Patriots Remember to Forget: Omri Boehm and the Collapse of Liberal Zionism

A review of Omri Boehm’s book, Haifa Republic: A Democratic Future for Israel

Summer is over in Israel and so too the holiday season that includes Yom Kippur and Sukkot with their accompanying prayers of remembrance. Memory is integral to most Jewish holidays. The readings at Passover and the lighting of candles at Hanukkah are collective acts of remembrance. The importance of remembering has always been central to Jewish self-identity. As Jonathan Safran Foer would have it: ‘Jews have six senses. Touch, taste, sight, smell, hearing … memory.’

But here there are also holidays specific to the State of Israel, traditions linked to Zionist history. These include Remembrance Day for Fallen Soldiers, Jerusalem Day which celebrates the ‘reunification’ of Jerusalem, and Independence Day. This is not to mention other days marked in the calendar to honour Zionist icons such as Herzl, Ben Gurion, Jabotinsky, and Rabin. And, of course, there is Holocaust Remembrance Day. In Israel, collective remembrance linked to a sense of national identity and a dominant narrative of history is ritualised and institutionalised; the days are sacred milestones in the calendar year. Nakba Day, as commemorated by Palestinians, is not one of them.

Collective memory is key to the argument of Omri Boehm’s new book, Haifa RepublicA Democratic Future for Israel (New York Review of Books), which applies the ideas of Ernst Renan concerning nationhood to the Israeli-Palestinian context. Boehm’s work explores memory and history but is also concerned with the future, hence the subtitle. It can be considered a significant contribution to an increasingly vocal but still marginal strand of thought on the Israeli/Jewish left. The likes of Peter Beinart, Avraham Burg and organisations like B’Tselem are looking beyond the illusion of the two-state solution. In the light of demographic reality, the Nation-State Law, and the permanency of occupation and oppression, the word ‘apartheid’ is being used more openly, albeit within the echo chambers of liberal thought.

This shift is in part a response to what Boehm identifies as a ‘Gramscian crisis’ of intellectual leadership on the left in Israel. He offers the likes of Amos Oz and David Grossman as examples of those guilty of ignoring de facto annexation in pursuing the intellectual cul-de-sac of Oslo and the two-state solution. Like the current political leadership of the left in Israel, they are complicit in allowing a political reality based on Jewish supremacy to come about. With its choice to designate the occupation as ‘Israel’s original sin’, a wrong turning made in 1967, liberal Zionism has supressed the Nakba, according to Boehm. His book is a rejection of a way of thinking that has led to apartheid and is, at the same time, an exploration of a possible way forward for Zionism.

An Israeli and a professor of philosophy at The New School in New York, Boehm puts forward a vision of a federal binational future for Israel-Palestine in Haifa Republic. There is nothing new here. In fact, Boehm emphasises that this has been a line of thought in Zionism from its beginnings. But Boehm’s interesting contribution is to foreground the role that memory plays in sustaining the current situation – the reality of an apartheid where citizens of Israel can live and vote anywhere between the river and the sea (bar Gaza) whilst Palestinians are denied basic rights. Boehm references Spinoza’s ideas concerning memory as a divisive force – an agent of myth, ideology, religion, and irrational thought.  Memory, as Spinoza had it, is ‘the origin of conflict, violence, and war, never of enlightenment, democracy, or peace.’ Boehm’s vision for a democratic future for Israel-Palestine entails the act of forgetting alongside remembering.

For Boehm, the ‘notion of remembering to forget’ is key to the way forward. He recalls Renan’s idea of the nation as a ‘daily plebiscite’ – that membership of a nation is a matter of continually ‘choosing to belong.’ That choice of belonging cannot happen without a willingness to forget those things which have the potential to divide citizens. Willingness to forget therefore becomes a ‘patriotic duty.’ This forgetting, Boehm stresses, is not Stalinist airbrushing, nor erasure. Remembering to forget entails the act of recalling and recognising history so as to set aside those things that divide.

His analysis in terms of the context of Israel-Palestine is that Israelis ‘remember to remember’ – as in the annual days of remembrance above – ‘but forget to forget.’ If a ‘Holocaust messianism’ that places Israel ‘beyond universalist politics and moral critique’ is not ‘forgotten’ in this sense, Israelis and Palestinians cannot escape the status quo. And if the Nakba is not remembered, it cannot be forgotten. Despite some modest steps in the right direction, that particular part of Israel’s history has no significant presence on the school curriculum, and Naftali Bennett’s current policy of ‘shrinking the conflict’ encourages a continued widespread lack of engagement with a history of conquest and occupation.

Boehm’s vision depends upon both sides adopting a ‘dialectical politics of memory and forgetting’ in relation to both Holocaust and Nakba. This is not an argument for ahistoricism, nor a pointless debate about equivalency between the Nakba and the Holocaust. It is an argument for acknowledging and then looking beyond the suffering of Jews and Palestinians to find a way forward. Boehm cites a speech on Holocaust Memorial Day in 2010 by Knesset member Ahmad Tibi, a Palestinian and Israeli citizen. On that day, Tibi chose to stay silent about the Nakba to express solidarity, to remember together with Jews. Boehm presents this as an example of leadership in terms of ‘remembering to forget’.

Boehm’s position is avowedly neither anti- nor post-Zionist. In contrast to others, he has no wish to abandon Zionism. He instead attempts to reinvigorate the politics of a binational state ‘as a Zionist program’ consistent with Israel’s founding fathers. Boehm recruits a number of these to the cause: Herzl, no less, but also Ahad Ha’Am, Jabotinsky, Begin, even a young Ben Gurion. There is a highly selective emphasis on early Zionist binationalism in Haifa Republic, but this is not completely without foundation. The influential pre-state Zionist thinker Ahad Ha’Am, as Palestinian historian Nur Masalha has pointed out, always acknowledged that Palestine was anything but an empty land and was critical of the ethnocentricity of early political Zionism. Boehm’s ‘Haifa Republic’ vision is itself based on an ‘autonomy’ proposal of Menachem Begin approved by the Knesset in 1977.

He draws a distinction between nationalism and patriotism in his attempt to rescue Zionism from its ‘collapse’ into its ‘hard-right Revisionist interpretation’, seeking to link it to ideas of self-determination rather than sovereignty. Boehm envisions ‘a transformation of Zionism into something greater than a commitment to a Jewish state.’ One might question the effort to rehabilitate something that many consider too toxic, beyond redemption. But if there is to be any realistic, volitional movement away from nationalism towards Jewish self-determination within a federal structure belonging to all its citizens, Zionism cannot be unmade, but only recast. People are not going to give up their flags and grand narratives easily. Haifa Republic is a passionate argument for a future for a Zionism that is otherwise doomed, as Boehm (referencing Begin) puts it, within ‘a twenty-first-century Rhodesia.’

Rather than Rhodesia, Boehm uses the ‘mixed’ city of Haifa as a symbol of his binational vision. It is tempting to point out the fragility of current examples of coexistence as evidenced by the country-wide riots during this year’s ‘Operation Guardian of the Walls.’ It could also be said that a single speech by Ahmad Tibi represents thin evidence for a willingness to ‘remember to forget’ by public figures on both sides. But the point, I suppose, is the example set. And the vision. Boehm anticipates charges of deluded, leftist optimism and so his telling choice of epigraph for Haifa Republic is the Herzl mantra, ‘If you will it, it is no dream.’ His vision of a liberal, democratic ‘Haifa Republic’ of all its citizens is, he argues, not messianic but utopian. As increasing numbers are recognising, the status quo is the unsustainable illusion. ‘Ignoring this fact’, Boehm writes, ‘is akin to denying global warming.’

The Hebrew word meaning remember, ‘zachor’, appears almost two hundred times in the Bible. Memory is sacred to all who live between the Jordan and the Mediterranean. No-one has a monopoly. Haifa Republic recognises the importance of remembrance, but it also represents an injunction to wilfully forget. This act is envisioned as part of an individual’s continually renewed contract with a future democratic state of all its citizens. Boehm refuses to give up on Zionism, but he is not preaching to the converted. In proposing a nation built on choosing to belong rather than culture, tradition, or blood, he is issuing a challenge to a broken ideology from within.

Anthony Fulton is a blogger and kibbutz member based in Israel-Palestine. Read other articles by Anthony.