Jewish Dissent on Zionism and Israel Goes Mainstream

Yakov Rabkin
April 2006

Published in Arabic in As-Safir (Beirut) in April 2006.


By Yakov M Rabkin

It is gratifying that your paper paid attention the topic of my recent book on Jewish opposition to Zionism, recently published in Arabic (please insert the Arabic title). The review written by my distinguished colleague Professor Wissam Saade of St Joseph University (As-Safir, April 19) shows how important it is to make crucial distinctions between Jews and Jewish tradition, on the one hand, and Zionism and Israel, on the other.

From the outset, Zionists proclaimed their desire to transform the humble East European Jew into an assertive Hebrew who does not hesitate to use arms. To do so, they set to free him from the yoke of Torah and the Jewish tradition. It is not surprising that most Jews, in Palestine and elsewhere, vigorously opposed Zionism when it emerged in the late 19th century. Zionism and the powerful Zionist state continue to engender opposition.

Many Jews try to come to terms with the contradictions between the Judaism they profess to adhere to and the Zionist ideology that has taken hold of them. Quite a few of them, such as the New York historian Tony Judt and the former Deputy Mayor of Jerusalem Meron Benvenisti, now publicly ask whether the chronically besieged ethnic nation-state in the Middle East is “good for the Jews.” Many continue to be concerned that militant Zionism destroys Jewish moral values and endangers Jews in Israel and elsewhere. This debate has entered popular culture as well: The recent film Munich by Steven Spielberg sharply focuses on the moral cost of Israel’s chronic reliance on force. Several books published over the past few years – Prophets Outcast, Wrestling With Zion, The Question of Zion, The Myths of Zionism – are authored by Jews who are concerned about the same essential conflict between Zionism and Jewish values.

In January, the eminently pro-establishment Economist published a survey of “the state of the Jews” and an editorial that called on rank-and-file Diaspora Jews to move away from the “my country, right or wrong” attitude adopted by many Jewish organizations. At about the same time, a number of prominent Jews in Britain, Canada and the United States moved candid debate about Israel into mainstream, even conservative, publications. One can no longer dismiss this Jewish dissent as marginal when such figures as the multibillionaire George Soros and the Nobel laureate Harold Pinter publicly attack the Israel Lobby in the United States and assert their moral right and obligation to oppose Israel and its policies.
Making a stand for Jewish emancipation from the state of Israel and its policies has bridged some old divides and created new ones. Thus, an ultra-Orthodox critic of Israel, usually antagonistic to Reform Judaism, commended a Reform rabbi for saying that “when Israel’s Jewish supporters abroad don’t speak out against disastrous policies that neither guarantee safety for her citizens nor produce the right climate in which to try and reach a just peace with the Palestinians … they are betraying millennial Jewish values and acting against Israel’s own long-term interests.” Orthodox opponents of Zionism pay little attention to history, and the staunch rejection of Zionism by major rabbis of the last century is as valid as when it was first uttered. This is why, as Professor Saade rightly noticed, the usual periodization does not apply to this kind of historical account.

Their relationship with the state of Israel and with Zionism has polarized the Jews. The axis along which this polarization has taken shape does not correspond to any of the habitual divisions: Ashkenazi/Sephardic, observant/nonobservant, Orthodox/non-Orthodox. Each of these categories includes Jews who believe that the very idea of a Jewish state, and the human and moral price that it demands, undermines all that Judaism teaches, particularly the core values of humility, compassion and kindness. Divisions about Israel and Zionism are so acute that they may split Jews as irremediably as did the advent of Christianity two millennia ago. Christianity, which embodies a Greek reading of the Torah, eventually broke away from Judaism. Like Christianity, Zionism, reflecting a nationalist, romantic reading of the Torah and Jewish history, has come to fascinate many Jews.

It remains to be seen whether the fracture between those who hold fast to Jewish moral tradition and the converts to Jewish nationalism may one day be mended. However fateful for Jews and Judaism, this fracture may not necessarily affect Israel, which nowadays counts many more evangelical Christians than Jews among its unconditional supporters. Christian Zionists in America number in tens of millions. President George Bush Jr is just one of them, and, contrary to Professor Saade’s reproach, I make no judgment of the current US president’s abilities or performance.

Zionism and Israel are not quite academic subjects in Lebanon, and I can understand the mistake that Professor Saade makes when he claims that my book takes sides. However, it does not: it present the material and lets the reader judge. This has been confirmed by a vast readership in different languages around the world that has found my book fairly balanced. As a scholar, I try convey to the reader the context and the words of the protagonists in convincing fashion, and it is easy to confuse the message with the messenger when the message is fateful for the entire Middle East. A more careful reading of my book will also help Professor Saade discover that an entire chapter covers each of the issues he claims I ignore in my book, i.e. Messianism and Holocaust, in which I offer traditional Jewish views before focusing on the views of Jewish anti-Zionists on these phenomena.

The intellectual importance of clear thinking and distinguishing among concepts is quite obvious. Perhaps less obvious is its practical importance. This is where my book comes in. On the basis of significant but little known historical material it shows how different these concepts really are: Zionism, Judaism; Israel as a state, as a country, as a land, as the Holy Land; Jews (Israelis and others), Israelis (Jews and non-Jews), Zionists (Jews and Christians), and anti-Zionists (again, Jews and Christians). For example, when Israel is called a Jewish state this reaffirms the main Zionist claim and invites a dangerous confusion between faith and nationality. The issue of Zionism matters not only to Lebanese intellectuals but to all Lebanese well acquainted with practical applications of Zionism. This is why I salute the publication of my book in Arabic, which should help the reader in Lebanon and elsewhere in the Arab world to avoid dangerous and misleading confusions between Jews and Zionists.

Yakov M Rabkin is Professor of History at the University of Montreal and the author of Au nom de la Torah: une histoire de l’opposition juive au sionisme (PUL, 2004) which is also available in English, Italian, Spanish, Dutch and Arabic .

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Jewish Dissent on Zionism and Israel Goes Mainstream