Changing the conversation on Israel/Palestine

Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah
3 July 2017

The below address was delivered by Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah at a meeting entitled ‘The left, Israel/Palestine and anti-Semitism: changing the conversation’. Elli was part of a three-person panel, which also featured Julia Bard of the Jewish Socialist Group and Dr Brian Klug, who teaches philosophy at the University of Oxford.
 
 
I would like to contribute to our discussion about how we can change the conversation concerning the left, Israel/Palestine and anti-Semitism by inviting us to think about how we might move away from a binary approach to the issues. In the interests of the Palestinians, who have been subjected to occupation for the past 50 years, all those who want a just resolution to the conflict are challenged to acknowledge that such a resolution will only be achieved on the basis of justice, peace and security for both peoples.

In the interests of avoiding binary conceptions, I would like to start by reminding us of the variety of Jewish responses to the conditions of Jewish existence in the late 19th century, when Zionism emerged as a political movement in Europe in response to anti-Semitism. For Theodore Herzl and other exponents of political Zionism, the establishment of a Jewish state was the only solution to the persistence of anti-Jewish persecution in the diaspora1. Nevertheless, there were at that time three major alternative approaches:

Many orthodox groups remained committed to life in the Diaspora and opposed Zionism because as they saw it, the redemption of Zion was dependent on the Divine will and the coming of the Messiah.

Jewish Socialism, as articulated by the Bund – shorthand for the General Jewish Workers’ Union in Lithuania, Poland and Russia – rejected Jewish nationalism in favour of international socialism.

Progressive Judaism argued that the people of Israel best fulfils the prophetic vision of being ‘a light unto the nations’2 by living amongst the nations3.

So, Jews spoke with many voices – and we continue to do so. While Jewish Socialism’s opposition to Jewish nationalism has remained fairly constant since the late 19th century, approaches within Orthodox and Progressive Judaism have become more diversified – for the most part in response to the 1967 Six Day War. And so, the past 50 years has seen ultra-Zionist religious zealots holding sway among the West Bank settlers, and the development of Progressive Zionism, which at one end of the spectrum is reluctant to publicly criticise Israeli policy, and at the other, is actively involved in challenging the occupation and campaigning for a two-state solution.

Jewish life is nothing if not extremely complex! That complexity has its roots in complex, multifaceted Jewish experience. It also has its roots in Jewish teaching. Jewish teaching is multi-vocal. Look at a page of the Mikra’ot G’dolot, the ‘great commentaries’ on the Hebrew Bible, or a page of the Babylonian Talmud, and you will find a host of interpretations and perspectives. Literalism and fundamentalism are anathema to Jewish teaching. As the saying goes, two Jews, three opinions. This has always been the way of Jewish life.

And so, there are many Zionisms, just as there are many expressions of Judaism and Jewish identity. Varieties of Zionism within ‘Zionism’, with different goals and different approaches to the Palestinians.

But before I say more about that, I would like to approach the question of how we can change the conversation concerning the left, Israel/Palestine and anti-Semitism by acknowledging an issue that precedes the Left’s exclusive presentation of Zionism as colonialism; an issue rooted in Christian anti-Semitism and in Christendom – that is, Christianity wedded to imperial power, which was the outcome of Roman Emperor Constantine converting to Christianity in the early 300s CE4. Seen through the lens of historic Christian supremacist triumphalism, the Christian case against Judaism has been presented by a set of binary oppositions: Jewish law versus Christian love; Jewish justice versus Christian mercy; Jewish particularism versus Christian universalism. In reality, however, Jewish teaching embraces law and love, justice and mercy, particularism and universalism: a particular piece of land and the whole world. And so, just as the Jewish people is part of humanity, the particular bond between the Jewish people and the land forms an integral part of the Torah, of the unique history of the Jewish people and of Jewish identity for many Jews5. Jews are a people of the world and a people connected to a particular land. Both. Contrary to popular myth, after the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE by the Romans, Jews continued to live in the land, where the rabbis reconstructed Jewish life and teaching for a post-Temple era, culminating in the production of the Jerusalem Talmud, which was edited around the year 4006. Moreover, a remnant continued to live there, mostly in Jerusalem, during the succeeding centuries. Meanwhile, vibrant Jewish life continued in other centres of Jewish existence – in particular in Babylon, present-day Iraq, where the Babylonian Talmud was edited around the year 500. Down the centuries, Jews have lived in practically every corner of the earth, including in the land.

The Left’s demonisation of Israel reflects, both, the failure to acknowledge the roots of Zionism in Jewish experience, and the failure to acknowledge the complex diversity of Jewish points of view and the diversity of Jewish life.

Now I would like to say something more about plural Zionisms, which are an expression of this diversity. The first Zionist Congress was held in Basel in 1897. In 1925, largely in response to the Arab riots of 1921, Vladimir Jabotinsky established the Revisionist movement. An open split occurred at the 14th Zionist Congress in August 1925 between Jabotinsky’s confrontational approach towards the Arab inhabitants of the land, and the approach represented by Chaim Weitzman and others. At the Congress, Chaim Weizmann declared7:

In true friendship and partnership with the Arabs we must open the Near East to Jewish enterprise… Palestine must be built in such a way that legitimate Arab interests are not impinged upon in the slightest…- we must take Palestine as it is, with its sands and stones, Arabs and Jews as they are. That is our work. Anything else would be deception… We shall rise or fall by our work alone.

Another delegate at the Congress, Arthur Ruppin, expressed the need to acknowledge the Arab inhabitants of the land and work in partnership with them in even stronger terms8:

… there is the possibility… to establish in Palestine a community where both nations, with no ruling advantage to the one, nor oppression of the other, shall work shoulder to shoulder in full equality of rights towards the economic and cultural development of the country.

Arthur Ruppin became a founder member of Brit Shalom, ‘Covenant of Peace’, an organisation with a binational approach to Zionism, which held its first meeting in his house in mid-November 1925. Martin Buber, Robert Weltsch, Hans Kohn and Hugo Bergmann were also founder members. The clearest articulation of Brit Shalom’s form of Zionism is in the ‘open letter’ that Martin Buber wrote to Mahatma Gandhi in 1939 in response to Mahatma Gandhi arguing that, and I quote, ‘Palestine belongs to the Arabs’. Let me quote from the letter. Buber wrote9:

I belong to a group of people who from the time Britain conquered Palestine have not ceased to strive for the concluding of a genuine peace between Jew and Arab.

By a genuine peace we inferred and still infer that both peoples together should develop the land without the one imposing its will on the other…. We considered it a fundamental point that in this case two vital claims are opposed to each other, two claims of a different nature and a different origin which cannot objectively be pitted against one another and between which no objective decision can be made as to which is just, which unjust…

…We considered and still consider it our duty to understand and to honor the claim which is opposed to ours and to endeavor to reconcile both claims.

The continuing conflict, which included Arab riots in 1929 and 1936, marginalised the stance taken by Brit Shalom. Nevertheless it’s binational state platform was adopted by Mapam, the leftist United Workers Party in the 1940s, and in the wake of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, the emergence of the Peace Now movement, once again brought different conceptions of Zionism to the fore, and in the years that followed there has been proliferation of groups concerned with working together with the Palestinians towards coexistence.

Some years ago, Jews for Justice for Palestinians (JfJfP) asked me for a quotation from Jewish teaching to include in JfJfP literature. I chose this verse from the parashah – Torah portion – Shof’tim, Deuteronomy chapter 16, verse 20: Tzedek, tzedk tirdof – ‘Justice, justice you shall pursue.’ Pithy and powerful this statement says so much in three short Hebrew words. In Hebrew syntax, the verb usually comes first. Here, the word ‘justice’ precedes the verb, and repeated for further emphasis, teaches that it is impossible to pursue justice for one side without pursuing justice for the other. The choice of verb, however, is equally important: you shall pursue’. Justice is so hard to achieve, we have to go after it. At the same time, we have to recognise that acknowledging, as Buber puts it, that ‘two vital claims are opposed to each other, two claims of a different nature and a different origin which cannot objectively be pitted against one another and between which no objective decision can be made as to which is just, which unjust…’, securing a just resolution to the conflict – either in the form of two states or one – will involve compromises on both sides in order to achieve peaceful coexistence.

In view of a complex reality in which there are many Zionisms, but one ongoing persistent problem, namely, the occupation and the continuing dispossession of the Palestinians, the task must be to pursue – to borrow that expression from the Torah – a just resolution of the conflict. In place of the overwhelming predominance of non-constructive anti-Zionist rhetoric and demonisation of Israel, what is needed now, as Sam Bahour and Tony Klug argue, is that, either, the occupation is dismantled, so that an independent State of Palestine can be established, or, the lands occupied by Israel are incorporated into Israel and equal citizenship rights granted to the Palestinians10.

Finally, in my article recently published in the American Jewish journal, Tikkun, in the special issue, ‘Israel’s Occupation at 50’, taking as my starting point that anti-Zionism is not by definition anti-Semitic, I offer three criteria for identifying an anti-Zionist position as anti-Semitic11:

First: the unilateral rejection of Jewish nationalism alone among the nationalisms of the world, and the targeting of Zionism for special condemnation.

Second: this exclusive preoccupation with Israel and demonisation of the Jewish state becoming enmeshed with historic anti-Semitic tropes about Jewish power.

Third: the presentation of Zionism as a form of European colonialism without any understanding or recognition of how the Zionist movement of the late 19th and early 20th century was a response to the rise of a new malevolent form of racist anti-Semitism in Europe.

For the Left to engage in a new kind of conversation about Israel/Palestine, one that does not get enmeshed in anti-Semitic tropes, a starting point would be recognition of the conditions of Jewish life in which political Zionism emerged.

1 See Theodore Herzl’s Der Judenstaaat (The Jewish State), first published in 1896, a year before the inaugural meeting of the Zionist Congress in Basle.
2 Isaiah 47:6
3 The non-Zionist stance of early Progressive Judaism is expressed, for example, in paragraph 5 of ‘The Pittsburgh Platform’ of 1885: ‘We recognize, in the modern era of universal culture of heart and intellect, the approaching of the realization of Israel s great Messianic hope for the establishment of the kingdom of truth, justice, and peace among all men. We consider ourselves no longer a nation, but a religious community, and therefore expect neither a return to Palestine, nor a sacrificial worship under the sons of Aaron, nor the restoration of any of the laws concerning the Jewish state.’ http://ccarnet.org/rabbis-speak/platforms/declaration-principles/
4 Emperor Constantine reigned from 306-337 CE.
5 From the moment that Abraham and Sarah set off on a journey to a land that the Eternal promised to ‘show’ them (Genesis 12:1) until the time when their descendants completed their journey through the wilderness and camped on the eastern border of the Jordan in readiness to cross over into the land (Numbers 36:13), the land frames the Torah narrative.
6 The work of the first generations of rabbis, the tanna’im, ‘teachers’ led to the creation of the Mishnah, the first rabbinic code of law, edited around the year 200 CE.
7 Protocols of Fourteenth Zionist Congress, pp 328-329, translated by Hagit Lavsky, and cited in Lavsky, Hagit, German Zionists and the Emergence of Brit Shalom, translated from the Hebrew, reprinted in Reinharz, Jehuda and Shapira, Anita eds. Essential Papers on Zionism, New York University Press, 1996, pp. 664.
8 Ibid. cited in Lavsky, p. 664.
9 From: Martin Buber’s ‘Open Letter’ to Gandhi Regarding Palestine (February 24, 1939) in Arthur Hertzberg, ed.,The Zionist Idea. (Jewish Publications Society, 1997), pp. 463-464.
10 See: ‘Israel Can’t Have It Both Ways. Recognize Palestine or Grant Equal Rights’ by Sam Bahour and Tony Klug, Tikkun, October 26, 2015 http://tikkun.dukejournals.org/content/30/4/26.full See also: ‘A Never Ending Occupation: The End of Hope?’ by Tony Klug, The Palestine-Israel Journal Vol.21 No.3, 2016 / The Dual Legal System http://www.pij.org/details.php?id=1692 and ‘After 50 Years: Save Israel, Stop the Occupation’ by Izhak Schnell and Daniel Bar-Tal, The Palestine-Israel Journal Vol.21 No.3, 2016 / The Dual Legal System http://www.pij.org/details.php?id=1690
11 ‘When anti-Zionism becomes anti-Semitism and Zionism becomes anti-Palestinian’, Tikkun, Volume 32, No., 2, Spring 2017, pp. 59-62.