On the Jewish State As an Alien State
By Uriel Abulof | 04/11/2010
For the first anti-Zionists, the shtetl, the Jewish town in Eastern Europe, was a sort of lost homeland that they sought to heal for the sake of their nation and for their own sake. Despite their negation of Zionism, they remained committed to the Jewish people's physical Uri Avneri, photo: Flash 90
survival and spiritual mission. Uriel Abulof wonders whether it is possible today, as in the past, to express serious reservations about Jewish sovereignty while seeking to protect the Jewish people and eschewing any emotional ties to Judaism
“For three transgressions of Israel, and for four, I will not turn away the punishment thereof” (Amos 2:6). For having robbed Arab lands and banishing the Arabs from their homes, for abandoning the Jewish people in the Diaspora and leaving it to be trampled upon in the Holocaust. For having excluded and deprived ethnic groups and poor individuals, for having occupied someone else's land and for murdering innocent people. These accusations and others like them, the anti-Zionist prophecy of the present age teaches us, are but the tip of the moral iceberg that the Israeli Titanic will ultimately collide with.
However, this prophecy was not given to Amos. Perhaps the anti-Zionists' prophecy was similar to the one given to Jonah. “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city,” God demands of Jonah, “and cry against it; for their wickedness is come up before me” (Jonah 1:2). When God summons him, Jonah escapes on board a ship. When a storm began to brew, Jonah sinks into a deep slumber; however, when he is chosen by lot, he sinks into the sea's depths. There, swallowed up by a huge fish, Jonah accepts his fate and prophesies, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown” (Jonah 3:4). However, the residents of Nineveh abandon their unjust ways, and this is sufficient for God: “And God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way; and God repented of the evil, that he had said that he would do unto them; and he did it not” (Jonah 3:10).
Jonah now wishes that he were dead. However, as was the case on the boat, he is not prepared to kill himself; instead, he asks God to take his soul. He sits inside a makeshift booth, in the shade of a gourd, waiting for Nineveh's fall.
“Doest thou well to be angry?” (Jonah 4:4), God initially asks him. It is possible that God is referring not just to Jonah's immense anger over Nineveh's rescue but also to the pleasure that the prophet derives from his anger, to his wallowing in his rage and to his preference for anger over the survival of this alien city. When the gourd wilts, God again asks Jonah, “Doest thou well to be angry for the gourd?” (Jonah 4:9).
God then goes on to say, “Thou hast had pity on the gourd, for the which thou hast not laboured, neither madest it grow; which came up in a night, and perished in a night: And should not I spare Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than sixscore thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand; and also much cattle?” (Jonah 4:10-11).
Should we ask today's ant-Zionists, “Doest thou well to be angry?” Perhaps yesteryear's anti-Zionists were not so angry; however today's breed is furious. Opposition to Zionism has changed over the years. Has the central stream of anti-Zionists replaced the prophecy of Amos who stands at the front gate of the city rebuking the people and attempting to save it from itself to that of Jonah who considers his nation and his state to be an alien city whose destruction is preferable to the repentance of its residents?
Between the birth of Zionism and the death of European Jewry
In theory and ostensibly, there is nothing new under the sun. The history of opposition to Zionism spans the same period as the history of the Zionist movement itself. Initially, the movement for the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine was a marginal group in the Jewish world. Even if the movement strengthened during the years of the British Mandate in Palestine, Zionism earned the recognition and the sweeping support of world Jewry only after the Holocaust. The State of Israel was not born in the midst of that atrocity; the Jewish community in pre-1948 Israel had already amassed considerable power in the process of nation-making by the time the Second World War broke out.
The plan of the Peel Commission (1937) for the partition of Palestine attests to that fact. However, it was the Holocaust that turned Zionism into the leading conceptual and practical movement in the Jewish world. The murder of a third of the Jewish people in the Holocaust taught many of the Jews who survived that, even if they want to abandon their nation, they will always be a part of it, and that, without a state, they will remain exposed to attacks and will always have to depend on the good will of strangers.
Between Zionism's birth and European Jewry's death – a period of over half a century – many Jews, especially in the Diaspora but also in Palestine itself, actively and consistently opposed Zionism. The reasons varied from one individual to the next and from one era to the next; sometimes, individuals themselves radically changed their positions.
For instance, Leon Pinsker at first thought that the remedy for Jewish peoplehood could be found in European emancipation. It was only after he became disillusioned, in the wake of the disturbances in Odessa in 1871 and the “storms of the south” – the pogroms that were unleashed in 1881 and 1882 – that he saw the concept of “Autoemancipation” as a final refuge for Jews from their anti-Semitic foes. In contrast, Israel Zangwill, to whom the saying, “a land without a people for a people without a land,” is attributed (the saying was originally coined by British members of the clergy), initially became a follower of Theodor Herzl. Two years later, in the light of the difficulties in obtaining the anticipated charter and after the rejection of the Uganda plan by the Seventh Zionist Congress, Zangwill initiated the establishment of the Jewish Territorial Organization. The organization's aim was to provide a territorial solution to the Jewish problem. The Jewish people, said Zangwill, must abandon its childish delusions and self-deception and must be responsible for its own fate. The expression of that responsibility would be the creation of a Jewish center in a healthy territory that is either uninhabited or which has a very small population. Obviously, he noted, he was not referring to Palestine.
Like the Canaanite movement and Neturei Karta, the Territorialists generally remained on the sidelines of the Zionist camp in Palestine; even in the Diaspora they did not manage to strike deep roots. Diaspora Jews preferred the positions that were expressed by autonomism and by the spiritual nation idea and which sought political equality on a group or individual basis.
David Ben-Gurion, who, prior to the Arab Revolt (1936-1939), thought that dialogue between the Zionists and the Arabs might lead to a compromise, changed his mind after the disturbances and became convinced that a violent confrontation with the Arabs was unavoidable. From that moment onwards, the Zionists' contacts with Arab leaders were intended primarily to present to the world a false image of peaceful dialogue.
There were those in the Zionist movement who nonetheless believed that, despite the escalation of violent activity, compromise was a necessary condition for survival. This is what Yaakov Hazan thought in 1937: “Peace with the Arabs will guarantee our survival here in Palestine. This is our duty as socialists and it is a necessity for us as Zionists.” The Hashomer Hatzair organization, one of whose founders was Hazan, walked along this seam-line in Zionism. Nevertheless, its emphasis on the need for a Jewish majority in Palestine – for the completion of the socialist revolution on behalf of Palestinian society (that is, both its Jewish and Arab members) and on behalf of the Jewish people in particular – allowed Hashomer Hatzeir to remain in the very heart of Zionism's conceptual circle.
Guardians of the moral seal
Other movements in the Yishuv went much further. Like Hashomer Hatzair, Brit Shalom (1925-1933), Kedma Mizracha (1936-1938), the League for Jewish-Arab Rapprochement and Co-operation (1939), Ha-ol (The Bond; 1939) and the Ihud (Unity) Association (1942-1948) expressed, for the most part, support for a bi-national solution – one state for Jews and Arabs. Brit Shalom proposed to the Jewish Agency in 1930: “Palestine need not be a Jewish state or an Arab one; it should be a bi-national state where Jews and Arabs will have equal civil, political and national rights, without any differences between the majority nation and the minority one.” However, despite this key principle and unlike Hashomer Hatzair, the members of Brit Shalom were divided over their readiness to allow the Jews to remain a minority in Palestine while aspiring to reach a compromise with the Arabs. The significance of Brit Shalom's position was not only the abandonment of the idea of a Jewish state but also a willingness to limit Jewish immigration to Palestine. One of the founders of the organization, Arthur Ruppin, resigned from Brit Shalom in 1931 over this issue. In contrast, Judah L. Magnes refused to join Brit Shalom when it was founded because, at the time, he preferred a “national minority” solution for the Jewish people rather than the creation of a bi-national state. Moreover, unlike Brit Shalom, Magnes was a self-declared pacifist and he believed that the establishment of a Jewish state would inevitably lead to war. If nationalism is violence, proclaimed Magnes and his followers, it was vital to isolate the Jewish people from nationalism's harmful influences. In 1932, Ernst Akiva Simon spoke in praise of a disengagement from the chains of nationalism; the Jewish people, he said, must be a “nation that has willingly abandoned the idea of having a state of its own”. He believed that the Jews must therefore serve as an example to the Arabs: “Perhaps we can help them … by our serving as a living example of a nation that has willingly abandoned the idea of having its own state”.
Simon's views are but one example of the recurrent Jewish motif in the thinking of anti-Zionists during that era. Although they resolutely opposed the idea of a Jewish state in Palestine, they were committed to the Jewish people's physical survival and spiritual mission. Inspired by Ahad Ha-am's vision, they stressed the Jews' ethnic and ethical uniqueness and the need to preserve its universal reverberations. Thus, they wanted to base the nation's political survival on equality rather than on an aggressive regime. The links between such thinkers as Magnes, Simon, Martin Buber and Gershom Scholem to Jewish identity were srong and those links were emphasized in their political positions as well as in their scholarly research. They turned the biblical instruction, “… seek peace, and pursue it” (Psalms 34:15), into an existential principle.
Trying to reconcile the disparity between the need to ensure the Jewish people' survival with the moral imperative of its spiritual mission, Buber used a demarcation line according to which Jews should aspire to the optimal realization of Zionism, which inevitably means injustice for the Arabs; however, they should seek to minimize that injustice. Nonetheless, he warned that the “major policy aimed at the true interests of future generations must be a policy that will ensure that the Jewish nation will not undertake too large a portion of guilt”.
The core of the anti-Zionist prophecy in that period was the argument that Jewish survival required a goal and not just survival in itself; thus, the Jews must not seek a narrow national redemption that would thrust upon them both the violence of the occupier versus the occupied and an excessive burden of guilt and shame.
The profound concern for the Jewish people's fate and image enabled these thinkers to enjoy a high level of public stature. From the very start, these peace movements had few members; at their height, each movement had no more than a few dozen members. Furthermore, they never found a significant Arab partner for their programs. Nevertheless, their public resonance and the importance of their ideas in the Jewish-Israeli discourse must never be underestimated. In the eyes of some of the leaders of the Zionist mainstream, including Ben-Gurion, these “peacemakers” were the guardians of a clear, if not pure, moral seal, and those Zionist leaders engaged in a constant dialogue with the “peacemakers.” Although they were perceived as non-Zionists (even at times as anti-Zionists) and although their solutions appeared useless, they were never excluded from the public discourse.
A love for the Jewish people – not for a Jewish state – placed the leaders of the peace movements in a difficult crossroads with regard to the Holocaust. Magnes the pacifist now supported the idea of fighting Nazi Germany. After the creation of the State of Israel in May 1948, he recognized it as a fait accompli and devoted his efforts to the struggle for equality for Israel's Arab citizens. Buber persisted in his opposition to aggressive sovereignty even after Israel became an independent state: “'Zionism' desecrates the name ‘Zion.' It is one of the most vulgar nationalistic manifestations of this epoch…. We do not have to occupy the land because the residents of the land do not pose any danger to either our spiritual substance or our way of life…. However, the aggressive trend demands sovereignty.”
What kind of homeland does post-Zionism need?
“How much homeland does one person need?” asks Jean Amery in one of his writings and answers “A lot.” Amery lost his homeland. After his liberation from Auschwitz, he found himself – a Jew despite himself – a homeless Frenchman. At age 66, he committed suicide, 33 years after the war ended.
How much homeland, and what kind of homeland, does post-Zionism need?
According to Adi Ophir, the post-Zionists “negate Zionism as a valid ideology and point to its incompatibility with the present era”.
The ethical criticism, which sometimes bases itself on post-modernist and post-nationalist approaches, is from time to time refined to the point where it takes on the character of scholarly criticism. Post-Zionism emphasizes the need for smashing to bits what it considers false myths: Israel stretching out its hand in peace and being rejected, the Israel Defense Forces being loyal to the principle of tohar haneshek (the ethical use of firearms), the problem of the Palestinian refugees having been created because the Palestinians fled in panic from their homes on the counsel of their leaders, and Israel having offered the Arabs remaining in its territory equal rights. Post-Zionism's critique is also aimed at internal myths: Israel's chief goal as a safe refuge for persecuted Jews, Israel as the only place where Judaism can flourish. Nor does post-Zionism's criticism of internal Israeli myths stop there; it also targets long-standing discrimination against and exclusion of entire segments of the Israeli populace: Arabs, Sephardi Jews, women, ultra-Orthodox Jews, new immigrants, etc. According to post-Zionists, the discrimination and exclusion are being carried out under the aegis of an Ashkenazi, secular, Zionist hegemony.
Post-Zionism first appeared in the 1980s, and initially its thought and activities generated a vociferous, bitter debate that quickly went beyond the parameters of professional, scholarly discussion and spilled over into the spheres of politics and ideology. In the 1990s, post-Zionist criticism was listened to – although perhaps not welcomed – by several distinguished segments of Israeli society because it was considered a legitimate aspect of the principle of the openness of ideas in a liberal-democratic regime. In the wake of the second intifada, post-Zionism again lost its legitimization in the eyes of the vast majority of Jewish Israelis. Its criticism was now perceived as an internal, protracted challenging of Jewish-Israeli survival at a time when Israel was being seriously challenged from the outside. The Second Lebanon War added fuel to the flames of hatred toward domestic opponents of Zionism.
On the other hand, the frequency and intensity (at times, also the crudeness) of the sharp cries of protest and bitterness against post-Zionism today are increasing with each passing day. One possible explanation for this reaction is the fact that today's post-Zionists have abandoned the approach of the anti-Zionists during the British Mandatory period. Buber, Magnes and Simon were deeply concerned for the Jewish people's survival and development. The post-Zionists give the – at times false – impression that they are not in the least interested in the Jewish people's survival or development.
“We are a people!” (“Wir sind ein Volk!”) is what Theodor Herzl declares in the opening of his book, The Jewish State (1896), because he wanted to confirm the ethnic base from which the new demand for a Jewish national home stems. The negation of Zionism, which, during the Mandate, focused on the condemnation of the aspiration for aggressive sovereignty, has resurfaced over the past two decades and has generated a debate over a problem that most Israeli Jews think has already been solved. Today, the need for the existence of a Jewish state and even the need for the existence of the Jewish people are no longer taken for granted but must be proven to be valid; today, they must be justified. Contemporary anti-Zionists have paved two highway lanes, both of which undermine the right to self-determination of nations – a right that is the ethical and political cornerstone of the entire Zionist enterprise. One lane is the denial of peoplehood, without which independence is not justifiable, while the second lane is the condemnation of independence on the grounds of peoplehood. Those who tread the path of the denial of peoplehood stress the invented (not just imagined) nature of the Jewish people, and they conclude that, since the Jews are a religious group (a millet under the Ottoman Empire) and not the members of a single nation, they must find their political expression not in the form of their own state but rather in the context of a “state of all its citizens” in Israel and anywhere else in the world for that matter. In contrast, those who tread the path of the condemnation of ethno-national independence do not rule out the continued existence of the Jewish people. The Jewish people does exist but, precisely since it is (or has become, because of Zionism) a blood-nation, a nation based on the recognition of kinship, its sovereignty is only a recipe for disaster. It must abandon its ethnic identity or at least contain its politics within a bi-national, Jewish-Arab, state.
The two lanes for the negation of Zionism seem at first glance to be contradictory; however, in point of fact, they are intermeshed and lead to the same conclusion, the same final destination – the denial of the State of Israel's right to exist. Whether there ever was a Jewish nation or not, the movement that spoke on behalf of that nation and the state for which it was founded are the source of all evil. Zionism, which is based on a lie (the existence of a Jewish nation) and/or has generated a horrible truth (an ethno-national people), must disappear. This is a moral, scientific and political imperative. Sociologist Uri Ram and historian Shlomo Zand are the most prominent spokespersons of these positions. Ram, who was the first to declare himself a post-Zionist and who is following in the footsteps of Eric Hobsbawmn, has studied the discovery of Jewish peoplehood and nationalism in the modern age (The Time of the ''Post'': Nationalism and the Politics of Knowledge in Israel [Resling, 2008]). Treading a similar path and perhaps going a few steps further, Zand has attempted to discuss the question, When and How Was the Jewish People Invented? (Resling, 2008); in his discussion, he undermines the myth of the Diaspora or the exile from Palestine and he calls attention to mass conversions, some of which were forced.
If the refuting of and termination of the existence of the Jewish people are at the heart of the change that has taken place in anti-Zionism during the period beginning with the British Mandate and continuing to the present day, there is also a need to consider the theories of the intervening generation. Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz and Uri Avnery are two of its most prominent representatives. Leibowitz' critique of Israel and Israeli society reverberates in the public discourse today, just as it reverberated two decades ago. He was one of the first people to come out strongly against the Greater Israel concept, declaring that “it will soon turn into a state with an Arab majority and a Jewish regime will be able to persist only if it adopts the character of the white regime that ruled the blacks in Rhodesia…. It will be a state that will not deserve to exist, whose continued existence will not be worthwhile”. Nonetheless, Leibowitz identified himself not only as a Jew but also as a Zionist, offering this explanation: “I will explain to you the meaning of Zionism in one short sentence: We are fed up with having the Gentiles rule us. That is the meaning of Zionism….”
Leibowitz' approach to peoplehood and independence raises serious questions. He distinguishes between values and needs: Whereas values stem from emotions, needs stem from logic. He saw the Jewish state as a necessity, not a value; as a means for advancing humanity and the Jewish people. But what is the Jewish people, according to Leibowitz? “A nation,” he says, “is not a natural entity; it is only an entity that one can be aware of”. Thus, he concludes, the “Jewish people is defined in terms of its Jewishness, which was established by the Torah and Judaism's commandments…. This national-historical definition of the Jewish people began to collapse about two centuries ago” and the “continued survival of the historical Jewish people is not self-evident.”
Ultimately, the schism that he predicted would divide the Jewish people and the non-Jewish “Israeli” nation never took place. Apparently, most Jews in Israel are still treading the path that Ben-Gurion traced: “We have been Jews and our Jewishness has not been defined for the past 3,000 years and that is what we will continue to be,” he said in 1959. “According to one definition, they are a religious group … a nation … there are Jews who cannot be defined. They are simply Jews. I am one of them. I have no need to be defined. I am what I am.”
Like Zand, Avnery, a member of the lost intermediate generation, sees the Jewish people as descendants of a small number of exiles and massive groups of converts; he sees the Palestinian people as a later incarnation of Jews who converted to Islam. According to Avnery, the Jews and the Palestinians are “two branches of a single family”. After the 1956 war, Avnery was one of the founders of the semi-Canaanite Semitic Action and, after the 1967 war, his book, Israel without Zionists, was published. However, Avnery understood, even as early as the 1970s, that “no peace movement has any chance of surviving in Israel if it is identified with anti-Zionism”; he even sued (and won the case against) a publication that defined him as “anti-Zionist.” Moreover, Avnery has remained committed to Jewish peoplehood. A great deal can be learned from his reaction to the vision of Said Hamami, his partner in a protracted dialogue, with regard to the establishment of a single, secular, democratic state in all of the territory west of the Jordan – a state where Arabs would continue “to reject the ridiculous Zionist argument that the Jews throughout the world constitute a separate nation whose center is Israel”. Avnery replied to Hamami, “We are a nation and we will remain a nation. If, at some point in time in the future, the Israelis will participate in some sort of regional super-structure, they will participate in it as a nation”. In 1995, Avnery's book was published in German: Zwei Völker, Zwei Staaten (Two Nations, Two States). The book's title leaves no room for doubt: Zwei Völker, Zwei Staaten is about ethnic nations. In an interview to mark his 85th birthday, Avnery summed up his views: “It is impossible to bequeath peace to the Jewish people without the Jewish people”.
Even without in-depth probing of the theoretical and descriptive debate, contemporary post-Zionism's media image (which is necessarily almost flat) is polishing a lens of defamiliarization. Israel, that Jewish state which deserves every form of condemnation, has become an alien city, a new Nineveh whose destruction seems imminent. A warning alarm must be sounded at its entrance gate, although one need not mourn its destruction. “We are ashamed of what we have done and of what our friends have done,” wrote Isaiah Berlin. No wonder that post-Zionism expresses profound shame over what has happened to the Jewish people in Zion or that it expresses great confusion, even embarrassment in public, because of the deeds of others who are linked to them by imagined blood ties. Apparently, a request for truth is not often made. Zand admits that “he purposely wants to present a brief outline of a future counter-history that perhaps might contribute to the creation of an imbedded memory of another kind – a memory that is aware of the relative truth that it carries and which aspires to once more weld local identities in the making with a critical, universal awareness of the past”. What benefit would that bring? Nations are in fact “imagined communities” and it is possible that a different identity will be imagined here, a new and courageous nation that will be both Jewish and Arab, will have both converts and strangers – a different land in which Zionists, post-Zionists and non-Zionists will find a common home, a homeland.
Perhaps this will one day happen. Hopefully, before it does, Jonah's answer to God's repeated question will not be realized. “I do well to be angry, even unto death” (Jonah 4:9), he said angrily, like a prosecuting attorney who demands that justice be meted out strictly and without any display of mercy and that the prophecy of the destruction of humankind and the nation be realized.
Dr. Uriel Abulof is an assistant professor at Tel Aviv University's Department of Political Science and an associate at Princeton University's Liechtenstein Institute on Self-Determination, based at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.
Translated by Mark Elliott Shapiro