It’s 2013. Let’s debate Zionism!

It’s 2013. Let’s debate Zionism!

At a synagogue talk I gave last week, the topic turned to the treatment of Israel’s Arab citizens. A woman in the audience was obviously upset.

“You talk about the Israeli Arabs, but how much more should we give them?” she asked. “They have schools, they get health care, they can get jobs. Isn’t that enough?”

This, in my business, is known as a “slow pitch.”

“You’re right, you don’t have to give the Israeli Arabs anything,” I said. “But the real question is, what kind of country do you want Israel to be? We call it the only real democracy in the Middle East — is it living up to that? Its own proclamation of independence promises ‘complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants’ — did they really mean it?”

A few days later I attended a talk on “American Zionism” by Marc Dollinger of the Department of Jewish Studies at San Francisco State. Speaking at Temple Emeth in Teaneck, Dollinger recapped a century of debate and rancor among American Jews, some of whom embraced the idea of a Jewish homeland, others who rejected the idea outright. While the fact of Israel turned nearly all of us into supporters of Israel, it didn’t resolve the vexing questions about what it means to be a Zionist — especially for those who have no intention of moving to Israel.

These kinds of discussions — honest, often uncomfortable — are what I recall when someone insists that “no one is talking about” Israeli democracy, or minority rights in Israel, or the thorny identity issues of Jewish statehood.

It’s true — a lot of defenders of Israel would rather not dwell on the ways the country falls short. But “Israel advocacy” isn’t the only way through which Israel’s supporters relate to the country. I am frequently in mainstream settings where both the speakers and the audience acknowledge the contradictions that Israel lives under. They are proud of Israeli NGOs that monitor human and civil rights. They follow internal Israeli arguments over peace and security, or debate whether a “Jewish democracy” can survive when so many Arab non-citizens remain essentially under Israeli control.

So it’s not that Israel’s supporters don’t think about these issues. They do. What drives anti-Zionists and non-Zionists nuts is that we talk about these issues and nevertheless conclude that Israel has a right to exist.

The New York Times has recently seen fit to publish two different essays that, in the sarcastic words of a friend, “trumpet the forgotten beauty of rejecting Jewish statehood.” Last month, a philosophy professor named Joseph Levine carefully, logically argued that questioning Israel’s right to exist “does not manifest anti-Semitism.” Let’s grant him that. But it does manifest a weird insistence on erasing 65 years of history and about seven million people in service of a thought experiment. I’m not talking about genocide. I’m talking about reducing a thriving nation state to a philosophical concept.

And it’s not just Jewish philosophers debating this point, the Times assures us. Last week they marked the 70th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising with an op-ed by a Yale historian, Marci Shore. What begins as a tribute to the resistance fighters and one of their commanders, Marek Edelman, ends with a barely disguised attack on Zionism itself.

You see, writes Shore, because Edelman didn’t embrace Zionism and remained in Poland after the war, he is remembered with “some ambivalence” in Israel.

Shore’s intention, I suppose, is to correct the perception, promulgated by Israel in its founding years, that it was the muscular young Zionists who alone stood up to the Nazis. Fair enough — Israeli journalist Tom Segev made the same point in his 2000 book, The Seventh Million, and I don’t know a serious Israeli scholar or museum that teaches otherwise.

But Shore’s very last paragraph suggests something else. She quotes her 1997 interview with Edelman, who tells her that the loss of its Jews was “sad for Poland because a single-nation state is never a good thing.” Never? Not even when a diverse nation-state like Poland turns into a charnel house?

Levine said he is sharing his anti-Zionist views because the “general fealty” to the idea that Jews deserve a state of their own “has seriously constrained open debate on the issue.” (If only a major newspaper would publish his findings!) I don’t know what skin Shore has in this game, although I note that in a 2011 essay in Sh’ma, titled “The Birth of a Rootless Cosmopolitan,” she romanticizes the state-less state of Eastern European Jewry — “a life of hovering on the margins of various cultures” — before the Holocaust.

At least Levine grants that “today millions of Jews live in Israel and, ancestral homeland or not, this is their home now.” It seems he merely wants to be able to think about these “problems” without being called an anti-Semite. Fine. Gai gezunterhait. The problem is that Israel is surrounded by people that actually do want it to disappear, and they tend not to be philosophers or historians. And assurances from America’s most powerful newspaper that Israel’s existence is a topic worth debating is exactly the encouragement they are looking for.

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