The Jewish State

By Gadi Taub
The Chronicle of Higher Education, August 10, 2007

Edited by Andy Ross

Will Israel Survive?
by Mitchell G. Bard
Palgrave Macmillan, 2007

A Stranger in the Land: Jewish Identity Beyond Nationalism
by Daniel Cil Brecher, translated by Barbara Harshav
Other Press, 2007

Walled: Israeli Society at an Impasse
by Sylvain Cypel
Other Press, 2007

Overcoming Zionism: Creating a Single Democratic State in Israel/Palestine
by Joel Kovel
Pluto Press, 2007

Current debates about Israel's future indicate a growing rift between liberalism and democracy.

Four recent books on the future of Israel offers a glimpse into that tendency. One is an autobiographical account, by Daniel Cil Brecher, a German Jew who immigrated to Israel and then back to Europe; another is the work of a French Jewish journalist, Sylvain Cypel, who spent more than a decade in Israel; the third is a fiery anti-Zionist exhortation, by Joel Kovel, a Jewish psychiatrist and now a professor of social studies at Bard College; and the last is an analysis of the challenges facing Israel, by Mitchell G. Bard, a pro-Israeli, Jewish-American activist. But all are uneasy with the idea of national identity.

Bard shows understandable anger, as an American, toward those Israelis who insist that if you are Jewish and consider yourself a Zionist, you must immigrate to Israel. Bard's definition of Zionism includes all who generally sympathize with Israel. His justification of Zionism heavily accentuates anti-Semitism and downplays self-determination.

Cypel targets nationalism more directly. In his view, Israel suffers from collective egocentrism. Both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict see themselves as victims, and both deny the victimhood of the other. The key to any solution is therefore putting an end to denial. But Israel has built a wall, and the wall is about blocking the other side.

Brecher details his personal search for an escape from the contradictions of identity. History and political analysis are woven into biography here. Brecher's parents fled Europe in the great upheavals of World War II, wound up in Israel, but never felt at home there. They finally settled in Germany in 1953. Israel's very nature as a national Jewish state was jarring to Brecher.

Kovel is a man of unequivocal judgments, and his verdict on Zionism, as a particularly bad kind of nationalism, is fierce. Israel is, he says, "absolutely illegitimate," a "monstrous venture" of "state-structured racism." The problem, in his view, begins with Judaism.

The issue does not seem to be the connection of the state to Judaism as a faith. From its outset, Zionism wrought a secularizing revolution in Jewish identity. That is why most Orthodox Jews initially objected to it. To this day, the large ultra-Orthodox minority in Israel, although it takes an active part in Israel's politics, abhors Israel's national identity. Zionism preserved many ties to Judaism as a religion, with the result that there is no clear separation between church and state.

Is the core of the problem that Zionism is an "ethnic" national identity? It is not clear why the term "ethnic" is useful for describing Israel, which is far less ethnically homogeneous than, say, France, Germany, Greece, Holland, Poland, or Sweden. In what sense does "ethnic" describe the common identity of Israeli Jews from Argentina, England, Ethiopia, Germany, Morocco, Russia, and Yemen?

Israel's situation is peculiarly complicated by the fact that the state is in conflict with the Palestinian nation. But that, too, is not the root of the intuitive feeling that the Israeli state is inherently malignant. The origin of unease has more to do with four decades of Israeli occupation in Gaza and the West Bank. Increasingly, Israel's most vehement critics tend to see Zionism as a blood-and-soil ideology that postulates that the land belongs exclusively to Jews.

In recent years Israel has undergone a triumph of Zionism over the occupation. In Israeli public opinion, the "two-state solution" to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has won over the ideology of a Greater Israel. Shortly after the occupation began, the left insisted that the occupation undermined the very moral grounds on which Zionism rests, the "natural right" of all peoples to self-determination. Many on the political right began to see that the occupation would drag Israel into binationalism. In that case, Israel would eventually have to give up democracy to preserve its Jewish identity.

If the foreseeable future holds stability for Israel's democracy, democratization for Palestine, and peace for both, that future will be tied to national self-determination. It will have to rely on stable nation-states.

Reducing democracy to liberalism's protection of individual rights, and positing them in opposition to nationalism, may indeed be a step on the way to transcending nation-states. But transcending nation-states may prove to transcend democracy along with them. Institutions that transcend the nation-state exercise great influence over people who have little or no democratic control over them.

AR  (2007) This originally very long book review quickly attracted an extraordinary number of online comments. Evidently the political future of Israel is a very emotive topic. Given the complexity of the issues, my own views are hard to summarize, but I find the view that Zionism is a blood-and-soil ideology persuasive. That doesn't make it any worse than the atavistic outlook of fundamentalist Islam, but it does suggest a historical confrontation that runs deeper than the liberal perspectives on nationalism and democracy, so Taub's argument that we have here an impending contradiction has some plausibility. Certainly, the politics of identity and the economics of globalization have rendered moot much of the implicit background to those old liberal debates. I suspect that the "one man, one vote" view of democracy will eventually seem quaint and untenable, and that nationalism will soon give way to non-geographic identities.

(2010) Re the last sentence of the review, the European Union is a distressingly good example.
Re the last sentence of my 2007 comment, see the last chapter of my book G.O.D. Is Great.