Debating Philosopher-Critics Of Zionism

03.14.13 3:30 PM ET

I think it's odd that we should still be arguing the rights and wrongs of "Zionism" nearly 65 years after Israel's birth. But since anti-Zionists insist, we Zionists should oblige them. Happily, some of their critiques are polite and rational. For example, Joseph Levine wrote this for the New York Times Opinionator; Mira Sucharov responded to Levine's civilized philosophical critique of Israel's "right to exist" at Open Zion. And Jerry Haber wrote this, also at Open Zion; like Levine, Haber is an academic philosopher and critic of Zionism.

Perhaps the most potent rebuttal to both writers is that Zionism is analogous to affirmative action for a historically oppressed minority group which has all too often suffered grievously for not having a state specially dedicated to their interests. That was Arthur Hertzberg's liberal defense of Zionism, which I recall him making personally at the Socialist Scholars Conference in 1992 or ’93.  Of course, this does not mean that non-Jewish minorities should be subject to unfair treatment undermining their civil or human rights.

Jerry Haber (according to his personal website, not his real name, but "the nom de plume of an orthodox Jewish studies and philosophy professor, who divides his time between Israel and the U.S.") is too clever by half. For example, I'm sure that Peter Beinart doesn't in principle reject a peace agreement with Syria that would involve a return of the Golan Heights to a future peaceful Syrian regime. And I'd agree with Beinart that as a practical measure, a peace agreement with the Palestinians would be facilitated by a land swap permitting a majority of Jewish settlers to remain under Israeli sovereignty within new borders that create a Palestinian state.

Where Haber is clearly wrong is in arguing that Israel's Law of Return empowers Jews as adherents of a religion. Many people have become Israelis under the Law of Return who do not meet the halakhic (religious) definition of being Jewish, yet fit the categories that would have subjected them to Nazi persecution as Jews: for example, people who are only "Jewish" by patrilineal descent or who profess no religion but are Jewish by ethnic background.

And there are Zionists like myself and other sympathizers of Jewish secularist and humanist currents in Israel who would like to see a near-complete separation of religion and state. We hark back to the pre-State days of the Zionist pioneers, most of whom were completely secular, although I wouldn’t be rigid on this issue.

Most countries in Europe, especially in Eastern Europe, are "owned" by their ethnic majority, even though one or more other ethnic groups may live there in substantial numbers. Some of these have done well in this regard as democratic countries—for example, Finland, despite a substantial Swedish minority—while others are very divided and engage in questionable practices, like Latvia and Lithuania regarding their Russian-speaking minorities (barely even a minority in Latvia). Moreover, the most extreme examples of majority domination over minorities and ethnic/sectarian conflict occur in the Arab and Muslim-majority countries of the Middle East.

The clincher for most of us old enough to have a historic memory is not primarily the right of a people to national self-determination. This cannot be practicable for everybody everywhere. I return to the words I recall 20 years ago from Arthur Hertzberg—the historian, rabbi and liberal Jewish activist—that to him the “holiest place” in Judaism was not the Western Wall in Jerusalem, but the “customs shed” at Ben-Gurion Airport, because it proved that Jews in distress need never again ask non-Jews (“not even nice non-Jews”) for refuge.

And if this reason for a “Jewish state” seems melodramatic or anachronistic for our time, we have the fact of Israel’s uniquely evolving Hebrew-based culture, which as Bernard Avishai often notes, includes Arab citizens of Israel who are perfectly fluent in Hebrew. As a liberal, I would like to see Arab Israelis fully integrated and at home in their native land, feeling a sense of pride that they are part of what is still (despite its flaws) the most progressive and technologically advanced country in the Middle East. The ultimate reconciliation of the two national or ethnic groups in Israel—advanced greatly by the internal policies of Yitzhak Rabin as prime minister from 1992 until 1995, but mostly neglected since—is a task nearly as vital for the future of the Jewish state as is peace with the Palestinian and Arab peoples as a whole.