Two Books on Israeli Nationalism Show a Growing Divide on Zionism in AmericaHistorians in the News
tags: Israel, Zionism, Middle East history
Ari Hoffman is a staff writer and assistant editor at the New York Sun, where he covers culture and politics. He teaches at NYU, holds a PhD from Harvard and a law degree from Stanford, and is a Journalism Fellow at the Hartman Institute.
When it comes to Israel, it’s always the best of times and the worst of times. For the Jewish state, the sky’s the limit—or else it’s falling. According to its critics, Israel is on the verge of moral immolation, an apartheid regime living on borrowed time. Its boosters counter that Israel has never been stronger: The more the haters hate, the more peace agreements it signs with its Arab neighbors, and the more sophisticated the technology it develops and exports. It’s as if the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea can only be viewed through a fun-house mirror.
This schizophrenia finds expression in two recent books that read like they were written on different planets. Omri Boehm’s Haifa Republic: A Democratic Future for Israel approaches Israel as a failed state and Jewish sovereignty as a moral obscenity. As Boehm, an Israeli associate professor of philosophy at The New School in New York, puts it, “True Israeli patriots must now challenge Zionist taboos as we have come to know them, must dare to imagine the country’s transformation, from a Jewish state into a federal, binational republic.” If Thomas Jefferson believed that “the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants,” then Boehm believes that sometimes you need to cut the tree down altogether.
Yossi Shain’s The Israeli Century: How the Zionist Revolution Changed History and Reinvented Judaism argues that Israel’s success is so total that it has remade the Jewish people, reversed the misfortunes of their past, and secured their future. For Boehm, Israel is so compromised as to be ripe for demolition; for Shain, a Knesset member for Yisrael Beiteinu and professor of political science at Tel Aviv University, it is one of the greatest miracles in human history and the lodestar of the Jewish present. “Israel has consolidated its hold as the most dominant entity in the Jewish experience,” he writes. “The Jewish center of gravity—cultural, religious, political, demographic, and even economic—has decamped from New York, and is now to be found in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv for the foreseeable future.” In the Israeli century, “the majority of Jews will come to live in the historic Land of Israel and enjoy the protection of the State of Israel.” Zion is where it will be at.
Like his one-state fellow traveler Peter Beinart, Boehm knows his audience: He couches his advocacy for the dissolution of the Jewish state in language intended to convince Jewish readers and non-Jewish critics of Israel that it is perfectly acceptable and desirable to overturn the country’s national identity. Even as he seeks to detonate the Israeli national project, he insists that he is more Zionist than the Zionists, selectively citing clippings by Menachem Begin, Ze’ev Jabotinsky, and David Ben-Gurion to argue that sovereignty as such was never really necessary. A Jewish state—as opposed to a binational state with a Jewish minority—was a mistake, a wrong turn that has led to a dead end.
According to Boehm, Israelis have become more hardline and closed-minded than their founding fathers, who were open to a broader range of political possibilities. The book’s title refers to Boehm’s personal promised land: not contested Jerusalem or vibrant Tel Aviv, but Haifa, a city unshackled from Jewish history or yearning that in Boehm’s telling can be the model for the successor state to the Zionist entity.
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