Thinking Past Hitler: Israel and Diasporism

Occasionally I recall that had it not been for Hitler I quite probably would not exist. My parents might never have gotten together had they not been separate refugees from Nazi Germany (which killed my mother’s parents and almost all my father’s many aunts, uncles, and cousins). Of course, I’m far from alone in that doleful irony; many another descendent of refugees could feel something similar, and that’s not the end of it. Beyond all these personal histories, the basic counterfactual beginning “Without Adolf Hitler,” can lead us to wonder about far more: Without Hitler would we have had nuclear weapons, computers, jet planes, radar, space travel, superhighways, Volkswagen Beetles, the United Nations, European unification, the Cold War, or decolonization over much of the globe?[1] I certainly don’t decry my own existence, and, likewise, a presence on that long list doesn’t automatically imply anything negative.

I mention all this because there is another (however unintended) outcome of Hitler’s plans and actions, namely the State of Israel, along with its widespread recognition as the Jewish “Homeland.” In this case the connection is not only deep, but unavoidably dark.

 I.

The killing of Jews began on a small scale in 1933, as soon as the Nazis took power in Germany. It took on vast and gruesome proportions when World War II  began — with the invasion of Poland in September, 1939. Still, it was only in January, 1942, at the Wannsee Conference of Nazi leaders meeting near Berlin, that “The Final Solution to the Jewish Problem” —i.e., utter extermination of European Jews—became the official Nazi policy. The full horror became widely known to the rest of the world only with Germany’s surrender in 1945. In the years immediately after that, “The Final Solution” was a common, shocked way to refer to what later has come to be generally known as “the Holocaust” or “the Shoah.” It was in that barely post-War context, with many of the suffering survivors still regarded as displaced persons in need of a home, that the pre-existing Zionist movement attained enough international support and military strength for the new State of Israel to be born.[2]

In effect, the “Jewish Problem” enunciated by the Nazis and earlier anti-Semites was still on the table, with an echo of the notion of Final Solution still resonating. Only now the Final Solution was to be not annihilation but its presumed opposite—a permanently safe refuge for all Jews. Unlike the victims who supposedly went without resisting to their deaths in the concentration camps, Jewish supporters of the new state would take up arms to ensure its coming to be. Without Hitler, would the volunteer fighters, the influx of arms and the wide international support—including both U.S. President Truman and Soviet dictator Stalin—for Israel’s independence ever have coalesced? Would enough population to sustain the effort have shown up?

(It should not be forgotten that one reason support for Israel post war was so large was that it was a way of dealing with the guilt many in the world should have felt. They had clearly done too little to oppose Nazi persecution of Jews in the ’30s. They had been too reluctant to provide refuge for those who tried to flee. Among the guilty were Jewish leaders in the U.S. and elsewhere afraid to stick their necks out to argue for safety for their fellow Jews.)

Unlike the other consequences of Hitler’s actions, whether persons or institutions, Israel still keeps its conceptual ties to Hitler front and center. Though not in those actual words, it continues to emphasize its relationship with The Final Solution and its own status as supposedly the Alternative Final Solution to the same problem.[3] Referring to the Shoah, the slogan “Never Again” has become permanently linked to the State of Israel. It is no accident that Yad Vashem is a prominent institution there, that German heads of state visit to show they are partially forgiven, the German aid still flows at least a bit. Pro-Israel organizations, often with strong ties to the state itself, sponsor “Birthright” tours for impressionable teenagers from abroad that combine Auschwitz and Israel in one package—exploiting the unspeakable suffering that occurred in the former to lend luster and righteousness to the latter. The  “Never Again” slogan helps justify Israel’s heavily armed and always watchful status because, as the “Jewish Homeland,” it supposedly must assure that Jews will forever be safe—as long as we go there.

The explicit language of problem and solution still resonates today in talk about a “two-state solution[4],” or, with even less realism, a “one-state” one.[5] In connection with Israel, then, there still lingers the idea of a “problem” that, like a piece of math homework, can be finally and perfectly solved. And Israel, in that outlook, is—or with minor changes will be—that perfect solution. If every state brought into being through nationalistic fervor contains a touch of utopian zeal about it, such utopianism is particularly strong— and strongly distorting—in the case of Israel. The more a promised future seems certain and grand to its believers—however wide of likelihood—the more acceptable to them any steps needed to keep faith with it, even cruel ones.

II.

 So Israel is a byproduct of the worst anti-Semitism of modern times. No surprise then that supporters of Israel, including members of its government, are very quick to allege the rise of anti-Semitism elsewhere in the world. They then posit “making aliya” to Israel as the only safe solution. Every case allows Israel’s claim as the unique Jewish homeland and thus the unique solution of the Jewish problem to be further reaffirmed. Without continued anti-Semitism, why Israel?

More directly troubling, it is undoubtedly true that much anti-Semitism since Israel’s founding—however irrational and unjustified it is—has been in response to Israel’s own actions. The most notable example happened early. The first Arab-Israeli war, as well as subsequent tensions between Israel and its neighbors, led to a heightening of such hatred throughout the Arab world. The Israeli answer to that was take in as many as possible of the affected populations. Jews who had resided, in some cases for millennia, in places such as Yemen or Iraq suddenly needed to be airlifted out. If the intention of Hitler’s Final Solution was to rid Europe of Jews, the birth of Israel extended the debacle to otherwise mostly untouched Jewish communities in the Mideast.

This “ingathering of the exiles” was superficially humanitarian and just. Jews throughout the world celebrated Israel yet again as the agent of preservation. But what of Jews who would have rather gone elsewhere? The world took it for granted that Israel was refuge enough. What of those who would have rather stayed in their ancestral homes? Israel was further strengthened at a cost to these ancient communities and at cost to the free movement of Jews.

Quite clearly, Israel was on its way to being what it still is, a seemingly permanent garrison state, and, as such, a state that needed—and needs— as much population as it could get. Still more steps were intended to assure this. A particularly despicable one involved Soviet Jews.  A wide international movement that cited their oppression and limited opportunities in the USSR had obtained concessions from Moscow. Starting in the early 1970s, the Kremlin reluctantly granted some Jews each year permission to use Israeli visas to leave via Vienna. There, however, the Austrian government (headed by the non-observant, non- Zionist Jew, Bruno Kreisky) insisted the refugees were free to go wherever they wanted. Year by year, an increasing percentage of them chose the U.S., Australia, or other destinations instead of Israel. The Israeli leadership quite simply wanted the extra bodies, both to help settle areas in the West Bank and to bolster defenses. They attempted to get American pro-Zionist organizations to lobby to deny the immigrants the refugee status they needed to come here. A number of U.S. Jewish leaders at first signed on eagerly, but in the end most refused. In the meantime, though, working with Presidents Reagan and George H. W. Bush, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and his Foreign Minister Shimon Peres got the U.S. to limit the number of spots for refugees. Then, further, the two worked to convince the Soviets under Gorbachev to release the refugees to Ceausescu’s Romania, where no freedom would be granted to them to fly anywhere but Israel.[6]

By constantly tying Israel’s claims of necessity and need for extreme self-defense to the Holocaust, Israeli propaganda certainly helps enlarge both Holocaust denial and calls to emulate Hitler among the near-lunatic fringe of non-Jewish ethnic nationalists. Though that is, one would hope, nowhere near the intent of the state’s propaganda, it is—certainly by now—a perfectly predictable outcome. Yet it is difficult to see how Israel would manage without continually invoking the Shoah and claiming, in effect, to be the anti-Shoah.

Altogether, by the dominating strain of Israel’s actions and claims, the very circumstances that permitted Jewish survival for millennia have been put in jeopardy—in fact, in double jeopardy.

III.

To recap, today’s supporters of Israel implicitly side with Hitler that there exists a serious problem which requires a complete solution. Hitler saw the solution as annihilation, which, if fully carried out, would almost surely have been final. Israel at the very least hopes the solution is itself as a state that can defend itself against all comers, in which Jews therefore shall always be safe, and which, moreover, is to be identified as the unique Jewish Homeland. There are at least two kinds of difficulties with this basic thought. First, quite simply, was there actually a problem at all?

The majority of the world’s Jews, despite Israel and despite Israel’s attempts to pull all of us in, probably still live in what is variously thought of as ”exile,” “galut,” or Diaspora. In fact, we have done so for roughly two-thousand-six-hundred years—well over a hundred generations.

If most Jews alive in any period ever actually lived “in the Holy Land,” it would have had to be in the distant and murky times before the conquest by Babylon. That was before the Torah was compiled, before the other historic and prophetic texts that make up the rest of Jewish Scripture (aka the Old Testament), before the two Talmuds and certainly before rabbinic Judaism. And it was likewise before much at all in the way of any culture we would today recognize as Jewish. Almost everything—except perhaps the Hebrew language—has emerged since.

After the Jewish captivity in Babylon had been broken, it appears that most Jews remained in Mesopotamia or went elsewhere rather than back to the little strip near the Mediterranean (which is not to deny that a sizable number did resettle there or had in fact never left). Those who strayed went south at least as far as what are now Yemen and Ethiopia, east to India and even China, west to Egypt and eventually to Rome, and then throughout the expanding Roman Empire, and of course, centuries later, far farther afield.

In total, Jewish life, Jewish culture, Jewish religious practices, all began, flourished, and have survived—through that nearly unfathomable duration—in Diaspora. Given that amazing stretch of history, being a Jew is virtually synonymous with being a “stranger in a strange land”, or at least being in the minority wherever one lives. True, that didn’t necessarily mean always being a tiny minority in the actual community in which one found oneself. There were Jewish nomadic tribes, shtetls, ghettos, Jewish-majority villages, Jewish-majority trades, Jewish-majority neighborhoods and so on. And, equally true, Diaspora life, though sometimes quite secure, often was not at all so. A variety of opportunists and ideologues can always rise up to seize upon any kind of relatively weak group, including Jews. In addition to much voluntary assimilation over the millennia—from motives of convenience, conviction or sheer indifference—Jews experienced second-class citizenship quite commonly, along with too frequent expulsions, forced conversions, inquisitions, mass murders, pogroms, other sorts of oppression, and indeed the Shoah itself.

Yet, through all this, the salient point—too often ignored—is that Jewish identity survived. Jews survived. Quite crucially, that is more than one can say for the vast majority of peoples who, two-and-a-half millennia ago or even much more recently, had definite homelands and were not dispersed. Most such peoples probably vanished without much trace, destroyed by conquest, by famine, disease, or in other ways. If they did survive, it was only with tremendous change. Think of the Babylonians themselves, the Etruscans, the Gauls, the Lydians, numerous peoples of the pre-Columbian Americas, the original Romans, the Jomon  in what is now Japan, and so many others, now nearly completely unknown. All are gone.

Or consider those who superficially have survived. Persians—now usually known as Iranians—are among the few seeming survivors as a people more or less in the same place over that stretch of time. But not really. By the time of Cyrus the Great, the Persian people had adopted Zoroastrianism as their religion. Today, that religion’s practitioners (now referred to as Parsees) are reduced to a few thousand and may well die off in another generation or two. Perhaps the most common pattern for most ancient peoples resembles the fate of the Celtic inhabitants of what is now England. While traces of them remain in areas such as Wales, their language, religion and customs are pretty much all gone. More widely, languages and much of the cultures that went with them, all over the world, continue to disappear at a great rate. Jews on the other hand, despite all the bad that befell them, grew and prospered mightily in exile.

A curious statistic: before Hitler’s depredations there were roughly 9,000 Jews in Munich, where my mother grew up. Immediately post-war, only about 200 remained. Today there are again 9,000. The Jewish Diaspora thrives once again in many countries in Europe, in much of Latin America, in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and of course in the United States. A thinner sprinkling of Jews is to be found in many other places.

 IV.

Comparing the fate of Jews over the millennia with that of other peoples puts the lie to the common way that, even before Zionism developed, Jewish diaspora had been viewed  by Jewish historians. For example Heinrich Graetz, later to be the author of the first relatively modern, large-scale ”History of the Jews,” wrote in 1846, “This is the eighteen-hundred-year era of the diaspora, of unprecedented suffering, of uninterrupted martyrdom without parallel in world history.”[7] Such hyperbole cannot be backed up. How can we possibly know that normal Jews suffered as Graetz claimed? How can we compare the suffering of the numerous other peoples who have left little trace today? How do we weigh the suffering that certainly did take place against the fact of Jewish survival—so likely the result of that very dispersal so much decried? And would Jews have survived as a proudly separate people if our lot was so uniformly negative as Graetz implies? Could we have stayed Jews on the basis of nothing other than the claimed promise that we were the chosen people in the face of so much negativity that would surely have suggested we were not?

Even Graetz went on, however, in his very next sentence, “But it is also a period of spiritual alertness, of restless mental activity, of indefatigable inquiry.” He was referring to internal religious matters, the production of the Talmuds and other commentaries, of the Zohar and of the vast variety of Rabbinic traditions. But it went further still.

Over the centuries, especially in premodern times, being a minority everywhere also led to many opportunities for our Jewish forebears that, had they been nationals of a possible enemy country, could not have so easily been open for them. As both insiders and outsiders in various nations, Jews were useful observers, inherently internationalist or cosmopolitan connectors to the rest of the world, key critics and honest brokers, entrusted with roles that as part of the supposedly natural domestic hierarchy they could not have been considered for. Jews often lived multinational lives, traveling widely, in touch with family and co-religionists in many lands, bringers and translators of new ideas as well as simple carriers of vital news.

Simon Rawidowicz (1897-1957) wrote at great length on the value of Diaspora to Jews. This is how Alan Wolfe summarizes his poetic conclusion: Jews had or have two “houses,” the first being pre-exile Judea, but the second being Diaspora itself. Wolfe: “Once the Jews went into exile, they were taught ‘a new and great secret, a secret of secrets’ [in Rawidowicz’s words] that ‘provided a new reason for existence.’ Here in their second house, in the absence of political sovereignty, Jews found themselves relying on powers of imagination, memory and interpretation to solidify their communal ties. If Jews are a chosen people, what makes them special is their two houses, one that gave them a sense of normality and the other that expanded their minds.” Given the immense stretch of time in the second “house,” to me it is of far greater importance in almost all aspects of Jewishness than the first. Not only were Jewish religious practices formed in Diaspora, in minority, but what makes them special is not merely following the laws and debating the fine points endlessly but doing so and keeping heads held high amidst others who follow different rules and different senses of the holy, in inevitable comparison. The corruptions of power in any sort of statehood would have prevented much of this development.[8]

 V.

 A second key question in relation to Israel now emerges clearly: Can Jews, who historically grew and developed as minorities everywhere, and also, therefore, as Other, now crammed into one country—where they are the clear majority—still be Jewish? How much is being a minority—that is being different from the majority—an essential part of Jewishness that cannot be adjusted away? What does it mean to live with a government that decides who is and who is not Jewish, rather than that being something decided by some small community, who can decide differently from the next community over?

A minority is not always and everywhere oppressed, but it is always in some kind of dialogue with the larger environment from which it inevitably learns and which it also teaches, and relative to which it continually finds ways, if it wants, to to celebrate and even sharpen its differences—often thus adding, without any necessary violent confrontations, to the richness of its own communal life.

Or could it be that the only way that the minority experience of Jewishness can survive in Israel is by an essential non-recognition of one another as truly Jewish? If part of the essence of Jewishness is to be everywhere a minority, surely that must somehow be reproduced inside Israel. In fact, Israeli Jews form numerous and often touchy minorities, in the form of religious traditions, cultural assumptions, language, and political attitudes. That happens to some degree in every country supposedly formed from a single identity, but it is most clearly evident in Israel. No wonder the Israeli diaspora (i.e. born or naturalized Israelis who have decided to live elsewhere) is particularly large in proportion to the total Israeli (Jewish) population. No wonder that a single party has never gotten enough votes to rule without forming a coalition with other parties.

In brief, given the vital  historical importance to Jewishness of minority status, how can the very notion of a Jewish state make sense? Isn’t the phrase itself necessarily an oxymoron?

Further, it is well known that many Jews fled pre-revolutionary Russia to prevent themselves or their sons being drafted into the Czar’s army. Today, in Israel, armed service and reserve service are a requirement not only for sons but for daughters. Is that good? Is the militarization and perpetual war-footing of Jewish life compatible with the the historical experience of what it means to be Jewish? (Let me add, even with all this arming, as  a protector of Jews, Israel has been a success only in comparison to the period of the Shoah or the worst pogroms. Besides the wars of 1948, 1956, 1973, 1982, the two Intifadas, the repeated battles with Gaza, there have been sporadic terrorist attacks, and all Israelis must always live with intensely heightened security precautions. Compared with the safety of Jews currently outside Israel, this is not a good record.)

(And a further aside, worth some consideration is the following. Though less essential to Jewishness, well-being obviously matters, and to the best of my knowledge, in strictly economic terms, the typical Jew in Israel is worse off today than the typical Jew elsewhere.)

 VI.

Given the (admittedly relative) success of living in Diaspora for the hundred generations of Jews who did it, in what sense is being a minority in itself a problem? The original Zionists, taking their cue from nineteenth-century European nationalism, would presumably have replied something like this: “To hold one’s head high, one must be part of a sovereign state in which one’s people form a majority. Otherwise one can not only be persecuted or discriminated against for who one is, but one cannot develop freely either linguistically or culturally.”

Nationalists might go on to say, “A minority always stands out, by its difference always subject to possible persecution, cultural rejection, and possibly to be a scapegoat in times of stress.” That is the problem to which Israel is supposed to be the solution. But, as already said, it cannot be. If being in the minority is essential to being Jewish, as it has been for so many centuries, a Jewish state is quite simply not a way to maintain a large part of the very essence of Jewishness.

A deeper truth is this: There is not a fundamental Jewish problem. Instead, being human is intrinsically problematic. To be human one has to have a language and a culture. Cultures by their nature develop differences with other cultures. Seeing oneself, for whatever reason, on the wrong side of a divide can make one want whatever group one sees oneself part of to be somehow more dominant. Also, being human makes one intrinsically capable of imagining and then carrying out actions of all kinds—even, unfortunately, horribly depraved ones such as mass killing. Such viciousness might be easier given modern technological prowess, but it has always been possible, and very many peoples besides Jews have been targets. Only endless efforts at promoting a more open and embracing ethics might counter those dangers.

To return from the general to the specifics of history, one cause of both nineteenth-century European nationalism and the contemporaneous version of anti-Semitism was the inherently bureaucratic nature of the modern state as well as of large businesses. Bureaucracy tends to depend on fluency in one specific language (such as German in the Austrian empire). If one was not fluent in that language as well as educated for suitable bureaucratic roles, one’s status was likely to be diminished. The “obvious” way out was to establish a state where one’s own language would dominate—hence nationalism. The fact that relatively cosmopolitan Jews could often overcome those barriers without their own state helped foster political anti-Semitism.

Nationalism and anti-Semitism as understood since the 19th century thus have much the same origins, so it should not be seen as surprising that the one invokes the other. Nationalism as purely positive sense of celebration of ethnicity easily slides into condemnation of any outsiders. Beyond that, the urge to differentiation knows no natural limits. Subgroups and sub-subgroups can easily try to claim superior standing. Thus one reason nationalism isn’t ever conclusive is that those ever-finer differences can turn out to matter. Serbs, Croats, and Bosnians share language, ancestors, and much culture, but in the 1990s that didn’t prevent what differences remain from leading to war, ethnic cleansing and actual genocide among them. Nothing guarantees that something similar couldn’t unfold within present-day ethnically defined nations, certainly including Israel, and still less is stability assured in the near or farther future.

The nation-state system itself is really quite new, as evinced by the fact that Israel itself—less than seven decades old as I write this—is firmly in the older half of UN member states. Today, many states,[9] ranging from the UK and Belgium to Libya and South Sudan, have serious internal disputes or fissures that threaten their continued existence even in the very short term, and others suffer from internal challenges such as severe inequality, vast corruption, actual or nascent dictatorship, economic collapse and more. Quite apart from the many issues relating to treatment of Palestinians, Israel is not at all guaranteed immunity from any of these other serious threats to stability.

Likewise, having a state—even a very well-armed, even a nuclear-armed one—in no way assures safety. A nearby or distant antagonist country still might be able to strike against the citizens with deadly—perhaps annihilating—results. That is of course what the Israeli government admits to fearing about Iran and its potential for obtaining what Israel already has—nuclear weapons. Netanyahu is of course right that the deal the Obama administration struck with the Rohani administration to forestall this isn’t foolproof. Nothing would be. But Palestinians are mostly Sunni Muslim or Christian, while Iran is run by its Shi’ite Muslim majority. Thus, the presence or absence of a Shi’ite bomb means not much when Iran’s much more populous Sunni neighbor—the notably ungovernable and partly extremist Pakistan—definitely does have nuclear weapons. The Netanyahu government might retain fantasies that it can prevent an Irani bomb better than Obama can, but its silence about the Pakistani bomb probably reflects its conclusion that in that case—quite probably the objectively more dangerous case—there is simply nothing to be done.

As long as humanity survives at all, history, in the sense of unfolding patterns of change, will not end—contrary to notions as old as the Bible and commonplace among neo-cons and others as recently as the 1990s. The original nineteenth-century Zionists were mostly oblivious to whatever nascent Arab nationalism existed then, or they might have thought better about plunking down a Jewish state amidst such a wide swath of probable opponents.  Even the twentieth-century Alternative Final-Solutionists, in celebrating Israel’s early victories as somehow permanent, could foresee none of today’s intense Arab-wide nationalism, the more parochial Palestinian version of it, nor the current burgeoning of fundamentalist Islamic chauvinism. Neither nineteenth- nor mid-twentieth-century  Zionists imagined aspects of globalization such as climate change, ultra-rapid communication—greatly amplified by the Internet—and large-scale movement of people in many parts of the world. New as most nation states are, the very form is increasingly outmoded as a stable reality. Internally too, states—including deliberately and consciously multi-ethnic ones, preferable as they are—are more necessary evils than glorious ideals.

Within the next couple of centuries, if civilization survives, the relatively sovereign states that make up the current world map might dissolve in a variety of ways into multi-state units like the U.S. or the EU, into a global empire, into more localized “city-states” or into a loosely connected network or series of networks. Or something else.

In the meantime, in the very near term we appear to be facing a period of intense xenophobia, as epitomized by BREXIT, anti-immigrant parties in Europe, and Trumpism. But these seem to be embodiments of stored-up resentments of older generations, so that they may soon decline in favor of much the opposite. We need a politics focused on trying to help dispel those resentments or at least to aim them towards targets other than The Other.

 VII.

In general, if there are no absolute assurances, no worthwhile final solutions, no long-term certainties at all, what kinds of Jewish-related political actions might be worth the effort? Only those that pay enough attention to history to have a good chance of success, as long as they also recognize that no concerns are simple or one-sided and that no solutions likely to be complete or permanent. As I began to realize some thirty years ago, for Jews especially that means taking what I term Diasporism seriously.[10] That implies accepting that true Jewish life can only be lived in Diaspora. It entails doing what one can to assure that life in Diaspora is as safe and comfortable as possible. It finally means promoting that same set of opportunities for all peoples.

Diasporism as a guiding principle is far from perfect, since it can’t guarantee that person A at point B is necessarily safe. What living in Diaspora can do and has done historically is strengthen the odds of survival of the larger group, and indeed the chances for living well without sacrificing what seems basic to one’s identity. Diasporism in the contemporary world can do that best if it is applied as widely as possible. This means taking up the cause of tolerance and anti-discrimination, of open doors for refugees, of free movement out of countries as well as into them, of disarmament, of cultural diversity, of international laws that protect minorities and allow dissent and that criminalize genocide and quasi-genocide as well as other forms of ethnic oppression. A country specifically for the Danes or the Serbs or the Chechnyans or the Burmese or the Turks or the Jews can’t do that. Likewise, despite the continuing and very understandable pressure for independent nations for Basques, Catalans, Flemings, Scots, Kurds, Baluchis, Tibetans, Palestinians  and whoever else might compose a somehow identifiable group without a sovereign state of its own, winning that as as an isolated state will solve very little in even the short term.

It is more evident than ever that people interpenetrate everywhere, that ethnically defined states can only prosper as part of a larger framework (as, for instance, the European Union) and that citizens of any country should be able to live more or less anywhere. Thanks in large measure to the Internet, no separation from home is as complete or permanent as it once would have been, and all sorts of non-geographic cultural communities can form and even flourish.

Indeed, are we not all, increasingly, exiles now? Exiles from an imagined Eden, from the womb, from the real or dreamt-of bliss of childhood, most of the time from peak experiences or peak moments of health, from our best selves or from whom we might have hoped to be, from living harmoniously with nature or with our fellow humans—and, today, from the vast majority of communities on earth that we now hear about and may somehow attract us?  Diasporism is the principle most widely needed now. It is one that Jewish experience can best inform.

VIII.

If Israel in particular is to be defined as the Jewish Homeland, it obviously must act in firm opposition to a number of values that would most uphold Diasporism—not out of evil or even indifference, but as a matter of sheer logic. It cannot have open borders. It cannot admit refugees from whatever oppression who don’t happen to be Jewish. It cannot, as is well-known, accept enough Palestinians as full citizens to possibly form a majority. It cannot simply leave what it means to be Jewish to individual consciences but must define it in some bureaucratic way. And so on.

These conflicts with Diasporist values are not unique to Israel. To some extent, they are present for every state that is defined in terms of some specific ethnic identity. But the Israeli issues are deeper than many. Unlike other nationalities trying to set about having their own state, Zionists, we all know, had to find a new locale to make their own. By contrast, the Roma (or Romani) people, probably as persecuted in Europe as Jews were, had no myths or history to suggest where to establish a state of their own, should they have wanted one.

Jews had the semi-historical, semi-mythical Torah accounts to go by. (That involved taking what had for centuries been largely been understood metaphorically—formulations like “next year in Jerusalem,” or “if I forget thee, O Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its cunning”—as speaking to plain geographic fact.) But once the founders of Zionism adopted those Old Testament accounts as a rationale for planting the new state where it now roughly is, the logic of following ancient texts could hardly stop there. International law is very clear that Israel has no right to settle the West Bank of the Jordan River it conquered in the 1967 war. “Biblical law” says the opposite: it’s the “Promised Land.” The conflict was inevitable from the start.

Still worse, additionally hanging over Israel’s policy conflicts is the heritage of “Final Solution” and “Never Again.” These are embodied in the open-ended notion of “defensible borders,” and in the very harsh dealing with any of the threats that might emerge to the majority in almost any state.

Anyone who felt that a Jewish state could be universalist[11] was evidently not thinking clearly.

Finally, as mentioned above, Israel both promotes and profits from both conscious and unconscious anti-Semitism elsewhere, which clearly injures the Diasporist idea. On the one hand  Israel’s sharp actions against every possible Arab or Muslim attack—always justified by the “Never-Again” mentality as a specifically Jewish requirement—offer perfect fodder for attitudes that can claim not to be anti-Semitic at all, while still objectively being so. On the other hand, Israel absolutely needs continuing anti-Semitism to justify its very existence.[12]

IX.

Israel’s relation with Diaspora is even more complex—inherently two-faced. By its claims to be the Jewish Homeland, it opposes Diasporism. At the same time  it requires, for its own survival, that there be Diaspora Jews who speak in its defense and lobby for its cause. Plenty of Jews feel they have a special relations with Israel but oppose its specific behavior towards Palestinians—such as the Wall, the repeated sharp assaults on Gaza, and the continued settlement of the West Bank. What is too little considered is that these Jews in partial opposition in reality still work against a true Diasporism, and thus, in effect, in favor of the very status quo they deride.

 In America in particular, it is fairly obvious that organizations such as AIPAC and the Jewish Defense League are anti-Diasporist by nature. They either explicitly support whatever the current government of Israel wants or are even more Israel-chauvinist. Equally worrisome to me, because less obvious, is the implicit stance of the large number of smaller groups whose stated focus is advocating better relations between Israel and Palestinians. Such groups include or have included Jewish Voice for Peace, New Jewish Agenda,  Americans for Peace Now, J-Street, Women in Black and so on. New ones seem to form almost annually, always with new ideas and different degrees of militance and a whole range of attitudes. We might term them collectively as the “meliorists.”

I harbor no doubts as to the meliorists’ good intentions and sincerity. But  several aspects of their efforts deserve further attention. First, the sources of their feelings. On the one hand, their desires to see justice for the Palestinians could be said to come from inherent Diasporism. It is only natural for a Diasporist to recognize commonality with other minorities and oppressed peoples in general. (To me personally, as I elaborate later, that extends far beyond Israel, or rather far beyond the Palestinians to include oppressed minorities everywhere.) At the same time, meliorists generally accept the notion that Israel is THE Jewish state, if not the Jewish Homeland. Implicitly, that means identifying with the Israeli Jews who see themselves as a majority, as the dominant group in their own state, in attitudes blatantly historically different from the mainstream of Diaspora. Meliorists often say something like, “they are doing x in my name.” How far can one identify with both oppressor and oppressed?

Beyond the meliorists’ confusing motivations, what of the reception, in Israel, of their words and actions? To be sure, some Israelis retain enough personal sense of membership in diaspora to be open to concerns about  their government’s oppression of the Other. But do the growing majority of Israeli Jews? They seem to have adopted Alternative Final Solutionism, justifying taking any action in the cause of defending Jews from any possible attack.  They also, as nationalists, cherish the state’s right  to use power against any enemy. Also, many of them cite biblical promises as essentially creating rights they feel they have, for instance to settle the West Bank.

To show their sincerity to that Israeli majority, meliorists must frequently visit the country there or at least send their representatives, which aids the majority’s sense of legitimacy. The meliorists  have to constantly reaffirm Israel’s importance and Israeli rights. They put forward, as they must if their efforts are to have any meaning, hopes of a better—implicitly more nearly perfect—future Israel. A certainly unintended but real consequence  is that the very notion of a more perfect future Israel in the minds of  the Israeli majority helps justify whatever they do now to protect Israel and themselves, however oppressive to others.

At the same time, meliorist criticisms can be interpreted by the majority of Israelis as assaults on the place—assaults that must be vehemently countered as a sheer act of self-preservation. Those Israelis who view themselves as more practical and thick-skinned can thus also see themselves as carrying the banner of the the perfect Israel, the Israel that will prove to be the Alternative Final Solution that is its reason for being, the Israel that will turn fully into the Biblically promised land. In the face of what they view as misguided tolerance they must be more determined and ruthless than ever. So the more there seems to be an effort to make Israel a good place, the worse it actually becomes. Then too, so far, the worse it becomes, and more obviously so, the more new effort goes into opposing that. While not surprising, that vicious circle also needs to be broken—perhaps through a clear consciousness of just what is at stake.

  X.

A Diasporist can and indeed must recognize that Israel, like any other existing state, has a right to further existence without specifically focussing on its own peculiar virtues or vices. A Diasporist recognizes that, when it comes to oppressing some of its population, in fact no state is anywhere near perfect, though improvements are certainly to be called for and hoped for. For all its faults, the United States, as a multiethnic state, is closer to the Diasporist ideal than most other countries, certainly including Israel. Bringing the US still closer is a more promising and achievable goal and would set a better example than trying to reshape a much more explicitly ethnic state such as Israel. As an American, I am certainly aware of and try to do my bit to correct some of the many flaws of this country, regarding treatment of Native Americans, African-Americans, Hispanic speakers, Asian-Americans and others, along with inadequate welcoming of refugees, and more.

I am, as already indicated, likewise unsettled by the treatment by their suzerains of many other peoples besides the Palestinians: Tibetans and Uighurs under Han Chinese rule; Kashmiri Muslims under Hindu dominance in India; Baluchis and Pashtuns by Punjabi and other groups in Pakistan; Rohingya in Burma; New Guineans, Borneans and many others in Indonesia; non-Magyars in Hungary; Serbians in Kosovo; Romani in France; southern Italians in northern Italy; the many indigenous communities in Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America; and endlessly on. Those are all oppressions by internationally accepted and recognized states, but in addition less well-accepted groupings, such as what is known as ISIS, commit horrors such as ISIS’s vicious suppression of the Yazidis of Iraq. In each case, as a committed Diasporist, my sympathies naturally flow to the oppressed. Jewish meliorists partly identify with Israelis as oppressors, and in doing so, it seems to me, negate a hundred generations of Jewish history.

What a Diasporist cannot do is focus entirely on one state or place beyond where she actually lives rather than seeking better global conditions. Which conditions? Questions such as the following present themselves. Can we live successfully in a world culture that still honors and helps preserve at least many elements of distinct cultures? What sorts of movements and policies might help open borders everywhere? Can the evils of nationalism be overcome in a respectfully multi-ethnic world? Can’t we have states that avoid any categorizations of personal identity? (Since many—if not almost all—cultures contain strong elements of hate of others or of claims of clear superiority or just plain fanaticism, how can those elements be bracketed off while the rest remain valued? How do we deal with those cultures who preserve antagonisms to women, to lower economic classes and to sexual minorities?) How could ethnically -based nation states, including Israel, finally wind down?[13] Or what is an exit strategy for Jews in Israel and other dominant groups in other nation states? These questions ought to be first and foremost on the Diasporist table, even if no obvious single answer to any one of them reveals itself at present.

I do not see myself as much of an organizer at present. Nonetheless, the need for a grouping that specifically promotes the values of Diasporism and grapples with the kinds of questions just listed seems to me self-evident. It would be absurd for anything like that to be exclusively Jewish, but it would gain from a significant Jewish component. There are Jewish groups such as American Jewish World Services that are not at all Israel focused, but none that specifically have a Diasporist focus instead. There should be at least one.[14]

To quote Alan Wolfe,[15] ”How will we know when the end of Diaspora negation has finally been reached? One possibility suggests itself: when Jews recognize that their Diaspora is more like others rather than unique unto itself.”

And finally, it’s worth noting that—with the marked benefit of hindsight—the vast majority of human projects appear mistaken. Ethnocentric nationalism in general and the creation of Israel in the immediate wake of the Shoah in particular both fit. Given the near universality of such errors, rebukes should usually be gentle, efforts to undo them taken with care.

As Wolfe hints, one way to conceive of Israel is as merely one more outpost of the Jewish Diaspora. In that case, if life in that garrison state becomes too unpleasant either through the need for too much vigilance, from too strong enmity from outside, or from the guilt of having to oppress Palestinians, it makes sense that the the obligation of the world community could turn out to be making it as easy as possible to leave. That will only be possible if the many places where Jews can now feel at home persist in that, and especially if the their number is further enlarged.

At the same time, the less oppression Jews feel elsewhere, the less the justification for preserving a militantly defensive state, and, possibly as a result, the less difficulty Palestinians and other Arabs might feel in accepting a still sizable Jewish presence—in whatever form—in their midst. (Let me emphasize this last thought is no more than conjecture, which should be taken neither for prophesy nor recipe.)

 XI.

The best argument against the views presented above is this: these days the vast majority of Jews identifying strongly as such do take the existence of Israel as essential to their very understanding of both Jewishness and Judaism as a religion. I suspect that almost all Jews alive now have relatives or friends who are Israeli. For them, at a minimum, Israel is the largest concentration of Jews in the world, and so can hardly be left out of account of what it means to be a Jew. Synagogues in the West mostly incorporate concerns about Israel and celebrations of it directly into services. While actually flourishing in Diaspora, the majority of Jews today do not take this important status into theoretical account and are of course ignorant of the idea of Diasporism. Hence, for instance, among relatively progressive Jews, the varieties of meliorism relative to Israel that I described earlier and that I argued are fundamentally wrong headed and doomed to failure.

 As recently. as a century ago,  none of those now-majority views would have held sway, either among religious Jews, who were not particularly in favor of a Jewish state, nor  among Zionists—who of course were not particularly religious. One thing this points to is that religions, along with all other belief systems, change through time. Judaism once differed from most other religions by not having places of pilgrimage. There was no Mecca, no Rome, no Santiago de Campostella, no Banaras. Now there are Auschwitz and the Western Wall, both. Adolf Hitler and Moshe Dayan each changed Judaism fundamentally, in ways that neither intended. So did modern technology in general. Just as the Islamic Hajj has been totally transformed with jet travel, electrification and other modernizations, so has much of the actuality of Jewish experience today, with many young Jews visiting Israel from childhood on. It’s quite possible that Judaism might morph into a religion in which “The Six Million died for us,” as reminders to hold tight to Israel, but it is at least equally possible that that form of belief, though it might never fully vanish, will be just a minor sect relative to major views that evolve quite differently.

Instead, a viable religious Judaism could very well evolve to place Diaspora in the forefront. I am not religious myself, nor see any likelihood of becoming so. But what makes a great deal of sense to me and many others is a Jewishness composed more of making near saints of Jewish cultural leaders: Spinoza, Marx, Freud, Goldman, Proust, Einstein, Mahler, von Neumann, Ginsburg, Sontag, Steinem, Dylan, and so forth. The list can extend through the many Jews freed by at least partial assimilation to partake of wider Western culture and to become scientists, philosophers, inventors, entrepreneurs, social scientists, critics, novelists, playwrights, poets, composers, artists, architects, movie makers, singers, actors, comedians, and more. Because it is not their particularly religious contribution that matters,  it hardly makes a difference whether they practiced Judaism or were Jews only by birth who converted to another religion or to none—or even whose families converted before they themselves were old enough to choose. It is their past with one foot in Jewish culture that matters. But why even one foot? I personally am partial to novelists and short-story writers such as such as Isaac Bashevis Singer, Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, and Tama Janowitz, but to read only Jewish novelists would be as weird to me as only believing Jewish scientists. Cultural Jewishness ought not imply exclusivity. A true cultural Zionism likewise makes no sense at all. Israeli creators are partially self-stifled by working in a language spoken by so few, in a pretty narrow milieu even for visual artists or musicians. Cut off a least in part from larger cultural currents, Israelis in fact do worse than Diaspora Jews today. Many religious Jews even today are partly in the fold of this wider sense of Jewishness; it is possible that in a generation or two a considerable portion of Jewish religious life will have incorporated much more fully this Diasporic sensibility. That kind of Judaism would not orbit around Israel nearly as much as is commonplace in synagogues today. It may be the height of hutzpah for a non-religious person to propose changes in religion, but the truth is religious practices and beliefs are influenced by thoughts that come from outside all the time. If the original Zionism could influence religion as much as it has, then why not Diasporism now?[16]


[1] Nuclear weapons were placed on a fast track to development in the United States in response to the fear, especially among refugee scientists, that the Nazis might win in a race to make them. Computers were also pushed along by World War II technological efforts, including the need to break German codes. Jets and radar were developed because of the war or the thought that it was coming. Space travel emerged from the German V-2 rocket efforts during the war. Hitler himself specifically promoted unprecedented superhighways (autobahns) in Germany and urged and sponsored  the development of the “people’s car” (in German, “Volkswagen”). The United Nations was conceived as a vehicle to prevent World-War-II type situations from occurring again. European unification began as a reaction to the horror of two world wars. European powers, especially the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Belgium and Italy were so weakened by WWII that they could no longer afford to hold onto their colonies, and German imperialism in Europe had also made holding onto colonies seem horrible. Some of these developments might well have occurred without Hitler, but probably a good deal later,

[2] As most readers certainly know, the Zionist movement took shape in the 19th century, after which Zionist settlers flocked into the part of the Ottoman Empire later known as Palestine, forming various settlements including kibbutzim and moshavim. The movement was sped along by the British Balfour declaration after World War I, when Palestine became a British mandate.  The Hebrew University was founded in the 1920’s, etc. Still without the influx of displaced Jews from the Nazi -dominated parts of Europe, and without the world-wide sympathy the Final Solution briefly caused, is it at all likely that a state of Israel could ever have been founded or survived Arab opposition?

[3] What I label Alternative Final-Solutionism became more manifest and ideological after the first generation of Israeli leaders, who, though they did indeed benefit from the world climate in the aftermath of Hitler, had already been dedicated to the Zionist project before the Shoah. Accompanying this was the move to the right and in favor of a “Greater Israel” in the aftermath of the 1967 War.

[4] What about the Palestinians? As long as Israelis assert their right to the land, whether through having fought a successful series of wars or through the rights that somehow emerged from the Final Solution or, more generally, through some version of accepting Biblical myths, why should not Palestinians feel exactly as justified and strong-willed in their own claims? In fact, given the limits of their strength, they can hardly help learning from and mirroring what Israelis have both claimed and done in intimate proximity to them. If Israel has the Shoah as its special claim to be taken seriously, then is it any wonder that Palestinians take the “Nakba” as of equal weight? On some objective scale of calamities it may not be quite the same, but as an emotional touchstone for people with generations of ties to the land it is pretty similar. (Palestinians may not have had a strong sense of national identity before the British and then the Israelis got there, but why should they not have learned to view themselves perfectly validly in those terms since?) If no Israeli death or suffering can be tolerated on one side, why should not exactly the same hold for the other? If some Palestinians are willing to forge a peace with only some claims acknowledged, why should the rest automatically go along? If “might makes right” and Palestinians lack the conventional military force to battle Israel, why not espouse terrorism? Terror is gruesome, of course, with perfectly innocent victims, but so is war in general. Either form just sets in motion the vicious circle of reprisals, repression, increased militance and hatred, all leading to further acts of resistance and revenge. The whole idea that this “problem” can somehow be “solved” with Israel left standing as a sanctuary for all Jews is only one further folly.

[5] A state that is “bi-national’ between Jews and Palestinians is far from credible as an idea. Not only is there no reason for the majority of  either group to accept any inevitability of the two coexisting in one place, but adding the question of “Who is a Palestinian?” to the question of “Who is a Jew?” would hardly make for greater harmony. The question of ethnicity would always loom not merely large but overwhelming. The country would probably have no more ease in mutuality than does Belgium at present, bitterly divided between French and Flemish, continually at the point of secession. Such a state would never form in the first place.

[6]  See “Refugee Resettlement and ‘Freedom of Choice’ The Case of Soviet Jewry”, Fred A. Lazin,  Center for Immigration Studies “Backgrounder” July 2005 http://cis.org/sites/cis.org/files/articles/2005/back705.pdf

[7] He was counting from a more traditional starting point—presumably the destruction of the second temple in  70 BCE—than modern historical research justifies. See Heinrich Graetz, “The Diaspora: Suffering and Spirit,” tr. Michael A. Meyer, reprinted in Modern Jewish Thought,  Nahum N. Glatzer, editor, New York, Schocken, 1977.

[8] See Wolfe, as cited in note 10, below, p. 63.

[9] To be sure, the majority of new states post-WWII are combinations that arose from administrative units of European colonial territories. They are mostly multi-ethnic, but generally in no way integrated. Often different ethnic groups occupy different, possibly overlapping geographic sectors within a state. Whether the states are democratic or not, these different groups often vie for dominance of the whole, either via elections or some form of civil war or even genocide.

[10] After writing the first draft of this essay, I became aware that one of my favorite novelists, Philip Roth, in one of his few books I hadn’t  read, Operation Shylock, satirically introduced the term “Diasporist” to describe someone who wanted Jews to abandon Israel. Though that meaning overlaps to some degree with what I have in mind, my intent is quite different, and not, I hope, so satirizable. In the novel, the false Philip Roth wants Ashkenazi Jews to be airlifted or otherwise sent in large groups back from Israel to their European countries of origin. I of course despise the idea of Jews being “sent” anywhere, though I do want them to be able to feel at home anywhere. What the actual Roth, who is deeply interested in writers of Eastern Europe actually feels about all this, who knows?

I learned of Roth’s satire in Alan Wolfe’s At Home in Exile, Boston, Beacon Press, 2014 (somewhat misleadingly subtitled Why Diaspora is Good for the Jews) which I discovered only after my first draft of this essay. While Wolfe does not substantially address the topic of his subtitle in any direct way, he does summarize some intellectual debates of past decades that somewhat bear on the subject. He resurrects the thoughts of impassioned anti-Zionist Jewish writers of the twentieth century such as Franz Rosenzweig and Simon Rawidowicz.

[11] See for example Rabbi David M. Gordis, Reflections on Israel 2016, Tikkun February 22, 2016 http://www.tikkun.org/nextgen/major-american-jewish-leader-changes-his-mind-about-israel  Reading this short piece indirectly inspired me to put together the long-simmering thoughts contained in this essay.

[12] Nothing said so far is  to deny that the Israeli experiment has been a source of such feelings as pride, celebration and comfort for many Jews who live elsewhere. This is probably especially true of those who visit the country. Military victories, especially in the 1948 and 1967 wars many have led lead to a greater contentment with being identified as Jewish, lessening the felt need to hide behind non-Jewish names or looks or other forms of assimilation. Judaism has mostly been non-proselytizing, which means some degree of genetic similarity among Jews; hence being in Israel, despite its unfamiliar language, can feel like being among family. Cultural achievements in Israel—in music, dance, visual art, poetry, prose and even cuisine  all have their admirers. So do technical and scientific ones, and so on.

But all these advantages are at best transitory and partial. Just as Americans might take pride in American military successes in the two World Wars, those victories must now be experienced through the far less uplifting filters of the Korean, Vietnam and Iraq wars, as well as through knowledge of the suffering even the successes engendered on both sides. Similarly with any identification with Israel. Meanwhile, Jewish life and culture can be just as strong and genuine, if not in fact far stronger, outside Israel. Why not enjoy the Jewish culture now vibrant in New York, Miami Beach, Berlin, Montreal and many other places?

While cultural comparisons are far from objective, it certainly seems evident to me that Jewish Diaspora achievements over a wide range of areas in the period since Israel was founded easily outshine Israeli efforts. Lists could easily be assembled to make that point more vivid. Diaspora Jews simply can choose from many more potential co-workers. Even economically, Israel does not compare with Jewish standing elsewhere.

Perhaps there is reason to take pride in the revival of Hebrew as a spoken language, but then why not mourn the loss of Yiddish and other creole languages spoken by Diaspora Jews?

[13] For instance, one conceivable outcome, probably unrealistic for the next few generations: Israel with its current Jewish population simply becoming part of a far larger multinational Middle -Eastern state, encompassing, say North Africa, Anatolia, Iran and the Arabian peninsula, and modeled on the European Union.

[14] Two organizations might be thought to fill this bill: HIAS (which originally stood for “Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society”) and “the Joint” (American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee) but they are each either too focused on Jews, too tied to synagogue culture, or in other ways too limited to perform the advocacy I envision. Before writing this essay, I had no conscious memory of ever hearing of HIAS in particular. That suggests an organization much too willing to stay in the shadows.

[15] See Wolfe, cited in footnote 10, p. 37.

[16] I thank Raymond Barglow, Paul Bassen, Rabbi Ilana Goldhaber-Gordon, Eleanore Lee, Pam Montanaro, Conrad Montell, Ernest Nadel and Terry Winograd for reading earlier versions and, despite often strongly disagreeing, making illuminating comments. Needless to say, the views advanced are strictly my own. I dedicate the essay with love to my wife, Karen Weinstein.

__

Michael H. Goldhaber, though trained as a theoretical physicist, has a long history of involvement with and writing on a range of political and social topics. He lives in Berkeley, CA.

 
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