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Right to Exist

I plan to blog my reflections on the book Right to Exist by Yaacov Lozowick. But, before I begin, I come clean on what I bring to this task.

Over the next few weeks I will be reading Right to Exist: A Moral Defense of Israel’s Wars by Yaacov Lozowick. This book was published last year in Israel and this year, by Doubleday, in the U.S. My plan is to provide not exactly a review of the book but a reflection on it as I read.

But before I begin, I have to say a few things about myself. Like any historian, like any good scholar, I strive to recognize my own prejudices and preconceptions, my own point of view (p.o.v.). This book, dealing with the Zionist movement and the struggle for survival of the state of Israel, draws on my own long connection, in imagination at least, with Israel and Judaism, and it also makes me confront my ideas and ideals about the world I live in.

On the simplest level, Yaacov is a friend. I met him almost fourteen years ago when Seton Hill sent me to Israel to study at Yad Vashem. He and I are about the same age, and we are both historians. In 1990 Yaacov still coordinated programs for educators, but he was well along toward finishing his Ph.D. at Hebrew University. As he finished up he had to make a decision about seeking an academic career or accepting a position as director of the archive at Yad Vashem. He chose the latter, apparently a good decision, though at the time it seemed much less clear. I know this because Yaacov and I remained in contact after my brief period of study in Israel. We corresponded by conventional mail, and later moved on to e-mail. Some of the stories in his first chapter—his son just around the corner from a suicide bombing, his growing frustration with the peace process—are familiar to me from the messages Yaacov sent to me, sometimes individually and sometimes as part of a general message he sent to people in his address book. When Yaacov visited the United States more than a decade ago, he stayed with me during the two days he was in Greensburg. I’ve come to respect him as an honest commentator on Israeli politics and life, but an observer who is also living the life he portrays.

But the subject of Israel goes much deeper for me. I grew up in a family with a distinctively Zionist outlook. We believed that God gave the land of Israel to the Jews, and that was pretty much that. No, I’m not Jewish. My family was (and, minus me, still is) evangelical, and also very phileo-Semitic (of course, we expected that all Jews would become evangelical Christians, but that is another story). My earliest clear memories of world events related to Israel was the Six-Day War, in 1967. The astonishing reversals inflicted on the numerically superior Arab League forces seemed to me and my family truly miraculous. Now, as a professor of history, I try to teach students that miracles are stories to explain events, but should never be taken literally. They simply mean that the writer believed that God was on the side favored by the writer. But as a seventh grader, I accepted wholeheartedly that God favored Israel, and the Six-Day War seemed ample proof of this belief.

In spite of the beating that my religious outlook took over the years, I remained pro-Zionist. In 1973, as a college student verging on agnosticism, I followed the Yom Kippur War. Even though God (in my view) was not longer on Israel’s side, Israeli military still prevailed. Later in the 1970s I cheered the Camp David Accords and came to hope that other diplomatic successes would open the way for an end to the aggression of Arab states and the beginning of a solution to the problems of Palestinians.

Of course, over the years I’ve become more realistic about problems in the Middle East, more aware of issues facing Palestinians, and more skeptical of the claims and actions of Israeli leaders. I can’t assume any more that Israel plays a role in a grand design of a benevolent creator. And even my faith in democratic institutions, national self-determination, and the triumph of liberal ideas can feel like ten miles of bad road. Still, none of Israel’s neighbors are functioning democracies. I cringe when I hear about more Israeli incursions into Palestinian areas. Yet, correctly or not, I keep thinking that I would support that kind of retaliation if I lived in Israel.

So, Yaacov’s book promises a moral struggle for me as he struggles with issues of morality in Israel’s wars.

Comments

I look forward to your reflections. I wish more scholars in English would write this kind of confessional admission of bias -- there would be less heat and more light in certain kinds of scholarly debates. But in other branches of humanities, there would be little to argue about if we put all our biases on the table like this!

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