Thursday, October 22, 2009

Goldberg: The Last Word (At Least From Me)


A couple of days ago, Jeffrey Goldberg explained why he was disinclined to associate with J Street, in spite of his sympathy for a two-state solution:

So I'm comfortable in many ways with J Street's basic worldview. On the other hand, I don't think the group has put forward a well-articulated vision of what a progressive Jewish democratic Israel should look like. This might be because, in addition to having progressive Zionists as members, it also has anti-Zionists (these are the types who are happy with Stephen Walt's tragic endorsement of the group) and it's obviously very hard to put forward a positive vision of a Jewish Israel when some of your important supporters -- Bernard Avishai comes to mind -- don't even believe in the idea of a Jewish state.

Now Goldberg denies that "anti-Zionists" like myself are actually keeping him away from J Street's conference. We would know this, presumably, if we had read a different one-line blog post, in which he says, with obvious sarcasm, "I'm sorry I'm going to miss this conference" (which, in context, if you follow his link, reads like "I'm sorry I'm going to miss this circus"). Then, en passant, Goldberg explains his evidence for my "anti-Zionism."

On the more important question of Zionism and anti-Zionism, all I think I need to say is this: Avishai, the author of a book called "The Tragedy of Zionism," believes that Israel's Law of Return should be repealed. This is the law that grants Jews anywhere in the world to claim citizenship in the newly-reconstituted Jewish state, which was meant to be a refuge for persecuted Jews. The law is the raison d'etre of Zionism, and of Israel's existence. I don't think I was being "vicious" in pointing out that Avishai's conception of what Israel should be is very different from the mainstream Zionist position. By the way, J Street's position, as officially enunciated by its head flack to me, is that the group's core mission is to preserve Israel as a "Jewish democracy." Though maybe I should ask J Street if it believes the Law of Return as currently written and implemented is undemocratic.

This is unworthy of Goldberg's talents. It would also be unworthy of our time if Goldberg were not a well-regarded journalist, burying those talents under cozy prejudices that are shared widely among decent American Jews; people who do not have the time Goldberg has to get things right or think things through; people who look to Goldberg to give them direction.

1. Yes, I wrote a book called the Tragedy of Zionism in 1985. William Appleman Williams wrote a book called the Tragedy of American Diplomacy. This did not mean he was opposed to American diplomacy. Tragedy does not mean catastrophe except, perhaps, to tyro reporters covering car accidents on the local news ("This is Shannon Williams reporting from the scene of the tragedy.") Tragedy means we cannot fully undertand the implications of our actions.

The Tragedy of Zionism argued that the Zionist revolution put up a kind of scaffolding in the Palestinian Yishuv, institutions that made great sense in their day, but which were never taken down when the state was organized. In effect, Israel has continued for the past 60 years as two Jewish states: a democratic, Hebrew-speaking civil society (the real triumph of historic Zionism), and, encased by this "Hebrew republic," an heroic settler-state that, covering itself in neo-Zionist rhetoric, gives material privileges to certified Jews, and requires an official rabbinate to certify them.

I argued that this embedded settler state threatens the coherence of Israeli democracy and, thus, the survival of Israel, given the understandable alienation felt by Israel's one-fifth Arab minority. Tragedy, you see, does not come from doing the wrong thing but the right thing too long. I won't say more about this here; readers of my blog posts surely know the arguments by now.

2. Since Goldberg brought this up, let's look at the Law of Return in this context, a perfect example of an institution that fit its day and is now both unnecessary and inflammatory.

Let me be clear: it makes sense for Israel to have an immigration law that gives (what Canada calls) "landed immigrant" status to anyone who can show that he is a refugee from anti-Semitism; or even give preference to someone who can explain to an immigration officer why he reasonably counts himself a member of the historic Jewish people. All western democracies have had messy criteria like this (i.e., claims about persecution, quotas based on ethnicity). The point is, they also then have a process of naturalization, so that citizenship is granted only after immigrants learn the language and culture and civil laws of the country.

The Law of Return, which grants immediate citizenship to anyone who can prove to a rabbi that he is Jewish according to Halacha, or has a one Jewish grandparent (i.e., anyone Hitler would have called "Jewish"), precludes the idea that citizenship requires naturalization: that Israeli identity is something that can be learned, acquired. It makes a nonsense of the idea that Arabs or any other minority can be Israeli. Leave Brookline, get on a plane, poof, citizen.

This law, in other words, makes the idea of an inclusive Israeli nationality (a patently Jewish nationality, that might assimilate others) impossible. Goldberg says he cannot see "a well-articulated vision of what a progressive Jewish democratic Israel should look like." He might if he opened is eyes to precisely what I'm talking about; to standards that are second nature to people all over the Western world. Why not simply bring Israel up to code? The notion that the Law of Return is "the raison d'etre of Zionism, and of Israel's existence" is so much bond-dinner blather. The law made sense for a revolutionary time of ingathering. It makes no sense for a multi-cultural, global Hebrew (that is, Jewish national) democracy.

3. Which brings me to Goldberg's last dig: that my views are "very different from the mainstream Zionist position." Since I have chosen to live mostly in Jerusalem, I am not sure what mainstream position I have to belong to, well, belong. I consider myself a cultural Zionist in the tradition of Achad Haam, Weizmann, and Ben-Gurion; I think everything was worth it just to get Yehuda Amichai's poetry. Anyway, some rightist jurists, like Ruth Gavison, have problems much like I do with the Law of Return, as Ben-Gurion had problems with the persistence of all Zionist institutions after the movement so obviously succeeded in achieving its goals.

Yet the sheer superficiality of Goldberg's dig does not render it harmless. Israel's future is not unchallenged and its citizens are not without real enemies. To call people anti-Zionist in this context is a way of announcing they are traitors to living, struggling fellow citizens, in my case, students and friends I love. It is like calling someone unpatriotic or anti-American.

Back when I published The Tragedy of Zionism, the guardian of the mainstream du jour, The New Republic, reviewed the book and put on its cover, "Jew Against Zion"--in consequence of which I was subject to a blackballing in Jewish organizations (and most mainstream media) of the kind alleged "Reds" had been subject to a generation before. It was shameful for the magazine's editors to have engaged in this kind of thing then. It is shameful for Goldberg to engage in it now.