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SPECIAL REPORT / ISRAEL at 50 | ESSAY

It's Time to Embrace Peace and Let Go of America

April 12, 1998|A.B. YEHOSHUA | A.B. Yehoshua is one of Israel's most renowned authors and an advocate of the peace process. Among his works are "Late Divorce," "The Lover," "Mr. Mani" and "Open Heart."

The state of Israel was born in 1948, three years after the Holocaust ended, and the proximity of Holocaust and redemption have not ceased to move me in the 50 years since.

I have yet to find a clear answer to the question of whether the Jewish people would have possessed the will and the power to establish the state of Israel--and whether the international community would have empowered a small Jewish settlement to declare itself an independent state--if there had been no Holocaust.

I am bothered less by the historical implications of this question than by the possible future ones.

Is the Holocaust part of Israel's genetic makeup, much as "No taxation without representation" is part of America's? Because if it is really true that the Holocaust gave birth to Israel, Israeli Jews might subconsciously desire to re-create a Holocaust-like situation in order to renew their legitimacy. And wouldn't enemies of the Jewish state be tempted to think that only a second Holocaust could stamp it out?

While compelling, the theory of a cause-effect relationship between the Holocaust and the state can be ruled out on historical and logical grounds.

The Zionist movement preceded the Holocaust by 50 years, and the Jewish state could have benefited from the enormous potential of the 6 million Jews who died, most of whom would have settled in the young country to make their decisive Jewish and human contribution. Their enormous potential was lost.

The Holocaust, therefore, not only did not help to build the Jewish state but came very close to undermining it. Moreover, the international community's sympathy toward the Zionist enterprise did not need the Holocaust for impetus. As early as 1922, the League of Nations had approved the British Mandate in Palestine, which, like the 1917 Balfour Declaration, supported a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine.

Nevertheless, one cannot easily dispel the doubt that without the Holocaust, the need to normalize their situation would not have been brought home to Jews. Without the Holocaust to lend urgency to their plight, Jews might have continued to return to the Holy Land in falling numbers. And Jews in the Diaspora, not to say America, might have remained as wary of Jewish sovereignty as they were in the early part of this century.

As I said, I have no clear-cut answer to this question, nor am I sure that an entirely convincing one exists. But in coming to understand the nation's birth, owing partly to the War of Independence with the Arabs and partly to the Holocaust, I have also come to appreciate a sense of national identity.

Considering that for hundreds of years Jews had no experience in self-government, the amazing way in which the young state has performed for 50 years bears a most impressive testimony to the unifying force of Israeli identity.

To be sure, Israel's enemies helped a lot to consolidate that identity. It comes as no surprise that many Israelis are consumed by a quite unconscious fear of peace, because peace would deprive them of their most effective unifying force.

I should, however, clarify that although I know peace may lead toward a breakdown of the national identity, I am unafraid of peace.

This is not only because another war in the Middle East could be more devastating and terrible than all the others put together--one need only consider the weaponry in the region. But I also believe that the foundations of the national identity are still solid enough to withstand even the "shock" of peace.

What Israel's secular and democratic majority needs to do quickly is to separate from the Palestinians, draw up an international border and thus lay down once and for all where the state of Israel begins, where it ends, who is inside and who is outside.

In practical terms, there must be a psychological willingness to define geographic borders and assume responsibility for everyone living therein, Jews and non-Jews alike. Then dialogues between various groups of Israelis would no longer be held up by the "Greater Israel" controversy, which for 30 years has stood between the right and the left.

What are the guidelines for the new talks that should be held between Israelis--and which should welcome the participation of Jews living in the Diaspora? When peace is concluded with the Palestinians through a concerted bipartisan effort, I envision at least four subsequent dialogues.

The first dialogue must set about substituting the terms "old Jews" and "new Jews"--which until now have served as code words for religious and secular, or traditional and Western--by the more correct term "complete Jews."

Religious and traditional Jews will need to emerge from their sectarianism and contribute in a more meaningful way to the shaping of national life--including military service and a more active role in the work force.

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