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Memory Malpractice

Peter Beinart, the future of Israel, and the meaning of Yavne

Yehuda Kurtzer
July 10, 2020
Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

“One state” versus “two states” as the aspirational goal for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is back in the news again. This is not because there is actually movement that might make either of these final status arrangements very likely in the imminent future; in fact, the Israeli government’s hinted-at annexation plans appear to be on hold, and the only thing that looks inevitable is the perpetuation of a bad status quo. It is back in the news, though, because another American Jewish intellectual—this time, Peter Beinart—has surfaced to tell of his own political conversion from believing in two states for Israelis and Palestinians, to becoming a supporter of a single binational state.

Beinart’s essay, as principally intended for Jewish audiences, uses the allusion to Yavne—the birthplace of a new rabbinic Judaism in the first century—as the rhetorical conceit to frame his argument. It may seem a minor quibble to contest this metaphor as the anchor of a response; after all, the core of Beinart’s essay is the political future and the enduring suffering of a Palestinian people under indefinite occupation, and no Israeli political will to do anything otherwise; these are challenges with deeper moral urgency than the rhetoric that surrounds it. It is an afflicting and indicting reality for Jews and Zionists of our generation. We watch, often helplessly, as the story of a state that inhabits a huge place in our identities and in our consciousness seals its own failed future with either annexation or creeping indefinite occupation, against the better judgment of all its military and security establishment, and against the moral judgment of nearly the entire international community—including many of its beloved friends.

But the metaphor matters more than it may seem. In one of the most striking giveaways of the whole essay, Beinart admits that the political hero around which his new vision for Israel-Palestine is built—Ayman Odeh, the leader of the Joint List—still believes in two states. (The casual dismissal of Odeh’s actual politics in exchange for making him a metaphor is breathtaking in its own right.) I often criticize the organized Jewish community for maintaining narrower boundaries for legitimate dissent about Israel and its policies than exist within the actual Israeli Knesset. It is thus an extraordinary claim to say that two states have failed because of the failure of political leadership—even though the overwhelming consensus of the rational and reasonable still believe in it as the only viable long-term vision for security and dignity for both Israelis and Palestinians—and to call on as its replacement a position with zero plausibility among the electorate who will need to put it in place, and who will be most implicated by it. So it is true: We are not really talking about politics at all. We are talking about storytelling, the big narrative at play; and what it means for all of us—most especially the author—to be a character in it. Israel-Palestine is always infuriatingly this way: It is hard to tell when we are talking politics but are really talking about history, memory, and narrative, and when the other way around. I am certain, for instance, that the Palestinians certainly don’t envision their future in reference to a dusty coastal village from the first century.

What then is Yavne? Yavne is the one most oft-cited and still-elusive metaphors of the Jewish tradition. Historians have long been skeptical of the Talmud’s account of Yohanan ben Zakkai’s escape from a divided Jerusalem and immediate constituting of the rabbinic order to replace the hegemony of the Temple, because that process of transition probably took closer to a few hundred years, and because the embers of Jewish nationalism didn’t die out quite so quickly, and because there was powerful rhetorical value—centuries later—to retroject the Yavne story as a myth of origins for a rabbinic movement still rising in power. But we can leave actual history aside, and talk about memory; that’s the terrain we are in, the use of the myths of the Jewish past to lace our politics with authenticity, to embolden the change agents of the present to believe that they are not merely endorsing an implausible and heretical politics but to position them as the iconoclasts of Jewish history. Not the bad ones, the false messiahs; the good ones, the sages, the ones who change the present away from the corrupt past and toward an uncertain, morally superior future.

It is so strange, in an essay that tries to convince us that if the State of Israel willingly changes itself from being a Jewish state to a binational state it will not have to endure violence along the way, and in an essay that so openly gaslights contemporary Jewry about our recent traumas as to argue that survivalist fears are merely post-traumatic stress, that Beinart adduces a metaphor for a new vision for Israel that requires envisioning the previous version in ashes. The talmudic rabbis themselves knew how audacious and even ruthless was Yohanan ben Zakkai’s request: Rabbi Yosef, or maybe it was Rabbi Akiva, is shocked. How, in a position of opportunity, does the sage not beg for the Jewish people? The answer is feeble, and telling: In that moment, Yohanan ben Zakkai took what he could get. Yavne, even for its descendants, required the mass death, dislocation, and—above all—disappointment for the Jewish people, the symbol twinned to Jerusalem of what could not endure, and what had to replace it. Is this the level that the first Jewish commonwealth in 2,000 years has reached? Is this its fate, after these 53 years of disappointments?

The only way the metaphor makes sense, truly, is to see that it is not the current State of Israel that Beinart envisions in the coffin escaping Jerusalem: It is he himself, and the school of former Zionists (mostly in Diaspora) who have lost faith in the project. Isn’t Yavne Diasporic, after all? The metaphor relies on its protagonist and author seeing everyone else and their politics irredeemably corrupt; and seeing as his only choice the decision to not work through any of their politics because of their current implausibility, and to opt instead for a different orthodoxy with no political viability, but with a self-affirming integrity. It is a conversion story, and a story of departure. And while I empathize with Beinart’s struggle—to be a liberal Zionist today is to feel often ashamed, and frequently embarrassed—I still find it perverse to see in modern Israel-Palestine, site of an irreconcilable conflict and a thousand conflicting narratives, the irredeemable corruption of the ancient Temple; and to see one’s own escape from its failed politics as the pathway to an altogether new Zionism.

Here’s the great tragic irony of all of this: It is fair game for us as modern Jews to imagine new Yavnes 2,000 years after the first Yavne. But this particular attempt to claim it, to see in this generation the moment for a radical rebirth of the Jewish future, ignores the fact that we are still of the first generations in thousands of years to experience anything close to the radical turnabout of Yavne that transformed Jewish history, culture, political destiny, and the very meaning of Judaism itself—namely, the very creation of the State of Israel itself in 1948. For Yavne to be Yavne, as Beinart acknowledges, requires that the historical moment reflect a wholesale departure from a thousand years of Jewish precedent. Isn’t statehood and sovereignty after 2,000 years of Diaspora and dispossession what we have in mind? And not, perhaps, the failure over a 30-year span of the particular mechanics of the two-state solution to take root in political feasibility?

No: For contemporary Jews, Jewish sovereignty is our Yavne, as hard as that may be to fathom. As the original Yavne didn’t end Jewish nationalism, our modern Yavne did not draw to a close Diasporism; as the original Yavne innovated a new Judaism for new political realities while sustaining the memory of the former, our modern Yavne has transformed the very idea of Judaism in ways that many of us struggle to recognize. Even Yeshayahu Leibowitz, the patron saint of the post-Zionists and a far more trenchant critic of Israeli nationalism than any of us, recognized that Zionism in the form of self-determination and sovereignty was the great revolutionary turnabout of modern Jewish history. As much as he detested the religious apparatus associated with a Jewish state, for Leibowitz the fundamental project of the state was that it constituted our “being fed up with being ruled by goyim.” Sovereignty was a revolution; and a challenge, and an opportunity. And the future of the project would depend on the bookshelf and the policies that would turn that opportunity into a referendum for the moral character of the Jewish people.

This has been, and must remain, the impossible hill for liberal Zionism to try to live on. Zionism’s sine qua non is some expression of sovereign self-rule that translates self-determination into a framework that departs from Diasporism. On top of that commitment, as its refinement and its goal, is this unprecedented opportunity for the Jewish people to shape its existential destiny. Yavne was not the relinquishing of power, it was a power play; it has happened in our lifetime, and now the Talmuds need to be written. The next phase of our new rabbinic project is to take sovereignty, power, and the control of a public square seriously, and to figure out how to religiously, authentically, and morally run a society on those foundations. Now is not a moment to escape that challenge.

It is telling that Beinart acknowledges that nothing beyond an area code organizes the people of Israel and Palestine under one cultural or national umbrella. This is, of course, because of Yavne as well: The birth of the State of Israel in 1948 did not merely produce the apparatus of a nation-state with dispassionate political infrastructure. It also inaugurated, for the Jewish people, a new and robust national and cultural identity that takes strength from the state and grants meaning back to it as well. I fear that the fixation on Israel’s political failures and the attempt to displace its political culture with a framework of equality—not advancing the cause of equality through the state but replacing the state with another version—is precisely because too many of us cannot access that proprietary cultural-national heritage, emblematic of the state and one of its Yavne miracles, in its native idiom.

It is also ironic that Beinart uses the birthplace of Jewish pluralism to make a case for such radical division in and among the Jewish people. Shaye Cohen has argued that Yavne represents the domestication of Jewish disagreement, in embedding pre-70 sectarianism into a system that prevents its dissolution of the people. Jewish pluralism, in any reading, is an instrument for Jewish peoplehood—a vehicle to sustain an unwieldy people with deep political and ideological disagreements with one another. I understand when people want to let go of pluralism because they feel it is a moral discourse that suppresses dissent and is too silent in the face of injustice. But to claim Jewish pluralism as the foundation for staking a political claim that stands against the overwhelming majority of Jews, as an instrument for sowing division?

Perhaps the most egregious sacrifice Beinart makes here, however, is that of the Jewish people’s suffering: from the past, and in the future. The Jews who remembered the first century—even, or especially those, who embraced revolutionary thinkers like Yohanan ben Zakkai, and went along with a vision for a new Judaism—more than remembered the catastrophe that preceded their own revolution. They embedded the consciousness of what they lost into the Judaism that emerged. Yes, the Holocaust changed the modern Jewish consciousness about the right not just to self-determination in a homeland, but also to sovereignty, and for the need for control of our political and military destiny. Treating this as trauma to be overcome—claiming that we have entirely foisted genocidal interests on Palestinians because of the Holocaust, that we have nothing to fear about a radical transformation of the Jewish political future—misreads the Jewish relationship to history even as it paternalistically dismisses Palestinian agency for what Palestinians might do in pursuit of their own political future. We Jews live history; we remember it; we are transformed by it.

We have now a Jerusalem struggling in its nascence since its rebirth—not a society irredeemably corrupt that it needs to be reborn again. What we need now is not Yavne. If Beinart is to draw a more apt historical analogy to his own convictions, I would suggest he look instead to Bar Kochba. Yes, Bar Kochba! Roughly 70 years after the destruction of the Temple and the origin of the Yavne myth, with nostalgia for Temple times still alive and the new alternatives still struggling to take root, the Jewish people got to relitigate the original question—to revision a new Jewish commonwealth. That’s what Beinart seems to want, why the nostalgia for Buber and the other pre-state Zionists who advanced visions for the State of Israel that did not take root then, but which he hopes to revive. I teach Buber, too; his is an important story to tell. Historical choices are not inevitable, and Buber’s pre-state writings are a useful critical tool to interrogate the failures of the contemporary state and what other models we might have anticipated prior to its creation. But to turn back the clock? Restart? Citing Buber as the model for a new Israel in 2020 is the functional equivalent of building a political theory for Judaism circe 150 CE based on the Sadducees.

Meantime, at the time of Bar Kochba, all the rational and reasonable people thought that his little war against Rome and his rebooting of Jewish nationalism was a bad idea. Yavne was imperfect, but it represented a start, a foundation; the continued attachment to a road not taken was in its own right a utopian attachment that was actually undermining the very collective commitment to the existing project that needed the Jewish people behind it to succeed. By this point Yavne wasn’t even in Yavne anymore! The rabbinic movement was iterating itself through the Galilee; it couldn’t ultimately hold water against Bar Kochba’s tantalizing, morally coherent vision that was the original vision, the one that got away.

But relitigating the historical question in real life was not charming or thrilling the way that reading alternate history sometimes inclines us to believe. The Bar Kochba rebellion was perhaps the single greatest disaster in Jewish political history. The sages—those of the bourgeois, Isaiah Berlin, liberal Zionist politics; the incrementalists, the believers in the slow pace of change, the architects of the Yavne vision; the losers in the debate with the Bar Kochbas, desperate in their effort not to revisit the past or to invite retribution—the sages describe the bloodshed as so severe and grotesque that it spilled to the sea for miles and miles. A horse sunk to its nostrils in the blood that was shed in the Bar Kochba rebellion. Thank God for Yavne, in retrospect; it never would have been able to get off the ground again, without that head start.

Simply put: There is only one way through this story of indefinite occupation and an enduring conflict, and it includes the validation of the story of the Jewish people, which includes its transformation by Zionism in the 20th century. Beinart makes light in the opening of his essay of those Jews whose Judaism is premised on pro-Israelism; I agree that this can become thin, and coercive. But it is not crazy to me that the single most transformative event of Jewish history since Yavne would have a lingering, commanding effect on many of us. We invalidate our own history and our own story at our peril, especially if we do so in order to validate the story of Palestinians.

This is a further irony: The counterhistory, the revolutionary turnabout that Beinart seeks, remedies the Jewish past and present in order to make room for the story of Palestinians, suggesting that the two—in their current and authentic forms—are irreconcilable! How can we envision a shared future for Israelis and Palestinians when we have to suppress and transform one in order to accommodate the other? Two states, for all their failings, grant each people a right to their story and a right to their destiny.

Beinart’s second-to-last paragraph is his truest. I believe deeply that our redemption as the Jewish people, and the integrity of our national story, cannot be complete with the continued oppression of the Palestinian people, the denial of their history and their future, and with the prevention of their redemption. But the only way forward is through our Zionism, and not in its flattening. We are the inheritors of a revolutionary moment of Jewish history, the third generation since Yavne. I am not prepared to allow today to be Yavne and in so doing to make 1948 into hurban for the Jewish people, as it was for Palestinians. Perhaps our best wisdom, still, is one of the key intellectual legacies of the sages of Yavne themselves: When two claim a garment, and both can validate their claims, and neither can be falsified: Let them bear witness, and let them divide it.

Yehuda Kurtzer is President of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America and host of the Identity/Crisis Podcast.