Tell me about Start-Up Nation.

This is a new book which has become very successful in America, though it is less well-known in England. It is a book which seeks to explain the economic success of Israel. Israel has withstood the recent crunch, the recent depression, more successfully than other industrial societies and this book seeks to explain that. One of the things that the authors explain is the spirit of leadership and entrepreneurship which is part and parcel of the fact that most Israelis serve in the Israeli army. The regular army of Israel educates its draftees to a position of leadership so when they enter university they are already more adult, more experienced, more likely to be go-getters and they have more knowledge of technology. So I thought this was interesting because I think it’s a fact that many people are not aware of. And there is a flipside to this, which is that those elements in Israeli society that do not go into the army, namely the Arabs and the ultra-orthodox Jews, miss something important. They are the poorer elements of Israeli society and the fact that they do not go into the army, and have many children, exacerbates their position. This explains why the social gap in Israeli society grows by leaps and bounds from year to year. The ultra-orthodox don’t go into the army because it’s part of a political concession, given to them by successive governments who need their support in the Knesset. It’s a very controversial issue back home. These two poor elements make things worse by not participating in the army which contributes so much to the economic success of Israel.

You are suggesting by your tone that the Arabs would be welcome in the Israeli army. Is that true? 

They wouldn’t dream of serving in the Israeli army!

Clearly. But would it be possible theoretically? 

Theoretically it would be possible because you have other cases of national minorities who serve in the army of the host country, such as the Japanese in World War II who fought the Germans and many other ethnic minorities – including Jews everywhere. But Israel has decided to submit to the demands of the Arabs that they not serve in the army. This book doesn’t deal with this exemption, this book deals with the army and the spirit of the army that is at least partially responsible for Israel’s amazing success in recent years.

So what does Israel rely on economically?

High-tech, agriculture and, to a very small degree, on tourism, but high-tech is the real engine of growth.

Tell me about Palestine Betrayed.

Efraim Karsh is a professor here at King’s College London and the book shows the missed opportunities that the Palestinians had, both in 1947 and afterwards. In 1947 the UN decided to partition Palestine, which up until then was in the British mandatory system, into two states, one Jewish and one Arab. The Arabs boycotted even the deliberations of the UN and were against it, hoping, as everyone else thought they would, to overcome the fledgling Jewish state. But it didn’t happen, and since then they’ve had other opportunities of getting their own Palestinian Arab state which they have missed, whether on purpose or not is debatable. This book talks about the historical aspects of the present conflict and Karsh believes Palestine was betrayed by those who refused compromise. It’s an important book and a singular book because most books on this subject attack Israel. He tries to establish the responsibility of the Arabs for the failure of the partition of Palestine.

I’ve spoken to lots of people in these FiveBooks interviews about a one-state solution for Israel. What would Karsh think of that?

The one-state solution would be the end of Israel as a Jewish state, the end of the Israeli democracy, and it would mean probably that most Jews, if not all Jews, would leave historical Palestine and seek to find refuge in the democratic western world, wherever they would be welcome. Because one state would mean a Muslim majority and a Muslim majority would mean the end of a western democracy as we know it.

So you see the two-state solution as the only option?

The only option, yes. An option which both the UN and the world community have opted for on different occasions.

Let’s talk about Old New Land. 

This is an old book, a 19th-century book, but strangely I find it very relevant to today’s Israel because Herzl talks of a democratic and Jewish state. It is easy to mock his book because he describes Israel in terms of the 19th-century Europe, with luxury boats playing Viennese waltzes, taking Jews to Palestine where they all live happily ever after with the Arabs. We all know this didn’t take place but his vision of a Jewish state is something that I personally can identify with. He talks about a liberal, secular Jewish state, a separation between church and state. But it’s not anti-Jewish. It’s a state where even the old temple is being rebuilt side by side with the Al Akhsa mosque and there is also a temple of universal peace and justice. The whole theme of the book is co-existence with the non-Jewish minority in the Jewish state and the victory of the tolerant liberal party over the intolerant right-wing nationalist party. So, this is the sort of Israel I would like to see, in which state and religion are separate, in which liberalism is victorious and in which non-Jews can live happily side by side with Jews. For me Herzl’s book is a contemporary book, a guide for the perplexed and I wish more people in Israel would follow Herzl’s dream. While not turning a blind eye to their cultural Jewish heritage, they would separate between the synagogue and politics.

It’s a romantic vision, I suppose?

Well, it’s naïve and easy to ridicule but I think his liberal vision is progressive and contemporary.

The Invention of the Jewish People.

This is a book which has enjoyed great success. It not only denies that Israel is the state of the Jewish people but it denies the fact that there is a Jewish people. This is typical of a modern trend among post-Zionist Israeli academics. Professor Sand’s claim is that the Jews in Europe are not descendents of Jews of the second temple or the first temple in Palestine, that they were mixed with non-Jewish communities in Russia and elsewhere and they have no claim to be descendents of the Jewish people. I find this claim preposterous and quite surprising that it should come from an academic. First of all, he doesn’t prove his case, he relies on folklore and anecdote and he doesn’t establish his facts. But the facts are anyway irrelevant. Most nations are not racially pure. Evelyn Waugh came to Palestine in the 1930s and when he got off the boat in Haifa he saw different ethnic races and he said: ‘Are all these people Jewish?’ He wrote to Nancy Mitford that ‘apparently they are all Jewish because they all think they are Jewish’. And I think it is very indicative that Jewish people come from all different ethnic origins and they don’t claim that they are one race. The same is true for this country, Britain. Certainly not everyone is descended from the ancient Anglo-Saxons. There is Norman blood and immigrants and the same is true for Israeli Jews. So, the allegation that Jews are not a people is not substantiated and even it were substantiated it’s irrelevant. Irrelevant! Totally irrelevant! I find this book significant because it shows how radical anti-Zionist literature in Israel written by academics has reached non-academic levels. I find more wisdom in what Herzl wrote 100 years ago than in these contemporary fashionable writings which are aimed at the commercial market.

But what is he trying to prove by this anyway? 

The point he is trying to prove is that the Jews of Israel have no claim to Biblical ancestry and so they don’t have any claim to represent the Jewish people because the Jews are not a people.

And what would you say?

My position is that Jews are all multi-ethnic and multi-everything and there’s no uniform Jew and no uniform Jewry, so some are conservative, some are liberal, some are secular, some are assimilationist, and some come from Africa and Asia and recently we’ve had this immigration of black Jews from Ethiopia. We all belong to the same family, tribe or community and have an affinity with each other.

And with the land of Israel itself?

And with the land of Israel. The concept of the Jewish people is, in fact, a multi-cultural concept, who are united not only by religion. Herzl, for example, knew very little about Judaism, didn’t know how to pray in Hebrew, didn’t know a word of Yiddish, hadn’t circumcised his son, but he says: ‘I’m Jewish. And I’m a Jew who belongs to the same tribe as those who are at the top of Berlin society and the Jews of North Africa.’ It is a multi-cultural concept so that all the Jews, no matter what your colour is, no matter what your education or social status, belong to the same tribe, community or call it whatever you want – call it people. That’s why Israel is such a success – Jews from Yemen and Iraq as well as Jews coming from the highest echelons of the Weimar Republic, see themselves as the same people and must get along with each other. It’s easy to mock Herzl, but he’s more contemporary and more relevant than all this new anti-Zionist fashionable nonsense. The new historians are on the whole a pitiful lot.

Tell me about Israel and the Family of Nations.

Well, this is a book which I wrote with a young historian, Alexander Yakobson, and it’s a call for Israel to be more liberal and more concerned with human rights and at the same time for Israel to merge with the democratic family of nations.

How do you lay out the arguments?

The argument is that the Zionist revolution sought to turn Jewish civilisation into a nation state like all nation states and under the rule of international law. And we take one issue after another and we show that there is no inherent contradiction between Israel as a Jewish state and any other nation state. It has been received very well and is a bestseller in Israel. It was also critically successful in France and we rewrote it especially for the English edition.

You sound as if you’re fairly optimistic about the future.

I’m not so sure. Israel faces grave dangers but I’m optimistic about Israel becoming more liberal. It is a well-kept secret that Israel has become more liberal over the past 30 years. The dangers are obvious. One is the external one and I don’t have to elaborate on this. A nuclear Iran is a mortal danger for Israel and because Israel is so small and vulnerable to even simple gunfire from across the border. Yesterday Eilat was bombarded. Today the north is being bombarded and no place in Israel is immune from being bombarded from across the border. Then there is the internal danger, that the productive element of Israeli society, the element that serves in the army and is the backbone of the economy, would be outnumbered by those elements who do not serve and do not participate in the economy of the country, that is, mainly Muslim Arabs and the ultra-Orthodox. Their rate of participation in the civil work force is very low.

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Amnon Rubinstein

Amnon Rubinstein is an Israeli journalist and lawyer considered to be the father of Israeli constitutional law. In 1974 Rubinstein founded Shinui (The Centre Party), which advocated free enterprise, electoral reform and the formulation of a written constitution. In 1992 Shinui joined with Mapam (United Workers’ Party) and CRM (Civil Rights Movement) to form Meretz. Rubinstein served in the Knesset for 25 years in a variety of positions, including membership of the Knesset committees on security and foreign relations, finance, economics and law. His bestselling book Israel and the Family of Nations, which Rubinstein wrote with Dr Alex Jacobson, methodically analyses the conceptual and legal foundations for Israel to be both a Jewish and a democratic state.

Amnon Rubinstein on Wikipedia
Amnon Rubinstein's Homepage
Profile of Amnon Rubinstein on JewishVirtualLibrary.org

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Amnon Rubinstein

Amnon Rubinstein is an Israeli journalist and lawyer considered to be the father of Israeli constitutional law. In 1974 Rubinstein founded Shinui (The Centre Party), which advocated free enterprise, electoral reform and the formulation of a written constitution. In 1992 Shinui joined with Mapam (United Workers’ Party) and CRM (Civil Rights Movement) to form Meretz. Rubinstein served in the Knesset for 25 years in a variety of positions, including membership of the Knesset committees on security and foreign relations, finance, economics and law. His bestselling book Israel and the Family of Nations, which Rubinstein wrote with Dr Alex Jacobson, methodically analyses the conceptual and legal foundations for Israel to be both a Jewish and a democratic state.

Amnon Rubinstein on Wikipedia
Amnon Rubinstein's Homepage
Profile of Amnon Rubinstein on JewishVirtualLibrary.org