We cannot have a rational approach to the peace process till we decouple the fate of Israel from the Jewish future

Yakov Rabkin


Israel has been singularly successful in ensuring her military, economic and political dominance in the region. In recent years, there have been fewer terrorist attacks on Israelis, Palestinians are badly divided, Israel enjoys solid support from major countries, and her scientists are among the Nobel Prize laureates. Israel is about to be admitted to the OECD, the select club of wealthy nations, and her cooperation with NATO augurs well for Israel’s eventual integration into this military alliance. Yet, in spite of these remarkable achievements Israel remains insecure: she fears delegitimation.

A few months ago, a veteran Israeli journalist observed that Israel’s legitimacy “has been worn away, and the idea of a Jewish state is now open to attack. The Jewish people’s right to sovereignty and self-defence is now controversial. Paradoxically, as Israel gets stronger, its legitimacy is melting away. A national movement that began as “legitimacy without an entity” is becoming “an entity without legitimacy” before our very eyes.” Earlier this year, Israel’s Reut Institute, a nationalist think tank, issued a similar warning: “Israel is facing a dramatic assault on the very legitimacy of its existence as a Jewish and democratic state. The groups promoting this delegitimacy aim to isolate Israel and ultimately turn it into a pariah state.”


What are the main elements of this seemingly paradoxical delegitimation? Reut lists five: legal, economic, academic, cultural, and military. Firstly, legal challenges have been brought against Israelis on foreign trips, including military officers and ministers. They may be subject to prosecution as war criminals in countries like Belgium, Spain and Britain. Zionist fund-raising agencies, such as the Jewish National Fund, which owns most lands in Israel and leases it exclusively to Jews, are threatened with removal of its tax-exempt status in several countries. Law suits have been filed, including one in Quebec, against companies accused of “aiding, abetting, assisting and conspiring with Israel, the Occupying Power in the West Bank”, in colonization of the territories conquered in 1967. Secondly, on the economic arena, Israel has faced boycott of its exports, particularly those produced in Zionists settlements in the territories. These actions are yet to have a significant economic effect, but they are spreading. Trade unions such as CUSATO (the Congress of South African Trade Unions) and the Canadian Union of Postal Workers are at the forefront of these actions.

This can be seen as an example of the shift – from left to right – in international support for Israel in the course of her short history. The first country to grant Israel de-jure recognition in 1948 was the USSR, which promptly supplied the new state, via Czechoslovakia, with badly needed arms. Socialist parties around the world, impressed by her collective agricultural settlements (kibbutz) and socio-economic equality, used to offer Israel solid political support. Conversely, Israel’s supporters today tend to come from wealthier and more conservative circles while trade unions and students organizations are at the forefront of the delegitimation campaign. It is also among conservative Christians that one finds Christian Zionists, who are four to five times more numerous than the entire Jewish population of the planet. Unlike the profoundly divided Jews, Christian Zionists offer Israel religiously unanimous and unconditional support. Zionist churches have become a major source in providing political, moral and financial succour to Israel, and in particular to Zionist settlers in the West Bank.

Thirdly, academic boycott of Israel has been on the table for several years, and it is supported by a number of British and American Jews as well as Israeli academics. Israeli universities are portrayed as major contributors to Israel’s military power used against the Palestinians.

Fourthly, cultural events, such as the recent Toronto film festival, which the Israeli government has tried to use in its effort to “re-brand” Israel as a modern sophisticated country, have been disrupted by withdrawal of prominent participants protesting Israel’s action in the territories occupied in June 1967. Here again, prominent Jews such as the Canadian author Naomi Klein led the campaign.

Finally, Israel’s preeminent position as the world’s largest exporter of arms and security equipment (in proportion to its population and GNP) has attracted its share of hostile attention. There is a consistent effort to expose deals with Israel, which tends to lead to their cancellation or at least deters their renewal.

Comparisons of Zionism with apartheid and of Israel with racist South Africa constitute, perhaps, the most potent strategy in the delegitimation campaign. One may recall the decision to consider Zionism a form of racism that was passed by the UN General Assembly in 1985 and revoked several years later. Students on dozens of campuses around the world organize the Israel Apartheid Week, activities which feature prominent speakers and otherwise distribute information damaging Israel’s reputation.

It is noteworthy that Jews play a growing role in this and other activities that present Israel in unfavourable light. Their participation has at least two consequences: it undermines Israel’s claim to speak and act on behalf of world Jewry and it casts doubts on accusations made by Israel and her advocates around the world that all opposition to Zionism is antisemitic. We shall later return to the issue of Israel as “the state of the Jewish people”.

Comparisons with apartheid gain particular credibility when made by personalities such as South Africa’s Nobel peace prize laureate bishop Desmond Tutu:

I have been to the Occupied Palestinian Territory, and I have witnessed the racially segregated roads and housing that reminded me so much of the conditions we experienced in South Africa under the racist system of Apartheid. … This humiliation is familiar to me and the many black South Africans who were corralled and regularly insulted by the security forces of the Apartheid government.

Israeli supporters prefer to ban, rather than argue about, comparisons of Israel with apartheid South Africa. To do so, they conflate opposition to Zionism with antisemitism, and try to discredit those who make such comparisons as inveterate antisemites.

Advocates of Israel accurately argue that she is not the worst violator of human rights. But they are less convincing when they explain the focus on that one country is a sure sign of antisemitism or Jewish self-hate. Rather, many Jews respond to the traditional urge to assume moral responsibility. They aim at preventing what Jewish tradition calls “profanation of the Divine name”, in other words, criminal and deplorable acts to be committed by Jews. “My anguish and anger in the Middle East focuses on Israel precisely because I am a Jew. It is the same Jew in me that is more outraged by a Bernie Madoff [a financier who stole over $60 billion from his clients] than I would have been had this criminal been named Kelly or Rodriquez.”

Without assuming any moral superiority, Jews were disproportionately active in the struggle against apartheid and Vietnam War, and nowadays they speak and act against injustice in Israel/Palestine well beyond their relative numbers. According to Richard Falk, a Princeton don and currently UN Rapporteur for Palestine, “a Jew must honour conscience and truthfulness above tribal identities should these conflict”.

Quite a few Jews, in Israel and elsewhere, feel torn between these two allegiances and must eventually come to terms with the contradictions between the Jewish moral tradition they profess to uphold and the Zionist ideology that has in fact taken hold of them. According to Marc Ellis, American Jewish theologian, ““Jews are being split less in terms of their experience of Israel and America than in relation to conscience and what Jews are willing to do and what they will refuse in terms of Jewish history and memory. Instead of splitting apart around issues of geography and culture, a civil war of conscience has begun.”

This specific moral compunction felt by Jews, precisely because Israel claims to act in their name, is compounded among many Christians with a pronounced interest in the Holy Land whose image they find tarnished by violence, particularly when perpetrated by tanks and gunships bearing the Star of David that used to be associated with Judaism and its commandments. In neither case antisemitism seems to be the motive force behind opposition to Zionism.

Just how seriously Israeli elites take the attempts to portray their country as the last bulwark of European colonialism can be seen in a speech of Benjamin Netanyahu at AIPAC, a major constituent of the Israel lobby in the United States, earlier this year:

But Israel should be judged by the same standards applied to all nations, and allegations against Israel must be grounded in fact. One allegation that is not is the attempt to describe the Jews as foreign colonialists in their own homeland, one of the great lies of modern times.

In my office, I have a signet ring that was loaned to me by Israel’s Department of Antiquities. The ring was found next to the Western wall, but it dates back some 2,800 years ago, two hundred years after King David turned Jerusalem into our capital city. The ring is a seal of a Jewish official, and inscribed on it in Hebrew is his name: Netanyahu. Netanyahu Ben-Yoash. That’s my last name. My first name, Benjamin, dates back 1,000 years earlier to Benjamin, the son of Jacob, One of Benjamin’s brothers was named Shimon, which also happens to be the first name of my good friend, Shimon Peres, the President of Israel. Nearly 4,000 years ago, Benjamin, Shimon and their ten brothers roamed the hills of Judea.

Ladies and Gentlemen, The connection between the Jewish people and the Land of Israel cannot be denied. The connection between the Jewish people and Jerusalem cannot be denied. The Jewish people were building Jerusalem 3,000 years ago and the Jewish people are building Jerusalem today. Jerusalem is not a settlement. It is our capital.

In essence, the Prime minister affirms the historical, linguistic and religious continuity of the state of Israel, an heir to the Kingdom of David and other protagonists of the Bible. He appears alarmed by recent scholarship, produced by Jews and Israelis, that challenges his view in all the three aspects of continuity.


In terms of ethnic connection, Zionists postulate that Jews from countries as different as Poland, Yemen or Morocco belong to the same people. Many, including Israel’s Prime minister, believe them to be descendents of the Biblical Hebrews. In his recent book Professor Shlomo Sand of Tel-Aviv University challenges these beliefs, arguing that the Jewish people, as an ethnic concept, has no historic legitimacy and was simply “invented” for the needs of Zionism in the late 19th century. Any nationalism needs a nation to begin with. Interestingly, even Sand’s scholarly critics agree that the claim to ethnic continuity of the Jews through millennia is simply not serious.

Moreover, Sand shows affinity between Zionist and antisemitic ideas. Zionism affirms the ethnic definition of the Jew modelled on Eastern European prototypes. Thus Zionists accept the antisemites’ view of the Jews as a distinct and therefore alien people or race. This is why most Jews rejected Zionism from the very beginning. They saw that Zionists played into the hands of their worst enemies, the antisemites: the latter wanted to be rid of Jews while the former wanted to gather them to Israel. The founder of Zionism Theodore Herzl considered antisemites “friends and allies” of his movement. This makes it hard to argue that Israel was meant to be a bulwark against antisemitism, and, sadly, only in Israel a Jew is likely to be killed simply because of being Jewish. No wonder that, in spite of consistent efforts by Zionist organizations, most Jews have chosen to live outside Israel, including those Jews, who change their country of residence. This weakens the claim to be “the state of the Jewish people” that is the ideological foundation of the current state of Israel. / In fact, Israel’s treatment of Palestinians threatens not only Israelis but also Jews the world over. Israel’s Roth Institute found that Israel’s attack on Gaza was practically the only factor driving the dramatic spike in anti-Semitic incidents that occurred in the world in 2009. These findings conflict with Israel’s claim to be the ultimate protector of Jews all over the world, a crucial argument in favour of Zionism.

From the language perspective, Gil’ad Zuckermann, an Israeli linguist teaching in Australia, tries to shake another pillar of Zionism – the rebirth of the Hebrew language. He finds that the language created by Zionists is not Semitic but Indo-European. This should not be surprising since the pioneers of the new vernacular were mostly Eastern European immigrants, whose native tongues were Russian, Polish and Yiddish. It is these pioneers (whom Shlomo Sand considers “the Yiddish people”) that created “the Israeli language” as Zuckerman prefers to call it. He argues that the use of Hebrew roots and words is overshadowed by massive structural and syntactic influence of the European languages and by a consistent effort at secularization of the religious idiom. The modern Hebrew language appears as “invented” as the transnational “Jewish people” investigated by Shlomo Sand, and this casts doubt on the linguistic continuity of Zionism invoked by the Israeli Premier.

Finally, there remains the claim to spiritual legitimacy of Zionism as an heir to Judaism and Jewish tradition. Religious concepts such as the Holy Land, the Promised Land and the Chosen People have become the essential part of the Zionist vocabulary. However, the founders of the Zionist state were profoundly secular, and so is the majority of Israeli Jews. According to a sarcastic remark of the Israeli scholar Amnon Raz-Krakotzkin, “ our claim to this land could be put in a nutshell: God does not exist, and he gave us this land. ”

In fact, Zionism has provoked most durable opposition precisely from the traditional Jewish circles, whose commitment to Judaism is beyond doubt. This Jewish opposition reflects the fact that Zionism has been a break with the past, one of the last revolutionary movements seeking to transform man and society.

Thus on three fundamental accounts – religious, ethnic and linguistic – the historical legitimacy of Zionism is seriously contested. The Israeli historian Boaz Evron reminds us that:

The State of Israel, and all the states of the world, appear and disappear. The State of Israel, clearly, will disappear in one hundred, three-hundred, five-hundred years. But I suppose that the Jewish people will exist as long as the Jewish religion exists, perhaps for thousands more years. The existence of this state is of no importance for that of the Jewish people…. Jews throughout the world can live quite well without it.

Decoupling the fate of the state of Israel from the future of the Jews opens possibilities for a more rational political approach to the conflict in Israel/Palestine.


These two challenges to the Zionist character of Israel – international and Jewish – must be seen in the context of current efforts to bring peace to the embattled Western Asia. President Obama tends to rely on legal principles in his search for a negotiated settlement. When Israeli politicians accuse Obama’s two close advisors of being self-hating Jews, they weaken the emotional view of Israel as the “the state of the Jewish people”. 55 percent of American Jews approve of the way the Obama administration is handling U.S.-Israel relations, (compared to less than 10 percent of Israeli Jews), this emphasizes the serious split that Israel and Zionism have fomented among Jews. This split makes it possible to treat and discuss Israel as any other state, on its merits, rather than with emotional references to Jewish history.

The founding fathers of Zionism dreamt of building “a normal country”. They built Israel into a mighty regional power armed with nuclear and other sophisticated weapons. The current Prime minister also argues that Israel “should be judged by the same standards applied to all nations.” Indeed, Israel should be judged according to accepted international standards as a major military power, rather than as a collective victim of past persecutions of Jews in Europe. / Israel was founded as a revolutionary break with the past, and there is no historical, religious or moral reason to accept her claim to exceptionalism. Recent statements by U.S. military and diplomatic experts show that this normalization has begun. General David Petraeus in testimony before Congress argued that the continuing conflict in Israel/Palestine harms U.S. security interests. No less importantly, the percentage of Americans who consider Israel is an U.S. ally has fallen from 70% in August 2009 to 58% in March 2010.

An eventual return to normalcy and rationality in analyses of Israel/Palestine may help in the search for peace. Afrikaner nationalists also used to consider themselves “the chosen people” and related to their colonization of South Africa’s interior as a religious obligation. They too feared the prospect of “being thrown into the sea” should their dominant position vanish. Yet, a peaceful transition took place, and one of its architects sees in it a hope for the Holy Land. Bishop Tutu remarks that: It is not with rancour that we criticize the Israeli government, but with hope, a hope that a better future can be made for both Israelis and Palestinians, a future in which both the violence of the occupier and the resulting violent resistance of the occupied come to an end, and where one people need not rule over another, engendering suffering, humiliation, and retaliation. True peace must be anchored in justice and an unwavering commitment to universal rights for all humans, regardless of ethnicity, religion, gender, national origin or any other identity attribute. “

Significantly, the main Jewish newspaper in South Africa recently published an editorial, which concluded with a question: “Will the Israeli-Palestinian bloodletting go on, tragically, until there is “no choice” but a settlement as happened in South Africa? Given the strength of both sides, that will be long time coming. In the meantime, how many lives will be lost and how much destruction caused?”

Leo Tolstoy begins Anna Karenina with these words: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”. His observation applies to states no less than to families. No two states’ predicament and history are the same. Yet some parallels are not only unavoidable but can also be instructive and even hopeful. Comparisons of Zionist practices with apartheid in South Africa are not only attempts to delegitimize Zionism, but may also be seen as road signs towards a more inclusive and therefore less violent political framework. In other words, the ongoing delegitimation of Zionist Israel may stimulate a non-violent emergence of a pluralist and democratic Israel, living in peace with her citizens and neighbours. The impasse of the U.S. sponsored road map towards the two-state solution makes such evolution more probable.

Richard Falk seems to recognize peace-enhancing aspects of the attempts to delegitimize the Zionist character of Israel. To face this challenge to its legitimacy, writes Falk, “it would seem to require an Israeli willingness to abandon the core Zionist project to establish a Jewish state, and that does not appear likely from the vantage point of the present. But always the goals of a legitimacy war appear to be beyond reach until mysteriously attained by the abrupt and totally unexpected surrender by the losing side. Until it collapses the losing side pretends to be unmovable and invincible, a claim that is usually reinforced by police and military dominance. This is what happened in the Soviet Union and South Africa, earlier to French colonial rule in Indochina and Algeria, and to the United States in Vietnam.”

During his exile, less than a decade before the end of the USSR, the Soviet dissident and father of the H-bomb Andrei Sakharov remarked: “I do not have any hope for democratic change in the near future. But the mole of history digs invisibly, and we know that historical changes occur suddenly”.

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We cannot have a rational approach to the peace process till we decouple the fate of Israel from the Jewish future