Time for Jews to Abandon the Old Foundation Myth of Israel?

Pundit Stanley Greenberg got it right when he said that in politics “a narrative is the key to everything.” But some issues, like the Israel-Palestine conflict, seem to resist change as they form a thicket of many narratives, tangled up so badly that progress toward a solution seems all but impossible.

Now Barack Obama has waded into that thicket, giving the world an implicit pledge that he will somehow make real progress toward a peace settlement. And he’s already made a down payment to fulfilling that pledge, provoking Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s promise to work toward “two free peoples living side by side,” marking a real change in the narrative structure of the situation. We no longer have to deal with two competing narratives, one about Israel holding on to the Occupied Territories and the other about Israel ending the occupation; the story of the two-state solution has triumphed. So there is no longer an overarching super-narrative about two stories fighting for political dominance in Israel and in the American Jewish community.

This reminds us that in such tangled situations, the many narratives swirling through it are arranged in a (usually implicit) hierarchy. Some are small tales, dealing with only a part of the situation. Some are larger and claim to take in the whole reality. Even among those larger ones, though, some are more basic than others; the upper-story stories (as we might call them) are not convincing, perhaps have no meaning at all, unless one first accepts the more basic lower-story stories. And if one digs deep enough, down to the foundation, there is a foundational narrative holding up the whole structure and all its component stories. That deepest level narrative is the one we can rightly call the prevailing myth.

Postmodernists may call it the ‘master narrative’ and say it must be abolished or ignored. But ordinary people, who have not read Lyotard or Jameson, don’t give up their myths so easily. Nor can even the heaviest barrage of empirical facts tear the myths from people’s minds. A myth is not necessarily a lie or a fiction. It may contain some measure of empirical truth. But that’s irrelevant to its power as myth. For those who hold fast to it, the myth determines what can count as truth and what must be rejected as falsehood. It determines what empirical evidence they can see and what they can’t see. And it determines what higher level narratives they will accept or reject.

”You are contemptible, because you have no real self-esteem and no national self-respect”

For the Jewish community, the narratives of accepting and rejecting a two-state solution were rather all-encompassing, and the story of the battle between those two narratives was even more basic. But these still did not get down to the foundational level of myth.

Netanyahu made that clear in the speech that offered his pro forma commitment to a two-state solution. What many took as a sea change in Jewish political life was actually only a small part of the speech. Look at the whole rhetorical entity, and the message was quite different: Upper-story stories, even seemingly fundamental ones, can come and go, but the foundational myth endures.

After some preliminary praises of peace, Netanyahu got to the heart of his speech, asking the rhetorical question: “Why is peace still so far from us, even though our [Israeli] hands are extended for peace?” The predictable answer reaffirmed what may be the most basic Israeli myth of all, the myth of innocence and existential threat. Every problem, it turned out, was the fault of others (mainly Arabs) who “refused any Jewish state whatsoever.” The speaker offered a long tour of history, all “proving” the truth of his myth—tautologically, of course, since the facts were only those that the myth permitted.

Even when he turned to “the need for us to recognize their [Palestinian] rights,” Netanyahu still projected the whole picture through the eyes of the myth of innocence and existential threat: “We do not want to rule over them. We do not want to run their lives.” “We cannot be expected to agree to a Palestinian state without ensuring that it is demilitarized. This is crucial to the existence of Israel… Without this, sooner or later, we will have another Hamastan.”

Then there was the insistence on the seemingly innocent right of “natural growth” in the settlements, an appeal for the return of Gilad Shalit, and the closing plea that “if our neighbors [will] only work for peace, we can achieve peace.” The root of every problem, and thus the source of every solution, was still placed outside the Jewish community, among the gentiles, the “goyim.”

This myth is as old as Zionism itself. In the essay that set the movement in motion, “Self-Emancipation” (1881), Leo Pinsker told the Jews that they would always be mistreated by the “goyim” because everyone fears, and thus persecutes, homeless people. Later Zionist theorists set forth other explanations of anti-Jewish prejudice. But most agreed that the Jews would be victimized, through no fault of their own, as long as they lived among the “goyim.”

Pinsker said more, though: His own people were to blame, because they would not acknowledge the permanent enmity and inhumanity of the “goyim.” “You are contemptible, because you have no real self-esteem and no national self-respect,” he wrote. Pinsker’s chastising voice has echoed loudly through 130 years of Zionist thinking, casting self doubt and sometimes even a sense of shame.

It must have echoed loudly in Netanyahu’s mind as he pondered his response to the Obama administration’s new pressures upon him. He has built his career as a symbol of the self-esteem Israeli Jews gained by showing their strength. If he simply knuckled under to the Americans, he might easily trigger enough doubt and shame in his followers to bring his political downfall.

To still the doubts and fend off the shame, he had to offer the full Israeli myth, with its three interlocking, mutually reinforcing themes: Our enemies threaten our very existence; we are wholly innocent, having done nothing at all to evoke such enmity; we will maintain our self-esteem and self-respect by inflicting enough defeats on our enemies to prove to them, and to ourselves, our indomitable strength.

So the Palestinians get no part of Jerusalem, no hint of a right of return, no freeze on settlements, and a vaguely defined state at some future date, but with no army, no control of their air space, no right to sign treaties unless Israel approves, and (it would seem) other unspecified limitations to be dictated by Israel as negotiations proceed. Of course Netanyahu knows full well that Israel can show its vaunted strength only as long as the United States pays the bill. He could not simply bite the hand that feeds him $2.775 billion a year in military aid. So he committed himself to a “vision” of “two free peoples living side by side,” hedged in by all the limitations that the foundational myth requires. While the question of whether to pursue a two-state solution is apparently settled, the larger questions remain: Will Jews in Israel, and those around the world who care about Israel, continue to build Jewish life on the same old foundational myth? Or will the changes in policy open up room for a discussion of deeper changes in the myth itself?

In Israel, the widespread approval of Netanyahu’s speech suggests that the myth remains healthy (though there is still, as there has always been, a significant minority who challenge it). It’s here in the United States—where Jewish community support is vital to keep all those dollars flowing to Israel—that the myth is increasingly called into question.

Meet the New Myth, Not the Same as the Old Myth

Diane Balzer is president of Brit Tzedek v’Shalom, the largest and among the most moderate of American Jewry’s several pro-Israel, pro-peace groups. She gave Netanyahu qualified praise, welcoming his two-state approach but noting that his “statements on continued settlement expansion, the status of refugees and Jerusalem, and the future Palestinian state’s control over its own borders complicate efforts to renew substantive negotiations by attempting to prejudge their outcome.”

Behind those measured words hides a potentially explosive message: It is time for Jews to abandon the old foundation myth in favor of a new one. That’s clear just by considering what it means to enter “substantive” negotiations without attempting to prejudge their outcome. The goal must be an actual settlement of the conflict, one that improves the situation for one’s own side; in this case, for Israel, which is exactly what Brit Tzedek and all the other Jewish peace groups want.

But the settlement has to be mutually beneficial; the opponents won’t agree unless it improves the situation for their side too. So there are at least three necessary conditions if you want “substantive” negotiations:

  • You cannot assume that your opponents are out to destroy your very existence, simply because they are trying to drive a hard bargain;
  • You cannot assume that all the fault and blame for the problem lies with your opponents;
  • You cannot let your self-esteem rest on showing your strength by being intransigent, prejudging outcomes, and inflicting defeats on your opponent.

Breaking any of these rules, and certainly all three of them, dooms the negotiation to be fruitless from the outset.

Thus, the call for “substantive” negotiations sows the seed of a new Jewish myth, whose basic elements are just the opposite of the old one:

  • Jews and gentiles have to live together; they are inextricably woven together in a single web of relationship, what Martin Luther King Jr. called a “single garment of destiny.”
  • Within that web, there will inevitably be both conflict and cooperation; cooperation is perfectly possible, so it pays to make serious efforts to promote it, which means being responsive to the changing concerns of everyone else in the web.
  • There are rights and wrongs done on every side; it makes no sense to measure how much blame accrues to any one side, because finger-pointing blocks the way to cooperation.
  • Self-esteem comes from promoting cooperation; if self-esteem must depend on showing one’s strength (an open question), the way to show strength is to show understanding of others, respond to their concerns, and find paths of mutual benefit.

Many Jewish peace advocates are not yet aware of the new myth they are implicitly telling, nor of the magnitude of change in Jewish life it can create. But new myths rarely arise by conscious effort. They simply grow organically as people pursue the goals they value most and talk to others about their efforts.

Then one day someone wearing the mantle of authority (perhaps even a future prime minister of Israel) looks back and says of the new myth just what people once said about the old one: “This is what we’ve always believed. These are our eternal values.”

How long that will take, no one can predict. But considering the suffering the old myth has produced for Israelis and—much more so—for Palestinians, even one more day is too long.