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Israel Turns 60, Media Reacts Predictably

The 60th anniversary of Israel's founding has given rise to a vast tranche of American journalism about the occasion, all following one of two tropes: Can Israel Survive? and Let's use the anniversary to settle old scores! The archetype of … Read More

By / May 16, 2008

The 60th anniversary of Israel's founding has given rise to a vast tranche of American journalism about the occasion, all following one of two tropes: Can Israel Survive? and Let's use the anniversary to settle old scores!

The archetype of the former genre is without question Jeffrey Goldberg's recent Atlantic cover story, in which Goldberg ties the old question — 60 years old, in fact — of Israeli survival to current Israeli political and cultural fissures, and to stark demographic realities, which he suggests are mutually reinforcing.

On the one hand, if present demographic conditions continue, Jews will make up less than half of the population "between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea" by 2020, which means it's simply a matter of time before it becomes unintelligible to speak of a Jewish State. On the other hand, the Zionists' profound success in creating and defending Israel, the vast shift in opinion (at least in the west) away from antisemitism, and the quiet but precipitous Jewish overthrow of WASPs as the dominant force in the American economy and society — all these cry out for a reevaluation of the merits of Zionism and its relevance to the contemporary world.

Left-wing Zionists are caught up in a fairly shallow and ahistorical effort to recast Zionism as some kind of shiny, impotent hybrid of Mandela-ism and tikkun olam, while right-wing Zionists pretend to relevance through fantasy stories about the possibility of a Holocaust in the US (as Ehud Olmert did in interview with Goldberg) and the occasional bloodletting of the nearby Arab population.

Goldberg has no sanguine proposal for how to navigate between those unappealing poles, only the wisdom of Benny Morris, the most profoundly Israeli Jew in history, to share: "We are tired of being courageous, we are tired of winning, we are tired of defeating our enemies. We want that we will be able to live in an entirely different environment of relations with our enemies." Which might, in the end, mean that the Israelis are tired of Israel.

Christopher Hitchens gives explicit voice to the dour conclusion Goldberg keeps implicit: It confounds imagination to think "that a Jewish state in Palestine will still be in existence a hundred years from now. A state for Jews, possibly." Hitchens comes at the problem as an erstwhile pamphleteer for the Palestinian cause who found out late in life that he is, under the Law of Return and the Nuremberg Laws, a Jew. More recently still, he's moderated his views on the Israel-Palestine question (but remains a self-described "non-Zionist.") A more urgent question of Israeli identity, he argues, is "whether…Israel should be defended as if it were a part of the democratic West…to which Israelis themselves have not yet returned a completely convincing answer."

Moving from tragedy to farce, other Israel-at-sixty articles trot out barely reheated ancient talking points. Leading the pack here is Charles Krauthammer, whose Washington Post column today commences with a trumpet blast about "the return and restoration of the remaining two tribes of Israel — Judah and Benjamin, later known as the Jews — to their ancient homeland." Is it too much to ask that a Likud cheerleader get basic facts of Israelite history right?

There is scant purpose to Krauthammer's piece apart from bashing Palestinians. Sure enough, after reciting an alternate world history in which the dispossession of the Palestinians was solely the consequence of their rejectionism in 1948, without the slightest assist from the seraphic Israelis — do consult with Benny Morris on that one, Charles — we get to the crux: "One constantly hears about the disabling complexity of the Arab-Israeli dispute. Complex it is, but the root cause is not."

That's wrong, not to mention completely backwards. The root cause is exceedingly complex, thanks in part to the obfuscatory efforts of Krauthammer and his ilk (he has a surfeit of counterparts on the Palestinian side to be sure). Whereas the dispute, or at the very least, the nature of the only possible resolution, is simple as can be: Either a two-state solution, or the indefinite perpetuation of the status quo until Israel quietly ceases to exist.

For the sake of bipartisanship, let's take a look, lastly, at The Nation's commemoration of the occasion, consisting in a pair of articles by Oxford professor Avi Shlaim and Ben Gurion U. professor Neve Gordon (a piece by erstwhile Barack Obama acquaintance Rashid Khalidi, "Palestine: Liberation Deferred," completes the troika).

Shlaim's piece, a funhouse mirror inversion of Krauthammer's, begins with a stirring appreciation of the flawed but flourishing Israel that really exists, as opposed to the concoction of fantasists. It proceeds the the well-known but always worth repeating point that "[t]o its credit, the Israeli public has never been as implacably opposed to an independent Palestinian state as the politicians of the right."

But Shlaim gets carried away reveling in self-criticism, and succumbs to an equal and opposite departure from reality versus his opponents on the right. "The Palestinians learned from their own mistakes," he writes, "they put rejectionism behind them, moderated their program and opted for a two-state solution." Really? It's that simple? If for no other reason than they'll need to if they want to make the peace process saleable to the Israeli public, leftist Zionists really ought to come to grips with the fact that it's not social inequality, but people — specifically, Palestinian people — on the giving end of those Kassam and Katyusha rockets, and those people have a religious and political agenda. Firing rockets isn't just the sublimated expression of their desire for self-determination; they will ratchet up the violence the closer they get to self-determination.

Gordon, on the other hand, offers up an unintentional classic of saccharine flower power Zionism. Did you know that Zionism is really a universal humanism for the whole world? And that its core value isn't anything religious, but social justice? This, apparently, is what happens when the folk-guitar-playing kids at summer camp grow up. Still, though Krauthammer and Gordon's visions of Israel and Zionism are deeply unappealing in countlessly many incommensurate ways, I can't help but think that the world would be a better place if Gordon's ideas had the purchase that Krauthammer's actually do, and vice versa.

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