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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