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.
Another example of misleading arguments is that of apartheid and racism. Gordis argues that “Arabs are full citizens” and are represented throughout all walks of Israeli life. There are significant arguments against that, but beyond that, the plans for the occupied territories are fully apartheid in the same context as the Bantustans in South Africa were (and in some ways, still are). The argument then shifts to the “black Ethiopian Jews” without recognizing that racism is not just about skin colour but covers other cultural attributes as well (and other sources indicate that yes there are racist divides within Israeli culture along colour and ethnic lines).
The argument then devolves onto North Korea’s repressions, China’s repression (Tiananmen and Tibet), Russia, Cuba, Argentina, and Iran, asking why there have been no repercussions or threats of dismantlement made against them, why they do not have their right to exist denied. Well, in part, that is simply wrong. Cuba and North Korea have certainly been questioned on their right to exist. North Korea and China have certainly been questioned on their atrocities to their own indigenous people. Russia, in the form of the old Soviet Union, always had its right to exist questioned and if the U.S. had its way, would continue to activate for Russia’s dissolution except that the rising tide of Islamic fundamentalism in the new republics would work against their interests in the Middle East. And the argument was not about Israel’s right to exist in the first place, it was about their racist tactics within the state.
Demographics plays a major role in Gordis’ arguments. There is an undercurrent that ‘transfers’ of population would be acceptable, that ethnic cleansing is a means in which the demographic concerns – threat – can be addressed. With that as a recurring element in his arguments, the arguments against racism become even dimmer as the two are strictly connected. He initially argues that “Israel’s strategy was always about more than mere demographics.” Then having stated that, the argument is diverted to “their country’s purpose” which ultimately is a Jewish state on its god-given land. From there, throughout the book, the argument returns frequently to demographics, rendering the adjective “mere” to be highly specious.
Through these convoluted arguments, through the emphasis on the glorious military past of the Jewish tradition, Gordi arrives at a scenario of an ongoing war that necessitates a militaristic state. That naturally abrogates any democracy as any military establishment is antithetical to the reality of democracy. To label it otherwise is simply a lie. The status quo remains – a racist militaristic state that wishes to inhabit the whole of Eretz Israel without having a bothersome Arab/Palestinian population at hand to deal with. It leaves the goal of the author, that of “Jewish recovery, Jewish flourishing, and the possibility of a vital Jewish future,” rather unrealistic.
A society of forgiveness, compassion and love (and let the shoah go)
The same wish for a Jewish revival and recovery with a flourishing society is expressed by Avraham Burg in “The Holocaust is over, we must rise from its ashes.” The title itself provides a significant indicator that Burg’s view differs from much of the mainstream media information received in the west.
The work is a combination of personal anecdotes, strong arguments and a re-assessment of language usage. The personal anecdotes are used as illustrations and lead ins for other arguments. The arguments themselves are written using metaphor, mythology, and fundamental common sense. Burg’s re-assessment of language/propaganda covers many areas, including historical references, historical mythologizing, and contrasting the assumed passive diaspora versus the heroics of Zionism. It is not a history of events, but examines and questions in complex and provoking ways the thought patterns connected to those events.
The end result is “Israeli humanism must understand that the answer to the Israeli occupation is not just withdrawal from the occupied territories, but also the creation of a new Jewish identity.”
The Shoah and Zionism
The centre of the argument is the shoah. Burg does not want to discard discussion of the shoah but to change its significance as an event within the long web of Jewish history. It “has become a theological pillar of the modern Jewish identity and that it is one of the Jewish people’s greatest challenges in modern times….In the arena of war, the Shoah is the main generator that feed the mentalities of confrontation and catastrophic Zionism.” In essence, the holocaust is the philosophical and operational force behind modern Jewish/Israeli society, in effect denying other nations and peoples of their own histories of their own holocausts, making the holocaust, and not fundamental Judaic beliefs, to be the basis of creating the Israeli society:
Because of the Shoah, Israel has become the voice of the dead…war has become the rule rather than the exception. Our way of life is combative, against friends and foes alike. One might say that the Israeli only understands force….In the end we did what the rest of the world’s bullies do: we turned an aberration into a doctrine, and we now understand only the language of force.
American Jews are included within the discussion as “like Israelis, [they] are stuck in Auschwitz, raising the Shoah banner high to the sky and exploiting it politically.”
Zionism is the perfect accompaniment to the shoah:
Few remember that the majority of the Jewish people opposed the creation of a Jewish state well into World War II….united by the fear that a Jewish political entity would create intolerant nationalistic sentiments that would drastically alter the historical character of the Jewish people.
That the holocaust was catastrophic for the Jewish people is inarguable, but in turn Burg recognizes “This is Zionism at its worst: what is bad for the Jews is better for Zionism.” His basic conclusion is, “Israel could not have been born without the Shoah.”
Burg draws references and comparisons to the German Weimar republic. The discussion covers militarism, a system that “is borrowed from Bismarck’s Germany.” The use of language is recognized as very significant for control of the state. He argues that “the modern Hebrew language employs word laundering to mask an arrogant, violent and even racist attitude toward the Arab enemy.” Israeli propaganda or “word laundering is among the most advanced in the world.”
A different look is made of the Nazi approach to Zionism, being “a cynical meeting of interest: neither the Zionists nor the Nazis wanted the Jews to remain in Germany….The Nazis, in their cruel way, were involved in promoting the idea of the Zionist state and fulfilling it.” The end result is that “Israel declared itself the heir of the victims, their sole official representative in the world.” It became a society “connected to its bleeding, traumatic past,” with the result that the Nazi massacre of Jews in Europe and the building of the Jewish state “became intertwined and inseparable.”
From Burg’s perspective, Hitler has won, in the sense that the Jewish people as embodied in the state of Israel are forever bound to the holocaust as their reason for existing. If the people of Israel cannot grow beyond the cult of the shoah, recognizing it for its prominent role in modern history but not caught up in its perpetual victim hood, militarism, oppression, and denial of other’s human rights, they will forever be mired in the holocaust.
From that rises the Palestinian problem, with Burg providing the ironic twist that “the Wandering Jews, a people of refugees, are the cause of the Palestinian refugee problem.” From their he sees Israeli cynicism and double standards as “The world took responsibility for the Shoah, and it did so very seriously indeed….In contrast, we have never done anything similar for the Palestinian refugees and their descendants. We did not fulfill what we demanded of others.”
In an arguable statement, he says, “The oppressed always look up and aspire to resemble their oppressors.” In metaphorical terms, “It is like the battered child that becomes an abusive parent and thus preserves the pathology of his life. In the same way, humiliated and persecuted people can become similar to the worst of its tormentors. Past oppression does not provide a clean bill of morality to the newly freed people.” There are two levels to this argument, one being the nature of Israeli society, the other being the nature of Palestinian society. As an oppressed, humiliated, and persecuted people, the Palestinians have resorted to violence on several levels, from inter-faction feuding between Hamas and Fatah, the PLO/Fatah oppression against its own people in the West Bank, and the militant response of insurrection and violence towards the occupiers, Israel.
As I indicated earlier there are no real practical answers to the physical problems of Palestine/Israel presented in either of these works, but Burg’s thesis does arrive at a much more positive philosophical viewpoint. As I understand its essence, it is because the Jews have survived the shoah and a long history of persecution, that needs to be turned outward, away from the militarism, away from the race hatred and self victimizing that currently dominates Israeli politics. Instead, the Jewish people need to become witnesses that this shall not happen again, not just in reference to the Jewish, but not to any other people on this world, that the shoah was not just a crime against Jews, but also a crime against humanity, a crime that the Jewish people need to lead the world away from, and not continually thrust it into everyone else’s face as the sole owners of racist victim hood.
Burg looks for a renaissance, a rebirth. “The most important Jewish legacy is to assume responsibility for repair, redemption, restoration, and reconstruction of the ruins.” Not just the ruin of the Jewish people, but the ruin of all populations that are oppressed and denied.
While not practical in a physical sense, if deed follows word then there is certainly much room for optimism and positive growth from Burg’s arguments. From this idealism of a peaceful and positive Judaism, escaping the long talons of the shoah, a new Judaism could rise, and with that, a positive and forward looking solution to current Palestinian/Israeli problems.
On the other side of the coin, if Gordis’ arguments are sustained, then Israel will become even more combative and militaristic without apologies or concern for others. This internal debate in Israel may continue for a long time, much like the peace negotiations that are never ending. In that event, the status quo will remain, with much rhetoric and propaganda, with continuing settlement of Palestinian territory, with ongoing hostility towards the Palestinian people.
 Gordis, Daniel. Saving Israel – How the Jewish People Can Win a War That May Never End. John Wiley & Sons, Inc., Hoboken, New Jersey, 2009.
Burg, Avraham. The Holocaust Is Over We Must Rise From Its Ashes. Palgrave, MacMillan, New York, 2008.
 see the partial bibliography at the end of the review on Benny Morris’ One State, Two States available at http://www.palestinechronicle.com/view_article_details.php?id=15340