyamin Netanyahu. Ordinarily a Likud victory would signal public dissatisfaction with Rabin-Peres inspired program of territorial concession. Instead, it represented first a discomfort with the style and approach of Peres, and second, a sense that he might push the process too hard and recklessly. Netanyahu had to campaign on the promise that he would maintain the process, and in such instances as the Wye Plantation Agreement, he did. Netanyahu’s tenure as Prime Minister, however, was among the shortest in Israel’s history. His decisive loss to Barak in 1999 can be laid to a number of factors, but one was certainly his evident reluctance in moving the peace process ahead.
Israel’s political map divides along a number of overlapping lines: UltraOrthodox vs. Religious vs. Secular, Old-Guard Ashkenazi vs. Sephardi vs. Soviet Immigrant, Kibbutz Socialist vs. City Entrepreneur, and so on. The agendas and ambitions of those who promoted or represented these factions in the Israeli body politic tended to obscure public opinion on Barak’s handling of the peace process. There seem to be a few things that could be said about public support. First, by the summer of 2000, Israelis were mostly accepting of the idea of an independent Palestinian State. The second is that, while the majority of Israelis supported the peace process and yet held to a wide range of opinions regarding how much compromise for how much peace, in general they agreed that a secure peace with the Palestinians and the Arab world was much more important than virtually any particulars with respect to concession of land. The old Peace Now slogan, “Peace is greater than a Greater Israel,” had gained general acceptance.
With this as a background, Barak entered into the summer’s Camp David “Final Status” negotiation with a bargaining position that had scant Knesset support. The already shaky coalition he had put together a year earlier had disintegrated. Yet Barak went ahead with his offer. I think he reasoned as follows: the coalition’s fragility was due to factors that did not have to do with the peace process. As a seasoned military leader, he was confident that the offer did not represent serious security problems for Israel. Thus, in the end, no matter how much the parties posture, the public would accept the deal he was prepared to make. Finally, it could hardly hurt for Barak to be seen out on a limb. It would reinforce his argument that this is about the best offer he can make.
In this negotiation, Barak needed Arafat to take roughly the same risk he was doing. It is akin to building an archway. The stones veer off each vertical post, become increasingly precariously balanced, and would certainly fall if they were not ultimately supported by each other into a stable portal. Barak reached out beyond the bargaining that his country was prepared to go, but it would work fine if Arafat reached out in the same way.
Arafat did not. He was not even prepared to make any symbolic gestures. His intransigence was met by public anger on the part of Clinton, who announced that he was now prepared to break a long-standing American and Western position, and move the US Embassy to Jerusalem. Even more significant, Arafat discovered that his “principled stubbornness” at Camp David, was not getting any support from historic allies in Russia, Europe and the Far East. The firm threat that the Palestinian Authority would declare Statehood on September 13, a warning that contributed to the Camp David meeting in the first place, ultimately—and with some humiliation—had to be postponed.
Perhaps in hindsight, the uprising that has gripped the region over the past weeks is not so surprising. The Palestinian Authority had blown it. They took a hard-line stance at Camp David, and rather than achieving some credit for tenaciously adhering to moral principle, most of the world viewed the breakdown as Arafat’s unwillingness or inability to complete a deal. When the impasse was reached, many Israelis who were uncomfortable with Barak’s proposed concessions probably sighed in relief. But the reaction among Palestinians was more of frustration. They were stuck, no closer to their goal of their own State, and deprived any popular international support. Sooner or later, then, the pot was going to boil over.
Ariel Sharon’s walk on the Temple Mount was as good excuse as any. I would guess that the initial response to Sharon was actually quite spontaneous. Arafat, in accordance with the classic principle of figuring out which way the parade is moving in order to run to the front and lead it, then moved to take as much control of the situation as possible. At any rate, it strikes me as clear that Arafat is only partially in control. By this I am not referring to his inability to turn and off the violence, but rather that the violence bespeaks a Palestinian government with virtually no plan and few options regarding how to proceed.
This condition is revealed throughout the region. The Arab League summit meeting ended inconclusively. The historically rejectionist States—Libya and Iraq, in particular—pressed for the Arab position of the 1970’s: no negotiation, no compromise. Even in the face of an apparently collapsed peace process, the League refused to consider this approach (and Libya stormed out of the meeting), but could not come up with anything else.
So, in the past few weeks, there have calls for national liberation of all of Palestine, or demands for Israeli withdrawal, or the creation of the State of Palestine with Jerusalem as its capital, and most of it accompanied with support of armed struggle. And now nearly 200 people are dead and thousands wounded, the overwhelming majority is Palestinian. Leave aside questions of the proportion of the Israeli response to rock throwing and small arms fire, one cannot help but be amazed of the willingness of an Arab population willing to place themselves in harm’s way, virtually inviting serious injury or death. We are witnessing individuals who appear to prefer to be dead than face any sort of future!
The reason for this phenomenal self-destructiveness, to my eyes, is only marginally due to the actions and policies of Israel. While the last seven years have been mostly fat for Israel and Israelis, they have been far less so for Arabs and Palestinians. Not only has there been little amelioration of their material well being—particularly in the light that this was a promised subsidy of the peace process—but they have received precious little political and social benefit either.
Indonesia, Yugoslavia, Mexico, Peru, Zimbabwe, the Ivory Coast: all of these nations have recently experienced popular movements and uprising that have led to the fall or the serious challenge of well entrenched autocratic governments. In every part of the world we have witnessed an inexorable movement toward democratic self-determination; every part of the world except the Arab world. Even Iran has been shaking off the dour theocracy that had replaced a self-serving autocracy.
Yet from Morocco to Iraq, one encounters kings, sheiks, emirs, generals and presidents-for-life, who tightly hold to the reigns of power and privilege; who denounce Israel (and sometimes the West) as their great enemy, but who fear their own people most of all.
Talking about the Middle East
Rules of Engagement
Many of you, no doubt, know the story of the frog and the scorpion. They met at the bank of the Jordan River. The scorpion asked the frog to ferry him across the river. The frog demurred. “What if you were to sting and paralyze me? I would drown.” “Why would I sting you?” The scorpion countered, “I would drown too!” The frog could find no fault in this argument and agreed to ferry the scorpion. Halfway across the river, the scorpion suddenly stung the frog. As the paralysis set and the frog began to sink under the water, he called out, “Why did you do this? Now we both will drown!” The scorpion merely replied, “This is the Middle East.”
Here in a nutshell is the problem regarding any rational discussion of the Arab-Palestinian-Israeli conflict; it tends to defy rationale. The most recent events seem to confirm this perception. For seven years, Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) have been moving slowly toward a formal accommodation. There have been twists all along the way: an Israeli Prime Minister has been assassinated, and two others have been defeated in elections. There have terrorist incidents, shootings, bombings and retaliations. There has also been a formal treaty with Jordan and Morocco, and the pullout of Israeli troops from the quagmire of Southern Lebanon. More and more land has been ceded to the PA, and the once unthinkable notion of a Palestinian State in the West Bank and Gaza, had become a fairly common assumption.
For seven years, therefore, through terror and violence and reticence on both sides, the process moved forward as if it had a life of its own. Then Ariel Sharon, head of Israel’s principal opposition party, takes a walk on the Temple Mount, and it looks as if the entire process has not merely come to a halt, but to an end. Has the scorpion stung the frog in the middle of the river?
Before continuing, I will admit that I was caught by surprise both by the intensity of the violence that has occurred over the past two weeks, and by the pessimism that is being expressed from all sides regarding the future of peace. What happened? More to the point, how do we go about figuring out what happened?
What facts? Whose facts?
Often, when confronted with the question, “what happened?” we choose to resort to fact-finding. “What happened” is, after all, a series of events—observable, discrete events—facts on the ground. So what are the facts? We come to the first rule of any conversation we might have about the Middle East: the facts virtually do not count.
I first learned this rule nearly twenty-five years ago. I found myself facilitating a dialogue between Arab and Israeli students at Ohio State University. Before the dialogue sessions actually began, I met with two students—a Jordanian Palestinian and an Israeli Jew—in order to hammer out some ground rules. This was not too difficult since the two sides did want to talk to each other. The conditions we worked out created a successful set of five sessions that culminated in a social barbecue.
Among the ground rules that served us very well was that no one could assert a fact. A dialogue participant could not even suggest that at noon on a clear day, the sun was shining! The problem with facts is that in a land with over 5000 years of history of settlement, there are just too many of them. Which facts do you bring to bear on a particular situation: God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis? The Roman attitude toward Jews? The Balfour Declaration? An Arab family fleeing in 1948 its home of three generations in Haifa? There are enough facts rattling around in the Middle East in order to justify convincingly almost position one wishes to take.
If we do not refer to facts, then what do we use in order to assess the Middle East? Something deeper, and more profound than facts: we need to refer to our very being. On one level, the Land of Israel and its surrounding lands and countries can be described in terms of its geography and other physical features; its population in terms of their ethnic background, occupations and other demographic features. In this way, the Middle East is no different than any other chunk of the world’s real estate. Yet, the land is more than that. It is also a state of mind: an enduring piece of history and legend that embodies the hopes, dreams and promises of peoples. Thus, Israel and its neighbors defy being described by what is, but rather by what one wishes it to be. Reality is illusion and illusion reality in the Middle East.
We read the facts of the events in this part of the world—whether in newspapers, media reports, or scholarly texts—filtered through our own notions of how things ought to be. So, how should things be? You tell me! Here are the fundamental questions; questions that do not admit precisely to facts, but rather to our frame of reference, the way in which we process our perceptions:
Do the Palestinians exist? After all they are an Arabic-speaking people who are mostly indistinguishable in history, culture and attitude from their neighbors in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia. Indeed, in the 1930s, the term “Palestinian” often referred to a Jew living in Palestine!
Do the Jews exist? For two thousand years, being Jewish has been viewed as a confessional choice of faith. Anyone could be Jewish, and anyone could drop out of having a Jewish identity. What exactly holds together Yiddish-speaking Hasidim, Russian-speaking socialists, Arabic-speaking laborers, Indians from Bombay and blacks from Ethiopia?
If one or the other of these peoples does not really exist, then issues about competing claims to the Land are moot. If however they both exist, we may still ask do either have a legitimate claim to the land they seek to control? On what does that claim rest? On divine promise? On historic deeds? On purchase? How about sheer squatters’ rights?
Finally, the biblical expression of a “land flowing with milk and honey” notwithstanding, greater Israel is not a particularly hospitable place. Its soil is arid or rocky. There are few exploitable natural resources—particularly for a region that is drenched with oil. So, why should one care about having a claim to living there: is it simply “where I live,” or is it the righting of past wrongs, or is it a step toward the fulfillment of God’s will? How we answer these questions to ourselves-in our own hearts-establishes what we have to say about the events in the Middle East and how we look upon them.
Understanding the “Us” in “Them”
When we come to understand our own fundamental attitude toward Israel and the Middle East, we might be able to concede that there are indeed a variety of points of view. This is the final rule of engagement I wish to discuss. People hold differing attitudes and have different agendas. I think most of us are sensitive to the range of positions and approaches that exist among Israelis and Jews. We read about it regularly in the New York Times.
We also can see another phenomenon at work among Israelis and Jews: at moments of crisis most are willing to pull together. At the moment, for instance, there is serious contemplation of a unity government in Israel, bringing together parties and interests that were figuratively at each other’s throats a few months ago.
Being Jews, we are sensitive and empathetic to these currents of disagreement and reconciliation within the world Jewish community. We should be aware that something similar exists among the Arabs and Palestinians. The range of attitudes is certainly not the same. There is, for instance, no prominent Palestinian “peace camp,” as exists among Israelis and Jews. On the other hand, Palestinians are hardly all of a piece in terms of their attitude toward sharing the land on which they live with a Jewish State.
In the violence of the past two weeks, we should be aware of the varying attitudes of Palestinians. Some are playing out their fantasies of a vision of a land free altogether of Jews. Some are nihilistic living out a life of victimhood; a preference for cursing the darkness rather than lighting a candle. And there is a population whose real frustration and anger is with their own government.
In last summer’s latest round of Camp David negotiations, Barak went out on a very fragile political limb and offered the PA about as good a settlement regarding control of territories and status in Jerusalem as the Palestinians were ever going to see. Arafat rejected it out of hand. He then discovered that his hard-line stance, was not perceived in the world community as principled, but rather as merely stubborn. The PA had maneuvered the Palestinian people into a corner. The U.S., Europe and Russia were not interested in providing them with any moral or political support. A comprehensive solution that was tantalizingly close in July had evaporated, and the world was calling the PA to task for it.
Frustration and anger dissipates, either sooner or later. When it does, we should be aware that there continues to be a segment among the Palestinians—many polls suggest that it is the majority—whose simple wish is to set the lines between theirs and the Jewish State, and to get on with living.
Religion and the Jewish Nation-State
Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza was widely reported in the Jewish media as a crisis for Religious Zionism. The most persistent and vocal opposition to the Sharon government’s evacuation of settlements in the heavily Arab Gaza Strip was indeed to be found among Orthodox Jews, including not a few rabbis who declared that the withdrawal was contrary to halakha, and should be resisted even to the point of soldiers disobeying orders. Religious Zionism, specifically as embodied within Israel’s political establishment by the National Religious Party, clearly had reached a crossroads. NRP had found a way to be a partner in the ruling coalition of most of Israel’s governments since the founding of the State. The crisis in the summer of 2005 was not merely that NRP had found itself on the losing side of an otherwise popular government initiative, but that adherents to the tenets of Religious Zionism could legitimately wonder whether it was advisable at all to participate in the political activities of the State – win or lose.
The sense of crisis felt with NRP and its sympathizers is certainly real, but should this be called a crisis in Religious Zionism? The assumption underlying all considerations is that the ‘religion’ of Religious Zionism is Orthodox Judaism. What, then, is the Zionism of ARZA? Is this not Religious Zionism as well? I would like to answer in the affirmative, but I need to ask: just what is the ‘religion’ of Reform Zionism? What is the Zionism of Reform Judaism?
Here are the concerns I wish to raise and consider: What is it about the Gaza withdrawal that precipitated this crisis in traditional Religious Zionism? (As shorthand, I am going to refer to this philosophy as Mizrahi, in accord with the organization that represented Orthodox Zionism from the days of the first Zionist Congress.) Why has Reform Judaism been so identified with non-Zionist Jewish thought, and to this day can be so easily dismissed in any popular discussion of Jewish religious Zionism?
In order to tackle these issues, let us think, at least briefly, on what we mean in the Jewish context of “religion.” Further, we must ponder just what is the Jewishness of the Jewish State. [Before beginning, let me acknowledge Arthur Hertzberg’s seminal work, The Zionist Idea. In its section, titled Religious Nationalisms, Old and New, Hertzberg included not only such central figures in the development of Mizrahi-style Zionism, Samuel Mohilever and Avraham Kook, but also the liberal thinkers Judah Magnes and Martin Buber. Hertzberg’s is the one general popular work on Zionism and modern Israel that acknowledges non-Orthodox religious Zionist thinking. I would also like to recognize The Jewish Political Tradition, edited by Michael Walzer, Menachem Lorberman and Noam J. Zohar, as helping to organize my own thinking.]
“There is no word for ‘religion’ in Hebrew.” This is a trite assertion. There is also no word for ‘religion’ in Arabic, either. And one might wonder whether there is actually a good analog in Hindi, Chinese or Japanese, among numerous other languages. Indeed, from a formal technical standpoint, “religion” might best be used only in the context of Christianity, as it is a word found predominantly, if not exclusively in the languages of the Christian world.
The word “religion” itself arose from two distinct Latin sources. One is the source most often listed in dictionaries, religere, a term that gives rise to the word “ligament” – link. From this basis, we come to understand religion as a binding together, a method by which human individuals feel obligated to each other, as well as to that which generates the ties. If “religion” were limited to just this starting place, one could argue that all sorts of organizations (social clubs, unions, nations, etc.) are religions to the extent that they are designed for purposes of binding people together. The second source, however, is relegere, from which we derive the word “relegate.” The connotation is one of separating out, exiling, consigning to another category. “Religion” therefore combines the notions of binding together and dividing out.
The two notions are not contradictory. A community becomes bound together as it is divided out from the rest of society. One senses this activity particularly in the early history of Christianity. Thus, one can speak of Christianity as Religion par excellence. Jews, throughout most of Jewish history, have participated in religion as religere, principally, however, as an organic familial experience. The obligations of being Jewish were inexorably connected to history and community, as well as to God. If Jews appeared to be relegated out of general society, it was also every bit true that general Gentile society had been bracketed out of Jewish life. Jews did not experience the same sort of self-conscious separation that characterized Christian conversion.
This condition changed with the onset of Emancipation through the nineteenth century. As Jews were invited – with lesser or greater good will – to participate in the social, economic and political elements of general society, in order to maintain some integrity to self-identity, Judaism had to become a “religion”! The varieties of strategies by which Jews responded to their introduction to the larger culture – reformist, orthodox, neo-orthodox, conservative – can all be subsumed under the overall category of religious thinking.
Zionism, however, proceeds from pure religere. In response to the real and perceived failures of emancipation, Zionists conceived of being bound to each other in national, historical and cultural terms. Religion as faith and ritual was irrelevant. By the time of the first Zionist Congress (1897), the Movement was led by Jews who had mostly abandoned their fidelity to the authority of the rabbi as scholar and promulgator of Jewish law. The dominant issue was the creation of a Jewish homeland, in which the organizing principle would be subjected to the will and needs of the Jewish people, not to custom and law (minhag v’halakha).
Yet, while it could be bracketed out of the Zionist project, being religious did not disqualify one from being a Zionist. What role could a religious Jew have in such a Movement?
The Mizrahi strategy has been to connect the Zionist project with the first indications of the coming of the Messiah. Daily worship has long included a prayer beseeching God to “return us in peace from the four corners of the earth.” Could not the Jewish immigration and building in the Land, even if under the administration of Jewish authorities substantially indifferent to Jewish law, be an instance in the fulfillment of that prayer? Mizrahi therefore determined to remain blind to the absence of custom and law in the governance of the State, fully expecting this situation to be corrected by Divine Will in due time.
Reformers were not focused on custom and law, but did wonder whether an enterprise to gather Jews back in a historic homeland was in accord with their progressive vision of God’s will. Religiously liberal Jews nonetheless recognized the sheer practical necessity to assist and promote the building of the homeland, since emancipation was not bringing the expected freedom and benefits that had been hoped for. For them, Judaism was private devotion and prophetic spirit. The governance and administration of a Jewish State would therefore be treated as the governance of any modern secular State: an entity separate from one’s religious needs. While Mizrahi, imbued with a faith that Zionism embodied their religious vision, organized politically and institutionally, preparing for their role in the fulfillment of God’s purpose for the Chosen People, Reform worked to maintain the civil and religious rights of those who wished to attend their synagogues and schools.
Mizrahi Zionists felt justified in their beliefs, as the Palestine became Israel in 1948, increased in size to include all Jerusalem and the lands of Israel’s biblical history in 1967, and grew dramatically in its Jewish population with the immigration of Jews from Eastern Europe following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Unfolding events reinforced and clarified the messianic ideal of the ingathering of the exiles to their God-given Land. Mizrahi thought had increasingly focused on the Land itself, sign and symbol of the divine covenant. Thus, the withdrawal from Gaza was more than a setback – there had been obstacles in the past – but also, a concession on the part of most Israelis, including erstwhile supporters of the settlement of Greater Israel, that the entire Land could not remain in Jewish hands. Thus, Jews, from the Mizrahi point-of-view, were abandoning the messianic dream. And after so much progress had been made toward its fulfillment!
For many Mizrahi Zionists, in the final analysis, Religious Zionism was Religion and Zionism. The two could be held comfortably within one’s heart and mind as long as the political reality moved closer to the religious vision. What should one do when reality and vision diverge?
The crisis of Mizrahi, however, is widely treated as the crisis of Religious Zionism. I believe the Reform strategy of preserving the nineteenth century model of focusing on personal religious devotion and private belief has bifurcated liberal Jewish religion and Zionism in the public mind. Sure, Reform Jews can be good Zionists and honored citizens of Israel, but there is little perception that they do so precisely as Reform Jews. It appears to be the case that Reform, just like Mizrahi, is Religion and Zionism – two separate if competing choices. Can Reform actually be Religious Zionism? I think it already is, but a great deal of misperception must be overcome. This requires re-framing the issues. We continue by thinking about the Jewishness of the Jewish State.
The Jewishness of the Jewish State
A “Jewish State.” The term sets Israel over and against every other nation-state in the world. When one speaks of the French State, the Ugandan State, the American State, one conjures an image in which every inhabitant who is also a formal citizen is by definition “French,” “Ugandan,” “American.” (Leave out here the prevalence of people’s emotions and biases, that lead some to say, “he’s not a real American,” or “she is not truly Chinese.”) In the Jewish State, however, we must concede that there are citizens – with all that is meant by citizenship – who are nonetheless not Jewish! What can “Jewish State” possibly mean in a nation in which not all of its citizens are Jewish?
If ‘Jewish’ is to have meaning, perhaps it is with respect to the content of the State, rather than to the character of its citizens; that is, the method of administration of the State must somehow be in accord with the Jewish values and practices. The most direct way of implementing this concept of a Jewish State is through the application of halakha. [The obvious parallel is a Muslim State being defined by the governmental imposition of shariah.] From a liberal point of view, this approach is impossible, with the Reform Jewish relationship to halakha being the least of the problems.
First, Jewish law is only incumbent upon Jews. Further, the Zionist enterprise from its formal start with the 1897 Congress, has been democratic and inclusive in nature. Halakha, even when conceptualized as benignly and liberally as possible, is authoritarian. It proceeds from scholar/judges attempting to apply what they believe to be the will of God as expressed in the classic texts. How, therefore, could a halakhic system be realistically brought to bear on a population that expects its collective political will to be reflected in the governance of the nation?
What set of values or practices are there that is not halakha, but could nonetheless define the Jewish content of the State? I do not know. Certainly, Jewish custom and law contains many admirable concepts and values that could be applied to the administration of a contemporary nation-state, and yet could also be applied in a non-discriminatory fashion on non-religious and non-Jewish citizens. These qualities, inherent in Jewish thought, are not however exclusively Jewish. [True, Hermann Cohen posited in Religion of Reason, that Judaism uniquely embodies all the elements of rational and ethical living. Being a good person and being a good Jew was virtually co-terminus. As a matter of both personal predilection and the application of reason, Cohen was opposed to Zionism. For him, it was superfluous.]
People and State
The Jewish State is not Jewish in the identity of its citizens, nor Jewish in the content of its legislation and practices. Zionism, however, is not about the State. Rabbi Henry Skirball, who for over twenty years directed NFTY Youth programs in Israel, has provided this instrumental definition: Without getting into any debate over which type of Zionism might be most authentic or have greatest priority, we can assert that fundamentally all Zionist expression begins with the belief that the entire Jewish people represent a definable social and historical entity, and that every Jew has some responsibility and concern for every other Jew.
This is a wise and deceptively simple definition. For one, it places the people Israel at the center of one’s concept of Zionism. It makes no mention of the Land or State at all, and yet when we consider the expression “definable social and historical entity,” the Land is an inexorable element. The place of the Jewish people can remain unsaid, not because it is irrelevant, but rather because it is foundational. [The Bible scholar, Harry Orlinsky, noted that the Book of Esther makes absolutely no mention of God, but how else are we to understand Mordechai’s refusal to bow before Haman. God is the overwhelming unspoken Presence of the Esther narrative. The Land is the overwhelming unspoken basis of Zionism.]
The Land, not the State. Zionism is an attitude and philosophy regarding Judaism and the Jewish People that exists independent of a Jewish State. In the early years of the building of a Jewish homeland, Religious Zionism could take two fundamental forms. One was that associated with Mizrahi, and most identified with Abraham Kook. Kook defended on halakhic grounds, a secular polity for a future imagined nation. Specifically, he defended the notion of a non-Davidic monarchy (following the opinion of Maimonides), doing so on the grounds that inevitably the State itself would be transformed in the glow of the Messiah’s light. In this concept, a political state would come into being that would serve as the foundation for Redemption. Non-Jews, whether they continued to live within the boundaries of the Land or not, were irrelevant to the vision of a messianic future.
The religious alternative was represented by Judah Magnes and Martin Buber. For them, Zionism did not include any consideration of a ‘Jewish’ State. The Land was indeed the homeland of the Jews, but it was also the home of a great many non-Jews. Any independent nation that would arise from the British Mandate could not be Jewish in population or content. As in Kook’s model, the State itself would have to be secular, whether as prologue to Redemption or not.
As history would have it, the State did come into being, and it did not quite represent either religious Zionist visions. Mizrahi Zionists pressed for a rabbinic role in the administration of the nation, and were given authority over issues of personal status (principally marriage and divorce) and the right to maintain a separate education system. In content, the State is neither Jewish nor secular. Further, the hostility of the surrounding Arab nations and cultures has made Buber and Magnes’ vision of a bi-(or more accurately, non-)national State impractical. Israel as a national apparatus has had to give special weight in its consideration and concern for its Jewish citizens, because it cannot be confident that it can otherwise protect them. Whether Mizrahi or Reform, religious Zionism has had to be modified by the realities of the nation and its relationship with the Arabs of the region.
Religious (both Orthodox and Reform) and secular Zionism are messianic movements. As visions of a certain ideal future, they all have been confronted and challenged by frustrating realities that tend to belie their deepest hopes. Although the Messiah tarries, I nonetheless believe. Reform Zionism cannot give up on its vision, but it needs to be clear as to what that vision is, and how, short of pure divine intervention, it might be achieved.
Let us return to the liberal religious Zionism of Magnes and particularly Buber: Reform Zionism is not nor can be tied to the idea of a Jewish State. The State itself (not just Israel, but any political entity) is devoted to the health and welfare of its citizens. It manages the economy, organizes education, issues passports, defends borders, paves roads, establishes diplomatic missions, and all the myriad tasks that promote community and insure order. The State can be evaluated on these activities whether it is a republic or a monarchy, whether ancient or modern, and – most important – whether representing a Jewish polity in biblical or post-biblical times.
The people Israel have experienced three periods of political independence: the Davidic and northern monarchies, the Hasmoneans and the current State. In all cases, there has been a struggle between the religious and governing interests. Further, religious institutions when aligned with the State have been greatly compromised or corrupted. Consider the confrontation between the prophet Amos and the priest Amaziah (Amos, Chapter 7). Consider the State-recognized Rabbinate today!
Martin Buber, in a valuable essay Plato and Isaiah, suggested that the tension between independent religious and governing institutions is an important insight of the biblical mind. He contrasted Plato’s construction of a Republic headed by a philosopher-king with the conditions in the Kingdom of Judah at the time of Isaiah. Both systems (Plato and Isaiah) begin with a firm belief that a transcendent ideal exists. For Plato, it is in the World of Ideas, for Isaiah in the will of God. Plato went on to posit that certain individuals (“men of gold”) could access the transcendent ideal and translate the Ideas into the ideal well-ordered and just society. Late in life, the philosopher had an opportunity to see his program translated into reality when one of his students ascended to the throne of Syracuse. In a short time, however, the young king was duly assassinated and the idea of the Republic was shattered.
Isaiah, on the other hand, embodying the expressed will of God, is not called upon to take over the reins of government, but rather to speak truth to an obdurate and uncomprehending public. The prophet would have only intermittent success. He knew this from the start, as did Hosea and Jeremiah who would have to witness the fall of their nations. Yet, success in the sense of the attainment of God’s kingdom on earth was not the objective the prophet’s mission. It was rather to speak truth to power; to act as the necessary constraint on governing authority, so that the authority would struggle with the necessary contradictions of the exercise of power. Martin Buber concluded that the nation was not obligated to strive for some perfection – such ideals being the sole province of God – but rather to struggle forward on the pragmatic considerations of the State constantly being challenged by the moral imperatives of the divine will.
In Reform Zionism, the Jewish State only begins to be fulfilled when the State and the religious institutions are mutually independent, so that the prophetic values of the covenant between God and Israel can speak freely in its challenge and critique of the actions of the State.
[Ironically, Rabbi Kook would probably not have disagreed with this analysis. He apparently did not see a role for religious (rabbinic) authority in the governance of the State. Mizrahi and the NRP nevertheless became involved. I believe this unfortunate alliance arose from the mutual interests of David ben Gurion and the Chief Rabbi at the time of the founding of the State, Isaac Herzog. Herzog could not conceive of a Jewish State devoid of rabbinic authority. Recognizing, however, that the extension of halakha over the entire population was completely impractical, he pressed for a limited but otherwise unchallenged sphere of control.]
[Ben Gurion, who did not need NRP or Mizrahi in order to organize a viable government in the Knesset, was nevertheless perfectly happy to comply with this demand. He believed firmly that State authority must represent a unity of Jewish interests, religious and secular. In doing so, ben Gurion also cannily created a situation in which the secular State could hold the upper hand, firmly delimiting religious influence within the bounds of a formal agreement.]
[One clear result has been the rout of the NRP/Mizrahi position in the proposed and implemented withdrawal from Gaza. Once more, the issue is not that the opposition failed. The biblical prophets certainly had their measure of failures. Rather, that Mizrahi rabbinic leadership had been so hemmed in by their identification with only one portion of society (mostly issues of personal status, which has been controversial enough), their efforts to mount a principled challenge was roundly condemned by many quarters of the populace. Their moral leadership had been neutered. Somewhere, on some spiritual plane, David ben Gurion is enjoying a good laugh.]
Space and Time
Religious Zionism, both Mizrahi and Reform, affirms that the State and the religious/theological aspirations of the Jewish people are distinct one from the other. Both also affirm that the Zionist enterprise, the re-establishment of a Jewish community on the soil of Israel, fits in some inextricable fashion into God’s plan for redemption. Secular political Zionism, also messianic, envisions redemption as the Jews being “a free people in Zion and Jerusalem.” Jewish destiny is fulfilled when the Jews become a nation among the nations. For religious Zionism, this aspiration cannot be enough. Israel’s redemption is the world’s redemption. The Jews cannot simply be one of the nations, for God “has not set us up as the other peoples of the earth.” Jewish destiny cannot simply be normalcy.
The political, social, cultural reality of the State of Israel today is a pragmatic, rather than a religious consideration. We are spiritually suspended between today and redemption. At this point, I believe Mizrahi and Reform Zionism begin to diverge in a subtle but critical way. How, we must ask, are we to understand the time between now and our prayed-for messianic future?
No one, orthodox or liberal, can deny the passage of time. The fundamental religious question is whether this passage is God’s time. God, after all, in the very act of creation, not only fashioned space, but also time. Traditional Jewish thinking implies that since the destruction of the Temple, we have been suspended between that which was and that which will be. Currently, therefore, we are simply marking time. Human history-meaningful human history-includes the divine presence. Thus, history could unfold while the Holy of Holies was marked in place on God’s sacred mountain, and would certainly flow once more when that place was established again.
This understanding of time, I believe, impelled the leading Orthodox authority of the early nineteenth century, Rabbi Moses Sofer, to declare the halakha to be absolutely fixed, particularly in the face of modernity. The followers of Mizrahi made their compromise with such orthodoxy by viewing the Zionist enterprise as the dawn of Messiah’s light. Dawn, however, is a functional rather than fixed point in time: neither night nor day. If it was dawn at the time of the founding of Mizrahi, it was still dawn in 1948, 1967, 1993 and today!
Reform chose to recognize the Emancipation and subsequent introduction to modernity as a return into history. Progressive revelation, hallmark of the nineteenth century reformers, represents the belief that all Jewish experience must be understood within the passage of time. Divine and pragmatic human history is one. Nineteenth century reformers, reflecting Hegelian idealism, might have had an optimistic faith that we were in lockstep toward Utopia. We today harbor no illusions, and yet continue to believe that the divine will is manifest in everyday history.
Buber and Magnes had confidence in a Zionism that could be fulfilled within a Jewish homeland that did not have to be a Jewish State. They were excessively optimistic regarding the social and political will and ability of Jews and indigenous Arabs to form a bi-national state. Historians can argue out whether in the late 1940s, a nation founded in the Land of Israel that was not Jewishly controlled could truly have protected the interests of its Jewish population. Jews were not prepared to trust a potentially non-Jewish majority with their security, and thus the Jewish State came into being.
So, just as nineteenth century idealism had to give way to the brutal realities of the twentieth century, Buber’s and Magnes’ optimism in a Jewish homeland separate from the administration of a Jewish State could not be sustained. Yet, we need not abandon either our optimism or our principles as Reform Jews. The brute reality of today’s uncomfortable and often paradoxical conditions need not be avoided or explained away. We are rather committed to work for our ideals, not over or outside the limitations of time and space, but rather through them.
Zionism Past and Future
The first era of the Zionist enterprise ended with the founding of the State of Israel. It was an era in which the contentious strands of Zionist vision – political, revisionist and socialist – sought a means in which to work with each other and toward the goal of establishing a safe and secure homeland for the Jewish people. They also had to respond to a portion of the world Jewish community that was anti-Zionist, and a much larger group that was non-Zionist, not hostile to the effort at gathering Jews in the land of Israel, but not particularly supportive either.
The second era has been characterized by the reality of a Jewish State, and also by the introduction of the phenomenon of post-Zionism. Both Israeli and non-Israeli Jews have concluded that the objective of Zionism had been solely the creation of the State. With this aim fulfilled, its raison d’etre has come to an end. For many Jews, Zionism has been reduced to defense of Israel through political and financial means. “Zionist” is therefore worn by many in defiance to Israel’s enemies, who employ the term (with greater or lesser venal anti-Semitism) to mean racism or an apartheid regime. Zionism in this context is the negative of a negative; a noble cause thoroughly drained of meaning.
If Zionism is to have meaning, it must be found in something that transcends the State itself. This assertion, however, should now be self-evident. A “Jewish” State cannot be the aspiration of Zionism without either doing severe violence to the meaning of the term “Jew,” or to the dictates of Torah, that commands us to do deal kindly with the stranger (“for you were strangers in the land of Egypt”) nearly forty times. By comparison, we are commanded to love our neighbor only once!
Religious Zionism recognizes this truth. (It should therefore be no surprise that the overwhelming majority of the American and Canadian delegations to the last two World Zionist Congresses were from ARZA, Mercaz and Mizrahi, the religious organizations.) The State is only a step toward God’s divine plan both for the people Israel and humankind. Mizrahi has tended to focus on the Land itself. Reform, I would suggest, has as its focus the people.
At the beginning of the nineteenth century, Jews returned into the world of power. It was power at the margins. Jews were challenged both to maintain their unique identity as the people Israel, and to participate in activities of secular societies. As a result, we were called upon by our tradition and beliefs to take responsibility for communities over which we had very little control. In the Zionist project, and particularly with the founding of the State, Jews moved to power at the center. It is the same tradition, the same beliefs, but with the ability to exercise far greater control. Israel, to Reform Zionism, is a grand experiment in effecting God’s will; in creating the sort of society that Jews anywhere would wish to live in.
For Zion’s sake I will not be silent, for Jerusalem’s sake I will not be still (Isaiah 62:1)
Reform is prophetic Judaism. The definition carries a somewhat different meaning than it did to the nineteenth century reformers, but it nevertheless remains true. Neither Reform Jewish leaders nor adherents are prophets. We cannot and should not speak as if we know the mind of God. We do know, however, the responsibilities of Jewish living. And as did the prophets of the biblical era, we can speak up to a political leadership for whom the pragmatic decisions of power occasionally distorts and corrupts. If religious Zionism is going to have any meaning and value in Zion and Jerusalem, I believe that it is to be found as much or more in the Reform Zionism to which we have given our hearts and mind.
Thinking About Reform Jewish Zionism
Does Zionism Still Exist?
Abba Eban, one of the outstanding members of Israel’s leadership in its first twenty-five years, and certainly Israel’s finest epigramist, once claimed that the proof positive of the existence of life after death is the persistence of Zionist organizations.His point was well taken. Certainly one of the basic purposes of the Zionist Movement was to lay the groundwork for the creation of a Jewish State. That has been accomplished.What is left to do?
One might rightly object at this point, and note that Eban was not questioning the persistence of Zionism, but rather of the organizations. [Actually, there is one overall group, the World Zionist Organization, which organizes and runs a World Zionist Congress every few years. The WZO, however is a federation of institutions that are organized in all countries that have freely operating Zionists. In turn, each of these national organizations is a federation of Zionist associations and interest groups.]When the State came into being, traditional functions of the WZO in the areas of education, absorption and settlement, relief to distressed communities, etc. could and should have been transferred to the new government. The organizations are a mechanism whose time has very well come and gone. Zionism itself, on the other hand, is an idea and a spirit, whose existence does not necessarily disappear with the appearance of the State.
This objection is not quite correct.In a speech delivered in the mid-1980s, the prominent American Jewish historian, Howard M. Sachar said: “No people, no nation, no state, is endowed with a special mission. Its only legitimacy is the security it provides its people: the freedom to live within secure boundaries, the opportunity to express their collective identity. . . the passports that enable them to travel elsewhere in the world. All the rest is wind and bombast, and this applies no less to Israel.”Sachar’s point, I believe, is that a state is just a state, an apparatus for providing social and material security to its population.
Clearly, however, there have to be ideas and philosophies that inform and suggest to the state just how to go about doing what it is supposed to do. This is the function of political parties, and Israel hardly lacks for them!Should we then expect Labor, Likud, Meretz, and the rest to be the Zionist organizations? That does not feel quite right. Something is wrong here.Is it in the contention that Zionist organizations no longer need exist? Then, where does Zionism reside? Or, perhaps, it is Zionism itself that no longer needs to exist?
There is a concept of post-Zionism.It is position held among some Israelis, born out of ideas and circumstances that go beyond the founding of the State itself. Post-Zionists can argue that, not only has Zionism be eclipsed by the creation of the State, but that the very notion of nationalism has become a superfluous concept. We live in a global society of instant worldwide communication and commerce. Borders have become increasingly porous. The State is still necessary in order to provide certain amenities and security, but the state is just a state, and at this point in Israel’s history and development, nothing more is needed.
Is Zionism dead?Or, if not dead, dying? The crisis in the Middle East, variously referred to as the second intifada, or in Israel as the matzav [situation], has brought about a revival in Zionism. Perhaps—hopefully—themat zav is temporary. Unlike in the years of the first intifada, Israelis and Palestinians have been in official and public communication throughout .The negotiations in the context of a final accord will pick up again, and we will return to something like the mid-90s. Thus, reports of Zionism’s revival might appear premature.
Zionism is—or should be—alive and well.Let me provide two related reasons.First, the feelings that have welled up since the renewed outbreak of violence in September 2000, suggest precisely what is buried beneath the surface when times are good. I am not only talking about Jewish feeling, but also the outsized reaction expressed throughout the Western world.Sectarian violence erupts in Nigeria, the Philippines and Indonesia—in each case, as many people have been killed in a few days as has throughout the first two years of the matzav—and India and Pakistan face each other over Kashmir in a nuclear showdown. Yet, none of these capture the world’s attention as the conflict between Israel and Palestine.One can only conclude that the idea of a Jewish State, over one hundred years since the beginning of the Zionist project, over fifty years since the founding of the State, has not been fully accepted. Some might take this circumstance as indicative of Zionism’s failure; I prefer to see it as indicative that it has yet to be fulfilled. (Yes, it is a feeling rather than a justified argument, but it does have a basis that goes beyond personal predilections.That will come shortly.)
The heart of the problem is found in two unsettled questions: Who are the Jews? Who are the Palestinians? The founding concepts of the return to Zion were that the Jews were a nation deserving of their own land and language, and that they were “a people without a land for a land without a people.” While the Zionist enterprise successfully created a Jewish State, it has never convinced much of the world’s population, or even many Jews, that being Jewish means being part of a nation.
Moreover, as mentioned already, the land did indeed have a people, but just what people?As a matter of historical record, the reigning definition of “Palestinian” well into the 1940s, was “a Jew who lived in Palestine.” Before becoming Israelis, therefore, Jews were Palestinians, and Palestinians were Jews. Then, who were the indigenous Arabs?They were Arabs!As such, they were identified with the larger Arabic-speaking world that extended from Morocco to Iraq. Even when the Palestine Liberation Organization came into existence under Ya’aser Arafat’s direction in the early 1960s, the principal thrust was the freeing of the Arab land of Palestine from Jewish control—Palestine liberation—rather than any assertion of a distinctive Arab people that might be called the Palestinians.
The Palestine National Covenant, created after the 6-Day War, does represent a shift. The document is an exact mirror image of political Zionism, right down to its studied denial of the existence of any other people who might have claim to the land. It is primarily, however, a recognition on the part of a Palestinian leadership that the Arab nations failed the Arabs of Palestine, and would probably have little success in any foreseeable future. State-building on the land would have to be accomplished mostly by the people of Palestine themselves. Thus, by the beginning of the 1980s, all Arab nations formally came to recognize the Palestinians as a distinct and separate national entity. Yet, just as many question the national character of the Jews, I suspect there are still plenty of Arabs in all strata of society who continue to resist the national character of Palestine.
I am reminded of the story of the scorpion and the frog meeting on the bank of the Jordan River. The scorpion asks the frog to ferry him across. The frog responds, “are you nuts! How do I know you will not sting and paralyze me as we cross?” The scorpion argues, “who is truly nuts? If I were to sting and paralyze you, I would drown as well!” The frog finds this argument logical, and begins carrying the scorpion across the river. All of a sudden, a few hundred yards from the banks, the scorpion stings the frog. As the poison begins to take its affect, and the frog struggles to remain above the waves, she cries out, “Why?” The scorpion’s reply: “Because this is the Middle East.”
The State has been founded, but the fundamental issues animating the region since the beginning of the twentieth century remain. Two nations claim a land, and not only are their claims to the land vociferously questioned, but their claims that they are actually nations, as well.
The second reason for the persistence of Zionism might best be introduced by a slogan known by many American officeholders: Politics is what commences after you have been elected.Contrary to the conventional wisdom in some quarters, I believe that Zionism is what commenced after the State came into being. Just as the “politics” of the campaign, needs to be transformed into the “politics” of getting things accomplished, the “Zionism” of nation-building has had to be transformed into a new sort of Zionism.
Just what this means is exemplified in the first reason given for the continuation of Zionism: the odd and unsettled notion of a “Jewish State. “In other words, is Israel no more or no less than the State of and for Jews, or must Israel also be a State that reflects and represents ‘Jewishness.’ Ahad Ha’am, one the foremost early Zionist thinkers, had argued that it was not enough for Zionism to solve the problem of the Jews, it must solve as well, the problem of Judaism, which he defined as the struggle to maintain Jewish distinctiveness.
Ahad Ha’am died fully a generation before the founding of Israel. His call and vision were overwhelmed by the sheer pragmatic logistics of creating the state, and then of its defense. The problem of Judaism was put on hold.Its absence, perhaps more deeply than the good feeling experience during the days of the Oslo peace process, promoted a feeling of post-Zionism. That which was never attained becomes forgotten as ever being a goal.Zionism and Judaism: we have come back to where we began, and can raise the question of a Reform Jewish Zionism.
The Problem of Judaism:A Reform Jewish Zionism
It is important to recognize that all the approaches to Zionism have been essentially secular. This claim even includes the project of Religious Zionism, whose supporters sought a theological rationale in order to participate in what they conceded was a secular movement. One had to make peace with Zionists, they argued, in order to prepare for the coming of the Messiah, which, of course, would also be the end of Zionism. For the past one hundred-fifty years, Zionism and Jewish religious thought have pursued paths of development, that while touching at many points, have never really interpenetrated each other.
Consider, however, that in the last two World Zionist Congresses (1997, 2002), the North American delegations of the U.S. and Canada, were overwhelmingly represented by religious organizations: ARZA (Reform), Mercaz (Conservative) and Mizrachi (Orthodox).Further, surveys of religious attitudes among Israeli Jews have consistently revealed that the overwhelming majority consider themselves religious: about 20-25% of the total, Orthodox, and about 60% non-Orthodox.Zionism and Judaism—not merely as an expression of Jewish distinctiveness, but more as the repository of Jewish spiritual values and aspirations—are now fully intertwined. The articulation of a Zionist vision must also be a Jewish religious vision.
Up to now, our discussion has been centered on what is Zionism. Let us now turn to Reform Judaism. We have already explored the tension between the nineteenth century ideas of Jewish nationalism and Jewish religious reform. Their attitudes and approaches appeared at that time to be quite far apart from each other; so much so that Reformers adamantly denied the value of a Jewish national identity, and Zionists insisted that Jews could not continue to exist outside of their own national polity. Upon closer examination, however, we may see that Zionism and Reform did not stand at opposite poles, but rather back-to-back facing in opposite directions. Here are some principles of classic Reform Jewish thought that touch upon Zionism:
1. Jews, individually and collectively, have a role in determining the redemption of the world. The talmudic sages argued whether or not human agency had a role in bringing about the Messiah. The argument was dropped as inconclusive, but the general experience of the Jews, finding themselves mostly on the sidelines of history, tended to reinforce the notion that the coming of redemption was solely in the province of God. Imbued with the Enlightenment notions of unlimited human potential and perfectibility, Jews rearticulated the idea that they reinsert themselves into history, and take an active and determined role in bringing about redemption.
2. Jews have hope in the future. The past provides lessons, but not answers. Jewish destiny lies in the future. Thus, even at darkest moments, we are forbidden to despair.
3. Jews have a normal place in the world. Jews have a place in the world, not only in the sight of God, but also in the natural way of human communities. They can assert their identity confidently among Gentile neighbors, taking a role in tackling mutual challenges.
These principles have been modified somewhat over the last century, but their essence remains intact. I believe they should be a vital part of Reform Jewish Zionism as well. Thus, Reform Zionists should work for an Israel that is in accord with these ideas.
The age of self-isolation is over.Israel cannot be content with a policy that extends only as far as survival and self-defense in the midst of an admittedly hostile neighborhood. Even if such a strategy could be successful indefinitely, it violates a fundamental tenet of both Zionist and Reform Jewish vision: that the Jews can have a normal place in the world.
Of course, Jewish willingness to be normal does not assure that the non-Jewish world is prepared to treat us as normal. Neither classic Reform nor classic Zionism truly came to grips with the depth, virulence and persistence of anti-Jewish animus that exists in the world. The age of nave idealism is over as well.In spite of it all, we must not despair. Anti-Semitism is not a congenital condition, and while its control is hardly fully in Jewish hands, Jews are not helpless either.Israel must continue to explore avenues of accommodation and mutual interest with its neighbors, even as it refuses to put its guard down in the face of violence.[i]
As Judaism exists in accord with God’s will, so does Israel exist for a purpose that must transcend itself.Simply achieving a level of peace and stability in the Middle East is not enough.Israel has a responsibility to strive to establish the values of justice and compassion, embodied in Torah. This effort is the responsibility of all states: to provide for the health and welfare of its citizens. In the case of Israel, it is critical, particularly from the Jewish point of view as understood by the Reform Movement, that it extends to its treatment of its non-Jewish population.Reform Zionism, I believe, must be dedicated to promoting a Jewish State that is affirmative in assuring no discrimination toward its Arab, Bedouin and Druze populations, as well as ever vigilant in promoting both social and economic justice for all Israeli Jews.
At the heart of Reform Judaism is the idea of Israel as “a light of nations.”Israel itself therefore cannot plunge into darkness, either one of its own making in terms of an unjust policies regarding its citizens-Jew and non-Jew-or those who sojourn within its borders; or one created by the dark enmity of neighbors. Both Reform Judaism and Zionism were founded on a fundamental belief in the redemptive possibilities of the future, and thus neither can ever permit themselves to become inured by the apparent desperate conditions of the present.
Religion and the Land
When Reform Jewish principles and Zionism are brought together, they create, I believe, a particular attitude and vision regarding the Jewish State. It is admittedly a liberal vision, emphasizing negotiation, territorial compromise and social justice for Israel’s non-Jewish population.In this fashion, it bespeaks the attitude of a liberal religion. There is one more element that must be added.
From the outset, I have described the historic general tension between Judaism, as the religious expression of the people Israel, and Zionism, and the specific one involving Reform Judaism. That tension is inherent in a near two thousand year history in which the people were removed from their land as a national entity, and therefore developed a concept of that land as a theological abstract, a component in the divine plan for the Jews, no longer a real and concrete location of everyday Jewish life. The success of Zionism in creating a reconstituted State on the historic Land of Israel has served to modify the long-standing outlook of Jewish religion, but it has hardly removed the tension.
Even those Reform Jews who are most active in their support of Israel are aware of the tension, both around them and within them.I have sought in this paper to reconcile the principles of Reform Judaism within the context of a renewed and ongoing Zionism, but I have not discussed what Zionism might mean in the hearts and minds of Reform Jews.Quite a bit of very fine and thought work has already been written and discussed on just this matter, and I do not wish to repeat or summarize it, except to propose this critical lesson: Reform Jews must not despair of Israel.
The natural and persistent tension between the historic religion and the historic nation leads to a natural and persistent distancing force between Reform Jews and the Jewish State. When times are good-in the aftermath of the Six-Day War, when Anwar Sadat came to Jerusalem, or during the years of the Oslo peace process-our attitude toward Israel is warm and benign. Good times have not lasted. The euphoria of the stunning victory in 1967, led to occupation of over three million unwilling inhabitants, and increasing isolation in the international community.The peace treaty with Egypt has remained a “cold peace.” Now the Oslo process is shattered. The confident expectation that in due time, Israel would have a stable and cooperative relationship with an independent Palestinian State, has deteriorated into terror attacks and severe retaliation, with little or almost no assurance that the two-State solution can be put back on track.
More often than not, we tend to view Israel with exasperation and frustration. We wonder whether there will ever be a day when the Jewish State will enjoy the classic Zionist dream of being a nation at peace with its neighbors. Moreover, many of us are given to question whether Israel’s government has given up as well, preferring the iron fist of security to the outstretched hand of accommodation and reconciliation. I know I have had such dark thoughts. And, when they are thought, the natural reaction is to withdraw: steadfast support of the Jewish State is not worth the anxiety and anger it engenders.
Thus, I propose that Reform Jews must not despair of Israel, and do so in consideration of two principal factors. First, because Reform Judaism and Zionism have faith in democracy. I remarked earlier upon the pragmatic need of the Zionist movement to be democratic.No authority was strong enough, either in power or popularity, in order to eliminate alternative ideas and programs. Reform Judaism, in its dedication to moral autonomy, has also resisted the idea that any individual or group could claim ultimate decisive authority over God’s will.
Faith in democracy is itself predicated upon faith in communal human will and activity.”Reform is a verb.” This expression not only reflects the dynamic nature of Reform Jewish practice and thought, but also the recognition that the attitude you and I firmly adhere to right now might very well be wrong. Of course, you and I might be right, but religious faith—the unfolding revelation of the divine will-may make that evident over time.Certainly, mistakes will be made, and some governmental actions will be predicated primarily on cynicism, demagoguery, or blind angry reaction. The people Israel have survived exile, oppression, persecution and the furnaces of Auschwitz; the State of Israel will survive the drawbacks of bad government policy as well.
The second reason is that we need Israel.I do not mean this in the normal Zionist way that suggests that living in Israel is the only real way in which one can be a complete Jew. The case for Jews and Judaism is far more complex than that.Jews do not need to be in Israel. Moreover, one can make the argument (as I have elsewhere) that if Judaism is to fulfill its role as a world historical religion, it must be able to be lived anywhere in the world.
Yet, although Jews do not need to be in Israel, they nonetheless need Israel. To put it in more general terms, Jews need a community in which being Jewish is a natural part of everyday life.Judaism is not simply an expression of faith; this is not even its primary feature.Judaism is the faith, vision and ideals that draw from a people in relation to its history and to its interaction with each other. The faith, vision and ideals definitely transcend the people themselves, but first they are rooted in the people. This is why Judaism—particularly in contradistinction to Christianity and Islam——is the ‘ism’ of the Jews, the community of the people Israel.
In every age, Jews have existed either as part of, or in relation to an organic community. Undeniably, the Jewish religious reformers of the nineteenth century felt that, in the face of emancipation from their civil and national isolation, Judaism could survive—even flourish——with an inevitable demise of that community. They expressed this confidence, I believe, because they were also confident that humankind was fast approaching its Messianic Age, when societal distinctions would be effaced from the earth.When, “on that day, God would be One, and God’s Name One!”
Their optimism was not warranted.Reform was saved and prospered as the Reform and Conservative Movements precisely because it aligned itself with the continuing organic Jewish community of Europe.Jewish religion in the first part of the twentieth century was buoyed by the culture and ethos of Yiddishkeit.
Then, the European Jewish community disappeared in the face of the Nazi onslaught. Yiddishkeit did not die as well, preserved as it was in the immigrant generation and in the direct connection that the next two generations have had with it. For fifty years, the community that disappeared continued as a living memory. Now, the memory is fading as well.It is true that Hasidic communities cling fast to the lifestyle of the vanished society, but in order to do so, they must erect powerful procedural and emotional barriers to the present-day world.The overwhelming majority of the world’s Jews live in a post-Yiddishkeit era.
For over one hundred years, there has been an organic Jewish community on the soil of Israel. Since the Holocaust, it has also been the only such community.In subtle ways, the change from Europe to Israel has been taking place. Two generations ago, virtually all Jews in North America learned to pronounce Hebrew in an Eastern European (Ashkenazi) fashion. Today, the Israeli (Sephardi) pronunciation is the norm in synagogues and Hebrew schools.A generation ago, religious school children might have gone to the nearby old-time Jewish community.In New York, it was the Lower East Side, in Chicago, Maxwell Street, in Toronto, Kensington; you name the street or neighborhood for your city. There, one could virtually see, hear, smell and taste the Old World. Today, most of these places can only be visited in film and books. Synagogue youth movements now organize trips to Israel. For the most part, all Jews, including those who barely give thought to Zionism, utilize the Jewish community of Israel as a touchstone for their own Jewish identity.
Could Jews and Judaism survive the disappearance of the Jewish State? As a person of faith, I tend to believe that Judaism would indeed find a way. I would not, on the other hand, wish to confront such a circumstance. From our origins, we have been dependent on the organic Jewish community. At this time, and for an indefinite future, our fate is therefore intrinsically tied to the fate of Israel.
Reform Zionism: Our Hope and Prayer
As a response to the Jewish condition in modern times, both religious reform and Zionism have been extraordinarily successful. They have captured the hearts and imagination of the great majority of the Jewish community. I believe a core factor in their successes is the common element of optimism.Born out of the nineteenth century’s progressive idealist spirit, Reform and Zionism both envisioned a future filled with possibility and opportunity. The suffering, exile and oppression of the past would be put behind, and both Jewish and human potential would be fulfilled.
The first half of the twentieth century suggested that such optimistic faith was not warranted, but Jews have nonetheless refused to sink into cynicism. The fundamental confidence in the future remains, and thus both Jewish Reform and Zionist spirit remain alive and strong.
Reform and Zionism once competed in their separate visions. Then they came to an accommodation.I have tried to describe here how their visions might intertwine. At its root, the Zionist dream was for a people to end its eighteen hundred years of wandering, return home, and simply be a nation among nations. Over fifty years ago, a major portion of the dream was fulfilled with the founding of the Jewish State. No Zionist can observe the ongoing crises of the State in its struggle find security on its land, and honestly aver that the dream has been completely fulfilled.
Perhaps with persistence and patience, the dream will be realized in due time.Perhaps, this is as good as it gets; Zionism was excessively optimistic, and we must abandon its original principles and be satisfied with what we have. Or perhaps, we must come to understand that the Jews cannot be viewed as merely a people with a history, a language and a land. They are rather a covenanted people, and thus must reach outside the borders of their own community, their own nationhood, and act on behalf of the redemption of the world as well. Combined with the innate optimism of Reform Judaism, of the Jewish people who are a ‘light to the nations,’ then it is my hope and prayer that Zionism will also achieve its dream, “to be a free people in Zion and Jerusalem.”
One might question whether such an assertion is a realistic principle or a pollyannish pipedream. I am without a doubt being optimistic, but I do not think excessively so. Just as the Jews have had to convince both themselves and the world that they are legitimately a national entity, so have the Palestinians had to convince themselves and the world that they are not merely Arabs. P alestinians have therefore prided themselves on pointing out the distinctions between themselves and the rest of the Arab world; that they are better educated, more professional, and, above all, more prepared to establish an egalitarian and democratic society.
The evidence of the ‘Oslo’ years (1993-2000) has been that Palestinians are not so different. Their society has tended to be as autocratic and corrupt as most of their neighbors. We should not underestimate how galling and embarrassing this turn of events have been for a certain thoughtful and influential component of that society. The wherewithal on the part of the Palestinians to reach out in sincerity to Israel, I believe has not been fully buried.
An invaluable resource in this area are the two volumes of The Journal of Reform Zionism, published by ARZA in 1993 and 1995. Also valuable is the unpublished reports of the ARZA Canada Think Tank (1996-2000) that can be acquired from both the ARZA Canada and ARZA-World Union.
Thinking About Reform Jewish Zionism
In the mid-1990s, both of my children participated in the NFTY Summer in Israel program; my son as a bus counselor and my daughter as a student. It must be stated from the outset that the program is an extraordinary experience: well organized, spirited, informative, an altogether powerful source of connection between Reform Jewish teenagers and the Jewish State and its land. In both years that each of my children attended, there was one problem, since corrected. Except for a visit to the Reform Jewish kibbutzim of Yahel and Lotan, the program had virtually no connection with Reform Judaism in Israel. For example, students had a non-programmed Shabbat in Jerusalem, for which their counselors might have taken them to the Wall, or Heichal Shlomo, the synagogue of Israel’s Chief Rabbi. It did not occur to them, nor were they encouraged to go to the Reform synagogues of Kol Hanishama, Har El or the chapel at Hebrew Union College.
This situation bespoke a condition regarding North American Reform Judaism and Israel that persists to this day. It is the disconnect between their understanding of being Jewish and their approach to the Jewish State.
Reform Jews are as involved with Israel as any other Jewish population in North America. The NFTY Summer in Israel, before the outbreak of current spate of violence, has been the largest single youth program bringing students to Israel in a summer. In the last two World Zionist Congress elections, the ARZA slate has collected a significant plurality-47% and 42%-of the total U.S. vote. Reform Jews do indeed care for Israel as much any American Jew, but what are the points of connection?
For the most part, their connection is divided into two parts: social-psychological and institutional. Reform Jews express identification with Israel for the classic Zionist reasons of oneness with all Jews and solidarity with those who chose to settle in and maintain the historic land of our ancestors. Israel is therefore the place where Abraham wandered, Jacob and his children tended to their flocks. Where Solomon built the Temple, and the classic rabbis produced the Mishna. And where Jews began returning toward the end of the nineteenth century in order to drain swamps, and, in the words of the classic slogan, “went to build and be built.” Reform Jews identify with Israel in its historical context, as would most any other Jew, religious or secular.
The second connection is specifically through ARZA (The Association of Reform Zionists of America) as the formal instrumentality for support of Reform Jewish institutions, both economically and politically. In a land where the official establishment is Orthodox, Reform Judaism institutionally must fight for basic recognition. Thus, Reform Jews’ care for Israel is in pressing for a society where the institution of Reform Judaism might have a reasonable opportunity to take root and develop.
All of this is laudable, but the fundamental disconnect remains. In what way does being a Reform Jew actually inform our attitude, understanding and support for Israel? How may Reform Jews identify with Israel that is not merely secular (social and historical), or as a struggle to develop its institutions within the political context of the Jewish State. What, at its heart, is Reform Zionism?
Reform Judaism versus Zionism
“We are all Zionists.” This was the title of an essay written in the 1970s, by Norman Podhoretz, editor of Commentary. Within the boundaries of its own definitions, the claim was (and is) true enough. Following the wars of 1967 and 1973, both of which contained moments when it was reasonable to fear that Israel’s very being was being held in the balance, principled opposition on the part of American Jews toward the existence of the Jewish State, had essentially disappeared. The proclamation of near universal Zionism within the American Jewish community by 1975, however, also reinforced the fact that at an earlier time, the Zionist enterprise was very controversial. Indeed, for most of the first half of the twentieth century, being an American Zionist was more the exception than the rule.
Reform Judaism’s early opposition to Zionism is well known. “We consider ourselves no longer a nation, but a religious community, and therefore expect neither a return to Palestine.nor the restoration of the laws concerning the Jewish State.” This is formal declaration of the nascent American Reform Movement in its 1885 Statement of Principles, the first Pittsburgh Platform. When rabbis gathered again in 1937, to re-articulate their position with The Guiding Principles of Reform Judaism, or the Columbus Platform, the attitude had changed dramatically: “[Judaism]is the soul of which Israel is the body.In the rehabilitation of Palestine, the land hallowed by memories and hopes, we behold the promise of renewed life for many of our brethren. We affirm the obligation of all Jewry to aid in its upbuilding as a Jewish homeland by endeavoring to make it not only a haven of refuge for the oppressed but also a center of Jewish culture and spiritual life.”[i]
The change of direction was hardly sudden. Cracks in the ideology of 1885 had been forming for decades. Indeed, when one wishes to call to mind the foremost proponents of Zionism among American Jews of the first part of the century, three rabbis are often recited: Stephen S. Wise, Abba Hillel Silver, and Judah Magnes. All of them were firmly within the Reform Movement.
On the other hand, the statement made in 1937, or the more explicitly anti-anti-Zionist resolutions made at subsequent CCAR (association of Reform rabbis) Conventions[ii], hardly meant that opposition to Zionism within Reform Judaism had come to an end. The struggle of this half-century, moreover, was not merely political-the effort of one camp to gain the upper hand over another. It was also the emotional and philosophical struggle of Reform itself, a conflict that often would occur within oneself. Understanding the opposing impulses and values inherent in this battle is important, not only for the light it sheds on this period of history, but more for the light it sheds on our efforts to construct a Reform Jewish Zionism today.
Let us return to 1885. Theodore Herzl was an obscure Austrian journalist. While groups of mostly Romanian Jews had already immigrated to Palestine and established communities such as Petah Tikva, the first formally organized Aliyah (immigration to the land of Israel) was still a few years off. It would be another twelve years before the first World Zionist Congress is convened. The rabbis who gathered in Pittsburgh were hardly reacting to a Zionist Movement as it would come to be. Their concern rather was conventional Jewish tradition, such as expressed in a portion of a daily morning prayer: “Gather us in peace from the four corners of the earth, and lead us to fulfillment in our Land.”
The Reformers in Pittsburgh were reacting against the centuries-old principle of Judaism that viewed the restoration of the Jewish national polity in the land of Israel, with a rebuilt Temple and priestly service, as a fundamental hope and expectation for the future. Thus, the Platform makes clear its opposition to “the restoration of the laws concerning the Jewish State.” This is not the Zionism of the First Aliyah, but the theological Zionism of redemption.
We should note that the proponents of redemptive Zionism, the Orthodox world of the late nineteenth century, were also fiercely opposed to the Zionism that would animate Herzl and his followers. Their opposition was twofold. They felt that the return to Zion would be brought about by a divine act, not the project of settlement and development proposed by the Zionists. Further, they strenuously objected to a Jewish movement in the land of Israel that envisioned a modern society so at odds with traditional (Torah-based) thought and practice.
Thus, at the turn of the century, we have these three fundamental approaches to being a Jew in the contemporary world: Reform, Orthodox, and Zionist. Reform and Orthodoxy are religious articulations of Jewishness, while Zionism is secular. Zionists and Orthodox essentially believe that Jews should not or cannot be assimilated into the larger society, while Reform feel that this is both possible and necessary. Reform and Zionism hold to a positive and progressive role for Jews in history, while Orthodoxy is mostly reactionary. All three claim to be the key for continued Jewish survival.
Now, a hundred years later, the compatible elements of the three philosophies have permitted certain convergences. Reform and Orthodox Judaism have made peace with Zionism, each in its own way. In turn, the fully secular approach to Zionism, either in Israel or in the diaspora, has been relegated to an increasingly smaller minority of the population. Some things change, and other things abide. We know that the only real organized Jewish expression against the State of Israel today is to be found in Orthodoxy. The democratic and secular nature of the Jewish State remains an indigestible pill to swallow. Most of the more stringent Orthodox organizations-Agudas Yisroel and many of the Hasidim, including Lubavitch Chabad-remain, at best, non-Zionist, keeping the principal features of Jewish nationalism at arm’s length, while praying the real Jewish State will someday be reconstituted.
We observe the struggle with Zionism that still animates elements of Orthodoxy. What about Reform?
I think we can say with confidence that Reform anti-Zionism is dead. The Columbus Platform adequately put that issue to bed. Since 1937, the Reform Movement has produced three more documents that formally enunciate its principles. They include two more general platforms-the 1976 Centenary Perspective, 1999 A Statement of Principles for Reform Judaism-and a 1997 document, Reform Judaism & Zionism. Each rearticulates in similar words the Movement’s acceptance and attachment to the Land and the State. Each Statement appears to repudiate to the proposition set forth in 1885. In reality, however, I believe it does not.
Let us return and look with care at the words of the original Statement of Principles. Here is the proposition in its entirety:
We recognize, in the modern era of universal culture of heart and intellect, the approaching of the realization of Israel’s great Messianic hope for the establishment of the kingdom of truth, justice, and peace among all men. We consider ourselves no longer a nation, but a religious community, and therefore expect neither a return to Palestine, nor a sacrificial worship under the sons of Aaron, nor the restoration of any of the laws concerning the Jewish state.
As noted above, the final assertion regarding “a return to Palestine” was proposed in the context of the traditional understanding of restoration of the biblical kingdom. At no time has Reform Judaism considered any re-evaluation of this principle. The first assertion, bespeaking an extraordinary optimism that the latter years of the century were ushering in an era in which the messianic hopes will be fulfilled for all the world, is far more controversial. Within three decades, the “War to end all wars” was set off in Europe, engulfing the United States a few years later. And, although an armistice was signed in 1918, the blood really did not stop flowing. The twentieth century was filled with war and terror, and among the worst atrocities in history, including, of course, of the destruction of most of Europe’s Jewry. The anticipation of the Messiah’s coming in 1885, proved to be premature.
Yet, is the assertion that we are moving closer to “the realization of Israel’s great Messianic hope” wrong, or merely impatient? Reform Judaism-one might argue that it is a guiding principle of Judaism from its inception-believes in the possibility-No! the certainty!-of redemption. Further, that humankind, in general, and Israel, in particular, have a vital role in carrying out God’s purpose, that is, indeed, “the establishment of the kingdom of truth, justice, and peace among all men.” This principle of optimism, I would suggest, has never been overturned. Even in the darkest times of the past century, it was possible to look for signs of redemption. By the beginning of the new millennium, not only had the age-old dream of a people returned to its ancient homeland come true, but also with emigration from Ethiopia, Iran, Arab lands and the fall of the Soviet Empire, there were no Jewish communities anywhere in the world living under the boot of oppression.
I think it is hardly appropriate to declare that now we are on the verge of a messianic age, but we can conclude that the principle enunciated in 1885, still holds true for Reform Judaism, although we have learned to state it with greater humility.
This leaves the central assertion of the proposition, that “we consider ourselves no longer a nation, but a religious community.” The language echoes a philosophical and political concern of reformist Jews that reached back into the late-eighteenth century. Jews had always been considered an alien body within the larger Gentile (Christian) community. In France, they were not French, nor German in Germany, British in England, and so on. Enlightenment thinking in the 1700s, tended to promote an equality of all humankind, which led to the question: in just what way are the Jews different? The prominent philosopher and Jewish apologist, Moses Mendelssohn, produced a reply: The Jews are in no way different, except in their beliefs as a religious community.
For those Jews looking for a way into general society while still maintaining their rituals and practices, Mendelssohn’s formulation was valuable. Jews, contrary to medieval notions of being a race or a nation, were simply the adherents of a religion. Roughly a century later, in 1885, the assertion remained a powerful fundament of the Reform Movement. And sometime in the twentieth century, it changed. Reform Jewish leadership recognized that the bonds that held Jews together could not be reduced simply to one of confession of faith. It was more complex than that. Jews cared for each other as Jews, regardless of precisely what they believed. Even, if they chose to pursue a national course and resettle the ancient land of Israel.
If Jews, however, were not merely adherents of a religion, and their bonds to each other went beyond that, what exactly were they? The subsequent platforms in Reform Judaism hardly suggest that they are a race or nation. The operative word is rather, “a people.” And what are a people, if not some form of community: “we consider ourselves no longer a nation, but a religious community.”
The problem with the 1885 Platform is not that it is wrong or outdated. It is rather occluded. From the standpoint of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, the visionaries of 1885, stood on firm ground regarding Reform Jewish principles, but simply could not see far enough. Further, they could not fully appreciate the ramifications of their own language. Jews do constitute a community, but it is hardly a community formed out of some theological like-mindedness. This first Platform nevertheless established a foundational self-understanding for Reform Judaism: that it is primarily grounded in God and Torah, and not in the Land. As subsequent Platforms attest, the Land can no longer be ignored, if for no other reason than a portion of the people chose to settle there. We are still a long way from articulating a Zionist position. Indeed, this analysis was undertaken in order to reinforce that the tension between Reform Judaism and Zionism still exists. If we are going to reduce (I do not think we can ever remove) that tension, we focus now on Zionism itself.
Jewish religious reform drew its origin from the circumstances of the end of the eighteenth century, when Enlightenment philosophy and political emancipation brought Jews into civil society. The Reformers took these circumstances as a gift from God, and optimistically plotted a Jewish future that could be fully integrated into general society.
Zionism draws its origin from somewhat later events, particularly from the failed revolutions in Central Europe in 1848, and the 1881 assassination of Czar Alexander II, ushering in a reactionary regime in Russia. Quite unlike the Reformers, Zionists saw these circumstances, not as a gift, but rather as a warning. Jews, they concluded could not ever expect to be integrated into a general society. They were the eternal Other. Rather than bemoaning this situation, or continuing to beseech God for relief, their solution was to become fully what the rest of the world already thought they were, a nation. Thus, they would set out to be a nation on their own land.
Through the second half of the nineteenth century, the Zionist impulse was exhibited in two ways. There were the initial ideological writings, setting out a philosophical underpinning for the very idea of a return to Zion. And there were the pioneers: groups of Jews, first from Romania and then other locations in Eastern Europe, who picked up and traveled to a sparsely populated Palestine, where they set up mostly agricultural settlements. A critical turning point for Zionism took place toward the end of the century, when the ideological expression and disorganized, underfunded immigration project were brought together with the establishment of a World Zionist Congress. Political Zionism was created.
The Jewish State, founded just over a half-century after Theodore Herzl convoked the first Zionist Congress, certainly could not have come into being without this political effort. Money had to be raised. Support from powerful interests had to be garnered. Disparate and clashing visions had to be reconciled. To a great extent, without the mediating effect of the Congress, there probably would not have been enough unity of purpose with which to tackle the funding and organizing problems. The success of the Zionist Movement, however, should not obscure the fact that there have been profound differences of vision regarding the Zionist idea, differences that persist to this day. We need to be aware of the overall outline of those differences, and, more important, what was the consensus that the Movement worked out. In doing this, we may be able to discover what ways the competing visions of Reform Judaism and Zionism can be mediated as well.
Let me repeat what I said about the origins of Zionism; that it developed out of the various failures for Jews to be welcomed unambiguously into the modern European nation-state. The result of these experiences was a combination of disillusionment and opportunity. How bitter the sense of disillusionment, and how optimistic the perception of opportunity are important components in the creation of one’s Zionism. With this in mind, we can consider in broad strokes the different visions. They are normally characterized as: socialist, religious, cultural and general political. Within each of these broad categories, one can also describe certain competing ideas.
I will begin with the last mentioned, the general political. This approach can be understood in two closely related ways. First, it conceives of the Jews in political terms, as a nation. Thus, it strives to engage in nation-building, the creation of institutions and activities that may ultimate achieve the establishment of a Jewish State. Second, it frames Jewish relations with non-Jews within the same political category. Thus, it views interaction between Jews and Gentiles, whether for good or for ill, as a politically freighted encounter between two states.
Political Zionism naturally contained within it a spectrum of opinions similar to the political spectrum in any country. Its moderate expression, normally associated with Theodore Herzl and his ideological successors, was highly pragmatic. While the very idea of a Jewish State was visionary-“If you will it, it is no dream,” in Herzl’s immortal phrase-the steps required to get there would very well require negotiation and compromise with various centers of power.
A more assertive form of political Zionism became known as Revisionism. Herzl saw Jewish social achievement being attained through the vehicle of a Jewish State, while the revisionists felt that a State was necessary for sheer Jewish survival. They were far more willing therefore to engage in violence and military tactics. After all, this was a war, with the existence of the Jewish people at stake. Political maneuvering and negotiating with world powers was simply not enough.
Whether mainstream or revisionist, political Zionism tended to understand Jewishness in fundamentally secular terms. Jews are a historic nation, exiled from their land, but never losing their national character. Differences in religious practice and thought were immaterial in this approach. A Jew was not a Jew by virtue of keeping Shabbat on Saturday, laying t’fillin, or eating matzah during Passover. A Jew was simply a Jew, in the same way that a Russian was a Russian, a Canadian a Canadian. Practice and thought were secondary to sheer identification.
A second, a more far-reaching element of this type of Zionism was found in its attitude toward the settlement of the land of Israel. The slogan of the Movement was “a people without a land for a land without people.” Of course, Palestine did have people! The Zionists were not that blind. The non-Jewish settlement of the region was quite sparse. Jerusalem was a tiny city, mostly bound within the fifteenth century walls constructed by the Ottomans. Other population centers-Jaffa, Haifa, Ramla, Nazereth, Hebron, Beersheva, etc.-were smaller. Most of the local population was rural, herdsmen and subsistence farmers who often worked the lands of absentee owners. By the 1870’s, when the first construction went up outside the city walls, Jerusalem had a plurality of Jews. The Jewish population was larger than either that of the indigenous Muslim or Christian community. Tel Aviv was founded as a Jewish city on the outskirts of Jaffa in 1909. By the 1920s, it had completely eclipsed the old port as a population center.
Demographics were only a part of it. “A land without a people” also belied this Zionist concept of people. “People” referred to an independent or politically identifiable entity. The non-Jewish settlers in Palestine had no such status. In the decades before World War I, they were under overall Ottoman Turkish authority. As Arabs, however, they more appropriately fell within a political subdivision of the fast collapsing Empire whose center was in Syria. Yes, the Zionists understood to themselves, these Arabs were a people. But they were a people who had roamed far from their own land.
Even when Jewish settlers were confronted with violent Arab protest to their nation building, such as the Hebron riots in 1921, 23 and 29, these were not seen as an indigenous national opposition, but rather as a geo-political conflict being directed by Arab centers in Damascus, Baghdad or Ammon. The revisionist wing viewed these attacks as part and parcel of the overall war for survival. The pragmatists sought lines of least resistance. Hostile Arab communities were to be avoided and contained.
Socialist Zionism is often identified, not inaccurately, with the kibbutz movement. The kibbutz, called by Martin Buber, “the experiment that did not fail,” both served to solve a certain problem with respect to the settlement of the land, and to promote certain ideals. The problem was the development of appropriate Jewish labor.
Conventionally, this is described as the inverted triangle. Jews in Europe were urban and mostly engaged in small entrepreneurial activities. Further, while some developed manual skills in the needle trades (tailoring or clothing manufacture), most gained their livelihood in tasks that required skills like writing and computing. They were in sales, or clerks, brokers, or possibly such professions as law, medicine, teachers and, of course, rabbis. This is not the best-suited workforce to go out and develop a land from scratch.
Through Socialist Zionism, Jews were induced to participate in a fundamentally communal fashion in the common activity of working and building up the land. The dignity of working the soil with one’s hands was emphasized, and so was the notion that no one should ever be in a position to exploit the work of another. Thus, the highest aspiration was not the manager, because this was a position of extra responsibility but no extra reward. Management would thus rotate; it was, after all, a burden. No one, therefore, would ever feel embarrassed or demeaned for spending a day doing the absolutely necessary work of digging ditches, weeding fields, or cleaning out the stables.
Socialism was a strategy for Jewish nation building. It also represented a vision of Jewish self-sufficiency. Jews would work collectively in order not to exploit each other, and they would work for their own needs in order not to exploit their Arab neighbors, either. In this approach, it was not a “land without a people,” but the people who were there were bracketed out.
In laying out the tension between Reform Judaism and Zionism, I have already touched upon the general problem of a religious Zionism. Since the exile to Babylonia at the beginning of the sixth century B.C.E., a substantial Jewish community has existed outside of the Land of Israel. By the third century of the Christian Era, this exilic community was the dominant force in the development of Judaism for the next 1600 years. The centrality of the Land remained a theological constant, firmly established in the daily worship, but in day-to-day reality, Jewish existence was sustained by Torah and family. The Land was distant and abstract in everyday lives.
As the Zionist Movement became well established, the reality of the Land confronted the theological image. It was disorienting, thus quickly rejected by many traditional Jews. Some religious leaders, however, were far more conflicted. They were drawn, like many others not so religiously inclined to the Land, and they were impressed by the spirit of the pioneers. It was a spirit that they felt was both a communion with the Land and other Jews, and with the divine. The result of this interaction became an explicit formulation for a Religious Zionism: the return to the Land and its resettlement, even by Jews who had forsaken the dictates of Torah, was nonetheless an indication of the imminent coming of the Messiah.
Religious Zionism is thus a strategy by which the traditionally religious individual can also feel Zionist. The formula, by the way, is not limited to Orthodoxy. In the prayer book of Israel’s Reform Movement, Avodah Shebalev, the State of Israel is called reisheet tz’mihat g’ulateinu [the beginning of the flowering of our redemption]. The emphasis, however, is on “religious.” The Zionist enterprise fits within an overall theological schema in which the State, as currently constituted, is ultimately obliterated. The religious Zionists are therefore precariously perched in their Zionism. In the last analysis, one’s faith is in faith itself; more than the people, more than the Land.
Just because you bring a bunch of people into a house to live, does not mean you have a family. Cultural Zionism proceeded from this premise: coming to settle on the Land, even if there are agencies to facilitate the settling, does not make for a nation. A nation needs a national ethos; that is, a culture.
One should not underestimate how important this insight was in the founding of the Jewish State. The Jews who were coming to the Land were: socialist atheists from the Ukraine, Yiddish speaking pietists from Lithuania, Ladino speakers from Morocco, Arabic speaking mystics from Yemen, Judeo-Persians from Iran, and acculturated Jews from France, England and North America. Not only did they speak different languages, and have different attitudes toward religious practice and thought, they also differed in food preferences, concepts of family and community, appreciation of music and art, and in virtually every other indicator. All they appeared to have in common is that they thought themselves to be Jews, and that they wanted to be in the Land of Israel. Is that enough on which to build a nation?
The cultural Zionists were therefore concerned in developing the points of commonality that could draw such a diverse population together. Chief among them, no doubt, was promoting a common language of Hebrew. They also focused on education, the arts, and the establishment of community centers where Jews of different backgrounds could interact and find their own points of commonality.
In Cultural Zionism, peoplehood was primary, more important than nationhood. The cultural Zionists were therefore also more sensitive to the peoplehood of those who already inhabited the Land. It was never “a land without a people.” As a result, they tended to accept accommodation in terms of national aspiration with the indigenous Arab population. The more radical among them were uncomfortable with the vision of an exclusive or primarily Jewish State. For them, such a State was either impractical in face of the fierce local opposition, or a corruption of the Jewish spirit.
The Principles of Zionism
These were the forces and ideologies that animated the Zionist Movement. They were the objects of speeches, pamphlets and books, of arguments, debates and occasional fistfights on the floor of a World Zionist Congress assembly. Yet, when the most radical expressions were bracketed out, certain basic common features could be found. I want to suggest that there are two foundational concepts that describe a mainstream Zionism:
1. The Jewish People are intimately connected by history and covenant to the Land of Israel. It is their historic homeland and the natural place of any Jewish polity. Yet, as a practical and pragmatic matter, the State must be founded on whatever portion of the Land the people can adequately secure, develop and defend.
2. The Jewish People are a historic and dispersed nation. Their dispersal has been a problem both to the Jews and to national entities in which they have settled, thus creating a history of sorrow and dislocation. Both the Jews and the rest of the world benefit from the people being restored to their own land, where they can take rightful place among the community nations, and simply be a normal nation among nations.
The first principle reflects both the primacy of the Land of Israel, and the practical understanding of what was necessary in order to bring a Jewish State into being. Any of the efforts to promote or create an independent Jewish community in some location other than the Land, could not possibly work. Only Israel has the emotional and historical appeal to attract Jews to the daunting tasks of settlement and building a homeland. Yet, it was not a “land without a people.” The security and stability of a Jewish State would always be dependent upon a territorial compromise with both the non-Jewish inhabitants of the Land and their backers.
The principle has defined the nation building of the Jewish State. It underpinned the decisions to accept the UN Partition proposal in 1947, and the Armistice Agreement establishing the “Green Line” following independence in 1949. It was also behind the efforts to keep Jordan out of the 1967 crisis that became the Six-Day War. Even in the radically changed circumstances following that War, the principle has remained a guiding standard. Proponents of holding onto the West Bank territory captured in 1967, more often than not press their arguments in political terms: that the land is needed for security, that the other side are not prepared to give anything substantial in return for withdrawal, etc. Yes, there are those who promote the idea of holding onto the territory regardless of all other considerations, simply because it is the Land. This argument continues to remain only on the edges of the general consensus.
The second principle has its origins in the beginning of the Zionist project itself. Zionism was initially born in the shtetls and ghettos of Europe. It was an unreal experience of oppression and persecution, for which an escape had to be found. The liberating societies of the West appeared to be a solution, but the rude shock of endemic anti-Semitism exhibited in France at the time of the Dreyfus Affair, suggested that real freedom for Jews there and in similar nations could only be illusory. For Zionists, the Jews in the West might be free, but they were not normal. The real goal of the Zionism was normalcy.
Within the reigning political philosophy of the late nineteenth century, normalcy was being a coherent nation on a historical homeland. And through the first half of the twentieth century, one of the more forceful arguments on behalf of a Jewish homeland was how natural it was. The Jews are a nation, and a nation is a people with a land and a language. The language is Hebrew; the land, Israel.
Unlike the first principle, this one has not held up so firmly over the past fifty years. The hostility of Israel’s neighbors, often explicit and vituperous, or, in the case of Egypt and Jordan, more truculent, has not ebbed. The very existence of the Jewish State remains the subject matter of polite conversation in Western society. Following more than fifty years of independence, the Jewish State has hardly achieved any sort of normalcy. And in the context of the unbroken hostility of all its neighbors, the ghettos of the last century have been replaced by a new larger ghetto of the entire country.
Some Jews within and outside Israel, have come to accept the current situation as Jewish normalcy. Others still hold to the original Zionist dream that the Jewish people on its land can become a natural part of the Middle Eastern landscape. More needs to be said about the viability of this principle later on.
There is one other principle that needs to be enumerated. It was not necessarily an intrinsic element of the Zionist ideal. Rather, I would suggest, it was one employed out of sheer necessity. It is the principle of democracy.
The Zionist Movement was democratic, in great part, because it could not be otherwise. As clearly noted in the previous section on competing visions and ideals, there was hardly any unanimity among its participants. Further, there was no single individual or faction with enough resources or support in order to force dissenting groups to adhere to one program. The very survival of the Movement, much less any success in moving toward its goal of a Jewish State, depended upon a willingness to engage in negotiation and mediation among the competing factors.
I do not wish to suggest that if it were possible, Zionism and the subsequent Jewish State would have inevitably been undemocratic. Although all of the early principal Zionist leaders and theoreticians came from autocratic societies, there is scant evidence that they were undemocratic themselves. The key point is, whether Zionists wanted to forge a democratic society or not, they really had no choice.