Walter Laqueur, at 86, continues in his prolific and provocative ways. In the past couple of years, he’s published a memoir, a book on the new antisemitism, and another on the demise of Europe. It’s been quite a performance by any standard. Now, with a nod to April Fools’ Day and Israel’s 60th anniversary (the two are not to be confused), he’s produced a striking short paper, entitled Disraelia: A Counterfactual History, 1848-2008, for the new Middle East Papers series of Middle East Strategy at Harvard. It’s not so much a narrative history as a collection of “documents,” premised on a “what-if.” What if antisemitism—the modern ideology of hate and the resulting pogroms—had appeared not toward the end of the nineteenth century, but closer to its beginning? What if Disraeli then, rather than Herzl later, had seized the moment and inspired a mass migration of Jews to Ottoman Palestine? What if two million of them had made their way to the country by 1855? I won’t say more so as not to spoil the scenario. You can download the paper here.
Of course, the utility of counterfactual history is much disputed. Niall Ferguson has written the most sustained defense of it, within specific parameters. Whether Laqueur’s essay falls within them is an open question, but his purpose is somewhat different. It isn’t so much to argue that this might have been plausible, but that the position of a Disraelia in a present world order would be vastly superior to that of Israel today, largely by dint of its seniority and size. By the standards of nationalism, Zionism arose late, and the state of Israel—created perhaps at the last moment the West would have permitted it—has been handicapped by this belatedness.
Still, Israel in many respects does resemble Laqueur’s Disraelia. Laqueur writes in his conclusion:
There is much reason to believe that this state [of Disraelia], given a high birth rate, would have some sixty million inhabitants at the beginning of the 21st century. It would have advanced industries, leading the world in fields such as nuclear and computer technologies. It would be the fifth-largest oil producer in the world, economically reasonably healthy with a growth rate of 6-8 percent, competitive with Europe, America and even Asia. It would have powerful armed forces, living in peace with its neighbors, at least to the extent that peaceful relations could be expected in this unquiet part of the world. It would not be a model state, but by the standards of time and place, considered much better that average. No one would dare to question its right to exist, and those who did would not be taken seriously.
In fact, Israel is many of these things. Even with a much smaller population than the imagined Disraelia, Israel is a world leader in a host of technological fields, its economic growth rate has been remarkable, it does have a powerful armed force, and it has won a hard-earned peace with some of its much larger neighbors (“to the extent that peaceful relations could be expected”). As for oil, it is an open question whether it is a boon or a bane, given that large oil wealth correlates very poorly with democracy.
As for legitimacy, Laqueur plays a trick, since his Disraelia isn’t a Jewish state, or even a state of the Jews. It is a kind of binational or trinational state, of Jews, Arabs, and Kurds, in which “intermarriage, much to everyone’s surprise, is fairly high.” Separatist factions are ruthlessly suppressed. In a Middle East where even Kurds and Arabs cannot be kept in one state, there is something utterly utopian at the core of Disraelia. Indeed, it is this fantasy of supra-national coexistence that appeals to today’s “one-state-solution” enthusiasts, precisely those who question Israel’s right to exist.
The problem of legitimacy, then, may not be restricted to the size of the population, but may turn upon the essential character of the state. Laqueur’s Disraelia is perhaps aptly named, precisely because it is de-Israelized. It also might not have lasted into this century. Middle Eastern states that lack a primary nationality are today vulnerable precisely because they are empty of identity at the core. Multi-ethnic, religiously diverse Iraq is a case in point—and had a Disraelia emerged, it is just as easy to imagine it reaching the same tragic impasse, oil and all.
So pardon me, Walter, for preferring Israel as it is. I’ll take my chances. Still, he’s provoked thought as always, and in my role as the co-convener of Middle East Strategy at Harvard, I’m delighted he has done so in the inaugural number of Middle East Papers.