Can Zionism Be Redeemed?

Protest from Israeli side of Gaza border with Israelis, Palestinians, and foreigners. Image by Cat Zavis.

I am a dual Israeli-American citizen who is anguished and alarmed over the odious political situation in both of my beloved countries. Chauvinist and racist governments led by corrupt, authoritarian, self-serving leaders have assumed power in both Israel and the United States by exacerbating fear, resentment, and hatred against demonized Others. The militant xenophobia which was once confined to marginal hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan in America or the late Meir Kahane’s Kach Party in Israel has become mainstream in both societies.[1] And there is now an unholy geopolitical alliance between the Trump and Netanyahu governments. It is a dark and perilous time, especially as we see similar manifestations of authoritarianism and officially sanctioned intolerance spreading throughout the world. Many commentators, especially in Europe, have compared our era to the 1930s, when fascism grew increasingly and menacingly powerful. Liberal democracy is under assault, and with it the humanistic social framework that has guaranteed citizens at least a modicum of civil rights and liberties. In the midst of this distressing situation, it is natural to feel vulnerable and frightened.

I am writing this reflection several weeks after the April 2019 Israeli election, in the period before the new election scheduled for mid-September. In early April I flew to Israel from the United States, where I currently live and work, to cast my vote for a new political leadership. Sadly, the election outcome deflated the hope that I and so many other Israelis carried with us to the polling stations. Yet the failure of Netanyahu to create a new government coalition under his leadership gives the opposition parties another chance to wrest power from his right-wing amalgam of secular nationalist and Orthodox religious factions. As an interfaith educator and activist involved in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking for close to 40 years,[2] I remain pessimistic for the short term; but I remain hopeful for the longer term, as I continue my work with allies of different faiths for a healing of the holy land.

Pro-Netanyahu campaign posters on a fence surrounding a Jerusalem playground. Photo by author.

I am incensed by the unjust and harmful policies of the Netanyahu government, abetted since early 2017 by the political support of the Trump Administration. At the same time, I am exasperated by the counter-productive policies of Palestinian leaders. The belligerent rhetoric of both Hamas and Fatah/Palestinian Authority leaders and their complicity in violence toward Israeli civilians reinforce the fears of the many Israeli Jews who have lost hope in the prospects for a negotiated peace. Given the widespread cynicism and despair on both sides, is there any prospect for transforming the dysfunctional, mutually injurious relationship between Israelis and Palestinians?

My intent in this reflection is not to present a symmetrical or balanced argument for equal culpability. It is obvious that since Israelis have had more political and military power than the Palestinians, the latter have suffered far more over the course of the conflict. Yet the responsibility for the injustices and indignities experienced by Palestinians can’t be borne by Israelis alone. Over the past 100 years, leaders in Israel, Palestine, other Middle Eastern countries, and outside powers—especially Britain, the United States, and Russia—all share responsibility for prolonging the conflict and the war mentality it has engendered among both Israelis and Palestinians. For close to forty years, I have protested and labored to change Israeli government policies which I believe are misguided and morally objectionable. However, these harmful policies, too often justified by invoking security concerns, have been used by Israel’s detractors to delegitimize the establishment of the Jewish state and the entire Zionist enterprise. In those anti-Israel circles, Zionism is unequivocally condemned as racist or colonialist, an inherently oppressive ideology and policy with no redeeming value, no relative justice behind it, and no liberating or redemptive potential whatsoever. Zionism, in the eyes of its de-legitimizers, is perceived to be a form of ethnic cleansing, apartheid, and even genocide. I find this sweeping assault on Israel’s legitimacy and raison-d’etre to be both morally objectionable and a serious obstacle to an inclusively just peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians. I would say the same about a similarly absolutist rejection of Palestinian national identity, rights, and aspirations.

In our time of great moral confusion, with monotheistic religion (whether Judaism, Islam, or Christianity) viewed by many as a force for repression rather than redemption, is it even reasonable to pose the question: Can Zionism itself be redeemed from its shortcomings? If it can, what spiritual and moral practices would be needed for such an outcome? As a religious Zionist, I see Judaism as a prophetic and priestly (or pastoral) corrective to the excesses of unbridled nationalism. Without a transcendent point of reference and reverence, nationalism becomes another form of idolatry. And if a state calls itself Jewish, especially in Eretz Yisrael, which the Hebrew Bible views as a laboratory for consecration, then it has to uphold the principles of inclusive justice and peace and formulate its policies accordingly.

The Jewish self-criticism that is required for any movement toward change has to begin with an unapologetic acknowledgement that the accomplishments of Zionist leaders have been tarnished and undermined by the choices they made, before and after the state was established. Whatever idealism they professed, and whatever self-sacrifice they demonstrated, the pioneers who built the Jewish state focused primarily on collective Jewish interests at the expense of Palestinian interests, rights, and needs. Building a workforce based on the ideal of “Hebrew labor” excluded Palestinian laborers. And building a Jewish commonwealth on land that was often purchased from absentee landlords displaced Palestinians working that land. Finally, when the Zionist leadership accepted the partition plans of 1937 and 1947, while the Palestinians and their Arab allies rejected them for being unfair in their eyes, the ensuing war for Israel’s survival resulted in the exodus of some 750,000 Palestinians from their villages and towns. According to historian Benny Morris,[3] close to half of those refugees were forcibly expelled and the other half fled. Almost all of them were then prohibited from returning to their homes, fields, and orchards in the new state of Israel. In the aftermath of the fighting, Israel razed over 400 Palestinian villages, which, on top of military expulsions, reinforced the external perception of an intentional “ethnic cleansing.” In the months and years following, two opposing national narratives emerged to describe what had happened and to justify the actions of one side or the other, depending on who was recounting the events. To effect genuine peace based on inclusive justice, we need to begin by adopting a dual-narrative perspective that can accept the subjective validity of both national stories, one celebrating Israel’s “War of Independence” and one mourning the Palestinian national catastrophe, the “Naqba.[4]

The self-interested perceptions, interpretations, and policies on both sides have been reinforcing each other for decades. The militant hostility toward Zionism on the part of Palestinians and other Arabs over decades—what is often called the “armed struggle” or the “resistance”—has reinforced the narrowly nationalistic views of Israeli leaders and citizens. And the inverse is also true: harsh Israeli policies toward the Palestinians, including those who are Israeli citizens, have served to confirm the negative stereotypes of Israelis, and of Jews generally. The century-long conflict has generated a dysfunctional dynamic, pitting anti-Zionism against anti-Palestinianism as the negative undersides of the two national movements for independence. The result is an ongoing clash of both positive, liberating national visions and, simultaneously, of destructive impulses that de-humanize both the victims and victimizers on both sides. One agonizing consequence, reinforced by the power imbalance favoring Israel, is that most Palestinians are still in exile or under Israeli occupation with little hope of achieving their own independence any time soon. As an Israeli, I feel deep sorrow and remorse over the protracted suffering of my Palestinian neighbors. At the same time, it is also deeply painful to me that the more we Israeli Jews try to secure ourselves from external threats, the means we employ too often increase our insecurity by inflaming Palestinian anger and hatred. It seems that the passions generated by this conflict, among those who endure it every day and those who view it from abroad, overwhelm the spirit of compassion which both sides deserve but have difficulty cultivating. Outside parties have tried to break the deadly impasse, but decades of partisan calculations by both Israelis and Palestinians have undermined all the diplomatic efforts to transform the conflict.

At this historical moment, Jews in Israel and elsewhere need to acknowledge that the long-term Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories and their inhabitants since 1967 has had corrosive effects on Israeli society and on the perception of the Zionist homecoming by others, starting with the Palestinians. One destructive effect of the Israeli occupation is the undermining of democratic norms and the increase in chauvinist, even racist, sentiments among Israeli Jews. One clear sign of this anti-democratic trend was the Knesset’s passage of the “Nationality Law” in July of 2018, defining Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people only and downgrading the status of Arabic so that it is no longer a second official language. Such an action reinforces the view that Zionism is inherently racist and supremacist. Another negative consequence of Israel’s control of Palestinian lives and territories, exacerbated by the proliferation of Jewish settlements in those territories, is the distortion of Judaism from a tradition of love, justice, and consecration to one of enmity, injustice, and desecration. I find this grotesque distortion of authentic Judaism to be particularly egregious, even sacrilegious. My decision to immigrate to Israel in 1978 and to become an Israeli citizen was motivated, in large part, by a sense of obligation to uphold the Jewish values that are the heart of my identity as a “Jew-man being,” values that should be core commitments of a Jewish state. Instead, the militant pseudo-messianism championed by the religious right in Israel—through the Gush Emunim (Bloc of the Faithful) settlers and the political parties claiming to represent them—has alienated many Jews, as well as others, from the Torah and its teachings. I consider this misrepresentation and violation of Torah teachings to be a collective chillul Hashem, a desecration of the Divine Name. As a religious Jew and educator, I have long decried this ideological effort to turn the Torah, identified in our tradition as a Tree of Life, into a weapon of domination and destruction. Instead of worshiping the God of all Creation, who has created all human beings in the Divine Image, the Jewish mystical chauvinists—who place Jewish control over the whole land above life, compassion, and justice—have darkened the spiritual light of Judaism in the service of false deities: chauvinism, territorialism, militarism, and false messianism. They must be held accountable by Jewish religious and political leaders for this idolatry and all the harm it has caused. Without such a collective reckoning, Zionism, including religious Zionism, cannot be redeemed. To be truly effective, such self-criticism and commitment to change must be demonstrated publicly in collective acts of teshuvah: repentance, redirection, and restitution to those who have been harmed.[5]

The basis of genuine religious Zionism is the Biblical charge to the Israelites to be “a kingdom of priests and a holy people” (“mamlekhet cohanim v’goy kadosh”). This injunction, in Exodus 19:6, appears just before the climax of the Exodus drama, the revelation of the Torah at Sinai. In the previous verse, God proclaims that “all the land is Mine,” affirming that the land belongs to God and that anyone, or any group, that wishes to live there is expected to live up to clear moral standards. Failure to live up to those standards, which are an essential part of the covenant between God and the People Israel, can result in the people being exiled from the land, as the Hebrew prophets repeatedly warned. And the test of covenantal faithfulness for the residents of the land is how sovereign power (mamlakhah) is used collectively, not the actions of individuals, however saintly.

Individual Jews are members of a people that has been summoned by God to create a national community that can be an instrument of consecration and blessing. Like the priests in charge of the ancient Temple rites, the whole community is called to a life of sacrificial service. But instead of offering animals to be slaughtered and burned on the Temple altar, we are called in our time to sacrifice the territorial extensions of our own insecure, animal bodies. For any religious Jew, it is very painful to give up any part of Eretz Yisrael, the land deemed holy and which many of us consider part of our patrimony. But the price for not relinquishing territory as part of a peace agreement is even more painful. The settler movement has chosen, in effect, to sacrifice human lives, Palestinian and Israeli, on the altar of territory in Eretz Yisrael—this despite the fact that Jewish tradition has always placed the preservation of life, pikuach nefesh, as the supreme value for which all other commandments must be subordinated and, when necessary, suspended. This Jewish “hierarchy of holiness,” as I call it, means that to save lives, and to allow all human lives to flourish, we need to be ready and willing to renounce our control over parts of Israel/Palestine so that Palestinians can enjoy the same rights, liberties, and opportunities that we claim for ourselves. For the Golden Rule limits and conditions any understanding of Jewish-Israeli rule over territory and people.

But our readiness to make sacrifices needs to go even deeper than renunciation of territory in exchange for peace and security, if we are to engage in genuine teshuvah. As a prophetic community, we are called to publicly acknowledge, as an act of confession (vidui), our harmful actions and to make amends for them. And as a nation that has been summoned by God to be a sovereign community of “priests,” we are called to bless all humanity and the entire Creation through sacrificial service. In our present context, this means we have to sacrifice our self-image as righteous victims. As we try to heal our own painful wounds, we need to also acknowledge our role as victimizers, collectively responsible for acts of injustice and cruelty against the Palestinian people. By doing that, and by urging our leaders to follow suit, we can open embittered Palestinian hearts and invite both peoples to strive for reconciliation. As Jews, especially in Israel where political empowerment has brought additional responsibilities, we must take the lead in transforming the present dynamic of death and destruction to a relationship of mutual acceptance, forgiveness, and solidarity.

I believe that such an honestly self-critical, emotionally intelligent, and politically generous stance on our part is part of what being a “priestly” community entails. For the vocation of a priest, in either Jewish or Christian terms, is mediating atonement and forgiveness through sacrifice. In ancient times when the two Temples stood in Jerusalem it involved exchanging animals or grains we could use to feed our bodies for the spiritual blessings that nourished our souls. Today, with the state of Israel as our collective “temple” and all its citizens in the role of “priests,” the summons from beyond this physical plane is to reconcile with the Divine through achieving reconciliation with those from whom we are estranged, especially those who harbor legitimate grievances against us. And this means, above all, the Palestinian people.

Jewish tradition calls us to commit ourselves proactively to the pursuit of justice and peace. Deuteronomy 16:20 implores us: “Justice, justice you shall pursue, so that you may live and inherit the land which the Eternal your God has given you.” The rabbinic sages have, over many centuries, asked why the word “justice” is repeated here. The most common answer is that just ends must be pursued using just means, lest the ends become corrupted. This is a central lesson in Jewish ethics, and any state that calls itself Jewish must heed this moral truth. At the same time, I hear another lesson in this verse, a supplemental teaching based on the premise that we don’t need to be commanded to do something we would do spontaneously. We don’t require prophetic exhortations to pursue our own subjective sense of justice when we feel wronged—for example, when we are denied freedom and dignity in our ancestral homeland. But in a conflict situation where both adversaries have some relative justice on their side, in this case the dispute between Jews and Palestinians over a common homeland, we do need to be summoned out of our partisan cocoons in order to pursue a “double” justice that is fair and acceptable to both parties. Jews and Palestinians alike have experienced the pain and the deprivation of exile, and they have yearned to return home. When peacemakers invoke the principle of self-determination for both peoples, they are invoking a vision of inclusive justice based on equity. For me as a religious Jew, this commitment to fairness and equity is fundamental. So is the commitment to peace, Shalom, which is a fruit of justice and one of the names for the Divine. In Psalms 34:15, we are taught: “Desist from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it.” As with the pursuit of comprehensive justice, this is a pro-active commitment toward a sacred end, obligating us to act in a peaceful, nonviolent manner while we work to achieve a genuine and lasting reconciliation between the warring parties.

When I moved from the U.S. to Israel in 1978, I felt that I was linking my own personal journey to the homecoming of the Jewish people. In identifying as a religious Zionist, I have viewed the return of Jews to Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel) from scores of Diaspora communities in both historical and meta-historical terms. For Jews, the historical impact of Zionism is a radical shift from minority status and relative powerlessness throughout the world to being a sovereign majority in an independent Jewish state, with all the attendant challenges and  responsibilities. The meta-historical or transcendent meaning of this homecoming is in the existential shift from exile to homeland, from victimization and trauma to agency and psychic rehabilitation, and from social marginalization to involvement in regional and global affairs. In spiritual terms, one can cite at least three additional fruits of the Zionist nation-building project: the restoration of Jews to our “natural habitat” within the Divine Ecology; the resurrection of Hebrew, the vehicle of expression for the Jewish soul, as a national language of conversation and literature; and the multi-cultural flowering engendered by the ingathering and intermingling of Jews from so many countries. All of these outcomes have contributed to a renaissance of collective Jewish vitality and creativity, along with self-confidence when engaging other peoples, cultures, and religions.

Even as these revolutionary changes in the Jewish condition are blessings that I and millions of other Jews celebrate, they have come at a high price for both Israelis and Palestinians. In addition to the casualties suffered in wars and terror attacks, Israelis have had to deal with the moral challenges that came with statehood. Some of those ethical dilemmas have generated intense and unavoidable anguish, as Palestinian human and civil rights continue to be violated in the name of security. A “survival ethic” that condones long-term occupation of another people, and that favors Jewish settlers over Palestinians, is not a stance that can bring real and lasting security to Israelis. Beyond this conundrum regarding appropriate ends and means, the basic moral dilemma inherent to Zionism from the beginning was in recreating a Jewish majority in a land which had an Arab majority for close to 1400 years. This is a key point we need to acknowledge. Even if no Palestinians had become refugees during the war of 1948-49, the Zionist aspiration to found a Jewish state in Palestine meant imposing minority status on at least part of the Palestinian people against its will. This collective injustice has been justified by Zionist leaders as necessary to rectify the historic injustice of dispersion, exile, and persecution experienced over two millennia by world Jewry, culminating in the horrors of the Holocaust. But the Palestinians, who have paid the highest price for the Jewish homecoming, continue to reject the Zionist rationale for Jewish statehood. For them, the collective nightmare they have experienced as the Jewish dream of returning to Zion was fulfilled makes any sympathy for the Jewish justice claim unacceptable, at least for the foreseeable future. For Palestinians and their allies, “Zionism” has become an irredeemable term signifying cruelty and oppression. Given the dispossession and displacement of some 750,000 Palestinians in the 1948-49 war, the inferior status of Palestinian citizens of Israel after 1948, and the prolonged occupation of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza since 1967, any Palestinian empathy or sympathy for the aspirations of Israeli Jews or for their suffering awaits a historic political agreement that might, over time, begin to heal the Palestinian national trauma. On this fundamental point I remain realistic and hopeful, rather than optimistic or pessimistic.

The absence of courageous leaders, who are willing to challenge the self-referencing narratives held by most Israelis and Palestinians, places a burden on all of us to actively pursue a just and healthy transformation of this conflict, before more children are traumatized and too many spirits are deflated. What each of us can do to heighten the prospects of an eventual peace will depend on one’s abilities and networks of influence.



As we envision a different kind of Zionism that can contribute to a spiritually liberating political framework for both peoples caught up in this debilitating conflict, let us get a clearer handle on what Zionism is and has been. For the purposes of this reflection, we can use the term “Zionism” as a shorthand descriptor for the nation-building project of Jews in their ancestral homeland. To understand the factors that impelled the Zionist movement, we need to understand it from within and not just from outside. From the perspective of many non-Jews, and of some Jews, it looks like a European colonialist conquest of another country, Palestine, inhabited largely by non-European, non-white people. This perception leads to a stance in which the entire political program of the Zionist visionaries and activists is criminalized. But how valid is this anti-Zionist perception? To address this question, we need to examine whether Zionism, in theory and in practice, is a form of colonialism serving the interests of a Western power or powers—or, instead, is the liberation movement of an oppressed people seeking its own freedom, dignity, and security in a hostile world. Of course, both options may be correct: other powers, whether in Europe or America, may have exploited the idealistic motives and actions of the Zionist pioneers, manipulating historical developments in their own favor. We should avoid any simplistic answers to such a question, for history is full of inconsistencies and paradoxes.

At the outset it must be stressed that Zionism has never been a monolithic phenomenon. There are multiple Zionisms, differing in religious orientation (secular or in some way religious), political philosophy (along a spectrum from humanist/internationalist to hardline nationalist or even chauvinist), economic orientation (socialist, capitalist, or a mixture of the two), and territorial aspirations (minimalist or maximalist positions on the boundaries of a Jewish state). The essential common denominator among these different versions of Zionism is the aim of establishing an independent state with a Jewish majority in the historical homeland of the Jewish people. It should be noted that the correlation between Zionism and Judaism is not obvious or necessary. There are pro-Israel Christians, mostly evangelical Protestants, who call themselves “Christian Zionists.” At the same time, there are Jews, both traditionally observant (“Orthodox”) as well as nonobservant, who disavow Zionism and consider it antithetical to Jewish values.[6]

If the term “Zionism” is used as a synonym for “Jewish nationalism,” i.e., a secular political program promoting Jewish communal self-interest, emancipation, and empowerment, it misses a unique and central spiritual dimension rooted in the Hebrew Bible and the Sinai covenant as understood and lived out by Jews. The term “Zion” (Tzion in Hebrew) is a prophetic and messianic reference connoting redemption of both the land and the people of Israel. It is significant that the name for the Jewish homecoming project was not “Israelism” or “Judea-ism” but, instead, “Zionism.” This name is grounded in the covenantal categories of promise and fulfillment, which entails

Posters from Bethlehem museum about the occupation and wall. Photo by Cat Zavis.

the obligation of the Jewish people to consecrate the Land of Promise through communal acts of justice, compassion, and ecological responsibility. In a spiritual sense, using Biblical language, it can be said that the unredeemed land remains “Canaan,” while the land transformed by an Israelite or Jewish collective presence devoted to the priestly vocation of consecrating time and space is “Israel,” and the fully redeemed land, in prophetic and messianic terms, becomes “Zion.” It must be stressed that this is Jewish language rooted in the Hebrew Bible, and it does not refer to the land through the lens or the historical experience of another indigenous people, the Palestinians. One of the great challenges for those who call themselves Zionists is accepting and accommodating the term “Palestine,” along with the contemporary worldview associated with that geographical reference, within an inclusive vision of redemption. One Biblical expression of the Jewish covenantal vision is this one in Isaiah 1:27: “Zion will be redeemed through justice (in Hebrew, mishpat), and those who return to her [will be redeemed] through lovingkindness (tzedakah).” These two moral attributes, seen as primary aspects of the Divine (also referred to as din and chesed), can be traced in the Bible back to Abraham, who was recognized for these virtues by God in Genesis 18:19. Those of us who identify as children or heirs of Abraham ought to conduct ourselves according to the same moral standards that he is praised for, and as citizens we need to call upon our governments to uphold these values in their policies and actions.

This covenantal sensibility applied to both territory and history underlies the Jewish aspiration to return to Zion as a redeemed people. As Arthur Herzberg, the renowned historian of Zionism, argued: “From the Jewish perspective messianism, and not nationalism, is the primary element in Zionism.”[7] Even secular Zionists, who have always been the majority within the Zionist movement, are rooted in Jewish tradition and its prophetic promise of a national restoration to the ancestral homeland. David Ben-Gurion, among others, often cited the Hebrew Scriptures as a foundation for the re-establishment of Jewish sovereignty in the holy land. Without that scriptural foundation and ongoing spiritual dimension, Zionism would not make sense and would never have emerged. The vision of a future return “home” from “exile,” patterned on the return from Babylon in ancient times, has been a core element of Jewish self-understanding for the past two millennia.[8] This combination of yearning and expectation must be part of any descriptive account of how a Diaspora people, scattered for centuries among the world’s empires and nations, found within itself a centripetal counterforce to the centrifugal currents of its historical existence. It was this “Zionist” impulse, harbored for centuries and reinforced by daily prayers, that allowed a critical mass of Jews during the twentieth century to shift both their inner and outer existential coordinates.[9]

A secular understanding of nationalism views it as an ideology grounded in a collection of symbolic stories uniting a disparate community of subgroups and subcultures. When assessing the Jewish historical experience, such a perspective will place the Biblical narratives, poetic references to Zion in psalms and other Jewish prayers, and liturgical affirmations like “Next Year in Jerusalem!” (proclaimed at the end of every Passover seder and Yom Kippur fast) within the rubric of national mythology. This critical, analytical lens may be normative in modern times, particularly in academia, but its universalizing categories informed by social psychology, sociology, and anthropology fail to grasp the power of religious faith. It was, after all, adherence to its spiritual heritage, understood as covenantal fidelity, that enabled the Jewish people to survive despite all the political factors that threatened to erase Jews and Judaism from history, through assimilation or annihilation.

The term “nationalism” fails to account for another unique aspect of Zionism as a cohesive force within modern Jewry.[10] As Hertzberg observes, Zionism cannot be explained by using conventional political categories. He distinguishes the Jewish yearning to return to Zion from other struggles against home-grown tyranny or colonialist occupation by a foreign power in these words:

…all of the other nineteenth-century nationalisms based their struggle for political sovereignty on an already existing national land or language (generally, there were both). Zionism alone proposed to acquire both of these usual preconditions of national identity by the élan of its nationalist will. It is, therefore, a maverick in the history of modern nationalism…[11]

The resurgence of a collective Jewish national identity in the face of social and cultural fragmentation, as well as the resurrection of Hebrew as a spoken language that unites immigrants from over 100 Diaspora communities, are unprecedented phenomena that do not “fit” within the categories of sociology, social psychology, or political science. A spiritual connection to the transcendent, or the meta-historical, is also present as an essential and motivating factor within the Zionist enterprise.

From the beginning, the Jewish nation-building project forged a creative synthesis of nineteenth-century nationalist ideology (in some cases, mixed with socialism) and centuries-old messianic hopes to end the Jewish condition of exile by returning to the ancestral homeland. In practical terms, Zionist leaders have tried from the beginning to garner support from European powers, and after that from American administrations. This concession to power politics has reinforced anti-Zionist claims that Zionism is either a form or a tool of European colonialism and then American imperialism. How should we evaluate such claims?

Rabbi Michael Lerner, in his psychologically astute and politically visionary book, Embracing Israel/Palestine, asserts that

the claim that Jews were coming to Palestine to colonize it on behalf of Western colonial powers—though occasionally made by Herzl and a few other Western Zionist leaders in their attempt to get the colonial powers to support the Zionist effort, and then used by anti-Zionists as a way to demean the entire Zionist enterprise—makes little sense once one understands the history of the Jews. The Jews were not an integrated and accepted element in colonial Europe, nor did they share with the colonial powers a desire to extend colonial rule around the world. What brought most Jews to Zionism was not a desire to extend European power and culture but the promise that Zionism could protect Jews against the oppression they faced in Europe. Whatever one can say about the ways Western powers used the Jewish migration to Palestine to further their own interests, the migrants’ intentions were not Western colonialist. The vast majority of Jews who actually came to Palestine in the early waves of immigration (aliyot) came from Eastern Europe. They fled oppression, having lost hope of ever changing the deeply ingrained anti-Semitism of the Christian world.[12]

In Lerner’s eyes, there was no sinister or malevolent intent in the Zionist settlement and state-building project. As he states, “Zionism began as a national liberation movement by a people who desperately wanted to move from a condition of homelessness and statelessness to a condition of being like other peoples, with a state of their own in their national homeland.”[13] And yet the Zionist enterprise was not nor does it remain blameless. European Jews sought a refuge from persecution, and ultimately from annihilation, and they saw the historical Jewish homeland as the natural, necessary, and morally justifiable location for the survival and rehabilitation of the Jewish people. That self-referencing vision and moral calculus trumped every other consideration, and it also helped the early Zionist settlers and many political leaders afterwards to remain blind to the harsh realities their efforts were creating for the Arab residents of the land—blind, that is, until violent Arab resistance opened their eyes to the brutal clash between Jewish and Palestinian aspirations.[14]

The Hebrew prophets, reflecting on the ultimate purpose of exile within the covenantal relationship between God and the Jewish people, foresaw an eventual return that would restore the people to the land and to its sacred vocation as a prophetic and priestly community. As noted earlier, even for David Ben-Gurion and other secular Zionist leaders, the Hebrew Bible was the spiritual, historical, and cultural touchstone for Jewish identity and for the Jewish people’s link to Eretz Yisrael, the land of Israel. This worldview is reflected in these words from Israel’s Declaration of Independence:

The State of Israel will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice, and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race, or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education, and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.

These lofty ideals remain aspirational—some would say unrealistic—given the state of war between Israel and at least some of its neighbors, including the Palestinian people. Others will argue that the promise of “complete equality of social and political rights” is an inherent impossibility for a state established to favor the needs and interests of Jews. While I recognize the built-in tension reflected in the notion of a “democratic Jewish state,” I hold that these professed goals within Israel’s Declaration of Independence are an essential part of the “unfinished business” of Zionism, and their realization depends on transforming the ongoing state of war into a social and political framework that guarantees self-determination—with freedom, dignity, and security—for both Jews and Palestinians. Achieving that outcome will require a new understanding of political independence, on the part of both Israelis and Palestinians, that is founded on a mutual acknowledgement of interdependence and on a single, inclusive standard of justice rather than two double standards that reflect self-referencing lenses.

The decades-long war between Zionism and Palestinian nationalism (each with secular and religious articulations) has pitted two national stories of heroic striving against each other, competing for validation. This zero-sum equation is shared by the majority of both Israelis and Palestinians who experience the conflict from within. But a fair-minded observer, especially one who wishes to promote inclusive justice and reconciliation, should be able to adopt a dual- or multi-narrative perspective and see the conflict as a profound tragedy rather than a dualistic morality play. The conflict is often seen as one of villains against victims, or oppressors against the oppressed; such a judgmental outlook favoring one side over the other contributes to the ongoing strife and to the widespread suffering that it creates.

In my own approach to the conflict, I am adopting Hegel’s definition of tragedy: a clash between two rights, not right versus wrong. In this case, it is also a case of two peoples with painful histories forced to confront each other as they seek to be separately and mutually healed, but so far inflicting more traumatizing wounds on each other. The horrors of the Holocaust, on the Jewish side, and the searing trauma of the Naqba for the Palestinians, only deepened the tragic dimension of the conflict. The Palestinians’ national identity crystallized in the process of resisting Zionism and the influx of Jews into Mandatory Palestine after World War I.[15] And just as there are various forms of Zionism, Palestinian nationalism has exhibited a range of positions (e.g., Islamist or secular, Marxist-Leninist, or democratic). The common denominator on the Palestinian side is to view Zionism as illegitimate and immoral.

Jewish men passing a group of Muslims near the Jaffa Gate in Jerusalem. Photo by author.

The perception of Zionism as an unjust, oppressive, colonialist ideology, demonstrated in practice by the expulsion and dispossession of a large part of the Palestinian people from their homes, fields, and orchards, would probably have been mitigated had more Jews been living in the land before the Zionist movement began. Since most of world Jewry was living outside Eretz Yisrael, and most Palestinians did not perceive Diaspora Jews as a nation but, instead, saw them as a religious community akin to Christians or Muslims, the Zionist claim to even part of Palestine seemed bogus, even fabricated. Had there been appreciable numbers of Jewish residents outside the four cities of Jerusalem, Hebron, Tiberias, and Safed—recall that Tel Aviv was inaugurated in 1909 and over time came to engulf the ancient city of Jaffa—then the conflict between Jews and Arabs in the land would have looked more like the Hindu-Muslim intercommunal strife on the Indian subcontinent that gave birth to the separate states of India and Pakistan. (Pakistan later devolved into two separate states, with Bangladesh breaking off from West Pakistan). Even in South Asia, at the same time that the Jewish-Palestinian conflict reached its explosive climax in the late 1940s, the implementation of an agreed-upon partition was accompanied by large-scale intercommunal violence.

There have been many ironic twists during the course of this tragic conflict. One is the role reversal that transpired between 1947 and 1988. When the Palestinian Arabs were the demographic majority, they did all they could to prevent a Jewish state from emerging in even part of Palestine. The Zionist leadership, for its part, accepted the United Nations partition resolution of November 29, 1947. Then, when the Jews were the empowered majority, they joined with Egypt and Jordan to deny Palestinians an independent state in the occupied West Bank and Gaza. It was only in 1988 that the Palestine National Council under Yasir Arafat’s leadership, meeting in Algiers, accepted the 1947 partition plan. But by then the Israeli Prime Minister was Yitzhak Shamir, who had always rejected any form of territorial partition. It took the election of Yitzhak Rabin in 1992 to launch the negotiations that produced the Oslo Accords. Another irony has been that, over the course of the last century, the two peoples have experienced complementary transformations in both symbolism and practice. For the Jews, the Zionist enterprise transformed a symbolic homeland suffused with dreams of messianic return from exile (see Psalms 137 and 126), but with very few geographical coordinates outside the aforementioned “holy” cities, into a functioning state with localized reference points. Some of those cities, towns, kibbutzim, and moshavim had ancient Biblical names like Beersheva or Ashkelon. Others were new creations, some with poetic names like Petach Tikvah, Rishon LeZion, or Tel Aviv, while others were development towns built later for immigrants, primarily from Arab countries, with names like Sderot and Carmiel. For the Palestinians, the process was reversed. Most of them began the 20th century with identities centered on their clan-based ancestral villages, which they retained even in exile. Over time these localized identities were supplemented by a collective sense of distinct peoplehood, as Palestinian national consciousness evolved. Now both peoples have dual identities, each combining an umbrella-like nationality that is reinforced by a shared narrative and symbolism, together with a sense of rootedness in a particular locale and community.



If we return to the moral dilemma at the heart of this conflict, we are faced with the challenge of finding a single standard of justice that can be the basis of genuine peace. To the extent that Zionism and Palestinian nationalism are conceived and lived out as self-referencing ideologies creating exclusivist identities, they remain impediments to reconciliation. And as long as that remains the case, the liberating vision of the Zionist pioneers will be even more corrupted, in both its ends and means, than it already is. Is there a redeeming alternative? I submit that if both Zionism and Palestinian nationalism can be viewed through more wide-angled lenses, they might yet become complementary rather than mutually exclusive. In that way, polarized psyches, hearts, and spirits can mutually nourish each other; they need not be seen as inherently hostile. As history has shown, shifts in consciousness need to occur in order for there to be shifts in behavior.

Zionism, in all its variations, has always had two aspects. One is the physical aspect rooted in, and driven by, an existential Jewish need for safety and security through an independent state with armed forces for self-defense. In the wake of the Holocaust, this aspect has been given disproportionate emphasis. The second aspect of Zionism, at least as vital as the first, is the metaphysical aspect, the longing for belonging rather than alienation, the yearning to be free and to feel at home, the psychological and spiritual need for independent selfhood that is not a defensive reaction to the harmful intentions of others. Jews, as human beings, deserve both security and spiritual liberation. So do Palestinians. A compassionate and just peace process based on mutual acknowledgement of those common human rights, needs, and aspirations can yield the practical fruits of reconciliation. That process would have as litmus tests three very practical criteria, based on emotional investments that can be changed if leaders choose to guide their communities away from antagonism and toward partnership: (1) Is fear being transformed to trust? (2) Is anger being transformed to mutual acceptance and forgiveness? and (3) Is grief being transformed by empathy into compassion for the suffering of others, before the grief turns into grievance and the desire for vengeance, fueled by bitterness and rage?

The national anthem of Israel is Hatikvah, “The Hope.” It expresses the yearning of Jews for Zion and the willful determination to be, once again, a free people in the ancient homeland.  This two-thousand-year-old hope was never lost, the song proclaims. Zionism, in whatever form, is the practical expression of this hope. But the Zionist revolution will not be complete, or truly fulfilled, so long as Israelis feel threatened by their neighbors, which means that the Palestinian people need to have its own hope of return and freedom fulfilled also. The Palestinian national anthem, Biladi, Biladi, “My Homeland, My Homeland,” expresses the love and longing for the Palestine that was lost but not forgotten. How to honor and realize both hopes, both dreams of return and renewal, remains the supreme challenge for anyone who cares about this tragedy and its global ramifications.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not simply over a common homeland and who exercises political control over it. At a deeper level, it is also about personal and collective identities that have developed in mutual antagonism rather than complementary creativity. In order to transform the political and spiritual dynamic from opposing struggles for independence to a common struggle for interdependence based on equity, the two national anthems need to be supplemented by other songs. Those additional songs need to put the collective yearnings for freedom and security within a wider context, one that frees both peoples from the shackles of alienation, existential dread, and recrimination.

One common goal that can help Israelis and Palestinians transcend their myopic notions of what best serves their interests is a shared commitment to safeguarding the land which they share from ecological calamities. In this regard, I think of a conversation I had with the famous anthropologist Margaret Mead several decades ago. We were talking about the Middle East, at a time when her daughter was living in Iran. Dr. Mead lamented the emphasis throughout the region on control over territory, based on strong attachments to a particular land, at the expense of environmental concerns about shared air and water. The shift in consciousness she was advocating could be a powerful force for shifting the bilateral focus on Israel/Palestine to a wider, regional perspective. There are already some commendable joint initiatives, like the Arava Institute at Kibbutz Qetura in southern Israel, that bring together Israelis, Palestinians, and Jordanians to work together on ecological sustainability. There are also hopeful signs of a growing environmental awareness among both Jews and Arabs. For example, on March 29, 2019, an annual Climate March was held in Tel Aviv. When it was first organized five years ago, some 200 people took part. This year over 5,000 people marched, Palestinian and Jewish citizens from all over Israel. They carried banners proclaiming mutual solidarity in the face of environmental threats and the need to work together to ensure a common future.

We need more signs of hope like these to boost our spirits and motivate action, within our respective communities and across boundaries. As a long-time grassroots activist in the arena of Jewish-Arab peacebuilding, I am confident that, over time, these micro-models of mutuality and solidarity will impact the macro-political situation. And one of the blessed fruits of these labors will be a conversion of hearts and an expansion of minds, so that Israeli and Palestinian national identities will be experienced as mutually enriching rather than as mutually exclusive and threatening. Let us all work toward that day and that outcome.


POSTSCRIPT: As I was writing this reflection, another round of lethal violence erupted between the Israeli government and the Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaderships in Gaza. The Egyptian government worked to bring about another cease-fire, while the underlying conditions that inflame passions and perpetuate the no-win state of war remain unaddressed. In 2008, during the first of three wars between Israel and Hamas over six years, I wrote the following appeal, which was disseminated through the internet:


An appeal addressed to Jews, Arabs, and concerned people everywhere
in response to the wars between Israel and Hamas 

by Yehezkel Landau

If only our empathy and compassion were as strong as our capacity for self-justification;
If only we could protect ourselves in ways that do not inflict harm on others;
If only we could see ourselves as interdependent, rather than isolated and threatened;
If only we could see the Image of God in one another, rather than projecting mythic images of Arab Nazis or Jewish Crusaders;
If only our leaders were committed to transforming conflict nonviolently rather than too often using military means to achieve political aims;
If only peace education were a part of school curricula throughout Palestine and Israel;
If only political agreements outlawed incitement and demonization in public speeches;
If only the Israeli and Arab media conveyed multiple perspectives, along with humanizing stories and images, rather than reinforcing prejudices;
If only we could address the core issues and grievances, rather than reacting to the latest round of violence or the fear of further violence;
If only the Arab perception of the state of Israel (in its pre-1967 borders, with mutually accepted adjustments) was of a people coming home and exercising the right of self-determination, rather than of a colonial conquest by outsiders;
If only Arab and Muslim leaders could acknowledge the existential fears of the Jewish people following the Holocaust and reinforced by subsequent wars, bellicose rhetoric, and the prospect of weapons of mass destruction in the hands of Israel’s adversaries;
If only the Jewish people, in Israel and elsewhere, could acknowledge the deep, unhealed wound of the Palestinian people, displaced and dispossessed in large numbers in the war of 1948 and under prolonged occupation following the 1967 war;
If only Israel would join the Palestinian people in developing democratic institutions rather than destroying their civic infrastructure in the name of self-defense;
If only we could see the problem as a regional crisis, with multiple, interrelated challenges, rather than a bilateral conflict between Israelis and Palestinians;
If only a spiritual dimension to peacebuilding—drawing on the practical resources in  Judaism, Islam, and Christianity—were included in Middle East diplomacy, so that religious extremists would be countered in their own terms and political arrangements would be grounded in mutual repentance, the healing of trauma, and sustained hope for the future;
If only we could envision a future of cooperation and shared blessing, rather than a no-win war lasting generations;
If only the children on “the other side” were as precious to us as our neighbors’ children;
If only our young people were exposed to their peers on “the other side” early on, so that they could build friendships that transcend the “us-vs.-them” dichotomy;
If only we could build Shalom/Salaam together, with a Jewish-Arab peace corps constructing homes, schools, and hospitals in a state of Palestine alongside Israel, and with expanded cross-border initiatives in the areas of health, education, culture, the environment, and sports;
…then perhaps, with God’s help and courageous leadership on all sides, both Israelis and Palestinians could experience genuine peace and security, with fear transformed to trust, anger to forgiveness, grief to compassion, and narrow self-interest to mutual solidarity.


[1]Before the April 2019 election in Israel, Netanyahu helped to engineer an alliance of far-right parties that includes the Kahanist Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) faction. This union of right-wing parties, including those who call themselves religious Zionists, is now part of the Knesset and possibly the next government coalition.

[2] In the 1980’s I was executive director of the Oz veShalom-Netivot Shalom religious peace movement in Israel, and from 1991 to 2003 I was co-founder and Jewish co-director of the Open House peace education center in Ramle, Israel. For information on these two peace organizations, see and And for the background story behind Open House, see Sandy Tolan, The Lemon Tree: An Arab, a Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East, New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2007.

[3] See, among Morris’s seminal writings, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987, which traces the developments that led up to the 1948-49 war as well as its military campaigns. In his concluding chapter, Morris writes: “The Palestinian refugee problem was born of war, not by design, Jewish or Arab. It was largely a by-product of Arab and Jewish fears and of the protracted, bitter fighting that characterized the first Israeli-Arab war; in smaller part, it was the deliberate creation of Jewish and Arab military commanders and politicians…If Jewish attack directly and indirectly triggered most of the Arab exodus up to June 1948, a small but significant proportion of that flight was due to direct Jewish expulsion orders issued after the conquest of a site and to Jewish psychological warfare ploys (‘whispering propaganda’) designed to intimidate inhabitants into leaving.” Morris adds that the Arab Higher Committee and local Arab commanders also issued orders to Palestinians in certain areas to leave their villages “for military and political reasons”. (pp. 286, 287-88)

[4] A resource I have used in my teaching is the chart juxtaposing the “traditional Israeli narrative” and the “traditional Palestinian narrative” presented in Paul Scham, Walid Salem, and Benjamin Pogrund, eds., Shared Histories: A Palestinian-Israeli Dialogue, Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press, 2005, pp. 7-10.

[5] Acts of restitution, including financial compensation, will have to include Palestinian refugees and their descendants, along with Jews expelled from Arab lands and their progeny.

[6]Among these anti-Zionist Jews are Orthodox groups like the Satmar Hasidim in the United States and the Neturei Karta community in Jerusalem, who oppose Jewish sovereignty in Eretz Yisrael before the coming of the Messiah, as well as secular Jews who affiliate themselves with pro-Palestine and anti-Israel movements in various countries, motivated by what they view as Israeli oppression of the Palestinians and the usurpation of their land.

[7] Arthur Herzberg, The Zionist Idea: A Historical Analysis and Reader, New York: Atheneum, p. 16.

[8] The Rabbinic sages who compiled the Hebrew Bible chose II Chronicles as the last book (and not Malachi, which ends the Christian “Old Testament”), since its conclusion, the return of Judah-ite/Jewish refugees from Babylon under the new Persian ruler Coresh/Cyrus, was understood as the precedent for a future return from the exile imposed by Roman rule—however long that would take. The last word of the TaNaKh (Hebrew Scriptures), veya’al, denotes a spiritual “ascent” to the Land of Israel, as conveyed in the modern Hebrew term for immigration to Israel and becoming an Israeli citizen, aliyah.

[9] For a contemporary presentation of this “Zionism of longing,” as opposed to a “Zionism of need” in the face of anti-Jewish hostility and persecution, see Yossi Klein Halevi, Letters to my Palestinian Neighbor, New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2018.

[10] The following paragraphs are based on a chapter I contributed to The Routledge Handbook on the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Joel Peters and David Newman, eds., London and New York: Routledge, 2013, pp. 163-4.

[11] Hertzberg, op. cit., p. 15.

[12] Rabbi Michael Lerner, Embracing Israel/Palestine: A Strategy to Heal and Transform the Middle East, Berkeley, CA: Tikkun Books/North Atlantic Books, 2012, pp. 60-61.

[13] Ibid., p. 69.

[14] One of the Zionist visionaries who understood clearly how the goal of creating a sovereign Jewish majority in Palestine would lead to Jewish-Arab bloodshed was the philosopher Martin Buber (1878-1965). For an appreciation of his prescient moral critique of other Zionist leaders’ realpolitik, and of his humanistic spiritual approach to the Jewish-Arab dispute, see Paul Mendes-Flohr, ed., A Land of Two Peoples: Martin Buber on Jews and Arabs, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2005. In particular, read and ponder Buber’s defense of Zionism in his February, 1939, letter to Mahatma Gandhi, who had declared that “Palestine belongs to the Arabs.” Buber asserts that there are “two claims of a different nature and a different origin…between which no objective decision can be made as to which is just or unjust.” He adds: “…it is our duty to understand and to honor the claim which is opposed to ours and to endeavor to reconcile both claims.” (p. 120)

[15]See Rashid Khalidi, Palestinian Identity: The Construction of Modern National Consciousness, New York: Columbia University Press, 1997, reissued with a new introduction in 2010. In his preface (p. xi), Khalidi writes: “It is worth stating at the outset that this treatment of identity starts from the firmly held premise that national identity is constructed; it is not an essential, transcendent given, as the apostles of nationalism, and some students of culture, politics and history claim.”


3 thoughts on “Can Zionism Be Redeemed?

  1. this is a writer that really tries to be honest to himself and his ideals. As a dutch citizen, we have a tradition to be friends with Jews, and I hope this can be maintained despite the terrible things the current Israeli government is doing and saying. This writer feels the disgrace, and explains it better than anything I read about it since many years. thanks

  2. If there were more Israeli-Americans like Dr. Landau, the world might see a breakthrough and steps to a solution to the Palestine-Israeli “mess”. Are there ways we in the US can join with Israeli (i.e. Jews in Israel) and Palestinian efforts to carry forth the ideas and actions of Dr. Landau for dignity and hope on both sides of the border? Is BDS helpful?

  3. Thank you for this thorough analysis. I have had very little hope of peace in Israel-Palestine. You have given me some. Please keep your vision and continue to share it. I wish you had a position in the Israeli government. I don’t know if there are politicians that share your call for peace, justice, compassion and humanity. Blessings to you and Michael Lerner for Tikkun.