A Different Israel
Nussbaum, Martha C., The Nation
"How do you feel, being there?" my friend asked on the phone from America. I thought a minute, looking out of my Haifa hotel window at the moon rising over the sea. "Relaxed. I feel relaxed." This seemed to my friend an improbable way to feel in Israel on May 28, 2002. And in one sense, it obviously was. Many people urged me not to go--some out of fear for my safety, some with a moralistic doubt as to whether I should accept an honor associated with the state of Israel (an honorary degree from the University of Haifa). About the first, I felt probably I was as safe in Haifa as in Chicago. About the second, I was determined to affirm the worth of scholarly cooperation in the face of the ugly campaign, waged mostly in Europe, to boycott Israeli scholars and refuse cooperation with them. (The campaign has led to the dismissal of Israeli scholars from the editorial board of at least one major journal, and to a general call to boycott Israeli scholars in publications and conference invitations.) I was also planning to deliver a speech, with the advance approval of the rector, that said the things I wanted to say about the situation, in a polite, detached, but unequivocal way.
But relaxed, certainly, is not how I had expected to feel. On my one previous trip to Israel, in the relatively good times of December 1995, I had felt edgy all the time, skeptical as I am about muscular Zionism. I converted to Judaism at the age of 21, and I felt then, as I do now, that Judaism is above all a moral identity, connected to the love of justice. I felt that I was dedicating myself to a program of moral action aimed at realizing justice in the here-and-now rather than in some dim Christian afterlife--that, as Moses Mendelssohn once wrote, "The highest stage of wisdom is incontrovertibly doing that which is good." More viscerally, I felt I was leaving an elitist WASP culture that cared not one whit for social justice to join a liberal, socially alert Jewish family that read I.F. Stone and The Nation.
For the sort of Jew I have ever since felt myself to be, Israel was a source of much embarrassment. Reform Jews traditionally were anti-Zionist on the ground that Israel is a moral idea, like Kant's Kingdom of Ends, not a place. And even if the Holocaust has caused Reform to moderate that position, it still explains a lot of the unease many of us have with the idea that Jews would attach themselves to a kind of nationalism that seems in tension, at least, with the cosmopolitan goals of justice for all that (so I think) ought to be the goal of a good Jewish life.
But in Haifa I felt relaxed. And the reason was not just the beauty of the silvery beach, with the large moon above, or the high quality of the philosophy department and the philosopher-rector, a man whose work on emotions I have long admired. It was deeper, connected to the ambivalence I have described. Haifa, and especially its university, were simply a different Israel from any I had seen, an Israel that still makes justice and peaceful cooperation its central goals and, to a surprising degree, realizes those goals. …