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 and 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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.