Israel’s right-wing, time and again, claims a monopoly for the Zionist idea: In a recent article, Moshe Arens claims that those who are against schools taking students to Hebron have lost their roots in the land of Israel because the foundation of Zionism, has always been the return of the Jewish people to the land of its forefathers. Therefore, he argues, establishing a Palestinian state that would include some of Judaism’s most sacred places undermines the entire Zionist idea. To put it in a nutshell: For Arens, Zionism without Hebron is dead.
We should be grateful to Arens’ measured and lucid presentation of his point of view, because this allows for a badly needed clarification. Moshe Arens simply distorts history in saying that the idea of Jewish sovereignty over the historical land of Israel is the only form Zionism has taken. While he may not like their views, it would be difficult to kick Herzl, Ahad Ha’am and Yehuda Magnes out of the history of Zionism.
Herzl’s Zionism was political, pragmatic and liberal. He wanted Jews to have a homeland, and in some phases of his Zionist activity, he was perfectly willing to consider the option of a Jewish homeland other than historical Judea. Ahad Ha’am, one of the luminaries of Zionist thought, thought that the Jewish people needed a spiritual revival. He saw the Yishuv as the seed for a cultural center of the Jewish people, and saw no need for a Jewish state, and so did Yehuda Magnes.
In the end, Israel was founded as an independent state. It’s flourishing is a great historical achievement that has changed Jewish self-consciousness immeasurably.
But none of this is connected to the West Bank in general or Hebron in particular. The opposite is true. I know Moshe Arens as a genuine liberal and a genuine champion of human rights, including those of Israel’s Arab minority. Therefore it is difficult for me to understand his blindness to the results of more than four decades of occupation. I am sure that Arens is no less appalled by the recent wave of racism and anti-democratic legislation in the Knesset; and he is certainly no less opposed than I am to the theological justification of the superiority of the Jewish race that have lately been stated in halakhic rulings that create shame and revulsion in most Jews, religious and secular, in the world.
But Arens continues to hang on to the dangerous illusion that holding on to the West Bank is consistent with democracy, and perpetuates the myth that there is no Zionism without Hebron. The warnings of those in the right-wing that if Israel stops insisting on its historical right to all the land west of Jordan means Israel’s end is a tired cliché that has nothing to do with either Realpolitik or international law, in which ancient Jewish history plays no role whatsoever. The international justification of Israel’s existence is not the house of David, the first or the second Temple, but a working democracy that respects human rights.
As opposed to Arens, liberal Zionists do not think that Israel’s raison d’être hinges on Hebron, but being recognized by internationally law and giving millions of people, most of them, but certainly not all, Jewish, the home in which they can live and realize their potential. To be a free people in our country means that we live in a state that respects the rights of all; there are no compromises in this matter.
While many of us have strong feelings for Hebron, we must balance the importance of these feelings with the truly crucial value of Israel’s democratic character. What truly matters is not the past; it is the present, and the future. No piece of land is holier than human life.
Liberal Zionism is making a comeback. It is a forward-looking vision based on human flourishing, and on universal ethical principles that are also embodied in Judaism. It is expressed in the convention of J Street that is beginning today, and in the European movement of J Call.
Its message is simple; its morals unequivocal: In terms of international law, Hebron does not belong to Israel. In terms of human rights, Israel’s occupation of the West Bank is unacceptable. Along with the rest of Israel’s right, Arens needs to come to terms with the truth: It is either Hebron and the racism that goes along with it, or democracy and international legitimacy. You cannot have both.
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