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O Pioneers! Have Israeli Jews really lost their self-confident, forward-looking spirit?

I was preparing to present you with a condensation of the most interesting recent material appearing on my computer screen (and I get lots on almost a daily basis), plus some insight into our local media through a sample of correspondence between myself and Michael Morris of the Cape Argus. But not today.

Every now-and-again one, or in this case, two pieces stand out. The first, O Pioneers!, choses itself because of its inspiring, intelligent and self-confident tone.

The second article, The Third Narrative,  printed just below the first, is the sad antithesis of O Pioneers. Insipid intellectualism detached from both commonsense and reality, it offers no hope, no insight and no inspiration. Why am I so condemnatory? Well here is more-or-less the opening gambit of its pious plea for moral validation “ We are progressive scholars and academics who reject the notion that one has to be either pro-Israel or pro-Palestinian.” With this sad affirmation of their own spinelessness (and there are many of them, academics all) the authors succumb to the modern disease of cowardice and confusion masquerading as Olympian impartiality and academic erudition. But there is another reason why it raises such negative emotions in me: because it appeals to so-called intellectuals, especially Jewish ones, only too eager to deny their particularity to become part of some mythical universal progressivism.

I sometimes feel that the greatest mistake of Jews has been to portray themselves (and believe it) as destined to be “a light unto the nations.” They have used this injunction as a justification for a nauseating mix of self-congratulation and self-flagellation. If we are to be a light unto anyone, it will only be through being ourselves proudly and courageously. What that means precisely is a task for each one of us individually, but I refuse to believe it entails (given all we know of the last 100 years) of writing such rubbish as the extract I published above.

So for the record. I do not deny the Palestinian their humanity and their suffering, nor the Israelis their share of the transgressions and stupidities of mankind. But I unambiguously know where I stand: I am pro-Israel and it is from that moral and personal standpoint that I view the problems in the Middle East

Well my rant is over and you are invited to rant back.

Mike Berger

O Pioneers! Have Israeli Jews really lost their self-confident, forward-looking spirit?

By Haviv Rettig Gur

Yoav Sorek’s essay, “Israel’s Big Mistake,” is many things at once: a paean to a once-vigorous and self-confident Israel; a lament over the failures and shattered dreams of Arab-Israeli rapprochement; a mash-up of history, ideology, and political analysis in a heartfelt—but, I fear, ultimately misguided—plea for a regenerated Zionist spirit.

There is much to commend here, especially in the way Sorek frames Israelis’ perceptions of the Israeli-Arab relationship over the past seven decades. He ably puts his finger on a key feature of Zionism: the yearning for acceptance. This same impulse characterized nearly all the diverse Jewish responses to the attractions and the dangers of modernity. For Jewish nationalists of the 19th and early 20th centuries, it prescribed the assimilation by Jews of the increasingly universal categories of political identity underlying the new international state system.

The impulse for recognition, reciprocity, and normalcy did not die with the birth of the Jewish state in 1948. As Sorek rightly notes, it was an integral part of Israel’s sense of self from its earliest days onward. His essay examines the history of this need as expressed particularly in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking—a need that in his view turned into a self-incriminating and self-defeating ideology. So desperate were Israeli leaders to be accepted by Israel’s long-time enemies that they lost their confidence in the Zionist spirit and by the 1990s charged heedlessly, and disastrously, into the morass of Oslo.

The facts in Sorek’s exposition are essentially true, and the narrative of a dangerously overeager peacemaking is now shared by a majority of Israelis. But his reconstruction also exemplifies a flaw in all historical writing: namely, the imposition of an orderly and seemingly purposeful path of causation on a past reality that at the time was as confusing and chaotic as is present reality. In particular, his argument that, essentially, Israeli leaders went to Oslo because their faith in Zionism was shaken rests on the assumption that, the final disastrous results of Oslo being knowable and inevitable, Israel’s behavior in the 1990s can be explained only by the irrational motives that drove its leaders and much of the public.

In fact, the results of Oslo were not a foregone conclusion. Peace, even with the PLO, seemed a reasonable prospect at the time. In a post-cold-war world dominated by the United States, the PLO’s support for Saddam Hussein in the 1991 Gulf War seemed to showcase the movement’s growing isolation and delusion. When Jordan, a country that had also supported Hussein and was itself deeply enmeshed in Palestinian affairs, then abandoned its pan-Arab orientation in favor of a genuine accommodation with Israel, it no longer seemed impossible that the Palestinians might seek to do the same.

None of this implies that the Oslo process was well-conceived or in any sense successful; it was neither. But it was not so irredeemably foolish as to impugn the mental faculties of its proponents. In 1992, if a political accommodation, however uncomfortable, was possible with Jordan—and also, as Sorek points out, with Israeli Arabs—and was manifestly in the best interests of the Palestinians themselves, it was neither irrational nor “post-Zionist” to think that it was worth a try.

In short, the negative results of Oslo need larger explanations than those furnished by a narrow, ideologically-tinged critique of the Israeli national psyche. But Sorek’s argument suffers from another analytical flaw as well: the cherry-picking of facts and symptoms to reach a questionable conclusion.

One example is his discussion of the virulently anti-Israel attitudes voiced by Palestinians and, for that matter, Israeli Arabs. Sorek’s almost exclusive focus on Israel’s failure to challenge this discourse misses the complexity of the phenomenon. In a nutshell, political identity is carefully policed in Palestine precisely because it is so fragile. Fatah and Hamas are tyrannical movements that must constantly inflate the phantasm of the “Zionist Enemy” in order to buttress their own shaky grip on power. Palestinian rejectionism, whose manifestations and consequences Sorek describes well, is rooted not merely in a tenacious clinging to an unbending maximalism but at least as much in the exigencies of the moment: the simple fact of PA and Hamas dictatorship and the harsh reality of political dysfunction and failure.

The borders of Israeli Arabs’ identity are similarly policed because it, too, has become increasingly elastic and accommodating. While their leaders reject even the term “Israeli Arab,” and insist on being called “Palestinian citizens of Israel,” about half of Arab Israelis themselves now say they are either “very proud” or “quite proud” to be, simply, Israeli—this, despite years of conflict, terrorism, intifada, and vicious delegitimization of the Jewish state in Arabic-speaking media and among political elites.

Indeed, all evidence points to a remarkable level of identification with the Jewish state. Arab Israelis are bullish on the country’s future, with 63 percent in 2012 saying it will succeed in defending itself against outside threats, 78 percent reporting confidence in its Supreme Court, and 42 trusting the IDF to protect them. The more one examines the available statistics—a prime source is the annual study conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute, from which I’ve been quoting—the brighter the picture becomes

So, in an example cited by Sorek, when Arab leaders excoriate a Christian Arab priest for encouraging his followers to join the IDF, their harshness is a sign less of their ability to force a “closing of Zionism’s horizons” than of the slow but overwhelming triumph of Zionism’s day-to-day reality over the collapsed fantasies of Arab ideologues. Simply put, Israeli Arab leaders are right to be worried. One need only look at the priest’s continued public advocacy of his position, and at the increased willingness of Israeli Arabs themselves to join the IDF and participate in other forms of national service, to see in which direction the arc of history is bending.

The essence of Sorek’s thesis is contained in his call for “a clear Israeli vision and a strong stand against pushbacks, both domestic and international”—pushbacks, that is, to potential initiatives by Israel to address directly the problems of Palestinian Arabs in the areas under its control and on the wider scene. Thus, citing the role of UNRWA in worsening the plight of the Palestinian refugees and their descendants still sequestered in camps throughout the region, he insists that a “self-possessed Israel” could spearhead a global campaign to solve the issue once and for all. Proceeding to sketch the glowing future Israel might enjoy by regaining its lost self-confidence, he wonders if it is “too much” to envision, for example, a “massive aliya from North America” or “the restoration of Jerusalem as the international hub it previously was.”

Here Sorek exhibits the same suspension of disbelief he chastises so effectively in the Oslo generation. Has the absence of self-confidence led to Zionism’s present-day troubles? Israeli self-confidence cannot and will not undo the plain fact that the sovereign legal authority in the West Bank resides with an IDF major general unelected by the Palestinian residents. Israeli self-confidence will not help stabilize or democratize the collapsing regimes of the country’s regional neighbors, remove the threats in Sinai or Syria, or put an end to the ceaseless machinations of nuclear procurers and terror planners from Marrakesh to Tehran.

Nor is “self-confidence” a helpful watchword for advancing a better Israeli future. It won’t bring “massive aliya from North America” for the simple reason that Zionist ideology by itself has never brought massive aliya from anywhere. Speaking with me recently, the eminent demographer Sergio DellaPergola described the critical factors: “To assume dramatic migrations [from the Diaspora to Israel], we have to assume either that Israel will have transformed itself into the most developed country in the world or that something will happen in the [Jews’ current] countries [of residence], a total disruption of the sort we saw when the Soviet Union fell.” Such a disruption would now have to take place in the United States, since that is where three-quarters of Diaspora Jews live.

Besides, what is this self-confidence of which we speak, and how do we know it when we see it? I recently launched a high-tech venture with my brother, a talented computer programmer and expert who is regularly summoned to Redmond, WA to consult with Microsoft. A good friend recently retired from a nonprofit enterprise that he founded a decade ago and that now raises and disburses millions each year to make a real difference in the quality of Israeli society.

Such examples could be multiplied; they are not exceptions but almost an Israeli norm. And this unparalleled flourishing of Israeli innovation and entrepreneurial daring is accompanied by a deep sense of mutual solidarity. Indeed, Israeliness itself is bound up in an intoxicating dialectic of individual self-fulfillment and collective responsibility and sacrifice, a feature that arguably have something to do with Gallup findings that Israelis are among the happiest people in the world.

The strange complexities that drive the interaction of these characteristics are not the subject of this discussion. But, at the very least, they suggest that when someone accuses Israeli Jews of having lost their pioneering edge, their Zionist devotion, or their sense of identity and collective history, the burden of proof rests with the complainant.

Haviv Rettig Gur is the political correspondent of the Times of IsraelRead online at http://mosaicmagazine.com/supplemental/2014/03/o-pioneers/

The Third Narrative

This new network is for peace between Israel and Palestine, is against racism and antisemitism and argues that the Academic Boycott and other bans against scholars are counterproductive.  Its founding statement is as follows:

Introduction

We are progressive scholars and academics who reject the notion that one has to be either pro-Israel or pro-Palestinian. We believe that empathy for the suffering and aspirations of both peoples, and respect for their national narratives, is essential if there is to be a peaceful solution. Scholars and academics should play a positive role in asking difficult questions, and promoting critical thinking, about the Israel-Palestinian conflict. To achieve this goal we insist on the importance of academic freedom and open intellectual exchange, and so reject calls for academic boycotts and blacklists, as well as efforts to punish academics for their political speech, including even those who support the academic boycotts that we oppose.

Statement of Principles

We are committed to the following principles:

a)    We respect the humanity of Israelis and Palestinians alike, and believe that all political analysis of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict must be grounded in empathy for both peoples.

b)    We believe in two states as the only way to avoid perpetual conflict, and recognize that since both peoples require national self-expression, the struggle will continue until this is achieved.

c)    We believe the Israeli occupation of the West Bank not only deprives Palestinians of their fundamental rights, but is also corrosive to Israeli society and is incompatible with the democratic principles upon which the State of Israel was founded.

d)    We accept the obligation to actively oppose violations of human rights, but cannot condone the use of violence targeting civilians as a tool to address grievances, or to promote strategies that would undermine the future viability of each nation.

e)    We strongly oppose the rhetoric used by both sides which demonizes and dehumanizes the other, or distorts the history and national aspirations of each people, to promote violence and hatred.

f)    We reject the all-too-common binary approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict that seeks to justify one side or the other as all right or all wrong, and sets out to marshal supposed evidence to prove a case of complete guilt or total exoneration. Scholarship and fairness require a more difficult and thoughtful approach.  As academics we recognize the subjective perspectives of individuals and peoples, but strive to apply rigorous standards to research and analysis rather than to subsume academic discipline to political expediency.

g)    We reject all attempts to undermine or diminish academic freedom and open intellectual exchange, including those cases associated with the Israel-Palestine debate. Academic boycotts and blacklists are discriminatory per se and undercut the purpose of the academy: the pursuit of knowledge. Likewise, we are against legislative and other efforts by domestic or foreign interests that seek to diminish the academic freedom of those scholars who might propose, endorse, or promote academic boycotts, even if we strongly disagree with these tactics.

Structure

The Council will function as an advisory body to The Third Narrative (TTN), facilitated by Ameinu.  The Council will seek to create a unique, middle ground, organizing space at TTN for progressive academics and will engage academics from across North America to undertake the following activities:

  • Oversee the preparation of written materials on issues related to academic freedom and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict;
  • Coordinate the sharing of information on efforts to promote anti-Israel boycotts and blacklists among academic associations, and efforts to punish academics for their political speech about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including the speech of those who support the academic boycotts that we oppose;
  • Promote the values of academic freedom and open intellectual exchange, as well as the perspectives of the Council, through traditional and social media;
  • Organize advocacy campaigns on specific academic freedom issues;
  • Develop proactive outreach plans to promote the values of academic freedom, and more generally the free expression and exchange of ideas, particularly as they relate to the Middle East, in academic institutions and associations;
  • Provide speakers and other resources to individual campuses where academic freedom is threatened; and
  • Create opportunities for progressive faculty to collaborate with like-minded undergraduate and graduate students on individual campuses to work together for academic freedom and open intellectual exchange.

Endorsing the Statement of Principles:

Eric Alterman, CUNY Distinguished Professor of English and Journalism, Brooklyn College

Yael Aronoff, Associate Professor of International Relations and Associate Director of Jewish Studies, James Madison College and Jewish Studies, Michigan State University

Peter Beinart, Associate Professor of Journalism and Political Science, City University of NY

Michael Bérubé, Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of Literature and Director of the Institute for the Arts and Humanities

David Biale, Emanuel Ringelblum Distinguished Professor of Jewish History, University of California, Davis

Steven M. Cohen, Research Professor of Jewish Social Policy, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion

Hasia Diner, Paul S. and Sylvia Steinberg Professor of American Jewish History, New York University

Cynthia Fuchs Epstein, Distinguished Professor, Graduate Center, City University of NY

Sara Evans, Regents Professor Emerita, Department of History, University of Minnesota

Claude S. Fischer, Professor of Sociology, University of California, Berkeley

Shelley Fisher Fishkin, Joseph S. Atha Professor of Humanities; Professor of English, and Director of American Studies, Stanford University

Sam Fleischacker, Professor of Philosophy, University of Illinois-Chicago; Fellow, Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, Stanford (2013-14)

Todd Gitlin, Professor of Journalism and Sociology; Chair, Ph. D. Program in Communications, Columbia University

Chad Alan Goldberg, Professor of Sociology, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Peter E. Gordon, Amabel B. James Professor of History, Harvard University

David Greenberg, Associate Professor of History and of Journalism and Media Studies, Rutgers University

Harold Hellenbrand, Provost & Vice President for Academic Affairs, California State University, Northridge

Susannah Heschel, Eli Black Professor of Jewish Studies, Dartmouth College

Carole Joffe, Professor Emeritus of Sociology, University of California, Davis

Ira Katznelson, Ruggles Professor of Political Science and History, Columbia University

Michael Kazin, Professor of History, Georgetown University

Ari Y. Kelman, Jim Joseph Chair in Education and Jewish Studies, Associate Professor of Education, Stanford University

Alice Kessler-Harris, R. Gordon Hoxie Professor of History, Columbia University

Rebecca Kobrin, Russell and Bettina Knapp Assistant Professor of American Jewish History, Columbia University

Nicholas Lemann, Professor of Journalism and Dean Emeritus, Columbia University School of Journalism

Steven Lubet, Williams Memorial Professor of Law, Northwestern University School of Law

Jeffry Mallow, Emeritus Professor of Physics, Loyola University, Chicago

Maud Mandel, Associate Professor of Judaic Studies and History, Brown University

Elaine Tyler May, Regents Professor, Departments of American Studies and History, University of Minnesota

Deborah Dash Moore, Director of the Frankel Center for Judaic Studies and Frederick G.L. Huetwell Professor of History, University of Michigan

Leslie Morris, Director of Graduate Studies and Associate Professor of German, University of Minnesota

José C. Moya, Professor of History and Director, Forum on Migration, Barnard College; Director, Institute of Latin American Studies, Columbia University

Samuel Moyn, James Bryce Professor of European Legal History, Columbia University

Sharon Ann Musher, Associate Professor of History and Director of M.A. in American Studies, Richard Stockton College of New Jersey

Cary Nelson, Jubilee Professor of Liberal Arts and Sciences, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Derek J. Penslar, Samuel Zacks Professor of Jewish History, University of Toronto

Riv-Ellen Prell, Professor of American Studies and Director of Center for Jewish Studies, University of Minnesota.

Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen, Merle Curti Associate Professor of History, University of Wisconsin, Madison

Brent Sasley, Associate Professor of Political Science, University of Texas at Arlington

Gershon Shafir, Professor of Sociology, University of California, San Diego

Judith Shulevitz, Adjunct Assistant Professor of English, Barnard College

Catherine Bodard Silver, Professor Emerita (Sociology), Brooklyn College and Graduate Center, CUNY

Seymour Spilerman, Julian C. Levi Professor of Sociology, Columbia University

Mira Sucharov, Associate Professor of Political Science, Carleton University, Ottawa 

Ann Swidler, Professor of Sociology, University of California, Berkeley

Siva Vaidhyanathan, Robertson Professor; Chair, Department of Media Studies, The University of Virginia

Kenneth Waltzer, Professor of History, James Madison College; Director of Jewish Studies, Michigan State University

Judith B. Walzer, Former Provost and Professor of Literature, New School, NY

Michael Walzer, Professor Emeritus, Institute for Advanced Studies

Dov Waxman, Associate Professor of Political Science, Baruch College and Graduate Center, City University of New York; Co-Director of the Middle East Center for Peace, Culture, and Development, Northeastern University

Beth C. Weitzman, Vice Dean; Professor, Health and Public Policy, NYU Steinhardt

Beth S. Wenger, Professor of History; Chair, History Department, University of Pennsylvania

Jeff Weintraub, Social & Political Theorist and Political Sociologist, Most recently at the University of Pennsylvania and Bryn Mawr College

Kate Wittenstein, Professor in History and Gender, Women and Sexuality Studies,  Adolfus College

Steven Zipperstein, Daniel E. Koshland Professor in Jewish Culture and History, Stanford University

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