Friday, June 29, 2012

Religious Zionist and Progressive on Palestine–Part One

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.