For the Love of Israel

In 1963, after the publication of Eichmann in Jerusalem, Gershom Scholem and Hannah Arendt exchanged a series of tense letters. Scholem, a renowned scholar of Jewish mysticism and himself a critic of ...

In 1963, after the publication of Eichmann in Jerusalem, Gershom Scholem and Hannah Arendt exchanged a series of tense letters. Scholem, a renowned scholar of Jewish mysticism and himself a critic of Zionism and its excesses, assailed Arendt for her wishy-washy support of Israel and for an overall deficit of love for the Jewish people. Jewish public thinkers should be team players, at least in public forums. “In the Jewish tradition there is a concept, hard to define and yet concrete enough, which we know as ahabath Israel: love of the Jewish people,” he wrote. Scholem, who made his home in Israel, considered Arendt an ungrateful child who refused to return the paternal warmth of the Jewish nation. “In you, dear Hannah, as in so many intellectuals who came from the German left, I find little trace of this [love],’” he told her. Today, 50 years later, mainstream Jewish thinkers—at least those who wish to be celebrated at dinner parties in New York and Tel Aviv—would be wise to follow Scholem’s advice and publically declare at least some amount of ahabath Israel. To ask difficult questions about Israel is to risk professional isolation (ask Norman Finkelstein). Deeper questions about the foundations of Zionism are best expressed in the language of familial concern or better yet, genuine love.

Few embrace this eros with as much vigor or subtlety as Ari Shavit. Shavit is a lion of the Israel left-of-center, a prolific columnist, and the most brilliant practitioner of hasbara (Israel promotion) in recent memory. One of Israel’s most celebrated journalists, Shavit decodes the Middle East’s complex political dynamics in blunt, urgent, and sometimes overeager columns in Haaretz, Israel’s flagship left-of-center newspaper. (He’s been predicting the “moment of truth” about Iran for the past four years). Shavit is a self-styled king of hard truths, and his love for Israel is not a mere schoolyard crush. It is true love, as the mercurial philosopher Zizek understands it: “The one measure [of love]: you can insult the other.”

Released late last year, Shavit’s book My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel is perhaps the most praised (and cagey) defense of Zionism published in decades. David Remnick, the editor of the New Yorker, called it the “most impressive” book on Israel published in 50 years. Even the left-leaning Israeli historian Avi Shlaim, famous for documenting the hawkish foreign policy of Israel’s early leaders, deemed Shavit’s writing “angelic.” (While impressed with his prose, Shlaim does not approve of Shavit’s politics.) Shavit is also a promotional powerhouse. He is currently on a whirlwind speaking tour of US civic centers and synagogues, addressing sold-out crowds wherever he goes. Over the past year My Promised Land, which is written in English and geared for a US audience, has become required reading for anyone interested in Israel and its politics. In it, Shavit supplies sparkling new vocabulary for a more reflexive and lithe 21st-century Zionism.

The publication of My Promised Land is a boon for a hasbara industry in dire need of an intellectual reboot. The occupation grinds on, Israeli domestic politics slide rightward, and secular diaspora Jews—the type of liberals who abhor Obama’s drone policy and crusade for gay rights—sense a widening gap between their values and those of Israel under Likud. These liberal Jews are underwhelmed by the brand of Israel-love peddled by AIPAC, with its uncompromising slogans and its prominent rightwing (and Christian) allies. Shavit offers a way out: accept Israel as a sort of necessary evil, abhor the racism and militarism endemic to an ethnocentric state, but love Israel because of its historical necessity. My Promised Land is a guided tour for this type of intellectual compromise.

As a work of argumentation, there is little new in My Promised Land: the historical experience of Jewish persecution justifies, in Shavit’s mind, an ethnically defined state. “Neighborhood Bully, a forgettable track from Bob Dylan’s mediocre 1983 album Infidels, advances a similar argument. Spinning an uncharacteristically lazy metaphor, Dylan croaks: The neighborhood bully [Israel] been driven out of every land / He’s wandered the earth an exiled man / Seen his family scattered, his people hounded and torn / He’s always on trial for just being born. He’s made a garden of paradise in the desert sand. In bed with nobody, under no one’s command!”

This is essentially a rhyming version of Shavit’s politics. The logic is tired and well-known. But what distinguishes My Promised Land from typical Israel-promotion is that Shavit seems to enjoy writing empathetically about the Palestinians. He is not allergic to nuance; he is exceedingly comfortable in the moral gray zones of “necessary evils,” “hard truths,” and “inevitable tragedies.” So unlike the unsophisticated hasbara line of AIPAC and similar pro-Israel organizations, Shavit’s love for Israel does not demand historical amnesia. He prefers to air Israel’s past sins in public, dissect them, obsess over them, condemn them, and in the end, accept them as necessary. The most effective and disturbing sections of My Promised Land act like a moral digestive system, processing Israel’s illiberal tendencies into regrettable but understandable foibles.

The most effective and disturbing sections of My Promised Land act like a moral digestive system, processing Israel’s illiberal tendencies into regrettable but understandable foibles.

This digestive process hits its stride midway through the book, when Shavit reprints a gripping and brave essay he wrote back in 1991, after he served as a prison guard at a detention camp in Gaza. The account “On Gaza Beach,” was published first in Haaretz and then reprinted in the New York Review of Books. During the first Intifada, young Shavit was assigned to an outfit of IDF soldiers guarding a terrified gaggle of Palestinian teens, many of whom were imprisoned for dubious cause. Shavit watches as the camp’s doctor examines a 17-year-old Palestinian boy, covered in red marks from a violent interrogation session. The doctor shouts in the boy’s face, “May you die!” The doctor then turns to Shavit, laughs, and says, “May they all die!”

Shavit and the Israeli soldiers on Gaza Beach sense something disturbing yet familiar about the prison under their command. Shavit recalls a fellow soldier N., “who harbors strong right-wing views, [but] grumbles to anyone who will listen that the place resembles a concentration camp.” Shavit begrudgingly concedes the parallel: “I too, who have always abhorred the analogy, who have always argued bitterly with anyone who so much as hinted at it, can no longer stop myself. The associations are too strong.” This is an incredible statement to find in a book designed to promote and defend Zionism. But Shavit is comfortable playing with fire, dabbling in the dark arts of Holocaust analogies, because My Promised Land is designed not to deny Israel’s dark underbelly but to rationalize it.

The most impressive and widely celebrated chapter in My Promised Land is Shavit’s account of the Palestinian expulsion from Lydda in 1948. The chapter, which was excerpted in the New Yorker to promote the book, casts the expulsion of Palestinians in 1948 (the Nakba) as the “black box” of Zionism. Shavit takes a drive to modern-day Lydda, cleansed of its original Palestinian inhabitants, and imagines a pathetic caravan of refugees shuffling out of the town on the order of Yitzhak Rabin. Here Shavit is at the height of his powers: he draws on a seemingly inexhaustible supply of empathy to commiserate with both the expelled Palestinians and the inexperienced Israeli soldiers. He generously admits that what happened in Lydda was indeed ethnic cleansing. But, in the end, after stooping down to fully acknowledge the horror of expulsions, Shavit stands to defend the dirty deed—it was necessary for Israel to survive.

This sort of apologetics calls for a very specific and limited variety of empathy, and requires an intellectual cyborg like Shavit. He is at home within the logic of 20th-century liberalism and its humanist and universal pretensions. To deny Palestinian suffering would chafe against Shavit’s carefully constructed humanism; the Palestinians are, of course, cherished members of the human polity. But Shavit is equally committed to tribal solidarity and its ethnic politics of exclusion. To love Israel is to make peace with this uneasy and anachronistic marriage of ethnic politics and cosmopolitan liberalism. But eros—with its tendency to smooth out contradictions and embrace flaws—is not a mode of inquiry, but rather an intoxicating haze that obscures more than it illuminates. So when Shavit does address the racist rightward shift in Israel’s political culture, it is merely a device to drum up nostalgia for the heroic days of early Zionism, back when Israel was at the edge of the abyss and Jewish nationalism was driven less by the unsavory dynamics of “demographic imperatives,” and more by a desire to stave off extinction.

These days men like Shavit do not run Israel. Since Benjamin Netanyahu became Prime Minister in 2009, all sorts of unsavory characters have risen to the top of Israeli politics. The sort of men Shavit lionizes, the clique of genteel liberals with European sensibilities that founded and built the Jewish state, have been supplanted by men like Eli Yishai, the homophobic leader of Shas, Avigdor Lieberman, the racist and thuggish leader of the Israel Our Home Party, and most recently Naftali Bennett, a champion of “Palestinian population transfers.” So as the Israeli government marches to the political right, liberals like Shavit take refuge in nostalgia. The spirit of early Zionism is remembered as a golden age of egalitarian self-sacrifice: young European Jews marching in formation, building things, working hard, working out, and making babies, all in service of the nation.

This heroic narrative requires a constructed ignorance. Most significantly, it ignores the experience of Arab Israelis, who between 1948 and 1967 lived under military rule in Israel proper. (Those harsh realities have been most recently documented with forensic precision by Shira Robinson in Citizen Strangers.) Strategic nostalgia for pre-1967 Israel permeates My Promised Land, and provides Shavit with a useful counterfactual to shield Zionism against charges of outright racism. By subjecting Israel’s early days to reconstructive surgery, Shavit can demonize Israel’s right wing for destroying the Zionist paradise and still champion contemporary hyper-nationalism.

That Israel lost its soul in the settler project that followed the war of 1967 is the dominant trope among liberals. This premise is the target of Max Blumenthal’s Goliath: Fear and Loathing in Greater Israel. The scion of a Washington insider–family, and a muckraking Jewish journalist best known for his gonzo-style reporting on the Christian right, Blumenthal is drawn to the fringe, where moral outrage is on tap. That Blumenthal chose Israel as the subject of his recent polemic is a sign of the times: among many millennial secular Jews, Israel is increasingly a source of bewilderment, a sort of bizarre repository of backwards thinking, much like the Christian creationists mocked by Jon Stewart on late-night TV.

Blumenthal touched down in Israel in 2009, just as a Likud-led government assumed power and began to do and say things that seriously undermined Israel’s international standing. Since its founding, Israel has sought to position itself as a victim of the aggression of Arab neighbors. Thanks to the belligerence of many of its most prominent enemies, in much of the Western world Israel succeeded in casting itself as victim. But in many ways 2009 was a turning point for Israel’s international image. The year opened as the IDF pounded the Gaza Strip, killing 1,400 Palestinians in less than three weeks. In the midst of the assault, Izzeldin Abuelaish, a Palestinian doctor who worked in Israel proper and lived in the Gaza strip, phoned an Israeli television station in tears. He begged in Hebrew for an ambulance. Three of his daughters had been critically wounded when the IDF shelled their house in Gaza City. Abuelaish’s daughters died, and his frantic phone call went viral. It became a powerful symbol of Israel’s inability to distinguish between civilians and militants. (Making this distinction is a point of pride for the IDF.) Israel has never been able to explain why Abuelaish’s home became a target. Later that year, the newly elected government began to consider a series of unsavory laws that required loyalty oaths from non-Jewish citizens. Meanwhile, Knesset members with strong followings in Israel settlement communities openly stoked anti-Arab sentiment. A vision of Israel as an aggressive state governed by narrow-minded extremists began to have wider purchase outside the Arab world, where Israel has long been considered a natural aggressor.

This is Blumenthal’s Israel. In Goliath, he treats the state like a hostile witness, cross-examining its history, politicians, and institutions, in a relentless 400-page interrogation of its moral worth. He is as tenacious as ever: tracking down right-wing Israeli politicians, asking them embarrassing questions, and exposing the genuine gap in values between his audience and the increasingly right-wing Israeli electorate. For Blumenthal, the rise of the far-right governing coalition in 2009—the event that prompts his investigation into Israel’s dark underbelly—is the natural extension of the Nakba. The ooze of illiberal legislation emanating from the Netanyahu government is just the most recent iteration of anti-democratic sentiment that can be traced to the original sin of Zionism. It is 1948, not 1967, that frames the narrative here.

Blumenthal and Shavit both insist that Israel reconcile with 1948, but for very different reasons. Shavit longs for a unified Israel (a “citadel,” he calls it) with clear insides and outsides. The Israel of 1948 (before the incorporation of Oriental Jews, Russian Jews, and Ethiopian Jews into the body politic) had a mission, a purpose, and, above all, cohesion. To rehabilitate 1948 is to recognize the hard truth that for the country’s inside to survive, Israel had to do terrible things outside. These days, inside and outside are hard to define, as the mantle of Zionism is taken up by men Shavit can barely recognize. For Blumenthal, 1948 is the original sin that forever welded Zionism to a hateful, illiberal politics of exclusion. This version of history may be politically defensible, but it is also flat: it downplays the contingencies that produced the Zionist experiment, the fraught debates within Zionism about the inclusion of Palestinians in the national project, and, of course, the important psychological formation of Zionism. Blumenthal uncovers a truly ugly side of Israel’s political culture, but as a polemicist, he could learn from Shavit: the appearance of empathy for an adversary goes a long way in burnishing an ethos of good sense and good will.

One chapter in particular stands out as a missed opportunity. Blumenthal narrates his visit with David Grossman, an Israeli author of some renown who is often affiliated with the Peace Camp, a group of Zionist Jews sympathetic to Palestinian rights and eager to make political compromises, but still committed to the notion of a Jewish State. To Blumenthal, these left-leaning Zionists are a fig leaf, pure PR to obscure the essentially right-wing fascistic nature of Zionism. Grossman defends Zionism as a historical project, necessary to produce a society where Jews could be “insiders.” Blumenthal scoffs and delivers what he evidently considers to be a slam-dunk rebuttal: he tells Grossman that his own father, Sydney Blumenthal, is a mega-insider in the United States. It follows that Israel’s existence is redundant, unnecessary, and immoral.

By casting Grossman as a useful idiot, Blumenthal shows his real priorities: he is more interested in moral condemnation than in understanding or contextualizing the Israeli mindset. It should be clear that Grossman (and for that matter Shavit) are not uncomplicated naïfs, villains, or spin-doctors. Measured against the moral yardstick of The Nation, these peace-camp Zionists of course fall short. But condemning Israel (and its boosters) for lacking an adequately liberal sensibility is, while accurate, much too easy. Something deeper is at work. To unwind the logic of Israel today, “one has to adopt a nonlinear postmodern reading,” suggests Diana Pinto in Israel Has Moved, a concise yet magisterial portrait of Israeli ideology. Leaving behind questions of essence and coherence, her approach first recognizes Israel’s ideological paradoxes, and then flushes out how modernism and tribalism, liberalism, and authoritarianism exist side by side. Pinto lives in France and is an intellectual firmly rooted in and committed to European humanist values. A civil-society expert with the European Council on Foreign Relations, she made a brief trip to Israel in 2011 to give a talk on the Israeli diaspora. So shocked by the “autism” of Israeli political elites, Pinto became obsessed with how a state steeped in European values could embrace a chauvinist political culture of ethnic exclusion.

Pinto asks similar questions as Blumenthal, but she brings a very different sensibility to the task. Her slim volume, while brimming with insights, received almost no attention in the press—perhaps because it does not put Israel on trial. Pinto does not identify as a Zionist, and she is equally ambivalent towards both hasbara and the Palestinian solidarity movement. Instead, she is searching for the perfect metaphorical register to capture Israel’s political and social reality. So while Shavit and Blumental are burdened by the requirement of making an argument for or against Israel, Pinto floats above the fray.

Pinto’s metaphor for Israel’s ideological predicament is autism. The state is incredibly talented, brimming with artists, strategists, and businessmen. But at the same time, Israel is tragically tone-deaf, unable to calibrate its action to harmonize with its neighbors. Israel Has Moved is a work of intellectual portraiture infused with a global sensibility. Pinto imagines an Israel tilting towards Asia, where GDP and national cohesion take precedence over individual freedom and the expansion of rights. But at Israel’s core, there is a worrying solitude: “Israel is not interested in conventional history’s emphasis on origins, multi-casual explanations, convergence, turning points, ironies, and tragedies,” she writes. “Israel does not know how to cope with a history based on the interaction with neighboring peoples.” Pinto sets aside the debate over 1948 and 1967 and instead probes the psychological core of the Zionist project. Why does Israel, a regional military power surrounded by failed states, an occupier that dominates the lives of millions of Palestinians, still view itself as downtrodden and at the brink of destruction? There is a glitch in Zionism: it aims to pull Jews out of other people’s history and into their own orbit. Yet, Zionism has failed to transform the existential status of the Jewish people from a people whom others act upon, to a protagonist of history. The project is inherently self-referential. Look no further than Ari Shavit’s unself-conscious book title, with its looming possessive pronoun.

This Zionist glitch helps to explain the Israeli aversion to the mere recognition of Nakba day, the anniversary of the expulsion of Arabs from Israel during the 1948 War of Independence. The emergence of any counter-history of Israel’s birth is perceived by many to be a premier existential threat. Since 2009, the Israel Our Home Party, led by Minister of Foreign Affairs Avigdor Lieberman, has tried to make Nakba day demonstrations illegal. Alex Miller, a former Israel Our Home MK who has lead the charge against Nakba commemoration, says he is motivated to ban such displays because they are “racist” for failing to recognize the legitimacy of the Jewish state. This year, Lieberman suggested that Israeli Arab demonstrators “march back to Ramallah and stay there.” This unsavory strain in Israeli politics is, as Blumenthal correctly observes, disturbing, anti-liberal, and worthy of derision. But perhaps more tragic is that Zionism inoculates Israel against such a line of critique. Israel has overdosed on ahabath Israel, and its incapacity to see itself as others see it may doom the Jewish state to a solitary orbit around itself. icon

Featured image: thierry ehrmann/Flickr