An appeal for one secular state for all on the land of Israel/Palestine
Robert Cohen, Micah’s Paradigm Shift
July 7, 2012
This month’s blog post is something of a ‘re-boot of the franchise’, as they say in the film business.
It’s a year since I started Micah’s Paradigm Shift with its simple manifesto of ‘Act justly, love kindness, walk humbly’. Having dared to borrow words from the Hebrew Prophets, I’ve since adopted the strap-line: ‘Rescuing the Hebrew Covenant one blog post at a time’. In defence of such liberties, let me quote Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel who once said that the times call for: “moral grandeur and spiritual audacity”.
All this Biblical borrowing has been chosen to make clear to the followers of this blog that I place myself, and my observations on Israel/Palestine, firmly within a Jewish tradition. I say ‘a’ Jewish tradition since there are clearly multiple Jewish traditions that can be drawn upon. All of them have validity, but I find myself aligned to the strong core of Jewish thinking that places justice and a universal ethic at its heart and gives priority to this over all other considerations.
The tribal, nationalist and exclusivist elements that have always been a part of Judaism, are the ones we have to handle with upmost care and careful interpretation. In many respects they are the elements within our tradition that have been our great saving over the millennia, allowing us to survive in an often hostile and violent diaspora. But they are the same elements that now threaten to undo us when acted upon within the confines a Jewish State where Jewish privilege and Jewish power are dominant.
Micah’s Paradigm Shift has been an account of coming to grips with a non-Zionist or post-Zionist reading of Jewish history and Judaism. Or, to put it another way, my aim has been to search for a Zionism that is not at odds with justice, a Zionism that does not compromise or undermine the very Jewish tradition it sets out to protect. I’m searching for a Zionism that reactivates and reinterprets its mission to be a movement for Jewish renewal.
While many will point to the occupation of the West Bank and the blockade of the Gaza Strip as the great stains on Israel’s reputation, my own view is that it is inside the 1967 borders that the origins of Zionism’s innate injustice are to be found.
I’m not going to re-play the account of the Nakba in 1948 or detail the systematic, institutional discrimination that has existed ever since against Palestinian Israelis. What I want to challenge here is the liberal Zionist belief that these injustices can be redressed without a fundamental re-structuring and a thorough re-think of what Zionism should mean. I also want to contest the notion that the Jewish demand for national self-determination can only be achieved within a majority Jewish State.
Will the real ‘stranger’ please stand up
Liberal Zionism has often drawn on the strong Jewish tradition of consideration for the ‘stranger’ to argue for fair and just treatment for the Palestinians on both sides of the 1967 borders. There are countless commandments in the Torah reminding us that we too were once strangers in a foreign land. These commandments are central to the development of our ethical tradition:
“The strangers who resides with you, shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Leviticus 19:34
But which of us is truly the ‘stranger’ in this land? The Palestinian who can trace his direct ancestors back for hundreds of years or the British born Jew, like me, whose ancestors wandered across the Mediterranean, through the Spanish peninsula, across central Europe and then eventually to Poland, Russia and Lithuania and then back west to Ireland, Wales and England over a two thousand year sojourn?
A better guide to our understanding of just relationships between Jews and Palestinians within the Land of Israel would come from looking at the opening line of Psalm 24:
“The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it”
That deals with all forms of ‘blood and soil’ nationalism with short shrift. We are merely the temporary custodians charged with leaving the world a little better than we found it.
To think of the Palestinians as the ‘strangers’ and the ‘returning’ Jews as the true ‘owners’ of the land is both morally arrogant and historically ridiculous. We are all strangers, we are all neighbours, we are all guardians of the land.
What has happened to the Palestinians in Israel and in the occupied territories is the inevitable result of the way the State of Israel was founded and constituted. It is the reality of the ethno/religious nationalism adopted by mainstream Zionism that insisted that the only solution to ‘normalising the Jewish condition’ was the creation of a Jewish majority State.
Only a very few, marginalised, Zionists, like the philosopher and theologian Martin Buber and the first Hebrew University President Judah Magnes, were far sighted enough to recognise the inherent dangers of this approach. In the 30s and 40s they could see that a full-blown Jewish State would never bring a lasting peace. The Arab opposition to Zionism and the later refusal to accept a Jewish State made absolute sense to a people who could see their land being taken from them, their own national aspirations under threat.
Marx and Joshua
There is a painful and tragic continuity throughout the Zionist story. The secular pioneers who dominated the pre and post State period championed Jewish exclusivity to achieve their ends but expressed it in a socialist/collectivist enterprise. The religious nationalist zealots that have now become the Zionist vanguard have just carried on that tradition exchanging Karl Marx for the book of Joshua, Jewish-only Kibbutzim for Jewish-only Settlements and a territorially Greater Israel.
Israel will always find tolerating the ‘other’ an existential challenge to its very identity. Exclusivism, that can quickly degenerate into racism, is written in to this version of Zionism’s DNA – whatever the Declaration of Independence might say.
We have seen this played out in the treatment of Israeli Palestinians for more than sixty years, in the public acceptance and government support for the Settlements, in the attempts to make East Jerusalem Arab free, in the pushing of the Bedouin off their land, in the vigilante attacks on mosques, and most recently in the hysterically racist comments from members of the Israeli Knesset about the ‘cancer’ of Sudanese immigrants living in Tel Aviv.
However, none of this is meant to deny the genuine connection to the land for Jews – historically, religiously and culturally. Nor does it deny the reality of the six million Jews who have no other home but Israel and whose families have now been born and raised there for several generations. A different kind of Zionism could embrace all of this without wishing, as Theodor Herzl did, that the Arabs could somehow be ‘spirited over the border’ to guarantee a Jewish majority.
A Jewish renewal project
So what would a justice based version of Zionism look like?
Well it would certainly look very different to the Zionism we have grown accustomed to. It would owe a great deal more to the cultural and spiritual renewal calls of Asher Ginsberg (Ahad Ha’am 1856-1927) and to the writings of Buber and Magnes than it would to Theodor Herzl or David Ben Gurion.
Here’s a very brief summary, which I fully appreciate is much easier to write down than to put into practice. But then again, the Hebrew Prophets suffered from the same problem.
This will not be easy to achieve. In fact it will be very hard. But very hard is not the same as impossible. The first task is to get people to accept it as a solution that will bring true security and true peace for all concerned.
We have a one state solution right now to the Israel/Palestine conflict but it doesn’t look very pretty.
So let’s unify Eretz Yisrael and historic Palestine in the very same space.
It will have a united capital city in Jerusalem with international jurisdiction for the Holy sites of Jews, Christians and Muslims.
This new unified Israel/Palestine will be the state of all its citizens, protecting and respecting all national groups, as well as all other ethnic or religious communities.
It will be a religious and cultural homeland for the Jewish people guaranteeing them national self-determination but not exclusive rights or dominant power.
It will be a religious and cultural homeland for Palestinians too (Muslims and Christians).
A national truth and reconciliation programme will acknowledge the atrocities committed by both sides.
There will be the right of return for Palestinians and Jews, or reparations in kind from a global fund.
For Jews, the country will remain the world’s most important centre of Jewish learning and heritage complementing a strong and self-confident Jewish diaspora.
Christianity and Islam will be equally honoured within a country that clearly separates the governance of the State from any religious authority.
We’ll need a competition to find a new name too!
For both sides this will mean great sacrifice and great compromise. The parallel and conflicting national narratives for each side must finally change track and converge to reach a peace that is sustainable and just.
This is a Zionism worth championing, worth defending. A Zionism that would restore Jewish commitment to a vast generation of disaffected Jews. A Zionism that would end nationalism and restore justice as the centrepiece of Jewish thought.
It may sound outlandishly romantic and unobtainable but so did the idea of a Jewish State in the year 1912.
All of the points I have made here demand greater elaboration and that’s what they will get over the coming months.
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Micah’s Paradigm Shift: Rescuing the Hebrew covenant, one blog post at a time.