Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Response to Gerry Concerning Zionism and Other Things


"...To respond to your last email Gerry, I think we need to register some distinctions: between the original conception of Zionism and what it might mean today; between what Israel's founders dreamt the state would be and what it is today; between what it is today and what it arguably should be, between what Israel has been and what it arguably should be.

These distinctions, I argue, can point to a refurbished idea of Zionism, essentially Israel as Jewish state that is compatible with the principles of liberal democracy. They point to Israel as an ethnically based state, like others which are liberal democracies, that separates synagogue from state that accommodates non Jewish minorities on liberal democracy's principles of civil rights and liberties including equal protection under law and the principle of equality itself. I say as well that these distinctions point to answers to the problems you raise of religious privilege, biblical imperatives and demographic pressures. The tension is in maintaining the irreducible core of Zionism, Jewish statehood, against the demands of liberal democracy.

The reformulation of Zionism that I argue for meets arguments put aginst Zionism rooted in the historic pressures leading to it and its original conceptions. Of course that reformulation and that tension have to be seen within a number contexts: adjacent existential bellicosity; a large and growing and growingly angry non Jewish minority of Israeli Arabs; the need for security against the threats without and the threats within; the threats of demography; the need to balance what security requires with liberal democratic principles; the struggle to make Israel a secular, ethnically based and liberal democratic state.

Benny Morris, I have read, argues now that Israeli Arabs pose an existential threat to the Jewish state and need to be dealt with accordingly. Lieberman has positively brought front and centre the issue of privileging religion and negatively the issue of Israeli Arabs. He has been salutory, even while repugnant, in forcing to light problematic issues that need to be addressed. And Michael Oren, as you know, advocates Israel's unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank in order to divert demographic pressures threatening Israel's Jewishness.

In any event, it may be that your questions whether Israel is essential to Jewish identity, whether there is enough in our traditions to nourish that identity regardless of Israel as a Jewish state do not need, can and need not have an "objective" answer. And it may be that most Jews answering those questions for themselves hinged on Israeli Jewishness is answer enough. Their answer is an is. The is is not an ought, but the is is reality, however you choose to answer those questions for yourself.

Still the questions remain to be answered for anyone who thinks about these issues and acts on his or her conclusions. Speaking for myself as a deracinated, secular Jew, who believes in the liberal democratic ideal, whose daughters were never pressured to marry within to the consequence that one of them did not and the other now dates a non Jew, all of which concerns me not at all, for how I was raised by you know whom, for how I received and internalized the memory of the Holocaust, for how I was gripped with panic before the 6 day war, for how I felt at home visiting Israel while even not wanting to live there, for how it means something when I find out someone is Jewish, for my pride in Jewish accomplishment and our legacy of accomplishment, for countless like examples, I cannot gainsay the importance of Jewishness to me and the importance of Israel as a necessary constituent of my Jewishness. I see myself as having a kind of rooted cosmopolitanism to use Appiah's phrase.

And here let me reason like a lawyer: if I feel this way, imagine how Jews, most of them, whose commitments to their Judaism and to Israel are much more explicit and less paradoxical than mine, feel.

I have only read bit and pieces of Avishai and defer to your wider and deeper reading of him, but my impression of him is that he argues much as do I, though better of course, for a like refurbishing of the Zionist idea, for all Israel's failures, shortcomings mistakes, bad compromises and confoundments--his notion of the "Hebrew Republic".

I'll simply end this by quoting him as well:

'...This outdated structure - this peculiar kind of Jewish state - must change. Indeed, Israel is really two Jewish states, not one. There is the democratic, Hebrew republic, in which equality of citizenship, speech and enterprise is mainly guaranteed by the courts. But this encases an older, heroic settlers' state, which began during the period of the British mandate and privileged Jewish immigrants and Jewish orthodoxy. Sure, the Zionist state-within-a-state made sense in its time. But it was supposed to be retired after 1948 - a scaffolding to be taken down when the democratic state was launched. It was, tragically, given new life by land conquered, and the apocalyptic feelings unleashed, during the 1967 War...

Which is not to say the solution requires great originality. We need only imagine the Hebrew republic that would emerge if Israel would be qualified for, say, the European Union. For the orthodox of Jerusalem, or Diaspora Jews whose connection to Israel is tinged with religious idealizations, this would require an adjustment. But would the majority in Tel-Aviv notice the change at all?...' "

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