Schism in the Jewish Psyche: Defending Israel’s Right to Exist

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Schism in the Jewish Psyche: Defending Israel’s Right to Exist
The Jewish Divide Over Israel: Accusers and Defenders. Edited by Edward Alexander and Paul Bogdanor. Transaction. 310 pages. $39.95
Reviewed by David Brumer
The publication of The Jewish Divide Over Israel: Accusers and Defenders, edited by Edward Alexander and Paul Bogdanor, could not be more timely, given the recent ascent of the unrepentant terrorist organization Hamas, the fevered rantings of the President of Iran calling for the elimination of Israel, and the recent Harvard publication of Professors Mearsheimer and Walt’s “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy.”

While Israel’s external enemies continue their unabashed war against the very existence of a Jewish state, within our own ranks dwell many who also harbor grave doubts about the legitimacy of the Zionist enterprise in its modern configuration. They argue that Israel today is an abnormality among modern nations, an historical mistake, and an anachronism on the modern stage of nations.

The Jewish Divide Over Israel alerts us to a pernicious trend, where extremists like Noam Chomsky, Norman Finkelstein, the late Israel Shahak, and scores of others debase, demonize and de-legitimize Israel to the point where we as Jews find ourselves in the bizarre position of having to defend our very right to exist as a sovereign, legitimate nation, something no other country, no matter how much a threat to the world, has ever been called upon to do.

Other books have been published in the recent past, addressing this very issue, the two most notable being Alan Dershowitz’s The Case for Israel and the lesser known, but vital Right to Exist: A Moral Defense of Israel’s Wars by Yaacov Lozowick. Cynthia Ozick, who has contributed the opening essay to The Jewish Divide Over Israel, hails Lozowick’s Right to Exist as “one of the most important political histories of our generation.” She goes on to point out that the “the title alone—the scandal of calling into question a living nation’s existence—ought to shame the prevaricators and defamers, whether they be professors in universities, media distorters, ‘peace activists’ who justify terror, morally deformed intellectuals, self-deceiving unconfessed haters, or merely the herd of the easily led.”

The editors of The Jewish Divide Over Israel contend that there is a conspicuous correlation between progressive Jewish politics in Israel and the West and the tendency to blame Israel for the predicament it finds itself in. In other words, it’s not enough that most of the Arab world, including a majority of the Palestinians, and much of Europe see Israel as the main culprit in the continuation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; adding insult to injury, legions of Jewish intellectuals concur.
Yet this was not always the case. Prior to June of 1967, when Israel seemed in much closer harmony with the general progressive political sensibilities of the day, the Jewish state was embraced much more readily by those progressives, Jew and non-Jew alike. But all this changed dramatically in the aftermath of the Six-Day War.

This was in no small part a result of the shrewdness of the Arab world in a self-performed face-lift. Observing that their rightist rhetoric of “eradicating Israel by pushing the Jews into the sea” proved to be a dismal failure on the battlefield, they very deftly switched gears and attacked the problem from the left flank, transforming the Arab-Israeli struggle into the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Israel, formerly David to the Arab world’s Goliath, now found itself portrayed as the oppressor, the occupier, and the dispossessor of a Palestinian people who only yearned to return to their homeland. As Ruth Wisse has argued, this metamorphosis was in part a tactical move calculated to garner new favor with liberals, including-and perhaps especially-Jewish liberals who, up until 1967, had seen Israel as a small, besieged island of socialism and progressive values, a land of labor unions and communal kibbutzim. Gradually, the Palestinian quest for a homeland and their cries of deprivation under the yoke of the “brutal” Israelis became the cause celebre of progressives the world over. Jewish progressives rushed to join the ranks of supporters, with a special zeal and alacrity, the better to prove their bona fides, and to not be seen as harboring antiquated, tribal loyalties.

This powerful psychological need to be accepted by the cultural doyens of the day should not be underestimated. Indeed, as Alexander points out, “careful readers of broadsides against Israel by Jewish intellectuals will note the frequency with which they mention shame and embarrassment endured at cocktail parties or faculty lounges.”

The book is filled with ‘suggestions’ on how to alleviate this embarrassment that is the modern Jewish state. George Steiner champions our return to the status of a people in perpetual exile. Assaf Sagiv quotes Steiner in his essay, “George Steiner’s Jewish Problem”: “The true mission of the Jews is to be found in exile…to be ‘guests’ among nations, aliens who live as refugees, restless and dispossessed.” That this experiment in wandering for two millennia ended rather badly for us as a people, losing one third of our numbers in the Shoah, doesn’t seem to trouble Steiner. In fact, one of the signal achievements of the Zionist enterprise has been to restore us to the status of hosts. In fact, it’s only since that historic imbalance has been redressed with the modern reincarnation of Israel, that we have re-established our capacity for reciprocity and all that that implies for the psychological health of a people.

Perhaps the most significant contribution to this impressive collection of essays is Menachem Kellner’s “Daniel Boyarin and the Herd of Independent Minds.” It is because of his past reluctance to embrace some of the book’s contentions that his contribution is all the more poignant. Kellner notes that his liberal background pulled him quite naturally to the “moderate left end of the Israeli political spectrum” after moving to Israel from America in 1980. He naturally supported Oslo and “read Edward Alexander and Ruth Wisse in Commentary with irritation.” Six years ago, he would not imagine himself writing such an essay for such a book.

So what changed? In a nutshell, Kellner’s ability to recognize that what he once believed to be true was either never so or at best, that old truths no longer held sway. He ruefully acknowledges, “The so-called ‘Al Aqsa Intifada’ has slowly driven me to the realization that the Palestinian leadership (and so far as one can judge, the Palestinian ‘street’) was using the war, not to reverse the results of 1967, but to reverse the results of 1948. The Palestinians were not seeking to create a Palestinian state next to a Jewish state. The debate is not over where to modify the 1948-1967 armistice line, but whether Israeli Jews will be allowed to stay in the new ‘state of all its citizens.’”

Kellner understands with crystal clarity what remains so remarkably hidden from so many others. He explains the reason for his metamorphosis very directly. “The Palestinians declared war on Israel.” And lest there be no misunderstanding, he continues, “let me characterize that war in one sentence: every single Jewish kindergarten in Israel has and needs an armed guard; not a single Palestinian kindergarten has or needs an armed guard.” Kellner concludes by pointing out that “once again the Palestinians have started a war, lost it (thank God!), and now expect to be rewarded.”

If Kellner is correct, and I believe he is, why then the self-flagellation? Alexander notes that the contributors to the book, “far from insisting that Israel should be immune from criticism for what it does or does not do, argue that even if it did everything wrong it would not deserve to be made a pariah nation whose ‘right to exist’ is open to debate.”
Why are so many Jewish intellectuals unable to make the logical connections-or distinctions-between cause and effect, restraint and disproportionality, the arsonist and firefighter? Why can’t they sift out the blatant propaganda or at the very least, be discerning enough to demand a single standard of behavior from all the players? In Kosovo, NATO bombed from the safety of 35,000 feet in the air. In contrast, Israel sacrificed the lives of 23 of her own soldiers because she would not carpet bomb from the air during the Jenin incursion of April 2002, even though Jenin was a well-established hotbed and incubator of terrorists, a “refugee” camp under the supposed oversight of the United Nations. At the end of the day, 53 Palestinians lay dead (the majority combatants), yet the cries of massacre and genocide are still heard today. In fact, Israel’s exercise of self-defense became known in progressive circles as Jeningrad.

Today, after the war with Lebanon, once again we hear much more about Israel’s supposedly ‘disproportionate’ response than we hear about Hezbollah’s practice of hiding among civilians and using innocent people as human shields. Their deliberate targeting of Israeli civilians in the north was in direct contravention of the often-cited Geneva Convention, yet it is Israel alone who has repeatedly been accused of war crimes.

Paul Berman points to this perverseness and the convoluted, twisted logic that seeks to blame the victim, when he writes in his book, Terror and Liberalism: “Each new act of murder and suicide testified to how oppressive were the Israelis. Palestinian terror, in this view, was the measure of Israeli guilt. The more grotesque the terror, the deeper the guilt…And even Nazism struck many of Israel’s critics as much too pale an explanation for the horrific nature of Israeli actions. For the pathos of suicide terror is limitless, and if Palestinian teenagers were blowing themselves up in the acts of random murder, a rational explanation was going to require ever more extreme tropes, beyond even Nazism.”
But is there a whiff of overkill in these rebuttals of anti-Israel, anti-Zionist rantings? After all, so many of Israel accusers are at the far end of the political and intellectual world’s spectrum. Co-editor Paul Bogdanor’s devotion of three chapters to the likes of Chomsky, Shahak and Finkelstein, seemed perhaps a bit excessive and repetitive. After all, who listens to these fringe voices of extremism? But in fact, sadly, tragically, the answer is that there are legions who do listen, pay very close attention, and cite the outrageous pronouncements of these prevaricators and distorters of reality as the gospel truth. One begins to appreciate the extent of the damage these supposedly ‘fringe” voices wreak on public discourse when we note that Walt and Mearsheimer cite both Chomsky and Finkelstein on several occasions in their “working paper” on “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy”.

In conclusion, The Jewish Divide Over Israel is much more than the sum of its parts. Taken as a whole, it reflects a deep schism in the Jewish psyche.

Disputations, passionate debates, and wrestling with ethical dilemmas are part of our proud Talmudic tradition. But these essays are about something far more insidious than healthy disagreements within a tribe. The kinds of self-flagellation, self-abnegation, and yes, self-hatred that are displayed on some of these pages calls for an urgent reassessment of who we are, who speaks for us, and who we wish to become as a people-about knowing the difference between healthy internal debate and self-destructive words and deeds.

These are not just academic matters, ivory-tower squabbles or harmless philosophical differences. These schisms pose existential dangers to our collective ability to both define and defend ourselves in an increasingly dangerous and hostile world, a world where Iranian mullahs are perilously close to realizing their dream of having the means to incinerate another six million Jews. With the kind of threats that exist in today’s world, it behooves us to pay close attention to whether or not we are aiding and abetting those committed to our destruction. Yes, we face grave problems within Zionism: issues of social justice, corruption, and the like.

But we can only tackle those pressing issues when we stand unified as a people, exposing the illegitimacy of any and all who call into question our very Right to Exist.

David Brumer

May 24, 2006
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