Martin Kramer: Geopolitics of the Jews

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Martin Kramer is the Wexler-Fromer Fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Senior Fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, and Olin Institute Senior Fellow at Harvard University.]

Over the winter, I gave a short address to the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, at a meeting in Jerusalem. I took the assignment seriously, and offered these thoughts, more to highlight problems than offer solutions. In this week between Holocaust Memorial Day and Israel's Independence Day, I share them for wider reflection.

The title of our panel is "Looking Back, Looking Ahead: The Geopolitical Situation of the Jewish People." This is a moving target: the geopolitical situation of the Jews hasn't ever been stable. As a people, our geopolitics are one part our preferences, and two parts historical forces. These forces never rest. Seventy years ago, the Jewish world was centered in Europe. Now we mostly just fly over it. The United States and Israel are today the poles of the Jewish world, because some Jews sensed tremors before the earthquake. When the earth opened up and Europe descended into the inferno, parts of the Jewish people already had a Plan B in place. We are living that Plan B.

Today the Jewish people is in an enviable geopolitical position. It has one foot planted in a Jewish sovereign state, and the other in the world's most open and powerful society. One is tempted to say that never in their long history has the geopolitical situation of the Jews been better. Jews did have sovereignty before, in antiquity, but they did not have a strategic alliance with the greatest power on earth. And since it is difficult to imagine a better geopolitical position, the Jewish people has become a status quo people. Once we were revolutionaries; now we don't need the world to change. Of course we would like an improvement in Israel's standing with some of its neighbors--what dreamers call "peace." But we are generally confident or complacent enough to prefer the status quo to the risks of changing it.

Yet as we all should know, history stops for no man, and for no people. I was trained as a historian, and while this gives me no powers of prophecy, I can assure you of one thing. What is, will not be. Balances of power will change. Identities will be recast. Eventually, too, the map of the Middle East will be redrawn.

When we worry, we tend to focus on apocalyptic scenarios. But I invite you to think for a moment about five long-term trends that could erode the status quo, but that fall short of a mushroom cloud. I will proceed from the far to the near, and I will focus on the Israeli side of the equation.

First, U.S. influence in the Middle East could wane. Perhaps you have read the article by Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, entitled "The New Middle East." He wrote: "Less than twenty years after the end of the Cold War, the American era in the Middle East. . . has ended. . . . The second Iraq war... has precipitated its end." I think this is premature--America's era in the Middle East will end one day, but it hasn't ended yet, and it will take more than Iraq to end it. But Haass's statement is indicative of a spreading mood. Add this to technological change that could reduce American dependence on Middle Eastern oil, and it is possible that in twenty years' time, America will be less interested and engaged in the Middle East. What is our Plan B then?

Second, Europe could be subtracted from the sum power of the West. The trends there, of low birth rates, Muslim immigration, multiculturalism--if they are not stopped or reversed, they could have the effect of de-Westernizing Europe. Europe, even without Jews, is part of a cultural and strategic continuum, linking Israel to America. Without that link, Israel would become still more encircled by Islam-inflected hostility. So what is our Plan B then?

Third, Iran could gain regional power status. In fact, the imperial ambition of Iran may be a long-term trend independent of the nature of its regime. Iran could become Israel's regional rival, even if it postpones its nuclear plans and drops Ahmadinejad. Iran is already using every ounce of its leverage to establish its dominance in Iraq and its influence elsewhere in the Persian Gulf. If Iran emerges as a power on par with Israel--a power intent on drawing Israel into a long cold war of attrition--what is our Plan B?

Fourth, the Arab states around us could succumb to the same sort of disease that is causing Iraq to hemorrhage internally. That disease is the lack of legitimacy. When you look at a map of the Middle East, you are looking at a gerrymandered hodgepodge, drawn a century ago to serve the interests of the long-defunct empires of Britain and France. If Iraq breaks up--and I believe it will--other states could begin to crumble. In some places, it might be Shiites against Sunnis; elsewhere, Islamists against nationalists. This could engulf states on Israel's borders, and Israel could find itself opposite not one Hezbollah but many. So what is our Plan B?

Fifth, and closest to home, there is the possibility that the two-state solution will become passé, because the Palestinians will fail as a nation. By failure I mean they will not have the cohesion necessary to translate their identity into nation-statehood. Many in Israel presently speak as if the creation of a Palestinian state is essential to Israel's own legitimacy and even survival. But what if such a state proves to be impossible? A binational state, Israeli-Palestinian, is anathema, so what is our Plan B?

Now one would have to be a grim pessimist to believe that all five of these trends could merge into a perfect storm. But one would have to be an incurable optimist to believe that that we won't be lashed by any of these storms. And what I am arguing is that we should anticipate conditions that will make storms more frequent than they have been in the last few decades.

We have had a remarkable run these last thirty years. Israel has flourished under the pax Americana. There has been no general Arab-Israeli war since 1973, and peace prevails on most of Israel's borders. The country's population has grown, foreign investment has poured in. Israel has expanding relations with the up-and-coming powers in the world. And American Jewry has gained stature and influence, in part by mediating for Israel. This has been a long and productive peace.

But when Herzl wrote The Jewish State, Europe was also thirty years into its long peace. He knew it would not last, that its foundations were weak. He planned accordingly. We should recognize that the status quo in the Middle East won't last indefinitely, and we have to plan accordingly. I haven't said what I think has to be done--what alliances to make, what targets to strike, what borders to redraw. But I do say that Israel will have to make alliances, strike targets, and redraw borders--and they won't necessarily be the familiar ones.

This is going to create stress in the world, and even within the Jewish people. So your tasks will multiply, and they will become more urgent. If you got into this business ten years ago, thinking it would be all gala dinners on the way to a new Middle East, I apologize on behalf of history. The man was on the mark who said that the trouble with our times is that the future just isn't what it used to be.

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omar ibrahim baker - 10/19/2007

omar ibrahim baker - 10/19/2007

Mr Kramer in his five possible, potential, scenarios for the future of "Israel" fails to consider and face what could, probably would, come out from their , or some combination of their, non mutually exclusive outputs .

And the synergies that would be the out come of same.

**Judging by present trends a break down of present borders could lead, historically, to the consolidation of Arab nationalist forces. That would be the final undoing of the malignant Sykes/Picot. (Synergy 1)

**Similarly a Sunni -Shiite open conflict would similarly lead to a Sunni consolidation of forces in the immediate surrounding of occupied Palestine.
With Turkey in the North and Al Maghreb (North Africa) in The West playing a major supporting role.(Synergy 2)

**Equally since “A binational state, Israeli-Palestinian, is anathema," a completely Zionized, i.e. deArabized and deIslamized, Palestine will, as it has been doing increasingly lately, force both the Arab nationalist and the Sunni, if you wish, Islamists into a hitherto unthinkable united front. (Synergy 3+).

Synergies 1 ,2 and 3+ would face , encircle, “Israel” with an unprecedented genuine, as distinct from the past and present verbal, consolidation of all anti Zionist forces; both public and governmental.

I contend that historically two major factors have decided the outcome of the tumultuous events that have befallen the region:
1- The total rejection of alien sovereign bodies in its midst, despite its ability to accept and coexist with considerable minorities
2-The irreversible Arab/Moslem intrinsic nature/character of the region.

A Zionist Israel will then have to contend with these combined synergies in the context of these two factors which would call for plan X or plan Z if you wish..

omar ibrahim baker - 10/19/2007

Mr Dresner; do you mean than Benjamin Franklin was right?

Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

"Plan B" involves Jews immigrating to the United States. For Jews two decades ago in a USSR set to implode, it was Plan A. If the settler-fanatics in Israel -neverendingly denied and/or whitewashed by Kramer and his less intelligent fellow neo-cons in America- really get control of things over there, or if the coward-bullies running Israel continue to screw things up, like they did in Lebanon last summer, be prepared to see Israelis voting with their feet.

Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

1. "Anti-Semitic discussions," or slanderous and unfounded accusations of Antisemitism?

2. Jews in America or immigrants to America of Israeli origin? Quite a difference, especially if (considering "longer than there's been a USA") one reflects on all that has happened in the world between 1776 and 1948.

My point, which started off this since wildly erratic thread, was basically that Israel was not the first or only "haven" for Jews. It was indeed conceived, in the late 19th century, as a kind of refuge to end all need for any other refuge. It may still play that role in the future. But, whether this function endures, or is revised, or requires extensive reconfiguration in order to survive, will not depend only on the sorts of external scenarios considered in the article here.

Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

In your typical haste to rebut any comment not comporting with your preconceptions, you err yet again, Mr. Friedman. My opening comment on this page was DIRECTLY related to Kramer's article. Kramer asked FIVE times: "What is our plan B?" My FIRST COMMENT, which you so kneejerkingly and insultingly attacked, was a direct answer to that question of Kramer's.

Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

"N. Friedman on April 26, 2007 at 10:56 PM
I did not quite notice the slander..."

“…read more carefully” by N. Friedman (#108936, April 24, 12:33 PM)

“Plan B, like it or not it's a relity (#108915)
by Joseph Mutik on April 23, 2007 at 11:33 PM
…Now you have another reason to hate Jews…”

libel (Merriam-Webster): "a written or oral statement that conveys an unjustly unfavorable impression"

E. Simon - 4/30/2007

I was. In addition to the semantics of the construction of the statement with which Peter took issue. The phrase "anti-semitic discussions" implies that the discussions are anti-semitic, not that any persons were. And crying "slander" therefore conflates people - who can be slandered - with discussions - which, one would think, cannot be slandered.

N. Friedman - 4/27/2007


Libel, in the law, is always written defamation and slander, in the law, is always oral defamation. Mr. Simon was interested in the law on the topic or at least that was my impression.

N. Friedman - 4/26/2007

Hi Mr. Simon,

I did not quite notice the slander terminology employed by our "friend." So, I did not address it.

On the law of defamation: in the normal situation the defamed person is identified in the defamatory statement by his or her real name. Of course, a person who uses a pseudonym could, in theory, be defamed where a defamatory statement identifies the person by his or her pseudonym. For example, one might have addressed a defamatory statement at Samuel Clemens where he is identified in the statement by the name Mark Twain. Further, it is not technically necessary to identify the defamed person in the defamatory statement. It is enough that one can discern who the defamed person is.

One issue I see with our "friend" is that nothing connects the pseudonym of our "friend" with a specific person. Rather, the pseudonym he or she (or, maybe we are dealing with a bot) uses effective makes him or her (or it) anonymous. Hence, there is arguably no specific person being defamed.

Another issue would be that the person would not be damaged, because a person who uses a pseudonym that makes him or her anonymous could just adopt a different pseudonym, in the worst case scenario, none the worse for wear.

I suppose, by counter-example, that if he or she consistently uses a pseudonym on-line to the extent that the pseudonym becomes something akin to a trademark, such on-line personality might somehow be defamed, even though we can attach no face to the pseudonym. Unless it is an unusual circumstance, that anonymous person would probably still have a difficult time proving any damages. And, the person would cease being anonymous once the lawsuit is filed.

Please note for future reference: Libel applies to written defamation. Slander concerns oral instances of defamation.

Joseph Mutik - 4/26/2007

I totally agree with your analysis about Freud. He is, of course, history and replaced by better ways of treatment. If you, Mr. Dresner, don't like "Freudian slip" please replace it with "slip".
Talking about being rude, please remember that this line of our conversation begun with your very rude message supposing that I came to this conversation without knowing how many Jews are in the USA. I have a very solid classic and scientific education and with your very rude message you tried to transform me into an uneducated person who doesn't know the basics. I hope you do better with your tuition paying students.
In our days, the blogosphere days, manipulation is the rule. In the blogoshere space one plants a message and afterwards uses it as a source. We are far from the classic rule of "two independent sources" for publishing. Anything goes. So when someone implies that I am uneducated and don't know basic facts, the same one shouldn't complain about manipulation.
Best regards,
Joseph Mutik.

Jonathan Dresner - 4/26/2007

I am not going to confuse someone as rude as yourself for someone with an interest in real dialogue, Mr. Mutik: you have a point of view and you intend to express it.

I didn't have a "Freudian slip": Freud was a cocaine-addled sexually frustrated but imaginative manipulator, whose ideas and legacy nobody takes seriously at this point except screenwriters and other socially stunted souls who have no sense of how real people think. You are the one introducing false dilemmas and meaningless distinctions into the discussion, for purposes which you clearly intend to reveal once you've drawn someone into actual discussion with you.

Joseph Mutik - 4/26/2007

"You're right, your message started out about Israelis, then ended up about Jews."
This sentence shows very clearly that you don't make a real connection between Israelis and Jews. That's exactly what I was trying to understand!
Best regards, again.

E. Simon - 4/25/2007

Your point is well-taken. Dar al Islam is indeed a territorial concept that envisions Islam's universalist appeals or aspirations manifesting ultimately through widespread conquest or conversion, while the universalist attributes of Judaism are limited to - if anything - leading by example in specific areas of conduct, while restricting its territorial influence to a specific region. Although the latter doesn't seek widespread conversion, it doesn't seem to explicitly rule it out either - despite the many sorts of practical relationships with non-Jews that are made possible through the accepted, differing standards of applicability of its codes, to the point where they almost seem encouraged.

It's good to see you back here, too. Yea, even perhaps fighting the good fight against our old friend, although I'm surprised you didn't take issue with his protests against Mr. Dresner's admonishments of anti-Semitism on the discussion boards, as "slanderous", no less! I was unaware that discussions, as non-persons, could be slandered, although perhaps my understanding of the law is something I could stand to brush up on... Some people can be quite funny, and even moreso when they don't even intend on it.

N. Friedman - 4/25/2007

Mr. Simon,

As always, I enjoy your commentary. I note also that Joseph has clarified his statement.

I note one point of disagreement. Both Judaism and Islam have territorial aspects. That, after all, is part of what, in Islam, the Dar al-Islam concept concerns. And, indeed, there are numerous prayers related to Israel and Jerusalem - next year there, as it were.

Christianity does not, as you correctly assert, have territorial claims per se although, quite clearly, Christians tend to dwell on "the holy land" and Catholicism has Vatican City.

N. Friedman - 4/25/2007


I see where you are going. That certainly makes some sense.

Joseph Mutik - 4/25/2007

If under this subject a country named Israel has no meaning please let me know
why not.
Mr Dresner had Freudian slip misreading of my message about the Israelis in the U.S.
From a religious pint of view the U.S. Jewry is divided between orthodox, conservative, and reform movements with a good part of the American Jews going away into mixed marriages, Jews for jesus or whatever. The land of Israel can bring the Jews together. The religious point doesn't work anymore. That's my point!

Joseph Mutik - 4/25/2007

First of all you missed your not child left behind sessions which requires some reading skills:

"Elementary teachers must pass a state test demonstrating their subject knowledge and teaching skills in reading/language arts, writing, mathematics and other areas of basic elementary school curriculum."

I very politely asked for an answer and you react very impolitely from your "ivory tower".
Sorry if you were so tired that you couldn't read a very simple message!
Best regards and good luck with your speed reading lessons!
Joseph Mutik.

E. Simon - 4/25/2007

I think Mutik's point is that Jewish identity would probably be quite a bit less meaningful, powerful or enriched had it not been for a long formative history that took place while dwelling in the land - the Jews' possession of which having been prophesied as a major tenet of the covenant between the religion's (literary and biological) founder and his deity. The centrality of Israel to Jewish prayers also speaks to this, as do more than a few major holidays which were centered around (among other things) harvests or agricultural cycles indigenous to that land. Redefining religion as being less connected to a specific culture or the geographic region in which it developed seems to be the innovation of later, even more universalist faiths, such as Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, etc. I don't think Mutik's point is that difficult to comprehend. Otherwise, Jews would have taken Israel and Jerusalem out of their prayers and celebrations as unnecessary, which to my knowledge, they never did, even during nearly a couple millenia of exile. Funny that.

As for your point of agreement, I tend to think that attempts at making, engaging, or asking for clarification of points are more productive than just asking to be (intellectually) left alone.

N. Friedman - 4/25/2007


I am in agreement with Jonathan. I do not see where you are going with your point.

It is true that Israel is important for Jews - or at least the vast, vast majority. It is not clear that it is the defining issue for Jews.

Either way, I do not see where you are going.

Jonathan Dresner - 4/25/2007

This is beyond tiresome. You're not trying to understand: you're trying to goad.

Joseph Mutik - 4/25/2007

"You're right, your message started out about Israelis, then ended up about Jews."
Does it mean that Israelis are not Jews (don't give me the "standard" answer about the non Jewish Israelis). I also included a sentence about the Hebrew yellow pages in LA and NYC. Let me rephrase: are the Jewish citizens of Israel Jews?
"Israel is not the sole defining issue for Jews"
Of course isn't the "sole" defining issue (a country isn't the sole defining issue for any nation in the world) but Israel is one of the main defining issues for the Jews. By the way what's your definition for the Jews? I would highly appreciate your academic perspective on the definition of Jews.

Jonathan Dresner - 4/24/2007

You're right, your message started out about Israelis, then ended up about Jews.

I vehemently disagree with the rest of your comments, however: Israel is not the sole defining issue for Jews.

N. Friedman - 4/24/2007


You have misread my comment. I indicated that your comment - not your initial comment - was off topic.

N. Friedman - 4/24/2007


In other words, your comment is unrelated to the topic of Professor Kramer's article.

As for the substance of your new comment - which is rather different and less ideological and rhetoric laden than your earlier comment -, you may be correct. Then again, Professor Kramer may be correct.

Joseph Mutik - 4/24/2007

My message was about Israelis (Israeli citizens, like myself) living in the U.S..
Defining Jews as a religion was the result of a nation being for about 2000 years without a country. Today a Jew should be defined (the same as an Irish, Italian, etc.) through his connection to the state of Israel. Also, I believe, that using the older term "Israelites" for the Jews would be a better choice. Religion should be an important part of the Jewish heritage but, today, the main defining term for the Jews should be Israel.

N. Friedman - 4/24/2007


I believe the article did not ignore your scenario. Rather, it mentioned your theory but noted that it was going to deal with the noted other scenarios.

Jonathan Dresner - 4/24/2007

What, that old fraud? Give it up: that's been debunked since it appeared.

I was being sarcastic: my patience with anti-semitic discussions -- which are expressly forbidden by the HNN guidelines -- is growing very thin.

Jonathan Dresner - 4/24/2007

Actually, there's five and a half million in the US.

Jews have been in North America longer than there's been a USA. Now that's long term planning!

Joseph Mutik - 4/23/2007

There are about half a million Israelis living in the USA. Los Angeles and New York city have both yellow pages in Hebrew. Now you have another reason to hate Jews, they "infiltrate" your beloved good old US of A.

N. Friedman - 4/23/2007


There you go peddling trash. How about some facts? Do you have any?