The Anomaly of Israel

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POLITICS SEPTEMBER 15, 1997

The Anomaly of Israel

Zionism poses the same anomaly to post-modern culture that Judaism posed to pre-modern and modern: a historical case that goes against type, that in some sense defies the "laws" that define human culture and behavior. The Jews themselves represent, of course, one of the great historical anomalies: the only cultural personality of late antiquity to survive, not only in a series of written works cherished also by other cultures, but as a people with a history and an intellectual community driving across millennia. The survival is the more notable because it was achieved without that sine qua non of survival: power, sovereignty, the might and right to protect itself and dominate others.

Of course, historians who do not love anomalies try to sweep this one aside as almost unworthy of attention. As Gavin Langmuir pointed out over three decades ago, no textbook deals seriously with the place of the Jews in medieval life. And this neglect is only the milder version of a much older, more widespread phenomenon, found high and low in Christian and Muslim cultures: the attempt to eliminate Jews as a voice in society. In the Latin West, this found expression in forced conversion and mass killing. Normally one does not put so much energy into silencing the insignificant.

On top of this anomaly comes Israel, the only national liberation movement of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to succeed in modernizing the society it created. (This is what such movements were presumably made for.) Most of the countries of the undeveloped world have failed here, even those with exceptional material endowments such as Uganda, Brazil and the oil producers of the Middle East. But here is Israel, poor in natural resources, beset by enemies, able in one generation to go from a Third World agricultural economy to one of the most effective producers pound for pound in the world. The story is familiar, so much so that many have grown tired of it. Yet this familiarity should not inure us to the accomplishment.

The real anomaly, however, has less to do with economics than with politics and society. No one denies that Israel is a democracy. One might wish that it treated Arabs better, but until Arabs in Arab lands have the rights that they enjoy in Israel, the anomaly remains. And when we shift from Arabs to Israeli Jews, the anomaly expands: no one can say that Israel lacks for open, vigorous debate. The rights of Israel's Jewish citizens are among the most protected on the planet. To some, this may seem racist, like the German news commentator who felt the rescue of the falashas from Ethiopia was racist: Why did the Israelis take only Jews out? Actually, the irony was there to savor. This was the first group of Africans since the Exodus brought out of Africa for freedom rather than slavery.

Israel's respect for the rights of its citizens contrasts sharply with the other major movements of national liberation. From the Puritans of seventeenth-century England and the Jacobins of France, to the Bolsheviks and the Maoists, to the Cubans under Castro and the Sandinistas, "popular" revolutions have succumbed to the paranoid imperative: rule or be ruled, and rule against your own people, with reigns of terror to "save the revolution." (The interpretation of these failures marks the fundamental schism between right- and left-wing liberal thought.) Yet, in Israel, the government did not need to exaggerate the threat in order to justify repression. Here enemies menaced not only the regime but the entire people. (Recall the summons to Judeocide uttered by Arab leaders in 1948, only three years after the Holocaust, and again in 1967.) After a victory that takes its place with Marathon, Stirling Bridge and Agincourt, the threat to life remains and takes the form of terrorism. And still Zionism has not succumbed to the paranoid imperative.

One might think, then, that today's revolutionaries would want to study the Israeli case as a rare example of a "civilized" revolution. But this is not the case. Some leftist intellectuals seem to dislike Israel intensely and seek to exclude it from the class of "worthy" revolutions, where it plainly belongs. They prefer to meditate on failures without the awkward example of a humane alternative: better to hide this sparkling anomaly under the mud of racist and genocidal accusations. And they match their exquisite sensitivity to Israeli transgressions with their obtuseness to Arab deeds and intentions. In this way they maintain a picture of the world that leaves no room for the Jewish and Zionist anomalies.

Hence the portrayal of Israel as pariah, a reconfiguration of der ewige Jude. Some Palestinians put themselves forward as Jews persecuted by Zionist Nazis, and while such an analogy may strike most as far-fetched (one has only to look at the demographic data to dismiss complaints of genocide), the comparison to South African apartheid seems too close for comfort. Thus Zionism, tarred and revealed, appears where it belongs: not as an anti- imperialist democratic-socialist movement, but as another imperialist oppression. This, then, solves the larger historical problem of the Jews and power: they're as bad as everyone else, only more so (Heine's law).

But, like the stone rejected by the builders, the anomaly remains. Take it as cornerstone, and a different world opens up:

Democracy: No culture has shown a more profound commitment to democracy and its values than Israel. The U.S., perhaps the most strenuous defender of human rights, cannot claim that the danger that led to internment camps for Japanese and to the McCarthy inquisition compares with the threat Israel has faced in its first fifty years. Look at Israel's free, untrammeled speech and multicultural dialogue. The Israelis are not without fault? They don't do well enough by their own Arabs or the falashas? What grade would you give the rest of the world for its treatment of minorities and racially different refugees?

Place in the Global Community: Israel is actually a natural leader and model for would-be developing nations. In the early '60s, Israel had perhaps the single most successful program of "peace corps" volunteers and professionals in the world. How did the Israelis know all about the Entebbe airport? They built it.

The situation in the U.N. in the 1970s reconstituted the configurations that gave us the anti-Semitic world of the high Middle Ages: oppressive elites combining with local tyrants to anathematize and put down a culture that implicitly challenges the rule they would impose as the only possibility. So the "majority" of "nations" at the U.N. turn the natural leader of a democratic Third World, one that respects the little people, men and women, their work and their ability to learn, into an outcast.

Let future historians note: this period of Israel's pariah status was an age of greedy tyrants who uprooted, impoverished, slaughtered and starved their own people. What a different Africa we might have today had African friends sided with Israel and not the Arabs in 1967--had chosen life rather than empty promises.

Place in the Middle East: The most enduring victims of these decisions and choices are the Arab peoples, especially the Palestinians. The decision to sacrifice them to the cause of Israel's destruction was clearly enunciated in the aftermath of 1948-49 (keep them in camps so they can learn hate and seek revenge), and no action by Arab elites has shown evidence of a change of heart.

The moral gap between the Jewish state and the Arab states--how they treat their own and one another--is a chasm. The amazing thing is that a whole generation of Western intellectuals could have missed this dimension of the problem. Instead observers have wallowed in self-righteous "even-handedness," which has absolved them of responsibility, leaving the Israelis to carry the burden of civilized restraint alone. No, not alone; to a chorus of criticism. The chasm is captured in the contradiction between public Arab denunciations of Israeli inhumanity on the one hand and real Arab behavior on the other. Where did PLO soldiers flee to from Jordan in 1970? Whom did the Palestinians in Sabra and Shatila run to for protection from fellow Arabs? (Unfortunately, they didn't get it.) And the report of the Israeli Agranat Commission is itself evidence of Israelis' readiness to look themselves in the face: more evidence of the special character of Zionism as ideology and practice.

Meanwhile, the worse the atrocities (Sunnis vs. Shi'is, Fundamentalist Islamists vs. "Moderates"; massacres in Iraq, Afghanistan, Algeria, Sudan), the less the pragmatists want to talk about them. For some, the very idea of criticizing these cultures of violence is illegitimate. Of course, where moral leadership is wanting, tyranny thrives. Little people gravitate to the prophets of redemption and revenge, to those who appeal to divinity and oracles, to those who offer the easy way of blood. It may be comforting to take Zionism down, to see the Jews and Israelis as another illustration of the iron laws of history. Why couldn't those Zionists stay home and just write of return the way Christians write of the Second Coming? The price we pay for this rhetoric of bred indifference and implicit (also explicit) condemnation is the loss of virtue and honor. We can only hope the price will not include more war and many more lives.

Just as modern literary criticism has begun to discover that rabbis were playing deconstructive games 1,500 years ago (and saving a record of it!), so our social scientists may find more in Zionism than merely an anomaly to be explained away. And, in a time when our new global culture poses questions about how the stronger (armed) treat the weaker (unarmed), may it not be that, hidden deep in Judaism's millennia-long stream of textual communities, lies guidance on ways to build community solidarity through justice rather than force? Is it really worth it not to find out?

Walter Laqueur is the author of Fascism: Past, Present, Future.

By Walter Laquer

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