For new readers: These submissions aim to show that Jewishness has been during the exile, and is all the more today in Israel, a nationhood—much in contrast to the religion-only model that characterizes the Enlightenment era up to the present day. The submissions deconstruct elements of Jewishness into national characteristics that Jewry sustained en bloc until its Western branch, and it alone, abandoned them. By seeing it this way, one may better understand many contemporary Jewish phenomena that don’t make sense otherwise—and even find a way to a more sustainable Diasporic Jewishness.
In my Deep Nation submissions, I’ve tried to keep current affairs out of the discussion. My main violation of this rule ventured into Israel-Palestinian-dispute territory and led to sharp rebuke by a scholar who, since then, has become a minor star in @MeToo, never mind on which end.
In the belief that the minefield that I stepped into is more benign than that of my critic, I’m going to break my rule again and contrast Jewish nationhood with Palestinian nationhood. As always, I speak of nationhood and not of nationalism.
Palestinian advocates speak of an essential unfairness in the conflict: Israel has such-and-such economic advantages, such-and-such superior weaponry, such-and-such special relations with the United States, ad infinitum. What they don’t say, but what I suspect real Palestinians on the ground know, concerns Israel’s real advantage: its substrate of Jewish nationhood.
It was last September that I gave a brief lecture at Lund University on Jewish practices that, if understood as national and not only religious in nature, explain Jewish and Israeli resilience. Above all, as I always emphasize, they explain the speed with which this resilience took shape. I spoke of language, judicial system, democratic self-rule, even cuisine -- a national program maintained for centuries in places of exile around the world.
When it was over, I invited questions, suspecting even then that no one really understood. One student asked for the floor. I recognized from his appearance and accent that he was Palestinian – a former Gazan, as it turned out. By the way, my disputing the substance of Palestinian nationhood (see below) does not mean that I deny the existence of a distinct Palestinian population group. An encounter I had years ago in Phoenix, Arizona, settled that matter for good: the odd visual dissonance (I have a Biblical source for using that term) that I experienced when encountering an American-born engineer in that city who, by appearance, could have been my neighbor in Israel.
Digression over. This student in Lund took the floor and delivered an eloquent condemnation of Israel, its Jewish society (“a lunatic society”), Zionism, the hideous “wall,” its intransigence, its ill-begotten American support … no talking point overlooked. The other students, thirty or so, listened to him at least as attentively as they had to me. When he concluded, I acknowledged his having connected my historical observations to current affairs and noted that the “wall,” while hideous, was nowhere as hideous as the Palestinian actions that had made it necessary. Renounce those actions, I said, and the “wall” would come down much more quickly than it went up.
In the middle of the exchange, the students issued some polite Swedish applause. I couldn’t tell for whom. The whole affair ended a few minutes later. I turned to leave and found my interlocutor waiting for me. We headed for a side room and spent the next two-plus hours in civil but trenchant debate. In its course, I asked him what aims the Palestinians have as human beings, their leaderships aside.
“We don’t know what we want,” he half-asserted, half-groaned.
Bottom line: Jewish Israelis know what they want. They want to sustain, improve, and defend the place that they established in order to practice their Jewish nationhood. They clash with each other, demonstrate against each other, occasionally vandalize each other’s property, over the best way to do these things. But the bottom line holds. The assassination of Arlosoroff didn’t breach it. The Altalena didn’t breach it. Yigal Amir didn’t breach it.
So here, I opine, is where Palestinians are at the greatest disadvantage to Israel and its Jewish hegemony. It’s not about weapons and sumud (steadfastness) and American support. Palestinians are up against the world champions of nationhood, a nationhood that endured centuries of dispersion. And they do not know what they want.
At a certain level, I feel sorry for them. As for the other levels, well, twenty-four hours ago, foreign mediators brought about another (who can count them?) cease-fire between Israel and Gaza after the organizations that run the latter region targeted my national home’s civilian population with hundreds of rockets – for good reason, they’ll tell you. They drove a wedge between factions in the Israeli cabinet and are celebrating this as a victory. I don’t buy it.One can imagine two ways of defeating Israel. One is an Iranian hydrogen bomb. The other is imitation: do what Israel did in its social coalescence, its democratic practices, its economic development. But to do that, they need the gird, substrate, of the deep nation. Today they haven’t got it. And if they ever get it, they will no longer seek Israel’s defeat.
Afterword about the Jewish Deep Nation project: it hasn’t stalled. Two weeks ago, I had a different kind of two-hour discussion, with one of Israel’s leading historians. He made two crucial points. First, he reacted to the idea behind the project – tracing Israeli success to deeply rooted Jewish national practices -- as innovative and possibly unique. This can mean one of two things: possibly path-breaking or totally off the wall in terms of historical thinking. Second, he recommended that I absorb an Everest-high pile of background reading. Retirement, anyone?