Israel, the Will and Promise

Israel: The Will to Prevail
By Danny Danon
Palgrave Macmillan, 240 pages

The Promise of Israel: Why Its Seemingly Greatest Weakness Is Actually Its Greatest Strength
By Daniel Gordis
Wiley, 256 pages

If you do not recognize Danny Danon’s name, you would probably recognize his face.

You will have seen him talking on Fox News or at a pro-Israel rally in New York, or giving a speech to a conservative group in Washington, D.C. Danon is a deputy speaker of the Israeli Knesset, a member of Benjamin Netanyahu’s ruling Likud party, and a rising star of the Israeli right. Danon locates himself within a new generation disenchanted with “land for peace” and the grand promises of the left. He has written Israel: The Will to Prevail to set out his vision of a new Israeli nationalism based on national self-interest, territorial expansion, and renewed political confidence.

Danon’s three-part book offers a thesis that will offend liberals, another that will offend conservatives, and a third that will cause people of all ideological persuasions to arch an eyebrow. First, he contends that the Arab Spring is not the dawn of an Islamic Zeitalter der Aufklärung but a Zeitalter der Finsternis, the eclipse of the forces of liberalism, already beleaguered by the specter of Islamist reaction. This is no longer a marginal viewpoint after the events in Benghazi and Cairo, but Danon espoused it even in the early days when the uprisings were heralded by liberal opinion as the birth of modern Arab democracy.

Before the right-leaning reader settles in, Danon throws a curveball: The U.S.-Israel alliance, although a beneficial relationship in his view, has fallen off-kilter and must be recalibrated. “Throughout its history, Israel has conducted its affairs with the aim of pleasing—or at least not offending—its strongest partner and closest ally,” he writes. Danon contends that tension has always permeated the alliance, and he gives us a long, detailed (too long and too detailed) exegesis on the prevarications of Truman, the apathy of Eisenhower, and the bitter fallout from the bombing of the Osirak nuclear reactor. He dedicates very little time to the strengths of the alliance, such as the United States’s financial and diplomatic backing of the Jewish state or the thread of civilization that stretches from Jerusalem to Washington through the hostile terrain of a world rising against the West. So when Danon asserts that “history shows that when we act on our own, according to our own best interests, the results are better not only for Israel, but for world peace as a whole,” his analysis is not wrong, but it is incomplete.

In the final third of the book, Danon sets out his stall as a future leader of the Likud in the form of a radical alternative to the two-state solution. Surveying the sclerotic peace process, and drawing on biblical, historical, and legal claims, Danon advocates the “three-state solution,” which would see Israel apply sovereignty to the Jewish communities of Judea and Samaria and sign accords with Egypt to annex Gaza and Jordan to take responsibility for the remaining West Bank Palestinians. There would be, in short, no Palestinian state. This is an outrage to supporters of the two-state solution but also a heavy concession from a politician who models himself ideologically on Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the Revisionist Zionist leader who proclaimed the credo of Greater Israel: Shtei gadot la’Yarden—zo shelanu, zo gam ken (“Two banks has the Jordan—this is ours, that is too”). Quite why Israel’s Arab neighbors would agree to this plan or what would happen if the Palestinians insisted on statehood or how Danon plans to overcome the Israeli public’s support for the two-state solution are among the many details he never addresses. There are a number of cogent and developed proposals offered by those Israeli right-wingers opposed to a Palestinian state. Danon’s notion—and that is all it appears to be—is not one of them.

Danon is a canny politician who has forged ties with American evangelical leaders and set himself up as the figurehead-in-waiting of Israel’s notoriously fractious national camp. He is, to adapt a phrase, a “compassionate Likudnik,” emerging as an unlikely champion of Ethiopian Jews and addressing with sensitivity the endemic social problems facing that community. It is regrettable, then, that many Americans will have their first encounter with this thoughtful leader through a starchily written book that disappoints with its lack of nuance and insight. Danon may one day lead his party and even his country, but only if he grasps the centrality of the U.S.-Israel alliance to Israel’s well-being and to the physical and moral defense of Western civilization. Without this alliance, Israel would be alone in a much starker way than Danon envisions.

Israel alone, in another sense, is the theme of The Promise of Israel, the latest from Daniel Gordis, a scholar and theologian who writes about Judaism and Israel with rare fluidity and keen analysis. Occasionally, a book comes along that uproots our entrenched assumptions and causes us to look at something in a new way. This year, that book was supposed to be The Crisis of Zionism, by the self-conceived dauphin of Jewish not-in-my-nameism, Peter Beinart. Beinart’s effort, however, seethed with resentment and juvenile self-righteousness, an attempt to universalize his own growing detachment from Israel as a Diaspora-wide rift.

Gordis’s book is everything Beinart’s was meant to be. It hands us a new frame through which to view Israel, but instead of a despairing tome, Gordis offers a reinterpretation of Israel’s situation, one in which the Jewish state’s purported flaws become essential elements of its “differentness.” The contempt for Israel among international elites may speak the language of humanitarianism, pro-Palestinianism, or even anti-Semitism, but the roots lie in a liberal universalism that cannot explain and so seeks to demonize Israeli exceptionalism. Israel is an affront to the received wisdom of postmodern political theory, an ethnic nation-state that flourishes in an era when ethnicity and nationalism were supposed to have made way for globalized multiculturalism. Some readers will already be shifting uncomfortably at the invocation of the dreaded e-word (ethnicity), and Gordis shares his own ambivalence toward the concept. “The idea of a state for a particular ethnicity strikes many people as problematic, immoral, and contrary to the progress that humanity has made in recent decades,” he admits. “It sounds racist, bigoted, or oppressive of minorities.”

However, instead of retreating to the familiar liberal-Zionist comfort zone of Israel’s stellar record on women’s equality, gay rights, freedom of the press—all true, all laudable—Gordis touts Israel’s ethnic particularism as fundamental to Jewish identity. “From the very outset, Jews saw part of their purpose as being different, as having something to say that the rest of the world ought to hear,” he reminds the reader. “In a world without difference, the very point of Jewishness would be lost.” Moreover, a nation-state organized around the history, culture, and political symbology of a specific ethno-religious group is a guarantor of a particular brand of freedom, “the opportunity to take the culture that our ancestors nurtured and then bequeathed and to cultivate it further in order to pass it on again, to our own children.”

The promise of Israel, then, is the redemption of the ethnic nation-state as a liberation from the universalist dream of borderless cultural conformity promised by the United Nations, the European Union, and their partisans. “What Europe’s elites seek to do is deny who we are,” Gordis maintains. “What Zionism seeks to do is recover who we are.” And pointing to the (imperfect) equality enjoyed by Israel’s 1.5 million Arabs, he contends that the Israeli model offers real diversity rather than the plastic pluralism of crumbling post-national European societies:

The particularism at the heart of Israel, the belief in the importance of preserving distinct ethnicities as a means of preserving human dignity and freedom, is so central to Israel that it extends to the other peoples who live there as well.

Thus Zionism becomes not just a movement for Jewish national rights but a rear-guard action against cultural relativism and the self-immolation of the West.

He argues, contentiously, that the Palestinians, once in possession of a state, could adopt the Israeli model and forge a polity that blends Islamic traditions with liberalism, pluralism, and tolerance—a light unto the Arab nations. But here he overreaches, declaring that a complete embrace of Zionism demands that Jews support the founding of a Palestinian state:

We will know that Zionism has succeeded in shaping Jewish identity and intellectual commitment when Israel’s most passionate defenders also understand that if Jews deserve a chance at the self-expression that sovereignty affords, so too do other peoples, including the Palestinians.

There are good reasons for supporting the establishment of a Palestinian state, but to number among them the fulfillment of Zionist ideals is not to expand that concept but to strip it of all sensible meaning.

“There is a cost to ‘making it’ in America, and it is often a painful one,” Gordis asserts, grabbing unapologetically at the third rail of Jewish-American identity: the dichotomy of two promised lands, captured simply but evocatively in Uzi Hitman’s pop lyric Eretz Yisrael hi Amerikah sheli (“The Land of Israel Is My America”). He is talking about the cultural compromises Jews must make to live in a secular, multi-ethnic melting pot, but, as Gordis knows, there are also costs to making aliyah—a religious “stepping up” often mirrored by a financial step down, but also a cost in losing the link to one’s country of birth. When Gordis claims that even the United States cannot provide the “sense of belonging” offered by “one’s ancestral homeland,” he fails to note that moving to the land of one’s forefathers and foremothers means leaving behind the land of one’s biological father and mother. Heritage matters, but there are other forms of heritage than just ethnicity, and, to many American Jews at least, “to be a free people in our land” need not refer only to the land of Israel.

Gordis’s work is a small book with a big idea, and he should be commended for that. The public discourse is wanting for big ideas, particularly on Israel and Jewish identity, so much so that we’ve come to settle for gimmicky contrarianism and those flashy covers and snappy titles by up-and-coming tenure-seekers with a funny anecdote for Charlie Rose and little else. The Promise of Israel tells us that we need not settle; that moral and political debate can engage while aiming for something higher; that a popular philosophy is still possible. The challenge for Zionists has always been to interweave the three strands of Zionism: Am Israel, Eretz Israel, Medinat Israel—the people, the land, and the state. Daniel Gordis, in his challenging and compelling, frustrating and inspiring book, comes closer to achieving this union than has any writer in recent times.

Originally published in CommentaryFeature image © Sasson Tiram by Creative Commons 2.5.

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