On the Fallacy of “Liberal Zionism”

Take a look at the short video that the liberal Zionist organization Ameinu recently posted on its Facebook page. Entitled, “Why Israel’s survival as a Jewish state is now in danger,” the clip essentially makes the familiar argument for maintaining a Jewish demographic majority in order to ensure Israel’s status as a “Jewish and democratic state.”

While there’s nothing particularly new in the video that hasn’t been argued by liberal Zionists for the past twenty years, I was intrigued by the following quote from the opening narrative:

What makes Britain British? Is it the London Bridge? Or the people driving over it? And Italy: is it the pizza, or the people eating it? What about Israel? What makes it a Jewish state? Is it its geographical shape? Its landmarks? Like any country, what makes Israel a Jewish state, and what guarantees that it will remain one, is that the overwhelming majority of its residents are Jewish.

It’s a fascinating way to frame the issue. It also betrays the inherent contradiction at the heart of  liberal Zionism.

From a national identity point of view, Israel simply isn’t comparable to Britain or Italy (or the US for that matter). The latter countries have civic national identities; that is to say, they are defined by a sense of common citizenship. Britain is not British because it maintains a demographic majority of one specific religious or ethnic identity.  It sounds obvious, but it bears noting in this context: one can belong to the British nation and be Christian, Jewish, Muslim or Hindu as well. That is because the British people are bound together as citizens of the British nation.

Israel, on the other hand, is not a state of all its citizens. It is rather, a state for only some of its citizens – namely Jews. This is because the purpose of the Zionist enterprise is to create a state for the Jewish people.

In fact, there is actually no such thing as an Israeli “nationality” according to Israeli law. Unlike Britain and Italy and other Western democracies, Israel actually maintains a legal distinction between citizens (ezrachim in Hebrew) and nationals (le’umim). In theory at least, all Israeli citizens have equal rights – but only Jewish citizens can be considered nationals.

There are indeed non-Jewish citizens of Israel – they make up roughly 20% of the population. But because these citizens are not nationals, they are subjected to extensive discrimination within Israeli society. (According to Adalah: The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, there are more than 50 Israeli laws that “directly or indirectly discriminate against Palestinian citizens of Israel in all areas of life.”)

The liberal Zionist trope advocated by the Ameinu clip claims that the demographic threat posed by Palestinians began in 1967, when Israel “conquered several areas of land” and was faced with a “rapidly growing Arab population that never wanted to live in a Jewish state.”

The real problem, however, is not the Palestinian birth rate in the West Bank. The problem lies with the very notion of a state predicated on the identity of one particular people in a land that has always been multi-religious and multi-ethnic.

This is why the concept of liberal Zionism is ultimately an oxymoron. There is nothing liberal about a nation state that predicates its national character upon – and grants full citizenship to – one particular group of people.

In other words, the problem is not “the Occupation.” The problem, quite simply, is Zionism.

Zionism’s Marriage of Convenience to Anti-Semitism

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I’m sure many have been scratching their heads trying to figure out why on earth the government of Israel and so many staunch Zionists are just fine with the election of Donald Trump – the darling of the anti-Semitic alt-right. The answer however, is really pretty straightforward: this is nothing new. Zionism has had a cozy, if somewhat Faustian relationship with anti-Semitism since its very origins.

The founder of modern Zionism, Theodor Herzl never made a secret of his belief that his new movement would have to depend upon anti-Semitism and anti-Semites in order to create a Jewish state. In his pamphlet, “The Jewish State,” he suggested raising money for the effort by means of a “direct subscription,” adding that “not only poor Jews but also Christians who wanted to get rid of them would subscribe a small amount to this fund.”

In his diary, he was even blunter:

The anti-Semites will become our most dependable friends, the anti-Semitic countries our allies.

True to form, in 1903 Herzl met with the Russian minister of the interior Vyacheslav von Plehve, an infamous anti-Semite who encouraged the Kishinev pogroms that very same year. Plehve’s reply: as long as the Zionists encouraged emigration of Jews from Russia, the Russian authorities would not disturb them.

This Zionist strategy was also central to the diplomatic process that led to the 1917 Balfour Declaration, in which British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour famously announced that his government “view(ed) with favor the establishment of a national home in Palestine for the Jewish people and will use their best endeavors to facilitate the achievement of this object.” Although Balfour has long been lionized as a Zionist hero, he wasn’t particularly well-known for his love for Jews or the Jewish people.  When he was prime minister, his government passed the 1905 Aliens Act, severely restricting immigration at a time in which persecuted Jews were emigrating from Eastern Europe. At the time, Balfour spoke of the “undoubted evils which had fallen on the country from an alien immigration which was largely Jewish.” Balfour, like many Christians of his class, “did not believe that Jews could be assimilated into Gentile British society.”

In this regard, it is worth noting that the sole Jewish member of British government, Edwin Montagu, strongly objected to the Balfour Declaration, submitting a memorandum to the British cabinet in August 1917 that resonates with haunting prescience today:

I wish to place on record my view that the policy of His Majesty’s Government is anti-Semitic and in result will prove a rallying ground for Anti-Semites in every country in the world…When the Jews are told that Palestine is their national home, every country will immediately desire to get rid of its Jewish citizens, and you will find a population in Palestine driving out its present inhabitants…

When the Jew has a national home, surely it follows that the impetus to deprive us of the rights of British citizenship must be enormously increased. Palestine will become the world’s Ghetto. Why should the Russian give the Jew equal rights? His national home is Palestine. Why does Lord Rothschild attach so much importance to the difference between British and foreign Jews? All Jews will be foreign Jews, inhabitants of the great country of Palestine.

The most troubling example of Zionist association with anti-Semitism occurred in 1933, when the Jewish Agency struck a deal with the Nazis’ Economic Ministry known as the Ha’avrah (Transfer) agreement. Breaking the international Jewish boycott, the Zionist movement negotiated with Nazi Germany in order to facilitate the transfer of German Jews and their property to Palestine.

In an essay for Yad Vashem’s Shoah Resource Center, Israeli historian Y’faat Weiss pointed out that the Nazi regime’s participation in the agreement was motivated both by a fear of the boycott and its desire to rid Germany of its Jews. While it is clear that this deal occurred in the context of very real persecution, history has not been kind to the legacy of the Ha’avrah agreement. As Weiss herself noted:

In retrospect, and in view of what we know about the annihilation of European Jewry, these relations between the Zionist movement and Nazi Germany seem especially problematic.

It is not difficult to understand why, on a practical level, the Zionist movement would find a perverse kind of common cause with anti-Semitic regimes. As a form of ethnic nationalism, Zionism has always been dependent upon the maintenance of a demographic majority of Jews in the land. It makes sense that Zionists have been willing to deal with nations that were more than happy to rid themselves of their Jews in order that they maintain their own national ethnic homogeneity.

But it has been a Faustian bargain. From its very origins, Zionism has necessarily fed off the existence of anti-Semites to justify the need for a Jewish state. Even more tragically, as Edwin Montagu predicted, Jewish ethnic nationalism did indeed result in a “population in Palestine driving out its inhabitants.”

Fast-forward to present day and the rise of an alt-right movement promoting a new form of white ethnic nationalism that takes its cue from Israel. Alt-right leader Richard Spencer claims he doesn’t hate Jews, but in fact admires them. He openly says he merely wants for “his people” what Zionism offers the Jewish people. But of course, Spencer’s “genteel white supremacy” is nothing but a fig leaf for the age old desire of anti-semites to create Jew-free nations.

As journalist Betsy Woodruff correctly observed in the Daily Beast:

White supremacists, alt-right leaders argue, think white people are the best race. The alt-right doesn’t necessarily think that, they say; instead, they say they just want white people to have their own homeland.

With no Jews.

(Alt-right leader Richard) Spencer in particular fixates on the homeland idea.

The alt-right needs to aspire to something, even if that dream won’t come true in his lifetime—and that means they should aim to build an ethno-state for just whites. And Spencer made it clear that white-only means Jews aren’t invited. They have their own identity, and it isn’t white-slash-European, and that’s that.

“Jews are Jews,” he said.

As troubling as this all may sound, political Zionism has made another, even darker sort of Faustian bargain – namely with Christian Millenarians and End-of-Days extremists. In the era of Trump, this is a relationship that should concern us deeply.

I’ll have more to say about that in my next post.

Celebrating a New Jewish Diasporism: A Sermon for Rosh Hashanah 5777

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A synagogue in Djerba, Tunisia

As I’m sure you know, Tzedek Chicago has received a great deal of attention – some might call it notoriety – for calling ourselves a “non-Zionist” congregation. But contrary to what our most cynical critics might say, we didn’t choose this label for the publicity. When we founded Tzedek Chicago last year, used this term deliberately. We did so because we wanted to create an intentional community, based on specific core values. Our non-Zionism is not just a label. It is comes from our larger conviction to celebrate “a Judaism beyond nationalism.”

This is how we explain this particular core value:

While we appreciate the important role of the land of Israel in Jewish tradition, liturgy and identity, we do not celebrate the fusing of Judaism with political nationalism. We are non-Zionist, openly acknowledging that the creation of an ethnic Jewish nation state in historic Palestine resulted in an injustice against its indigenous people – an injustice that continues to this day.

I think it’s important that we named this value out loud. We need Jewish congregations that refuse draw red lines over the issue of Zionism, or at best to simply “tolerate” non or anti-Zionists in their ranks as long as they stay quiet. We need congregations that openly state they don’t celebrate a Jewish nation built on the backs of another people. That call out – as Jews – a state system that privileges Jews over non-Jews.

However, I realize that this core value begs another question – and its one I get asked personally from time to time. It’s usually some variant of: “Saying you are non-Zionist only tells me what you’re not. But what is it that your Judaism does celebrate?”

It’s a fair question – and I’d like to address it in my words to you this morning.

Continue reading

Brexit, Trump and the Sorrows of Nationalism

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As I was reading the various analyses of the Brexit vote yesterday, I remembered an article I had read back in 2011 by the International Affairs scholar, Stephen M. Walt. His basic thesis was that despite all of the new global trends in 21st century, nationalism was still “the most powerful political force in the world.”

Walt concluded:

Unless we fully appreciate the power of nationalism, in short, we are going to get a lot of things wrong about the contemporary political life. It is the most powerful political force in the world, and we ignore it at our peril.

I recall being a bit irritated when I that article. Like many, I believed that the world had certainly learned its lesson from two cataclysmic world wars and that for all the problems that came with globalization, nationalism was a relic of the past.

But I’m convinced now. And at the risk of sounding too apocalyptic about it, I’m wondering if the peril we’ve ignored is now at our door.

It’s hard not to see the increasing national fervor developing all around us. Great Britain has voted to exit the European Union and other member countries are threatening to follow suit. Nationalist parties are making big gains in countries around Western Europe and Vladimir Putin has whipped a strong nationalist fervor in Russia. Many countries throughout Eastern Europe, Southeast Asia and the Far East are led by leaders who use nationalist rhetoric to win elections and promote their domestic policies.

I’ve never been a fan of nationalism. I accept that nation states are part of the social, political and economic fabric of the modern world – but I’ve long believed that the nation-statism too often fuses with tribalism – particularly during time of economic instability. This phenomenon, as we know all too well, has inevitably led the modern world to dark and destructive places.

As a Jew, I view the ultra-right nationalism that increasingly grips Israel’s political culture as the inevitable outcome of a nation that predicates its identity on one specific group of people. And as an American, I’m watching the toxic, seething national fervor unleashed by Donald Trump with genuine alarm.

In his article, Walt suggested that the US isn’t as susceptible to overt nationalism as other other countries:

Because American national identity tends to emphasize the civic dimension (based on supposedly universal principles such as individual liberty) and tends to downplay the historic and cultural elements (though they clearly exist).

Yes they clearly do exist in this country. Even if Trump loses in November – and I do believe he will – the sick nationalist fervor he has unleashed will not vanish overnight. Nor will the nations around the world that are currently increasing xenophobia, racism and fear of the other.

Now more than ever we need to stand down the sorrows of nationalism. I don’t think its too alarmist to suggest that we heed the lessons of the past lest it become an unimaginable future. As journalist Ed Fuller recently wrote in the aptly titled article: “Nationalism: Back Again Like a Bad Dream:”

I can’t help but think about the political excesses of the 1930s, the protectionism and the xenophobic zeal that were all part of the Nationalistic wave that swept the world following the First World War.  It ultimately resulted in Japan’s invasion of Manchuria, Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland and Japan’s bombing of Pearl Harbor, ending with Hiroshima.  Something to think about as we grapple with the challenges facing our world today.

Check Out The Real Iron Lady

From what I can see, there are plenty of articles and reviews of the new Meryl Streep flick “The Iron Lady” touting her performance as Margaret Thatcher and emphasizing Thatcher’s victories in the man’s world of British politics. Too few, it seems to me, are actually taking any kind of look at Thatcher’s actual policies – and questioning whether or not this is a person we should be holding up as a feminist icon.

Before you see the film, please read this excellent piece by Laura Flanders for The Nation. Key line:

Today, in a new time of budget wars, The Iron Lady’s depiction of draconian cuts as feminist guts is chilling. What Thatcher called “harsh medicine” meant one thing for the poor and another for the very powerful then, and it still does. In both instances, there is hell to pay in social fabric.

More Join the Call to Lift the Blockade

When Brian Walt and I initiated the Jewish Fast for Gaza last year, advocating for a lifting of the Gaza blockade was not a particularly popular thing to do. I’m gratified to see that situation is beginning to change.

I’ve already reported on the Ha’aretz editorial; and now MJ Rosenberg, a respected Mideast analyst/columnist has recently made a forceful call to end the blockade as well.  In the political arena, 77 members of the British House of Commons have done the same through the introduction of an Early Day Motion. Here in the US, 54 members of Congress recently wrote a letter to President Obama that called for a lifting of the blockade, citing its dire strategic and humanitarian effects:

The unabated suffering of Gazan civilians highlights the urgency of reaching a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and we ask you to press for immediate relief for the citizens of Gaza as an urgent component of your Middle East peace efforts.

Several American Jewish organizations have publicly supported the letter and I was happy to learn that J Street actively lobbied members of Congress to sign on.  Take a look at all 54 signatories of the letter – if your Rep is not on the list, please consider contacting him/her to express your disappointment. (For my part, I’m very disappointed that my Rep, Jan Schakowsky – an active and vocal supporter of J St. – chose not to sign on).

Finally, if you agree with the sentiments expressed above, please sign on as a supporter of Ta’anit Tzedek – Jewish Fast for Gaza. Our next fast day is Thursday, February 18.

Miep Gies and the Power of Human Decency

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, on last week’s Torah portion:

How moving it is…that the first recorded instance of civil disobedience – predating Thoreau by more than three millennia – is the story of Shifra and Puah, two ordinary women defying Pharaoh in the name of simple humanity. All we know about them is that they “feared G-d and did not do what the Egyptian king had commanded.” In those words, a precedent was set that eventually became the basis of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. Shifra and Puah, by refusing to obey an immoral order, redefined the moral imagination of the world.

I’m thinking of these words in particular this morning as I hear the news of the death Miep Gies – an ordinary woman who defied the Nazis in the name of simple humanity.

In his dvar, Sacks’ discusses the age-old debate: were Shifra and Puah “Hebrew midwives” or “midwives to the Hebrews?”  His answer – it doesn’t matter:

The Torah’s ambiguity on this point is deliberate. We do not know to which people they belonged because their particular form of moral courage transcends nationality and race. In essence, they were being asked to commit a “crime against humanity, and they refused to do so.”

This is perhaps Gies’ most important legacy to us today. Like her Biblical forebears she reminds us that basic human decency is a universal form of resistance – and still the most powerful.