Senior members of Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party, some of them ministers in his government, comprise the Land of Israel Caucus, a political formation opposed to relinquishing any of the territory Israel has occupied since 1967. It is the largest caucus in the Knesset. For appearance sake, Netanyahu is not a member, it having become part of the job description of an Israeli Prime Minister to pay lip service to a “two state solution.” But does anyone doubt where Netanyahu’s sympathies lie? For that matter, does anyone doubt that Greater Israel sympathies run deep, as they always have, across the Israeli political spectrum?
Connections between the main arm of the Israel lobby in the United States, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), and the Israeli Right are longstanding. And AIPAC’s influence over Congress and the White House is legendary. But AIPAC’s views hardly reflect American public opinion. Retrograde evangelical Christians are on board, and most American Jews, like most Americans, do in some sense “support” Israel. But most of that support is tepid; and support for a Greater Israel is scant. Contrary to what our political class assumes, and contrary to what our media would have us believe, AIPAC is very likely a paper tiger. But until someone in a position to do so ? an American president with cojones, for example ? calls their bluff, they might just as well be as omnipotent as they seem. Netanyahu discovered even before Mitch McConnell and John Boehner did that we don’t have a president like that now.
But the times, they are a changing ? and not just because the unsettled Israel-Palestine conflict has become a problem for the empire’s military and diplomatic machinations. The Arab spring is changing parameters in place for decades in ways that no one quite yet understands but that can hardly reinforce the status quo. Thus, at the same time that Israeli intransigence is more pronounced than ever, the need for strategic flexibility on Israel’s part ? indeed, for an “historic compromise” with Zionism’s territorial ambitions — has never been greater.
This is one reason why, increasingly throughout the United States, calls for new departures in American-Israel relations are on the rise — not least within the American Jewish community. AIPAC’s grip on the American political class is undiminished, but it is becoming increasingly clear that it represents the views only of a minority of the minority.
In addition to increasing awareness of the need to rethink established Zionist understandings, many in the pro-Israel camp are becoming increasingly concerned by Israel’s contempt for international law and the unending injustice of its occupation regime. News of Israel’s flagrant delinquencies used to penetrate the haze the American media throws off only occasionally and then mainly during Israel’s wars — which lately have been directed not against real armies or even organized militia but, as in Gaza in 2008, against subject populations. In recent days, they’ve even been directed against unarmed protesters in the Golan Heights, outside Israel’s internationally recognized borders. In circumstances such as these, willful ignorance is difficult to sustain, notwithstanding the best efforts of “lamestream” media like NPR and The New York Times, and of the Democratic Party cheerleaders on the evening lineup at MSNBC. Liberal Democrats in Congress are even worse; for example, Anthony Weiner, who is (or was) among the most conspicuous of the lot! How ironic that he now finds himself shamed for post-adolescent acting out rather than for what is genuinely shameful!
The state of Israel was supposed to be a “beacon unto the nations.” Some of Israel’s defenders still think it is. But not everyone is capable of the level of denial and self-deception necessary for maintaining that illusion, particularly as the facts on the ground militate in the other direction.
Nevertheless, American support for Israel remains robust because many strains of the American civil religion converge to sustain it. One in particular bears mention: the role the Holocaust has come to play in American (not just Jewish-American) life. Among other things, it ? or rather its depiction in the civil religion — serves as a template against which past and present American crimes (even slavery and the annihilation of indigenous peoples and their cultures) can be forgiven because they pale in comparison.
[The name itself is revealing: “holocaust” is the Biblical term for “burnt offering.” It suggests that the Nazi Judeocide of 1942-45 was transcendently evil and therefore insusceptible of historical understanding. This implication is unhelpful, but the name is now so widespread that its use has become unavoidable.]
The Holocaust is crucial for explaining how Israel came to be and why it has been cut so much slack ? by North Americans and Europeans and by Germans above all. But it hardly justifies the idea that Israel can rightfully do whatever it pleases in the Middle East. This would be the case even if peoples could somehow bank “moral capital” and pass it on to future generations. The problem is not just that only a minority of present day Israelis are directly connected to the Holocaust, whether by personal experience or descent. The more relevant fact is that, while the killing went on, there was no state of Israel ? and hardly anyone outside “revisionist” Zionist circles even broached the idea, preposterous on its face, that a future Jewish state in Palestine would somehow someday represent the Holocaust’s victims.
Nevertheless, the idea that the Holocaust justifies the usurpation of Palestinian territory by Jewish settlers has become part of the common sense of our political culture ? thanks, in part, to the efforts of religious and secular-Zionist institutions and to the willingness of all but the most orthodox religious authorities to accede to the idea that the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine fulfills more than two thousand years of Jewish history and aspiration. In fact, what “next year in Jerusalem” meant for almost all of those two thousand years was not there should be a Jewish state ? the very idea of a state is a modern invention ? but that the Messiah should come. The Passover Seder’s closing words express a theological, not a political, conviction.
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Even as support for Israel survives, confidence that Israel is “on the right course,” as the pollsters say, has diminished. Concern is mounting that Israeli intransigence, and American support for it, is putting Israel’s “Jewish and democratic” character at risk.
Zionists have never been expressly anti-democratic but, for almost all Zionists, the first concern has always been that Israel be Jewish, not that it be a democracy. There were intellectuals living in Palestine in the early years of Jewish settlement who were outstanding exceptions ? among others, Achad Ha’am (Asher Ginsberg), Judah Magnes, and Martin Buber. However, this minority current has been all but extinct for as long as the state of Israel has existed.
But remnants of a humanistic Zionism, focused more on culture than politics, did survive in marginalized left groups in Israel and in left and liberal circles in Jewish communities throughout the world. Paradoxically, with the Israeli Right calling the shots domestically, and with the Obama administration, like its predecessors, capitulating to AIPAC, concern with democracy ? and with respectful and neighborly relations with Palestinians ? has witnessed a modest revival. We should not exaggerate the scope of the phenomenon but it does bear mention that there are now organized Zionist groups that challenge AIPAC and other pillars of the Israel lobby ? J-Street is the best known and most prominent example. From these quarters, it matters that Israel be (or remain) democratic as much (or nearly as much) as that it be a Jewish state.
This is a fine sentiment in comparison with the views of the traditional (self-declared) representatives of American Jewry. But can there really be two states in the territory of Mandate Palestine ? one Jewish and one Palestinian, and can the Jewish one at least be (or remain) democratic?
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For some time now, more Israeli Jews have been moving out of Israel than diaspora Jews have been moving in; ironically, Germany is a favored location. But however defunct the old, pioneering spirit may have become and however low Zionist morale may be (outside fanatically religious circles), there is no chance that Hebrew-speaking Israelis will give up any time soon on the idea of a Jewish state. This is one reason why, for the foreseeable future, a secular, democratic state that incorporates all the peoples now living in Mandate Palestine on an equal basis is a non-starter. There is no significant current of opinion in Israel that would consider relinquishing the state’s “Jewishness.” Neither is there any remotely capable external force that would be willing to bring that outcome about: not with Israel’s known disposition to regard threats, real or imagined, as “existential” challenges to be met through war; and not so long as Israel is armed to the teeth and in possession of between two and four hundred nuclear weapons.
It is also relevant that world opinion has long favored a two-state “solution,” and that the outlines of one were almost agreed to at the Taba Summit in the final weeks of the Clinton administration. For several decades too, the relevant Arab parties, the United States and even Israel itself have been nominally in accord.
However, a two state solution can only come about if the United States makes Israel an offer it can’t refuse. Given how ready Obama is to call on hit squads (not just Navy Seals, but a whole panoply of special ops forces), and how he is as focused as any gang leader on saving face and projecting power, one would think that handling Netanyahu godfather-style would be right up his ally. But, alas, the bully is a coward.
It’s too bad: it would be far better ? in the kinder, gentler sense ? for J-Street than AIPAC to have its way. And so long as there is no other politically achievable alternative to an indefinite prolongation of the status quo, who can gainsay what those who favor a Jewish and democratic Israel want?
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Who except sticklers for coherent political visions who have a hard time accepting that a state can be both Jewish and democratic? The problem would be obvious if the idea were somehow to break down separations between clerical and political authority ? between “synagogue” and “state.” Israel has its theocrats; all states with populations mired in Abrahamic religiosity do. But those who want Israel to be (or remain) both Jewish and democratic are not calling for a theocracy. Many, probably most, Israeli Jews are not even Jewish in a religious sense. Certainly, most of Israel’s founders were not. For them, “Jewish” designated an ethnicity, not a religion. Their call for a Jewish state was a call for ethnocracy, not theocracy.
It has become accepted wisdom that ethnic and national groupings are “imagined communities.” Jewish ethnicity is no exception. This has always been a problem for secular Zionists. From the beginning, they have found it difficult, and often impossible, to imagine Jewish ethnicity without invoking the religion shared by Jewish communities throughout the ages. None of the other usual props exist: there is no common language, no common land (if there were, Zionism would be superfluous), and, it is becoming increasingly clear that even claims for common descent are problematic. If anything, Jewish ethnicity is more imagined than most.
There are probably not many members of the Land of Israel Caucus who would sink so low as to admit to favoring an ethnocratic regime, and more “moderate” Zionists have always found the idea (if not the reality) abhorrent; this is even more true on the Zionist left. What high-minded Zionists have always wanted is that Israel be a Jewish state in the way that, say, Denmark is a Danish state ? not a state of, by, and for persons of Danish ethnicity (whatever that is), but one in which the vast majority of citizens are ethnically Danes. They saw Israel as a Denmark in the Middle East.
However, in our age of neo-liberal capitalism and labor mobility, that type of state has become problematic everywhere, even in Denmark. But the model plainly never had applicability in Mandate Palestine where there already was an indigenous, non-Jewish population, and where Jews had to be imported in.
Because Jews could be imported ? from Central and Eastern Europe and then from historically Muslim countries and the former Soviet Union ? the problem was evaded for decades. But it cannot be evaded indefinitely because every Jew willing to live in Israel already does and because there is what Zionists call a looming “demographic bomb.” Jewish birthrates are nowhere near high enough to sustain Jewish majorities throughout Mandate Palestine. Arab birthrates, on the other hand, are very high; high enough some day even to put an Israel confined to its pre-1967 borders in jeopardy of losing its Jewish majority. Thus it is argued that the only feasible option for Israel, if it is to remain Jewish, is to have a separate (though hardly equal) state for Arabs in part (roughly 22%) of the mandatory territory ? one to which many or most Israeli Arabs would either displace themselves or be forcibly moved.
The calculation is therefore clear: Zionism’s longstanding territorial ambitions must be partly relinquished. The only other way out of the dilemma Zionists face would be to extend and deepen the Apartheid regime that already exists in the occupied territories ? relinquishing all pretenses of Israel being, at once, a Jewish and democratic state.
Now if “democracy” means what the word says, rule by the demos (the people, in contrast to elites) then Israel along with every other state on earth has long ago relinquished the aspiration, much less the reality. This is why “democracy” in practice often just means competitive elections, accompanied by liberal protections for political rights.
Modern conceptions of democracy, even the most attenuated ones, have coexisted with the view, broached during the American Revolution (though thwarted there, largely thanks to slavery) and articulated fully in the French Revolution, that a state is comprised of its citizens ? not of any particular ethnic or religious group. Thus “democracy” implies equal citizenship rights. Even for those for whom competitive elections suffice for calling a regime democratic, a necessary condition is that religious and ethnic groupings have no political significance. Competitive elections, by all means; but against a background of equal political rights!
This is why a Herrenvolk democracy, a democracy only for the ruling ethnic group, is not a real democracy, even according to the least demanding contemporary understandings of what a democracy is. Some would say that Israel has always been a Herrenvolk democracy; others that it is in danger of becoming one. Then either it has never been both Jewish and democratic or else it has been but cannot remain so indefinitely — unless it joins the international consensus in favor of a two state solution.
It’s a flawed solution because, in the final analysis, an ethnocracy, even a genuinely neighborly one, cannot be truly democratic. But we should recall Emerson’s remark about “foolish consistencies” being “hobgoblin(s) of little minds.” Those who say that Israel must remain (or must finally become) both democratic and Jewish are guilty of inconsistency ? either that or their understanding of “democracy” is flawed. But this is a case where it would indeed be foolish not to support their program ? especially when the alternative is a manifestly unjust peace or no peace at all.
So two ? not three! — cheers for the two state solution J-Street and its co-thinkers want the United States to make happen. A genuinely democratic state in all of Palestine would be better of course. But in the world as it is and as it is likely to remain for generations, there is, unfortunately, no way from here to there. This is why, important as it is to expose the two state solution’s philosophical and political shortcomings, care must be taken not to let the best become the enemy of the better. Palestinians have suffered enough.
Andrew Levine is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.