From Rabid Zionism to Egalitarian Zionism

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Israeli soldiers let a Palestinian girl make her way past a barbed wire barricade set up to prevent protesting Palestinians from accessing an Israeli settlement, in Hebron, Sept. 14, 2011.
Israeli soldiers let a Palestinian girl make her way past a barbed wire barricade set up to prevent protesting Palestinians from accessing an Israeli settlement, in Hebron, Sept. 14, 2011. Credit: Rina Castelnuovo / NYT
Chaim Gans
Chaim Gans
Chaim Gans
Chaim Gans

Everyone on the spectrum between Meir Kahane and Meretz shares a common denominator, on the basis of which they are all considered Zionists. This common denominator consists of two tenets. According to one, Jews have strong reasons for interpreting their collective existence as nationhood; according to the other, that nationhood is to be realized in the Land of Israel. Most of the justifications for these two tenets appear in Israel’s Declaration of Independence. Israeli scholars have interpreted these justifications in two ways, both of which imply Jewish supremacy over the Arabs in the country.

According to one reading, Jewish nationhood has not lapsed, and the Jews’ ownership of the Land of Israel was never lost even when they were physically cut off from it, because that severance was forced upon them. That fact catches two birds with one stone: It precludes the expiration of either the Jews’ nationhood or of their ownership over Palestine. This proprietary interpretation of Zionism implies the supremacy of the Jews – at least as a collective – over everyone else living in that land: they are its landlords.

The foundations of the religious version of this interpretation need no explanation. The academic basis for its secular version was provided by ideological historians during the early years of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, in the 1930s. The most prominent of these was Ben-Zion Dinur, who would later serve as minister of education in several early Mapai (Labor) governments. The primary motif of Dinur’s historical writings – with respect to the Jewish people and the Land of Israel during the pre-Zionist period – was the centrality of the land in the daily life of Diaspora Jews. According to Dinur, and to Israel’s Declaration of Independence, the Jews never ceased striving to return and take possession of their land. As a result, their proprietary right to it never lapsed. This implies that Arab possession of the land, at least at the collective level, must be considered that of a plunderer, or of someone occupying a stolen property.

The second prevalent interpretation of Zionism justifies Jewish supremacy by invoking nations’ universal right to self-determination. It interprets this as “a right to a nation-state — a state whose institutions and official public culture […] offers special benefits to the people with whom the state is identified. At the same time, it puts those citizens who are not members of the preferred national community at a disadvantage.” These are the words of Israeli legal scholar Ruth Gavison, who is supported by other renowned experts on law and political theory. The latter cite examples from other countries. The 2003 book “Israel and the Family of Nations: The Jewish Nation-State and Human Rights,” coauthored by Amnon Rubinstein, a constitutional law professor and former minister of education, and the historian and political theorist Alexander Yakobson, is the bible of such examples.

Judaism and cat lovers

There is no doubt that these approaches reflect the mainstream Zionist position. Intellectuals like Gavison, Rubinstein or Shlomo Avineri do not critique it. On the contrary, their reputation amounts to a knockdown argument in the hands of the mainstream. However, at the same time, they also constitute easy targets for the post-Zionist and anti-Zionist thought that has developed in Israel during the past 30 years.

Shlomo Sand.Credit: David Bachar

Some post-Zionist critiques of the mainstream approaches are lethal indeed. But others lead to conclusions that are just as groundless as those they are critiquing. Prominent examples of post-Zionists include historian Shlomo Sand and sociologist Uri Ram. They argue against attributing nationhood to the Jews, on the grounds that world Jewry at the end of the 19th century – and today as well – lacks the essential characteristics of a nation, namely a common territory and culture. From this they conclude that attributing nationhood to the Jews belongs to the realm of the bizarre (Ram) and is like attributing nationhood to the world collective of cat lovers (Sand).

Apparently, that argument should have been imparted to Count Clermont-Tonnerre, who declared in the French National Assembly after the Revolution that his country would grant Jews full rights as individuals – and zero rights as a nation. If he’d known what Ram and Sand know, he could have spared himself the announcement. The Jews in the 19th and preceding centuries – and today, as well – indeed do not constitute a fully fledged nation in the way that the Poles do, for example. But it does not follow from this that they are a full-fledged non-nation in the way that the community of cat lovers is (just as the fact that a pen without ink is not a full-fledged pen doesn’t mean that it is a full- fledged non-pen in the way that a ruler is, for example).

What makes world Jewry a nation in a partial sense is, among other things, the fact that its social profile – as expressed in the religion of Jews and in their non-Jewish social environments, their art, their music and their entire fabric of life – has been that of a nation originating in Palestine. That profile largely determined the attitude toward Jews in the societies in whose midst they have lived. It was the reason for their persecution in Europe. It is also the reason Zionism offered them what it did: an opportunity to be transformed from being a Palestinian nation only in their social profile into a real and concrete nation in the Land of Israel.

One can of course ask whether all this was justified, but that’s an issue post-Zionist academics don’t address. They criticize Dinur and the Zionist movement’s principle of Jewish nationhood not only because they misinterpret the notion of nationhood, but also because they ground it in a false historiography. And they are correct: A few spurts of immigration to Palestine by fragments of communities throughout the second millennium no more establish the agency of a Jewish collective and its intentionality to return to the Land of Israel than the emigration of many Israelis from this land since the inception of Zionism is sufficient to attribute the opposite intention to the Jewish collective.

But again, the post-Zionists leap from a well-founded critique to unfounded conclusions. For example, in place of the historiography put forward by mainstream Zionism – namely that Jewry’s full national continuity has persisted since antiquity – Sand tries to argue that, because, according to him, there is purportedly no genetic continuity between ancient and modern Jewry, it follows that the Jewish nationhood engendered by Zionism is a total fabrication, a nationhood created out of thin air.

If the false historiography that underpins proprietary Zionism weren’t bad enough, the political morality it relies upon is equally objectionable. It is a political morality that allows individuals and groups to create territorial rights unilaterally by grabbing land; it assumes that the sins of forefathers can be inherited by their descendants; it implies supremacy over today’s Palestinians because of the plunder that the settlers, along with Dinur, attribute to their ancestors of more than 1,000 years ago.

Palestinians climb over the separation barrier with Israel to pray at the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, on the Friday of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, in Al-Ram, north of Jerusalem, June 8, 2018. Credit: Majdi Mohammed / AP

Gravest of all, proprietary Zionism encourages policy makers not only to realize a Jewish supremacy of the type manifested in the recently adopted nation-state law and many other Israeli statutes, but also to perpetuate the state of affairs that has emerged in the West Bank in recent decades: a Jewish supremacy that sinks its jaws on a daily and ongoing basis into the life and tissue of Palestinians, and into their most basic human rights. This is a Zionism that in English would be called “rabid.”

Jewish supremacy vs. international values

Ruth Gavison. Credit: Emil Salman

Not surprisingly, we find very few proprietary Zionists among contemporary Israeli scholars of law and political theory – individuals who are trained in applying critical thinking to political and legal matters. Gavison, Rubinstein and Yakobson justify the status of the Jews in the Land of Israel not by inventing historical grounds for a revival of rights acquired unilaterally in antiquity, but on the basis of the modern, universally acknowledged right to national self-determination.

However, they present that right misleadingly, as if it justified a hierarchy vesting the Jews with a supreme status. Both Gavison’s definition, quoted here, and the analogies with other countries offered by Rubinstein and Yakobson – which allow for Jewish supremacy – are misleading in terms of international law, comparative politics and the accepted view among Western political theorists. True, the right to national self-determination confers some privileges upon the members of the ethnic and/or cultural group entitled to it within a particular country. But the privileges in question, such as collective language rights, or rights to representation in the public sphere of their country, are privileges only as compared with those of people who have become citizens through immigration.

The Flemish and the Walloon peoples in Belgium possess linguistic and cultural privileges relative to their country’s citizens of Colombian, Ukrainian or Arab origins. Neither the Flemish nor the Walloon population of Belgium enjoys supremacy over the other. Both possess equal collective privileges by virtue of their ethno-cultural belonging. True, in Germany, ethno-cultural Germans are privileged vis-à-vis all other citizens. However, this is so because there is no other distinct group of citizens in Germany that has good reasons for viewing Germany as its ethnic and/or cultural homeland as such.

The post-Zionist academics do not assail Gavison and Rubinstein for their scholarly errors. Instead, as usual, they draw on errors made by the academic spokespeople of mainstream Zionism in order to make errors of their own. An example has been provided recently on the pages of Haaretz (Hebrew edition) by the political scientist Neve Gordon of Ben-Gurion University. He informed his readers that as a professor he imparted (what I take to be) errors of the kind made by Gavison and Rubinstein to another Haaretz op-ed writer, Nave Dromi, when she was his student. Because she internalized what he taught her so well, and because she chose Zionism, Gordon argues that Dromi is working for Jewish supremacy; whereas he, because he chose equality, is working against Zionism.

Because Gavison’s, Rubinstein’s and Gordon’s conception of the right to national self-determination is misleading, the choice between Zionism and equality is a false one. The right to self-determination must be interpreted as privileging homeland groups, such as the Germans in Germany and the Flemish and the Walloon peoples in Belgium, vis-à-vis immigrant groups in these countries and not vis-à-vis each other. In Israel, it should not be interpreted as privileging the Jews vis-à-vis Palestinians. Rather, it should privilege both groups vis-à-vis, for example, Filipino migrants, regarding their collective cultural and national rights.

The bride’s dilemma

It could be argued that the above disqualification of proprietary Zionism rules out the possibility of viewing the Jews as a group that has grounds for seeing the Land of Israel as its homeland, and that therefore national privileges in Israel accrue only to the Palestinians. At most, it could be added, national privileges accrue to Israeli Jews in the way that they accrue to the settler-colonialist nations of the New World. These rights accrue to the Israeli Jews not because there was any historical justification for them as Jews living outside this land to establish full-fledged Jewish nationhood in Palestine, but rather because they accidentally developed a distinct national history and identity after they accidentally settled in Palestine of all places. This – the argument would proceed – is not Zionism, but rather a sheer post- and anti-Zionism. The first alternative specified above is unreservedly anti-Zionist, for it rejects the Zionist formation of a Jewish nation in Palestine both before the event and after it. The second option is also anti-Zionist, because it denies any acceptable justificatory ties between Israeli Jewry, on the one hand, and the history and the interests of the world Jewish collective, on the other.

But these conclusions are erroneous. Rejecting the historical bond between the Jews of antiquity and the Land of Israel as a basis for modern Jewish ownership of this land is not to deny that that bond was a major component of the social profile of modern Jewry. As noted, this bond only serves as a basis for their social profile as a Palestinian nation. Because of that profile, the Jews were partially a nation even before their Israeli segment became a full-fledged nation. Since this profile was a major cause of their persecution, Zionism proposed a national solution for it. It was only natural for Zionism to prefer the land with which Jews’ identity as a nation was associated over other sites contemplated for it, such as Uganda and Argentina.

However, this is not enough. The land was wholly Arab in its demography and in the culture of its public sphere, and remains partly so today. Anyone who makes do with the connection between the Land of Israel and the Jews’ identity as a nation in order to justify the realization of Zionism in it is like a man who find a cure for his loneliness by marrying a woman he loves, even though she is already married. For him to prefer her over others is justified, of course. But a serious obstacle lies in the path of fulfilling that justified preference: The woman is already married.

Proprietary Zionism solves this problem by arguing that it’s the Arabs who stole the bride, and that Zionism is only an attempt to restore her to her legal husband. But the reasons that have been mentioned here seem sufficient for rejecting this form of Zionism, indeed contemptuously.

The only justification that makes it possible to overcome the current obstacle is one of the central justifications in the Zionist repertoire. It appears in the sixth paragraph of Israel’s Declaration of Independence: “The catastrophe which recently befell the Jewish people – the massacre of millions of Jews in Europe – was another clear demonstration of the urgency of solving the problem of its homelessness by re-establishing in Eretz-Israel the Jewish State.”

Residents of the West Bank settlement of Achiya celebrate their first grape harvest, in 2010. Credit: MENAHEM KAHANA / AFP

These words justify Zionism not as the realization of ownership of the land that has not lapsed since antiquity. They justify it as a necessity in resolving the Jewish problem of modernity. They make it possible to interpret the Jewish people solving its problem in the terms by which criminal law interprets a critically wounded person breaking into a drugstore to steal the medication that would save his life. The act in question is normally criminalized but is permitted – with serious reservations – in emergencies.

Concrete fabric

The approach that emerges from the argument so far, apart from relying on an egalitarian conception of the right to self-determination, justifies Zionism by distinguishing between two issues. First, why prefer the Land of Israel over other places as the geographical site for the realization of Jewish nationhood? Second, what is the justification for realizing this preference despite the fact that the land was Arab? The key to answering the first question is the Jews’ social profile in modernity, which consists of having been a Palestinian nation in antiquity. The key to answering the second is the necessity created by the persistence and intensity of Jewish persecution in modernity.

This account renders the current interpretation of Zionism egalitarian not only with respect to the status of both Jews and Palestinians at the time of any future settlement of their conflict, namely as enjoying an equal realization of their right to self-determination. It renders them equal also with respect to their relative status at the inception of their conflict. It views both of them as victims and neither of them as a proprietor vis-à-vis a plunderer.

This account also clarifies the distinction between Israel and nations that were constituted by European colonialism. The nationhood consisting particularly of Jews and constituted by Zionism particularly in Palestine ties the history and fate of this particular people to this particular country. Preventing a recurrence of that history was the formative goal of political Zionism. The colonization of Palestine was its means for turning a people that was persecuted because it was conceived of as an ancient Palestinian people into a concrete Palestinian nation.

The egalitarian Zionism I have described is consistent with the actual rather than the mythic history of the Zionist idea and the Zionist movement. The idea and the movement alike were motivated by, and were successful because of, the repeated expulsions of Jews from European countries during the second millennium. They were not engendered because the Jews were “forcibly exiled” (as per the Declaration of Independence) from Palestine in the first century C.E.

This form of Zionism is consistent not only with Zionist history itself but also with the concrete history of world Jewry before Zionism appeared as well as after. To be cogent, it does not need fabricated tales about Jewry’s full-fledged nationhood before or after the inception of Zionism, or about the “striving of Jews in every successive generation to re-establish themselves in their ancient homeland” (Israel’s Declaration of Independence).

This form of Zionism is based on a political morality that allocates territorial rights in light of the interests of contemporary nations, not on a morality that bestows such rights on the basis of unilateral acts of acquisition in antiquity.

It is based on a notion of justice that doesn’t allow the sins of the Arabs’ seventh-century forefathers to be visited on their descendants in the modern era. Egalitarian Zionism avoids one of the ugliest aspects of mainstream Zionism: It does not turn the Arabs in the Land of Israel into perpetual hostages of intra-Jewish debates on the territorial, demographic and constitutional scope of Jewish property in Palestine, or on whether moral, pragmatic or tactical reasons require ceding part of the land and, if so, how much.

Because this form of Zionism does not imply Jewish supremacy, no grounds arise for rejecting it. If Judaism or Israeli Jews seek to go on maintaining Israel as a state that realizes Zionism, only an egalitarian version like the one described here can allow it to be just and legitimate. On the basis of Gavison and Rubinstein’s hierarchical Zionism, Israel by their own definition is non-egalitarian and therefore unjust. The proprietary Zionism of Dinur and the settlers risks rendering Israel an outlaw state and therefore illegitimate.

The Israeli mainstream has been realizing these two forms of Zionism for decades. There is no basis for it: not in the history that motivated Zionism and made it successful; not in the Jewish history that preceded Zionism; not in the Jewish history that followed the emergence of Zionism; not in any acceptable political morality; not in international law. Nor does it promote the good of Judaism, the good of Zionism, or the good of Israel.

Chaim Gans is a professor of legal and political theory at Tel Aviv University. This article is based on his book “A Political Theory for the Jewish People” (Oxford University Press, 2016).

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