WASHINGTON DIARIST OCTOBER 12, 2011
What a poor student of Edward Said Sari Nusseibeh is! Said taught that peoples must create their own representations of themselves, as a matter of right and dignity, and that the representation of a people to themselves, from outside, by others, is an exercise in deformation; but here is Nusseibeh, in Al Jazeera, instructing the Jews on “why Israel can’t be a ‘Jewish State.’” He prefers “a civil, democratic, and pluralistic state whose official religion is Judaism and whose majority is Jewish,” which is fine, if the purpose of that Jewish majority is to establish the state also as a permanent unchallenged sanctuary for Jews: Zionism, after all, is primarily a remedy for a danger. But Nusseibeh’s reasonableness has its limits. He rehearses the old argument that “a ‘Jewish State’ implies that Israel is, or should be, either a theocracy (if we take the word ‘Jewish’ to apply to the religion of Judaism) or an apartheid state (if we take the word ‘Jewish’ to apply to the ethnicity of Jews).” This is absurd. The prospects of a Jewish theocracy in Israel are much less than the prospects of a Muslim theocracy in Palestine—none of the religious parties in Israeli politics are as powerful as Hamas is in Palestinian politics; and the guarantee of equal rights under law to all the inhabitants of Israel, Jewish, Muslim, and Christian, is the obvious antidote to the dystopian fantasy of apartheid. A Jewish state may be just or unjust, but it is not essentially unjust. Nusseibeh points out that “no state in the world is—or can be in practice-ethnically or religiously homogeneous,” but the only figures in Israel clamoring for homogeneity are a few sick rabbis and their hangers-on, who have been resoundingly condemned (and in one case arrested) for their exclusivist incitements. Nusseibeh ominously alludes to them, even though he does not like it when the ravings of radical mullahs are mistaken for the Muslim mainstream. And then Nusseibeh goes wild. The “more serious reason ... why Palestinian leaders—and indeed no responsible person—can morally recognise Israel as a ‘Jewish State’ ... has to do with the very Covenant of God in the Bible with Ancient Israelites.” He cites Genesis and Deuteronomy and Joshua and Samuel to establish that “in the Old Testament, God commands the Jewish state in the land of Israel to come into being through warfare and violent dispossession of the original inhabitants.” And so, he explains, “no one then can blame Palestinians and descendants of the ancient Canaanites, Jebusites and others who inhabited the land before the Ancient Israelites ... for a little trepidation as regards what recognising Israel as a ‘Jewish State’ means for them.” They have that Jebusite feeling! Never mind that Palestinians are not the descendants of Canaanites. The Arab scion of Oxford rationalism is here concurring with the Jewish chiliasts in the West Bank that the Bible is the warrant for the politics of today. Nusseibeh is right: the conquest of Canaan by the Israelites was a genocidal affair. I never read those passages of my Bible without horror, though I know of no monotheism that has not justified the mass murder of innocents. But this Jewish state is not that Jewish state, and never was; and it is a slanderous misreading of the history of Zionism to suggest otherwise. Moses’ commands about the extermination of the Girgashites have as much bearing upon Israeli behavior as Moses’ commands about levirate marriage. Anyway, the Jebusites were never offered a peace process and a state. It was bad enough that Nusseibeh, in his recent book, What Is a Palestinian State Worth?, toyed with Shlomo Sand’s intellectually worthless denial of the peoplehood of the Jews. Now he looks at Netanyahu and sees Yahweh. Yahweh will not take kindly to this.
MEANWHILE, IN The New York Review of Books, where a good word about Israel must never be said, David Grossman is denounced as an apologist for Israeli racism and expansionism. Yes, that David Grossman. In an incompetent and obtuse review of To the End of the Land, Patricia Storace accuses the Israeli writer of evasiveness and cowardice in his treatment of the Palestinian question. His book, she declares, reads like “the effect of a doctrinal national memory,” when in truth Grossman’s novel is a vast interrogation of doctrine and memory. Storace finds its Hebrew title, which she confidently gives as A Woman Running from the News, superior in its “realist intentions” to the “portentous” English title, whose “grandiloquence” reminds her of Gone with the Wind. Perhaps she preferred the whole book in Hebrew. As it happens, the English title appears, a bit stilted, as an alternative title in the first Hebrew edition of Grossman’s book, and there is nothing at all excessive about it, since the novel describes treks to the far reaches of the land of Israel. Moreover, besorah, in Grossman’s Hebrew title, is a more epical term than “news”—it means “tidings,” with prophetic and evangelical connotations. (And borahat means “fleeing,” not “running.”) Storace complains of the novel’s “confinement” owing to its “unexplained particularities of place and association,” but the problem is only that she is ignorant of these places and associations. Grossman is no more “confined” to Israel than Joyce was to Dublin or Faulkner was to Mississippi. Storace indignantly discovers in an old piece in Haaretz—which is to say, on Google—that the neighborhood of Ein Karem in Jerusalem was once an Arab village. She chances upon a book that recounts the importance to early Zionist pedagogy of those treks across the land, which she seems to regard as some sort of Wandervogelmystik (though I wish to assure her, as someone who walked those gorgeous walks as a teenager, that they are not an education in fascism). Reviewing a novel whose people know Coltrane and Cocteau, she calls Israel “an intensely military, Spartan society.” In fact Tel Aviv is the new capital of Levantine concupiscence. What really bothers Storace about Grossman’s novel is that it is so damned Israeli, and that its attention wanders from the Palestinians, who are of course all you need to know about Israel. Her intolerant piece is yet another example of the new heartlessness toward Israel. A whole country and a whole people have been expelled from the realm of imaginative sympathy. I have long believed that the settlements are madness, and the notion of Benjamin Netanyahu as a thwarted peacemaker strikes me as risible—but no more risible than the notion of Mahmoud Abbas as a thwarted peacemaker. There are no heroes in this absent peace. But there is a poison in the air.
Leon Wieseltier is the literary editor of The New Republic. This article originally ran in the November 3, 2011, issue of the magazine.