Commentary Magazine

Zionism for the 70's

You see, we would like you to be a Jew for the Jews and not to be a Jew for the Gentiles, because Gentiles reject moralism when it comes from a man without an army.

Uriel Simon, reply to George
Steiner at the Sixth Annual
American-Israel Dialogue

The loss of the past, whether collective or individual, is the great human tragedy, and we have thrown ours away as a child tears up a rose. It is above all to avoid this loss that peoples desperately resist conquest.

Simone Weil, L’Enracinement

Back in the mid-60’s, in that period which through the violent lurch forward of subsequent events now seems almost at an archaeological distance from us, a young Israeli writer named Ehud Ben-Ezer began to conduct a series of interviews with prominent Israeli intellectuals under the general title, “The Price of Zionism.” The publishing history of Ben-Ezer’s venture is itself an instructive instance of how the Zionist founding fathers managed to create a society which is far more open to scathing self-criticism than most outsiders would believe and yet preserves perennial tender spots of national defensiveness. Ben-Ezer’s interviews appeared in Moznayim, the monthly magazine of the Hebrew Writers Association and thus the staidest of union house-organs, an official instrument of an aging cultural establishment. For several months, one could marvel at the paradox of finding sandwiched in between effusive appreciations of octogenarian third-rate Hebrew literati the most uncompromising statements by the subjects of Ben-Ezer’s interviews on the “fascist mentality” of Israeli leadership, the moral wrongs perpetrated upon the Palestinian Arabs, Israel’s betrayal of world Jewry, the capitulation of the Israeli intelligentsia to the blandishments of the governing clique. When, however, an interview with a leading spokesman of the so-called Canaanite movement produced an assault on the idea of Israel as a Jewish state, the editors of Moznayim balked, and the publication of “The Price of Zionism” was halted. Within a few months the Six-Day War broke out, and the interviews suddenly became historical documents.

It made a great deal of sense to be taking stock of Zionism during those long months of malaise that preceded the Arab encirclement in the spring of 1967. This was the period, one recalls, when Israelis were talking about a “crisis of values” in the Jewish state. The initial élan of the pioneer generation and the fighters of the War of Independence seemed to have spent itself; the Zionist goal of normalization of Jewish existence had been realized with a vengeance, producing, so it appeared, a way of life devoted chiefly to the creature-comforts of a consumer society; and Israelis were becoming aware of a newly-emerged “espresso generation” of self-indulgent, provincial young people to whom considerations of Jewish history, Jewish destiny, bonds with the Diaspora, were so much antediluvian twaddle. Armed confrontation with the Arabs, once thought to be a transitional stage, now seemed clearly a fixed condition of Israeli life for the foreseeable future; and in a confluence of declining morale and economic recession, emigration was beginning to exceed immigration for the first time since the founding of the state.

It is no wonder, then, that more reflective Israelis began to ask themselves whether, in retrospect, it had all been worthwhile, and Ehud Ben-Ezer’s questions to leading intellectuals sought from them precisely an articulation of the moral, spiritual, and cultural cost of having fulfilled the ideal of a Jewish state. Had the Jews lost the intellectual breadth and sharpness of perspective generated through their Diaspora position of marginality by becoming in Israel the majority culture of a sovereign state? Surrounded by enemies, pervaded by a “siege mentality” (toda’at matzor), isolated from the great centers of Western culture, had they dwindled from a universal people into nothing more than the purblind inmates of an armed province? Had the Jewish state even fulfilled the most basic purpose Herzl conceived for it, the assurance of the physical survival of persecuted Jews, or, on the contrary, were two million Jews gathered in the Middle East only in order to be threatened continually with physical extinction, as they were nowhere else in the world?

For such unsparingly ultimate questions of self-justification there are no final answers, and there fore much of the meaning of both question and answer depends upon the mood in which the asking is done, the moral and political contexts of the question. I would guess that few of the participants in the interviews would substantially alter their responses today—and though there could be no consensus among such sharply divergent views, one can say that their answers were generally characterized by a reassuring freedom from evasiveness and an impressive ability to combine unblinking criticism with a reasonable thinking-out of the positive gains in the fact of national independence. Nevertheless, the contexts for these questions, which many Israelis continue to ask themselves, have changed strikingly since the mid-60’s; some of the questions have been partly answered by the experience of the June 1967 war and its consequences, or at least have been pushed into the background of consciousness by the course of events, while other questions, or facets of questions, have become sharper, more urgent, more inevitable.

Perhaps the most important contextual change is a new sense of confidence in the viability of Israel’s national consciousness, in Israel’s inner coherence as a society. Especially coming from America, where we seem to live more and more in a state of mutual suspicion, estrangement, perhaps even dread of one another, one is struck by the solidarity—and I mean solidarity, not nationalistic fervor—that makes itself felt now in Israeli society. Israelis have long been known for the abrasive, abusive, intrusive ways in which they tend to relate to each other, at least in public intercourse, but one is more frequently aware nowadays of the obverse side of this abrasiveness—a familial assumption of familiarity, an involvement in one another’s fate not just as fellow citizens but quite simply as fellow men. Factionalism, to be sure, remains as sharp as ever; Orthodox and secularist are still separated by mutual hostility; and the genuine integration of the Jews from the Arab countries is far from an accomplished fact. But after having faced together the idea of annihilation in June 1967, this people is imbued with a sense that it is, after all, one vigorous people, belonging together, self-reliant, firmly committed to building its life and to playing its role in history on this particular strip of tragically disputed, blood-soaked soil. The question of physical security is of course now a more central concern than ever before, though it is by no means an exclusive concern, for building a life is hardly identical with fortifying a bastion, and Israel’s most remarkable achievement—both before and after the Six-Day War—has been in its sustained ability to pursue the two tasks simultaneously, the one it wants to perform and the one historical necessity imposes on it.

The very paradox of this achievement makes it difficult at any time to generalize very safely about the Israeli national mood. During the past two-and-a-half years that mood has been marked by a new confidence and a new grimness, a sense of excitement about the multiplying possibilities of social, economic, and cultural development, occasionally darkened by forebodings, a sober determination existing side by side with something like genuine ebullience. This contradictory compound of moods is well to keep in mind, for it is above all a full awareness of paradox that is necessary at this uncertain point in history in order to make some sense of what the realization of Zionism has actually meant.



The early Zionist leaders, we might recall, were divided on the ultimate rationale of the movement. According to Herzl’s political Zionism, the return to Palestine was above all a solution to “the problem of the Jews,” the only logical means, in an era of exclusionist nationalisms, to provide for the physical security and basic civil rights of the beleaguered Jews of Eastern Europe. The position of Ahad Ha-am’s cultural Zionism, on the other hand, was that the purpose of settlement in the Land of Israel was essentially to solve “the problem of Judaism,” to create, that is, a viable autonomous community which, in a modern secular context, would preserve and develop whatever was precious in the ethical and spiritual heritage of the Jews, thus serving as a focus of meaningful national identity for Jews everywhere. Subsequent events would demonstrate in the most horrific way the greater realism of Herzl’s emphasis, while the utopian and moralistic aspects of Ahad Ha-am’s approach would come to seem increasingly more dubious; but the two large goals remain the ones against which Zionist achievement must be measured, and all that can be asserted with confidence now is that seven decades of Zionist enterprise in this century have provided no clear answer either to the problem of the Jews or to the problem of Judaism. What has happened is that the fulfillment of Zionism has radically shifted the grounds of both problems, and the nature of this shift has been especially apparent since June 1967 in regard to the problem of the Jews.

One incontrovertible fact which is clearer now than ever before is that the existence of Israel has actually introduced a new element of threat to the physical security of Jewish populations in many parts of the world. The hundreds of Jews wasting away in Egyptian prisons; the Jewish victims of Iraqi public murder dangling in the squares of Baghdad; the thousands of Polish Jews hounded out of job, home, and country; the masses of Soviet Jewry subjected to official campaigns of hatred, risking penal servitude or worse for any attempt to express their identity as Jewsall these would not have suffered the harsh fate they have suffered, at least not on the scale they have, if there were no independent Jewish state. This is, it would seem, a grim but inevitable price to be paid for Zionism: Israel’s existence, after all, has not in itself generated completely new hostility toward Jews in the countries where we now see it expressed, but it has provided a most convenient reason for hostile nativist masses to hold Jews in sharp suspicion, and a ready pretext for official persecution, even as it gives some of these same Jews a new source of pride and hope.

The more crucial arena, however, where the prospects of Jewish survival are in question, is on the soil of Israel itself. Most of us, I suppose, after nearly two decades of Jewish statehood, had come to take Israel’s existence more or less for granted. The new and terrible idea that forced itself into Jewish consciousness in those last days of May 1967, as enraged mobs waved skull-and-crossbones banners in Cairo and the incendiary rhetoric of Arab leaders promised “final victory,” was the notion that it really was possible to destroy Israel, that a holocaust might yet be a future possibility, not just a trauma of the past. When an unthinkable possibility suddenly becomes thinkable, one’s whole imagination of a subject is transformed, and this is, it seems to me, what has occurred in our consciousness of Israel since June 1967.

In Israel itself, the security situation now acts more than ever before as a vast Rorschach test that elicits expressions of everyone’s private neuroses, insensitivities, psychological quirks, secret fears and desires. Most Israelis, however, feel very little apprehension about the physical safety of the state but rather a firm sense of confidence in the nation’s defense capacity coupled, in some cases, with a cautious uncertainty about ultimate eventualities. In the June war, the world, the Israelis themselves, and, most important, even the Arabs, were given irrefutable evidence of the incredible resourcefulness and skill, and the devastating effectiveness, of Israel’s armed forces. There is good reason to believe that in the two-and-a-half years since the war, despite Russia’s massive rearmament of Egypt, the military gap between Israel and its Arab enemies has actually widened, as Israel continues to perfect the techniques and implements of modern warfare and the whole country begins to feel the impulsion of a major technology explosion. Since June 1967 there has been an exodus of scientists and technicians from Egypt, while Israel, by contrast, has seen a flow back of highly trained Israelis long resident abroad to fill the many new jobs in the expanding electronics and aeronautics industries, in the growing research and development enterprises that are now attracting European and American capital.

According to the projection of Herman Kahn and his associates in The Year 2000, Israel’s gross national product per capita by the end of the century will be close to $6,000, Egypt’s something like $480, which hardly suggests that time is on the side of the Arabs, as they like to say. Israelis are aware of this, see it all around them in the signs of rapid development in the country that make the feel of the place so different from the lagging years of the earlier 60’s. And so there is confidence in the nation’s future, together with a sober coming to terms with the possibilities of personal danger or bereavement, whether through reserve duty or at home, as the border war and the terrorism go on. Learning to live with continuing crisis has been a historical necessity for Israel; compared with the fear and hysteria rife in some American cities and on a good number of our campuses, Israel feels almost like an island of tranquility.



Yet it is hardly possible for Israelis to view “the problem of the Jews” within their borders complacently. The price of “solving” this problem appears almost every morning on the front pages of the newspapers in the photographs of the two or three young men who have been killed somewhere along the borders during the preceding twenty-four hours. Israel is, after all, such a small country—one can hardly talk to half a dozen people without running across at least one who has not just lost a close friend, a neighbor, a relative, in the interminable fighting. History becomes a kind of Moloch for Israel—the more familiar biblical comparison with the binding of Isaac no longer seems adequate—exacting as the price of national existence a repeated delivery of the first-born to the sacrificial flames. When I said something of this sort not long ago to a historian friend, he concurred in the sentiment of distress but suggested a perspective of comparison: the Nazis in one day at Babi Yar killed many more times the number of Jews than the Arabs have managed to kill in three wars and all their attempted incursions and campaigns of clandestine murder in between during twenty-two years of conflict. Israel’s existence is an affirmation by the Jewish people that it will suffer no more Babi Yars; those nineteen-year-olds whose faces stare out from the front page of Ha-aretz die so there will be no more Babi Yars.

And, of course, even about this there can be no ultimate assurance. It is encouraging to note that the Arabs, however irrationally self-destructive, have never been openly foolhardy in the steps they have taken toward Israel—even Nasser in 1967 acted on what must have seemed to him a reasonable risk—but given the violence of Arab frustration, one cannot entirely rule out the possibility of their resorting to cataclysmic—and suicidal—means of attack like poison gas or biological warfare. Perhaps more imminently, with Russian now audibly the chief language of communication along the west bank of the Canal, the specter of more direct Soviet intervention cannot be easily exorcised, despite the awareness that Russia positively needs Israel’s continued existence in order to keep Egypt, Syria, and Iraq in a state of dependence upon Soviet military aid.

Certainty, however, is not a quality that really obtains in the realm of history, and it is probably true that Israel’s predicament differs somewhat in degree, but not at all in kind, from that of most other nations. Yeshayahu Leibowitz, the intransigently critical neo-Orthodox thinker, may be right in claiming that the whole Zionist notion of guaranteeing Jewish security was based on a 19th-century assumption about collective physical security as an integral part of normal national existence, but that in an age of proliferating weapons of ultimate destruction, no one anywhere can really count on such security, certainly not over a long range of time.

As far as “the problem of the Jews” is concerned, then, national independence could not be a final answer but rather a means of asserting as much autonomous control over the uncontrollable as is humanly possible. Against the contention that nothing has substantially changed, that Israel’s predicament is merely a replica on a worldwide scale of the situation of East European Jewry, a ghetto surrounded by hatred and suspicion, under the heavy shadow of potential attack, it must be stated emphatically that everything has changed because of the fact of sovereignty. Millions of Jews from the First Crusade to the Final Solution were passive victims because their location as a minority, as resident-aliens on sufferance, made it politically, tactically, psychologically impossible for most of them to be anything but passive victims. By establishing a sovereign state, Jews have resuscitated the possibility of initiating action rather than merely responding to the action of others, of controlling in some significant degree the conditions that are literally matters of life and death to them. If the painfully limited options open to Israel in foreign policy draw our attention to the naiveté of the old Zionist slogan about the Jews being able to “make their own history” again, it is nevertheless true that the State of Israel represents a radical reorientation of the relationship of Jews to history. Israel above all does not feel like a ghetto because its citizens have a strong sense of being able to exert a large measure of control over their collective destiny—a stronger sense, ironically, than many Americans are likely to have at this point in history. If the sense of mastery is in part illusory, it is not different in kind from the pragmatically necessary assumption of free will most of us live with as individuals, however illusory that may be in the dizzyingly complex and murky interplay of forces that determines our actions. Whether illusion or provisional fact, it has worked, keeping fifty million bloody-minded neighbors at bay for two decades and allowing a new society to develop which, whatever its psychological needs or inadequacies, is remarkably free of fear.

Since I have stressed the value of sovereignty, it is worth pointing out that Israel has escaped the self-hypnotizing fanaticism of many nationalist movements at least partly because sovereignty was not a sacrosanct ultimate principle for the Zionist consensus but rather a highly desirable condition that circumstances eventually made, quite simply, a necessary one. Ben Halpern, in his detailed history of the Zionist idea,1 reminds us that the unique situation of Zionism among all the nationalist movements of the past century and a half made possible a certain flexibility in the basic conception of national fulfillment: “Zionism could afford to be ideologically reasonable, because it was not bound to the nationalist myth of an autochthonous populace aroused to rebellion against foreign rulers. It could regard sovereignty, like any other national aim, either as end or means, according to the circumstances.” The nature of circumstances in the twenty years between the Balfour Declaration and the UN Partition Decision made it progressively clearer that sovereignty was the only possible means of attaining even a minimal fulfillment of the most fundamental, and the most morally unassailable, of Zionist goals, saving the lives of Jews. The series of murderous assaults by armed Arab mobs on the Jewish populace of Palestine beginning in 1921; the British Mandatory’s abrogation of even the humanitarian aspect of the National Home clause of the Balfour Declaration in cutting off Jewish immigration as Hitler was preparing the gas-chambers; the refusal of the Arabs to cooperate politically with Palestinian Jewry or to consider any bi-national alternative, and, finally, their unwillingness to agree to the admission of even 100,000 survivors of the death-camps in 1946—all these made a sovereign state inevitable if the physical safety and minimal human dignity of Palestinian Jews were to be protected and if a dependable place of refuge anywhere in the world were to be provided for persecuted Jews.



The fact that sovereignty does not have an absolute logical priority in Zionist thought may seem at this historical juncture a matter of purely academic interest, but I think it helps explain something about the distinctive tenor of Israeli nationalism. One should not, of course, pretend that Israelis are never myopically nationalistic, or at least often preoccupied with their own pressing national concerns to an exclusion of any vivid imagination of problems elsewhere. Nevertheless, the fact that national independence has in some respects been conceived as an indispensable means to other ends helps make possible a degree of critical distance from it, allowing an indeterminate middle-point between the extremes of patriotic reflex and disaffected recoil so commonly observable in national states elsewhere. At least one global, and moral, perspective is imposed on Israeli nationalism through the unquestioned sense of obligation it preserves to provide a place of refuge for any Jews in the world who need refuge, no matter what the social, economic, and cultural cost to Israeli society. (Conversely, the outpouring of support from Diaspora Jewry during the Six-Day War, together with the increased isolation of Israel in diplomatic forums and in public opinion, has led many Israelis to feel that all they can dependably count on in the world aside from themselves is other Jews, and there is perhaps a greater readiness now to recognize Diaspora Jews on their own terms rather than imagining them in the old Zionist stereotype as columns of refugees with packs on their backs preparing to go up to the Land.)

The rhetoric and ideology of classical Zionism were emphatically messianic, and one can still encounter in Israel an occasional unreconstructed messianist, like David Ben-Gurion, but by far the most prevalent conception of sovereignty among Israelis is instrumental, not messianic. This is, I would contend, the single most reassuring fact about the Jewish state as it has been realized. The history of the past fifty years has made hideously clear what mad realms of uninhibited ruthlessness are opened when a political state imagines itself as the dawning fulfillment of some chiliastic process. Nations obviously relate to one another in terms of power, not morality, but power may at least be qualified or held within certain limits by considerations of morality—provided one does not regard all other nations as instruments of one’s own eschatology and thus lose all concrete imagination of the humanity of people on the other side of the border.

Classical Zionist messianism, it should be said, was uniquely humane and gentle-minded among the political messianisms of this century, but the people in whom it most prominently survives in Israel today, the Greater Israel group, however far from resemblance to the ideological butchers of Europe and Asia, are precisely those who find it possible to dismiss the human and national claims of Palestinian Arabs in the interest of a manifest destiny of Jewish rule within “biblical” borders. We have heard again and, alas, again, about the messianic cast of the Jewish mind, in everyone from Marx and Freud to the last Jewish SDS leaders (German or American) at the barricades. Against this rather facile cliché; one might well set an observation by Ernst Simon in an essay called “Are We Still Jews?” written in the first years after the founding of the state. The most essential posture of historical Judaism, Simon argued, has been its resistance to false messianisms, its refusal to say with Christianity, with Islam, with Sabbatianism, with Marxism, that the redemption was already unfolding. The most Jewish quality, then, of Israel would be its resistance to a messianist conception of its own existence, and what Simon was urging as a moral necessity for the new state in 1952 seems, as we enter the 70’s, largely the assumed attitude of the majority of Israelis.



But this brings us from the problem of the Jews to that of Judaism, and here the sorting out of assets and deficits becomes even more complicated because so much of vital importance that cannot be weighed and measured is included under the second problem. Ahad Haam, a profoundly secular mind of a sort that is no longer so common, did not of course have the survival of institutional religion in mind when he spoke of the problem of Judaism, but rather the sustenance of Jewish values, identity, cultural tradition, and, above all, the continuing of the millennial pursuit of absolute justice which, with some apologetic strain, he saw as the distinctive Jewish vocation among the peoples of the earth.

As a matter of fact, the moral and spiritual authority of institutional Judaism has only been compromised by the mode of coexistence with political power that it has assumed in Israel. Having become, in the proper sense of the term, an established religion, official Judaism in Israel has in far too many instances been more narrowly self-interested, more venal, more cynically indifferent to serious social questions and ethical concerns, than it ever was in its decentralized, nonpolitical condition in the Diaspora. Perhaps the final proof of the spiritual bankruptcy of the partnership between Orthodox religion and nationalism is the fact that since June 1967 unconditional annexationism has enjoyed much currency in the National Religious party, and one can even hear the precedent of the genocidal wars against the ancient Canaanites invoked in certain Orthodox circles as a guide for the present. Fortunately, the spectacle of former Head Chaplain Goren sounding triumphal blasts on the shofar at the newly-conquered Wall does not in any way mirror the ethos of the Israeli army, and while the Arabs repeatedly announce their conception of the conflict as a jihad, a holy war, the corresponding rabbinic notion of milhemet mitzvah has been applied to the present situation only by a small, and powerless, minority of Israelis. The only kind of “holiness,” in fact, that is allowed to get into the actual Israeli conduct of the war is the Israeli army’s inculcated policy of tohar ha-neshek—literally, “purity of arms,” that is, killing only when necessary, never wantonly, always with a weighty sense of what it means to take human life. And in contrast to the occasional holy warriors, the prevalent Israeli attitude toward the conflict was stated with pointed succinctness by the journalist Amos Elon in a response to Mordechai Piron, Goren’s successor, during the 1968 American Jewish Congress American-Israel Dialogue: “I would rather fight for Dayan than fight for God. I feel much safer! I can also exercise my rights as a free citizen, as a voter and as a citizen of a democratic state. I can hope to depose Dayan, if I disagree with him; I cannot hope to depose God!”



The creation, then, of an essentially secular Jewish state, within which a secular Hebrew culture could flourish, is itself a healthy condition. But is it, ask critics of Israel with increasing frequency since the Six-Day War, a morally justifiable condition? What is at issue is not Israel’s actual behavior toward the Arabs, now or in the past, though that in itself has been incredibly distorted in some circles, especially on the Left, and has scarcely been properly appreciated anywhere. It is probably a demonstrable fact that the civilized restraint exercised by the Israeli army in June 1967 is quite unparalleled among conquering armies in modern times, and since the war the West Bank administration, while minimizing military interference with civilian authority, has actually established a greater degree of legal equity than ever existed under Hussein. In the treatment of the terrorists themselves, Israel has not only afforded every protection of due process, but it also exempts them from capital punishment, under the general provision of Israeli law for all crimes except genocide. All this, however, admittedly does not answer the one basic question that is pressed with greater urgency these days from many sides: Does a Jewish state belong in an area where, even as late as 1947, the majority of the population was Arab? How can Israel be imagined, even in the most diffuse sense, as a continuation of the moral heritage of Judaism if its existence depends upon a manifest historical injustice?

Much obfuscating ink has been spilled on this question, and it seems to me that tendentious simplifications on either side are to be avoided at all costs.2 It helps, though it provides no full answer, to be able to dismiss as a cynical fabrication, or the result of appalling ignorance, the frequently voiced notion that Zionism was a premeditated scheme to dispossess the Palestinian Arabs and drive them from their land. (Even so revered an intellectual guide as Paul Goodman could allow himself, in a letter to I . F. Stone’s Newsletter immediately after the June war, to refer to the Zionist “invasion” of Palestine in 1948!) What is morally crucial from the point of view of the Palestinians is effect, not intention. For this reason, the familiar Zionist argument may well alleviate, but cannot finally answer, the moral question—the readily documented argument, I mean, that the Zionist settlers came to build, not to exploit or conquer; that they purchased the land they worked, dunam by dunam, reclaiming much of it from swamp and desert at an enormous cost to themselves in lives and effort; that their labors brought a marked improvement in the material condition of the whole region, thus actually stimulating a sizable Arab immigration to Palestine; that they resorted to arms, scrupulously restricted to defensive use by all except extremist splinter groups, only after repeated Arab attacks; that there would have been no mass of refugees in 1948 if the surrounding Arab states, and the Palestinian Arab leadership, had abided by the UN compromise decision instead of trying to wipe out the Jewish settlement. These are facts that it is important to keep in mind, but they do not in themselves clearly justify Jewish sovereignty in a country where there had been an Arab majority for twelve centuries, even with the persistence of a continuous Jewish settlement since ancient times. Buying land is basically a private transaction, even when the purchaser is a National Fund; reclaiming desert land and ameliorating the economic, hygienic, and ecological conditions of an area are communal, but still not political, acts; in any case, the connection of any of these steps, however legal or laudable, with political autonomy is far from self-evident.

It was the strenuous belief of most Zionist leaders that conflict between Jewish and Arab nationalism was not inevitable. For a fleeting moment, in King Feisal’s famous declaration to the Zionist delegation before the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, this belief seemed to have the possibility of becoming fact. “We are working together,” Feisal had stated, “for a reformed and revived Near East, and our two movements complete one another. The Jewish movement is national and not imperialist. Our movement is national and not imperialist, and there is room in Syria [i.e., the region including Palestine] for both. Indeed, I think that neither can be a real success without the other.” This was precisely the Zionist ideal of relationship between Arab and Jew, but given the imperative inner logic of Arab nationalism as an autochthonous movement of national self-determination, it could not so easily afford to compromise any part of its putative sovereignty over Palestine in this high-minded fashion, and Feisal himself soon hedged in his own beautifully diplomatic statement with qualifications and equivocations.

That Zionists could continue to believe for so long in the compatibility of the two nationalist movements was probably, as the Israeli political scientist, Shlomo Avineri, has suggested, a psychological defense-mechanism on the part of the Zionist leaders. Humane, idealistic men, many of them fervent socialists, they could not easily have gone on with their own enterprise in the clear knowledge that it would necessarily mean depriving Palestinian Arabs of their right to self-determination and would probably lead to armed conflict as well. It is an essential part of this whole historical tragedy that Jewish and Arab nationalism were virtually coeval, a fact that lends to their relationship an almost biblical aspect of two siblings struggling over a single birthright. One of the siblings, to be sure, was quite willing to compromise and share the birthright in a variety of ways; but it takes two to make a compromise, and it must be said of the Arabs, whatever the destructive expressions fanaticism took among them, that there was no clear legal reason for them to compromise, unless one is misguided enough, or hypocritical enough, to invoke the biblical divine promise of the Land to the Jews.



There is, then, no easy way out of this moral dilemma for Jews, but everything depends upon how one balances one’s sense of contradictions and opposing claims of justice. I would like for a moment to compare on this issue a view “From Without”—actually the title of an essay—by George Steiner with one from within by an Israeli. Steiner’s statement appears in an eloquent argument against nationalism presented as a paper at the 1968 American-Israel Dialogue,3 and I will later refer to it again because it is such a fine articulation of a universalist reaction to Zionism. After an initial apology to his audience for presuming to address himself to these sensitive issues as an outsider, Steiner proceeded to describe Israel’s situation in this fashion: “The existence of Israel is not founded on logic; it has no ordinary legitimacy; there is neither in its establishment nor present scope any evident justice—though there may be an utter need and wondrous fulfillment.”

The doubleness of attitude here seems to me just, yet there is something disquieting in the neat polarity with which the ambivalence is expressed, that yawning gap marked by the disjunctive dash between the barely qualified statement of moral censure and the concessive affirmation of imperious necessity joined with quasi-theological rhetoric (“wondrous fulfillment”). One’s doubts increase as Steiner goes on to evoke the suffering of the Arab refugees almost as though Israelis were unaware of it, and to claim that it might well be “our job in the Diaspora” to be the bearers of Jewish conscience, to preserve allegiance, when Jews have a physical homeland, to the morally prior Jewish “homeland of truth.” (Could Steiner have been aware that he was echoing, of all people, Lamartine, who in his fervid French nationalism once asserted, “La vérité, c’est mon pays”?) I would contend that Steiner, for all the honest anguish of conscience reflected in his position, has taken an easy way out. If one stops to consider the ambiguities that are involved in personal morality, not to speak of political morality, one must conclude that his view of the conflict is not really moral but only moralistic. That is, he allows himself to describe historical events in absolute moral terms, and because, obviously, they cannot measure up to these terms, he must conclude that there is not “any evident justice” in the establishment of Israel. On the other hand, since, intuitively, he cannot condemn the actual existence of the Jewish state, since, in fact, with his Holocaust-haunted vision of Jewish fate in the Diaspora, he positively needs Israel in his world-picture, he has to leap rhetorically from censure to wondrous fulfillment across a vacuum.

Let me set against this position a very different formulation of the same dilemma by Shlomo Avineri in his interview with Ehud Ben-Ezer.4 After stating quite candidly that Zionism could only have been realized by subjecting Palestinian Arabs to a manifest injustice, Avineri continued:

It is nevertheless possible to see the justification of Zionism vis-à-vis the Arab question in morally meaningful terms. Not in black and white terms, in the sense, “the country is ours and they have no right here,” but in terms relevant to the nature of a moral choice, that is to say, a choice between two alternatives neither of which absolutely satisfies all moral requirements but one of which will be a lesser violation of morality than the other. At least after the Holocaust I think this much can be said: that if the alternatives are that the Jews should have a place they can call their own at the cost of uprooting several hundred thousand Palestinians from their lands and resettling them in another part of the same Palestine, or that the Arabs should continue to occupy their own lands while the survivors of the Holocaust have no place to go—then, it seems to me, the establishment of the State has a justification.

From the viewpoint of a Palestinian Arab, this moral calculus may seem brutal, but its sober balancing of claims is persuasive, and it is especially admirable in the way it works out in painstaking moral terms, as Steiner does not, the problematic connection between “utter need” and evident injustice. The history of Zionism has been a progressive foreclosure of historical alternatives. Conceived as the only logical solution to the problem of the Jews in Europe, it was unfortunately a national movement in need of a territory which arose at a time when the regions of the earth had already been parceled out, when the indigenous peoples of colonized areas were already beginning to conclude that they had a right to political autonomy and to the absolute disposition of the lands where they lived. Even if there had been a feasible territorial alternative to Palestine, the profoundly felt historical connection with the Land of Israel made it the only place in the world that could stir Jews sufficiently to unite in a national movement and take the steps necessary to save themselves, as the fiascos of colonizing schemes in Uganda, Canada, the United States, Argentina, and elsewhere abundantly demonstrated. With the new restrictive immigration laws in the U.S. and other Western countries after World War I, only the nationalist alternative was left open for rescuing the masses of European Jewry, and only in Palestine. Finally, as I observed earlier, the complete intransigence of the Arabs during the Mandate period, supported with increasing thoroughness by official British policy, made an independent Jewish state the only way to insure Jewish survival.

It should be noted, moreover, that the vise of historical necessity grips as powerfully now as ever, so that Avineri’s moral calculus must be projected on the future as well as set against the past. Since June 1967 a good many high-minded humanitarians have tried to argue that in view of the unending bloodshed in the Middle East, it is “immoral” for the Jews to persist there as an independent political entity. From such observers, one hears vague and naive—or are they cynical?—mumblings about “bi-nationalism” or “confederation,” in utter disregard of the fact that the Arabs are even less willing now than they were in the past to contemplate anything of the sort. More frequently, the suggestion is made that the Jews, in all justice and reasonableness, ought to be prepared to accept the status of a minority with equal rights in a Palestinian Arab state. The only conceivable response to such a suggestion is that we have been there before. Apart from the American experience, two millennia of exile offer little evidence that Jews can hope for anything like equality in minority status, less so than anywhere else today among Arabs, who have suffered two decades of humiliating defeat and have been saturated still longer with the most vicious hate-propaganda.

But even if one grants the utterly fantastic assumption that Israeli Jews could become a minority in an Arab state without endangering their physical well-being or cultural autonomy, could any conceivable Arab state in Palestine be expected to maintain an open-door policy on Jewish immigration? Are, then, the enlightened moralists of the world, in order that the Jews should maintain a chemical purity of moral posture toward the Arabs, really prepared to see a repetition of the infamous spectacle of the 1930’s, with the thousands of Jews driven from Poland today, or the three million in Russia, should they ever be given a chance to leave, or the Jews of Argentina or anywhere else where oppression is possible, abandoned, trapped, with no place on earth to go? On these grounds, it seems to me not only morally justifiable, but morally obligatory, for Israel to preserve at all costs its integrity as a Jewish state. History leaves us bitter alternatives, but if the only way to preserve that necessary integrity is through the deadly perspective of a gun-sight, then that is how it will be preserved, until Israel’s neighbors can bring themselves to allow a better way.



I would like to return briefly to the contrast between Avineri and George Steiner on the moral issues of Israel’s existence. It is, admittedly, a little risky to use the two as representatives of the Israeli and the Diaspora Jew respectively, because there are obvious differences between them of individual temperament, Avineri in his more prosaic thinking inclined to dispassionate analysis, Steiner exercising a gift for evocative lyric exposition that is not without its pitfalls of self-dramatization. Nevertheless, I think a good case can be made for the view that Steiner is able to sustain throughout his presentation such a high-sounding note of moral idealism precisely because he speaks from the irresponsibility of his position on the outside, morally judging a historical situation while remaining disengaged from its practical—and moral—complexities. From this lofty position, he can combine an eloquent enunciation of admirable principles with an impressionistic method of conceiving matters of political morality through symbolic images.

In the conclusion of his paper, for example, Steiner uses as an instance of the potential subversion of Jewish values in Israel a photograph he had seen in the newspaper of Israeli police swinging clubs at a procession of Arabs mourning the anniversary of their defeat. Now, one should not pretend that Israelis have never been guilty of callousness or moral obtuseness toward the Arabs, and Steiner may have been quite right in his interpretation of this particular incident. His remarks, however, show no awareness of the actual predicament the Israelis face, where an act of mourning could easily be the first stage in a plan of disruptive and incendiary protest, nor does he indicate any recognition of the restraint generally exercised by the Israeli authorities, and what that restraint must cost in the face of continuing provocation and acts of terrorism. Compared with the heatedly disputed decision of the mayor of Jerusalem, a few months after the 1968 Dialogue, to allow the Arabs in East Jerusalem to erect monuments to their war dead, the morality of Steiner’s observation seems cheap because, quite literally, it costs him nothing. When Uriel Simon, professor of Bible at Bar-Ilan University, suggested to Steiner that the nations of the world do not trust the moralizing of a man without an army, he was not implying that morality or justice springs from the barrel of a gun, only that a man’s morality becomes fully credible when he can still exercise it with a gun in his hands. Conversely, the force of moral right without an army, as no Jew should need to be reminded, carries pathetically little weight among the nations of the earth. Thus, it is at best a quarter-truth to say that the UN agreed to establish Israel because of the bad conscience of the nominally Christian nations vis-à-vis the Jews. The Partition Plan was from the start quite unworkable without the fullest Arab cooperation, which surely nobody could have seriously expected, so that its approval was a way of deciding on no solution at all, ending the Mandate and leaving Palestinian Jewry to sink or swim in a sea of Arab hostility. Afterward, despite the fact that Israel had been established through a UN resolution, Britain, Canada, Belgium, and France at first refused to support its application for UN membership; and England, along with many of the enlightened Western nations, agreed to grant Israel recognition, and to concur in its admission to the UN, only after the decisive victory over the Egyptians in the Negev which demonstrated beyond any doubt that the Jewish state had the armed strength to sustain itself against its enemies.

It is easy enough to survey from a distance the great dismaying panorama of mankind and identify with the suffering humanity of the Czechs, the Vietnamese, the Biafrans, the Arab refugees, but it is a far more demanding, and morally credible, business to confront from day to day people who are trying to destroy you, and still retain some operative awareness of their humanity. Perhaps the most significant respect in which Zionism has shifted the grounds of the problem of Judaism is in again placing full political power in the hands of Jews, thus imposing on them the full weight of responsibility for their actions. For Jews outside Israel, especially when they are self-conscious universalists who consider it a higher obligation to remain free of serious allegiance to any nation-state, it is possible to excise historical events from their contexts, abstract them, integrate them into an elegantly consistent moral theory. In Israel, on the other hand, Jews are inexorably forced to confront moral problems in their full historical concreteness, to test the strength of their values against the brutally resistant medium of political actions.

Back in the 30’s, proponents of a bi-national Palestinian state used to warn their fellow Zionists that the alternatives between which they had to choose were Athens and Sparta; that is, if they followed a course which would make statehood concomitant with encirclement by hostile neighbors, the new Jewish nation, instead of becoming a center of humanistic culture and social experiment, would be an armed camp, living perforce by a militaristic ethic. With the conflict still going on, there can be no grounds for complacency about such a grave matter, but Israel’s greatest triumph in twenty-one years of existence is that it has proved those dire predictions to be so utterly wrong. The Israeli army has remained not only the one completely efficient institution in Israeli society, but the one that most fully preserves the egalitarian and pioneer ideals of the socialist movements in which it originated during the Mandate period as an underground organization of self-defense; and in a nation of immigrants, it continues to play a uniquely important role in civic—not just military—education, in Hebrew-language instruction, in career-training, and in other processes of constructive acculturation. Israel, moreover, is virtually alone among the new small nations in the unquestioned subservience of the military to the civilian authority. The Israel Defense Force is an elite among armies, yet it has produced no military elite to threaten the integrity of Israeli democracy, and given the nature of both the army and Israeli political institutions, there seems little likelihood that it will do so in the future.5 While one must concede that there are individual Israelis who have been hardened, or worse, by the continual exercise of military power, and while the question of whether Israelis have come to hate Arabs cannot be answered simply—especially in the case of Jews from Arab countries!—the persistence in this embattled people of humane values under inhuman stress is for the most part quite remarkable.



Israel came INTO being as the embodiment of a historical paradox. The Zionist idea would not have been conceived, could have had no motive force, without a deep emotional and imaginative loyalty to the Jewish past, not only the biblical past, but, in a more complicated way, even to the Diaspora past where, after all, much of the life and memories of the people to be saved was embodied. On the other hand, Zionism was of course a manifesto through action that the previous two thousand years of Jewish history were all wrong, that the national values implicit in the experience of exile, helping to prolong it, had to be radically transformed. In Israel that radical transformation has been consummated, and now it seems, surprisingly, far less radical than some of the early Zionist thinkers had imagined. In other words, the doubleness of attitude of Zionist beginnings continues today in the ongoing ambivalence of Israeli society toward the Jewish past, which alternately appears as an oppressive dream, a haven for nostalgic imaginings, a happy hunting-ground for passionate antiquarians, a rippled, time-pocked mirror of identity, and even, on occasion, a wellspring of values. Ahad Ha-am was both right and wrong about Zionism and the problem of Judaism; the Jewish state has “solved” the problem by keeping it urgently alive, by turning it into an inescapable dimension of the daily life of a nation.

Simone Weil, commenting on the inner collapse of the French nation in the face of Nazi attack, observed that peoples resist conquest to preserve their past, while the French had will fully discarded their own past as a child might tear a rose to pieces. The apparent incongruity of the image she chose reflects a fine perception of the facts under consideration. Protecting the past, which is, after all, protecting the integrity of one’s identity, may necessitate the use of violent means in a world of violently exercised power. The past itself, however, is as delicate, as fragile and subtle, as a flower; its own intrinsic existence is not in the sphere of power, so it may be protected, but never sustained, by the implements of power, while its possessor can easily destroy it, almost with the casualness of an afterthought. At a time when, in the profound malaise that has beset most Western societies, we proceed to obliterate our past in the most cunning, reckless, and smugly self-deluding ways, Israel tends to be set apart by its consciousness of the past as an obscure but peremptory necessity of identity—a necessity felt, moreover, by the younger generation as well as by the founding fathers. Inevitably, it is because of a shared past, onerous yet precious, that these men and women have come together from many lands to live a renewed destiny on this soil. However rapidly Israel rushes into the avant-garde of the new technological future, it continues to feel the gravitational pull of the past from which it so self-consciously derives.

This suggests still another paradox embodied in the realization of the Jewish state. One of the chief features of Jewish existence since the breakdown of the old belief-system and the old sequestered social world has been its decidedly ideological character. Zionism, Bundism, Enlightenment Hebraism, Yiddishism, Reform, neo-Orthodoxy, and a good many forms of Jewish political liberalism or radicalism, were attempts to articulate a particular set of cultural, political, social, or theological ideas into a programmatic rationale for continued Jewish existence after the collapse of the traditional world order. Israel came into being through the implementation of one of these ideologies, but the program having been achieved, there is no longer a need for ideology as a sustaining medium of cultural life. Instructively, Israel is the one place in the world now where one needs an ideology in order not to be Jewish—hence the Canaanite movement, which looks back to a pre-Judaic past among the Semitic peoples of the ancient Near East in order to find a historical point of departure for its conception of Israel as a Hebrew-speaking nation fitting into the larger geopolitical “Semitic sphere” (merhav shemi), unconnected with the Diaspora or the Jewish past.

I do not mean to imply that being a Jew in Israel, as many Israelis still like to say, is a completely “natural” state. No condition so perplexed, so insistently problematic, deserves to be called natural. But in Israel it is more easily possible to be a Jew without the tendentiousness endemic to ideologies; definitions of Jewishness can be modified empirically instead of being dictated by a priori principle. Ideologies all relate to history, though in a peculiar and often unsettling fashion. Beginning with ideas conceived in order to interpret history and to affect its future course, ideologies absolutize the ideas they incorporate, cutting them off from their empirical ground and elevating them into quasi-theological principle. Such principle, moreover, is often treacherously unreliable because, overtly or covertly, it usually turns out to be a principle of self-justification.



Let me cite a very pure instance of an ideological statement, among the declarations of an anti-Zionist manifesto issued in 1897 by the Executive Committee of the Association of Rabbis in Germany on the occasion of the First Zionist Congress: “Judaism obligates its adherents to serve with all devotion the Fatherland to which they belong, and to further its national interests with all their heart and with all their strength.” Deuteronomy does enjoin us to love the Lord our God with all our heart and with all our strength, but surely not to love the Fatherland in identical fashion, and even the accommodationist principle of rendering unto Caesar what is Caesar’s is Christian, not Jewish. What the good rabbis were doing, of course, in the crude tendentiousness of this fabrication, was to convert their own political and social self-interest into a theological principle, supposedly grounded in history (or, in this case, tradition)—it was not the rabbis’ personal preferences but “Judaism” that required every Jew to be a loyal German.

Virtually anything can be asserted of “Judaism,” conceived in this ideological fashion, and in fact George Steiner, acting on a much more ennobling impulse than those German clerics of Mosaic persuasion, has affirmed exactly the opposite—that the Jewish vocation in history is to be a citizen of doubtful loyalty, an eternal guest, a figure who, unlike the benighted nativists of the world, considers a passport as a dissolvable bilateral contract, not a sign of membership in a mystical community. One would hardly want to begrudge George Steiner his personal commitments, but it seems a little suspect for him to insist on elevating a historical predicament into an eternal imperative. Thus, in the crescendo of a universalist credo, speaking on behalf of the historical Jew, he writes: “Yes, I am a wanderer, a Luftmensch; ‘unto the elements free.’ But I have made of my harrying, and of the ironies, stress, sophistication such harrying provokes in the Jewish sensibility, a creative impulse so strong that it has recast much of the politics, art, and intellectual constructs of the age.” The language here gives intimations of self-justificatory strain. The Jewish contribution to modern civilization has been quite remarkable, but the moment one converts this fact into a Mission ideology, one can easily slip into an apologetic overstatement of even so remarkable a case. To cite the much-exaggerated instance of the Jewish contribution to Western literatures, in perfect candor, it is hard to think of many Jewish writers beside Heine, Kafka, and Babel, who are not, after all, second-rate. In any case, there are clearly no Jews among the giants of Western literature-Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, Tolstoy—all of whom, in fact, were in their various ways passionate if liberated nationalists. Continuing in this fashion, however, the next, and concluding, sentence of Steiner’s credo verges on the maudlin because its tendentiously selective view of historical facts makes it seem what he surely did not intend it to be, a gesture of self-congratulation: “I am a fellow-citizen of Trotsky and Freud; a Landsmann of Kafka and Roman Jakobson; I need the same visa as Lévi-Strauss.”

Steiner’s universalist argument on the intrinsic moral deficits of Jewish statehood is flawed at the core because, having conceived universal-ism itself ideologically, he posits ideological nationalism as the only kind of nationalism. Working from this premise, he can suggest that the darkest treason of all may be “to yield one’s intelligence, one’s moral uncertainties, one’s instincts, into the hands of the nation-state.” But surely this characterization does not fit the relation of the individual to the nation-state as such; what it does describe aptly is the individual’s relation to the totalitarian state, or at the very least, to a blindly chauvinistic national entity. Fanatic nationalism is a grave moral danger indigenous to the nation-state as a form of human organization, but to equate the two is like equating woods and forest fires. In this age of splintering nationalisms and tribal battles dignified by the name and amplified by the weapons of international war, the terrible danger of forest fires is all too evident, but it does not follow that they are the necessary consequence of letting forests grow. At any rate, the evidence on the whole is now more persuasive than ever that it is not granted to most human beings to identify with all mankind in one great leap of the imagination. Most men seem to need first the sense of solidarity with friends, family, clan, class, and nation; and though far too many emphatically stop at that point, it is surely possible to move through those spheres to an embracing sense of human solidarity at large—indeed, arriving at the universal through the route of particularism may well mean arriving with a fuller, more realistic sense of what mankind is.



There is no life without potential disease, and all states of being have their moral dangers. If the nationalist Jew may swell into an intolerant chauvinist, the wandering internationalist may shrink to a cultural parasite, protecting himself from the perception of his condition with a doctrine of elitism. But these are inherent dangers, not inevitabilities; in both cases, it is a spiritual imperative to work for what one hopes—that life may prevail over disease. In regard to Israel, a clear sign of hope is the fact that Jewish nationalism has largely abandoned its sense of Mission, which leaves it free to strive for the realizable goal of being humanly decent, trying to perpetuate admirable cultural ideals rather than embodying an Ideal. “The life in ideology,” Lionel Trilling has written, “is a strange submerged life in which to ideas we attach strong passions but no very clear awareness of their consequences.” With the translation of the Jewish state from the realm of ideology to history, the strange, submerged life Zionists led has surfaced in Israel, whose citizens are daily confronted in a variety of ways with the palpable consequences of the ideas from which their nation has drawn being and sustenance. It is not an easy confrontation; at times it may seem almost an unbearable one; but at least it makes unillusioned clarity a necessary element of national existence, and as we try to imagine a future we would want, for Jews, for all men, perhaps the last thing we can afford to be is self-deceived.




1 The Idea of the Jewish State, Second Edition, Harvard University Press, 493 pp., $15.00.

2 For a rare attempt by an Arab to look at the question dispassionately, with a sense that there is more than one legitimacy involved, see George Hourani, “Palestine as a Problem of Ethics,” Middle East Studies Association Bulletin, February 15, 1969.

3 Congress Bi-Weekly, February 24, 1969.

4 Moznayim, July 1966.

5 For a thorough analysis and documentation of this whole extraordinary phenomenon, see Amos Perlmutter, Military and Politics in Israel, Praeger, 161 pp., $6.50.

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