From bad to worse
Zionism’s range of influence is shrinking. One can see this progression worldwide. At a popular level the Israelis have lost control of the historical storyline of Israel-Palestine. They may teach their own citizens their version of the story, the one wherein the Jews have a divine and/or historical right to all of Palestine’s territory. But beyond their fellow Zionists and the loony Christian right, no one else believes this story. Significantly, an increasing number of Jews no longer accept it either.
None of this means that the Zionists are not still influential. Yet their influence no longer has a broad popular base. It is now largely restricted to Western government circles. Of course, that is still impressive, and such lobby power does a lot of damage in the West through the corruption of elites and the perversion of state policies. We are seeing examples of this in the many stories of American police officers being trained by Israelis while (coincidently?) episodes of police brutality in the US multiply.
It is to be noted, however, the Zionist ability to maintain a close connection between Western governments and Israel is now based on their ability to spread around enormous sums of money, and not on what once was popular emotional admiration for the “Israeli experiment”. In truth the Zionists are left with a narrowing base of support for a country that is increasingly seen as, at best, inhumane and racist and, at worst, ruthless and criminal.
Zionism’s internal reaction to the loss of popular support is to defensively circle the wagons ever more tightly and press on with transparently illegal policies of settlement expansion and oppression. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is the secular-political leader of this hunker-down strategy. However, for Jews worldwide what is perhaps more alarming, and certainly as depressing, is the role played by Judaism’s religious representatives – members of Israel’s rabbinic officialdom – who keep publicly calling for, and religiously justifying, the slaughter of Palestinians. Here are some recent examples:
In early March 2016 Israel’s chief Sephardic rabbi, Yitzhak Yosef, announced that it is “a religious imperative” to execute “Palestinian assailants” as soon as they are apprehended, despite more judicious directives given by Israel’s military high command and law courts. Yosef then managed to show himself utterly out of touch with the history of Palestinian resistance (which he incorrectly mixes up with modern terrorism) when he declared that “It deters them too. The moment a terrorist knows that if he comes with a knife he won’t return alive, that will deter them. That’s why it’s a mitzvah [a blessing] to kill him.” There is, of course, no evidence that such a policy of on-the-spot executions deters Palestinian violence.
Yosef’s call for on-the-spot executions is actually a follow-up to a statement made by his predecessor, Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu, in 2007. At that time Eliyahu pronounced that “there was absolutely no moral prohibition against the indiscriminate killing of civilians during a potential massive military offensive on Gaza”.
In December 2015 Chaim Kanievsky, an important “ultra-Orthodox” Israeli rabbi, instructed the members of United Hatzalah, a West Bank settler-run ambulance service, that when confronted with a Palestinian “terrorist” who has “a life-threatening condition, they should leave him or her to die”. This pronouncement has sparked a lively debate among some Israeli rabbis, but the resulting impact on the practice of Israeli ambulance crews has been to give them an excuse to disregard their obligations under international law, and leave injured Palestinians untreated.
This attitude has long been evolving, and it has even produced the equivalent of “saintly” figures. For instance, there is the American Zionist settler Baruch Goldstein who in 1994 killed 24 Palestinian worshipers and injured another 125, at the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron. The settler community at Kiryat Arba has erected an elaborate tomb to Goldstein with an epitaph that reads, in part, that he had “clean hands and a pure heart”. The tomb remains today a site of pilgrimage for Zionists of genocidal inclination.
All those Zionists who justify the murder of Palestinians lawfully resisting unlawful occupation are themselves in violation of international law. Those who rationalise this behaviour by evoking violent and wrathful biblical images go further and put themselves in the same category as al-Qaeda and Islamic State group fanatics.
An existential dilemma
Zionism did not start out advocating slaughter. The original Zionist preference for the disposal of the Palestinians was “transfer” – the removal by force or economic inducement of the Palestinians from conquered Israeli territory into the surrounding Arab lands. This scheme, in its forceful guise, was put into effect during the 1948 and 1967 wars. This certainly cleared out some of the indigenous population, but by no means everyone: there are today some 6 million Palestinians living under Israeli control.
For most of those who have remained, policies of enforced poverty, enforced immobility and daily harassment have made life miserable. It has also encouraged continuous violent resistance among Palestinians and a corresponding growing frustration among Israeli Jews. This frustration soon began to encourage Zionists, both secular and religious, to replace the traditional notion of transfer with newer visions of slaughter.
Unfortunately, Jews in active opposition to Zionism, be they rabbis or laity, while growing in number, are still insufficiently organised to challenge Zionist political influence in official circles.
The participation of the rabbis, who play the role of “spiritual guides” for millions of Orthodox Jews, in preaching a call to murder creates an existential dilemma for the adherents of the Jewish religion – existential because it speaks to the religion’s evolving nature. In terms of its present adherents, it places them in the same situation experienced by many Catholics and Protestants during the eras of the Crusades and Reformation wars. It was in those eras that official religious institutions and leaders espoused and religiously rationalised wholesale slaughter. Today we have created standards, supported by international law, that render such repulsive behaviour illegal. But the Zionist leadership seems not to care about such standards and laws.
There are certainly those among today’s Jewry who understand the watershed nature of this turn of events. In August 2014 the American rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun Magazine, called on his fellow Jews to “mourn for the Judaism of love and generosity that is being murdered by Israel and its worshipers around the world, the same kind of idol-worshipers who, pretending to be Jewish [are] actually assimilated into the world of power”. The organisation of Rabbis For Human Rights attempts to ally with Palestinians so as to keep alive the notion that there are still Jewish religious leaders who understand the potentially humane essence of their religion. Organisations such as Jewish Voice for Peace give an alternative for Jewish laity who want to work against Zionist policies. In the meantime, increasing numbers of Western Jews have silently broken with Israel and the Zionist movement. They have retreated to a passive apolitical position, rendering Israel no aid. Unfortunately, Jews in active opposition to Zionism, be they rabbis or laity, while growing in number, are still insufficiently organised to challenge Zionist political influence in official circles.
The existential problem that now confronts Judaism is the logical consequence of the World-War-II-era alliance made by the religion’s leadership and the secular ideology of Zionism. There are clear historical reasons why this alliance was made: a millennium of anti-Semitic persecution in the West culminating in the Nazi holocaust; the existence of the national state as the premier model for collective self-protection; the colonial tradition that rationalised European control of non-European lands; and finally an age-old religious devotion to biblical tales of wandering and conquering Israelite tribes.
This offers the context within which the modern Jewish religion got captured by the Zionist movement, but whatever you think of these reasons, none of them, nor all of them together, mitigate the predictable disastrous consequences, laced with racism, chauvinism, intolerance, and violence, that was bound to follow Judaism’s collaboration with Zionism. As Rabbi Lerner says, the end product of all of this sends him into mourning.
In the eyes of increasing numbers, the country of Israel is a pariah state, and the behaviour of its rabbinical officialdom may have already thrown its religious establishment into similar disgrace. Those Jewish organisations that stand against the Israeli debacle are like candles burning in an otherwise political-religious darkness.Their struggle will go on. Indeed, it may never cease until Israel’s racist behaviour ceases. But right now, it has become evident that it is not only the existence of the Palestinians that Zionism threatens. It also has put in danger whatever humane instincts are left within organised Judaism.