Sunday, July 8, 2007

Are You a Moral Zionist? Take the Test!

Zionism, like other things, comes in various shapes and sizes. I, for one, am a Zionist who doesn't believe that the State of Israel as founded in 1948 is a good idea; it has to be changed fundamentally to make it into a liberal democracy with a more vital and challenging Jewish component. Political Zionism may have been a reasonable idea at the time, especially if you came from Eastern Europe, but it hasn't worked out well. When Magnes addressed the Jewish Agency and said that declaring a state would provoke unending war with the Arabs, he was laughed at. Who's got the last laugh now?

But today, I want to talk about a different division of Zionism, not one of political vs. cultural, but moral vs., well, not-so-moral. And I have devised a test that you can take to judge your morality meter. I know, I know, this is "beyond Chutzpah," to use Norm Finkelstein's phrase (so don't accuse me of plagiarism!), but there is a point to the exercise.

Are you a moral Zionist. Answer these questions!

1) As part of your education about Israel (youth group, synagogue, Hebrew school, Hillel, etc.), you were told that the Jordanians desecrated Jewish holy sites and cemetaries between 1948 and 1967, but that Israel respected Arab holy sites. Now you learn that the Israeli government had a deliberate policy of destroying Arab towns and villages (around 500 of them), including sixty mosques, many of great archaeological value, over the objections of Israeli archaeologists.

Your reaction is:

A. To feel outrage that you were lied to, and to acknowledge that Israel lost the moral high ground on this issue.

B. To accept responsibility for the actions of Israel, to discuss ways of commemorating the towns and mosques, to issue an apology to the Palestinians and Muslims.

C. To say, "Look, all emerging nations try to obliterate the past of their enemies; we are no different from anybody else. So maybe wiping out the towns was not nice, but that's the way the world works."

D. To say, "Those ghost towns and empty mosques posed a serious security threat to the State of Israel, and we were perfectly justified to wipe them out. Anyway, if the Arabs hadn't attacked us, they wouldn't be ghost towns"

2. You were always taught that the land for settlements in Judea and Samaria were obtained according to law, and that the Arab demand for making parts of Eretz Yisrael "Judenrein" was antisemitic. You now learn that many settlements were built on Palestinian private land, that much private land was declared public land by dubious legal methods unrecognized outside of Israel, and that the distinction between private and public land is actually irrelevant, because all of the land is considered by the world "Occupied" except by some Israelis, Zionist Jews, and Christian fundamentalists. Your reaction to this:

A. To feel outrage that you were lied to, and to acknowledge that Israel lost the moral high ground on this issue.

B. To agitate for the removal of the settlements, and at the very least to call for a complete freeze and a government accounting.

C. To shrug your shoulders and say, "There was a war, and these are spoils of war."

D. To say, "This is Eretz Yisrael, man; if they don't like it, they can move to Detroit."

3. You were always taught that the Palestinians fled during the 1948 and 1967 fighting because their leaders urged them to do so, so they could come back after the Arab victory and loot the Jewish stuff. You now learn that Palestinians were forcibly expelled as part of IDF policy, and at any rate, even those who left voluntarily, or happened to be away at the time, were not allowed to return to their birthplace as part of a strategy to provide a Jewish majority, and that this strategy of transfer had already been discussed by the executive of the Jewish Agency prior to the State. Your reaction is to:

A. To feel outrage that you were lied to, and to acknowledge that Israel lost the moral high ground on this issue.

B. To urge Israel to take responsibility for creating the plight of the refugees, by its sovereign decision not to let any of them back in, in violation of UN resolution 194.

C. To say that the rights of the Jews to a state of their own involved, inevitably, getting rid of a large number of Arabs, and that the justice of Zionism outweighs the resulting injustice to the Palestinian Arabs.

D. To argue that life is tough, that your parents or grandparents were refugees, and that the Arabs themselves kicked out the Jews from their countries, that their own brethren should take responsibility for them the way Jews take reponsiblity for their refugees, that the Palestinians could have stayed put, that the whole damn thing is their fault, and that, anyway, refugees are a fact of life, expecially after World War II.

Well, I'll stop here.

If you answered A or B to all three, then you are an adult and moral Zionist. Pat yourself on the back, and feel bad about being a bleeding-heart.

If you answered C, then you are an amoral Zionist; or to use the jargon, you believe in realpolitik. We won; they lost; let's eat. You may use the language of morality (cf. 3C), but that's just for outward consumption and inward self-justification. The bottom line for you is that even if Jewsact immorally, the only thing that really matters is that are alive to act at all. If "being moral" entails national suicide, then forget about morality.

If you generally answered D, then you are an immoral Zionist. Or you are a moral Zionist, whose conception of morality is that of Tony Soprano or Meir Kahane. In the professional jargon, it's called "Mafia Morality." This usually means that you do an enormous amount of hesed work, that you always have guests for shabbat, that you give a lot charity to Jewish causes, and that you would do anything, anything for anybody who is a member of the tribe. But that if somebody is not a member of the tribe, then he or she has worth only in so far as she is good for the tribe.

(I will have a post later on Torah morality according to Tony Soprano (or Dov Lior, or Yisrael Rosen, etc.))

If you answered B to all the questions, then send me an email -- we should have coffee together some day.




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Anonymous said...

As a resident of Efrat, I found your blog doing a search for the name of my town.

I admit that I find your questions thought provoking - proof of which is that I've been thinking about them for days before I finally got around to responding.

I'm not sure where to start, so I hope I don't come across as rambling too much.

First of all, I have a problem with your use of the word "Zionist" in the context of this question. For you could ask either side of any international dispute how they feel about the morality of their own country. Ask an Indian if they were moral towards the Pakistanis, ask a Croation how they feel about the way they treated the Serbs. But only Zionism is identified as an ideology, which of course one can opt out of if they choose.

Secondly, with all due respect, how do you get to decide what is moral and what isn't? I can see that you follow Magnes, and therefore I assume Buber, Hermann Cohen and Kant as well. And yes the Kantian philosophical model allows for no distinction between different people or different nations.

But although I have a lot of respect for Kantian philosophers - from Thoreau and Emerson to Rav Soloveitchik and Leibowitz, it seems to me that this model has failed when it comes to the Jews.

Perhaps a better one would be from the natural world - is it immoral for the lion to eat the gazelle? And is it moral for the gazelle to escape the lion - with all means necessary? I recently saw a fascinating Youtube video where waterbuffalo rescued one of their young from lions by attacking the lions. Was that moral?

Now you can say that we are humans, not animals, and should be held to a higher standard. And I agree. But if an animal comes to attack me, I will defend myself with no concern about morality. I don't even feel that vegetarianism is obligatory from a moral standpoint. And so when the rest of the world acts like animals, the Jews have no choice but to be more concerned about their own welfare than that of their enemies. The moral equation at that point is simply broken, and many of your questions simply are not relevant any more.

And I think this was the big failure of your hero Magnes. He refused to realize that the Arabs didn't want the Jews here at all. The Germans wouldn't let the Jews live in Europe. There was simply no place for a Jew to go and survive. His opposition to open immigration in the 1930s probably cost thousands of Jewish lives. Had he succeeded in his opposition to a Jewish state - who knows how many more lives would have been lost.

And one last question. You identify yourself as an Orthodox Jew - I don't doubt it. There were many in the Aguda who supported the Magnes approach. But how do you reconcile the Torah's particularlist approach with that of Magnes and his teachers - who said that it is immoral for the Jews to have any special status?

Reb Yudel said...

A small for-the-record nitpick (from a semi-moral Zionist... one who alternates between amoral and moral): "Meir Kahane" is how he spelled it in America.

Avi said...

What does Zionism mean to you, since clearly one can't make aliya/immigrate to Israel or support Jewish nationalism in the historic homeland (if one supports a 2 state solution would that be OK?) or is it Jews living over the '67 borders bad simply b/c "it's all Palestinian" (Tel Aviv University is built over the ruins of an Arab village, why is that OK but not Gush Etzion or Ma'ale Adumim)?

I don't mean to be rude, but what's acceptable and what isn't? What about pluralism and multiple legitimate opinions?

Jerry Haber said...


Well, now that I know some thoughtful people (such as you) are reading this blog, I will have to write less glibly than I have been doing.

Your post raises many deep questions, and I will try to elaborate on them in the future.

But I want to take a stab at a few al regel ehas.

With respect to morality: There are few people I know, even moral philosophers, who operate consistently according to one moral theory. A strict Kantian who says that a child in India has as much claim on us as our own child from a moral standpoint is odd. A strict utilitarian who says that we should kill a hundred people if it is for the greater good seems odd as well. We often appeal to different theories, intuitions, and traditions (if we are traditional), to justify what we do.

Most people I know try to justify their practices with some moral argument. But, in the best tradition of Litvish musar, we have to be self-critical about our motivations and be wary of our moral posturing.

Magnes was a realist. He knew that he had not found Arabs to agree with him. (And, frankly, I can understand why the Arabs would not agree with him.) But one of the reasons why they did not agree with him is that they knew that he spoke for only a handful of people.

What Magnes wanted to do was to avoid the unilateralism that would lead to war. In that he was the polar opposite of Ben-Gurion. He insisted that no state should be declared without the approval of the Arabs of Palestine. And if they did not approve, then there should be no state.

More to come

Anonymous said...

I have to ask you - do you really believe that had we not declared a state there would not have been a war - or a massacre? The Arab cooperation with the Nazis during WWII doesn't lead you to the opposite conclusion?

I have a real hard time seeing how you can justify Magnes's opposition to a state knowing what we know now.

Unknown said...

"I, for one, am a Zionist who doesn't believe that the State of Israel as founded in 1948 is a good idea; it has to be changed fundamentally to make it into a liberal democracy with a more vital and challenging Jewish component."

Can you elaborate on this?

Jerry Haber said...

I can elaborate on it not when I am fasting...actually, I need to do some serious posting on this...
But here are some points.

My idea of a liberal democracy, is, not unnaturally, America. In a democracy like America's nationality and citizenship are coextensive. I think that it is vital for a liberal state to foster a sense of community and commonality by virtue of the belief (call it fictional), of being part of a common nation.

Now there are other liberal democracies that are nation states, in which the nation in some sense precedes the state. We have seen what an overemphasis on the ethno-cultural nation has led to in the twentieth century. But you can have ethno-cultural democracies, in which one group is the dominant culture, AND still be a liberal democracy. And that is if you foster the belief that one joins, in some way, the nation by becoming a citizen. So, for example, in Germany it is very difficult to be a citizen if you are not an ethnic German, but once you become a citizen, you are part of the German nation.
This is what Israel should have done. There should be an Israeli nationality that fosters a sense of commonality across ethnic lines.
To me, this is a model that bridges the sort of multi-culturalism that leads to Balkanization on the one hand, and a uni-culturalism that stamps out minority culture on the other hand.
Or to put this simply --
Ahmad Tibi and I share something deep, and that is that we are both part of what the Israeli people. He is not just a Palestinian and I am not just a Jew -- wily-nily, we share something in common, the language, the culture, etc. I think these bonds should be fostered.
That means that Judaism has to withdraw from the State in a way that Christianity has withdrawn to some some extent, anyway, from the US.
Hope this is of some health.

Unknown said...

That was thoughtful and of some help. Israel was founded in a unique way – and whatever may have been a healthier or better way to found it is I think unknowable, interesting to contemplate but ultimately may not lead the way forward. But I think the uniqueness of its founding seems to complicate it becoming just like other modern democracies.

I’m not particularly nationalistic. The last century provided some good lessons on where that can lead. There is something interesting and mildly more attractive about Israel than some forms of nationalism. It was founded in defense rather than offense (although there has been an abundance of offense since the founding.) So whereas city-states and people coalesced into nations to form armies And solidify identities the Jews followed an idea to defend themselves against the suffering of being a minority.

So how do you take a nation founded like that and find a way to have it become like the others?

How do you do this in an area that if they were to become a true democracy would find themselves once again a minority?

What kind of a suicidal people would Jewish Israelis be – given the history of the Jews and the present day elections of Islamists to become a minority once again? Maybe secular Jews shouldn’t be in a sea Islam – but there they are.

I very much appreciate your responding. I am not familiar with your approach and find it interesting. I am wrestling with my own feelings about this.

I wish you an easy fast.

Aliza said...

oh jerry!
i love your blog.
but you might answer a/b and call yourself a postzionist or something. i quite like that you call yourself a zionist, its good to reclaim words. but for some it's just more natural to see themselves as coming after that. not to deny whats good there, but.. not to have to --be-- it.

anyway. thank you much for your interesting reflections and contributions!!!

Jerry Haber said...

I owe you (and the world) a post on "Why I am a Zionist", or "Why Do I Consider Myself a Zionist". But I can answer on one foot:

1) I am a liberal nationalist (well, there goes half my readership...)

2) I am a Jewish nationalist. I think the Jews constitute a nation or a people, or at least we do in my own consciousness. "They are a nation in the original sense of the term," said Moritz Steinschneider, the great Jewish historian (who was an anti-Zionist)

3) I think that Eretz Yisrael is a central element of that nationalism (or peoplehood, if you like), and I am proud of the creation of a Hebraic culture, with a strong Jewish element, in Israel (there goes the second half of my readership....)

4) Because of 1) I cannot be a political Zionist. So call me a cultural Zionist. I am trying to reclaim a notion of Zionism (I am not alone) that was destroyed with the Holocaust and the founding of Israel.

5) So I am not a post-Zionist -- unless you identify Zionism with political Zionism.

6) You may find some elaboration on this in my Zionism without a Jewish State post.

David Kessler Author said...

I wouldn't give any of those answers. I like to answer in my own words and not be spoon-fed with other people's multiple-choice answers. I guess that makes me an anarchist-Zionist.

Jerry Haber said...

No, David, it makes you a) a thoughtful human being; b) a contrarian; c) somewhat reserved; d) unwilling to play along; e) none of the above.

If you want to answer in your own words, go ahead.