How Israel Went From Beacon of Hope to ‘Normal’ Outpost of Reaction
The literature on Jewish self-hate is vast; not so the literature on Jewish self-love.
Max Weber once proposed that oppressed peoples develop a “theodicy of disprivilege,” a way of explaining to themselves (and compensating for) their persecution, and that the most common such theodicies rely on the assertion by the oppressed of their superior moral virtue. After all, the others hate unreasonably, while we, the innocent, harm no one.
The sense of moral advantage was and remains to this day a prominent aspect of Jewish self-understanding, but it peaked back in 1967, when, on the eve of the Six Day War, all the world saw embattled Israel as Good and bellicose Egypt and Syria as Evil. Since then, we’ve learned – reluctantly – that the fact of Jewishness does not provide immunity against either folly or felony. We’ve learned, reluctantly, that power does indeed tend to corrupt, a lesson our earlier impotence had blocked us from knowing up close.
What has Israel meant to America’s Jews? It has revolutionized our sense of Jewish possibility. We can, after all, be soldiers and farmers, we can be hustlers and hard-hats, we can, for better and for worse, be “normal.” Once, we yearned for the day when there would be in (then) Palestine a Jewish jail, with a Jewish guard on the outside and a Jewish prisoner on the inside. At the same time, however, we yearned for a Zion that would be a light unto the nations.
We wanted normalcy, and we also wanted exceptionalism.
For a while, exceptionalism seemed victorious: The immigrants were absorbed, and the deserts did bloom, and the citizen-soldiers acted with noteworthy restraint.
Now, normalcy is in the ascendant. Consumerism is in the center ring, bracketed on the one side by messianic fundamentalism (religious and national) and on the other, nearly in the shadows, by a secular messianism that seems increasingly a charming anachronism.
For America’s Jews, it is easier to live with the earlier myths, rich resources of vicarious pride. We prefer not to know the whole truth, and when the knowledge is unavoidable, we blame its messengers and do our best to dissemble, in no small measure because we fear the enemies of the Jews may otherwise overhear. Even in our internal conversations, we are less than candid.
The most grievous consequence is the discrepancy between the Israel we celebrate and the Israel our own children observe. Where now? We grow apart. Here, religion – Judaism – along with a vague sense of Jewish peoplehood make a mess of pottage. And there? There Judaism suffers from all the distortions to which an empowered state religion is vulnerable. In the end, our Judaism bears little resemblance to Israel’s.
During the brief time when peace seemed imminent, we wondered how we might adjust to life without crisis, to an Israel free from peril. Now that the prospect of peace seems at best uncertain, we wonder how to adjust to an Israel whose crisis is in significant measure of its own manufacture. [I have in mind especially the Occupation, but also the accelerating right-wing trajectory of the State.]
But peace or no peace, we shall have to enrich the sense of peoplehood, of a shared Jewish culture, if the connection is to endure. Failing that, there is little ground for intimacy. And that enrichment is a challenge both to us and to them. They are Israelis; we are Americans. And where and how being Jewish blends with those categories is, so far, a question that has only meager answers.
In the meantime, there remain politicians to persuade and enemies to rebut. As problematic as the relationship may be, the terrorist threats are real, as are the daily calumnies hurled at Israel, calumnies that lack all sense of proportion. Whatever our private agonies, our memories will not permit us to relax our vigilance.
While Netanyahu is plainly wrong when he claims it is today 1938 again – a trope he seems lately to have dropped – and not every crisis Israel confronts is an existential crisis, as too many of Israel’s leaders believe or find it useful to claim, while Israel is hardly a nation “abandoned, alone,” the ongoing assault on Israel’s very legitimacy is rankling and, at the margins, even dangerous.
Some day, we shall have to contemplate the ironies, the ambiguities, the contradictions; just now, the flames are still smoldering, and they override our confusions. Some day, we shall have to develop a new and more apposite theory of the Israel-Diaspora connection.
That day is coming, but our fears, both the real and the post-traumatic (and yes, also the manipulated) delay it.