Thursday, September 27, 2012

A Tale Of Two Zionisms

What’s been lost in the controversy over Peter Beinart's provocative book, The Crisis of Zionism, is the movement that actually built the country: the Hebrew cultural revolution that aimed to modernize Judaism in the wake of the Haskalah, attracting young pioneers to Palestine, then Israel, while most seeking refuge went to America; the Zionism whose historic foil was rabbinic orthodoxy, not—or not mainly—anti-Semites.

I have just written a lengthy review essay in The Nation that takes up Beinart’s book in this context. Think of it as an appeal to understand what Zionism was about--and the political innovations it may yet open up--from the point of view of Israeli progressives, not just American ones.

It is hard, even for many Israelis, to witness the unfolding occupation, or watch the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu throw its weight around, or hear the ways Netanyahu justifies the Jewish state, and not wonder what Zionism really was—and whether, if he’s the face of it, the world might have been better off without it. It is also hard for many Americans to watch Netanyahu try to force President Obama’s hand on Iran by threatening unilateral action that would destabilize America’s global position—with a brazenness much like Bibi’s pal Eric Cantor when he tried to force Obama’s hand on the debt ceiling—and not wonder if Israel’s present government and its lobby are as extortive of America’s politicians as the banks, another instance of the tail gracelessly wagging the dog.

In such a climate, the apparent conversion of Peter Beinart—formerly the editor of Martin Peretz’s echt-Zionist New Republic, now an opponent of the espoused Zionism of American Jewish organizations—was bound to make the publication of his new book, The Crisis of Zionism, a polarizing event. Ever since it appeared in March, a great many American Jewish leaders and public intellectuals have taken sides. “One positive thing you can say about Peter Beinart’s critics,” J.J. Goldberg wrote in the Forward, “is that none of them has smacked him in the face with a rifle butt.” Even Daniel Gordis, who accused Beinart in the Jerusalem Post of indulging in an “Israel-bashing-fest,” admitted that the discussion “is no longer a conversation about what Beinart wrote.”

Beinart’s shifts in reputation have become so much of the drama surrounding his book, in fact, that many have overlooked what a sharp and ambitious polemic he’s written. Over its several hundred pages, The Crisis of Zionism refutes the following claims: that keeping faith with the victims of anti-Semitism means viewing Jewish political power through the lens of the Holocaust; that Israel’s legal substructure guarantees the state’s democratic character; that holding the West Bank improves Israel’s security; that observers of Jewish festivals necessarily derive humanist ideals from them; that Israel’s occupation cannot become something akin to apartheid; that Israelis have, despite the ongoing conflict, managed to avoid becoming racist; that Palestine’s Fatah leaders are mostly responsible for the breakdown of the Oslo Accords; that Hamas is more committed to Israel’s destruction than to the establishment of a Palestinian state; that settlements have not been the main obstacle to peace; that Netanyahu embodies the mainstream of historic Zionism; that Netanyahu and other leaders of the Likud have held back Palestinian rights more out of pragmatism than strident ideology; that President Obama is skeptical of Israel and unsympathetic to American Jews; that Obama was wrong to press for a freeze on settlements early in his administration; and that Israel’s Islamic neighbors, such as Turkey and Egypt, would be hostile to Israel irrespective of what Israel does with the Palestinians.

The Crisis of Zionism aims even more powerful demurrals at American Jewish groups like the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, the Anti-Defamation League and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), all largely responsible for making the roster of claims cited above a catechism for congressional briefings. Though Beinart has much to say about the way Israeli governments have conducted themselves over the years, his true targets are the leaders of these American Jewish organizations. He fiercely rejects their allegations that Jews who publicly criticize Israel’s structure and direction, or the current Israeli government, “delegitimize” the state. He is a respectful, indeed a more or less “observant” Jew. He is content to mine Halacha—Jewish law, disciplined study, liturgy, ritual, music—for its contribution to universalist and open-spirited precepts. But he takes pains to distance himself from communities of the “Modern Orthodox” upon whom these organizations increasingly depend.


All in all, Beinart’s expansive arguments have a circumscribed goal: to discredit the political forces that impede a two-state solution. Beinart’s underlying passion is American liberalism, and so the ideology of the Modern Orthodox constitutes his fattest target. The idea that scriptural wisdom and the strict observance of commandments make a Jew “good” drives him nuts, sort of the way it drove freethinking Jews to shrimp, or indeed to Zionism, in the nineteenth century. But one wisdom received these days has political significance, and it is a measure of how much the meaning of “Zionist” has changed since then. Beinart concedes the creativity of many Jews drawn to Halacha, especially in innovating prayer or expounding critically on the Torah. But the Modern Orthodox are, along with their version of Zionism, self-segregating and a little too attracted to Jewish pathos, which the great historian Salo Baron called the “lachrymose” conception of Jewish history. They are thus temperamentally and ideologically connected to the settlement movement, even willing to join forces with American evangelicals to protect the status quo of occupation. Above all, they have a cavalier regard for liberal civil society in Israel, the very kind of society that has allowed Jews to thrive in America.

Only about 11 percent of American Jews attend synagogue every week and may be inferred to gravitate to Orthodoxy, “modern” or otherwise, but their numbers are growing, as is their alienation from the more amorphous and liberal Jewish majority. Their self-enclosed and rigidly “pro-Israel” (that is, pro-Likud) attitudes are a kind of “demographic problem” in America. “Not long ago, the phrase ‘Orthodox Jew’ conjured an elderly man with a Yiddish accent. Today it conjures a young family pushing a stroller,” Beinart writes. Meanwhile, the major Jewish organizations in question (“Has anyone ever heard of a minor one?” Abba Eban once quipped) have been failing to reflect the values of mainstream American Jews—who, for example, still poll at least two to one in favor of Obama, and even favor a more activist peace process in which the United States might apply pressure on both sides to come to terms.

Read on in The Nation

Sunday, September 16, 2012

'Close And Slow': A New Year's Prayer


Kippur by Maurycy Gottlieb 1856-1879
Whoever put on a tallis when he was young will never forget:
taking it out of the soft velvet bag, opening the folded shawl,
spreading it out, kissing the length of the neckband (embroidered
or trimmed in gold). Then swinging it in a great swoop overhead
like a sky, a wedding canopy, a parachute. And then winding it
around his head as in Hide-and-Seek, wrapping
his whole body in it, close and slow, snuggling into it like the cocoon
of a butterfly, then opening would-be wings to fly.
And why is the tallis striped and not checkered black and white
like a chessboard? Because squares are finite and hopeless.
Stripes come from infinity and to infinity they go
like airport runways where angels land and take off
Whoever has put on a tallis will never forget.
When he comes out of a swimming pool or the sea,
he wraps himself in a large towel, spreads it out again
over his head, and again snuggles into it close and slow,
still shivering a little, and he laughs and blesses.

 - Yehuda Amichai (From Open Closed Open, translated by Chana Kronfeld and Chana Bloch, Harcourt, New York, 2000)

Friday, September 14, 2012

Bibi Gun, Redux

Tzachi Hanegbi
The following is reposted from Open Zion, a featured section of The Daily Beast, where I contribute a regular column. 

“Those in the international community who refuse to put red lines before Iran don’t have a moral right to place a red light before Israel.” So says Benjamin Netanyahu, which, in a convoluted way, I admit, brought to mind an old Zionist joke: Two Jews are walking down a sidewalk in Odessa; two Russian peasants are walking toward them. “What are we going to do?” one Jew says to the other; “there are two of them and we’re alone!” 

Not so funny anymore, is it?—not, at least, when you think of its punch-line’s pathos as a rationale for, of all things, the Zionist movement’s eventual state launching a preemptive regional war, likely to cost countless thousands of lives in Iran, Israel, and South Lebanon.

Netanyahu’s policy—let us be clear—is not based on the presumption that, if Iran gets a bomb, the ayatollahs will turn around and use it against Israel.  Israel has a hundred nuclear weapons and the means to retaliate.  As I argued here recently—and many Israeli intelligence and military leaders have argued in their turn—it is mad (as in “MAD”) to think that Iran’s acquisition of a bomb poses an existential threat to Israel, or Israel alone.  A nuclear exchange would be the end of Israel, yes, but also modern Iran and Persian civilization, and the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank to boot. The ayatollahs know this, however they may bluster.

In fact, Israel justified pursuing its nuclear capacity, against President Kennedy’s vociferous objections, precisely to pose this kind of existential threat to all of its (more numerous) neighbors in the event that the latter tried to combine, or invade, or otherwise destroy the state. The Likudish idea that the Iranian regime thinks of its bomb as a national exploding belt, strapped on just out of an obsession with Jews, is, in a way, a form of Jewish narcissism beyond even Woody Allen’s imagination.

No, the real reason for Netanyahu’s effort to push President Obama into serving Iran with an ultimatum, which would almost certainly lead to war, can be found in this interview. The speaker is Tzachi Hanegbi, a veteran Israeli pol, who—so says the interviewer, Ari Shavit—has made himself “expert on the Iranian issue.” Hanegbi is the son of Geula Cohen, the Godmother of the settlement movement, and only Likud backbencher to heckle President Carter (and be thrown out of the Knesset hall) when he appealed for ratification of the peace deal with Egypt in the Spring of 1978.  Shavit fancies himself the custodian of Israel’s consensus.

"The justification [for an attack],” Hanegbi says, “is Israel’s classic security concept, which says that in order to protect ourselves and deter others, we have to maintain a significant qualitative advantage over any coalition of enemy states. That strategy proved itself in the past. Thanks to it, since 1973 we have not had to cope with a large-scale conventional war. For almost 40 years, we have not been attacked in a manner that created an existential threat. Our enemies have stopped viewing us like a network of spider webs that can be blown off the face of the earth with one breath...

"After Iran goes nuclear, so will Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey, Jordan and Syria, and maybe Libya and Iraq, too. The result will be an almost total paralysis of Israeli leaders in the face of threats and provocations. We will live under a constantly growing cloud. Israel will be neutralized, paralyzed, hesitant and lacking in deterrent capability. Our life will become intolerable…Israeli will become a Middle East dishrag. It will be susceptible to abuse and harm, its inhabitants’ lives will be made miserable, and it will not be able to respond appropriately and crushingly. It is our duty to prevent that situation from coming about."

Look carefully at Hanegbi’s logic here, which Shavit laps up. The only thing that changes with a nuclear Iran is, well, exactly nothing he can point to. One moment he is saying that having clear superiority in conventional forces worked. The next he's implying that Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons will end Israel’s nuclear monopoly—true, of course—but he says nothing specific, because he can’t, about how the loss affects any future conventional confrontation.  Yet from here he jumps mysteriously (and hysterically) to the notion that Israel will be “neutralized, paralyzed, hesitant”—“a dishrag”—not able to respond “appropriately and crushingly.” There will be two of them and we’ll be alone. If our enemies have nuclear weapons, we may not be able to “crush” them.

He seems to be saying that an Israel with a nuclear monopoly can blow up a whole lot its neighbors cannot. Once Iran has a bomb, they may not be as afraid of us as before. So we will have to be afraid of them. Seriously, that’s it: that’s the argument.  Either we have the means to intimidate them or we have to cower in fear.

In fact, Israel will have continuing superiority in conventional forces for the foreseeable future, certainly the means to fend off any conventional attack against itself.  And maintaining close relations with the US and its people is a crucial security strategy in this regard, both for weapons and alliances—relations that will almost certainly be foiled if Netanyahu drags America into another Mideast war that most Americans will eventually discover to have been avoidable. (Apropos, does not the Obama administration have an obvious “moral right” to prevent, if it can, a war that will drag the US into a military confrontation in the Persian Gulf, further roil every downtown street in every Muslim country, and cause Americans to be despised across the Middle East and North Africa just when Arab entrepreneurs and youth are trying to digest global realities?)

The point is, Israel will be able to deter nuclear attack, but will not, and never could, deter conventional attack in the way Hanegbi implies—not as long as Palestinians or other neighbors are motivated by anger or humiliation. No amount of intimidation, even nuclear intimidation, can keep Israel’s neighbors from making Israeli life ugly. Only peace can get us on that path.

Note Hanegbi’s sly (or incredibly stupid) comment that, since the 1973 war, and thanks to conventional military superiority, Israel has “not been attacked in a manner that created an existential threat.” Israel’s military superiority was even more impressive after 1967.  What exactly was the 1973 war if not the colossal failure of this doctrine? Was Egypt motivated by the perception that Israel was weak? What if not proof that deterrence (even nuclear deterrence) is no substitute for peace than the 1987 Intifada, the Hezbollah war in South Lebanon, the 2000 Intifada, the 2006 Hezbollah kidnapping, the missiles from Gaza? Oh, and what is the occupation-cum-settlements, which Hanegbi cherishes, if not an existential threat to the Palestinian people?

All of which brings me to Hanegbi’s real message, which he dares not just say. The occupation and settlements must continue. Mama is right about that. Our neighbors will continue to hate us for this, but, hell, they would hate us anyway because we’re Jews, or reclaimed our land, or whatever. Mama is right about that too.  So we have to have the means to respond “crushingly,” that is, shove this reality down their throats, not be “a network of spider webs that can be blown off the face of the earth.” As if those are the only two options. As if there are not some of us and some of them.