Review: A.B. Yehoshua’s Between Right and Right

between-right-and-right I am relieved to report, with the exception of a single, mostly finished group paper, my class assignments are written, my undergraduate marking is submitted, and my last quarter of coursework has come to an end.  In celebration, I have taken the last week to relax, decompress, and enjoy the sunshine.  Aside from a few scattered thunderstorms, the weather has been warm and beautiful.  Although being out of classes does not actually mean that I get a work-free vacation, it has freed up some time to do some “personal interest” reading.

This week, I tackled a collection of essays by renowned Israeli writer and intellectual A.B. Yehoshua entitled Between Right and Right.  Written on the heels of the 1973 Yom Kippur War and published in 1980 following the signing of the Camp David peace accords with Egypt, the book is a bold effort to critically examine the past, present, and future of the Zionist idea.  At a time when the legitimacy and security of the Jewish state was subject to increasingly contentious domestic and international debate, Yehoshua proposes justifications for Israeli statehood in terms of universal morality rather than particularistic religious entitlement.  In doing so, he hopes to normalize Israel’s existence in the international community at large and define a baseline from which territorial and group minority claims against the state might be fairly and justly resolved.

Consistent with my interests in the nature and sustainability of nationalist claims to disputed territories, the author takes on the most difficult questions of national identity and territorial entitlement from a perspective that explicitly recognizes Jewish emotional attachment to the land itself.  Contrary to much of the mainstream Zionist rhetoric however, he challenges the idea that these perceived entitlements are sufficient for a just territorial claim.  In particular, he dismisses the notion of religious right to land derived from divine covenant and that of a historical right based in “original” collective habitation.

With regard to the former, he reasonably argues that the problem of theological claims is that although “the divine promise can serve to validate the religious Jew’s sense of his right to Eretz Israel, it has no moral significance for a plaintiff who not only not religious but also is not a Jew” (88).  A religious claim to territory cannot be universally acceptable because other groups’ claims to divine licence cannot be proven to be any more or less legitimate.   With regard to the latter, he argues that a people must both be able to prove that they are the original, genuine, and exclusive owner of the country taken from it, that they did not take it from another, and that the nation claiming a right of return was forced to leave and was unable to return within a reasonable span of time (92-3).  Since the biblical right of Jews to Israel, just as with that of the Arabs, is rooted in conquest, and Jewish failure to return to Israel in significant numbers following the revolt against Roman rule is as much a product of self-reluctance as external compulsion, this right too is remarkably suspect.

Drawing on familiar themes of Golah (exile) and collective national suffering most immediately apparent in the Shoah (Holocaust), he instead asserts that the most critical right of Jews to live in Eretz Israel is the “right of survival.”  The inherent and historically realized danger of existence as a nation-without-state he argues makes morally necessary the seizure, “even by force, part of any other country in order to establish a sovereign state of its own” (101).  To the critique that a distinct people alternatively has the option of assimilation into the host society, Yehoshua responds both that resolution of the problem of identity through elimination is fundamentally unjust and that the failure to assimilate was certainly not for lack of trying.  The historical indigestibility of the Jewish people, he argues, has demonstrated that the right to survival ultimately derives from the “objective circumstance of having no alternative” (103).

From this baseline, he suggests that once a stateless, wandering, threatened people enjoy a sovereign territory of their own, they may finally be rid of their artificial distinctiveness from other nations of the world.  Having reincorporated geography into identity, normal social activities can cease to be seen as particularly Jewish ones.  No longer subject to the “constant struggle to keep Jews from being swept up by the totalness of the alien reality that seeks to efface and assimilate them,” he believes that Israel provides the “framework for a cure” to the disease that is the exile mentality (133, 146).  Only by seeking and institutionalizing the normality of Jewish society in Israel, does Yehoshua believe that the Jewish people can maintain their singular character, like that of every other distinct nation, “without constantly fearing loss of identity” (147).

While his prescription of security of Jewish identity through affirmation of national collective normality is appealing in an ideal world, his largely exclusive emphasis on the necessity of Jewish statehood for survival is weak on at least two counts.  First, by emphasizing threat to collective identity as the most just basis for achievement of national territorial sovereignty, he fails to recognize the subjectivity of “threat” and the long term consequences of relying on such a justification in the absence of such threat.  Second, by rejecting the legitimacy of religious and historical claims to territory, he marginalizes the importance of place in determining where a threatened people should be given sovereign rights and he provides no firm basis for determining the size and shape of that future territorial state.

It comes as some surprise that although Yehoshua is incredibly nuanced in his understanding of how competing parties might also use religious and historical “rights” to claim the territory now controlled by Israel, he fails to appreciate that the right to survival is also suspect.  If survival here merely means the absence of external existential threat, what if Israel were to make a true and lasting peace with its neighbors?  Although an unlikely scenario, in the absence of external existential threat, the justification for Israel’s existence would also evaporate.  Given that Yehoshua seeks to place Israel among the nations rather than apart from them, one must also ask what effect the absence of external threat would mean for the rights of other national groups.  Does the absence of existential threats to French national identity mean that the French are no longer entitled to a state?  Certainly not, nor would he argue otherwise.  What must be clarified then is that the right to statehood may be established because of external threats, but this is not an end in and of itself.  Rather the existence of a threat to survival is but the first step on the road to nationhood that enjoys permanent political legitimacy into the foreseeable future.

But where should such a state be founded?  Although Yehoshua is explicitly cognizant of the attachment between Jews and Eretz Israel, he rejects that this ethnohistorical bond can serve as a just basis for territorial nationhood.  In the absence of a compelling threat to the existence of a national group, ethnohistorical claims are clearly an insufficient justification for disturbing the political and territorial status quo particularly where another group currently claims sovereign control.  Yet it is difficult to imagine the formal political territorial constitution of a stateless group without such a prior claim.  “National” groups certainly can be and have been artificially constituted by external powers, but it is unlikely that a political collective would claim sovereign rights independent of these external pressures without first having some sense of shared identity.  Where such claims are advanced, they are moreover almost certainly tied to a particular territory, whether it be the land currently occupied by the claimants or one believed to be their religious or historic homeland.

Yehoshua’s final dilemma in this regard, what portion of the territory claimed may be rightfully incorporated into an emergent state, can only be determined through a decision that is cognizant of the historical claims of the threatened group (103-106).  These claims may be addressed or overridden but ultimately it is the respect for or collective international nullification of these historical boundaries that must set a state’s territorial boundaries, not some subjective notion of threat.  Indeed who is to say that what territorial apportionment is just and necessary to counter an existential threat, who is to determine when the threat is neutralized, and who is to decide how territory should be reapportioned either once the threat has passed or when another group on the same territory believes itself to be threatened.

Ultimately, Yehoshua is correct to claim, “Morality is not the only solution to all problems, but it is a decisive element in any solution that would last” (106).  However, the construction of the moral settlement is necessarily bound to and determined in part by the realization of historical claims of displaced peoples.  Just as it is immoral to arbitrarily impose the problematic historical and religious claims of one group on another, it is no less unjust to treat their content as irrelevant for it is only with sensitivity to these claims that appropriate boundaries can be fixed.  Following the author’s own logic, like no one questions the right of the British to London as “[l]and is not only a commodity, but also a basis of an identity,” it is odd to suggest that the very same kinds of geographically specific historical claims that are constitutive of the Israeli/Jewish identity are themselves morally suspect (82-83).  While Yehoshua’s call for the normalization of Israel is certainly a lofty goal, it is altogether unreasonable to suppose that in this normalcy the state might be expected to forego those “normal” rights to historical territories that others so clearly enjoy.

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