"What exactly is the difference between Ofra, a large settlement in Samaria, and Beit Dagan, a town within the Green Line, which is built on the ruins of Beit Dajan (the Arabic name of the village that preceded the current Israeli town and which existed until 1948)? Do the 19 years that passed between 1948 and 1967 render the existence of one village moral while the other one must be considered immoral?” These questions have been posed countless times. This particular quote is of the post-Zionist sociologist Yehouda Shenhav, who was interviewed for an article published in this magazine a few years ago. The subject of the article was the “surprising vision” of a binational state espoused by leading figures of the Israeli right wing.
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Shenhav cites remarks similar and perhaps even more pungent than his, by Uri Elitzur, a prominent settler activist: “You [the left] expelled the Palestinians in 1948. You did not allow them to return, you established communities on top of all their villages. After that you built a separation fence and then you came complaining to us, even though we never destroyed even a single village on the West Bank in order to build a settlement.”
Surprisingly, most proponents of the two-state solution − not only supporters of the one-state solution − have been pondering these rhetorical conundrums. At the moment, the leader of the former group is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. They advocate two states, but not necessarily on the basis of the 1967 borders, and not because they think that this is a just solution to the conflict. Rather, they advocate two states because their solution for dealing with what Naftali Bennett recently termed “the piece of shrapnel that is stuck in the rear end of Zionism” is different from Bennett’s one-state solution. Like Bennett, most Israelis believe that the Land of Israel has always belonged to the Jews. Even settler-bashers like the playwright Shmuel Hasfari and attorney Eldad Yaniv declared that “[we] are here because the Bible is our deed to our beloved Land of Israel” in their manifesto, “The National Left,” published a few years ago. In his daily current events program on Educational Television, Dan Margalit repeats this motto almost every evening. Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion expressed this proprietary approach on many occasions. And it goes without saying that this was Menachem Begin’s approach.
According to Elitzur and Bennett and Margalit and Netanyahu and Hasfari and Yaniv and Ben-Gurion and Begin, Zionism did not transform Jewish moral and legal entitlement. All it did was to physically realize this already existing entitlement. Zionism, as conceived by all these figures, was and is no more than the physical realization of the Jews’ proprietary rights to the Land of Israel, which they have had since time immemorial. In contrast to the physical ties between the Jews and the Land of Israel, which ceased to exist almost completely after most of the Jews vanished from the country in the period between the Arab conquest and the beginning of Zionism, the Jews’ full right of ownership to the Land of Israel, which they have held since the beginning of time, has never expired.
It is important to note that, according to this prevalent interpretation of Zionism, the status of the Arabs in the Land of Israel is far more grievous than the status of a piece of shrapnel in the Jewish rear end. For it follows from this interpretation that the Arabs living in the Land of Israel are plunderers, or at least holders of stolen property that rightfully belongs to the Jews.
This was stated explicitly by Ben-Zion Dinur, a member of Mapai, the forerunner of the Israeli Labor party, which was the longtime ruling party in the country. As a professor of history in the early days of the Hebrew University, he established the Zionist historiography of Judaism, and as one of Israel’s first education ministers, he planted the Zionist consciousness that most of us share today. “The Jews,” he said, “were never in the condition of a nation without a land, of a nation lacking a homeland. Even during their period of exile, they were always a robbed and dispossessed nation whose land was plundered and stolen and never ceased to plead and complain about its dispossession and to demand the return of the plundered property.” Dinur backed up this argument with a project in which he sought to document Arab history in the Land of Israel as a history of the plundering of Jewish property.
It is thus not surprising that the settlers have usurped private Arab property, or that the Israeli public supports governments that continually expropriate land belonging to the Palestinian state. Those who believe that the meaning of Zionism is merely the physical realization of a preexisting right of ownership would not consider such acts of claiming land to be acts of plunder. Rather, in their eyes, they must be considered redemptions. Zionist Hebrew adopted this approach at quite an early stage. We all remember the title given to the Zionist activist Yehoshua Hankin (1864-1945): “Redeemer of the lands of the Jezreel Valley.”
The truth is that this interpretation of Zionism is shared not only by the Israeli majority, including fanatical settlers, people like Naftali Bennett, Uri Elitzur, Housing Minister Uri Ariel and Temple Institute Director Yisrael Ariel, and spineless pragmatists such as Benjamin Netanyahu, Eldad Yaniv, Lapid Sr. and Lapid Jr, but it is also held by the post-Zionists. As the quote at the beginning of this article shows, it is espoused by the sociologist Yehouda Shenhav. There are many others like him, such as the sociologist Uri Ram, the historian Shlomo Sand, and the political scientist Yoav Peled.
The difference between the Zionist majority and the post-Zionist minority living in its midst is not in the way they interpret Zionism. They interpret this ideology in the same way, but differ in what they regard as the practical implications of this interpretation. The majority adopts Zionism because of this interpretation. In contrast, the post-Zionists reject Zionism because this is how Zionism must be interpreted, in their opinion. The Zionist majority facilitates the realization of this interpretation of Zionism, with all the evils it commits on a daily basis. And it is because of this same interpretation that the post-Zionists slander Zionism.
The majority condones a settler Zionism in the Land of Israel today, in the 21st century. This form of Zionism deprives the Arabs of their rights, excludes them as a collective from the public sphere and continually oppresses them as individuals. In contrast, the post-Zionist aspiration for the Jews in the Land of Israel of the 21st century is identical to the vision expressed by Count Clermont-Tonnerre for French Jews in 18th-century post-revolutionary France: “The Jews should be denied everything as a nation and granted
everything [only] as individuals.”
Property and consciousness
Are these really the only two alternatives at our disposal? To be proprietary Zionists and to realize or support a rabid nationalism in the Land of Israel, or, on the other hand, to be post-Zionists and anti-Zionists who completely forgo the realization of Jewish nationalism in the Land of Israel? It seems to me that there is a third possibility. Zionism has two additional moral justifications other than viewing the historical ties between the Jews and the Land of Israel as proprietary ties. These justifications ought to be considered together with the historical ties that the Jews have to the Land of Israel, which must be interpreted as ties of identity rather than of ownership. One of these justifications stems from the right of the Jews “to be masters of their own fate, like all other nations,” (from Israel’s Declaration of Independence, 1948) namely their right to national self-determination; and the other justification stems from the persecution of the Jews culminating in the Holocaust. These two justifications, together with the historic bond of identity that Jews have with the Land of Israel, constitute the moral scaffolding of the Israeli Declaration of Independence.
These justifications must be read jointly, not separately. It is only by way of such a reading that they can provide sufficient justification for the establishment of the State of Israel. If these justifications are read in this way, on the one hand they allow an interpretation of Zionism that does not turn it into the type of proprietary nationalism it has been in the last few decades, and on the other hand, does not compel Israeli Jews to give up Zionism in favor of the solutions post-Zionists propose for Jewish life in the Land of Israel. The cornerstone of the threefold justification of Zionism appearing in Israel’s Declaration of Independence, is the Jews’ equal and universal right “to be masters of their own fate, like all other nations.” However, the right to national self-determination cannot be a sufficient justification for Zionism because it cannot explain why the Jews needed to fulfill their self-determination specifically in Palestine. In order to justify this essential component of Zionism, one must resort to the historical ties between the Jews and the Land of Israel, as expressed in the opening paragraph of Israel’s Declaration of Independence (see quote below). In conjunction with the right of national self-determination, these ties need not be interpreted the way most Israelis in fact interpret them, namely, as a basis for ownership claims. Rather, they should be regarded as an argument for the importance of the Land of Israel in the Jews’ national identity, and therefore as the basis for the selection of the Land of Israel as the appropriate geographical site in which to realize the Jewish right to national self-determination.
The opening paragraph of the Declaration of Independence offers stronger support for this interpretation of the ties between the Jews and the Land of Israel than it does for the proprietary interpretation. Specifically, it states: “The Land of Israel was the birthplace of the Jewish people. Here their spiritual, religious and political identity was shaped. Here they first attained to statehood, created cultural values of national and universal significance and gave to the world the eternal Book of Books.”
The story here is not that of the Jews’ primacy in the history of the Land of Israel, as most Israelis are accustomed to thinking, but of the primacy of the Land of Israel in the history and identity of the Jews. Nor is the story here one of a deed to the Land of Israel granted to the Jews by the Bible (the Old Testament), as Israelis are accustomed to claiming. It is in fact the story of the Jews bequeathing the Bible from the Land of Israel to the whole world.
In both narratives − the precedence of the Land of Israel for the Jews, and the deed to the Bible they gave the world from the Land of Israel − the story is about the Jews’ association with the Land of Israel in their own eyes and in the eyes of the world. It is not a story of their ownership of this land. It explains why the Jews specifically selected the Land of Israel as the geographical site where they would realize their equal and universal right to national self-determination. It is not their ownership over it that is supported in the first paragraph of Israel’s Declaration of Independence.
Both of these justifications of Zionism − the one that stems from the universal right to national self-determination, and the one that points to the ties of historical identity between the Jews and the Land of Israel as a consideration for selecting it as the site for realizing their self-determination − can be derived from general considerations of egalitarian distributive justice under which the world is divided among nations. They do not derive from a proprietary theory of justice, which is based on particular histories of particular nations.
Most nations claim a right to self-determination, and most of them realize this right (one way or another) in their homeland. However, the majority of the members of the other nations are concentrated in one place and share a history and culture in that particular place, which is also the birthplace of all the members of the group and indeed of the group itself. This was not the case with the Jews at the time of the inception of Zionism, and today it is only partially the case. More importantly, the particular place in question is the homeland of another group and the birthplace of the members of this group.
Defense of necessity
To overcome this difficulty, the Zionist movement and Israel’s Declaration of Independence emphasized the persecution of the Jews and the Holocaust, which created an urgent necessity. This was used in addition to the Jews’ historical ties to the Land of Israel in order to justify the choice of this particular place for the purpose of realizing Jewish self-determination despite the fact that it was inhabited by Arabs. This necessity argument is very similar to the necessity defense in criminal law, which is often invoked to justify acts that would be legally and morally prohibited under normal circumstances, or at least to excuse those committing these acts from liability. An example in which necessity incontrovertibly justifies an act that otherwise would be considered criminal and immoral is that of the mortally wounded person who has no way of saving her life other than by breaking into a pharmacy to steal the medicine she needs. To the question “Why our pharmacy?” that some Arabs might pose in response is either − “because it is the only one carrying the appropriate medicine” or “because the medicine carried here is better than the medicines found in other pharmacies” (that is, places such as Uganda, Eastern Europe, or Argentina, which were proposed as sites for Jewish autonomy at the beginning of the 20th century). The medicine, as it were, is a unique one, or is in any case better than any other available solution to the problem, because national self-determination is meant to be realized, as all or most cases show, in the national homeland of the group in question.
This combination of the Jews’ historical ties to the Land of Israel and their history of persecution constitutes a basis for responding not only to the question of why the Land of Israel was the appropriate site for the realization of Jewish self-determination despite the fact it was an Arab land, but also constitutes a basis for determining the territorial scope of the Jewish right to self-determination in the Land of Israel.
If the justification for the realization of the Jewish right to self-determination in Palestine despite its almost completely Arab character was the necessity created by the persecution of the Jews, then the territorial scope of this self-determination cannot exceed the boundaries that existed when that necessity existed: that is, the borders of Israel as set at the end of the 1940s, immediately after the Holocaust. These borders were initially demarcated in the partition resolution adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1947, and at the end of the war that broke out following the Arabs’ refusal to accept the partition resolution. These borders, the 19 years of relative stability and empowerment the Jews enjoyed after the borders were set, and Israel’s overwhelming victory in the 1967 Six-Day War put an end to the urgent need that justified the realization of the Jews’ self-determination in the Land of Israel and determined its borders at the end of the 1940s.
Back to 1967
In view of these three justifications for Zionism, firstly on the basis of the universal right to national self-determination, secondly on the basis of Jews’ historical ties to the Land of Israel as the basis for selecting the site for the realization of this right, and thirdly, the persecution of the Jews as the basis for realizing it in Palestine despite the fact that Palestine was Arab at the time, let us now return to the rhetorical question about the moral and historical consistency of the 1967 borders posed at the beginning of this article.
The insistence on these borders is inconsistent only in the eyes of those who believe that the proprietary interpretation is the only valid one for Zionism. This group includes the ideological settlers, their pragmatic supporters among the Israeli majority, and the post-Zionist writers and activists. As I explained above, the former adopt Zionism because of this interpretation, and the latter reject Zionism because they believe this to be its interpretation. For the sake of consistency, proprietary Zionists see themselves as committed to the claim that if the wrongs of the 1948 expulsion of the Palestinian refugees are acceptable, then certainly the wrongs brought about by the settlements after 1967 are acceptable. Accordingly, like Naftali Bennett, they advocate one state in all of the Land of Israel. Or like Netanyahu and the majority of the Israeli public, they are in favor of a two-state compromise for pragmatic reasons, but such an agreement should not be on the basis of the 1967 borders.
In contrast, for reasons of consistency, the post-Zionists see themselves as bound to draw the opposite conclusion. If Zionism is proprietary, then the wrongs brought about by the settlements after 1967 must not continue, and neither should the suffering of those who were expelled in 1948. The post-Zionists therefore advocate a one-state solution. As they see it, all the Palestinian refugees would return to this state, and post-1967 Jewish settlers would stay where they are now, as would the pre-1948 Jewish settlers, namely, almost all Israeli Jews. However, if the combination of the three justifications for Zionism presented in Israel’s Declaration of Independence constitutes the desirable interpretation for the justice of Zionism, then support for the establishment of two states on the basis of the 1967 borders does not suffer from any of the inconsistency attributed to it by the post-Zionist camp represented by Shenhav and by the proprietary Zionist camp represented by Elitzur, both of whom are quoted at the beginning of this article. This is because in the light of the triple justification, there is a vast difference between the post-1967 settlements and the wrongs fomented by Zionism before then.
The post-1967 wrongs make it impossible to view the Zionist movement’s deeds in this period as consistent with the original justness of the Zionist idea. In contrast, though the pre-1967 wrongs may in themselves seem harsher than those committed after 1967, they may have been viewed at the time and could today be regarded as perhaps significant, albeit local, contaminations in the realization of a just idea. These wrongs could be viewed as having been committed while making certain moves toward the realization of the idea, but without calling into question the justice of the whole enterprise. This distinction is a particular case of the general distinction between justifying a given practice or rule and justifying a particular act under a given practice or rule (for example, justifying the institution of taxation versus justifying a particular tax law). This distinction is very similar to the one between jus ad bellum and jus in bello. Thus, there is no contradiction between claiming that the British bombing of Dresden in World War II was a gross atrocity and claiming that this atrocity was committed in the course of a just war, even sublimely just, namely, the war against the Nazis. By the same token, the wrongs committed by Zionism before the post-1967 settlement project − the acts of exploitation and dispossession in the early stages of Zionism, including the atrocious expulsion of 700,000 Palestinians during Israel’s War of Independence − can be acknowledged (and compensated for) without making it impossible to view Zionism as a
movement that is on the whole just.
In 1948-49, when the borders now called the “1967 borders” were set, Zionism realized the right of the Jews to self-determination in their historic homeland at the conclusion of centuries of persecutions. This form of Zionism could be deemed just, even sublimely just, even though it committed crimes along the way. It is impossible to say the same about the post-1967 settlements, since it is impossible to justify them on the basis of an imminent threat to human life and dignity. As their supporters indeed argue, they can be justified on the basis of the proprietary interpretation of Zionism.
Distortion of history
It is important to understand that the apparent collaboration between the proprietary Zionists and the post-Zionists − who accuse the advocates of the two-state solution based on the 1967 borders of being inconsistent − stems not only from the moral aberrations that are innate in the proprietary justification of Zionism, but also from the historiographic aberrations that are characteristic of both groups. The proprietary Zionists, whether they are represented by Naftali Bennett or by Eldad Yaniv, drop the Jews into late 19th-century Palestine straight from the Bible in order for them to realize the deed to the land given to them in that book. The instructions of proprietary Zionism for teaching Jewish history in schools, as prescribed by the Educational Encyclopedia published by the Ministry of Education, are to distort Jewish history and teach “the various exiles [...] only as episodes in the nation’s history, as transition periods, with the nation’s aspirations to return to its land to be underscored in these periods.”
The post-Zionists also distort Jewish history, but do so in the opposite direction. Unlike the proprietary Zionists, they do not drop the Jews straight into the Land of Israel from the Bible to realize a deed, but apparently from Mars, and in order to foment the nakba (catastrophe in Arabic) against the Palestinians. As Shenhav says in his book “Beyond the Two-State Solution,” he wishes to shift discussion of the Jewish-Palestinian conflict from the “paradigm” that is enshrined at “the time of the Green Line” (that is, Israel as it was between 1949 and 1967) to the “historical origins of the conflict,” the Palestinian Nakba of 1948.
However, the Jews who came to Palestine at the initiative of Zionism starting from the end of the 19th century, did not arrive straight from the Bible or from Mars, and did not come to realize a deed nor to displace Palestinians. Their aim was to realize their self-determination after being persecuted in Europe, in a land with which their identity is historically connected, both in their own eyes and in the eyes of all the nations of the world.
In his book, Shenhav criticizes the yearning of people like former minister Yossi Beilin and writer David Grossman for the Israel of 1949-1967, “the time of the Green Line.” Such yearning, he says, is “nostalgia for a sense of morality and righteousness.” He asks: “Was Israel so beautiful and just in the eyes of the hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees deprived of their homes
during the War of 1948 and barred from returning to them afterward? And of the Palestinians within the Green Line, who had to live under oppressive military occupation until 1966? And of the Mizrahim [Jews from Arab countries], who were forced to live outside the urban centers and became the spine of what we refer to as the Second Israel?”
One could reply that from the viewpoint of Zionist history, the time of the Green Line and of the 1967 borders is infused with deep historical-moral significance, though not because Israel was faultless during that period. The period’s deep moral significance stems from the fact that Zionism was successful in carrying out its goal − namely, achieving self-determination for the Jews in the Land of Israel − when it could still be justified on the basis of the three justifications cited in Israel’s Declaration of Independence. The goal of Jewish self-determination in the Land of Israel was not achieved until 1948, and since 1967, this goal can no longer be invoked in order to justify Zionist policies and actions.
It is not surprising that Yossi Beilin and David Grossman are nostalgic for that period. There are people who want justice to be done for them, and after it is done, they do not wish to take part in corrupting it. In this case, due to the proprietary Zionism that has dominated Israel since the Six-Day War, this seems to be no longer possible. I wholeheartedly share their nostalgia.
Prof. Gans is the author of “A Just Zionism: On the Morality of the Jewish State,” (2008, Oxford University Press).