Our Clever Foolishness Does Israel No Good

The Hour

By Leonard Fein

Published March 02, 2007, issue of March 02, 2007.
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This is not the first time that some Jews have shunned nationalism. In fervently Orthodox circles, Zionism was (and, to a lesser degree, remains) offensive because it is an effort “to force God’s hand.” Classical Reform Judaism opposed it because it violated their determined universalism. And around the turn of the past century, the Bund was against it, believing in Jewish peoplehood and culture but not in the then-nascent political Zionism that eventually birthed the State of Israel. Now, not quite suddenly, here it is again, newly fashionable in certain left-wing circles.

Rejection of nationalism, whether by Jews or others, is certainly a legitimate intellectual position. (I think it wrong in principle, and obviously wrong in practice.) But it is offensive to encounter opposition to nationalism that, having made its case, goes on to cite only one offender — to wit, the Jews. To wit, the State of Israel. Such a selective assault is legitimately described as antisemitic. It is one thing to be critical of Israeli policies and practices; it is quite another to declare the very idea of Israel, and only Israel, unacceptable.

For the record, that is quite decisively not what Jimmy Carter, Stephen Walt or John Mearsheimer has done. Though relentlessly critical of Israel’s policies and practices, Carter in his book, and Mearsheimer and Walt in their London Review of Books article (and, presumably, in their forthcoming book), are explicit in their endorsement of the Jewish state. They therefore belong to a different category, a category that is growing apace and includes many Jews.

How shall we describe that category? These days, Israel’s critics are more often hostile than sympathetic, more often well informed than ignorant. Too often, though not always, they are excessive, thereby enabling the so-called pro-Israel forces to dismiss everything they have to say, even though, minus their excesses, much of what they have to say is on the mark.

There’s an old joke from the 1950s and ’60s that goes something like this: An elderly Jew visits Israel. On his return, his friends in the nursing home say, “Nu, how was it?” And he replies: “You know all those inflated lies we’ve been telling about Israel all these years? They’re true!” Meaning that the swamps really were drained, the deserts really made to bloom, the exiles really ingathered.

Now for the current version. An elderly Jew visits Israel. On his return, his friends in the nursing home say, “Nu, how was it?” And he replies: “You know all those inflated truths we’ve been telling all these years? They’re all lies!” Meaning that our “truths” have omitted the occupation, the corruption, the income gap and significant poverty, the discrimination against Israeli Arabs, the persistent damage done to Judaism by so many of its rabbinic authorities, the glib mediocrity of the governing class. All true. Most of them widely recognized within Israel.

And here? Here a growing disconnect between the restless Jewish people and the major Jewish organizations. Bless the people, many feel in their gut that something is wrong, very wrong over there. Cut Israel all the slack you cut your beloved; there comes a time for tough love. For honesty.

But the leaders of the community? Too many peddle a siege mentality. What, criticize Israel now, with Hamas next door and Iran — read: Germany, 1938 — just over the horizon? Shame on you! Away with you! Oh leave, all ye unfaithful!

But the issue isn’t really criticism. The issue is truth. Truth, and hope. A mistake here, an accident there, a corrupt official, an incompetent minister, a surly soldier — such misfortunes are par for the course of any self-governing people.

But this ambitious and noble experiment in Jewish nationalism is not going well. Its “misfortunes” are not episodic exceptions; they have become routine. The failure of our leadership here to understand that — or, when they do, to level with the people — is now dividing us, not uniting us. Nor is it a favor to Israel, which looks more and more like a Potemkin village, all the glitzy facades and the smooth talk barely concealing moral swamps and political deserts.

So far, very far, from Herzl’s utopian vision in his “Altneuland,” far from the utopian vision expressed in Israel’s Declaration of Independence. Not yet dystopia, but on the way.

Yes, of course, the story is more complex. There are the spectacular advances in the sciences and in technology, there are world-class authors and there is world-class music, there is kindness, there is outrage, there’s a vigorous free press and much ongoing debate. But folks, the country is in trouble, and not only because Iran is a looming threat and Hamas an ongoing menacing presence. Remember Pogo? “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

What to do? It’s the Israelis, all of them, who will have to figure that out. We here in America are very small bit-players, able at most to advise. Theirs, as it should be, is the consent.

But drawing our wagons into so tight a circle that there is no room for the truth to squeeze in; instead of a challenge, a cover-up. What does that accomplish? It drives people away. It drives them away from Israel and Zionism, it drives them away from communal organizations, it drives them away from Jewish life.

For it presents the Jewish vessel as a ship of fools. Clever fools, to be sure, but fools all the same. Why board such a vessel?

Ah yes, hope. The kind of hope that befits a serious people. Not next week’s lottery drawing, not this week’s singles’ mixer. Instead, a challenging hope worth crossing a desert for, the kind of hope bequeathed us from time immemorial.

It is not yet midnight; there is still time to stand with Israel, neither cringing nor cheering but listening, talking, thinking, truthing.

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