Analysis from Israel

When an acclaimed historian says he sees a terrifying historical pattern repeating itself, he deserves to be taken seriously. And Benny Morris is assuredly one of Israel’s most famous historians. Unfortunately, his warning is unlikely to be seen by many, since it’s buried at the end of a somewhat tedious book review. And it’s liable to be ignored by those who need to hear it most.

Morris reviewed Patrick Tyler’s Fortress Israel: The Inside Story of the Military Elite Who Run the Country–and Why They Can’t Make Peace for the summer issue of the Jewish Review of Books. Most of the almost 5,000-word review was devoted to detailing Tyler’s numerous egregious errors and showing how they undermine his conclusions. But by itself, Morris wrote, Tyler’s spurious history would be insignificant. What makes it noteworthy is that it’s part of a much larger trend:

Fortress Israel is just the latest in a spate of venomous perversions of the record that have appeared in the past few years in the United States and Britain, all clearly designed to subvert Israel’s standing in the world. Deliberately or not, such books and articles are paving the way for a future abandonment of the Jewish state.

I am reminded of the spate of books and articles that appeared in Western Europe in 1936 through 1938 repudiating the legitimacy of the newly formed Czechoslovakia before its sacrifice to the Nazi wolves. In 1934, the Conservative weekly Truth hailed Czechoslovakia as “the sole successful experiment in liberal democracy that has emerged from the post-War settlement.” By the end of 1936, The Observer was writing it off as “a diplomatic creation with no sufficient national basis either in geography or race.” By March 1938 The New Statesman, in the past a great friend to central Europe’s only democracy, was writing: “We should urge the Czechs to cede the German-speaking part of their territory to Hitler without more ado.” Of course, as all understood, this meant leaving Czechoslovakia defenseless. Hitler conquered the rump of the country a few months later without a shot. The appeasement of the Arab-Islamist world at Israel’s expense is in the air and Tyler is one of its (very, very) minor harbingers.

Reasonable people can disagree about how we should deal with this dangerous trend. But the first step is to recognize that it exists: that we’ve seen this historical pattern before, and it has deadly real-world consequences.

Unfortunately, Morris today is persona non grata with many of the people who most need to hear this warning. For years, he was a hero of the self-described “peace camp,” due both to his role as a leading “new historian” who challenged accepted Israeli historiography (he catapulted to fame in 1988 when he published The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949) and to his outspoken left-wing politics: He favored a Palestinian state before it was fashionable and was jailed for refusing to do military service in the territories.

But after the second intifada broke out, he became convinced that what the Palestinians wanted wasn’t peace, but “to extinguish the Jewish national project and to inherit all of Palestine.” That made him anathema to many well-meaning and genuinely pro-Israel people who can’t abide that conclusion–and they are also the people who find it hardest to accepting the delegitimizers as enemies who must be fought at all costs. Instead, they often favor “dialogue” and “an inclusive big tent.”

But Morris is a historian, not a politician, and his politics shouldn’t be allowed to obscure the validity of his historical analysis. The Czechoslovakian analogy he sees is frightening–and we ignore it at Israel’s peril.

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Physicians, Heal Thyselves

It’s no secret that many liberal Jews today view tikkun olam, the Hebrew phrase for “repairing the world,” as the essence of Judaism. In To Heal the World?, Jonathan Neumann begs to differ, emphatically. He views liberal Judaism’s love affair with tikkun olam as the story of “How the Jewish Left Corrupts Judaism and Endangers Israel.” In fact, he believes tikkun olam endangers Judaism itself. Anyone who considers such notions wildly over the top should make sure to read Neumann’s book—because one needn’t agree with everything he says to realize that his major concerns are disturbingly well-founded.

Neumann begins by explaining what he considers the modern liberal Jewish understanding of tikkun olam. It is taken, he says, not just as a general obligation to make the world a better place, but as a specific obligation to promote specific “universal” values and even specific policies—usually, the values and policies of progressive Democrats.

He then raises three major objections to this view. The first is that the only way to interpret Judaism as a universalist religion with values indistinguishable from those of secular progressives is by ignoring the vast majority of key Jewish texts, including the Bible and the Talmud, and millennia of Jewish tradition. After all, most of these texts deal with the history, laws, and culture of one specific nation—the Jews. The Bible’s history isn’t world history, nor are its laws (with a few exceptions) meant to govern any nation but the Jews. Judaism undeniably has universalist elements. But to ignore its particularist aspects is to ignore much of what makes it Judaism, which therefore corrupts our understanding of Judaism.

The second problem is that if Judaism has no purpose other than promoting the same values and policies touted by non-Jewish progressives, there’s no reason for Judaism to exist at all. Consequently, the tikkun olam version of Judaism really does threaten Judaism’s continued existence, and it’s no accident that the liberal Jewish movements that have embraced it are rapidly dwindling due to intermarriage and assimilation. After all, why should young American Jews remain Jewish when they can do everything they think Judaism requires of them even without being Jewish?

This also explains why, in Neumann’s view, tikkun olam Judaism endangers Israel. If there’s no reason for Judaism to exist, there’s certainly no reason for a Jewish state. Indeed, Israel is anathema to the tikkun olam worldview because it’s the embodiment of Jewish particularism—the view that Jews are a distinct nation and have their own history, culture, and laws rather than being merely promulgators of universal values. Thus it’s easy to understand why tikkun olam Jews increasingly abhor the Jewish state.

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