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Reflections on the Jewish Question

Fall 2015 Features

Reflections on the Jewish Question

Reflections on the Jewish QuestionWhy and how Israel will need to work hard to make it through this new century

The late great Fred Halliday, leading thinker on the Middle East and professor of international relations (most famously at the LSE), once apparently noted to a former classmate of mine that he did not foresee Israel surviving the entirety of the 21st century. By this he meant that, at some point over the coming decades, Israel’s enemies would at last be sufficiently coordinated and powerful to deal a death blow to the Jewish state.

Whether Halliday’s predictions will bear out is far from obvious today as one observes the broken order of the Middle East. The consequences for Israel’s survival of the rise of ISIS and also the recent agreement between the P5+1 and Iran on Tehran’s nuclear programme are unknown for the medium and long term alike. The same is true of the consequences for Israel of the Syrian civil war more broadly, the crumbling of the Iraqi state, the collapse of Libya and Yemen, the ever-growing weakness of the Lebanese state, Turkey’s capricious politics and geopolitics, the moves of Saudi Arabia – cheap oil or not – in reaction to the Iran deal, and Egypt’s new military autocracy. We have not even mentioned Palestinian politics and, of course, Israel’s own internal turmoils – to which we turn later.

What is more clear, however, is what appears to be an iron law of international relations – to wit, that over the last two centuries, the average duration of a given state has been about 60 years. More precisely, the average duration of a modern state’s constitutional-strategic order has been six decades. After the six decades, on average, a state dissolves, breaks apart, is destroyed by revolution, is annexed or invaded by an external enemy, or undergoes any number of other species of transformation that makes the successor constitutional-strategic order – the successor state – materially ‘new.’

Consider the former Soviet Union. It lasted just under 70 years before it yielded 15 new states. Ukraine, one of those Soviet successor states, lasted 23 years until the recent Ukrainian revolution issued in a state that, if it emerges from the Donbass war and avoids another revolution, will still be materially new in its constitutional-strategic order: newly decentralized, with special status for two regions, and with Crimea annexed by Russia. Bref, post-Soviet Ukraine lasted 23 years. How long will the post-Euromaidan Ukraine – the second Ukrainian republic, as it were – last? Answer: likely no more than 60 years, and very likely far fewer than 60 years, before it is transformed once again.

Or consider Singapore, which turned 50 this year, having gained independence after being bounced from the failed Federation of Malaya in 1965. Will the current Singaporean city-state – the wealthiest per capita in Asia – survive past its sixth decade? Probably. But will it survive the entire century without meaningful strategic-constitutional transformation? This would seem far less probable, as I wrote in the Winter 2013 issue of GB, in an article entitled “Algorithm, Argument and Promiscuity.”

How long has the modern Israeli state existed? At this time of writing, some 67 years, or almost seven decades – just shy of the amount of time the Soviet Union lasted. Does this mean that the end of Israel is nigh – whether that end comes in the form predicted by Halliday or through some other event or dynamic? Not necessarily, and perhaps not by any stretch. Canada, exceptionally, has lasted almost 150 years. (I have written about Canada’s great strategic good fortune in past issues of GB.) That Israel is now, exceptionally, stretching the limits of its expected duration only means that Israel’s continued existence will require exceptional luck and/or exceptional skill and leadership from its governors, who themselves will have to have emerged from an exceptional population. In this sense, Lee Kuan Yew, the late father of modern Singapore, was right when he said that for Singapore to survive over the long run, it needed to be exceptional – in its policy-making, in its politics, in its geopolitics, and in the mentality and industry of its people.

The Singaporean analogy is perhaps not accidental, as the Singaporeans are in many ways Israelis in Asian clothes. After its expulsion from the Federation of Malaya (which itself lasted 15 years), Singapore quietly turned to Israel for lessons on industrial policy, national security and national defence, including mandatory military service and even foreign policy, with Singaporean strategists privileging an abiding Israel-like promiscuity in international relations – maximizing friendships with both West and East, democratic and less democratic alike.

A key starting point for understanding the prospects of Israeli survival this century would seem to be an assessment of whether the founding mission or imperative of the Jewish state is still relevant today, as Israel approaches 70 years – and if so, how this relevance can be preserved. For if the strategic (external) order of a country plays a critical role in that country’s endurance, so too does the constitutional (internal) order – that is, the state endures to the extent that it continues to enjoy internal and external legitimacy. As soon as one or both of those two legitimacies is extinguished, the constitutional-strategic logic of the state is broken, and a new, altered state emerges from the old one.

Why was Israel founded? Answer: for Jewish political emancipation, yes, but more essentially still, to protect the Jews of Europe from slaughter – or at least from the immanent threat of slaughter. Herzl’s 1896 Der Judenstaat – Versuch einer modernen Lösung der Judenfrage (“An Attempt at a Modern Solution to the Jewish Question”) – may have been the decisive articulation of this mission in finally mobilizing action to create a Jewish state (in the event, in Ottoman Palestine), but Herzl’s arguments were anticipated a decade and a half earlier by the now less well-known Russian-Jewish Odessa doctor Lev Pinsker in Autoemanzipation – Mahnruf an seine Stammesgenossen von einem russischen Jude. The Russian-speaking Pinsker wrote anonymously, in German (to a Western readership), in furious reaction to the 1881 pogroms that followed the assassination of Russian Tsar Alexander II. Those pogroms saw scores of Jews maimed and murdered at a time when Pinsker himself, already very Russophilic, was doing everything possible to be very Russian. The pogroms, in Pinsker’s eyes, were the final expression of Russia’s rejection of even the assimilationist path for the Russian Jew – leave aside the far less assimilated majority of Ashkenazi Jews in the Pale of Settlement – and pointed to the need for Jewish political sovereignty and control in self-government. For Pinsker, self-government and a Jewish state (he was generally agnostic on the location of the state) were necessary to avoid the problem of never-ending pogroms – a disease that would revisit the Russian Empire several more times before its collapse yielded the Soviet Union (the successor state).

What of Theodor Herzl the person, after whom cities and streets in today’s Israel are named, and who is generally considered the leading figure and key ideologue of modern Zionism? Herzl had never read Pinsker. And yet he came to the same conclusion in a different theatre – observing and writing about the show trial of French-Jewish officer Alfred Dreyfus – falsely accused and convicted in 1894 for treason against the French state. Of course, Herzl was a highly secular Viennese Jew who bathed intellectually in the Vienna of Karl Lueger, that city’s larger-than-life mayor and leading public anti-Semite – so much an anti-Semite that he found in Adolf Hitler, a denizen of Vienna in the later years of Lueger’s mayoralty, a staunch admirer. Herzl, while less agnostic on the location of the eventual Jewish state than Pinsker (Herzl favoured Israel, but floated other more improbable variants), nevertheless, like Pinsker, argued for a Jewish state the central, secular mission of which was Jewish self-protection through political strength and control. In other words, Pinsker anticipated Herzl, while Herzl anticipated Hitler’s Deutschland, which razed the Jewish population not only of Western and Central Europe, but also of the former Soviet Union (Pinsker territory) through the Einsatzgruppen massacres – stunning, algorithmic mass killings in pits that were ultimately causal in the German invention of concentration and extermination camps like Treblinka and Auschwitz-Birkenau.

The Israel founded after the Jewish Holocaust, which claimed some six million Jewish lives, has seen many wars. However, the total number of Jews killed in these wars has not exceeded some 30,000 – that is, 30,000 over nearly 70 years. To be sure, these same wars have resulted in many non-Jewish deaths – perhaps some 100,000 – principally on the side of the adversaries of Israel. Many innocent non-combatants have died in these wars. We will return to these wars later, but the essential, unvarnished thrust of these figures remains that there has been no repetition or systematic threat of repetition of anti-Jewish pogroms or any industrial-scale holocaust against Jews since the founding of the modern state of Israel.

This verity led another astute old classmate of mine – also a student of the late Professor Halliday – to suggest that Israel may be the only state in the world today in which Jews are killed specifically because they are Jews; that is, where Jews are killed qua Jews, or as Jews, as it were. This classmate spoke in the early 2000s, when the anti-Jewish spirits in some European countries like France and Hungary were less acute than today, but his argument, empirically speaking, is still borne out in the second decade of this new century: of the 15 or 16 million Jews in the world at present – some 6 million of which are in Israel – the number of Jews killed by political violence inside Israel is consistently higher than in the diaspora.

This lends itself to the paradoxical axiom that the diasporic Jew generally lives in greater security, as a Jew, than does the Israeli Jew. Why is the axiom paradoxical? Answer: because Israel was created to keep the Jew safe. And yet what is less understood by many Jews and gentiles alike is that the diasporic Jew lives in great security – again, with some notable recent exceptions – and walks with his or her shoulders high precisely because the Jewish state exists. The diasporic Jew of today, unlike the ‘stateless’ or precarious Jew of Pinsker’s Russia or Herzl’s Europe, generally enjoys the legal and police protection of his or her own state, but also knows that he or she enjoys the psychic protection and prestige of the Israeli state – a state that has as its existential mandate not just the protection of Israeli citizens, but also of world Jewry more generally. The Jewish state, in other words, is not disinterested in the well-being of Jews in the diaspora – exactly the contrary. The diasporic Jew, while easily and proudly a citizen and national of any number of other countries, has the status of belonging to a people who are now politically organized, with territory (even if partially disputed), administration, and major achievements in science, commerce, culture, politics, jurisprudence and strategy. This, doubtless, has transformed the psychological posture, or mentality, of the Jew – no longer a historical victim and not inclined to suffer victimhood.

And yet, as I started this piece by saying, Israel, having already exceeded the 60-year average existence of modern states, and given its difficult neighbourhood and contested internal order, may not last the entire century. If Israel does not last – through internal dissolution, collapse or erosion, or due to war, including very destructive war with 21st century technologies – then many thousands or millions of Jews could die again this century. These Jews would die mainly in Israel, but the death of the Jewish state would have heavy consequences for the well-being and prospects of Jews in the diaspora in all countries. Assimilationist or not, patriot or mercenary, the diasporic Jew – in France, the UK, Russia, Germany, Ukraine, Mexico or Argentina – now denuded of the psychological bulwark of a protective home, would be markedly weakened – not necessarily in immediate or near-term physical harm, but now far more vulnerable to the political winds and caprices of the day in his or her country.

And so the relevance of Israel’s original mission of protection has arguably not changed at all. But how to deliver this original mission in this early new century and at the same time assure the continued existence of the Jewish state well beyond the threshold of exceptional duration? This is the central Jewish Question today.

There would seem to be two broad dimensions of action related to addressing the Jewish Question today: the first relating to Israel’s internal order and arrangements; and the second relating to Israel’s external affairs in its near abroad – the Middle East – and key countries beyond the near abroad. Let me tackle the first dimension – the internal order – in this piece, and return to Israel’s international relations in a future GB article.

The legitimacy of Israel’s internal order, and the country’s ability to deliver the original Zionist mission more generally, are increasingly complicated, if not undermined, by two key dynamics: first, the tension between Israel’s secular political and legal structures (its constitution, for all intents and purposes) and a rising religious class – notably in the settlements; and second, the erosion of the Jewish demographic majority to a growing Arab population (part of it occupied). On the secular-religious front, Israel will have to continue to struggle not simply to have a largely secular politics supported by a largely secular population, but, as anticipated in the logic of political Zionism, to have a secular politics that accommodates and is porous to religious views and freedoms in firm recognition of the fact that without a substantial religious footprint Judaism, in spite of its cosmopolitan cultural richness, would over time lose its content and orientation. The Jew in Israel, in other words, must continue to be protected by a secular state, but a theological core must be allowed to flourish within this secular framework if the Jewish fact is not to lose its coherence over time.

Having said this, the Israeli state was not, at its logical (winning) core, a religious or spiritual project, even if religious Zionism existed, as an ideology, side by side with the staunchly secular volleys of Pinsker and Herzl, and even if the more pious elements of Israeli society have been stimulated and have seen their political footprint grow since the Israeli victory in the Six Day War and the subsequent territorial occupations. (The secular strategists in Israel’s military saw these occupations as critical to the future defensibility of Israel – lack of Israeli strategic or territorial depth oblige – while religious Zionists came to interpret this advent of new land and the opportunity for new settlements as messianically inspired or foreordained.)

As Herzl wrote in Der Judenstaat, Jewish vulnerability is not a social or religious question, but rather a purely political matter. As such, the Israeli Jew, pious or heathen, is a political creation – a citizen of a state the purposes of which remain primarily political. (See the Ben Gurion book, Qu’est-ce qu’être Juif?, in which Israel’s founding prime minister commissioned the views of 50 Jewish sages the world over, from the American jurist Felix Frankfurter to the Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson , to advise on the content of this political citizenship.)

Of the relationship between Arab and Jew in Israel, let me start by disputing the widely held notion in today’s commentariat, and perhaps even in Israel and the broader Middle East, that the enmity between Arab and Jew is age-old. By degree, this is a patent fallacy – for the age-old juxtaposition that led to the creation of Israel was far more clearly between Christian and Jew, not Arab and Jew. Pinsker, of course, railed at not being accepted into Russian Orthodox society, while the anti-Jewish temperament of Herzl’s period was exercised by the strength or weakness of what Wilhelm Marr, the 19th-century German pamphleteer who coined the term Antisemitismus (anti-semitism), called the germanisch-christlicher Geist (the German-Christian spirit).

If the tension between Arab and Jew in Israel today is not a simple manifestion of the inevitable or innate continuity of such tension from pre-Zionist days, then the problem is far less deep than some pessimists would suggest. And yet it is perfectly clear that the superior threat of violence to the Jew in Israel today as compared with his diasporic analogues (and the threat to Arab from Jew) is very much an Arab-Jew issue, not a Christian-Jew issue.

Can this Arab-Jewish tension be ameliorated? Without a doubt – but with the proviso that this amelioration cannot come at the expense of the central protective mission of the Israeli state vis-à-vis the Jew. In other words, Israel has no imperatives to political suicide in the service of bettering the relationship between Jew and Arab. The question, rather, is whether this better relationship can happen without edging toward any threshold of political suicide. The answer, again, is surely yes.

How can this be done? Answer: transform the strategic losers of the Israeli Zionist project – the Palestinians – into co-equals in governing the state. The English majority did this to the losing French minority (the losers in the British-French Seven Years’ War) in the creation and, over time, the governance of Canada – to the point where majority-minority relations in today’s Canadian federation are principally political questions, rather than ones of life and death, or war and peace. Canada, of course, must now, as a far more complex proposition, do the same with its Aboriginal population – strategic losers who must, in moral terms, be resuscitated into political co-equals in Canada’s political project (see my piece on this topic in GB’s Winter 2014 issue). The same equilibrium of majority-minority equilibrium obtains in today’s New Zealand between the English majority and the Maori minority, both of which are heavily and proudly invested in the success and continuity of that country. (Granted, unlike the French in Canada, the Maori were not defeated in war by the English, but rather fought the white man to a draw.)

If the transformation of the Palestinians into co-equals in the governance of Israel is a moral imperative, it nonetheless cannot, as mentioned, threaten the existence of the Israeli state or otherwise compromise its protective mission. This would seem to militate against allowing the Jewish demographic majority position to erode – something that is rapidly occurring, if it has not already occurred, if one counts the occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza (not strictly occupied, but also not self-governing in the fullest possible sense).

And here, then, is the wicked problem for Israel in its internal order in respect of the Palestinian population – a population enjoying far greater rights if Israeli citizens, but which is otherwise, on any reasonable discourse, justifiably in search of a better compact with the Jews: Israel must end the occupation not just for moral reasons (Israeli settlers, to the extent that they are not essential to the protective mandate, surely pour salt in the wounds of Palestinian strategic defeat), but in order to preserve its Jewish majority – a majority necessary to safeguard the protective mandate of the Jewish state; and yet the bet on a wholesale new Palestinian state existing alongside Israel, in the current spirit of the times, may well prove highly destabilizing, if not fatal, to the integrity of Israel’s protective mandate.

If, for instance, that new Palestinian state, having acquired important land concessions from Israel, makes Israel far less defensible (or irreversibly indefensible), then this will have been a bad Israeli bet indeed. (As Michael Morgan argued in GB’s inaugural issue in 2009, a small war can sometimes lead to a better peace, while a bad peace may well issue in a very large war.) To be sure, a new Palestinian state could be perfectly peaceful and even allied with Israel over time. Who knows, really? But for Israeli decision-makers today, the patent uncertainty of such a beau risque makes a firm commitment to a new Palestinian state highly improbable, and the reluctance before such a commitment very reasonable.

What, then, is the alternative to a new Palestinian state, post-occupation? It must be some species of federation or confederation under the aegis of the extant Israeli state. This is not a particularly novel idea, of course – even if it is largely absent in the political discourse on Israeli-Palestinian affairs today. But if Israeli strategists come to fancy that this federal or confederal model is a safer bet for preserving the central protective mandate of the Israeli state, then this future should presumably be favoured to the two-state solution.

Indeed, a confederal model would begin to approximate an arrangement of reasonably co-equal governance, with one majority-Jewish province co-existing with one majority-Palestinian Arab province. We might imagine citizens of each of the two provinces, Jewish and Palestinian (nowhere occupied), enjoying fully the same civic rights and responsibilities, except that certain national strategic functions and privileges – relating to the defence and national security sectors – would be carved off exclusively for representatives of the majority-Jewish province.

To some, this may seem an inelegant and certainly imperfect outcome – particularly for the Palestinian population. And yet if the Jewish majority in Israel is properly willing and able to resuscitate the Palestinians in this new federal or, perhaps better still, confederal model, into effective co-equals in the state project, then this imperfection will have been significantly mitigated.

To be sure, the two-state model has been the dominant paradigm and popular narrative for the last several decades, so the idea of a new logic answering both the Jewish Question and indeed the Palestinian one is well outside the current imagination of Jew and Arab alike. New generations of Jews and Arabs will have to be re-educated and reprogrammed to reconsider their futures – and very soon. But if Jew and Arab, no longer occupying or occupied, are able to enjoy not only reasonable political co-equality but over time deep personal friendships within and across the two provinces (one remarks quickly how few deep and abiding friendships there are between Jew and Arab in today’s Israel, and indeed how little curiosity there is about ‘the other’), then the internal order in Israel will become characterized not only by the Arab walking with head held high, but by the Jew drinking his coffee and enjoying the Sabbath in far greater relaxation. Jew and Arab will both be invested in the survival and longevity of the state.

Let us return, as promised, to Israel’s vexing external challenges, even under an improved, more just internal order, in a future essay. But let there be no doubt, still, that a new federal or confederal Israel would constitute a materially new state. And so this lends itself to the irony that in order to survive well beyond six or seven decades, Israel may have to transform itself into a largely new state that is able to parry the forces favouring its eventual elimination.


Irvin Studin is Editor-in-Chief & Publisher of Global Brief.


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