Jews, Arabs and Jewish History

The Israeli chapter that opened in modern Jewish history some half a century ago provided Diaspora Jews with the possibility of a vicarious connection with the corporate, collective expression of Jewish peoplehood. From this perspective, the place of the Arabs as the enemy, as the adversary in Israel’s heroic wars, was often more congenial than their presence as peaceful neighbors who could move freely in and out of Israeli territory. It was easier to imagine Israel as a pure Jewish entity than as an open, cosmopolitan and ethnically or religiously mixed reality. For many Israelis, the idea of Arabs as peaceful neighbors had a much greater attraction. It connects with the aspiration for a normal life as an escape from a gory, heroic history of triumph through blood and fire.

It would be a mistake to think of systematic misunderstandings as occurrences between Diaspora and Israeli Jews only. The picture is more complicated, since significant segments of the Israeli public (especially Orthodox-Zionist and nationalistic Jews) take a characteristic Diasporic view of Israeli wars on Israel’s Arab adversaries (at least the 19th and early 20th century European Diaspora from which these ideologies emerged). Also, a not-insignificant part of American Jewry has internalized the ambivalence found among many Israelis toward epic military wars against the Arabs. It is, therefore, not a coincidence that involved Orthodox and nationalist American Jews find a greater continuity with the opinions of their Israeli counterparts. The point is that despite such continuities, Israelis who still support more epic-nationalistic views of the next chapters of Israeli history are increasingly defensive when facing criticisms and ambivalence arising from other parts of the Israeli society, while their American counterparts, not exposed to such relentless challenges (especially from soldiers transformed by their battlefield experiences), tend to hold purer and more simplistic versions of such attitudes.

Within Israel, revisionist and post-Zionist historians seem to complicate the authority of the official epic version of Israeli history by further providing less ideologically and politically self-serving versions of the past. Recent expressions in Israel of partial willingness to consider such revised notions of past and present are linked with a greater propensity to accommodate Israel’s Arab neighbors, as well as a declining trust in the role of military force in resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict. Because these forces do not affect Diaspora Jewry’s visions of Israel’s history to the same degree that they affect Israeli sensibilities, the two contexts can seem gradually to generate divergent versions of national history and ideological uses.