After Michael Oren discussed his Zionist biography, we got to tougher issues, such as whether the very premise of Israel's existence is flawed:
Jeffrey Goldberg: It seems that it's safer to live as a Jew in America than it is to live as a Jew in Israel, but the basic Zionist urge was to create a place where Jews can live in physical safety. And yet today we see, and I don't think you could deny this, that it is dangerous to be Jewish in the state of Israel, and it is not dangerous to be Jewish in the U.S. How do you square that and do you think that Israel has failed in that particular mission to date?
Michael Oren: I think Israel hasn't achieved that goal entirely yet. But let's put it this way: it was one of the goals of Zionism. One of the goals of Zionism was to secure a place where Jews could live out their lives free of threat, but I think the overarching goal of Zionism was to create an environment where Jews could take responsibility for themselves as Jews. And it's the only place in the world where you do take responsibility for yourself as a Jew. You take responsibility for your lamp post and your sewage system and your education systems and your wars and your successes and your failures -- we take responsibilities for them as Jews, and I think that is the great accomplishment of the Zionist dream -- [it] was to transform the Jews from passive actors in their history to active agents in their history, to transform Jews from the role of victims, which is a very fundamental transformation for ourselves, people who take responsibility for all of their actions -- look at how many commissions we have after all of our wars to examine how well we did in the war and how and why we failed in those wars if we failed.
JG: Let's talk about something that the philosopher Avishai Margalit called the 'Immaculate Misconception of Zionism' -- that there was no one in the ancient land of Israel, in Palestine, when the Jews decided to go back. And that, he sees, and many people see, as the essential tragedy of the Middle East -- that you have two people with compelling claims to the same piece of land. Is there a solution to that original misconception? Was that a misconception of early Zionists?
MO: Well it was certainly a misconception of some early Zionists, including some non-Jewish early Zionists. The aphorism 'a land for a people for a people without a land' was actually coined by a British lord in 1848, a non-Jew. A Jewish Zionist in the latter half of the 19th century believed that Palestine was largely uninhabited, and if you travel the literature of the period, for example Mark Twain's piece from 1867, "The Innocents Abroad," everybody remarks, all these writers remark, about how under populated Palestine was, and it was at the turn of the 20th century, there were roughly eight hundred, nine hundred thousand people in all of Palestine and that is less than the population of Washington, D.C. It was roughly unpopulated for all sorts of reasons, not the least of them were ecological.
But, nevertheless, there was another people there. A people, which, at the time of Zionism's form of stage, didn't necessarily think of itself as a people. You don't find the term Palestinian-Arab in any of the literature well into the 1950s. There's a reason why the partition of 1947 calls for the creation of a Jewish state and an Arab state, not a Palestinian state. The term Palestinian, before 1948, referred almost exclusively to Jews. The Palestine exhibit at the 1930 World Fair in New York was a Zionist exhibit, not an Arab exhibit. You could have gotten great Palestinian schnitzel. A genuine Palestinian meal you could have had there -- schnitzel. Falafel then was unknown.
Having said all that, at the end of the day, you're absolutely right. The tragedy, not of the Middle East but certainly of Israel, and its relationship with the Palestinians, is that there is another people that calls itself the Palestinian people, and we can't define for the Palestinians what they think of themselves. They think of themselves as a people who also inhabit the land. That fact does not in any way diminish our right to this land. The Jews have an inalienable right, an irrevocable right, to settle in what they regard as their ancestral biblical homeland, and anywhere in it, because if you can't settle in Hebron, you can't settle in Tel Aviv. And if you can't settle in Bet El, you can't settle in Haifa. This is the land of Israel. But we recognize that we must resist the urge to realize our right. ... We recognize that we can't actualize our right fully because it conflicts with the rights of another people, so we have to find a way to make our rights accord with their rights.