What if there were no Jewish state?
What if Hamas got its wish and Israel, as we know it, fell into the sea?
It’s the one scenario that the Israeli government considers absolutely unthinkable. So let’s think about it.
Not that Israel would disappear in the manner Hamas would prefer—namely, by taking all its people with it—but that it would simply cease to be a Jewish state, transitioning into a nonsectarian country like any other.
Indeed, the notion is “unthinkable” in both senses of the word. For Israeli Jews—and most non-Israeli Jews, too—the loss of the Promised Land as a birthright is unthinkable in the sense of being too horrible to contemplate.
As well—and perhaps most essentially—the death of a Jewish Israel is unthinkable in the way that the death of a democratic United States or a Catholic Vatican are unthinkable: Present circumstances render such events literally impossible.
In Israel’s case, the reasons are twofold. First, there is the fact of Israel’s nuclear arsenal, whose capabilities represent both an undeniable lifeline and the state’s primary contribution of Orwellianism to the world. (To wit: Everyone knows Israel possesses nuclear weapons, but no one is allowed to say so).
And then there is the fact of America, which will defend Israel’s right to exist until the last lobbyist dies.
Together, these two forces ensure that, for better or worse, the Jewish state will endure. That even if the supposed nightmare scenario occurs—namely, the literal wiping out of Israel’s population by a nuclear rogue state—the deed to the land itself would not become null and void. It would merely pass down to the next generation of Jews to seize, with the wind of world opinion at their backs.
After all, that is, in a manner of speaking, how modern Israel was born. In the twilight of British control over Palestine, the basis for “The Jews’ State”—as articulated by Theodore Herzl in 1896 and outlined in the Balfour Declaration of 1917—was, above all, to rectify the Jewish people’s long history of persecution and exile by providing them a solid, permanent living space in which such injustices would not occur. In 1948, the recently-completed systematic murder of six million of the ancient tribe—that is to say, roughly two-thirds of all the Jews then living in Europe—was the final straw and effectively the end of the argument. (And also, of course, only the beginning of the fighting.)
Bearing this long but necessary prelude in mind, let us now ask: Given the world as it is today, does this argument still hold? Are the Jewish people really as vulnerable as they were at the end of World War II, thereby deserving a state of their own?
If not, what is the justification for an explicitly Jewish state—one that automatically grants citizenship to any interested Jewish person, but does not extend the same courtesy to others?
And if so—that is, if anti-Semitism and the threat of violence and extinction are as great as many allege and fear—what could we reasonably expect to actually happen in a world without a Jewish state? Would Jews become yet more susceptible to others’ ire, or has the world moved on from treating the Jew as a perpetual victim, thereby rendering special consideration obsolete?
Does Israel, as we have known it for the past 66 years, any longer have a purpose?
The United States is explicitly and deliberately a nation of no people in particular. Ours is not a “Christian country,” nor an “English-speaking country,” nor a “right-handed country.” Statistically-speaking, all of those characteristics are accurate, but none is required either for citizenship or for special treatment under the law.
By design, America is pluralistic and secular, and it is precisely for that reason that absolutely anyone can coexist with anyone else. It is not even slightly a coincidence that, in a society that does not value one religion over another, the United States has never played host to a large-scale religious conflict within its borders. It is awfully hard to feel repressed when no one is repressing you, even if you’re a Muslim or a Jew.
When faced with this challenge about Israel’s role in the world, many have underlined the country’s status as the only stable, functioning democracy in the Middle East, a region otherwise populated by dictatorships and general political chaos of one sort or another.
With its regular elections and three separate branches of government, Israel is indeed exceptional, given its location and history. Americans and others are right to be thankful to have at least one dependable ally in the neighborhood.
Isn’t that good enough? Shouldn’t Israel’s primary objective in today’s world be to shore up its democratic traditions, not its religious favoritism? Isn’t the latter axiomatically a hindrance to the former? Isn’t the only real effect of Israel being a country for Jews, rather than a country for everybody, the continued uncertainty among all its residents that they can practice their particular faith in peace?
Has Zionism finally played itself out?
Rest assured: I am prepared to entertain the possibility that I am an idiot. That I know even less about Israel than I think I do. That my atheism blinds me to the concerns of the faithful, and that my experience as an American inhibits my understanding of life in the Middle East (or anywhere else).
Perhaps it really is necessary to have a “Jewish state”—not just a “state for Jews”—somewhere in the world, so that those under oppression (real or imagined) can be secure in their persons and their faith. And perhaps the only real concern in the present conflict in Gaza is how the Israeli government should manage itself, not the nature of the government itself.
All of those things might be true. However, I nonetheless suspect that they might not, and I worry that the continued assumption to the contrary will do all of us far more harm than we know.