On American campuses, Israel feuds are nothing new. But the City University of New York’s decision to deny playwright Tony Kushner an honorary degree—and now perhaps reinstate it—is cutting-edge. It is cutting-edge because the debate over Kushner’s degree is, at heart, a debate over whether people who want Israel to be a secular rather than a Jewish state can be tolerated in public life. That’s a debate that Americans, and particularly American Jews, haven’t had since the 1940s. But it’s returning in a big way.
Stowed away in the attic of American Jewish life lies this uncomfortable truth: Well into the 20th century, many American Jews opposed the creation of a Jewish state. Many Reform Jews were anti-Zionist because they feared a Jewish state would raise questions about Jewish loyalty to the U.S. Many Socialist Jews were anti-Zionist because they believed the proletariat should unite across religious and ethnic lines. Many Orthodox Jews were anti-Zionist because they believed that returning Jews to the land of Israel was God’s job, not man’s. Even when Jews began arriving in Palestine in large numbers, prominent Jewish intellectuals like Martin Buber, Albert Einstein, Henrietta Szold, the founder of the American Jewish women’s organization, Hadassah, and Judah Magnes, the American-born founder of Hebrew University, argued for the creation of a secular state in which neither Jews nor Arabs would have pride of place.
The Holocaust and the wars that followed Israel’s creation largely obliterated that vision, and by 1967, when Israel conquered the West Bank, Zionism was as uncontroversial an element of American Jewish identity as matzo ball soup. But that’s starting to change. The reason is that for many liberal American Jews, Israel’s legitimacy as a Jewish state is bound up with its status as a democratic state. As former prime ministers Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert have acknowledged, Israel’s occupation of the West Bank imperils that. Ever since 1967—for more than two-thirds of its existence—Israel has held dominion over millions of West Bank Palestinians who lack citizenship simply because they are not Jews. Creating a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip would remedy that, but with 300,000 Jewish settlers in the West Bank, and an additional 200,000 in East Jerusalem, more and more close observers fear the window for creating such a state has closed. As former Knesset speaker Avraham Burg wrote last month in Haaretz, “I am not at all sure that a two-state solution formula is alive.”
Enter Tony Kushner. Kushner says he believes that Buber and Magnes were right: “that democratic government must be free of ethnic or religious affiliation.” Whether or not the Palestinians create a state in the West Bank and Gaza, he wants Israel to be a secular democracy like the U.S. That’s what sets Kushner apart from many other critics of Israel’s occupation. Liberal Zionists want to end the occupation so Israel can be a Jewish democratic state. Kushner believes that even if Israel does end the occupation, it can never be Jewish and democratic at the same time.
The American Jewish establishment has answered people like Tony Kushner by trying to bar bi-nationalists from the Jewish conversation.
Kushner is making a serious point. A state whose flag features a Star of David, whose anthem references the “Jewish soul,” and whose immigration policy allows Jews—and only Jews—to receive instant citizenship inevitably privileges its Jewish citizens over its non-Jewish ones.
Still, I think he’s wrong. Israel was created not merely to be a Jewish democracy, but to be a Jewish refuge, and even though most American Jews can’t imagine needing one, the long history of Jewish persecution suggests that we should not blithely assume that diaspora Jewish communities will always be as fortunate as us. Secondly, while there is certainly a tension between Israel’s Jewish and democratic character, Israel’s Arab citizens (those within its 1967 borders) do serve in Israel’s parliament and supreme court. Indeed, they enjoy more rights and live better lives than do their cousins in most of the Arab world, which is why most Israeli Arabs would rather live in a Jewish state than a Palestinian one.
In the real world, replacing this flawed but nonetheless genuine democracy with a secular bi-national state would mean a leap into the dark. Bi-nationalism, after all, barely works in Belgium, let alone Israel, where Palestinians and Jews have been at war for a century. Does anyone really believe that an Israeli Defense Force composed half of Jews and half of Palestinians would be anything but a cloak for rival militias? As Reinhold Niebuhr often stressed, liberalism is not a utopian creed, and if you think dismantling Israeli settlements is unrealistic, think what it would mean to dismantle the IDF.
But while I disagree with Kushner, there’s something valuable about his challenge. The American Jewish establishment has answered people like him by trying to bar bi-nationalists from the Jewish conversation. In accordance with Hillel’s national guidelines, its Brandeis affiliate recently spurned Jewish Voices for Peace, of which Kushner is a member, because it “den[ies] the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish and democratic state.” Maybe we should hold them to that standard. If Kushner is traif for questioning Israel’s Jewish character, shouldn’t Hillel also shun people who by entrenching Israel’s occupation threaten its democratic character? The platform of Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party, for instance, explicitly opposes a Palestinian state, which means Likud wants to permanently disenfranchise millions of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, which means it wants at least part of Israel to be a permanent non-democracy. Maybe Hillel should bar Likud officials until that platform is revoked? I wonder if Jeffrey Wiesenfeld—the CUNY trustee who spearheaded the anti-Kushner effort—could pass Hillel’s test.
There are only two intellectually honest positions. Either you believe so strongly in a Jewish democratic state that you actively oppose everyone who opposes that vision, or you widen the public discussion to include both those who want a democratic state that is non-Jewish and those who want a Jewish state that is non-democratic. Either would be better than what we have now: organizations like Hillel and figures such as Wiesenfeld who pay lip service to democratic Israel but only defend Jewish Israel. If Tony Kushner lays bare that hypocrisy, he will have more than earned his honorary degree.
Peter Beinart, senior political writer for The Daily Beast, is associate professor of journalism and political science at City University of New York and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. His new book, The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris, is now available from HarperCollins. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.