The Magazine

The Collapse of Zionism

May 29, 2000, Vol. 5, No. 35 • By CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER
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What does post-Zionism mean in practice? It means that Israel should be not a Jewish state, but a "state of its citizens," a democracy like any other with no particular commitment to the survival or advancement of any one culture or people. Thus the most fundamental law in the Israeli canon, "the Law of Return" that guarantees refuge and citizenship in Israel for any Jew in the world (and which David Ben-Gurion considered the most important law of the land) is under attack for being nationalist, particularist, even racist. A democratic state, it is said, would have no such ethnic tests.

Nor is it just the Law of Return. Respected public figures, writes Hazony, have advanced the demand to de-Judaize the flag (with its Star of David) and the national anthem (Ha-Tikvah, "The Hope," which speaks of the Jewish longing to return to the homeland), and drain school curricula, the army, and the constitution of their distinctive Jewish national character. "The Jews living in Israel are now being asked not only to give up on geographical territories. We must also implement a 'redeployment' -- or even a complete withdrawal -- from entire regions in our soul," writes the celebrated Israeli author David Grossman. And what does this psychic withdrawal, this Reformation, mean? "Giving up on power as a value. On the army itself as a value. . . . Refining a new existence for ourselves. One which is no longer drenched to the point of suffocation with the myth of our exile from the land, or with the myth of Masada, or with a one-dimensional lesson of the Holocaust."

Post-Zionism aches for freedom -- a new, quite un-Zionist kind of freedom: freedom from myth, freedom from chosenness, freedom from history, and, above all, freedom from power. Power is corrupting. The post-Zionists prefer incorruptibility. They yearn not for Zion, but for the purity that Jews enjoyed before they reacquired sovereignty. As one leading Hebrew University professor said decades ago in opposing Israel's founder, David Ben-Gurion: "We are burying a dream, . . . the dream of a land of Israel, the state of the pure and the moral."

Over the last seven years, this quest for the pure and the moral has found expression in Israeli diplomacy and government. Of course, those in power are hardly going to call openly for the Jews to give it up unilaterally. How then to attain purity? The most ingenious solution to this conundrum comes from the architect of the Oslo accords, Shimon Peres.

Peres has discovered that power as traditionally understood does not matter anymore. In his astonishing 1993 book The New Middle East, he declares that "the traditional concept of national defense, which depends mainly on military and weapons systems . . . has changed." How? "The physical considerations of the traditional strategy -- natural obstacles, man-made structures, troop mobilizations, location of the battlefields -- are irrelevant." Or as he told the army's head of intelligence in a cabinet meeting: "There is economics and the military, and only a country which goes over to economics will win. Choosing between ten army emplacements and ten hotels, the ten hotels also constitute security. I'm for the European model, which emphasizes economics."

These statements would boggle the mind coming from anyone. But coming from the man who was only a few years ago at the helm of a besieged country, they are particularly ominous. Peres sees the Middle East as some sort of Benelux, where harmony and tolerance prevail, where power and weaponry are obsolete.

A lovely dream. And quite mad. The first problem is that Israelis seem to be the only people in the region who believe it. And it takes more than Jews to tango. Egypt has built a massive American-supplied military. Syria is trying to negotiate a huge new weapons deal with Russia. Iraq and Iran are acquiring weapons of mass destruction and missiles aimed at Israel. Syria already has missiles tipped with poison gas. Lebanon's Hezbollah vows to fight the Jews until Jerusalem is liberated. And the Palestinians have been building up their forty-thousand-man "police force." Its mission is not the arrest of burglars.

The idea that the Arabs have transcended the need for and use of power is simply delusional, as is the idea that they are prepared to enter into a kind of European Union with Israel. When the next war comes, when Arab tank forces come rolling through the Jordan valley (that Israel will have given up to Arafat in the current peace negotiations), we will see how much protection will be afforded Israel by its Maginot line of five-star hotels.

Peres's vision is not just geographically but historically adrift. Europe does represent a different model of co-existence. But that came only after the nations of Europe spent the better part of five hundred years in almost constant warfare with each other. The Middle East is where Europe was a few centuries ago -- with very young and unstable nations still violently contending for primacy and power. Forget about Israel. Look at Iran-Iraq, Iraq-Kuwait, Syria-Lebanon, Syria-Iraq. Where in the Middle East do you find any model for Benelux?

Even assuming the Arabs were, inexplicably, to fall into line with this fantasy, what kind of vision is this new Middle East? During millennia of exile, the Jews of Persia and Babylon, of Poland and Spain, of Baghdad and indeed Belgium, dreamed and struggled and died for a return to Zion. So they could become Belgians?

The fundamental idea of Zionism was for the Jews to once again enter history as actors, not just as acted upon. And that meant acquiring sovereignty and power, and exercising both on behalf of the Jewish people. This idea is now under attack within Israel itself. Where did this loss of will come from? Why the loss of faith in the necessity, the legitimacy, indeed, the glory of a reconstituted Jewish commonwealth?

Hazony attributes this ideological collapse to the intellectual influence of a small group of universalist German-Jewish professors who dominated the Hebrew University, which in turn dominates cultural life in Israel. Best known of these is the philosopher Martin Buber, who opposed the establishment of the Jewish state at the time and, in Hazony's view, never reconciled himself to the reality of Jewish power. Hazony traces the intellectual influence of these professors through their students, and their students' students, on Israel's small but powerful intellectual elite.

Now, it is true that David Ben-Gurion and his Labor Zionists were more interested in concrete than culture. Farmer-soldiers are not very given to philosophy. They were too busy creating facts on the ground -- an army, a new economy, a government, a state -- to bother very much with ideas. They did leave that field open to their ideological enemies in the academy.

Nonetheless, to blame the collapse of Zionist will on the professors is to give them too much credit. There are more parsimonious explanations.

One is simple exhaustion. It's not the professors but the people who are tired of the price of Jewish power. It is the people who agitated for retreat from Lebanon and the territories, in search of respite. It is they who have suffered not just war but isolation, reprobation, often vituperation from everywhere -- including their erstwhile friends in the West. They are tired of being outcasts. They are tired of the hard life of sustaining the Zionist vision.

Who can blame them? They have fought five wars in fifty years. They look across the ocean and see their fellow Westerners -- and their fellow Jews -- living prosperous and serene, while Israelis get buses blown up at home and lose sons in an endless guerrilla war in Lebanon. Beginning with the War of Independence when Israel lost one percent of its population (the American equivalent would fill fifty Vietnam memorials), Israel has been bleeding for half a century. It is hard to blame a people who have endured so much for so long. To maintain Jewish independence in a hostile Arab sea requires enormous determination. Israelis have been fighting for three, often four generations. How many generations can sustain a pioneer spirit?

Another explanation, fuller than Hazony's, would situate Israel within the broader intellectual context of the West. In their anti-nationalism, anti-patriotism, cosmopolitanism, and distrust of power, Israeli intellectuals are no different from their counterparts in America, Britain, France, and the rest of the West. Indeed, Israelis are just catching up with deconstructionism and multiculturalism, with Lacan and Foucault. Modern Israeli art and dance and theater offer almost comical attempts to imitate the nihilism of the Western avant-garde. Post-Zionism is really just Western counterculturalism applied to the Jewish Question.

But that Western style of counterculturalism has far more serious consequences in Israel than anywhere else. The West is rich, secure, and dominant enough to play at cultural revolution. It can afford the luxury of oppositional and subversive elites. The tragedy for Israel is that it does not enjoy such luxuries. It lives on the edge. It has no buffer zone, geographic or ideological.

The worst disaster suffered by the United States in the last half-century is Vietnam. Yet within a few years, America had cauterized the wound and recovered. Israel cannot so easily shrug off catastrophe. It has no safety net. It has real enemies standing at the gates. If the army issues a code of conduct with no mention of loyalty to the Jewish people, that will have consequences. If its young people are brought up to believe that the Six-Day War -- and thus the acquisition of the occupied territories -- was anything but defensive, that will have consequences. If the Supreme Court begins striking down laws that shape the Jewish character of the state (such as the Law of Return) in the name of universal democratic principles, that will have consequences.

The West can indulge visions of its own corruption and moral bankruptcy without risking extinction. For Israel, such visions are mortally dangerous. They are already having their effect in culture, law, and diplomacy. The most dangerous threat to a political entity is demoralization, for before the Fall -- of the ancien regime in France, of the Pahlavi dynasty in Iran, of the Soviet empire in Russia -- comes the loss of faith in one's own mandate from heaven.

In an interview last year, the leading Palestinian author and activist Edward Said ruminated about the prospect of eliminating the Jewish state. "We must find freer, more creative, more inventive means. . . . I am speaking of a cultural battle. . . . Israeli historians themselves . . . are in the process of reconsidering Zionist myths. We must use the contradiction and dissent that exist in the heart of the Israeli population." Said opposed the Oslo accords and broke with Yasser Arafat over them. He believes that there is no armed solution for achieving Palestinian goals. But he does hold out one hope, the hope that within Israeli society there are now voices that understand the true nature of the Jewish state and will seek its liquidation through internal transformation. "Do you think the Israelis will renounce Zionism one day?" the interviewer asked. "Some have begun to speak of it," Said replied. "I think that the most intelligent among them are in the process of realizing that, despite their incredible power, their situation is untenable."

Israel's enemies see the future, a future Israelis themselves may now be creating: a world without Zionism, a world without Israel.