Thursday, April 30, 1998

1948/1998 - Reflections on a half-century of Israel (April-May 1998)

(Update, 10/29/2005: This exchange from 1998 brings back a situation and state of mind that abruptly disappeared in 2000, and that now seem almost unimaginably distant.
For the sake of privacy, I have concealed the names of correspondents who responded to my original e-mail message, except for the ones who asked me to make this information available. Some of these correspondents, by the way, have changed their minds on some issues since 1998, or at least modified their positions ... which is hardly surprising, if only because historical realities have not been static. --Jeff Weintraub)

(April 30, 1998 - 8:37 pm EDT)
Hola Chaver,
As this strange century winds to its end, Israel's 50th birthday arouses in me a curious mixture of satisfaction, moral ambivalence, political dismay, emotional exhaustion, and ethnic pride.
I used to invest a good deal of emotional energy in worrying about Israel's long‑term survival. But not for a while. The unexpected collapse of the Soviet Union and the developments that followed from it, including the Gulf War, changed everything (at least for the foreseeable future). Not only did this transform the whole geo‑political situation, but it also led to a dramatic dampening‑down of the energy, virulence, and effectiveness of international anti‑Zionism. (The ideological bankruptcy of Arab nationalism, the disillusionment with revolutionary myths for which the PLO was a symbolic repository, and alarm over the rise of Islamic‑fundamentalist politics in the Arab world have helped, too. Even the pieces about Israel in the latest issues of the Nation have displayed a comically self‑conscious "balance," as opposed to their previous tone of rabid anti‑Zionism.) None of this means that Israel has the long‑term security of and recognized legitimacy of, say, France or the Netherlands. But Israel's very existence is no longer such an urgent issue.
All this is a tremendously positive development, of course, but it also complicates matters in a lot of ways. It changes the focus of one's worries ... and affects the whole texture of my emotional involvement with Israel. Israel still tugs at my heart, but not in the same way. I've always been a Zionist in the post‑1948 sense of being an anti‑anti‑Zionist (i.e., committed to Israel's survival); but (unlike Leon) I've never been a Zionist in the classic sense of wanting to be an Israeli, or believing that a genuinely Jewish life (whatever that might be) can only be lived in a self‑governing Jewish nation‑state. On the contrary, I'm very much a diaspora Jew and proud of it ... and as I get older, I guess, also more self‑consciously an American Jew (a citizen of the Alternative Homeland). These nuances were pushed into the background by the more sharp and extreme moral outlines of the pre‑1989 situation. But now my mixed feelings about Israel can become more salient.
Also, people like us are all suffering from having our hopes raised by the election of Rabin (which I remember Gershon describing as "almost a miracle"), the agreement with the PLO, the increasing agreements with the Arab states, the prospect of end of the occupation (with its massively corrupting effect on all aspects of Israeli life), and all the rest ... followed by the assassination of Rabin, everything that followed from that, and the present porquería. There's not only a sense of historic opportunities being missed, but the whole question of where Israeli politics and society are drifting in the long run makes me uneasy.
(And all this has only reinforced other pessimistic feelings that I've tried to suppress. I always wondered whether the PLO and Chairman Arafat could actually construct a stable and humanly acceptable regime in the West Bank and Gaza, even under the best of circumstances‑‑let alone the actual circumstances. Now it seems increasingly likely to me that if the Israeli army simply pulled out of the West Bank tomorrow, taking the settlers from Brooklyn with them, this would just trigger a Palestinian civil war, with outside Arab powers taking sides and eventually getting involved. I hope I'm being excessively pessimistic about that...)
So, as I say, this historic moment leaves me with an odd tangle of ambivalent emotions. And you?
Yours in struggle,
Jeff Weintraub
Date: Thu, 30 Apr 1998 17:34:15 ‑0700 (PDT)
From: X
Subject: Israel & us
I feel the same. X

Date: Thu, 30 Apr 1998 17:57:31 ‑0700 (PDT)
To: (Jeff Weintraub)
From: X
Subject: Re: Israel & us
Now seriously, I have been ambivalent since the very moment I became a Zionist. I was a peace activist in Israel, and on the basis of my experience living there, I never believed that the destruction of Israel was a serious threat or prospect. So I kept a more open attitude, was more receptive to the entire issue of the underside of the enterprise. And I am still convinced that this is a good time, it has never been so good for Israel... from the p/view of the politics of the relations with the Arabs I mean.... It is a matter of time, the process is being delayed by the right, but good marxists believe that you cannot go against history, and the constellation of forces at the level of the structure of the conflict pushes in one direction only.
The problem you are talking about is more the issue of the truth of Israel as a state of the Jews... I am more disappointed every day. Lately I have had a lot of opportunities to think about the entire matter of Israel and the Holocaust... we'll talk about that when we meet [….]
Cheers, X
From: XX
Date: Fri, 01 May 1998 12:26:47 ‑0400 (EDT)
Subject: Re: Israel & us
To: Jeff Weintraub
I generally agree, though I must admit that I relaxed when Sadat went to Jerusalem. I mean at least Israel was no longer completely surrounded by enemies. But I won't relax fully until the Iraqi regime is totally and utterly defanged with no prospect of launching anything that could do extensive damage to Israel.
What depresses me most about Israel is that it has such a large, virulent Right, that the peace process has not become a consensual matter. Depressing but not surprising.
Date: Fri, 1 May 1998 16:52:52 ‑0400 (EDT)
From: XXX
To: Jeff Weintraub
Subject: Re: Israel & us
Ah yes. Quite the emotional tangle.
I must say that I have always been, at best, a very reluctant Zionist. I support Israel’s existence, but really as the least bad post‑holocaust alternative. I suppose I am something of a Bundist at heart (they had their 100th anniversary this year, which I guess has me thinking of them). It always thought "a nation like any other" was too modest a goal for Jews. It took 2000 years of diaspora to produce Marx, Freud, and Einstein (and 40 years of statehood to produce Arik Sharon). I find it generally depressing to see how much "a nation like any other" Israel has become.
And yet, like you I am a knee-jerk anti‑anti‑Zionist. I guess it is ok for me to have higher expectations of Israel than other nations, but I get annoyed when non‑Jews do. So I find myself disgusted with those who find every fault with Israel while ignoring far more grievous faults in other Middle East nations. At the same time, at some highly confused level, I DO want Israel to be better. Just being "no worse than" Syria or Jordan, seems like not enough for me.
Not enough, especially since, Syria and Jordan don't ask for my money or loyalty, or political support! I think American Jews are too often cowed into silence, by the "you are not here, you don't suffer, you don't understand" argument. Israel, truth to tell, is utterly dependent on our political support, and as such we should be able to provide what it needs most: a sympathetic, supportive, but realistic critic. A critic who, unlike so many others, DOES want to see Israel prosper and grow, but is not willing to be a rubber stamp for anything any Israeli govt. does!
The other reason Israel depresses me is that way that the culture has evolved around "the negation of the galut." The rejection of all the diaspora (which is, truth to tell, the essence of what the Jewish people are‑‑ they don't call it the "Babylonian Talmud" for nothing!) and the embrace of nationalist, often irredentist fantasy seems all too prevalent. Every talk to anyone who has been educated in Israel in the last 20 years? The whole history of the Jewish people becomes one long vector with the Zionist state as the only logical conclusion. This was obviously understandable in the first generation‑‑ post holocaust, the need to build the nation, etc. But now it has become a sort of official culture‑‑and with the pre‑1948 generation now passing from the scene, memory of alternatives may go too.
When the survival of Israel as a nation was at stake, such gripes seemed trivial and irrelevant. They no longer do. I suppose that is why I am more willing to be mad at Israel and at govt's that allow themselves to be held hostage to anti‑democratic forces in black hats.
As for peace, these days it seems like it is Israel that "never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity." Jews are supposed to be smarter than this! You wonder whether a Palestinian state could survive, even if Israel withdrew tomorrow. I agree with your concern ‑‑ but I also think that this is not our problem. Ultimately the Palestinians will have to make their journey through the nation state, and it will be a nasty one Their secular‑religious struggle will be at least as nasty as ours. ("OURS"? I mean Israel's. Maybe I am more Zionist than I admit!). But it is high time Israel stopped postponing that conflict by giving them a common enemy!
Ultimately, my most pollyanna‑ish optimistic fantasy for the region is, fifty years from now, three (may 4 depending on what happens in Lebanon) linked nations, with common worker rights, linked currencies, cooperation in water rights, tourism. etc...A middle eastern Bel‑neth‑lux... Three nations with weak boundaries, and cultural space allowing the secularists, feminists or other liberals to make links to resist the fundamentalists in each camp. Ultimately Hannan Ashwari has more in common with Israeli women's rights folks than either do with the black/hat, black/veil de facto alliance. But that will never happen, can never happen, until the Palestinians get a chance to be a nation, and Israel
gets a chance to be boring and take a break from the histrionics of life-and-death drama. And that will never happen so long as young men continue to be so hopeless that suicide bombing seems a reasonable course of action! The Arabs can never push Israel into the sea militarily, and Israel will never be able to stop terrorism so long as its actions keep producing people willing to die to make a point. And both sides will have to find a way to live with that reality.
Anyway, I am confused. So onto to a simpler matter. [….]
Till the next time,
Date: Fri, 1 May 1998 21:15:11 ‑0700 (PDT)
To: Jeff Weintraub
From: Y
Subject: Re: Israel & us
>At 08:37 PM 4/30/98 EDT, you wrote:
>Hola Chaver,

Hola, chaver! nice to hear from you!
it is interesting that precisely at this point in time so many of us [academic jews of our generation] need to take stock about israel and our feelings toward it. in the past few weeks I have been talking about this issue with several people, and in general I find myself to the right of most of them as far as the palestinian/israeli conflict is concerned, but more or less in the same wavelength in relation to the future of israel, even though the issues that worry me in this regard are a bit different than the ones people focus on.
since my early 20s I am a zionist in the same sense as you [and this included, while being in argentina, a definition of myself as a non‑zionist, because my interlocutors were hashomer hatzair types, for whom Zionism meant alya], but I had traveled to israel only once, in the mid‑1980s. I was invited to the world congress of jewish studies, and we stayed after the meeting, for 2 weeks. I had complex emotions while there, but I was just a standard academic tourist. In 1994, I was a visiting fellow at the Truman institute of the hebrew u., and that time I "lived" there: I had an apartment in rehavia, took the bus every day, etc. I made many friends, in several universities. ever since, I have been back several times, because I became a member of 1‑2 networks, and they kept inviting me. I made several personal friends, and I am in close touch with some of them. I read the post [and now haaretz] frequently, follow israeli politics, etc.. so, over time, I got closer to israel and the israelis.
I said I am to the right of most people in relation to the palestinian conflict. I am closer to podhoretz and robert frost [the "good fences" argument] than to peres and tom friedman. my israeli friends are all in Peace Now. perhaps my skepticism derives from my academic background [I am a political sociologist trained by "modernization" scholars], and I see very well the functions that the hatred for israel performs in the arab and islamic world. And I learned from ajami and gellner that there are few reasons to expect that this will change anytime soon. Unlike you, I am still concerned about major threats to israel: non‑conventional weapons, iranian terrorism, etc.. perhaps this is due to the blowing up of the embassy and the jewish community buildings in buenos aires.
my pessimism about the future does not have anything to do with terrorism. it has to do with the very success of israel. its achievements in terms of social integration, economic development, democracy, state effectiveness, science and technology, have been extraordinary in the literal sense of the term, but the outcome of this social transformation has been a value change a la inglehart among the affluent, the educated, and the young. they are becoming truly secular, disenchanted of nationalism and idealism. it is this value change, more than the various rifts within israeli society [secular vs. religious, ashkenazi vs. sephardi, etc.] that makes me believe that the israel of the future will not be a jewish state in the zionist sense of the term. rather, it will be "a nation like the others", an israeli nation, many of whose citizens will profess the jewish religion.
in any case, I regret I was not there this week. most people I know were celebrating in a very sober and subdued way, with picnics and family gatherings. even the lack of hoopla is something I appreciate.
[The next message responded not only to my original message but also to the message from Y just quoted above and to the following comments from me.]
(Regarding issues of the Arab‑Israeli conflict and the "peace process," on which Y says he's "to the right" of most people he talks with ... well, my response to him was that I don't know what's "right" and "left" on these matters, but fundamentally I agree with him. Despite all the post‑1989 changes, it remains true that Israel's survival and security depend on a massive ongoing effort that puts tremendous burdens on Israelis, psychological as well as material. Also, for the foreseeable future Arab willingness to accept Israel's existence will be, at best, grudging, half‑hearted, and deeply guilt‑ridden ... and will continue, to any degree, ONLY as long as Israel appears completely unassailable militarily. Thus, it's true that the more sweetness‑and‑light kind of Arab‑Israeli peaceniks harbor dangerous illusions, and sometimes need a dose of realpolitik. But it's equally true that the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza has been a catastrophe for Israel, from which it should be doing everything it possibly can to escape; that almost no one needs an independent and successful Palestinian state‑‑if such a thing is possible‑‑more than the Israelis; and that the policies of the Netanyahu government are leading Israel to disaster.)

Jeff Weintraub
Subject: Re: Israel & us [fwd]
Date: Mon, 04 May 1998 09:12:11 ‑0400
From: Sam Fleischacker
To: Jeff Weintraub
Hi Jeff,
Thanks for that. It's comforting, and moving, to read things like this ‑ intelligent support for Israel, and open acknowledgment of the anti-Semitism in the Arab world, by people who are a) intellectuals, and b) not passionate Zionists (let alone passionate right‑wing Zionists).
If the choice is between Netanyahu and the more deluded leftists, I think at this point the latter represent not only a more moral but a more realistic position: as long as Israel remains roughly as strong as it is now, taking even some excessive risks for peace is more likely to be in Israel's interests than returning to the state of war (esp. with a Palestinian entity, now with a better infrastructure and better‑trained military, right over the border).
I've always been a Peace Now‑nik, perhaps excessively so, but I was willing to entertain the hope, when Netanyahu first came in, that the right would pursue a slower, more hard‑line, but ultimately more successful version of the peace process. Left‑wingers I know and respect in Israel felt that it should be the Likud, in the end, that signed the peace treaty because that alone would bring the bulk of the country along. I can see that. But Netanyahu, I'm fairly sure now, is playing a game designed entirely to protect his own skin. He's a thorough coward, and he doesn't want to take the slightest risk of going the way Rabin did. He can't *just* tear up the Oslo agreements, though, because of the scandal that would cause in the US (and, to some extent, in Israel ‑ not to mention the fact that he would then have full‑fledged war on his hands, and that doesn't suit his cowardly instincts either), so he continually offers little carrots here and there, to make it look as if he is pursuing the peace process, and then weasels out of even the smallest step forward. Many people seem to have caught on to this game (Shamir played exactly the same one, for ideological reasons: he said as much, quite explicitly, a few weeks after leaving office), but the American State Department and media don't want to believe it...
Those are my depressing thoughts for the morning.
Sam Fleischacker

Subject: Israel & us
Date: Mon, 4 May 1998 08:12:50 ‑0400
From: Z
To: Jeff Weintraub
Ditto, Jeff.
Ambivalent but on the whole VERY positive emotions.
All good wishes
Subject: Israel & us
Date: Mon, 11 May 1998 12:25:50 ‑0700
From: ZZ
To: Jeff Weintraub
Hello Jeff:
Your thoughts for Israel at 50 were kind of wishy‑washy but here is a chance to redeem yourself. Netanyahu received a two week grace period from the Clinton administration to reply to its compromise proposal which would put the peace process back on track. Obviously the U.S. government wants to see how much support will appear during this period for pressuring Netanyahu. Netanyahu himself will come to U.S. to mobilize support. This seems like the perfect time to send out an e‑mail to support the U.S. government's plan and have people sign it and forward it to the state department and the White House. What do you think? Would you draft a short letter?

Subject: Israel & us
Date: Mon, 11 May 1998 14:57:29 ‑0700
From: ZZ
To: Jeff Weintraub
Hello Jeff:
Thanks for your prompt reply. I have not seen a detailed proposal for a simple reason: netanyahu asked for it not to be made public and had 81 senators send a letter to Clinton to that effect. But its essence is in Thomas Friedman's article from, I think, two days ago. I am very gratified that you are getting involved in this!
By the way, I am considering a new project, titled tentatively "Was the Yom Kippur War Unavoidable?" Raises questions about hubris, euphoria, lack of public debate, and other human failings. In short, it deals with an issue that parallels today. Closing the window on peace opens up the door to war.
Finally, to get another perspective on Israel which is more cheerful here is he following news item:
Representing Israel, Dana International won the Eurovision song contest in Birmingham, Great Britain on Saturday, performing the song "Diva" written by Yoav Ginai and Zvika Pik, MA'ARIV reported. The audience warmly supported Dana, as did the British press, which had predicted her victory. Dana, who is a transvestite, said that her victory is a signal that the world is making progress. "We are all equal," Dana said. Dedicating her victory to Israel, Dana said, "This is my gift for the State's 50th Anniversary." Israel Radio, KOL YISRAEL, reported that hundreds of people celebrated Dana's victory in Tel Aviv's Rabin Square shortly after the vote was announced. Director of Israel's Broadcasting Authority said that Jerusalem will host next year's Eurovision contest.
yours, ZZ
Subject: Re: Israel & us
Date: Thu, 7 May 1998 16:52:59 ‑0400 (EDT)
From: XYZ
To: Jeff Weintraub
Dear Jeff,
Good to hear from you again. So many things to say, and tell you its hard to know where to begin.
As concerns your reflections on Israel, I remain perplexed by your attitude. Its a baby killer state. Imagine if, here in England, the government said that Jews couldn't buy homes in certain areas of London because it undermined the 'christian character of the state'. I would be very unhappy about it. That is true for non‑Jews all over Israel. I don't feel any affinity to Sefardim, to Ethiopian Jews. I am, like you, a diaspora man, always in exile, like everybody else. The idea of a 'homeland' for any so-called ‘nation’ is one of the most revolting concepts to emerge from the nineteenth century and I declare war on it. The Jewish idea of a home, on the other hand, a place with a front door, a television, fatty foods and plenty of sugar based biscuits, is one I carry with me wherever I go.
The point is, Rabin was a militaristic killer, netinyahu is the logical development of Rabin, if you have a Jewish State then two things follow. The first is that it must be Jewish, and the nature of the Jewish religion is something I feel you have an uncharacteristically bland view of. Its horrible on divorce, marriage, attitudes to Goyim and the rest. As a religion, it is, morally speaking, repulsive. That is not to say that a Jewish culture did not develop that was in many ways opposed to that religion. A compassionate and funny culture which has found its greatest expression in the United States in the television and movie industries. I like Seinfeld. I think its distinctively Jewish.
As Israel reaches fifty, I only wish it bad. As I wish bad to all states based on religion, race or ethnicity. I hate Ireland, Iran and Indonesia with the same passion. I think Israel will become more religious, I think it will continue to treat Palestinians as less than human, I think it will continue to wage war on Jewish Ashkenazi secularism. I think it a disgrace and a blot on the world.
Enjoy America and don't get too hung up on ethnic pride. Its good to hear from you again and please write soon,

Love as ever,
Hoshana Raba

[Maurice Glasman -]

[Update, 2005: When I shared this collection from 1998 with my original correspondents, Maurice sent me the following response.]

Hey Jeff,

It did take me back and I had to stand up and walk away from the computer when I read what I wrote.

Things do change, and my awareness of Muslim Jew-hate is far stronger now than then, equally my love of the Jewish people is far stronger. Although at an ethical level I do reject the right to national self-determination as a concept as it must lead to endless war, as a least worse alternative I have moved from a single secular state to a two state solution.

Anyway, we can talk about this. I think we have to stand by what we wrote at the time and give reasons for why we have changed our mind, so please include my name and even e-mail link as this is a conversation that is well worth having, and the sentence about front doors televsiion and sugar based biscuits seems funny.

Does hoshana rabba sound good to you as a pen name?