The Idea of Israel

Tel Aviv from Jaffa

View of Tel Aviv from port city of Jaffa, Israel. Photo by the author, January 2006.

As a writer with the last name "Goldstein," I've often found my opinions filtered through other people's assumptions of what Jews think or should think. It happened in comment sections when I reported on the controversy over using circumcision as an HIV-prevention method. (The truth is, I'm a defender of Jewish parents' rights to choose not to circumcise their children — without facing opprobrium from the community.) In 2007 I was the target of an email harassment campaign initiated by a white supremacist web site after I wrote this piece. And even though I rarely cover foreign policy, I have several times received emails and even letters accusing me of harboring Zionist, imperialist views and hoisting them upon the public.

Because I find all of this unpleasant, I never, as a rule, write about the Israel-Palestine conflict. I'm going to break that rule today. It's not just that military solutions have a poor track record of solving problems of terrorism in the Middle East — or, really, anywhere. It's not just that a ground war leading to the deaths of over 400 people, many of them civilians, is a disproportionate response to the latest rag-tag rocket fire of Hamas, which has claimed the lives of four Israelis. It is not just that while Israel has every right to target those missile sites and the terrorists who perpetrated those attacks, it seems that through brutal, widespread violence, the Israeli government is doing little more than devastating an already impoverished society and planting seeds of hatred in a new generation of Palestinians.

It is that this latest incursion, and indeed, much of Israel's military history, seems manufactured in opposition to the founding idea of the Zionist project itself — that the world should be made safe for Jews. And that if the larger world could not be safe, than at least one place — the Promised Land — should be. I needn't argue here that Israel is one of the most unsafe places on earth to be a Jew; with suicide bombings, missiles, and now full-fledged war, that much is apparent. Asking young Jews to fight and die in a ground war, one whose perpetration inflames anti-Semitic sentiments, is not the best way to make Israel, or the world at large, safe for the Jewish people. And sure enough, it is tragic to learn that due to the fighting in Gaza, Jews in France, Sweden, Belgium, and Denmark have suffered anti-Semitic violence and vandalism in recent days.

To be sure, Israel's military response is not dissimilar from that of other nations that have faced terrorist threats, and errantly believed they could quash the threat with brute force. But in a post-Holocaust world, Israel is simply not like any other country. It is special, and holds particular sway over the religious and cultural imagination. I don't need to be convinced that anti-Semitism is a world-historical force that would exist, sometimes virulently, with or without the existence of Israel. I majored in European History, for god's sake. And as I wrote above, I'm all too acquainted with the lunatic, nativist right here at home. It's just that I want to believe that the collective, historical experience of Jewishness and Zionism leads to something better — something more humane — than what we've witnessed in the Middle East this past week. Jews in Israel and the Diaspora who are similarly frustrated have the responsibility, I think, to raise their voices. We support Israel's right to protect itself. We just don't see how this will accomplish that in the long run. 

cross-posted at TAPPED

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