The promise of a chosen people

There exists an idea of Israel which is an alternative to the past and present of the Jewish-Palestinian relationship — and an augury of a different future

Written by Shail Mayaram | Updated: July 7, 2017 12:34 am
Theodor Herzl, Savarkar of Israel, Modi Israel visit, Israel, Benjamin Netenyahu, Jewish-Palestinian relationship, Edward Said, Zizek, Zionism, Indian express, India news, Latest news Theodor Herzl’s book, Altneuland (Old New Land), was much like Savarkar’s manifesto, Hindutva. (Illustration by C R Sasikumar)

The Indian state sees Israel in terms of security, productive of an alliance against “terror” defined exclusively in Islamist terms, ignoring evidence that the modern state worldwide is much more a source of terror. Civil society, in contrast, identifies Israel as a state of unconstrained impunity, which it indeed is, given its treatment of Palestinians in arenas of public policy such as land, water, housing, knowledge, language and institutions. There have been, however, different voices on state and nationalism in Israel, which posit an alternative to the past and present of the Jewish-Palestinian relationship and augur a different future.

On the one hand was Theodor Herzl, the V.D. Savarkar of the Israeli nation, among whose followers were Chaim Weizmann and David Ben Gurion. Herzl’s book, Altneuland (Old New Land), was much like Savarkar’s manifesto, Hindutva, both products of the Europeanisation of the world and bearing the imprint of the Enlightenment’s vision of history. The dissenting position that eventually became marginalised was held by persons such as Judah Magnes.

He responded to the 1929 Arab revolt by calling for a bi-national solution and opposed the idea of a Jewish state. Magnes’s emphasis on the need for Arab consent in a negotiated settlement was very close to Gandhi’s pronouncements on the Jews who, he maintained, were the untouchables of Christianity. Magnes was one of the founders of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and its chancellor-president, and a keen supporter of a multilingual state. He was against entering the promised land, as he put it, “in the Joshua way, but bringing peace and culture, hard work and sacrifice and love, and a determination to do nothing that cannot be justified before the conscience of the world”.

The theorist Hannah Arendt’s preferred option was for a federated state, based on Arab-Jewish cooperation rather than an exclusively Jewish sovereign state produced from a partition. Arendt decries the idea of chosen people as meaning “nothing other than that by nature they are better or wiser or more rebellious or salt of the earth. And that would be, twist and turn it as you like, nothing other than a version of racist superstition”. The publication of her Eichmann in Jerusalem was at the cost of her friendship with Gershom Scholem, who saw her as betraying Judaism and the Jewish people. Arendt saw Eichmann as a state functionary who represented the banality of evil, about which there is nothing deep or great, a figure out of Kafka’s The Trial. As her student, and theorist, Judith Butler points out, Arendt critiques both Fascism and Zionism as relying on a nationalism that creates massive statelessness and destitution.

There are several persons and groups that are sources of dissent in contemporary Israel. For instance, the journalist, Anat Kamm, who was tried for stealing and leaking 2,000 documents including 700 classified ones, during her period of compulsory military service. The website, Soldiers against Silence, carries heartrending testimonies of former soldiers and their violations of human rights. One wishes that former Indian soldiers might be inspired to give testimonies such as these after serving in Kashmir or Manipur. But in the Indian case, the testimonies have been exclusively societal, whether in the case of Ashis Nandy’s mammoth Partition project or those of the Manipur mothers.

Let us envision, however, a different future for this troubled land, in which the great western powers continue to play another Great Game. A Jewish friend had sent Gandhi a book called The Jewish Contribution to Civilization by Cecil Roth, a record of the Jewish contribution to the world’s literature, art, music, drama, science, medicine, agriculture. Gandhi’s statement holds good even today in its urging of Jews to “command the attention and respect of the world by being man, the chosen creation of God, instead of being man who is fast sinking to the brute and forsaken by God. They can add to their many contributions the surpassing contribution of non-violent action”.

Add to the idea of a non-violent Israel the political design of Johann Galtung, who has argued for a seven-state solution urging Israel, the Arab states, Turkey and the Kurds to come together in an European Union style arrangement. This would have regimes for water equity, arms control, and refugee return, the free flow of goods/services, persons and ideas and a truth and reconciliation process combining fact-finding, joint textbooks, healing and closure.

The celebrated Jewish theorist, Emmanuel Levinas, asks the question: How to philosophise out of this gaping hole, this abyss that left Martin Heidegger cold? Levinas advocates living Otherwise than Being, emphasising that “Hitlerism and Stalinism, Hiroshima, the Gulag, and the genocides of Auschwitz and Cambodia” mark an “end to theodicy” and impose an obligation on humanity to deny ourselves any further indifference to “useless suffering”.

The Palestinian intellectual Edward Said had argued that the memory of dispossession for both Jews and Palestinians could become the basis of a common polity in the Middle East. Slavoj Zizek draws on both Arendt and Said when he writes, “What if they were to come together on this ground: Not on the ground of occupying, possessing, or dividing the same territory, but of both keeping their territory open as a refuge for those condemned to wander? What if Jerusalem became not their place, but a place for those with no place? This shared solidarity is the only ground for a true reconciliation: The realisation that in fighting the other, one fights what is most vulnerable in one’s own life.”

There is much that Israel has to give to the Arabs, from whom it has received the gift of the state. It is up to the Jews of Israel to fulfil God’s promise of being the “chosen people”.

Mayaram, professor at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, is the author of ‘Israel as the gift of the Arabs: Letter from Tel Aviv’

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  1. G
    Jul 10, 2017 at 4:46 am
    What a beautiful conclusion!
    1. S
      Jul 8, 2017 at 2:22 pm
      The Jews are God's chosen people. Therefore little Israel today is a land of milk and honey surrounded by barren lands reeking of violence and abuse and misery, threatening to annihilate it everyday. Yet stands its ground bravely not letting its guard down for a moment and not depending on others.
      1. S
        satya paul
        Jul 8, 2017 at 7:36 am
        First step to resolve the Israel conflict.all Arab nations recognize Israel as a state.then make a confederation of palestine and israel.palestinian need not have army. palestine home land's safety and security is the responsibility of joint police force.
        1. A
          Adrian Akau
          Jul 8, 2017 at 5:22 am
          The Jews gave up the right to be called "the chosen people" when they rejected Christ. Christ is the one who brought light to the world, making up for the sin of Adam which caused the fallen nature of all mankind. Israel, in its present form, does not have much to offer India except technology in agriculture which, I am sure, India is already well aware. However, since the grass looks greener from the other side of the fence, it would seem that seeking advice from Israel would be greener. Good foodstuffs must also be taken along with the bitter, the terrible way Israel has been and will continue to treat the people the Jews have displaced. The grass is drier on that side of the fence and for PM to suggest grazing on it would seem that his judgement is in error.
          1. M
            Jul 8, 2017 at 1:48 am
            "There exists an idea of Israel which is an alternative", put it plainly, an Israel with no Jews wattabout an India without Hindus?
            1. T
              Thrinethran T
              Jul 8, 2017 at 2:59 am
              Gandhi was other-worldly about unilateral non-violence, to put it politely. But people like the author who cite him in a one-sided opportunistic manner deserve to be called out.
              1. M
                Jul 8, 2017 at 3:18 am
                Some people say that what you rightly call his being"other-worldly about unilateral non-violence" was inspired by jainism, . Nevertheless there were jaina generals ...
            2. A
              Jul 8, 2017 at 1:06 am
              Is it true that India did not support Israel till now because of its vote bank politics and fear of alienating those working in Arab countries? Also from what I have read, the founders of our country Gandhi and Nehru were opposed to division based on religion. Hence they supported Palestine cause. But isn't the separation of India the best thing that has happened to us (except the unneccessary bloodshed and massacre after par ion)? If Pakistan was part of India, our country would have never developed and probably be under civil war and dictatorship. What is morally correct may not always practically be in the best interest of our country and Israel's case is just that. Indian government did good by taking relations with Israel to the next level. But you cannot expect India to mediate a peace initiative in its very first high level delegation. Its status is different from US. India is now moving towards truly neutral stand on this issue and will eventually lead peace talks in future.
              1. M
                Jul 7, 2017 at 7:57 pm
                ‘Israel as the gift of the Arabs: Letter from Tel Aviv’ what a big joke, a gift they had to wrestle from people who only dream to throw them back in the sea (as they say), a case of advanced (if not final) progressist delirium, the kind we have in Europe where some feminist defend burqa ... same goes for the late Said, he simply denies in kind wording the right of Hebrews to their own Holy City, they have to share it nicely with invaders and if not be blamed.
                1. S
                  Seshubabu Kilambi
                  Jul 7, 2017 at 7:52 pm
                  US ' gifted' land by snatching from Palestine
                  1. M
                    Jul 7, 2017 at 8:17 pm
                    Maybe you don't now that "Palestine" and specially Jeru m is mostly the homeland of Jews ... and that it had also been for many centuries a Christian country before being taken over and converted by force (in the 13th century). The Palestine you possibly talk about was an artificial colonial en y carved out from the decaying Ottoman Empire by the Brits. The Us never gifted any land there.
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