Sunday, April 29, 2012

Recalling a 1976 interview

Extracted from a post by Mitchell Cohen who had co-edited Dissent Magazine and is a professor of political science

...On a chilly December day in 1976 I interviewed Menachem Begin, then leader of Israel's parliamentary opposition. His politics had been rejected time and again by Israeli voters; indeed, he had a perfect record since the birth of the Jewish state: eight defeats in eight national elections. Soon, however, everything would change and the ramifications would be profound: Begin would become the country's first right-wing prime minister.

It was evident from the beginning of our exchange that my sympathies were not his. I cited a claim by Begin's long-time (by then deceased) political foe, David Ben-Gurion. Ben-Gurion's party (or an offspring) led the country in its founding decades, shaping it in its own ideological image. Mapai (later "Labor") was a social democratic party whose platform embraced Zionism, democracy and egalitarianism; its roots were in trade unions and kibbutzim. Its accomplishments won Israel friends around the world, particularly within the democratic left (there really was such a time).

The Ben-Gurion quote I presented to Begin dated to the 1930s, when Mapai fought fiercely with his mentor, Vladimir Jabotinsky, father of the Zionist right-wing. Jabotinsky was an apostle of "pure" nationalism; Zionism, he insisted, should not be distorted by mixing it with universalistic ideas like social democracy. Often swept up by his own rhetoric -- he frequently took it for reality -- his maximalism brooked no compromises, least of all when it came to the prospective borders of a Jewish state. There, the Bible was the mandate. Ben-Gurion, by contrast, declared that Zionism, like any national movement, could be good or bad, depending on the kind of society it created -- socialist, liberal, religious, authoritarian or even fascist. Ben-Gurion, who was no less attached to Jewish history than Jabotinsky, wanted to establish a democratic Jewish state; that led him to accept partition of what Jews call the land of Israel and what Arabs call Palestine. One reason why Ben-Gurion became Israel's first prime minister was that he knew when to bend and when not to bend so that the greater project would not break. He didn't equate politically intelligent compromise with betrayal.

Begin was gracious if firm in response to me: "Zionism is justified per se," he said. And he was implacable when it came to territorial concessions. There was no difference for him between religio-nationalist claims on territory and Israeli security; they always amounted to the same thing. He could hardly have known that he would eventually relinquish the Sinai and sign a peace treaty with Egypt, an historic move that ended decades of war and saved countless Israeli and Egyptian lives, a move endorsed by Israel's parliament only because the Labor party, then the parliamentary opposition to Begin, voted for it. The prime minister was unable to muster enough support in his own ruling Likud party for a majority. Its foes were his good pupils.

It is because Ben-Gurion was right -- and not Begin or his political descendant, Benjamin Netanyahu -- that I identify with Zionism. Or more specifically, with Labor Zionism, weak as it is these days (like, alas!, the idea of social democracy)...I reject the idea that all particular problems, including toxic ones, dissolve in universal history and thus only cosmopolitan prescriptions to them are of value. Hard though it may be, I think it is better to struggle constantly between particularism and universalism -- to struggle between the demands of actual, complex situations and circumstances and the horizons or principles that let us project better ones -- than to embrace imaginary, if comforting, designs that propose to solve all problems in the sweep of one idea.

Part of the left (not all of it) repeats what Begin said to me but from an opposed viewpoint. Anti-Zionism, it believes, is justified per se. "Per se" is, however, political and intellectual fudge. Its real meaning is that the existence of a Jewish state is illegitimate. This assertion is usually girded by slippery, often manipulative accounts of history combined with fancy but finally deceptive -- or self-deceptive -- theorizing (the latter often takes on "post-colonial" or "post-modern"). This part of the left seems to make hostility to a Jewish state central to its identity in an odd inversion of the Zionist belief that Israel ought to be central to Jews. And so I identify as a Zionist of the left in order to say "no" to this left-that-doesn't-learn, particularly from the experiences of the 20th century. Left-wing and right-wing clichés reinforce each other...
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