Attention: I am doing something that is heretical across much of the Jewish spectrum. Very heretical – for two-state JStreet-ers, for your right-wing grandma at synagogue Kiddush, and certainly for anyone remotely associated with StandWithUs and other organizations dedicated to apologetics for the Occupation.
I am preparing for the potential end of Israel as we know it. I am preparing for the potential end of Jewish statehood.
I do not mean “Exile 2.0” or some sort of apocalyptic genocidal nightmare. What I mean is the replacement of the current political system with something in which the region might be governed in a binational state, or some other form of government in which Jews are no longer the absolute majority (or hegemonic). Jews would stay, but would not rule alone.
Either way, this is not a popular preparation. And it might be a bit surprising to some that I would do this – as someone involved in religious Jewish life on campus, someone with many close relatives in Israel, and someone who speaks Hebrew quite fluently and reads Ha’aretz every day. (Though I would argue that I am not so unusual given the normal readership of Ha’aretz.)
What propelled me to begin my preparations in the first place? Well, some of it is that favorite catchphrase of the right: “facts on the ground.” The settlements do not seem to be going anywhere, and it is patently apparent that the Israeli government and Israeli public by and large do not have much interest in neither the peace process nor changing the status quo. As the Occupation continues, the chances of a fully sovereign Palestinian state– despite a declaration of independence in1988 and joining some UN agencies in 2012 – dwindle and dwindle. What will happen when the majority of people under Israeli control are not Jewish? Rather than face the reality of the situation, the Israeli government and much of the Israeli public is completely obstinate. African refugees are called “infiltrators,” the Land of Israel Caucus tries to annex the settlements, and any criticism of the state ideology is seen as “incitement.”The message: don’t question the Jewish state. But that state is … falling apart.
Of course one could say that I have given up and thus really should not be complaining if I’m not doing anything to stop it. But to be honest, another thing that propelled me to start preparing was this question: Is it worth it? Is a Westphalian nation-statereally the pinnacle of what Judaism is?
There’s of course the theology that questions worship of the state, and that inconvenient fact– as my friend Maia says – that “we have no scientific proof that Israel is the start of our redemption.” Then there’s the practical effects. From Netanyahu’s claims literally spoon-feeding anti-Semites’ claims that Diaspora Jews are more loyal to Israel than to anything else, to the chronic de-legitimization of non-Orthodox Judaism through state channels, I would hardly call the State of Israel only beneficial for Jews. With this nonsense – combined with the rise in anti-Semitism that the Occupation has encouraged (but does not excuse)– I do not necessarily feel motivated to do everything I can to keep the Jewish state Jewish.
It is not an easy situation for me to think about. A binational state is a tall order, given a century of distrust created by the conflict, a distrust that emanates from both sides. “How can Jews and Arabs (which are not fully exclusive categories) live together peacefully in a state? Is it not completely impossible?” Well, shouldn’t we start thinking about the consequences of this question now rather than after it is established? The situation in a binational state will probably be quite awful for a while, but at least there is some distant hope that it could work at some point. Here’s the thing: the Occupation and the status quo are not just already awful, but completely unsustainable. Furthermore, the rest of the world – on which the relatively puny and unimportant (sorry, folks) State of Israel is completely dependent – is probably going to be more supportive of a binational state at some point in the future – especially because they are no longer that on the up and up on the Occupation.
Of course my ideal situation would have two states. I want that just as much as everyone else. But I am preparing for this situation as well, because as I have noted, it is a very realistic possibility. (It has even been done before.)
Some of this preparation, for me, at least, has a comparison: my family is from South Africa, and I can’t help but think of Israel in comparison: In the prelude to South Africa’s democratization in 1994, many writers claimed that a multiethnic country based on equal rights in governance was impossible. Once democratization happened, things were indeed horrifically messy. Things still are messy. But South Africa, for all its problems, survived – and has in many ways improved dramatically. So to an extent, my preparation is informed by my knowledge that things will not necessarily be completely disastrous.
Decentering my own practice from Israel, back towards other aspects of Jewish life, has been challenging as well. So much of what we determine to be authentic Jewish life in the United States revolves around Israel: “folk dancing,” Birthright, classes in Modern Hebrew, and celebrations with “Israeli food.” What about the rest of Jewish heritage? I’ve started to think of volunteering at home and celebrating the old country as equally Jewish, and have encouraged the prayer group I ran on my campus to do the same. Also, some of this decentering is really simple. (Can we get herring and lagman up in this house tonight?)
I have also found that it is important to not fall into nationalist rhetoric and the realm of feelings it creates. In a Jewish universe where Yom Ha’atzmaut gains more synagogue funds than Shavuot, it is easy to fall into a fantasy of Israel as the pinnacle of Jewish achievement. But in order to prepare for a different paradigm, one must distance oneself from that feeling – lest the crash of reality be too disappointing. Thus, rather than simply leave things at “look at all the cool things Israel makes,” I have also started to remember to counter that with other forms of pride. Furthermore, I have started to avoid many nationalist events – I have attended exactly one thing for Yom Ha’atzmaut in the past eight years. (I consider Yom Yerushalayim to be terrifying.)
And so I’ve started the slow preparation for the case that Israel is no longer a Jewish state. Would I be completely prepared? Probably not – a restructuring of the political situation in the Holy Land, even in the “best case scenario,” would completely upturn the Jewish communal landscape and the way American Jewry perceives itself. It is not so easy to undo seventy years of one system. But starting the process of looking at a strange and different potential Jewish future is something that I think will help with the big change that may be down the line.
Who cares if it is heretical?
Jonathan P. Katz just graduated from the University of Chicago.