Herzl on his way to Palestine 1898
Herzl on his way
to Palestine 1898

There is increasing debate about the nature and legitimacy of Zionism and the State of Israel. It is a sign of our times that the approach is often zero sum: either Zionism and Israel are A-OK and any criticism is forbidden or both the movement and state are wholly illegitimate and any regard for either is deplored.

We can do better than this. Like most things in life, these matters involve nuance and require analysis and understanding. Politics sometimes requires careful thought, not just sloganeering or frantic advocacy. In a careful – in fact, pained – spirit I offer the following.

Zionism is the twin belief that the Jews are a people, not only a religious communion, and like all peoples are entitled to their own nationalism.  In fact, having a nationalism is natural for a people.  Zionism is Jewish nationalism.  Not all nationalisms go with having a nation state or lead to having one e.g., the Kurds.

The essential, twin purposes of Zionism were to secure territory that would serve as a physical refuge for Jews… and… as the locus of socio-cultural and psychological rejuvination of the Jew  — the creation of a self-assured, worldly-wise Jew capable of largely controlling her own destiny not as a supplicant to but as a dynamic participant in the gentile world.  On the basis of history and cultural anthropology — not divine dispensation — the legitimate locale for the refuge was in but by no means tantamount to all of Palestine.  The natural right of the Jews to their state in Palestine flows from what the distinguished writer A.B. Yehoshua cites as the most elementary human right of all — the right to survive.  This right precedes and is necessary to the pursuit of any other human or civil right.

To explain himself, Yehoshua offers the story of a man running desperately down the street to escape a violent mob determined to kill him.  He sees an open window in a house along the street and, to save himself, leaps into the room of that house and barricades himself within it, saving himself.  Even though the owners of the house have lost the use of one of their rooms, the man’s elemental right of survival supercedes their rights.  The survivor requires a refuge and the room is all that is available to him.

Yehoshua concludes, however, that the survivor moves into a realm in which he has no rights and in which he is violating the rights of the owners when he decides that actually he has rights to the whole house, proceeds by force to take it over and evicts the owners…and then refuses to let them back.   [See Yehoshua’s Between Right and Right, 1981 for this parable and relevant essays.]

To my mind Zionism and Israel are fundamentally, fatefully flawed in two respects in relation to unfolding history and moral legitimacy.  First and foremost is the failure from the very beginning to honestly and constructively address the reality of indigenousness.  The so-called land without a people for a people without a land…had a people in it, in fact a well established people with culture, urban and rural life and an economy that included retail, manufacturing and agricultural sectors.  A population — who came to define themselves as Palestinians — with arguable claims to sovereignty in the land based not only on natural right (indigenousness) but on international law e.g., McMahon Letters and terms of the British Mandate.

So much would be different in a context of full-throated acknowledgement of Palestinian indigenousness e.g., their resistance 1947-49 to Israel’s rise would be seen not as an outrage but as an understandable reaction to partition grounded in human nature and rights.  We would not be considering questions of compromise with or “concessions” to the Palestinians but would be planning for redress: we should be doing for the Palestinians as quickly and good naturedly as possible what we OWE it to them to do.

The second flaw is that we seized the whole house, drove out the owners and refuse to let them return.  Zionism, to achieve its twin purposes, should have made do with as little of historic Palestine as possible sufficient to having a territorially viable refuge.  Instead, from the beginning, Zionism and then the Israeli state have exhibited a relentless tendency to expansionism, taking control of and never voluntarily vacating any part of Palestine that could be had.

For instance, is there anything in the Negev truly necessary to Israel that could not have otherwise been arranged for?  What if the Negev remained functional as the land bridge it is between the halves of the Arab world to Israel’s east and west?  What if the eastern Galilee, West Bank and Negev had become the State of Palestine?  What if Israel had helped the Palestinians to independence from the Hashemites instead of relying always on the Hashemites and other third parties (Britain, U.S.) to help “manage” the Palestinians instead of dealing with them directly in a forthcoming, not stonewalling, way?

As more of us, Jews and gentiles, see the just elements of the Palestinian cause, Israeli and American Jewish leadership double down on denying these flaws, increasingly desperate to suppress open, honest discussion of the issues.  Such discussion must ultimately lead back to the issues above.  To face the issues squarely, however, would necessarily lead to the repudiation of much that Israel has been busy with for over half of its existence plus the jettisoning of the “us vs. them” mindset in Israeli and American Jewry that our leaders have spent so long cultivating.  We are talking about gargantuan changes in thought and behavior…which is why I do not foresee such developments.  Instead, I foresee the continuing degradation of Israel and American Jewry accompanied by a trend of more Jews and gentiles turning away from both.

I believe in Zionism as I defined it.  I also see that it has probably undermined itself terminally.  It is less and less possible to affirm what Zionism has become (a messianic movement whether in secular or fundamentalist formulation) and what Israel has become (an increasingly authoritarian state and philistine society).  We may be reduced to working only to preclude, some day, the persecution of or atrocities against Israeli Jewry by a finally dominant Palestinian people.

The Jewish monarchy fought Babylon against prophetic advice and brought about the fall of the First Commonwealth (holy temple).  The Sicarii ignored rabbinic entreaties, fought Rome and brought about the fall of the Second Commonwealth.  We Jews are entirely capable, by our own hands, of bringing about the fall of what Moshe Dayan once called the Third Commonwealth (Israeli state).  Until recently we have excelled in the use of our moral insights to the world’s benefit.  But we have repeatedly proven deficient in the wise use of power during those relatively brief periods of history when we had some.  Jewish history shows us, however, that Jewry can exist without statehood.  Probably more precariously than with it, but with much success nonetheless. That I remind us of this fact does not mean that I want, welcome or recommend statelessness.  But at some point during our children’s or grandchildren’s lifetimes statelessness may again become our fate.