Questioning Israel

03.13.13

An Ahistorical Tantrum In The Times

Yes, Israel can be a Jewish, democratic and legitimate state.

Something about Israel’s place in the international community makes it like Charlie Brown’s friend Pig Pen. If anyone is slinging any mud intellectually, ideologically, politically, diplomatically, it usually ends up on Israel. If one form of nationalism in the U.N., a forum of nationalisms, is going to be singled out as supposedly “racist,” it will be Zionism, the Jewish national liberation movement that established Israel. And if intellectuals are going to disdain one ethno-nationalist state, of all the world’s ethno-national states, it ends up being Israel, too.

I can dodge the intellectual trap Joseph Levine tries setting in his recent New York Times blogpost, “On Questioning the Jewish State,” and avoid calling him anti-Semitic for questioning Israel’s legitimacy. But just because he is a philosopher, and just because the Times published his screed, I need not accept his facile, distorted, slanted arguments, which single out the Jewish State for special contempt. Levine targets Israel with a shocking disregard for the complexity of most countries’ characters—and total ignorance of the history of nineteenth-century European romantic nationalism. His caricature of Israel as a state that necessarily oppresses non-Jews because it is a Jewish State overlooks Israel’s Declaration of Independence, the complex status of Israel’s Arab minority, and Israel’s noble track record compared to most of its neighbors and most other countries.

Levine objects to establishing a “particular people’s state,” finding it by definition guilty of “the wrong of ethnic hegemony” which then leads to the “further wrong of repression against the Other within its midst.” In rejecting any ethnically based nation-states, he negates most nations’ binding, constitutive forces. He overlooks the flourishing of liberal nationalism in the 1800s, which became, the Harvard professor and American statesman Daniel Patrick Moynihan taught, “an exercise in matching a ‘people’ with a state.”

Levine misses the fact that most nations, through their flags, their languages, their national holidays, tell a particular story that includes some and excludes others. He overlooks the rich philosophical arguments made by leading thinkers like Michael Walzer in Spheres of Justice: A Defense of Pluralism and Equality (1983), and elsewhere, acknowledging that states, like clubs, have “admissions policies” distinguishing between humans by designating some members or citizens. The challenge becomes how such states treat “the Other,” who belong because they live in that same “neighborhood,” not the act of distinguishing.

Exuding an old-fashioned, pre-Vietnam, Mad Men-era arrogance, Levine wants the whole world to build its politics on the noble American model of civic identity not ethnic identity, a model Canada embraces but even most European countries, despite their rhetoric, avoid. In Latvia and Estonia there are stringent language rules for many employment licenses—and ask children of, say, Turkish migrant workers born in France or Germany to compare their access to jobs with their “real” French and German friends, if they have any. Yet for some reason I leave to his psychologist, the only country he singles out for this crime of not being America is Israel.

Obsessed by Israel, Levine indirectly absolved purer forms of these ethnocracies, especially the Arab dictatorships, and instead targeted one of the most porous and progressive ethno-cultural states. He did not have to do much research to stumble across Israel’s delightfully mixed messaging in this realm. Israel’s Declaration of Independence roots its identity as a Jewish state in the Bible, standard fare for ethnic nationalism, the predominant mode of nationalism today. But Israel’s founding document also offers all its “inhabitants” civic equality, mixing ethnic and civic nationalism, combining—at its best—the best of ethnic expression with democratic equity and acceptance.

Israel seeks to build a rich, thick, public life and culture mixing the Jewish and Western traditions, with a trace of an Arabic accent, acknowledging that not everybody living in the Jewish state is Jewish. As a result, a notion of Israeliness has developed which is not just Jewish. As a result, Arabs have enjoyed the fruits of the Declaration’s civic equality, with Israeli Arabs serving in the Knesset and the Supreme Court, as others have prospered in other fields. Of course, Israel is, like all states, flawed, and frequently violates those ideals, but the aspirations are noble—and have achieved marked improvements in recent decades.

Yes, Israel is what Walzer called, in his book On Toleration, a “complicated case.” Israel is a nation state like many nation states established as part of the flowering of nineteenth century European nationalism. Israel is a society of immigrants, mostly Jewish, gathered from across a scattered diaspora, bringing a dizzying array of languages, looks, and leanings to this supposedly monolithic state. And as a successor state to the Ottoman Empire, Israel is still keeping the millet system—an old-fashioned, legalized form of multiculturalism—to protect the rights of separate religious and ethnic groups.

Israeli Arabs have conflicted feelings about where they fit in to this conflicted state. They want—and deserve—complete economic and political freedom to build productive lives as democratic citizens. But many also demand group prerogatives, such as a separate educational system, which offends my sense of American unity but preserves their ethnic integrity.

Had Levine blogged about how Israel navigates its complicated identity, he would have a lot more credibility. Of course, a thoughtful, nuanced piece about Israel would have had less chance of being posted in the Times. Instead, sadly, he produced this one-sided, ahistorical tantrum.