At the very core of the recent dispute between Leon Wieseltier and Andrew Sullivan, as I saw it, have seen it, and see it, is Sullivan’s imbalanced adoption – even as he professes his empathy with, and idealized admiration of, Jews – of the anti-Israeli perceptions and rhetoric that are the currency of anti-Zionists. The notion that Zionism should require any defense is abominable. The current atmosphere, in which such defenses might seem necessary, is abominable: see Robert S. Wistrich’s just published A Lethal Obsession: Anti-Semitism from Antiquity to the Global Jihad. What I offer here, instead, from Ernest Sternberg, author of “Purifying the World: What the New Radical Ideology Stands For,” of which I wrote in The Convergence of the Twain, is one of the finer brief affirmations of Zionism I have read. Originally published in March 2009 in Ari, the Jewish students’ publication at the University at Buffalo, State University of New York, I reproduce it here by permission of the author.
Zionism and Universal Justice
The beliefs that motivate my own Zionism originate in a specific conversation with my mother in December 1979, when she finally felt able to talk to me about her experiences in Auschwitz. I vividly recall her description of the day in the spring of 1944, when she, her brother, young sister, parents, aunt, and the three remotely related children they were caring for (their father having been taken to perform forced labor on the Eastern front) were ordered, along with other Jews, to leave the barbed-wire enclosed ghetto for the railway station.
This was in the city of Nagyvàrad (Romanian name “Oradea”) in Hungarian Fascist occupied Romania, where the population consisted of Hungarian speakers. It is there at the railway station that they were forced at gunpoint into cattle cars, squeezed in standing room only, without food or water (other accounts tell of one bucket of water per car) or ability to relieve themselves, for the three day transport to Auschwitz.
The adult male Jews of the region were largely artisans. In my extended family, very few of whom survived, tailors and cabinetmakers predominated, but there was also the odd tinsmith, baby-carriage maker, umbrella maker, orchard manager, and a tavern-keeper. In that transport, my grandfather, a tailor, prayed constantly, for as long as he could bear to.
It was in that cattle car, too, that my mother, then 21, realized-as she put it to me over three decades later-what fools her family and the other Jews had been. There had been chances to escape to Palestine and there had already been horrifying rumors about the fate of the Jews in Poland. But the local rabbinical authorities, whom my grandfather trusted, had prohibited escape to Palestine on the grounds that only the Messiah could rightly bring about the ingathering of the Jews. And it wasn’t as if nothing of the sort had previously happened-hadn’t the pogroms occurred just decades before? The Hungarian Jews had endured the hatred, the dangers of travel (from violent attacks by anti-Semites), and the forced wearing of the yellow stars, under the illusion that, despite it all, somehow, they would emerge from the nightmare and return to their quiet and pious lives, without having to take action for their own, collective protection. Squeezed in among the condemned, my mother became a Zionist, a supporter of the idea that Jews must act to protect themselves, in Palestine.
I need only mention in passing that, nowadays, by official declaration of the United Nations and the enlightened estimate of world’s progressive thinkers, that woman in the cattle car had, need I say it?, instantly become a racist imperialist.
From my mother’s realization in that dark wagon, and from those of others subjected to existential oppression, I would like to draw two conclusions. First, in most of the world’s regimes (America is the great exception), the old ideal of Jewish assimilation turned out to be a disastrous delusion. Now under the global demonization of Israel, when the world’s problems are routinely attributed to sinister Zionist forces, Israel as a place for collective self-defense is as essential as it was after World War II. The belief that Israelis can blithely abandon their self-protective movement by retreating to the pre-War hopes for world acceptance-that is truly an intellectual evasion, a gargantuan amnesia, a lunacy blind both to current events and to history.
Recall something that today’s globalized anti-Semitic rhetoric ignores. There have been many Zionisms. There is cultural Zionism, socialist Zionism, religious Zionism, Zionism of shared national heritage, liberal Zionism (based on the idea that individuals sent to their deaths by their one-time home states had the right to enter into contract among themselves to form a new state), de-facto Zionism (viewing Israel as nation that exists and deserve the rights that others have), and legalistic Zionism (drawing on histories of international agreements).
My second conclusion is that Zionism has one more meaning, perhaps its most important one: as a movement of collective self-protection and self-determination. This Zionism gains its moral legitimacy-it becomes a moral imperative-in face of a world that is much like the present: armed and viciously bigoted, with states and armed movements bent on the Jews’ annihilation. This particular Zionism is in itself morally sufficient to warrant a state. A state is essential because it is the primary political entity through which a people can have access to legitimate means of violence to defend themselves.
It follows that, not just in religious or nationalist terms, but in terms of universal justice, Zionism is a moral requisite. It is so on the moral grounds that a people, any people, targeted for collective elimination have a right to collective defense. Jews had as a cultural asset the religious yearning for the land of Israel and this heritage allowed them to achieve self-determination that other dispersed people have not; but to say so in no way undermines Zionism as a just cause.
To be sure, Jews in Palestine had obligations toward those among whom they were settling. But the obligation extends only in so far as those neighbors don’t themselves join, as they certainly did in 1948, the quest to annihilate the Jews. It is the most bizarre of positions, held even by some Israelis, that Jewish suffering cannot stand as a justification-that it is somehow an excuse-for Israel. That is tantamount to saying the following: that being faced with annihilation is no excuse for defending yourself.
Global anti-Semitic forces are one again converging. Why so? French authors, who are especially good at explaining it, include Bernard-Henri Levy, Pierre-André Taguieff, and Alain Finkielkraut, all available in English. One theme is that we’re seeing the rise of a post-communist “new barbarism,” that needs a scapegoat through which to forge alliances among the world’s supposed resistance movements.
Under the resulting world-wide ideological assault, some of the more sensitive and fearful among us have concluded that the solution is to abandon Zionism. While our diffident co-religionists smile and cringe and blame themselves for having caused it all, the Iranian mullah regime, Hizbullah, Hamas, the Jihadists, the Muslim brotherhood, neo-Nazis, and progressive Israel-haters worldwide are assiduously building and lining up 21st century versions of the cattle-cars.