A Reluctant Zionist

Socrates once wrote, “When the debate is lost, slander becomes the tool of the loser”. I do hope, therefore, that just because I’m a goy and after all, what do they know, any commenters might like to keep this in mind. Cut the new kid on the block a little slack.

If the two words aren’t mutually exclusive, I might describe myself as a hasbara apologist where the usual Western media driven narrative is aggressively pro-Palestinian and those not subscribing to it are living in a sloppily educated haze of revisionist history, blurred right-wing thinking and worse, fuzzy spirituality. When I worked in Jerusalem, one of the reasons why I felt so much at home was because, underneath a carapace of other, probably muddled and barely credible views, I found myself a reluctant Zionist and, what’s more, that was OK, which came as something of a relief.

Actually admitting to ownership of the Z word in France, where I live, among the liberal, left-leaning intelligentsia is considered childishly naïve at best and socially suicidal at worst. Please don’t think that I favor the front-row demonstrator, red-rag-to-a-bull Zionism, but a simple declaration rarely covers all the facts. There seem to be quite a few flavors, each waving a slightly different political flag, from Labor Zionism to Green Zionism, even Post-Zionism, all of which carry specific meaning to their adherents and have hardened into principles that they are then obliged to defend. Some are pilloried for espousing empire, colonialism, nationalism, militarism and plenty of other isms whose implementation usually ends in tears.

My flavor is relatively simple and inclusive. Whether I like it or not, the contract for the Chosen People was awarded to the inhabitants of a funny little place on the eastern shores of the sea, or so it tells me in the first few books of my Bible. Nobody else came along with a better offer, nobody decided after a few hundred years that the contract was up for renewal, it had no expiry date and as far as I can see, it is still in force. Furthermore, strangers and vagabonds could be included. Why should that matter to someone like me? Because, when I see anti-Zionism – after all, in Europe it’s hard to miss – I also see the other ugly sister, anti-Semitism.

I think the Yehudi tribe are the smartest people on the planet – forget the Jewish gene of any of that other stuff about bookish culture and what happens on Shabbat – they seem to have been blessed, or more probably cursed with analytical, even critical faculties that allow a lot of them to think outside of the box more efficiently than most of the rest of us. Endless arguments exist for why this might be so – national characteristics are developed from a unique crucible of history, shaped in this case by a very specific belief system resulting in ‘goy ehad b’aretz’.

One Nobel laureate, Robert Aumann, (economics, 2005) did make the unforgivable suggestion, however. In a radio interview in 2013, he said:

“Torah study is an intellectual pursuit, and honoring this ultimate value transfers to other pursuits as well….. Jewish homes have overflowing bookshelves.. Throughout the generations we have given great honor to this intellectual pursuit…Torah study makes the nation and its people of the finest and highest quality.”

So, that’s it? Reading and studying Scripture? Could it possibly be that simple, and yet so demanding? Let me be clear. I don’t think Dr Aumann was referring to the dismayingly large numbers who elect to study in exclusive yeshivot rather than complete a broad, balanced secular high school curriculum, get a degree, get a job, etc. I think he meant the kind with whom I came most frequently in contact, well-educated, curious and thoughtful people who happened to be devoutly Jewish.

I got to meet a number of other people too, churchy types, whose worldview was circumscribed by a quite linear interpretation of the Scriptures, as if it were somehow sacrilegious or worse, in bad taste, to argue about their meaning. No such scruples for the Jews. They set about dismembering flawed logic and fuzzy reasoning with all the vigor of scores of generations who argued with G_d. It might be that it is this that gives them the edge intellectually but wrestling with angels has a price. It is said that where you have one Jew, you have an opinion. Where there are two, an argument. Three, you have a synagogue. Contending with the Creator of the Universe, it seems, has the great merit of sharpening the mind. Oh, dear. Howls of protest, but it’s just an observation. This being so, the rest of the world gangs up on Teacher’s Pet and seeks all and any means to bring him down, after all, everybody hates a smartass. What I’m saying is at some deeply buried level, it would seem, the rest of the world hates the Jews because they got picked to captain the team and they didn’t.

But, I haven’t answered my own question. Since I’m not Semitic, or Jewish, Israeli, Arab or whatever, why the hell does it concern me? Because, I get to play on the team too. I hate the word “Christian”, the residents of Antioch used it as a jeeringly ribald term of abuse – but if I have to get labeled, so be it, and by no means all of us buy into the arrogance of supersessionism. One of many messiahs spoke a few words to a ragged collection of people living under occupation, did a few miracles, that sort of thing, and two thousand years later, what he had to say still carries some weight, at least with people like me. We get a little milk and honey too. Also, the folk that seem to hate the Yehudi the most are the live-next-doors, the also-rans, the Ishmaelites. Well, what else would you like me to call them? Were Ha-Shem ever to volunteer an opinion, He’d probably murmur that both brothers were of equal value in His sight – even Jesus had something to say about two brothers who went their separate ways.

Every culture has its own set of unwritten rules when dealing with strangers. For me, I liked being around Jews. They looked at me curiously in the street, holding my gaze for longer. The women poked around inside my house when invited in for a drink, their children bouncing up and down on my bed. They taught me how little I know about my own faith, its roots, rituals and practices, hence how much I still have to learn. I was forgiven for saying “we” when I really meant “they” – apparently it’s a normative Jewish worldview, according to Jonathan Sacks, to view oneself as a part of the “we-thou” collective. They told jokes that I almost, but not quite, understood. They reassured me that kvetching is OK. They were challenging, amusing, serious, and passionate, they forced me to crawl out of my own hard shell of prejudice and lack of clarity and actually think for myself.

About the Author
John MacArthur is a retired teacher, living in Paris, a wild olive branch, reluctantly grafted. He doesn't much like the idea of 'belonging' anywhere but Israel is the place he feels most at home.