Saturday, January 23, 2010

Whither Israel? Part II


by Stephen Schecter

2nd part of 2

SO LOP-SIDED AND CRAZY HAS THE 'SITUATION' BECOME, as Israelis refer to their predicament, that words are no longer useful, though without words there are no thoughts and without thoughts there are no actions. Does it matter if one can explain why so many educated people so misread the Middle East? Will a thousand gruesome details and examples of Arab and Muslim perfidy, historical and contemporary, suffice to make a dent in the mindset of Western governments and their intellectual classes? After all, if their blindness is rooted in the very functioning of democracy itself, how is one little essay going to overcome that? One would have thought history would have taught democracies a lesson, but it seems their blind spot prevents even that, an outcome all the more surprising given that modern society rewards people for learning from experience. The British spent eleven millions pounds during World War One to help their so-called Arab allies rise up against the Turks, and all they got for it was a bad movie called Lawrence of Arabia. There is a paradox at work here, and a paradox can only be unraveled, not resolved. Which means we can expect more of the same: twice the number of Palestinians terrorists released from Israeli jails in exchange for one Israeli soldier, building freezes from Israeli governments in exchange for more adamant Palestinian refusals to negotiate a binding peace treaty, calls from European governments for more concessions to Palestinians that would mortally endanger the Jewish state and pressure from an American administration to yield to Palestinian terrorists what America would deny their terrorist cousins in Pakistan, Iraq and Afghanistan. If one wanted to be perfectly consistent, Israel could go the full hog and give the Europeans what they secretly dream of: another Holocaust to justify the first one.

No one has an interest in preventing that but the Jews themselves. And now that they have a state, they are obliged to see to it that Jewish blood is no longer spilled simply because it runs in Jewish veins. This, after all, was the raison d'être of Zionism: a Jewish state to normalize the Jewish condition, to bring the Jews in line with the modernity their Holy Book inaugurated so long ago. For make no mistake about it. The rise of the West would have been unthinkable without the leaven of interpretation which the Hebrew Bible first introduced into European culture via the Mediterranean. That book was the first book of difference, just as ancient Israel was the first multicultural society in the ancient world. Thou shalt not kill thy children, the story of Abraham proclaims in dramatic paradox, but the land his children shall inherit shall apply the law equally to the stranger that sojourns within it, as long as the stranger does not worship the idols that require the children be cast into the fire. Already an unpardonable difference, which spelled a war to the death with the ambient culture, then as now.

The Jews would therefore do well to look to their Bible to defend their Jewish state. There they would read the simple truth God explained to Moses and Moses to the children of Israel. You will leave Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, because Egypt is your antithesis, and I, the Lord, intend to carve out a new nation from amidst the old one, a holy nation made holy by the Law and not by he cult of the dead. And when you come into the land you shall throw the Moloch worshippers out, for if you do not they will surely pollute the land and contaminate your lives and I shall be forced to drive you out of the land from which you shrunk to drive them out.

It was true then and it is true now, but the Jews still have not learned their lesson. Reluctant to keep the covenant, they were ever reluctant to be a political people and assume the mantle of sovereignty, which first and foremost requires the monopoly on the legitimate use of force and the willingness to exercise it. God understood what Freud understood but Herzl did not: all nations are founded on crime. What distinguishes the Jews is not the crime, but the kind of nation they will build upon it. Yet the Jews still think they can leapfrog over the initial moment and enter directly into the realm of justice. In short, the Jews still think they can outsmart God. The irony is they cannot even outsmart the Palestinians.

To put an end to their own paradox the Jews have to act, simply, brutally, and eloquently. They have to realize the still unfulfilled Zionist dream and assert sovereignty over their homeland, which includes Judea and Samaria and now requires Gaza as well. The Palestinians shall have to go, and with them their allies from the world's premier anti-Semitic organization, the United Nations. To the Americans of whom they are all so needlessly afraid they shall have to say loud and clear that Israel and the United States are allies, each founded on an exodus, each devoted to freedom, each a way of life whose tolerance is cemented by the bedrock of religion. And then Israel shall have to remind America that allies support each other, not pressure each other into appeasement. The United States could have spared itself its turmoil in Iraq and Afghanistan simply by making it clear to the Muslim world that it was backing Israel to the hilt, that Saddam Hussein's support of Palestinian terrorism made him and his country into international outlaws, and that the shirts off the backs of Iraqis he promised to give to Palestinian terrorists were literally going to come off. The United States should long ago have moved its embassy to Jerusalem, thereby announcing to the Arab Muslim world that they were responsible for their defeat in a century-old war they had started and re-started, and that there were consequences for their actions. And what they could have made clear to Saddam and the Palestinians at little cost to themselves, the Americans can now make clear to Syria and Egypt and Saudi Arabia at great savings to themselves. But if the Jews do not see that, how will the Americans, whose academics and diplomats and presidential advisers think of Israel not as an ally, but as a lobby?

It is shocking and depressing that after everything that has happened to the Jews, after everything we have done and not done, we are still at the same point of departure, and with us Western civilization to which we were so inextricably linked. But we do have a land, and nothing in God's universe requires that we again commit national suicide, or that we pay needlessly to see this does not happen. Every day the world thinks of something new to undermine the legitimacy of the Jewish state, and every day we try and respond to the false and malicious accusations, unaware that the undermining takes its toll. What was the Goldstone Report after all, but a warning to Israel not to try to defend itself? Yet what did we do in Gaza, but enter and leave with Shalit still a prisoner and Hamas still in power? What self-respecting sovereign power does that? What self-respecting power forbids its citizens to reside in lands that are rightfully theirs? What self-respecting power allows its own citizens to commit treason and protects them with parliamentary immunity? And what will we say to our children when they ask us why we did all that if we had finally gone home? Purim? Hanukkah? Haggadah and Kaddish? A shame. A terrible shame. More than that, a sin, for which all the breast-beatings on all the Yom Kippurs to come will not be able to atone.

PUT NOT YOUR TRUST IN PRINCES, THE PSALMIST WARNS US. Once again the old Hebrew Scriptures show themselves to be presciently modern. The man who wrote them being a king, the one Jews sing is still alive, still alive, he knew of what he wrote. But Jews prefer to trust in princes rather than a system designed to hold them to account, again betraying their inbred hostility to statecraft. The modern Israeli electoral system, based as it is on an extreme form of proportional representation, guarantees that no election will ever yield a majority government. Any government that is formed will involve horse-trading between parties of all kinds, parties whose policies, if not raison d'être, are quite opposed. The upshot is a government whose members themselves are in constant opposition, using their support for the prime minister to bolster their power over matters most dear to their hearts. Such a system increases tremendously the power of party bosses and personalizes power to an unprecedented extent when compared with democracies based on a first past the post system. It also means that no government can ever be held accountable for its policies, since every party to the government, big and small, can always blame its coalition partners for its failure. When things go wrong, as they inevitably do, the public, and those whose function is to help public opinion discover itself, resort to criticism in highly personal terms, focusing on the leaders and their moral failings, even, in the last resort, flailing away at the crumbling of the moral fabric. Healing is then sought in a return to the 'old values' from which everyone is running as fast as he or she can, as usually happens in a modern society. What people do not see, of course, is that the 'old values' are precisely what the Jews have been indulging in for millennia.

Time and again the Jews wandering in the desert challenged Moses's leadership. From the incident of the Golden Calf to the Great Rebellion of Korach and his cousins, the Jews showed themselves thoroughly ungrateful to the man who had led them out of Egypt and impervious to his statesmanship. Hundreds of years later, ensconced in the land of Israel, their descendants turned no less ferociously on the prophet Samuel. And when the kingdom had finally been established, it quickly crumbled into civil war, extinction and exile. Nor did the Jews learn their lesson from the First Return. The glorious Hasmonean dynasty ended up rent by strife between religious and civil power and succumbed to Roman servitude. The upshot was the most devastating revolt the Roman Empire had ever had to endure, followed by the destruction of the Second Temple and the Second Exile of the Jews, which Zionism came to repair two thousand years later. And in between let us not forget the Hassidic movement, whose founder's pious reform of Judaism through song and dance and good works turned into a multitude of sects, each with its courtly dynasty.

Today Israel continues to govern itself as if it were a synagogue. In no other country are cabinet meetings reported in the next day's newspapers, replete with details and carping. Leaders are selected and then vilified, just as rabbis are hired and then criticized for doing what they were hired to do. As for the leaders, everyone thinks he has a better idea and runs with it, heedless of rules that are supposed to bind participants to a decision. When the Likud repudiated Sharon for breaking his election campaign pledge and disengaging from Gaza, he did not retire as Lady Thatcher did when she suffered a similar and even greater rebuke. Instead he founded another party and kept on running the country. The best his critics could do to unseat him was circulate rumors of corruption. When God punished him for his sins, his successor showed himself no less adroit at reversing himself on all previous stands and taking up the Oslo mentality which had proved so disastrous to the country. Yet he too was hounded from office not for his policy, but for alleged corruption.

Corruption is a convenient slogan which is then extended to the body politic itself. Those who continue to argue that Israel must offer the Arabs painful concessions, a policy inaugurated by the current Defense Minister when he was Prime Minister, and withdraw even further, justify their choice on the grounds that the current situation is only undermining the country's moral fabric. The corruption of the highest office holders in the land, it is held, is but a mirror to the rot in the fabric of society, symbolized by violence in the home, on the road, in the shops, cutting across the religious and secular divide. Yet never does it cross the minds of these critics that the problem lies in the failure of the electoral system to provide accountable governments, in its systemic incapacity to furnish a clear government majority and an equally clear opposition, whose conduct and policies can then be judged at the subsequent election. Thus does Barak resurface, eight years after being condemned to political oblivion, as leader of a shrunken Labor Party and yet a key member of a government headed by Benjamin Netanyahu, the man who belatedly quit Sharon's government over the Gaza withdrawal and now imposes a construction freeze on Jewish settlement in Judea and Samaria. Alice in Wonderland has found a home!

Such shenanigans belie a far deeper and older national trait embedded in our founding text. Even as the Hebrew family morphed into the Hebrew nation, its ways of settling disputes remained characteristically familial. Korach's revolt was but a replay of the lament of Joseph's brothers, the fall of the House of David was also the result of family intrigue, and even the collapse of the Hasmonean dynasty, ostensibly a conflict between temple and state, had its roots in family passions. Even today the question of negotiating Gilad Shalit's release is posed in familial terms. Everyone in Israel considers Gilad as a member of his or her family. How could the government not do anything that would bring him home, even if this means releasing hundreds of terrorists? But the people who argue thus ignore that other sons and daughters are put at risk every time they have to go out and arrest future terrorists, including those who would be released in exchange for Shalit when they recidivate, as they certainly shall. This slippery slope down which Israel has already proceeded, in marked contrast to its previous policy symbolized by the rescue at Entebbe, obscures policy alternatives at Israel's disposal. Israel could have kept up its military campaign against Gaza until Shalit was released. It could stop all flow of electricity to Gaza until Shalit is released. It could close the Al-Aqsa mosque until Shalit is released. But Israel does not do this because that would require Israel's flexing its political and military muscle, and what country does that which understands power in personal and familial terms?

Instead Jews complain, at home and abroad, the way Jacob's children did their whole lives long. They complain and tell stories, and think their stories will ensure their survival. Yoram Kaniuk, an Israeli novelist, wrote a book called Ahavat David (David's Love), based, despite its disclaimers, on the life of Moshe Dayan. The book is a searing indictment of modern life, modern love, modern Israel, in which Ben-Gurion plays a minor but significant role, although he is never referred to by name. The novelist calls him the Leader, suggesting his faults, like Moses's, are central to understanding the inextricable mess in which we find ourselves. But again one might suggest that the writer should read what he has written in another light, in the light of a character in another of his novels, His Daughter, a German Jew who escaped the Nazis and now lives in Israel. The woman proclaims that she and her neighbors now live by the shores of the Mediterranean, yet they all still cry at night. Her lament is an eloquent summary of the situation in which Jews find themselves all over the planet. We have our country and we all still cry at night as we watch it become, once again, the Pariah Jew; watch its government react with the same impotence as our forefathers in exile, unable to reform even its electoral system as a first, modest step to putting its house in order. Little wonder the government is afraid to touch the Al-Aqsa mosque. It fears the civil and religious strife it could unleash when all parties lay claim to what should be the national synagogue of the Jewish people.

EMIL FACKENHEIM, THE JEWISH PHILOSOPHER WHO MADE ALIYAH TO ISRAEL, wrote that since the Holocaust Jews have one more commandment to add to the 613 ones in the Torah: the obligation to survive. An obligation he would impose on the Jewish state itself. To which I would add the obligation to survive without the needless shedding of Jewish blood as the price for survival. The list of Yom Hazikaron should be closed as once the rabbis closed the Tanach. Why else does Hanoch Bartov write his wonderful books, like the novel Regel Ahat Bahutz (One Foot Outside) of the lad and his Yishuv coming of age in the nineteen thirties and forties? Why else, when reading it, do my eyes well up with tears at the unspeakable crime done to my people and my heart with longing for the time when Hatikva and Hagana heralded the promise of the Promised Land, that time before the poet Amichai wrote that this is the life of promises and this land the land of promises? And when I read his biography of a Lithuanian Jewish family, Mehutz Laofek, Meever Larehov (Beyond the Horizon, Across the Street), that endured the unspeakable horror of the Nazis only to lose a son in the War of Independence, a war that the Jews had to fight because even half a loaf to the Jews was too much for the Arabs, my rage knows no bounds. I rage against the Arabs, who never had the mercy to tell the British to open Palestine's doors to the slaughtered but today clamor for justice, and I rage against the Nazis and their European allies whose descendants today call the Jews Nazis. And my rage is swallowed up in the sorrow and disbelief that it is all happening again.

Europe, I readily understand, is dead. It got rid of its Jews and now it is paying for its crime. Along with Europe goes Western civilization. There is yet America and Australia, but their cultural classes, to a large extent, are struck by the same blindness as their European cohorts. Even Israel is not immune to this development, which makes one wonder whether the much vaunted start-up nation has not also lost its way. The rabbis and others are fond of saying that history has already written the Jews off many times before. We have outlasted it all, and in the long perspective of history, they say, Jews have never been so well off, backed by a country of their own, however much under siege. True enough, but what kind of country is it when every day is Yom Kippur for its citizens? What kind of homeland do we have when Jewish children shake in their boots because their parents want to make aliya? What return is it when our intellectuals long to return to the Europe that cremated their grandparents? Will we, in short, survive our survival?

Words, you will say, like Hamlet. Words, words, words. Bur words produce stories, and stories are what's left when we are bereft of everything but hope. Now there is no hope left, none that allows us to think that the future will be better, that the sacrifices were not in vain, that the enemy is defeated once and for all, this enemy that others already fought against. World War Two, current affairs suggest, might as well not have been fought, though I am glad it was and that the good guys won. But all illusions are gone that the cause for which so many perished has triumphed. No such luck. No such hope. Western recidivism with respect to the Jews has trumped modernity and the stories it told.

The difference which the Jews gave to humanity as a blessing will continue to evolve, but the culture which it spawned is beyond redemption. The Jews too are beyond redemption, which is, of course, no reason for their extinction. After all, we can still be proud of the beauty of our gift, still make it our business to survive if only because we bore that gift, we and no others. For that alone Israel ought to act in its defense as decisively as the Lord once commanded the Israelites of old to act, that very Lord who knew a thing or two about the havoc difference brought into the universe. And when the world has evolved into the global multicultural society people think it is heading towards, and every nation has taken down its barriers and embraced the tolerance in whose name Israel's post-modern and post-Zionist critics pillory the Jewish state, the Jews can follow suit if they wish, proudly being the last people standing, the one that shuts the door on the tradition they inaugurated. Until that happens however, they would be best to figure out something else, something at once old and new, something to make Zionism complete. Something like a two-state solution, but not the one people usually think of. No, something like the two kingdoms of old: Israel and Judea, not this time at loggerheads, but mutually respectful, each one protecting the other, doing what each does best and what the other is reluctant to do. Judea will protect the borders and Israel will deliver the goods and between them there will be no problem with a corridor stretching from Gaza to Judea and Samaria. Then the Jews and their friends shall live in the land and none shall be afraid.


A retired sociology professor from the Université du Québec à Montréal, Stephen Schecter has written six books, numerous essays, short stories and poems in both English and French.

Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.


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