New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage convened a distinguished panel on this topic, March 11. It was moderated by Jeffrey Goldberg, the New Yorker and NY Times journalist who recently wrote “Prisoners,” his tale of dialogue with Palestinians he guarded in Ketziot prison while he served in Israel’s military during the First Intifada. In his introductory remarks, Goldberg spoke humorously of his youth as a Zionist attending the HaShomer Hatzair summer camp Shomria, in the Catskills.
He defined Zionism aptly as a “civil rights movement for Jews… [and also about] the right of Jews to be recognized as a people like any other.” He, as well as the others, reminded us how successful Zionism has been, in the fact that for the first time in many centuries, there is no “captive Jewish community.”
Goldberg also memorably spoke of his Gaza Strip interview with Sheikh Yassin (the founder of Hamas) who told him frankly that the Palestinians will be able to wait out the Jews for another 200 years if necessary to defeat them. Three days later, Yassin was dead at the hands of the IDF and Goldberg accentuated this fact with the statement that the Jews also are a patient people, who have been able to endure 2,000 years to reestablish their state.
But readers should understand that Goldberg is a liberal who genuinely wants a negotiated peace. He alluded to Bibi Netanyahu’s recent public declaration about the Iranian threat that today is “1937.” Goldberg remarked in dissent that in 1937, unlike today, the Jewish people had no IDF (armed forces) and no state.
The most left-wing panelist was the former Meretz MK, Naomi Chazan. She began by complaining about the title of the event, “Why Israel Matters”; “it matters,” she declared, “because I am.” She also explained how she as a native and lifelong Israeli has a “New York accent”: the daughter of British Zionists, she spent some formative years in New York, including as a student at Barnard and a graduate student at Columbia.
In her presentation, she decried the fact that Israel now has the largest income gap between rich and poor of any advanced industrial state in the world, having surpassed the US in this dubious honor last year. She also mentioned the remarkable degree to which Israel is a multicultural society, noting that approximately 20% of the population is Arab, 20% recent immigrants (most from the former Soviet Union in the last 15 years), and 20% Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox. The remaining 40% consists of Israel’s numerous components and subcultures, including the old Ashkenazi-Mizrakhi (Jews of Afro-Asian origin) divide.
She sees Israel’s “existential threat” as being to its democratic and Jewish nature, which necessitates ending the occupation of the West Bank. Both Chazan and the next speaker, David Markovsky, lauded the Saudi initiative. Markovsky, a journalist and think-tank analyst who was once an editor at the Jerusalem Post and lived in Israel for many years, was the self-declared “centrist” on the panel. He views the test of the Saudi/Arab League peace initiative as depending upon their willingness to drop its reference to solving the Palestinian refugee problem in accordance with UN General Assembly Resolution 194, which speaks of the Palestinian right of return, and he commends Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni for seeking its deletion. But significantly, Markovsky shares with Chazan the conviction, in his words, that “the solution that doesn’t give dignity to both sides, is no solution.”
The last panelist was the Harvard professor of Yiddish literature, Ruth Wisse, the only true right-winger on the stage. She made a brilliant analysis of the historic role of anti-Semitism as a means for rulers and rabble rousers to use the Jews as a scapegoat, to either shift blame for the grievances of oppressed subjects from their oppressors or for extremists to mobilize support among them to seize and hold power. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, anti-Semites gave “liberalism” and modernity a Jewish face as a way of diverting the discontents of the impoverished masses upon a vulnerable minority.
Wisse related how, in society after society, when Jews were given the freedom to excel and rise in their economic position, their visibility as successful “others” gave rise to powerful counter-currents, to lay them low. She correctly describes anti-Semitism “as the most durable ideology in the modern world,” but she cynically ignores and derides any statements from within the Arab world against racist anti-Semitism as merely “private expressions.”
In the most dramatic interchange of the afternoon, she reacted harshly to moderator Goldberg’s description of a Palestinian refugee he knew in Gaza, whom he described as relatively non-political, whose family fell victim to the 1948 war and fled to Gaza from where they’ve never been able to leave. He sought her response to the question of what is due such an individual. Her reply was to provocatively describe his concern as a “disease,” a word that triggered Goldberg’s ire and consternation.
Prof. Chazan aptly characterized Prof. Wisse’s refusal to see positive signs within the Arab world as “defeatist.” And Markovsky, while recognizing that “reconciliation will take a long time,” urged Israel to respond to efforts at diplomacy, such as the Saudi initiative, arguing that “We can’t wait for perfection…. We have a moment for diplomacy before the conflict is completely religionized.”
In fact, Markovsky has recently returned from Saudi Arabia, where he urged the Saudis to reassure Israel that their support for the “right of return” is basically about the Palestinians settling in their small West Bank-Gaza polity and not in Israel proper. Markovsky sees a new alignment of interests between Israel and the mainly Sunni Arab countries against an axis of militant Shiism emanating from Iran, Iraq and Lebanon.
Wisse’s angry and harshly distrustful attitudes are shaped by her own bitter experience as a child refugee, whose family was miraculously among a handful of Jews who were allowed into Canada during the war years; for her family and other surviving refugees, building new lives in new lands was their priority. It’s hard for her to feel compassion toward a people who have, in contrast, allowed themselves to be manipulated for generations into retaining their refugee status and cultivating their sense of grievance rather than trying to put the conflict behind them.
Still, this program was mostly upbeat in its tone. It was noted that Zionism has succeeded in transforming the Jewish people into “subjects” in history from mere “objects.” It was further mentioned that Israel is now home to the largest Jewish community in the world. All the panelists shared a sense of pride and hope in Israel’s remarkable achievements in science, technology, industry and the arts — despite its ongoing problems and its current moral failings with a government riven with petty corruption, scandal and incompetence.