Ph.D. Octopus

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The Case Against Cases For or Against a Jewish State, or How Nation-States are like Big Macs

with 4 comments

We’ve got a guest post here from Gruber, who is doing his PhD in modern Israeli history.

By Gruber

Last night when I was out to drinks with some friends of college, one of my close friends, who happens to be Israeli-born and works for an Israel-advocacy organization asked me flat out “Do you think there should be a Jewish state?” This is not an unfamiliar question, especially in light of all the recent brouhaha regarding the American Jewish community and Israel, provoked especially by Peter Beinart’s now infamous article and the Gaza Flotilla fiasco, which PhD Octopus has certainly examined before.

Of course, I had provoked this question to a certain extent, as I make no attempt to conceal my views on Israel/Palestine, especially among friends and family who I know consider me a radical when it comes to the topic, and accordingly may make snarky comments about the conflict that are framed playfully enough to avoid a full-blown argument which I know will devolve into back and forth yelling. So after comparing his disproportionate response to a small prank with Israeli policy, my friend stopped and asked me to answer this to-the-point question. “Do you think there should be a Jewish state?” After attempting to engage in a round of semantic acrobatics and careful qualifications, he demanded that I first answer the query with a simple yes or no. “No”, I said unhesitatingly. I quickly followed up however, saying that neither do I believe there should not be a Jewish state.

I am sure that there are plenty of people out there who would see such an answer as a cop-out in what is essentially a conflict in which you’re on one side or the other, buying wholesale into this or that hegemonic narrative of the past, present and future.  Despite this, I refuse to buy into the black-and-white compartmentalization of the situation into good vs. evil, oppressor vs. victim, or colonizer vs. colonized, tragic oversimplifications of which both Israel’s advocates and detractors are guilty. The Jewish case for being reckoned as a nation is simultaneously ironclad and dubious. On one hand a grouping of the Jewish people that transcends that of a mere religious community is supported by ancient and modern historians,   as well as references in Christian and Muslim traditions. All signs, or at least signs buttressed by beliefs of 2/3 of the world’s population, point to nationhood. At the same time it can just easily be argued, as it has been by Jewish and non-Jewish anti-Zionists over the past century and a half, that following the Roman exile of 70 CE the Jews transformed from a national entity into a community that was fundamentally defined by its religious-spiritual character, and had no right or interest to make national or territorial claims.

Getting back to the original question, I don’t think the Jews should have a state because such a statement implies that there is some sort of moral, political, or other imperative that demands a sovereign Jewish political entity for the sake of collective security, fulfillment of a divine mission, or ‘normalizing’ the Jewish social and economic reality. Moreover, I must admit that my own experience as a Jew informs my understanding of this issue, and through it I have come to believe that the Diaspora experience is more defining of the Jewish totality than is the land/state of Israel and the people’s experience therein. While I have many friends and family in Israel, and can’t help but feel a level of comfort and connection there as a Jew who has lived there and speaks the language and the culture, I do not put myself behind the state’s mission and actions, and will always feel that for me, the current Jewish national home is New York.

At the same time, I don’t believe there is an unassailable reason to deny the Jewish argument for statehood.  As an aspiring historian who, like Weiner, strives to achieve some level of objectivity (like Sisyphus, I believe historians must push the boulder of objectivity up the hill even though true achievement of the task is impossible), I think that the history of the Jews over the past two millennia implies that this group of people has been considered both from within and without as a collective whose definition transcends the religious and undoubtedly falls in the realm of the ethnic and the national.

That said, I cannot consider Jewish statehood as imperative from my introverted pluralistic Jewish outlook. The Jews have survived through the ages and preserved their communal identity in the absence of territorial ownership while myriad other nations and tribes who had a chunk of earth carved out as their own have disappeared. And with this lack of homeland, though not infrequently persecuted, the Jews have lived overall better lives than most peasants and serfs, that mass of humanity which lived in a seemingly eternal state of destitution and distress over centuries.

If I had to describe the overall picture of the Jews in past and present I would need to quote Charlie Sheen–“Winning.” Call me an exceptionalist (no one will blame you), but the Jews have at some point prospered in every society into which they have entered and have always proven deft at making lemons into lemonade.  The Jews have survived the Crusades, Inquisition, pogroms and the Holocaust all without a sovereign territory, and to assert that in order to survive this seemingly history-proof people require a nation-state, an earthly and temporary institution by definition, seems utterly absurd to me.

This, of course, begs the larger question of the utility of national-self determination in general. While I sympathize with the hopes of Basques, Padanians, Kurds and the few Quebecois still yearning for national independence and/or autonomy, the citizens of the Arab world will be the first to tell you that national-self determination rarely solves all of society’s ills and  moreover, has been used more than any other modern principle to justify the behavior of occupying powers and ruthless dictators, as well as the anarchy that may come in their absence.

To sum up with a crass analogy, national self-determination is like McDonalds–it looks delicious in the commercials and once you want a Big Mac/nation-state you won’t be deterred in your mission to acquire one, however once you’ve eaten your oily feast /proclaimed your independence, you will be left with hours of indigestion/decades of sociopolitical unrest to stomach.


Written by David Weinfeld

May 16, 2011 at 14:46

4 Responses

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  1. I all honesty, this is poor. I may be more of a liberal, a leftist or post-zionist than you but I can’t help being insulted by your lack of historical perspective and understanding. these generalizations about Jews are worthless and based on not only inaccurate but also erroneous information. If you want people to take you seriously then read first, learn how to examine what you read critically and then think of writing. Your ramblings are of no worth to anyone if they are so amateurish.

    Left Right Left

    May 20, 2011 at 09:29

  2. Well I disagree with the above commenter. I know for a fact that Gruber is extremely well-versed in Jewish history.

    I will say, though, that I also disagree with some of Gruber’s opinions here. I think the key, as Luce reminded me recently, is that
    modern nation-states are relatively new developments. And in a world with them, it can be useful to have them. The difficulties facing the Jews of the modern era are very different than those facing Jews in the medieval era.

    I also think that in a world of nation-states, the Jews are entitled to their own, on their ancestral homeland. Achieving that statehood, especially in a post-Holocaust world, was glorious. But it was not without its problems.

    And so the Palestinians also deserve a state, a separate state, at peace with its neighbour Israel.

    I agree with Gruber than American Jewish life and identity are qualitatively different than the Israeli variety, but I don’t think they are unrelated, and I feel a strong bond with Israel even though I will likely never live there and I recognize the cultural chasm between me and most Israelis.


    May 20, 2011 at 13:19

    • Of course the nation-state, though not necessarily the nation, is a relatively recent phenomenon and, as I implied, Jews have a strong case for a state in the modern era. That said, most Zionists in and out of Israel today fail to appreciate how the Zionist mission was unavoidably predicated on gaining political control of a land on which an indigenous people sat and how, in many ways, the ‘Jewish problem’ in Europe was not solved, but rather transferred to the Middle East.

      I never meant to assert that American and Israeli Jewish life are or should be unrelated, however I do believe that most Israeli leaders and civilians look upon the Diaspora as occupying a second place beneath Israel in the Jewish world and see Diaspora Jews like you and me as somehow indebted to Israel. In reality Israel is far more reliant upon Jewish political and financial capital flowing in from abroad than Diaspora Jews are dependent on Israel for a hypothetical future place of refuge (or as a spiritual-cultural center of which the late great Ahad Ha’am dreamed). Regardless, I do feel a cultural and personal connection with Israel, though it is one with which I struggle every day.

      The problems facing Jews have no doubt changed over the past 3000 years. This piece does make some sweeping generalizations about Jewish history and indulges my quasi-polemical Jewish historiosophy which I probably wouldn’t present in an academic setting, at least not yet, and certainly not to David Engel. That said, I feel that such a view (which I’d love to call quasi-Dubnovian but I’m sure Engel would somehow find it and call me out on it) is something historians of the Jewish people would do well to pay some attention. Historians of the Jewish people, though not most Jewish people themselves, have overcome the lachrymose view of Jewish history, it is time we transcend a wholly Israelocentric view of Jewish history.


      May 25, 2011 at 17:32

  3. A good post. I would only quibble somewhat with your assertion that the argument for a Jewish state from a collective security standpoint isn’t adequate because “The Jews have survived the Crusades, Inquisition, pogroms and the Holocaust all without a sovereign territory”. While true this borders on trivializing the massive cost of Jewish lives that have occurred during those events in order for a portion or remnant if you will of Jewish people to persist in history. It seems to me that a benefit for Jews having their own sovereign territory is so that this kind of “cost” will never have to be endured again. Anyways, I enjoyed the post especially your concluding Big Mac analogy.

    Christopher Petersen

    May 27, 2011 at 11:57

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