Monday, August 04, 2014

In defence of Zionists

by Michael Oren

Israelis stand ready to defend their nation. They risk their lives for an idea.

The idea is Zionism. It is the belief that the Jewish people should have their own sovereign state in the Land of Israel. Though founded less than 150 years ago, the Zionist movement sprung from a 4,000-year-long bond between the Jewish people and its historic homeland, an attachment sustained throughout 20 centuries of exile. This is why Zionism achieved its goals and remains relevant and rigorous today. It is why citizens of Israel—the state that Zionism created—willingly take up arms. They believe their idea is worth fighting for.

Yet Zionism, arguably more than any other contemporary ideology, is demonized. "All Zionists are legitimate targets everywhere in the world!" declared a banner recently paraded by anti-Israel protesters in Denmark. "Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances," warned a sign in the window of a Belgian cafe. A Jewish demonstrator in Iceland was accosted and told, "You Zionist pig, I'm going to behead you."

In certain academic and media circles, Zionism is synonymous with colonialism and imperialism. Critics on the radical right and left have likened it to racism or, worse, Nazism. And that is in the West. In the Middle East, Zionism is the ultimate abomination—the product of a Holocaust that many in the region deny ever happened while maintaining nevertheless that the Zionists deserved it.

What is it about Zionism that elicits such loathing? After all, the longing of a dispersed people for a state of their own cannot possibly be so repugnant, especially after that people endured centuries of massacres and expulsions, culminating in history's largest mass murder. Perhaps revulsion toward Zionism stems from its unusual blend of national identity, religion and loyalty to a land. Japan offers the closest parallel, but despite its rapacious past, Japanese nationalism doesn't evoke the abhorrence aroused by Zionism.

Clearly anti-Semitism, of both the European and Muslim varieties, plays a role. Cabals, money grubbing, plots to take over the world and murder babies—all the libels historically leveled at Jews are regularly hurled at Zionists. And like the anti-Semitic capitalists who saw all Jews as communists and the communists who painted capitalism as inherently Jewish, the opponents of Zionism portray it as the abominable Other.

But not all of Zionism's critics are bigoted, and not a few of them are Jewish. For a growing number of progressive Jews, Zionism is too militantly nationalist, while for many ultra-Orthodox Jews, the movement is insufficiently pious—even heretical. How can an idea so universally reviled retain its legitimacy, much less lay claim to success?

The answer is simple: Zionism worked. The chances were infinitesimal that a scattered national group could be assembled from some 70 countries into a sliver-sized territory shorn of resources and rich in adversaries and somehow survive, much less prosper. The odds that those immigrants would forge a national identity capable of producing a vibrant literature, pace-setting arts and six of the world's leading universities approximated zero.

Elsewhere in the world, indigenous languages are dying out, forests are being decimated, and the populations of industrialized nations are plummeting. Yet Zionism revived the Hebrew language, which is now more widely spoken than Danish and Finnish and will soon surpass Swedish. Zionist organizations planted hundreds of forests, enabling the land of Israel to enter the 21st century with more trees than it had at the end of the 19th. And the family values that Zionism fostered have produced the fastest natural growth rate in the modernized world and history's largest Jewish community. The average secular couple in Israel has at least three children, each a reaffirmation of confidence in Zionism's future.

Indeed, by just about any international criteria, Israel is not only successful but flourishing. The population is annually rated among the happiest, healthiest and most educated in the world. Life expectancy in Israel, reflecting its superb universal health-care system, significantly exceeds America's and that of most European countries. Unemployment is low, the economy robust. A global leader in innovation, Israel is home to R&D centers of some 300 high-tech companies, including Apple, Intel and Motorola. The beaches are teeming, the rock music is awesome, and the food is off the Zagat charts.

The democratic ideals integral to Zionist thought have withstood pressures that have precipitated coups and revolutions in numerous other nations. Today, Israel is one of the few states—along with Great Britain, Canada, New Zealand and the U.S.—that has never known a second of nondemocratic governance.

These accomplishments would be sufficiently astonishing if attained in North America or Northern Europe. But Zionism has prospered in the supremely inhospitable—indeed, lethal—environment of the Middle East. Two hours' drive east of the bustling nightclubs of Tel Aviv—less than the distance between New York and Philadelphia—is Jordan, home to more than a half million refugees from Syria's civil war. Traveling north from Tel Aviv for four hours would bring that driver to war-ravaged Damascus or, heading east, to the carnage in western Iraq. Turning south, in the time it takes to reach San Francisco from Los Angeles, the traveler would find himself in Cairo's Tahrir Square.

In a region reeling with ethnic strife and religious bloodshed, Zionism has engendered a multiethnic, multiracial and religiously diverse society. Arabs serve in the Israel Defense Forces, in the Knesset and on the Supreme Court. While Christian communities of the Middle East are steadily eradicated, Israel's continues to grow. Israeli Arab Christians are, in fact, on average better educated and more affluent than Israeli Jews.

In view of these monumental achievements, one might think that Zionism would be admired rather than deplored. But Zionism stands accused of thwarting the national aspirations of Palestine's indigenous inhabitants, of oppressing and dispossessing them.

Never mind that the Jews were natives of the land—its Arabic place names reveal Hebrew palimpsests—millennia before the Palestinians or the rise of Palestinian nationalism. Never mind that in 1937, 1947, 2000 and 2008, the Palestinians received offers to divide the land and rejected them, usually with violence. And never mind that the majority of Zionism's adherents today still stand ready to share their patrimony in return for recognition of Jewish statehood and peace.

The response to date has been, at best, a refusal to remain at the negotiating table or, at worst, war. But Israelis refuse to relinquish the hope of resuming negotiations with President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority. To live in peace and security with our Palestinian neighbors remains the Zionist dream.

Still, for all of its triumphs, its resilience and openness to peace, Zionism fell short of some of its original goals. The agrarian, egalitarian society created by Zionist pioneers has been replaced by a dynamic, largely capitalist economy with yawning gaps between rich and poor. Mostly secular at its inception, Zionism has also spawned a rapidly expanding religious sector, some elements of which eschew the Jewish state.

About a fifth of Israel's population is non-Jewish, and though some communities (such as the Druse) are intensely patriotic and often serve in the army, others are much less so, and some even call for Israel's dissolution. And there is the issue of Judea and Samaria—what most of the world calls the West Bank—an area twice used to launch wars of national destruction against Israel but which, since its capture in 1967, has proved painfully divisive.

Many Zionists insist that these territories represent the cradle of Jewish civilization and must, by right, be settled. But others warn that continued rule over the West Bank's Palestinian population erodes Israel's moral foundation and will eventually force it to choose between being Jewish and remaining democratic.

Yet the most searing of Zionism's unfulfilled visions was that of a state in which Jews could be free from the fear of annihilation. The army imagined by Theodor Herzl, Zionism's founding father, marched in parades and saluted flag-waving crowds. The Israel Defense Forces, by contrast, with no time for marching, much less saluting, has remained in active combat mode since its founding in 1948. With the exception of Vladimir Jabotinsky, the ideological forebear of today's Likud Party, none of Zionism's early thinkers anticipated circumstances in which Jews would be permanently at arms. Few envisaged a state that would face multiple existential threats on a daily basis just because it is Jewish.

Confronted with such monumental threats, Israelis might be expected to flee abroad and prospective immigrants discouraged. But Israel has one of the lower emigration rates among developed countries while Jews continue to make aliyah—literally, in Hebrew, "to ascend"—to Israel. Surveys show that Israelis remain stubbornly optimistic about their country's future. And Jews keep on arriving, especially from Europe, where their security is swiftly eroding. Last week, thousands of Parisians went on an anti-Semitic rant, looting Jewish shops and attempting to ransack synagogues.

American Jews face no comparable threat, and yet numbers of them continue to make aliyah. They come not in search of refuge but to take up the Zionist challenge—to be, as the Israeli national anthem pledges, "a free people in our land, the Land of Zion and Jerusalem." American Jews have held every high office, from prime minister to Supreme Court chief justice to head of Israel's equivalent of the Fed, and are disproportionately prominent in Israel's civil society.

Hundreds of young Americans serve as "Lone Soldiers," without families in the country, and volunteer for front-line combat units. One of them, Max Steinberg from Los Angeles, fell in the first days of the current Gaza fighting. His funeral, on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem, was attended by 30,000 people, most of them strangers, who came out of respect for this intrepid and selfless Zionist.

I also paid my respects to Max, whose Zionist journey was much like mine. After working on a kibbutz—a communal farm—I made aliyah and trained as a paratrooper. I participated in several wars, and my children have served as well, sometimes in battle. Our family has taken shelter from Iraqi Scuds and Hamas M-75s, and a suicide bomber killed one of our closest relatives.

Despite these trials, my Zionist life has been immensely fulfilling. And the reason wasn't Zionism's successes—not the Nobel Prizes gleaned by Israeli scholars, not the Israeli cures for chronic diseases or the breakthroughs in alternative energy. The reason—paradoxically, perhaps—was Zionism's failures.

Failure is the price of sovereignty. Statehood means making hard and often agonizing choices—whether to attack Hamas in Palestinian neighborhoods, for example, or to suffer rocket strikes on our own territory. It requires reconciling our desire to be enlightened with our longing to remain alive. Most onerously, sovereignty involves assuming responsibility. Zionism, in my definition, means Jewish responsibility. It means taking responsibility for our infrastructure, our defense, our society and the soul of our state. It is easy to claim responsibility for victories; setbacks are far harder to embrace.

But that is precisely the lure of Zionism. Growing up in America, I felt grateful to be born in a time when Jews could assume sovereign responsibilities. Statehood is messy, but I regarded that mess as a blessing denied to my forefathers for 2,000 years. I still feel privileged today, even as Israel grapples with circumstances that are at once perilous, painful and unjust. Fighting terrorists who shoot at us from behind their own children, our children in uniform continue to be killed and wounded while much of the world brands them as war criminals.

Zionism, nevertheless, will prevail. Deriving its energy from a people that refuses to disappear and its ethos from historically tested ideas, the Zionist project will thrive. We will be vilified, we will find ourselves increasingly alone, but we will defend the homes that Zionism inspired us to build.

The Israeli media have just reported the call-up of an additional 16,000 reservists. Even as I write, they too are mobilizing for active duty—aware of the dangers, grateful for the honor and ready to bear responsibility.



Hey, Liberals Who Oppose Israel: You’re All Right-Wingers Now

Imagine a politician ascending to the governorship of a small southern state. Having campaigned on a platform of extreme patriotic fervor and religious zeal—in his stump speech, he thundered that by the grace of God, America will last as long as there exist Heaven and Earth—the governor wasted no time translating his beliefs into law. Because the governor believed that homosexuals were “a minority of perverts and the mentally and morally sick,” he outlawed them, instructing his police officers to seek, capture, beat up, and imprison every gay individual in the state. Similarly, women were deemed better off tending to their families than wasting their time with such corrupting pursuits as jobs. A special educational program was devised and approved to teach young girls the fundamentals. These future wives and mothers, read the governor’s statement, “must be fully capable of being aware and of grasping the ways to manage their households. Economy and avoiding waste in household expenditures are prerequisites to our ability to pursue our cause in the difficult circumstances surrounding us.” The men of the state reveled in this new way of life, asserting themselves as lords of their manors; before too long, nearly half of them took to regularly battering their wives.

How many of those who define themselves as liberals would support the governor? Very few, if any. More likely, our hypothetical politician would have galvanized the left into action: The cleverly worded emails from progressive organizations, the fiery segments on The Daily Show, the pledges from celebrities to stop the menace—all would have been upon us before too long. And yet when the same politician appears halfway across the world, sporting a beard and proceeding far beyond the relatively tame scenario described above—sacrificing his own nation’s children and eager to murder innocent civilians across the border—all clarity seems to dissipate. All the homicidal zealot has to do is mumble something about justice and disproportionality and self-determination, and he’s transformed into a respectable, not to say sympathetic, figure.

Which boggles the mind. Never mind that Hamas’ charter specifically states that its goal is the utter destruction of Israel—“Israel,” it reads, “by virtue of its being Jewish and of having a Jewish population, defies Islam and the Muslims”—and never mind that fundamentalist Islamic organizations like it have sprouted from different terrains and under different historical and political circumstances: For Hamas’ liberal apologists, it’s all still about the Israeli occupation. Israel withdrew nearly a decade ago? Please, that’s too confusing—as long as any conflict involving Israel anywhere is unresolved, any and all violence against Israelis, liberals now seem to believe, is justified.

Enthusiasts of nuance may argue that criticizing Israel isn’t the same as supporting Hamas. That is nominally true. It’s also largely irrelevant. Let’s indulge in one more thought exercise and assume for one moment that Israel accepted all the liberal critiques of its behaviors and acted accordingly. The force it was using was disproportionate? It withdrew most of its soldiers, curbed its artillery, and pulled back the deeply unfair advantage of the Iron Dome missile defense system. Gaza is an open-air prison, the responsibility for which lies solely with Israel and not with Gaza’s other neighbor, Egypt? Israel removed its naval and aerial blockade and opened wide its borders. You don’t have to be a three-star General to realize the outcome of such moves. Which leads us back to a terrible observation: wars are so ghastly in part because they crush so much of the ambiguity and nuance that permeates everyday life in times of peace. They’re so awful because often they force us to make stark choices that are scary and absolute, and annihilate so much of the space that exists in between polar opposites. War requires us to choose.

To my former friends on the left who see themselves as champions of progressive values while criticizing Israel’s attempts at self-defense I have this to say: You have already chosen. You’re all right-wingers now. You would probably want to cancel that monthly contribution to Planned Parenthood; the Gazan maniacs you tolerate don’t really go for that kind of stuff. And go ahead and give the membership department of the National Rifle Association a call, as you are now putting up with an organization whose passion for bearing arms at all costs far exceeds even that of the most fervent American survivalist. So please: Stop whining about the Koch brothers or the Tea Party or the Hobby Lobby ruling. In making excuses for Hamas, you’re endorsing a force of religious intolerance and a purveyor of oppression far, far more demonic than those benign forces at home you characterize as the destroyers of civil liberties and human rights.

If this terrifies you, it’s not too late to repent. All you have to do is look at your friends on what was formerly known as the right. They’re busy defending the right of a democratic nation to protect its civilians against mayhem. Like all democratic nations, the one they support is imperfect. The ongoing conflict led some Israelis to make unacceptably hateful statements; but then nearly 10,000 others joined in on a Facebook group called “Racists Who Oppress Me,” publicly shaming the bigots and calling for a civilized discourse even as the fighting continues. And despite substantial efforts to minimize civilian casualties, Palestinian non-combatants were killed; but then Israel set up a military hospital near the border crossing to make sure anyone who needed it received immediate and excellent treatment.

These, dear liberals, are the values you claim to espouse. Before you say one more thing about this conflict, ask yourself which side is fighting for a society most like the one in which you’re likely to want to live, and then support that side passionately and vigorously. And understand, please, that we’re at war, and that philosophical inquiries, existential ponderings, and musings about identity are all welcomed and valued in free societies, but that to entertain such soulful pursuits said free societies must first survive the attacks of their enemies. Unless you’re willing to embrace everything you claim to despise, we’d love to see you joining us in this war; Lord knows we could use all the help we can get.



For more blog postings from me, see  TONGUE-TIED, EDUCATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL, GREENIE WATCH,  POLITICAL CORRECTNESS WATCH, AUSTRALIAN POLITICS, and Paralipomena (Occasionally updated) and Coral reef compendium. (Updated as news items come in).  GUN WATCH is now mainly put together by Dean Weingarten.

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