Saturday, January 04, 2014

Reflections on Israel … from La-La Land

I read once that Adolf Hitler rarely read two books in a row on the same topic.  Consequently, as part of my continuing effort to distinguish myself from Adolf in every way possible, when given time to study, I try to read at least three books in a row on the same topic.  

This past week, I was able to put that philosophy into practice during a trip to Los Angeles.  I brought with me three books concerning the state of Israel generally and the issue of Zionism in particular: My Promised Land, by Ari Shavit; What Does a Jew Want, by Udi Aloni; and Post-Zionism, Post-Holocaust, by Elhanan Yakira.  Taken together, they provided a spellbinding look at the trials and tribulations of the Zionist project.

Shavit’s book is a detailed look at the history of Israel written by a prominent Israeli journalist who finds himself not too far from the center of the political spectrum when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  It is truly a must read for anyone who gives even half a damn about Judaism, Israel, the Palestinians, world peace … did I leave anything out? 

I could certainly quibble about Shavit’s book.  Like every other work that focuses on the Middle East, it was hardly free from bias.  But it was beautifully written, often insightful, and a whole lot more balanced than most of what you’ll find on the topic.  It is no wonder that some are calling this the most significant book about Israel since Thomas Friedman’s From Beirut to Jerusalem came out a generation earlier.  Personally, I think Shavit’s work has the potential to be even more influential than Friedman’s; at least that is my hope.

Like most Israeli Jews, Shavit has supported a two-state solution.  He is also a staunch critic of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank.  What is especially notable about his work, however, is that, despite his lifelong support of Zionism, he has come to believe that the prospects for peace between Israel and the Palestinians may have been doomed even before the Occupation began.  This belief, in turn, stems from the view that because the creation of Israel inherently involved the forced displacement of Palestinians from their native land, the Palestinians and other Arabs have never accepted the legitimacy of a Jewish State in the region and never will.  Thus, Shavit concludes, even if the Occupation were to stop tomorrow, we are still dreaming if we think that would likely bring about peace.

It is a sobering message, one that shook me up quite a bit.  But what was even more sobering was to go from Shavit’s book to Aloni’s.  Udi Aloni is a Jewish Israeli-American filmmaker who unabashedly opposes the idea of a Jewish State.   In What Does a Jew Want?, he argues that those “left” leaning Zionists who claim to be pro-peace and anti-occupation are nothing more than narcissistic tools of the status quo.  The only truly pro-peace position, he claims, is to support a “one-state” solution in which Jews and Palestinians live together under democratic rule, and if that state happens to be primarily Arab, so be it.  

Some of the same points that Shavit made about the inherently destabilizing nature of Zionism were made even more strongly by Aloni.  Clearly, he would see Shavit as someone who is only recently beginning to open his eyes to the fact that the early Zionists opened up a Pandora’s Box in the region, and the contemporary Zionists are blinding themselves to the horrors contained within that box.  As a Zionist myself, I am well aware of Aloni’s extremism and biases, but I felt compelled to open-mindedly digest his words nonetheless.

Fortunately for the state of my mood, this three-book literary adventure ended with the words of Elhanan Yakira.  Like Shavit, he too is a Jewish Israeli who favors a two-state solution and the end of the Occupation.   But he did not attempt to write the same kind of balanced best-seller that Shavit had in mind.  Shavit’s task was to point out one problem after another with anti-Zionist reasoning and, in particular, to show how anti-Zionists have attempted to use the Holocaust as a tool for the delegitimization of the state of Israel.   I’ll confess that Yakira’s book was a breath of fresh air for me.  Finally, someone was writing from the standpoint of how it isn’t just the pro-Israel Jews who have undermined the prospects for peace; the Palestinians shoulder their share of the blame as well.  They, too, have the capacity, in other words, to strive to accept two states for two peoples, rather than simply to voice their position that the Jews don’t have a moral right to any state in the region.

In certain subtle ways, Yakira’s historical assertions differed materially from those of Shavit.  For example, Shavit was much more critical of the Zionists who came to Palestine during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  He wrote as if those Jews were blind to the dignity and the legitimate aspirations of the Palestinians.  By contrast, the impression I received from Yakira was that the early Zionists were well aware of the Palestinian neighbors and strove to reach a legitimate, peaceful compromise with them.   Which account is more accurate?   I really don’t know.   But what I do know is that as long as our focus is on the problems of the past and how to assign blame for them, we are not likely to reach agreement, whereas if can concentrate on visions of a peaceful future and the various potential ways of getting there, maybe we can make some progress.  I say that because, regardless of whether you favor a one-state or two-state solution, you will find that the path to either destination is largely the same.  It involves mutual respect, recognition of shared religious and moral traditions, and, last but not least, the love of thy neighbor.   As friends of peace, no matter what your vision may be, we must stop calling the “other” an enemy, and speak instead as if we are all members of the same Abrahamic family.  

I suppose it is too much to ask of each of you to read all three of the books mentioned above.  But I would beseech you to read Shavit’s book at the very least.  That should be enough to get you to struggle with your own attitudes concerning the region of the world formerly known as “The Promised Land.”  I plan on visiting that incredible place at some point during the winter of 2014 or the spring of 2015.  My life has never been the same since I first set foot on that soil in 1981.  For all of its problems, it remains, for me, the most riveting place on earth.

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