Israel: Triumph of Resilience
Israel, having attained its 65th anniversary, resists easy definition. Sixty-five years ago, on May 14, 1948, David Ben Gurion, its first prime minister, declared independence, to which American and Soviet recognition was forthcoming the next day, following the expiration of British rule.
Any reckoning on Israel, its successes and failures, is also inescapably interwoven with the verdict one gives on the animating philosophy of the state, Zionism, which itself will celebrate later this year its 116th anniversary.
Zionism foresaw a collectivity of Jewish labor redeeming a patrimony lost in antiquity. It envisioned a national solution to that age-old disease, anti-Semitism, conscious of the fact that time was running out for Jews in Europe. Theodor Herzl, political Zionism’s founder, even thought it might prove the antidote to anti-Semitism, though he doubted the possibility of reviving ancient Hebrew as a spoken language. He once asked rhetorically, “Who amongst us knows enough to purchase a railway ticket in that language?”
Herzl was wrong on both counts. The national language was revived, a feat that still eludes other peoples seeking to emulate Israel’s success, but anti-Semitism, far from having been extinguished, is very much alive. Even when put to bed, it is a light sleeper.
The widespread revilement of the Jews in pre-state times was replicated when the U.N. General Assembly resolved in November 1975 that Zionism, uniquely among national movements around the globe, was a form of racism. So Israel became the focus of renewed anti-Semitism in the form of anti-Zionism, a distinction without a difference insofar as the target remains Jews, with discrimination now applied to sovereign identity rather than individual rights.
Israel solved anti-Semitism in the sense that it permitted Jews to cease being timorous petitioners to foreign governments and permitted those in need or desire of joining the national enterprise to do so. In fact, nothing better evokes today, if only fleetingly, the lost pioneering ethos of Israel than latter-day efforts to rescue Jews in distress. This is but a continuation of the process that began in Europe in the nineteenth century and embraced the Arab Middle East in the 1940s and 1950s, when Arab nationalism and Muslim supremacism combined to depopulate virtually each and every established Jewish community in Arab lands. Unlike their European counterparts in the 1930s, however, these Jews did have somewhere to go. In the span of Jewish history since the destruction of the Second Jewish Commonwealth nearly two millennia ago, that is likely to remain Israel’s biggest achievement and calling-card.
Jewish labor and nation-building have had a much more checkered history. The utopian idealism of the kibbutzim is a thing of the past, although the kibbutz is still the only voluntary socialist system to have been devised and implemented. The incorporation in 1967 of the West Bank and Gaza into Israeli control during the Arab-inspired Six-Day War saw the emergence of cheap “Arab labor” which would have been deplored by Israel’s founding fathers, although the ongoing hostilities into this century have somewhat reversed that trend.
The Oslo peace process, conceived as a project of political normalization, long ago foundered in bloodshed. That failure was inherent in Israel’s attempt to produce a neighboring Palestinian state with Yasser Arafat and his successors, who remain dedicated to a supplanting Palestinian state. The Palestinian Authority (PA) that emerged from Oslo remains a moral and political Enron. Palestinian society is radicalized and morally defunct, split between the Hamas fiefdom of Gaza and Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah redoubt in the West Bank.
Israel has provided Jews a home and turned that home into a innovative powerhouse, but it has a more modest record of success in the millenarian vision of an “in-gathering of the exiles.” The in-gathering was always going to be a combination of voluntary and involuntary immigration, but it is only the heroic age of Zionism that can boast a solid core of idealists. In each succeeding epoch, the persecuted, the endangered, and the expelled have predominated. Few nations are primarily composed of people (or descendants of people) who either involuntarily left their native homes or who would have gone elsewhere given the chance. Yet there is no mystery about this. It is a special breed of person who deliberately courts danger, disease, climatic extremes, economic uncertainty, material scarcity, and neighboring hostility in preference to a settled life in a relatively tranquil society. Zionism has been only a peripheral magnet for free and enfranchised Western Jews in countries like the United States, Britain, France, Canada, Brazil, Argentina, or Australia who, if they move at all, are as likely to move between each other as to Israel.
One remarkable success, however, is the realization of an early Zionist idea: to produce a new, sovereign Jew at home in his own country. Diaspora Jews often notice that Israelis do not in the main share what Jean-Paul Sartre would have called the “over-determined” character of the Jews, a result of centuries of Jewish dependence on Gentile goodwill. The Israeli is refreshingly free of untoward concern for the opinion of others or the belief that in whatever he may do, he is somehow representative of all Jews and is being judged accordingly. He has been normalized to the extent that he feels he belongs somewhere without qualification and that in this way he is like most other members of the human family. If he meets someone who dislikes him, it is not his problem, as it still remains for even the freest and most established Western Jew. He needs no communal security apparatus, anti-defamation league, hate monitors, or communal advocates. He has all of these in the forms of the Israel Defense Forces, the Mossad, and an elected, sovereign government. He can leave the job, if not always confidently, to the professionals.
For all this, Jewish sovereignty has not come cheaply; the loss of 23,085 soldiers — about the equivalent to America losing 900,000 servicemen — was commemorated at this year’s Remembrance Day in Israel. The Arab-Israeli conflict has subjected generations of Israelis to years of military service and reserve duty, and the civilian front has often been far from tranquil. Indeed, with the advent of Oslo, Palestinian terrorists made killing and maiming ordinary Jewish civilians in the largest possible numbers a special priority. For most of the Muslim world, a theological calamity occurred with Jewish statehood. Muslim supremacists work overtime to ensure that the Jew, largely a figure of contemptuous docility in Arab collective memory, can be again relegated to Islamic subject status on “liberated” Islamic land.
Perhaps, with so much conflict, internal and external, Israel’s great achievement is the resilience of its democratic life. By temperament, Israelis are the most democratic of peoples. They have a low threshold of tolerance for any pretense of social superiority. Informality is the norm. Some people think this goes a little far. As any visitor knows, graceful manners are in short supply. The army is the most respected national institution for obvious reasons, yet it has almost no chivalric tradition. There is an economy of military and civilian honors, which makes military ceremony on national occasions all the more haunting for its accessibility and austerity.
Vigorous debate and parliamentary procedures are alive and well, but proportional representation in the Knesset has balkanized politics, sometimes defying the requirements of stability and holding majorities hostage to capricious minorities. As a result, Knesset members hold office courtesy of party lists, not electors’ votes, and are beholden to party whips, not to constituencies. This has engendered at once careerism, lack of accountability, and public cynicism. Worsening matters is Israeli bureaucracy, which, in its untroubled inefficiency, is typically Mediterranean. Press freedom somewhat mitigates the picture, since Israeli journalists are not inclined to self-censorship. Foreign correspondents congregate in the country, free to report without fear or favor, and often show little but disfavor. Corruption scandals are far from rare, though the country’s president, Shimon Peres, once offered a consoling thought: “Better a democracy with scandals than an authoritarian system without scandals.”
The Israeli Arabs — today a minority of approximately 24% — spent Israel’s first years under military rule before participating normally in Israel life. Trade union membership followed in 1960. Political representation has always been a feature of Israeli Arab life, with Arab judges presiding over courts and Arab Knesset members sitting in governing coalitions; one, Raleb Majadele, was recently a minister in the government of Ehud Olmert (though he refuses to sing the national anthem, Hatikvah). Arabs represent Israel abroad in the diplomatic service; the staunchly loyal Druze population has enjoyed a harmonious relationship to the state, its youth even serving in elite units of the armed forces. Knowing the limits of the human condition, Israel has not imposed army service on its Arabs (though volunteers are taken), just as the U.S. did not deploy Japanese-Americans in the Pacific theater of operations during the Second World War. One result of this, however, has been that, in a country in which national service is often a prerequisite for good employment and economic opportunities, Arabs have lagged behind.
The Israeli Arab impetus for integration, such as it was, has eroded dangerously in recent years, perhaps the worst long-term consequence of the Oslo process. One need only consult the position papers of various Arab advocacy groups to see in print rejection of the Jewish character and symbols of the country and demands for binationalism. Israeli Arab Knesset members have visited neighboring states still at war with Israel, praised terror groups murdering their fellow citizens, and even advised Arab belligerents on ways to further harm Israel in both war and peacetime. How Israel deals with these ongoing dangers remains to be seen. Oslo advocates used to speak of decommissioning the conflict and thereby easing its attendant home front tensions. In reality, the opposite has occurred.
It is in these circumstances that Israel enters its sixty-sixth year. Its oldest citizens are the last alive who can maturely recall the pre-state days, the early privations, the flush of vision and pre-sovereign innocence. With their passing, the last link to Israel’s youth will be lost forever. Shimon Peres, Israel’s president, the democratic world’s oldest serving head of state, who was once Ben Gurion’s private secretary and has been present at virtually all crucial moments in the country’s history, will turn ninety later this year.
Revisiting the national record has been constant with Israeli historians, boasting for over two decades now a discrete group of revisionists keen to debunk alleged nationalist orthodoxies. As often happens in historical writing, those keen to dislodge old orthodoxies end up creating new ones. It is not uncommon today to see or hear of Israeli academics lambasting their country’s defense and rationalizing Arab aggression. Some of the revisionists are also at the forefront of a campaign to efface national particularity — a phenomenon termed “post-Zionism,” a peculiarly heedless conception that confuses political normalization with regional assimilation. Others have lent themselves to the campaign of delegitimization known as Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS).
But post-Zionism, so popular abroad, is in retreat at home. Twelve years since Arafat’s walk-out with a counter-peace offer from Camp David and the unleashing of the so-called second intifada, a disillusion reinforced by Mahmoud Abbas’s non-response to Ehud Olmert’s 2008 offer of Palestinian statehood, Israelis are largely recovered from the shock of terror and scorching hostility to which they awoke in 2000. Polls consistently show Israelis to be wary of Palestinian intentions and skeptical of diplomatic designs, whether drawn up at home, in Washington, or elsewhere. The fusillade of rockets from Gaza permits few beyond the far left to pretend that the Gaza withdrawal was successful or that further negotiated retreats would prove more so.
But then, winning the war for Israel’s acceptance, like nation-building itself, is not the work of a couple of generations. I very much like an anecdote about the veteran leader of Zionism, Chaim Weizmann. In giving testimony to the Peel Royal Commission in 1937, convened to seek a solution to the conflict in the land then under British tutelage, Weizmann was asked by one of the commissioners, Sir Horace Rumbold, if he could ever envisage a fully formed Jewish state. He replied, “Never.” Astonished, Rumbold queried why Weizmann could not foresee the completion of Zionism’s work. Weizmann replied that, just as Britain had been evolved over centuries so that it was impossible to determine when it had been fully formed, so too, it would be impossible to know when the Jewish state was built up and the task at an end.
Dr. Daniel Mandel is a fellow in history at Melbourne University, director of the Zionist Organization of America’s Center for Middle East Policy, and author of H.V. Evatt & the Creation of Israel (London: Routledge, 2004).