Classical Zionism argued that the loss of political sovereignty involved the loss of Jewish political power, and hence the loss of Jewish political agency. Jewish existence was considered to be ahistorical in the diaspora, and Jews were shuttled from land to land “as a driven leaf.” Classical Zionism called for a “return of the Jewish people into history,” to use Emil Fackenheim’s phrase, and the return of power to Judaism. Jews would be for the first time in two thousand years the masters of their fate, not dependent upon the nations of the world. Jews would have real power, and hence, agency.
So it never ceases to surprise me that supporters of the Jewish state today, at the zenith of its power and influence, a power the founders of Zionism could never have imagined, actually deny Israel agency in its dealings with non-Jewish groups, especially the Palestinians. These supporters deny Israel agency in order to avoid moral accountability for its actions.
For example, it is well known that anti-Semitic activity correlates with hostile activities directed towards Palestinians. This has been shown in study after study. During the first two years of the Oslo Accords, anti-Semitic activity was at a record low. Yet when one holds Israeli actions in part responsible for ebb and flow of anti-Semitism (I emphasize, “in part”), many people say that no matter what Israel does, there will still be anti-Semitism; and that Israeli actions merely provide a convenient “excuse” or “pretext” for anti-Semitic activity. Israel has power, but it lacks agency; hence it is not at all responsible.
As of this writing, Israel has wreaked havoc on an entire population, killing over 1400 people, and wiping out whole neighborhoods. Yet supporters of Israel deny any responsibility on the grounds that Israel is merely reacting to Hamas’s provocation. In other words, Hamas forces Israel, against its will, to kill hundreds of civilians. One would think that Hamas is quite literally holding a gun to Israel’s back, saying, “We will kill you if you don’t kill our people.” Israelis will say, “What can we do? Our people are under attacks from rockets, We are forced to defend ourselves.”
Power without agency. No agency, no moral accountability.
The most recent attempt to absolve Israel of most of its moral accountability for war crimes is the philosopher and liberal Zionist, Michael Walzer, writing in The New Republic. Walzer has a novel argument; it is not so much only that Israel is forced by Hamas to commit war crimes, but rather it finds itself in the position of power in an asymmetric war, and this is almost a recipe for atrocities against civilians. Israel, or any strong power, can’t help but committing atrocities.
In asymmetric warfare, low-tech forces—call them terrorists, militants, or the more neutral "insurgents," which I will use—aim at the most vulnerable targets, civilians, and they launch their attacks from the midst of the civilian population. The high-tech forces respond, in defense of their own or of allied civilians, and end up killing large numbers of enemy civilians.
Walzer believes that in such circumstances, for the asymmetric war to be waged justly, the powerful party has to assume a certain amount of risk for its soldiers in order to spare the lives of civilians. He assumes that on the whole, Israel does this, despite bringing no evidence for that view (besides the curious fact that Israel is a “democracy”). He also assumes that Hamas deliberately launches rocket attacks from populated areas in order to inflate the number of civilian casualties from reprisals, despite bringing no evidence for that view either. Walzer has written about how powerful parties can wage an asymmetric war justly; he has written less, to my knowledge, about the weaker parties. He ends his article as follows:
I would strongly advise anyone contemplating the loss of life in Gaza to think carefully about who is responsible, or primarily responsible, for putting civilians at risk. The high-tech army, for all its claims to precision, is often callous and clumsy. But it is the insurgents who decide that the death of civilians will advance their cause. We should do what we can to ensure that it doesn't.
Once again, power without agency. So much for moral accountability.
So much for the Jewish return into history.