• August 20, 2014

Israel's Moral Peril

Israel's Moral Peril 1

Rina Castelnuovo, The New York Times

Children hold an Israeli flag in the Jewish settlement of Itamar on the West Bank.

In the past few years, a trickle of dissent with respect to Israel has turned into a running stream. Books, articles, and Web sites critical of Israel's treatment of the Palestinians, its acquiescence in the messianic designs of its settlers, its foreign-policy decisions on Gaza, Iran, and much more, and the increasing influence of the ultra-Orthodox over the character of its domestic life have begun to appear in significant numbers in America. Some, but not all, of these efforts, moreover, come from writers unused to being in the critical camp. The question is rapidly becoming not whether one should find fault with Israel, but how.

Two quite contrasting points of view have emerged among the critics. One can be called liberal and the other leftist. Liberals accept Israel's legitimacy, search for ways that it can respect the rights of its non-Jewish citizens, and believe that the only viable future for the country is a two-state solution, one primarily Jewish, the other primarily Palestinian. Leftists view Israel's creation in 1948 as an outgrowth of European colonialism, insist that as a Jewish state its character is inevitably racist, and lean toward the eventual creation of one state containing both Jews and Arabs. Should Israel's actions continue to provoke opposition around the world, the question of which of these approaches will attract the most followers will become increasingly important.

I have a personal interest in this topic because I now count myself among the critics. For decades, I managed to write about some of the more controversial issues dominating the world without writing about the Middle East. The reason was simple: I was too intellectually paralyzed to do so. As a child, I had displayed an Israeli flag and carried blue-and-white coin boxes whose proceeds would plant trees in the new state. That, however, was about it: Serious Hebrew lessons, Zionist summer camps, and trips to the Middle East were of little interest to either my secular parents or me. Yet for all my family's tendencies toward assimilation, Israel's legitimacy was never questioned. Jews had been the victims of the greatest monster in history. Supporting the new state was the least the world could do to make up for it. We were, as I recall, vaguely aware that Arabs already lived on the land Israel claimed, but their complaints, to the degree that we heard them at all, seemed trivial by comparison to what had happened to our people.

Attribute it, if you must, to the failure of my parents to raise me as a good Jewish boy, but even my youthful lukewarm support for Israel eventually turned cool. Israel's stunning victories in the 1967 war sent a thrill through the American Jewish community; I felt my share of that, but I was too much involved in the protests against Vietnam to become an enthusiast for war of any kind. Campaigns on behalf of Soviet Jewry in the 1970s left me with an uncomfortable feeling of selective indignation: Of course the Jews in Russia and the Ukraine ought to be able to leave, but among the world's atrocities at the time, including the brutality of Idi Amin and the genocide led by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, the plight of Soviet Jewry did not rise to the top. By 1982, when Israeli forces enabled the massacres of Palestinians by Christian militiamen in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Lebanon, I knew that a personal line had been crossed. The more innocent Israel of my youthful imagination no longer existed.

Nonetheless, I kept my concerns to myself. No matter how cruel Israel's actions appeared, I believed that Jews were still entitled to the moral benefit of the doubt. Israel remained a democratic state, a rare achievement in the Middle East. It had been created, in part, as a refuge for the unwanted, and while it might not be an appropriate home for me, there were Jews from Eastern Europe and North Africa who had found a safe haven there. As much as I might take offense at Israel's policies, they were formulated by a generation with a more direct connection to the Holocaust than I could ever have, protected by the decision of my grandparents to move to America in the early 20th century. I would not be a Zionist cheerleader. But neither would I follow the path of Israel's most stringent critics, who viewed it as an outpost of Western imperialism supported by an American lobby wielding, or so it was said, almost supernatural power in Israel's defense.

The ambivalence that once prevented me from speaking out on the Middle East is gone. Israel is now firmly on the right, while I remain on the left. The truly odious Arafat is no longer with us, and new Palestinian intellectuals and leaders are making an impressive case for statehood. The cruelty of Israel's blockade of Gaza, as well as the clearly peace-destroying intentions of Jewish settlers in Palestinian territory, are impossible to ignore. Chilling leaks suggest the possibility of an Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear facilities. All that has ended my silence. I wrote about some of these issues in my book Political Evil: What It Is and How to Combat It, and what I had to say about Israel was not kind.

I am hardly alone in this. The Web site Mondoweiss serves as a forum for those, mostly Jewish, who have major qualms about Israeli actions. Bruce Robbins, a humanities professor at Columbia University, is making a documentary film about American Jews, featuring scholars and intellectuals, many roughly my age, who have changed their minds and become critical of Israel. (Watching the trailer made me wonder if there something like a midlife crisis going on among those of us anxious to set the record straight as we approach our final decades.) It is doubtful that the talking heads featured in the film speak for the majority, or even a measurable minority, of ordinary synagogue attendees, but the existence of a certain level of disquiet even there is evidenced by the efforts of the organized Jewish community to adopt a new strategy. For example, in January, JTA, an international Jewish-news service, noted: "Enmeshed in the battle against Israel's delegitimization, mainstream American Jewish organizations are embracing a strategy of acknowledging what's wrong about Israel as a way of getting across what's right about the nation." The article went on to point out that the American Jewish Committee and the Union for Reform Judaism, for example, have strongly criticized Israel for hampering the work of nongovernmental groups that monitor human rights there.

Having such company is comforting, but the question for me still remains: Should my objections take liberal or leftist form? Several new books are helpful to me in making up my mind.

The liberal case has been articulated by two writers much younger than I am: Gershom Gorenberg, an American-born, Jerusalem-based writer whose The Unmaking of Israel (Harper) came out in November, and Peter Beinart, a senior political writer for the Daily Beast and an associate professor of journalism and political science at the City University of New York, whose The Crisis of Zionism (Henry Holt) has just been published.

Gorenberg loves his adopted country and wants to see it flourish as a liberal democracy. To do so, it will need to take three steps: ending the settlements and the West Bank occupation; reducing the influence of ultra-Orthodox Jews by separating synagogue and state more vigorously; and reforming the Israeli legal system so that all ethnic groups are treated equally. Those undertakings will all be difficult to accomplish, but Gorenberg is convinced that Israel will be more viable as a democracy and more secure in the long run if it voluntarily gives up land it cannot control. His is a vision of a much smaller Israel, "a country with a four-fifths Jewish majority and a Palestinian minority that must enjoy equal citizenship."

Beinart was once the editor of The New Republic (of which I am a contributing editor), a magazine known for its pro-Israel positions. His decision to become a critic of Israel, announced in 2010 in "The Failure of the American-Jewish Establishment," a much-discussed essay in The New York Review of Books, has now taken book form. The Crisis of Zionism is an impressive achievement. Among other things, Beinart brings to life a number of important liberal Jews in America, especially an undeservedly obscure Chicago rabbi named Arnold Wolf. Wolf studied with Abraham Joshua Heschel, the civil-rights firebrand, and in 1973 helped found Breira, the first American Jewish organization to come out for a Palestinian state in Gaza and the West Bank. As it happened, the Jews who were attracted to Wolf's perspective recruited a young community organizer named Barack Obama to work with them. Obama, Beinart argues, may never have been part of the Jewish world, but he was very familiar with this liberal Jewish awakening. Influenced by the Wolf circle, the aspiring politician was a liberal Zionist at heart, fully aware that a lasting peace in the Middle East would require Jewish support for a Palestinian state.

Beinart advocates a form of liberal Zionism roughly like Goren­berg's. He is therefore palpably disappointed that under Obama's presidency, liberal Zionism's moment has not come. Bibi Netanyahu, Israel's prime minister, has proved himself a master at playing off strong Congressional support for Israel against any presidential inclination to take the peace process seriously. Understanding the futility of fighting a battle he cannot win, especially with the most powerful Jewish organizations in the United States lined up behind the Netanyahu-led government, Obama has caved on his Middle East policy, allowing the settlements and the extremism of the ultra-Orthodox to continue unabated.

For all his disappointment, however, Beinart has not written a pessimistic book. Israel is encouraged on its illiberal path because Jews who are more universalistic in their moral outlook care less about it than do those who make Zionism central to their worldview. The solution, then, is for younger Jews to take their Judaism more seriously. As they familiarize themselves with the ethical side of their faith and promote Jewish learning through day schools, they can develop a voice capable of being both liberal and Zionist at the same time.

Any such quest for a liberal Zionism would be viewed as hopelessly naïve by leftist critics of Israel. One scholar who fits that description is Gabriel Piterberg, a historian at the University of California at Los Angeles. Born in Argentina but raised in Israel, Piterberg has published extensively in the New Left Review, a magazine known for both the erudition of its contributors and the Marxism that, in one form or another, has surrounded it since its birth, in 1960. Zionism is often viewed, both inside and outside Israel, as the story of how an oppressed people learned how to defend themselves by building a state of their own. All that is far too romantic for Piterberg. In a book that has been out for a few years but establishes the foundation for the leftist case, The Returns of Zionism: Myths, Politics and Scholarship in Israel (Verso, 2008), he argues that the history of the Zionist movement cannot be divorced from what he calls "white settler colonialism," the 19th-century efforts by European powers to create societies in their image around the world. The Zionist project, in that sense, was like the British settlement of Australia, the building of a Western-oriented state on land occupied by an indigenous people.

Some of Piterberg's material explores new ground, especially his demonstration of the ways the secular David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister, selectively used the Bible to justify Zionist claims. The book also contains a criticism of the work of the Israeli historian Anita Shapira, often viewed as a "humanistic" Zionist for her argument that the founders of Israel only reluctantly came to rely on force in the face of Arab revolt; Piterberg wants to show that all Zionists, left or right, share the same underlying neocolonial assumptions. Finally, he explores the ideas of Western Jews such as Bernard Lazare, Walter Benjamin, and Hannah Arendt, who saw the colonialist implications within Zionism and tried their best to expose them.

Far better known to American readers than Piterberg is Judith Butler, a professor of rhetoric at the University of California at Berkeley. Her book Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism (Columbia University Press), which will be published in July, insists Zionism cannot be equated with Jewishness; that indeed, it stands in opposition to key themes in the Jewish tradition. "My contention from the outset of this book," she writes, "is that the relation with the non-Jew is at the core of Jewish ethics, which means that it is not possible to be Jewish without the non-Jew and that, to be ethical, one must depart from Jewishness as an exclusive frame for ethics." Long living at the mercy of others, she explains, Jewish thinkers were forced to think about the nature of the other. Like Piterberg, she focuses on Benjamin and Arendt, and adds significant material on the French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas.

Arendt's writings are the most relevant to the situation Israel finds itself in today. The key question for Arendt, according to Butler, is how we come to cohabit the world. Since they never had a state of their own, Jews never had a choice about whom they would live with. It is precisely that state of unchosenness that made Jewish ethics so vibrant. "If Arendt is right, then it is not only that we may not choose with whom to cohabit, but that we must actively preserve the unchosen character of inclusive and plural cohabitation," Butler writes.

The Nazis, it goes without saying, very much exercised choice in this matter: All too criminally, they chose not to live with Jews. Jews should never forget that. Although they consider themselves a chosen people, they ought to be especially wary of choosing to live with people only like themselves, Butler warns. That is exactly what Zionism seeks to accomplish. It is for that reason, she argues, that Israel has been illiberal from the moment of its creation.

Butler cannot be satisfied with the notion that much could be achieved if Israel were to stop building settlements and end its occupation of the West Bank. Because its very essence requires dispossession of non-Jews, justice can be served only if the Palestinians forced from their homes in 1948 are given the right to return. That would not result in the destruction of the Jewish people, Butler argues, but only in "the dismantling of the structure of Jewish sovereignty and demographic advantage." Vague on the details, she believes, as best as I can tell, that in what she calls "complex and antagonistic modes of living together," Jews would make the case on the basis of their own history of exile for why their Arab neighbors ought not to choose living without them. Presumably, then, Palestinian Arabs, in return, would, indeed, recall their more recent history of exile and understand why they should live together with Jews.

Gorenberg and Beinart are the better stylists among these authors, and their books, published by commercial houses, undoubtedly will receive wider attention than the work of academics such as Butler. Still, Butler has many admirers in the United States and abroad, and the views she expresses resonate with those who call for boycotts of Israel or identify with third-world liberation struggles. Which viewpoint becomes the most influential depends on larger political and social trends. Should there be an uptick in left-wing or anarchist radicalism in coming years—unlikely, in my view, but not impossible—the leftist critics could wind up gaining more adherents than the liberal ones.

One reason that the situation in the Middle East seems so intractable is that the current Israel leadership has no foreseeable plan for bringing peace to the region. Another, alas, is that neither the liberal nor the leftist critics of those leaders can spell out a persuasive vision of the future. Liberal critics, in my view, have the right idea, but the reforms they advocate seem hopelessly utopian in the current political atmosphere. Israel's leadership is not interested in criticism; if anything, it is trying to stifle it. Any attempt to roll back, let alone end, the settlements and the occupation is likely to produce violent resistance. There is little or no energy in Israel behind a two-state solution, and even the Palestinians who are trying to build statelike institutions on the ground are facing resistance from militants in their own camp. Israel really does face a choice between being a Jewish state or a democratic state—and the odds are in favor of the former.

The leftist position on the Middle East, however, represents little more than an exercise in irresponsibility. As a critic of Israel, I bristle when told that anyone who does not support Israel in down-the-line fashion is calling for the destruction of the Jewish state. But Butler, if I read her correctly, really is calling for the destruction of the Jewish state. In the trailer for the Robbins film, she ends her remarks with a passionate statement to the effect that honoring the rights of all refugees, Palestinians included, in no way overlaps with being anti-Jewish or anti-Semitic. In that she is right. But at the same time, her views unambiguously classify her as anti-Israel. She rightly points out that there are many kinds of one-state solutions. But hers would leave Israeli Jews at the mercy of people who would surely take revenge against them if given the chance. I realize that Butler is a philosopher and not a political scientist. Yet even philosophers must say something about the real-world implications of the ideas they advocate. Taking into account the other is indeed a feature of the Jewish ethical tradition. Collective suicide is not.

If forced to choose, naïveté is preferable to irresponsibility. That is why, in the end, I side with the liberals rather than the leftists. Israel is a fact of life and, given both its military strength and support from the United States, it is going to be with us for some time. For all its problems, moreover, its existence remains a good thing: At a time when Serbs, Slovaks, and Slovenians have states of their own, it is preposterous to say that Jews should not. In part because of Jewish settlements, but also because Palestinians have realized the advantages of statehood, the creation of one state containing both peoples has become impossible to imagine. It falls upon Israel, therefore, to decide whether its state will be a large one, containing an Arab population so numerous that it could be ruled only in the most repressive ways, or a smaller one, capable of treating the members of its minority Arab population as full citizens.

Because of the Holocaust, Israel really is a special case. Its creation involved more than the taking over of the land of others; it was meant to stand as a rebuke to hatred and intolerance. The fact that it is losing that moral advantage is a tragedy and not just a crime. Anyone concerned with making the world a better place should want to see Israel made a better society. That is the key truth upon which liberal critics insist, and which leftist ones deny.

Alan Wolfe is director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life and a professor of political science at Boston College. His latest book is Political Evil: What It Is and How to Combat It (Knopf, 2011).

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