The Paradoxes of Israel

The creation of Israel marked the application of a peculiarly nineteenth century solution, the founding of a state based on ethnic or religious identity, to an ancient problem. The problem was, of course, anti-Semitism, something that has dogged the Jewish people for centuries and which reached its full, nightmarish expression in the Holocaust.

But the Holocaust was itself the ultimate, nightmarish expression of nineteenth century nationalism. Germany for Germans, Jews, Slavs and Gypsies representing unwelcome grafts from other civilizations, if you will.

The nineteenth century was the boom time for nationalism in Europe. It really was the century that defined what many mean by the words “nation” and “nationalism” today. Modern Italy was born, modern Germany, Greece, and others. The idea of a nation state defined largely by a shared language and culture was a new development in the modern era where before empires and kingdoms regarded only the extent of their territory as important and often encompassed a great diversity of people. The Austro-Hungarian Empire, for example, lasting right into the fierce age of nationalism, was a true polyglot state.

Zionists in nineteenth century Europe felt the same nationalistic influences and wrote of the rebirth of a Jewish state. After decades of faltering efforts, the Holocaust gave the needed impulse for this rebirth of Israel as a safe haven for Jews.

Oddly, early in the Third Reich, the Nazis had considerable difficulty agreeing on what defined a Jew for purposes of the infamous 1935 Nuremberg Laws. After years of preaching hatred against Jews during their rise to power, you might think the Nazis clearly understood exactly what the object of all that hatred was, but that proved not to be the case.

Under the compromise reached between various factions of the party, “three-quarter Jews,” those with three Jewish grandparents, were considered Jews. “Half-Jews,” those with two Jewish grandparents and two “Aryan” grandparents, were considered Jews only if they practiced the faith. “Quarter Jews” were considered as non-Jews. Attempting to rationalize the irrational always leads to absurd, not to say dangerous, results.

There was some resemblance in the Nazis’ formulations to those now-ludicrous efforts of scholastic doctors in the Middle Ages trying to settle such matters as a pinhead’s capacity for accommodating angels. Later, in the bloody torrents of the Christian Reformation and Counterreformation, efforts to draft such rules or formulas became deadly matters, determining who was a heretic to be burned alive.

And yet, in a bitter paradox, Israel perpetuates a version of this thinking. A conception of just who is a Jew is necessary because all those regarded as Jews have the right to immigrate to Israel and to receive generous assistance in settling there; however, as with any such conception, it suffers disagreements and adjustments over time, a recent one involving whether to recognize certain African groups holding to ancient variations of Jewish belief. Moreover, inside Israel there are great disagreements about rules set by one group of Jews, fundamentalists, governing important parts of the lives of other groups of Jews, as say Reform Jews.

There is yet another paradox. How can a state, defined solely by the religious and/or ethnic identity of its citizens, function rationally in the emerging world of globalization? This question would not be pertinent were Israel a third-world place such as Afghanistan where a modern economy might not develop for a very long time. But Israel is, in many respects, a modern nation, integrated into the global economy, especially through its attachment with the United States, and subject to the economic and social forces operating on all modern states.

In the mid to late twentieth century, the very concept of the nation state in the advanced world underwent perceptible change that appears likely to generate still more profound change. The United States long legally barred Asian and certain other immigration to its shores. Australia, right up into the 1960s, had the reputation of not accepting black immigrants. These kinds of barriers to the movement of skilled and ambitious people, and there were many of them, are now frowned upon by the entire advanced world. Human society has made some real progress.

Today, the economically advanced states of Europe are becoming diverse in their population makeup. Whether it’s Turks in Germany or Arabs in France or Albanians in Italy, the European states are starting to follow the pattern of immigrant-founded states like Canada or the United States (and, yes, they are experiencing social turmoil always associated with this change). There are many reasons for this, including the settlement of millions of displaced persons after the war, generous policies in recent decades for accepting refugees from various conflicts, static or declining natural rates of population growth, fairly ready accommodation of third-world migration for jobs in periods of intense postwar growth, and the increased movement of people associated with foreign investment.

Over and above these changes in individual states, the European community clearly seems destined before very long to become a single federated state, whose many national groups will provide a population of great diversity.

The trend seems clear. A hundred or so years from now, no modern nation will look much as it does today. The nineteenth century concept of a single ethnic group defining a state will have dated as badly as the sixteenth century idea that marriage may alter a dukedom’s boundaries.

So what will be the future meaning and relevance of a state defined solely by a religious identity? There have certainly been other states of this nature in the world, but not ones that are a part of the advanced world. Theocracy is universally associated with backward places, places not subject to the economic, social, and political flows of an open society in a globalized world.

Will Israel pass through the twenty first century, with all the revolutionary forces of globalization and a close attachment to the world’s biggest globalizer, the United States, remaining a small state defined by religious identity? Strictly from a theoretical point of view, this does not seem likely and may even prove impossible.

Will Israel instead become a fifty-first state of the United States? Despite frequent assertions that Israel is a sovereign state not answering to America, already, in many respects, Israel approaches such a status, de facto. The American government gives roughly five hundred dollars a year for each Israeli citizen, an amount that more closely resembles the transfers of a federal government than foreign aid, plus a great many other forms of valuable assistance, including technology transfers, intelligence sharing, defense arrangements, loan guarantees, ready access to top leaders, and access to American markets; a package of benefits unlike that extended to any other nation. And the U.S. places no restrictions on a huge private flow of assistance and information, a practice it does not follow with a number of other nations.

Of course, under the American Constitution, the nature of many of Israel’s policies and the rules governing important parts of her social life immediately would be struck down as unconstitutional. But, even if Israel does not become a fifty-first state, how can she ever have a meaningful Bill or Charter of Rights, something she does not now have, if her raison d’etre is to provide a home essentially for one kind of people?

Now, advocacy of a Palestinian state also represents nineteenth century thinking. This is a very small group of people with a very small territory of limited resources. Such a state’s population/resource ratio must necessarily be a weak one. The rational solution to the conflict would be a single state embracing all these people, yet this contradicts Israel’s concept of itself. Nevertheless, over the long term and reflecting global trends, can there be much doubt that this is exactly what will ultimately emerge?

The idea of Israel surrounded by a wall, a solution touted by some Israeli extremists, is subject to every point of rational criticism that applied to the Berlin Wall; Israel and the Palestinian lands, like the two parts of Berlin, have too many natural and intimate connections to ever be truly separated from each other.

And what is the attraction of living in a garrison state holding an unwanted portion of the area’s population at arm’s length indefinitely? Without huge American subsidies, this would be almost impossible even today.

Of course, we have still the distinct possibility of the Palestinians being driven out of the lands remaining to them.

A report in The Daily Telegraph recently quoted an Israeli minister saying Mr. Sharon has a secret plan to annex about half the West Bank territories, leaving the Palestinian entity as a truly feeble foundation for a state. If true, this should surprise no one since the right wing of Israeli politics, despite constant publicity in the United States about a tenuous and undefined “peace process,” has always opposed the creation of a Palestinian state, has always desired to annex these territories, and has always desired to see the Palestinians pushed out.

A second recent report – or as it may well be, a second “trial balloon” – in The Sunday Telegraph has Martin van Creveld, an Israeli historian, saying that Mr. Sharon has a secret plan to push the entire West Bank population out of their homes and into Jordan under cover of Mr. Bush’s expected attack on Iraq, or in the event of a major terrorist attack by the Palestinians. This would be done, not by door-to-door fighting, but by a moving artillery barrage pushing two million people to refuge beyond the Jordan River. Of course, no Arab country is in a military position to effectively oppose such an action, and the situation of the Palestinians themselves is one of utter vulnerability.

This would not be without supporters, and influential ones, in the United States. Mr. Dick Armey, Republican of Texas, for example, in a recent interview managed to say he would support ethnic cleansing of the West Bank without ever actually using that ugly expression.

Perhaps the greatest paradox of the Jewish state is that today Jews live in many places of greater safety, stability, and comfort than Israel. In Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, and many other places, Jews flourish as an integral part of society. This was not, of course, always the case, but it is now. So much so that it is a recurring theme amongst some American Jews that intermarriage with non-Jews, something quite common in America, represents a danger to Jewish identity.

The intellectual contribution of Jews to Western society has been profound, with thinkers in the twentieth century alone like Freud and Einstein contributing major parts of the century’s intellectual framework and ferment. So, too, the moral contribution of Jews with many great teachers and humanitarians. What a final, ugly paradox to see a man like Mr. Sharon, whose talents appear to be brutality and dissimulation, regarded as a leader of the Jewish people.

John Chuckman is a columnist with YellowTimes. He can be reached at:

John Chuckman lives in Canada.