Symposium: Todd Gitlin

In the world I was born into, Israel was an emotion wrapped in an idea. Simply by existing, the Jewish state was a portal to deliverance, and since I had been carried through that portal at birth, so to speak, a sense of deliverance was my default emotion. I was a war baby, which is to say, born at a moment when the Jews of Europe (including many relatives, though none close) were being slaughtered, and from then on, back to the earliest time when I can remember any awareness of a larger world, raised in the knowledge that I belonged to a people devastated “in the war,” as my grandmother used to say, the horrors not yet having been designated with that wrongly sacralized one-word name “Holocaust.” But, as in the ancient redemptions, the founding of storybook Israel was the lyrical restart moment; the happiest possible ending (or beginning of an ending) to the grimmest possible story.

Today, the state of Israel feels to me like a personal trauma, a huge, heartbreaking disappointment, a world-historical opportunity forgone, a danger to the Jews, a burden—and also a nation to which, like it or not, I am fastened, where people I love and admire carry on an immensely, grievously difficult struggle for decency against tall odds.

Now, truly it is peculiar, even perverse, to speak of being disappointed, or traumatized, by a state. States are social contrivances. However motivated by ideas, they are not those ideas in themselves, because ideas are incarnated in action, and action is tragic. Certainly states are not paradises, not centers of brotherly and sisterly love. They are systems of power, which means that there are winners and losers. They operate within what social scientists are pleased to call constraints: they are not free. They are institutional; that is, human; that is, fallible. It seems hopelessly romantic, a category error, to feel disappointment in a state or grief and outrage about what it has come to. You’d have to be mightily illusioned in the first place to feel disillusioned. A hard-headed realist would say that any preexisting condition of innocence is begging to be smashed.

And yet, the state of Israel was produced by hearts as well as minds and sustained by both, in particular the hearts of Jews like myself, whose Russian-born grandfather volunteered for the British Army’s Jewish Legion against the Ottoman Empire during the First World War. (I cherish a photo of him, taken God knows where, posing in short sleeves and short pants, with two buddies, against a backdrop depicting some generic sort of wilderness.) The portrait of Chaim Weizmann that hung in his living room was a fixture in my mental iconography, too, with Weizmann cast as a liberator and Zionism, his cause, a taken-for-granted, unproblematic good. When I sang “Ha-Tikvah” during my four years in Hebrew school, lumbering among imperfectly memorized and not-much-understood words, the national anthem swept me to devo...



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