. . . The setting is Montreal, where the famed British historian Arnold Toynbee, a specialist in international affairs, delivered a controversial lecture to students at McGill University. . . . Israel’s ambassador to Canada, Yaacov Herzog, responded by challenging Toynbee to a public debate . . . On Jan. 31—53 years ago today—the two squared off at McGill’s Hillel House for an exchange that was broadcast live across the country and later that evening in Israel.
. . . The 71-year-old scholar was no stranger to controversy involving Jews—he had infamously labeled the Jewish people a “fossilized” civilization and “extinct society” in 1934 and later described Zionism as “demonic.” The historian also had an unfortunate record with the Nazis: After meeting with Adolf Hitler in 1936, Toynbee told the British Foreign Office that he believed the German leader was “sincere” in disclaiming any desire to conquer Europe.
Today, the understanding of the Jewish state that Herzog conveyed—a normal state with normal problems—is almost entirely absent from the public discourse. For many of its supporters, Israel must be defended absolutely as an unassailable island of moral rectitude, an exception to the rule of human error and imperfection. It never commits war crimes, and it seldom makes mistakes. Israel’s critics, by contrast, often imagine the Jewish state as heir to the Third Reich and a uniquely evil blight on the face of the Middle East. There is no depravity to which this “Zionazi” regime will not stoop, and no crime too lurid for it to commit. In other words, Israel is either superhuman or subhuman.
But when called upon to defend Israel from the charge of Nazi-like conduct, Herzog took a very different approach. He did not deny that Israeli forces had committed crimes in 1948. . . . He acknowledged Israel’s fallibility, like that of any other nation. Vindication for Herzog rested not in clearing Israel of any wrongdoing, but in situating its failures in the context of human failure. By compelling Toynbee to concede that Israel’s moral offenses were no different than those of any other country, he established that Israel’s crime was not its inhumanity, but its humanity.
Herzog’s argument creates space for conversation about Israel, both appreciative and critical. The extremist caricatures it rejects, by contrast, create a self-sustaining bubble in which such dialogue cannot take place. Those who insist that the Jewish state is immaculately conceived and governed inevitably fuel the disillusionment that bolsters those who portray the Zionist project as demonic. And those who cast Israel as a regime governed by fascist criminals provoke the very defensiveness that leads others to defend Israel in all circumstances—even when it should not be defended. Within this context, it becomes almost impossible to have a normal conversation about Israel or its problems.
The best way, then, to mark the 53rd anniversary of Herzog’s successful showdown with Toynbee is to reclaim Herzog’s Israel, with all its imperfections and promise. Because if we continue to treat the Jewish state as a fossil—something to be displayed pristinely on a shelf, or buried in the dustbin of history, rather than understood as a living, breathing, and sometimes flawed organism—Toynbee will have won after all.