The underground stream that may redeem the name of Zionism
For Part 1 of this 2-part essay, see Religious Zionists need not attach special meaning to Israel
By Jerry Haber, Magnes Zionist
July 08, 2012
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 all one’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, an 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
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.
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.
The Jewish War Front (London, 1940), pp. 216-218, cited in D. Shumsky, “Brith Shalom’s Uniqueness Reconsidered: Hans Kohn and Autonomist Zionism,” Jewish History25 (2011): 339-353, p.346.