By Alice Rothchild*
*Note: Alice Rothchild serves on the Board of Directors of Just World Educational
So it’s Rosh Hashanah, the Day of Judgment and Remembering, and we of the Jewish persuasion are beginning ten days of intensive reflection that culminates in Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. We are urged to engage in self-examination, both of our personal lives and of our behaviors and attitudes in the complex world in which we live and contribute. This introspection and renewal involves taking personal responsibility for our destiny and the destinies of our communities, being unsparingly honest, and actively apologizing and forgiving. I love this part of my tradition because words are not enough; there are no Hail Marys, there is no forgiveness from on high, and at the end of the day, we actually have to DO better in our relationships with ourselves and our world. If you are a spiritual person, you have to work on that too in the here and now; there is no backup heavenly place where everything will come out fine.
As a secular Jew who finds our traditions and culture part of the bedrock of my psyche I am obsessed by a topic that is most fraught and perilous in the Jewish community. We are besieged by forces right and left with the message that Judaism is Zionism and uncritical support of Israel is a core Jewish value, in fact the only nonnegotiable ticket to community acceptance. For these reasons at this time, I cannot ignore my relationship to Israel/Palestine. For me, this annual introspection invites an honest evaluation of history in all its voices, a recognition of the behavior and policies of the pioneers and fighters who created the State of Israel, an examination of the foundations of modern political Zionism and its current day consequences, and ultimately a willingness to express regret and apology. This is a perfect topic for the Ten Days of Awe and fully within our prophetic tradition which is focused on issues of justice.
So, how do we define ourselves as Jews in the Diaspora while living in the era of a hyper Jewish nationalism? For the me the first step is examining the realities and framing of history and claiming it in our own voice. The Israeli historian Ilan Pappe, in his A History of Modern Palestine, notes that early Zionism was a European phenomenon with a clear disregard for indigenous populations. Early Zionists relied (cautiously) on the goodwill of colonial powers. (The Jewish homeland could have been in Palestine, Argentina, or even Uganda.) The Zionists carved out territory in Mandate Palestine as a haven from European persecution, (which was an understandable motivation given the pogroms and anti-semitism of the time), and this became a clearly settler colonial movement when it focused on a national revival in the land of Palestine for Jews at the exclusion of the people actually living there. This was both an intellectual concept focused on the predicament of European Jewry (which was largely described as endless persecution and anti-semitism despite Spinoza, Marx, Freud, Einstein, etc.,) and also a practical solution for getting rid of the Jews in Eastern Europe and plopping them someplace else.
The work of Theodore Herzl, one of the leaders of this movement, was based on an intellectual Jewish proto-Zionism born in in the 1850s in Eastern Europe. This was the first invention of Judaism as an ideology of a nation rather than as a religion guided by scripture and history. Leaders like Chaim Weizmann who mixed nationalism and revolutionary socialism, heightened by the fact of pogroms and the policies of the Russian czar, were called called territorial Zionists.
Bolstered by the Dreyfus affair in France, Herzl became convinced that assimilation was impossible, European anti-semitism inevitable, and it was time to leave for Zion. He developed the imperative that Jewish survival depended on the colonization and building of a nation state using the model of a European nation state, but with Jewish farmers, laborers, engineers, skilled workers, the new muscular, bronzed, fighting Jew. This was all intermixed with Jewish socialist movements and the right wing drifting towards fascism Jabotinsky types. Much was funded by Baron Edmond de Rothschild, (no relation).
At 1897 at the First Zionist congress in Basle, the rabbis sent to check out the Holy Land, famously telegraphed back, “The bride is beautiful but she is married to another man.” Exclusive Jewish sovereignty in a foreign land was controversial and opposed by religious rabbis as well as many intellectuals. Everyone knew this was not land without a people. The religious and thinking folks believed that the Jewish people were essentially a spiritual group and that the creation of the state, which entailed guns, politics, bureaucracy, and money, would mean the empowerment of Judaism and the death of Judaism as a philosophy, an ideal, and a faith.
One of the most well-known thinkers was Martin Buber who advocated a bi-national Palestine based not on a colonial alliance but on cooperation and parity between Jews and Arabs. He saw Zionism as the self-expression of a rebirth of a Jewish collective that could only exist on its own soil with its own language, unpolluted by the trappings of a modern state. In a 1949 letter, he clearly warned of what was to come (and did).
And when this hollow peace is achieved, how then do you think you’ll be able to combat “the spirit of militarism” when the leaders of the extreme nationalism will find it easy to convince the young that this kind of spirit is essential for the survival of the country? The battles will cease — but will suspicions cease? Will there be an end to the thirst for vengeance? Won’t we be compelled, and I mean really compelled, to maintain a posture of vigilance forever, without being able to breathe? Won’t this unceasing effort occupy the most talented members of our society?
Yes, a goal has been reached, but it is not called Zion…[The] day will yet come when the victorious march of which our people is so proud today will seem to us like a cruel detour.
Yehuda Magnes wrote that Diaspora Jews and Jews living in Eretz Israel were equally important to the Jewish nation. He worked for years on reconciliation with the Arab population and before 1948 objected to a particularly Jewish state. He and the group Berit Shalom, found in 1925, advocated a binational state where Jews and Arabs would share equal rights. Magnes also predicted that even if Jews won the war, that this would produce a series of wars that would never end. While neither Buber nor Magnes used this language, they both understood on some level that as Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi described, ethnic cleansing was to be Zionism’s “original sin.” Neither understood the colonial aspects of Zionism.
(Much of this summary thanks to Eve Spangler, Understanding Israel/Palestine: Race Nation, and Human Rights in Conflict.)
I would like to point out that the death knell for the anti-Zionist movements of the Jewish left and right was the Holocaust. In the wake of the most awful example of the evil of Jewish powerlessness, the anti-Zionism of all camps felt untenable and most Jews endorsed a need for Jewish power above all else as a survival strategy. Most Jews became Zionists, although few Jews packed their bags at LaGuardia, waved goodbye to Lady Liberty, and headed for Ben Gurion airport. Israel became an insurance policy, a just in case kind of place for the largely upwardly mobile Diaspora.
If we come back to Rosh Hashanah, why is this conversation so hard? At dinners across the land, after the candles are lit and the pot roast and vegan alternatives are on the table, voices will be raised as families argue about Israel, it is almost a tradition. Look at our cultural self-image, our idea of who we are. We Jews do not commit genocide or massacres, or rapes; we are the “light unto the nations.” My mother was very clear on this: that is how the goyim act, but not us.
So it is exquisitely painful to acknowledge, (particularly after the Holocaust) that one of the consequences of founding the State of Israel was the destruction of an indigenous people who had lived there for centuries, (Jews, Muslims, Christians). These folks were not interested in being colonized or losing land so this conflict is not really about Arabs fighting against Jews, it is about Arabs challenging Zionism which is a political, national movement that privileges Jews over everyone else. This not only challenges our cultural self-image, but acknowledgement of the Nakba, the Palestinian dispossession, devastation, and death in 1948, and the Naksa, the Palestinian dispossession, devastation, and death in 1967, also entails apology, recompense, and reparations. I would argue that this is one of the critical tasks for the Ten Days of Awe.
And these traumas are not a thing of the past. Political Zionism now in practice has produced a settler colonial state founded on the basis of establishing an Arab free state, where Jewish trauma, aspirations, and history are privileged at the expense of everyone else and this continues to this moment. A brutal occupation is celebrating its 50th year of “reclaiming Judea and Samaria” while 800,000 Jewish settlers mostly live well in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and Netanyahu promises more. Gaza is dying under ongoing genocidal policies, what Netanyahu calls, “Mowing the lawn.” Since 2008, there have been three massive assaults that have destroyed the infrastructure, much of the function of civilian society, taken or damaged the lives of many thousands of mostly civilians, not to mention the provision of electricity and drinkable water. Add this to the crushing economic and human siege and the utter disregard for the ongoing and deteriorating human catastrophe that I personally bore witness to in March 2015 and January 2017. This cannot be justified by the argument that given the injustices of the world, we have to do this to save ourselves. We are morally corrupted by being able to do this.
In May 2016 +972 announced that the Israeli human rights organization, B’Tselem had lost all faith in the Israeli military justice system and was no longer cooperating on behalf of Palestinian victims. “They said 25 years of working with the military ‘has brought us to the realization that there is no longer any point in pursuing justice and defending human rights by working with a system whose real function is measured by its ability to continue to successfully cover up unlawful acts and protect perpetrators.’” NGOs are now viewed as enemies of the (democratic) State of Israel.
So what happens when someone like me leaves the comforts of my bubble and ventures out into the universe of mainstream Jews? Third Place Books in Seattle is located close to four temples, two Ashkenazi and two Sephardic. When my book reading from Condition Critical: Life and Death in Israel/Palestine was announced, StandwithUs and some local temple folks called to express their displeasure at my invitation, but didn’t ask to cancel the reading. I planned some stories from the book interwoven with blogs from my trip in January 2017 and some political analysis. The book store works hard to have good relations in the neighborhood but said it supported an open and civil discussion of important issues. Half the people at my reading came to oppose me.
At the beginning, there were some disruptive folks, one yelled, folks harrumphed and walked in and out and made exasperated gestures, and then when it became clear I was not going to engage in a screaming match and that I was going to continue reading, a number of folks walked out.
During the Q&A, there was a long rambling statement/question from a Jewish Israeli former settler now Seattle-ite who said the conflict is over, no one cares, Israel won, why bother, this is basically a non-issue. I reviewed the various unstable conditions, siege of Gaza, occupation, inequality within Israel, both for Palestinian citizens and Jews of color, immense ongoing human suffering, and said this was inherently an unstable situation, so it was far from “over”. In fact, the more repressive the Israelis get, the more hopeless the Palestinians will get and the more young men will turn to militancy which is very dangerous for Israel. Additionally there are millions of Palestinians in refugee camps and the diaspora living in a political/economic limbo, desperately in need of a resolution. I wondered, if the Germans paid restitution to Israel why is Israel not held to the same standard? Are Palestinians less human? How can you just write them off?
Then there is the question of American Jews whose dedicated support and uncritical love has been central to the Israeli success story. These mostly liberal Jews are finding it increasingly difficult to support Israel and its policies on many fronts. Witness the frantic explosion of hasbara efforts on campuses and the aggressive muzzling of dissent in our own communities.
Some were puzzled over my framing, (they shortened it to “Israelis bad, Palestinians good” which was not at all what I was saying). I tried to reframe (based on my own research and the reading of Palestinian and Israeli historians and writers) that this is a settler colonial struggle over land, indigenous people do not usually welcome colonizers or efforts to divide their land, plus the Bible is being used to justify political aims. But attitudes run deep, there was a question about some racist Arab Sesame Street show (didn’t happen) and why would anyone name their kid “Jihad” when it means Holy Warrior. The name is common and actually means struggle, both external and personal to be a better Muslim.
(And by the way, the name Mark is derived from the old Latin “Mart-kos”, which means “consecrated to the god Mars”, i.e., the God of War, i.e., war-like. Now why would anyone name a cute little baby boy that? Give me a break.)
These questions clearly came from the Arabs are distrustful, violent, out to destroy us, not to be trusted until proven otherwise department.
I was told that Palestinians had refused their own state eight times, starting with Sykes/Picot (code Israelis want peace, Arabs are impossible) and I responded, “Why would indigenous people accept colonization by an outside group organized by British colonialists, Jews, the UN? Besides, Yasser Arafat accepted the two state solution in 1988, Saudi Arabia and the Arab League agreed to a two state solution in 2002 and Hamas tacitly accepted two states when it agreed to be part of an election. Plus a recent study looking at Israel and Gaza found that 79 percent of all conflict pauses were interrupted when Israel killed a Palestinian. The tragedy is that Israel rejected these offers and was unable to imagine that 78% of Mandate Palestine was actually a very generous offer.
This led into a question about how Jews are indigenous and have a right to their own state. I reminded the questioner that we can’t use biblical claims to justify modern day states, Jews were a small minority until Zionist immigration, Palestine was a multicultural region with Muslims, Christians, and Jews, living together fairly peaceably until the forces of British colonialism and Jewish privilege (Zionism) arrived. I do not see why this gives the Jewish state the right to Jewish dominance and privilege, perhaps the only realistic approach is best to share land and resources as equals.
I was challenged by a questioner stating that anti-semitism and criticizing Israel are the same and I explained at length the difference between hating a people/organization/country solely because it is Jewish from criticizing a state that speaks in my name. I was told that I did not have “skin in the game” like an Israeli citizen or settler. That does not ring true to me when the Israeli government claims to speak for all Jews, when repressive and aggressive Israeli policies act as a trigger (though surely not an excuse) for rising anti-Semitism in the world, and where annual US foreign aid to Israel (to the tune of $3.2 billion and counting) could well be spent on my schools and bridges and public transportation.
These are the kinds of questions and attitudes coming from a religious community of Jews that are very reflective of the usual Israel messaging that I encounter in this country. Despite my lack of rabbinical creds, as we do the work that inspires these high holidays, I hope that my sisters and brothers will examine Israeli exceptionalism and come to understand that is an obstacle to honest conversation about human, civil, and political rights in the Middle east and impedes a positive search for improving human rights and ending colonialism in this century. I believe political Zionism is a violation of our religious and secular/cultural principals. After centuries of powerlessness, how we as a community handle our new position of power and privilege is critical to the survival of an ethical Jewish tradition as well as a just resolution to a more than century old struggle in historic Palestine that is being fought in our name.