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Israel at 60 - An Ongoing Conversation

Perhaps it was because of the heightened awareness of Israel during the week of its 60th anniversary celebration. Twice in one week?

Last night, at a reception, a friend approached me. "I'm having a very hard time with Israel," she said out of nowhere. "Ben [her husband] says it's because I can't let go of the myth and I can't accept the reality." "Oh," I replied, "the old Yerushalayim d'malah versus Yerushalayim d'mata problem, eh?" (For those readers less Jewishly literate than she, our tradition posits two Jerusalems, the upper or heavenly Jerusalem and the lower or earthly Jerusalem.)

She is assuredly not alone. As Israel's reality becomes more and more difficult to ignore, those raised on the myth have some serious adjusting to do - or a serious internal conflict to feel.

All in all, though, her situation is relatively benign, and I am confident she will maintain her life-long devotion to Israel, will even come to realize that the reality is substantially more complex than the headlines typically suggest, that there is much cause to rejoice even thought there is also much reason for concern.

The other instance of the week was considerably more disturbing. It took place in the context of a two and a half day conference of (mostly) young lefties eager to stake out a Jewish agenda for the pursuit of social justice in America. One session at the conference was devoted to Israel, and the labored introduction to that session presaged the awkward debate that ensued. There were four panelists, I among them, all quite plainly left of center, and we'd been asked to talk about the nature of our connection to Israel and the ways we'd sought to bring that connection to life.

I was one of less than a handful of people in the room who could remember a world without Israel, so I tried to sketch the thoughts and feelings that attended Israel's birth, and the enduring impact of that birth on me. I was followed by an engaging and plainly very bright young man whose position, as I understood it, was that there cannot be justice without democracy, and there cannot be both democracy and a Jewish state. The fact of a Jewish state automatically means (and has empirically meant) the privileging of Jews; hence Israel is not a democratic state and cannot be just.

Conclusion? There ought not be a Jewish state.

To say that I was upset by his remarks would be radically to understate my reaction. I'd read of such sentiments, heard about them, but I do not think I had ever encountered them so directly, surely not from someone who in all other respects seems the kind of young man I'd be cheering on - Jewishly very well-informed, passionately committed to Jewish culture and to social justice. I considered - well, not so much considered as toyed with - the idea of getting up and stalking out of the room as he was speaking. I did not. I remained seated next to him, didn't respond until the Q&A when someone asked quite directly how I felt about what had been said. Given the constraint of time, as also the complexity of the matter, my response was necessarily inadequate. Yet I am convinced that there must be a response, a way to explain to a generation that knew not Joseph just why a Jewish state belongs. And that explanation cannot simply be that there is a Jewish state, and that settles the matter - although it is true that the fact of Israel should be sufficient, that Israel's warrant is it roads and its beaches and its farms and factories and office buildings and film festivals, its people in their maddening diversity, its flag.

But that is an argument from sufficiency, not from necessity, and it is the necessity that the people, mainly young people, I have in mind don't comprehend. Enter, obviously, the Holocaust, the irrefutable argument from necessity. Why is it not a complete response to say that in 1948, there was nowhere else for the Displaced Persons of Europe to go, for the multi-bereaved who had survived, no other place that would take them in, would care for them, would do its best to bind up their wounds? And, very soon thereafter, the huddled masses from North Africa and elsewhere in the Middle East, cast out of their homes in Casablanca and Damascus and Baghdad and Aleppo and so very many other places, urban slums and mountain villages, no matter: bruchim haba'im, blessed be those who arrive.

QED, no?

Well, not exactly. Or, more precisely, not for everyone, and there's the rub, the source of the intergenerational tension. At a certain point in history, a Jewish state was both necessary and sufficient, and that should have been (and for many of us still is) all the argument that's required. One does not have to re-earn the right to political independence anew each year. That is not how the international system works. If it did work that way, there'd surely be no Sudan, no Myanmar (Burma), a dozen or more nations would have to close up shop. At its worst, no one called for an end to South Africa; it was political change, not political death, that was urged. So if they say that we must look at Israel's record, at its continuing land-grab, its continuing oppression of the Palestinians, its continuing discrimination against its own Palestinian citizens, the answer is not to turn away from them, to denounce them as anti-Israel (or as antisemites), but to acknowledge Israel's failures, to insist on recognition of Israel's successes, and to endorse the urgency of change. That should enable an ongoing conversation.

But the skeptics and the antagonists respond that Israel is essentially a colonial regime, and that colonialism is an unacceptable anachronism. Yet when the debate is joined, it is only a tortured logic that can squeeze Israel into any recognizable definition of colonialism. At the height of the Algerian war, there were a bit more than a million pieds noirs (Europeans) living in Algeria, amounting to 10 percent of the population. Yet in the land allocated to the Jewish state by the United Nations Partition Resolution, Jews were a substantial majority.

Now, if all this be so, must we really re-argue definitions of Zionism? What's missing here that is critical to the conversation? I posit that not as a rhetorical question but as a plea to engage, to clarify, to persuade, to put that matter to rest as far as we are able.

I encourage those who may be interested to go to www.dissentmagazine.org, in the Spring issue of which they will find my article, "Notes of A Sometime Israel Lobbyist."