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High and Low Israel Criticism

Two recent books on the Israeli national project reflect the differing cultural sensibilities of their U.S. publishers

Ari Hoffman
June 07, 2022
Tablet Magazine; original photos: Wikipedia
L-R: Yossi Shain; Omri BoehmTablet Magazine; original photos: Wikipedia
Tablet Magazine; original photos: Wikipedia
L-R: Yossi Shain; Omri BoehmTablet Magazine; original photos: Wikipedia

When it comes to Israel, it’s always the best of times and the worst of times. For the Jewish state, the sky’s the limit—or else it’s falling. According to its critics, Israel is on the verge of moral immolation, an apartheid regime living on borrowed time. Its boosters counter that Israel has never been stronger: The more the haters hate, the more peace agreements it signs with its Arab neighbors, and the more sophisticated the technology it develops and exports. It’s as if the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea can only be viewed through a fun-house mirror.

This schizophrenia finds expression in two recent books that read like they were written on different planets. Omri Boehm’s Haifa Republic: A Democratic Future for Israel approaches Israel as a failed state and Jewish sovereignty as a moral obscenity. As Boehm, an Israeli associate professor of philosophy at The New School in New York, puts it, “True Israeli patriots must now challenge Zionist taboos as we have come to know them, must dare to imagine the country’s transformation, from a Jewish state into a federal, binational republic.” If Thomas Jefferson believed that “the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants,” then Boehm believes that sometimes you need to cut the tree down altogether. 

Yossi Shain’s The Israeli Century: How the Zionist Revolution Changed History and Reinvented Judaism argues that Israel’s success is so total that it has remade the Jewish people, reversed the misfortunes of their past, and secured their future. For Boehm, Israel is so compromised as to be ripe for demolition; for Shain, a Knesset member for Yisrael Beiteinu and professor of political science at Tel Aviv University, it is one of the greatest miracles in human history and the lodestar of the Jewish present. “Israel has consolidated its hold as the most dominant entity in the Jewish experience,” he writes. “The Jewish center of gravity—cultural, religious, political, demographic, and even economic—has decamped from New York, and is now to be found in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv for the foreseeable future.” In the Israeli century, “the majority of Jews will come to live in the historic Land of Israel and enjoy the protection of the State of Israel.” Zion is where it will be at.

Like his one-state fellow traveler Peter Beinart, Boehm knows his audience: He couches his advocacy for the dissolution of the Jewish state in language intended to convince Jewish readers and non-Jewish critics of Israel that it is perfectly acceptable and desirable to overturn the country’s national identity. Even as he seeks to detonate the Israeli national project, he insists that he is more Zionist than the Zionists, selectively citing clippings by Menachem Begin, Ze’ev Jabotinsky, and David Ben-Gurion to argue that sovereignty as such was never really necessary. A Jewish state—as opposed to a binational state with a Jewish minority—was a mistake, a wrong turn that has led to a dead end.

According to Boehm, Israelis have become more hardline and closed-minded than their founding fathers, who were open to a broader range of political possibilities. The book’s title refers to Boehm’s personal promised land: not contested Jerusalem or vibrant Tel Aviv, but Haifa, a city unshackled from Jewish history or yearning that in Boehm’s telling can be the model for the successor state to the Zionist entity.

Boehm’s indictment of the Jewish state cites testimony from its architects. He has an extensive archive to work with, due in large part to the astonishing richness of the Zionist historical library. The difficulty of addressing the Jewish Question in Europe led to a kaleidoscope of proposals in one of the biggest Jewish brainstorming exercises of all time, from Herzl’s diplomatic approach to Ahad Ha’am’s focus on culture to the anarcho-socialism of A.D. Gordon. With Jews 2,000 years out of the habit of self-rule and desperate for a solution to their European predicament, it was only natural that they would entertain and debate a million and one ways of hypothetically governing themselves.

Early Jewish Zionist thinkers were also working and imagining the future in a very different context: the decaying Austro-Hungarian and Russian empires and the bloody urgency of the continental Jewish Question. Even those fervent believers in Zionism were required to be strategically cautious, alert to the yawning gap between their dreams for a national home and the very limited means at their disposal. For Boehm to cite a Jabotinsky endorsement of a binational state free of relevant context and use it to condemn the contemporary Israeli national project is clever but not convincing.

Boehm eagerly calls on many other such out-of-context and since-discarded ideas from the Zionist archives in support of his cause. The only way he can conceive of a Jewish state is as a misguided outgrowth of the Holocaust, and thus he calls for “forgetting” rather than “remembering” as a form of justice and as a prerequisite for embracing binationalism. Boehm does make an attempt at symmetry: Jewish Israelis need to remember the Nakba and forget the Holocaust, and Palestinians need to remember the Holocaust and forget the Nakba, he says. Easy enough, except that Zionism predates both events, and many Palestinian Arabs understand themselves as downstream victims of the Holocaust.

History is of prime importance for Shain. The Israeli Century spends hundreds of pages retracing Jewish history from biblical times to the present, focusing on how Jews adapted to wherever they were but always pined for an eventual return. Most of this won’t be news to readers familiar with Jewish history or tradition, and the abundance of secondary source citations could likely have been trimmed. But Shain’s journey through the past is a welcome antidote to Boehm’s attempt to twist that past to fit his expectations in the present.

Even as Shain takes a deep dive into Jewish history, he maintains that “the Israeli experience is fundamentally different from any other the Jews have known. For there is no longer any serious question about Israel’s existence—or its necessity for the continued existence of Jews and Judaism.” For Shain, this is all good news. Israel is strong and reliable, dynamic and thriving. The American diaspora frets about the future; the Israelis build it. This disparity, Shain believes, is entirely due to Israel’s Jewish national identity. “Shielded by the power of the Israeli Century,” he writes optimistically, “Israeli Jews are channeling the global traits and talents accumulated by generations of Jews in the absence of sovereignty, into international success in a constantly growing number of fields.”

Shain and Boehm have written books for partisans, in other words. If you see Israel as an extraordinary success, you’ll want to shout Shain’s work from the rooftops; if you think of it as an unmitigated failure, Boehm is your guide. But perhaps just as interesting as the content of each book is the contrast in publishers that brought them into being.

The Israeli Century was published by Wicked Son Press, an imprint headed by Adam Bellow, David Bernstein, and David Hazony. Wicked Son has also published books by Hillel Halkin, Ruth Wisse, and Michael Oren, all leading Zionist lights. But readers might be able to tell that Wicked Son is still a relatively new and niche imprint: At 464 pages, Shain’s book is too long for its purposes, and it could have used another round or two of editing.

Haifa Republic, on the other hand, bears the august label of the New York Review of Books press, which brings out both new work and reissues obscure books by old masters. The ability to spot its telltale spine is a tip-off that someone is in the literary know. Many releases have been happily rescued from obscurity, and their return to circulation is a welcome development. Others can seem like a reach into obscurity (history does sometimes pick literary winners and losers correctly).

Any regular reader of the NYRB knows of its consistent, and consistently hostile, interest in Israel. The magazine is one of the tribunes of elite contempt for the Jewish state, reflecting the consensus of the New York faculty lounge and the sensibility of professional Brooklyn. There is no better place to turn to watch the falling out of love between Jewish intellectuals and Israel: Boehm’s work fits in seamlessly with that of Beinart, David Shulman, and other NYRB stalwarts.

The new works of Boehm and Shain thus represent not just two takes on Israel but two distinct world views: one held by the cultural elite with impeccable credentials, and the other by a less prestigious and less fashionable set that has become something of a counterculture. It is perhaps a sign of the times that the former’s critiques and preferences are increasingly irrelevant to developments in Israel and the Middle East.

Ari Hoffman is a staff writer and assistant editor at the New York Sun, where he covers culture and politics. He teaches at NYU, holds a PhD from Harvard and a law degree from Stanford, and is a Journalism Fellow at the Hartman Institute.