Monday, 16 March 2009

'ZIONISM IS THE PROBLEM'

The Zionist ideal of a Jewish state is keeping Israelis and
Palestinians from living in peace


By Ben Ehrenreich
LA Times
March 15, 2009

It's hard to imagine now, but in 1944, six years after Kristallnacht,
Lessing J. Rosenwald, president of the American Council for Judaism,
felt comfortable equating the Zionist ideal of Jewish statehood with
"the concept of a racial state -- the Hitlerian concept." For most of
the last century, a principled opposition to Zionism was a mainstream
stance within American Judaism.

Even after the foundation of Israel, anti-Zionism was not a
particularly heretical position. Assimilated Reform Jews like
Rosenwald believed that Judaism should remain a matter of religious
rather than political allegiance; the ultra-Orthodox saw Jewish
statehood as an impious attempt to "push the hand of God"; and
Marxist Jews -- my grandparents among them -- tended to see Zionism,
and all nationalisms, as a distraction from the more essential
struggle between classes.

To be Jewish, I was raised to believe, meant understanding oneself as
a member of a tribe that over and over had been cast out, mistreated,
slaughtered. Millenniums of oppression that preceded it did not
entitle us to a homeland or a right to self-defense that superseded
anyone else's. If they offered us anything exceptional, it was a
perspective on oppression and an obligation born of the prophetic
tradition: to act on behalf of the oppressed and to cry out at the
oppressor.

For the last several decades, though, it has been all but impossible
to cry out against the Israeli state without being smeared as an
anti-Semite, or worse. To question not just Israel's actions, but the
Zionist tenets on which the state is founded, has for too long been
regarded an almost unspeakable blasphemy.

Yet it is no longer possible to believe with an honest conscience
that the deplorable conditions in which Palestinians live and die in
Gaza and the West Bank come as the result of specific policies,
leaders or parties on either side of the impasse. The problem is
fundamental: Founding a modern state on a single ethnic or religious
identity in a territory that is ethnically and religiously diverse
leads inexorably either to politics of exclusion (think of the
139-square-mile prison camp that Gaza has become) or to wholesale
ethnic cleansing. Put simply, the problem is Zionism.

It has been argued that Zionism is an anachronism, a leftover
ideology from the era of 19th century romantic nationalisms wedged
uncomfortably into 21st century geopolitics. But Zionism is not
merely outdated. Even before 1948, one of its basic oversights was
readily apparent: the presence of Palestinians in Palestine. That led
some of the most prominent Jewish thinkers of the last century, many
of them Zionists, to balk at the idea of Jewish statehood. The Brit
Shalom movement -- founded in 1925 and supported at various times by
Martin Buber, Hannah Arendt and Gershom Scholem -- argued for a
secular, binational state in Palestine in which Jews and Arabs would
be accorded equal status. Their concerns were both moral and
pragmatic. The establishment of a Jewish state, Buber feared, would
mean "premeditated national suicide."

The fate Buber foresaw is upon us: a nation that has lived in a state
of war for decades, a quarter-million Arab citizens with second-class
status and more than 5 million Palestinians deprived of the most
basic political and human rights. If two decades ago comparisons to
the South African apartheid system felt like hyperbole, they now feel
charitable. The white South African regime, for all its crimes, never
attacked the Bantustans with anything like the destructive power
Israel visited on Gaza in December and January, when nearly1,300
Palestinians were killed, one-third of them children.

Israeli policies have rendered the once apparently inevitable
two-state solution less and less feasible. Years of Israeli
settlement construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem have
methodically diminished the viability of a Palestinian state.
Israel's new prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has even refused to
endorse the idea of an independent Palestinian state, which suggests
an immediate future of more of the same: more settlements, more
punitive assaults.

All of this has led to a revival of the Brit Shalom idea of a single,
secular binational state in which Jews and Arabs have equal political
rights. The obstacles are, of course, enormous. They include not just
a powerful Israeli attachment to the idea of an exclusively Jewish
state, but its Palestinian analogue: Hamas' ideal of Islamic rule.
Both sides would have to find assurance that their security was
guaranteed. What precise shape such a state would take -- a strict,
vote-by-vote democracy or a more complex federalist system -- would
involve years of painful negotiation, wiser leaders than now exist
and an uncompromising commitment from the rest of the world,
particularly from the United States.

Meanwhile, the characterization of anti-Zionism as an "epidemic" more
dangerous than anti-Semitism reveals only the unsustainability of the
position into which Israel's apologists have been forced. Faced with
international condemnation, they seek to limit the discourse, to
erect walls that delineate what can and can't be said.

It's not working. Opposing Zionism is neither anti-Semitic nor
particularly radical. It requires only that we take our own values
seriously and no longer, as the book of Amos has it, "turn justice
into wormwood and hurl righteousness to the ground."

Establishing a secular, pluralist, democratic government in Israel
and Palestine would of course mean the abandonment of the Zionist
dream. It might also mean the only salvation for the Jewish ideals of
justice that date back to Jeremiah.


Ben Ehrenreich is the author of the novel "The Suitors."

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