Israel's status as a Jewish state – the Jewish state, in fact – has long been a source of discomfort to Arabs in general and Palestinians in particular. But Israel's Jewishness also makes for lively debate among many Jews themselves, especially Israelis.
For some time now, several Israeli intellectuals and public figures on the political left have pondered the possibility of transforming Israel from a Jewish state into a state of the Jews. The distinction is not merely semantic. Israel would become a state most of whose citizens happen to be Jewish, and one with a special connection to Jews in the rest of the world, but cease to self-identify as a Jewish state, thereby alienating its Palestinian Arab citizens.
David Berlin, who is both Israeli and Canadian, advances a variation on this post-Zionist theme in The Moral Lives of Israelis: Reinventing the Dream State, pressing for an Israel that is "not a Jewish state, but only a state rather like New York City – a state in which many Jews live." It's an intriguing suggestion …with precious few takers. Indeed, the situation on the ground, and the passions of most Israelis and Palestinians, militate against the adoption of Berlin's idea. His dream state will likely remain stillborn.
But tracing the idea's genesis and evolution often proves a fascinating endeavour. Berlin takes readers on a personal journey from Israel to Canada and back, through major cultural dislocation, much identity tinkering and the ever-hovering menace of war. Although his filial resentments – which take up much of the book – are often banal, it is another matter when they relate directly to Israeli culture. Of his parents' generation, which he believes forged Israel but smothered individualism, he laments: "I realized that there was no clause in their pioneering spirit that required them to nurture those children – the nation they had conceived."
Berlin, who has contributed articles to this newspaper, is the former editor of the Literary Review of Canada and co-founder of The Walrus magazine. He was born in Israel in 1951 but grew up in Toronto, where his family settled in 1953. Berlin relates in detail his return to Israel in 1970 for eight years, during which time he experiences everything from love to war, but most important undergoes the process of "changing from a secular Jew to a Jewish secular." In other words, he begins to view his Jewishness as ancillary to his secular identity, which becomes his core.
This tendency becomes even more pronounced when he returns to Israel yet again in 2005 to cover the country's "disengagement" from Gaza and tend to his ailing mother. From political turmoil and personal tumult, Berlin extracts a solution for Israel. He proffers secularism as the way out of the country's impasse with its growing and assertive Orthodox Jewish minority (which by and large opposed the Gaza pullout), as well as with the Palestinians.
But secularism, even if regarded Berlin-style as a positive and unifying force rather than simply a restrictive reaction to the encroaching influence of religion, is no panacea for Israel's plethora of woes. Not only would Israel have to contend with those Orthodox Jews who believe that the state should be religious in nature, but the country's ethnic makeup would continue to be a source of friction; Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs (Palestinian citizens of Israel) live largely in two different and mutually suspicious societies, a fact unlikely to change with the separation of religion and state.
And there's another fly in the ointment. Berlin wants to freeze discussion of the Palestinians' right of return (along with other hot-button issues) until an interim agreement takes hold between Israel and the Palestinians. Yet he simultaneously argues that Israeli Jews should permanently abandon the notion of Israel as a Jewish state and that Israel's controversial law of return, which grants any Jew in the world the right to Israeli citizenship, should be suspended "to be activated only in times of crisis." He doesn't realize that, were Israel to cease being a Jewish state, the largest obstacle barring the return of Palestinian refugees and their descendants would be removed. Why would Israeli Jews, most of whom are Zionist and therefore desire a Jewish state, pave the way for the de-Zionization of their country?
The sad truth is that Berlin's dream, for all its beauty and theoretical harmoniousness, will not resonate with the people who matter. The Israel that Berlin envisages is a place where he – together with the distressingly small number of Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs like him – would be happy and prosperous. But for those Israeli Jews who want a Jewish state and those Palestinian Arabs who want to Arabize or Islamize Israel (if not do away with it altogether), Berlin's dream state would simply be a slightly modified arena for them to pursue their outdated and unheroic yet meretriciously seductive struggle.
Rayyan Al-Shawaf is a writer and book critic in Beirut, Lebanon.