Why Safe-Haven Zionism Is Incompatible with Jewish Cosmopolitanism

sky seen through Jewish star window

Ethan Leib, like me, grew up an Orthodox Zionist and now rejects a Zionism that manifests in the inhumane treatment of Palestinian people for the sake of a utopian dream of a Jewish cultural haven. But in his Tikkun article “A Zionism of Fear,” he comes to a conclusion incompatible with his claim to political cosmopolitanism: that dangers posed by anti-Semitism necessitate and legitimate perpetuating a Jewish state as a haven of physical safety for Jews.

Of course we Jews have the need to be safe from real danger. Many of us fought for and continue to fight for a Jewish state of Israel as the answer to our safety question, but a geopolitical solution is only one way to answer it. The views of Judah Magnes, Albert Einstein, and others Jewish leaders who opposed an ethnically defined state before 1948 are known to most of us; there is thoughtful precedent for designing a safety solution that doesn’t require a Jewish political entity. Century-old ideas proposing a shared political life for all the inhabitants of an Israel-Palestine made safe for Jews as Jews flourish again today; and maybe there are solutions to the safety question that aren’t geographic at all.

Why stretch to explore solutions to the Jewish safety question beyond the solution closest at hand, the one we’ve experimented with more and less successfully for over sixty years, the Jewish state of Israel? Why shouldn’t progressives let political Zionism deliver our safe haven?

Because it just doesn’t square with progressive values. The social-emotional-intellectual conundrum of reconciling universalist allegiances and Jewish safety leads to a sequence of challenges to safe-haven political Zionism that our intellectual and moral integrity require us to consider.

Progressive Values vs. Safe-Haven Zionism

Is the ranking of values that results in legitimating safe-haven political Zionism consistent with the core ethical beliefs that most U.S. progressives share?

Progressives would likely include equality, fairness, democracy, cooperation, and freedom balanced with community on their list of common values. Tikkun readers might add earth-friendliness, love, and compassion to that list.

We may be justice-seekers and peacemakers, radical activists or rights-based fundraisers. We may value listening, curiosity, decency, respect, giving others the benefit of doubt.

Is the argument for the perpetuation of a state designed primarily to protect its Jewish citizens consistent with these values?

If we factor in loyalty to one’s group, we struggle with our familiar Jewish American brand of tension among our allegiances. We sit with our tribal loyalty and our array of commitments to the well-being of our families. We weigh these against humanism and our commitments across boundaries.

Some of us may struggle to tolerate other Jews’ loyalty to groups other than ours. What, then, becomes of the habits of thinking of progressives—solidarity, commitment to rule of law including international law, commitment to the agency of individuals, and the principle that people should have a say in decisions that affect them?

When we to bring all of these to bear on questions of Israel, difficult as that is, the idea of an ethnically defined state becomes difficult to tolerate, let alone embrace.

Cosmopolitanism’s Prioritization of Global Community

An honest reckoning of universalism, or cosmopolitanism, which prioritizes global over particular community, does not, as Leib claims, allow for safe-haven political Zionism. Even when a cosmopolitan legitimately prioritizes the welfare of self, then family, then fellow Jews, neighbors, or Americans over others, he or she is left not only to consider, but to do, what is right and possible in relation to those others. Prioritization of self does not justify moral distancing of others. Yet Leib’s “Zionism of Fear” justifies gross withholding of freedom from Palestinians.

Prime Minister Netanyahu, describing fierce Israeli retaliation against Gazans mistakenly suspected of attacking Israelis near Eilat last year, said: “We have a policy of extracting a very high price from anyone who causes us harm.” Who are “we?” Is our price higher than others’? Much has been written about the price of Gilad Shalit measured in the number of Palestinian prisoners traded for his freedom. Are Jewish lives of greater value to us than other lives?

On matters other than Israel, progressives count everyone as human. We want prisoners accused of terrorism to be tried in civilian courts. We honor the rights of felons, and we care not only that American and European soldiers are killed in Afghanistan but that Afghans die, too. We would have wanted Yemeni cleric and presumed mentor to terrorists Anwar al-Awlaki to be brought to trial rather than targeted for assassination. We take exception to the exception taken by certain states when they commit in word to universal human rights—and then in deed, carve away the rights of women to vote or drive, or (as the United States does) deny the rights of certain convicted murderers to life.

Yet in American Jewish communal discourse, Rabbi Daniel Gordis can defend the Jewish-centrism on which the safe-haven justification for Jewish statehood is based and, despite lively public debate, be considered by many still to be speaking within the bounds of liberal Judaism.

Those unabashed Americans who think our public should put Israel first will complain that the New York Times is biased against the Jews, and my Israeli cousin will report that “the casualty toll has been rather low” from the “tit-for-tat exercise” across the Gaza border, though hundreds of Palestinians have died for every Jewish Israeli hit by a rocket. Yet while progressive American Jews will insist that Palestinian lives matter and that Palestinians deserve a state, we are reluctant, and maybe still terrified, to demand that our own government prioritize equally the lives of Jewish Israelis and Palestinian Arabs.

In 1902, Theodor Herzl wrote in Old-New Land about the “New Society,” known in real life as the Jewish National Fund. One qualified for membership in the New Society by ethnic identification—and the Jewish National Fund still requires Jewish identity to earn its protection. The Philadelphia-based Movement for a New Society that thrived in the 1980s seeded projects designed to liberate everyone, gay or straight, able-bodied or not, Black, white, or immigrant, from the margins to the center. Those are our familiar progressive values, and in 2011, it is hard to reconcile them with the political Zionist vision of justice for ourselves at the expense of others.

John Rawls’s first principle of justice is that “each person has the same indefeasible claim to a fully adequate scheme of equal basic liberties, which scheme is compatible with the same scheme of liberties for all.” The Bible, in Leviticus, teaches that we should love our neighbor as we love ourselves. We can pick the sources that support our case; but don’t these teachings best reflect progressive values?

In light of twenty-first century connectedness among people and countries, and as progressive, universalism-minded Jews, we need a new reckoning about a hierarchy of values with respect to our relationship to the other. How do we draw our circles of concern? Like isolationists and communitarians, cosmopolitans build loyalty from self and family on out to geographic, ethnic, and religious communities and country. But they—we—move from one circle out to the next swiftly, and when the need emerges to weigh the value of members of an outer circle against people closer to the center, it is a moment of crisis for us.

We face such moral dilemmas routinely, when emotions lead us to see closer-in interests as threatened by the interests of those more distant from our awareness or concern, even when they are not. We evaluate our integrity against our ability to adhere under emotional stress to the hierarchy of prioritized values established in less emotionally laden moments. We could argue that we’re too tainted emotionally as Jews, and that our communitarian, inward-looking priorities should be allowed prevail. We could argue that putting our own community at a distant first is necessary for our protection, given that Palestinians will place their own communities first as well.

Or we could argue like Woodrow Wilson, Albert Einstein, Martha Nussbaum, or Onora O’Neill that we have the moral duty and practical responsibility for that on which we have an effect, even if it is across borders of communities and countries. And in networked times, this challenge is more difficult but applies more necessarily than even in 1945.

The Responsibilities of a State

Progressive people get to draw their circles of concern based on social, emotional, and psychological considerations, but states do not. A population’s fear of danger does not justify a state’s abandoning the international laws and norms that progressive American Jews typically champion. The responsibility of a state is to protect against real or perceived danger, not against its citizens’ individual fears of danger.

Leib upholds the claim that the Holocaust legitimated the establishment of the Jewish state. Of course the Holocaust exacerbated the need for a solution to the Jewish safety problem, but it did not legitimate every possible solution to that problem.

The safety of Jews cannot be the primary role of a state with a mixed population, but the perception of safety, the fear of danger, is an even weaker claim for the legitimacy of an ethnically defined state. The job of the state is to create rational policy that balances the interests of its citizens and its collectivity—not to act from the aggregated trauma of its people.

The Danger of Ethnic Pride

Even if we are prepared to justify a state’s security policy by the fears of a subset of its population, or indeed on real or perceived danger to a subset of its people, how would we account for the protection of the rest of its population? We would expect states to look out for the needs and desires of all their people, not subsets of their people.

Fear is an appropriate response to danger. But what lack of imagination would permit us as a progressive American Jewish polity to be driven solely by our fears, to limit ourselves to solutions that destroy the agency of non-Jews and the self-determination of a non-Jewish nation, in order to protect ourselves from possible danger?

How can preferential treatment for an ethnic group not nurture a dangerous pride? Wouldn’t any military founded on ethnic pride lead to a risk of abuse of power against other groups? When progressive American Jews do speak out against Israeli military abuse of power against Palestinians, they criticize a problem with ethnic pride at its root—not specifically because the IDF is controlled by Jews, but because ethnically defined military power is intrinsically dangerous to outsiders. Fed enough power, pride is dangerous.

We know what can happen when one people’s fear turns to pride, and that pride becomes dangerous to another people. Why did the third Reich want Germany free of its Jews, if not for fear of the loss of power, or of something perceived as safety? This is a challenging if not paralyzing question, but we resist learning this lesson at the peril of those affected by our own power.

What About a “Palestinian Majority” Is Dangerous?

What makes a safe-haven Zionist state with some Palestinian inhabitants seem safer than one with a majority of Palestinian inhabitants? Is it an understanding of Palestinians as unsafe individuals or as a dangerous people? The implied assumptions about ethnicity-based negative character traits cannot be what people with progressive, humanist allegiances believe.

What makes a Jewish state safe for Jews? It may be the backing of an international community that endorsed it at the UN General Assembly in 1947. It may be the boundaries affirmed then at the UN, or the boundaries along the armistice line drawn in 1949 following the first Arab-Israeli war. It may be the acquisition or retention of some or all of the lands captured by Israeli in 1967—the Gaza Strip, East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and the Golan Heights. It may be Israel’s military power, its nuclear arsenal, or its backing by the United States and most European countries.

Leib suggests that Jewish safety can be more effectively created or maintained in a state on the land of Israel “proper,” not including the lands captured in 1967. He thus implies that safe-haven political Zionism justifies policies preferential to Jews regardless of who else lives within those boundaries. But if diminution of the rights and privileges of Palestinians within those boundaries is acceptable, why wouldn’t diminution of the rights of a projected Palestinian majority in an Israel that includes the West Bank and Jerusalem, and for that matter the Golan Heights and Gaza, be justifiable? What abrogation of Palestinian rights is acceptable, and what is not?

The idea of a state that protects all of its people, the majority and minorities, whoever they may be, reflects the values of equality, fairness, democracy, cooperation, and freedom balanced with community. It is in line with progressive values, and it is embraced at least in principle by the majority of Americans.

Yet the idea of a state for all of its people is routinely dismissed as too radical, implausible, or anti-Jewish when applied by American Jews to Israel-Palestine. A two-state resolution may also be implausible, but in progressive American Jewish discourse, the perceived safety of a Jewish-majority Israel and the imagined equality of establishing a Palestinian-only Palestine make the idea thoroughly acceptable.

What is special about Palestinians, then, or about Jews, that makes it better to divide the two groups than to attempt to build a state for the good of everyone who calls Israel-Palestine home? Daniel Gordis believes that Palestinian “hatred for the Jewish people cannot be appeased.” If progressive American Jews believe that, we wish we didn’t. So what is it we really think about the Palestinians? If we could admit our fundamental fear or distrust of the Arabs who share the land with the Jews, however much we wish it weren’t there, we would skip light years ahead in rebuilding compassion for Palestinians and making available a bit more creativity for solving our puzzle.

The Fight for Majority Ethnic-Religious Status

Perhaps we assume that a minority-Palestinian state is safer for Jews than a majority-Palestinian state because of the safety provided by majority ethnic-religious status itself. But doesn’t this challenge the most basic principles progressives share about a state’s responsibility to look out for the needs of minority groups?

You can take a legislator all the way to the Supreme Court in the United States to win a case against displaying the Ten Commandments in a courtroom. But at the Arab Bank in Israeli-occupied Nablus, where roughly 100 percent of the patrons are Muslim and Christian Arabs, and at Bank Leumi in Nazareth, where most of the patrons are Palestinians too, the primary currency is the Israeli shekel, with bills adorned with quotes from the 1948 founders of Israel. Even in Gaza the currency is the shekel, printed with the Star of David.

American Jews who don’t oppose the Israeli occupation would have good arguments about why Palestinians should be subjects of a Jewish state. But what are our arguments? Why, according to progressive American Jews, should Palestinians living in Israel-Palestine conduct their banking in Hebrew? Their national anthem celebrates Jews as a free people in the land of Palestine. The good roads on the West Bank, the best schools in Israel, the counters of government officers, are made for or restricted to Jews and Hebrew-speakers. What would a progressive American Jew say about this state of affairs?

The Question of Self-Determination

Leib’s “liberal chimera” of self-determination is about cultural self-expression. But self-determination is a meaningful and difficult concept—one defined in international law—about sorting out how a political community gets to rule itself. Reams of theory and precedent don’t spare us the need to wrestle with the moral and practical questions of peoplehood, nationhood, boundaries, and sovereignty in order to resolve the issues of self-determination for the Jews and the Palestinians who inhabit Israel-Palestine.

Self-determination does not require statehood. The anti-Jewish horrors of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Europe made us Jews desperate to choose our future as a people, without external coercion. The same was true of the Palestinian experience of 1948, and this remains true for the Palestinians today.

It is possible for Jews to have our needs for safety, social cohesion, and cultural continuity met, and simultaneously for Palestinians to have their needs for individual agency, political freedoms, and social autonomy met. These needs do not contradict each other. Is there an overarching reason, then, for Israel or the United States to prevent Palestinians from exploring and achieving self-determination? Is there a moral justification, or a security reason, to prioritize Jewish needs over Palestinian ones in strategizing the course ahead, or in envisioning a resolution to the conflict?

In his Afghanistan speech of June 22, 2011, President Obama said, “We stand not for empire but for self-determination.” The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights both declare: “All peoples have the right of self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.” What could be more liberating, or more in line with progressive values?

Henry Siegman, international affairs expert and former director of the American Jewish Congress, writes that the “right to self-determination by the majority population in a previously mandated territory is a ‘peremptory norm’ in international law, one that overrides and nullifies conflicting treaty obligations.” This leads him to prefer that Palestinians negotiate their way to freedom as a sovereign nation rather than as a subject people.

Yes, U.S. policy and Israel’s negotiating position both envision a “sovereign, non-militarized state” of Palestine. But a state is not sovereign if its decision whether to be militarized is made in the form of a treaty with a highly militarized neighboring enemy state.

In describing how to resolve a territorial dispute, political philosopher Michael Walzer includes as one if not the most important factor asking, “What do the inhabitants want? The land follows the people… A state is self-determining even if its citizens struggle and fail to establish free institutions, but it has been deprived of self-determination if such institutions are established by an intrusive neighbor.” The political freedom of such a political community as inhabits a state is the business of the members of that community, the inhabitants of that state.

All of which points to the need for Palestinians to become free to negotiate, free like Israeli Jews, whose continued freedom to negotiate should be protected. As two sets of free communities, they can negotiate their way to meeting their people’s needs and their peoples’ aspirations for safe, meaningful, and free community lives.

Which leaves some powerful next steps in the hands of the Palestinians—and some escalated needs for Jews to find new ways to feel safe. In referring to the Palestinians’ UN statehood campaign, Former Israeli government policy advisory Daniel Levy said, “The asymmetry of Israeli-Palestinian realities and therefore the logic of the Palestinians gaining leverage by utilizing nonviolent diplomatic tools… is a powerful one.” Then, when there are two communities with symmetrical or almost symmetrical power, they can together build the diplomatic, physical, and psychic structures to support mutual safety and every kind of freedom.

Maintaining Our Commitment to Universal Compassion

Leib’s argument for safe-haven political Zionism is a tautology, as he asks by implication, “If perpetuating a thriving culture doesn’t justify political Zionism, what does?” He assumes there must be some justification for political Zionism, and then seeks one out.

A more rigorous exploration would involve asking, “Is there a justification for political Zionism? We hope for the sake of our fears that there is, but for the sake of the world containing and beyond ourselves, let’s answer with clarity.”

We each approach these questions with a set of social and intellectual biases and with emotional and psychological predispositions. But we can ask, “What if we saw our Israel questions through the progressive lens through which we see the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya, the governments of Venezuela and Russia, the economies of China and Norway, questions of financial regulation, taxes, and domestic budget priorities?”

So much about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is subjective, even when we can set aside our biases. Application of international law is subjective, and so is the definition of sovereignty. Freedom is subjective. Israel is proud of its freedoms for gay people and its support for women’s rights, yet Israel is simultaneously invested in withholding from Palestinians their freedom of movement, of self-determination, and of expression of religion, along with their right of return, in the name of the freedom of Jews.

Were we to insist on maintaining our commitments to universal compassion and relentless critical thinking when considering our Jewish safety, there wouldn’t be one inevitable set of answers, but we would be less likely to assume that our safety requires and justifies an ethnically defined state.

The medieval commentator Rashi, reflecting that God begins the Bible with the creation story, has a hunch why: it’s to show that God can apportion that creation as he wishes. To this, progressive American Jews might say, “Now that we understand the apportioning to be in the hands of people, what is our role in achieving it with equality, fairness, democracy, cooperation, freedom, community, earth-friendliness, love, and compassion?”

That is a Jewish cosmopolitan approach.

[Click here for the full debate on this topic, which includes Ethan Leib’s article on “The Zionism of Fear.”]


4 thoughts on “Why Safe-Haven Zionism Is Incompatible with Jewish Cosmopolitanism

  1. You state so clearly what many of us cannot articulate in detail, and with logic. Thank you for the thought and analysis…thanks for clearing the muddy water of fear, selfishness, provincialism…and tribalism that is only self-limiting, and ultimately self-destructive. Territoriality as a means to security is atavistic. Man must transcend this illusion in a world that was created whole, one, undivided.

  2. Many years ago, I decided that I was neither a Zionist nor an anti-Zionist but a non-Zionist and a critical friend of Israel.

    More often than not, I am extremely critical. But I cannot renounce friendship for a nation that has breathed life back into the dry bones of so many families such as mine, who were almost blotted out in the Shoah or in other horrors of the last century

    I understood, though, that the state was the product of a dark time in the history of the Jewish people and, indeed, of most peoples. Terror and ethnic cleansing were its midwives and, clearly, its creation was based on the perceived cruel necessities of a specific time and place rather than on universal, timeless principles. Its moral legitimacy was therefore questionable.

    But, by the same token, so, at one time or the other, was the moral legitimacy of most countries. This was obviously the case for settler nations such as the United States, Australia or New Zealand.

    But dig back far enough and you have to ask yourself whether, for example, England has the right to exist,given its origins in the Germanic invasions of the fifth century CE and the apparent dispossession of its then primarily Celtic population.

    How far do we have to go back before a nation acquires the right to existence through the simple fact of existing? One generation? two? three?

    It’s hard to answer that question at a theoretical level. But, at a practical level, the dissolution and reconstituting of states is at least as likely to end in new injustices and resentments and in more lives cast into the whirlwind, than is a state’s preservation.

    So, as far as I’m concerned, Israel has, to all practical intents and purposes, as much right to legitimacy and sovereignty as any other country on earth.

    Moreover, as the exercise of the democratic right of self determination requires a distinct institutional and territorial context, it follows that Israelis have as much claim as any other people to the exercise of this right as a people.

    But, as a Diaspora Jew,I do not have the right to participate in Israel’s exercise of self determination. It is a right that should belong to Israelis (and not just Jewish Israelis) qua Israelis but not to Jews qua Jews.

    And, of course, the same should and must apply to the Palestinians. May it happen speedily and in our own day!

    Should Israelis be allowed to set ethnic criteria for immigration and other issues? Well, most countries do precisely that. For example, Germany gives immigration preference to people of German descent, which is one reason why that country’s superb soccer national team has players with Slavic personal names. Ireland does it, Italy does it etc. etc.

    Does Israel’s Jewish majority have the right to insist on the Jewish character of its state? Let’s remember that the United States is something of an exception to the norm in celebrating a largely civic patriotism. Most countries give some ethnic weighting to their national identities, albeit that globalism is making it ever harder for them to do so.

    Israel’s ethnocentric approach may be a valid expression of its national sovereignty. But it is hardly wise or helpful in the current fraught situation and leads inevitably to manifest injustice to many of its citizens.

    But whilst I may criticise the choices Israelis make, I criticise them as a foreigner, albeit one who has cultural and religious links to the country and a natural affection for it.

    I certainly should not behave like those Irish Americans who continued to fund the Provisional IRA when its terror campaign was causing carnage on both sides of the Irish Sea.

    But, nor, as a cosmopolitan Jew with citizenship in (in my case) two other countries, should I any more refrain from criticism of Israel than criticism of any other country on earth.

    And, to the extent that they value my friendship and that of my fellow Jews, Israelis are well advised to take such criticism on board.

  3. Rebecca, thanks for approaching this topic with such clarity and diligence and also with compassion. It’s great to see your thoughts in this forum!

  4. This article make me want to throw up. It is essentially delegitimizing the right of Jewish self determination in favor of Palestinian self determination. Na this is different form right wing Israelis attitude towards Palestinians how?