The Tormented Dance of the Colonizer

Peter Beinart, Liberal Zionism and the Battle for Palestine–Plus a Response From Yehezkel Landau

[Editor’s Note: The following exchange about Zionism from two people who share opposition to Israel’s oppression of Palestinians but who differ about whether that opposition needs to include a rejection of every form of Zionism. In some ways it resembles the discussion between those who critiqued communism in the 1920s to 1960s–were the oppressive regimes set up by Stalin and Mao proof that communism would always be oppressive, or only proof that those dictators who had appropriated the term communism as a way to give political cover to their own repressive regimes that had nothing to do with what was intrinsic to communism, or the debate today in progressive Western circles about whether the ethos of endless growth at the expense of the environment and the vast inequality of wealth and power intrinsic to capitalism or could capitalism be reformed from within without replacing the essentials of a capitalist marketplace. The latest Israeli election results do not necessarily definitively answer that question for Israel any more than the election of 2020 in the U.S. answer the corresponding question about US and European variants of capitalism. I will try to address this issue in the coming weeks, but I thought that these two articles would give you plenty to talk about at your Passover Seder or Easter celebration, or your Ramadan, or any other occasion when you get together with people you care about in the period ahead.
— Rabbi Michael Lerner,]

The Tormented Dance of the Colonizer

by Mark Braverman 

In January, 2021, Jerusalem-based journalist and analyst Nathan Thrall called out the Zionist left for promoting the fiction that as long as Israel refrains from annexing occupied Palestinian land, it does not cross the line into apartheid (“The Separate Regimes Delusion: Nathan Thrall on Israel’s Apartheid,” London Review of Books January 21, 2021). “The premise that Israel is a democracy,” he wrote, “rests on the belief that one can separate the pre-1967 state from the rest of the territory under its control.” The “separate regimes delusion” has been a key element of the almost five-decades long “peace process” to establish a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. As Israel has continued to take land and impose a system of control and fragmentation that has made the creation of a sovereign Palestinian state impossible, liberal Zionists have clung desperately to the fiction of the “two-state solution” as all that stands in the way of the now undeniable reality that Israel and its occupied territories comprise a single apartheid state. Accordingly, a storm of protest erupted in response to the Knesset’s green lighting of the annexation of an additional 30% of the West Bank in early summer 2020. It was in the midst of this controversy that Peter Beinart’s “Yavne: A Jewish Case for Equality in Israel-Palestine” appeared in the July 7, 2020 edition of Jewish Currents. Cutting the Gordian knot of a Jewish and democratic Israel, Beinart endorsed the idea of a single state for Jews and Palestinians. 

For a quarter century, Peter Beinart has been in the forefront of progressive thinking in the United States. A fervent Zionist, Beinart has struggled to reconcile his progressivism with Israel’s trampling of Palestinians’ rights and its increasing alignment with the most conservative elements in U.S. society. In the process of threading this needle, Beinart has not hesitated to break ranks with the liberal Zionist establishment. In a 2010 piece in the New York Review of Books (“The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment,” June 10, 2010) he called out his fellow Jews in the U.S. for their reluctance to publicly oppose Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. A New York Times opinion piece followed in 2012, advocating a boycott of goods produced in the illegal settlements. When, in June 2020, in his own words crossing the “red line” of allegiance to the two-state solution, Beinart embraced the notion of one multinational state or federation, it seemed he was ready to go even farther. “It is time,” he wrote, “for liberal Zionists to abandon the goal of Jewish–Palestinian separation and embrace the goal of Jewish–Palestinian equality….to envision a Jewish home that is a Palestinian home, too.” Appearing to many to be a radical shift for Beinart, the piece was celebrated by many on the Left as a victory for human rights. Surely, Beinart’s argument for a single shared state was another sign that the liberal defense of the Zionist project was crumbling.

Not so.

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In the next sentence, Beinart assures us that his argument for unification “doesn’t require abandoning Zionism.”  The modern State of Israel, he argues, with its systematic abrogation of Palestinians’ rights and its relentless taking of land, is a form that Zionism has taken, not its essence. The real Zionism, maintains Beinart, the project that must be saved and is worth saving, can be realized in an Israel shared by Jews and Palestinians. Except for this shift away from two states, this is the same position taken by Beinart in his 2012 The Crisis of Zionism, where he argued that the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza was poisoning Israel’s democracy. It was still possible, contended Beinart, to redeem this Israel, in which, free of the unjust occupation, Jews and Arabs would coexist as equals. This stance was in line with what has been the position of mainstream liberal Zionism since the 1993 Oslo Accords, which established the Palestinian Authority and laid out the purported roadmap to Palestinian autonomy in the West Bank and Gaza. In his LRB article, Thrall lays out the rationale underlying the so-called peace process:  “A conceptual wall must be maintained between two regimes: (good) democratic Israel and its (bad) provisional occupation. This way of thinking is of a piece with the general liberal Zionist belief…that the occupation is occurring somewhere outside the state and that it is temporary, a 53-year-long departure from what liberal Zionist groups like the New Israel Fund call Israel’s ‘liberal democratic founding values.’” Beinart’s pivot from two states today is in line with the objective he set out in the 2010 NYRB article. “Saving liberal Zionism in the United States,” he wrote then, “so that American Jews can help save liberal Zionism in Israel—is the great American Jewish challenge of our age.”  Today, with the possibility of a Palestinian state foreclosed by successive waves of colonization and annexation, Beinart has turned to unification as the answer. 

Whose problem?

Shortly after the appearance of the Jewish Currents piece, Beinart and Palestinian-American Yousef Munayyer of the Washington DC-based Arab Center were interviewed by the Foundation for Middle East Peace’s Lara Friedman. Following Beinart’s explanation of why he had lost faith in the two-state solution, Friedman invited Munayyer to talk about his long-held opposition to the idea that had for decades been the goal of the peace process. Munayyer responded in this way:

The idea of having faith in a solution has always struck me as a bit bizarre. What you think about a solution depends on what you think the problem is. And the way that I and many Palestinians see it is that the problem is not the midlife crisis that the Israeli state is going through, trying to figure out can it be a democracy and a Jewish state at the same time. That’s not the problem for Palestinians. The problem for Palestinians is what Zionism has done to Palestinians for over a century. The two-state solution as it has been put forward is not a solution to our problem. It does not adequately resolve the plight of Palestinian refugees. It leaves huge questions as to the future of Palestinian citizens of Israel. And it does not result in real sovereignty for Palestinians in a would-be state in the West Bank and Gaza. So it may be a solution to somebody’s problem, but it’s not a solution to ours and it never has been.

Munayer’s words resonate beyond the issue of Israel and the Palestinians. The voices that demand our attention are those of the oppressed, not those of the oppressors trying to make peace with what they see when they look in the mirror. From Beinart’s opening question, What makes someone a Jew–not just a Jew in name, but a Jew in good standing today?” it is clear that his subject is not the liberation of Palestine from colonization and ethnic cleansing. Rather, he is raising a Jewish question, directed to Jews: how, in the face of Israel’s appalling human rights record, can the Jewish state be preserved as the centerpiece of Jewish life and identity? Beinart recognizes that the current reality is unacceptable and unsustainable. His outrage over the historic and continuing crimes against the Palestinian people is well-known and longstanding, unalloyed by excuses or apologies for Israel’s actions. But as long as Beinart clings to Zionism as the answer to our historic suffering, the peaceful and just resolution he desires will remain out of reach. Zionism emerged over a century ago to solve a problem, but its success has created a new problem. Since the British government’s endorsement in 1917 of a “national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine, the Palestinians have been rendered virtually invisible — when seen at all, their peoplehood denied, their nature misrepresented to suit the interests of the powerful, and their claim to nation status and human rights spurned in favor of Zionist aims. The one state-two state debate, which translates to “how can we make Zionism work?” is a red herring dragged across the path to a solution.

Rewriting history

In drawing a distinction in The Crisis of Zionism between the “democratic Israel” inside the pre-1967 borders and the oppressor Israel of the occupation, Beinart demonstrated a striking blindness to what was becoming apparent to more and more observers: that the “occupation” of the West Bank was not a temporary condition, the unintended consequence of a defensive war, inimical to the “essence” of Zionism. It was, rather, the inevitable result of the project to possess all of historic Palestine. In now proposing a “Jewish home” in which the power asymmetry between Jews and Palestinians would be overcome, Beinart is similarly blinkered in eliding Israel’s colonial history and the way it continues to shape the character of the state. In his call for a shared Israel, Beinart is rewriting history — reverting to a Jewish conversation that ended in the early years of the Zionist movement.  Palestinian-American historian Rashid Khalidi writes in his recent and indispensable The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine that Zionism “was understood from its beginnings clearly as a colonial settler project…carried out as a colonial war waged against the indigenous population.” 

It is true that from its earliest days, Zionism cherished a vision of a flourishing Jewish culture, unfettered by persecution and marginalization. Very few of the Jewish immigrants to Palestine in the 20th century were aware that this dream was being pursued through what has now been documented by Jewish Israeli historians as a carefully planned and mercilessly carried out program of colonial settlement and ethnic cleansing. This is the inconvenient truth of the Zionist project — its original sin — stubbornly denied by its adherents and staunchly justified by its apologists. It has doomed Israel to endless conflict, political unsustainability, the stain of illegitimacy and rogue-state status, and a tragic betrayal of Jewish values. Israel’s Jewish citizens, living under increasingly reactionary and militaristic regimes, have been sickened by a culture of fear, isolationism and racism, schooled from childhood that not only their Arab neighbors, but the entire world seeks their destruction.

Colonialism’s legacy

As a Jew raised in the Zionism-infused Judaism of the post-Holocaust twentieth century, I agree with Beinart that we must overcome the preoccupation with our historic suffering — that a dignified future for Israel depends on overcoming the victim mentality that has driven our nationalist project. But despite his assertion in the Jewish Currents article that we Jews must free ourselves “from the fear of annihilation [that] has come to define what it means to be an authentic Jew” and that “turns Palestinians into Nazis,” Beinart has brought these time-honored justifications for Zionism into his argument for a shared state. He assures readers that working for equality will lessen the risk of violence from Palestinians. He warns of the risk of a “violent Palestinian response” as their hope for self-determination fades. Repeated references to “Palestinian violence” are made without nuance, qualification, or context. That context is the history of systematic and violent dispossession and the massive asymmetry between the resistance of the oppressed and the overwhelming power of a national security state. We cannot ignore the resonance of colonialism in this aspect of Beinart’s argument for a shared state. Indigenous peoples marked for dispossession and exploitation are inevitably portrayed by their colonizers as not only backward but dangerous. I do not believe that Beinart holds these views. But in allowing these tropes to infiltrate his argument, Beinart has undercut his plea for a renewed and healthier Jewish identity and his bid for an Israel that can take its place as legitimate member of the community of nations.

Political Zionism emerged in the political and cultural context of late 19th century Europe, where taking and settling land inhabited by non-Europeans was considered neither immoral nor cruel. Swedish writer and historian Sven Lindqvist (Exterminate All the Brutes) describes how notions of white supremacy provided the rationale and the roadmap for European colonialism. He quotes a German newspaper in 1894 asserting that only “people of higher culture have the right to a nationality of their own” and an early 20th century German colonialist who claimed, in view of the great contribution to be made by the “great European nations,” that the “primitive native” has no “moral right to exist.” These prevailing assumptions helped the founders of the Zionist movement sidestep considerations about the impact of their project on the indigenous population of Palestine. In his 2003 New York Review of Books article, “Israel – the Alternative,” British-American (and Jewish) historian Tony Judt called Zionism an anachronism. “The very idea of a ‘Jewish state’” he wrote, “is rooted in another time and place.” Judt was right, but what is most disturbing about Israel today is how it embodies the legacy of colonialism playing out in the economic and political realities of our time.  

Scholar of Black critical and political theory Charisse Burden-Stelly (“Modern U.S. Racial Capitalism,” Monthly Review, July, 2020) defines “racial capitalism” as “a racially hierarchical political economy constituting war and militarism, imperialist accumulation, expropriation by domination, labor superexploitation, and property by dispossession.” Burden-Stelly’s description of how the powerful justify their depredations against dehumanized, dispossessed populations chillingly evokes the case of Israel: “War and militarism perpetuate the endless construction of ‘threats,’” she writes, “against which to defend progress, prosperity, freedom, and security.” The West’s willingness to disregard or excuse Israel’s human rights crimes exemplifies the blindness of the “developed world” to the effects of the globalized economy in a rapidly expanding underclass and the dispossession and impoverishment of indigenous peoples. “It is the deep chasm between reality and representation that is most bewildering in the case of Palestine,” writes Jewish Israeli historian Ilan Pappé in his 2007 The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine. “Half the indigenous people living in Palestine were driven out, half of their villages and towns were destroyed, and only a very few among them ever managed to return,” Pappé documents. “It is hard to understand,” he writes, withholding neither his horror nor his incredulity, “why a crime that was perpetrated in modern times and at a juncture in history that called for foreign reporters and UN observers to be present should have been so totally ignored.” Rashid Khalidi, discussing the toothless 1967 United Nations resolution demanding the return of territory captured by Israel in June of that year, a resolution that barely references the Palestinians as a people, indicts the international community for “a whole new layer of forgetting, of erasure and myth-making…added to the induced amnesia that obscured the colonial origins of the conflict between Palestinians and the Zionist settlers.”

Beinart holds out the hope that ultimately, power will be shared in a political arrangement committed to equality. But as long as the search for a political solution is shaped by a mindset reinforced over the 100 years of denying Palestinian nationhood, until the perceptions — explicit as well as unspoken — about Palestinians as a threat to the established order have been held up to the light and declared inimical to justice, efforts to overturn the current reality of de facto colonization will fail. We return to Munayyer’s plea: that the answer be sought, not in how to salvage the Zionist project now that the two-state solution is a dead letter, but in the recognition, as he stated later in the interview, of the “century-long settler-colonial process that has worked not only to erase Palestinians and their voices on the ground but also silence their voices in the debate about this here in the U.S.”

The tormented dance of the colonizer

Denial of the racist and colonial nature of Zionism by the world at large not only frustrates efforts to bring peace to the region — it has poisoned Israeli society. In his classic The Colonizer and the Colonized, Tunisian-born writer Albert Memmi describes how the role of colonizer effects the character of those who hold power over the dispossessed. According to Memmi, no matter how earnestly the colonizer may desire to improve the situation of the colonized, whether from commitment to human rights or as realpolitik, the experience of living in a colonial framework distorts the perspective and warps the identity of the colonizer. “While he happens to dream of tomorrow, a brand-new social state in which the colonized cease to be colonized,” writes Memmi, the colonizer “does not conceive, on the other hand, of a deep transformation of his own situation and his own personality. In that new, more harmonious state, he will go on being what he is, with his language intact and his cultural traditions dominating.” 

All attempts to change the colonial reality absent a recognition of the colonial mindset will fail, writes Memmi. Borrowing Sartre’s term mauvais foi, he charges that these efforts constitute “bad faith” — lying to oneself about the nature of one’s own history and current actions. It is an existential dilemma: “He invokes the end of colonization, but refuses to conceive that this revolution can result in the overthrow of the situation and himself. For it is too much to ask ones’ imagination to visualize one’s own end even if it be to be reborn another” (emphasis in the original). This leaves the colonizer in what Memmi describes as ‘’the tormented dance of the colonizer….who lives on in the context of colonization in a constant state of contradiction and uneasiness.” 

Relinquishing the idea of a Jewish state is indeed a kind of death – the death of a dream. But when one dream dies, another can be born. Memmi’s context was the liberation of Tunisia from French rule. There the choice for the French was to continue to rule as colonizers or to leave. In the case of Israel, however, there is no parent or colonizer country for them to return to — the Jews of Israel are home. But in order for that home to be legitimate and sustainable, Israeli Jews must let go of the conviction that Jewish hegemony in Palestine is essential for Jewish survival, self-respect and dignity. To speak of “equality” between Jews and Palestinians without acknowledging the history of separation, domination, and attempted erasure that has shaped the Israeli government’s policies and the worldview of its Jewish citizens is to doom to failure the creation of something new. Memmi’s caution against denying the dark truths of one’s history is echoed by African-American journalist Isabel Wilkerson in Caste, the Origins of our Discontents. Writing about race in the United States, Wilkerson analyzes “the architecture of human hierarchy, the subconscious code of instructions for maintaining, in our case, a 400-year-old social order.” A persistent and powerful reality, caste is “the infrastructure of our divisions” that has “held each actor in that scene in its grip.” “Whatever you are wishing away” warns Wilkerson, “will gnaw at you until you gather the courage to face what you would rather not see.”

Memmi’s depiction of the colonizer’s dilemma matches the situation of Jewish Israelis. In a recent piece entitled “For a new political imagination, Israeli Jews must unlearn Zionism (972 Magazine, May, 2020),” Israeli sociologist and human rights activist Norma Musih describes her confrontation with the truth of her country’s history. Six depopulated Palestinian villages lie buried beneath the modern city of Tel Aviv. “I knew them as national parks, as ruins along the road, as picnic sites,” she recounts. “Yet when I saw their remains, entangled with the streets, galleries, and coffee shops of Tel Aviv, I could not imagine these villages or their inhabitants becoming part of the city again…The ethos of Zionism has redrawn the land by means of partition, segregation, and discrimination, leaving no space to envision anything other than what exists today.” Musih’s difficulty picturing a shared future brought her face to face with “the overwhelming power that the Zionist national imaginary has had on my thinking.”  She laments that “[v]ery few Israeli Jews have the political imagination to see themselves as equals to the Palestinians.” Musih submits that Israelis must unlearn Zionism. This means “understanding the ideology not only as a national movement but as a colonial one — in other words, understanding it through the lens of the Nakba” (Nakba – Arabic for catastrophe — is the Palestinians’ word for the dispossession and expulsions of 1947-1949).

Quoted in a 2012 article in New York Jewish Week, Beinart worried that his children might have to choose between “blind support” for Israel and the commitment to justice and universalism he hoped to pass on to them. But we do have to choose. Accepting Zionism as a workable, sustainable political program is a kind of blindness. It requires a striking lapse in critical thinking and has led to the moral crisis and political dead end in which we find ourselves. Israel’s national anthem “Hatikvah” (“The Hope”) expresses the Zionist dream: “to be a free nation in our land, the land of Zion and Jerusalem.” This yearning is understandable and it is powerful. Zionism presented a kind of desperate logic for the Jews of 19th century Europe – but it is wrong and unsustainable today. Only when the Jewish community and Israel’s supporters around the world come to understand Zionism as a catastrophically flawed answer to Jewish suffering will Israel be able to turn to the task of re-envisioning itself as a political entity committed to democratic principles. The end of Zionism will not be the disaster that so many Jews – and Christians — fear. Rather, it will open Israel to a future where the Other is embraced, liberated from the present reality in which armies are mustered, walls are built, and enemies, real and imagined, are vilified and attacked. “Saving” Zionism by trying to make it into something it is not takes us in the wrong direction.

At the close of his essay, Beinart asks us to imagine the Jewish and Palestinian co-presidents of a shared state gathering at a future “Museum of the Nakba” as a rabbi recites the Jewish prayer of mourning. But it is not enough to mourn our victims. The Jewish preoccupation with debating one versus two states is a continuation of the self-absorption and blindness that has afflicted us for too long. The challenge is not to find a way to keep the state through accommodation with the Palestinians. It is rather about seeing the unvarnished truth of our history and allowing ourselves to experience horror over what has become of the Zionist dream. We must acknowledge that Zionism was a mistake – an understandable but catastrophic wrong turn in our quest for safety and dignity. Until then, we will continue to build a state on top of a lie and a crime. Until then, the Palestinians will continue to resist by steadfastly refusing to relinquish their identity, their way of life, and their connection to their homeland — occupied, harassed, imprisoned, blockaded, bombarded, starved, and betrayed by their political leaders, but proud, unbowed, and refusing to disappear. Jews must recognize that our story today is not what was done to us, but what we are now doing to others. This is our tragedy, our catastrophe. This is what we must mourn. 

Battles joined

Beinart’s question “What makes someone a Jew” may help advance the Jewish conversation about Israel. But it is not the central question for a world confronting the problem of a nation state practicing apartheid with the diplomatic and financial backing of the world’s remaining superpower and the theological support of most of the world’s churches. How much longer will Zionism be kept on life support before it is allowed to expire, so that Israel, in concert with the rest of the world, can get on with the critical decisions that will determine the future of our planet?  Unpacking the reality of Palestine today offers an opportunity to wake up to the global system of privilege, power and greed that is responsible for so much suffering and that can only be expected to increase. It is no longer possible to ignore the calamity that is bearing down on us in the form of extreme weather, shortages of food and water, critical inequalities in healthcare and housing, mass migration, insurgencies, civil war, and the resurgence of authoritarianism. 

Conversations about what political arrangements can best serve the interests of Palestinians and Jews may prove valuable when conditions permit the parties to sit at the table as equals. Until then, we should direct our attention to the network of liberation movements linking the Palestinian cause with other struggles against structural violence, economic injustice and looming environmental catastrophe. Citing W.E.B. Du Bois and Martin Luther King Jr., who both placed the African American struggle for equality “in a broad international context,” Indian essayist and novelist Pankaj Mishra admonishes advocates who have “provincialized their aspirations for a just society.” He continues: “In remaining bounded by their particular contexts of oppression, they have neatly separated it from opposition to an imperial dispensation that…routinely exercises its right to assault and despoil other countries and murder and torture their citizens.” The question that must open the conversation about Israel and Palestine today is not what does it mean to be a Jew, but what does it mean to be Black in the United States and subject to police brutality and mass incarceration, a farmer in Central America or the Sahel driven to desperate flight by crop failure and violence, or a member of a dispossessed indigenous people living in the heart of the colonial entity built on the ruins of her civilization. 

Slowly but inevitably, politicians are being challenged to confront the disconnect between their avowed positions on racial justice, human rights, and self-determination and their political and economic alignment with the State of Israel. Beinart’s insistence on the democratic “essence” of Zionism is dangerously out of step with reality. “By embracing its illiberal and discriminatory essence,” notes Khalidi, “modern Zionism is increasingly at odds with the ideals, particularly that of equality, on which Western democracies are based.” These ideals, he maintains, “are threatened by illiberal and populist authoritarian trends in the world today.” Palestinian-American legal scholar, human rights attorney and author of Justice for Some: Law and the Question of Palestine Noura Erakat lays bare the “racialized structure” of Israeli civil law, designed to protect the state from what she terms the “Palestinian native presence.” In this, she points out, Israel is abetted by the international community, which regards Palestinians as “refugees necessitating humanitarian concern, but not a dispossessed people in need of a political solution.” Khalidi agrees: “The Palestinians,” he points out, “did not exist except as a problem and at best a humanitarian issue…their existence acknowledged mostly under the rubric of terrorism purveyed by Israel and eventually adopted by the United States.” 

An acknowledgement of this reality is missing from the political discourse. It is missing from Beinart’s essay. It is missing in the reactions to his essay, both for and against. The colonization and attempted erasure of the Palestinians has been recognized and vigorously debated for decades. A global network of human rights organizations, labor unions, community-based coalitions and campus groups have responded to the 2005 Palestinian call of Palestinian civil society for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions. The global church has been roused by the 2009 Kairos declaration of the Palestinian churches, reminding the church of its record of standing up to racism and economic injustice. Jewish organizations have emerged on every continent, raising alternative voices challenging the pro-Israel positions of denominational bodies and Jewish advocacy organizations. 

The Palestinian cause has emerged as an expression and powerful symbol of the struggle for economic and political justice that is shaping up between the formerly-colonized nations (the “Global South”) and their past colonizers. Erakat observes that international law, established after World War I by the victorious European powers, purportedly to regulate relations between nations and to protect human rights was actually designed to preserve the colonial order in a world reconfigured by war. These laws have been manipulated to block the Palestinians’ 100 year-long pursuit of nationhood and self-determination. If, reflecting its colonial origins, international law serves the interests of the powerful, then what can we call upon in the work to put an end to apartheid in the land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan? We have a movement: churches, campuses, labor unions, and the solidarity of those who fight for racial and economic justice on every continent. “What does it mean to be a Jew today?” asks Peter Beinart. If it means anything, it is to be part of this.

The two-state solution has died, not because of Palestinian rejectionism or because the political power of the settler movement has overpowered successive Israeli governments. It died because Zionism could never allow it to be, could never countenance nationhood and self-determination for Palestinians, rights that from the beginning of the Zionist movement have stood in the way of the Jewish homeland project. The alternative of one democratic state for all its citizens has been advocated by analysts and political activists – Jewish, Christian and Muslim, Israeli and Palestinian — for years. Why does the idea reach the level of public debate and grab media attention only when a Jew embraces it? Beinart has been called “the darling of the Left” because of his willingness to criticize Israel. But why does the Left need a Jew’s permission to challenge the sacred cow of Zionism?  Change will come, not by pivoting from “two states living side by side in peace and security” to “one democratic state,” but through a shift in how the Palestinian people are perceived in relation to the Jewish people and the State of Israel. Erakat writes: “A discriminatory race-based system is the outcome of a territorial project that seeks to usurp that land and remove the markers of native Palestinian attachment. Any effort to resolve the denial of rights and inequality requires contending with a history of dispossession. It requires committing to a future that affirms the centrality of native people.”

Beinart has made the discourse about Jewish identity and survival, about reforming and preserving Israel as a Jewish project. But it is folly to focus on the Jewish conversation when the issues are so much broader and urgent than the comfort of one privileged and now empowered group. The work to be done, by Jews and by the privileged worldwide, is not to exercise that privilege in opining about the form of a political solution for Israel and the Palestinians. Rather, the work we are facing is on the order of U.S. citizens acknowledging the genocidal history of our republic as a settler colonial project, a project pursued relentlessly until there were no more lands to be stolen, the indigenous peoples transferred to reservations. It is on the order of the United States compensating African Americans for their kidnapping and enslavement and the systematic denial of equality that has been the story of Black people in this country since the undoing of Reconstruction. It is on the order of the South African process of Truth and Reconciliation following the dismantling of apartheid. For Israel, when there is a commitment to fundamentally change the political system and to unequivocally renounce the ideology of racial supremacy, privilege, and inequality upon which it has been built, then, and only then, can Israel begin the work of creating a decent future for its citizens. Until then, new forms of erasure will emerge, new methods of subjugation and dispossession cloaked as reform, and more attempts to rescue a tragically flawed project.

A Response to Mark Braverman: A “Dispute for the Sake of Heaven?”

By Yehezkel Landau 

I have been invited by Tikkun to respond to Mark Braverman’s essay entitled “The Tormented Dance of the Colonizer: Peter Beinart, Liberal Zionism and the Battle for Palestine.” Even as I reject Braverman’s harsh anti-Zionist rhetoric—especially his use of secular leftist language to delegitimize Israel, such as “colonial settlement,” “racial supremacy,” and “ethnic cleansing”—I understand his essay to be an anguished moral appeal by a principled Jew, one that deserves serious consideration and an equally principled rebuttal. Braverman attacks Beinart, as a representative “liberal Zionist,” for holding a dialectical position that supports Jewish national independence while condemning the systematic violation by Israel of Palestinian human and political rights. In contrast to the internal tension within Beinart’s morally engaged yet ambivalent stance, Braverman’s position is dogmatically clear and consistent. I can appreciate his strong desire to alleviate harm and suffering, and I respect his training as a psychologist; but I am turned off by his moralistic language, since it exudes self-righteousness and lacks humility. In Braverman’s case, these deficiencies are compounded by an egregious dismissal of the Jewish historical experience over centuries. And at least as problematic is the unrealistic nature of his anti-Zionist position; for it fails as a prescription for achieving the kind of radical transformation that he envisions. His one-sided polemic, valorizing the “oppressed” Palestinians and criminalizing the “oppressive” Zionists, undermines any attempt to achieve inclusive justice and genuine reconciliation between the warring parties.

While Braverman’s rhetorical fusillade is directed primarily against Beinart, his message is aimed at anyone—myself included—who believes that establishing a sovereign Palestine alongside Israel holds the promise of ending the Occupation, with its severe hardships imposed on Palestinians and its destructive corrosion of Israeli democracy. Braverman rejects the idea of Jewish statehood and majority status even in part of historic Palestine, deeming Jewish national independence there, within any borders, as inherently unjust and oppressive, since it entails a violation of Palestinian human and political rights. (For an understanding of Zionism that defends Jewish statehood while acknowledging the moral cost inherent in creating a Jewish state in a land populated, before 1947, by a Palestinian Arab majority, see my earlier essay for Tikkun, “Can Zionism Be Redeemed?” (June 26, 2019).[1] To support his argument, Braverman enlists the linguistic arsenal of the secular left, branding Israel as a criminal outpost of Western colonialism. The disagreement between anti-Zionists like Braverman and religious Zionist critics of Israeli policy like myself derives primarily from our radically different moral and spiritual matrices. We make appeals to different notions of justice and different understandings of Jewish integrity. Is it possible to find common ground?

I am a dual Israeli-American citizen working for over 40 years to transform Israeli-Palestinian relations from a debilitating no-win war to a partnership based on equity, compassion, and mutual acceptance. As a believing and practicing Jew, my political lens is colored by an awareness of human fallibility and a deep appreciation for our tradition’s prophetic heritage. That heritage provides us with tools or practices that enable us to transform our morality from self-interested callousness to compassionate concern for the welfare of others. These transformative practices center on what our Rabbinic sages call teshuvah, a willful reorientation of our actions based on honest confession of harm done, genuine remorse for that harm expressed to the aggrieved party, and concrete healing actions that restore, or create for the first time, a relationship of shared blessing. In applying this wisdom to Israel’s dehumanizing policies toward Palestinians, I recognize that real teshuvah (tawbe in Arabic) requires that systemic and legally sanctioned injustices be radically altered. I still believe that Israeli Jews are capable of such a transformation, while Braverman evidently believes that they are averse to such collective teshuvah because of their Zionist commitment to national self-determination in a Jewish-majority state.

Our divergent views may reflect our respective frames of reference. I see the world as an Israeli Jew, whereas Braverman sees it from his own vantage point in Portland, Oregon. He seems to adopt the American norm of a nonsectarian, multi-ethnic society and seems to believe that Israel should conform to that political paradigm. Having lived for extended periods in both countries, I do appreciate the professed American ideals of “liberty and justice for all” as aspirational principles applied indiscriminately to all citizens. But Israel is a different kind of social experiment, created to both rectify a global injustice toward the Jewish people and also to enable Jews—at least those who prefer this constellation of identity coordinates—to reconstitute ourselves as a sovereign nation after two millennia of enforced exile. By returning to our ancestral homeland to fulfill a centuries-long dream (see Psalms 137 and 126), and by establishing a third Jewish commonwealth with Hebrew—the language of the Jewish soul—as the primary language of commerce, governance, and literature, we Jews took an unprecedented leap of faith. Yes, the horrors of the Holocaust and earlier pogroms propelled many of us to embrace the morally compromised, and compromising, choice of political independence even in the face of Palestinian, and pan-Arab or pan-Muslim, resistance. But the physical threats to our wellbeing in the Diaspora do not constitute the only, or even the primary, incentive for re-establishing Jewish self-governance in Eretz Yisrael. In my earlier reflection for Tikkun, I described some of the meta-physical and meta-historical dimensions of the Jewish homecoming project. These are material and spiritual achievements to celebrate, but none of them justifies the mistreatment of non-Jews or the denial of Palestinian national and individual human rights.

Unfortunately, the Holocaust is too often invoked to justify the Zionist homecoming project. I would never cite the Nazis’ demonic attempt to annihilate European Jewry as justification for Jewish national independence. For to do so engenders a psychologically unhealthy and a morally grotesque distortion of Jewish identity. It sets up a false binary choice between ongoing, immutable victimhood and a perpetual warrior mentality. This warped worldview, embraced by right-wing Jews in Israel and elsewhere, is reflected in the title of a chapter in former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s autobiographical book, The Revolt: “We Fight, Therefore We Are.” Viewed with compassion, this formulation of Jewish identity is understandable as a tragic reaction to the Holocaust and to the restrictions placed by the British on Jewish immigration to Mandatory Palestine. But such a worldview is not one that a religious humanist like myself would ever want to pass on to future generations. It is tantamount to a double negative, anti-anti-Semitism. There is nothing constructive about it, and it requires hostile anti-Semites to define oneself against. Jewishness as a collective sensibility, and its political expression through a Zionist state, has to be grounded in a positive, creative, transcendent vision of a just and nurturing society.

Even as I profess this commitment to Jewish prophetic idealism, I am also a realist. I appreciate that by opting for a Jewish state in Israel/Palestine, Jews re-entered the realm of power politics, with its inherent moral dilemmas. Jewish critics of that fateful decision, including Mark Braverman, prefer a more ethically “pure” or unsullied existence, either in the Diaspora or under Arab sovereignty. As I indicated, they often transfer their American or Western norms for a democratic polity to the Middle East, which is a very different social and cultural milieu. In that region, which I prefer to call Western Asia to avoid Eurocentric biases, pluralistic or multi-ethnic and multi-confessional states are nonexistent—look at Lebanon, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, or Egypt as test cases. The weight of history and culture works against an American-style political system, which is itself replete with egregious flaws, including the systemic racism and cultural imperialism that drove the genocidal war against Native Americans and that justified the enslavement and later disenfranchisement of Black Africans. In Western Asia and parts of Eastern Europe (especially the Balkans following the collapse of Tito’s Yugoslavia), ethno-national states are the norm, reflecting ancient tribal notions of communal affinity. Given these historical and cultural realities, I consider Braverman’s anti-Zionist position to be morally flawed, culturally incongruous, and politically impractical. I remain convinced that a negotiated political agreement leading to separate, adjacent, democratic sovereignties holds out the best hope for accommodating both Jewish and Palestinian claims, rights, and aspirations to self-determination.

Instead of responding to every point that Braverman raises in his essay, my aim is to counter his overall perception of Zionism as inherently oppressive, colonialist, and criminal. I acknowledge that Braverman speaks for many other Jews, as well as non-Jews, who see nothing positive, let alone redemptive, in the Jewish national homecoming. But before presenting my counterarguments, I want to identify some points of agreement between Braverman’s position and my own. My reason for doing this is to exemplify the kind of empathy that the Talmud associates with the students of the great Sage Hillel. In Tractate Eruvin 13b, we read about an extended and heated argument over halakhah (Jewish normative practice) between the House or School of Hillel and that of Shammai. After a heavenly voice affirms that both positions, even though logically antithetical, serve as “words of the living God,” we are told that the halakhah in this case (as in most cases) is in accord with Hillel’s viewpoint. Why? The Talmud answers: “It is because the students of Hillel were kind and gracious. They taught their own ideas as well as the ideas from the students of Shammai. Furthermore, they even taught Shammai’s positions first.” In this spirit, I will briefly summarize four points on which Braverman and I find common ground:

First, invoking Tunisian Jew Albert Memmi, Braverman acknowledges: “In the case of Israel, however [in contrast to French colonial rule in Algeria], there is no parent or colonizer country for them to return to—the Jews of Israel are home. (The emphasis is in Braverman’s text). But in order for that home to be legitimate and sustainable, Israeli Jews must let go of the conviction that Jewish hegemony in Palestine is essential for Jewish survival, self-respect and dignity.” I share this descriptive and normative assessment.

Second, I agree that Jewish political empowerment anywhere, but especially in Israel/Palestine, comes with profound ethical challenges which, if not acknowledged and addressed, result in grievous harm to Palestinians and to others, including Jews in Israel and abroad.

Third, Israeli government policies that perpetuate systemic injustices and discrimination against Palestinians, whether Israeli citizens or not, violate fundamental Jewish imperatives to pursue inclusive justice, to forge compassionate and peaceful relations, and to sanctify every human life created in the Divine Image.

Fourth, unbridled nationalism or chauvinism, Jewish or otherwise, is a form of idolatry. In such a worldview, a particular human collective, in this case the Jewish people, is worshiped instead of the Divine. To prevent such sacrilege, a spiritual humanism grounded in Jewish tradition and reflecting its religious and moral ideals—including prophetic self-criticism—must be an essential and self-corrective dimension of a Jewish state’s ethos, laws, and governance.

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I affirm these four statements as Jewish truth claims that I believe Braverman shares, at least implicitly. Yet we disagree on other points of both substance and rhetorical style that, in my view, are no less essential in addressing the ongoing suffering and human rights abuses in Israel/Palestine. What follows are nine points of divergence, based on my reading of Braverman’s essay:

  1. Braverman’s rhetoric is belligerent and devoid of compassion for Jews in Israel or elsewhere. (In my decades of peacebuilding work, I have found that critics of inhumane policies, or advocates for more just and peaceful alternatives, often undermine their own efforts by using angry and violent language). Braverman denies that Jews have a right like any nation—including the Palestinians—to sovereign independence in their ancestral homeland. Instead, he offers a double standard of morality rather than a single standard of inclusive justice. Braverman sees militant Palestinians as nobly resisting evil, while he demonizes Zionist Jews in Israel and elsewhere, who are deemed guilty of the “original sin” of coveting and settling a land that rightfully belongs to another people. I consider Martin Buber’s open letter to Mahatma Gandhi in 1939, responding to the latter’s statement that “Palestine belongs to the Arabs,” as the most cogent argument by a religious humanist on this fundamental issue of conflicting territorial rights, claims, and aspirations.[2]
  2. Traditional Jewish identity includes a deep sense of belonging to a particular people, Am Yisrael, and to a particular land, Eretz Yisrael. These are constitutive elements of a sacred covenant which has kept the Jewish people alive and hopeful even when exiled from that land and persecuted by others. Palestinian Arabs, as primarily Muslims and Christians, have their own spiritual attachments and yearnings that connect them deeply to the same land. In my view, both expressions of longing and belonging are legitimate.
  3. The Jewish people is no less indigenous to the land than the Palestinian people. The Zionist homecoming project, as understood by most Jews, is not a colonial conquest by a foreign power seeking to establish its rule in a distant land to exploit its people and resources. Instead, it is the third collective return from enforced exile, following returns from Egypt and Babylon in ancient times. Analogies to colonialist France in Algeria, or to white Europeans imposing racist regimes in southern Africa, or to white Anglo-Europeans usurping land from Native Americans in a campaign of genocidal warfare under the slogan of “Manifest Destiny,” are all historically incongruous (the professed parallels break down on closer examination); and these analogies are morally flawed, given the deep existential connection to the land felt and expressed by faithful Jews over many centuries. That said, it is incumbent upon Jews to engage the historical and existential narratives of Palestinians, in order to view them as complementary and not contradictory to Jewish/Zionist narratives. The two peoples, at the grassroots level and in government circles, need to work together to create a political framework that honors and accommodates both consensus narratives.[3]
  4. In my understanding, human rights are both individual and communal. The essence of religious humanism is to uphold the sacred right of each human being to self-determination, for that is what is meant by personal freedom and dignity. By extension, social aggregates of human beings—namely, self-defined peoples with their own history, language, and culture—have a parallel right to collective self-determination through political sovereignty in their ancestral homeland, so that the whole people can enjoy collective freedom and dignity. Of course, as with individual liberty, the valid scope of this collective freedom is limited by the rights to liberty and dignity of others, either in the same territory or next door. In such cases, the respective claims need to be adjudicated, and a negotiated compromise achieved, in order for inclusive justice to be realized.
  5. There are different types or forms of Zionism, so any attempt to determine its “real” or “essential” characteristics is problematic, whether the attendant judgments are negative or positive. To isolate its self-interestedly nationalist dimension without acknowledging its humanist, internationalist, and spiritually visionary elements distorts the historical picture and, even more, ignores the subjective coordinates that give meaning to the underlying concept, especially the spiritual and redemptive associations of the term Zion/Tzion.
  6. The national or peoplehood dimension of Jewish identity includes the principle that all Jews are co-responsible for ensuring each other’s welfare and integrity. This covenantal bond—which goes beyond racial, ethnic, or cultural identity markers—is what the state of Israel is meant to embody in practical terms, while ensuring civil liberties and economic opportunities for the non-Jewish citizens of the state. To the extent that a prolonged state of war has eclipsed this humanistic ideal (expressed in Israel’s Declaration of Independence), it needs to be recovered and vigorously promoted; and that is one key reason why Israel, for its ethical and spiritual integrity, needs to sacrifice territory for the sake of inclusive justice, comprehensive peace, and genuine security.
  7. The conflict over the land of Israel/Palestine is not a dualistic morality play. The two parties to the conflict, the Jewish and Palestinian peoples, cannot be simplistically labeled as oppressors and oppressed, or villains and victims. Both peoples have been trapped for over a century in a no-win war over a common homeland. Their conflict, exacerbated by outside powers, was created and sustained by the clash of two legitimate national rights and two legitimate national aspirations for collective freedom and dignity. Both peoples deserve to be self-governing and physically secure in that shared homeland.
  8. The number of sovereign states, provinces, or cantons to be established between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River is an instrumental question. The boundaries between Israel and Palestine should be negotiated by authorized representatives of both nations, and the resulting map should reflect the principle of separate sovereign entities for the two peoples. Minority communities should be able to exist and flourish in each sovereign territory; and, ideally, cross-border initiatives in a range of fields, to build relationships of shared benefit, should be jointly implemented.
  9. Finally, we need to acknowledge that all human undertakings, including nation-building, are admixtures of light and darkness, virtue and vice, since they reflect the dappled nature of human existence. As a professional psychologist, Braverman is surely aware of the dangers inherent in ego-driven behavior, especially when unhealed traumas and historically conditioned reflex patterns govern the action-reaction dynamics within human relationships. In Jewish religious anthropology, this moral ambivalence is described as the inner struggle between our innate impulse to do good, yetzer ha-tov, and our innate proclivity to cause harm, yetzer ha-ra’. In Islam, this internal struggle against sinfulness within every person is referred to as the “Greater Jihad,” citing a statement by Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him. Even outwardly idealistic actions or policies—including the Jewish and Palestinian struggles for independence—will be morally compromised by the shadow elements in our personalities. When imperfect individuals band together to achieve something greater than any individual’s welfare, the imperfections are bound to be amplified, with resultant suffering both outside the group and within. And when actions are “justified” by appeals to survival or physical safety, the consequences are liable to be cruel and destructive.[4] Braverman is justified in viewing Zionism as “a tragically flawed project,” but so are all human endeavors, including the Palestinians’ struggle to achieve their own legitimate rights. Braverman, sadly, directs his caustic criticism to only one side of this tragic conflict.  

I hope these nine points clarify where I part company with anti-Zionist Jews like Mark Braverman. This is not just a philosophical or ideological disagreement; its resolution, I believe, has the potential for alleviating mass suffering, especially in Palestine and Israel. To place this intra-Jewish dispute within a wider context, I would like to offer a d’var Torah, a Jewish religious perspective that hopefully will shed light on some deeper dimensions of this dispute.

Years ago, when I was living in Jerusalem and serving as director of the religious Zionist peace movement, Oz veShalom (Strength and Peace, from Psalms 29:11), I would periodically receive calls from the Education Branch of the Israeli Defense Forces. Usually, a woman soldier would be on the phone, asking me if I would participate in a four-part educational series that she was organizing for IDF officers. She wanted to create a series of presentations and discussions that reflected the spectrum of Israeli Jewish political orientations, by which she meant the secular left, the secular right, the religious left, and the religious right. Based on my work with Oz veShalom, she pegged me as a religious leftist and inquired whether I would represent that point of view. I readily agreed to speak and answer questions, but I added that I would begin by questioning the premise behind the whole series. By pigeonholing and labeling people based on political ideology seemed to me to be part of a fundamental Jewish problem and an obstacle to respectful engagement with others who hold different views. Also, I said, I prefer to identify as a centrist, standing on ground that was crumbling beneath my feet as Israeli society grew more polarized.

Each time that I met the group of officers I would be engaging, I began my session by drawing an Israeli flag on a whiteboard and asking the group members what they thought its six-pointed Magen David (Star of David) symbolized. I wanted to spark a conversation focused on the existential values which all of us as Israelis were defending. I got a range of suggested answers from these military professionals. After honoring them all, I proceeded to present my own understanding of that key Jewish symbol at the center of our national flag. I referenced Pirkei Avot (the Chapters of the Fathers, meaning the Rabbinic Sages), probably the most well-known tractate of the Mishnah (the first part of the Talmud) and a classic source of Jewish ethical wisdom. In the first of its six chapters, two Sages named Shimon are mentioned. The first is Shimon HaTzaddik (Simon the Righteous), who is quoted as saying: “The world stands on (the observance of) three fundamental practices: Torah (the study of Jewish sacred texts), Avodah (worship or the observance of Jewish sacred rituals), and Gemilut Hasadim (acts of lovingkindness).” Toward the end of the chapter, a later Sage named Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel is cited as the source of another statement: “The world exists because of three moral principles: Din (Justice/Judgment), Emet (Truth), and Shalom (Peace), as is stated (in Zechariah 8:16), ‘Truth and justice-peace you shall administer in your gates.’”

These two statements so close together engender a reasonable question: Why are there two such declarations, each identifying three fundamental aspects of life, in the same chapter? What does the second add to the first, and vice versa?

Based on teachings in later Rabbinic sources, particularly the homiletic commentary on Pirkei Avot called Avot deRabbi Natan, it is reasonable to say that the two statements complement each other. The first, by Shimon HaTzaddik, presents three cardinal practices of any religious Jew; it could be said to encapsulate the particularist aspect of our tradition. The second teaching, by Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel, offers another three-part summation of human affairs, based this time on three principles at the core of prophetic ethics. (The prooftext cited is from Zechariah, one of the Hebrew Prophets). This second statement could be said to summarize the universalist aspect of Judaism.

Each three-part summary can be represented by a triangle, and combining the two triangles produces a Magen David. In this graphic representation, there are six equally vital elements that combine to create what I would call holistic Judaism and Jewishness. It is a balance and an integration of the two complementary dimensions, the particularist or distinct features of the tradition applicable only to Jews, along with the universalist principles and values that we Jews share with the rest of humanity.

One point to make explicit here is that nowhere in this hexagonal pattern do we find mention of a land or a state. (Nor is God mentioned; but I would suggest that God, for the purpose of this symbolic exercise, can be visualized as the center of the star). If at least a critical mass of Jews has decided to embrace the idea and the reality of a Jewish state, then it should be faithful to all six of these cardinal values and practices.

And here is where the exercise becomes pertinent to our discussion, in both descriptive and prescriptive terms. For I would argue that there are two basic challenges besetting the Jewish people today. The first is an external one: How can we forge a just peace with our Palestinian neighbors? The second is an internal challenge: How can we remain spiritually whole, individually and collectively, when the Jewish people has been polarizing for centuries? The two triangles have separated and are growing farther and farther apart.

Since at least the time of the Haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment, the particularist aspect of Judaism has been preserved largely by an Orthodox minority that has grown increasingly insular and strict in both its thinking and its behavior, drawing its lifeblood from the Talmud and other parts of Rabbinic tradition. At the same time, the universalist aspect of our heritage, voiced more by the Prophets than by the Sages, has been embraced and proclaimed largely by the liberal, non-Orthodox movements within modern Judaism, including nonobservant or so-called “secular” Jews. I should state here that I do not divide Jews into “religious/dati” and “secular/hiloni”—that artificial dichotomy is another spiritual malady negatively impacting Israeli Jewish society. In the universalist camp we find many politically progressive individuals and organizations working diligently and faithfully for tikkun olam, including for justice and peace in Israel/Palestine.

After decades of peacebuilding efforts, I have come to believe that the greatest obstacle to genuine peace—between Israelis and Palestinians and between antagonistic groups within the Jewish community worldwide—is the spiritual schizophrenia afflicting us as Jews. (I will leave it to Palestinians to assess the impact of their own internal divisions, especially between secular nationalist Fatah and Islamist Hamas). We Jews see each other as religious and political adversaries because we have lost the vision of a holistic, integrative Judaism which reunites the two triangles of the Magen David. One clear symptom of this spiritual disease is the dispute between fervent Zionists and equally avid anti-Zionists.[5] If the passion in these debates could be balanced by some compassion, and if ad hominem attacks were replaced by a respectful exchange of views, then there is a chance that this profound intra-Jewish debate, reflecting an existential struggle within the collective Jewish soul, could become what the Talmud called “a dispute for the sake of Heaven,” machloket leshem Shamayyim. And the Talmud cites the debates between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai as an example of a religiously valid and valuable disagreement. Such exchanges put transcendent principle over ego, and they require that all participants aim to reach a deeper understanding and a higher conception of truth.[6] With such intentionality (in Hebrew, kavanah) and generosity of spirit, someone like Mark Braverman would not have to castigate a Peter Beinart to promote his viewpoint; instead, he could commend Beinart for having the courage of his convictions and for his devotion to justice, before challenging his notion of justice. Conversely, a Likud member or an AIPAC loyalist could invest more energy in listening to what BDS supporters or members of If Not Now have to say, instead of branding them as enemies of Israel and the Jewish people.

We Jews have a long way to go before we can heal our internal wounds, many of them self-inflicted. Fortunately, our tradition offers us a way forward, especially if we apply some midrashic imagination to our tradition’s teachings and to our common symbols like the Magen David. In most traditional siddurim (prayer books), the morning service contains sections for study and contemplation sandwiched between the prayers. One of these is a list of thirteen principles for interpreting a passage of Scripture attributed to another great Sage, Rabbi Ishmael. (That’s right, a Rabbinic Sage with the name of Isaac’s half-brother, the son of Hagar the Egyptian who is traditionally viewed as the ancestor of the Arab peoples). The last of Rabbi Ishmael’s thirteen principles states: “When two passages (seem to) contradict each other, (they can be elucidated by) a third passage that reconciles them.” The statements in Pirkei Avot by the two Shimons, meant to be complementary and mutually enriching, have been torn asunder in contemporary Jewish life. In order to bring them, and the two triangles of the Magen David, back together, we will all need to mine the teachings of our tradition to find reconciling texts to help us forge sacred common ground.

Between the two Shimons in Pirkei Avot chapter 1 we find another Sage, already mentioned here, who became over the centuries much more famous, and more often cited, than either Shimon. He is even commemorated on many college campuses with centers of Jewish life. I am, of course, referring to Hillel the Elder. In the 12th mishnah/teaching of chapter 1, Hillel is cited as the source for this teaching: “Be among the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving people and drawing them closer to the Torah.” From Hillel we learn that by loving and pursuing peace, we and those around us grow closer to truly living out the Torah’s wisdom; and, conversely, if we and other Jews grow closer to Torah as transcendent common ground, we can become more effective peacemakers, both among fellow Jews and between Jews and others, including Palestinians. In addition, the 14th mishnah offers what is probably Hillel’s most oft-quoted teaching. It has served many purposes, including as the source for the name of a Jewish activist movement opposing Israeli government policy: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”

Here we have another three-part teaching, with each part again an essential element. “If I am not for myself, who will be for me” is a shorthand way of describing human agency, independence, and self-determination…an underlying goal and intentionality within Zionism. “If I am only for myself, what am I?” is both a moral summons to care for others and a spiritual acknowledgement of the deep human need for connection, belonging, and intimate communion…another element within Zionism, but which now needs to expand beyond the boundaries of the Jewish people.[7] “And if not now, when” calls us to act immediately and every day, in all the relationships that make up our lives. We must bring to those relationships a strong desire and an ongoing commitment to heal them when they are wounded, and to consecrate them when they have been defiled by bigotry, contempt, or hatred. Hillel’s wisdom in both of the cited mishnayot is the reconciling “third text” in all of our disputes and a practical remedy for our unhealthy polarization. It is the core of the Torah that purifies it from chauvinism, from misogyny, and from all forms of hegemony, discrimination, and domination. This is the Torah of inclusive justice, of genuine and lasting peace, and of healing love in the midst of strife and recrimination. It is the Eitz Chayyim, the Torah’s Tree of Life that has sustained us Jews throughout our history. And it is the Torah of Life that can save us from the tyranny and terror of war, ensuring our survival and a blessed future for our children, alongside the children of our Palestinian neighbors.    

[1] My earlier Tikkun reflection is accessible here:  For a Muslim-Jewish exchange based on its content, see my dialogue with Dr. Mahan Mirza of Notre Dame University:   

[2] See “A Letter to Gandhi,” in A Land of Two Peoples: Martin Buber on Jews and Arabs, Paul Mendes-Flohr, ed., Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1983/2005, pp. 113-126.

[3] For helpful attempts toward formulating a dual-narrative perspective, see Sami Adwan, Dan Bar-On, and Eyal Naveh, eds., Side By Side: Parallel Histories of Israel-Palestine, New York: The New Press, 2012; and Paul Scham, Walid Salem, and Benjamin Pogrund, eds., Shared Histories: A Palestinian-Israeli Dialogue, Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press, 2005.

[4] In his letter to Gandhi, Buber conveyed his moral sensitivity in the face of human imperfections in these terms: “I cannot help withstanding evil when I see that it is about to destroy the good. I am forced to withstand the evil in the world just as the evil within myself. I can only strive not to have to do so by force. I do not want force. But if there is no other way of preventing the evil [from] destroying the good, I trust I shall use force and give myself up into God’s hands…There is nothing better for a [person] than to deal justly—unless it be to love; we should be able even to fight for justice—but to fight lovingly.” (See the volume cited earlier, edited by Mendes-Flohr, p. 125). 

[5] Here I am omitting Haredi anti-Zionists like Neturei Karta and Satmar Hasidim. To include them in this symbolic scheme would introduce other, complicating issues best addressed in another context.

[6] Whether regarding the seemingly intractable conflict between Israel and Palestine, or the impassioned debates between camps of politically engaged Jews, we all have much to learn from the teachings of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, who was Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi in Mandatory Palestine. In Olat Raya (Vol. 1, p. 330) he offers this perspective on transcending deeply entrenched disputes: “It is precisely the multiplicity of opinions that derive from variegated souls and backgrounds which enriches wisdom and brings about its enlargement. In the end all matters will be properly understood and it will be recognized that it was impossible for the structure of peace to be built without those trends that appeared to be in conflict.”

[7] On the complementary dynamic of agency and communion within human affairs, see David Bakan, The Duality of Human Existence: An Essay on Psychology and Religion, Chicago: Rand McNally, 1966.

Dr. Yehezkel Landau, a dual Israeli-American citizen, is an interfaith educator, trainer, consultant, and author active in Jewish-Christian-Muslim relations and Israeli-Palestinian peacebuilding for more than 35 years. While in Israel he was executive director of the Oz veShalom-Netivot Shalom religious peace movement and then co-founder and co-director of the Open House peace center in Ramle. From 2002 to 2016 he was a professor of Jewish tradition and interfaith relations at Hartford Seminary and holder of the Abrahamic Partnerships Chair.

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2 thoughts on “The Tormented Dance of the Colonizer

  1. Like ex-President Trump. Dr. Landau thinks there are fine people on both sides.

  2. I appreciate this exchange–much of Landau’s approach reminding me of Yossi Klein Halevi’s. I thought also of observations in Adam Morton’s “Life Outside the Camp: Cancellation, Purity, and Public Space” at Morton is talking about the US context rather than the Palestinian-Israeli one, and writing as a Christian, but rather in the spirit of Landau about Judaism.