Israel: Keep Questioning The Premises


Posted by Bob Lord

This may be a long one. I recently finished two lengthy books on Israel-Palestine, My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel, by Ari Shavit, and Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel, by Max Blumenthal. In addition, I had an interesting exchange of emails with a Jewish friend who is a self-proclaimed moderate.

I've posted previously on Goliath. It's a masterpiece. Is it one-sided? Absolutely, as it was intended to be. But the case it makes is compelling. Many in the "Israel can do no wrong" community are demonizing Blumenthal, but the great majority have not read the book. Nor will they. As Larry Gross of Truthdig so aptly noted, Goliath contains many inconvenient truths. Actually, the better term may be "uncomfortable truths." 

My "moderate" friend provides a great example on that front. He'd read a negative review of Goliath and emailed it to me for my thoughts. I emailed back Larry Gross' review, and suggested that he should have the intellectual curiosity to read Goliath himself and form his own conclusions. His response was that he didn't have time to read many books, so he only could read one on Israel-Palestine, and that would be Shavit's My Promised Land, because it was reported to be balanced. He didn't take kindly to my teasing him about his fearing inconvenient truths, but his explanation regarding his limited capacity to read brought to mind that old expression, "the lady doth protest too much."

More on my email exchange later, but let me turn to My Promised Land. Please join me after the jump. 

Shavit, an Israeli, is brilliant. He's also one conflicted dude. To his credit, with one exception, he doesn't ignore or even minimize the Palestinian side of the story. In no way could he be accused of casting the Israelis in an unfairly favorable light in his description of the events of 1947-48. His observation of Israel's modern day political situation also is reasonably frank in its criticism. However, Shavit's failure to discuss the odious Avigdor Lieberman is a somewhat glaring omission. 

Shavit, however, loves his country, so he tries mightily to explain Israel's past transgressions and justify (even glorify) its creation and its continuation as a "Jewish state." That's where he has a hard time, in my mind, if you dig deep enough and think hard enough.

The essence of Shavit's case for Israel is the need to protect the Jews from the assimilation that's occurring in the diaspora. On the surface, he's identifying Jews as a religious group, but implicitly he also considers them a people. The focus of his concern here is on secular (that is, non-observant) Jews. Orthodox (or, fundamentalist) Jews are less susceptible to assimilation. 

Without question, secular Jews in the diaspora are assimilating, and rather quickly. As Shavit points out, the percentage of the population that identifies as Jewish, small to start out with, is declining. The greater the decline, of course, the greater the assimilation, as it becomes increasingly more likely Jews will inter-marry.   

Shavit's "assimilation prevention" argument is an easy one to make to Jewish readers, as the Jews in the diaspora for decades have fretted about assimilation. Not that long ago, it was difficult to find a rabbi who would officiate a mixed marriage.

But what's the real value in preventing assimilation? As a general proposition, limiting the size of the gene pool is a bad idea. That's why we frown on relatives, even distant ones, marrying one another. What is the value in preserving, as a distinct group, a collection of non-observant Jews? Is it the culture? If so, shouldn't the value of the culture have to outweigh the benefits of assimilation in order to warrant preservation?

Although I consider myself an Atheist, I roughly fit Shavit's description of a secular Jew. I even cling to some parts of the culture. I'm also the poster child for assimilation. My first wife was Jewish and, except for two awesome sons, the marriage was a failure for both of us. The second time around, I married "out of faith," an odd term, considering that I, like most secular Jews, don't really have faith. This time, after ten years in the same relationship, I'm still very much in love. So, would I be better off if I'd been denied the option of marrying a non-Jew, as Shavit believes is appropriate in order to prevent assimilation? No. And there are millions more like me.

The logic behind Shavit's argument, which is what makes it so easy to sell to Jews, is logic he can't argue directly. He's way too smart to do so. Instead, he makes the argument discretely, and fairly cleverly. He discusses, at considerable length, the industrial and technological accomplishments of Israel, how disproportionately represented it is as the home to start-up enterprises, and how remarkably successful it has been in the international community. This is a common theme in Jewish parlance, particularly among the older generation. I've received countless emails listing all the famous Jewish scientists, doctors, lawyers, authors, and entertainers. In conversation, this information often is conveyed with an unmistakable smugness. Terms like "yedisha cup" and "goysha cup", still in common usage among older Jews, reflect the feeling of many Jews that they're inherently smarter than their gentile counterparts.  

The natural tendency of Shavit's Jewish readers is to conflate the "prevention of assimilation" argument with the 'Jews are awesome" discussion. After all, Shavit is playing to a prejudice that already exists. No, Shavit does not say, nor does the reader necessarily conclude consciously, that "we have to prevent assimilation in order to preserve our superior gene pool." But that's the undercurrent.

The "Jews are great" undercurrent also helps to excuse the brutality of the events of 1947-48, when the Jews slaughtered Palestinians, looted their cities and villages, and drove them from their homeland. Indeed, in discussing the horrific expulsion of tens of thousands of Palestinians from Lydda, on foot, in blazing heat, Shavit explains that in order for their to be Israel, their had to be Lydda. Actually, there could have been Israel without evicting the Palestinians of Lydda, it just would be a bit more mixed. But it's the best Shavit had. After all, he's trying to explain the murderous eviction of a people from their homeland. It can't just be "because we didn't want them as our neighbors." 

How does it work if you accept Shavit's premise — that there needs to be a place where the Jewish culture or perhaps the Jewish gene pool will not be diluted? This has translated into the concept that Israel must remain a "Jewish state." Because Israel also considers itself a democracy, this has been construed to mean a "majority Jewish state."

The contradictions abound. If the concern is preventing assimilation, why does is matter that the population be 51% Jewish rather than 49% Jewish? Will Jews magically start marrying gentiles en masse once their share of the population drops below 50%? Does the majority requirement instead signify that Jews have voting control? If so, why? Is the intention that Jews will vote as a block in their "democracy"? That logically would occur only on matters that discriminated in favor of Jews against gentiles. So, do they envision a "democracy" that is a tyranny of the majority, where there is majority rule without minority rights? 

Indeed, that's the state that has developed in Israel. Jewish Israelis are free to have their non-Israeli family members join them and become Israeli citizens. Palestinian Israelis don't share that freedom, even though Israel actually is the homeland of many of their family members, before they were forcibly evicted. Jewish Israelis can live wherever they please, while non-Jews are kept out of many communities. 

Logically, maintaining Israel as a majority Jewish state is significant if the goal is to have an apartheid state that nonetheless is a democracy in the sense of one person, one vote, but it has no significance in terms of preventing assimilation of the Jewish population. On the one hand, if avoiding assimilation was an important objective of the Jewish population of Israel, it easily could achieve that objective even if it only constituted 25% of the population. On the other hand, if the urge to assimilate could be overcome only by the denial of opportunity, the Jewish population would have to be maintained at a level much higher than 51%. 

If protecting Jews from their own urge to assimilate is the imperative, what policies could an Israeli government adopt in furtherance of that goal? Could anti-miscegenation laws be enacted? Could non-Jews be forcibly evicted, as they were in 1948? Could Jews and non-Jews be required to live in separate areas of the country? How would "Jew" be defined? Apartheid was relatively easy to enforce in South Africa, because it's not too hard to distinguish blacks and whites. Distinguishing an Arab Muslim from an Arab Jew is a much tougher task, but no tougher than distinguishing between a European Jew and a European gentile. So, could policies be enacted to "concentrate" non-Jews, as Israel's proposed Prawer Plan sought to do to non-Jewish inhabitants of the Negev? 

None of this is to say that My Promised Land is not a good read. Overall, it's quite good and many of Shavit's insights are extraordinary. It is only in the final chapters that his struggle overwhelms his writing. 

Did Shavit have an agenda? I think so. A larger and larger segment of the American Jewish population is confronting the inconvenient truths about Israel. The days of blind loyalty to Israel are over, yet the tactics of AIPAC and other hawkish American Jewish groups are as heavy-handed as ever. Shavit, recognizing this tension, seeks to create the space for American Jews to grasp the reality of Israel and learn the ugly chapters of its history, yet continue to be enthusiastically supportive. You can see this in the writings of the American Jewish punditocracy. Writers like David Brooks and Tom Friedman are heaping praise on Shavit. They see the dangerous game AIPAC is playing and understand well that Shavit's more nuanced approach will suit Israel far better in the long run.  

Nonetheless, I'm hoping my moderate friend finds the time to read Shavit's book. If he does, he'll still confront many inconvenient truths as he would if he read Goliath, although the inconvenient truths would be fewer and the confrontation not nearly as uncomfortable. Interestingly, my friend rejected Goliath in part because the titles to several chapters alluded to the Holocaust. This is a common defense mechanism invoked by Jews in denial about Israel: Use outrage at even the slightest comparison of Israel to Nazi Germany as a means of rejecting the inconvenient truths on which the comparison is based. Well, my friend is in for a surprise when he reads My Promised Land, because Shavit makes comparisons to Nazi Germany, and far more directly than Blumenthal does. 

Somewhat laughable is the feeling folks have that Goliath and My Promised Land are point and counterpoint. Actually, the two are quite reconcilable, which you'd expect. Shavit and Blumenthal each invested years on the ground in Israel developing his book. They may have bumped into each other in a cafe somewhere along the way, but neither is trying to shout the other down. They each recognized the same inconvenient truths. Blumenthal sought to expose them; Shavit recognized them and struggled with them. 

Shavit's approach is helpful. For decades, the influential members of the American Jewish community steadfastly refused to recognize any Israeli wrongdoing. By stridently attacking Palestinians and their supporters, the AIPAC crowd deflected attention from Israel's own actions. Thus, we would see counterintuitive statements like this one I saw on a banner outside a synagogue on my last trip to the East Coast: "We support Israel in its struggle for peace and security." Really? You're continuing to build settlements on another people's land as a means "struggling for peace." 

With Israel's supporters in factual denial, the debate on Israel-Palestine has been mostly emotional. Emotional debates are not productive. Moreover, the extremists on either side are most empowered when the debate is emotional.

Shavit's work does not change the positions of the parties to the debate, but he makes the debate more rational. If the supporters of Israel transition from denying the past and present transgressions of Israel as a means of supporting their position to acknowledging those transgressions but advancing reasons to support Israel despite its transgressions, that's real progress. For example, as Shavit argues, if the debate is rational, the end of West Bank settlement building (and the abandonment of settlements to the extent feasible) goes from being a bargaining chip to a moral imperative, something Israel must do without getting any concession in return. 

Ultimately, Shavit's approach could lead us to address the real reason to support Israel: We can't rewrite history. It would make no more sense to drive millions of Israeli Jews from their homes now than it did to drive hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their homes in 1948. So, we must find a way for both Jews and Palestinians to co-exist, whether as one state or two, in peace and security, with neither enjoying greater rights than the other. 

If we're lucky, in the long run, the resolution of the current conflict will serve merely as a bridge to a future in which the identity of a person as Jew, Palestinian, Christian or whatever loses significance to those around them. We've made tremendous progress on that front in America and in Europe. That's anathema to those who see assimilation as a threat to their identity. In the end, however, it's the only way to lasting peace. Ironically, the assimilation Shavit fears could in the end be Israel's salvation.