Friday, October 30, 2009

The Law Of Return: 'Oh Learned Judge!'

Undaunted in his campaign to ferret out “anti-Zionists,” yet apparently wondering if his own powers may be faltering, Jeffrey Goldberg has called in his Balthazar, “the erudite Yaacov Lozowick,” to deal with a hard case:

"My impression of The Hebrew Republic thesis is that [Avishai is] talking about medinat kol exrachai'ah, the country of its citizens. This idea was formulated and mostly promoted by folks who were not only non-Zionist, they were anti-Zionist; it was a ploy to weaken the Jewish aspect of Israel until eventually the Jewish state would be submerged into its Arab environment. Yet Avishai isn't Azmi Bishara. I get the impression he's a caring Jew who is attracted to the medinat kol exrachai'ah idea because it fits so nicely into his broader Weltanschauung, the one that praises the European Union as the way of the future, the goal of human history and so on. On that level, he's non-Zionist because he's joining forces with a particular group of enemies of Zionism, even though he and they are using the same concepts for very different goals."

There is more to his letter. You cannot really understand the surreal quality of intellectual life in Israel today—the rhetoric you hear from talk shows to academic conferences—unless you take a moment to digest it whole.

Yet beyond the glib “impressions” of books unread, the illogic (“non” = “anti”), the cozy appeal to dogma (“the Zionist way”), the guilt by association, the condescending tone, the last-minute finessing of obvious contradictions (viz., “the Zionist way” that takes Israeli Arabs as a “constituency and responsibility”), even the yanking-in of hackneyed German to sound, well, “erudite”—beyond all of this transparent demagogy—is a common claim that requires a moment’s thought.

It is that people who argue Israel should be a state of its citizens cannot believe Israel should be a “Jewish state.” Presumably, “state of its citizens,” medinat kol exrachai'ah (actually, this should be ezrakheha), is an idea that originated with “enemies of Zionism” such as Azmi Bishara.

And here I thought the principle that a democratic state’s legitimacy derives from the just consent of the governed was older than that. I also thought it was the counterpart to an argument about human nature and human limitations, you know, a moral argument reasonable people since Kant have had some trouble refuting. Wow, it is actually only a Weltanschauung our kids and other “poor, deluded dears” pick up along with a Eurail pass.

Had Lozowick actually read The Hebrew Republic, rather than merely forming an impression of its thesis, he would know that its point was to clarify just how a democratic state could retain a Jewish national character; how to protect its cultural distinction without violating ordinary standards of human rights. I am no Emile Zola, God knows. But imagine someone saying that Zola's case for equal treatment for Jews in the Republic was discredited by the fact that Jews had demanded it before him; that the case "originated" with enemies of the French nation. (Come to think of it, it is not so hard to imagine such people, is it?)

By the way, I interviewed Azmi Bishara at length in the book, and though I took issue with him on many points, Bishara shared with me his abiding respect for the work of Achad Haam, Zionism’s most influential early writer, who was trying to explain how the “Hebrew national atmosphere” created by Zionism was the only way, really, to create a state of its citizens that was also a Jewish state. The replacement of the Law of Return with an immigration law that gives preference to refugees from anti-Semitism, but conditions citizenship on naturalization to Israeli identity, not J-positive blood, is just one reform that is overdue.

A FINAL WORD to Goldberg. Look, Jeffrey, people we know in common tell me you are “good company,” and given your delight in identifying yourself as a teenage acolyte of Shomer Hatzair, I suspect that, had we met under different circumstances, and though you are closer to my son’s age than mine, we would probably have become what writers call “friends.” Hell, we might have traded nostalgic, knowing glosses on why Borochov’s slavish borrowing from Plekhanov actually caused him to misunderstand how Jewish workers in the Pale would suffer from the rise in the “organic composition” of capital—or was it just that the Shomer Hatazir shaliach in your hometown served better pizza than USY?

In any case, I am humbly asking that you stop. The claims you continue to make about me—that is, “anti-Zionists” like me—are too silly to be worth anyone’s time, but the reach of the Atlantic website is too important to ignore. If I do not respond, it may seem that your take-away is true, or plausible, or at least worth repeating.

Nor is this 1909, when calling someone anti-Zionist meant you were merely a part of a fascinating debate on how Jews survive “modernity.” It is 2009, and calling someone anti-Zionist tends to type him as opposed to the very existence of Israel or a Jewish national home of any kind. Given the constellation that runs from Hamas to the Oxford Debating Union, the epithet can do a person harm.

And I write from the gate at JFK, returning (legally, but warily) to Jerusalem, embattled enough by the fear that Sidra’s and my home will soon be swept up in a kind of Balkan tragedy, with bloody-minded fanatics on both sides demanding allegiance, and "experts" like Lozowick only too eager to choose sides. My deeds upon my head! I crave the law, if not that law. I have enough on my mind.