Judaism as we know it emerged as a religious response to ill-fated nationalism and empire, the author wrote [Reuters]
Al Jazeera Correspondent

A Jewish dream beyond political nationalism

Rabbi Brant Rosen explains why he is not a Zionist.

Like Rabbi Hart, I am profoundly inspired by the Jewish dream of return so powerfully evoked in Psalm 126. I do not, however, understand these words to be a “blueprint” for Jewish political nationalism.

For most of Jewish history, in fact, the Jewish dream of return to the land was not understood literally but was rather projected onto a far-off messianic future. The rabbinic sages who developed Jewish tradition forcefully prohibited the forcing of God’s hand through the establishment of an independent Jewish state.

The rabbis were well aware that their last experience with Jewish statehood – the Hasmonean kingdom that emerged out of the Maccabean revolt in 110 BCE – collapsed in less than 100 years and ended in disaster for the Jewish people. It is notable that the prophetic reading chosen for Hanukkah (the festival that commemorates the Maccabean victory) contains the famous verse: “Not by might and not by power, but by My spirit, says the Lord of Hosts.” (Zechariah 4:6)

Judaism as we know it emerged as a religious response to ill-fated nationalism and empire, building a global peoplehood transcending mere land, borders and militarism. While nation states may come and go, the rabbis taught, the Jewish people have survived. Why? Because we put our faith in a power even greater than the mightiest empire: the God of justice and righteousness.

Zionism: Judaism or colonialism?

In its origins, political Zionism was inspired less by Jewish tradition than by modern European nationalism. While many today easily conflate Judaism with Zionism, it is important to note that the Zionist movement was but one of many Jewish movements that proliferated with the onset of modernity.

For its part, political Zionism sought to “negate the diaspora” in favour of a nationalist, land-based expression of Jewish peoplehood – an ethos clearly evoked by Rabbi Hart when he writes about the Jewish people’s “right to self-determination and self-defence like any other people”. However, words such as these are less a reflection of Judaism per se than the parlance of 19th century nationalism.

Moreover, there is a decided difference between a people seeking to assert their “right to self-determination” from under the thumb of colonial domination, and a colonial settler ideology such as Zionism, which actively sought to create a state by colonising a land already inhabited by an indigenous people.

Indeed, even within the Zionist movement itself there was a powerful debate over the establishment of a political Jewish nation state in historic Palestine. Up until the very founding of the state of Israel, prominent Jewish figures such as Rabbi Judah Magnes, Hannah Arendt, Martin Buber and Albert Einstein were vociferous opponents of the creation of an ethnically Jewish state in a land as religiously and culturally diverse as Palestine. The establishment of such a state, they warned, would result in tragedy for Jews and Arabs alike, resulting in a garrison state doomed to perpetual war.

A light unto the nations?

Today, 65 years after the establishment of the Jewish state, these warnings resonate with painful prescience. Although it was originally founded to be a haven for world Jewry, today Israel is the only Jewish community in the world that lives in a sense of constant existential threat – and is literally building higher and higher walls between itself and the outside world.

Israel has now become the most militarised nation in the world, devoting the highest percentage of its national GNP to military spending. It is also one of the world’s leading arms exporters, largely successfully marketing its weapons as battle-tested on live subjects in the Occupied Territories. Israel also shares its military expertise with numerous abusive undemocratic regimes across the globe. (In the wake of Nelson Mandela’s death, it is worth noting that the Israel maintained a close military alliance with the South African apartheid regime for many decades). Perhaps most ominously, Israel has introduced nuclear weapons into the Middle East.

While Jewish statehood has certainly spawned impressive accomplishments, it is myopic in the extreme to tout Israel’s scientific, economic and academic advances without mentioning the extent to which these resources are directed toward the proliferation of militarism at home and throughout the world.

The nightmare spelled out

While Rabbi Hart is certainly correct when he asserts the ways the state of Israel has benefitted the Jewish people, I am struck by the fact that he is relatively silent on the precise nature of the “nightmare” it has created for the indigenous people of the land.

I believe that as Jews, we must be willing to own this dark history and say it out loud: during 1947 to 1948, Zionist military forces either displaced or forcibly expelled over 700,000 Palestinians then forbid their return, creating what is today the largest refugee population in the world. Today more than 4,000,000 Palestinians harbour their own dream of return – not to a mythic Biblical homeland but to a land that they remember only too well.

In short, Israel’s founding is inextricably bound up with an inherent injustice to the people who had made a home in this land. More critically, it is an injustice that continues until today through policies of dispossession and displacement designed to maintain a Jewish demographic majority in the state of Israel.

Jewish and democratic?

From the time it first started colonising Palestine, the central imperative of the Zionist movement was the creation of an ethnic majority of Jews in the land. Then, as now, Zionism has viewed the presence of non-Jews in the land as a “demographic threat” to the integrity of the Jewish state.

This fear of a non-Jewish ethnic majority has mitigated against a truly democratic state since Israel’s founding. It has led to institutional discrimination against Israel’s Palestinian citizens and policies of apartheid in the Occupied Territories, where civilian law is extended to Jewish inhabitants and Palestinian inhabitants are subjected to crushing military law. It has also led to land confiscation, home demolitions and draconian bureaucratic policies that uproot Palestinians from areas designated for Jewish settlement.

In the end, no matter how many democratic institutions Israel may boast, an ethnically Jewish state cannot help but treat its non-Jewish inhabitants as ‘other’. Rabbi Hart claims that “the Zionist dream of self-determination” is no more racist than other nations. This may be so in the world of dreams – but in the world of hard reality, what would we call a nation that explicitly privileges one group over another for no other reason than its ethnic identity?

My dream for the future

Like Rabbi Hart, I fervently dream of a land which will be, in Isaiah’s words, “a house of prayer for all peoples”. But what will make it so? The policies I have spelled out above have thwarted a true two-state solution that would allow, as he puts it, “Palestinian self-determination in Palestine”. While the final political parameters of this conflict have yet to be spelled out, it simply must be a solution that makes for full rights for all who dwell in the land. Until that day, we cannot let our euphoria at the existence of a Jewish state blind us to the very real human rights abuses Israel regularly commits in our name.

In the meantime, here is my dream: it is rooted in the Torah’s teaching that all human beings are made in God’s image and are eminently worthy of dignity and respect. It is rooted in the central story of my tradition – the Exodus – in which God stands with the oppressed and demands that we do the same. And it is rooted in the Torah’s injunction that the land does not belong to us but to God, and that one law must be extended for all who dwell upon it.

Rabbi Brant Rosen is the the co-founder of T’anit Tzedek, the Jewish Fast for Gaza. He is also the chairperson of the Jewish Voice for Peace Rabbinical Council, and blogs regularly at Shalom Rav. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.