Imagine that a person from somewhere else in the world came up to you and said, “I don’t really know anything about America. I’ve heard that it’s an extraordinary republic, but I want to understand what it’s all about. Tell me.” And then imagine that you replied to them, “Oh, America’s truly an exceptional country. There was a War of Independence in 1776, then the War of 1812, then there was a Civil War from 1861-1865, then the First World War, then the Second World War, then there was Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. You see? America’s amazing.”
That would obviously be a ludicrous response (and not only because you’d have omitted numerous wars). That “introduction” to America tells your interlocutor absolutely nothing about why the United State was created, what were the (sometimes competing) dreams of its founders, what have been its greatest accomplishments and its most damning failures, what its people hope for. It would in all likelihood make our imaginary visitor have no further interest in America. “That’s the United States?” s/he might ask. “It’s all wars? That’s all there is?”
Now, before you say, “Well, no one in their right mind would answer that question that way,” keep in mind that that’s precisely how we teach Israel in the Diaspora. Though the right and left teach Israel’s conflict – first with neighboring Arab countries and now with the Palestinians – through different lenses, in the end, conflict is what they both teach. We might not like to admit it, but it’s true: conflict is the mainstay of the Israel-conversations to which we expose our kids and students. In some way, shape, manner or form, when we talk about Israel, we essentially talk only about war.
The conversation comes in many disguises. The two-state solution is dead. Or it’s not. Palestinian refugees. Right of return. Obama was good for Israel. Or bad. Trump is good for Israel. Or bad. Biden would make aid to Israel contingent. Or he won’t. J-Street is in the tent. Or it’s out. AIPAC. BDS. Rashida Tlaib. Ilhan Omar. Annexation is long overdue; or annexation will make Israel an Apartheid state. Israel will be able to stop Iran (about which we opine without the benefit of any real information). Or it won’t.
There is a never-ending list of permutations, but all of them have one thing in common — they are all conversations in which Israel’s enemies are either explicitly or implicitly the central issue we think about when we think about Israel. “What We Talk About When We Talk about Israel” is conflict, and really, only conflict; and that is not all that different from our ridiculous answer to our imaginary questioner.
I’ve been thinking more about the way we speak about Israel in the Diaspora ever since the North American Jewish comedian and filmmaker, Seth Rogen, said in a podcast promoting his new movie that Israel’s existence doesn’t make sense to him. Israel’s just a dumb bet if what we’re trying to do is to preserve the Jewish people, he believes; “it makes no sense, because again, you don’t keep something you’re trying to preserve all in one place – especially when that place is proven to be pretty volatile, you know? I’m trying to keep all these things safe, I’m gonna put them in my blender and hope that that’s the best place… that’ll do it.”
Assuming that the Jewish education that Rogen received wasn’t that different from ours or that of our children (even those who went to excellent Jewish high schools, by the way), Rogen’s comment is eminently understandable. If we’re taught that Israel is about keeping the Jews safe (especially after the Shoah) but we also teach that Israel is constantly under attack, how much sense does Israel really make? If we’re honest about how we teach our kids, it’s hard not to feel badly for Rogen and the hot water in which he found himself.
Let’s return to our imaginary interlocutor about America. What would we have to mention if we were going to give a thoughtful answer? Something about liberty, the inalienable value of the individual, democracy (“taxation and representation”). There are texts we’d have to mention, such as the Declaration of Independence, the Federalist papers, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights (and the young Lincoln’s Lyceum Address if we wanted to get fancy). And ideas, rugged individualism and American exceptionalism among them. There are plenty of unresolved issues to which we would hopefully point, such as the tension between the power of the federal government and states’ rights (if either high school or Broadway taught us anything about them, we could toss Hamilton and Jefferson into that mix for good effect), the horrific scourges of slavery and racism that have stained American since even before it was created – and more.
None of this, though, has anything to do with America’s enemies, even though, according to some estimates, “in its 242-year history, America has enjoyed only 16 years of peace, making it, ‘the most warlike nation in the history of the world.’” America’s wars matter and its enemies have been (and are) real, but we do know how to tell the story of America without once mentioning its foes.
So try this thought experiment: tell the story of the rise of Zionism in Europe and continue with Israel, and don’t mention Israel’s enemies or its wars. There’s a lot we’d have to leave out, obviously, and the story would be far from complete – but would we know how to tell such a story? What are the important texts we would include? The Declaration of Independence – what does it say, and why? Some of Israel’s Basic Laws? Which, and why? What were the important ideological disagreements among Israel’s founders? About what did Ahad Ha’am and Herzl disagree so vehemently? What were the core values of Revisionist Zionism, created by Jabotinsky, inherited by Begin and now (he says) continued by Netanyahu (even though that claim makes a farce of Revisionism)? Who were and are the public intellectuals who have most shaped Israel? What did they say and what sort of Israel did they envision?
Few us of know how to have that conversation. I grew up in the home of passionate, fluent-Hebrew-speaking parents who took us all on aliyah in 1969 (we only stayed a couple of years), and our parents took seriously responsibility to teach us about Israel. But even they didn’t come close to preparing us for a conversation like the one above. So where does that leave the many people who did not have the privilege of having such deeply Jewishly educated and passionately committed parents?
Which is why, frankly, I completely understood why Seth Rogen said what he said. He was essentially repeating what he was taught, while adding (though he was intentionally being edgy in order to garner attention for his movie) that what he had been taught didn’t make that much sense to him. When the stuff hit the fan after his podcast, I actually felt bad kind of bad for him.
Then, of course, came the proverbial skeleton in the closet; as Rogen put it in the podcast, “I also think that as a Jewish person I was fed a huge amount of lies about Israel my entire life! They never tell you that, ‘oh, by the way, there were people there.’ They make it seem like it was just like sitting there, like the … door’s open! … They forget to include the fact to every young Jewish person.”
Rogen walked the tone back a bit in an interview with Ha’Aretz:
“There was just an abandoned desert here and the Jews came and built a country”? That’s what you were told?
Essentially, yeah. That’s what me and many people I know were told. And again, all I am attacking there is the education I was given about it. And I talked to my parents about it actually just yesterday and I was like, ‘Do you feel that what we were given … was a complete story?’ And they said ‘No. Looking back, at the time, you were given a less complex view of the situation than maybe you could have been given. … And I understand how it’s uncomfortable for some people to hear me say that I was not given that education.
Isn’t Rogen right here, too? Isn’t it in fact that case that many young, progressive (and non-progressive) Jews feel that they were raised on what one American Jewish historian has called “the story of Israel’s unsurpassed virtue with precious little mention of the native Palestinian population”? Even among those who received a robust Jewish education, how much time did they spend discussing what happened to the Arabs of Palestine during Israel’s War of Independence?
I’ve never understood the logic of that silence. Do we expect that they will get to college and not hear the Palestinian narrative? Do we want help them think about what the Palestinians call the “Nakba” while we’re still around? Or do we prefer to hope that we can pump them up with enough enthusiasm about Israel so that no matter what they hear, they’ll somehow stay attached to the Jewish state? Don’t we wish that Seth Rogen had had what to say when he was confronted with a different narrative about 1948?
Yet we’ve shut down that conversation completely. Mere mention of the word “Nakba” in some Jewish circles is treif. That’s the word that indicates that “you’ve gone to the dark side.” What I’ve never understood is why. The word nakba means “catastrophe” in Arabic (you can hear it in lots of the videos of Lebanese citizens in Beirut in the hours following the recent explosion there). So, what is the problem with that word? According to the 1947 report of the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP), the Arab population of Palestine in 1945 was 1,237,000. (The Jews numbered some 608,000.) Assuming that some 700,000 Palestinians were forced to leave flee, some 60% of Palestine’s Arabs lost their homes during the War. For them, that’s not a catastrophe?
When we refuse to discuss that human tragedy (does anyone really think that committed Jewishness asks of us is that we deny human tragedy?), we also rob ourselves of the opportunity to explain how complex the situation was. When we refuse to engage, we squander the opportunity to teach that in 1937, when the British Peel Commission advocated dividing Palestine into an Arab state and a tiny Jewish state (Peel also suggested population transfers, since it was clear to the commission that the two populations could not live together), the Jews were livid at the map that Peel suggested, yet agreed. But the Arabs turned it down.
Then, in 1947, came the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) Partition Plan. In some ways, this was a “better deal” for the Jews in Palestine. Peel had proposed 20 percent of Palestine west of the Jordan for the Jews, and 80% for the Arabs. UNSCOP, on the other hand, proposed 55% for the Jews and 45% for the Arabs (though much of the land assigned to the Jews was desert).
Yet for the Jews, UNSCOP’s plan was still very problematic. The Jewish state that UNSCOP proposed would have 498,000 Jews and 407,000 Arabs (Jews would have constituted a mere 55% of the population, a balance that could never have been sustained). The Arab state would be home to 725,000 Arabs and a mere 10,000 Jews. Given the differential in Jewish and Arab birthrates and the ease with which additional Arabs could have been convinced to move to the area from surrounding countries, had the Arabs accepted UNSCOP’s recommendations, all of Palestine might have well been theirs in a generation. But that was not the route they chose. Just as had happened after Peel, the Jewish Agency accepted UNSCOP’s recommendations, while the Arab Higher Committee rejected them outright.
Then Israel declared independence in May 1948, and five Arab countries (including Iraq, which didn’t even share a border with the new state) declared war and attacked. They declared that they would not tolerate a Jewish state of any size; given the decades of fighting between the two populations, it was also clear that any Jews they captured were likely to be butchered. They had rejected a two-state solution, had declared war, and the Jews were a minority of the population in Palestine. What was Ben-Gurion to do? Create a country in which a Jewish minority ruled a Palestinian majority (that is apartheid)? Give up on the Zionist dream (three years after Auschwitz, during which the United States and Canada had closed their borders to Jews) and accept Jewish defeat? Or make sure that since the Arabs had rejected UNSCOP and had declared war, that after two thousand years, the Jews would have a sovereign state in which they would be the majority?
Israeli historian Benny Morris, by no means one of Israel’s right-wing historians (to put matters mildly), said this in an interview to Haaretz years ago:
Ben-Gurion was a transferist. He understood that there could be no Jewish state with a large and hostile Arab minority in its midst. There would be no such state. It would not be able to exist. … Ben-Gurion was right. If he had not done what he did, a state would not have come into being. That has to be clear. It is impossible to evade it. Without the uprooting of the Palestinians, a Jewish state would not have arisen here. … [I]n certain conditions, expulsion is not a war crime. I don’t think that the expulsions of 1948 were war crimes. … A society that aims to kill you forces you to destroy it. When the choice is between destroying or being destroyed, it’s better to destroy.
Now, Morris certainly does not approve of everything that Ben-Gurion and the newly founded state did in 1948, and anyone is free to rebut Morris. But Professor Morris is an example of how a conversation can be had in which moderate, thoroughly decent humans beings both acknowledge that 1948 was a catastrophe for the Palestinians and insist that the Jews had little choice. Whether we agree with him or disagree, though — and before doing either, it would be wise to read a few books about that war — why don’t we at least have that conversation? What would have happened if Seth Rogen had been exposed to an argument like Morris’? Might he have developed different sentiments about the Jewish state?
I think he deserved the chance — but we never gave it to him.
Seth Rogen, of course, is not really the issue. The issue is a generation of young North American Jews who hear about the Palestinian refugee problem caused by the 1948 war, are angered that they were never told about it before, can’t begin to imagine that any such action could be defensible, and thus become hostile to Israel. All because we refused to take them and their intelligence seriously.
In 1962, there was a heated Knesset debate about Robert Soblen, an American who spied for Russia, who had illegally fled to Israel and whom PM Ben-Gurion had surreptitiously evicted from Israel and returned to the US without due process. Menachem Begin, then head of the opposition, was appalled. He assailed Ben-Gurion and said that Israel had had nothing to hide and could have told the Americans to wait a few days. He took to the rostrum and asked Ben-Gurion, “Of what were we embarrassed? Of whom were we afraid?”
It was a good question then, and it’s a good question now. In too many ways to count, as the recent brouhaha over Seth Rogen’s podcast shows, we’re losing the battle for the Zionist commitments of young North American Jews. They think we’re lying to them, that we have something to hide. They resent us, and they then resent and often abandon the state we would like them to love.
So why not be honest with them? Why not teach about Israel with the same sophistication that AP American History teaches them about America? Instead of teaching about conflict, why not teach the profound ideas about peoplehood, history, civilization and Jewish culture pulsing through the veins of Zionism and Israel? Instead of avoiding a conversation about 1948, why not teach what happened, with all the complexity we can muster? It’s what young Jews would want, if we asked them, and it’s what they have a right to.
And it might help us turn the tide with a generation of young people whose devotion we should still hope to earn. As Menachem Begin might have asked were he alive today, “Of what are we embarrassed? Of what are we afraid?”