Israel’s future as an anachronism

Israel is a nineteenth century European project completed neither in the nineteenth century nor in Europe.

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Conflict Background


By David B. Kanin

The growth of the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel’s occupation and settlement policies outside its 1967 borders clearly worries the Jewish state and its Diaspora.  Support for BDS in Europe and elsewhere has drawn accusations of antisemitism from Israel and Zionist lobbyists in the US.  The BDS campaign matters more than the latest American efforts to force through a two-state agreement that would be anything but a two-state solution—too many spoilers on all sides.

The growing cultural siege of Israel is recreating a communal sense of being outsiders many Jews—in the West, at least—have not felt for nearly three-quarters of a century.  BDS highlights three longer-term problems that increasingly will mark Israel as a nuclear-armed outcast struggling to find effective means of action other than naked force.

Swapping Mythologies

The first problem is that Israel’s Jewish identity and nationalist politics are out of phase with Israel’s European context of origin more than at any time since Theodore Herzl and others molded the Zionist model.  This matters because Israel is a nineteenth-century European project completed neither in the nineteenth century nor in Europe.  European and Jewish communal identities have switched places as poles on a cultural spectrum. Europeans who once celebrated their mutually destructive nationalisms now pose as wise, multicultural humanitarians.  Jews, once excoriated by many of those Europeans for their supposed “cosmopolitanism” (an old epithet vilifying what now are regarded as virtues of “multiculturalism”) now possess a resoundingly nationalist state.

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, some Europeans in the process of constructing their nationalisms berated Jews for their non-nationality (in the modern sense of the term).  Others scorned Jews as a backward or malignant form of alien anti-nation. Both variants of European idealism assigned Jews the stain of being “cosmopolitan.”

Jews, being aliens everywhere, chose between ignoring and embracing the nationalizing context.  Either they kept to themselves in backward, insular, Halachic communities, or attempted to insinuate themselves into the body of their host nations as assimilated, but still “different” individuals. Hannah Arendt famously expressed this in her discussion of the Jewish choice between being pariah or parvenu.

Fast forward to 1945.  Hitler’s genocide and Europe’s disgorging of much of its Jewish remnant enabled both the development of the European-style state of Israel and Europe’s own adoption of its new myth of “Europe.”  Israel, meanwhile, got stuck in the nationalist time warp.  Secular, European-style Israelis remain rooted in a Jewish blood-and-culture ethos that would be recognizable to, for example, German idealists like Herder and Fichte.

This condition has been complicated by the adoption of European-style national ideology by so many religious Jews.  In Europe, these communities traditionally focused more on Torah and religious observance than on a place in secular society.  As Israelis, however, they have mobilized to contest politics against non-observant Jews.  The conflict among the various “flavors” of Jewish Israelis is destroying the national underpinnings of the state without providing a replacement capable of providing a unifying ethos.

Meanwhile, Israel continues to treat Israeli Arabs and Palestinians something like Europeans once treated Jews—the dominant side acts, while the other community is acted upon.  Insistence on a nineteenth-century, European-style Jewish state means the scorpions’ dance between Israelis and Palestinians is unlikely to lead to anything close to the multicultural civic cosmopolitanism Europeans once reviled but now insist is the only proper attitude people can have toward each other.[1]

The End of Philosemitism

The second issue involves the end of a period of philosemitism that has marked Jewish life in the West since the validation of the reality of the Holocaust in 1945.  The unusually central position Jewish individuals and tropes have played in contemporary gentile culture no longer can be taken for granted. Israelis and other Jews will come to realize that references to memories of genocide will have a diminishing impact on audiences no longer moved by Holocaust imagery and inclined to see Israel as bully rather than victim.

The half-century after World War II was a period of unusual, perhaps unique, international attention to Jews.  Spurred by the horrors of the Holocaust and what once-upon-a-time was considered the heroic birth of Israel, the idea of “Jew” came to symbolize a combination of moral honor, intelligence, humor, and—of course—outsized victim.  This produced in Europe and the US a social aesthetic in which the iconic Jew was the object of general sympathy, curiosity, and respect.

Philosemitism is not the opposite of antisemitism.  These concepts of sentiment and behavior stem from the same baseline condition in which non-Jewish authorities and communities exercise the power to define, fashion, and alter the living conditions of Jews.  The dominant power structure always retains the choice to tolerate, repress, expel, or exterminate.  Philosemitism does not mean non-Jews come to love Jews as individuals or as a community—just for being Jewish. Rather, philosemitism exists when Jewish religion, history, and culture come to the center of general consciousness and social discourse.  Antisemitism does not vanish even during the apogee of philosemitic sentiment.  Spain’s offer to grant citizenship to descendents of Jews thrown out in 1492 (but not to descendents of Muslims who were treated the same way) is typical of those examples of philosemitism in which the non-Jewish subject believes it can gain economic advantage by embracing Jews and their perceived material assets.[2]

Greeks, Romans, Khazars, and others made Jews into objects of curiosity and ideological refraction.  Muhammad and Luther originally saw Jews as natural candidates for conversion.  Early modern Protestant Hebraists like John Seldon and Isaac Casaubon appreciated Jewish texts as bedrock foundations for the religion and politics of Christian reformers.  Enlightened Germans looked to “help” Jews grow from Jewish particularity toward the developed human that was the ideal of late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century rationalism.  From the non-Jewish subject’s point of view, a rational revolution would complete the Jewish piece of a larger educational task; the Jewish experience of persecution and living outside of history would prove to have made Jews good candidates for various versions of new-age evolutionism.

The Holocaust created a unique context for a new philosemitism.  The industrial strength effort to wipe out European Jewry was a decisive refutation of the confident modernism common to the science and salons of the West’s past two centuries.  Turning the neologism “genocide” into a legal category was a direct response to Jewish suffering that had been the culmination of what now was acknowledged to have been centuries of antisemitic outrages.  While martial virtue became an oxymoron in Europe, Europeans and Americans dredged up this classical ideal to define a heroic transformation of the Jewish condition in the world.  The military triumphs that defined Israel through 1967 reinforced a sense of the “New Jew” or the “Jew Revived.”

The sum of these parts was a unique celebration of Jewish communal identity and culture.  Rather than just freeing Jews from legal restrictions or cultivating individual Jews as evolving creatures, the dominant transatlantic community embraced and mimicked traits and expressions deemed “Jewish.”  Yiddishisms seeped into transnational discourse even as Yiddish was dying as a language for Jews.  In Europe, the decline in perceived significance of being, say, German or French meant that the continent’s few remaining Jews could be lionized as part of the European myth.

Western Jews and the philosemitic vogue had little impact in Eastern Europe during the Communist era.  The official version of Socialist history rejected complicity for the Holocaust and coupled Jew and non-Jew as victims of Fascism.  The prominence of Jews in Communist parties meant that East European images of the Jewish “other” remained largely as it had been before Hitler.  The end of Communism has enabled Jewish identity in Poland and elsewhere to be expressed, but the former Communist areas (with the exception of Hungary) support only a miniscule Jewish presence and for the most part have not shared the Western philosemitic experience.

The passing of those who perpetrated the Holocaust or experienced the shock of learning of its extent marks the end of the Western philosemitic moment.8  Jews who have grown used to the benefits of believing they are just like everyone else could begin to feel more like their alienated forebears.  Some already are reading as “antisemitism” hostility toward a martial Israel that reflects changing ideological fashion.  Attempts to use the Holocaust like some post-1865 American northerners used the Civil War as a “bloody flag”—an aggressive claim to a moral high ground meant to quiet any attempt to question either Jewish centrality or Israeli behavior—increasingly will fall flat.  In this context, charges of anti-Semitism against US academics who criticize the influence of the American Zionist lobby are as pointless as they are wrong.

The end of the philosemitic moment is accelerating Israel’s isolation and status as a nationalist anachronism.  In Europe and elsewhere, Palestinians have replaced the Jews as the “eternal victim.”  More important, the West itself, focal point of Jewish political development and of the Zionist movement, matters less globally than it has in 200 years and is decreasingly credible in its claims to represent an inevitable, irresistible, teleological combination of power and modernity.

The Semi-Soft Siege of Israel

Third, ongoing turmoil in the Arab and Muslim worlds since 9/11—not just since the current turmoil erupted in the Arab world in 2011—is changing the basic relationship between Israel and its environment.  However abhorrent, al-Qa’ida’s assault on the United States served as a starting gun that has released hope and anger among peoples no longer content to stand for the hectoring dominance of Western powers.  The Jewish state’s assertive, seemingly alien presence provides a unifying target for people otherwise in deep disagreement over the faith, values, and political forms they would choose to structure their collective future.

What is mislabeled the “Arab Spring” did not centrally concern a spectrum with notional poles called “autocracy” and “democracy.”  The desire among Arab publics to disgorge their dictators did not engender a tidal movement toward alternative forms of multicultural democratic politics.  The belief in an autocracy/democracy dichotomy is a Western caricature that sketches most Muslims as “moderates” whose idea of the future is limited to finding a place—under transatlantic guidance, of course—in the “international community.”  Rejecting this story is essential to understanding the fluid dynamics of contemporary global politics.

The attacks of 9/11 highlighted Muslim emergence from 200 years of Western domination—the burgeoning sense of agency is reflected in an expanding array of religious, social, and political creeds.  Western-style democracy is one choice among many, not the teleological endpoint celebrated in Western capitals.  Disparate Muslim protagonists are locked in conflicts focused on deciding who will determine which ideas and will be able to organize states, institutions, and instruments of power.

While they do not agree on what they want, virtually all Muslim opinion makers do agree on what they do not want—the existence of Israel.  Hatred of the Jewish state—and, increasingly, of the idea of the “Jew”—is a prominent factor in Muslim social discourse.

Antisemitism is neither pervasive nor universally preached among Muslims.  It is, however, a thread in the fabric of publicly bruited conspiracy theories and tabloidesque vitriol that too often passes for intellectual commentary.  Even many Arabs who engage with Israelis do so out of a resignation that the Jewish state cannot be expunged—but if that perception changes, so might those relationships.  Whether Antisemitic or not, organized action by Arabs, other Muslims, and progressive Westerners against Israel is taking a highly threatening non-violent turn.  Israel clearly has a serious vulnerability to non-violent insurgencies informed by the ideas of Gandhi, Thoreau, and Gene Sharp.  Of course, violence will remain a central component of this existential conflict, but Israel, with its military lore and preparations for future wars, will find it difficult to deal with creative forms of non-violent resistance.

As this struggle unfolds, a central question will be whether Arabs living inside Israel proper organize themselves to adopt the strategies and tactics of uncompromising, assertive, non-violent resistance.  If radicals among the Jewish religious activists and settlers also adopt these tactics, the beleaguered Jewish state could find itself facing challenges on multiple fronts, some involving familiar forms of violence and some not.  

David B. Kanin is an adjunct professor of international relations at Johns Hopkins University and a former senior intelligence analyst for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

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1) For a brave Zionist face on this issue, see Rabbi Schmuley Boteach, “Is Europe Lost to Israel?”  Jerusalem Post, March 11, 2014.

2) For one analysis of this interesting development, see Ilan Stavans, “Repatriating Spain’s Jews,” The New York Times, April 1, 2014.

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