The title “The Republic” is a bad translation for the name of Plato’s most famous work, that epic conversation about the meaning of justice and the ideal city–and it is just as unsuitable a title for Jalal Al-e Ahmad’s essay. Plato’s book was called, in Greek, the Politeia; derived from the word for city, polis, a politeia is a word describing how a polis is run, its constitution. While the title, “The Republic,” has an impressive pedigree, stretching back to Cicero’s Latin rendition, the just city as Socrates describes it is a far cry from the “republics” of our political theories. In politics, a republic is ruled by its citizens or their chosen representatives and the head of state is a prime minister or president; Plato’s Republic is ruled by an elite, hereditary guardian class directed, like a captain steers his ship, by the philosopher king.
Likewise, the key term in Al-e Ahmad’s 1964 essay, a meditation on the Iranian writer and intellectual’s seventeen-day visit to Israel in 1963, also fits uncomfortably with the concept of a republic. In Persian, the essay is called Velayat-e Esrael, the Israeli Velayat; this crucial word, “velayat,” can be variously translated as friendship, love, sanctity, state, province, guardianship or mystical union. As Eldad Pardo points out in his Hebrew translation and introduction to the text [Iyyunim be-Tekumat Yisrael 14 (2004)], Al-e Ahmad plays with all the meanings of the term, from the holy to the mundane. Al-e Ahmad’s “velayat” bears the most weight, however, where its political and religious meanings intersect. A vali who experiences and runs the velayat is something like a Hasidic Rebbe: a scholar and saint entrusted by God, because of his closeness to the divine, to be society’s guardian. Historically, this guardianship has been limited to the circle of his followers or those without other recourse, such as orphans, widows and the destitute; in modern, post-revolutionary Iran, the authority of the velayat includes the government of society as a whole.
The echoes of the Republic in Al-e Ahmad’s text, and the points of similarity between the two texts, rather than the relationship between either Plato’s politea or Al-e Ahmad’s velayat and the political concept of “republic” as we know and live it today, prompt me to render this essay in English as “the Israeli Republic.” The two texts share certain ideals: guardianship, election, utopianism and a politics which supersedes the political. In Al-e Ahmad’s essay, Israel’s leaders are called not by the laws of states but “by something higher than human rights declarations.”
At the same time, Al-e Ahmad shares with Plato an intense concern for justice. Demonstrating the justice of Israel, both in terms of the justness of the state’s existence, its “right to exist,” and the justifiability of its actions, is one of Al-e Ahmad’s central concerns. This justice, again, is not weighed on the scales of everyday politics: Al-e Ahmad is pointedly critical of Israel’s manipulation of the Holocaust, its share of responsibility for the Palestinian refugee crisis, and its role as a vanguard of Western capitalism. Rather, Israel’s justice is prophetic, in the eyes of the divine AND world-historical. As Al-e Ahmad mentions further on in the essay, in a section not translated here, his interest in Israel began as a fascination with the kibbutz as a non-Stalinist example of collectivism and socialist organization; in this essay you can see both the echoes of his former communism—he broke with the party in the early 1940’s—and the hole it left behind.
Indeed, looking to Israel as the model of an alternative society and politics was common among Iranian intellectuals of Al-e Ahmad’s generation. Western liberalism, Communism and Islam were on their own all, for various reasons, to be discounted. Al-e Ahmad’s most famous work, the essay variously translated as “Westoxification” or “Occidentosis,” is an exposition of the pernicious effect of the West and its culture on Iran—especially as it relates to the West’s support for the Shah’s repressive regime—and was a crucial text of the Islamic revolution. Israel in Al-e Ahmad’s description is an alloy of these three spurned ideologies: of the West but not Western, socialist but not Stalinist, not a priests’ fiefdom but a republic of prophets.
To read Al-e Ahmad’s essay now, I can’t help feeling a certain nostalgia. The Israel Al-e Ahmad visited and to which it was possible to ascribe these semi-mystical qualities, even if he was naive in so doing, is long gone. Who today could confuse Israel’s political leaders—even those not on trial for corruption—with prophets and guardians? This is no place to speculate on precisely what changed or why. My point is only that Al-e Ahmad’s strange vision is a memorial not only to a lost relationship between Israel and Iran, but also a testament to the way that Israel once saw itself and was seen by the world, as a light unto the nations.
This essay is also a warning. As we debate Israel’s future, we would do well to consider the ultimate outcome of the left-religious coalition Al-e Ahmad advocated for Iran. As much as that dynamic and invigorating fusion of theology and politics propelled the 1979 revolution, it also led directly to the repressions and injustice of the Islamic Republic. For those on the right and on the left who argue that Israel’s policies should be grounded in Jewish texts and values, who claim that Judaism is us and not them, who advocate constant traffic, intellectual and physical, between the political demonstration and the beit midrash, Jalal Al-e Ahmad should give us pause. Fusion IS explosive not only in a nuclear bomb.
There are two reasons I call Israel a Republic (velayat):
First of all, the Jewish state in the land of Palestine is a Republic and not another kind of government. It is the rule of the Children of Israel’s new guardians (avliya) in the Promised Land, not the government of the inhabitants of Palestine over Palestine. The first contradiction arising from the presence of Israel is this: that nation, people, religious community, or surviving remnant of the twelve tribes—whatever designation you prefer—throughout the history, cultures and legends of their exile, kept the dream of return alive in their hearts. But when they finally did settle, in apparent answer to such hopes, though in a land neither especially promising nor “promised,” it was thanks, in fact, to the forces of time, the necessities of politics, the clear vision of their guardians, and the mechanisms of economics and unfettered capitalism; I will address each of these in turn.
Now, if one does not dare compare Israel’s leaders with Abraham, David, Solomon or Moses—peace be upon them—in any case today’s politicians can be called, if not prophets, then, certainly, guardians, and can be likened to the other one hundred and twenty four thousand prophets of Israel; of these, we have chosen St. George as the example of unsuccessful miracles. But this is a true miracle, not some sailor’s yarn. Ben Gurion lacks not from Enoch, and Moshe Dayan is no less than Job: these new guardians, each one a prophet or—at least—a clear-visioned seer, built a Republic in the land of Palestine and called to it all the Children of Israel, of whom two million live in New York and eight million others in the rest of the world. And the most important aspect of the miracle is this: the Republic of Israel, with its two million and some inhabitants in that long and narrow land, like it or not, now governs and acts in the name of the world’s far-flung twelve million Jews.
If only one example will suffice, we can call to mind the Eichmann trial. Israeli agents captured a man in South America, brought him to Israel, tried him, executed him and even scattered his ashes at sea—and all this in the name of six million Jews who were slaughtered in the crematoria of Europe, leprous with Fascism, before the establishment of Israel and on the basis of the policies of a regime whose name, customs and laws the Germans themselves are ashamed to mention.
I call this a miracle. An event opposed to norm and custom, against international law and the precedent of governments, which, even if they sought fit to fanatically assassinate Trotsky in Mexico with the blow of a terrorist’s hammer, at least finished the job on the spot.
If only on account of that example, we cannot but consider Israel a Republic and its leaders guardians—those who march onward in the name of something loftier than human rights declarations. Perhaps the spirit of Yahweh is upon them and those prophecies … [sic] for if Moses had not murdered and did not flee to the wilderness, the mark of prophecy would not be found on his breast.
This is the first reason I call Israel a Republic.
Secondly, in this sense: the present territory of Israel in no way resembles a country, if by country we refer to the commonly held conception, that is something on the order of a continent; the republic of Israel is a span of earth, approximately the size of the province of Saveh, less than eight thousand square miles. And how inhospitable! If Moses, peace be upon him, knew to what a stony place he was leading his people, if he could fathom what a shallow joke the river Jordan is compared to the Nile, he would never have called that place the Promised Land and would not have led the people there, suffering all those years of trouble and torment.
But in the modern world—numbered among its tiny, but reputable, countries such as Switzerland and Denmark, Iceland and Qatar, Kuwait and the Principality of Monaco—this same thin territory of Israel lies in arm’s reach (for it is, like us, a part of the East) like a fist on the table of the fertile crescent; it is a source of power and also—on that very account—a source of danger.
Its power or danger depends on your perspective on the world.
If your viewpoint is that of the Arab politicians, Israel is a source of great danger, preventing the realization of the unified and contiguous Islamic Caliphate of which so many people, after the downfall of Ottoman Empire, have dreamed. But:
If you look with the eyes of an Easterner like me—empty of fanaticism and excess and vengeance—worrying for the future of an East of which one end is Tokyo and the other Tel Aviv—and knowing that this same East is the grounds of the coming renovation and the hope of a world tired of the West and Westoxification, in the eyes of this Easterner, Israel with all its faults and all the contradictions which it contains, is a foundation of power, a giant step, the herald of a future no longer far off.
In these two senses I call Israel a Republic. In these pages I will attempt to retell what I came to know of it, not for publicity nor as payback for free lunches, not for the purpose of directing Iran’s two-faced foreign policy nor to vex the Arabs—my object is not politics—and not as a travelogue nor as a screed. Rather, my goal is only that you come to know the disposition, the words and the “yes, but”s of a penman from this corner of the world—and a Persian speaker—faced with the reality of the Children of Israel’s new country in this corner of the East.
But for transparency’s sake and here at the very beginning, I will say that leaving aside tradition and myth and the years of promises and threats, leaving aside what happened before Israel’s establishment as a republic—all of which is historians’ work—from my perspective as an Easterner, the current government of Israel is the bridgehead of Western capitalism which reappeared in the East in a different form and in other garb following the Second World War. I have grounds for debate with this aspect of Israel. Moreover, Israel is a coarsely-realized indemnity for the fascists’ sins in Dachau, Buchenwald and the other death camps during the war. Pay close attention: that is the West’s sin and I an Easterner am paying the price. The Western man gathered the capital for this indemnity, whereas I in the East provided the land: I lack no opinions on this issue as well. If we want the truth, Israel is the curtain Christianity drew between itself and the world of Islam in order to prevent US from seeing them, the real danger; this is exactly what drives the Arabs to distraction.
I also have grounds for debate with the Arabs. It is true that the Palestinian refugees, like a ball chasing the Arab politicians’ bat, have, with time, become accustomed to parasitism. But listen close: for more than ten years these same Palestinian refugees have been paying the penance for someone else’s sin in that hellish place. From the bones of the Ottoman empire this last piece—this Palestine—was set aside as dessert and now sits on the spread table between the Persian Gulf and the River Nile like a mace. Or is it perhaps like a scarecrow, keeping anyone from extending a hand or foot beyond his own plate?
I will even go a little further: if one day the country of Israel disappears, who will Arab leaders blame for being the only barrier to Arab unification? Is it not, rather, that the very presence of Israel and the fear which it casts in the Arab heart is the cause of the modest unity and internal concord of the margraves on this side of the world?
In the Jewish spectacle of martyrdom, the memorialization of the war’s murdered and gone, I see the other side of the coin of fascism and a dependence on the racism which replaced it. But I also say this: if you must be their ground, learn from Israel how its value appreciates! If you are forced to marry one of your distant neighbors, then follow their example! And if your lot is to play the game of democracy, and that too in a land which, as long as there was God, was crushed under the boots of the pharaohs of earth and heaven, so too. In any case, for me as an Easterner, Israel is the best of all exemplars of how to deal with the West, how with the spiritual force of martyrdom we can milk its industry, accept its reparations and invest its capital in national development; all for the price of a few moments of political dependence, we can found our new enterprise on its feet.
And this is the last point: the Persian speaker in particular considers the Jews in a historical perspective. In the days of Darius and Ahasuerus, it was I who sat Esther on the throne, appointed Mordechai to the chancellory and ordered the rebuilding of the Temple. And although now and then, in the markets and alleys of Ray and Nishapur, at a governor’s instigation or for a commandant’s profit, I have also murdered Jews, nevertheless the tomb of Daniel the Prophet in Shush still performs miracles and the graves of Mordechai and Esther in Hamadan are no less holy than the shrine of a saint of pure lineage. But leave off laying those obligations and the load of foolish self-satisfaction on the shoulder of God’s people. It is enough for me that this very Daniel the Prophet was once my chancellor; I don’t care who was his king.
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