A Defence of Liberal Zionism

Dr. Yehezkel Landau, a dual Israeli-American citizen, was executive director of the Oz veShalom-Netivot Shalom religious peace movement and then co-founder and co-director of the Open House peace center in Ramle. From 2002 to 2016 he was a professor of Jewish tradition and interfaith relations at Hartford Seminary.  His response to Mark Braverman, a pro-Palestinian Jewish activist and writer, was published in tandem on the same Tikkun magazine website as Mark Braverman’s essay, “The Tormented Dance of the Colonizer: Peter Beinart, Liberal Zionism and the Battle for Palestine.”  Braverman’s essay is a wholesale condemnation of Zionism, which even assaults Beinart’s maverick binationalist position as representative of “Liberal Zionism.”  (For Dr. Landau’s June 2019 Tikkun essay, click on its title, “Can Zionism Be Redeemed?)

What follows is an abridged version of Dr. Landau’s response to Braverman, published by TTN with the former’s permission:

A Response to Mark BravermanA “Dispute for the Sake of Heaven?”

Even as I reject Braverman’s harsh anti-Zionist rhetoric—especially his use of secular leftist language to delegitimize Israel, such as “colonial settlement,” “racial supremacy,” and “ethnic cleansing”—I understand his essay to be an anguished moral appeal by a principled Jew.  . . . 

. . .  [H]is message is aimed at anyone—myself included—who believes that establishing a sovereign Palestine alongside Israel holds the promise of ending the Occupation, with its severe hardships imposed on Palestinians and its destructive corrosion of Israeli democracy. Braverman rejects the idea of Jewish statehood and majority status even in part of historic Palestine, deeming Jewish national independence there, within any borders, as inherently unjust and oppressive, . . .  

I am a dual Israeli-American citizen working for over 40 years to transform Israeli-Palestinian relations from a debilitating no-win war to a partnership based on equity, compassion, and mutual acceptance. As a believing and practicing Jew, my political lens is colored by an awareness of human fallibility and a deep appreciation for our tradition’s prophetic heritage. . . . These transformative practices center on what our Rabbinic sages call teshuvah, a willful reorientation of our actions based on honest confession of harm done, genuine remorse for that harm expressed to the aggrieved party, and concrete healing actions that restore, or create for the first time, a relationship of shared blessing.  . . . 

Our divergent views may reflect our respective frames of reference. I see the world as an Israeli Jew, whereas Braverman sees it from his own vantage point in Portland, Oregon. He seems to adopt the American norm of a nonsectarian, multi-ethnic society and seems to believe that Israel should conform to that political paradigm. Having lived for extended periods in both countries, I do appreciate the professed American ideals of “liberty and justice for all” as aspirational principles applied indiscriminately to all citizens. But Israel is a different kind of social experiment, created to both rectify a global injustice toward the Jewish people and also to enable Jews—at least those who prefer this constellation of identity coordinates—to reconstitute ourselves as a sovereign nation after two millennia of enforced exile. . . . Yes, the horrors of the Holocaust and earlier pogroms propelled many of us to embrace the morally compromised, and compromising, choice of political independence even in the face of Palestinian, and pan-Arab or pan-Muslim, resistance. But the physical threats to our wellbeing in the Diaspora do not constitute the only, or even the primary, incentive for re-establishing Jewish self-governance in Eretz Yisrael.  . . . These are material and spiritual achievements to celebrate, but none of them justifies the mistreatment of non-Jews or the denial of Palestinian national and individual human rights.

Unfortunately, the Holocaust is too often invoked to justify the Zionist homecoming project. I would never cite the Nazis’ demonic attempt to annihilate European Jewry as justification for Jewish national independence. For to do so engenders a psychologically unhealthy and a morally grotesque distortion of Jewish identity. It sets up a false binary choice between ongoing, immutable victimhood and a perpetual warrior mentality. This warped worldview, embraced by right-wing Jews in Israel and elsewhere, is reflected in the title of a chapter in former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s autobiographical book, The Revolt: “We Fight, Therefore We Are.” Viewed with compassion, this formulation of Jewish identity is understandable as a tragic reaction to the Holocaust and to the restrictions placed by the British on Jewish immigration to Mandatory Palestine. But such a worldview is not one that a religious humanist like myself would ever want to pass on to future generations.  . . . There is nothing constructive about it, and it requires hostile anti-Semites to define oneself against. Jewishness as a collective sensibility, and its political expression through a Zionist state, has to be grounded in a positive, creative, transcendent vision of a just and nurturing society.

Even as I profess this commitment to Jewish prophetic idealism, I am also a realist. I appreciate that by opting for a Jewish state in Israel/Palestine, Jews re-entered the realm of power politics, with its inherent moral dilemmas. Jewish critics of that fateful decision, including Mark Braverman, prefer a more ethically “pure” or unsullied existence, either in the Diaspora or under Arab sovereignty. As I indicated, they often transfer their American or Western norms for a democratic polity to the Middle East, which is a very different social and cultural milieu. In that region, which I prefer to call Western Asia to avoid Eurocentric biases, pluralistic or multi-ethnic and multi-confessional states are nonexistent—look at Lebanon, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, or Egypt as test cases. The weight of history and culture works against an American-style political system, which is itself replete with egregious flaws, including the systemic racism and cultural imperialism that drove the genocidal war against Native Americans and that justified the enslavement and later disenfranchisement of Black Africans. In Western Asia and parts of Eastern Europe (especially the Balkans following the collapse of Tito’s Yugoslavia), ethno-national states are the norm, reflecting ancient tribal notions of communal affinity. Given these historical and cultural realities, I consider Braverman’s anti-Zionist position to be morally flawed, culturally incongruous, and politically impractical. I remain convinced that a negotiated political agreement leading to separate, adjacent, democratic sovereignties holds out the best hope for accommodating both Jewish and Palestinian claims, rights, and aspirations to self-determination.

Instead of responding to every point that Braverman raises in his essay, my aim is to counter his overall perception of Zionism as inherently oppressive, colonialist, and criminal. I acknowledge that Braverman speaks for many other Jews, as well as non-Jews, who see nothing positive, let alone redemptive, in the Jewish national homecoming. But before presenting my counterarguments, I want to identify some points of agreement between Braverman’s position and my own. My reason for doing this is to exemplify the kind of empathy that the Talmud associates with the students of the great Sage Hillel. In Tractate Eruvin 13b, we read about an extended and heated argument over halakhah (Jewish normative practice) between the House or School of Hillel and that of Shammai. After a heavenly voice affirms that both positions, even though logically antithetical, serve as “words of the living God,” we are told that the halakhah in this case (as in most cases) is in accord with Hillel’s viewpoint. Why? The Talmud answers: “It is because the students of Hillel were kind and gracious. They taught their own ideas as well as the ideas from the students of Shammai. Furthermore, they even taught Shammai’s positions first.” In this spirit, I will briefly summarize four points on which Braverman and I find common ground:

First, invoking Tunisian Jew Albert Memmi, Braverman acknowledges: “In the case of Israel, however [in contrast to French colonial rule in Algeria], there is no parent or colonizer country for them to return to—the Jews of Israel are home. (The emphasis is in Braverman’s text). But in order for that home to be legitimate and sustainable, Israeli Jews must let go of the conviction that Jewish hegemony in Palestine is essential for Jewish survival, self-respect and dignity.” I share this descriptive and normative assessment.

Second, I agree that Jewish political empowerment anywhere, but especially in Israel/Palestine, comes with profound ethical challenges which, if not acknowledged and addressed, result in grievous harm to Palestinians and to others, including Jews in Israel and abroad.

Third, Israeli government policies that perpetuate systemic injustices and discrimination against Palestinians, whether Israeli citizens or not, violate fundamental Jewish imperatives to pursue inclusive justice, to forge compassionate and peaceful relations, and to sanctify every human life created in the Divine Image.

Fourth, unbridled nationalism or chauvinism, Jewish or otherwise, is a form of idolatry. In such a worldview, a particular human collective, in this case the Jewish people, is worshiped instead of the Divine. To prevent such sacrilege, a spiritual humanism grounded in Jewish tradition and reflecting its religious and moral ideals—including prophetic self-criticism—must be an essential and self-corrective dimension of a Jewish state’s ethos, laws, and governance.

I affirm these four statements as Jewish truth claims that I believe Braverman shares, at least implicitly.  . . . What follows are nine points of divergence, based on my reading of Braverman’s essay:

  1. Braverman’s rhetoric is belligerent and devoid of compassion for Jews in Israel or elsewhere. (In my decades of peacebuilding work, I have found that critics of inhumane policies, or advocates for more just and peaceful alternatives, often undermine their own efforts by using angry and violent language). Braverman denies that Jews have a right like any nation—including the Palestinians—to sovereign independence in their ancestral homeland.  . . .  Braverman sees militant Palestinians as nobly resisting evil, while he demonizes Zionist Jews in Israel and elsewhere, who are deemed guilty of the “original sin” of coveting and settling a land that rightfully belongs to another people. I consider Martin Buber’s open letter to Mahatma Gandhi in 1939, responding to the latter’s statement that “Palestine belongs to the Arabs,” as the most cogent argument by a religious humanist on this fundamental issue of conflicting territorial rights, claims, and aspirations.

  2. Traditional Jewish identity includes a deep sense of belonging to a particular people, Am Yisrael, and to a particular land, Eretz Yisrael.  . . .

  3. The Jewish people is no less indigenous to the land than the Palestinian people. The Zionist homecoming project, as understood by most Jews, is not a colonial conquest by a foreign power seeking to establish its rule in a distant land to exploit its people and resources. Instead, it is the third collective return from enforced exile, following returns from Egypt and Babylon in ancient times. Analogies to colonialist France in Algeria, or to white Europeans imposing racist regimes in southern Africa, or to white Anglo-Europeans usurping land from Native Americans in a campaign of genocidal warfare under the slogan of “Manifest Destiny,” are all historically incongruous . . . ; and these analogies are morally flawed, given the deep existential connection to the land felt and expressed by faithful Jews over many centuries. That said, it is incumbent upon Jews to engage the historical and existential narratives of Palestinians, in order to view them as complementary and not contradictory to Jewish/Zionist narratives.  . . . 

  4. In my understanding, human rights are both individual and communal. The essence of religious humanism is to uphold the sacred right of each human being to self-determination, for that is what is meant by personal freedom and dignity. By extension, social aggregates of human beings—namely, self-defined peoples with their own history, language, and culture—have a parallel right to collective self-determination through political sovereignty in their ancestral homeland, so that the whole people can enjoy collective freedom and dignity. Of course, as with individual liberty, the valid scope of this collective freedom is limited by the rights to liberty and dignity of others, either in the same territory or next door.  . . .

  5. There are different types or forms of Zionism, so any attempt to determine its “real” or “essential” characteristics is problematic, whether the attendant judgments are negative or positive. To isolate its self-interestedly nationalist dimension without acknowledging its humanist, internationalist, and spiritually visionary elements distorts the historical picture .  . . .

  6. The national or peoplehood dimension of Jewish identity includes the principle that all Jews are co-responsible for ensuring each other’s welfare and integrity. This covenantal bond—which goes beyond racial, ethnic, or cultural identity markers—is what the state of Israel is meant to embody in practical terms, while ensuring civil liberties and economic opportunities for the non-Jewish citizens of the state. To the extent that a prolonged state of war has eclipsed this humanistic ideal (expressed in Israel’s Declaration of Independence), it needs to be recovered and vigorously promoted; and that is one key reason why Israel, for its ethical and spiritual integrity, needs to sacrifice territory for the sake of inclusive justice, comprehensive peace, and genuine security.

  7. The conflict over the land of Israel/Palestine is not a dualistic morality play. The two parties to the conflict, the Jewish and Palestinian peoples, cannot be simplistically labeled as oppressors and oppressed, or villains and victims. Both peoples have been trapped for over a century in a no-win war over a common homeland. Their conflict, exacerbated by outside powers, was created and sustained by the clash of two legitimate national rights and two legitimate national aspirations for collective freedom and dignity. Both peoples deserve to be self-governing and physically secure in that shared homeland.

  8. The number of sovereign states, provinces, or cantons to be established between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River is an instrumental question. The boundaries between Israel and Palestine should be negotiated by authorized representatives of both nations, and the resulting map should reflect the principle of separate sovereign entities for the two peoples. Minority communities should be able to exist and flourish in each sovereign territory; and, ideally, cross-border initiatives in a range of fields, to build relationships of shared benefit, should be jointly implemented.

  9. Finally, we need to acknowledge that all human undertakings, including nation-building, are admixtures of light and darkness, virtue and vice, since they reflect the dappled nature of human existence.  . . .  Even outwardly idealistic actions or policies—including the Jewish and Palestinian struggles for independence—will be morally compromised by the shadow elements in our personalities. When imperfect individuals band together to achieve something greater than any individual’s welfare, the imperfections are bound to be amplified, with resultant suffering both outside the group and within. And when actions are “justified” by appeals to survival or physical safety, the consequences are liable to be cruel and destructive. Braverman is justified in viewing Zionism as “a tragically flawed project,” but so are all human endeavors, including the Palestinians’ struggle to achieve their own legitimate rights. Braverman, sadly, directs his caustic criticism to only one side of this tragic conflict.