Novelist Michael Chabon is generally coy about his position on the Jewish state. Unlike his wife, writer Ayelet Waldman, Chabon tends to refrain from open anti-Zionism, although as the author of a bestselling novel, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, whose premise was the destruction of the state of Israel soon after its birth and the fanaticism of those who wished to bring it back into existence, it’s not as if his views are much of a mystery.
Therefore, one read his 1,700-word essay in the Sunday New York Times Week in Review section with interest to see how he would react to the Gaza flotilla. But Chabon is too nuanced a writer to pen a standard condemnation of Israel’s blockade of Hamas-run Gaza. Instead, his target was the whole notion that Jews are special or smart. Chabon approvingly quoted Atlantic blogger Jeffrey Goldberg as saying Israel’s actions demonstrated a lack of seichel, the Yiddish word for wisdom. Chabon goes on at considerable length to make a very small argument that few serious people would really disagree with: that Jews are as capable of making blunders as any other people.
Though some writers, like the estimable Charles Murray, have written in COMMENTARY about the special genius of the Jewish people, the majority of us who have spent our lives covering Jewish institutions and communities and following Israeli politics would probably have to side with Chabon rather than Murray on this one. At times, Israeli politics and, indeed, the politics of most Jewish communities do resemble the legendary village of Chelm — the place where Jewish folklore tells us an errant angel dropped a boatload of foolish souls — more than they do Plato’s Republic. The sectarian madness of Israel’s proportional system of representation in the Knesset and the lockstep liberalism of American Jews certainly is more than ample testimony of the Jewish capacity for foolishness.
But Chabon has bigger fish to fry than just saying that Jews can be dumb. His genuine target is not a poorly planned military expedition but rather “the foundational ambiguity of Judaism and Jewish identity; the idea of chosenness” — a concept that some of the most vicious critics of Judaism and Jews through the ages, such as Voltaire, have always found particularly distasteful.
Chabon sneers at what he considers the hypocrisy of a Jewish people that accepts the idea of being chosen (a religious concept that involves obligation to observe the Torah, not privilege) but then complains when “the world — cynically or sincerely — holds Israel to a different, higher standard as beneficiaries of that dispensation.” He goes on to cite Israel’s Declaration of Independence, which declares that the Jewish people have a right “to be masters of their own fate, like all other nations, in their own sovereign state.” For him, this foundational document of Zionism also means that Jews “are every bit as capable of barbarism or stupidity.”
Leave aside the fact that blockading an area controlled by an Islamist terrorist group bent on Israel’s destruction is, by any reasonable standard, neither barbaric nor stupid, but actually a normal and quite restrained manner of self-defense against a lethal threat. Rather, let us focus on Chabon’s point that it is the Zionists who demand special treatment from the world or say that Israel’s legitimacy is based on any special Jewish attributes or genius.
If anything, what Chabon has done in this long, confused essay is to unwittingly skewer the Peter Beinarts of the world, the “liberal Zionists” for whom Israel is only worthy of existence if it conforms to their vision of what a Jewish state should be. For Beinart, an “illiberal” Israel — which is to say a democracy that chooses leaders and policies of self-defense that he disapproves of and that freely rejects those he likes — must expect American Jewish disdain. Contrary to the so-called “liberal Zionists” who are swarming to attack after the flotilla incident, Israel and its people have many virtues, but the state’s right to exist is predicated on the simple right of the Jews to rule over their own historic homeland. It is not the supporters of Israel who ask for that nation to be judged on the intelligence or the special righteousness of its people. They just ask that Israel not be judged more harshly or by different and more stringent standards of morality or justice than other nations (as it almost always is).
The “exceptionalism” of Jewish civilization rests in a religious and moral tradition that transcends politics or even the novels of a Michael Chabon. But Israel’s right to defend itself against terror is rooted in the simple demands of justice that apply to all peoples and for which Jews — be they smart or stupid — need not apologize. For all of their reputation for brilliance, that’s a lesson liberal Jews like Beinart and Chabon have yet to learn.