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When an Israeli Ambassador Debated a British Historian on Israel’s Legitimacy—and Won

The Montreal face-off between Yaacov Herzog and Arnold Toynbee offers ways of discussing the Jewish state that still feel fresh

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Israeli Ambassador Yaacov Herzog and historian Arnold Toynbee appear before McGill University students in 1961. (Rogers Photo Archive)
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After several minutes of such questioning, Toynbee conceded the point. “I agree that most societies have committed atrocities, but I do not think that condones atrocities,” he said. “I agree with you on that,” Herzog quickly responded. “But do you agree that this comparison can be applied on the universal level to any country which in war its soldiers have committed atrocities against civilians?” Toynbee had to concur: “Yes, atrocities are atrocities and murder is murder, whoever commits it.” Herzog asked if Toynbee would similarly stigmatize “Arab atrocities against Jewish civilian populations,” and those committed by the United States. “Of course,” the professor replied.

With that admission, Herzog essentially disarmed the historian. After all, if every nation had behaved like the Nazis, then the charge was divested of moral meaning. “In other words,” Herzog concluded, “the Nazi pall lies across the world, before the Nazis came … and after they have gone.” Jews, then, were no more prone to immoral conduct than any other people, and Israel no more and no less guilty than any other modern state.

The debate turned to the question of whether the Jewish people were indeed a “fossil”—an outmoded remnant of a bygone era—or rather a living, breathing civilization in their own right. Was the establishment of Israel an anachronism or an achievement? On this question, Herzog managed to extract another concession from Toynbee, when the historian acknowledged that “Israel can defossilize, just as you can defrost a car.” While Toynbee continued to insist that due to persecution and isolation, Jews had not played an influential role in much of modern history, he allowed that “the Jews in present times have … become part of the general stream of life and have played this enormous part in it.” Herzog closed by inviting Toynbee to visit Israel and witness its “defossilization” firsthand.

By the end of the engagement, it was clear the young ambassador had bested the elder historian. Toynbee’s wife Veronica was overheard telling him afterward, “I told you not to take part in this debate!” The leading Canadian dailies commended Herzog’s performance, and congratulatory telegrams poured in to the Israeli embassy in Ottawa. The event also proved an inspiration for many Jewish students in attendance. One such student was 20-year-old Irwin Cotler, who went on to become a professor of law at McGill, specializing in human rights, and a member of Canada’s parliament, serving as justice minister from 2003 to 2006. “If the Jewish students had felt humiliated by Toynbee’s lecture, now they felt pride and self-respect as Jews,” he told Herzog’s biographer. “What Herzog did had psychological no less than intellectual impact.”

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And yet, the Herzog-Toynbee debate has largely faded from the public memory, perhaps because its participants have. Toynbee’s scholarly reputation, which rested on his magisterial multivolume Study of History, did not age well, as the essentialist nature of his historical analysis fell out of favor. And though Herzog went on to serve multiple Israeli prime ministers, he died young in 1972, at the age of 50. But their debate is worthy of remembrance, not merely in the simplistic sense of who won, but as a way of thinking about Israel that has sadly fallen by the wayside.

Today, the understanding of the Jewish state that Herzog conveyed—a normal state with normal problems—is almost entirely absent from the public discourse. For many of its supporters, Israel must be defended absolutely as an unassailable island of moral rectitude, an exception to the rule of human error and imperfection. It never commits war crimes, and it seldom makes mistakes. Israel’s critics, by contrast, often imagine the Jewish state as heir to the Third Reich and a uniquely evil blight on the face of the Middle East. There is no depravity to which this “Zionazi” regime will not stoop, and no crime too lurid for it to commit. In other words, Israel is either superhuman or subhuman.

But when called upon to defend Israel from the charge of Nazi-like conduct, Herzog took a very different approach. He did not deny that Israeli forces had committed crimes in 1948. He contextualized those crimes and pointed out that they were condemned by wider Israeli society, but he did not deny that they took place. He acknowledged Israel’s fallibility, like that of any other nation. Vindication for Herzog rested not in clearing Israel of any wrongdoing, but in situating its failures in the context of human failure. By compelling Toynbee to concede that Israel’s moral offenses were no different than those of any other country, he established that Israel’s crime was not its inhumanity, but its humanity.

Herzog’s argument creates space for conversation about Israel, both appreciative and critical. The extremist caricatures it rejects, by contrast, create a self-sustaining bubble in which such dialogue cannot take place. Those who insist that the Jewish state is immaculately conceived and governed inevitably fuel the disillusionment that bolsters those who portray the Zionist project as demonic. And those who cast Israel as a regime governed by fascist criminals provoke the very defensiveness that leads others to defend Israel in all circumstances—even when it should not be defended. Within this context, it becomes almost impossible to have a normal conversation about Israel or its problems.

The best way, then, to mark the 53rd anniversary of Herzog’s successful showdown with Toynbee is to reclaim Herzog’s Israel, with all its imperfections and promise. Because if we continue to treat the Jewish state as a fossil—something to be displayed pristinely on a shelf, or buried in the dustbin of history, rather than understood as a living, breathing, and sometimes flawed organism—Toynbee will have won after all.

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When an Israeli Ambassador Debated a British Historian on Israel’s Legitimacy—and Won

The Montreal face-off between Yaacov Herzog and Arnold Toynbee offers ways of discussing the Jewish state that still feel fresh

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