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An Exchange on the Jewish State

To the Editors:

Bernard Avishai’s review of my Peace in the Middle East? (NYR, January 23) is a melange of truths, half-truths, and serious misrepresentations. He gives few explicit references. Thus it is not easy to see on what he bases his judgments and criticisms, though it is easy enough to show that the latter are groundless.

Avishai objects to my views on two specific matters: socialist binationalism and the problem of democracy in a Jewish State. Consider the first. According to him, “Short of ‘socialist binationalism’ even peace itself seems, for Chomsky, hardly worth a great deal of effort.” Thus I “would have us reject…the prospect, however risky, of two independent, self-developing states in historic Palestine” (I take it that he means cis-Jordan) and I “neglect to add that this would still be a substantial improvement.” I “denigrate” all practical steps, and seem “only perfunctorily concerned about the lives of real people” because of my abstract commitment to socialist binationalism. He suspects further that I am “unsympathetic to those who need and cherish their national culture, and worse, who act politically to preserve it.” I demand that citizens should be “the culturally neuter ‘internationalists’ of [my] socialist utopia,” a utopia described in a passage that he cites with several crucial omissions. To these “abstract” views he counterposes his own belief that “perhaps if peace ever comes, Chomsky’s suggestions for transnational economic arrangements and greater cultural understanding and contacts will become irresistible.”

Now to the facts. The position that Avishai counterposes to mine is the one that I put forth throughout (except that I never say that the suggestions will become “irresistible”). The position that he attributes to me is one that I reject, explicitly and repeatedly. In the Introduction, I discuss sympathetically the views of those marginal groups that have “sought a way out of the impasse through recognition of Palestinian rights,” citing Siah’s call for a two-state settlement in cis-Jordan. I point out that the only short-range hope for peace lies in such a solution, though it will be an ugly one, for reasons I explain. I note that this settlement will realize fears expressed long ago by Zionist leaders who warned that such a Jewish State would “be nothing but a new Montenegro or Lithuania” (to update the reference, we might say “a new Cyprus or Ulster”), and I express the hope that “after the experience of building and living in new Montenegros and Lithuanias, Jews and Arabs may turn to a better way,” based on classical Zionist principles of parity and non-domination.

I then outline the “socialist utopia” to which Avishai alludes, emphasizing that in it “Each people will have the right to participate in self-governing national institutions” and that “the right of return” will be granted to “Jews who wish to find their place in this national homeland” (as to Palestinians); Avishai’s quote omits these sentences, crucially, for had he included them he could not have gone on to speculate on my lack of sympathy for nationalism or its political expression, or my “casual attitude” toward the needs of Russian refugees. I then explain that this is only a “dim prospect,” presupposing the development of socialist movements in the region and “an international socialist movement that does not now exist,” but that “it is important to keep that hope alive….” Elsewhere, I cite a socialist Zionist journal in Israel which observes (1969) that even a long-range program of binationalism may make Jews and Arabs “readier to yield the short-range concessions that more immediate agreements will demand”—a point often overlooked.

In essays written before October 1973, I praised the efforts of groups supporting a two-state solution, while noting that “their program is unrealistic,” because “unless great power pressure is employed—an unlikely as well as ugly prospect—the argument against withdrawal will always be persuasive within Israel.” As events demonstrated, this assessment was accurate. I therefore proposed, as a dim but no less realistic prospect, that the Israeli left press for some form of federalism, with such initial steps as permitting free political expression and organization in the occupied areas, moves toward political parity and economic equality in two self-governing regions, etc. This approach, I argued, offered the basis for a long-term settlement more just and responsive to real needs of Jews and Arabs, while maximizing security. By October 1973, these opportunities had been lost; it is interesting that now, when they are meaningless, such proposals are being made by Israeli Ministers. What stood in the way of any such attempt was a simple fact that Avishai never properly recognizes: the commitment of the Israeli government to Jewish dominance throughout the region, including much of the occupied territories.

I will not try to argue the substantive points here. Comparing Avishai’s version with the facts, it is clear that the picture he gives is false in every essential respect. It is interesting that similar distortions have appeared in virtually every review by an American (or in this case, Canadian) Zionist, but in no foreign (including Israeli) review that I have seen.

On one point Avishai is correct: I did “denigrate” the Rogers plan. Since he does not say why, let me fill the gap: The Rogers plan “excluded the Palestinian Arabs, and in this sense was unjust. This injustice should be rectified.” Avishai takes my “denigration” of the Rogers plan to indicate that I am concerned only with abstract utopias. The actual reference shows something quite different. If Avishai really disagrees with my assessment of the Rogers plan, as his remarks indicate, he should explain himself, since such disagreement implies that he opposes the two-state settlement that he seems to support. This settlement would serve to rectify the injustice in the Rogers plan that led to my “denigration” of it, to the extent that justice can be attained in the foreseeable future.

Avishai’s most severe criticism is that I accept “the most uncompromising territorial claims of Jewish and Arab nationalists” as having “equal moral validity.” He deplores my failure to “dismiss the brutal demands of Arab and Jewish extremists.” To substantiate this charge, he adduces his second direct citation (the last, apart from a few phrases), namely, my remark that “Palestinian Arabs and Israelis have equal rights in the whole territory of Mandate Palestine.” It is, he states, “unworthy” of my talents to try so to reconcile the “inflated moral claims” of Arafat and “the Likud demagogue Menahem Begin.” Again, there is a crucial omission. The remark he quotes appears in a lengthy quotation from a well-known supporter of the Siah two-state program cited earlier. As I point out, this principle is put forth “as a ‘moral point of reference,’ which implies no specific practical steps, but which might serve as a framework for the adjudication of claims and the outline of a long-range program.” As the remainder of the discussion explains, the suggested “adjudication” (on the part of Siah, at least) is a two-state solution, and the “long-range program” might be one of the several that I discuss.

Again we see a striking pattern of misrepresentation. The principle in question does not derive from Arafat or Likud or other “Arab and Jewish extremists,” but from an advocate of a two-state solution in cis-Jordan, an Israeli leftist. The principle implies none of the consequences that Avishai proceeds to draw from it; rather, as I make explicit, it implies no specific consequences. Avishai never mentions that the principle in question derives from a position on the political spectrum about as far as can be imagined from those where he locates it.

Consider now Avishai’s second objection, the matter of democracy in a Jewish State. Avishai finds my argument “casuistic.” Reducing it to essentials, it is as follows: “If a state [with non-Jewish citizens] is Jewish in certain respects, then in these respects it is not democratic…. If the respects are marginal and merely symbolic…the departure from democratic principle is not serious. If the respects are significant, the problem is correspondingly severe. The problems of achieving democratic goals in a multinational or multi-ethnic society are not trivial ones. It is pointless to pretend that they do not exist” (emphasis added).

To this “casuistic syllogism” Avishai responds that “Israel can be a democratic state to the extent that it impartially and strongly guarantees civil liberties for all of its citizens,” etc.; exactly the point I explicitly made. He claims that in my view, “if the state is to have a Jewish character, it simply has to discriminate against Arabs,” that I “denigrate…the very possibility of democratic values in Israel”—outright falsehoods, as this quote, and many others, show clearly. Since he offers no evidence whatsoever for his allegations, I will discuss them no further.

Since we apparently agree on the point of logic, I turn to the question of fact: how significant are the “respects” in which the state is Jewish, hence discriminatory? Avishai agrees that these respects are significant. He cites a few examples: “discriminatory institutions and practices”; exclusion of non-Jews “from the lands owned by the Jewish National Fund and from access to the funds of the Jewish Agency,” so that “some of the most desirable lands in Israel are closed to Arab farmers and home builders”; expropriation of Arab land for Jewish settlement; “Israeli laws of censorship and preventive detention…[which]…have been particularly hard on dissident Arabs.” But, Avishai concludes, “The ‘Jewishness’ of Israeli society…is beside the point for democrats.”

I find this conclusion remarkable. Suppose that these observations were to hold (as indeed they often do) of a White State with Black citizens, a Christian State with Jewish citizens, an Arab State with non-Arab citizens, a Malay State with Chinese citizens, etc. In such cases, everyone, including Avishai I am sure, would regard the matter as very much to the point “for democrats.”

The “Jewishness” of Israel resides in discriminatory institutions and practices such as the ones that Avishai cites. He agrees that “these discriminatory practices” have not “been seriously challenged by Jewish democrats.” Furthermore, they are expressed in the basic legal structure of the state as well as its virtually unchallenged ideology. As the Courts have held, Israel is not the state of its citizens. Rather, “The State of Israel was established and recognised as the State of the Jews…this is the sovereign State of the Jewish people” (Eichmann Trial Judgment); and as the Courts have held in other cases that I cite, there is no Israeli nation apart from the Jewish people, in Israel and the Diaspora. Avishai too notes that “legally and administratively there can be no such person as a ‘real Israeli.’ ” There are, then, discriminatory institutions and practices, no serious challenge to them, and a legal doctrine that serves to justify them. But all of this “is beside the point for democrats”; “Israel is a Jewish state in that it is a democracy dominated by Jews”—thus, we may conclude, just as England is a Christian state, a democracy dominated by Christians.

Avishai justifies these conclusions with the observation that Jews, Arabs, and Druze “may all suffer directly” from departure from democratic standards. But there is a significant difference between the privileged majority and the minority in the manner of their “suffering.” It is true that Jews suffer too from the discriminatory nature of Israeli society, a matter that I discuss as well. But it is curious to argue on these grounds that no problem arises “for democrats.” Were that argument legitimate, we could also apply it to the far worse cases of Rhodesia, South Africa, and so on, where, no doubt, the privileged also suffer.

My own view of the matter is quite different: “One might argue that the essentially flawed democracy of a Jewish state (equivalently, an Arab state) is the least unjust solution available, given the objective realities. That is a rational position, one that can be respected and discussed,” though I do not agree with it, for reasons explained: the departure from democratic principle might be reduced to the “marginal and merely symbolic,” though this would require a profound change in ideology and institutions; and there are, I suggest, better long-term possibilities (though the prospects are dim, etc.).

There are many other false statements in the review. Avishai claims that I do not “really consider” the reasons for the Biltmore decision of 1942, omitting to mention that immediately on referring to this decision (pp. 80f.), I discuss the reasons that he lists, as elsewhere too. He claims that I do not see that underdevelopment of Arab society is “an obstacle to binationalism,” failing to note that I emphasize that even federalism (and surely binationalism) makes no sense unless there are efforts “to achieve social, economic, and political parity.” He states that I “equate the discrimination against Israeli Arabs with the outright denials of political rights to the Palestinian Arabs in the occupied territory”—again utterly false. He offers no evidence for these and other charges.

Avishai also claims that I omit relevant material, thus giving a distorted view of the facts. For example, I refer “to the expulsion [of Arabs from Biram and Ikrit] but not to the backlash.” And I fail to mention Jewish efforts to keep Arabs from fleeing Haifa in 1948. Let’s consider these charges.

My sole reference to Biram and Ikrit is a quote from a protest against the expulsion by an Israeli academic; thus it can hardly be true that I fail to note the “backlash.” I also discuss other protests and demonstrations against expulsions taking place in the 1970s, not twenty-five years ago, praising those who organized and participated in them, while noting their ineffectiveness.

Consider Avishai’s second allegation. It is true that I did not mention Jewish efforts to keep Arabs from fleeing Haifa, Thus he is right to say that “one would know none of this from Chomsky’s book.” Similarly, though Avishai doesn’t mention the fact, one would know nothing from my book of the Deir Yassin massacre or other acts which impelled Arabs to flee. I do not discuss these events at all, except to note that “750,000 Palestinians fled or were driven from their homes,” to be replaced by “an approximately equal number of Jews,” including those “who fled or were expelled from the Arab states.” Avishai is remarkably selective in identifying the facts that one would learn nothing of from the book.

Avishai does give his account of what led to the flight of the refugees. It is a revealing one. He contrasts the “Revisionist Irgun” with the “socialist Haganah” and Labour Zionists in general. The former “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.” In contrast, the Labour Zionists were “devoid of ambitions to dominate Arabs.” Thus Ben-Gurion controlled the Irgun, and “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 loud-speaker to stay.” That is his complete picture of these events.

Let’s consider its accuracy, beginning with the events in Haifa. These took place in late April, three weeks before “the Yishuv was invaded” by the armies of the Arab states (there were, at the time, only Arab irregulars and the Arab Legion, technically part of the British Army). According to the eyewitness account by Zionist historian Jon Kimche, the mayor of Haifa, Shabtai Levi (who was a Sephardi General Zionist, not a socialist), did make an impassioned appeal to an Arab delegation—at a meeting, on the evening of April 22, many hours after the fighting had ended in a Jewish victory. The day before, as the fighting began, there was “a flight of Haifa’s Arab population,” which reached “panic proportions” that evening; that is, well before the mayor’s appeal. There is no record, to my knowledge, of the mayor’s having used a loud-speaker for thirty-six hours (or ever). Perhaps Avishai is thinking of Kimche’s report that in the “psychological blitz…launched on the Arab quarters” the afternoon before the mayor’s appeal, “Loudspeaker vans and leaflets were distributed [sic], calling on the Arab population to stand by for an important announcement, to keep away from foreign volunteers, and to stay indoors”—a “procedure” that was repeated until full-scale fighting broke out at midnight. (Jon Kimche, Seven Fallen Pillars).

Jon and David Kimche report some of the reasons for the concern over the flight of Arabs: “The Haganah…was actually worried by the growing Arab emigration from Haifa,” which had begun in December 1947, because “the Jewish leaders were convinced that they could keep the Haifa port going only if Arab labour continued to be available. Haganah policy, therefore, was to encourage the Arabs to stay” (Both Sides of the Hill).

All in all, not quite the picture that Avishai presents.

Furthermore, Avishai fails to mention that what took place in Haifa was hardly typical. On April 25 the Irgun attacked Jaffa, beginning with a bombardment that “started a panic among the Jaffa Arabs,” who began to flee. The Irgun attack ran into difficulty. Haganah took command, and its operations began on the 27th. “For the first time in the still undeclared war a Jewish force commenced to loot in wholesale fashion…. The occupied parts of Jaffa were stripped, and…what could not be taken away was smashed.” Kimche blames Irgun forces, though it is difficult to see how one could know under the circumstances he describes. He adds that “It was perhaps natural, though it was certainly detestable, that before long the rest of the Jewish soldiers of the Haganah and the Palmach should join in the orgy of looting and wanton destruction…it soon became a practice….” Of the 70,000 Arabs of Jaffa, only 3,000 remained after these military operations (Kimche; Lorch, Edge of the Sword). All of this preceded the May 14 invasion by the armies of the Arab states.

Or consider the Haganah attack on Lydda, directed by Moshe Dayan in July. “He drove at full speed into Lydda, shooting up the town and creating confusion and a degree of terror among the population and the defenders…his sudden appearance in Lydda had created the desired effect. It had been touch and go until then. But now Lydda fell on July 11th and its Arab population of 30,000 either fled or were herded on to the road to Ramallah. The next day Ramle also surrendered and its Arab population suffered the same fate. Both towns were sacked by the victorious Israelis” (Both Sides of the Hill). These are only a few examples.

The picture that Avishai gives is quite false. It would be equally false to leave matters with the description just presented. The matter was complex and ambiguous; in the early stages at least, the Yishuv was fighting for its life, and the memory of the holocaust was very real. One may choose to keep to a bare statement of uncontroversial fact, as I did (quite properly, since the focus of the discussion lay elsewhere), but if the matter is to be dealt with, then an effort must be made to distinguish fact from propaganda and to present something of a balanced picture. This Avishai fails to do.

Space permits no further analysis of Avishai’s reconstruction of Zionist history. Throughout, it is no less romanticized.

In the book under review, I gave one example of Avishai’s highly selective reporting (p. 193). The review contains many others. Thus he refers to the “terrorism of the Fedayeen,” but not to the Israeli raids (e.g., Gaza, February 1955) and expulsions (e.g., of Bedouins in the al-Auja region in 1950) which, in part, provoked it; the interplay of terror, which I discuss, is far more intricate than his one-sided picture suggests. Avishai identifies Ha’aretz as a “powerful forum” for civil libertarians—a partial truth, though he might have added that last October, after publishing slanderous attacks against the Chairman of the Israel League of Human and Civil Rights, with gross lies, accusations of treason, and so on, this “powerful forum” refused to permit him to respond (for his response, see Israleft, no. 53, POB 9013, Jerusalem).

In his account of Deir Yassin, cited above, Avishai fails to mention the evidence that the Haganah commander approved the operation (though not the massacre), so as to avoid civil war, and that a Palmach unit took part in the shelling of this peaceful village (Yediot Ahronot, April 4, 1972). He refers to the “tragic sinkings of the Patria and the Struma” as an influence on the Biltmore decision, failing to add that the Patria was admittedly sunk by Haganah, with the loss of 250 lives, to prevent the British from sending it to Mauritius (M. Mardor, Haganah; foreword by Ben-Gurion). Given limits of space, I will cite no more examples.

It is not easy to give a fair account of matters of such complexity. It is unfortunate that serious efforts are so rarely made. Consider, as a case in point, Stephen Spender’s “Among the Israelis” in this journal (NYR, March 6). The “Israelis” in question are the Jewish citizens of Israel. Perhaps that would be acceptable, except for the fact that the bulk of his report is devoted to problems and attitudes of Arabs in Israel and the occupied territories. Not a single Arab source is cited, but only Israeli Jews, including government officials, Jewish experts on Arab affairs, etc. What would our reaction be to a report on the problems and attitudes of American Blacks, derived entirely from White sources? Or to a report by a visitor to Russia or Syria on the problems and attitudes of Russian and Syrian Jews, based on a comparable selection of evidence? So pervasive is anti-Arab prejudice that the obvious parallels are rarely drawn.

Similarly, Spender reports that “the old Jewish quarter [of Jerusalem] is being reconstructed in ways that retain its character,” a tribute to the “agonized conscience” with which Israel “copes with necessity.” His conclusion may be correct if we limit attention to stones and mortar. Further inquiry would have revealed that all Arabs are being removed, including those whose families lived there for many generations (cf. the Siah journal Yarchon Le-inyeney Shalom U-smol, January 1975). These are, unfortunately, not untypical examples of reporting in American journals. The result can only be a general failure to comprehend what is happening in the region.

Finally, to some of the truths. Avishai is unusual among Western Zionists in the extent to which he is willing to try to give an honest account of Israel’s domestic problems. He is right to point out that the PLO has offered no basis for accommodation, though he gives far too little weight to the concrete steps the Israeli government is taking to prevent the two-state cis-Jordan settlement he seems to advocate (if I read him correctly). He is right to stress the importance of political accommodation and its urgency, not only on grounds of justice, but even for survival. These matters are much more important, for the near future at least, than the issues I have been discussing here in response to his misrepresentations and misunderstandings. There is good reason to believe that Israel and the Palestinians are pursuing suicidal policies, and have been since 1967. This matter and the reasons for it are a primary concern of the book under review, and surely the issue that should receive primary attention right now.

Noam Chomsky

Cambridge, Massachusetts

Bernard Avishai replies:

Noam Chomsky sums up his Introduction thus:

These essays are motivated by the conviction that some form of socialist binationalism offers the best hope for reconciling the just and compelling demands of the two parties to the local conflict,…and, that, however dim the prospects may seem, it is important to keep that hope alive until such time as popular movements within Israeli and Palestinian society, supported by an international socialist movement that does not now exist, will undertake to make such a hope a reality. [Page 38]

Now he seems to be saying that he was mainly kidding. Fair enough. But he seems also to be saying that his more serious position has been: support for a two-state solution now, bolstering such a settlement with strict democratic and secularist practice by each state apparatus—Jewish and Palestinian Arab—and thus leaving the evolution of “transnational economic arrangements and greater cultural understanding and contacts” for the period following such a settlement. I am grateful for this clarification of his position; I am certainly grateful for the opportunity to have reviewed the book. However, given the persistence of his kidding, he might show greater sympathy for my confusion, and no doubt, that of others. A few examples (italics are mine throughout):

In the essays that follow and elsewhere, I have argued that socialist binationalism offers the best long range hope for a just peace in the region. [Page 27]

[A]fter the experience of building and living in new Montenegros and Lithuanias, Jews and Arabs may turn to a better way, one which has always been a possibility…. The society [?] will not be a Jewish state or an Arab state, but rather a democratic, multinational society[?]. [Page 34]

In the specific case of the Palestine problem,…a new framework, I think, is desperately needed, and I can imagine no source from which it might derive other than a revitalized international movement that would stand for the ideals of brotherhood, cooperation, democracy, social and economic development…ideals that do belong to the left, or would if it existed in any serious form. [Page 57]

The alternative to the framework of national states, national conflict, and national interest, is cooperation among people who have common interests that are not expressible in national terms, that in general assume class lines…. There is little reason to suppose that these interests are served by a Jewish state, any more than they are served by the states of the Arab world. [Page 73]

Or, finally,

[T]he constellation of forces and the prevailing tendencies offer grim prospects for the people of the former Palestine. Yet their interests are perhaps not irreconcilable…. [T]he best longterm hope for survival, as well as for a settlement that will satisfy the just demands of both peoples…can only mean a program of socialist binationalism, which might take various forms. [Pages 150-151]

As these quotations show, Chomsky is never quite clear whether he is addressing himself to the transition from war to peace, or to the transition from peace to “justice and nationhood”; and his present demurrer reveals how convenient these equivocations can be. Nevertheless, his claim to have supported a two-state solution in his book is simply false. Those few instances when he tries to deal concretely with the “various forms” (to which he alludes often and vaguely), he summons up, here, the Yugoslav model (pp. 131-132), there, Ben-Gurion’s program from 1930 (p. 34), or, he even advances his own unitary state concept—well-sprinkled with democracy, cultural autonomy, cosmopolitanism, and kibbutzim. Nowhere does he promote a two-state solution, even for the short term. He raises the proposal only hypothetically—to condemn it (p. 33), or to reject it outright (p. 130), and to underline the political impotence of those Israelis who support it (i.e., Siah; see p. 22).

On the contrary, Chomsky argues with great conviction that this kind of solution must result in a Palestinian “Bantustan,” or an irredentist and repressive regime lying beside a discriminatory Jewish Israel; that this would be an “ugly” peace.

In my review, I challenged the inevitability of a West Bank “Bantustan,” suggesting that an independent Palestinian Arab state apparatus might be the key to the economic development of this society (what do the Bantu know that Chomsky doesn’t?), and that, anyway, such underdevelopment is a greater ideological and practical impediment to binationalism than to the two-state solution—now, as in the 1930s.

To this Chomsky now retorts that he has always argued (as on p. 132) that “social, economic, and political parity” are preconditions for (socialist) binationalism; though, in fact, what he argues appears in context to be the exact opposite: i.e., that (federal) binationalism is instrumental to economic development:

A [desirable] approach is the federal model, for example, along Yugoslav lines, with federated republics, each dominated by one national group, and efforts, one would hope, to achieve social, economic, and political parity. [Pages 131-132]

Whereas, about the two-state solution he had earlier remarked:

The Palestinian state is likely to be a kind of Bantustan, a reservoir of cheap labor, thus overcoming the fears of Israeli liberals that annexation would erode the Jewish character of the state, while perpetuating conditions of economic dependence. [Page 31]

At any rate, we ought not to dwell on Chomsky’s logical merry-go-round; he has himself apparently decided to get off.

I challenged also in my review Chomsky’s notion that a state cannot be democratic in those respects in which it is “Jewish.” I argued that a distinction must be made between the cultural activities and priorities of the majority (in this case Jewish) group, and the functioning of the state apparatus with regard to individual citizens and their rights. Again Chomsky appropriates my argument and claims to have said exactly this, and cites from his book to substantiate his claim. Well, if what he means by his quotation is this: in those significant respects that the state apparatus, in a state with a large Jewish majority but also non-Jewish citizens (i.e., Israel), discriminates in favor of its Jewish citizens, then, in these respects, it is not democratic—I would then agree that the quotation he reproduces is consistent with my formulation. However, I suspect that he does not mean this. I think he believes that “Jewishness” in Israel must be some predictably discriminatory practice which necessarily contradicts democratic goals. If he does not believe this then he is certainly overbidding his hand with statements such as:

Under any arrangement that can be imagined for the near future, Israel will remain a Jewish state—that is, a state based on the principle of discrimination. There is no other way for a state with non-Jewish citizens to remain a Jewish state. [Pages 31-32]

Or more strikingly:

It has frequently been suggested that the Jewish state is to be Jewish only in the sense that France is French…. This is patently impossible…. A citizen of the Jewish state…does not become Jewish. [Page 127]

As I pointed out, most Zionists—from Achaad Haam to Ben-Gurion—understood the development of a territorial-productive base, supporting a dynamic, Hebraic, cultural “superstructure,” as that vehicle which would transform and modernize Jewish life so that a plural national culture would replace traditional religious precepts; that this plural culture would exist in a fully democratic state with a large Jewish majority. I agreed that, despite the materialization of an eclectic and vital “Jewish” (i.e., Hebraic) culture in Israel, problems of discrimination according to traditional Rabbinic precepts are still not overcome and, hence, in these significant respects, Israel is not fully democratic. Chomsky locates these failings however in the “implicit content of political Zionism”—a wholly uninformed judgment—and, moreover, goes on to suggest that the “legal structure of the state, as well as its customary social practices, will be inherently discriminatory” (see p. 128). He might well have said, to paraphrase his own analogy, that in those respects in which a White state discriminates against its Black citizens it is in these respects Jewish!

I strongly disagree that its “Jewishness” is the Achilles’ heel of Israeli democracy. I have explained that Israel’s democratic failures can be traced far more fruitfully to anachronistic Yishuv institutions, the inhibiting dynamics of war, and, again, to the unwarranted influence of the religious parties. These points Chomsky ignores, and he repeats his self-righteous polemic. Yet he denies that he rules out the possibility of a fully democratic Israel; we ought to be thankful for this much.

Chomsky, by the way, is rather careless about attributing conclusions to me. The Jewishness of Israeli society is indeed beside the point for democrats. I very intentionally did not say that discrimination by the state in favor of Jews is beside the point for democrats. I said the opposite. But, again, the casual way which Chomsky confuses “Jewishness” with discrimination and exclusivity—shades of Bruno Bauer—and indeed contends that the former “resides” in the latter, leaves me skeptical about his comprehension of Israeli life. For most Israelis the debate over “who is a Jew” was just a superfluous aggravation. Jewishness, for most, “resides” in a historical consciousness, a language, and in an emphatically open-ended and modern experience. Chomsky may relish the role of Jewish “free-thinker” berating the Kehila: but that Jewish society which he so competently despises is only a marginal phenomenon in Israel.

On the question of democracy, finally, I suggested that this whole discussion would be quite fantastic without some appreciation for the democratic standards and the positive Arab-Jewish relations which have been achieved in Israel, notwithstanding the difficulties over which both Chomsky and I have brooded. Considering the heavy dependence of the Israeli state on British Common Law, a comparison between Israel and England is not all that fatuous. Except, I would agree, that since Zalman Shazar’s death, no Israeli head of state would presume to call himself “Defender of the Faith.”

From here on we are only bickering. I shall try to bicker quickly, and in Chomsky’s order.

—In his book, Chomsky refers to me as an “Israeli dove”; now he has demoted me to “Canadian Zionist.” He is in both cases more certain about these matters than I. Nevertheless, despite my obvious admiration for the Zionist movement—particularly Labor Zionism—I am persuaded by figures as different as Ben-Gurion and Arthur Koestler that the Zionist movement exhausted itself in 1948. I would prefer not to be identified either with its present dogmas or bureaucratic carcass. This much has been clear.

—With regard to the Rogers Plan, Chomsky repeatedly identifies this initiative with American machinations, and, as I stated in my review, rejects it primarily on these grounds.

The basic logic of this proposal, which embodies the main ideas of the United Nations resolution…is that the region should be converted into a kind of Latin America, with conservative Arab regimes allied to the United States and Israel embedded into the system. [Page 8]

Now he defies me to disagree that this plan excluded the Palestinians and was hence “unjust.” But Chomsky must know that this is just bluster. He had himself speculated that, under Soviet pressure, the Palestinians would accede to the plan (p. 28). Moreover, he implies very strongly that it would be in part out of consideration for Palestinian demands that the Rogers Plan would be imposed on Israel, and, obversely, that the Americans refrained from imposing it because the Palestinians were weak.

In 1970-1971…United States government policy was vacillating between two options: the Rogers Plan and tacit support for permanent Israeli occupation. After the “war of attrition” and the crushing of the Palestinians, the Rogers Plan was dropped. [Page 18]

He comments also,

…clearly this “curious Israeli refusal to consider the Palestinian solution” must be overcome if Israel is to adapt itself to the settlement that is likely to be imposed by the United States…. [Page 21]

These remarks, written in the most recent of his essays, can hardly be expected to stir up opposition to the Rogers Plan for the sake of Palestinians, and I believed them, moreover, to be perceptive. The quotation that Chomsky now reproduces was from an earlier essay and, in fairness to him, I decided to ignore it (p. 106).

But even if we ignore this contradiction, I dare say it is ironic that he insists I oppose the Rogers Plan now, when, in the wake of the Rabat Conference, any Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza would necessarily involve Palestinians—even the PLO. Thus Chomsky’s rediscovered opposition to the Plan (involving recognition for Israel, and an Israeli pull-back to pre-1967 borders) is even more peculiar today than formerly. My own view is still that there is no such thing as “ugly” peace.

Now for more bluster. Chomsky well knows that I do not suppose either Daniel Amit or himself to be supporters of Arafat and/or Begin. I rather proposed—of course—that we inspect that “moral point of reference” which Chomsky finds so persuasive—i.e., that Jews and Arabs have “equal rights in the whole territory of Mandate Palestine,” because as Chomsky (not Amit) professes, each side can make a compelling case, “just on its own terms,” for exclusive possession of the whole (see pp. 57-58). I merely pointed out that this was falsely abstract, syncretic reasoning; that, if indeed national demands are so absolute—which I doubt they are, except within the PLO and in the Israeli right—how can this clash be “adjudicated” in a way that could produce Chomsky’s preferred alternative to “national states, national conflict, and national interest”—namely, “cooperation that assumes [working] class lines”! With what magic (or KGB?) does Chomsky expect this feat of consciousness raising to be performed?

I offered an alternate “moral point of reference”: the constructive and utilitarian morality embodied by Partition; that morality which can distinguish between unequal national rights in respective areas of settlement, and unequal urgencies in the struggle for national survival.

Finally, I suggested that if Chomsky is searching for interests that are every day transcending nationalist narrow-mindedness, he ought to look to the shuk. Daniel Amit, whom I respect greatly, but whose moral formula I must reject, has nothing to do with the wishful speculations coursing through Chomsky’s book.

—Chomsky moves to the offensive, complaining that I’ve misrepresented his views on various matters; notably, the reasons for the promulgation of the Biltmore Program. I had suggested that Chomsky sees in this program little more than the conversion of the Zionist movement as a whole to the Revisionist line, and that he does not deal critically with the intimidating dilemmas which the Jewish Agency for Palestine faced in 1942: the White Paper, “closed-door immigration policies” in the West, and, of course, the anticipated consequences of the holocaust. Therefore, he had confused labor-Zionism’s demand for “home-rule” with the Revisionist notion of a Jewish risorgimento in the whole of Palestine:

The Revisionists were forced out of the Zionist movement because of their advocacy of a Jewish state, but their position was officially adopted, years later, in the wake of the holocaust. [Page 135]

Ignoring his own previous argument about Biltmore “Revisionism,” Chomsky now claims to have discussed precisely the problems to which I referred (pp. 80f.). I will pursue the point because it is so revealing of the debater’s craftiness that parades as humanism throughout the book.

It is true that Chomsky discusses the holocaust and the indifference to Jewish refugees shown by the Great Powers; he even suggests that as a result of this indifference, it became “psychologically impossible [for Jews] to contemplate the resettlement of Jews in a new diaspora.” But Jewish “traumas” notwithstanding, Chomsky still neglects the hopelessly simple fact that for the great mass of Jewish refugees there would be nowhere else to go, and that the Zionist leadership expected to shoulder this urgent responsibility.

Moreover, about the “indifference” of Palestinian Arabs (as expressed by the White Paper) Chomsky is not only silent, but he sees fit to follow his misleading comments about the holocaust and its implications with, what else?, an admiring and nostalgic look at Jewish binationalists of the 1930s, neglecting again the opposition of the Arab leadership to any such overtures; and once again he condemns the “concept of a Jewish state.” But the coup de grace is yet to come:

The Palestinian Jewish settlement… [the Yishuv] did succeed in settling 300,000 Jewish refugees in a Jewish state, but at a fearful cost. An approximately equal number of Jewish refugees reached Israel after having been expelled from the Arab countries in the wake of the 1948 war, and hundreds of thousands of Arab refugees fled, or were driven from their homes in the new state of Israel. [Pages 80-81]

What then are we to conclude? It is all obvious enough: the indifference of the West to Jewish plight led the Yishuv to a neurotic decision in favor of statehood—a revisionist trap they had wisely rejected prior to having been “traumatized”—while the real victims of this drama turned out to be the Sephardic Jews and the Palestinian refugees whose lives were wholly disrupted as a result of the creation of the state. I suspect that Chomsky and I are still in disagreement about the reasons for (and consequences of) Biltmore.

By the way, there seem to be no bounds to the responsibility of Zionists for their own tragedies, or so one might conclude, considering Chomsky’s allegation that the Haganah ordered that the Patria be sunk. In fact, the incident was not quite so mysterious, if no less tragic. The Jewish Agency had ordered the Haganah to disable the ship’s engines to keep her “wretched cargo” in Haifa. The technician miscalculated with dreadful consequences.1 Chomsky is certainly correct that it is difficult to sort out complex matters fairly, but I wonder why it is so difficult when matters are not complex at all.

Finally, Chomsky accuses me of romanticizing the role of the Haganah with regard to the flight of Arab refugees. He counters with his own long exposition. However my intent in the review was clearly not to discuss refugees. I wanted only to illustrate the difference in approach to the question of statehood which was promoted by the dominant socialist Zionist groups in opposition to Irgun chauvinism. The socialists promoted binationalism, then, for lack of choice, Partition; and the whole tenor of the relations between Jews and Arabs in Haifa particularly (i.e., where the Labor-Zionists were strongest), up to and including those desperate days when so many Arabs fled, reflected the sincerity and viability of their approach. 2

The loudspeaker story is a common one in Haifa, and if it is an idealization, it is an idealization of the truth. As for the participation of the Haganah in acts of expulsion once the fighting had begun, this is, of course, a nastier truth. But the most relevant truth Chomsky had himself revealed, calling the traditional policy of the Haganah—i.e., Havlagah, “restraint”—“a moral achievement of the highest order” (pp. 62-63). By the way, I referred to Shabbetai Levi as a socialist because he was a social democrat and an independent. His party affiliation was General Zionist—perhaps I should have said so—but this fact is much less essential to an understanding of pre-1948 Haifa politics than was Levi’s crucial dependence upon the support and cooperation of Mapai’s Abba Choushi. 3 Is Chomsky implying that the good relations in Haifa and its hinterland were merely coincidental to Labor-Zionist politics?

There are more points to ponder. Space limits my reply as it does Noam Chomsky’s. Anyone who has been patient enough to wade through all of this is certainly invited to press on, or to request further clarification.

I would add, however, that Chomsky’s remarks in closing are appropriate and appreciated. Our argument is, after all, about a death-dance whose pace is quickening. It troubles me to think that this exchange may be not part of the protest, but part of the chanting.

  1. 1

    C. Sykes, Crossroads to Israel (World, 1965), pp. 223-224.

  2. 2

    See I.F. Stone, Underground to Palestine (New York, 1946), p. 239.

  3. 3

    Peter Medding, Mapai in Israel (Cambridge University Press, 1972), pp. 141-143.

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