05/25/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Netanyahu At AIPAC: Pilpul In Action!

Over the past few days we have been bombarded with articles and commentaries about the emerging trouble with the "special" relationship between the US and Israel. At the epicenter of the back and forth has been the annual AIPAC conference in Washington, DC and the take-no-prisoners speech by Israeli Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu.

In the blistering defense of his Jerusalem policy that he gave in his speech, Netanyahu certainly played to the partisan sentiments of AIPAC members when he said, "The Jews have been building in Jerusalem for 3,000 years," adding, "Jerusalem is not a Jewish settlement."

Building on my previous post on the Talmudic term pilpul, I would like to more closely examine the coherence of Netanyahu's statement and the difficulty that it sets up for anyone working to negotiate a settlement between Israel and the Palestinians.

Zionism has often deployed a peculiar understanding of Jewish history. Frequently ignoring many centuries of Diaspora Jewish history, Zionist partisans seek to emphasize the historical periods when Jews had dominion over the land of Israel. In this sense, the Biblical period -- not the Talmudic -- is given pride of place in Zionist thought. This is the significance of the use of the figure "3,000 years" in Netanyahu's formulation. That the Jewish sojourn in the land of Israel was never consistent during that entire period is not an issue; the matter is turned -- through pilpul -- into a truism that is left unexamined.

"3,000 years" is not quite "3,000 years" -- but we need to believe that it is.

A very different facet of Zionist thought has concerned itself with the tribulations of the Jewish people and their persecution. During this 3,000-year period, Jews were often exiled from Jerusalem, and those who were able to withstand the tribulations of living in the Holy City were the poor and the pious, not those at the top of the Jewish ladder. The religious Jews who lived in Jerusalem over the course of the centuries are not ideal figures in the Zionist tradition. They were often seen as beggars and overly religious individuals who fit more into the perceived weakness of the Diaspora Jew than the macho "New Jew" envisioned in Zionist thought.

On top of this, the Jews of Jerusalem lived in an Arab-Muslim world -- later ruled by Ottoman Turks. The Zionists knew of this world and were not comfortable with it. The old Jerusalem leadership was in the hands of Sephardim, those exiles from the Spanish Inquisition who were able to save themselves by moving to the Ottoman Empire.

This is all true according to the historical record, and yet it does not quite dovetail with the Jewish chauvinism of the Zionist vision, a creed that is foundational to Netanyahu's rhetoric. This is the "clash" of realities that often comes from pilpul. In the Zionist vision there are "heroic" Jews and defeated Jews. The "heroic" Jews were the ones who took history by the tail and conquered Israel; the defeated Jews are those Diaspora Jews who meekly accepted their lot in life.

It is not well known to Americans that the Prime Minister's father is a scholar of Sephardic history. Following the lead of the so-called "Jerusalem School" of Jewish history -- led by Ben-Zion Dinur and Yitzhak Baer -- Ben-Zion Netanyahu, an ardent Revisionist Zionist, found the acculturated Sephardim lacking in the "heroic."

In his book The Origins of the Inquisition in Fifteenth Century Spain, he makes his views of Sephardim clear:

There can be no doubt that the Jews of Germany had far surpassed the Jews of Spain in religious devotion and readiness for martyrdom. Judging by the principles that inspired them, their self-immolation in defense of their faith set an example of moral grandeur that had never been excelled in the annals of mankind.

Without going into great detail, this passage eerily echoes the sort of Zionist pilpul favored by Netanyahu fils. Attacking the Maimonidean tradition of rational Judaism and religious humanism, Ben-Zion Netanyahu extols the medieval Ashkenazim who developed a religious sanctification of suicide in dealing with the pogroms of the Crusaders. Sephardim, often following the Maimonidean directive on false conversions to protect their lives, were viewed in this aspect as lacking in Jewish "heroism."

The "3,000 years" of Jewish life in Jerusalem can be read in light of the "Heroic" tradition as extolled by Ben-Zion Netanyahu, or it can be seen more conventionally in terms of the actual historical record. According to that record, Jewish life in the Holy City was continuous, but developed under the aegis of the rabbinical leadership and the Muslim rulers. Whether or not this is a good or bad thing is not my point here. The point I want to make is that the history of Jerusalem is not exclusively Jewish -- and not exclusively Ashkenazi. Jerusalem is a mosaic of many peoples and cultures.

Pilpul often seeks to remake history to fit the suppositions of the person making the argument. Here the idea is to redraw our understanding of a lengthy and complex historical process in Jerusalem that encompasses many different political and national strains and reduce it to a single, monocultural entity.

For the AIPAC members cheering Prime Minister Netanyahu's speech, the status of Jerusalem, and of Israel more generally, is one of Jewish sovereignty at the expense of anything else. Jerusalem thus becomes part of the Zionist myth of a Jews-only culture that blocks out the actual pluralism of history.

It is interesting to note that for many years, the late PLO Chairman Yassir 'Arafat refused to accept the Jewish claim to Jerusalem and the rest of Palestine, thus engendering his own parallel form of Palestinian Zionism where only the Arabs could lay a legitimate claim to the land. More recently, the Israeli historian Shlomo Sand has sought to undermine the claim that the Jewish people are a nation by articulating his own historical pilpul designed to demolish Jewish history as a collective enterprise; ironically, Sand's pilpul was made possible by the promulgation of the same Zionist myth that all Israeli schoolchildren are weaned on.

In each case, we can see that the creation of historical pilpul aims to validate the already-fixed thoughts of those making their claims. The result is already known; all that needs to be done is to provide the rationale.

But ultimately, all we are left with is the myth. Each side seeks to make its exclusive claims in order to silence their enemy. 'Arafat wanted to crush the Jewish side; Sand wishes to undermine the myths he was taught in elementary school; Netanyahu wants to justify his militant support of the Settlements.

Two things are being ignored in the crucible of pilpul. First, history speaks to us whether we like it or not. Jerusalem is a city that has lived under the rule of Jews, Romans, Arabs, Crusaders, Ottomans, and now Zionists. Second, history does not tell us who the rightful owners of the land are. All we have is the status of agreements and international consensus.

The perpetrators of pilpul often ignore such things and, as Netanyahu did at the AIPAC conference, tell the story the way they want the story to be told. Any attempt at rational discussion is trumped by the power of the myth. Yelling and mayhem then ensue.

For those who seek a peaceful solution to what remains one of the world's most intractable conflicts, it is necessary to cut through the myths generated by pilpul to more clearly see the reality of history and the urgent need of human beings to live in security and harmony with one another. The only way to do that is for all parties to accept the realities of history and not remake history to fit their ideological agendas.