Dan Burston | Israel at 60
Burston, one of America’s leading historians of psychoanalysis, reflects on the sixtieth anniversary of Israel’s founding.Dan Burston
Israel at 60
I grew up in a progressive Jewish household that valued literacy and openness to other cultural perspectives. As a result, you’d find some strange bedfellows on my parents’ bookshelves. Bertrand Russell and Isaac Asimov rubbed shoulders with C.S.Lewis and Martin Buber. John Milton and John Donne co-existed comfortably with Rumi, Allen Ginsburg and Rabindranath Tagore; Tolkein and Agatha Christie alongside William Faulkner, Isaac Bashevis Singer and A.B.Yehoshua; Mahatma Gandhi and D.T.Suzuki resided just above or below Karl Marx. It was in the process of perusing these volumes, probably in a book by C.S.Lewis, that I first stumbled across the word “Christendom”, which referred to the multitude of nations that adhere to the Christian faith.
While it sounds quaint or archaic to our ears today, the Christendom of my childhood was a sprawling geographical entity that encompassed Eastern and Western Europe, the United Kingdom, North and South America, Australia, New Zealand and some smallish parts of Asia and Africa. It also embraced a wide range of believers, including Catholics, Protestants and Orthodox Christians, and as I later discovered, more exotic sects like Anabaptists and Mennonites, Coptic Christians and so on. I knew all this by the time I was Bar Mitzvah.
It was not until I was in my late teens, studying mysticism, that I realized that Muslims had a similar conception of the Muslim world. The Muslim umma , as it is called, represents the entire community of the faithful, and stretches geographically from Morocco in the West to Malaysia and Indonesia in the East, from Northern China to Turkey, and farther south, to sub-Saharan Africa. It includes Sunni and Shi’a Muslims, Sufis, Alawites and other sects.
In any case, by my twenties, it dawned on me that the Christian and Muslim faiths encompass myriad peoples, of differing languages and ethnicities, different customs, different skin colors, different cultures, with different ways of experiencing and interpreting the world. The same is true of Judaism, too. But one of the ideas that the Nazis inherited from Christendom is that Jews, unlike Christians, are a distinct race, with specific “racial characteristics”, such as dark skin, a large, hooked nose and an avid, materialistic, tribal outlook on life that is the opposite of the noble Christian ideal, which aspires to spiritual universality. It was because Jews possess these odious characteristics that they rejected the Son of God, and were supposedly responsible for his Crucifixion. Nevertheless, most Christians maintained, Jews could redeem themselves and overcome their hereditary guilt by renouncing their ancestral faith and embracing Jesus as their savior. If they did, they were saved, and worthy of being included in the Christian community - even if they were admitted a little grudgingly, at times.
Now, this is where “the rubber hits” the road - where we can clearly differentiate between Christian and the Nazi anti-Semitism. According to the Nazis, conversion meant nothing. What someone believes is utterly irrelevant. The Jews’ hereditary or “racial” characteristics loomed so large in the Nazi imagination that our personal convictions, or theological frame of reference (or the lack thereof) simply did not matter. As a result, in Nazi Germany, you could be an ardent, Church going Catholic or Protestant, but if you had one Jewish grandparent, you were labeled Jewish, and were liable to be transported to Auschwitz in due course.
But though the Nazis thought of Jews as “Semites,” the truth is that the people of Israel were not a race any longer. Indeed, when the term “anti-Semitism” was first coined in by Wilhelm Marr in 1879, it was already an anachronism. Long ago, Jews were in fact a Semitic people, as our common language, Hebrew, attests. As the Bible attests, we began our history as a loose confederacy of 12 tribes, all of which were undoubtedly Semitic. But 10 of those tribes perished or were lost, and nowadays, the phrase that occurs so frequently in our liturgy, Am Israel — which means “the people of Israel” — no longer refers to a discrete ethnic or racial group. It now refers to a community of faith that is as diverse as Christendom or the Muslim umma, despite the fact that there are only about 15 million of us left. How did our tiny, ancient faith acquire its rather startling diversity?
When the Roman Emperor Constantine had his vision of the Cross, which precipitated his conversion to the Christian faith, it was before an important battle. A Cross appeared in the sky, accompanied by the words “By this you will conquer.” This image of the Cross as a sword, or an instrument of conquest, is not what Jesus had in mind, but it was certainly predictive of events that followed. Phrases like the “Holy Roman Empire”, “the Roman Catholic Church”, and so on, remind us that Christendom was established in the ruins of the Roman Empire, and founded through a combination of military conquests and resolute campaigns to convert unbelievers.
Similarly, during Mohammed’s life-time, the umma consisted solely of a group of warring Bedouin tribes. Instead of fighting one another, as they had done for centuries, these tribal factions buried the hatchet under Mohammed’s leadership, and soon after his death, radiated out of the Arabian Penninsula in all directions, capturing other territories, creating a Muslim civilization that eventually embraced more than 50 languages and ethnicities.
So, despite the vicious caricatures Judaism is not a tribe or a race any longer, but a faith and a culture. The real difference between Jews, on the one hand, and Christians and Muslims on the other, is that whereas Christendom and the Muslim umma were created through conquest and campaigns to convert neighboring or subjugated peoples, Judaism’s diversity is a product of the loss of territory and consequent dispersion — the fact that Jews were expelled from their country of origin, and obligated wander the face of the earth in search of safe havens. As a result, over the centuries, instead of gaining more and more territory, more and more converts, Jews have generally been concerned with mere survival. Until recently, that is. In 1947-1948, Jews who had fled the pogroms of Eastern Europe and the Nazi cattle cars and ovens converged on Palestine, where they fought for the creation of a homeland. They fought bravely, and successfully, but at the expense of grave injustices to Palestinian Arabs — Christian and Muslim alike. The 1967 (or “Six Day”) War gave Israel’s Jews an undreamt of opportunity to reclaim the entirety of the territories they’d been accustomed to thinking of as their patrimony, and while they saw it initially as the fulfillment of a dream, it quickly turned into a nightmare — one that threatens the very fabric of Israeli democracy, and beyond that, its very survival. Despite the ideological and religious illusions of extremists, the long term viability of Israel in the NEXT 60 years hinges very largely on its ability to relinquish the lands it annexed in 1967 and helping to create a viable Palestinian state. The sooner the better. Just how to make this happen, given current realities “on the ground” — that is the problem. Many Muslims currently harbor anti-Semitic stereotypes as vile and intractable as those of their earlier Christian and Nazi counterparts. But that, as they say, is another story.
Meanwhile, Israel’s policies and practices pose at least as grave a danger to its long term survival as the implacable hatred of is enemies. The current issue of The Atlantic magazine contains an article called “Unforgiven” that lays out the development and complexity of the challenges facing Israel with clarity and eloquence. It also describes the decades long work of dedicated peace-makers like Amos Oz, A.B.Yehoshua and David Grossman, all of whom, like myself, are Israelis and Zionists. The Zionism they embrace is not very well represented in the Israeli Knesset (Parliament), but the Meretz Party, which gave us the Geneva Accords that President Carter endorses as a workable framework for peace, does what it can, and the left wing of the Labor party, led by Ami Ayalon, continues to push in that direction, despite the belligerent posturing of the party’s leader — Israel’s defense minister, and former Prime Minister - Ehud Barak. Outside of the Knesset, the Israeli peace camp consists of a motley crew of Zionists (like Oz and Grossman), post-Zionists (Avrum Berg) and anti-Zionists (Uri Avneri.) Only the first group actually will be celebrating Israel’s birthday — and will do so in a pensive and saddened frame of mind. Nevertheless, and despite the horrors of the Occupation, I will join them in acknowledging the nearly miraculous survival of the Jewish people, and affirming the legitimacy of the Jewish state. Of the 193 countries recognized by the UN, 2/3’s are predominantly Christian or Muslim — or increasingly, a mix of both. These countries occupy about half the world’s land. The Jewish state — prior to 1967 — was merely the size of New Jersey. Surely, if Jewish culture and civilization will survive another 1000 years, there must one place on earth where Jews can just be Jews, and be in a majority, too. If it relinquishes the Occupied Territories, as it should, Israel will remain the only Jewish majority state of the face of the earth. If not, it is doomed, sooner or later, to fall. Let us celebrate Israel’s 60th quietly, reflectively, and pray for peace at last.
Daniel Burston, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of Psychology who holds doctorates in Psychology (1989) and in Social and Political Thought (1985) from York University in Toronto. He is also an Associate of the Center for Philosophy of Science at the University of Pittsburgh, and on the Advisory Board of the C. G. Jung Analyst Training Program of Pittsburgh, the Advisory Board of Janus Head, and the Editorial Board of the Journal of the Society for Existential Analysis.