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The Jewish State in Question

Nor did the setting up of the state after 1948 spell the end of the commitment of Labour Zionists to democracy, although the year of slaughter which launched the state certainly made the new Israelis—many of whom had barely escaped the Nazis—preoccupied with security matters. Chomsky rightly decries and documents many abuses of the principle of “national security” in the confiscation of certain Arab lands by the Israeli government from 1950 to 1953. Israeli leaders should have shown more concern for the Palestinians who left, should have offered just compensation and allowed more of them to return. But in this context Chomsky says nothing about the attempted invasion and the hostile encirclement by the Arab states, or indeed about the confiscations of Jewish property by these states which occurred during the same period.

The state of Israel was thus conceived as a democratic-socialist entity with a large and growing Jewish majority, offering citizenship to Jew and Arab. Ben-Gurion expected the Jews to remain a self-reliant community that would not exploit the labor of Arabs but would extend to them what were, at this time, very considerable social services. The groundwork for this policy was already laid by the anticolonialist industrial and social strategy of the Histadrut during the 1920s and 1930s.5

But from the outset Ben-Gurion had to enter into parliamentary coalitions with the religious parties in order to govern. The latter have not really been out of government since, and they have greatly distorted the development of Israeli civil law. Chomsky believes this alliance goes deeper than coalition politics and no doubt there have evolved personal ties between Labour and National Religious Party functionaries that have become difficult to break. But Rabin’s first government excluded the NRP—over the question of “Who is a Jew?”—and did so with suppressed relief. There is no shared spirit of Orthodox legalism lurking at the roots of this alliance.

Ben-Gurion wanted the state to provide a modern center of Jewish culture and a dependable refuge from European anti-Semitism; goals which could be reached only if the state were to have a Jewish majority, and which were severely hampered, to put it mildly, by the “binationalism” of the Mandate. The state of Israel need not be presumed, however, to embody “Jewish national values”—as if this were some closed body of dogma—but rather to protect Jews and foster a common language and an eclectic Jewish culture. These aims do not necessarily prevent the Jewish state from doing the same for minorities and their cultures or, conversely, from encouraging their assimilation.6 Even if, as Chomsky claims, Israel has wholly failed on both counts regarding its minorities—something I would dispute—this is not because the Jews of Israel have become “possessed of the idea” of a state.

Chomsky is surely right to perceive and condemn the vulgar Jewish nationalism which became an element of Israeli foreign policy after the 1967 war—the swaggering Sabra mythology that was promoted by figures such as Dayan or the writer Moshe Shamir and that served to reinforce a callous disregard by many Israelis for the civil rights of Israeli Arabs or for Palestinian national aspirations. But Ben-Gurion’s modest notion of statehood, although compromised by Israel’s greater financial dependence on the support of American and European Jews, is still strong in Israeli Labour politics.

One typical example of this was the celebrated alarm of the Mapai party boss Pinhas Sapir over the so-called “demographic problem.” Sapir feared, and was widely supported in his view, that the Jewish character of the state would be ended if Israel held on to occupied territories and the one million Arabs living on them. One may marvel at his characteristic shortsightedness. He seems to think that having an equal Arab population would pose an entirely new challenge for Israel’s national identity, while a 20 percent Arab and Druze population poses none at all. Nevertheless, Sapir’s criteria are consistent with original Labour Zionist convictions that the “character” of the state turns on numbers, a point which is of little concern to, say, Menahem Begin. (Such convictions have been strengthened, I believe, since October 1973.) Israel is a Jewish state in that it is a democracy dominated by Jews, who, not accidentally, have a large majority; they have not done so well during this century without it.

But Chomsky is right nevertheless when he argues that Israeli democracy since 1948 has seriously failed with respect to the Arab population, and, for the Jews themselves, is far from satisfactory. Israel suffers from many discriminatory institutions and practices, many of them deriving directly from the Mandate period. Those who are not legally defined as Jews are excluded from the lands owned by the Jewish National Fund and from access to the funds of the Jewish Agency. This means that some of the most desirable lands in Israel are closed to Arab farmers and home builders, neither of whom could now be said to pose any threat justifying such discrimination. Rabbis elected by Orthodox rabbinic councils still control important parts of the civil law. Israeli laws of censorship and preventive detention—both inherited from the British—have been particularly hard on dissident Arabs. I have already written in these pages about the way the electoral laws favor the despotism of the party bosses.7

Nor, as Chomsky would rightly insist, have these discriminatory practices been seriously challenged by Jewish democrats. There was little protest from Jews in the early Fifties when the Israel Land Authority expropriated the allegedly “abandoned” Arab lands; just as there is very little protest today when Israeli Arab political agitators are expelled from the country as if they had no rights at all.8 Chomsky justifiably criticizes these injustices in much detail. But he is only partially accurate about their cause. The series of wars Israel has been fighting since the Arabs rejected the 1947 partition have done much more damage to democratic life in Israel than has “vulgar Zionism.” Israeli Jews are haunted by the prospect of a huge fifth column among Israeli Arabs and have been understandably cautious about permitting them to participate fully in the national life. This fear is exacerbated by the terrorism of the Fedayeen who have been an important weapon of Arab encirclement for thirty years. One might expect that Chomsky would be inclined to appreciate those democratic standards which Israelis have kept up in spite of the obstacles they have faced.

Chomsky has no such inclination. That the Druzes and the Arabs in Israel feel estranged from the Israeli state9—although certainly not from Israeli Jews—is, for him, evidence only of the state’s repressiveness. But the frustrations and anger of the Arabs and Druzes can also be taken as evidence of the considerable political, technological, and educational advances which they have made in Israel, and which encourage them to step up their wholly justified demands for equal opportunity in housing and employment, and for equal attention from the state bureaucracy.10 Israel now faces a crisis over civil rights within its old borders because, despite the government’s authoritarian and politically expedient policies, it has nevertheless ended for most Israeli Arabs and Druzes the illiteracy, the numbing poverty, the primitive social services, and the domination by religious-aristocratic elites that were so characteristic of the communities that stayed put in 1948.

Indeed, except in Nazareth, most Israeli Arab leaders believed the modernizing influence of Jewish society to be highly threatening and a state policy of “benign neglect” to be more congenial. But precisely because a new generation has enjoyed a good many democratic rights, Israeli minorities, particularly young people, are now finding it all the more repugnant to be denied the full privileges and responsibilities of citizenship. In fact, a recurring demand of Arab civil rights groups—such as the small one at Abu Ghosh as late as 1972—is to be conscripted, like the Druzes, into the Israel Defense Forces (which they see as a means of integrating themselves into Israeli society).

Such a demand would make no sense to Chomsky. He wants to equate the discrimination against Israeli Arabs with the outright denials of political rights to the Palestinian Arabs in occupied territory. This serves the rather elegant argument he makes in favor of binationalism, but it severely distorts the democratic and secularist possibilities of the Israeli state. The latter certainly is in need of further liberalization, for Jews as well as for Arabs and Druzes. But one would have hoped that Chomsky could channel his energies into a defense of, say, Shulamit Aloni’s proposed bill to have the “nationality” (Leom) designation removed from Israeli ID cards, rather than denigrating the very possibility of democratic values in Israel—a denigration that encourages those who, unlike Chomsky, hypocritically attack the quality of Israeli democracy but really want to destroy Jewish national life.

But refuting Chomsky’s argument against any specifically “Jewish” state on these grounds may be irrelevant to the image of justice implicit in his book. I suspect that Chomsky is unsympathetic to those who need and cherish their national culture, and worse, who act politically to preserve it. He would I think be uneasy about any society whose citizens were very different from the culturally neuter “internationalists” of his socialist utopia in Palestine:

Any individual will be free to live where he wants, to be free from religious control, to define himself as a Jew, an Arab, or something else, and to live accordingly. People will be united by bonds other than their identification as Jews or Arabs (or lack of any such identification)…. The society will not be a Jewish state or an Arab state, but rather a democratic, multinational society.

Chomsky seems not to realize that men are seldom “free” to define themselves as Jews, or Arabs, or “something else,” in the same way as they choose graduate schools; that their particular language and culture are their indispensable means for working out their lives; and that to lose them can be no less dispiriting and tragic for a man than the loss of his land or his tailor shop. Recognizing this is what, after all, animates both Jewish and Palestinian nationalists; not the sophistic image of a “multinational society” in which “human bonds” are as purely metaphysical as in liberalism’s “state of nature.”

Considering his distaste for nationalism, however, Chomsky’s second major argument for a binational state is baffling; for he also maintains that the most uncompromising territorial claims of Jewish and Arab nationalists have equal moral validity—that “Palestinian Arab and Israeli have equal rights in the whole territory of Mandate Palestine.”

This is unworthy of Chomsky’s considerable talents. Surely he would not have us adopt a faith in binationalism so that we may, presumably, reconcile the inflated moral claims of Palestinians, typified by Arafat’s address at the UN, to those of the Likud demagogue Menahem Begin, both of whom demand the entire land of Mandate Palestine and deny the other’s right to national existence. I suspect that most of us would prefer rather more utilitarian standards in order to promote the humanism that Chomsky professes; i.e., we would ask how elementary human suffering can be minimized immediately, and how the irreducible cultural and economic needs of both sides can find satisfactory political and territorial expression in the longer run. Applying these criteria, reasonable men could dismiss the brutal demands of Arab or Jewish extremists, but they would also have to discriminate among conflicting moral priorities: i.e., they could recognize both the claims of the Zionist settlers in 1936 for a home and refuge in Palestine, despite Arab hatred, and the claims of Palestinians in 1974 for a home and refuge on the West bank and Gaza, despite right-wing Jewish irredentism. (The equally powerful claim of Palestinians to the East Bank is not in Israel’s hands to satisfy.) It is regrettable that Chomsky should have missed this chance to be reasonable.

But like a lawyer so wrapped up in his argument for a client’s case that he seems indifferent to his client’s real welfare, Chomsky himself seems only perfunctorily concerned about the lives of real people, Short of “socialist binationalism” even peace itself seems, for Chomsky, hardly worth a great deal of effort. He denigrates first partition, then the Rogers Plan (just another Pax Americana), and lately the principle of an independent Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza, which would merely result, he contends, in the “Balkanization” of the Middle East. He does not quite ignore but he does not seem strongly concerned about the immediate horrors of the Palestinian refugee camps, of the situation of the Jews still living in Arab lands, of the terrorism and bombing that stalk sleeping children in a climate of insurmountable mutual hatred between two embattled and wounded peoples.

Chomsky would have us reject—from a “radical perspective”—the prospect, however risky, of two independent, self-developing states in historic Palestine. He contends that a West Bank Palestinian state would not be economically workable,11 and even if it were, it would be “dominated” by Israel, Jordan, and “US imperialism.”12 Such a state would be a “repressive” and “irredentist” society in a Middle East already full of these. Perhaps. But he neglects to add that this would still be a substantial improvement.

Moreover, I don’t understand how Chomsky can argue that the underdeveloped economy of the West Bank is an obstacle to genuine Palestinian independence and yet not see this same underdevelopment as an obstacle to binationalism. (See page 31.) Surely under current economic conditions no binational arrangement in Palestine could avoid turning it into another Algeria—with Jews in the situation of the French—particularly without strong labor movements (and institutions) willing to cooperate on both sides. Socialist binationalism is more easily imagined than constructed.

To his credit, Chomsky acknowledges the “absence of a common program” between Israelis and Palestinian socialists. But he fails to see that for a common program to have some political significance there must be some symmetry in the social and political composition of the societies that are presumably expected to support it. This symmetry is lacking between Israel and Arab Palestine and makes Chomsky’s “principle of economic integration” irrelevant. The Palestine Arab mayors, lawyers, village leaders, and other elites are only now contemplating modernization and industrialization; their society on the West Bank is still “traditional,” despite the economic advances since 1967, and socialism, let alone binationalism, remains for them a threatening and alien concept. It will be difficult enough for Palestinian Arab economic elites—even with the participation of the PLO—to persuade the Palestinian masses to turn from traditional, small-holding agriculture to industrial production. Only by organizing West Bank agriculture on Stalinist lines could Palestinian socialists expect to emulate (i.e., caricature) the kibbutz model which Chomsky admires so much. And Arab socialists are themselves hard to come by.

Chomsky tries to dispel these differences between Israeli and Arab economic practice by digging up the vague binationalist pronouncements of obscure Arab figures, and by counterposing them to Jewish binational programs from the Mandate period. As he acknowledges, the Mapai leadership (Ben-Gurion, Ben-Zvi, Katznelson), the left-wing leaders of Hashomer Hatzair (even at the Biltmore conference), Weizmann, Ruppin, Magnes and Buber, and others, were all at various times proponents of binationalism. But these men dominated the political life of the Yishuv. By comparison, courageous Arab martyrs to the cause of binationalism (although I doubt socialism), such as Fawzi Husseini, the Mufti’s nephew, will likely be remembered mainly for their having been mentioned in Chomsky’s book.

The Arabs of Palestine are not interested in socialist binationalism; and even the Israeli left has long since become contemptuous of it, particularly when Israeli children are killed in its name. (Nayif Hawatmeh flaunted a policy resembling binationalism a few weeks before his group attacked at Maalot.) This is not to insult the often exciting visions which Chomsky proposes: he wants genuine national autonomy for a new state that will be free of great-power meddling. He hopes for cooperation between Jews and Arabs, perhaps under some mutually advantageous federal structure, a greater degree of cosmopolitanism, etc. Perhaps if peace ever comes, Chomsky’s suggestions for transnational economic arrangements and greater cultural understanding and contacts will become irresistible; more than a few claustrophobic Israelis are already hungry for the latter. But if “vulgar nationalism” might be an early victim of peace, still, the ideas of socialism and internationalism will not help much to bring peace about.

In fact, Chomsky has ironically overlooked something that is obvious to anyone who has visited Israel since 1967 (as Chomsky has not); namely that the improved relations between Israeli Jews and West Bank Arabs are primarily the result of market relations. The relatively anonymous and self-interested transactions of buyer and seller in West Bank bazaars and Tel Aviv department stores have provided many Israelis and Arabs with their first person to person contacts with one another, however superficial and suspicious these encounters have often been. Imagine by contrast the frustrations of nationalist-minded Arab and Jewish workers’ parties trying to forge a “common program” even before any of the banal mutual interests that one would hope could evolve between them first exist; as they now do exist for example between Arab and Jewish taxi drivers in Jerusalem, or between Jewish electricians and the Arab construction workers who were only recently organized by the Histadrut; or among intellectuals in the universities and cafes.

The fruit of a contact of this last kind, which, for all its melodrama, deals realistically and in a human way with serious issues, appears in Between Enemies, the recently published dialogue between the Egyptian scholar Sana Hassan and the Israeli journalist Amos Elon. If one has the patience to wade through their sometimes over-indulgent confessions (some doubtless will see this as a strength) one will be rewarded with a perceptive and often thorough airing of the very fragile political options emerging since October, 1973, those very options with which Chomsky only toys. One will not find in this book the well-articulated opinions which both authors have offered us elsewhere. They nevertheless manage to touch on many of the central issues, and it is therefore exhilarating that they agree on so much: most important, about the need to base a settlement not upon mutual trust but rather upon a cautious reconciliation of Palestinian national needs to the security interests of Israel. Even if they do not speak for their respective governments, they seem to speak for optimism itself; their disdain for cynicism, at any rate, is infectious.

Optimism, it is true, has been taking a beating since this dialogue took place. This does not, however, invalidate the authors’ call for the Palestinians and the Israeli government to reach some sort of compromise at last. In fact recent events make this call all the more urgent.

Mrs. Hassan is surely right—both in this book and recently in her article in The New York Review13—to exhort the Israeli government to affirm its support for Palestinian national rights, a policy which would entail little risk and which is consistent with the “fourteen points” with which the Labour Alignment last went to the voters. The government’s recent attempts to resurrect the Allon Plan—Jordanian and Israeli condominium over an area run by West Bank “notables”—will likely fail now that Hussein has been so undermined and that Arafat’s popularity on the West Bank seems to be growing steadily. Hussein will find it difficult enough over the next few years to achieve “condominium” between his own Bedouin-Hashemite regime and the Palestinians who are a majority even on the “East Bank” which he now rules.

One must anyway wonder how sincere Foreign Minister Allon is about negotiating with some West Bank political leaders who might be capable of attracting wide support when his government summarily expels such moderate nationalists as Dr. Alfred Tubasi and Dr. Hana Nasser, the head of Bir Zeit College in Ramallah, for expressing solidarity with the PLO. These men could be an indispensable bridge to the PLO and could inject more pragmatic thinking into this organization. Such Israeli expulsions only reinforce extremism among potential Arab allies in the same way that Arafat’s talk about a democratic, secular Palestine greatly inhibits support for the PLO within Israel.

However, diplomacy is not courtship. Israeli moderates such as Hannah Zemmer, editor of the Labour Party’s daily, Davar, are surely correct to press the Israeli government to pursue contacts with the PLO and to throw the ball back into its court. Indeed, the PLO’s proposals to negotiate at Geneva to set up a “national authority” might be explored; for the process of negotiation itself could help to establish de facto recognition of Israel by the PLO. Menahem Begin’s proposal that Israel “answer Arafat” with further Jewish settlement in the West Bank is nothing short of disastrous. As Professor Amnon Rubinstein of Tel Aviv Law School suggests (Ha’aretz, November 22, 1974), this policy would only guarantee the estrangement of Israel’s friends from its foreign policy and ensure that the Jewish state, as in 1956, would have to come to terms under even less desirable conditions than at present. Rabin’s forcible evacuation of Jewish squatters from the West Bank last summer was therefore far more perceptive than his recent announcement that Israel was going ahead with a plan to close the Jewish ring around Jerusalem.

No one should underestimate the substantial problems that would have to be overcome in constructing an independent Palestinian state—e.g., effective demilitarization, absorption of refugees, settling territorial claims. However nothing should be done at this point to compromise the possibility of a West Bank-Gaza Palestinian “authority” that might leave some of these problems for future negotiation but could still produce a basis for the national coexistence of Palestinians and Jews.

  1. 5

    See my forthcoming article “Zionist Colonialism: Myth and Dilemma,” in Dissent, Spring, 1975.

  2. 6

    Michael Walzer’s criticism of Chomsky in the New York Times Book Review (October 6) fails on this point. Although Chomsky is very casual about the need which Jewish refugees have had (and from the Soviet Union still have) for the “Law of Return,” he is right to insist that legally and administratively there can be no such person as a “real Israeli” (i.e., “Jew,” according to Minorities Adviser Shmuel Tolidano); that in practice absorption of non-Jews into Israeli society should not be impeded by the legal definitions of Jew that the Rabbis jealously guard. Walzer’s reply that “an Arab can become a French citizen but not a Frenchman” is clearly false (except for periods of French history hardly worthy of emulation). This kind of “political realism” is no substitute for democratic standards. See Chomsky, page 127, and Walzer, page 6.

  3. 7

    See “Israel: The Last Hurrah,” NYR, May 2; and “Israel: The Threat from the Right,” NYR, May 16.

  4. 8

    A notable exception to this indifference was the movement, widely supported by Israeli academics and writers, to permit the expelled Maronite Arab residents of the towns of Biram and Ikrit to return to their homes during 1972-1973. Dayan balked, on grounds of “security considerations,” but the movement continued to grow until it was undermined by the October war. Chomsky refers to the expulsion but not to the backlash (see page 32).

  5. 9

    Sol Stern, writing for the New Statesman in December, 1972, wryly observed that the Syrian spy ring which had just been exposed, and which created such a sensation because it included two Jewish kibbutzniks, should have created a far greater sensation for its large number of Israeli Arabs; though ignored by the press, the latter represented the far greater challenge to Israeli society.

  6. 10

    The numbers of Arabs and Druzes attending school in 1948 was 10,000; in 1972, 117,000. They had five agricultural machines in 1948; in 1972, almost 1,000.

  7. 11

    The economic argument that an independent Palestinian state would be “nonviable” is a mysterious one. It seems to be based on the physiocratic notion that the land is productive only up to a point and no further, while ignoring the striking industrial example of Israel next door. Palestinian Arabs could likely count on development capital from the sheiks and on a million “freed” industrial workers from the camps; these would seem plausible conditions for undertaking modern economic development.

  8. 12

    Some might argue that so much “domination” would promote the survival of such a Palestinian state. Both Israel and Jordan would each be intent on keeping the other’s army out of this territory; while it is clearly in the interest of the United States to stabilize an area so close to the Persian Gulf by providing the Palestinians with aid and suitable guarantees for their security.

  9. 13

    NYR, November 14.

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