Israel is not a merely modern state
Jewish statehood is an unbroken, centuries-old narrative
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In most minds, the state of Israel is twinned with the Holocaust, the former having risen from the latter like the desert bird winging away from the fiery wreckage. It determines how everyone sees the conflict and how the Jewish state itself is seen: as an accident of history, a temporary redoubt, a hedge against future disaster.
But, like many popular notions, this one is wrong. It reduces an ancient, varied history, which can be read in as many ways as a good book can be read, to a single plot: the Holocaust and its aftermath, in which the Jews are compensated for their suffering with Arab land. The Jewish nation becomes a pay-off, justified by an event, which its enemies increasingly deny.
Not that this denying is anything but evil and insane, but why should Israelis let their legitimacy be tied to the memories of people who hate them? That’s what I always disliked about the phrase “Never Forget” — people do forget, sometimes intentionally. So what happens when a current event becomes history and the last survivor dies? Ahmadinejad questions the Holocaust because he knows if you change the past, you change the future.
Those who care about Israel should therefore re-frame the story, recalling and reviving a narrative understood by Theodor Herzl, the father of modern Zionism, but washed away in the great flood of European wars. Zionism, which, simply put, is the Jewish desire to build a new nation in the holy land, is older than England, or France, or Mohammed (who questions the legitimacy of France?). Herzl came not as a break in this history, nor merely as a champion of modern ideas, but as the last in a long line of leaders who, in each generation, called on Jews to get thee back and rebuild.
From this perspective, Israel can be seen as it is: not as an outgrowth of the Holocaust — thus uniquely embattled — but as the culmination of a story that began a generation after Jesus preached on the mount.
Why did the world have to wait so long for political Zionism? Why, after one of the many massacres, forced conversions, or pogroms didn’t the Jews just pick up and go back? Well, the fact is, despite all obstacles, they did try to go back. They never stopped trying. As much as anything else, this is what preserved the people as a people. (In the Decline and Fall, Gibbon calls it a defining characteristic, the “desire of rebuilding the Temple [that] has, in every age, been the ruling passion of the children of Israel.”)
The history of Zionism is, in other words, neither an aberration nor a tangent — it is an unbroken trail that begins in the ruins of the Temple and runs without a break into our own day, when it appears as Binyamin Netanyahu shaking a fist before the Knesset. The Holocaust demonstrated the need of the nation, and increased its urgency, but beneath that tragedy was always the older story, which can never be expunged or denied, for it is the DNA of the people.
Understanding the Jewish connection to the land is a key to resolving the modern conflict. Only when the Muslim world accepts the Jewish past will they recognise the futility of Plan A (destruction of Israel) and the necessity of Plan B (two states). The Israelis are not the Crusaders — the state is going nowhere.
As for Jews, knowledge of the past will help them believe in the permanence of their nation. To some extent, Israeli policy and its excesses grow out of a fear that mirrors the Arab hope: that the Jewish state has no roots, thus no future. This is why every war seems like the last war, every threat feels existential. Israelis, at some level, do not have faith in their own survival.
None of which is meant to minimise the very real threats faced by the nation, but if Israel is able to free itself of the recent past and attach itself to the distant past, Jews will be able to look across their borders with a greater confidence in their future and take the risks they must take to achieve peace.
Rich Cohen’s book ‘Israel Is Real’ is published by Jonathan Cape at £15.99