Coping with the Golem

The result of the Israeli General Election was as uninspiring as the lacklustre campaign which preceded it. As many expected, it did not herald the *miraculous dawning of the Age of Reason. On the contrary, despite a soothing moderation emanating from some PLO leaders, the electoral outcome confirmed that the permafrost of suspicion and fear has not thawed. The Israeli public has played safe, looking to the pedestrian certainty of yesterday’s policies rather than venturing into the unknown—a measure of their belief that there is security in stagnation.

But it is also the first anniversary of the intifada, an occurrence which does not go away. Each month we read that it is “exhausting itself’ or, conversely, that it is “entering a new phase”. Kinder weapons have not deterred the “rioters”. The benevolent occupation has not become more congenial. Moderate Palestinians who advocate political rather than military solutions are ignored. Some, like Faisal Husseini, are imprisoned alongside Muslim fundamentalists. Others, like Mubarak Awad, are deported. With the option of “land for peace” seemingly closed off, the Palestinians have clearly nothing to lose by stepping up the violence. And the Likud-dominated government will reply in kind—we may yet come to yearn for “the good old days” of the unworkable coalition.

Even before the election, within Israel itself, there were warning signs for the future of those who think differently. The investigation into the activities of Yesh Gvul (There’s a Limit) is a case in point. Although many Jewish groups were formed in reaction to the intifada, the existence of Yesh Gvul was perceived as particularly challenging to the official wisdom. A growing number of reserv-ists—many of whom have served with valour in previous conflicts—have come to the conclusion that they would rather go to prison than carry out “Iron Fist” policies in the territories. What many Israelis have done by means of subterfuge during the last twenty years is now being done openly. In response to the police investigation, Yesh Gvul argues that it neither “incites the evasion of military duty” nor “encourages insubordination”, but provides aid and advice to those who have already reached their decision. And it is not an easy choice. The Israel Defense Forces are held in unique esteem and to opt out, regardless of the circumstances, is to place yourself beyond the pale of Israeli society. Even within Peace Now, there are differing views on publicly refusing to serve. Some believe that serving helps ensure that decent behaviour will be practised and that the wildmen in the unit will be restrained. Others argue that everyone is a victim of the situation and no one remains untainted. How is it possible, they ask, to demonstrate in Israel against actions which you yourself have been responsible for in the territories?

Moreover, eminent legal authorities in Israel have repeatedly warned that the neglect of respect for the law in the territories, where suspects are detained under the catch-all British Emergency Regulations of 1945, cannot but subvert the fundamental tenets of democratic behaviour within Israel itself—such as the right to dissent, freedom of speech and an open press. Yet those who wish to tread this dangerous path seem to believe in Israel’s “state of siege” as a sort of never-ending virtue. The Marxist dictum that “freedom is the recognition of necessity” could well be subscribed to by Israeli ultranationalists in this deteriorating situation.

What does the future hold for the Jewish state? Is this the end of the road for Israeli liberalism? Should we say kaddish for the Israel Labour Party? Even if that is a little premature, the next few years will be decidedly difficult ones for those Diaspora Jews who are unsympathetic to the ideals and aspirations of the religious-national bloc.

Amos Oz recently asked British Jews to make certain that the emotional basis for their criticism was not embarrassment. A fair question for Jews who choose not to share the hardships of the Jewish state. Yet criticism is not a manifestation of bad faith. For most, the decision to speak out is one which is not taken lightly or irresponsibly, but with forethought and consideration—in the belief that it is better for Israel to voice concern publicly than to wring your hands in private.

The reaction of the leadership to communal protest has been a shift in emphasis from a position that criticism is overt disloyalty to one that it is now eminently acceptable. Their stance is that they are above all of this and that it is not really within the calling of Jewish leaders to offer a refutation of Israeli policies. And as if to maintain an honest symmetry, this is followed by the claim that Israel has no shortage of critics. Those who choose to speak their mind are really unrepresentative of the community; they are unimportant, marginal Jews on the very periphery of Jewish life. Offering public advice, they argue, will help Israel’s enemies. But it is also true that a quiescent docility aids those in Israel for whom differing ideas are seen as a threat. Contrary to accepted wisdom, not speaking out implicitly means taking sides.

In April of this year, the Los Angeles Times conducted an extensive opinion poll of American Jews. They discovered that a majority supported moderate policies and that they favoured Peres over Shamir. This suggests that in fact it could well be the leadership which is out of step with the dovish views of the people they purport to represent. Even before the advent of the intifada, research carried out within the communal framework indicated condemnation of organizations for their lack of independence. The 1986 survey of American Jews, under the auspices of the American Jewish Committee, showed that a majority of respondents believed that US Jewish organizations were “too willing to automatically support the policies of whatever Israeli party happens to be in power”.

If there is no resolution of the conflict with the Palestinians in the foreseeable future, then dealing with the flaws in the Israeli government’s behaviour will unavoidably become a major item on the communal agenda in the 1990s. Communal leaders may eventually have to choose—whether to expound the liberal opinion of the community or stand by the official view of the Israeli government.

It is a manifestation of a wider problem. For the first time in two millennia, Jews have power—no longer a despised category, throwbacks to antiquity. But can we cope with this transition? From ghetto to state in less than a century? Once the jubilation of national liberation subsides, what happens if large numbers of Jews in the Diaspora perceive that this power is being used unwisely and unjustly?

The rise of the Jewish state was understandably perceived by the Diaspora in quasi-religious terms. The Six Day War was a glorious watershed in Jewish history. Secularists in the Diaspora acted with all the fervour of religious baalei tshuva in “standing up for Israel”. In a recent essay, Leonard Fein cynically describes the emotions of those days.

How delicious it was so suddenly to be transformed from a people of anaemic accountants and orthodontists to a people of muscular heroes. And how satisfying it was to learn that the curse had been lifted, that the Jews were now charmed, that scorn had become admiration and that Jewish life after all did have a centre. (The Impact of the Six Day War, ed Stephen J. Roth, 1988)

At that time, many Jews proudly labelled themselves as “Zionists” as a distinguishing credo of their Jewish identity. There was, however, a need to find a creative channel for this groundswell of Jewish support—Zionists who did not go to Zion. But, since the early seventies, communal funds have actually been directed away from supporting matters of Zionist concern towards public relations techniques explaining the policies of the Israeli government of the day. This was, in itself, an indirect recognition of the fact that there would be no new wave of aliyah and that most Diaspora Jews would remain firmly rooted where they were. But this mode of packaging contained within it the seeds of uniformity rather than unity. It did not propagate values or convictions. And its only concern was to fashion a digestible imagery. Moreover, this was a superficiality which was also fed to a Jewish community now eager to identify with Israel as well as to the non-Jewish world. The effect was to dissuade Diaspora Jews from conducting any ongoing debate about important matters in’ the Jewish state. This assumed serious proportions as the legacy of the Six Day War—the occupation of the West Bank—be-came brutally clear. Style was obviously deemed to be more important than content. Although many Jews reacted in horror to these mindless mailshots, others seemed to delight in it to the point of irrationality. The substance was irrelevant; only the effect mattered.

The problems of the eighties have also coincided with a generational change. In all probability, Jewish leaders in the nineties, who were born after the Shoah, will not be so susceptible to blandishments to remain silent on issues which strike at the core of Jewish thinking. The Los Angeles Times poll showed that Jewish opinion was equally divided on whether Israeli policies should be criticized publicly. Yet the poll also showed that when an audience of younger people was questioned, a much higher percentage felt that public criticism was justified.

The great danger is that a prolonged refusal to face the golem of political imperfection by pretending that it does not exist will result in a bi-focal attitude to Israel and its centrality in Jewish life. Jews are already beginning to think on two levels: publicly identifying with the ideal of Israel whilst privately and dialectically removing themselves from distasteful political realities.

It is ironic that due to the electoral surge of the religious parties, the “Who is a Jew?” issue could well overshadow the Middle East conflict in Diaspora considerations, despite all that has passed this year, including the declaration of a Palestinian state. The question of status and potential disenfranchisement concerns Jews wherever they dwell. Here it is impossible to enact a distancing mechanism. Indeed, many who now protest to Mr Shamir are those who adamantly condemned others in the past for advocating viewpoints different from those of the elected government of Israel.

Today’s reality threatens so many of our preconceived ideas and cherished beliefs that many prefer to bury it within more comfortable images; but the bitter truth is that our obligations cannot be by-passed. Ein breira—there is no alternative. In Heschel’s words: “in a free society, few are guilty, but all are responsible.”

Jewish Quarterly Winter 1988



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