Browsing the stacks of the New York Society Library not long ago, I came across a book called "What Price Israel," by Alfred M. Lilienthal. It was just the sort of title, I thought, that has become dismayingly familiar in the last few years. But judging by the author's name, I guessed it would not be simply a Mearsheimer-and-Walt style "exposé" of Israel's relationship with America. No, the "price" such a book had in mind would have to be the price paid by the Jews for Israel — a price that certain Jewish anti-Zionists now find themselves psychically unable to afford.
I wasn't exactly wrong about "What Price Israel"; the author does strike all the familiar notes. He writes that Israel "has dangerously complicated the lives of Jews everywhere, and now endangers Judaism, the oldest monotheistic faith in the world." He speaks of "the universal Judaistic faith in a universal God," and contrasts it with Zionism, which he considers a revival of "the self-segregating notions of Europe's ancient ghettos." He says that Israel's Law of Return is "Nazi-like."
And of course, he hints darkly at the pressures brought to bear on him by other Jews not to reveal truths that have "been the subject of whispers." He foresees that "every conceivable kind of pressure will be exerted, I am afraid, to present a fair consideration" of his book. Yet he selflessly resolves to defy the Jewish establishment, "because I feel I owe a duty to my country above any duty I owe to my family and friends." It is Alfred Lilienthal, but it could be Michael Lerner, or Tony Judt, or any of the other Jewish critics of Israel who have become so prominent in the last few years.
There is one difference, however, between Mr. Lilienthal and these other writers. It is that "What Price Israel" was published in 1953. Decades before anyone could imagine the Six-Day War, the occupied territories, the first and second intifadas, or the security wall, "What Price Israel" demonstrates that the mind-set of Jewish anti-Zionism was fully developed. It serves, therefore, as a vivid reminder of the difference between criticism of the policies of the Israeli government and denial of the legitimacy of Israel as a Jewish state. Informed, principled criticism of the actions of the government can, indeed, be a form of support for the state — just as it is in America or any other free country. Indeed, one of the best rebuttals I know to post-Zionism and anti-Zionism can be found in the essay collection "From Herzl to Rabin," by Amnon Rubinstein — an eminent Israeli politician who, as a member of the left-wing Meretz party, has been a vocal critic of many of his government's actions.
But to move from criticism of Israeli policies to an attack on Israel's existence is a different matter. In the last few years — especially after the terror attacks of September 11, 2001 — this sort of Jewish anti-Zionism has become much more voluble. Indeed, you can find Mr. Lilienthal, now in his nineties, celebrating the fact on his Web site, where he writes: "Fortunately, I am no longer alone in my old age to make these challenges."
Some of his intellectual heirs and fellow "challengers" were the subject of last month's conference on "Israel's Jewish Defamers," sponsored by the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, or Camera. The panelists singled out a number of writers and publications by name. Cynthia Ozick concentrated on Mr. Lerner, the editor of Tikkun, who has written, "The Israel lobby has become a major perpetrator of the fear orientation in politics that... [is] at the heart of the many problems facing the world." Kenneth Levin discussed the "post-Zionist" school of Israeli academics and historians. And Alex Safian analyzed several articles from the New York Review of Books and the London Review of Books, which have become the most prominent venues for Jewish anti-Zionism.
I read the transcripts of these talks, but I did not attend the Camera conference; and I admit that when I first heard about it, the title "Israel's Jewish Defamers" gave me pause. It is perilous, I believe, for Zionists to focus their arguments on the psychological motivations of anti-Zionists, because it means fighting on the anti-Zionists' preferred ground. The strength of Zionism has always been its realism, its ability to address the facts of the Jewish condition, even when those facts are so unpleasant that it would be much easier to take refuge in fantasy. When the Jews of France and Germany clung to the illusion of emancipation, even after the Dreyfus Affair and the rise of political anti-Semitism, Max Nordau plainly told the First Zionist Congress that the European Jew "cannot count on justice from his Christian countrymen as a reward for either his character or his achievements." The subsequent history of European Jewry, down to the present, proved that he was right. The Zionists, who first appeared to be dreamers, were in fact cold-eyed realists about the Jewish predicament.
The favorite terrain of Jewish anti-Zionists, on the other hand, is psychology and fantasy. A prime example is the British literary critic Jacqueline Rose, whose 2005 book "The Question of Zion" argued that the Israel–Palestine conflict has less to do with facts — of territory, demographics, and violence — than with the psychology of the Jews, specifically their post-Holocaust guilt and fear of appearing weak. "The Palestinians," Ms. Rose wrote, "have become the inadvertent objects of a struggle that, while grounded in the possession of the land, at another level has nothing to do with them at all." This is an oblique form of narcissism — a belief that the only realities that matter are the desires and fantasies of one's self and one's own group.
Instead of being about the lives and fates of millions of Jews and Arabs, the Israel–Palestine conflict becomes, for the Jewish anti-Zionist, a way of defining his or her own identity. That is why the Camera conference's focus on the motives of Israel's Jewish critics turns out to be inevitable: They themselves leave no choice. Thus Ms. Rose writes that she is "appalled at what the Israeli nation perpetrated in my name." The British Communist historian Eric Hobsbawm, in his recent memoir "Interesting Times," describes Israel as "the small, militarist, culturally disappointing and politically aggressive nation-state which asks for my solidarity on racial grounds."
Often, Jewish critics of Israel cannot help personalizing and psychologizing their arguments to a simply amazing extent. "The Divided Self: Israel and the Jewish Psyche Today," a recent book by the English rabbi David J. Goldberg, is intended as a critique of Zionism and a "vindication of the pragmatic, relativist approach to survival" he associates with the Diaspora. But it begins with a stunningly self-expository anecdote. In 1958, Mr. Goldberg writes, after spending a year on a kibbutz, he took a ship home from Israel and tried to pick up a girl he met onboard — "one particularly fetching example of Jewish princess pulchritude."
He was edged out, however, by a handsome Israeli veteran, a "husky hero" with a "lifeguard's physique." Mr. Goldberg was left to envy the soldier's "supreme self-confidence." The twist came, however, when the ship landed at Naples: When hawkers tried to sell the passengers fake watches, Mr. Goldberg was savvy enough to refuse, while the Israeli stupidly succumbed to the pitch. In the end, Mr. Goldberg has the satisfaction of seeing his own Diasporic shrewdness triumph over the Israeli's manliness and confidence. His greatest enemy could hardly invent a more damning parable of Jewish anti-Zionist resentment. Even much more sophisticated writers, however, end up sending similar signals. Take Mr. Judt's essay "Israel: The Alternative," which appeared in the New York Review of Books in 2003 and immediately became a focal point in the debate over Jewish anti-Zionism. Mr. Judt's proposal is that Israel should give up being a Jewish state and become a binational one, with an Arab majority. "What if there were no place in the world today for a 'Jewish state'?" Mr. Judt asks, and not in a tone of apprehension. On the contrary, he believes that the disappearance of the Jewish state would be a relief, because it would ease the psychological burden of European and American Jews. "More and more of us," he writes, "have multiple elective identities and would be falsely constrained if we had to answer to just one of them." But the existence of a Jewish state, he feels, forces the world to see him as merely Jewish — a truncation of possibilities that he cannot abide. "In such a world," he concludes, "Israel is truly an anachronism." The world Mr. Judt describes, of course, is not the world of the Middle East, in which Israel actually exists, or most of the rest of the globe, either. It is only the world of a small class of Jews in the West — above all, in Western Europe, where the only thing more obsolete than the idea of nationhood is the idea of Jewish nationhood. And it is no coincidence that the writers I have quoted — Rose, Hobsbawm, Goldberg, and Judt — are all British by birth or upbringing; or that the London Review of Books, whose editor Mary-Kay Wilmers is also a British Jew, should be the pre-eminent forum for Jewish anti-Zionism.
Since September 11, 2001, the British Left, and those American intellectuals who look to it for validation, have developed a worldview in which the existence of Israel is the major obstacle preventing the return of the golden age. Without Israel, the reasoning goes, there would be no Al Qaeda terrorists in London and Madrid, no war in Iraq, no nuclear crisis in Iran. Clare Short, a former member of the British cabinet, recently suggested that because the Israel–Palestine conflict "undermines the international community's reaction to global warming," Israel may well be ultimately responsible for "the end of the human race."
The irrationality of such thinking, and its clandestine debt to old tropes of Christian anti-Semitism, are obvious. Why, then, should Jewish anti-Zionists feel drawn to it? The answer, I think, is that the world of Mr. Judt's imagination — a world "where cultural and national impediments to communication have all but collapsed" — is a dream, not just in the sense that it does not exist, but in the sense that it is something for which we rightfully yearn. A world where nations are not enemies, and where national states are no longer necessary to protect us from one another, is a genuinely liberal aspiration. It is, indeed, originally a Jewish aspiration, voiced by the prophet Isaiah: "they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more."
Where Jewish anti-Zionists go wrong is not in desiring such a world, but in believing that it exists — or that it could come into being if Israel ceased to be a Jewish state. In fact, Zionism, like other national liberation movements that emerged in the 19th century, represents the adaptation of that humanitarian dream to the reality of history as we know it. Only in a Jewish nation, the Zionists believed, could Jews be assured of enjoying the human rights to which they were entitled. As Leo Pinsker wrote in 1882, in the pioneering Zionist work "Auto-Emancipation": "The human race, and we as well, have scarcely traversed the first stage of the practice of perfect humanitarianism — if that goal is ever to be reached. Therefore we must abandon the delusive idea that we are fulfilling by our dispersion a Providential mission...."
The idea that Pinsker already recognized as delusive, however, still has the power to seduce. The notion that the Jews do not need a state because they have a universal mission — that it is possible to be a light unto the nations without being a nation — is at the heart of much contemporary Jewish anti-Zionism. In a virulent book called "Overcoming Zionism," Joel Kovel invokes this theme, writing that "the true glory of being Jewish is to live on the margin and across boundaries." He goes on to give a familiar catalog of geniuses — Marx, Freud, Proust, Einstein, Kafka, and more — who are alleged to be the fruit of such virtuous deracination.
One of the best-received works of Jewish studies in recent years — Yuri Slezkine's impressive but troubling "The Jewish Century" — rests on the similar premise that Jews are "Mercurians," followers of the god of merchants and tricksters. This means that they are fated to be permanent strangers, with the power to "do certain dangerous, marvelous, and distasteful things." To Mr. Slezkine, the state of Israel is a betrayal of the Jews' Mercurian identity, because it represents the opposite values he associates with the god Apollo — "violent retribution and undiluted ethnic nationalism."
The common theme is that the Jews should not have a state because they are too good for statehood — an insidiously flattering notion that over the years has appealed to many Jewish intellectuals. Martin Buber, for instance, contrasted his biblically-based "Hebrew humanism" to "that Jewish nationalism which regards Israel as a nation like unto other nations and recognizes no task for Israel save that of preserving and asserting itself." That Buber could write these words in 1942, of all years, shows how powerful the resistance to nationhood can be among Jews.
That resistance is all the more plausible and tempting for contemporary anti-Zionists, because they live in a world where a Jewish state actually does exist. Thus Israel can be assigned the burden of sustaining and protecting Jewish nationhood, while Jews outside Israel can glory in being "Mercurians" with "multiple elective identities." In that sense, the flourishing of Jewish anti-Zionism is a tribute to the very success of the state of Israel, and to a secure moment in Jewish history that the future may well look back on as charmed and exceptional. Yet to use the freedom and confidence that are gifts of Zionism to undermine Zionism itself is a terrible abuse. The words that Nordau wrote in 1902 are no less true today: "All these feelings on the part of [anti-Zionist] Jews are understandable. From their standpoint they are justified. The Jews, however, have no right to expect that Zionism should commit suicide for their sake."