At a recent dinner party in Jerusalem, I mutely watched as a Dutch journalist engaged in an hours-long discussion frequently bordering on a shouting match with the sons of our host. They were military-age boys, some of them combat veterans, and brash and argumentative in the sabra (Israeli) way. The journalist was no less brash and argumentative, and there she stood in the kitchen, glass of red wine in one hand, cigarette in the other, parrying one verbal challenge after another and launching pointed challenges of her own.
It was the sort of exchange in which, plainly, she wasn't going to convince them and they weren't going to convince her. So after a while, I asked: "Don't you get tired of these arguments?"
"Yes and no," she said. "I think they're important to have."
Why? I asked.
Because the points I raise are things Israelis never talk about, don't want to talk about.
For instance, a binational state. That's taboo.
Well, some Israelis do talk about a binational state. People like Meron Benvenisti.
But he's a known quantity. Nobody listens to him.
Why should anyone listen to him? What's wrong with a country having taboos? Or do you not believe in a Jewish state?
That's not the point. The point is there ought to be more discussion about it.
Should there be more discussion in Holland about expelling the Muslim population, whose values are so often antithetical to yours?
I don't think the two are comparable.
The issue is not whether they're comparable. The issue is whether there are valid taboos.
And so it went. I did my best to keep an even tone, and so did she, and we parted on pleasant terms. On the whole, I was happy with the points I made, and suffered no pangs of what the French call esprit d'escalier. Later, however, I wondered whether if it wouldn't have been better to throttle her.
I mean that in jest at least, mostly in jest. Yet a taboo is not taboo if no one is seriously willing to penalize those who violate it. In the West, people talk constantly about "breaking down the old taboos," but the ease and swiftness with which one taboo after another has collapsed suggest these things never really were taboo in the first place. Or at least they hadn't been taboo for a long time, even if it was only recently that somebody bothered to give them a shove.
Still, the West has its taboos, and these are strictly enforced both legally and socially. A few years ago, a white civil servant in the Washington DC mayor's office was sacked for using the word "niggardly," even though it bears no etymological relationship to its infamous homonym. In Canada, the law bans "statements, other than in private conversation, [that] willfully promote hatred against any identifiable group." In Germany, Holocaust-denial is a crime. In Holland, Joop Glimmerveen, a neo-Nazi, has been jailed three times for advocating the expulsion of ethnic minorities, particularly Surinamese, from the country.
These taboos are justified on several grounds: as measures against discrimination, as a fence against incitement to violence and as an affirmation of national character. Why does Germany forbid Holocaust-denial? Not because Holocaust-denial realistically threatens public order, but rather because Germany today insists on being indeed, it defines itself as a country that will not look away from its genocidal past. As for Holland, the laws it enforces against hate speech are there to privilege its multicultural identity over its ethnically Dutch or even politically liberal identities. That may not be a wise choice, but it's the choice Holland makes for itself, and it is hardly my place to dispute it.
Of course, the Dutch and German taboos do not quite belong in the same category. Holland's multicultural identity is a matter of choice. By contrast, Germany's Holocaust-confronting identity can be said to be the moral foundation of the Federal Republic and thus a matter of national necessity.
For Israel, the question is whether the privileged Jewish character of the state is a matter of choice or necessity. But before that can be addressed, there is a prior question: Who gets to answer it?
Ordinarily, it goes without saying that every country is entitled to answer the question for itself. This generally holds true whether the country is a democracy or not, but it always holds true when the country is a democracy. Thus the Dutch democratically choose a multicultural identity (at the expense of free speech), and the rest of the world acknowledges their sovereign and democratic right to choose it. Similarly, the French insist on a secular identity (at the expense of religious liberty), and the rest of the world respects their right to do that, too.
Israel, however, is consigned to a separate category: It chooses a Jewish identity, yet the United States is the only country I know of that both recognizes that identity as well as Israel's right to choose it as a matter of sovereign and democratic right. The rest of the world divides between those who seek to expunge Israel's Jewish identity via the so-called right of return to a so-called state of all its citizens, and those who think the question ought to be decided via negotiation between Israel and the Palestinians.
In other words, Israel is the only democracy where the taboo against foreign interference on questions of national self-definition has been lifted. In itself, this is extraordinary. More extraordinary is the fact that it has been lifted for a country whose name is synonymous with its self-definition. "The United States of America" denotes a political grouping; "The Netherlands" denotes a geographical location. In both cases, the identity of the state is necessarily a matter of choice. "Israel" denotes ancestry; it is an inherited identity, not a chosen one. To recognize a State of Israel is necessarily and primarily a recognition of that state's identity, rather than of its geographical extent or its political character.
This, then, is half the answer to the question of whether Israel's identity as a Jewish state is a matter of choice or necessity. To recognize Israel is to recognizes a Jewish state; to argue, as my Dutch interlocutor did, that the Jewish character of the state ought at least to be a subject of debate is to say the state of Israel is at best a debatable proposition.
The word normally attached to such a proposition, at least if made by an Israeli, is treason: "The offense of attempting by overt acts to overthrow the government of the state to which the offender owes allegiance." When the idea is proposed by a person belonging to another nationality, it approaches an act of war. In the case of the Jewish state, it is something else again: Not simply an act of aggression against a democratic government, but of the national identity of which that government is the sovereign instrument. The best linguistic approximation we have of this in English is "ethnocide," because it means the extinction of identity without necessarily implying physical extinction.
It might be said that the flip-side of ethnocide is assimilation E Pluribus Unum, the quintessentially American model of submerging particular identities into a universal identity. This is a fine model, at least when it works, which isn't all that often. It is also fine so long as it is voluntary; that is, so long as individuals are willing to exchange inherited identities for chosen ones. But the overwhelming majority of Israelis have opted for the opposite course; that is, they have chosen> to stick with their inherited identity. To propose a binational state, or to demand it, or to countenance it, is to deny Israelis not only their Jewish inheritance but also their democratic wish to live in a Jewish state.
It is fast becoming accepted wisdom in Europe that the only genuinely democratic, just and equitable solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is either a two-state solution A state of "Palestine" on the one side, a state for "all its citizens" on the other or a binational state. Excluded from the list of acceptable options is a Jewish state (whatever its geographical extent), a state that functions primarily and explicitly for its Jewish citizens. This is the new taboo.
I have deliberately omitted from this essay a discussion of what a binational state would soon descend to, namely, Lebanon. Right now, I'm not interested in practical arguments or probable consequences. The Dutch journalist made an argument from principle, and those are the grounds on which I have responded. Those principles seem to be that Jews have neither a right to national identity nor to democratic choice. There's a term for this too: Anti-Semitism.
By coincidence, my encounter with the Dutch journalist fell very nearly on the 60th anniversary of Anne Frank's arrest. That's barely two generations.The fruit never does fall very far from the tree.