Featured Post

New book available! David Kaiser, A Life in History

Mount Greylock Books LLC has published my autobiography as an historian,  A Life in History.   Long-time readers who want to find out how th...

Friday, January 18, 2013

What is happening to Israel

Support for Israel has grown steadily within the United States over the nearly 65 years of its existence. Although few people in the US or abroad are aware of this, Washington and Tel Aviv had a lukewarm relationship from the time of Israel's founding until the Six Day War in 1967. Israel received very little weaponry from the US in its early years, and in 1957, after the Suez Crisis, President Eisenhower forced the Israelis to withdraw from the Sinai peninsula by threatening to end to tax deduction for charitable contributions to Israel by Americans. The 1967 war was in certain respects an outgrowth of Vietnam. One of the most striking discoveries I made researching American Tragedy was a 1965 memorandum by Robert Komer, then a National Security Council staffer, on how the Johnson Administration's increasing preoccupation with Vietnam was allowing three dangerous situations--the conflict between Indonesia and Malaysia, tension between India and Pakistan, and the Middle East--to fester. Komer had no idea how right he was: within three years, each of those situations had exploded into war. Had the US been paying enough attention to the Middle East the 1967 war might well have never broken out.

That war, as political scientist Judith Klinghoffer showed, gave birth to the neoconservative movement in the United States, because prominent Jewish intellectuals became alarmed at Israel's isolation. They not only became more aware of their ethnic and religious heritage, but concluded that the United States had to pursue a strong foreign policy because it was emerging as Israel's only friend. That trend accelerated over the next few decades, and conservative American Jews were reinforced by evangelical Christians, many of whom wanted Israel to be supported as an augury of the Second Coming. But meanwhile, Israel was changing radically, and it is that that I want to discuss today.

Although the Old Testament and ancient Jewish traditions lend Zionism some support, they were not the principal inspiration for it in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Instead, Zionism grew out of the more recent western tradition of nationalism, which held that every significant ethnic group deserved its own national state. Zionism initially divided Jews in western nations like Germany, Great Britain, and the United States, because they were to varying degrees accepted by their home nations and, especially in the US, wanted nothing more than to be treated like their fellow citizens. In that sense Jews had become some of the foremost exponents of the impartial principles of the Enlightenment, as embodied in the US Constitution, which makes no distinctions among citizens and treats religion as a private matter. But the bulk of the world's Jews lived in the Russian empire, where they were not treated as citizens, and for them Zionism had a powerful appeal. Then came the two world wars. The small Zionist lobby took advantage of the First World War to make Germany and Britain bid for their support, and the Balfour Declaration was the result. The Second World War and the Holocaust wiped out most of the Jewish population of Europe and seemed to make it impossible for Jews to live there. The United States, still living under highly restrictive immigration laws, was not a potential refuge for most holocaust survivors. The creation of Israel was the result.

The relationship of temple and state has always been complex in Israel, which is probably one reason that it still has no written constitution, but its original leaders were overwhelmingly secular. I recently read that they decided to subsidize orthodox Jewish communities on the assumption that they would die out naturally within a generation anyway. How wrong they were! The original ruling party was socialist, and the kibbutz was the flagship institution of the new state. The Labor Party held power for thirty years, until the late 1970s. Now it has become almost a fringe party, expected to win 17 out of 120 seats in the Knesset in the forthcoming elections. Reading a story about that this morning, I finally decided to look into something I had been hearing about intermittently for some time: the issue of emigration from Israel and its effects.

I an excellent short discussion of this question here. Interestingly enough, the Israeli government does not keep careful statistics about emigrants, perhaps because they are a slap in the face of the state's original purpose as a homeland for Jews. However, it seems clear that there are, at a minimum, about one million Israelis--perhaps 15% of the country, a very high figure for an advanced country--living abroad. The majority live in North America but many live in Europe as well--and a growing number live in Germany, which until 1933 was at least as friendly to Jews as any other European nation. They are a relatively young group, and they explain that they left partly for economic opportunity, partly because of the social and political climate in Israel, and partly because of the poor prospects for peace. And, critically, Israeli law does not allow them to vote in Israeli elections. That in itself is probably enough to account for the effective exclusion of the Israeli left from power in Israel, and it suggests that the trend to the right will continue. At this moment Bibi Netanyahu is more worried about maintaining his strength vis-a-vis the extreme right wing parties in his coalition than he is about the left. Another complication, of course, is that the orthodox Jews in Israel--like the Mormons and Evangelical Christians in the US--have much higher birth rates than their more secular contemporaries.

From the time of the 1967 war onward the Israeli government has based its policies less and less on international law and Enlightenment institutions such as the United Nations--which did, after all, create it--and more and more on scriptural authority. Religion has also become a more powerful factor within Israeli society. I am myself the grandchild of Ukrainian Jews who decided to seek their fortune in the United States, and my existence would have been quite impossible had they made any other choice. For that reason and for many others, the Enlightenment model of equal citizenship is the only one with any appeal for me. I could never have lived in any country that demanded that I list my children's religion on their birth certificates. It seems some Israelis are now deciding that they would just as soon not live in such a country either, and I can understand why.

Religions fundamentalism is gaining both in Israel and in its Muslim neighbors--and that obviously is not a hopeful sign for peace. Jews in western Europe and North America played highly significant roles in the development of western thought and institutions in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and still do. The world Jewish community has never agreed that Israel should become its home, and the statistics on Israeli emigration show that that split now exists within Israel itself. It is a significant part of the continuing struggle between tradition and modernity.

P.S. The Israeli election results suggest I was too pessimistic!
Congratulations to young Israeli voters, who evidently staged a big upset.


Bozon said...

Great history lesson here. Most of this quite correct it seems to me.

I always bemoaned the modern state of Israel, for many reasons, some of which are now increasingly coming into wider view, although in its time it seemed to those bound there as a great thing.

All the best

Anonymous said...

Everyone who can leave will leave and the more leave the more power the right wing orthodox will have. They live on subsidies and don't work or serve militarily and live in settlements. Israel will become a purely relgious state of extremist form in the coming decades if the demographic trend is maintained. At some point there will be a tipping point and since no orthodox people want to fight or work then Israel will bankrupt and/or be defeated in war and emigrated liberal Israelis and the burgeoning group of sharia/sunni states like Egypt and soon Syria and soon Jordan will be happy/gloat. The orthodox Israelis will move to Kansas or Hamburg and the palestinians will have a new homeland. The West will have a new group of welfare moochers-refugees, as Israel does now but it will be cheaper than the current military subsidies to Israel and to Egypt and the other Arab states as a peace dividend so that they accept Israel. The Arabs will perahps then have no reason to hate the West anymore so will have no terrorists, etc. Of course Western Antisemites will have a new problem and so the cycle begins anew as Western Jews will yearn for a homeland. Life is ridiculous and all too predictable.

That Liberal Guy said...

That Israel and the US didn’t have a close relationship is one of the three biggest surprises in the book “Six Days of War” by Michael Oren. (Just how bad the Arab armies were and the Johnson’s fear of involvement with Russia are the other two) Which I’m sure you’ve read. What you may not have read and I cannot recommend enough is “The Unmaking of Israel” by Gershom Gorenburg. It isn’t just that the growth of the Likud and settlements are making peace unlikely but quite likely that any decision by a future government to withdraw from the West Bank would result in insurrection of whole units of the military as well as a refusal to carry out orders by large numbers of individual soldiers.