• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

The Jewish State in Question

Peace in the Middle East? Reflections on Justice and Nationhood

by Noam Chomsky
Pantheon, 198 pp., $1.95 (paper)

Between Enemies: A Compassionate Dialogue Between an Israeli and an Arab

by Amos Elon, by Sana Hassan
Random House, 151 pp., $5.95

When Ford and Brezhnev recently met, they announced, predictably, that it would be desirable to revive the Arab-Israeli peace talks. But even if a new conference at Geneva had their backing, it would be hard to imagine a more difficult time for the shaky Rabin government to accept an invitation to go there. The National Religious Party, still formally opposed to giving back the West Bank to anybody, is back in the government coalition, while Shulamit Aloni and her contingent of moderates are out. Rabin and his political advisers have apparently decided to purchase a small measure of parliamentary stability at an exorbitant cost to their diplomatic flexibility. They are no doubt afraid of an election in the face of recent economic and social dislocation in Israel’s major cities.

On the other hand, Hussein’s humiliating defeat by Arafat at Rabat, followed by the PLO leader’s more glamorous, although politically less significant, appearance at the General Assembly, has appeared to settle for a while the question of who represents the diplomatic interests of the Palestinian people. Even more distressing for Israelis, perhaps, is that recent demonstrations of support for Arafat on the West Bank seem to indicate that this issue is being settled for the Palestinian Arabs in the occupied territories as well.

The attempts of the last six months by Rabin and Kissinger to entice Sadat into serious bilateral negotiations have been stalled, eclipsed by the Palestinian question. But, even if most Israelis were now convinced that the PLO is a genuine party to the conflict, the PLO is giving little evidence that it intends to be a party to a settlement. Despite veiled hints to the contrary by a few PLO spokesmen,1 Arafat remains adamant in his refusal to respect either the principle or the reality of Jewish national existence, let alone renounce his claims to all of old Mandate Palestine.

However, the new legitimacy accorded the PLO, compounded by the depressing threat of war, have led various writers, among them some Israelis, to reconsider the historic raisons d’étre of the Jewish state.2 Noam Chomsky has been troubled by these justifications for many years, and he now could not have a more dramatic political backdrop for publishing his conclusions. His new book is so timely in fact that one wishes that it were better.

The young Karl Marx once complained about the many socialist theorists in his day who seemed to believe that water flowed downward because men were possessed of the idea of gravity. Chomsky’s essays are heavily burdened by a similar idealism. This is unfortunate; for Chomsky’s sustained attack on “Zionist” impediments to “brotherhood” detract greatly from his otherwise valuable and periodically prophetic observations about Israeli society. So, too, does the way he uses the principle of socialist binationalism as a deus ex machina that could resolve the conflict.

Chomsky argues repeatedly that in so far as Israel is a “Jewish state” it cannot, in view of its substantial Arab (and Druze?) minority, also be a democratic state. On this premise he bases his conviction that binationalism is the “right” (“just,” “correct,” “better”) method for the residents of historic Palestine to organize themselves. By “binationalism” he does not mean simply that two peoples would live as separate entities in one mutually convenient political entity, but that this state would reflect fraternal relations of Jewish and Arab workers. Chomsky also has been persuaded that the claims of both Palestinian Arabs and Israelis to the whole territory of Mandate Palestine are equally cogent; so any formula to share it must imply some binational arrangement. Both of Chomsky’s premises seem to me misleading and contradictory.

Israel can be a democratic state to the extent that it impartially and strongly guarantees civil liberties for all of its citizens, has publicly accountable government institutions, and makes it possible for everyone to have enough of a share of common resources so that all can carry on decent lives. The “Jewishness” of Israeli society, although surely not beside the point for Jews, is beside the point for democrats; indeed to the extent that the Israeli state apparatus falls short of democratic standards, Jews, Arabs, and Druze may all suffer directly. Jewish society in Israel is itself anything but monolithic, and Jewish democrats—who have been active in most of the political parties (from the Liberals on the right to Mapam on the left) but who increasingly belong to independent civil rights groups—have a sharp sense of their stake in constitutional liberties and in diversity.

Chomsky knows this. Although he is skeptical about their cause, he admires Israeli civil libertarians and realizes they have a powerful forum in the newspaper Ha’aretz. But Chomsky’s book mainly ignores their struggle and is based instead on a tidy, casuistic syllogism—that a Jewish state plus a large Arab minority implies an undemocratic society. For him a Jewish state apparatus can only be the product of a crass nationalistic movement that intends to exclude Arabs from the national life. To show that “Zionism” has become such a movement, he makes a brief historical argument recalling the romantic and martial doctrines of the right-wing Revisionists, who under Jabotinsky’s leadership were the bitter opponents of the Labour Zionists in the 1930s and 1940s (and whose heirs can be found in the Likud today, led by Menahem Begin).

The Revisionists, it is true, wanted nothing less than a Jewish Risorgimento in the whole land of the ancient tribes of Israel, and were generally indifferent to Palestinian Arab national rights. The state, in their view, would have to foster “Jewish destiny” in a way reminiscent of—but less morally scrupulous than—Orthodox Jewish messianism. The Arabs would only be guests of the Jewish state (the liturgy instructs magnanimity to “strangers”), labor “freely” in the Jewish economy, or conveniently move elsewhere. Moreover, when Revisionism evolved into the Irgun underground during the holocaust (under Begin’s leadership) their fatalism and militarism were merged into an ideology.

Chomsky is right about, although gratuitously nasty to, right-wing Zionism;3 but he neglects to analyze in any depth why the Revisionists and the Labour Zionists were so bitterly opposed even after Ben-Gurion and his dominant Labour faction decided that it was necessary to have an independent state. In fact, Chomsky tendentiously suggests that when, at the Biltmore Hotel conference in 1942, the Labour Zionists (except for Mapam) abandoned their deliberately vague claim to a Jewish “homeland” and demanded in effect a Jewish state they stealthily took over the precepts of the Revisionists. This was a time when the Labour Zionist army, the Haganah, was stalking the Irgun in Palestine, and the Revisionist movement was in a shambles following Jabotinsky’s death. Nevertheless, the Biltmore conference for Chomsky was the turning point: “Zionism” has been slipping down the slope of chauvinism ever since. Nor, in his view, could this decline have been avoided. A Jewish state ipso facto means Jewish “privilege” that is incompatible with democracy because, if the state is to have a Jewish character, it simply has to discriminate against Arabs. Now, as in the Forties, he sees no alternative.

The Labour Zionists, however, did seek an alternative at the Biltmore hotel, although most knew it was far from perfect. In the 1930s, when they were trying to secure only some Jewish “homeland,” they promoted any number of binationalist ideas—all of them stubbornly opposed by Palestinian Arabs. Even at the Biltmore conference, convened a few months after the tragic sinkings of the Patria and Struma (ships laden with Jewish refugees which the British turned away from Palestine), Mapai, Ben-Gurion’s own party, first abstained on his motion for a state, while Chaim Weizmann, on his right, and the Mapam party on his left, opposed it on the grounds that some binational solution must still be found. The Revisionists were not invited to participate.

Moreover, although Ben-Gurion was devoted to Jewish culture he did not derive his political convictions mechanically. He was an admirer of Spinoza and Marx no less than of the Torah. His romance with the Jewish community in Palestine (the Yishuv) was not a matter of irredentist claims or commitment to some Darwinian nationstate. He adopted the goal of a Jewish state as a pragmatic and limited instrument to deal with a series of dilemmas that Chomsky doesn’t really consider: the British administration favored the Arabs and the latter steadfastly opposed Jewish immigration to Palestine even during Himmler’s most murderous days; the US and the Western democracies maintained “closed-door” immigration policies; even later, after the trauma of Nazi genocide, there was the question of what was to be done with the tens of thousands of Jewish DPs still in European camps. If there was a way for Jews in Palestine to protect themselves and to secure the safety and dignity of those Jews desperate for Palestine without an independent state apparatus, neither Chomsky nor anyone else has suggested how this could have been done.

The Labour Zionists’ idea of a Jewish state thus meant something quite different to them from the chauvinist strawman Chomsky makes of it when he speaks of a “tension in Zionism”—between, on the one hand, the universalist idealism he would admire in such Zionists as Martin Buber and, on the other, the vulgar nationalism of which Biltmore was presumably the first of many triumphs. This abstract way of putting things avoids considering the actual political battles fought out among the Zionists themselves. In fact, the struggle between the Revisionist Irgun and socialist Haganah culminated precisely in the dispute over the nature of the Jewish state. The Irgun insisted upon Jewish sovereignty in the whole of Mandate Palestine; it took part in the slaughter at the Arab village of Deir Yassin—an act the Haganah condemned with revulsion—which terrified Jerusalem Arabs and caused thousands of them to flee.

By contrast, Ben-Gurion accepted partition in 1947; he was prepared to settle for a much smaller state on various tracts of territory where substantial Jewish majorities were already living or would soon be after the arrival of refugees; a settlement that Palestinians such as Fawaz Turki now regret the Arabs rejected when their armies attacked. The Labour Zionists made it clear that their idea of a state was practical, limited, and devoid of ambitions to dominate Arabs. BenGurion backed this up with force, preventing the Irgun from carrying on independently with the arms they were to have obtained on the ship Altalena, and by putting this group under the command of the new Israel Defense Forces in 1948. But these actions were in no way inconsistent with the Biltmore resolution which had demanded that “Palestine be established as a Jewish Commonwealth, integrated in the structure of the new democratic world.”4 Indeed, six years later when the Yishuv was invaded, and the Arabs of Haifa were fleeing in panic, the socialist mayor pleaded with them in vain for thirty-six hours by loudspeaker to stay. One would know none of this from Chomsky’s book.

  1. 1

    The Israeli paper Maariv reported (on November 4) that a meeting of Israeli academics and PLO representatives in Baden, Austria (under the auspices of “Pugwash”), produced a resolution calling for mutual recognition by Israelis and Palestinian Arabs of the others’ national rights. Borders were not discussed. More significant however has been the conspicuous purge of PFLP terrorists which Fatah seems to be carrying out in Beirut—culminating in the proposed show trial of the Tunis hijackers.

  2. 2

    See Nahum Goldmann’s searching and eloquent reappraisal in New Outlook, November, 1974.

  3. 3

    For example, he buries in a footnote that it is still “generally assumed” that the Revisionists murdered socialist leader Chaim Arlosoroff in 1933. This issue has been laid to rest long ago by persuasive evidence (including the testimony of Arlosoroff’s wife, and more important, the testimony of a Jewish policeman involved in the investigation) that he was killed by Arab thugs, and that the Revisionists arrested were framed. In any event, the charge is certainly not “generally assumed” any longer. Also he ignores the Irgun’s courage in fighting the Nazis, and its contribution to the fight against the British.

  4. 4

    See Christopher Sykes, Crossroads to Israel (World, 1965; Indiana University Press, paper, 1973), p. 236.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print