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
Cil Brecher, translated by Barbara Harshav
Other Press, 2007
Walled: Israeli Society at an Impasse
by Sylvain Cypel
Overcoming Zionism: Creating a Single Democratic State in
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
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.
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
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.
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
(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.