Statism and Anti-Statism: Reflections on Israel’s Legitimacy Crisis

Intra-Jewish—and even intra-Zionist—contestations have long existed over the legitimacy of the state. Some Haredi Jews, such as these Neturei Karta protesters in New York, hold religiously principled anti-Zionist views. Most Haredim, however, view the State of Israel as no more or less legitimate than a non-Jewish state. Credit: Ben Piven.

In 1915, the young Gershom Scholem, already a passionate Zionist and rebel against the assimilationist German Jewish bourgeoisie, wrote the following lines, certain to shock American Zionist ears in 2012:

[Herzl’s] only thought was: the Jewish State. And that we reject. For we preach anarchism. That is, we do not want a State, but rather a free society…. We as Jews know enough of the dreadful idolatry of the State … to pray to it and to offer it our children as a willing sacrifice to its unquenchable greed and lust for power. We Jews are no Staatsvolk.

I begin with these lines from Scholem as a way of putting into perspective the current campaign to combat the “delegitimization of the State of Israel.” Much of the political activity of the world Jewish community today is being devoted to this campaign, with efforts conducted by a large range of actors, including the Israeli diplomatic corps, nongovernmental Jewish organizations, and even student activists on college campuses. What these efforts seem to ignore, however, is the extent to which the question of the “legitimacy of the state” has long been the subject of intra-Jewish, and even intra-Zionist, contestation—contestation that has only intensified over the past generation.

Indeed, much of the recent political turbulence in Israel may be understood as consisting of a broad array of challenges to the legitimacy of the state. Such challenges come from diverse social sectors, each of which is also sharply divided by conflicting attitudes toward the state. American Jews concerned with Israel need to consider the meaning of solidarity with “Israel” or even “Zionism” in view of the current turbulence. In today’s Israeli political culture, opposition to the state takes a wide variety of forms, ranging from principled anti-statism to rejection of the state in its current form on diverse grounds. A review of some of the recent turbulence can serve to highlight the breadth of this phenomenon, which has recently given rise to high-profile manifestations across the Israeli religious and political spectrum.

A Perennial Debate Among Zionists

Before proceeding to that review, it is important to note briefly that the statism/anti-statism opposition has been a flashpoint of intra-Zionist contestation from the earliest phases of the movement. There is even a well-known Hebrew term for statism: mamlachtiyut, which richly evokes this perennial theme of polemics for those familiar with Zionist history. The term is most frequently associated with David Ben-Gurion and his contested view that the establishment of the State of Israel signified a break with Zionism as a non-state political/cultural/religious movement. Mamlachtiyut was advanced as the opposite of tenu’atiyut (movement-ism) or miflagtiyut (party-ism).


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Nathaniel Berman is the Rahel Varnhagen Professor of International Affairs, Law, and Modern Culture at Brown University’s Cogut Center for the Humanities, and codirects the Religion and Internationalism Project. He recently published Passion and Ambivalence: Colonialism, Nationalism, and International Law (Brill 2012).

Source Citation

Berman, Nathaniel. 2012. Statism and Anti-Statism: Reflections on Israel’s Legitimacy Crisis. Tikkun 27(3): 31.

tags: Analysis of Israel/Palestine, Israel/Palestine, Politics & Society   
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