Jokes and Justice

When I was a graduate student at Brandeis, I shared an apartment with two other 20-somethings, an American named Jeff and an Israeli named Yoni. Jeff was an indifferent student of sociology but very talented in the kitchen, where he prepared his own baba ganoush from scratch. Yoni, a kibbutznik who had been an officer in the tank corps on the Golan Heights during the recently concluded Yom Kippur War, was making up for lost time by trying to do his B.A. in computer science in three years.

The three of us were sitting together in our small living room one spring evening when one of our neighbors dropped in to say hello. Juan, a graduate student in philosophy, was from Spain, hadn’t met many Jews before, and always had a lot of questions for us. I have forgotten all of them except the one he eventually posed to Yoni that night: “Why did you serve in the army?” Yoni looked up at him, clearly annoyed, and replied, “Juan, in my country everybody has to serve in the army.”

Illustration by Mark Anderson.
Illustration by Mark Anderson.

“But why did you do it? Did you consider not going into the army?” I understood more quickly than Yoni, perhaps, that what Juan wanted to know was whether Yoni’s decision was informed by philosophical reflection on his duties, the rightness of his country’s cause, the value of human life, and so on. At first Yoni didn’t get it, but finally he said, “Juan, some people like to talk philosophy, some people like to cook,” he said, nodding in Jeff’s direction. “And some people like to lie on the floor and read.” That was for my sake. “Me,” he concluded, “I like to kill.”

I was sufficiently familiar with Yoni’s rather juvenile sense of humor to laugh at this. (After all, I had seen him watching a Rolaids commercial on TV with a prim graduate student in Judaic studies and spelling out what it was that gave him relief.) And I knew that he was at bottom a very gentle and considerate fellow who had no relish for war (and never talked about it). But Juan left quickly and never came back.  

Yoni was better at computer science than he was at diplomacy but his patriotism was unalloyed. Not long after this bull session, he turned down a hefty offer from MIT in order to return to Israel, because he was afraid that if he didn’t go back right away he might never return.

Yoni’s devotion to Israel was unreflective and his understanding of its significance was entirely conventional. In this, if in little else, he resembles most American Jews. But someone else I knew briefly, even before I met Yoni, has now made a film devoted to shaking such Jews out of their complacent ethnocentricity. Bruce Robbins, the Old Dominion Foundation Professor in the Humanities at Columbia University, has put together a documentary entitled Some of My Best Friends Are Zionists.  It’s a movie about how some American Jews “came to change their minds” about Israel, and it stars Tony Kushner, Judith Butler, and other like-minded luminaries as well as lesser-known folk who now understand that the Jewish state isn’t the utopia their parents cracked it up to be. Over the past year, Robbins has been screening and discussing it with audiences from Brooklyn (where there are more minds that need to be changed) to Beirut (where one might think there wouldn’t be, but where it is apparently necessary to let the good people know that there are at least a few American Jews worthy of their respect). 


John Judis, another recovering Zionist whose new book on Truman and Israel Ronald Radosh reviews in this issue, now thinks that the policy initiated by the Balfour Declaration represents a British and Zionist conspiracy “to screw the Arabs out of a country that by the prevailing standards of self-determination would have been theirs.” Crude, offensive, and ahistorical as this statement may be, it contains a grain of truth: the regnant, if inconsistently implemented, standard of the post-World War I world—the standard of self-determination famously associated with Woodrow Wilson—would in theory have dictated that the people of Palestine (by themselves or together with their neighbors) vote on their own future. And in 1917 the vast majority of those people opposed the creation of a Jewish national home, much less a Jewish state, in the territory they inhabited.

But, one has to ask, were the prevailing standards the only legitimate standards that could be applied in this situation? Judis, who quickly dismisses all justifications of Zionism as mere rationalizations, clearly thinks so, and so does, to all appearances, Ari Shavit. The difference between them is that while the former condemns the injustice done to the Arabs of Palestine, the latter, as Elliott Abrams shows in his review of My Promised Land, sorrowfully endorses it, since it was the inevitable precondition for his own people’s salvation. Shavit is preferable to Judis on these matters, but his thinking is almost as simplistic. Neither man pauses to consider whether Zionism was in the final analysis a just cause.


This is not the kind of job that is best performed by journalists, or even by historians. It is the task of political philosophy. Is it a necessary one? Why, after all, should Israel be the only state in the modern world continually required to justify its own existence? It’s a reasonable question but students at Wesleyan and other places who see Bruce Robbins’ movie should know that there are more sophisticated justifications for Israel’s existence than the ones the Jews he presents are so pleased to have outgrown. And Zionists in general need to know that they needn’t feel as guilty as Shavit does.

On a level that far surpasses the thinking of Judis and Shavit (to say nothing of Robbins), Israelis such as Amnon Rubinstein, Alexander Yakobson, Ruth Gavison, Yael Tamir, and Chaim Gans have been engaged for years in a philosophical discussion of the grounds on which the existence of the Jewish state can be justified. Of course, they disagree on a great deal. Where they do agree, however, is in believing that Wilsonian ideals aren’t the only standard to be applied to the question of whether the Jews deserved a stake in Palestine in modern times. 

In his recent Hebrew volume A Political Theory for the Jewish People, Chaim Gans, a professor of law at Tel Aviv University (whose A Just Zionism was reviewed in these pages by Gideon Shimoni) makes a lot of arguments that many Zionists will find unpalatable. He denies, for instance, that the Jews’ historical connection with Israel alone entitles them to ownership of the land. But he does present a cogent justification for Jewish statehood “based on equal division among the nations of the right to self-rule, the implementation of this right in territories with which a national identity is connected, and the need that came into being as a result of the persecution of the Jews.” Gans is, to be sure, strongly critical of the current state of affairs in Israel, but it is impossible to imagine him comparing the barrier that runs across the West Bank to the wall around the Warsaw ghetto, as Robbins does in an online trailer for his film.

The political-philosophical discussion of the justness of Zionism is largely in Hebrew, but much of it has been translated and more is on the way. I wouldn’t recommend this literature to my old roommate Yoni. Unless he has changed a lot in the 30 years since I last saw him, he doesn’t need it. Nor do I think that it would make much of an impression on the producer or stars of Some of My Best Friends Are Zionists. This kind of political thought is neither for the unreflective patriot nor the uncharitable outsider; it’s for the rest of us.


Suggested Reading

Promised Land or Homeland?

Allan Arkush

The university presses of Cambridge and Oxford have released two new works of Jewish political theory that blend theoretical defenses of Zionism with robust critique of what Chaim Gans calls the “Zionist mainstream.”