Israel’s zero-sum game for the diaspora

By Keith Kahn-Harris, March 23, 2014
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Anyone who has ever written a non-fiction book on a contemporary issue knows the feeling: the cold fear that events will overtake what they write. Writers on anything connected to contemporary Israel suffer from this more than most. So febrile is the situation that there is always a danger that with some kind of unforeseeable event — a terrorist attack, a war, a peace deal even — the game will suddenly change.

I’m going through this — undeniably selfish — anxiety at the moment. The publication of my book, Uncivil War: The Israel Conflict in the Jewish Community, coincides with the final stages of John Kerry’s attempts to create a new framework for a peace deal. It’s not inconceivable that, before the end of 2014, we could be entering a new phase in the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

The argument of my book is that since 2000, diaspora Jewish communities have become increasingly divided over how to relate to Israel. A host of new Jewish positions on Israel have emerged, some of them highly critical of Israel and even of Zionism itself. Divisions have led to conflict and I argue that it is vital to develop a more civil Jewish community conversation on Israel, based on dialogue and a recognition that divisions are not going to go away.

While my book is principally concerned with the diaspora, the situation cannot be divorced from events in Israel itself. So the question is: how might future events (such as the announcement of the Kerry plan) change this situation? Might developments in Israel make my book instantly irrelevant?

In considering such questions, I have been struck by one of the defining features of contemporary Israel: it is unfinished. Not only are its borders not definitively fixed, it has no written constitution and crucial questions, including the relationship between Israel’s Jewish and democratic commitments, remain contested.

From the earliest days of Zionism, its ideologues emphasised that the movement is concerned with building not just a state, but a new kind of culture and a new kind of Jew. Independence in 1948 wasn’t an end point, but another beginning in a constantly unfolding process. All Zionisms share this commitment to building, to transformation.

It is this transformative quality that has given Zionism its dynamism and drive. But if Israel were ever to
be “finished” — what then? Could Zionism even exist in a state whose character was settled and fixed?

A completed Israel also threatens some of the key pragmatic strategies that Israel has come to rely on to ensure its survival. Israeli governments have used ambiguity as a way of ensuring both tacit and explicit toleration within the international community for some of its actions. Its ambiguous stance on nuclear weapons has allowed it to develop a nuclear arsenal without embarrassing its allies. Its ambiguous borders and the ambiguous status of the Occupied Territories have allowed it to build settlements while providing a degree of reassurance to its allies that Israel is open to the idea of withdrawal to the 1967 lines.

This leveraging of Israel’s unfinished status is widely recognised internationally — a source of awe from its supporters, frustration from its critical friends and anger from its enemies. What is less recognised is that these pragmatic strategies also serve a function within Israel itself and within the wider Jewish people.
Israeli society contains wildly different visions of what Israel should be; from Orthodox Jewish supporters of a theocratic greater Israel, to Arab/Palestinian and secular Jewish supporters of a “state for all its citizens”, and all points in between. One of Israel’s most remarkable achievements is that it has so far managed to contain the resulting conflicts, allowing Israel to survive and thrive economically without violent civil war or fractious stalemate.

At the present time, a diverse range of outcomes is still on the table. For those who yearn for Israel unilaterally to annex all or a substantial part of the territories, the possibility is still alive. For those who yearn for Israel to make a peace deal with the Palestinians based on a complete or near-complete withdrawal to the 1967 lines, the possibility is still alive. To be sure, other possibilities, including the creation of a binational state or, conversely, the “transfer”of Palestinians, are less likely, but Israel’s incompleteness still encourages those who hope for these endgames.

No vision of the future is yet completely off the table in Israel. It encourages those who might withdraw into total alienation or even violent opposition to stay in the game. And the same is true in diaspora Jewish communities. The plurality of Jewish positions on Israel that have emerged since 2000 are predicated on the hope that there is something to play for.

But what happens when some options are permanently taken off the table? What happens when Israel is complete, its borders drawn, its ideological direction set? This end point, or at least the beginning of this end point, is within sight. A consensus is emerging, among the leadership of most Western countries at least, that Israel is approaching decision time (as, of course, are the Palestinians). Either a two-state solution emerges soon, or it will never emerge. Either Israel withdraws from at least a substantial part of the territories, evacuating at least some settlements, or there will be no chance of a viable Palestinian state.

To be clear: I am not making any judgments or predictions about what is the most desirable or likely outcome. Nor am I making judgments about the responsibilities or likely actions of the Palestinian half of the peace equation. Whatever happens in the next few months and years, Israel is reaching the point where fundamental and irrevocable decisions will be made. That will mean the permanent disappointment of some sections of Israeli society and of some sections of diaspora communities.

As someone who is committed to the British Jewish community, I am deeply concerned about the community’s capacity to deal with the possible developments that could lie ahead. There are many conceivable scenarios; here I will discuss just one.

Over the last few years, a sizeable section of diaspora Zionist opinion has emerged that is opposed to the settlements and desires an Israeli withdrawal from all or the vast majority of the West Bank, together with a shared Jerusalem. The most vocal of this section of opinion feels that diaspora Jews have the right and the duty to publicly pressure Israel in this direction. Yachad in the UK and J Street in the US represent the most vocal supporters of this position. A strong sense of urgency motivates these self-defined “pro-Israel pro-peace” Zionists, a sense that Israel has to withdraw as soon as possible to the Green Line, before it is too late.

But what happens if their vision becomes impossible to achieve? What if Israel annexes all or a significant part of the settlements, without a peace agreement with the Palestinians? Where do supporters of Yachad and J Street go then?
A lot, of course, will depend on circumstances and whom they blame. If at least some of this constituency put primary or even partial responsibility for the failure of their vision onto Israel, they will face some very painful choices. How will they balance their Zionism with an Israel they may find hard to reconcile themselves to?

It may be that, in this scenario at least, that we might see a new diaspora Jewish position on Israel: one that is neither Zionist or anti-Zionist— perhaps “ex-Zionist”, or “disappointed Zionist” — based on a quest for a new kind of vision for an Israel where the Green Line no longer has any relevance, while still upholding that Zionist was once a valid ideology. How will supporters of this new position relate to the Jewish community and those who still see themselves as Zionists and supporters of Israel?

If Jewish communities in the diaspora are to remain viable and sustainable, they need to be resilient enough to cope with the fallout of any kind of development in Israel. One of the reasons that the post-2000 Israel conflict in the Jewish community has been so difficult for many to cope with is that diaspora Jews have generally reacted to developments in Israel after the fact.

It may well be that in the short or medium term events in Israel make my analysis of the current situation in the Jewish community out of date. My hope, though, is that the practices I suggest to help us cope with the fallout of the Israel conflict in the Jewish community— in particular, a commitment to civility and dialogue — may be robust enough to cope with a range of possible developments.

Dr Keith Kahn-Harris is a sociologist and writer. Uncivil War: The Israel Conflict in the Jewish Community is published by David Paul Books

Last updated: 3:45pm, March 23 2014