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.