‘a knot that cannot be undone’: reflections on Israel and the necessity of conscience

Indeed, the Jews have a culturally complex history that includes sufferings of anti-semitism, pogroms, and concentration camps where over six million were slaughtered. But there is also a history of religious and cultural traditions that exist, many of which are pre-Zionist, and there is a history, more vexed than usually acknowledged, of a relation to Israel as a complex ideal. To say that persecution is the essence of Judaism not only overrides agency and aggression performed in the name of Judaism but preempts a cultural and historical analysis that would have to be complex and specific through recourse to a singular preontological condition, one that, understood as universal, is identified as the transhistorical and defining truth of the Jewish people [italics mine]. – Judith Butler on Emmanuel Levinas’ Zionism  (Giving an Account of Oneself, 96).

I agree with Butler’s rejection of Levinas’ account of Zionism for multiple reasons. First, Butler hints at the complexities of Jewish hope for a homeland before the rise of Zionism It is assumed by Zionists and Lord Jonathan Sachs is a good example, for instance, that praying towards Jerusalem and saying “next year in Jerusalem” are akin to Zionism (Wrestling with God 667). That in fact, for the first time beginning with the Haskalah, Jews ceased to be Zionists. That greatly simplifies history and confuses an ancient Messianic hope with nationalism. This is not to argue that there aren’t similarities or overlap. But it ignores that the Jewish messianic ideal does more to prevent nationalism than it does to bolster it. I think this is what Butler is inferring when she discusses Israel as a “complex ideal.” Second, I think Butler is correct in problematizing the connection between persecution and Jewish identity. One of the largest issues I see with political Zionism is that it focuses on persecution and as such constructs a narrative that argues that in order for a Jew to be a Jew, we must be persecuted. Judaism is both a broad culture and a religious tradition. It, in effects, queers those categorizations. It is also a gross simplification to base our experience as a people solely on persecution.

If I were to ever commit myself to the Zionist cause, several factors would have to occur. First, the only way I could be a Zionist is in the vein of Martin Buber’s or Albert Einstein’s Zionism. Their argument was that while the Jews should have a homeland in Palestine, this homeland should not result in a Jewish majority. Thus, Buber and Einstein distinguished between a state and a homeland. Moreover, they envisioned a bi-national state (today considered a one state solution), privileging neither Arab nor Jewish culture. Their hope would be that we would live in community and cooperation with one another and that cooperation should be the highest pursuit even if that entails only a Jewish minority in Palestine. Buber specifically opposed to the “Land Acquisitions Act,” that allowed Israel to confiscate Arab properties. I am not sure if this form of Zionism can effectively exist anymore, however, and is simply reduced to a utopian vision of Palestine. But that is the only form of Zionism I would ever come close to supporting. Moreover, I am also of the thought that only in the Messianic era will we have a place in the homeland. Until that time comes, we are a diaspora people and perhaps it means that there is something messianic inherent in our diasporic existence.

Second, if I were to support the state of Israel, it must give back all land it took in the “Land Acquisitions Acts.” It must apologize for the occupation and all the atrocities (including ethnic cleansing) that it has committed to the Palestinian people. It must allow Palestinians the right to return to lands taken from them. We must disavow the Settler ideology. There must be teshuvah, a legitimate repentance for the acts which our people have perpetuated against the Palestinians. Is this impossible? Probably so. It also one of the legacies of our tradition and culture. Trust requires risk, as does peace. If we consider our tradition to be of high ethical import, it is our duty to live bound to those principles in the form of action. My concern is not other people in this regard because  the Palestinian people have ethical traditions of their own that dictate the very similar responsibilities. If the Palestinian Papers reveal anything, it reveals that the current Israeli government cares very little about the peace process. If anything, we should be skeptical of our people’s commitment to peace, not the Palestinians. If anything, we should not be surprised if Palestinians are suspicious of peace talks: they have more to lose than the Israeli government.

Third, if there is to ever be a Jewish homeland, we must do more to address the ethnic bias (I would go so far as to call it racism) against Jews of other cultures. Ashkenazic Jews have immense power in the Jewish state often to the detriment of other cultural variations of Judaism, especially Mizrahi, Beta Israel (Ethiopian Jews) and Bene Israel (Indian Jews). Our racism against other Jews forms a fundamental problem if we ever wish to move towards the ideal of a Jewish homeland. At this point, I am unsure of how to address these issues. To be sure, there will be contentions (as with an issue, there should be). But this makes me question any homeland in the present.

Until that time comes, I cannot in good conscience support the policies of the Jewish State, nor Zionist ideologies. This is a first step towards that reflection for me about why I am uncomfortable with support of Israel and why my conscience and not supporting the state, compels me to be critical of many of its claims.


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