For Israel and Nakba at 64…Micah meets David Ben-Gurion
Robert Cohen, Micah’s Paradigm Shift
[A poke, a tweet and a click-through and @DavidBenGurion, Israel’s first Prime Minister and diminutive giant of pre and post Jewish Statehood arrives at Micah’s Paradigm Shift. Nakba Day approaches, the Palestinians are commemorating the 64th year of the ‘catastrophe’ and the ‘Old Man’ of Israeli politics is in the mood for a robust chat. In his hand he holds a small scroll, it is Israel’s Declaration of Independence signed 14th May 1948. The conversation goes like this.]
Micah’s Paradigm Shift (MPS): Welcome Prime Minister!
David Ben-Gurion: (DBG): You call this place welcoming!
MPS: Well, I have some helpful navigation tabs to previous posts and you can sign up for email updates.
DBG: I’ve been here 20 minutes and I can see exactly what you’re up to.
MPS: You’re not the first to take offence. Nobody has ever turned up in person though.
DBG: You should be defending your own people not undermining one of the great triumphs of Jewish history. You’re a disgrace.
MPS: To be a disgrace I’d need more followers. Until then, I’m just an inconvenience.
DBG: The story is simple but your writing makes it all so complicated.
MPS: I like complicated.
DBG: We returned to our homeland, we built a sovereign state, we brought back pride and self-respect to a persecuted people. The Arabs hated us for it. There was a war. We won, they lost. That’s how it goes.
MPS: That’s not how I see it. That’s the paradigm I want to challenge. I’m trying to rescue the Hebrew covenant…one blog post at a time.
DBG: I was never a great one for religion. Socialism and Jewish nationalism were my thing.
MPS: But in the end it was your Jewish nationalism that won out. And nationalism will always drag you to the right. It was socialism, but socialism for Jews only.
DBG: And I don’t see much of that anymore!
MPS: Quite. But I’m still not sure what brings you here? I subscribe to a few bloggers who you’d feel much more at home with. I can give you their addresses or you can tweet them direct.
DBG: Don’t worry, I’ve checked them out too. I thought I could be high-handed and arrogant but clearly I still have much to learn.
MPS: I still don’t understand why you’re bothering with the blogosphere. This site is clearly not for you. You made it happen. Herzl, Weizmann and you…the three giants in the story. You are, without doubt, not my target audience.
DBG: I won’t contradict you.
MPS: Don’t get me wrong though, I can certainly appreciate your thinking. From the perspective of 19th Century Eastern European Jewry, the whole thing looked like a brilliant idea, the perfect solution.
DBG: Back to the future!
MPS: A grand return!
DBG: Start anew. To build and to be built!
MPS: Livnot L’hibanot!
MPS: Not very Jewish though.
DBG: Don’t be ridiculous! How much more Jewish does it get? A return to our ancient homeland.
MPS: I have serious problems with the whole project.
DBG: I know. That’s why I’m here dummy. I don’t need a ‘yes man’.
MPS: What do you need?
DBG: I’ve been thinking things over. I’ve looked around some other spider net things.
MPS: Websites, Prime Minister.
DBG: Palestinian ones.
DBG: I’m not entirely comfortable with how things turned out.
MPS: You mean the forced expulsions and denial of return for Palestinian refugees? The land theft, water appropriation, house demolitions, political assassinations, blockades, separation walls, imprisonment without trial, second class citizenship, disregard for international law and now stealing Bedouin land in the Negev. Stuff like that?
DBG: Don’t get carried away! Remember who you are speaking to.
MPS: One of the big three, Prime Minister.
DBG: I’m thinking, maybe it’s time for Zionism to move on a little. We could be a little more magnanimous in our victory, perhaps.
MPS: I’d love to know who you’ve been reading!
DBG: I have a few old friends working on this with me. Pioneers from the old days. We’ve been scouting around looking at where to start, working our way down blogrolls.
MPS: And what do you think I can I do?
DBG: Well to start with, we need a fresh look at the Declaration of Independence.
MPS: I’m surprised you think there’s a problem with it. It’s a brilliant summary of the whole Zionist mindset.
DBG: Thank you.
MPS: Liberal Zionists love it. It brings a warm glow to the mainstream Jewish heart. Democratic ideals, the protection of civil rights, and our national story over three millennia told in a nutshell.
DBG: I know, I’ve always liked it too.
MPS: I didn’t say I liked it!
DBG: I suspected as much. Anyway, looking back I think maybe it was written in haste, we were a little too close to events in Europe to get a good perspective on things, maybe we did not tell the story right.
MPS: I can’t believe you’re saying this.
DBG: We got to the third draft and went with that in time for the lifting of the British Mandate.
MPS: You want to re-write the Israeli Declaration of Independence?
DBG: No, I want you to. What would a Micah’s Paradigm Shift version look like?
MPS: Well, if you’re quite sure…I’d be happy to have a go.
DBG: The beginning is fine of course. I was always pleased with the beginning. It has that grand sweep of history about it and sets out our irrefutable claim to the land.
MPS: It’s certainly a tidy telling of the story.
DBG: [Reading from the scroll] “The Land of Israel was the birthplace of the Jewish people. Here their spiritual, religious and political identity was shaped. Here they first attained to statehood, created cultural values of national and universal significance and gave to the world the eternal Book of Books.” Now how can you better that?
MPS: A bit partial. A bit distorted. But we can work on it.
DBG: What’s to work on?
MPS: Well, if we really want to honour our founding national mythology and recognise what actually happened through our history how about mentioning some other points too. For a start, according to our own tradition, it was in the wilderness, outside the borders of the ‘Promised Land’, that we first became a nation with a mission to build a just society. It was on a desert mountaintop (Sinai) that we received that mission, our covenant.
DBG: I prefer my version.
MPS: Wait, I’m not finished. We ought to reflect that our understanding of Judaism has as much to do with our time in exile as it does with our time in the land. It was after 70 CE and the destruction of the second Temple that we developed a faith of action and spirituality located in time and independent of place.
DGB: Can’t we keep it simple?
MPS: No, simple is the whole problem. It was in Babylonia that the Talmud was written. It was in Spain and north Africa that we wrote much of our great rabbinic commentary. It was in eastern Europe that we deepened our understanding of the mystery of the universe and created a rich culture of joyful prayer, a literature that touched the soul, and music that reached to heaven. Yes we came from the land of Israel, but we are who we are today because of what happened far beyond Israel’s borders.
DBG: Okay, I’m hardly going to argue that our exile was not important but in all that time we kept faith with Israel, and, I quote, the Jews “never ceased to pray and hope for their return to it and for the restoration in it of their political freedom.”
MPS: For most of our two thousand years in exile that’s not quite how we understood things.
DBG: More history?
MPS: And theology. We were taught that our exile was a punishment from God and that our return was conditional on fulfilling God’s commandments. Exile was exile from God. It was spiritual as much as physical. Our task in exile was to rebuild the covenant not organise for a political return.
DBG: We never forgot our attachment to Zion.
MPS: But we had to lead a righteous existence that would make us worthy of redemption and so worthy of returning. Seeking ‘Political freedom’ through a nationalist project was a new, and highly controversial, development that only began to take hold at the end of the19th century. Cue Herzl etc. etc. Redemption was about the Jewish people first, not the Jewish land. Speaking Jewishly, Zionism is a little presumptuous in its dealing with God. We seem to have conveniently forgotten all of this though.
DBG: Spare me the lectures, you think I haven’t heard all of this before? I said at the time we should leave God out of it. The whole thing will run to pages and pages the way you’re going.
MPS: I just want to reclaim the story of the dispersion and exile as not entirely negative and remind us that the criteria for a ‘return’ was a little more complex.
DBG: I know where my home should be.
MPS: You make it sound like two thousand years was just an aberration. Like we just popped out for some bagels but now we’re back.
DBG: [Reading again] “And we made the deserts bloom bringing the blessings of progress to all of the country’s inhabitants.”
MPS: You mean buying land from absentee Arab landlords and then allowing only Jewish labour to work it or use it. That wasn’t really a blessing for all. Arab Palestinian farmers had been making the desert bloom for one and a half thousand years. Some of them will be descended from the Jews that remained in the land after 70 CE. In fact, you probably share the same ancient Israelite DNA.
DBG: There’s no need to bring the Arabs into this.
MPS: There’s every need to bring the Arabs into this. It’s their story too.
DBG: Alright, alright! But we still have the Balfour declaration of 1917. That was Weizmann good work. And later there was the League of Nations backing up the British Empire’s commitment to a national home for the Jewish people.
MPS: One nation promises to another nation the land belonging to a third nation. Not much to admire there. British imperialism at its most inept. Promising everything to everyone but with only it’s own interests at heart.
DBG: The Holocaust justified the whole project. You can’t argue with that. [Reading from the scroll] “The catastrophe which recently befell the Jewish people – the massacre of millions of Jews in Europe – was another clear demonstration of the urgency of solving the problem of its homelessness by re-establishing in Eretz-Israel the Jewish State, which would open the gates of the homeland wide to every Jew and confer upon the Jewish people the status of a fully privileged member of the comity of nations.”
MPS: Are you telling me that being a nation state is what protects a people from discrimination and victimisation?
DBG: Having power is what protects you. We had to make Jews like everyone else.
MPS: Ah, yes. Zionism as the ultimate move to Jewish assimilation.
DBG: You are being absurd!
MPS: No, just trying to re-focus the paradigm.
DBG: It’s the Jewish State that protects us from another Holocaust.
MPS: But we have a Jewish State and anti-Semitism remains. And now Netanyahu says the ‘Jewish life-boat’ is itself the target of a second Holocaust thanks to those new Nazis in Iran. That doesn’t sound like a successful normalising of the Jewish condition. If the Holocaust teaches us anything, it must be that something more fundamental was at stake than creating a new nation state. Something concerning the rights and responsibilities of all people towards all other people, at all times.
DBG: You are a hopeless idealist. I deal in reality.
MPS: No, I am a hopeful idealist. I deal in truth and justice.
DBG: I’m not sure this is going very well.
MPS: When it comes to the Holocaust, we learnt the wrong lessons.
DBG: Can we move on? I take it you don’t have an issue with the name we chose?
MPS: ‘Israel’, was a great choice of name.
DBG: At last, something we agree on!
MPS: If I remember right, the name means: ‘To wrestle with God’, as Jacob did in the wilderness. Jews wrestling with God sums up the whole history of the state building project. I’m not sure who’s winning though.
DBG: Can you please stop, just for a moment, finding fault in everything we did. It takes two to tango you know. The Palestinians are not a tribe of saints just as we are not all sinners.
MPS: This is true. Both sides have been violent and stupid plenty of times. But you know as well as anyone that this was never a battle between equals. You must have put yourself in their shoes at some point in 1947-9? The Palestinians were 70% of the population of Mandate Palestine and the Jews owned only 6% of the land. Yet the UN offered the Jews a State made up of 55% of Palestine. In fact, if the plan had gone ahead, the new Jewish State would have had more Arabs than Jews in it. And we expected the Palestinians to accept it as a generous offer and wish us ‘mazoltov!’
DBG: After 64 years we are still the only democracy in the Middle East. And we promised as much back in ’48. You can’t argue with this: “The State of Israel will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.”
MPS: It sounds great but it’s full of contradictions. A bit like the Balfour declaration. How do you create a Jewish State with a built-in bias towards one ethnic/religious national group and claim this will not harm the rights of any other ethnic/religious national group? That’s not how British democracy works, or French or American. The reality on the ground does not match the high ideals and it never could. A Jewish State will never be fair or just until we come to terms honestly with the meaning of its founding principles. We offer Arabs rights as individuals but no rights as a people.
DBG: I think this is what these days they call ‘delegitimising’ the Jewish state.
MPS: Israel has been doing a very job of delegitimising itself for decades without the slightest help from me. It could have all been different of course. A homeland did not have to be a Jewish State.
DBG: Buber? Magnes? Even more crazy than you!
MPS: No. Just way ahead of the curve. One day we may catch up with them.
DBG: I suppose at the end we did place our trust in “The Rock of Israel”.
MPS: What exactly was that meant to mean?
DBG: It was a compromise, a sop to the religious. God, without actually saying God.
MPS: Well, I agree there are pros and cons with bringing God into the Middle East mix.
DBG: Amen to that!
MPS: When we leave him out we lose all humility. But when we bring him in, it’s like a license for eternal arrogance.
DBG: So can you help with the re-write or not?
MPS: I sense we may struggle to reach agreement.
DBG: Look, I can live with two states if that’s what you are getting at.
MPS: Well that’s certainly a start. Be honest, you must have been delighted when they refused to accept the partition plan in 1947?
DBG: I would have been foolish not to take advantage of their intransigence. We needed a viable state to survive. The UN did not give us that.
MPS: A viable state is exactly what we’re denying the Palestinians today. It’s good that you know what it feels like to be offered an unworkable solution.
DBG: Like I said before, there was a war. Wars are not nice. We planned well. We were organised and united. We won, they lost.
MPS: And let’s all wave a fond farewell to three thousand years of Jewish ethics. You’ve given me nationalism instead, and boy do I feel short changed!
DBG: Are you taking on the job or not?
MPS: If you are serious about a re-write then we need to start by accepting that this document has to be about two peoples, Jews and Palestinians, whose stories are now irreversibly entwined.
DBG: It won’t even sound like a Declaration of Independence by the time you are finished with it!
MPS: It will be independence from the old, worn-out paradigm. Past, present and future, the Palestinians and the Jews are now forever bound together. Like it or not, everything about both peoples now intersects through that small strip of land. Our future and theirs, it’s all the same story.
DBG: I should have chosen one of those liberal Zionists, they’re less challenging than you.
MPS: You tried to write them out of existence in 1948 and Israel has been trying to make them disappear for good ever since. The Palestinians are the inconvenient truth. It’s time to tell ourselves the truth.
DBG: I’m going to have to speak to my colleagues. This is all far more than we had discussed. You push too far and too fast for an old man like me.
MPS: Israel is still young but it’s time to start growing up. To build and to be built was a terrific slogan but now let’s apply it to everyone in the land.
DBG: We’ll see! I’m off. Sweet dreams young man.
MPS: Remember what Theodor Herzl said.
DBG: Remind me.
MPS: If you will it, it is no dream.
[And with that @DavidBenGurion hits the share button and tweets the link to the conversation with his 13 million Jewish followers.]