A reader responding to last week’s column concerning Commentary magazine’s symposium on President Obama, Israel, and American Jews, cautioned that such endeavors be taken with more than the proverbial grain of salt, since even the brightest of minds can fail to see what lies ahead, particularly when the subject is as volatile and unpredictable as U.S. Mideast policy or the Arab-Israeli conflict in general.
He cited as evidence the Winter 5759/1999 issue of Azure, the quarterly journal published by the Jerusalem-based Shalem Center, a non-partisan (leaning right) think tank,which featured a much-remarked-on symposium titled “The Jewish State: The Next Fifty Years.”
The questions posed by the editors concerned such basic issues as the moral and philosophical legitimacy of Israel; the nature of the state in terms of its institutions and its mission; and the contributions a Jewish state can make to the Jewish people as a whole and the world in general.
Conspicuously missing from the dozens of responses, he said, is even an inkling that Yasir Arafat would launch a second intifada in the fall of 2000, or that Israelis, completely disillusioned with the Oslo peace process, would elect Ariel Sharon prime minister, or that Israel would become a virtual pariah state in the eyes of a good part of the world.
Point well taken, but hindsight is always easy. And while the thoughts and observations expressed by the respondents reflect the world as it was more than a decade ago, many of them hold up quite well eleven years later.
In addition to those quoted below, the symposium’s roster of 56 intellectuals and public figures from Israel and around the world included such notables, some of them since deceased, as Jack Kemp, Malcolm Hoenlein, Natan Sharansky, Yosef Mendelevich, Martin Peretz, Charles Krauthammer, Emil Fackenheim, Zerah Warhaftig and Rabbi Noah Weinberg.
Tom Bethell, a (non-Jewish) Washington-based writer for conservative publications, asserted that “It is impossible to believe that the rebirth of Israel after so long a hiatus, and the revival of Hebrew when it was on the verge of extinction, were not miraculous events, showing the hand of God in history more plainly than perhaps any other historical event.”
Equally eloquent was Bethell’s description of the conundrum of Israeli democracy: “Without a majoritarian check on their power, the nation’s secular elites would have given most of the country to the Arabs by now . At the same time, democracy has also taken its toll. Arab Knesset members supported the Oslo ‘peace’ agreement; without their support, Rabin and Peres would have lacked their majority. If the question ‘Who is a Jew?’ is ever put in the lap of the Knesset, it is possible that it will be decided by Arabs – another absurdity.”
Author and translator Hillel Halkin, who can sound like the epitome of hard-headed pragmatism when writing for publications like Commentary,comes off here as a self-loather extraordinaire, bemoaning “the shameful way in which Israel has discriminated de facto against its Arab citizens since 1948” and voicing his conviction “that practical solutions could be found for most aspects of [Jewish-Arab tensions] if Jewish prejudice and indifference did not stand in their way.”
Prompted by a statement from the editors in the symposium’s introduction, Halkin pointed to “Hatikvah” as a particularly egregious example of Israeli insensitivity, characterizing as “absurd” the fact that a country could “have a national anthem that a fifth of its citizens cannot sing” and suggesting that “the whole problem be easily solved by changing a single word … and singing nefesh yisra’eli (‘the Israeli soul’) instead of nefesh yehudi (‘the Jewish soul’)….”
To which the novelist Cynthia Ozick gave a stinging rejoinder, writing that to cast aspersions on the anthem “because it speaks of the ‘Jewish soul’ is to mock and betray those dozens of generations who survived the savagery of massacres or resisted the easy escapes of conversion or self-propelled vanishing. It is, besides, a suppression of history; and, when all is said and done, a kind of auto-lobotomy.”
Unfortunately for what it said about the state of elite opinion in Israel, the symposium’s most telling entry came from the late former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Jeane Kirkpatrick, who related this glimpse into the mindset of a large and influential segment of the Israeli intelligentsia, a segment that yearns for a country stripped of its ethno-religious roots:
“On one of my more recent trips to Israel, I dined with a group of individuals primarily on the political Left, including some members of the Israeli foreign policy establishment … these people spoke of the end of Israel as an explicitly Jewish state.”
Jason Maoz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org