Peter Beinart is the most recent of those who have claimed that a Jewish state is necessary as a refuge for Jews fleeing anti-Semitism. “I am old enough to remember the plight of Soviet and Ethiopian Jews,” he recently said. As long as there is anti-Semitism, there is a need to ensure that Jewish lives will be safe. But not just physically safe – for Jewish culture to flourish, indeed, for Jews around the world to feel proud to be Jewish, there must be a Jewish state that provides these things. After a look at the revival of Hebrew culture, for which, he claims, the state is responsible.
That the Jewish state serves as a necessary refuge for Jews fleeing anti-Semitism and a guarantor of the survival of Jewish culture is a deeply-held belief by many. So is the conviction that the Jews were exiled from Palestine by the Romans over two thousand years ago. Both convictions have been fostered by Zionism itself. But as the latter belief is a myth, so is the former.
Let’s begin by repeating the obvious fact that the revival of Hebrew language and literature and its being placed on a sure footing long antedated the founding of Israel. I am not referring merely to the literary achievements of the nineteenth and early twentieth century maskilim, though they are proof enough. No, what was responsible for the great institutions and spread of Hebrew language, literature, and culture, was the Zionist and the Hebraist movements, not the State of Israel, and most of the chief institutions of Hebrew culture were established well-before the State. The Hebrew University in Jerusalem, the Hebrew Language Committee (later, renamed the Israeli Academy of Hebrew Language), Hebrew novelists like Brenner and Agnon, Hebrew cultural institutions like the Palestine Orchestra (later the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra), the Bezalel Art School, the Habimah theater, and more and more – all these were the products of Jewish nationalism and their existence was neither due to nor ultimately guaranteed by the State founded in 1948. True, the state has supported such endeavors (and recently has threatened to cut support from those institutions that would not perform in what Beinart calls “non-democratic Israel.”)
One may wish to argue that Israel provides a cultural center that has inspired a flourishing of Jewish culture outside of its borders. But that involves a Zionist reading of center and periphery that may not be even true. There was more of a Hebrew literary culture in the United States before the establishment of the state of Israel than afterwards, and while it would be wrong to blame territorial Zionism for that culture’s demise, it and the State of Israel bear some responsibility – just as the State of Israel has to bear some responsibility for the demise of Jewish communities in Arab lands, especially since it did everything within its power to bring those communities to Israel, and when they arrived, to melt them in the Israeli melting pot. To this day, official Israel looks askance at the growth of Jewish communities outside its because according to mainstream Zionism, one can only be fully Jewish in the Jewish State.
Which brings me to the “place of refuge” dogma: If Israel exists as a physical refuge to ensure the survival of the Jewish people, then it has failed miserably in that respect. We are told by Israel’s leaders that the Jewish state is, or soon will be, under an existential threat from Iran, or from terrorism. If this is true, then will some one please tell me how Israel is a safer refuge for the Jews than, say, the United States, or even, Europe? More Jews have died because of the Israel-Arab conflict since 1945 than as a result of all other anti-Jewish behavior combined since 1945. And since much of the new anti-Semitism is correlated to Israel’s actions, not only is Israel a dangerous place for Jews living within its borders, it isn’t so good for the physical safety of Jews outside it either.
Beinart mentions the Jews of the Soviet Union and the Ethiopians. Those Soviet Jews who emigrated to Israel did so either because they were Zionist and wanted to live in Israel, or because they wished to live outside the Soviet Union, and Israel was the only place available. There was discrimination against Jews in the Soviet Union, and certainly it was difficult for Zionist Jews to live there after Israel had defeated Arab armies supplied with Soviet weaponry. But we are not talking about Jews who fled Russia, or were expelled from it, because of persecution, and who were forced to seek refuge in Israel. Especially in the 1970s we are talking about mostly Jews who already were Zionist-inclined, and who wanted to emigrate to Israel. In the 1990s fewer were Zionistically inclined; they were mostly taking advantage of the Gorbachev’s liberal policy.
As for the Ethiopian Beta Israel community, they only began to immigrate to Israel as refugees after Israel decided that they were Jewish and encouraged them. Had the decision gone the other way – and it is important to remember that it could have, since there was opposition to Ethiopian aliyah – many would have remained in Africa or made their way elsewhere. For them to come to Israel, there had to be Zionists initially convincing them that this was where they should be; there was no consciousness among them of the State of Israel as their homeland (unless they were Zionists.)
Having written the above, the Ethiopian aliyah still strikes me as closer to the intent of those who use the “refuge” argument to justify Israel’s existence. But that argument seems to say that unless there is a Jewish state of refuge, some Jews may die or suffer anti-Semitism. But with a Jewish state some Jews may die or suffer anti-Semitism. The real question is or should be, “Can Judaism and the Jewish people survive without a Jewish state.” And the answer is, so far, yes. In fact several thousand years of Jewish survival teaches us that.
The answer to the fate of Jewish refugees is not to insist that there be an ethnic state to which they can return, but to insist on an international policy that is concerned the rights of all refugees, regardless of race, gender, color, religion, etc. Neither solution is fail-safe, but so what?.
All of the above is valid had the State of Israel been located on the North Pole or the Moon. But even I am completely wrong, and a Jewish state is necessary to ensure the survival and thriving of the Jews and Judaism, that is not an argument for making room for that state in somebody else’s country. And let’s face it – the Zionists decided that in order to accept Jewish refugees in Palestine, they had to expel and denaturalize natives of Palestine. No country or people has that right.
How many times have the same people who say, “If there was no Jewish state, where would the Jewish refugees of Hitler go?” also say, “The world should force the Arab states to accept the Palestinian refugees?” Let me say this here loud and clear – the Postwar states had a responsibility to receive the World War II refugees, and that responsibility was first and foremost that of their native countries. But where repatriation was not possible, the refugees should have been allowed to go to countries where there settlement would not adversely affect the rights of the native population. The settlement of Jewish refugees in Palestine – of which they were not native – was not morally justified insofar as that settlement furthered the designs of Jewish statehood, since the majority of the Palestinians were opposed to Jewish statehood, and Jewish statehood would have adversely affected their rights. As it turns out, it adversely affected their rights in ways in which they would not have dreamed, since that settlement was coupled with the effective expulsion of the majority of the Palestinians.
But where would the Jews have gone? Many of them didn’t go to Palestine anyway, and many of those who did left Palestine when they could, much to the dismay of the Zionists.
I repeat – there is a moral distinction between settling refugees in lands in which they desire to live, and repatriating refugees to their own land. In the case of the Palestinian refugees, they have a right to return to their homeland, even if it adversely affects the rights of the Israeli Jews, because they were barred from returning to their homes – despite the calls of the UN. Had the Zionists said, prior to the founding of the state, that the only way a Jewish State can survive is through the forced transfer of most of its native Palestinians, nobody would have recognized the legitimacy of the state. And if somebody had, then that person, or state, would be wrong.
My position is that of the Zionist Ichud Association, which said that the Palestinians refugees should be given the choice where they wish to live, and that ways should be found to accommodate those choices, balancing the needs and rights of all concerned – but with the clear recognition that their return to their native surroundings carries great weight, even when what they are returning to is an imagined landscape, because of the crime done against them.