Thirty years ago, Philip Roth wrote a profound, funny, disturbing novel about Israel, Palestine, and antisemitism called Operation Shylock. In this story an American Jewish writer named Philip Roth discovers that another writer who also calls himself Philip Roth is giving people in Israel fits by preaching “Diasporism” – a doctrine calling on Israel’s Jews to return to the mostly European lands from which they or their parents originally came. Roth #2 considers Europe and America to be the Jews’ true homelands: places where a humane, creative Jewish culture once flourished, and which are now needed as sanctuaries because of Israel’s failure to make peace with the Palestinians and the Islamic world’s hostility to Israel. The heretical idea given voice by the Roth doppelganger and discussed pro and con by a galaxy of other characters in the novel is that the Zionist experiment – the attempt to establish a just and secure Jewish State – has failed.
Operation Shylock, which I assigned to graduate students in a course called “Conflict and Literature,” was clearly more than a joke – but not even Roth expected it to be prophetic. One wonders what the novelist, who died five years ago, would say about the current war in Gaza, which began with an attack by Hamas fighters who murdered, raped, and wounded some 900 Jewish civilians and 350 soldiers and took more than 240 people hostage, provoking a series of retaliatory bombings and ground assaults by Israeli forces that have so far killed more than 16,000 Palestinians, most of them civilians, and at least 5,000 of them children. That war continues at a hellish pace, threatening to kill and wound tens of thousands more, and tempting other nations to intervene to stop the slaughter.
Philip Roth would certainly understand the terror among Israeli Jews generated by the vile Hamas attacks and their desire to eliminate the threat of repeated assaults by conducting a campaign of righteous destruction. In the novel, Roth #1 attends the trial of John Demjanjuk, a Ukrainian-American accused of being a famously cruel concentration camp guard, and reflects on the hold that the trauma of the Holocaust still has on the consciousness of Israelis. But there are always at least two “Roths” – two dialogists in the author and in each of us – to complicate matters by asking hard questions. Questions like these:
+ What, aside from sheer malice, drove Hamas to “break out” of Gaza on October 7? Does the structural violence of occupation, i.e., the effective imprisonment of 2.5 million Palestinians for 17 years in an impoverished strip of urban territory, help to explain (even if it does not justify) the vengeful violence of the escapees?
+ Assuming that Hamas fighters do hide among civilians, how many innocent Palestinians must die or be maimed for life so that Israel can destroy that organization? Isn’t a ratio of more than 5:1 civilian to military casualties (if not more) clearly excessive? And isn’t the analogy with World War II drawn by those who equate the Hamas attack with the Nazi invasion of Poland, the Japanese raid on Pearl Harbor, or the Holocaust itself wildly exaggerated?
+ Furthermore, don’t these disproportionate civilian casualties and exaggerated analogies suggest that the real motives for the continuing slaughter of Palestinians are a combination of fear and revenge, supported by a tribal sentiment that one of “us” is worth ten, a hundred, or a thousand of “them”?
+ And finally, isn’t the alternative to seeking the utter destruction of one’s enemy a concerted effort to find elements among them with whom can negotiate and to make peace with? The Israelis do not wish to negotiate with “terrorists”nor the Palestinians with “war criminals,” but in the end, unless the killing reaches genocidal levels, they must both do so.
Such questions lead finally to the existential doubt voiced by Roth #2 – the question of the Jewish State’s legitimacy. The war in Gaza is obviously a tragedy for Israelis who have lost family and friends due to Hamas atrocities, and for Palestinians whose relatives and friends are dying en masse in the most intensive bombing and ground battles of the twenty-first century. In important ways, however, the struggle is more destructive for Israel than for Palestine. While millions rally in support of the people of Gaza, the Jewish State is in the process of losing its claim to be a state embodying Jewish values, not just “a centralized political organization that imposes and enforces rules over a population within a territory”(Wikipedia) or “an organ for the oppression of one class by another” (Karl Marx). In Gaza, Israel acts exactly like every other collection of ethno-nationalists with guns. In doing so, it forfeits both the international sympathy that helped to create it and the support of many Jews and others outside Israel that helped to sustain it.
The state as a security zone vs. the state as a sponsor and avatar of communal values: there was always this duality at the heart of Zionism. Activists like those who founded Netanyahu’s Likud party believed that the Jews should have a state, any state: a place, regardless of other characteristics, where they would be entitled to live, and an army that would protect them against enemies. Should the state be democratic? Pluralistic? Peace-loving? Maybe, maybe not. Nationalists like Ze’ev Jabotinsky were entirely devoted to the value of security and the Jewish people’s right to occupy a territory like those controlled by certain other ethnic or religious communities. (This thinking, based on a supposed right of ethnic self-determination, led to the spurious equation of anti-Zionism with antisemitism.)
For other Zionists, however, collective security was linked and in certain cases might be qualified by other values, such as the importance of labor solidarity, democratic politics, and cultural pluralism. Orthodox Jewish religious practices and ideas were bowed to in Israel, but religious parties were not admitted to the inner circle of power until after the 1967 “Six Days War.” Even so, when push came to shove, security tended to trump other values, with the result that well before Netanyahu and company came to power, the Jewish State had become in essential respects an ordinary state, armed to the teeth, expanding its influence whenever possible, and systematically privileging capitalists over workers, political insiders over the masses, Europeanized Jews over Mizrahim, and Jews over Palestinians and other non-Jews.
“Don’t you understand?” one of my Israeli Jewish friends said with great annoyance when I questioned this obsession with security and noted the crimes against humanity that seemed to be unfolding in Gaza. “It is Jewish survival that is at stake. We did not survive the Holocaust to be murdered by Hamas terrorists.”
I began to reply that Israel is a nuclear-armed state, that the Jews are now one of the world’s most empowered groups, and that Hamas is more than a terrorist organization, however crazed some of its members clearly are. But what I recalled at that moment was the remembered voice of a man called Israel Shahak – an Israeli chemist and political activist who visited Washington D.C. in the sixties. Along with the theologian Martin Buber, Judah Magnes of Hebrew University, and a few other notables, Israel was an advocate of a bi-national state – two communities with collective rights sharing power in one polity – and was clearly not a Zionist. I said something to him about the threat to Jewish survival that many people thought was posed by the Arab states, and he replied, “Richard! Whoever told you that survival was a Jewish value?”
That shocked me. Isn’t survival – the right to life – both a Jewish and a universal value? Wasn’t the failure of European Jewry to assert and defend that right a contributing cause of the Holocaust? But after a while, I understood what Israel was driving at. Our right, he was saying, is not superior to theirs. Whatever Joshua’s followers may have done to the Canaanites in the 15th century B.C.E., Jews are not authorized to purchase their survival by exterminating other groups. So far from being morally superior to others, as the Prophets taught, our failures to act righteously and to achieve social justice would incite a just God to punish us.
Israel Shahak might have added that, in any case, the modern State of Israel has very little to do with the survival of the Jewish people. Without the support of European and American Jewry, it would probably not exist – certainly not in its present form. At this point, the apparent craziness of Roth #2 in Operation Shylock becomes creepily prescient, since what mainly jeopardizes the security of Israeli Jews today is the horribly dysfunctional relationship between Israel and the Palestinian population, exacerbated by the inflammatory role of the United States acting as the successor to the British and French empire-builders who formerly dominated the region. Neither nukes nor walls nor bombs raining down on Gaza will make Israel secure. That hoped-for security will depend upon its leaders’ ability to make peace with the Palestinians at home and stop acting as U.S. imperial agents abroad. And, until these needs are satisfied, the state cannot claim to be a homeland in which Jews will be protected.
The absence of peace, then, generates a crisis of Zionism. Why should Jews in the so-called diaspora continue to support the Jewish State if it serves neither as a sanctuary or an embodiment of Jewish values? If Zionism means simply a state controlled by Jews, there is no more reason for Jews to support it financially or politically than for the Italian “diaspora” to make contributions to Rome. On the other hand, if Israel/Palestine were to become a state dedicated not to Jewish supremacy but to bi-national community, there would be compelling reasons for both Jews, Palestinians, and others to give it massive moral and material support.
In the end, what we are dealing with in Israel-Palestine is a fratricidal conflict – a struggle between siblings related by history, language, religion, customs, and, if one goes back far enough in time, by blood. Such conflicts are particularly difficult to resolve; as Lewis Coser put it in his classic study of social conflict, “the closer the group, the more intense the conflict.”
Palestinians and Israeli Jews resemble each other in profound ways. They are passionate about family and education, at home in urban settings, and love to argue and to trade. Like Cain and Abel, they have the same parents; their histories overlap, but one is the favored child and the other the disfavored. Cain’s violence is a sin because he ignores God’s advice and wills his brother’s death, but there is a preferential structure that is equally potent and fundamental as a cause of violence. What generates such bitter conflict is not just the parties’ closeness but an explosive mixture of intimacy and inequality.
So it is in the case of Israel and Palestine, now engaged in a murderous warfare. This conflict will end, finally, when the modern Cain and Abel recognize that they are members of the same family and pledge that neither group will be preferred over the other. And when their imperial “parent,” the United States of America, stops using them and their neighbors to maintain its own supremacy, which it mistakenly calls security. With casualties in Gaza mounting uncontrollably, we need to do more at this point than prescribe policies that leaders will probably ignore. We need to mourn the dead and wounded, embrace the living, and pray and act for peace.