US Secretary of State John Kerry is despondent about Israel’s future.
Without an immediate and comprehensive freeze on all Jewish settlement activity in the occupied West Bank, Kerry argues, the occupation will never unwind.
And according to Kerry, it is the occupation of the West Bank – Jews living in the heartland of their biblical homeland – which imperils Israel’s identity as a democratic Jewish state. Annex the territories and Israel loses its Jewish identity; maintain the occupation and Israel soils its democracy.
US Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro shares John Kerry’s despair for Israel, but with a sense of dire urgency. Shapiro insists that Kerry’s nightmare scenario is already upon us. In the West Bank, says Shapiro, Israel operates an apartheid regime – my words, not his – not just in fact but in law.
As he recently put it – his words, not mine – in the occupied territories Israel applies one standard of legality to the Jewish settlers, and a second harsher and somewhat arbitrary standard of legality to the indigenous Arab population. And Shapiro is worried sick that current political conditions on the West Bank provide a very disturbing peek into Israel’s agonizing future.
Kerry and Shapiro are men of enormous good will and their anxieties about Israel’s democratic and Jewish future are heartfelt and genuine. But those anxieties are animated by a terrible double standard. No, not the double standard of anti-Semitism (or self-hatred) against which these men are thoroughly inoculated. Rather, Kerry and Shapiro are captives of a uniquely American double standard. This double standard, what I call the American ideology, originated in Calvinist individualism as a function of the Protestant ethic serving essentially salvational purposes. But this otherworldly function was soon subverted by its own latent economic consequences and Calvinism’s radical individualism became the psychic core of American capitalism, stimulating the emergence of the self-directed heroic American market-man.
Over time, the American market-man, the freely-covenanting individual citizen of the United States of America, became the sole arbiter of social reality and cultural legitimacy. Currently, this individualist mentality defines all markers of group identification and affiliation – religion, race, ethnicity, gender, sexual preference, class and even nationality – as mere lifestyle choices, subject to change by nothing more than the whim and the will of the individual.
The American ideology is deeply suspicious of all institutions that are not the product of the freely-covenanting individual, except, of course, for its own political institutions. America’s political institutions, which incarcerate the American market-man within their rules and regulations, deforming or derailing the political preferences of the freely-covenanting individual American citizen, also derive from the Protestant ethic, albeit not from its radical individualism. Rather, they originate in Calvinism’s austere monotheism which posits an unbridgeable gulf between Creator and created. In order to maintain this unbridgeable gulf, the Calvinist ethic compels its radical individuals to rationalize all other separations and distinctions.
This compulsion fuels an obsession with drawing exact and articulate territorial boundary lines in order to demarcate one parcel of land from another. In personal affairs, these lines of demarcation define the limits of one’s private property. And in political affairs they express the outer reach of the nation’s sovereignty.
Herein lies the dirty secret of the American ideology, the source of the double standard which distorts the judgment of good and caring men like Kerry and Shapiro. In the United States of America, nationhood is not produced by the freely- covenanting individual nor is it subject to challenge based upon the changing personal or political preferences of the heroic American market-man. Rather, in America, nationhood is completely detached from the qualities and characteristics of the individual citizen, from the color of his skin, or the cadence of his mother tongue, or the content of his belief code. In America, nationhood is produced by the territorial boundary lines which define and delimit the sovereign authority of the American state. Those who live or were born inside of those territorial boundary lines are members of the American nation whether they promote or belittle the American way of life.
And there is more. American democracy, the crowning glory of the American way of life, the very standard by which the American nation identifies itself, is also not defined by the individual citizens on the simple basis of one man, one vote. Instead, America discharges its democratic commitments according to the territorial boundary lines which separate the states of the union from each other. Thus, the winner of every presidential election – the democratically elected leader of the nation who is also the symbol of American nationhood – is decided not by “we the people” but by the Electoral College, an utterly impersonal political institution which derives its identity from America’s internal boundary lines. As we learned to the surprise of many in America’s millennium-year presidential election, this is the case even when a clear majority of the American people cast their ballot for another candidate.
But according to Kerry and Shapiro, these features of the American ideology are not applicable to Israel, despite the fact that the Jewish tradition also originates in a doctrine of austere monotheism. Instead, these men of enormous good will insist that Israel’s Jewish identity hinges on only one matter: maintaining a strong majority of citizens who self-identify as Jews. Israel will be courting a disaster, they warn, if it were to trifle with the majoritarian principle that alone sustains its Jewish identity.
Annexing the West Bank – or implementing any other version of the one-state solution – would force Israel to extend full citizenship to the Arab population enfolded within its sovereignty, effectively sacrificing its affiliation with Judaism. There simply are not enough Jews within the boundaries of Greater Israel for the State of Israel to continue being the sovereign nation-state of the Jewish people.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
If the State of Israel were to extend its sovereignty up to its biblical boundary lines in deference to Judaism’s doctrine of austere monotheism, those boundary lines would themselves become the source of the state’s Jewish identity. At that point, Israel could lift the occupation which does indeed soil its democracy, without compromising its national identity. In fact, transferring the source of the state’s national identity from the individual citizen to the impersonal institution would be a boon, first and foremost, to Israel’s enlarged Arab minority.
Their identity as non-Jewish citizens of the Jewish state would be drained of its political significance exactly the way America’s impersonal political institutions drain the political significance of the skin color of its non-white citizens. Such, of course, would not be the case if Israel would, in deference to men like Kerry and Shapiro, withdraw from the West Bank and set its territorial boundary lines in utter disregard of Judaism’s monotheist heritage.
I suspect that Kerry and Shapiro are so over-committed to an Israeli abandonment of the West Bank that they will not see their own national tradition in the extension of Israeli sovereignty to the boundary lines of biblical Israel. But Kerry and Shapiro are not the only Americans with enormous good will toward our state and its Jewish identity. And those other friends of ours, by the multiple millions, will surely applaud us for detaching our national identity from the personal qualities and characteristics of our citizens, Jews and non-Jews alike, and embracing instead the American ideology. If only our government would begin to move our state in this direction.
The author teaches history at the Hebrew University’s Rothberg International School and is the rabbi of Minyan HaVatikim in the Rimon section of Efrat.