For Argument's Sake



In our jointly authored book, my father, a writer, and I, a historian, took a fresh look at the mystery of Jewish survival. "Ours", we wrote, "is not a bloodline but a textline."

Book pullJews are not a people forged by blood and swords, but we are nevertheless an ancient nation. This belonging can cross international borders today; it tackles the religious-secular divide and the Israel-diaspora divide. Ours is a uniquely textual nation, whose sense of belonging comes from the Bible and a myriad of subsequent books, interpretations, arguments and questions. For many centuries, ours was the only pre-modern culture with universal male literacy, alongside significant female literacy.

Tell your Child"Tell your child": this is our oldest and best survival technique and cultural instrument. But we do not only teach our children to read and remember. We also encourage them to think afresh, and to challenge their elders with questions and ideas. Also to laugh: at ourselves, at authorities, and even at the Almighty.

As you know, all good Jewish families argue. Humor, irreverence, debate, originality, and text-based inventiveness: these are the ancient codes of Jewish survival. They explain our global sense of cousinhood - or at least a shared sense of humor - in today's world. It is the key to our three-millennia survival.

Does 'textual nationhood' mean that the Land of Israel is unimportant? That Jews ought to have remained stateless? Not in my book. The State of Israel, which my four grandparents helped build in the fields of the kibbutz and in the libraries of Jerusalem, is a miracle even to secular Jews like us. It came into being when young Jews of the 20th century transformed longing into activism, memory into state-building, and Talmudic reasoning into modern invention.

I am the grandchild of four Zionist pioneers, and even they disagreed about their mission: the benign Jewish socialism of the kibbutz, the scholarly carving of new Jewish learning, and the personal love of Hebrew literature and song - all are reflected in my ancestors in different ways. They also represented 'right-wing' and 'left-wing' Zionism.

Humor, irreverence, debate

But all four had one value in common: a humanist outlook. Rabbi Akiva's saying "beloved is man, for he is created in the image [of God]" spoke to their heart, whether they saw that image as God's or mankind's. They shared, like all moderate Zionists, the ancient Jewish love of peace, justice, and personal sensitivity to others. They understood that fulfilling the dream of revival in the Land of Israel concerns modern realities, with the existence of two peoples on the same plot of earth. They knew that Jews and Arabs must live here together.

My father hails from this legacy. Having fought as a combatant in the Six Day War and in the Yom Kippur War, he set out to help found Peace Now in the late 1970s. His was once a lone voice in the wilderness. As early as 1967 he was telling the Israeli government that the newly occupied Arab territories may become a dangerous burden to Israel's security, freedom and democracy. He insisted that the Palestinians, despite the mistakes of their deplorable leaders and crimes of their terrorist organizations, are human beings entitled to dignity and nationhood, alongside a secure and democratic Israel. Neither politically correct nor blind to complexities, he spoke against Jewish and Arab extremists alike. As far back as I remember, he endorsed heterogeneity, hope, a sharp sense of criticism and an irreverent sort of humor. This was his Zionism, and mine too.

Family picIsraelis and Palestinians today are more remote from each other than at any time since 1967. The defensive wall, built to prevent Palestinian terror in Israeli cities, has dug an abyss between Israelis and Palestinians who previously worked together and strove for peace. As for the West Bank settlements, they have only damaged their founders' declared intention of making Israel stronger, more secure, and more 'Jewish'. Like my father, I have had honest dialogues with settlers. I do not hate them. For me, they are part of Israeli society and public debate. But their Jewish and democratic values are not the ones I cherish.

Precisely because I believe in my grandparents' Zionism, in an independent State for the Jewish people, where our lives can be safe and free, where our intellectual legacy ignites new creativity, and where the endless Jewish debate about everything will continue unabated - precisely because of all this, I know that Israel will not survive without democracy, humanism, and peace.

My own scholarship reveals the subtle Hebraic impact on the rise of Western liberty, human rights, and international law. My studies, along with those of other researchers in the past two decades, have explored how the Hebrew Bible and Talmud made a deep impression on modern European and North American theories of freedom. I am not a religious woman, but the Tanach is a moral and political textbook for me. It is the oldest bid for community-based rule of law and human compassion. It is "justice, justice shall you pursue" (Deuteronomy), and "The stranger that resides with you shall be like one of your own, and you shall love him as thyself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt."

Modern democracy has a Jewish gene. Something of our biblical world of law-abiding communities, numerous individual voices, strong women, and prophets challenging kings has entered modernity and helped form it. So did our Talmudic love of debate, rationality and literacy constantly touching on everyday life. This ancient Hebrew ethics of restlessness, the "theology of chutzpah", as we called it in Jews and Words, belongs to the DNA of modern democracy.

UnfortunatelyUnfortunately, I often find myself these days arguing against Israelis who firmly believe that "Jewish" clashes head-on with "democratic", and that the former must prevail. But in my view they are wrong on both counts. A Jewish democratic state is possible. It will also be the state of all its citizens, in terms of their human as well as cultural rights. It will become truly democratic, and unassailably a home to a Jewish majority, only when a peaceful Palestine can gain independence too.

Now, I am no starry-eyed idealist. I grew up in a kibbutz, served as an officer in the IDF, lived through more wars, terror and loss than I care to count. I also live among my people, listening carefully to opinions from left, right and center. I have learned not to idealize the Palestinian leadership, and to deplore the Palestinian educational system. Looking back, while both Israeli and Palestinian leaderships have missed crucial opportunities to settle our conflict, I tend to think that Palestinians have missed more. For sure, their tragedy is greater. Looking at the near future, no dialogue with Hamas, the obnoxious ruler of Gaza, is in the cards. But Ramallah is still a potential partner, although not an ideal one. Nor is the regional and global situation very promising. But as a historian, I know that nations have made peace in more dire conditions than ours.

Is the two-state solution still viable, or is it dead and gone? To quote my father, Israelis and Palestinians now need a decent divorce, not a forced cohabitation. Like many leftist and centrist moderates in Israel (and a few voices of hope in Palestine), I still see a chance for territorial separation, leading to reasonable neighborhood of sovereign states, and possibly to economic and cultural flourishing on the Palestinian side too.

DonateActivism matters. As Rabbi Tarfon taught us in the Ethics of the Fathers, "You are not obligated to complete the work [of mending the world], but neither are you free to desist from it." I think of this quote when facing European audiences that are often hostile, and spelling out both my critique of Israel's government and my pride in Israeli society. Yes, my colleagues and I are proud to teach at the University of Haifa, where young Palestinians and Arab-Israelis make up 20% of our classrooms. We see them, year by year, making headways into civil society, professional life, and a complex, but increasingly vocal, Arab-Israeli citizenry.

Israel retains -- and must keep nourishing -- the very special Jewish legacy of self-critique, open debate, global outlook and humanist ideals. Our ancient nationhood has never contradicted these values, and they have always stood their own against other Jewish tendencies -- the isolated, inward-looking ones. We were never truly "a people apart". As nomads, traders, artisans and artists, all the way from the Bronze Age to modernity, we have exchanged goods, techniques, ideas, words and wisdom with every culture we ever came across.

All Functional Familes boxquoteZionism has been a tremendous success story. Even before achieving Jewish sovereignty it had several monumental accomplishments: Modern Hebrew language and culture, the kibbutz (it's still alive!), and the great city of Tel Aviv. For me, the crowning achievement is yet to come: a peaceful and democratic Israel, home to Jews of all persuasions, home to Arab citizens enjoying equal rights, and neighbor to a Palestine recasting its nationhood along similar lines.

The heated inner debate among Israelis today is not very polite -- which is fine -- but it sometimes borders on the violent, which is scary. Make no mistake: the Israeli debate is not only about the occupation or the future of the Palestinian territories. Nor is it about "Who is a Jew?" Rather, it is about "What does it mean to be Jewish today?" Are we a standalone, divinely ordained nation, or a democracy maintaining the best of its Jewish legacy? Does our Jewish fate mean everlasting persecution and living on one's sword? Or do our Jewish legacy and values mean a start-up nation, bright and open-minded, adamantly pursuing peace, diversity and justice, mixing Jerusalem's seriousness with a tad of Tel Aviv's irreverence?

This dispute is not between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. It is between different interpretations of human nature, history, and the good. It is not only an Israeli or a Jewish conversation, but a human one. Please join it. Raise your voice. Teach your children and your grandchildren how to be "a lover of peace and pursuer of peace" (Hillel the Elder).

I support Peace Now, and invite you to do the same, not because I think peace is likely to come now, but because activism for peace must keep going. As the same Hillel the Elder once said, "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?"

Thank you,

Fania Oz-Salzberger