February 20, 2020

The Rosner-Pinto Exchange, Part 3: Imagining Israel as a Hobbesian Leviathan

Dr. Diana Pinto is a French-Italian Intellectual Historian and policy analyst living in Paris. Dr. Pinto, who received her PhD from Harvard University, is a former senior fellow and board member of the London-based Institute for Jewish Policy Research. She is a founding member of the European Council on Foreign Relations and was the editor-in-chief of Belvédère, France’s first pan-European review for a general public. She also worked as a Consultant to the Political Directorate of the Strasbourg-based Council of Europe for its civil society programs in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.

In part three of this exchange about her new book 'Israel has moved' (Harvard University Press, 2013), we adress, among other things, the role of Israel's divided society and problematc parliamentary system in the prolongation of the Palestinian conflict. 

(Part one and two of the exchange can be found here and here)


Dear Dr Pinto,

Even though it was quite caustic at times, I'd like to thank you again for your last response. You raised some interesting points, and the notion that official Israel's eagerness to 'speak for' Diaspora Jews inevitably gives Diaspora Jews a considerable stake in the Israel/Palestine conflict is especially worthy of consideration. It probably won't surprise you that I have my reservations, though…

I can't help, when you talk about 'Israel' in your book, to envisage a kind of Hobbesian Leviathan with Netanyahu (and perhaps a cabal of zealous settlers and generals) as its head. It's as if they have a firm grip on public opinion, and as if they can swiftly and easily just end the occupation and bring forth an age of peace at will (if only they wanted to).  

In reality, as you surely know, Israel's parliamentary system of governance is very different from that- 'official Israel', rather than a powerful Leviathan, is much more like a tedious never-ending set of compromises between the wants, needs, and demands of the many eclectic strands of the country's exceptionally diverse and deeply divided population (the current government is a perfect illustration of this). With this being the case (and with the Palestinian leadership situation being even more complicated), the occupation, in the eyes of an average news reading Israeli, seems like a confounding vortex of political struggles, religious zealots, deception, security concerns, and question marks- a soap opera that has been airing for decades with so many twists and turns that one can scarcely follow it anymore.

In part 1 of this exchange you wrote that “If there is negative autism, it lies more in their [Israelis] inability, except for a few courageous NGO’s, to see that Israel cannot go on having its cake and eating it too”. But rather than 'simply failing to see' that Israel 'simply' needs to end the occupation (as if the Leviathan's head simply needs to decide this and it will happen), most Israelis- who have been willing to compromise and end the occupation for while now- can't help but see how complicated a task this is, especially in light of the recent regional turmoil in the Middle East. When people claim to have easy solutions, the natural tedium and aporia of Israelis (which might be the most common feelings that arise when the conflict is discussed) inevitably manifest themselves as cynicism and disinterest. 

It's interesting that when you describe the event at the President's conference, your problem is not with the roundtable, the panel, and how much time you got- it is with the crowd's reaction. This seems to be because your criticism eventually boils down to a problem with Israeli public opinion. Do you think they don't listen to you, do they listen but simply disagree, or do they just get suspicious because of your tone? Which is it?

Thanks much,



Dear Shmuel,


Thank you for this third round. Let me answer your last question first because it is the least important in my mind so that I can move to the more substantial issues in your statement.

You keep coming back to the President’s Conference as though I had felt betrayed by the lack of attention or time devoted to my presentation. Such egocentric considerations were the furthest thing from my mind. I found the round table skewed because it failed to address the question that was asked in its title. But that, I have found out by now (two President’s Conferences later) is the way things are done at this gathering. Panelists are there to add some intellectual spice or entertainment to the gathering of official Israelis, diasporic community leaders, and above all to the donors who finance so much important scientific research. True debate just isn’t in the cards, for it would be divisive and the whole point of the conference is to unite. One does not go to Davos to sit in the equivalent of an academic or policymaking conference. So why should it be different for the ‘Jewish Davos?’

On the issue of Israeli public opinion- I can’t answer any of your questions for the simple reason that I have never interacted with such an entity if one can speak of Israelis in these terms. And again this issue goes well beyond my own case. Books on Israel today are seldom, if ever, translated. In my case the one editorial I wrote for Haaretz only came out in the paper’s English version (which no Israeli ever reads, even those who are fluent in English) and not in Hebrew, and I gather that your own “Rosner’s Domain” is an English-only web site. So if I want to be ironical and caustic (as you say), I can only come to one conclusion: I don’t know how well the Iron Dome will work if the country is besieged by a shower of missiles. But I have come to the conclusion that the Israeli intellectual Iron Dome works very well, with respect to books on Israel (obviously not with respect to other fields) insofar as Israelis don’t want to hear even a friendly critique or analysis coming from the Jewish world outside.  I find this state of mind worrisome for two reasons: first because it reveals a by now embedded conviction that any Jewish foreign gaze on the country can only be negative and anti-Zionist; second because it leads to a self-fulfilling prophecy of self-isolation with its correlate, no-relativistic perception of one’s own country, a trait worthy of some of the less open societies on the planet.   

Now to the deeper issues you raise. You mention the fact that I write as though there were a Leviathan in Israel that would have the power to decide on peace or rally the people toward some solution. You refer to the complexity of the peace issue and to the highly fragmented nature of Israeli society, and its reflection in parliament,   (confirming the “two Jews, three opinions” vision of Jewish life in general). Not only do I accept this totally, but such a complexity was the premise of my own book. When I entitled it “Israel Has Moved” it was precisely to say that the geopolitical environment of Israel was so lousy, so complex, so unpredictable and so inherently hostile, that Israel as a society and many of its leaders had decided to ‘move out’ symbolically, whether in cyberspace, or in other corners of the planet where Israel’s productivity, brilliance, and networking could shine forth and be fully appreciated. But as I said in the book, Israel can ‘move out’ symbolically. It can even ‘move on’ creatively, but it cannot change its GPS coordinates. As a consequence it must confront head on the fact that it cannot annex land (as it has done with the settlements) without coming to terms with the other populations who live on it. They are there and no amount of critiques about their essence, their intentions, their hostility, or their inability to form a state can remove the simple truth that they cannot be wished away, nor can they be kept in a limbo-like condition of being neither citizens of their own state nor citizens of Israel. Just imagine what would happen if the Palestinians were to announce to Israel “We don’t want a state anymore. Here are the keys to a house that was never built. Take us back. Govern us fully…” This is for me the real nightmare scenario for it would imply the end of Israel’s Jewish identity and democracy.

Since you brought it up, Israel may actually need a Leviathan. Governing the country is not the equivalent of running a ghetto or a community, where you try to reconcile differing interests and groups, not unlike a rabbi in a Shtetl. The country needs a sense of purpose and of direction. And on this front, I do stress that Israel is autistic in its refusal to think of itself in the time and space of our epoch, confusing tactical gains with long-term strategic interests.



The original frontpiece of Thomas Hobbes 'Leviathan'

Israel did have a leader willing to take steps that made him reverse his own previous stands in the name of peace: Yitzhak Rabin. He must have been on an important and positive track if a right wing extremist chose to assassinate him. What strikes me as an outsider is that the Israeli governments that followed in the wake of Rabin’s death never drew a sharp line between those extremists and Israel’s own security needs. Israel is paying currently the price of this blurred mental and political line. But my words on this count do not really matter. What kind of response would you be sending to your literary compatriots, such as Amos Oz, A.B Yeshoua, and David Grossmann and twenty–three other writers who have just come out in the defense of West Bank inhabitants threatened with expulsion from their lands? Are they unpatriotic lost souls who do not represent Israel, agents of the left wing international press, or hopeless literary idealists? I do not think so. They are very practical men…who by the way have few if any kind words to say about diasporic Jews like me.  But I as a non-Israeli Jew, support them, because they have not lost touch with their own inner moral compasses and can therefore see the political contradictions that are perverting the entire Israeli project. Israel should be proud of its dissenting figures for the most powerful critiques of the country’s choices and actions have come from within its own ranks. But why is no one in the political realm really listening to them? 

If Israelis listened more to the sounds of the non-kowtowing members of the Diaspora they would realize that this lack of Israeli leadership is what frightens the Jewish world most.  Don’t get me wrong. Jews outside of Israel don’t need such leadership for themselves. They feel acutely its absence for Israel’s own future. Israel does not have the luxury of staging a multi-season soap opera, nor do its citizens have the luxury of averting their gaze from the reality that surrounds them, either out of boredom, cynicism, or fear.  

I believe our exchange is coming to a close, and I wanted to thank you for this very interesting tripartite interview and for the space and time you gave me to present my views. May I simply end with just one comment? In all three rounds by your questions you consistently dragged me into the political realm. As a historian and as a cultural essayist, in my book I sought precisely to transcend the usual debates over peace/no peace. Mine was a cultural and historical reading of an Israel that fascinated me by for its ability to be at once everything and its opposite: fusing archaic and ultra-modern principles; post-modern and traditional values; at the forefront of planetary time as well as anchored in a millennial past; totally democratic inside the Green Line and totally undemocratic on the other side;  rooted in generous universal principles but also closed in within itself; brimming with optimism but also infused with fear. I wrote this book as a critical loving portrait and I hope that those who will read it will keep this in mind.