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How a Zionist can oppose the Jewish state: A response to Shmuel Rosner

A recent ‘New York Times’ profile of religious Jews who are highly critical of Israel and sympathetic to the boycott movement sent some in the Jewish blogosphere into a frenzy. In a fascinating response to Israeli journalist and blogger Shmuel Rosner, Jeremiah Haber explains how one can be a Zionist while opposing a Jewish state.

By Jeremiah Haber

It is understandable that two bloggers, Shmuel Rosner and Liel Leibovitz, couldn’t understand my views since they never took the time to read them. Rosner based his criticism on a few words that he admits he has no desire to try to understand; Leibovitz based himself on a few quotes in a newspaper interview. Not knowing what I think, both attributed to me views that I explicitly reject. Perhaps it is easier for them to fit me in their pre-conceived box.

Since I have linked to their posts, and since I doubt their hosts will allow me space to reply, all I ask it that they link to my posts, and we can respectfully agree to disagree.

Gentlemen, I suggest that you begin with the title of the blog, the Magnes Zionist. I don’t think that it’s too controversial to say that Zionism is a type of Jewish nationalism (though not the only type), so that since I consider myself a Zionist, it is hard to argue that I have a “knee-jerk rejection of nationalism” (Leibovitz) or that I “oppose Zionism” and that I “think nation-states are immoral” (Rosner). Had either read my post “Zionism Without a Jewish State,” which is listed on my home page, they would have read the following:

I start from the position of a liberal nationalist, one that sees the value for the flourishing of its citizens in a nation state. (On “liberal nationalism” you can read the good overview in the article on Nationalism in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.) Because I am a liberal nationalist, I cannot be a statist Zionist, because by identifying the Jewish state as a state of the Jewish nation, I am automatically cutting off non-Jews from full membership in that state.

Rosner and Leibovitz assume that I am post-nationalist, anti-Zionist, think that nation-states are immoral, etc., because they assume that Israel is a liberal nation-state, and hence that critics of Israel are anti-nationalists. In fact, I am very much in favor of liberal nation-states – the U.S. and some European states come to mind – which is why I oppose illiberal nation states, among which I include Israel. This is not an unusual position; anybody familiar with the liberal criticism of Israel will know of what I speak: read Joseph Agassi, Moshe Berent, Bernard Avishai, Chaim Gans, and a bunch of other Israeli thinkers. Read Avishai Margalit’s book on a decent society and you will understand why I don’t consider Israel a decent society – although it is certainly not the most indecent society around, and there are certainly good things about it. America with racial segregation was not a decent society, but there were many good and decent things about it.

Where Rosner and Leibovitz and I disagree is not over the justification or morality of states, but over justification or morality of this state. By Rosner’s reasoning, anybody who questions whether Basques or Kurds, Afrikaners or Palestinians, Scots or French Canadians, have a right to a state must be some post-nationalist who think that states are bad. To the question of whether certain peoples should have states, I answered, “That depends.” For example, I don’t think a people who bars membership in the nation on the basis of religion should have a state on that basis. They can have a state on another basis, but the first basis is inherently illiberal, as Isaiah Berlin intimated to David Ben-Gurion when he was asked about the “Who is a Jew” question.

As for Leibovitz’s claim that “religious Judaism is tied to nationalism” I can grant him that point, although I wouldn’t use the term nationalism, which is a modern term. Religious Judaism is tied to the notion of a people covenanted to God; it is not purely a religion, although, for me, and historically, religion has been at the forefront. It has been variously interpreted, and although as an othodox Jew, I cannot fully embrace Hermann Cohen’s rejection of mitzvot, I am not the Judaism kashrut supervisor to say that Cohen, who understood the nature of Judaism different from Michael Walzer (and with due respect, Leibovitz misreads Walzer, with whom I am largely in agreement) doesn’t get Judaism. I understand the radical Zionists who said that Jews have no meaningful existence as Jews outside Israel; they were wrong then and they are wrong now.

And that brings me to Shmuel Rosner, whose skin I apparently got under precisely because, try as he might, he couldn’t dismiss me as some left-wing secular post-nationalist ivory tower professor. What is significant, he says, is not my views or me, but the fact that I benefit from the “special privilege” of having my Jewish grandchildren “growing up safely in a Jewish state – a privilege that most Jews, in most eras, would consider miraculously great.” Well, that’s his opinion, and he’s entitled to his historical claim, for which he brings no support.

But I don’t know what he means by “growing up safely in a Jewish state.” He can’t mean “physical safety” because since 1948 Israel has hardly been a safe place for Jews – certainly not as safe as the U.S. I guess he must mean growing up safely as Jews, i.e., that Jews won’t intermarry non-Jews because of the precautions Israel has taken against it. I can’t argue with him there; the odds of intermarriage for Israelis who stay in Israel are much lower than Jews in the diaspora. I suppose that’s one way to solve the intermarriage problem: create a state where intermarriage is illegal and ship your kids there. Play the odds.

But there are other bad things besides intermarriage. Like living on land that does not belong to you, growing up with racist and xenophobic attitudes, preventing other people from living free lives, consenting to distribute resources inequitably, etc., etc. I don’t mean to say, God forbid, that living in Israel makes these sins inevitable, or that one cannot try to be decent. But when I was a parent raising children in Israel, especially in the religious school system, I worried that my children would be like the children of some of my liberal American Jewish friends who made aliyah, and who sent their kids to learn in institutions run by bigoted rabbis of the Kahanist variety. True, Rabbi Kahana was an American, but he ended up in Israel, where he felt most at home. Thank God, they survived their education, and took the fruit while discarding the husk.

And when I read the periodic surveys of the attitudes of Jewish high school students in Israel, and when I read the policies of the Education Ministry, I pray to the ribono shel olam that my grandchildren will not fall prey to that indoctrination. I take that risk not because my grandchildren are safe in Israel – but because they are safe growing up with parents who know how to give them liberal, humanist, Jewish values, and to filter out the immoral and indecent views. And I know that with those values they will struggle in their own way against the intolerant and often fascist ideology that has hijacked much – though, thank God, not all – religious Zionism. If I don’t worry about my grandchildren, it’s because I am deeply proud of my children and the liberal, religious, humanistic, Jewish, and Zionistic education they received.

Jeremiah (Jerry) Haber is the nom de plume of an Orthodox Jewish studies and philosophy professor, who divides his time between Israel and the United States. This post was originally published on his blog, The Magnes Zionist.

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    1. bob wisby

      Shouldn’t the question be ‘How Can a Jew oppose the Zionist State’? I mean, a Zionist opposing a jewish state makes absolutely no sense. It’s perhaps even a tautological position, akin to positing a British Nationalist who opposes the United Kingdom. A Jew opposing a Zionist state, on the other hand, makes much more sense. You can actually imagine it. Is that why you so cleverly reversed the equation in your title? To leave us no further forward?

      Reply to Comment
      • I see (liberal) Zionism as guaranteed return (via the Law of Return) into Israel proper, but otherwise unbiased access to and protection of law for all citizens, and so too mostly for all other residents. A Jewish State as such can actually have its Foreign Minister suggest that some 300,000 of its citizens who are not Jewish should be corporately stripped of their citizenship against their will and placed in a new “State.” A liberal Zionist State could not do that, for citizenship is inviolate.

        Race remains a filter in liberal Zionism for immigration, but nothing else (or so I conjecture). Otherwise, the State must be race neutral in application of law. Which poses a problem for the draft.

        Reply to Comment
        • goldmarx

          The Israel writer A. B. Yehoshua was one of the prime movers behind the Coalition for a Democratic Zionism, which argues that, in keeping with Israel’s Declaration of Independence, Israel should be the homeland of the Jewish people and the state of all its citizens.

          Because Ben Gurion was no fan of separation of synagogue and state, Israel never created a Constitution, one that would implement Yehoshua’s vision. Guided by a constitution, an Israeli Supreme Court could easily carve out a ‘Law of Return’ exception to an unbiased government.

          Reply to Comment
    2. The Trespasser

      There is nothing new about Zionism without a Jewish state. In late IXX century Zionists would hardly even dream that within 50 years there would be a Jewish state.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Philos

      Hmmm, too bad this liberal “decent” nation-state is a total fiction and fantasy of American liberals. The autocratic “Eastern” nation-states (to borrow Kohn for a moment) tended to perpetuate their atrocities within their boundaries or in close proximity to them. The decent liberal nation-states, like Britain and America, were decent enough to commit genocide faraway or out source it to their settlers. Liberalism when interrogated thoroughly always reveals its essential conservatism

      Reply to Comment
      • Piotr Berman

        As we are not in a post-state universe, we have states, and the are not many alternatives to nation states. Historically, state loyalties often had dynastic character, or territorial — when the territory was multinational. In particular, “nation” in a feudal system did not have much to do with the “state” that was often either an amalgamation of “nations” or a part of a nation.

        Thus “decent liberal nation state” is a fantasy only to the extend that a “decent liberal state” is. My definition of a “decent liberal state” is that it creates limits on the extend that the majority (which may stem from a coalition etc.) may abuse the minority. Preferably, the population develops a conviction that abusing the minority is not conducive to over-all happiness. It still gives room to abuses performed for the benefit of the targets, but at least it places the state/national discourse on a more healthy plane.

        From that perspective, the problem with the Zionist state is that the majority of enfranchised population is convinced that the minority consists of “enemies” and abusing them is (a) prudent and (b) enjoyable.

        I think that this problem is not perceived clearly in USA, the country being so vast that it can be viewed as a non-nation state. For example, the requirement to use English in education etc. is not viewed as a majoritarian imposition because everybody on Earth should know English anyway (I report American point of view). But in Europe this is actually an acute problem (borders are close, and nobody would pretend that everybody on Earth should know Livonian) and there is a consensus to cede some power to supra-national treaties, courts etc. and to have an ideology that a state in “good collegial standing with other states” should follow some directives.

        And Israel does not.

        Reply to Comment
    4. Anon

      My friend, you make a very interesting post and counter-post. I would like to add one more viewpoint.
      I think that there is a lot left to be learned by both western Ashkenazim and the Israeli polity from the history and traditions of the Mizrahim, the numerical majority of Israeli society.
      It is very frustrating to see how the Euro-American point of view, made ‘Israeli’ by the elite of Ashkenazim who established modern Zionism and the state, is so taken for granted, while the worldview of hundreds of generations of the ‘udot ha-mizrah, from Iraq to Syria to Morocco, who have lived with harmony or at least stability amongst Arabs until the last century are totally ignored or disregarded because the intellectual conversation always has to look only at western history for its context, and reviles all things “oriental”, even when it is authentically Jewish.
      I do not say that the traditional Mizrahi viewpoint is liberal or entirely admirable, or that the majority of Mizrahim today maintain the traditions of compromise of their forebears, but my experience has taught me that some adoption of the traditional oriental viewpoint, which is so, so misunderstood by westerners left and right, can lead to harmony within the nation and with our neighbours and cousins.
      Mizrahi scholars such as Yehouda Shenhav are the very few who have the voice to speak for the many, and for the point of view that is not so dependent on European political and religious polarisations.

      Reply to Comment
    5. EOF

      You, as so many do, conflate ‘nation’ and state (country) and therefor lose the key element of what defines ‘nationalism’. Read Benedict Anderson or many others. There is nothing wrong with reasoned opposition, but trying to squeeze it into an amorphous concept of nationalism weakens any argument as it convoludes key issues.

      Reply to Comment
    6. Adam Dayton

      A Zionist that opposes a Jewish State. What’s next? A Nazi that loves Jews?

      Reply to Comment
    7. Ron Temis

      So move to the States, after all, we are such nasty people, why would you want to be near us.

      Reply to Comment