The ‘Zionist sky is falling’ world

Worrywarts love mourning, exaggerating every Israeli wart into a malignant sign of impending apocalypse.

July 16, 2019 21:58
The ‘Zionist sky is falling’ world

A new Zionism. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

Thomas Friedman’s latest doom-and-gloom New York Times column warns that Israel’s identity as a Jewish democracy “is on the line.” An Upper West Side friend shares Friedman’s contempt for Bibi, Trump, and – everyone’s favorite bogeymen – “the far-right settlers and ultra-Orthodox.”

Nevertheless, Friedman’s latest squeal made my friend wonder: “Why can people criticize every other country, but they always have to claim Israel’s about to collapse?”

Welcome to the Chicken-Little Zionist’s the-sky-is-falling world. Israeli society could be prospering, the country could be free, happy, productive, democratic, yet these worrywarts love mourning, exaggerating every Israeli wart into a malignant sign of impending apocalypse.

I agree with Friedman – in proportion. Netanyahu’s demagogic assault on Israel’s democratic checks and balances – the judiciary, the police, his own attorney-general – is reprehensible and brazen. During campaign 2019, the first edition, Netanyahu vowed not to seek immunity from prosecution – then spent the coalition haggling period 2019, the first edition, seeking immunity.
That’s another reason to vote against Netanyahu. But note: sitting American presidents traditionally are “constitutionally immune” from indictment. Even if Netanyahu wins, Friedman’s insulting phrase won’t apply: Israel’s no “Jewish banana republic” – and won’t become one.

I reject this ticking time bomb tic, this hysterical escalation from constructive criticism of an imperfect democracy to perfectly ridiculous prophecies predicting calamity.

CHICKEN-LITTLE ZIONISM fuses Christian millennialism, Jewish fatalism, Islamist anti-Zionism and polarized partisan pessimism.

The Christian fascination with the Promised Land is infectious, inspiring, spiritual. But millennial visions of Armageddon shape many Christian emotions about Israel.

Jews, by contrast, worry more about historic catastrophes than cosmic calamities. Consider this joke: Four European hikers get lost. They run out of food, then water.

“I’m so thirsty,” says the Englishman. “I must have tea.”
“I’m so thirsty,” says the Frenchwoman. “I must have wine.”
“I’m so thirsty,” says the German. “I must have beer.”
“I’m so thirsty,” says the Jew. “I must have diabetes.”

In her sparkling 2013 book, No Joke: Making Jewish Humor (2013) Professor Ruth Wisse explains that while the “three hikers react to the problem at hand, the Jew anticipates its direst implications,” because Jews remember the European Holocaust.
This Jewish intimacy with apocalypse haunts the Jewish state, too. Another legendary Montrealer, the human rights activist Irwin Cotler, frequently recalls his parents’ lesson: that some events “in Jewish history, in world history, are too terrible to imagine, but not too terrible to have happened.”

Too many Islamists – and their fellow travelers – dream of imposing a new nightmare: Israel’s destruction. While rejecting these anti-Zionists, Chicken-Little Zionists so internalize this genocidal fantasy that they unconsciously fear any Israeli missteps will accelerate its fulfillment and justify it.

Their hysteria has delegitimizing implications. It unintentionally emboldens anti-Zionism, treating Israel’s survival and legitimacy as open questions – contingent on Israel’s good behavior.

Finally, in a polarized polity, too many partisans view victorious rivals as evil saboteurs endangering democracy, not fellow citizens with different perspectives. Pundits frequently indulge such end-of-days rhetoric, assuming: if readers ignore me, we’re doomed. Political has-beens validate the fears, thinking: because voters spurned me, we’re toast.

You have to ignore a lot to see modern Israel so darkly. You have to judge Israel by its most extremist ministers, not by the backlash against them. You have to report – as Friedman’s colleagues recently did – that “at least four Ethiopian Israelis have been killed by police fire since 1997” – implying that four tragedies in 22 years constitute a newsworthy trend. You have to marginalize what’s central and centralize what’s marginal: running two articles in two months about a total of 39 Birthright critics – 13 who had planned to walk off trips, then did, and 26 who took an alternate trip – without ever publishing an article in 20 years about Birthright’s 700,000-plus happy satisfied participants.

And you have to overlook what I call Israel’s road tests. Track the course most Israeli trends follow: Israel is freer, safer, more pluralistic, more tolerant, more instinctively democratic, and enjoying peace with more of its Arab neighbors, than at any point since 1948. Added bonus: Israel passes the pregnancy test – having the highest fertility rates among Westernized countries reflects tremendous social optimism.

Even if Netanyahu survives politically, Israel’s independent judiciary, robust press, angry academia and independent-minded, fun-loving, freedom-protecting citizenry will outlast him.

And regarding Friedman’s obsession that Netanyahu overlooks the “2.5 million Palestinians in the West Bank,” Friedman ignores the Israeli consensus forged when Palestinians chose suicide-bomb blasting over peacemaking in 2000: most Israelis don’t want to control millions of Palestinians, but they won’t withdraw unilaterally, naively, again either. They await a mature Palestinian leadership, one willing to negotiate the post-1967 borders but ready to end the 1948 war – meaning, their futile quest to eliminate Israel.

Meanwhile, Israel will continue thriving, regardless of who wins, even if it risks Friedman’s disapproval. So, after this second election, “every Jew who cares about the Jewish state will” not “have to make an ethical choice about whether or not they can continue to support Israel.” Instead, they, like we in the Bibi-go-home camp, might – hopefully won’t – have to “make an ethical choice” about whether they trust the democratic process, or believe democracy means “I only respect the outcome when I win.”
Losing isn’t fun. It tests your commitment to democracy and your patriotism: can you still support the state, not the ruler, while redoubling efforts to change – and win next time? That’s the American way. That’s the Zionist way. That’s my way.
Let’s hope it’s not tested in September.

The writer is the author of The Zionist Ideas, an update and expansion of Arthur Hertzberg’s classic anthology, The Zionist Idea, published by the Jewish Publication Society. A distinguished scholar of North American history at McGill University, he is the author of 10 books on American history, including The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s.

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