Zionism Is About Letting Jews Live (And Die) Without Humiliation

The Jews' right to nationhood in their ancient homeland is actually anchored on two facts based in modernity

An Israeli flag in the Golan Heights.
Gil Eliahu

Suppose the Exodus from Egypt had never occurred. Suppose the Romans never exiled the Jews. Suppose also that there had been no Jews in antiquity. Even then, the justification for establishing their nationhood in Israel would be valid along the lines I tried to explain in my article “From rabid Zionism to egalitarian Zionism" (November 9, 2018).

Shlomo Sand’s response to my arguments (“The twisted logic of the Jewish historic right to Israel,” November 16, 2018), misses that central point. In this sense he’s like Naftali Bennett. The education minister carries an ancient coin in his pocket in order to prove Jewish ownership of the land since antiquity. Sand’s understandable revulsion at the Jewish-national implications of Bennett’s version of nationalism, based on that coin, leads him to reject Zionism in its entirety.

The justification I tried to provide for this ideology frees us both from Bennett’s coin and from Sand’s contentions against it. It’s anchored not in the history of the Jews in antiquity, but rather in two pivotal facts regarding their history in modernity.

Fact 1: A major component of the Jews’ social profile in modernity, in their own eyes, and in the eyes of their surroundings, is that of a group originating in Palestine in antiquity. It doesn’t take a historian to recognize this fact. Suffice it to read the Passover Haggadah, be a tourist in Florence or listen to the “Passions,” preferably Bach’s.

Even if Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Tarfon, who were reclining in Bnei Brak in the second century C.E., weren’t actually reclining there, and even if baby Jesus, who was presented at the Temple by his parents, never existed, and even if Jews didn’t play a part when that same Jesus was tried by Pilate as a grown-up – the Haggadah tells the first story, Renaissance artists painted the second and the Passions related to the third.

The Jews and the communities of Europe among which they have existed in modernity, are nourished by these stories in the modern era. They and their surroundings understand Judaism and identify Jews on their basis. The stories are about Jews who lived in the Land of Israel in antiquity, and who then shared a territory, a language and a culture.

Illustration from the 'Copenhagen Haggadah' of 1739.

Whether nationalism and modern nations are a modern phenomenon, as modernist theoreticians of nationalism maintain, or whether national groups are not only modern but ancient, as primordialist theoreticians argue, the Jewish way of life in antiquity, as imagined in the Haggadah, in Renaissance paintings and in the Passions, was a quasi-national existence. It was such even if there were no Jews in antiquity, just as a unicorn’s existence is that of a unicorn and not of a duocorn, even if unicorns exist only in fairytales.

Sand asks me to read the distinguished Jewish, non-Zionist writers Hermann Cohen and Franz Rosenzweig, and informs me about the Talmudic ban on collective Jewish immigration to the Holy Land, as if they weaken my arguments. But they do the opposite: If the Jewish masses were not viewing themselves (in part) as a collective originating in the ancient Land of Israel, the Talmud would not have had to impose the ban, and Cohen and Rosenzweig would not have had to bolster their diasporic Jewish ideology with the argument that the Judaism of the ancient Land of Israel was only one type of Judaism.

These talmudic and ideological anecdotes weaken mainstream Zionism’s claim that the Jews never ceased to be a nation and strove throughout the generations to regain the Land of Israel. But the argument I was making for a very modest version of Zionism, as opposed to mainstream Zionism, does not presuppose an unbroken Jewish nationhood since Antiquity and an undeviating striving of the Jews in every generation to return to the Land of Israel. It only assumes that the social profile of the Jews of modernity is one of a nation that originated in Palestine of antiquity. Sand doesn’t seem to have noticed the distinction.

Fact 2: The social profile of the Jews in modernity, that of a group originating in ancient Palestine, constituted a central element in shaping the attitudes toward them adopted by surrounding communities – at times great sympathy, at times cruel persecution. This time it’s a real fact, not one about whose reality (also for the purposes of my argument) one can be indifferent.

The persecutions in question continued through the second millennium C.E. persistently and intensely. Their persistence became decisive when they continued despite the Emancipation of European Jewry; that their intensity has no competition incontestable by the fact of the Holocaust.

Here questions arise that are not of historical fact, but rather of political morality. These are even less within the purview of Sand’s expertise than is Jewish history. For example, the question of whether it is morally justified for members of the persecuted group – because it is perceived to belong to a different culture and territory – to organize in order to prevent their continued humiliation and the threat to their lives. Is it justified for them to act in this way by attempting to transform the group into a full-fledged nation in that other territory, even though it is inhabited by others?

After he diminishes my extensively qualified “yes” response to these questions by the rhetorical device of describing it as a “last desperate attempt to justify the Zionist enterprise retroactively,” Sand tries to refute it. As befits the concreteness of his thinking as a historian, he does so by making such brute assertions as, “Zionism failed utterly to rescue Europe’s Jews.”

Should I respond by arguing the opposite, namely, that Zionism did in fact rescue some of Europe’s Jews? And that it’s possible that many of those it did not rescue, perished because they did not accept Zionism? And that if they had accepted it, they would have been rescued? But I wish to stress a different point. It pertains to the way I understand the urgent Jewish necessity to which Israel has been, and still is, a response.

At issue is not the necessity faced by the concrete individuals who initiated Zionism and established Israel to save their and their fellows’ skin. At issue is the need to make it possible for them, and more importantly for their descendants, to live (or to die, if there’s no alternative) under conditions of non-humiliation. In this sense, Israel is important as an embodiment of Jewish self-rule not only for its own Jews, but for world Jewry as a whole, and for many generations. This underpinning of Zionism is immune to the anti-Zionist argument, also made by Sand, that stems from the fact that the great majority of Eastern European Jews chose not Zionism but America to rescue themselves from the horrors of persecution.

It is not the saving of life itself that underlies the justification for Israel’s establishment, but the creation of a possibility of Jewish life under conditions of governmental non-humiliation. This should have been secured then for Jews as human beings – not specifically as Jews – and it needs to be secured for them today as well. Only Israeli right-wingers such as Bennett and Netanyahu compete with anti-Zionists of Sand’s ilk in their imperviousness to this, each from his own side: Sand is impervious to the Jews and their history of humiliation; Bennett and Netanyahu are impervious to the interest non-Jews have in living under conditions of non-humiliation. To Sand’s credit, it should be noted that his imperviousness stems only from miscomprehension, and not from heartlessness as well.