The Debate at McGill’s Hillel House

Richard Epstein in colorOur son David is finishing his first year at McGill University. This has forced me to learn about Canadian culture—including the beauty of Montreal and the joy of hockey—as well as about the school itself. Recently, I read about a 1961 debate between the famed British historian Arnold Toynbee and Israel’s ambassador to Canada, Yaacov Herzog, at McGill’s Hillel House. The topic was, in essence, the legitimacy of the State of Israel. Fifty three years later, it is stunning that we are still having these debates. More importantly, Ambassador Herzog’s arguments demonstrate the best way to support Israel.

In brief, McGill invited Toynbee, a professor at the London School of Economics, to speak in Montreal. During his lecture, Professor Toynbee questioned the right of Israel to exist, compared Israel’s treatment of Arabs with the Nazis, and referred to Judaism as a “fossil”. After learning of the lecture, Ambassador Herzog immediately challenged Toynbee to a debate. There were those in the Jewish community and the Israeli Foreign Ministry who disapproved of Herzog’s challenge, fearing that a famous intellectual like Toynbee would overwhelm and embarrass a relatively unknown diplomat half his age. They were wrong.

First, Herzog pressed Toynbee to explain how Israel’s action in a war of self-defense (1948) against multiple Arabs armies could possibly compare to the Nazi’s systematic genocide against the Jews. When Toynbee explained that this was not a statistical comparison but rather a moral one—i.e., that even one “murder” by Israeli forces in 1948 made Israel murders just like the Germans—Herzog took this absurd argument to its logical extreme, stating that then every nation was like the Nazis because at some point they had “murdered” one person. (The fact that Herzog was able to cite Toynbee’s own writings against him only enhanced the validity of Herzog’s position.)

Thus, Herzog argued, “Do you agree that there were also Arab massacres of Jewish civilians? Were these also in the category of Nazi atrocities? And if so, why don’t you say that both sides did things in such a category? Why do you choose us? Why do you single us out? Why don’t you write of Britain and of almost every country in the world according to your own definition?” Toynbee was thus forced to concede the point.

Second, as described in an excellent piece in Tablet magazine, the debaters turned to the question of “whether the Jewish people were indeed a ‘fossil’—an outmoded remnant of a bygone era—or rather a living, breathing civilization in their own right. Was the establishment of Israel an anachronism or an achievement?” Here again, Toynbee was forced to concede to logic, admitting that “Israel can defossilize, just as you can defrost a car.” Herzog was thus able to win this point as well, inviting Professor Toynbee to visit Israel and witness its “defossilization” firsthand. Local news accounts declared Herzog the victor in the debate and he received many congratulatory telegrams.

Here is why the debate was so important. Unlike many modern day defenders of Israel, Ambassador Herzog did not argue that Israel was perfect or, put another way, that Israel never did anything wrong. Rather, Ambassador Herzog argued that Israel was striving to achieve high moral standards like other civilized countries, and that Israel should be held to the same standard as, say, Great Britain (which had its own issues with the Irish and others). Israel should be defended as a “normal” state and with “normal problems.” The way to defeat modern demagogues who claim that Israel is a Nazi state is not to deny facts, but rather to use facts to put any failing in the context of a normal state, and then deny the actual lies by showing the moral compassion of the majority of Israelis.

Sunday, June 1, 2014, is the annual Celebrate Israel Parade in New York City. Shomrei will again this year send a large contingent to march in the Parade. This is not because every person at Shomrei agrees with every policy of the Israeli government or because we reject any criticism of Israel as unfounded. Rather, Shomrei proudly marches as a community because, like Ambassador Herzog 53 years ago, we believe Israel is a legitimate, moral nation with many shining accomplishments that can and should be celebrated. I encourage everyone—from children to seniors and all in between—to join us. Please contact Marge Wise, our Executive Director, our Sol Bernstein, our fine liaison with the Parade, to find out all of the details.

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