Bernard Avishai on the “right of return” and other rights

Professor and author Bernard Avishai published an article in Harper’s Magazine that sparked a +972 debate on  Zionism. Here, in a post that originally appeared on his blog, he responds to some of the charges against his positions that have since been sounded in the blogosphere.

By Bernard Avishai

At bottom, the question my Harper’s piece tries to answer is deceptively simple and by no means relevant to the Palestinian right of return alone. It is this: how can a democratic state, a commonwealth of free citizens, be reconciled with the right of citizens, collectively, to sustain national distinction? How is an individual’s right to conscience and property reconciled to a nation’s right to draw boundaries, legal and geographical? The tension between these rights may seem tangential to Middle East violence, but if two democratic states are going to emerge here, both Israelis and Palestinians will have to come to a common standard for resolving it, for each other, but also for themselves.

Assume, as the piece does, that the Palestinians’ most poignant claims are reasonable (and ignore for the moment whether some Israelis have similar claims): assume, that is, that the suffering and material losses of refugees need to be recognized and compensated, indeed, that the right of refugees to choose among various modalities for redress (including return to their lands and homes, “at the earliest practicable date” as stipulated in U.N. 194) must be realized as part of any final peace. Assume, further, that this right, which is inherently one of individuals and families, is of a piece with the right of Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel to live in a country in which they are equal to all other citizens.

How, then, do such claims stack up against, and work with, the most poignant claims of Israeli Jews–inherently a collective claim–that Jewish civilization should find new and modern forms, or at least not be extinguished; that Israel is and will continue to be the Jewish national home? How to honor the democratic individual, liberalism, in (to use the vernacular) a “Jewish state”? For that matter, how do the individual rights of people ordinarily considered Jewish, but who (like me) reject Halachic obligations, shape the laws of a Jewish state?

The answer I tried to offer is the one virtually all democratic states have come up with, which I discussed at length in The Hebrew Republic. Israel should of course be a state of its citizens, that is, guarantee equality and freedom of conscience, and search for many confederative relations with a Palestinian state where feasible and sensible. But all citizens of Israel should be educated in Hebrew, or to a working knowledge of it. Hebrew should be the default, though not the only official, language of the state bureaucracy (i.e., you must be able to speak write in Hebrew to work for it, though the state should offer help in Arabic and English to people who cannot) and the default language of work.

Practically, Hebrew should be the main language of state-supported high schools and institutions of higher education. It should be required on every sign. And so forth. In addition, the commercial calendar should reflect the practices of the most widely practiced religious observances: this means the right not to work on Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath, and Friday for that matter, though people who do so voluntarily should not be forced not to. This is how virtually every EU country handles national claims and how Quebec handles its special status within Canada.

Palestinians should therefore endorse this basic Israeli national right as a quid pro quo for Israelis endorsing the Palestinians’ individual rights, among them the right of return. Actually, both sides, if they aim to be democracies, have an immanent stake in both kinds of rights–and the ways these rights are made to complement one another. Palestinians should insist that, in endorsing Israel’s right to sustain a Jewish national home, they are not thereby endorsing material discrimination against people who lack J-positive blood (as is currently the case). Israel must change: secular freedoms must be the standard all around (a point Fatah is trying to hold off Hamas with, and Israeli liberals should reinforce). Israelis, for their part, should insist that the right of return must be realized in ways that reflect the desire of Israelis to incubate Jewish linguistic and cultural difference. Where the two rights clash, confederative institutions may soften hard lines.

SOME WILL ARGUE that Hebrew language protection is not enough to make Israel “Jewish.” I reject this. Language is not some inert instrument of communication merely signifying realities external to us. It is what we really mean by “nation,” more formative than the shared territory that, historically was the key to enabling language itself to be shared. We ought to take for granted what everyone from Wittgenstein to Orwell (and, more recently, fellow Montrealer Steven Pinker) have taken for granted, that a language is a nuanced way of grasping one’s most intimate relations and the stuff of the material world.

Language, moreover, is as human and formative as touching members of your family. It contains within its precincts the accumulated experiences, signs and detritus of a collective story. Spend a day with the OED, or the Even Shohan, dictionary. The word “civilization” must spring to mind. Language gives one direct access to a people’s classical literature, myths, religious ideas, criticism, legal precepts. It gives identity, shapes the mouth and tongue and imagination. It is the background music of one’s life, the dreamscape of sleep.

And Zionism at its most radical understood this. The idea of an independent state (so-called “political Zionism”) was a minor chord from the start. It was not officially adopted as a goal until the Biltmore Conference of 1942. (It was formally rejected in 1931.) But the idea that building Hebrew-speaking colonies and cities would provide Jews the means to live as moderns, with individual liberties, and yet remain custodians of a Jewish civilization that would otherwise disappear–well, that was there in Zionism from the start.

I know I am repeating myself (I tell this story at length in The Tragedy of Zionism), but some things cannot be said often enough. This “cultural Zionism” inspired the people who called themselves Zionists from Achad Haam and Weizmann to Ben-Gurion to Yehuda Amichai. It is still the crucial fact of Israel. It is not gone because reactionary leaders or Halachic mullahs distort Zionist history, or just take Hebrew for granted. Any American Jewish visitor to Israel senses how out-of-it he or she is as soon as the novelty of Hebrew letters on the supermarket wears off.

AND YET, CRUCIALLY, the Hebrew language, like contemporary Israeli music, is inherently inclusive. A kid from Nazareth can groove on Matti Caspi. The Palestinian Arab Israeli activist, now in exile, Azmi Bishara, told me he owed his political education to the psychological subtly of Achad Haam. Similarly, the kid of a kid from Bialystok like myself goes to McGill and finds himself an heir of Thomas Hobbes. But he also lives, if he wishes, in Hebrew and Yiddish and French. Indeed, collective identity is only enriched by this kind of hybridization.

Nor is the Jewish religion, in all of its forms, diminished in a Hebrew-speaking state that does not privilege any religion. Acolytes of the Anglican religion in Canada are not impoverished because the Canadian state, in offering cultural protection of English, does not privilege members of the Anglican church. The Hebrew language provides a background, a framework, in which voluntary and self-funded Jewish congregations might thrive. But the state is not a person or a congregation. Where, if not in a Hebrew Republic, would an orthodox Jew rather live?

In short, the Hebrew language is the collective material upon which an individual citizen works his or her magic. It is the basis for freedom to, not just freedom from. It is the means through which Israelis construct fictions about one another, riff on the poetics of the Jewish past, innovate the art and technology that seeds the future. Sayed Kashua can use Hebrew to, among other things, mock the foibles of Israeli Jews and advance the equality of Arab citizens. But in the very way he uses Hebrew, with its inescapable allusions to Torah culture, and modern Israeli shtick, he is paying Jewish civilization an unprecedented tribute.

WHAT MY ARTICLE really aims to make vivid, then, is not just a psychologically necessary process (Israelis recognize Palestinians’ rights to freedom and “return,” Palestinians recognize Israelis’ right to a national home) but an end-point in justice: two states, each committed to the equality of all of its citizens, each tied to the other in a host of confederative relations, but each recognizing the national life, the language and collateral culture, the other is trying to preserve.

These states would have to use confederative institutions to square circles where necessary: say, by allowing Jerusalem to remain united while serving as a capital for two states; or by offering a legal innovation allowing permanent residency but not citizenship, so that Arabs living in Israel who wish to educate in Arabic rather than Hebrew can do so, and vice versa. The territory in question is so small that such solutions are inevitable and feasible–unless, of course, fanatics on both sides simply bring us to a fight to the finish.

And I am reviewing these ideas because various bloggers have written to criticize the article yet seemed unwilling to engage the ideas themselves. Perhaps I might have made things clearer. But at least some of this criticism seemed less bothered with the article’s ideas than with the chance to depict its author as an instance of a type. Does this kind of thing really advance our thinking?

One writer, apart from questioning my reporting skills, laments “liberal Zionism” (whatever that is) and its media power. Another comes to the defense of liberal Zionists “like Avishai” but with arguments and formulations that are not mine and I would never endorse (e.g., that Israel, as a Jewish state, “inherently privileges Jewish citizens over Arab citizens”). Yet another congratulates me for abandoning the two-state process, which any balanced reader could see I have not; and for offering confederative ideas, ostensibly “moving” closer to his own position, though I began advocating for these same ideas in various op-eds over twenty years ago, and even in this short New Yorker article in 1995.

I understand how radioactive this subject is. And writers are lying when they pretend not to like the attention. But things are pretty bad here now, and even if broad conceptions of justice cannot pull us out, ad hominem attacks certainly won’t. If my argument is wrong–not just hopeless, or coming from the wrong mouth, or typical of a political type, but unjust–then I’d be grateful for refutations or refinements. Then again, if the argument is more or less sound, can we not talk about how to build on it?

Bernard Avishai, adjunct professor of business at Hebrew University, is the author, most recently, of The Hebrew Republic. He’s written for The New York Times Magazine, Harper’s, The New Yorker, and many other publications. His new book, Promiscuous: “Portnoy’s Complaint” and Our Doomed Pursuit of Happiness, will be published in April 2012.

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