Redemption of Israel

Yakov Rabkin
March 2002

Written for The Gazette (Montreal) in March 2002.

Redemption of Israel

by Yakov M Rabkin*

As Passover continues this week, conversations around the holiday table are likely to turn to Israel. Some will ask: How can one celebrate one’s freedom but deny it to the neighbour? While Jews, both inside and outside Israel, are divided on the legitimacy of Israel’s occupation, it has done serious damage to the image of the Jews and to the image of Judaism, and the damage is growing by the day.

Few instances in recent memory have put Jews and Judaism in such an unfavourable light. Both are largely viewed today through the prism of Israel and its actions. Israel’s military actions, particularly against civilians, have embarrassed Jews both in Israel and in the Diaspora for many decades. Many Jews feel obliged to defend the morally indefensible, to bend their ethical standards in order to justify Israel’s behaviour. Some embarrassment may come from Israel proper. Israelis freely discuss building more Jewish neighbourhoods in the Galilee in order to “judaise” this predominantly Arab area. In the context of liberal societies, the home of most of the world’s Jewry, such ethnic and religious discrimination is shocking. Imagine an outcry if the Front national mayor of a French town were to promote a public housing development designated solely for Catholics. It is only a matter of time before diaspora leaders, at least those who overtly identify with the State of Israel, have to face the challenge of explaining their obvious double standard. After all, is not Zionism and the State of Israel a realization of the traditional Jewish dream of freedom?


The emergence of political Zionism in the late 19-th century provoked undisguised hostility. Rabbis objected to the political appropriation by the Zionists of spiritual concepts such as “Jerusalem”, “Zion” or “Land of Israel”. They were adamant in their opposition. Rabbi Isaac Breuer wrote in 1918: “Zionism is the most terrible enemy that has ever arisen to the Jewish nation. …Zionism kills the nation and then elevates the corpse to the throne”.

Opposition to Zionism has not disappeared since the times when Zionism was a minority movement shunned by most Jews. Most principled opposition continues to come from certain Hassidic groups, centred in Jerusalem and in New York as well as from some Reform groups. A few Jewish thinkers believe that the Zionist state born in sin, and which it has never repented, has no legitimacy in terms of Jewish values altogether.

Other critics point out that, in spite of the might of Israel’s armed forces, Israel remains the only country to experience regular anti-Jewish violence since 1948. This is not an irony or a paradox: this danger had been understood by a few Jewish thinkers well before the establishment of the state. Some, such as Hannah Arendt, had foreseen the impasse in which Israel finds itself today. According to some accounts, even the founder of Israel, David Ben Gurion, doubted the state would endure in the face of the Palestinians’ hostility.


The military gains of the last fifty years seem to evaporate as the situation on the ground, i.e. between the Jordan and the Mediterranean, has degenerated into ethnic conflict. A growing number of Israel’s Arab citizens identify with their Palestinian brethren while the State of Israel often treats its Arab citizens as if they were enemy aliens.

After decades of conflicting nationalist efforts from both sides, it is the entire area from the Jordan to the sea, not just the West Bank and Gaza, that requires a solution. New Jerusalem suburbs of Gilo or East Talpiot, Jewish cities of Ariel or Emanuel built on the lands conquered in 1967, are hardly different from cities in Israel proper. Their evacuation in an eventual territorial settlement would be a human drama of major proportions. Uprooting Arab population centres in Israel, as many Israelis suggest, is equally cruel and senseless. The partition or separation is no longer feasible since Jews and Arabs are too interspersed across the entire disputed territory.

The frustration of the Palestinian Arabs deprived of most avenues of political expression has naturally developed into a fixation on national independence à l’israélienne. Yet, another nation-state  – a Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza – may only cause more pain and rancour. Dismantlement of settlements, forced transfers of population and other usual appurtenances of establishing nation-states in ethnically heterogeneous areas would be unavoidable. A liberal political structure based on citizens’ equal rights and, consequently, their self-interest, may have more chances to succeed. Romantic nationalism has spilled enough blood in the region.


Democratic confederate structures have successfully moderated ethnic and national tensions in many countries. A viable alternative to the two-state solution would be a confederation to be established in the entire area between the Jordan and the Mediterranean. Abrahamia (or Ibrahimia as it may be called in Arabic) should consist of cantons sovereign in matters of culture, education, worship, internal security, and local law. Such a structure would also enable Orthodox Jews and secular Israelis, whose relationship is no less acrimonious than between Jews and Arabs, to live their lives according to their customs and beliefs, without irritating each other.

Economic disparities fuel violence no less than nationalist passions, but when the economic divide coincides with the ethnic one, violence is inevitable. The Law of Return, which now allows any Jew in the world to become a citizen of Israel upon arrival (and sometimes even before), should be broadened to include Palestinian Arabs who should be free to reclaim their homes or, more realistically, to obtain compensation for lost property. These funds should help reduce the existing development gap between the Jews and the Arabs. Palestinian Arabs should acquire equal rights and obligations, and be free to settle wherever they can rent or legally acquire property. This will give them, currently the most disenfranchised, a real stake in the success of the confederation.

Similarly, those Jews who want to live in the Land of Israel beyond the 1967 borders can continue to live a fully Jewish life in the proposed confederation. They, just as any other citizens, should be free to settle anywhere between the Jordan and the sea, of course by legal means and without any special privileges. Individual safety and individual rights of citizens should become the central priority of the new federation.


Western Jews have been active for years in rapprochement activities that bring Arabs and Hebrews, Muslims, Christians and Jews together. They have organized joint prayer sessions and interconfessional discussions, even a joint Jewish-Muslim programme to teach tolerance on the basis of respective religious texts. Diasora Jews have brought expertise, commitment and even-handedness to a number of non-governmental projects that foster understanding and respect of difference. Most of these joint activities have survived the current upsurge of violence, a convincing sign of their success. Jewish academics, businesspeople, psychologists, rabbis, social workers from various countries have helped the cause of tolerance in Israel for years, and their role, as well as that of members of the Palestinian diasporas, can only gain in importance in the proposed confederation.

They should make their voices heard not only in Israel but, more importantly, in the European Union, Russia and North America. The vast majority of world Jewry are citizens of these political entities, which gives their governments more than a geo-strategic interest in settling the Arab-Israeli dispute. These governments, encouraged by their respective Jewish communities, should convince Israeli leaders to transform the violence-ridden nation-state into a confederation that would better ensure the safety of all its inhabitants. Jews can and must initiate the movement to redeem Israel from endemic violence and injustice. There is no better time to consider such action than Passover, the festival of redemption.

* Yakov M Rabkin is a Professor of History at the University of Montreal; his analyses of the Middle East appear on radio and television as well as in Montreal’s daily La Presse.

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