Israel’s Existential Concerns Continue to be Unsettling Part-1

Jeffrey Goldberg reflects on Israel’s formative visions and current dilemmas in this thoughtful essay published in Atlantic monthly on Israel’s 60th anniversary. [We may not agree with Goldberg’s essay in its entirety but it is important to gain insights and perspective from the “other” side – Amad].

Part 1 | Part 2

The crux of this essay revolves around the concerns that Israelis continue to have about the very existence of the nation that they pride themselves on. While Goldberg alludes to the external threats posed by Iran, the essay seems to paint the real problem to be settlers, who pose an ever-growing threat to peace (emboldened by some in the American Jewish Diaspora) and by virtue of conflict, a threat to Israel’s very existence.

Jeffrey Goldberg takes us on a journey that looks at Israel from within; from the eyes of two influential men: Ehud Olmert, Israel’s current Prime-Minister and David Grossman, Israel’s famous writer. Goldberg is obviously very knowledgeable about the history of Israel as well as its current perils, and it is this knowledge that adds credibility to his thoughts and views. Goldberg tries to sort out the existential fears by asking:

Can the two men overcome the differences that separate them? Can Israel overcome its paralysis to make the hard choice necessary for its survival as a Jewish democracy?

The article starts off by revisiting the Israeli-Hezbollah conflict of 2006, and tracks Israeli public opinion on this war, which evolved from wide support (local and world) to doubt and opposition, especially against the ground-invasion. The battle that was supposed to be quick and “clean” turned into a disastrous loss, both in terms of military objectives and world opinion. It led to many Israelis becoming refugees in their own country, due to the barrage of rocket attacks from Hezbollah. Three of Israel’s most prominent writers: Amos Oz, A. B. Yehoshua, and David Grossman, held a press conference to call for a cease-fire a day after Olmert’s cabinet decided to invade.

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The story then shifts to the changing character of Olmert, a hawk turned centrist. Goldberg argues, and this theme is prevalent throughout the story, that this change of heart was:

“not moral but demographic: within the next several years, the number of Arabs under Israeli control—there are now more than 1.3 million Arab citizens of Israel (there are 5.4 million Jews), and an additional 3.4 million or more Arabs who live in the West Bank and Gaza—will be greater than the number of Jews. The Israeli demographer Sergio DellaPergola estimates that by 2020, Jews will make up just 47 percent of the people who live between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.”

Olmert, in a later interview, mentions that he would have loved to have shtay gadot, a reference to the two banks of Jordan. And he doesn’t call this dream immoral, but rather unrealistic…demographically. Olmert, like other left to center political parties in Israel are worried about turning into an apartheid state [some may argue that this is already the case]. This threat weighs heavily on Israelis. What is quite interesting is this constant state of existential fears that Israelis possess; one being driven by the fear of Iran [which can be considered excessive paranoid because not only does Iran not have nuclear weaponry, it would also not risk an attack that may well be suicidal], and the other being driven by a one-state solution.

A one-state solution, unlike pre-Mandela South Africa, would imply equal votes for its Arab citizens, and that too is a future that Israelis don’t want to see:

[If] the Arabs of the West Bank and Gaza were given the vote, then Israel, a country whose fundamental purpose has been to serve as a refuge for persecuted Jews, and to allow those Jews to have the novel experience of being part of a majority, would disappear, to be replaced by an Arab-dominated “binational” state.

The three writers, neither pacifists nor unpatriotic, initially supported the action against Hezbollah, though they had advocated territorial compromise for some time, a belief guided both by the desire to maintain a Jewish majority as well as the moral objection to occupation.

Oz was one of the first Israelis to warn about the moral and strategic consequences of military occupation, and in the late 1970s he was a founder of the left-wing group Peace Now, which advocates Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank. Yehoshua, who has been called the “Israeli Faulkner” by Harold Bloom, has repeatedly urged the United States to pull its ambassador as a “symbolic” way to protest the expansion of settlements in the West Bank.

Grossman made his name internationally with a book of nonfiction prophecy, The Yellow Wind, which he wrote (originally for an Israeli newsmagazine) in early 1987. The Yellow Wind was an exposé of the occupation and its demoralizing effects on Palestinians, and on the Israelis who enforced it.

Grossman urged his countrymen in a press conference to stop the familiar, instinctive, retaliation by force, “Force, in this case, will fan the flames of hatred for Israel in the region and the entire world, and may even, heaven forbid, create the situation that will bring upon us the next war and push the Middle East to an all-out, regional war.”

The article then shifts to Grossman, whose son, Uri, was part of the ground-invasion forces. Grossman talks to the author, Goldberg, about his thoughts for a novel, in which a mother has a premonition that her son, an Israeli soldier, will not return home, and how she deals with the potential tragedy by not wanting to be home to receive the news. Three days after the press-conference, the novel hits home. Uri dies on the battle-front, giving life to the novel that was still in Grossman’s thoughts. But Grossman did not stop writing:

The novel is being published this spring. It could have a seismic effect on Israelis, who have, in their 60th year of independence, grown tired of losing their sons to war.

Grossman’s existential fears only become magnified by his son’s death, and May 15, 2008, 60 years after the Jewish state was founded, is not a time of celebration for him, “Our army is big, we have this atom bomb, but the inner feeling is of absolute fragility, that all the time we are at the edge of the abyss.”

Goldberg then shifts into a discussion about the contradictory fears that Israelis have for their future: Israel is thriving by all standards of “nations” in its economy, culture, education, etc., with the author even calling Zionism the most successful national liberation movement of the 20th century because of its absorption of dispossessed and impoverished Jews that Israel has welcomed from the world over

Yet, the author argues that “60 years of independence have not provided Israel with legitimacy in its own region”, because externally it is seen as a “small Jewish island in the great sea of Islam”, and the fear of Iran rises again. Internally, Israel’s great military victory in 1967 led to an euphoria and arrogance that gave birth to “a squalid and seemingly endless occupation, and to the birth of a mystical, antidemocratic, and revanchist strain of Zionism, made manifest in the settlements of the West Bank.”

Goldberg describes the settlers, and rightfully so, as being outside the political consensus, having undermined Israel’s international legitimacy, demoralized Palestinians, and likely to stir another intifada. And the biggest problem? Israel’s elected government seems to be paralyzed about doing anything against them. Wars take their toll. While 94% of Israelis would be willing to fight for their country, about half of them are willing to jump ship to another country where they could find a better standard of living. This emigration of the “cream of the Jewish crop” from Israel is already occurring and is a constant worry for Israel’s leaders.

The death of Uri (Grossman’s son) provoked other existential questions about the future…about living next to Hamas, about its inability to defeat “small bands of rocketeers”, about the concentration of such a large number of Jews in a volatile, “small” space, harkening back to memories of the Holocaust.

One of the many contradictions Israel faces in its seventh decade of independence is this: it is a country that is safe for Judaism, but not for Jews.

Goldberg then talks about his own romanticism about the Israel-dream, of leaving America to join the Israeli army in the ‘80s. He recalls that one of his commanders wondered about that choice, and whether they might change places. Interestingly, many American Jews are still driven by this romanticism, rather than working towards peace.

Goldberg then discusses some interesting ideas from the founders of Zionism. They believed that Zionism would cure European hatred of Jews. The Russian Jew would leave the anti-Semitism of his homeland to become a “normal” person in Palestine, thereby earning the respect of Christians. More interesting still, the Muslims were never part of that equation.

Wrap-up in Part 2

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10 responses to “Israel’s Existential Concerns Continue to be Unsettling Part-1”

  1. Dawud Israel says:

    Grossman’s existential fears only become magnified by his son’s death, and May 15, 2008, 60 years after the Jewish state was founded, is not a time of celebration for him, “Our army is big, we have this atom bomb, but the inner feeling is of absolute fragility, that all the time we are at the edge of the abyss.”

    Yet, the author argues that “60 years of independence have not provided Israel with legitimacy in its own region”, because externally it is seen as a “small Jewish island in the great sea of Islam”, and the fear of Iran rises again. Internally, Israel’s great military victory in 1967 led to an euphoria and arrogance that gave birth to “a squalid and seemingly endless occupation, and to the birth of a mystical, antidemocratic, and revanchist strain of Zionism, made manifest in the settlements of the West Bank.”

    Man I really pity the Jews. Muslims have such a low self esteem of ourselves we never realized that there were others out there more morally disenfranchised and confused than us. They try so hard to hold onto all that they are as Jews and they lose it all so quickly. You can tell they are really struggling to make it. How badly has Allah cursed them!

    I think there are a number of things we can learn from this:

    1) How to hold onto your religious/ethnic identity as it slowly slips away…the Israelis are really grasping to hold onto their tradition and their horrendous actions show this desperation and paranoid fear of losing it all. You can really see how much Allah has blessed us that after 1400 years we still maintain that sense of Islamic belonging and practice…subhana Allah it’s almost supernatural–no wonder they envy and hate us. How much has He given us and how little has He given them!

    2) How to establish a state with religion as it’s backing. One day, we Muslims will have to re-establish our State and whenever that is–we have an example in the Jews to see how to (not) do it.

    Looking forward to the next article on this. Nice change from the regular Israel bashing. (Israel is the name of Prophet Yaqub alayhi salam, so when we curse Israel, it is as if we are cursing one of the Prophets of Allah).

  2. Jazzak Allaahu Khayr for calling attention to this issue.

    This is something about which I really yearn for some scholarly clarification. What should be the desired outcome of the situation for us as Muslims.

    Much of the “progressive” Israeli argument in favor of a more just arrangment for the Palestinians is based on the notion that if one does not do a deal with the Palestinians now at some point in the future it will be impossible to get a two state deal because Palestinians will outnumber Israelis and will simply ask to be given full rights in the Israeli state. It is only relatively recently that Palestinian activists and leadership were willing to accept a two state solution and now many secular activists have already gone beyond that and are back to advocating a one state solution (with that one state being a binational democracy). There is almost no constituency for that solution in the Israeli community because it would raise so sharply the identity issues, some of which are discussed in this article. At the same time, rightwing Israelis believe that military force and the unquestioning support of the United States on the global stage will be enough to maintain whatever position it is that they think they maintain now in terms of their security as a state.

    Obviously amongst the Islamic activists as represented by Hamas, there has been continuing recent signs that they will be willing to accept a two state deal although there is a definite reluctance to state this clearly. At the end of the day, Hamas is a political party and its position, while informed by its Islamic values (I don’t want to get into a discussion here about the Islamicity of Hamas) is a political position based on other factors as well.

    Are there Islamic scholarly opinions justifying a negotiated two state solution? Are there Islamic scholarly opinions justifying a one state binational democratic solution? Is whatever a legitimate representative of the Palestinian people agrees to therefore valid and acceptable? I am familiar with Islamic opinions and rulings which would clearly advocate that the whole of the territory should be retaken, at least eventually. Without agreeing or disagreeing with those opinions, I am trying to get a sense of other Islamic scholarly opinions out there.

    I understand that Israelis want a Jewish state. As long as it wasn’t on occupied or stolen Muslim land, there is no reason why this would pose any problem for us as Muslims.

  3. One phenomenon which is really unsettling in the whole Israeli/Palestinian issue, especially as a Muslim here in the United States is that almost all religiously observant Jews are rightwing in their views on Israel and most Jews with views more sympathetic to justice for the Palestinians are secular in outlook.

    Obviously the most publicized exception to this is Neturei Karta, but it is a small and unrepresentative group.

    Along those lines, I have found it very interesting to read the blog South Jerusalem (, which features politically progressive but religiously orthodox perspective from the Israeli side. Especially valuable are the contributions of Gershom Gorenberg at this blog.

  4. Miako says:

    I am religious, and I am Jewish.

    In 1948, a single state solution would have been best. I firmly believe that, and I believe it would have led to much much less bloodshed.

    However, I do not see a single state solution as being the best outcome at the moment. Sadly, nationalism has corrupted both the Israeli and Palestinian soul.

    Now there is an interesting thought, something more like a Confederacy, or Federalism, where there can still be an Israel, and a Palestine, within one larger functioning state.

  5. Amad says:

    Thanks Miako for your perspectives.

    As for your last point, what the author of the article seems to be arguing, is that a federalist state, if represented by population, will be then Arab dominated. And if represented by states, will have at least equal power. Either situation will be unacceptable to the idea that most Jews have about the state of their State.

  6. […] among Jewish settlers, and Jeffrey Goldberg describes the dialogues within Israel about the existential concerns of Israel and how the hawkish influence is actually strengthening this fear, it seems that the debate in […]

  7. […] Jeffrey Goldberg (I reviewed his Atlantic Monthly article on Israel here: Part 1 | Part 2) , the moderator, couldn’t quite keep the discussion impartial (though he does try […]

  8. Miako says:

    If we have an Israel, and an Arabic Palestine — but we have a larger entity, like that of the European Union… then both sides can be satisfied equally, perhaps. Jews will be able to have a place to be Jewish, Muslims will have a place to be Muslim — and, hopefully, they could share in what will need to be shared for either state to function effectively (security issues, mainly).
    It’s just an idea…

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