Friday Takeaway: Israel at 70

  • Ilan Stavans 

Published: 3/23/2018 9:29:36 AM

Israel — which turns 70 on May 14, Yom Ha’atzmaut — is one of the youngest nations in the world. It is also one of the oldest. Reconciling this paradox isn’t easy. 

Since the Destruction of the Second Temple, in the year 70 CE, Israelites, who later morphed into Jews (I’m proudly one of them), wandered homeless from one Diaspora to another. While other ancient nations, including the Phoenicians, Vandals, Babylonians, Huns, and Ostrogoths, disappeared long ago, we survived by sticking to the forward-looking mantra “L’Shana Haba’ah B’Yerushalayim,” Next Year in Jerusalem, persuaded by what seems like the first iteration of exceptionalism: the biblical “chosen people,” which asks us to become a model to other nations.

Models of what? Of morality, of equanimity, of distinction. Models of perseverance. This survival instinct might be a fantasy, but it works — not without opposition, though. Anti-Semitism still lives, igniting all kinds of conspiracy theories.

In 1946, French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre published a small volume of antinomian reflections called “Anti-Semite and Jew,” in which he argued that anti-Semites need Jews as much as Jews need anti-Semites. I am ambivalent about the idea, although one does learn to love one’s enemies.

I have mentioned the word “nation” several times. The Jews are a nation; we are also a religion, a culture, and a polity. The rise of nationalism in the 19th century didn’t exclude the Jews. The deep-seated desire to be “normal”— to have a homeland, along with a government, a flag, an anthem, a currency, a language, and so on — gave credence to Zionism and its leader, the Austro-Hungarian journalist Theodor Herzl. 

For Herzl, and for the Zionist Congress, established in 1897, the exact location of the Jewish nation was, for a brief period, a toss-up: In addition to Israel, other possibilities included the Argentine Pampa and Uganda. I sometimes imagine the extent to which contemporary Jewish life would be different in Africa (maybe next to the fictional nation of Wakanda) or among gauchos.  

I regularly catch myself visualizing how different things would be without Israel. What if the Balfour Declaration of 1917, in which the British government announced its support for “a national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine, which was then under Ottoman rule, had not taken place? What if the United Nations General Assembly had not passed, on November 27, 1947, a resolution calling for the establishment of Eretz Israel? I’m sure anti-Semitism, which is at a record high now, since the destruction of European Jewry during the Second World War, would be far worse, if that is possible.

Normalization comes with a price, of course: to be like others, you must give up your exceptionalism. 

Israel today is a thriving, multifaceted democracy — I visit it often — as well as one that is as racist, unequal, and machista as any other. That it strives to be better makes it somewhat unique in the Middle East.

At its foundation, though, was a fatal mistake: the dismissal of the native population in Palestine. Zionists believed that, paraphrasing Robert Frost, the land was theirs before they were the land’s. But the land, in between the year 70 CE and 1848, had other owners. The hatred of Israel in the Arab world is therefore not only understandable but indistinguishable from an anti-Western (e.g., anti-colonial) sentiment. After all, it was the West that had recognized the Jewish state.

Calling into question Israel’s right to exist after 70 years is ludicrous. Likewise, criticizing its military actions against its attackers is essential, although doing it without full knowledge of what goes on inside the country strikes me as irresponsible. When you’re inside, as I have been numerous times, each and every one of those attacks puts into question Israel’s future.

At the same time, my heart goes out to the Palestinian population, whose exponential suffering has turned them into the equivalent of the millenarian Diaspora Jews — made to live in inhospitable habitats, forced to keep their identity against all odds. In a dramatic reversal, Jews, once victims, are now victimizers. But Islamic fundamentalism is a victimizer, too.

Outsider nations repeatedly try to broker peace between the two sides. They fail because, although there are progressive elements in each of them, Israelis and Palestinians refuse to like each other. I, for one, believe in the two states living side by side. To achieve that, they must negotiate in good faith. Faith, unfortunately, can be a toxic force in the region. 

Whenever I think of Israel, I find myself caught in paradoxes. For instance, in general I am allergic to any form of religious meddling in governmental affairs. I don’t want to live in a country where church and state are in bed together. Yet I talk of Israel as “a Jewish state.” The fact that I want it to be a democracy is irreconcilable. In terms of demographics, if and when the non-Jewish population becomes more than half, the country will truly be normal, that is, non-Jewish. 

F. Scott Fitzgerald once said that a true test of intelligence is the ability to engage in cognitive dissonance, to simultaneously hold two opposing ideas in one’s mind while still being able to function. If the two sides of this conflict won’t budge, at least I have resigned myself to allow my deep love and admiration for Israel, and my incessant outrage and dismay, to coexist.  

Ilan Stavans is the Lewis-Sebring Professor of Humanities and Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College, the publisher of Restless Books, and the host of “In Contrast” on NEPR.





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