letztlich auch uns (Beinart + Grass)

Peter Beinart (whose book is on my list) gets at another aspect of the fear or premonition that, as I was just suggesting, must be heard in Grass’s poem:

Zionism has not always been a consensus position in American Jewish life. Before Israel’s creation, and even to some degree before 1967, substantial elements within American Jewry questioned the notion of Jewish sovereignty.

I fear that unless something changes, those earlier divisions will reemerge in the years to come. The more permanent Israel’s occupation of the West Bank becomes, the more American Jews will be forced to choose between a Jewish state that is not fully democratic and a binational state that loses its Jewish character. And faced with that choice, a great chasm will divide American Jewry: with most older American Jews on one side, and many non-Orthodox, younger American Jews on the other.

Saving Israel as a democratic Jewish state and preserving the Zionist consensus in American Jewish life are two sides of the same struggle.

Keeping in mind that “not fully democratic” is too anodyne for what that future and the measures to stabilize and protect it already entail, the question being put to us is whether Israel is or will remain the promise as it was envisioned by those – in effect all of us, by international-legal proxy – who bought in at its founding.  If the creation and recognition of the Jewish state was not a foundational act within a new and more just global democratic dispensation, then it is a guarantee of worsening oppression and a standing threat of new wars up to and including world war, and there is no middle ground between the two alternatives:  The latter one is the middle ground up until the day that this manifestation of the Jewish state follows prior ones on the geopolitical path of least resistance to extinction.

To connect the apostate Beinart to the declared enemy Grass, and both of them to everyone else:  While we may fear a radically illiberal enemy state gaining possession of nuclear weapons, we may also wonder if we’re witnessing the slow transformation, with our aid and under our own protection, of our ally into a radically illiberal state, one that already possesses a nuclear arsenal. This fear that Israel may be becoming or had to become, has been made into or was always destined to be, something different from what it was supposed to be, from what liberal Zionists believed it was or wanted to believe it could be, haunts all of us.  (Would-be defenders, too:  Guilty consciences might help explain the fits of “infantile pique” directed at critics.)  We call this illiberalization, this impossibilization of Israeli democracy, a nightmare, yet the dream frightens me not because it’s full of monsters, but because I’m the one they’re after.

Grass’s poem, widely denounced if not yet burned in literary effigy, ends as a plea for help – for Israelis, Palestinians, for “those living together as enemies in this region under occupation by madness,” and finally for the rest of us, too (“letztlich auch uns”). The fear of catastrophe extending beyond that “region” is not also mad, though either the fear or the catastrophe itself might lead that way, as they converge.  The slouching birth of nightmare Israel, conversion of the Holy Land to just another Hell on Earth, is our own drawn-out death by exposure. We know, by species-memory – or, if you prefer, we know in our souls – or we know by historical study all the way back to the beginnings – that moral exhaustion is not an endpoint, but typically a prologue.


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5 comments on “letztlich auch uns (Beinart + Grass)

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  1. We know, by species-memory – or, if you prefer, we know in our souls – or we know by historical study all the way back to the beginnings – that moral exhaustion is not an endpoint, but typically a prologue.

    That’s quite a warning.
    I’m torn between the idea that it would be better for you to stick with poetry and ideas about poetry (because you get philosophy and politics well enough to write truly meaningful poetry and because you have the creativity necessary to pull off some great poetry), and the idea that it’s a good thing you don’t write poetry any more because your psychological splitting habit makes it very dangerous for you to be politically philosophizing at all–especially (or maybe exclusively) for yourself. I think you should focus on poetry because I think it would be better for you. Splitting and Hegel are a bad mix in my (relatively uneducated, but highly informed through energetic sensitivity) opinion. Of course, that comment will send you running back to political philosophy. So I’ll weigh in on the completely different point that Grass reminds me of one of my favorite painters: Anselm Keiffer. He expressed similar opinions about Germany and Israel without getting into trouble because they were never put into words exactly–just painted.

    • Dunno, Scott. Can’t always decide what you ought to be interested in or able to do – say, what’s going to capture your interest enough to keep you doing it despite the fact that it’s not good for you or going to lead to anything, and in every practical sense is in fact probably harmful, not to mention avoidant.

  2. So Zionism wasn’t the consensus Jewish position in 1948, I must have missed something, you know those settlements in Texas were certainly provocative, the Alamo one, just made it difficult for that nice fellow Santa Anna, who only had our best
    interests at heart.

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