The Siege of Gaza Exposes Rift Between Judaism and Zionism

Yakov Rabkin
January 2008


Yakov M Rabkin

Rabbi Dow Marmur is right to raise the issue of morality of Israel’s actions in Gaza (“Can Israel’s attacks on Gaza be justified?” Globe and Mail, January 17, 2008). As a rabbi he naturally turns to questions of morality since this is what Judaism is all about. He concludes that “when you believe that your very survival is at stake, actions to stop the enemy seem less outrageous, even when they’re morally problematic.” In the Jewish tradition, a rabbinical decision may be revised in two cases: either the understanding of the law or the facts are wrong. The rabbi certainly knows the moral code of Judaism, however, something blurs his understanding of the facts.

Few experts, in Israel or elsewhere, believe that Palestinians in Gaza represent a military danger to Israel. The home-made rockets are no match to the high-tech power mobilized by Israel’s armed forces, which are also far stronger that any other army in the region. However, in order to capitalize on the residual Western sympathy for the Jews, Israeli leaders tend to speak as if their country were threatened.

They did this very successfully on the eve of the Six Day War: while Israel’s military leaders never doubted that Israel would win within days, Israeli politicians galvanized the world with the spectre of a second Holocaust. Israel then conducted a pre-emptive attack on the neighbouring countries and, predictably rather than miraculously, emerged victorious. It is the results of that victory that have plagued Israel ever since.

Many Jews recognize these facts and consider Israel’s siege of Gaza an act of cruel collective punishment. Gush Shalom, a respected Israeli organization, has just issued an urgent statement calling “upon the Jews of the world in whose name the Israeli government purports to speak, and upon their rabbis and communal leaders in particular, to speak out unequivocally against this offence to the very moral core of Jewish values.” Some Israeli media go as far as to qualify their country’s behaviour as “war crimes”.

A rabbinical anti-Zionist organization in Jerusalem writes: “The State of Israel is trying to use its military power to preserve its ethnocracy and is demanding that the world community watch silently as they continue to hammer the Palestinian People year after year with the most sophisticated weapons of war. This cannot go on any longer! The state-sponsored terrorism and collective punishment practiced by the State of Israel must be condemned and stopped! »

There is little wonder many Jews feel disturbed by what Israel does. A fund-raising campaign is underway among Jews in Israel and other countries, including Canada, who want to help besieged Palestinians with supplies and human concern. Several public protests have also taken place. This is hardly surprising in view of the tradition that obliges Jews to protest and redress injustice, particularly when the injustice is perpetrated in their name.

Nor is it surprising that the State of Israel acts the way it does. The founders of Israel wanted to break with the past and to leave behind the traditional Jewish concern for morality. Many Zionists were quite open about this and succeeded in creating a state that is Jewish in name only.

However, Israel is often seen as the ultimate triumph, rather than a negation, of Jewish history. Instead of justifying Israel’s siege of Gaza, Rabbi Murmur may ponder the contradiction between the religion many Jews profess to believe in and the ideology that has in fact taken hold of them. The siege of Gaza exacerbates the rift between those who hold fast to Jewish moral tradition and those who converted to Zionism of the “my country right or wrong” variety.

Yakov M Rabkin is Professor of History and Director of REMO, the Middle East Studies Network, at the University of Montreal ; his recent book A Threat from Within : A Century of Jewish Opposition to Zionism was nominated for the Governor General Award in 2006.

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The Siege of Gaza Exposes Rift Between Judaism and Zionism