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Religious Zionists need not attach special meaning to Israel

Religious Zionist and Progressive on Palestine–Part One
Jerry Haber, Magnes Zionist
June 29, 2012

[Progressive and Religious Zionist — Part Two was published on 8th July]

Dear Readers,

I have gone for around six weeks without posting anything. During those six weeks I have been very busy, but there’s another reason for my silence. After shouting for the last four years on this blog, I have grown hoarse. It’s not so much that I have lost my voice. It’s more the fear of endless preaching to the choir. Does any of this matter?

So while I ponder my future, I will publish some stuff I had been working on. My last piece (below) was posted here and on Peter Beinart’s Open Zion blog on the Huffington Post. This post is part one of a longer article that Peter asked me to write on how one can consistently be modern orthodox and progressive on Palestine. If I get some good comments on these posts, I may write a version for him.

While researching the history of religious Zionism, I found out, much to my surprise, that not only could one be modern orthodox and a supporter of Palestinian rights, but also that one could be religious Zionist and a supporter of the Palestinians – their human rights, their civil rights, and their right to self determination.

Sounds a bit like squaring the circle? Well, here goes:

Can a religious Zionist advocate the rights of the Palestinians to live as a free people in their homeland of Palestine? Can a modern orthodox Jewish supporter of Israel be concerned with the crimes perpetrated against the Palestinian people over the six decades of the State of Israel’s existence, including expulsion, denaturalization, destruction of hundreds of villages, expropriation of property, pervasive legal discrimination, and inequitable distribution of government funds – all within the borders of what Peter Beinart calls “democratic Israel,” not to mention the Israeli-controlled territories of the West Bank and Gaza? I will argue yes to both questions in Part Two of this essay. In Part One I will try to support the more modest claim that religious Zionism does not require attaching any special religious or theological significance to the state of Israel, certainly none that would influence religious Zionist attitudes towards the native Palestinians. Moral outrage at the trampling of Palestinian rights by successive Israeli government is certainly compatible with a modern orthodox position; but some orthodox have gone further to claim that Judaism requires concern for the rights of the Palestinians. The latter claim I will take up in Part Two

Few orthodox Jews, in Israel or abroad, have cared about the actions taken by the mainstream Zionist movement and the State of Israel against the native Arabs of Palestine. To be sure, individual orthodox rabbis, and rabbinical bodies have condemned Jewish vigilantism against Arabs. But rarely have they criticized the Israeli government and the IDF for its treatment of the Palestinians. In their silence, of course, they differ little from most secular Israelis.

Jewish law does not view the Palestinians as natives of Palestine but rather as “strangers and sojourners” in the Land of Israel. They are often categorized as Noahides with the legal status of “resident aliens,” with limited rights vis-à-vis Jews, or as Amalekites, who have no rights at all. A few religious Zionist rabbis are willing “in principle” to support Israeli withdrawal from the Occupied Territories, out of a concern more for the welfare of the Jews than for justice for the Palestinians.[1] And even those rabbis are increasingly few and far between.

Indifference to the fate of Palestinian Arabs can perhaps be illustrated by the classic of religious Zionist theology, Kol Dodi Dofek (translated into English as Fate and Destiny), by Rabbi Joseph Dov Solovetichik, the most influential figure in modern orthodoxy in America (and increasingly influential in Israel). Nowhere in the essay is there any acknowledgement that the so-called “miracle” of the birth of the State of Israel was accompanied by the Israeli government’s refusal to allow most of the Palestinian Arabs, the majority of the population of Palestine, to return to their homes after the war, in violation of the resolution of the very same United Nations whose diplomatic support for Israel had been cited by R. Soloveitchik as an example of Divine providence. Instead, the author repeats the myth of how the Jews returned to a desolate and barren backwater, and portrays the Arabs (“the mobs of Nasser and the Mufti”) as Amalekites, who are solely motivated by anti-Semitism.

And yet — although most modern orthodox Jews today support the State of Israel founded in 1948, statist Zionism is not fundamental to orthodoxy in the way that other beliefs and practices are. Indeed, there is room in modern orthodoxy for a spectrum of opinions on the State of Israel, from the belief that it is the “beginning of redemption” to the belief that it does not advance the cause of Jews and Judaism. Zionism, non-Zionism, diasporism, anti-Zionism, or none of the above, are all viable options for modern orthodox. These options are compatible with the Jewish concern for the welfare of Jews and Jewish communities.

Orthodox Judaism can be characterized by three elements: the practical, the observance of Jewish law, the theological, the view that law as divinely revealed in the Sinaitic covenant; and the sociological, the affiliation with orthodox communal institutions. Add to this the elements of openness to influences from without the tradition, and a greater degree of personal autonomy in the interpretation of one’s obligations under the law, and you have “modern orthodoxy”, although, truth to tell, the dialectic between openness and insularity is a feature of Judaism throughout its history.

Of course, modern orthodox Judaism, like all orthodox Judaism, considers Eretz Yisrael to be the land promised by God to the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Jewish law discusses the sanctity of the land as well as the commandments whose observance is rooted in the land. Even those rabbis who spiritualized the Land of Israel in their writings never conceded the title of the actual land to the gentiles. But the Zionist decision to actively settle the Land of Israel, and push for Zionist hegemony, was a matter of dispute between Zionist and anti-Zionist orthodox rabbis, and it hardly helped the religious Zionists that the leaders of the Zionist movement were non-observant Jews. Disputes between Zionism and orthodoxy lasted even after the Jewish state was established because of its avowedly secularist and often anti-orthodox ideology.

For the devaluation of Zionism in the Jewish scale of values one looks again to the writings of Rabbi Soloveitchik. The “Rov” saw in the establishment of the State of Israel the unmistakable hand of divine providence, and he criticized himself and other orthodox Jews for not responding adequately to the Divine call. But as Prof. Yaakov Blidstein has pointed out, religious Zionism occupies a very small place in R. Soloveitchik’s writings, which focus mostly on individual, family, and community. Prominent religious Zionists appear to have exerted no influence on his thinking, Prof. Blidstein raises the question of whether it is even appropriate to call him a religious Zionist.[2]

This pragmatic religious Zionism can trace its roots to the thinking of Rabbi Yizhak Yaakov Reines, the founder of the Mizrahi movement and continued to guide the Mizrahi and its Israeli political wing, the National Religious Party, as long the movement was run by European-born and educated orthodox Jews. With the development of an indigenous leadership, raised and educated in Israeli religious Zionist institutions, religious Zionism accorded theological and mystical value to the state – as long as the state allowed it to pursue its agenda.

The first significant cracks in the relationship between religious Zionism and the State occurred in the evacuation of the Yamit settlements, and the fissures increased during the Oslo years, which ended with Prime Minister Rabin’s assassination by a religious Zionist. During the Oslo years there were religious Zionists who wondered whether it was appropriate to say the prayer for the welfare of the State of Israel, so disappointed were they with the acts of the government.

Rabbi Avraham Wallfish, though not willing to go so far as some of the disappointed, wrote in the wake of the Disengagement from Gaza:

Of the three core values of Religious Zionism, statehood is the one most deleteriously affected by the Disengagement. Not only were the organs of statehood utilized for purposes most Religious Zionists regarded as morally and religiously wrong, but serious question marks were raised about the way in which they function, and in particular about the way in which they were seen to be riddled with special political interests and corruption…I think we need at the present time to scale down our axiological evaluation of the state. [3] (italics added)

For both Rabbi Wallfish and me, the State of Israel should not be assumed to be an unconditional value for religious Zionists; its worth must be measured against the standards of Torah in both its particularist and universalist elements. The dispute between us will be over which values and which political model fulfills better the demands of Torah and morality, and how best to implement that model in an imperfect world. A state that repeatedly violates the rights of the Palestinian Arabs subject to its dominion cannot, in my view at least, be the state that the Torah desires.

[1] For example, those rabbis who believe that saving Jewish lives supersedes holding on to greater Israel, and, hence, territorial compromise can be made.

[2] “Gerald Blidstein, Society and Self: On the Writings of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (New York, 2012), pp. 19-35.

[3] Avraham Walfish, “Religious Zionism Post Disengagement: Future Directions, ed. Chaim I. Waxman. New York, 2008, pp, 57-92, esp. 80-81.


Sunday, July 8, 2012

Progressive and Religious Zionist — Part Two

Given the orthodox record of silence on the plight of the Palestinian Arabs, is it consistent for somebody who defines him or herself as religious Zionist to be supportive of the rights of the Palestinians to live as a free people in their homeland? Is it consistent for such a Jew to be concerned with the crimes perpetrated against the Palestinian people over the six decades of the State of Israel’s existence, including expulsion, denaturalization, destruction of hundreds of villages, expropriation of property, pervasive legal discrimination, inequitable distribution of government funds – and all of this within the borders of what Peter Beinart calls “democratic Israel,” without even mentioning the occupation and control of the West Bank and Gaza for over two generations?

Perhaps consistency in these matters is unnecessary. After all, people have conflicting intuitions, loyalties, etc., and even those who strive for some internal consistency may end up compartmentalizing. One can be progressive on Palestine and orthodox Jewish without the two having much to do with each other. But the orthodox are not fond of such an answer, for there remains the rabbinic directive to ensure that allone’s deeds are for the sake of heaven. Even if we acknowledge that complex identities are formed from many conflicting and irreducible influences, we can attempt to see whether there is a common element that runs throughout them, sn element that can help others, should they desire, resolve some of the tensions within their own complex identities.

Fortunately, from the very beginning of religious Zionism until the present there runs a subterranean river of progressive thought that places rapprochement with the Palestinian Arabs at the center of binyan Eretz Yisrael, the building up of the Land of Israel. This “third way” of religious Zionism, a progressive religious Zionism founded on Torah and morality, is barely known to historians, and even less to those who consider themselves religious Zionists. It exists mostly in the publicistic writings of a handful of progressive religious Zionists thoroughly the twentieth century. Although most orthodox (and non-orthodox) supporters of Israel were indifferent to the injustices committed by Zionists against the Palestinians, there were voices in religious Zionism that regarded such injustices as violation of the Torah. These voices did not treat the Palestinians as “strangers among us” but rather as natives with national rights. They were willing to limit Jewish hegemony over Eretz Yisrael, or even curtail it, in the name of their progressive values. And they were orthodox Jews.

Some of their aspirations were not so distant from those of the mainstream Zionists in the 1920s and 1930s. Those familiar with the history of Zionism know that the Jewish ethnic-exclusivist state founded in 1948, and further crystallized through discriminatory legislations such as the Law of Return (1950), the Absentee Property Law (1950), the Nationality Law (1952), and the Land Acquisition Law (1953), differed considerably from most Zionist models proposed until World War II and the Holocaust. When Jews constituted a minority in Palestine, and especially after the Arab disturbances in 1929, mainstream Zionists floated several proposals for Jewish national self-determination, including binationalism, federalism, confederalism, etc. There were voices who recognized that Palestinian Arabs should have political rights, and that Palestinian nationalism was justifiable – and these voices included Vladimir Jabotinsky, who as late as 1940 wrote that
In every Cabinet where the Prime Minister is a Jew, the vice-premiership shall be offered as an Arab, and vice-versa. […] The Jewish and the Arab ethnic communities shall be recognized as an autonomous public bodies of equal status before the law […] Each ethno-community shall elect its National Diet with the right to issue ordinances and levy taxes within the limit of its autonomy and to appoint a national executive responsible before the Diet.[1]

Others went further, but conventional Zionist historiography after the establishment of the state either ignored these plans or dismissed them as utopian or merely tactical. As the Zionists gained in numbers and strength, and certainly after the 1948 War of Independence, the recognition of rights of the native Palestinians, most of whom were barred from returning to their homes, lessened considerably.There were religious Jews, some of them quite prominent, who called for building a just society together with the native Arabs of Palestine, who despised the increasingly militaristic and aggressive tendencies of the yishuv, and who never ceased to cry out against discriminatory policies, practices, and laws of the new state.

Yehoshua Radler-Feldman, who wrote under the name of R. Binyamin, is remembered today, if at all, as one of the founding members of the Brith Shalom circle and as a literary critic. But Radler-Feldman was also one of the central figures in religious Zionism, a visionary and activist who founded and edited religious Zionist journals, served as the secretary of Mizrahi, worked towards the establishment of a religious university, and was accepted in all circles of the yishuv. Although he left Brith Shalom shortly after its founding, he was a member of all subsequent societies that preached Jewish-Arab rapprochement, and he became the editor of the journal Ner, published by the Ihud Association, which had been founded by the binationalist Judah Magnes. Like Magnes, Buber and most other binationalists, Radler-Feldman, accepted the decree of history after the founding of the State of Israel. But he continued to raise his voice in protest against the discriminatory measures against Israeli Arabs, the expropriation of their lands, and the refusal to let the Palestinian refugees return to their homes.
Responding to Prof. Hugo Bergmann, who had criticized the decision to launch Ihud’s journal after the founding of the state, Radler Feldman writes:

My brother Bergmann: By providing “a platform for truth, love, and peace,” we do not have the idiotic intention that these three values are our exclusive possession.…Rather we wish to say – and to repeat and drill it to ourselves most of all – that we consider these three to be foremost in rank. Other people bend their knee to other important values, such as nation, homeland, class, religion, party, and family. Whereas we place the aforementioned values first, and subordinate all the others to them. We subordinate even the Holy One Blessed be He, Himself to them, for, so to speak, the Creator of these values is also subject to them, and must justify His governance before them.[2]

In 1939, after Jewish terrorists of the Irgun had conducted a series of attacks against Arab civilians, Radler-Feldman edited a collection of essays, addresses, manifestos, and publicistic pieces by Jews condemning the spilling of innocent Arab blood called, Against Terror. And already in 1907, while still in Galicia, he wrote the poem Masa’ Arav (‘An Arabian Prophecy’) which begins

When you come to inherit the land,
Do not come as an enemy and an adversary
But bring greetings to the inhabitants of the land
Build not your generations’ sanctuary in resentment, indignation, or enmity

But rather in love, grace, justice, and faith
Hatred will arouse strife, but love will allay wrath
It will bring brothers together, and make peace with the distant
You shall love the inhabitant of the land, for he is your brother, your self, your flesh

Do not avert your eye from him.
Do not hide yourself from your own flesh.

Radler-Feldman was an intense idealist, interested in literature more than in politics, but other religious Zionists associated with Ihud, like Prof. Akiva Ernst Simon and Dr. Simon Shereshevsky, also offered pragmatic and political considerations for their views, and in this they were closer to men like Magnes and Buber – though the question of the relation between morality and politics was always debated among them. Space doesn’t permit reproducing here the publicistic writings by religious Zionists who were critical of the state for its crimes against the Arab natives. Typical is this passage from Dr. Shereshevsky, writing in Haaretz in September, 19, 1969.

…People are speaking of “Greater Israel” and God’s promise to Abraham “To your descendants I have given this land, from the river of Egypt as far as the great river, the river” (Gen 15:18). Most of those who cite the verse are fascist unbelievers, or believers and God fearers with fascist opinions. What is the practical, real meaning today of the words, “To your descendants I have given this land,”, when Arabs have lived for generations on a great part of this territory. Who and what will symbolize this “greater Israel”? The soldier who is armed “from the sole of his foot to the top of his head,” the armored vehicle and the tank that strikes fear in the hearts of the citizens who live under a regime of “emergency regulations”?

Unlike contemporary critics of Israel’s behavior towards the Palestinians under occupation, such as Gideon Levy of Haaretz, the religious Zionist critics often appeal to traditional texts. But their rhetoric also has a contemporary ring, and their voices, silent for too many years, may serve as an inspiration for new generations of religious Zionists who have plenty to cry out against in this religious and Zionist wilderness.

Today, religious Zionists can be found among the young men and women who protest the Judaization of the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in Jerusalem, the removal of the Bedouin from their lands in the Negev, the ongoing siege of Gaza, and the never-ending theft of Palestinian lands and resources for settlements under the guise of “security.” They are the latest manifestion of the subterranean river of progressive religious Zionism that begins with Radler-Feldman, and which recognizes the rights of the Palestinian Arabs and Jews to live as free people in their land.


[1]The Jewish War Front (London, 1940), pp. 216-218, cited in D. Shumsky, “Brith Shalom’s Uniqueness Reconsidered: Hans Kohn and Autonomist Zionism,” Jewish History 25 (2011): 339-353, p.346.
[2]Ner 1:5.
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