Published in The New Humanist (London) in September 2006.
Jewish Rejection of Zionism
by Yakov M Rabkin*
Israel’s military actions, particularly against civilians, embarrass and endanger Jews both in Israel and in the Diaspora. Some Jews feel obliged to defend the morally indefensible, to bend their ethical standards in order to justify Israel’s behaviour. Diaspora Jews have become hostages of Israel over whose policies and behaviour they have no control.
This unease goes beyond flare-ups of physical violence. Many Jews in the Diaspora and a few in Israel cringe when they see Israeli governments build “Jewish settlements” in the Galilee in order to “judaise” this predominantly Arab area or develop a “Jewish neighbourhood” in Jerusalem. Nowadays, such ethnic and religious discrimination is shocking. Imagine an outcry if the Front national mayor of a French town were to promote a public housing development designated solely for Catholics.
Indeed, the Jews largely rejected Zionism when this political movement was started by a group of irreligious Eastern European Jews over a hundred years ago. Reasons for this rejection varied. Most prominent spiritual leaders saw in Zionism a radical departure from Jewish tradition and objected to the political appropriation by the Zionists of spiritual concepts such as “Jerusalem”, “Zion” or “Land of Israel”. Thus, Rabbi Isaac Breuer wrote in 1918: “Zionism is the most terrible enemy that has ever arisen to the Jewish nation. …Zionism kills the nation and then elevates the corpse to the throne”. Another rabbi declared as early as 1905 that “Zionism is a purely nationalist-racist movement without the least commonality with religion”.
The paradox of the Zionist claim was well summarised by an Israeli intellectual: “God does not exist and He gave us this land.” Shlomo Avineri, political scientist and former director general of Israel’s Foreign Office, insists that it would be “banal, conformist and apologetic” to link Zionism to the Jewish tradition’s “close ties with the Land of Israel.” One must instead speak of a rebellion against the Jewish continuity, and surely not of the logical conclusion of centuries of yearning for the Holy Land.
That rebellion not only negated Jewish past but also embraced elements of anti-Semitism to defame it. In fact, anti-Semites, who want to rid their countries of Jews, have been natural allies of Zionism. This is certainly true of Lord Balfour, whose name is indelibly inscribed in the annals of Zionism.
The Zionists believe that anti-Semitism would always prevent the Jews from being accepted in their countries. This constitutes a major justification for the state of Israel as the ultimate refuge for the Jews. The history of persecutions devoid of their spiritual dimension can only breed violence. While Jewish tradition holds that all misfortunes that befall the Jews constitute divine punishment and therefore call for repentance, the Zionist version of history sees all the past tragedies only as a result of the Jews’ physical weakness. The violence that the Zionist settlement and the state of Israel have generated for over a century is firmly rooted in this rather primitive belief. It stands in stark contrast with the insistence of classical Judaic sources on illegitimacy of wars “against the nations”, particularly in the Holy Land.
Many Jews, whether ritually observant or not, continue to deny the Zionist state any legitimacy in terms of Jewish moral values and basic human decency. They vehemently protest against Israel’s political uses of the Holocaust, a tragedy that some of them even attribute to the emergence of Zionism. Many Jews reject Israel’s habit of posing as the righteous victim. Most principled opposition continues to come from certain Hassidic groups, centred in Jerusalem and in New York. During Israel’s recent attack on Lebanon and Gaza, these Jews staged protests in several world capitals, emphasising that “Israel’s wars are not Jewish wars”.
They insist that it is dangerous and wrong to call Israel a Jewish or a Hebrew state. To do so is to perpetuate the Zionist myth of Jewish legitimacy of Israel. Several Jewish thinkers believe that the Zionist state born in sin, and which it has never repented, has no legitimacy in terms of Jewish values altogether. My recent book, A Threat from Within, offers an opportunity to understand these different kinds of Jewish opposition to Zionism.
American conservatives have understood that Jews cannot be relied upon to support Israel, a major strategic asset of the United States in the region. Evangelical Christians, whose numbers far surpass the total number of Jews in the world have become Israel’s staunchest allies around the world. Their influence is felt in the White House and in the corridors of power of several other countries. They political and financial support for the most intransigent groups among the Zionist settlers in the West Bank is of vital importance.
Once Bush’s crusade ends and the part played in it by Israel and its partisans is exposed, Jewish critical voices are likely to be better heard not only in Israel but, more importantly, in the European Union, Russia and North America. This would free many world leaders from the fear of appearing anti-Semitic for questioning Zionism or criticising Israel. Only then will they be able to convince Israeli politicians to transform their discriminatory and therefore violence-ridden Zionist state into a more inclusive political structure that would right the wrongs committed in the course of its establishment and expansion. Jews no longer want to be held hostages to the anachronistic “Jewish state”, whose very nature spreads violence not only to its unfortunate neighbours but also to the long peaceful Jewish communities of the Diaspora, the home for the majority of world Jewry.
* Yakov M Rabkin, Professor of History at the University of Montreal, is the author of A Threat from Within: A Century of Jewish Opposition to Zionism (Zed Books, 2006). His analyses of the Middle East appear on radio and television as well as in several dailies.