The Roots of the Mistake
During the last Lebanon War, Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen called the state of Israel a mistake. The full quote is:
The greatest mistake Israel could make at the moment is to forget that Israel itself is a mistake. It is an honest mistake, a well-intentioned mistake, a mistake for which no one is culpable, but the idea of creating a nation of European Jews in an area of Arab Muslims (and some Christians) has produced a century of warfare and terrorism of the sort we are seeing now. Israel fights Hezbollah in the north and Hamas in the south, but its most formidable enemy is history itself.
The outrage from Jewish quarters was swift, and refutations also followed, such as the one by Carl of Israel Matzav. The outrage was natural and justified, and the refutations praiseworthy; but I bring this issue from more than four months ago because of the meta-issue that hovers above it all.
From my blogging point of view, the view of this war as being a Clash of Narratives first and a Clash of Civilizations second, I find Richard Cohen’s words far preferable to the pap about “Palestinian self-determination” and “the two-state solution” that comes out from our enemies in the West. I view all those specifics, all those platitudes, as masks hiding the real issue: the question of truth. And by “truth”, again I don’t mean specifics (in the sense of, for example, “9/11 Truth”—“the towers show such and such signs of controlled explosion…” etc.), but overarching worldviews. I mean the glasses through which one interprets the barrage of information coming to our mailboxes, radio speakers, TV screens and computer monitors nowadays. From that point of view, Cohen’s categorical comment, “Israel is a mistake”, is a refreshing change.
You’re probably going to find this hard to believe, but brace for it, it’s true: I too once believed Israel to be a mistake. Yes, back in the 1990’s, when I was a Peace Now member, my living in Israel was based on the thought, “I was born here and I’m here now, so I’ll try to make things as good as I can”. It is clear that, back then, I had no special attachment to the land—back then, if I had the choice to press a button switching me to an alternative life in, say, Europe or the United States, I’d have pressed it. And I thought, I really did, that the world would have been better off if the state of Israel had never been set up.
“You thought that way?! You thought just like the ones you now call, ‘Jewish quislings’?! How? Just how could you think that way? And what changed you?” Am I not right to put such questions in the speech balloon of the reader, especially a reader that has read a few other posts on this blog? The answer usually given by converts, from any worldview to any other worldview, is, “I got some sense knocked into me”. Something along the lines of, “I was mugged by reality”. But this doesn’t make for a deep intellectual case. For that purpose, let me give a snippet out of the article, “Time to Stand Up”, by Richard Dawkins. Before I give the quote, I must tell of its context, which in this case is all-important: Dawkins wrote it a few days after 9/11, as a criticism of religion (specifically theistic religion) in general. The part I’m quoting here, about the Jewish state, is only one of many examples he gives as to why religion is the cause of so much evil in the world (that is his worldview).
The bitter hatreds that now poison Middle Eastern politics are rooted in the real or perceived wrong of the setting up of a Jewish State in an Islamic region. In view of all that the Jews had been through, it must have seemed a fair and humane solution. Probably deep familiarity with the Old Testament had given the European and American decision-makers some sort of idea that this really was the ‘historic homeland’ of the Jews (though the horrific stories of how Joshua and others conquered their Lebensraum might have made them wonder). Even if it wasn’t justifiable at the time, no doubt a good case can be made that, since Israel exists now, to try to reverse the status quo would be a worse wrong.
I do not intend to get into that argument. But if it had not been for religion, the very concept of a Jewish state would have had no meaning in the first place. Nor would the very concept of Islamic lands, as something to be invaded and desecrated. In a world without religion, there would have been no Crusades; no Inquisition; no anti-Semitic pogroms (the people of the diaspora would long ago have intermarried and become indistinguishable from their host populations); no Northern Ireland Troubles (no label by which to distinguish the two ‘communities,’ and no sectarian schools to teach the children historic hatreds—they would simply be one community).
The argument here about Israel being a mistake is familiar: George Kamiya made it on Salon.com when the smoke from the Twin Towers was still billowing, Richard Cohen made it during the war with Hizbullah, and Peter Preston repeated it for us this month on the Guardian. But Richard Dawkins, unlike them, deserves a measure of respect, because he clearly states the worldview within which he voices this opinion. His opinion that Israel is a mistake does not stand by itself; it is supported by the infrastructure of a worldview contrary to the traditional Jewish one. That traditional view is a necessary ingredient for anyone to be not just a supporter or well-wisher of Israel (which I was during my peacenik days in the 1990’s) but a believer in its rightness from its very conception.
Richard Dawkins, for those who haven’t heard (I say this because he’s outspoken in his opinions), is a zoologist, an evolutionist (as am I, but Dawkins goes beyond the mere scientific fact of evolution and gives it a pile of atheistic midrashim) and a materialist (from which his atheism naturally follows). He believes that all religions are false, that all deities are figments of human imagination, and that all scriptures are completely human works.
It is easy to see how, within this framework, one would write about Israel what Dawkins wrote. A materialistic worldview holds all of history to be a combination of contingencies, therefore it is impossible for one nation to be special in any qualitative way. He probably attributes Jewish survival to the laws of kashrut, as did I back in the day. He finds it ridiculous that G-d should create such a vast universe in order to give one particular group of primates a small plot of land. And he thinks it both risible and alarming that the Jewish people still believe G-d will save them in the End of Days. His holding those opinions is to be commended, in that he follows that which the evidence he has found to date points to. By the same token, of course, his position can be debated, and changed by the presentation of additional, contrary evidence. That is the essence of intellectual discussion. That is how I’ve come from my Peace Now days, when I thought as Dawkins does, to this point, to Religious Zionism.
So the statement, “Israel is a mistake” is one I regard not as an offense (our age is full to brimming with cries of being offended… one should give it up if only as an exercise in keeping one’s mind independent) but as a starting point for a discussion of worldviews. For one does not come to think that Israel is a mistake unless he holds to a worldview that lends itself to that thought. In Dawkins’ case, “Israel is a mistake” is just a logical part of his worldview that religion is a mistake. For our leftist peacenik neo-hippie flower children in the West, “Israel is a mistake” is a logical part of the worldview, “Indigenous is good, imported is bad”, which, together with the decision that “West, Bible, white man” is the importer and “East, any other tradition, any other race” is indigenous, builds the case against Israel.
Conversely, the only way one could believe Israel to be not just worthy to exist now (what an indictment of our times it is that such a belief must be searched for and complimented), but to have been a right and just thing from the start (and by “from the start” one goes to even before the Holocaust), is to hold the worldview that the Torah is G-d’s word. It is the only worldview that could never get shipwrecked on the shores of circumstance. Many are those who in the past viewed the state of Israel as compensation of the Jews for the Holocaust, but now are all too willing to see it dismantled, G-d forbid, as reparations to the “Palestinians”. Many others say the Jewish homeland in the Middle East comes with too high a price, in the form of disturbing world peace even if the wrongs are perceived rather than real. Certainly, for those who view life a short stay between two eternities of nothingness, or for those who worship Mother Gaia, it is easy for the state of Israel to stick out like a sore thumb. “Shove your bronze-age scriptures!”, is the sentiment, superficially a vent of frustration, but profoundly the essence of a worldview that is at odds with that of the Torah.
What do we do? Judaism does not seek converts, so trying to win people’s minds to the Torah worldview is out (that’s G-d’s privilege). But this most certainly is a war of minds. Our age is not an age of dead hearts, it’s an age of deceived minds. Sincere hearts wishing to help, to make the world a better place, are in no shortage—even the imperialistic vision of an Islamic caliphate stems from the belief that the world would be better that way. But people’s hearts follow their minds, their worldviews, and if those are wrong, then the results can be disastrous. This is an age in which every hand typing at a keyboard counts. Therefore, though we, as Jews, do not seek converts to Judaism, we must press on this war of minds by presenting the case for Israel from the full framework of our sustaining worldview. This means that, though the subjects of the Holocaust past and of the merits of Israel in comparison to her neighbors present can still be brought forth, the worldview-based case for Israel, showing its rightness from the start, needs to be made, day by day, more and more forcefully, in order to counter the statement, “Israel is a mistake”. Because the real mistake would be to regard that statement as being rooted in the specific actions of Israel. The truth is that it is always rooted in a worldview, never separate from it. All the talk about the specifics (“oppression of the Palestinians” et cetera) is nothing but a veil (or perhaps a whole burka) hiding that truth away from sight, and therefore from discussion.
Finally, for those who say an appeal to the Jewish worldview would hurt our credibility by bringing “primitive appeals” to the whole discussion: I take after Yediot Achronot right-wing columnist Uri Elitzur in saying that, contrary to what we believe about Man, even Western Man, being driven by modernity and realpolitik, it’s actually the “primitive” arguments that win their respect most. Or stated in another way: in the match between the “Palestinians’” “primitive” arguments (“This is the land of our fathers” and the like) and our “realistic” willingness to give up our lands, our “modern” readiness to give the “Palestinian” narrative of “stolen land of our fathers” a more than fair hearing, we can now see, if we but open our eyes, which is the winner. Let us state our G-d-given case; it is easy for any Jew to believe in, for the events of the last few years have furnished us with more than enough evidence that His words are true. Or have you not noticed how similar the events foretold in the books of the Prophets sound to those in the daily news?