This review was originally published in the Palestine Chronicle on September 30, 2009.
That Israel exists and has the power to continue existing is very much a fact. With a sophisticated military establishment including more than 200 nuclear weapons (at lowest estimates) there is no way Israel would stop existing as a state of some kind. The argument within Israel, minimally interpreted from a few written works, is how will Israel survive into the future along the lines of what kind of state will it be and how will that be achieved.
As with most societies, there are large divisions within Israel about the best way forward, arguments that look back over the millennia for support, yet turn pivotally on the shoah of the Second World War and the awareness that there is a serious problem with the Palestinian population both within Israel and within the occupied territories. It can be argued that all of Israel is occupied territory, but the reality of the occupation is that the territory behind the green line will not be dealt with under any negotiated settlement. Inside Israel there are many ideological splits, none of which of course deny Israel, but with many different intents and purposes for the way forward, with several different interpretations of past and present events.
In simplest terms, two recent works examine the way forward: one advocates militarism, and the preparedness for a long ongoing struggle; the other advocates peace and the love and joy of a revived Judaism. Saving Israel  is written by Daniel Gordis, the Senior Vice-president of the Shalem Center in Jerusalem. He takes the militant approach to saving Israel. Avraham Burg, a former member and former speaker of the Knesset, now retired, wrote The Holocaust is Over, We Must Rise From Its Ashes. Burg’s approach is one of a much deeper soul searching and moving forward away from “an army, war, occupation, corruption and cynicism.” My bias is obvious, as any move towards future peace has many more rewards than a nation mired in ongoing war, racism and hatred.
The common thread to both books is the manner in which Israel will turn toward the future. As Jewish people, they both unequivocally identify the need for a Jewish state. Both authors emphasize a return to more basic, traditional Jewish roots in order to ensure survival into the future as a viable state/society/culture. Within that, both seek a transformation of the Jewish people, a return to the centre of what Judaism is all about, differing in that one sees a traditional warrior path and the other sees a traditional path of peace. Arguments in both texts are based on an accepted premise that within Jewish mythology, the land they occupy is given to them under a covenant from God. As an accepted premise that point is not argued, but biblical support is found for both the peace and war components. The shoah is pivotal to both arguments and any and all arguments concerning Israel, as it is obviously a major event in the long line of Jewish history.
The major shortcoming to both books, is the lack of an actual practical solution. While both present long philosophical, theological, and historical elements within their arguments, not much is said about the practicalities of how to proceed, although hints are made without being directly spoken or an overall contextual practical picture being presented. Gordis talks a lot about the demographics of the state and a willingness to identify with the biblical warriors of the past. Burg identifies the dissonance between Jewish ideals of love, peace, and tolerance and the realities of the brutal occupation of Palestinian territories. But from these differences there should arise some concrete steps towards a solution. That it does not happen is perhaps because the nature of the philosophical argument needs to be won within Israel before any steps can be taken towards a settlement of the problems. The status quo of occupation and settlements wins out.
War Without End
Gordis argues in Saving Israel, as per his subtitle, as to “How the Jewish People Can Win a War That May Never End.” His answer is in a transformation of the Jewish people as “Israeli society as a whole did not merely drift away from Jewish life; it rejected Jewish tradition as a matter of principle and ideology.” His argument arrives at the militaristic idea in which “Jews across the world today need to be re-awakened to the fact that at its most sophisticated, Jewish tradition never shied away from war, particularly when war was necessary for the preservation of the Jewish people.”
The manner in which he gets there is convoluted, working along the lines of what I call the Benny Morris school of thought. Those thoughts include a highly narrowed perspective that eliminates contextual positions, uses language that presents a fearful cultural bias towards Arabs and Palestinians, at times is simply plain wrong, and other items are simply omitted when inconvenient. Added on to that are some serious problems with the development of his arguments, using specious arguments and the avoidance technique of tossing out irrelevant questions.
Gordis’ arguments are based on the out of context positions assumed by many Israeli advocates. Explicitly stated in some cases, implied in others, the arguments appear broadly based within parts of Israeli culture. These arguments are familiar: the land was empty; the shoah is conflated with Zionism; we are the eternal victims; the Arabs/Palestinians are barbaric, not modern; Islam is a militant religion (which begs to question the authors own answer); we, the Israelis, have offered to concede much land for a solution; we did concede land and gave Gaza back to the Palestinians and they turned to terrorism; our occupation is because of Arab/Palestinian aggression; there are no Palestinian leaders; we fought the war in Lebanon not because we wanted it but because we were attacked first; Hezbollah and Hamas do not care about the people they live among; we have offered peaceful concessions all along but the Palestinians have always rejected them. All these positions are based on outright falsehoods, some created by the lack of context, others simply wrong. The omissions include the economic and military support of the U.S., the existence of nuclear weapons, and the greater geopolitical strategies of the Middle East. There is a considerable library of information extent that deals with all this, or puts it into the correct perspective that I will not deal with counter arguments here.
Tactics of Argumentation
Another tactic that Gordis uses and should not pass as critical argument or true academic argument is that of lines of thought that are not logical and which are purposely distracting and misleading.
One of these is that of refugees, stated simply “They attack, we respond, they flee.” There is no recognition of the atrocities and the purposeful plans of the early Zionist leaders and modern Israeli forces and leaders to ethnically cleanse the state of Palestine/Israel of its Arab citizens. Gordis does get one idea right, that the other Arab countries often use the Palestinian problem for their own advantage, arguing that they “want more pawns in their chess match against Israel.” More realistically though, those governments (Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia at the forefront) are more concerned about their own survival, having already accepted the de facto existence of Israel, but not wanting to lose power vis a vis their own population’s protests concerning Israeli atrocities against the Palestinian people.
Gordis does say that “No one can reasonably deny the suffering of many Palestinians or claim that Israeli rule over the territories that it has tried to relinquish has always been benign.” Well and good but the suffering is blamed by the Israelis on the recalcitrance of the Palestinians themselves which results in the rule not always being benign. The argument of ‘relinquishing territory’ is a propaganda twist on the removal of settlements from Gaza and the ‘generous offer’ of ‘relinquishing’ what the most of the world recognizes as Palestinian territory in the West Bank. The argument then creates a diversion with questions about the atrocities in Darfur, Zimbabwe, Venezuela ( a television station being closed is a “heinous violation of human rights”?) Sure those are atrocities and a minor human rights violation in the case of Venezuela (even then, there is more to that argument than can be expressed as a simple human rights violation), but too bad, the focus is on Israel at the moment. It would be great if all atrocities stopped, but Israel is the centre of the storm at the moment.