Fighting Words

Can Israel Survive for Another 60 Years?

Perhaps, but not necessarily as a Jewish state.

A military parade marking Israel’s 60th anniversary

It’s somehow absurd and trivial to use the word Israel and the expression 60 th birthday in the same sentence or the same breath. (What is this, some candle-bedecked ceremony in Miami?) The questions before us are somewhat more antique, and also a little more pressingly and urgently modern, than that. Has Zionism made Jews more safe or less safe? Has it cured the age-old problem of anti-Semitism or not? Is it part of the tikkun olam—the mandate for the healing and repair of the human world—or is it another rent and tear in the fabric?

Jewish people are on all sides of this argument, as always. There are Hasidic rabbis who declare the Jewish state to be a blasphemy, but only because there can be no such state until the arrival of the Messiah (who may yet tarry). There are Jewish leftists who feel shame that a settler state was erected on the ruins of so many Palestinian villages. There are also Jews who collaborate with extreme-conservative Christians in an effort to bring on the day of Armageddon, when all these other questions will necessarily become moot. And, of course, there are Jews who simply continue to live in, or to support from a distance, a nerve-racked and high-tech little state that absorbs a lot of violence and cruelty and that has also shown itself very capable of inflicting the same.

I find that no other question so much reminds me of F. Scott Fitzgerald and his aphorism about the necessity of living with flat-out contradiction. Do I sometimes wish that Theodor Herzl and Chaim Weizmann had never persuaded either the Jews or the gentiles to create a quasi-utopian farmer-and-worker state at the eastern end of the Mediterranean? Yes. Do I wish that the Israeli air force could find and destroy all the arsenals of Hezbollah and Hamas and Islamic Jihad? Yes. Do I think it ridiculous that Viennese and Russian and German scholars and doctors should have vibrated to the mad rhythms of ancient so-called prophecies rather than helping to secularize and reform their own societies? Definitely. Do I feel horror and disgust at the thought that a whole new generation of Arab Palestinians is being born into the dispossession and/or occupation already suffered by their grandparents and even great-grandparents? Absolutely, I do.

The questions of principle and the matters of brute realism have a tendency (especially for one who does not think that heaven plays any part in the game) to converge. Without God on your side, what the hell are you doing in the greater Jerusalem area in the first place? Israel may not be the rogue state that so many people say it is—including so many people who will excuse the crimes of Syria and Iran—but what if it runs the much worse risk of being a failed state? Here I must stop asking questions and simply and honestly answer one. In many visits to the so-called Holy Land, I have never quite been able to imagine that a Jewish state in Palestine will still be in existence a hundred years from now. A state for Jews, possibly. But a Jewish state …

Israeli propaganda for a long time obscured this crucial distinction. If all that was wanted was a belt of Jewish territory on the coast and plains, such as that which was occupied by the yishuv in pre-state days, the international community could easily have agreed to place it within the defense perimeter of “the West” or the United Nations or, later, NATO. Aha, say the Zionists, the bad old days are gone when we were so naive as to rely on gentiles to defend us. Very well. But also mark the sequel. Israel is now incredibly dependent upon non-Jews for its own defense and, moreover, rules over millions of other non-Jews who loathe and detest it from the bottom of their hearts. How long do you think the first set of non-Jews will go on defending Israel from the second lot and from their very wealthy and numerous kinsmen? In other words, Zionism has only replaced and repositioned the question of anti-Semitism. For me, the Israeli family is not the alternative to the diaspora. It is part of the diaspora. To speak roughly, there are three groups of 6 million Jews. The first 6 million live in what the Zionist movement used to call Palestine. The second 6 million live in the United States. The third 6 million are distributed mainly among Russia, France, Britain, and Argentina. Only the first group lives daily in range of missiles that can be (and are) launched by people who hate Jews. Well, irony is supposed to be a Jewish specialty.

That last point, however, brings me to my own closing observation. It is a moral idiot who thinks that anti-Semitism is a threat only to Jews. The history of civilization demonstrates something rather different: Judaeophobia is an unfailing prognosis of barbarism and collapse, and the states and movements that promulgate it are doomed to suicide as well as homicide, as was demonstrated by Catholic Spain as well as Nazi Germany. Today’s Iranian “Islamic republic” is a nightmare for its own citizens as well as a pestilential nuisance and menace to its neighbors. And the most depressing and wretched spectacle of the past decade, for all those who care about democracy and secularism, has been the degeneration of Palestinian Arab nationalism into the theocratic and thanatocratic hell of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, where the Web site of Gaza’s ruling faction blazons an endorsement of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. This obscenity is not to be explained away by glib terms like despair or occupation, as other religious fools like Jimmy Carter—who managed to meet the Hamas gangsters without mentioning their racist manifesto—would have you believe. (Is Muslim-on-Muslim massacre in Darfur or Iraq or Pakistan or Lebanon to be justified by conditions in Gaza?) Instead, this crux forces non-Zionists like me to ask whether, in spite of everything, Israel should be defended as if it were a part of the democratic West. This is a question to which Israelis themselves have not yet returned a completely convincing answer, and if they truly desire a 60th, let alone a 70th, birthday celebration, they had better lose no time in coming up with one.