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The New Jewish Question

Dov WaxmanFilmed at Limmud Conference 2012

More and more Jews around the world today are questioning, re-thinking, and wrestling with their relationship with Israel. They care about Israel, but they are also critical of its governments. They support Israel, but they may feel ambivalent and conflicted about it. The changing and sometimes troubled relationship between Diaspora Jews and Israel is at the heart of the new Jewish Question. In this talk, I explore this highly charged question from both a personal and historical perspective.

Dov Waxman is a Professor of Political Science, International Affairs, and Israel Studies, and currently the Stotsky Professor of Jewish Historical and Cultural Studies at Northeastern University. He is also the co-director of the university’s Middle East Center. Dov’s research focuses on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Israeli foreign policy, U.S.-Israel relations, and Diaspora Jewry’s relationship with Israel. He received his Ph.D. and M.A. from Johns Hopkins University and his B.A. from Oxford University. He has previously taught at the City University of New York, Bowdoin College, and the Middle East Technical University in Ankara, Turkey; and has been a visiting fellow at Tel Aviv University, Bar-Ilan University, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and Oxford University. Dov is the author of three books: The Pursuit of Peace and the Crisis of Israeli Identity: Defending / Defining the Nation (Palgrave, 2006), Israel’s Palestinians: The Conflict Within (with Ilan Peleg, Cambridge University Press, 2011), and Trouble in the Tribe: The American Jewish Conflict over Israel (Princeton University Press, 2016).

So, when I was asked to talk to give a JDOV talk well I thought since my name is DOV I had to say yes to it, I’m not quite sure now whether id have preferred to have been called a different name but in any case I am here to talk to you a little bit about the new ‘Jewish question’. Before I do so want to tell you a little bit about myself and what I do. Well, I basically spend most of my days thinking, talking and writing about Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I must be crazy. I am often asked and I often ask myself why I do this? Why do I spend so much time thinking, talking and agonising over this, let’s face it, depressing topic. I want to begin by telling you a bit about how I’ve come to this point, the stages if you like of my personal relationship with Israel. And I am going to do so because I think it speaks to a wider issue, about all of our relationships with Israel and how this is what I call ‘The new Jewish question’. Basically, there have been like 4 stages in my relationship with Israel, the first stage, my teens was when I was at school and I clearly remember during this period of time discussing with my friends in the event of a war between Israel and Britain, hard as it would be to imagine, in the event of such a war, which side would we fight for? Some of my friends automatically said, ‘well of course Israel’ and others said, ‘obviously the United Kingdom’, I was torn I was after all British, I was born and raised in London, spent all my life in England but at the same time I went to a Jewish school, I was a member of a Zionist youth movement, I would spend Pesach every year in Israel with my family, I had Israeli friends, surely I couldn’t fight against them and after all wasn’t Israel always in the right? That was the first stage, stage of conflict of trying to figure out where my loyalties, where my identity lay. The second stage, was when I was at university after spending part of my gap year in Israel, by the time I went to university I was a staunch Zionist. On day one I arrived I put a huge Israeli flag in my dorm room on the wall  making a clear statement of loyalty and of identity and whenever the subject of Israel  came up in discussions with my university friends I automatically, instinctively became Israel’s spokesman, I would explain Israel’s actions, justify it, defend it. I remember one such discussion with a group of my friends and they were criticizing something about what Israel did and I would point out how ‘what about what Britain was doing in Northern Ireland?’ immediately in other words I had taken a side. And that side was clear. I was seriously considering at that point moving to Israel after I graduated, making Aliyah.  Stage three, I didn’t make Aliyah instead I moved to the United States. I went to graduate school in the United States and I ended up studying Middle East politics, I continued and I ended up doing my PHD on Israel and particularly on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And the more I learnt about Israel the more disillusioned with it I became, the more I began to realise that much of what I had been told growing up about Israel wasn’t true or at least wasn’t the whole truth, the more I learned the more disillusioned I became and I became more critical not just of Israel but even of Zionism itself. By the time I went to Israel to spend a year doing research for my doctoral dissertation I felt so alienated from the country, from Israel that I even refused to speak Hebrew. I didn’t want to associate myself with Israel or with its people. That was in my twenties. Stage four, which I would say is my current stage. Since then I have been to Israel many more times and spent two more years living there. I travel to Israel frequently, I read about it incessantly, I watch Israeli movies whenever they come out; occasionally I listen even to Israeli music although I’m no big fan. Israel is a huge part of my life but I am still very critical of Israeli government policies and actions, however, I still now make the distinction between Israel, the country that I love, the country that I feel deeply attached to and the policies of its government. I love Israel and it’s a big part of my life but I don’t see it through rose tinted lenses that I used to see it in the past. I know it has some major problems and challenges like any country and it probably always will. I’m not going to turn away from Israel but I am also not going to uncritically embrace it. So my relationship with Israel then has changed in many ways over the years and it continues to change and I am sure it will continue to evolve. There have been times when I have wanted to walk away, to disassociate myself all together from the place and there have been other times when I’ve wished I could be there. I don’t think  this brief story of my relationship with Israel, difficult, uneasy, certainly challenging is unique in fact I think it speaks to an issue that many of us, many Jews living outside of Israel face when it comes to deciding and defining our relationship with Israel. And I believe the question of how Jews outside Israel should relate to it, is what I call, ‘The new Jewish question’. Let me explain why. First of all what was ‘The old Jewish question?’ The old Jewish question was a question that dominated Jewish life and politics for about 200 years, from the beginning of emancipation of Jews at the end of 18th century to roughly World War 2 and it was the question of whether Jews could integrate as full and equal citizens in the European societies in which they lived? This was the animating issue in Jewish politics and in response to it a whole host of ideologies emerged. One such ideology, of course, was Zionism which said in effect that Jews couldn’t and shouldn’t try to integrate into European societies but rather had to establish their own state. Now, of course we know that Zionism ultimately won that competition between Jewish ideologies and it was a result of Israel’s establishment and particularly the Holocaust, that old Jewish question was settled once and for all. But a new Jewish question has emerged, because the existence of a Jewish State for the first time in 2000 years, poses unprecedented issues for Jews, for the Jewish people. It is almost impossible for Jews to ignore Israel even if the wanted to. Very few diaspora Jews can remain apathetic about what is happening there; they are almost obligated to have an opinion about Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict especially now that the issue has become almost an obsessive issue in Western public opinion. For better or for worse many diaspora Jews often feel somehow implicated in what Israel does, as a self-declared Jewish state, Israel claims to act not only on behalf of its own citizens but also on behalf of Jews worldwide. What Israel does, what happens to Israel and what happens in Israel therefore, affects Jews all over the world and that’s why the subject of Israel dominates Jewish politics to this day, since 1948. Since diaspora Jews cannot escape the impact of Israel they must confront the question of what Israel means to them. So, that’s what I mean by the fundamental question of Jewish politics today.  The new Jewish question is ‘What is our relationship to Israel’? ‘What should that relationship be’? To put it in another way the old Jewish question was about the politics of Jewish statelessness, the new Jewish question is about the politics of Jewish statehood. How should Jews living outside Israel relate to it? How important should Israel be to them? What obligations, if any, do they have to it? Must they support the Jewish state? If so how? Must they always support Israel regardless of what it does? Even when Israeli governments act in ways they believe are short- sighted, self -defeating or morally problematic if the Jewish state acts in ways that contradict Jewish ethics, should Jews be loyal to Jewish ethics or to the Jewish state? Can diaspora Jews publically criticise Israel, should they? In short what kind of loyalty do we owe Israel? It’s ironic that the issue of loyalty that has bedevilled diaspora Jews for so long, the question of whether Jews had to be loyal, could be loyal to the states in which they lived, has now returned with an ironic twist. Now the loyalty question concerns, ‘what should be our loyalty to the Jewish state?’ Some people believe that Jews should be absolutely and uncritically loyal to Israel, others believe that in fact criticism is a form of loyalty to Israel. On this subject there’s a wide range of Jewish answers. Now the debate in the Jewish world is about this question. How should we express ourselves with regards to Israel? Personally I don’t think there is one right answer to the Jewish question, for some it might be moving to Israel, for some it might be  supporting Israel whatever it does, for others it might be protesting against Israel’s policies there are a range of different answers. I think we need to accept this basic fact and not try to impose one answer on other Jews to expect that there is one kind of acceptable relationship with Israel, one way of engaging with Israel. Unfortunately, in much of the Jewish world today that’s not the case. Rather we seem to be arguing incessantly and increasingly bitterly over what kind of relationship we should have with Israel. Whether you can be a good Jew and still disagree with Israeli policies, whether you can be a good Jew and not live in Israel? This seems to me to be the issue that is now the most divisive, most controversial and most problematic issue in Jewish life today. I’m here to talk about that and to be open about the difficulty, the dilemma that we all face in trying to figure out what our relationship is with Israel. I’ve been making an observation but I’m going to end with a dream. My dream is that we can accept a plurality of stances and attitudes with regards to Israel. That we can accept that that the question of our relationship with Israel is an evolving one, is an uneasy one and is a deeply challenging one and we can accept that instead of trying to impose one model upon others, we can accept that there is a diversity of responses and in doing so we can allow the Jews to hopefully settle ‘the new Jewish question’. Thank you very much. (Applause)

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