Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of The New Republic, offered a thoughtful analysis of the State of Israel here last week, alternately praising the Zionist enterprise for its remarkable accomplishments in the face of constant threats and calling attention to its moral weaknesses, most notably its treatment of its Arab citizens and policy on settlements, which he called the state’s “single greatest moral and strategic blunder.”
That balance of noting the triumphs and shortcomings of Israel — and the imperative to maintain high standards for its behavior while defending and supporting its efforts — was the subtext of his presentation of the Sanford Solender Lecture at UJA-Federation of New York on April 30.
The lecture is held every other year in memory of a major leader of American Jewish communal life for five decades, capped by his service as the top professional of what is now UJA-Federation of New York. (He was succeeded in that post by his son, Stephen Solender, who later served as first president of the United Jewish Communities.)
Wieseltier, introduced as not only one of America’s illustrious public intellectuals but as a graduate of the Yeshiva of Flatbush, asserted that “we have a right to be proud” of Israel as it marks its 60th anniversary of statehood this month, “but we don’t have the right to be vain.”
Distinguishing between innocence and goodness, Wieseltier, 55, told an overflow audience at UJA-Federation headquarters on East 59th Street that no state can maintain its innocence, but it can be good. “There have been abuses,” he said, “but Israel has acquitted itself well” and “its cause is just.
“We’re celebrating the justice of Israel, not the innocence of Israel,” he emphasized.
Wieseltier said there is an ongoing obligation to maintain moral vigilance, adding that there is “no contradiction between a fierce defense of Israel and a genuine moral concern” about its actions toward others. He noted, though, that “it is hard for Jews to hold both those thoughts at the same time.”
Recognizing the “melancholy fact” that Israel’s legitimacy is being questioned even 60 years after statehood, he asserted that a “one-state solution” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict “is a no-state solution” since it would end Jewish statehood, and that “the fulfillment of Zionism requires us to believe in a two-state solution.”
He said American Jews “have forgotten how to justify” Israel’s right to statehood, asserting that one need not cite the Bible, the Holocaust or the immoral behavior of the Arabs as justifications. Rather, there are “positive historical reasons” for the Jewish nation to have a state, he said, and “security is a primary moral obligation.”
Israel has not achieved its goal of normalcy, though, said Wieseltier. The country has created a “humming society” of economic prosperity but is also subject to “a permanent state of apocalyptic excitation,” facing an existential threat from Iran, and the moral challenge of dealing with a hostile Palestinian population as well as the “volatile mix of religion and nationalism” among Jews.
Somehow, though, Israelis seem to manage to live in the here and now, Wieseltier marveled.
In a lively question-and-answer session, deftly moderated by UJA-Federation Executive Vice President and CEO John Ruskay, Wieseltier displayed his quick mind and pungent observations.
Expounding on why he believes a two-state solution is the only answer to the Palestinian conflict, he said dividing the land in some manner would allow Israel to remain a Jewish state. For now, he acknowledged, Israel “has no partner” to make peace with, and the Palestinians “will have to decide who they want to be. We can’t do anything about a civil war [between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas].
“We just want to give them their damn state,” he said, “but there is very little Israel can do to make the Palestinians come closer to the table.”
He berated American Jews for not learning to speak Hebrew. “We are illiterate in an unprecedented way,” he said. “I hope this troubles your sleep.”
And he mocked the popular notion that all identity choices are equal, asserting “you can’t build a Jewish identity on klezmer or Jewish cooking. We seem to feel all choices are equal: you like the Rambam [Maimonides] and I like knishes, as if they are all the same.”