Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai, the last president of the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem before the Roman legions destroyed the Temple and uprooted the Jews from their capital, was a complex man. He was a trader, a scholar, a polemicist and a judge. According to the Talmud, he made one of the most crucial interventions in Jewish history when, on the eve of its destruction, he realized Jerusalem was lost.
He evaded the zealots who were determined to fight to the death and sweet-talked the Roman commander, soon-to-be Emperor Vespasian, into allowing him and a small group of rabbis and students to relocate to the coastal town of Yavne.
Rabbi Yochanan was above all a pragmatist. Bereft upon his son’s death, he was consoled by the thought the boy had been “on loan” to him from God, and now returned to his rightful owner. He wasn’t sure he had made the right decision to leave the Holy City, and accounts of his death voice his fears he might go to hell for giving up on Jerusalem.
He was also a messianist. His dying words were that he must prepare himself for the arrival of Hezekiah, the last king of the house of David, the precursor of the Messiah, who would accompany him to the next world.
Rabbi Yochanan had ensured that the Sanhedrin’s authority and center of Torah scholarship would not be lost in the great destruction. But he never meant for Yavne to be an alternative to Jerusalem and its Temple. Just a temporary respite on the long path back home.
In his essay "Yavne: A Jewish Case for Equality in Israel-Palestine," published this week in Jewish Currents, American Jewish academic and journalist Peter Beinart portrays Rabbi Yochanan’s decision differently. Beinart writes that Rabbi Yochanan "imagined an alternative" Judaism, "a new form of worship, based on prayer and study."
I’m an agnostic Jew who doesn’t mind how other Jews choose to define their own Jewish identity or worship, if that’s what they want to do (though it intrigues me greatly). And while Beinart’s depiction of Rabbi Yochanan has no basis in the Talmudic texts, I’m fine with that as well. They’re apocryphal anyway, and we can all play fast and loose with the Talmud.
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But it is highly instructive that Beinart chooses to see Rabbi Yochanan as a utopian, rather than a pragmatist. Because it perfectly mirrors the conclusions he reaches in the essay.
I agree with three of Beinart’s main conclusions. The most important of them is that one binational state between the Mediterranean and the Jordan with equal rights for Jews and Palestinians would be a just way to end the fundamentally unjust situation, whereby millions of Palestinians do not have national or civil rights.
As Beinart points out, as long as such a binational state could remain a haven for Jews suffering persecution anywhere in the world, it would still fulfill the raison d’etre of the Jewish state. Unlike most of Beinart’s critics, who are confident such a state would be a recipe for chaos and bloodshed, I can imagine the overwhelming majorities of both nations coming to terms with the hyphenated "Israel-Palestine" and realizing it was the best possible outcome. Hell, I’d love to live in such a state - if it were indeed peaceful.
The only problem is, I can’t vote for a state like that. Not one party in Israel, no, not even the Joint List, is proposing it. And neither could the Palestinians, back when they had elections, vote for it. It simply wasn’t on offer.
I agree as well with Beinart, that a large proportion of Israelis, and Israel-supporting Jews in the Diaspora, have projected a Nazi mentality on to all the Palestinians. While antisemitism is all too prevalent among Palestinians, they are not planning a genocide of Jews. To believe that is the case, as Beinart points out, opens up the way to awful atrocities. And though I don’t quite share his predictions that an ethnic cleansing of Palestinians is all but inevitable, it’s certainly a possible outcome which he’s right to warn us of.
And Beinart is right in his historical analysis that there were past leaders (including prominent mainstream figures) who believed that Zionism didn’t necessarily have to mean a full sovereign state for Jews only, and that it could be part of a wider federation including other nations.
But this is also where his argument becomes fatally flawed.
Beinart derives inspiration from these early Zionists, because he wants to believe in a more perfect Zionism, one that can be morally justified by 21st century progressive values as well. But that’s not what Zionism was about. Not because Zionism isn’t morally justifiable (it was) but because Zionism wasn’t about morals. There were Zionist ideologues and thinkers, but Zionism wasn’t an ideology. It wasn’t a vision of a better world.
Zionism was a plan to solve the acute problem of Jewish persecution, primarily in Eastern Europe, but gradually in any place where Jews faced antisemitic violence and discrimination. (I’m using the past tense here because I don’t believe Zionism actually exists after 1948, when the program was successfully fulfilled). It didn’t have to be moral, by the standards of its day or our day. It had to be pragmatic. It had to work because millions of Jewish lives were at stake.
The different strands of Zionism and the evolution of its mainstream leadership in the half a century between the first Zionist Congress of 1897 and the foundation of Israel didn’t reflect changing moral sensibilities - they were a response to changing regional and global circumstances.
Political Zionism’s founder, Thedor Herzl, envisaged the Jewish state existing as a semi-autonomous district of the Ottoman Empire. Because that was the most pragmatic way of achieving it in his lifetime (he died in 1904). His heir as Zionist leader, Chaim Weizmann, believed for decades that the Jewish state would be a protectorate of the British Empire.
David Ben-Gurion had the foresight to realize that the British would be no different than the Ottomans in lacking both the desire and then the power to give the Jews a homeland (the British were trying to get out of their promise in the Balfour Declaration practically from the moment the ink from Arthur Balfour’s signature dried).
Ben-Gurion managed to convince the initially reluctant leadership of American Zionists at the Biltmore Conference in 1942 of the case for full statehood, or as they called it there a "Jewish commonwealth." By that point, after the United States had joined WWII, it finally seemed that after the war there would be both an opportunity to achieve an independent state and the necessity to have one so that the Holocaust survivors could be resettled.
Five and a half years later, when the United Nations voted for the partition plan, Ben-Gurion was vindicated. There were those who argued that the allocation of 56 percent of the territory was unjust to the Arabs of mandatory Palestine, who were two-thirds of the population. And the Revisionist Zionists argued that it was a historical sin that the Jews were not getting all their historical homeland.
Neither argument budged Ben-Gurion, because he knew Zionism was a pragmatic plan and the best way of realizing it was to go with whatever was possible.
Ben-Gurion was right. All the countless arguments since 1948 on "Zionism: Right or wrong?" are sterile hypothetical thought exercises. Zionism worked for those for whom it was intended to work. Israel as a reality is not going away. Reality doesn’t care whether you think Zionism is inherently racist or that anti-Zionism is antisemitism.
As many others have done before him, Beinart makes a strong case for why the two-state solution has failed. He needn’t have bothered. The problem isn’t with the two states, but with the solution.
Most Israelis are in principle in favor of the two-state solution. Sadly, there just aren’t enough of them who feel the need for a solution. The status quo isn’t a problem for most Israelis. On the day they will feel that need, they will make a pragmatic choice, for two-states, a confederacy, a binational state, whatever they feel works in their interest. It simply isn’t about morals.
It isn’t my place to speak for the Palestinians, but they will make their choice according to how they see their own interests as well. Beinart in his essay extensively quotes Palestinians who support a binational state. On Twitter he listed even more Palestinian writers he read for research. With the exception of one single Palestinian Israeli academic, they are all Palestinian Americans.
Not that that invalidates them in any way, but the fact remains that while the binational state is popular in the relatively small community of Palestinian American academics and activists, it remains the minority view among the three much larger Palestinian communities right here – West Bankers, Gazans and Arab Israelis. It seems that it’s not only American Jews and Israelis who have different values and perspectives. American-Palestinians and their siblings back in Palestine have them as well.
Ninety percent of Arab-Israelis voted in April for the Joint List which is emphatically in favor of two states. Beinart blithely dismisses them saying that "the Joint List’s vision of equality inside the Green Line can be extended." They actually claim to have very strong reasons for not supporting a binational state. Perhaps he believes that Ayman Odeh and Ahmed Tibi don’t really mean what they say. Either way Beinart doesn’t care to engage with them - and that is his essay’s biggest giveaway.
Not one line in the lengthy essay is dedicated to giving readers any idea of how the overwhelming majority of both Israelis and Palestinians actually living in his future binational state of "Israel-Palestine" will be convinced that it can work.
I believe it can, theoretically, though it would probably still need a two-state period in the interim. Beinart doesn’t have to persuade me. But about everyone else around here - he doesn’t seem to care one way or the other. I suspect that he hopes that a wave of BDS or a President Ocasio-Cortez will one day force Israelis and Palestinians to accept his vision.
Beinart isn’t talking to anyone who will actually live in "Israel-Palestine." He’s having an internal conversation with a handful of Palestinian American academics and, with their blessing, has created a utopian half-Jewish state which can serve as safe space for a section of young American Jews, the readership of Jewish Currents, who are trying to reconcile their Jewish identity, their inherent affinity with Israel and their progressive values, in a period of ideological and racial turmoil in the U.S.
He is Yochanan Ben Beinart, and his utopian Yavne doesn’t exist on the shores of the Mediterranean. It has, instead been transplanted 6000 miles away, to a faculty lounge on an American campus.