The place I’m staying in Washington is filled with books, and I went to bed Sunday night reading Tony Judt’s collection of essays, Reappraisals. It includes his 2002 review of Michael Oren’s book on the Six Day war, and Judt’s statement that it was the last piece he wrote for the New Republic, where he was then a contributing writer. In its next issue the New Republic ran a letter from Oren, complaining, and then a year later, Judt published his famous piece in the NYRBooks calling for one state in Palestine. And after that his name was removed from the masthead of the New Republic. There’s some sadness in that; for it caused a rupture with TNR literary editor Leon Wieseltier, with whom Judt exchanged bitter words last year during the time when Judt was disinvited to speak by the Polish Embassy in New York under pressure from the Israel lobby.
Bedfellows: Last night at the Aipac convention, Leon Wieseltier and Michael Oren were on a panel together, on Israel, the next 60 years.
There was a defensive grim air about the panel. As most of the panelists admitted, Israel is suffering in world opinion. Yet it cannot care about this. The responsibility of standing up for Israel is a “harsh” one, Wieseltier said. And our enemies have made it harsh. Everyone on the panel was of course for taking up Israel’s side in this war. And former member of Knesset Natan Sharansky said the war wasn’t just with terrorist Islam, wasn’t just with Hamas, it was a war on behalf of religious nationalists against the godless and hypocritical west. At a time when the world is becoming “post national, we have to insist on being a Jewish state in spite of all the pressure.” The synagogues and churches in Europe are empty, he said, only the mosques are full. But the churches and the synagogues in U.S. and Israel are full, and that is why we are in this war together, as religious democracies. (Yes and what about Obama’s rainbow coalition, what does that signal?)
This is a theme that Michael Oren has also sounded in his book, Power Faith and Fantasy. Oren’s thinking has never impressed me, and he was unimpressive on the AIPAC stage. He has a martial propagandistic air. He was a military guy, he acts like one. He lacks subtlety. His book is simplistic and, I believe, misguided, suggesting that the founding fathers were somehow Zionists. We’ve come a long way since our founding fathers’ ideas about religion. We have come all the way to Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama with a Muslim father, and the Arabists and Chuck Hagel; and Israel might be coming a little ways itself too. So it struck me as a comedown that Wieseltier, having lost his association with Judt, is reduced to this sort of intelligence as a traveling companion. And now—over the Times Op-Ed attack on AIPAC–he may also be upset with its author Jeffrey Goldberg too…
I should be journalistic. Wieseltier has a first-rate mind, he’s sensitive. And a great character, dressed as usual in black, with cowboy boots. It was a great opportunity for me to hear him speak directly about Israel and Zionism. His book Kaddish is rarely intimate on these matters, rarely direct. And here is what Wieseltier said. The deepest meaning of Zionism is a commitment to the idea of Jews as historical agents. “Jews decided they would take their fate into their own hands.” And by the laws and customs of nations, Israel has been a “spectacular success.” That said, let’s not be utopian: “utopian mentalities… are traps.” Zionists have created a society of great vitality, but its character is not completely in Jewish hands. I.e., the Arab world is determining how Israel must be. “The absence of peace does not constitute the failure of Zionism. I’m one of those Jews for whom Zionism remains a beautiful word.”
He knows that this view is not widely shared in the west. That is the “ominous” new development. Many intellectuals in the U.S. and Europe have embraced the one-state solution. And that means the end of the Jewish state. Others on the panel said the same thing. The interesting thing was that they did not talk about the annihilation of the Jewish people, which Zionists usually do when they speak of the delegitimization of Zionism. Though Sharansky repeatedly baited the American crowd about assimilation—saying that in 60 years most of the Jews in the world will live in Israel, because most of the Jews here will become assimilated.
Wieseltier seemed to endorsed many of Sharansky’s ideas. He is the son of a former Jabotinskyite Jew, and there was ethnocentrism in his comments, never an appeal to Palestinian human rights, or Arab self determination. He got a little tripped up in this. He said that the Palestinians had many times rejected the state “that the whole world has been trying to give them for 60 years.” Then later he said that the interest in the one state solution has eclipsed the fight inside the Jewish community over “whether Palestinians should have a state or not.” And so thereby he acknowledged the crux of the matter, that this world that has been allegedly trying to give Palestinians a state for 60 years did not include Jewish leadership. So do Zionists and Jewish leadership also bear some responsibility for the fact that the lefty intellectuals are moving on to a new idea, a binational state?
The demographic numbers in historical Palestine–the old birth rate in the Occupied Territories stuff–is what has helped convince Wieseltier that it is now urgent to work hard for a peaceful resolution with the Palestinians. For it is “an essential imperative to maintain the Jewishness of the state.” And what that means now is “whatever the bitterness of our debate,” whatever the pressures Sharansky referred to that Israel is under to make a deal, Jews have a clear purpose. There is a “historical and moral responsibility we have—I say we–“ he corrected himself—that Israel has, “not to do anything to foreclose the possibility” of a two-state solution. (That old dual loyalty problem.)
The other panelists struck me as more defiant about the future. Oren is a propagandist. He only sees the happy story. He doesn’t really seem to see the problem. A law professor at the Hebrew university on the panel, Ruth Gavison, did see the problem, but she said that it just meant that Israel must continue to fight. To stay democratic and Jewish and sovereign. By contrast to the others, I heard real sadness in Wieseltier’s voice. He was the most sophisticated intellectually of the panelists, the most worldly. “Whereas I have almost a mystical faith in the survival of Israel, I find myself deeply anxious about it,” he said. The “larger Jewish questions” are about the U.S. “I worry a lot more about the American Jewish community than I do about Israel—about which I have grave doubts.” A weird locution: I thought he was saying that his grave doubts are about Americans. There was an inkling in his remarks of the impossibility of signing young Jewish Americans up for Zionism in the age of Obama, young Americans without the Holocaust consciousness, steeped in news of the human rights abuses and in Norman Finkelstein, and enthralled in this beautiful America by Jewish power and assimiliation. Those must be the grave concerns that Wieseltier has. He has lost Judt, he is losing Goldberg. And he is stuck with Israeli belligerents.