A few moral truths that define our nationhood

By A B Yehoshua, April 18, 2008
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The acclaimed novelist demolishes the claims of Israel's detractors in his call for two states

Sixty is not generally considered a number of symbolic distinction or festive significance. Even so, on this sixtieth anniversary of the creation of the State of Israel, various events have been scheduled around the world, by Jews and non-Jews alike, to celebrate this birthday. Why is this so? It sometimes seems to me that because Israel is the young state of an old nation, it is treated as a child but also as someone elderly. In order to strengthen this complicated personality, much attention is devoted to the celebration of its birthdays, so that the honoree will feel still loved by others despite all its problems.

Indeed, the special attention lavished upon Israel as it reaches the age of 60 is quite significant. Ten years ago, on Israel’s fiftieth anniversary in 1998, following the path-breaking Oslo Accords, there was a general feeling that this longstanding conflict was at last becoming resolved. The general feeling about the future was positive.

And yet, unfortunately, during the past 10 years there have been painful setbacks. Such instances of regression carry a special sort of sadness. Individuals and peoples are capable of enduring difficulties for a long while if there is a sense that the future will be better, but when, in the midst of a process of rehabilitation, there is a sudden backward regression, despair can set in. This is the pain we have experienced over the last 10 years, and continue to feel today.

During the 1948 War of Independence, the newborn Jewish State literally fought for its life, and its destruction was a distinct possibility. In the Six-Day War as well, the danger to Israel’s very existence was real, and nevertheless, it seems to me, that there were no Israelis who then said aloud the distressing words I sometimes hear today: “The State of Israel could turn out to be just an episode in Jewish history.”

Why is it that political struggles more complex and difficult than the Israel-Arab conflict— the problem of apartheid in South Africa, for example, or the collapse of the former Soviet Union — all seem in the end to have been resolved, whereas with us in the Middle East the conflict claims more victims every day? What is it about this dispute that refuses to be resolved, despite the fact that the solution seems clear?

I think that some of the perennial problems of this conflict derive from its unique nature. This is a conflict unparalleled in human history. To the best of my knowledge, there is no other example of a nation that returned after a 2,000-year absence to a territory which for all that time it had regarded as its homeland. At the beginning of the twentieth century, less than one per cent of the Jewish people lived in the Land of Israel. Now, the number of Jews living in Israel amounts to nearly half of the Jewish people in the world. However, we must understand that this historical event is also unique for the Palestinians and the whole Arab world. The Jews themselves did not really anticipate that such a return to their ancient homeland would be possible. The idea remained a religious, half-messianic dream. And then, suddenly, this return took place, and the Jews themselves are still amazed that it came to pass. It is therefore no wonder that the Arabs too, and especially the Palestinians, are still unable to
comprehend, existentially or morally, what has befallen them.

There are conflicts between neighbouring states over territory, and there are colonial conquests in which powers conquer territories to exploit their resources. There are also conquests where people come to a foreign territory to create a new identity by settling an unknown land.

But the return of the Jews to the Land of Israel does not resemble any of these cases. Not only did the Jews not have a mother country, but in Europe they lived as a foreign nation, and this alien status led to expulsion and annihilation. The Jews did not come to exploit the resources of Palestine or to subjugate its residents. Nor did the Jews come in order to build a new identity and assimilate the local natives into it.

Zionism aimed to renew and deepen an old identity, to turn the partial Jew, who lived a life that was not wholly his own, into a Jew responsible for all elements of his surroundings. There was no intention to damage the identity of the Arabs, or to merge it with the renewed Jewish identity. The Jews came to their historic homeland and made it known to the residents: your land is actually our land, the places where you live were once ours, and we are adding the original place-names to the names of your cities and towns. We have not come to exploit you, we have not come to conquer you, we have not come to expel you, and we have not come to absorb you, but rather we have merely come to replace your reality with a completely different narrative.

It is therefore understandable that the Arabs were shocked and infuriated. This is all the more the case since, for centuries, they had regarded the Jews, as had much of the world, simply as people with a different religion, but not a distinct nationality. And so, the Arabs tried to interpret Zionism as ordinary colonialism, and thought that it would be possible to fight it the way that other nations had — which explains the enduring weakness of their struggle.

Thus the very legitimacy of the State of Israel’s right to exist remains an open question to this very day. Never before has the question of
legitimacy been so fundamental to the conflict between nations. In many cases, the question of Israel’s legitimacy is not even tied to any real territorial, religious, or ideological conflict. Iran never had any territorial or military conflict with Israel. In the early days of the State of Israel’s existence, the two countries enjoyed good relations. But for almost 30 years, Iran has been at the forefront of those who deny the legitimacy of Israel, and indeed threatens to destroy it.

Even when the Egyptian president Anwar Sadat came to Jerusalem to initiate a peace treaty with Israel, he did not base his visit upon the recognition of Israel’s legitimacy, but rather on the fact of its existence. He defined his peace initiative with a practical formulation: “Even if we were capable of destroying Israel, the world would not let us do so. And we have no chance of fighting against the whole world.”

Israel’s legitimacy was granted in the famous partition decision of the United Nations on November 29, 1947. This decision was not taken only out of a moral impulse to help the Jews rehabilitate themselves after the Holocaust, but also as a result of the postwar fear and panic felt by the Europeans, who saw that antisemitism was a threat to their own existence. The pathological interaction between the non-Jew and the Jew can bring disaster upon the murderer as well. When one reads the biographies of Hitler and sees how insanely fixated he was in his Jew-hatred, leading to the disastrous ruin of his own country, one understands that the compulsion exhibited by the nations of Europe to help the Jews derived also from a wish to help themselves. And now we see clearly that such pathological interactions continue to reverberate in other parts of the world, such as Iran, and endanger not only the Jews but those who hate them as well.

True, the countries that supported the decision of the United Nations did not ask the permission of the Arabs. This feeling of guilt on the world’s part toward the Palestinians is fundamentally, in my view, a moral and positive feeling, yet often it is not steered constructively into the proper channels. Instead of providing serious help to the Palestinians in establishing their own state, securing its existence and economic success, and also preventing Israel from encroaching on Palestinian territory, the generous humanitarian aid has led only to chronic dependency rather than the development of durable sovereignty.

And yet, the original refusal to recognise the legitimacy of Israel has undergone changes over the years, and there have been positive developments. There is the recognition that Jewishness is not just a religious identity but first and foremost a national identity. The Jews began their historical journey as Am Yisrael, the Jewish people, which preceded the Torah. The Jewish religion is not a necessary condition for Jewish national identity, but only an important cultural component.

And although recognition of Israeli nationality is increasingly widespread, this recognition is still obstructed by two dangerous notions which threaten peace and reconciliation. The first is connected with the rejection of the legitimacy of Zionism. And the second has to do with the growing tendency among the Palestinians, in the Arab world, and no small number of Europeans as well, to prefer a one-state solution.

The concept of Zionism has become the focus of the attacks on Israel. Hamas spokesmen speak not of “Israelis” but of “Zionists”. Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier they have been holding captive for nearly two years, is referred to by Hamas as “the Zionist soldier”. Sheikh Nasrallah, leader of Hizbollah, continues to speak of us not as Israelis and not as Jews, but as “Zionists”. So too the President of Iran. Discussion about the “de-Zionisation” of the State of Israel may also be heard in intellectual circles and even among some Jewish leftists. In Israel there are some people who call themselves post- or non-Zionist. Since, after the Holocaust, there is great sensitivity about any talk of harming the Jews, and antisemitism is considered a criminal offence, opposition to Jews or Israel has sometimes been replaced with the denunciation of Zionism.

The Zionist movement was established to found a Jewish state in the Land of Israel, open to any Jew who wished to become a citizen. This is Zionism, full-stop. Within the Jewish people there are differing ideologies, different perceptions, and various notions of national mission or goals. All the plans, the dreams, the intentions, and also the policies adopted in the course of the state’s existence have nothing to do with Zionism. They are similar to the challenges that face every nation in the world. Zionism has to do only with establishing a Jewish state, and anyone who supports the principle that this state should be open to any Jew who wants to become a citizen, is a Zionist. Anyone who opposes this is not a Zionist — and yet may still be a loyal citizen.

The sole practical expression of Zionism today is the Law of Return. It is not a racist law; it is a moral law. For when the nations of the world decided in favour of the founding of a Jewish state, they intended that this would enable every Jew who wished to live in an independent Jewish state to do so. And it may also be said that after a Palestinian state is established, it will also have a Law of Return. The same way that this would be a just law for the Palestinians, it is a proper law for the Jewish state as well.

This is Zionism, full stop. And what is important to this definition is that full stop at the end. Anyone who wants to criticise Israel should do so on the same terms and with the same tools that he would criticise any other country. This is why in many cases the fierce opposition to Zionism may be interpreted as opposition to the very existence of the State of Israel, and not to any particular policy of the Israeli government.

The second obstacle to peace is an idea calling for the establishment of a bi-national Israel-Palestinian state. On paper, this may seem alluring, but in reality it is a recipe for perpetuating the conflict indefinitely.

Because the land called both Israel and Palestine is the homeland of both peoples, say the devotees of the bi-national state, and because these two peoples are entwined with one another — given the existence of an Arab minority that amounts to some twenty per cent of the population of Israel, and given all the settlements scattered throughout the West Bank — it is better to combine them than to separate them.

Embedded here is the dangerous illusion that it is indeed possible to combine in peace and harmony, in the framework of a single state, two peoples who are so different in their language, religion, culture, and history, two peoples divided by a deep economic chasm, two peoples connected to their own exterior worlds. These are two peoples who for the last century have been intensely engaged in a bloody and intractable conflict. In Europe, we see how people close to one another in religion, culture, and history, are today splitting into different states — the Czechs and the Slovaks, or the peoples of Yugoslavia or the former Soviet Union. How can one imagine the Palestinians and Israelis setting up a joint framework that would not rapidly turn into apartheid or a state of incessant infighting, where half the parliament would be composed of Israelis and the other half of Palestinians, and every issue would be decided on the basis of national preference and not on its merits?

Both the Palestinians and the Israelis as two different nations deserve their own states. There must be a clear border with crossing points. In Israel, there is an Arab minority with full citizenship. It is very possible that in the Palestinian state there would also be a small Jewish minority, which would consist of those West Bank settlers who would be willing to live under Palestinian control — provided that the Palestinians would agree to grant them citizenship.

A separation wall between Israel and Palestine along the 1967 border would be the proper border wall, and not the problematic wall that today extends into Palestinian territory. This solution is the only way to achieve a peaceful life in the Middle East.

During the early years of Zionism, the great Jewish scholar Gershom Scholem said that the Jews were embarking on a difficult journey, a return to history. In other words, the Jews, who constructed their diaspora identity on the basis of mythological memory and time, were now returning to the clear-cut elements of identity bound up with a territory defined by borders, and a chronological understanding of their own history and that of the nations around them. For this reason, the United States, whose identity is built more upon myth than on a clear historical consciousness, did not succeed, for all its good will, to understand the problems of the Middle East, and therefore also did not succeed, despite all its efforts, to advance the cause of peace in the Middle East.

Translated from the Hebrew by Stuart Schoffman

    Last updated: 5:04pm, April 22 2008