Israel as a Dollar Auction
September 2014
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Israel as a Dollar Auction

by Jonathan Wallace

The “dollar auction” is a game theory exercise in which the subject, or mark, is tricked into paying $1.50 for a dollar which is being auctioned off. Human nature dictates that once we have invested time and energy in something, we are willing to pay more than it is worth rather than relinquish it. Testosterone, ego and pride play a role.

It occurred to me this month that Israel is a dollar auction, for Jews and other supporters. To explain what I mean, I have to go back to Theodor Herzl and the original conception of the Jewish state.

I have always regarded Theodor Herzl as a sort of icon of will. He talked his way in to see the Pope when he was nobody, but after that he had access to every other European government. He envisioned a Jewish state and then it happened because he wanted it so badly; he said, “If you will it, it is not a dream”.

Herzl wrote: “The earth resounds with outcries against the Jews, and these outcries have awakened the slumbering idea”. Theodor Herzl, A Jewish State (New York: Maccabean Publishing 1904) p. xxvi As a journalist, he had attended the Dreyfus trial, and the brutal outcome had frightened and motivated him. “[W]hat is our propelling force? The misery of the Jews”. P. xxvii As a highly assimilated secular Jew, Herzl lost faith that living in someone else’s nation, even in those places that Enlightenment burned brightest, could ever be the answer. “We naturally move to those places where we are not persecuted, and there our presence produces persecution”. P. xxxvi He believed the Jews had already “introduced” anti-Semitism into America. P. xxxvi

Herzl was not a mystic. His vision was not based on Torah, Talmud, Kabbalah, the Kosher laws or divine intervention. His definition of nationhood seems derived from Renan’s. “A nation is, in my mind, a historical group of men of a recognizable cohesion held together by a common enemy”. Footnote p. xli He predicted that the creation of the Jewish state would ease conditions for the Jews who stayed behind, by drawing off all the dissenters, the irritating proletarian element, to the new land. “[T]hey would be rid of the disquieting, incalculable and unavoidable rivalry of a Jewish proletariat, driven by poverty and political pressure from place to place, from land to land”. P. xlii Herzl, whose idealism was in places so extreme as to lead him into lamentable self delusion, imagined that the Jews who left would be honored and respected for their decision, which would be actually regarded as benevolent because there would be “an inner migration of Christian citizens into the positions evacuated by Jews”. P. xlv As a result, the Jews would leave as “honored friends” and, if visiting later, “would receive the same favorable welcome and treatment at the hands of civilized nations as is accorded to all foreign visitors”. P. xlv He expected the enthusiastic support and cooperation everywhere of “honest anti-Semites” p. 33—a phrase most of us would regard as an oxymoron.

Herzl spends most of A Jewish State describing two movements that will be needed, a political arm to propose and execute the idea and a financial one to assist Jews in disposing of their European possessions and acquiring new homes and things in the new country. He discusses governance (he favors a “democratic monarchy” p. 71), the working day (seven hours), the care of the poor, even the design of the flag. He does not care where the Jewish state is to be located (when the British offered Uganda, Herzl voted to accept; he also saw Argentina, where there were already Jewish colonies, as a possibility). He hoped to avoid “if possible, the creation of an opposition party. Such a result would ruin the cause from the outset”, p. 12 if the Jews were seen not to be unified on the question of their new country. In fact, this was the result, as the wealthiest, most assimilated element of European Jewry at first saw Zionism as an “egregious blunder”, despite Baron Rothschild’s support. P. xviii

Herzl did not want the Jewish state to be a “theocracy”, p. 74, but in fact saw it as a place of tolerance. “{I]f its should occur that men of different creeds and different nationalities came to live among us, we should accord them honorable protection, and equality before the law. We learnt toleration in Europe”. P. 75 In his “Conclusion” he reveals the far boundary of his unrealistic idealism: “[T]he Jews, once settled in their own State, would probably have no more enemies”. P. 83 He saw, instead, the main opposition to the Jewish state as the “evil-disposed, narrow-hearted, short-sighted member[s] of our own race”. P.84 The new state will indeed be a light unto the nations: “The world will be freed by our liberty, enriched by our wealth, magnified by our greatness”. P. 87

The wealthy and assimilated were skeptical or angry but the “’poor and lowly’….offered him at once their loyalty and their enthusiasm”. P. xviii Israel at the outset was populated largely by shtetl Jews like me, from Russia, Poland, Ukraine, elsewhere in the Pale of Settlement. A large part of the sale, of the appeal, was the idea of straightening up, standing tall, being proud. Something secular Jews don’t like to admit is the degree to which we may privately see the ghetto Jew, represented today by the Hasid with his payas, tfilin and kepah, as a reproach or embarrassment. “[T]he ‘bent back’ of the Jew grew straight in the presence of the Jewish flag”. P. xxiii One of the first revelations for an American Jewish child reading about Israel was that our “race” could produce people as tough, strong and tall as its paratroopers.

Herzl thought and wrote at the mile-high level. Since he did not know or care where the Jewish state would be located, there were by definition no “indigenous” people there to be driven out, slaughtered, or given alcohol or small-pox infected blankets. I do Herzl the grace, along with Jesus and Marx, of thinking he would have been shocked by the dish cooked from his recipe: that he would find the sight of dead children in Gaza, killed as collateral damage in the endless war with Hamas, unbearable (as I do).

An abiding trope of Zionism has been the false “A land without people for a people without land”. A Zionist writer who called himself Ahad Ha’am had warned as early as 1891, six years before Herzl began his movement, of the danger of ignoring the Arabs. “How careful we must be in dealing with an alien people in whose midst we want to settle!” Paul Johnson, A History of the Jews (New York: Harper Collins 1987) p. 435 In 1920, he wrote ruefully: “Since the beginning of the Palestinian colonization we have always considered the Arab people as non-existent”. P. 435

After Herzl died in his forties, worn out by his work, a hard-headed, realistic and violent generation succeeded him. Vladimir Jabotinsky wrote, “It is impossible to dream of a voluntary agreement between us and the Arabs” and called for “an iron wall of Jewish bayonets”. Pp. 446-447 A revelation for me as a teenager was the discovery that Israeli politicians and presidents, whom I had been raised to revere, had been associated with violence and terrorism earlier in their careers, something the Jews at Temple Beth Elohim and in our living room in Flatbush never discussed. Menachem Begin commanded the Irgun at the time of the notorious Deir Yassin massacre, though he did not know until afterwards that his soldiers “took twenty-three men to the quarry and shot them”. P. 528 The Stern Gang was involved with the Irgun in the massacre and also carried out the 1948 assassination of Count Folke Bernadotte, the U.N. mediator for Palestine. One of the Stern Gang leaders who ordered the murder was Yitzhak Shamir, later Prime Minister of Israel.

How does Israel today measure up to Herzl’s goals? His vision was that a Jewish nation would heal all our rifts with the rest of the world, normalize our relations with the Christian nations, create security for Jews worldwide, and incidentally be a place of internal tolerance.

Israel has failed to achieve Herzl’s goals on every heading. Israel is an outlaw nation to much of the world, like apartheid South Africa was (its close ally in the 1960’s). It must constantly explain and justify violence, discrimination, separatism, the violation of the laws of war. It hasn’t led in any way to gratitude or greater respect for Jews, nor has it made me or anyone safer. Before Al Qaeda and now ISIS became our main bogeyman, as a Jewish American traveling in Europe in the 1970’s and 1980’s, I was always terrified of the PLO, that a plane I was on might be hijacked and I might be singled out and killed. Worse, much of the world seems to be unable to understand that my identity as a Jew does not equate to support for Israel. In France, Muslim riots and aggressive demonstrations in Jewish neighborhoods have triggered an apparently unprecedented emigration to Israel, and we are seeing some signs in my home city, New York, of a similar phenomenon. The existence of Israel has made the world’s Jews far less secure than they were.

Nor is Israel a place of tolerance as envisioned by Herzl. The desire simultaneously to be a secular state and a Jewish one has led to an agonizing psychological conflict. The Arab Israeli population cannot bear what is happening in Gaza, and is increasingly detaching itself from what was (for it) already quite a nominal democracy, and even turning to violence. Jewish extremists like the ones who killed Bernadotte are starting to raise their heads, with a violent “price tag” strategy and with the recent revenge killing of a randomly selected Arab teenager.

Israel violates international law almost every day. Israel has tortured and assassinated Palestinians, used white phosphorus and cluster bombs, killed civilians including those sheltered in U.N. schools, violated every rule of “proportionality” of response, seized land, developed its own nuclear weapon, and worked non-stop from its own side to delay or defeat a two state solution. As I said last month, the creation of Gaza as a walled off enclave into which Israel sends troops or drops bombs is disturbingly reminiscent of the Warsaw Ghetto.

As a child and teenager in the 1960’s, I first became aware of the following highly disturbing contradiction: If an Alabama sheriff drove a bulldozer to knock down the home of a black sharecropper family, Jewish liberals and ACLU members nationwide would have risen up roaring, but when an Israeli bulldozer knocked down a Palestinian home (or crushed Rachel Corrie) most made excuses or remained silent.

I guess some of us have always stood with Jabotinsky, and been comfortable with the naked idea of Jewish exceptionalism, that the ends justify the means and we will stop at nothing to create and protect the Jewish state. I am writing about those of us who started with Enlightenment values of compassion, human rights, tolerance, freedom of speech, and nonviolence. Standing by Israel no matter what, making excuses, has made you hypocrites, in fact diminished you, made you petty, mean, violent and small--and just like everyone else. Stern Gang, IRA, PLO, all the same damn thing. I was raised with an idea, expressed in the Haggadahs we used in our reform service at Passover, that we are answerable to a higher morality; I completely bought the Old Testament quotes about respect for, care for, the stranger among us, and seeking freedom from bondage not just for ourselves but all oppressed people. Israel violates every Enlightenment tenet which I learned as a Jewish American child, and which have become the cornerstones of my entire life as a secular American.

The Israeli paratrooper is the warrior of the Iliad in the sense that his life and status hangs perpetually in the moral balance. One day he will triumph and put many Palestinians to the sword, like Patroclus killing the men of Troy; the next day he will find the sword at his own neck, like Patroclus kneeling before Hector. Simone Weil, in The Iliad, or The Poem of Force (Wallingford PA: Pendle Hill 1976) describes the manner in which force destroys not just the victim, but the wielder as well, who also becomes a thing, an animal. “[B]oth, at the touch of force, experience its inevitable effects: they become deaf and dumb”.” P. 25

The world has not been, in Herzl’s terms, freed by Israeli liberty, enriched by its wealth, or magnified by its greatness.