I remember hearing a quote from some historian who, upon remarking that the population of the Roman Empire was 10% Jewish, predicted that had the various persecutions against the Jews not happened, and the Temple not destroyed, and the Jews not sent into exile, there would be around 200 million Jews alive today. That’s somewhere between the population of Brazil and Indonesia.
To be sure, an Israel with a Jewish population in the hundreds of millions is enough to make any Zionist drool. Imagine the economic clout! The military power! Also, one assumes, that a 200 million person country would have to be at least slightly larger than New Jersey, so Zionists can dream about a physically larger Israel as well.
Still, even assuming the 200 million number, arguendo, I’m not sure what kind of Jews they would be. Would they be like the estimated 14 million Jews alive today, only 14x more of them? Or would they be like any random sample of 200 million middle-easterners?
My meaning is that Israel is a remarkable country populated by a remarkable people. It is the only democratic country in the Middle East with a truly robust civil society. It has a booming economy, is a technical innovator, and is populated with Nobel Prize winners. It has faced huge obstacles, numerous existential wars, and the absorption of millions of non-Hebrew speaking immigrants. It is a much greater success story than its fellow post-colonial countries that achieved independence post-WWII.
So, what separates Israel from the rest of the class of 1948? One obvious difference is that Israel is a majority Jewish country, while the India is not. But what kind of Jews began the Israeli enterprise? Immigrant Jews. In other words, Diaspora Jews.
The founding class of Jews that started the New Yishuv and built it up into Jewish Agency/Mandate Palestine/Israel were mostly Diaspora Jews. They came from Europe and abroad, from free countries and dictatorships, all of them coming from countries where Jews were not the governing people, all from societies where Jews were pronounced minorities. (Even the founding fathers born in Palestine were the children of immigrants, and grew up in a society where Jews were the minority.) They were malcontents and artists; socialists and utopians. They carried with them the liberal dream nurtured in alien lands and in foreign schools. They dreamed of a time and place where they and their extended families could exist free of oppression and discrimination, where Jews would have the same rights, in theory and in practice, as everyone else, and where Jews would control everything from the army to the post office to the sanitation department; a land where the instruments of state would not be wielded against the Jews.
At the same time, these Jews had personal experiences of what it was like to be oppressed by tyrannical majorities, and to bear the uncertain fate of strangers in a strange land. To that end, they resolved that all people living in their new land would be entitled to all the equal rights and freedoms the Jews sought for themselves, in the best liberal tradition.
Although sometimes that promise did not completely live up to its potential, that liberal tradition was the driving force behind the golden age of the new state, and it is remarkable how successful that dream became.
Now, however, we seem to live in a new world. One of the latest surveys that is making its way around the j-blogosphere was conducted by the Macro Center for Political Economics. According to Haaretz:
The study found that 60 percent of Jewish teenagers in Israel, between 15 and 18 years old, prefer "strong" leaders to the rule of law, while 70 percent say that in cases where state security and democratic values conflict, security should come first. A similar picture emerges in the 21 to 24 age group. ...
Among Jewish youths, support for the definition of Israel as a Jewish state as the most important goal for the country grew from 18.1 percent in 1998 to 33.2 percent last year, the survey reports. At the same time, there has been a consistent drop in those who back the importance of Israel's identity as a democratic country - from 26.1 percent in 1998 to 14.3 percent in 2010. Support for Israel to eventually live in peace with its neighboring countries also fell significantly, from 28.4 percent 12 years ago to 18.2 percent last year. ...
As to the possibility of peace with the Palestinians, 755 of the Jewish respondents said they do not believe negotiations will lead to peace, and most prefer that the present situation continue.
Bernard Avishai cites this interesting statistic, though I don’t know where he gets it from:
Up to 80% of Israeli Arabs express positive attitudes toward integration (a willingness to have Jewish friend, and so forth), but just under 50% of Jews.
What are we to make of this? It is an Israeli society that grows ever more right-wing, ever more nationalistic and ever more reactionary. It is also a society in which immigrants and Diaspora Jews make up less and less of the population. Fewer Israelis than ever before know what it’s like to live in a Diaspora, or the importance of multicultural values. Fewer Israelis than ever know what it’s like to feel oppressed. (Yes, Israeli Jews are violently attacked by their enemies, but it is violence committed by the weak and the few, and not the persecution launched by majorities, societies, and the state.)
In modern Israel, Diaspora Jews are mocked as “cringing Jews,” Jews who accept their beatings from their gentile overlords with “please, sir, may I have another?” Diaspora Jews are weak and obsequious, ever desperate to please their cocktail sipping liberal friends with self-hatred and anti-Zionism. The best of us are vocal supporters of Israel, but too weak-willed and spineless to actually move there and take up arms in its defense. They are Ari Ben-Canaan and we are Alexander Portnoy.
We cannot possibly understand the needs of Israeli security, or comprehend the unique bloodthirsty nature of the Palestinian Hun. We are Yasser Arafat’s “useful idiots,” who are willing to run the risk of shedding Jewish blood if it means appeasing our intellectual friends. We are kapos, for wanting to make the West Bank Judenrein in the service of our anti-Semitic masters. We are pie-in-the-sky bleeding hearts, who don’t know what it’s like to live in a war zone.
Moreover, who are we, living in our decadent gilded cages, to criticize the liberal values of the Israeli state, the only liberal democracy in the Middle East? It is they, not we, who are the true heirs to the liberal tradition!
Fair enough. But these poll numbers tell a disturbing story. They tell a story of an Israel that is becoming more and more like its enemies. Where the security and dominance of the status quo are more important than peace and civil rights. Where revenge and bitterness mix with revanchism and irredentism, just like they do in its neighbors.
If, in the future, there is an Israel with 200 million Jews, what kind of Jews will they be?