Is­rael is not a merely mod­ern state

Jewish state­hood is an un­bro­ken, cen­turies-old nar­ra­tive

The Jewish Chronicle - - Comment&analysis - RICH CO­HEN

IN MOST minds, the state of Is­rael is twinned with the Holo­caust, the for­mer hav­ing risen from the lat­ter like the desert bird wing­ing away from the fiery wreck­age. It de­ter­mines how every­one sees the con­flict and how the Jewish state it­self is seen: as an ac­ci­dent of his­tory, a tem­po­rary re­doubt, a hedge against fu­ture dis­as­ter. But, like many pop­u­lar no­tions, this one is wrong. It re­duces an an­cient, var­ied his­tory, which can be read in as many ways as a good book can be read, to a sin­gle plot: the Holo­caust and its af­ter­math, in which the Jews are com­pen­sated for their suf­fer­ing with Arab land. The Jewish na­tion be­comes a pay-off, jus­ti­fied by an event, which its en­e­mies in­creas­ingly deny.

Not that this deny­ing is any­thing but evil and in­sane, but why should Is­raelis let their le­git­i­macy be tied to the mem­o­ries of peo­ple who hate them? That’s what I al­ways dis­liked about the phrase “Never For­get” — peo­ple do for­get, some­times in­ten­tion­ally. So what hap­pens when a cur­rent event be­comes his­tory and the last sur­vivor dies? Ah­madine­jad ques­tions the Holo­caust be­cause he knows if you change the past, you change the fu­ture.

Those who care about Is­rael should there­fore re­frame the story, re­call­ing and re­viv­ing a nar­ra­tive un­der­stood by Theodor Herzl, the fa­ther of mod­ern Zion­ism, but washed away in the great flood of Euro­pean wars. Zion­ism, which, sim­ply put, is the Jewish de­sire to build a new na­tion in the holy land, is older than Eng­land, or France, or Mo­hammed (who ques­tions the le­git­i­macy of France?). Herzl came not as a break in this his­tory, nor merely as a cham­pion of mod­ern ideas, but as the last in a long line of leaders who, in each gen­er­a­tion, called on Jews to get thee back and re­build.

From this per­spec­tive, Is­rael can be seen as it is: not as an out­growth of the Holo­caust — thus uniquely em­bat­tled — but as the cul­mi­na­tion of a story that be­gan a gen­er­a­tion af­ter Je­sus preached on the mount.

Why did the world have to wait so long for po­lit­i­cal Zion­ism? Why, af­ter one of the many mas­sacres, forced con­ver­sions, or pogroms didn’t the Jews just pick up and go back? Well, the fact is, de­spite all ob­sta­cles, they did try to go back. They never stopped try­ing. As much as any­thing else, this is what pre­served the peo­ple as a peo­ple. (In the De­cline and Fall, Gib­bon calls it a defin­ing char­ac­ter­is­tic, the “de­sire of re­build­ing the Tem­ple [that] has, in ev­ery age, been the rul­ing pas­sion of the chil­dren of Is­rael.”)

The his­tory of Zion­ism is, in other words, nei­ther an aber­ra­tion nor a tan­gent — it is an un­bro­ken trail that be­gins in the ru­ins of the Tem­ple and runs without a break into our own day, when it ap­pears as Binyamin Ne­tanyahu shak­ing a fist be­fore the Knes­set. The Holo­caust demon­strated the need of the na­tion, and in­creased its ur­gency, but be­neath that tragedy was al­ways the older story, which can never be ex­punged or de­nied, for it is the DNA of the peo­ple.

Un­der­stand­ing the Jewish con­nec­tion to the land is a key to re­solv­ing the mod­ern con­flict. Only when the Mus­lim world ac­cepts the Jewish past will they recog­nise the fu­til­ity of Plan A (de­struc­tion of Is­rael) and the ne­ces­sity of Plan B (two states). The Is­raelis are not the Cru­saders — the state is go­ing nowhere.

As for Jews, knowl­edge of the past will help them be­lieve in the per­ma­nence of their na­tion. To some ex­tent, Is­raeli pol­icy and its ex­cesses grow out of a fear that mir­rors the Arab hope: that the Jewish state has no roots, thus no fu­ture. This is why ev­ery war seems like the last war, ev­ery threat feels ex­is­ten­tial. Is­raelis, at some level, do not have faith in their own sur­vival.

None of which is meant to min­imise the very real threats faced by the na­tion, but if Is­rael is able to free it­self of the re­cent past and at­tach it­self to the dis­tant past, Jews will be able to look across their bor­ders with a greater con­fi­dence in their fu­ture and take the risks they must take to achieve peace.

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