In "The Revolt," his seminal depiction of the Jewish resistance against British rule in Palestine, Irgun chief and future Prime Minister Menachem Begin often returns to his interrogation at the hands of the Soviets. These references apparently are intended to counter a contemporary communist argument raised during these interrogations, that the Zionist movement was a hoax, a "puppet show," meant to divert attention from the Jews' revolutionary role in Europe and turn them into a tool for British imperialism in the Middle East.
"This talk of a State conceals the true purpose of Zionism - which is to divert the Jewish youth from the ranks of the revolution in Europe and put them at the disposal of British imperialism in the Middle East. This is the kernel of Zionism. All the rest is artificial shell, deliberately made to deceive."
Begin, of course, repeatedly balks at these claims, referencing centuries of Jewish craving to return to their historical homeland and flee from the kind of persecution and massacre made manifest at that time by the camps and furnaces of Europe.
Later, Begin repeatedly cites the deep chasm running between British imperialist objectives – for which, he said, they were more than willing to sacrifice the Jews – and the very real, heartfelt Jewish desire for freedom from both persecution and foreign rule.
In one famous metaphor, Begin tells his Soviet interrogator that the need to establish a Jewish state was not a purely theoretical ambition, one motivated by either a revolutionary or a counter-revolutionary movement, but was like saving a family from a burning house. In other words, urgent and real.
Begin is asking his Soviet interrogator to disregard for a moment the political powers at play, undoubtedly necessary for the creation of Israel, and look the hopes and dreams of real people: People that care for their children, that cry out against injustice, that find life hard, if not sometimes impossible, when lived under the specter of constant foreign occupation, exile, and persecution.
Real people that crave real self-determination.
Yet as convincing as Begin's arguments were, the tendency (typified here by the Soviets) to subjugate human needs with purely geopolitical considerations have far from disappeared from the Middle East. Indeed, they have become the official line of the State of Israel.
Objections to the creation of an independent, viable Palestinian state often run the gamut of the kind of conspiracy theories realized by Begin's interrogator, opinions made strikingly evident since peace talks with the Palestinian Authority lost momentum (if indeed such momentum ever existed) late last year.
"A Palestinian state would function as an Iranian proxy," one version of this argument goes. In another: "A Palestinian state would in effect act as a place holder, allowing weapons and terrorist groups to flow uninterrupted, putting larger cities such as Tel Aviv in range of rocket fire and closing crucial buffer zones protecting central Israel from bombing attacks."
These arguments have been instrumental in the creation of several hardened positions, such as those lamenting the "indefensible" 1967 borders, a demilitarized Palestine, or "the need to retain an Israeli military presence in the Jordan Valley" (the latter two ostensibly to prevent the flow of weapons into the newly formed Palestine), and so on. But most importantly, they have served to delegitimize the entire Palestinian quest for self-determination.
The actual argument, similar to the Communist claim, is that the Palestinian desire for a state is not genuine, that the Palestinians do not truly seek self-determination, and, in some cases, might not even mind Israeli occupation that much. And let's not forget those who insist the Palestinian population is now "better off." (Whatever that might mean).
The Palestinians, they say, seek a stronghold - one erected by faceless Arabs. And once completed, one which could be filled with the kind of faceless Arabs that seek Israel's destruction, if not the annihilation of the entire Jewish people.
The beauty of Begin's nuanced commentary on the criticism of Zionism, what I would term his turn toward the human, seems completely lost on proponents of the aforementioned positions. The consequence of this blindness to a facet of nationhood so close to our own is - as the unshakable leader of the dream of an Israel on both sides of the Jordan River must have understood - tantamount to a loss of humanity. It is a faceless doctrine that crushes individual lives.
What proponents of such anti-human stances also apparently fail to see is that while it is possible that certain political powers have nefarious intentions regarding a Palestinian state, it is nevertheless true that the establishment of Israel may not have been endorsed solely by those with the Jews' best interests in mind. In fact, Western imperialism, expansionism, trade, religion and, perhaps above all, racism, played a significant part in the establishment of the State of Israel.
The dangers of foreign influence, whether Iranian or other, are of course real. They are, however, as real to us as the fear of Western imperialism and exploitation was real to every other country in our region over Israel's creation.
To understand that, finally, is to let go of the fears of an Iranian outpost. Not because those fears are unfounded, but because they are not what should determine how Israel treats its neighbors. To mistrust those who, in good times and bad, live alongside Israel and share its fate is to perpetuate those nefarious motivations for Israel's foundation, to prefer blind dogma over the real and the human.
This is something Begin understood, and his nearsighted followers of today do not. We must live with those who share our fate, not rely on a culture that while instrumental in establishing Israel, should have been discarded immediately after. And that is why the former prime minister remains the only Israeli leader to sign a peace deal that actually had substance, both in terms of Israel's integration in the region and its security.
Begin's vision should help us understand that as long as we refuse to come to terms with both our own desires and those of the people around us and among us, we shall never be fully here. That to be fully here is to sever the umbilical cord of dogma and start - as Begin himself did in 1979 - to live with our neighbors, whether they are truly the proxies of the Islamic Republic of Iran or not.
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