The Counterlife

My new column is up on the Daily Beast. I am now ensconced at Dartmouth for the Spring quarter and will  be blogging more regularly.
In 1985, I published a book called The Tragedy of Zionism. It argued that the Zionist movement had been a good, largely secular and cultural revolution that had run its course, that is, with the founding of Israel and the consolidation of the national Hebrew culture; but that the residual institutions and theories of that revolution—rashly kept alive by Israel’s leaders, who feared the fight with the orthodox Jewish parties over a constitution—had grown to be a burden on, even a threat to, Israel’s democratic life.

I argued that it was this unretired Zionist revolution—embodied in the Zionist land bureaucracy: the JNF, the Israel Land Administration, the Jewish Agency, etc.—that set the table for the post-1967 settlement movement. The Israel I had discovered, in other words, was not simply a valiant little country whose Labor leaders had (heroically) stumbled into an occupation post-1967 and, owing to Palestinian enmity, didn’t know how to get rid of it. It was also a country whose Labor leaders, post-1948, had laid a neo-Zionist trap for their own democracy.

Communities of scripture hawks, ultra-orthodox and immigrants with no deep commitment to democratic norms were overtaking the Zionist modernists I had taken for granted. The West Bank settlements, growing in the 1980s to 100,000 people, were the most dramatic proof of Israel’s democratic deficiencies. But so was its treatment of Israeli Arabs, or more precisely the absence in Israel of the kind of liberal social contract that allowed all citizens, Jews and Arabs, to meet as equals in Hebrew civil society.

The book caused something of scandal, for which I was not entirely prepared. I was a young, reasonably well-published writer, the kind invited to address the national conference of Hillel rabbis in 1981. I thought I would be protected by historical precision, reputation, syllogism and sincerity. More important, I assumed that, because democratic norms were an essential part of what made Jews Americans, they would (so a young writer hopes) read my book, rally to Israel’s liberal, emancipationist peaceniks, and oppose Israel’s Likudniks, halakhic extremists and settler-nuts, in that order. Things did not work out as planned.

Read on...