Saturday, January 10, 2004

The Birth of Neo-Zionism?

It is a rare experience to witness an entire intellectual movement repudiated by its founder. Those who woke up yesterday morning to Benny Morris’s extraordinary interview in Haaretz were granted just such a privilege. It was no surprise to those who have followed Professor Morris’s work, or participated in his classes, in the years since the failure of the Camp David negotiations, that he rejected total Israeli responsibility for the ongoing conflict, or that he faulted the Palestinians with being fundamentally irredentionist and beholden to terrorism. What was surprising, however, even shocking, was his renunciation of one of the most fundamental tenants of the post-Zionist movement he did so much to found: the belief that Zionism itself was, due to its methods and fundamentally flawed and unjust nature, a mistake.

Not by chance does Morris’s shocker comes on the heels of Tony Judt’s much debated repudiation of Zionism in the New York Review of Books. Both have effectively redefined the demarcations of intellectual debate on the Middle East conflict, lines shattered by the collapse of the Oslo Accords and the Camp David negotiations, events which rendered decades-old ideological sureties obsolete. As polarized as their positions are (as indeed all positions on the issue have become), for all intents and purposes, Morris and Judt are in agreement on basic principles. Both men are convinced that the Palestinian national movement cannot be reconciled to the existence of the Jewish State, and, as a result, peace will, in all likelihood, remain permanently elusive. This is not merely a hard-headed policy conclusion, however, for both Judt and Morris are moralists as much as they are intellectuals. Their conclusions force them back into history to ask the essential question: if the Jewish State could only be created and can only be sustained by force of arms against the will of its neighbors and at the cost of great suffering for all, is it really worth it? Judt says no. Morris, no doubt to the shock of many, says yes.

What is most fascinating of all, however, is how the two men have, in essence, exchanged ideological positions in order to arrive at their conclusions. Judt, who has longstanding Zionist connections, including a stint as a Kibbutznik, has emerged as what can only be described as an anti-Zionist, as he now opposes outright the existence of a Jewish State in favor of a rather vaguely defined bi-national entity. Morris, a longtime Leftist whose books were among the first to recast Israeli historiography from what at the time was termed a “post-Zionist” point of view, has written for years of the Zionist movement and the Israeli state it founded from a position which was unmistakably critical, portraying Israel as, at best, a brutal, expansionist conqueror. He was and remains the most popular and most influential of the “post-Zionist” historians. Yet here is Morris in the pages of Israel’s most highbrow daily, read by all his intellectual peers, quite explicitly stating that, whatever Israel’s sins may be, it is irrelevant to the question of Israel’s essential right to exist. The morality of Zionism, he is effectively arguing, is axiomatic. Whatever Israel may or may not do, or whatever policy it may or may not undertake, the right of the Jewish people to national existence is an inalienable one.

This is hardly a new argument. One can quite easily cast Judt as Judah Magnes and Morris as Ze’ev Jabotinsky (indeed, Morris’s current positions are nearly indistinguishable from Jabotinsky’s) and we have nothing more than a return to the pre-state debates of the 1930s, with Magnes arguing that no Jewish State ought to be imposed on the Arabs against their will, even it means never having one; and Jabotinsky insisting that, the world being what it is, it is no shame for a people in grave danger and suffering the worst forms of persecution to make use of power, even military power, to achieve its national independence.

But, while one can easily see Judt in the role of Magnes, right down to his affection for utopian bi-nationalism, it is much harder to conceive of Morris in the role of Jabotinsky, for Morris has always been, and in many ways still is, a man of the Left. In fact, it is difficult to see Morris’s current stance reflected in any of Zionism’s previous history, which may be its true, even historic importance; springing, as it does, as much out of a reaction to the excesses of universalism as Zionism’s original ideological roots.

It is no coincidence that Morris makes mention of Albert Camus, who suffered so much opprobrium from his former intellectual allies because of his position that considerations exist which are higher than ideological, intellectual, or even moral purity. Camus rejected the school of thought which holds that things must be as absolute in life as they are in one’s calculation, and holds the world to be no more than a corrupted shadow of the mind’s perfect forms. If one decides, for instance, that war is evil and immoral, then one must oppose war in any and all circumstances, even it means refusing to take up arms against the likes of Hitler, Stalin, or somewhat lesser ghouls like Saddam Hussein. For Camus, contradictions are inherent in life itself, and to deny them is to embrace the kind of absolutism which can only end in collaboration with murder and political evil. Most famously, he remarked that, whatever his feelings on the Algerian question, he could not support a movement which might well kill his mother in a terrorist attack. His loyalty to his mother came before his dedication to any political cause.

It is on this simple point, that human loyalties are superior to philosophical calculation, that Judt and Morris part ways. Judt holds that if Israel cannot pass philosophical muster, then it must cease to exist. Morris charges deeper considerations. It is easy to sympathize with Judt, who is willing to stick to his principles even to the point of self-immolation; but there is also something dark, even terrifying about such fanaticism. It was Camus himself, after all, who theorized that the demand for absolute unity could only end in murder. Since no one is perfect, can that mean we are all condemned for our impurities? Isn’t there something almost, well, less than human about such reasoning, a kind of disturbing negation of the most natural human impulse towards self-defense and self-preservation?

And there is an even more disturbing question, one which constitutes the heart of Zionism itself: what good is this tremulous universalism, this absolute dedication to the rights of all, if it cannot provide a place for the Jewish people? Is there not some essential flaw in a system which, at the risk of sounding propagandistic, demands a 23rd Arab state at the expense of the sole existing Jewish State in the world? Are Israel’s flaws so overarching and foul that they cannot be repaired and reformed without the threat of existential annihilation? Is there not room in this hierarchy of rights for us as well?

Morris, to his credit, has the intellectual courage to ask these questions, and his answer is surprising. He affirms. He is saying yes. Perhaps out of depressed resignation, perhaps out of wounded idealism, but nonetheless, the affirmation exists. What makes this extraordinary is that for the better part of the last decade he has been the favored intellectual of those who say no, and this may be the real significance of Morris’s “conversion”. It may prove to be the opening salvo of a new strain of intellectual Zionism, one which springs not from within Zionism itself but from its rejection. Which is why it is so significant that it is Morris who has fired the shot. Perhaps unintentionally, he has provided Zionism a way out of the intellectual impasse in which it today finds itself, trapped between its most high-flown dreams and the bitter reality of war. He has presented the means to transcend the dirt of the past and the disappointments of idealism sullied by conflict, because what Morris is ultimately saying is that Israel can live with this dirt, that the shadows are not all-consuming.

For Morris, this is a tragic transcendence. He postulates an uncertain, perhaps apocalyptic future, but one which is, in the end, worth fighting for. Perhaps, in his mind, his people have taken the place of that mother whose possible murder Camus could not countenance. Or perhaps he has reached that tragic but purposeful conclusion that many Zionists, including Herzl himself, have reached before him: that universalism and human rights are, at best, empty, even fundamentally unfulfillable, promises, and that, at some point, one must say either yes or no, and decide whether one is going to submit or revolt against the fate assigned. Zionism may just have burst its chains.

January, 2004


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