An Existential Threat

Even secular Israelis like Ehud Barak cannot resist calling Israel a 'heavenly promise'.

In Jerusalem last week, I took part in the Conference on the Future of the Jewish People, organized by the Jewish People Policy Institute, a think tank founded by the Jewish Agency and intended, according to its website, "to ensure the thriving of the Jewish People and the Jewish civilization by engaging in professional strategic thinking and planning on issues of primary concern to world Jewry." The idea is to put Israelis and Diaspora Jews into the same grown-up conversation.

With the exception of banquet sessions addressed by Ehud Barak, Tzipi Livni, Shimon Peres and Benjamin Netanyahu, and a final summation, the conference proceedings were dispersed among five working groups. Mine was called "Delegitimization: Attitudes Toward Israel and the Jewish People." I cannot comment on the quality of discussion around other conference tables. But about the conversation among some two dozen major figures - cabinet members, leaders of Jewish organizations in Israel, North America, Europe and Australia and journalists - on the topic of delegitimization, I can say this: An intense brew of paranoia, smugness, cynicism, cruelty, panic and denial in Israel's approach to the Palestinians damages the JPPI's aspiration to serve the larger interests of what, indeed, deserves to be called Jewish civilization.

I put it to the group that an impoverished terminology that chops the world into "pro-Israel" and "anti-Israel" serves only the Manichaean politics of raw nationalism, and that a 19th-century American formulation is vastly preferable: "My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right." I said that a major reason why Israel is in disrepute throughout the world is the occupation of the territories. In the spirit of science, I proposed that the way to find out how much of the hostility directed at Israel in the world today is a disguised delegitimization of the state itself is to end the occupation. End the occupation and the hatred that remains will be, by default, delegitimization.

"Delegitimization" is a buzzword du jour and in an introductory paper, the conference organizers did try to distinguish among its various strains. For my part, I recommended making a distinction between the inflamed anti-Zionism that singles out Israel's policies as uniquely racist among states, even unto the claim (contrary to many UN declarations ) that the state has no right to exist, and moreover that the Jews are not a people and are not entitled to a majority in a Middle Eastern nation, and the view (my own, as it happens ) that it is the post-'67 occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem that is illegitimate - not only because it violates international law, and not only because it is cruel, and not because the Palestinians are angels, but because the State of Israel is in default on its moral obligations. In numerous ways it acts in violation of the covenant, whether factual or mythological, that gave rise to the Jewish people and binds them to a high moral standard - not to be a state like other states, many of which aren't much to write home about, but to be an incarnation of justice, not the custodian of the West Bank or the proprietor of outposts in the Palestinian neighborhoods of Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan.

In other words, to use a phrase much bruited about nowadays, the occupation is an "existential threat" to the Jewish people, who are a people of an idea. The danger is clear, present and growing.

But most of the working group's discussion was spent lamenting the victimization of the Jews, chastising the government for "public relations malpractice," compiling lists of enemies (Jimmy Carter ranks high ), and proposing more effective Israeli public diplomacy. One Foreign Ministry official asked, Pilate-like, "What is 'occupation'?" Another participant referred to "the alleged occupation." There was a panic over pro-boycott-divestment-sanctions groups performing "guerrilla theater" on American campuses - as if guerrilla theater were something vile, pursued with Kalashnikovs, perhaps.

In the meantime, a host of burning questions that might have been raised - to take one tiny example, whether the Jewish people are well served by the spread of settlers throughout Arab Silwan, next to the Old City wall, guarded by a private security army funded by the government to the tune of NIS 52 million per year - attracted no interest as sources of delegitimization. The profound moral question of why Jews should tolerate land grabs went unasked. The conferees were, for the most part, disinclined to discuss bedrock - even the bedrock of who the Jews are and what we stand for.

The Jews are a people of an idea, though a confusing one. We were chosen, the story goes - but for what? Even secular Israelis like Ehud Barak cannot resist calling Israel a "heavenly promise." But is this touchstone of Jewish identity to mean that Israelis should swell with pride because they do better at human rights than Saudi Arabia or the Islamic Republic of Iran? Was it for alibis and self-pity that the Jews fought so tenaciously to survive? Was it in the name of bland euphemisms and aggressive defensiveness that the Jews honor a book in which God declares that we are to be "a kingdom of priests and a holy nation"?

Todd Gitlin is a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University and the co-author of a new book, "The Chosen Peoples: America, Israel, and the Ordeals of Divine Election" (Simon & Schuster ).