A Roundup Of New Books On Israel Suggest Hardening Positions On All Sides


We live in a moment of ever-hardening ideologies. You see it in Red State America and Blue State America. And perhaps in an even more pronounced way, you see it in Israel between the political left and right, and the religious left and right. Three new books about Israel suggest the pitfalls of this hardening trend, where what passes for political discussion often lacks shading and subtlety and cries out for nuance. (The fourth is a political potboiler with ideological overtones.)

Catch-67: The Left, the Right, and the Legacy of the Six-Day War” is a puzzler. It puzzles because the book’s author, Micah Goodman, is a highly-regarded scholar, who some years ago wrote a penetrating work about Maimonides’ “A Guide for the Perplexed.” One would expect from Goodman a sophisticated analysis in “Catch-67,” a book that was a best-seller in Israel and whose conceit is to identify the threats facing Israel’s existence. What we get is a collection of interesting, well-written discussions.

Goodman’s analysis of “the left” and “the right” is one of a “symmetry” between the two political sides in the decades since the watershed 1967 Six-Day War, a period in which the settler movement and the fate of the West Bank territories effectively hijacked the Zionist agenda. For the right (or in Goodman’s term, the New Right), withdrawal will cause “a catastrophe,” a security vulnerability that will result in nothing less than Israel’s “collapse.”

The New Left, moving from the earlier leftist position that “withdrawal will bring peace,” has hardened its line: “The continued presence in the territories will eventuate in [demographic] catastrophe.” The idea here is that if Israel does not withdraw from the territories, it can no longer remain both Jewish and democratic.

Because these positions have calcified into ideology and become basic to the very identity of the political right and left, open discussion, argues Goodman, is impossible. And he’s right. Historians will recall the ideological give-and-take was what the Yishuv, the Jewish community in pre-state Palestine, and in the early years of the state, was all about; ideology informed everything. The “catch” in “Catch-67” is the impossibility of dialogue in contemporary Israel.

So far, so good. But among the problems with Goodman’s analysis is that it’s factually inaccurate. The bottom line for Goodman is that the New Right’s denial of the demographic risk trumps the New Left’s denial of the territorial security risk. Yet, most military and security experts in Israel, as well as a critical mass of political scientists, maintain that the abandonment of territories, whatever the serious problems that may ensue as a result, will not pose a threat to Israel’s existence, that demographic separation from the Palestinians will not threaten Israel in an existential way.

The left’s position — the demographic dilemma of a single state — is, according to experts, more accurate. Much has been written about the specter of an Arab majority (a likelihood), or its horrific alternative, an apartheid state. Yet Goodman, while representing himself as a centrist, is gulled by the assumptions of the right, and gulls the reader into accepting those assumptions.

In his analysis of Religious Zionism, Goodman, who has a reverence for contemporary messianic Zionism, also misreads the history. In the post-1967 era, with the seemingly miraculous capture of the territories, Religious Zionism — heretofore the moderate, centrist, responsible movement of Israel’s “Modern Orthodox” — radically changed. Beginning in 1973 with the early settler iteration Gush Emunim, the Mizrachi/National Religious Party permitted itself to be hijacked by the settler movement. The “religious” piece of “Religious Zionism” was pinched by a cadre of rabbis of the right; the “Zionist” piece was pinched by the settler movement, so that Zionism today is defined by the settlements. None of this history managed to make its way into “Catch-67.”

There is no “catch” in Dmitry Shumsky’s “Beyond the Nation-State: The Zionist Political Imagination from Pinsker to Ben-Gurion.” Shumsky’s thesis is simple but tough to accept in today’s state-soaked, nationalistic times.

He asserts that while the notion of a “nation-state” was always POLITICAL Zionism’s goal, this was not the thinking or agenda of the Zionist founding ideologists. Rather, all of the Zionist thinkers and leaders (from Pinsker to Ben-Gurion) thought in terms of the context of their respective times: Jewish autonomy in a multinational or multi-ethnic democracy, and not necessarily a state. If a state emerged, so be it. In this assertion, Shumsky is challenging a deeply-rooted assumption and is suggesting that generations of Zionist historians have been pulling the wool over our eyes, mostly for ideological reasons, and often in a post-facto way in order to support a nation-state reality that was in place after 1948.

In consecutive chapters, Shumsky explores the thinking of five seminal Zionist leaders from Central and Eastern Europe — Leon Pinsker, Theodor Herzl, Ahad Ha’am (Asher Ginsburg), Ze’ev Jabotinsky and David Ben-Gurion — and uses their thinking to assert that revealed Zionist historiography is simply wrong. Did “normalization,” a goal of Zionism, necessarily mean a state and the concomitant negation of the diaspora? Shumsky parts company with mainstream historians of Zionism in arguing that the godfathers of Zionism declared a resounding “No!”

The Zionist enterprise, he argues, was (and is) a collection of false hopes and aspirations, precisely because the premise underlying much Zionist activity was either misunderstood or blatantly misrepresented. It’s not clear, however, that had the original Zionist goals been accurately represented over the years, whether outcomes would have been different. Samuel Beckett said it best: “Nothing in the world arouses more false hopes than the first four hours of a diet.”

Amos Oz has matured to be one of the giants of modern Hebrew literature. His place in this pantheon was surely nailed down by his masterful novel-memoir, “A Tale of Love and Darkness.” In his latest, a slim volume called “Dear Zealots: Letters from a Divided Land,” Oz suggests that zealotry is with us, it has always been with us and it will always be with us. Not to diminish Islamic radicalism, but zealotry is found everywhere — including (no revelation this) among Jewish sectarians.

Oz articulates the progressive view that the obligation to advance justice for the weak and oppressed — the “heart of Judaism” in the book — is being forgotten in an Israel that increasingly accepts that “authentic Judaism” is either sectarian or settler Judaism. Accurate or not, Amos Oz’s voice is still strong, and is worth heeding.

Along with the non-fiction potboiler genre — “Catch-67” certainly falls into this category — we report that the thriller is still alive in Israeli fiction.

Joining “Catch-67” on the Israeli best-seller lists is Israeli-American entrepreneur Ehud Diskin’s novel, “Lone Wolf in Jerusalem,” a thriller-potboiler set in Jerusalem in the last year of the British Mandate, with plenty of lurid flashbacks to Jewish partisan activities in Nazi-occupied Byelorussia. The conceit of the book is a good one — a take on the Jewish struggle to dislodge the British from Eretz Yisrael — but the novel is a mishmash of assassinations and flashbacks, multiple love affairs and political palaver. The formulaic plot follows the handsome partisan hero who excelled in executing Nazis — and, even more satisfyingly, Byelorussian collaborators — and is now in Palestine meting out the same justice to British oppressors. “Lone Wolf in Jerusalem” will be most pleasing to the American-Jewish reader whose politics tilt toward the right-wing Israeli ruling coalition.

Politics aside, Dishkin, who ought to know better, is often confused in his history and his facts. The Palmach was not “the striking force of the Haganah,” but was an ideological counter-weight, coming out of the far-left Hashomer Hatzair and Achdut Avodah kibbutzim, to the Haganah of the socialist Mapai Party and of the Histadrut. It was all about ideology. And the radical Lehi (“The Stern Group”) was not just a more activist version of Etzel, the Irgun. Lehi transcended ideology — it had fighters of all political persuasions, including sectarian Orthodox and left-wing Hashomer Hatzair; its ultimate goal was to remove the British from Palestine.

But “Lone Wolf in Jerusalem” is the page-turner promised by the publisher.

In the end, the four books here suggest that ideology is still with us — in new guises but in some shopworn, tattered garb as well. Our movements need new suits!

Jerome Chanes, a frequent contributor, is the author of four books and numerous articles on Jewish public affairs and arts and letters. His forthcoming book is an analysis of 100 years of Israeli theater.