• Email
  • Print

Where Is Israel Going?

This article appeared in Die Zeit of Hamburg on August 20. Dr. Goldmann, for many years president of the World Jewish Congress, died on August 29 at eighty-seven and was buried on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem.

Israel’s presumptuous invasion of Lebanon and the siege of Beirut will have unforeseeable consequences, most of them negative; yet some may turn out to be positive.

To begin with the negative. By its actions Israel has isolated itself politically more than ever before. It stands practically alone as far as the United Nations and world opinion are concerned. Only the United States still supports Israel, thus risking permanent alienation of the US from the Arab world. Undoubtedly, Israel will gain a military victory. However, in view of its over-powering strength in comparison with the PLO, Israel has little reason to be proud of this. It is possible to win battle after battle and still lose a war. The German language has an expression for this: “totsiegen” (winning oneself to death).

Up to now, every military victory on the part of Israel has only resulted in new political difficulties, particularly the incredibly quick victory in the Six Day War, which led to the present situation. Furthermore, this is the first time that Israel is involved in a war in which it is clearly the aggressor. For this reason the government does not have the unanimous support of its population. On the contrary, a minority has vehemently protested the invasion.

But nothing in this world has only bad consequences. Israel’s invasion of Lebanon might have two positive effects, neither of which Begin could have foreseen or wanted. First, the PLO might realize both that it has to give up its military aggression, i.e., terrorism against Israel, which obviously has no chance of succeeding, and that setting up a government in exile would transfer the struggle to a political level. Secondly, there is the possibility of a profound clash of opinions between Israel and the United States which may force the US to redefine its policy in the Near East. Such a redefinition would probably lead to Begin’s fall and a change in Israeli politics. Despite their arrogance and stubbornness the Israelis are smart enough to understand that without the support of the United States they have no chance to succeed with their politics of aggression.

The long-term consequences of the Lebanon venture could turn out to be of even greater importance. This war constitutes a turning point in the history of the Jewish people. It touches upon the center of the question which has pre-occupied the world for centuries: the so-called Jewish question, the question of the relationship between Jews and non-Jews.

There was a short period when not only the optimists but also realistic politicians had good reason to hope that the Jewish question would no longer be an issue. Today this expectation has turned out to be an illusion.

Two unprecedented events—one negative, the other positive—had justified the optimistic assumption. One was the Holocaust and its painstakingly methodical destruction of six million Jews, the other the creation of a Jewish state after two thousand years of the Diaspora of the Jewish people. Both events were unprecedented in their own ways.

There had always been violent wars of destruction, including the brutal liquidation of the opposition within a particular country, but those never had the permanent characteristics of anti-Semitism. But as far as the state of Israel is concerned, it is unprecedented that a people that had for two thousand years been spread out over several dozen countries never relinquished its longing for its original country and finally succeeded in establishing its own state in one part of that land.

Both the Holocaust and the creation of the Jewish state justified the assumption that the Jewish question had finally been resolved. Democratic as well as communist countries—neither of which had done anything substantial to save millions of Jews from destruction by Hitler—had a bad conscience. As a consequence of this guilt these countries were embarrassed for years about being anti-Semitic. They treated the Jews with kid gloves. Even the two-thirds majority in the United Nations that had voted for the creation of the state of Israel was a result of this bad conscience. The establishment of Israel on the other hand led radical Zionists to believe in Theodor Herzl’s naïve and ingenious simplification of the Jewish question, which was that as soon as the Jewish state could be established, the dispersion of the Jews, i.e., the basis of the Jewish question, would disappear.

Both expectations were false. Nearly forty years have passed since the end of the war and the liberation of the camps. During this time a new generation has grown up who had experienced the Holocaust only as small children, or who were born afterward. Most people don’t want to be reminded of it. There are even “historians” who want to prove that the extermination camps did not exist. Many others no longer are embarrassed to be anti-Semitic. Anti-Semitic incidents are on the rise in every country, in the democratic as well as the communist world.

Paradoxically, this new emergence of the Jewish question has also shown some positive symptoms. In France, for instance, new books on the Jewish problem appear almost monthly. They are mostly favorable to the Jews, if sometimes exaggerated in their glorification of the uniqueness of Jewry, or, typically French, they explain and extol the issue in ideological abstractions.

What about the attraction of the state of Israel? Since it was formed, less than 20 percent of the entire Jewish population has moved there. Immigration has declined during the last years—in 1981 the number of emigrants (mostly young people) was higher than that of immigrants (for the most part older people).

Therefore it seems appropriate once again to re-examine the essence of the Jewish question, particularly in view of the fact that during the last few years it has appeared in a completely different form—for the first time, as such, since the existence of the state of Israel. It has taken on the traits of anti-Zionism. A Jewish question has existed ever since the existence of Jews. Jewish history begins with the Diaspora in Egypt, that is to say with the Egyptian Jewish question. The Old Testament offers a magnificent description of the ten plagues that Moses let come over Egypt in order to make possible the exodus of the children of Israel.

There were only a very few periods in Jewish history when the Jewish question did not exist—during the conquest of Palestine, perhaps, and the kingdoms of Judah and Israel. But this period quickly came to an end. The destruction of the first temple and the expulsion to Babylon was followed by a brief intermediate period of Jewish independence, but shortly thereafter came the unfortunate Bar Kochba rebellion and the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans. This was the beginning of the third Diaspora which continues to the present day. Only during very short periods of their history have the Jews experienced a “normal” existence as a people in their own country.

Granted, there are many other peoples who live outside their own countries as minorities, in diaspora, so to speak. However, this kind of special existence would usually last only for a few generations. Furthermore, those minorities living abroad are of little importance to their native countries. The fact that millions of Italians are living in South America, millions of Irish and Germans in the United States, is of little importance to Italy, Ireland, or Germany. The German minority in the United States cannot be considered a fundamentally important part of the German people. The Jews are the only people in history who have been living in dispersion for two thousand years. And even when large numbers were destroyed or completely assimilated, many maintained their special existence as Jews with unshakable loyalty.

This ability to resist disappearing completely is primarily a result of the Jewish religion. Jochanan Ben Zakai, the great Talmudic scholar, rejected the Bar Kochba rebellion because he was convinced that the Jews had to submit to the Roman rulers. When he began to establish contacts with the Romans and was granted permission by Titus to create a Jewish academy in Jawne, he in fact created not Jewish kings and warriors but rather the special existence of the Jewish people and the permanence of the Diaspora. The Jews preserved their existence as a special people by means of what Heine called the “portable fatherland”—that is, their religion, which they carried with them. This is what determined and shaped the existence of the Jews, individually and collectively, in every important and unimportant manner, with distinct clarity and day by day.

In the course of the centuries the Jewish question manifested itself primarily in the relationship between the Jewish minorities and the majorities among which they were living. But while the relationships between most of the so-called “normal” peoples were carried on in a simple, traditional fashion (they could be negative, i.e., conditioned by hatred and envy, or positive, that is, determined by admiration and worship), the relationship between Jews and non-Jews was never free and easy on either side, but always contradictory and dissonant.

The Jews admired and envied the non-Jews for their material superiority, their position as rulers and owners of the land, but at the same time they met them with contempt and animosity, because despite their own political and economic weakness they tended to feel intellectually, morally, and religiously superior to the host people. Jewish jokes, better than any heavy theories, express most succinctly the ambivalence of these feelings:

Two Jews are going for a walk when a bird dropping falls on the bald head of one. “You see,” he says to his friend. “For the Goyim they would sing.”

Two other Jews are taking a walk. Two anti-Semites are walking behind them, making fun of them. “Do we have to take this?” asks one of the Jews. “What do you want?” replies the other. “They are together and we are alone.”

The attitude of non-Jews toward Jews is equally ambivalent. This is not only the case in times when Jews are being persecuted, as for example in the Middle Ages, but also today, when the equality of Jews has been recognized in many countries and been realized in politics and in economic and intellectual life. Many non-Jews envy Jews for their intelligence, their financial success, their position in cultural life; the envy is mixed with admiration. But even in the most democratic countries, such as the United States, the non-Jew perceives the Jew as something foreign; and even tolerant Americans would pause for a moment when asked if they would vote for a Jew to become president.

There is no country in the world where the Jews have been completely assimilated, with the exception of those who accepted baptism, denied everything Jewish, and after a few generations lost any connection to Jewish life. On the one hand, the Jews perceive themselves as a minority, at a disadvantage, on a constant alert against possible discrimination. On the other hand, they react very strongly to the slightest indication of anti-Semitism. This has led them to organize themselves, e.g., in international groups such as the World Jewish Congress with its main task of preserving Jewish rights.

Both sides exaggerate the ambivalence of their feelings. The Jews protest at the slightest opportunity; they try to use their political influence to help other Jewish communities or Israel. This in turn leads non-Jews to regard Jews as oversensitive, easily hurt, and they suspect in their political self-defense occasional indications of a dual loyalty. What this means is that the complete assimilation of the Jews in Diaspora countries is not possible. A truly assimilated Jew would be one who preserves his Jewish tradition without having to stress that he is doing so; who matter-of-factly accepts his special existence as well as his existence as an equal citizen of a particular country.

Since the creation of the state of Israel the Jewish question has gained a new dimension. Herzl’s naïve hope that all Jews would settle in the Jewish state has not been realized nor will it be realized in the near future. This has complicated the whole problem. Earlier, Jews, in order to remain Jews, had to remain faithful to their tradition and religion, and had to preserve their special life because a true coexistence with non-Jews was impossible even for the simple reasons of dietary and other special rules. Today, however, it is of crucial importance to the survival of the contemporary Jewish people that the Diaspora Jews also proclaim their loyalty to Israel.

Officially, Israel is a sovereign, democratic nation; only its own citizens can decide over its politics, its way of life, and all other spheres of human existence. But Israel rightfully demands the solidarity of the Jews of the world. Particularly in times of crises, as long as Israel is not accepted by the Arabs and repeatedly forced into wars, it is a matter of survival for the Jewish state that it can depend upon the millions of Jews all over the world, on their political help and their political and economic influence. By the same token, the continuity of Jewish life would be equally endangered without this loyalty.

And herein lies the complication. An overwhelming majority of the Jews unconditionally support the right of Israel to exist along with its politics; for fear of harming Israel, they rarely express public criticism. This leads to situations where the “dual loyalty” becomes an actual fact rather than a distorted figment of anti-Semitic fantasies. Most countries of the world, with the exception of the United States, condemn Israel’s present expansionist politics; they demand that Israel withdraw from a large part of the occupied territories; and they insist that the Palestinians’ right to self-determination be recognized. Consequently, in most European countries, there is greater and greater disagreement between a government’s reaction to the issues in the Middle East and the reactions of its Jewish citizens, who publicly express their unqualified support for everything Israel does, without necessarily approving of it. This could soon lead to conflicts that would cause serious skepticism among non-Jews about the loyalty and patriotism of their Jewish fellow citizens, which in turn could endanger the continuity of the very essence of Jewish life in those countries.

As long as Israel remains a “normal” state pursuing its policies according to its own will and judgment, which is bound to get it into conflict with other countries, the ambivalence of the Jewish question will not be resolved. This undeniable fact leads me to conclude that Israel must become a special state, as special as the Jewish people, in its structure and character. If any country has any justified claim to neutrality, it has to be Israel, whose dependence on the loyalty of Jews all over the world, no matter under what regime they live, is a matter of life and death. In our unstable and ever more critical era Israel will have to refrain from taking sides in questions of international politics if it wants to avoid endangering the Jews in the Diaspora. Of course I am not talking of situations where the life of a Jewish minority is threatened in any country—then it is Israel’s duty to do its best to defend that particular minority.

Although such neutral status of Israel could only become a possibility when peace with the Arab world has been established, it would be desirable that before that time Israel itself came to desire and accept such neutrality in principle. This would also make it easier for the Arabs to arrive at a peace with a neutral Israel, which would be at the periphery rather than at the center of world politics.

The Jewish question will exist as long as there are Jews living in their own state and in the Diaspora. Jews have always been irritants in history: they rejected the religion of the majority people and condemned their cultures; they considered themselves chosen, in many cases superior; wherever they lived, they created problems again and again, primarily because of the hostility of others, but partly because of their own stubbornness and their insistence on being different.

As the persecuted and the oppressed, the Jews have suffered from the Jewish question; as the persecutors and oppressors, the non-Jews have morally assaulted the Jews, which repeatedly caused a bad conscience and feelings of guilt even in the best of them. But the Jews not only suffered, they also created great things. From Moses and monotheism through the centuries to the age of Einstein, Marx, and Freud and the Nobel prize winners of recent years the Jews have made major contributions to almost all spheres of cultural life. They have a right to demand that they can keep their uniqueness even though it creates problems.

The relationship between Jews and non-Jews will never be completely smooth and easy—not since the existence of the state of Israel. Israel must be aware of the danger: it must not complicate the Jewish question by an aggressive policy. People will accept figures like Moses, Isaiah, Maimonides, Spinoza, Heine, or Einstein as non-conformists, irritants, and trouble-makers, so to speak. They will not accept men like Begin or Sharon as the troublemakers.

Contemporary Israel runs the risk of making the Jewish question banal. With its politics of aggression it robs the Jewish question of its unique quality. The Israel that is developing under Begin’s regime threatens to alter radically the image of the Jewish people among non-Jews. For centuries, non-Jews as a majority had been anti-Semitic; they had persecuted the Jews but many also felt—consciously or unconsciously—respect and admiration for the intellectual achievements of the Jews and their stubborn insistence on maintaining their singularity. An Israel, however, whose main achievements are military ones—an Israel that concentrates all its energies on military superiority—would deeply distort the image of the Jewish people in the eyes of non-Jews.

Even among an increasing number of Jews, particularly among the intellectuals, there is the danger that the image of Israel is changing fundamentally. Many members of the Jewish elite in America have protested to Begin against his policies. More and more Jews put distance between themselves and Israel’s conduct. Some even go so far as to declare that they are ashamed as Jews. When one considers the enthusiasm and admiration with which Israel was received by Jews and non-Jews alike during its first ten years of existence, one cannot help being deeply disappointed by the weakening of Israel’s special position.

Winning wars may be a great thrill to the victors, but it is nothing unusual in history. Courage and loyalty in battle are positive qualities, to be sure, but they are common to many peoples. The courage of the Vietnamese in their long war against the Americans was no less than that of the Israeli army. If Israel’s martial characteristics continue to prevail for a long time, the Jewish people will lose their unique character. In the long run this would endanger no less than the very foundation of its existence. I myself hope that the Begin regime will turn out to be one sad, but—let us hope—not tragic, episode in Israel’s history, and that the dangers that would be provoked by its continuation will not become a reality.

translated by Gitta Honegger

  • Email
  • Print