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(Outside In) The Jews and Jewishness (Parochial)

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At this exhaustion point in American life, at this tipping point of American Jewish life, it might be a good time to reflect on how little the Jews matter in the world today. By this I mean something specific. After a long century during which Jews and Jewish things were at the front and center of everything, 2020 might very well be the year that, suddenly, they’re not. The Jews and Jewishness are not at the center of a global pandemic, not at the center of the plague of anti-black racism and the struggle for BLM, and the scourge that is everything Trump. The Jews are no longer universal; they never were, even if seemed that way to some. More and more, the perspectives brought by Jewish voices to the world will be increasingly parochial, beside the point.

Thinking about the new Jewish parochialism, I’m re-visiting the thesis by Yuri Slezkine in The Jewish Century (2006) about the Jews and Jewishness (if not Judaism) as quintessentially modern, about the 20th century being the “Jewish century.” Setting aside the grand narrative contrast between Mercurial service people versus the cloddish Apollinian host culture, service nomads with unique sense of superior separateness, and how in modern times Appolinans (i.e. gentiles) become like Jews (urban, mobile, etc.). In Russia, Nazi Germany, and America, it seemed that the Jews and Jewishness were everywhere at the center of everything. Jews were exemplary, uniquely exposed at the center of things. The establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 and the Arab-Israeli, Israelo-Palestinian conflict represents something by way of an epilogue on the world stage.

It is not like I do not think that the Jews and Jewishness, including Judaism, were ever not deeply imbricated in the world. As the starting topic-subject-point of academic Jewish Studies, itself a discourse of modernity, this entanglement meant a lot to and for the Jews and Jewishness and less so to the world. Where and how in the world the Jews and Jewishness were remains an open question. But let’s assume that the 20th C. was anomalous, even a lot like the 1st C. CE when ancient Judea and Roman Palestine, its political revolts and religious movements were at the center of things, at the center of empire. What if for most of their history, the Jews and Jewish things, Jewish ideas and Jewish texts included, were never really at the center of things, but were always caught in between or just off on the side? The 21st century might be more like that. It will not be “the Jewish century,” not even “a Jewish century.”

That the Jewish textual tradition puts the life of Israel at the center of cosmic drama is part of the Jewish self-delusion that the Jews and Jewishness are at the heart of everything. A critical view suggests otherwise. Un-Christ-like, Judaism, for its part, tends not to take on the weight of the world. More often than not, a Jewish thing gives up on itself when it goes out into the world. In life, Judaism tends to tend closely to its own little corner.

The Jews and Jewishness could never really rule the world, no matter what the anti-Semites say. As worldly as they might be, Jews are not a “world people.” With no critical demographic, there are simply too few Jews in the world to matter all that much. I’m thinking of my father and grandparents now whose own lives spanned almost the entire 20th century. Always the small part of a large whole, the Jews never filled a continent. (I’m assuming here, not tongue in cheek, that a culture can’t make a claim to being “universal” if it can’t control at least one continent.) Closeness and intimacy are the Jewish virtues par excellence, alongside a religious culture whose very logic is built upon a splintering logic and points of disconnection. As a small pariah people, the Jews know that world does not come together as a rounded whole. Against what Freud thought, there is no logic of sublimation in Judaism. If its logic is de-sublimated. The Jews and Jewishness, Judaism itself, never really get off the ground

Once upon a time, Christians could blame the Jews for plagues and pandemics. Once upon a time the Jews were at the forefront of revolutions in Russia, the object par excellence of European hatred, the movement for Civil Rights in America. Today they are barely relevant on the national and international stage. Even in the Middle East, Israel hardly matters, and Palestine even less so. Caught up in larger networks, the Jews sought a place of its own. On Twitter, they remain an irritant to white and Black anti-Semites alike in this country and in Europe. That paranoiacs given to conspiracy theories want to kill Jews and pick up arms to do so enters into and out of the general consciousness.

Readers of continental philosophy and critical theory will recognize the cardinal configurating of Jews, the Jews, and Jewishness in works by Benjamin, Kafka, Adorno, Sartre, Arendt, Marcuse, Levinas, Lyotard, Derrida, and Agamben. On the American scene one would count Roth, Bellow, Mailer in literature and the Black-Jewish simpatico and tensions in culture and politics represented by iconic names like King, Heschel, Baldwin, and Fanon along with Cornell West, bell hooks, and Henry Louis Gates. All of that was once upon a time. Today the Jews and Jewishness hardly matter and do not appear in more contemporary theory (object-ontology, new materialisms, affect, critical race). Subsumed under the blanket of whiteness, their difference, their ship has long since sailed.

The 20th C. was unique in Jewish history. In the due course of time and its turns, it has itself become historical. What makes the contemporary situation unique in its own right is the modicum of real power and relative privilege Jews secured for themselves in America and Israel, after the Holocaust, and also the broadening of its internal horizons, especially in Israel. As Caryn Aviv and David Shneer note in a 2006 book about “the end of the Jewish diaspora,” what they call “the new Jews” are a global people, interconnected at an intensity of scale unique to Jewish history. Jews were always in the world, especially today, but were Jewishness and Judaism of it or were they just something ex-centric? In the history of Jewish religion things like Bible, Talmud, and Kabbalah turned away from the world. Their creators, their operators, their users looked out at the world when they did through their own particular and resistant prisms. Jews and Jewishness “have always” marked out a place for itself in a world that is largely indifferent and intermittently hostile to Jewish things.

[[The extraordinary images from a “fake photo studio” at the top of the post are by Stephen Berkman, Predicting the Past—Zohar Studios: The Lost Years  about which you can read here at Hyperallergic]]

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What Was Was Was (Gal Cohen)

Gal Cohen Was Was

[Gal Cohen, What Was Was Was (2020)] The shredding of memory into strips seems apropos to both the current moment and to Tisha b’Av

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(Against Submission) Alan Brill reviews/interviews Aaron Koller- Unbinding Isaac

With his flair for conceptualization and contextualization, Alan Brill reviews here Aaron Koller, Unbinding Isaac: The Significance of the Akedah for Modern Jewish Thought. Alongside a compelling interpretation of the actual text of the Binding of Isaac and including the long history of Jewish textual interpretation, the book is a full blast critique of the pernicious influence of Kierkegaard on modern Orthodox Jewish thought and Judaism (and bad philosophical takes in contemporary Jewish thought on ethics and autonomy law, authority, submission).

The Book of Doctrines and Opinions:

I repeatedly hear from a generation of Modern (or Centrist) Orthodox youth, who grew up at the end of the twentieth century, that they were told that Torah Judaism is about adopting a posture of submission in which one’s individuality and moral intuitions are suppressed. Representative students of Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik publicly taught in the 1990’s and beyond that to accept divine authority one needed to sacrifice individuality for the sake of the tradition.  This sacrificial religiosity was in origin based on Rabbi Soloveitchik’s use of Soren Kierkegaard’s ideas from Fear and Trembling on the need for a teleological suspension of the ethical as exemplified in Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac as a divine command despite the violation of the command not to murder. But after Rabbi Solovietchik’s death, it became globalized to the prosaic.  To affirm the divine and follow the true nature of the halakhah meant that…

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(Upside Down) Morningside Park (Coronavirus)

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(Unequal) One State Reality (Democratic) One State Idea

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I would include this on a syllabus and am recommending here this professional collection of relatively short but richly sourced “memos” exploring the guts of the One State Reality in Israel and Palestine by social science and Israel and Palestine experts. Straightforward is the common assumption that there is an unequal, undemocratic one state reality of permanent occupation/de facto annexation in the West Bank territories ruled by Israel (military rule, consolidation of lands, settlements, systems of segregation). Raised also are serious questions about the stability of that one state reality and critical weak points re: the realization of the democratic one state idea.

The critical weak points are more interesting because they are not uncontestable. What is contestable is not the notion that there is an unequal one state reality, but that the one state reality is stable and “permanent.” I am not convinced that there is no scenario under which Israel would give up the vast majority of West Bank territories. To that point is that the entire one state scheme depends on the de-nationalization of one and/or two national communities. Is national identity as constructed or “imagined”? Could Israeli Jews and Palestinians see past national and cultural difference for social and political commonalities. Lastly is the depressing realization that creating a democratic one-state reality could take another one hundred years.

A possible takeaway is that one can recognize the existence of the (undemocratic) one state reality while maintaining serious doubts about the (democratic) one state idea.

Below is a digest of the material that I found most useful:Israel/Palestine: Exploring A One State Reality,  edited by Marc Lynch, Nathan Brown and Michael Barnett (POMEPS Studies, 41, July 2020)

–Ramifications of One State Reality (Editors Intro)

The editors set up the parameters of and questions raised by the issue:

“The deeper questions revolve around the emergent political entity itself. What kind of Israeli and Palestinian politics would evolve within a recognized one-state reality? How sustainable are dual institutions and differentiated citizenships? How permanent and irreversible are the sorts of physical barriers and settlement developments which have created these facts on the ground? Do fears of Apartheid or the fears for democracy of an effective Jewish minority still matter in a world increasingly shaped by global populism and anti-democratic forces? Which social forces would be empowered and disempowered by alternative political arrangements? Would reconciliation or co-existence at the individual or communal level be possible under new political institutions? What would such a reality mean for engagement by the Jewish diaspora and the Palestinian diaspora? What would be the role of religion and religious actors in such an Israel? What are the normative or legal obligations for justice after decades of occupation? What would become of the institutions and legacies of the Palestinian Authority? If the West Bank becomes increasingly integrated through annexation, what happens to Gaza?”

One State Reality (Ian Lustick)

The common assumption throughout the special issued is framed by Ian Lustick re: the one state reality in Israel and Palestine.

“If a solution is a pretty picture of the future combined with a plausible way to get there based on interest-driven policy decisions, then there is no “solution” in sight. There is, however, a reality. There is today one state, the State of Israel, between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River. It is an apparatus of power, recognized by the international community, whose policies and actions decisively affect the lives of everyone in the area. Travelers from Amman crossing the Jordan River via the Allenby Bridge report the end of the inspection process as marked by a “Welcome to Israel” greeting from Israeli officials. Indeed the State of Israel collects taxes from West Bank and Gaza Palestinians, determines who enters and leaves those areas, who enjoys rights to property, and who can live, build, or even visit where. Even the Trump-Kushner-Netanyahu “plan” or “vision” for the future testifies to the one-state reality. While labelling the future it delineates as featuring two states, the description it offers shows in remarkable detail that there does and will exist only one state between the river and the sea. That state is Israel, with full prerogatives to decide what half a dozen walled in ghettos will be permitted to call themselves, with an effective monopoly of force throughout the land, and with full rights to deploy its military power when and as it sees fit inside any of the ghettos. In its current form, the Israeli state is no group’s “pretty picture.” Neither its operating rules nor its institutional contours are what any group, in the past, strived to bring about. It was achieved by no one’s carefully implemented plan. It is not a solution but an outcome—a one-state reality.”

[…]

Once the one-state reality is accepted as political ontology, exciting opportunities for rethinking old slogans, worries, conflicts, and obsessions are opened to analysts and activists. Why be concerned with more Jews moving to West Bank settlements if that means less pressure on Arab communities in the Galilee? Why object to the “unification of Jerusalem” if it offers the eventual prospect of a capital shared by all Palestinians and Jews living between the river and the sea? Why discourage Arabs in East Jerusalem from voting in municipal elections out of fear that by doing so they could “legitimize the occupation,” when their votes might advance equality, living conditions, and democratic values, to say nothing of demonstrating a pathway into the future based on Jewish-Arab alliances? In that regard, why continue raising the “demographic demon,” as a specter capable of frightening Israelis into leaving the territories, when Israeli rule of those territories is permanent? Under the circumstances of a one-state reality, frightening Jews with the presence of Arabs only bolsters the Israeli right-wing by Jews discouraging Jews from discovering the vital social, economic, and political interests they share with Arabs, both those currently enfranchised and those who, eventually, can be enfranchised.”

–Constitutional Arrangements

“Waking Up to the One-State Reality,” Yousef Munayyer

Munayer’s most original contribution here relates to possible constitutional arrangements as way forward in realizing the idea of a democratic one-state.

“In place of that legal patchwork, which has been used to protect the rights of some and to deny the rights of others, a new constitution could recognize that the country would be home to both peoples and that, despite national narratives and voices on either side that claim otherwise, both peoples have historical ties to the land.

A new constitution could define as citizens all the people living in the land between the river and the sea and also for repatriated refugees and create pathways to citizenship for immigrants. All citizens would enjoy full civil and political rights, including the freedom of movement, religion, speech, and association. All citizens would be equal before the law: the state would be forbidden from discriminating on the basis of ethnicity or religion. In sum, it would require a reorientation of the concept of citizenship in the state, from a category of exclusion, to a category of inclusion.

In order for such a state to function, those constitutional principles would have to be considered foundational, and they would be subject to a very high bar for amendment- -much higher than other laws, perhaps 90% or greater. This would ensure that basic rights could not be altered by means of a simple majority and would prohibit any one group from using a demographic advantage to alter the nature of the state. Other mechanisms for robust checks and balances should be considered.”

–“Denationalization”

“Israel, Palestine, and the prospects for denationalization,” Nadav G. Shelef

A one state solution would require the de-nationalization of one and/or two national communities, but Shelef thinks the prospects are dim.

Shelef identifies 3 types of De-nationalization:  

[1] Substitution “The first form of denationalization involves a political project to substitute membership in one national community for membership in a different national community by changing the criteria used to decide national membership…In the Israeli-Palestinian context, outcomes that envision all individuals currently living within the bounds of Mandatory Palestine as equal members of a single state without any special status for the groups within it (Jewish or Palestinian), tend to assume that, to succeed, these individuals would substitute a self-understanding of their relevant political community as the “Isratine” nation (to use Qaddafi’s term) for their self-understanding as primarily members of the Israeli or Palestinian nations.”  

[2] Replacement The second form of denationalization replaces the politically relevant national (and therefore both imagined and limited) community with one that is either not limited or not imagined. Whereas denationalization by substitution focuses on activating other nominal national identities, denationalization by replacement focuses on activating non-national identities. Radicals in both nations also assume that denationalization by replacement will occur when they “permit” Palestinians or Jews, depending on who is making the argument, to remain in the state they dominate as long as the other group organizes its identity along religious or local, rather than national, lines. Ironically, a similar assumption is made by some, usually on the other side of the political spectrum, who assume that the salience of national identification as a whole will decline, thereby solving the root cause of the conflict.”

[3] DownshiftThe third form of denationalization involves shifting away from the fundamental nationalist goal of achieving collective control of the nation’s political destiny. In an extreme form of denationalization by downshifting, a group stops mobilizing for any collective control of their political destiny, effectively transforming itself into a “mere” ethnic group (for this distinction between nations and ethnic groups, see, e.g., Connor, 1978). In a more moderate (and likely) form, groups mobilized to achieve national self-determination downshift their goal from independent sovereignty to autonomy within a state controlled by a different national group. This form of de-nationalization is considerably more relevant for nations that do not yet have sovereignty, though, in principle, it could also apply to already sovereign nations. The successful emergence of a single state in the area of Mandatory Palestine based on some consociational arrangement between Jews and Palestinians assumes that at least one, if not both, of the nationalist movements in the Israeli-Palestinian space will denationalize by downshifting.”

Prospects: “Here, I turn from the theoretical unpacking of denationalization to considering briefly the four main denationalization possibilities. This explicit consideration of denationalization shows that the even if the “surgical” option of territorial division appears increasingly less likely to be implemented, the prognosis of the alternative treatments is also not optimistic. Although theoretically possible, the denationalization of Zionists, Palestinian nationalists, or both, required by outcomes that do not engage in territorial division do not seem any more likely.

To begin with, the various denationalization projects currently active in Israel and Palestine remain minority positions. Fewer than 20% of Israeli Jews and fewer than a third of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip support one-state solutions; solutions that would, by definition, require some form of denationalization. The fact that such solutions garner a relatively small following, even among the Palestinians who have comparatively more to gain from them, suggests that denationalization projects have a steep hill to climb. While these constituencies are large enough that they may “trap” political movements into supporting a form of denationalization, the deep religious, ethnic, and ideological divides within this population makes it less likely that proponents of denationalization will be able to appeal to all of them simultaneously, reducing the likelihood of this particular pathway. In other words, in the current context, it is hard to see how movements supporting denationalization win the domestic political battle.

Second, a single state imposed from the outside could presumably use the tools available to any state in order to, over time, denationalize the population by substituting a different nationalism for Zionism and Palestinian nationalism. As noted above, to succeed, such an effort would need to both overcome the inevitable attempts of spoilers to derail such a project and to erase the economic distinctions between Jews and Palestinians in order to drain (existing) nationalist mobilization of its appeal. While not impossible, this would be a daunting task. Other potential denationalization projects are even weaker. Attempts to replace national identification with nonnational identities, for example, do not have much traction in either society. In fact, the main attempts to promote a religious identity in place of a national one experienced the triumph of nationalism over religious identification. Among Palestinians, the emergence of Hamas in the late 1980s reflected the cooptation of religious identity by Palestinian nationalism. Among Jews, the Haredim, once fiercely anti-nationalist and insulated from mainstream Israeli society, are increasingly adopting a nationalist perspective. Indeed, about half of the Jewish population that self-identifies as Haredi also identifies as Zionist. In other words, denationalization by replacement is unlikely to take place any time soon.

Denationalization by downshifting seems a bit more likely, though it too faces significant hurdles. Abandoning the desire for self-determination, something that has been the very raison-d’etre of Palestinian nationalism since the 1960s and something that has actually been achieved by Zionists is a steep demand to make of both. At the very least, more work needs to be done to understand the conditions under which groups that have sovereignty become willing (or resigned) to give it up. We also know relatively little about how and why movements for selfdetermination change their goals, and how autonomy rather than independence becomes constructed as appropriate. At a minimum, our relative ignorance about these processes should make us less sanguine about the prospects of political projects – like annexation or the formalization of the one-state reality – that assume that denationalization in such contexts would automatically occur.”

–Creating a one democratic state in Israel and Palestine will take another 100 years

Ian Lustick predicts, Processes of democratization, through which masses of historically distrusted, despised, or feared inhabitants are enfranchised, don’t happen over periods of months or years. Consider how long it took for blacks in the United States to move from slavery through Jim Crow and the civil rights movement to something approaching a multi-racial democracy. It took eighty years, following Ireland’s annexation by Britain, for Irish Catholic enfranchisement and the transformation of politics in the United Kingdom that resulted. Black South Africans struggled for generations to gain political equality. In virtually all advanced industrial societies, mobilization for female suffrage took just as long to come to fruition. Israel cannot and will not decolonize by ending its dominion over the West Bank and Gaza Strip, but it can still decolonize—by respecting the equal rights of all in the state that rules them to full and equal citizenship. Unfortunately, it will likely take at least as long to transform the kind of one-state that Israel is, as it took Israel to become the one-state that rules all those living between the river and the sea.

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(Yavne) Imagining One State in Israel-Palestine (Peter Beinart)

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It has been a long time coming and not much here is new. But at least three things are new about the recent set of two pieces by Peter Beinart, here at Jewish Currents and here at the New York Times, now in support of the one state, bi-national state idea for Israel and Palestine from the distance of these American shores. His critics on the Jewish right will be unable to see it this way. But in his own way Beinart remains committed to Zionism and to a Jewish future in Israel. Thinking about the future and without quite saying so, Beinart actually goes back to the drawing board, effectively back to the Balfour Declaration. He’s promoting not a “Jewish State,” but rather a “Jewish home” in Palestine. But to whom?

One new thing about the new Beinart thinking is the messenger and political positining. A fixture in the liberal media and a longtime advocate of a two state solution to the Israeli Palestinian conflict, Beinart has thrown in the towel. He is doing so for many right reasons. His example highlights a segment of the Jewish left, former so-called Liberal Zionists finally giving up on the idea of two states for two people. West Bank settlements can remain in place in Beinart’s scheme. Leaving the middle ground, Beinart positions the Jewish left in close proximity to the Jewish settlement right. One democratic and the other anti-democratic, they would represent opposite sides of the one-state coin.

The second new thing about Beinart’s current volt face is of the moment. In the 50 years or so since 1967, the occupation of the West Bank by Israel has become a permanent feature of, not a temporary bug in the operating system of Zionism. And now what seems to be the failed gambit by Netanyahu to annex West Bank territories under the Trump Annexation/Apartheid Plan. And the evisceration of the Zionist left in Israel as an effective political force in the wake of Palestinian terror during the 2nd Intifadah. In terms of timing, Trump, it seems, has finally broken the back of the Zionist left. Beinart’s about turn reflects deep pessimism, so much of it warranted, and a trying moment of defeat and exhaustion.

The third and most new and unsatisfying aspect of the Beinart, the one that most interests me, is how his one-state project effectively highlights the fraught relationship between the imagination and reality in relation to arguments about Israel and Palestine. His is one of the first articulated attempts by a leading American Jewish thought leader to imagine what a bi-national state and what a bi-national Israeli-Palestinian identity might look like. Beinart’s “Jewish home” is supposed to stand for nothing less than a new “Yavne.”

Realism and the imagination are the two key terms driving this project. Words relating to what is real and realistic appear nine times in the Jewish Currents piece. Who is a “real Jew” in American Jewish society today, according to whom, and particularly in relation to Israel? What is the realistic path forward in Israel and Palestine? Words relating to imagining appear ten times in the same piece. With R. Yohanan ben Zakkai, Peter Beinart “imagines” alternatives, a new Jewish identity, in this case a new Jewish-Palestinian national identity (as if Jewish identity on its own is not itself a point of complete confusion). About what Yavne might mean for Palestinians goes unaddressed by Beinart. True to Zionist form, they remain foils in what is an internal Jewish discourse.

It is not clear even to Beinart himself that he is talking about anything real. At Jewish Currents, he himself admits, “In Israel-Palestine, there is Jewish national identity and Palestinian national identity, but no Jewish-Palestinian national identity, at least not yet. When the editors of the progressive journal +972 Magazine searched for a single, inclusive name to describe the one state between the river and the sea, all they came up with was an area code.”

In other words is the claim the two state and the one state solution are both unrealistic, a claim that captures precisely the conundrum today for those of us who care about democracy.

What then is the way forward and past this impasse?

This is Beinart’s gambit. Again, and his own confession is that, “Today, two states and one equal state are both unrealistic.” And since both plans are unrealistic, then “The right question is not which vision is more fanciful at this moment, but which can generate a movement powerful enough to bring fundamental change.”   

So on one hand, Beinart admits that the one state idea is “fanciful.” That is what he says at Jewish Currents, meaning that he protests too much when at the New York Times he says the exact opposite about the one state schema, thatit’s not fanciful.”

What for Beinart makes the two state project more realistic is another fancy. Identified in the quotation cited above is the fancy of a mass  “movement” creating “fundamental change” by getting behind the one state idea. In this estimation, only the bi-national idea, the one-state fancy can generate this kind of a movement.

In the same vein about realism and political momentum, according to Beinart at the NYT, “The goal of equality is now more realistic than the goal of separation. The reason is that changing the status quo requires a vision powerful enough to create a mass movement. A fragmented Palestinian state under Israeli control does not offer that vision. Equality can. Increasingly, one equal state is not only the preference of young Palestinians. It is the preference of young Americans, too.” That “vision” is a phenomenon that belongs to fancy and subsists in tension with what is “real” goes without note.

More complex than Beinart imagines is that tension between vision and realism. How his particular vision of a bi-national one state creates a realistic path moving forward to make fundamental change without the input of Israeli Jews or even Israeli Palestinians or West Bank Palestinians is beyond this critic’s ken. As he makes clear in the NYT op-ed, Beinart is not writing to them. His ideal readers are progressive young Americans and their young Palestinian allies. But who really wants a bi-national state? Who ever did?

For Jews, “Yavne” is a key part of the vision at play in the essay at Jewish Currents. Not an unimportant rhetorical flourish, Yavne is a historical root figure, the utopian figure that structures Beinart’s understanding of the bi-national idea in its Jewish articulation. It does so from the opening title at Jewish Currents. Yavne is its organizing conceit and concluding reverie. As a figure of thought for a post-sovereign “form” of Jewishness that maintains the “essence” of Zionism as home, Yavne locates the bi-national idea outside the so-called real world by placing that idea in a special make-believe land of the Jewish imaginary.

About Yavne, the ancient historical site where the rabbis are said to have assembled after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, next to nothing is known. It may have just been a myth, not a “real place.” Legend refers to a leader of the colonized remnants of a beaten Israel at the end of the Great Revolt, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai petitioning the Roman authorities to create an academy of scholars there, at Yavne. The rabbinic project marks the turn to a new form of Jewish religion based on study, prayer and good deeds. For Beinart, the Jewish State idea is not “essential.” It is compared to the “form” of animal sacrifice. Yavne is a symbol of the recognition that “a phase of Jewish history had run its course. It was time for Jews to imagine a different path.

And now Beinart declares, “That time has come again.

The different path is imagined without addressing in a direct way complex things. Very little to nothing is said about the future of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, the Right of Return for Palestinian refugees, the Law of Return for Jews, religious extremism in both communities, and the likely and almost complete lack of interest on the part of mainstream Israelis and Palestinians in this latest iteration of a Zionist idea.

I’ll leave it to the foreign policy hands to tell you why the one state solution is a bad, unworkable idea and how Beinart misreads the literature on inter-ethnic conflict, as per here. I would only add my voice to those who would argue that massive political disruptions come only in the wake of catastrophe, that sovereign national movements do not abandon the struggle for independence, that international powers are uninterested in overturning international order except under extreme duress. For their part, Palestinian political leadership and activists and ordinary people will determine for themselves if they actually want [1] the bi-national state + a Jewish national home in all of Historic Palestine modeled for them by Beinart or whether what they want is [2] an independent Palestinian state in parts or all of Historic Palestine. It is safe to assume that for them there is probably little interest in the former.

Beinart makes a quick survey of multi-cultural countries like Belgium, North Ireland, and South Africa. He reviews public opinion surveys relating to democratic norms in Palestinian society. Every assurance is given that Jews would prosper in the single state of Israel and Palestine, that both national communities would be protected by a bill of rights, constitutional protections and frameworks at the federal or confederal level. There is also confidence that the recognition and institution of equality in multi-ethnic society reduce the threat of inter-ethnic violence. About these claims I would defer to experts who might read the literature in a more caustic light. Potentially destabilizing differences ignored by Beinart are the near equal demographic parity in Israel and Palestine, as opposed to the very clear demographic majorities and minorities in South Africa. Also ignored by him are major fault lines based on racial, religious, and class difference that would undermine the one state vision in Israel and Palestine.

The primary point of difference is nationality. Beinart does, in fact, note that Black South Africans and white South Africans shared and share the same national identity. “When South Africa became a democracy for all its people, it didn’t have to add a hyphen to its name.” This is because South Africa is not a bi-national state (and neither are Belgium and Northern Ireland and Canada). Indeed, Beinart understands very well that Jews and Palestinians would have to imagine a new hyphenated nation and national identity. But on what basis?

Apparently an Israeli-Palestinian identity would be “built” on the basis of suffering and spiritual sympathy. This is the key part of the Yavne vision.

Imagine Yavne.

Imagine a country in which, at sundown on the 27th of Nian, the beginning of Yom HaShoah—Holocaust Remembrance Day—Jewish and Palestinian co-presidents lower a flag in Warsaw Ghetto Square at Yad Vashem as an imam delivers the Islamic du‘a’ for the dead. Imagine those same leaders, on the 15th of May, gathering at a restored cemetery in the village of Deir Yassin, the site of a future Museum of the Nakba, which commemorates the roughly 750,000 Palestinians who fled or were expelled during Israel’s founding, as a rabbi recites El Malei Rachamim, our prayer for the dead.

That’s what Yavne can mean in our time. It’s time to build it.

The vision of bi-national Yavne is not in the image of a vibrant society, not of a secular people, not a coherent nation. It reflects no real social conflict. The image is of an ecumenical congregation, a community of prayer, a pretend common culture. In this kitschy, doleful post-trauma performance piece, victims of genocide and dispossession have finally overcome competing national claims to the land. Built on types, this concluding scene and the last words of the essay at Jewish Currents read to me like something lifted out of Herzl’s utopian novel Old New Land. Or perhaps the scene at Jewish Currents is rehearsing the final sequence in the movie Exodus when after the people come together at a graveside service, Ari Ben Canaan, handsome Haganah rebel played by Paul Newman, goes off to join the fight for Palestine.

Cited earlier in the essay at Jewish Currents is the famous line of the legendary R. Yochanan ben Zakkai as he leaves the burning wreckage of Jerusalem under Roman siege. “Give me Yavne and its sages.” Meant as a stirring call to action from the world of Jewish tradition, the phrase raises overriding questions about this current project. Who is “me” in this out-of-time fantasy? Who are the sages? What kinds of Jew or Jews are they supposed to represent here at Jewish Currents? And to whom does Beinart even address this appeal? Who is going to “give me” Yavne? Which gentile authority? Is Beinart’s an appeal from the Jewish left to the ghost of Edward Said and to Yousef Munayyer to include Jews into their own political vision; and to two-staters like Ayman Odeh and Ahmed Tibi (who are encouraged by Beinart to look past and “expand” their own struggle for democracy in Israel by way of embracing the one-state idea)?

The problem with the one state idea for two peoples is that the collective parts do not fit together into a coherent whole, into a common society and culture, and nobody really seems to want it. The old Zionist left embraced two foundational principles: self-determination and mutual recognition. In a one state or bi-national state, one or the other principle is forced to give. Advocates on the Jewish right of an unequal one-state in Greater Israel ignore the lived reality of a Palestinian people suffering under occupation, losing homes and access to land and water and with no civil and human rights, without a right to a state of their own and without the right to vote in Israel. For many/most on the anti-Zionist left, Israeli Jews constitute a “religious” community (at best) or “settler colonialists” (most usually), they do not constitute a people with a right to a state or with national rights in any part of Historic Palestine.

Against the strong force of Jewish supremacy and the weak force of anti-Zionism, Beinart can only imagine a mass movement struggling to create fundamental change. That it is the Jewish right and especially the Jewish religious right creating real conditions on the ground, driving the settlement project, and forcing the country deep into the abyss of de facto/de jure annexation and of the creation of a single state is the best reason to try to avoid this political trap in the first place.

Looking for a way out of the traps set by state sovereignty, Beinart and other Jewish readers on the left, the ones who say with complete and utter confidence that the two state solution is “dead,” point to Dmitry Shumsky’s Beyond the Nation State. The central argument of this book is that Jewish statehood was never the sine qua non of Zionism as a historical movement, that there were non-statist notions promoted not just by the usual suspects like Buber and Magnes, but by the likes of Herzl, Ben Gurion and Jabotinsky. Jewish statehood gathered momentum in 1930s and ratified at the Biltmore Conference in 1942 in the middle of World War II. Before and after the Holocaust, Jewish immigration was the crux impasse between Jewish Palestinians and Arab Palestinians (as they were then commonly called). What goes unsaid, however, in the contemporary arguments is that events pursued their own logic. Without any effective political power backing it, the one state idea died its own violent death between 1929 and 1948, which is why partition was recognized as the most realistic outcome to this intractable conflict.

It is one thing to warn against de jure annexation and to call out de facto annexation and on the ground apartheid in the West Bank today. It might very well be that it is too late for re-partition, that there is no way out of the one state trap and that the Jewish left needs to double down on democracy and point towards a realistic way forward. But a little epistemic humility about the future would be in order. As Beinart himself notes, nothing at the moment, not one state or two, is strictly “realistic.” It won’t be the likes of us who determine the fate of Israel and Palestine, although nobody should listen too much to people who say they can see through this miasma and into the future. .

A Diaspora Jew, Beinart might have dropped the Yavne conceit, even if it does useful work illuminating the position of the vision somewhere at a distance from “the real world,” such as it is. If he and others with him wanted to be more honest, they would maybe drop the clunky “Israel-Palestine.” It’s popular among leftists and academics, primarily Jewish and in America. What Yavne “really is” is a “Jewish national home in Palestine.” See who wants it. What liberal and leftist Jews in America will support or reject remains our choice. But that we are having this argument about Israel and abrogating “the Jewish State” over here in the United States is part of a problem that rightwing Jews in Israel (primarily Anglo) and America have already said about the Beinart, but for which they themselves take no responsibility. Caught between strong currents and strong voices on the Jewish right and radical left, Peter Beinart wants without an iota of fear to throw the Jews of Israel into the tread of the polarizing vortex that the Jews of Israel, as the dominant power, have themselves created. Whatever confusion underlies Beinart’s vision is of Israel’s own making.

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Moon Saturn Jupiter

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Out and about, late June 2020, 2:00 AM

The little bright light was Jupiter; the little-little light to the left was Saturn

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New York July 4, 2020

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Annexation Polls (Dahlia Scheindlin)

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Noted public opinion expert and analyst Dahlia Scheindlin recently conducted a set of questions to Israelis about annexation. Respondents were not given the opportunity to say “I don’t know.”  Of interest in the third slide is the large group in the center (69%) in opposition to annexation. When I asked on Twitter, Scheindlin was kind enough to make up a fourth slide tracking religious identity.  None of these numbers are surprising, but they underscore fault lines between secular and religious Israelis around annexation, and, call it what you will, the settlement project in the Israeli occupied West Bank. The significant number of minorities across the secular-religious sectors is also noteworthy. Beyond sensationalistic headlines and setting aside scholar-experts, my own thinking is that questions regarding [1] religion and state and settlements and [2] secular-religious difference in relation to the occupation do not get the attention they require in Jewish public discourse over there in Israel and over here in the United States. This was not the case prior to the massacre of Muslim worshipers in Hebron and the murder of Prime Minister Rabin in 1995 by right wing religious nationalists?

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