Beyond the Green Line: Imagining a Just Future
By Julie E. CooperDecember 6, 2023
In this haze of confusion, fear, and despair, chance encounters felt unusually intense and charged. When I went to pick up laundry, my usually upbeat, gregarious dry cleaner declared that he could no longer say hello to his Arab neighbors—and that he was planning to buy a gun. A few days later, a casual acquaintance I ran into on the street seized the opportunity to unburden herself. “I’m devastated; I’m shattered,” she intoned repeatedly, mourning the collapse of long-held political convictions. A jewelry designer in her late forties whose father immigrated to Israel from Iraq, Edna had always dismissed her parents’ warnings about implacable Arab antisemitism as alarmist and paranoid, verging on racism. “I was never a radical. I always defined myself as centrist,” she explained, “but I always believed that it would be possible to reach an agreement of some kind.” After the massacres of the Black Shabbat, she was not ready to concede that her parents had been right all along, nor could she dismiss their warnings as delusional.
Growing up, Edna heard testimonies from elderly relatives about the Farhud, the 1941 pogrom in which a mob rampaged through Baghdad’s Jewish community on the Shavuot holiday, killing more than 180 Jews, raping women, and looting Jewish businesses. On the Black Shabbat, as the extent of Hamas’s atrocities began to sink in, Edna felt as if she were witnessing a reprise of the Farhud on Israeli soil. Edna had always trusted that, as a citizen of a Jewish state, she was insulated from the violence that had plagued her diasporic forbears. The devastating scenes of civilians left defenseless as Hamas prosecuted a systematic, house-to-house campaign of mass murder shattered not only Edna’s sense of personal security but also her sense of Israel’s place in Jewish history.
Edna is not the only Jewish Israeli who experienced October 7 as a historical rupture, an abrupt and violent reversion to the darkest chapters of Jewish history. The Black Shabbat massacre caused the largest loss of Jewish life on a single day since the Holocaust. (Israeli officials have exploited this resonance through stunts—e.g., Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations testified while wearing a yellow star—that sully Holocaust commemoration.) Given the brutal, low-tech nature of the violence, however, October 7 strikes many Jews as more reminiscent of a pre-Holocaust pogrom. In a televised address on that fateful evening, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu capped his call to “avenge this black day” with a forced literary flourish, citing a line from Hayim Nahman Bialik’s 1904 poem “In the City of Slaughter.” Perhaps the most influential Hebrew poem of the 20th century, “In the City of Slaughter” details the agonies of the 1903 Kishinev pogrom in Russia, which Bialik reconstructed from survivor and eyewitness testimony. As Ayman Odeh—a prominent Arab Knesset member—and others subsequently pointed out, Netanyahu failed to quote the stanza in full and thus misinterpreted Bialik’s poem, which neither advocates nor justifies revenge.
Whether or not Netanyahu understood Bialik, the allusion constitutes a tacit admission that, under Netanyahu’s watch, Israeli Jews are no more secure than their ancestors in Kishinev. Indeed, many of Netanyahu’s sworn opponents have adopted the term “pogrom” to describe the Hamas attack—with scholars on the academic left debating which pogrom (Kishinev or Babi Yar?) October 7 most resembles. Among Jewish commentators, the “pogrom” rubric is now widely accepted, reflecting the profound sense of historical dislocation that Hamas’s merciless bloodbath inspired.
It is worth dwelling on these immediate reactions, on the sense that the unthinkable has just happened—namely, a pogrom directed against the Jewish majority in the sovereign Jewish state. These reactions reflect the depth of the trauma that Israelis have undergone. But they also reflect the collapse of familiar narratives—many of them inherited from Zionism—about the nation-state as a bulwark of Jewish safety.
Of course, one could object that historical comparisons are misleading—and, in Netanyahu’s case, deliberately manipulated to obscure the stark asymmetries of power in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As Netanyahu’s shameless exploitation of Jewish collective memory attests, historical analogies can be used in tendentious, even violent, ways, justifying the use of overwhelming and indiscriminate military force.
Yet, instead of fixating on the comparison’s historical accuracy (or lack thereof), I suggest that we examine the challenge it poses to foundational assumptions about the shape of modern Jewish history. I undertake this critical examination as an Israeli-Jewish leftist—and I focus on what is happening in my own society because I believe that the experience of historical dislocation could open up a conceptual space to envision more just political arrangements, arrangements that extend rights of self-determination to all of the region’s inhabitants, Jews and Palestinians alike. The widespread designation of this event as a “pogrom” suggests that, after October 7, Israeli Jews feel no more secure than their ancestors, given the colossal failure of the very institutions (e.g., army, intelligence, elected representatives) that sovereignty affords. The flashbacks to Iraq and Russia register a profound and ongoing shock to Israeli Jewish identity. In the wake of October 7, consoling narratives about the protections of sovereignty and the exceptional position of the State of Israel have lost what remained of their credibility. A trauma of this magnitude is liable to reorient Jewish historical consciousness, eroding belief that Israel’s establishment signaled the triumphant end of (Jewish) history.
Since October 7, Israeli public debate has centered on the so-called “conceptions” that the massacre exposed as disastrously false. The notion of a fatally flawed “conception” dates to the 1973 Yom Kippur War and refers to the reigning paradigms that prevented Israel’s leaders from predicting the surprise attack by Egypt and Syria. Hamas’s surprise attack—timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of that war—inspired a similar round of commentary anatomizing the faulty “conceptions” that prevented the political and military establishment from deciphering Hamas’s intentions, with catastrophic results.
Foremost amongst these exploded conceptions is the notion that conflict management is preferable to conflict resolution—and that the conflict could be managed indefinitely (even or especially while pursuing normalization with Arab countries). A corollary conception guiding Netanyahu’s policy held that it was possible to do business with Hamas. In the grips of this conception, Netanyahu (and others) strengthened Hamas at the expense of the Palestinian Authority so as to decrease any meaningful prospects for a negotiated, two-state solution, which would require surrendering the vision of Jewish control over the West Bank.
Another “conception” that collapsed precipitously on October 7 is the dominant understanding of Zionism’s purpose and legacy. Zionism has always been a diverse and contentious movement, riven by competing visions of the political frameworks that would enable Jewish self-determination. Yet one powerful strand—a strand that has largely crowded out competing visions since 1948—posits sovereign power as Zionism’s primary goal. Theodor Herzl, Zionism’s mythic founder, predicted that the establishment of a Jewish state would put an end to antisemitism. Herzl’s heirs were somewhat more circumspect, but they still heralded the establishment of a sovereign Jewish state as an epochal event. For modern political Zionists, the lesson of Jewish history (i.e., pogroms, the Holocaust) is that the nation-state is the obvious—indeed, the only—solution to the Jewish question. After 1948, it became commonplace to assert that competing visions for Jewish politics (e.g., binationalism, federalism, diasporism) had been decisively “refuted by history.”
Zionist faith in the nation-state derives as much from concerns about physical safety as from aspirations to self-determination. Sovereignty promised to make Jews safer than ever, since it freed Jews from gentile rule, allowing them to field an army and craft an independent foreign policy. Perhaps it is more accurate to say that sovereignty promised to free Jews from the depredations of pogrom-style violence, even while exposing them to the routinized violence of the state (e.g., military conscription). On this view, Israel provides something akin to a biblical “city of refuge” (see Num. 35:11–24) for persecuted Jews worldwide—a promise concretized in the law of return, which makes every Jew eligible for automatic citizenship.
The fact that the worst pogrom in modern times happened in the land of Israel, 75 years after the establishment of the State of Israel, signals a crisis for this brand of political Zionism. Even before October 7, the more traditional, liberal nationalist currents within Zionism were under increasing pressure from theocratic and antidemocratic movements that prioritize the land of Israel over the state of Israel. Indeed, one can read the failure of the Oslo Accords as a harbinger of the end of the nation-state period in Jewish history. The process laid out in Oslo was premised on the logic of the nation-state—“two states for two peoples” as a just realization of Jewish and Palestinian rights to self-determination. With the collapse of the peace process, political visions that deviate from the nation-state model—some democratic (civil state), others blatantly undemocratic (apartheid)—began to proliferate. Since the late 1990s, theocratic and ethnocratic voices have been ascendant—although the nation-state brand of Zionism received a boost from the mass protest movement against the Netanyahu government’s judicial reform, whose leaders embraced classic tenets of liberal nationalism.
Yet October 7 arguably dealt a decisive blow to the already fragile notion that Israel’s establishment eliminated the kinds of vulnerability that plague a stateless people. Suddenly, Israel no longer seems like an exception to the fraught dynamics of Jewish history. The accoutrements of sovereignty—such as a formidable army and intelligence services—did not protect Israeli Jews (or the Thai and Filipino guest workers who were killed and captured on October 7). Moreover, in the early weeks of the war, the government proved incapable of providing basic services to thousands of citizens evacuated from their homes on the northern and southern borders. There was a widespread sense that the state had simply disappeared. Volunteer groups, many of them associated with the protest movement against the proposed judicial reform, filled the void, providing food, supplies, and social services to the evacuees in an impressive feat of grassroots mobilization. After these colossal failures, it is harder to maintain the belief that only in a state of their own are Jews truly safe and free. In ways that we have yet to fully appreciate, October 7 has upended familiar narratives, undermining faith in the nation-state as the logical and desired end of Jewish modernity.
Confronted with this shock to the formative narratives shaping Israeli identity, the Right is working overtime to salvage something from the ruins. Netanyahu’s allusion to Bialik is an attempt, conscious or unconscious, to assimilate anomalous events to narratives that make sovereign power and military force seem all the more essential. Supporters of the war (including some of Netanyahu’s fiercest critics in the opposition) have explicitly stated that one of its goals is to restore deterrence through the use of overwhelming force—i.e., to erase perceptions of Jewish vulnerability. But Netanyahu and his coalition partners have also heightened the sense of Jewish vulnerability to justify the indiscriminate bombing of Gaza and gross violations of the laws of war, precipitating a massive humanitarian crisis.
This exploitation of Jewish victimhood reflects a long-standing tension within the revisionist school of Zionism from which Netanyahu descends. On the one hand, Herzl’s disciples uphold the state as the definitive solution to the problem of antisemitism. On the other hand, right-wing Zionists warn that Israeli Jews should never let down their guard, because antisemitism is eternal and immutable. In this discourse, the eternity of antisemitism is invoked to underscore the imperatives of military might and exclusive sovereignty (verging on blatant disregard for international law). But if antisemitism really is eternal, then the state’s power to protect Jews from its depredations is necessarily limited. The historical memories invoked to justify the wanton use of military force threaten to expose the state as helpless before a problem that has no definitive solution.
This tension has always been palpable in Netanyahu’s ideology and rhetoric. At a 1997 event, Netanyahu was overheard saying to Rabbi Yitzhak Kedourie, “The Left has forgotten what it means to be Jewish.” According to Netanyahu, the lesson of Jewish history is that Jews will always confront implacable hatred—and that brute force is the only way to combat this animus. In their willingness to make territorial compromises, Netanyahu implied, the Left had forgotten this supposedly Jewish wisdom.
Prior to October 7, Netanyahu derived immense political capital from rhetoric that allowed him to have it both ways—extolling the state and its power while warning that, as Jews, Israelis must “forever live by the sword.” Netanyahu’s ability to exploit this tension between the prerogatives of sovereignty and the cult of Jewish victimhood was a cornerstone of his approach to “managing” a conflict that has become ever more unjust, intractable, and bloody.
But after October 7, this tension is no longer sustainable. Even defenders of Israel’s military response concede that their faith in the state has been forever shaken. As Jewish studies scholar David Blumenthal writes in Tablet: “We also know, deep down inside, that it could happen again. We will strike back this time, but the reality of the resurgence of Jew-hatred even in the Jewish state is now upon us.” The colossal failures of the political, military, and intelligence establishments have awakened the ghetto Jew inside every Israeli Jew, with consequences that Netanyahu could not have foreseen when he stoked fears of eternal antisemitism. As leftist critic Rogel Alpher wrote in Haaretz, “Netanyahu reminded his people what it means to be Jewish, led helpless like sheep to the slaughter.” As Alpher notes, there is a bitter historical irony in the prospect that Netanyahu may finally be toppled by an event that confirmed his darkest warnings—and, at the same time, exposed fatal flaws in his signature policy of conflict management. Precisely because Israelis have been exposed to the perilous dynamics of Jewish history, they can no longer take comfort in hollow platitudes about the state and its power.
But does this traumatic historical rupture afford any glimmer of hope in these unbearably dark times?
Admittedly, the immediate future portends continued instability, destruction, and despair. At the time of this writing, the temporary ceasefire that enabled the release of 105 hostages has collapsed, and the Israeli ground campaign has resumed in Khan Younis (in the southern Gaza Strip). Over 15,000 Gazans have been killed, an untold number of them innocent civilians. The estimated 1.8 million internally displaced Gazans are forced to flee yet again as Israel extends its military campaign into areas where civilians had sought shelter—exacerbating an acute refugee emergency. In response to American pressure, Israel has allowed limited humanitarian aid into the strip, but Gazans are still facing a massive humanitarian crisis and hospitals and other service providers cannot function.
Although Netanyahu refuses to disclose any concrete plans, he has announced that Israel will retain security control over Gaza after the war ends. Ministers from the messianic, settler wing of what is the most right-wing government in Israel’s history have gone further, announcing plans to rebuild Jewish settlements in Gaza. Yet it is unclear when and how the war will end, given the vagaries of international diplomacy as well as the difficulty of realizing competing domestic imperatives. With the collapse of the ceasefire, the conflict between Israel’s stated objectives—regime change and hostage release—is increasingly manifest. The kind of military campaign required to depose Hamas will likely endanger hostages and undermine the prospects for their release. (Thus, it is not altogether surprising that the campaign for the return of the hostages—which was scrupulously nonpartisan—has begun to sound more like a protest movement.) It is not inconceivable that the war will culminate in what commentators have identified as the worst-case scenario: Hamas remains in power and a significant number of hostages are killed or remain in captivity while ordinary Gazans have their entire world destroyed.
Under these circumstances, it is difficult to envision an emancipatory—or even a just—political horizon. But a trauma of this magnitude is liable to reshape Israeli Jewish identity in vast and consequential ways—and there is reason to believe that, in the medium to long term, these transformations may pry open space for a more just politics. Although it would be imprudent to make predictions—especially given Netanyahu’s reputation as a “magician”—it is hard to imagine how his government will survive this debacle. In the months leading up to the war, Israeli society was rocked by a massive protest movement against the Netanyahu government’s attempt to curtail judicial independence. After the war, that protest will likely resume with greater intensity—fueled by widespread anger over the government’s abandonment of its most basic responsibilities and the plight of the hostages. The end of Netanyahu’s seemingly permanent reign will reshuffle the established camps within Israeli politics, precipitating unexpected coalitions organized around issues other than “Bibi—for or against.” Moreover, the failure of the conflict management “conception” will force Israelis to directly confront the occupation—after years in which it barely registered on the mainstream agenda. The collapse of familiar political configurations will likely strengthen the Center Right, but it could also revitalize the Left, whose current electoral nadir reflects a failure to craft a compelling new vision post-Oslo.
Thus, given the profound challenge that October 7 poses to dominant brands of political Zionism, the war and its contentious aftermath could instigate a paradigm shift within Jewish politics. Centrist—and even some liberal—Israelis have long accepted the discriminatory implications of Israel’s self-definition as a Jewish state (e.g., laws that privilege Jewish citizens) as an unfortunate price to pay to enjoy the protections of the nation-state. In the wake of Hamas’s massacre, the narrative that predicated Jewish safety and freedom on citizenship in an exclusionary nation-state is no longer credible. The creation of a sovereign Jewish state did not eliminate antisemitism, nor did it arrest the course of history. From the depths of their mourning, Israelis may begin to question whether the elevation of the ethnos over the demos is prudent or justified. Indeed, this crisis may come to symbolize the moment in which the nation-state begins to lose its veneer of obviousness, becoming subject to increasing challenges from competing visions for Jewish politics.
After this experience of historical dislocation, it is not naive to hope that at least some of these visions will be more egalitarian than the forms of Zionism whose promises were shattered on October 7. Disabused of notions of historical exceptionalism, Jewish Israelis may be more receptive to the idea that the multiethnic coalitions that diaspora Jews have historically built are possible in the land of Israel. From June 2021 to December 2022, Netanyahu’s rule was briefly interrupted by the “change government” led by Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid—the first Israeli government to include an Arab political party as a coalition partner. The Right vilified this coalition as an existential threat. Yet it was under a radical right-wing government—whose ministers include disciples of the racist Meir Kahane—that a pogrom occurred. A Left no longer cowed by accusations of weakness and no longer beholden to the nation-state could build transformative coalitions—at the grassroots and in parliamentary politics—with Arab Israeli partners.
Moving beyond the Green Line, the demise of the sovereign imperative could inspire a resurgence of political imagination, advancing debate about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict beyond the fruitless choice between one- and two-state solutions. Since the demise of the two-state solution, the Left has been unable to refute charges that, having failed to divide the region into two nation-states, we are consigned to a conflict that is perpetual but manageable. October 7 shattered the belief that the occupation could be managed indefinitely at no cost to the average Jewish Israeli. Yet the massacre also deflated many of the nation-state’s pretensions.
The events of the past month have jolted many Israelis into the recognition that the occupation must end—and that it can only end via a negotiated solution. To engage these constituencies, the Left needs to undertake a sustained examination of regimes of shared and overlapping sovereignties. In recent years, intellectuals and activists have increasingly floated proposals to resolve the conflict by establishing regimes—such as cantons, federations, or autonomies—that devolve authority to local jurisdictions. Many of these proposals are more egalitarian than a nation-state, doing a better job of honoring claims to minority self-determination. These proposals have often been dismissed as arcane academic exercises—in many cases, for good reason. In the absence of a mass movement to end the occupation, it seemed delusional to believe that drafting a better map would advance conflict resolution. Yet templates that relax the strictures of unitary sovereignty have taken on a new urgency. After October 7, Jewish Israelis can no longer ignore the conflict or believe that the nation-state is a panacea. At this juncture, a new political language could revive the hitherto moribund Left and a hitherto moribund peace process.
As the war grinds on with no resolution in sight, the only thing that gives me hope is the prospect that the experience of historical rupture will allow Israeli Jews to embrace their Palestinian neighbors in political frameworks designed to enable self-determination and security for all of the region’s inhabitants.
Featured image: Asahachi Kono. Perpetual Motion, 1931. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Purchased from the collection of Dennis Reed. CC0. getty.edu. Accessed December 4, 2023. Image has been cropped.
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