Putting Modern Zionism on Trial in Israel

Instead of calling foul against the journalists and human rights groups who claim to expose injustices, we should engage with them, showing that we genuinely care about our moral integrity.

Imagine waking up to discover that your parents are on trial for serious crimes. For years, they have shielded you from the facts, but now there is no mistaking the situation. Close friends and family remain as supportive as ever, but walking down the street, you notice your neighbors crossing the road and averting their eyes.

"Zionism," on whose knees I was raised, has, in some circles, become a "boo word". It is associated with every nasty accusation made against the State of Israel and its relations with Palestinians, Israeli Arabs, Bedouins and refugees. Even some of our Jewish friends now avoid the term.

This is not the way it was meant to be. The father of modern Zionism, Theodor Herzl dedicated his efforts to providing a safe haven from anti-Semitism, but he was sensitive to the injustices facing other peoples. He wrote about the suffering of black slaves and declared that once a Jewish state was established, his next project would be to assist African peoples achieve their freedom.

Herzl did not live to fulfill all his dreams, and his successors found the work of building and safeguarding the Jewish State to be formidable, leaving them little time for other concerns. But Herzl's liberal sentiments remained at the heart of the project. Even Zionism's most hawkish leaders believed that the nascent Jewish state must be just and fair to all its inhabitants. On the day that the state was declared, Menachem Begin declared:

"There must be no man within our country – be he citizen or foreigner compelled to go hungry, to want for a roof over his head, or to lack elementary education, ‘Remember ye were strangers in the land of Egypt’ – this supreme rule must continually light our way in relations with the strangers within our gates "Righteousness, Righteousness shalt thou pursue!, Righteousness must be guiding principle in our relations amongst ourselves."

His first act on entering the prime minister's office, 29 years later, was to order Israeli refuge for the Vietnamese boat people. The same prime minister made peace with our archenemy, Egypt, but only after ensuring that none of the arrangements led to the transgression of Shabbat. This is the Zionism at its best: strong, compassionate and peace-loving; proudly sharing sacred Jewish values with the rest of the world.

But now we stand in the dock, facing calls for divestment, boycotts and the arrest of Israeli leaders who travel abroad. Even our friends no longer feel comfortable associating with us.

My early heroes were the Zionist pioneers who drained malarial swamps. That task is complete. Now, our challenge is to defend the good name of Zionism and the State of Israel, not through outdated historical arguments, or flimsy Facebook propaganda, but by ensuring that we live up to our highest values.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch wrote in his commentary on the Torah: ”We are warned to see to it that when we have a state of our own, we do not make the rights of any foreigner in our midst dependent upon anything other than the pure human quality inherent in every person. As soon as we abridge this basic human right, we open the door to all the abominations of tyranny and abuse that were practiced in the land of Egypt."

Instead of calling foul against the journalists and human rights groups who claim to expose injustices here, we should engage with them, showing that we genuinely care about our moral integrity. We have so much to be proud of, let's not be afraid of transparency; instead we should take the tours offered by Shovrim Shtika, ACRI, Encounter and Rabbis for Human Rights to see what they are talking about. If the accusations are incorrect, we will refute them; if they are slanderous, we should sue them. Equally, if any of what they claim turns out to be true, we must sit up, take notice and repair the harm. That is the only way we will ensure the flourishing of a democratic Jewish State that is admired by all and a source of pride for every Jew.

Rabbi Gideon Sylvester is the British United Synagogue's rabbi in Israel and director of the Beit Midrash for Human Rights at the Hillel House of Hebrew University in Jerusalem.