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What does Wallace Stevens have to do with Zionism?

I am quite certain that the following post will be the first discussion of the Jewish National Fund and Zionism to invoke the poet Wallace Stevens. People who appreciate Stevens tend to be amateur philosophers and a bit nerdy (yeah, I appreciate him), but if neither of those apply to you, please have patience and read this short poem anyway:

“Men Made Out of Words”

What should we be without the sexual myth,
The human reverie or poem of death?
Castratos of moon-mash – Life consists
Of propositions about life. The human
Reverie is a solitude in which

We compose these propositions, torn by dreams,
By the terrible incantations of defeats
And by the fear that defeats and dreams are one.

The whole race is a poet that writes down
The eccentric propositions of its fate.

This is not exactly original thinking, this notion that we create our own reality and organize our experiences and passions based on certain assumptions and myths. But I still remember that poem from college, while just about everything else I read back then has faded away.

Stevens came to mind amidst the controversy over a preliminary Knesset bill that would sanction discrimination against Israeli Arabs who wish to purchase State-managed land. That land is owned by the Israel-based Keren Kayemeth [Jewish National Fund]. The bill has been described and attacked in my previous posts.

If ever there was an eccentric proposition, it was Theodor Hertzl’s, who held that after centuries of dispersal and torment, the Jews had no alternative but to create their own homeland in Palestine, as nothing else –NOTHING else—could solve the problems inherent in exile. When Dr. Max Nordau, who became one of Hertzl’s early supporters in Vienna, first met him, he reportedly told Herzl:“You are mad!” Than Nordau threw his arms around him and said “And I am mad, too!” (or words to that effect). But the fact that the idea was eccentric did not mean it was wrong

Another proposition, that Jews around the world had an obligation to help make the land of Israel thrive, and that slipping coins into a little blue collection box would help to preserve and protect the Jewish people, was the basis for the Jewish National Fund. It was one of the organizing myths of Diaspora Jewry and of my childhood.

But the blogosphere is filled with recent displays of anguish and anger from people –many of them Zionists–who realize that it is time to rewrite or update both propositions. These reactions have been prompted by the aforementioned Knesset bill. It has appalled liberal Diaspora and Israeli Jews (and, of course, non-Jews), because an official “Jews-only” land policy is both morally wrong and a monumentally stupid message to send to an unsympathetic, increasingly hostile world.

On my blog, a commentator called “Allan” wrote:

I think that all of us who brought our nickels [sic] and dimes to Hebrew school for donation to the JNF should demand our money back. In my case, this would probably be about $20.00, which was quite a lot for my parents back in the fifties. Add in the interest and you’re talking money. I remember our teacher calling role. In response to our name we answered “Hineni. Yesh li tsedakah. (Here I am. I have my charity.)” Hineni. Give me the money back.

My family should get a refund of the money my grandmother put in her pushka (charity box). I can remember it clearly hanging on her kitchen wall with its blue and white map of Eretz Yisroel. I also want a refund of the dimes I brought to buy trees in Israel. For years I wondered where my trees were planted. It is quite likely, I’ve since learned, that they are located in parks developed to hide the sites of former Arab villages destroyed in 1949.

Equally poignant reactions can be found in the comments on two web petitions against the bill. One petition was initiated by Jewish and Israeli bloggers led by Richard Silverstein. The other, posted by Ameinu, was mostly copied from a letter from that group to Ze’ev Elkin, one of the Knesset bill’s sponsors (Full disclosure: I wrote that letter). Here are some comments to be found on the petitions’ web sites:

o–:“As someone who, with my Cousin Gabi Bauer (Kityat Motzkin) has sponsored a 100 tree forest in honor of our grandfather, Rabbi Jacob Winter, for 50 years Senior Rabbi in Dresden, Germany, I am thoroughly against the legislation being proposed. It discriminates against citizens of Israel and is against our basic values.”

o–“If this decision holds and civil rights are denied Israel’s Arab citizens–I wish I could take back every penny I gave to the JNF growing up!”

o–“While the reasons for buying land for Jewish settlement were valid in the past, they no longer are valid. JNF housing developments must be open to all citizens of Israel.”

p—“What has happened to the Israel I knew in the 40’s? Is that what I fought for in the Milchemet Ha’atzma?”

These good people realize that many propositions need to be re-written, as circumstances change, and also as new facts about old events come to light. Re-visiting and then rewriting them is a sign of political and emotional maturity.

In today’s Jerusalem Post, Rabbi Andrew Davids of the Association of Reform Zionists puts it well:

Though the JNF was entrusted with bringing a Jewish state into being, some institutions need to be `reevaluated,’ said Davids. `What we are seeing is the maturation of an Israeli democratic society, and some institutions need to be reevaluated with regards to the current demographics. Israel will never be a state exclusively for Jews,’ he said.

I continue to believe it was a necessary step for Jews to carve out a little state of their own, for all of its flaws. But now that it’s here, do we really want to insist on preserving relics from another time, another world? Apparently Russell Robinson, the JNF –USA’s Executive Director, thinks so. Here is his astonishing statement from the same Jerusalem Post story:

“It’s important for us who had a covenant with the donors, that we honor that covenant…For 2000 years, I don’t remember that we were praying and dreaming that we can’t wait to establish a democratic state in the Middle East, but we did say that we can’t wait to reestablish a Jewish homeland.

Excuse me? Along with ending the occupation, the most daunting challenge faced by Israel is to remain a democracy with a Jewish majority that affords equal rights and a sense of belonging to Israel’s Arab citizens. The anti-Israel left and the far right in Israel believe that is impossible. Many Israelis (Jews and Arabs) and their supporters overseas believe it can and must be done (with, for example, aggressive affirmative action programs to close the economic and educational gaps, mandatory teaching of Arabic in all public schools, a civil service option for Israel Arabs who can’t serve in the military, declaring that Israel is a “state for all its citizens” and other measures).

But rather than trying to figure out how to address the challenge, the man responsible for the JNF in the U.S. has apparently thrown up his hands and said, “Forget democracy. That’s a minor priority.”

No it isn’t. We should be “praying and dreaming” that the problems of Israel’s Arabs citizens will be solved, rather than telling them that they will never have the same rights as their Jewish neighbors. That’s the task ahead for Israel. It won’t be accomplished by scribbling the same propositions, again and again. Too many of them are based on a time when the “terrible incantations of defeats” were still ringing in our ears. The Jews have won. The state is here. But the victory will always be partial unless and until that state is reinvented so that one fifth of its citizens feel like they have a stake in it

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