Yakov Rabkin’s devastating critique of Zionism: it is opposed to Jewish tradition and liberalism

Last year one of the most important books on Zionism, ever, was published in English by Pluto: What Is Modern Israel? by Yakov Rabkin, a professor of history at the University of Montreal. The central theme of the book is how Zionists have exploited Judaism and western traditions to offer Israel as a liberal democracy when it is actually a nationalist colonialists project hanging on by its paranoid fingernails.

Rabkin has expertise. He is a religious academic, and it is his Judaism that has brought him to embrace universalist cosmopolitanism when it comes to interpreting history in our century. Given his background, he has been able to defy what he calls the “climate of intellectual terror that surrounds the Question of Israel.”

In reading his book, it struck me that the greatest service I could provide to a reader is to roll out Rabkin’s deadly insights about the nature of the “Jewish state,” and the essential antagonism of Judaism and Zionism. What follows is a long sequence of Rabkin’s observations and findings, all of which aim to end that climate of terror and allow westerners to speak freely about the Zionist era. Let’s go.

Zionism has four essential goals, Rakin says. 1, “to transform the transnational Jewish identity centered on the Torah into a national identity like that of other European nations.” 2, “To develop a new vernacular language.” 3, “To displace the Jews from their countries of origin to Palestine. 4, “To establish political and economic control over Palestine.”

Thus, Zionism is a case of “imposed modernization typical of western colonialism,” a policy rejected by both Arab and traditional Jewish populations.

Politically, Israel has been able to rely on the solid support of the elites of Western nations, in part due to Zionism’s colonialist aims: “The essentially European character of this recently established settler colony, which resembles in many ways the United Kingdom’s former colonies throughout the world, also explains Western support of Israel. Its self-ascribed identity as a ‘Jewish state’ brings de facto legitimacy to the renewal of ethnicity as the criterion for belonging.”

Rabkin notes the popular trend we’ve been chronicling: “Western partiality toward Israel suffers from a democratic deficit: contrary to their elites, the majority of the citizens of the Western nations consider the state of Israel as a threat to world peace.”

The distinction between left and right wings of Zionism is far less meaningful than is Zionism’s hostility to liberalism:

[I]t would surely be more useful to speak of a division between liberal cosmopolitanism and ethnic nationalism. Zionism, meanwhile, is fundamentally hostile to liberal cosmopolitanism, which explains why the Zionist “left,” in Israel and elsewhere, has gone largely over to the “right.” What unites the two camps—their conviction of the legitimacy of Zionism—is more substantial than the stylistic or tactical differences that divide them.

Rabkin links the rise of Zionism with the secularization of Jewish identity in modernity, and the Jewish aspiration to normal experience among the nations:

Jewish secular identity acquired a socio-cultural dimension: those who consciously rejected Judaism could preserve, at least for a while, a specific language (Yiddish), and a few cultural markers. This new identity was conjugated in a wide range of political options, often of socialist or nationalist inspiration. By consummating the break with tradition, the concept of the secular Jew, at variance with the traditional Jewish vision, made it possible to redefine the Jews as a “normal people” and thus became the cornerstone of Zionism.

But it was a special definition of peoplehood.

The concept of the Jewish people that Zionism relied on had little in common with traditional definitions of the term. Religious scholars know that: “the Torah, and only the Torah, makes of the Jews a collective identity.”

Jewish tradition has long put exile at the center of Jewish existence. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch:

Torah… obliges us, until God shall call us back to the Holy Land, to live and to work as patriots wherever He has placed us, to collect all the physical, material and spiritual forces and all that is noble in Israel to further the wealth of nations which have given us shelter.

But the new secular Jewish identity gained popularity in Eastern Europe and especially Russia, and it “eliminated the religious—and thus normative—dimension of Jewish identity and retained only its biological and cultural dimensions.”

At the same time as it countered Jewish religion, Zionism also countered liberalism: “Zionists consider a liberal, multicultural society as a major obstacle to the expansion of a Jewish national conscience.”

Zeev Sternhell:

“To accept the liberal concept of society would mean [for Jewish nationalist intelligentsia] the end of the Jewish people as an autonomous unit.”

Thus, Rabkin says: “The main threat to Zionism is European liberalism, which offers Jews an individual choice but, according to many Zionists, denies them the opportunity to live a true national life.”

Zionism is at root a response to challenges of liberalism: “far more Israelis take up residence in the world’s liberal democracies than citizens of those countries immigrate to Israel.” That goes for Russian Jews too:

“Out of the 1.2 million Jews who emigrated from Russia at the turn of the 20th century, a mere 30,000 made Palestine their destination, and of those, only a quarter remained there.”

The Jewish tradition of exile is so strong that when Soviet Jewry was allowed to emigrate, Israel was required to carry out “a full scale diplomatic campaign in an effort to prevail upon its allies (primarily the United States and Germany) to limit immigration to their countries of Soviet Jews.”

Rabkin says Zionism was pioneered by assimilated, secular Jews who felt that emancipation had freed them to penetrate the highest levels of European society, and found they were rejected, so they sought a nation like other nations out of this frustration. Torah had been the basis of Jewish unity till Zionism. But when they went back to the land of Israel, “they would no longer need to follow [Torah’s] precepts, for their national consciousness, as experienced in the land of Israel, would be sufficient to sustain that unity.”

Israel allowed these Jews to forgive themselves assimilation: because they were assimilating into “normal” history:

“Only the state of Israel offers the Jews the ultimate freedom to reject totally their spiritual heritage and become a ‘normal people.’ The new Israeli identity appears to facilitate collective assimilation while sparing those who adopt it the feeling of guilt often linked to assimilation on an individual basis.”

Rabkin quotes Rabbi Amram Blau saying that Zionism brought greater injury to the Jews than to the Arabs:

“The Arabs may have lost their land and their homes, but by accepting Zionism, the Jews lost their historic identity.”

And he quotes Meron Benvenisti, former deputy mayor of Jerusalem, characterizing the two-tier system of rights for Jews and occupied Palestinians as “Herrenvolk [master race] democracy.”

The elevation by Zionists of the volk as the exclusive subject of Jewish history led rabbis to denounce this “cardinal element” of Zionist ideology, Rabkin says. He quotes an Austrian rabbi:

“There is no Jewish nation… [Jews] should cultivate the ancient Hebrew language, study their rich literature, know their history, cherish their faith, and make the greatest sacrifices for it; they should hope and trust in the wisdom of divine providence.”

Zionism depends on anti-Semitism, and it also fosters it.

“Political Zionism intentionally stirs up anti-Semitism,” I. M. Rabinowitch wrote in 1974. “From the very beginning, it has been the policy to deliberately incite hatred of the Jew and, then, in feigned horror, point to it to justify a Jewish state.”

Rabinowitch said that Zionism contains the “most fertile seeds for proliferation of anti-semitism” – an element of dual loyalty. Rabkin then quotes a former Israeli diplomat describing the role of Jews in the west as “an Israel-vassalized diaspora.”

Here Rabkin is unintimidated by the climate of intellectual terror. The vassalizing of the diaspora goes beyond double allegiance to “a form of exclusive allegiance to the state of Israel.” (Remember Dennis Ross calling on U.S. Jews to be “advocates” for Israel, not for Palestinians.) Rabkin says:

“The unconditional defense of Israel into which certain community leaders have dragooned the Jews tends to expose them to criticism, which in turn justifies Zionism and makes the state of Israel indispensable as an insurance policy. Even proudly secular Israelis find this policy suicidal for the future of the diaspora…

“The denigration of Jewish life outside of Israel has long been a feature of Zionist thought and practice. The mobilization of the diaspora to justify whatever political or military action Israel might undertake constitutes its critical element.”

Not that Zionists knew how to deal with Palestinians. The Zionist activists in Europe never knew the “tolerant variety of nationalism” that arose in the US and Canada that distinguishes between nation, religion, society and state. Rather, the two slogans adopted by the Zionist pioneers clearly illustrated their intentions: “conquest through labor” and hafrada (separation).

“In other words, the Zionist movement adopted a policy of separate development that remains in force up to the present, and explains in large measure the perpetuation of the conflict with the Palestinians and the isolation of the state of Israel in the region.”

These undertakings have led to great Israeli insecurity. Today the term “security” has replaced the concept of self-defense that was widely employed before the creation of the state.

“Israel, often held up as a place of refuge, and even as the ultimate refuge, may well have become the most precarious place of all for the Jews… Now, in contrast to the early years of Zionism, the sense of victimhood has become, over the last few decades, an integral part of Israeli Jewish identity.

“Some of those who have persisted in seeing themselves as victims have come to realize that they are actually victims of the Zionist enterprise, which has subjected them to interminable wars and, in the case of the Arab Jews, chronic social and economic inferiority.”

These conditions generate paranoia, which Rabkin traces to a biblical curse: “you shall flee though none pursues” (Leviticus).

Israeli Jews are aware at some level that their country is based on unstable foundations:

The sense of fragility is fed by awareness of Palestinian hostility, and of the hostility of the region’s population as a whole, a hostility often attributed to so-called “essentialist” causes—Islamic religion and irrational Jew-hatred—rather than to perfectly understandable social and political ones, such as the anger generated by discrimination, dispossession, and deportation of the indigenous population.

Israeli leaders’ demand that others recognize Israel as a Jewish state “testifies to the fragility of the Israeli state, for all its power and prosperity, as felt by many Zionists.” While Zionist fears of becoming a minority cause them to encourage discriminatory immigration policies that only exacerbate the problem.

“Jewish self-hatred” — rejection of Jewish tradition– has been a hallmark of the Zionist ideology of national revival. And this too undermines any sense of Israeli permanence.

“Jewish tradition teaches that the Jews must take into account the impression they may make on others, even those who have persecuted them in the past… But the Zionist education system from its inception has promoted the use of force, self-affirmation, and combativeness. The Zionists looked upon the requirement to behave as moral exemplars with scorn and ridicule, caring little for the impression they, and later their state, make upon the world, and above all upon its immediate neighbors. Ben-Gurion formulated the proposition thus: ‘What matters is what the Jews do, not what the goyim think.’”

Thus Zionism produced a state that rejected “Judaism and its humility.” The new Zionist/Israeli culture sees itself as resolutely European. “So it was that dozens of songs, nursery rhymes, and children’s stories were translated from Russian into Hebrew during the early years of Zionist settlement.” But not Arab songs!

Zionists used violence to strip Jews from their religious tradition:

“Many of the founders of Jewish armed groups, in both Russia and Palestine, also recognized that the use of force was a way of tearing the Jews from Jewish tradition.”

Rabkin draws lessons from the Nazi period. Israel and Nazi Germany are “powerful states that scorn individual morality, practice racial discrimination, and commit crimes against humanity.” Civic spaces in Israel have become associated above all with “death for the fatherland,” a linkage going back to the beginning of Zionist colonization.

Hannah Arendt’s warning about Nazi leader Adolf Eichmann’s not being guilty of “crimes against the Jewish people,” but of his being a normal response to an evil bureaucratic system carries “a universal meaning, which should stand as a warning to any state that adopts ethnic discrimination as state policy,” Rabkin says.

“There can be little doubt that after the Nazi genocide, the use of force became an article of faith for a large number of Jews. To cast doubt upon the legitimacy and efficacy of force is, in Zionist circles, tantamount to treason.”

That article of faith has caused Israel to abrogate international law: “Since the proclamation of the state, Israeli policy has remained constant. It reflects the imperative to perpetuate a state established against the will of the native Arab population and situated predominantly on lands that had once belonged to that population….Israel’s behavior, the incarnation of the principle ‘might makes right’ has undermined the very bases of international public law conceived to reduce conflict and promote peace.”

Rabkin is clear about the racist character of such Israeli institutions as the Jewish National Fund: “This institution has played a crucial role in the development of the Zionist state. In response to an anti discrimination action brought against the JNF in 2004, the organization confirmed that ‘the loyalty of the JNF is given to the Jewish people and only to them is the JNF obligated. The JNF, as the owner of the JNF land, does not have a duty to practice equality towards all citizens of the state.’”

Among Haredi Jews, the criticism of Zionism is alive:

“While the respected Israeli intellectual Boaz Evron argues that ‘Zionism is indeed the negation of Judaism,’ the words that, for decades, have been inscribed on the walls of the Haredi quarter of Meah Shearim in Jerusalem echo this basic position: ‘Judaism and Zionism are diametrically opposed to each other.’”

And of course, Zionism’s international reputation has been transformed:

“Zionism as a symbol of the struggle against racism and for human rights has acquired the characteristics of an ideology that produces Jewish racism and an institutional system that has much in common with South African-style apartheid.

“The Zionist state, which was to have been an instrument of national liberation, has in reality become a skilled manipulator that has attempted to monopolize control of the land, the water, and the country’s other resources.”

Many Zionists have become disaffected: “Emigration affects primarily the best-educated strata of the population. An estimated 25 percent of Israeli academics work in the United States.”

They understand that Zionism is out of step with history: “[T]he post-modernist trend presages the collapse of Zionism, in which nationalism is perceived as a form of oppression that must give way to the affirmation of otherness and multiculturalism.”

Rabkin sees Israeli political culture as growing more and more authoritarian:

[T]he totalitarian current gives no sign of abating. If probing questions about certain Israeli policies are sometimes tolerated, not only are all fundamental critiques of Zionism delegitimized, but likewise any individual who might have dared to formulate such criticisms in the past. Such people are systematically excluded from community activities…

Let us recall that the leaders of socialist Zionism made the decision to assassinate Jacob de Haan [in 1924] above all because he “spoke ill of the movement to the outside world.”

This totalitarian culture has special implications for American Jews, those who uphold Zionist doctrine, and those who don’t:

[S]ensitivity to any criticism of Israel can easily be explained by the fact that for many people allegiance to Israel has long replaced Judaism as the anchoring principle of Jewish identity. But in the diaspora, this allegiance extends to an ideal, even imaginary, state rather than to the real and existing state of Israel, that economic and military power that dominates the region. Still, there also exists a Jewish identity whose sole content is to criticize and even to denounce the state of Israel…

The author shares in the hope for Israel to transform itself:

A former speaker of the Knesset, Avraham Burg, believes that converting Israel into a state of its citizens, and erasing its Jewish nature, is “our only hope for survival.” Prominent poet and intellectual Yitzhak Laor argues, “We don’t have to leave this place or give up our lives… we have to get rid of Zionism.”

Rabkin quotes other Jewish anti-Zionists on the urgency of this idea:

In accepting the idea that the structures of Zionism could simply be dismantled, Rabbi Moshe Sober emphasizes its psychological aspect—and expresses guarded optimism about its practicality: “A solution is not impossible; it is not even particularly costly. But it will never be achieved unless we can allow ourselves to forget for a moment our cherished beliefs for which we have sacrificed so many lives, and look instead at the actual realities of the situation. We must stop treating Israel as a romantic dream and learn to see her as a heterogeneous country in which two fiercely proud ethnic populations of similar size are struggling for control….”

Sober’s understanding leads to the acknowledgment of apartheid: “All discussion of the occupation simply conceals another reality, [Sober] concludes. Israel has in fact become a binational state that denies political rights to one of those nations.”

Rabkin is also critical of Israel’s need for geo-political supremacy in its region. Here too he sees racism:

Although both Israel and the United States possess nuclear weapons, they deny Iran the right to acquire similar weapons, arguing that its rulers are irrational religious fanatics. Clearly the principle of double standards is at work, reflecting the revival of the concept of so-called civilized countries that, against empirical evidence, are claimed to possess a monopoly on rationality in international politics.

The sense of superiority has nothing to do with Judaism or anti-Semitism. It is inherent to Zionism, which is opposed to liberalism.

References to Judaism and to Jewish tradition are of little help in understanding the contemporary Israel; quite the contrary, they are more likely to mislead, for Zionism and the stte that incarnates it are revolutionary phenomena. It is easier, in fact, to understand that state’s politics, structure and laws without reference to either the Jews or their history…. It is thus imprecise to speak of a “Jewish state” or a “Jewish lobby”: “Zionist state” and “Zionist lobby” would be more appropriate.

Israel has… succeeded in making the Zionist outlook—by definition anti-liberal—acceptable to the general public as well as in the media and the academic world, even in countries with a long liberal tradition where the state, rather than confessional or “tribal” loyalty, theoretically ensures the rights of the citizen…. [T]he JNF, which for a century has been establishing segregated settlements that are out of bounds to Arabs, enjoys not only Canadian fiscal benefits, but the personal participation of top federal officials in the organization’s fundraising efforts.

We must criticize U.S. Jewish leaders for being such willing servants of this ideology, damaging both U.S. and Israeli notions of citizenship:

The leaders of major Jewish organizations in the United States and elsewhere routinely act on behalf of Israel… Those leaders appear to have bypassed the limits of the “double loyalty” Jews are often accused of harboring, insisting that loyalty to the state of Israel must prevail over all others, including that toward their own country.

This leads to the increasingly overt transformation of Jewish organizations around the world into Israeli vassals. Moreover, by emphasizing the primacy of an ethnically and denominationally defined “Jewish nationality,” the state of Israel turns its back on the idea of an “Israeli nationality” that would reflect that multicultural society that has taken shape on this land in the Eastern Mediterranean over the last century…

Israeli leaders ignore borders, intervening in the political process of other countries, particularly in the United States where Israel often plays Congress against he White House. In the Middle East, the IDF pays no heed to borders, striking targets in its neighboring countries, interventions carried out with impunity…

Rabkin’s conclusion is that Zionism is itself a prescription for unending conflict:

“Israel, for all its embrace of modernity, remains bound by the Zionist ideology, which ensures that in spite of its respectable age it remains a daring frontier experience rife with conflict within and without.”

For those who want more of Rabkin’s sharp insights, here is a great youtube of him taking apart a Zionist ideologue, Dennis Prager.

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