The 45-minute drive from Tel-Aviv to my northern hometown never felt longer. A few minutes after hearing the three shots and the rumors that started to spread, I simply wanted to vanish from what was then known as Kings of Israel Square. I hurried to my car and headed back home, the safest place I could think of, as far as possible from the scene of the shooting.
While driving I found myself talking to God. Although I consider myself a religious Jew, I rarely approach the Almighty directly. I usually prefer the regular, at times monotonous, routines of prayer, using the siddur.
But this time was different, and as the saying goes—severe circumstances call for severe measures. And what could be more severe than an attempt to assassinate the Prime Minister? “Oh God, please, let him be a Palestinian,” I mumbled. “I don’t know how I’ll be able to keep on wearing my kippah if it turns out he is a Jew.” For if it were a Jew, it was obvious that only a religious Jew, one of my own, would be motivated to actually attempt murder. But my prayer was not answered.
Rabin’s murder at the hands of a religious Jew, who murdered in the name of my religious community, and who had significant support for his convictions, if not his actions, from within the religious community, was a challenge to my beliefs. Yet I eventually chose to continue identifying as a part of that community. My kippah is still an integral part of who I am.
I remembered this story while reading Hillel Ben Sasson’s article “Zionism’s Been Stolen.” I can easily sympathize with his feelings, but I can’t accept his conclusion that it is useless to battle over its history and legacy. It’s in fact our duty. We don’t have the privilege of abandoning its definition to others.
The fact that most ideological settlers are religious didn’t lead Ben Sasson to abandon his religious beliefs. He has even connected his religious practice to his political life. In an article in Haaretz he was once quoted saying: “When I don’t show up [to the demonstrations in Sheikh Jarrah] on a Friday, I feel as though I have not put on Tefillin [phylacteries] in the morning.” I admire him for that, but I wonder why he refuses to reframe his Zionism the same way he reframed his Judaism and prefers “to quit the game.”
This surrender has (at least) two important implications. First, by pulling out of the game we are abandoning it to the hands of our neo-McCarthyists. I refuse to let them determine what Zionism is, or how a Zionist should act. Zionism is the creation story of the State of Israel, and politics in Israel have been historically defined by differing interpretations of what that story means. By taking the absentee position we are surrendering the playing field, and dooming Israeli politics to an aggressively nationalistic narrative.
Second, by allowing Zionism to be defined by this exclusionary narrative that increasingly dehumanizes Palestinians, it strengthens the hand of those who have delegitimized Jewish nationalism. It leads to the inevitable conclusion that the deniers have been right all along; that Zionism is in fact racist, and that Israel, born from Zionism, is an illegitimate entity. I refuse to turn my parents’ and grandparents’ generation into racists. While they, like all generations, were deeply flawed, they built this country out of a deep love and commitment to the Jewish people, not out of a desire to deny others their humanity. Abandoning Zionism to its most extreme interpreters is in fact to surrender our past, and with it, our future.
A few years ago a friend of my mine, a religious leftist activist, was asked during a protest against the occupation whether he is not ashamed protesting with a kippah on his head. My friend immediately replied that he is there, protesting, in order not to be ashamed when wearing a kippah. I’m here, striving to bring an end to the conflict and to recognize the legitimate rights of both Israelis and Palestinians, in order not to be ashamed of being a Zionist.
Matthew Kalman broke the story of physicist Stephen Hawking’s boycott of Israel. Then Cambridge University tried to falsely deny it.