Sheldon Schreter
Sheldon Schreter

A Berkeley Jewish Radical, Fifty Years Later

An old friend from my Berkeley days asked whether my political opinions and values had changed since we were students in the late 1960s and early 1970s. He was only asking for an accounting of how my entire life has played out, to what extent I have deviated from my earlier anti-war radical, “revolutionary” identity.  It would be easy to answer in clichés, especially as I believe my basic views have remained stable, but I will try going deeper.

I discarded many of the facile truths and slogans of my New Left persona while still fairly young. Revolution wasn’t happening anywhere, nor had so-called revolutions in Eastern Europe, China, Cuba, etc. worked out very well, by the criteria of human welfare and freedom. Revolutions had a tendency to eat their children. Universalism, as in the global siblinghood of all peoples, and in contradiction of the particularism and nationalism of specific people, was a hollow abstraction, much praised and rarely practiced, and easily amenable to justifying terrible persecution.

I came on aliya to Israel in 1976, and have lived here ever since, working in different fields, raising a family, serving as a reservist in the army, joining occasionally in demonstrations of Israel’s peace camp. I still show up twice a week to wave a flag at passing traffic in my local anti-Netanyahu demonstration. My intention was to participate in making Israel reflect the social justice ideals of the Biblical prophets and subsequent Jewish sages; and resolve its conflict with the Palestinians by creating two states for two nations. In doing so, I would also take part in redrawing the map of what it means to be Jewish.

Israel was to be the real-world test of Jewish ethics, the chance for Jews to demonstrate how – given at last the tools of sovereignty, of power over their own and others’ destinies – they would perform differently. The model society they would build, the relations they would undertake with their neighbours, would be more than exercises in the advancement of national interests by force. They would give concrete expression to the values of ethical monotheism, to the distinctively Jewish commitment to injecting justice into human relations. They would prove to the world and to ourselves that it is possible to wield power morally.

The Israeli society I encountered was a long way from ideal, but at least relations with our neighbours seemed to be improving. Advocating two states stopped being radical, and for a few short years – during the Oslo era of the mid 1990s – became commonplace. Then Yitzchak Rabin was assassinated, Benjamin Netanyahu won the subsequent election, and everything changed.

Israel did not deliver on such high, probably impossible expectations, and neither did I. Israel moved in an increasingly rightward direction socially and politically, its peace camp lost momentum through fading leadership and Arab rejectionism, and I became absorbed in my personal family and career concerns.

Sadly, more than 20 years later, these aspirations appear unrealistic and naïve. I still believe that the issues which preoccupied me then are important, and touch directly on the whole point of the Zionist endeavour. Having a point, having meaning, is not for us a luxury or conceit: it is a collective need built into our cultural DNA. Without an animating vision of transcendent integrity and morality, we risk losing the glue which keeps us together, in the fractious, hybrid society of Israel’s squabbling tribes. We are now in the midst of an election campaign in which these issues are ignored. The only thing which seems to matter is whether the long reign of the current Prime Minister will be extended or terminated.

So here I am, another discouraged liberal, without any sharply defined political home. My clearest impulse is to treasure freedom, which I once foolishly belittled as the “bourgeois civil liberties” smokescreen deployed by the establishment to obscure the true power distribution in society. Our lives would quickly degenerate into horror without those civil liberties, whose fragility requires robust vigilance and defense against the expanding demagoguery of our day. This is not to be confused with the extreme egoism of libertarianism, which perverts freedom into a resistance to all regulation, and an exaltation of human selfishness.

The other side of that coin is a fierce opposition to all forms of determinism, whether economic, psychological, genetic, racial, gender, or ideological. Of course no one is “free” of the influence of those factors on their consciousness and actions, but neither is anyone obliged to abdicate personal responsibility to them. To pretend that we have no meaningful choices is the ultimate cop-out, the denial of our humanity. Only a fool would argue that everyone has equal opportunity, because clearly they don’t, and morality demands that we act to remedy those inequalities. That is the essence of social justice, and its details will always be the subject of legitimate debate.

At the same time, the demand that equal opportunity as a goal be replaced by equality of results, that social engineering by group quotas become the standard of ethical behaviour, is a direct path to the suppression of freedom and to outright totalitarianism. George Orwell would instantly recognize that for what it is, as we find ourselves bullied by new orthodoxies of thought and language masquerading as human progress. If my Jewish radical background inoculated me against anything, it is against the mindless embrace of orthodoxies. Even when I imagined myself a budding Marxist, I knew that all of reality could not be compressed into the relations of production, except by distortion and intellectual violence.

Is all this one more self-justification of a privileged white male? Undoubtedly, some contemporary social commentators would dismiss it as such. That concerns me no more than the invective hurled at me and my friends when we opposed America’s war in Vietnam or advocated a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or insisted that freeing Soviet Jewry required an aggressive public campaign.

And when I look at my beloved adopted country, are cynicism or despair my only possible reactions? Zionism for me was the Jewish rebellion against an unbearable status quo, the rejection of determinism and victimhood, the affirmation of the right to self-determination. More than 70 years after independence, have we failed the test of wielding power differently, morally? Is anyone really concerned with such questions, or is the harsh challenge of physical survival the only source of meaning that we recognize? There are many among us for whom that message is their critical conclusion about the Shoah. They say: Before you can presume to be a light unto the nations, or even a faithful, creative heir to the culture and traditions of your people, you first have to be, period! Alive and secure! After that, talk to me about meaning.

That is compelling during your first 10 years, maybe even 20, and you can never be cavalier about Israel’s security challenges. It is a necessary posture, but not a sufficient one, especially not after Israel has developed into the strongest military force in the Middle East. The Iranian threat to Israel cannot be underestimated, but is not yet as urgent as it could become. It cannot in any case provide adequate answers to the questions about Israel’s purpose and meaning, nor obviate the need for such answers.

The Zionist founding fathers wanted to “normalize” the Jewish people, making their national, self-determined existence as natural and taken-for-granted as that of any other nation. The truth is that they wanted to normalize, but also to retain Jewish distinctiveness at the same time. How ironic that virtually no one’s national existence is taken for granted anymore. Humans need food, clothing and security – but also meaning, in their lives.

From their different directions, many Israelis of both the right and the left have concluded that it’s “game over” for the two-state solution, and that thinking otherwise is self-delusion. With respect, I disagree.

As far as the Jewish people is concerned, I don’t believe there is any other viable game. I don’t like the long-term odds on Diaspora Jewish life without a vibrant Jewish state. Nor do I like them for Israel’s survival, if we try to create a single bi-national state here. There is everything still to play for, to struggle for, and it’s not only to keep faith with our ancestors and our history. It is absolutely for our children and grandchildren.

The prognosis is not wonderful, but the alternatives are worse, which helps to swallow disappointment and keep going. It is obviously no longer the vulnerable certainties of my youth which keep me here, nor is it inertia. (I have options abroad.)  It is rather the nuanced conclusions of my life experience, my necessary, acquired tolerance of imperfections and inconsistencies in my people and in myself, and my inability and refusal ever to despair finally of the possibility of redemption.

About the Author
Born and raised in Montreal, Canada, studied at McGill, U. of California, Berkeley, and the London School of Economics, resident in Israel since 1976, former director of the WUJS Institute (Arad) and of the Israel-Diaspora Institute (Tel Aviv U.), involved in the Israeli plastics industry (former vice-president of ZAG Ltd.), now living in Ra'anana.
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