A Revised Jewish Understanding of the State of Israel
By Rabbi Michael Lerner
Jews did not return to Palestine in order to be oppressors or representatives of Western colonialism or cultural imperialism. Although it is true that some early Zionist leaders sought to portray their movement as a way to serve the interests of various Western states, and although many Jews who came brought with them a Western arrogance that made it possible for them to see Palestine as “a land without a people for a people without a land” and hence to virtually ignore the Palestinian people and its own cultural and historical rights, the vast majority of those who came were seeking refuge from the murderous ravages of Western anti-Semitism or from the oppressive discrimination that they experienced in Arab countries. The Ashkenazi Jews who shaped Israel in its early years were jumping from the burning buildings of Europe–and when they landed on the backs of Palestinians, unintentionally causing a great deal of pain to the people who already lived there, they were so transfixed with their own (much greater and more acute) pain that they couldn’t be bothered to notice that they were displacing and hurting others in the process of creating their own state. Just as Americans have resisted seeing themselves as settler-colonialists building a nation-state that depended on wiping out the Indigenous populations of North America, so it was possible for Jews seeking refuge to ignore the pain and injustice that were part of the process of building a Jewish state in Palestine.
Their insensitivity to the pain that they caused and their subsequent denial of the fact that in creating Israel they had simultaneously helped create a Palestinian people, most of whom were forced to live as refugees (and now, their many descendants still living as exiles and dreaming of “return” just as we Jews did for some 1800 plus years), was aided by the arrogance, stupidity, and anti-Semitism of Palestinian leaders and their Arab allies in neighboring states who dreamt of ridding the area of its Jews and who, much like the Herut “revisionists” who eventually came to run Israel in the past twenty years, consistently resorted to violence and intimidation to pursue their maximalist fantasies.
By the time Palestinians had come to their senses and acknowledged the reality of Israel and the necessity of accommodating to that reality if they were ever to find a way to establish even the most minimal self-determination in the land that had once belonged to their parents and grandparents, it was too late to undermine the powerful misperception of reality held by most Jews and Israelis that their state was likely to be wiped out any moment if they did not exercise the most powerful vigilance. Drenched in the memories of the Holocaust and in the internalized vision of themselves as inevitably powerless, Jews were unable to recognize that they had become the most powerful state in the region and among the top 20% of powerful countries in the world. They used this sense of imminent potential doom to justify the continuation of the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza for over fifty years.
(A fuller account of evolution of the relationship between Israel and Palestine would include the impact of Western and US imperialism as fundamental forces encouraging these Israelis to do some of the dirty work that reflected Western interests, particularly around securing oil that was needed by the West both during the WWII and the decades afterward. That imperialism was another important factor in the way that it supported the most reactionary elements in the Zionist movement.)
Israel took a tragic direction by refusing to allow non-combatant Palestinians to return to their homes after winning its war against the invading Arab states. It compounded that choice in the 1967 war against Egypt and Syria and refusing to allow those conquered in the West Bank and Syria to create for themselves a Palestinian state, thus turning itself into an occupier that would begin to seek independence at a time when much of the world was celebrating liberation struggles throughout much of the formally colonized states in Africa and Asia.
For a significant section of the world, Israel appeared to be a conqueror rather than a force for liberation. The occupation could only be maintained by what became an international scandal:
- Violation of basic human rights of the occupied.
- Systematic destruction of Palestinian homes.
- Occupying Palestinian lands to allow expansion of West Bank settlements that had been created for the sole purpose of ensuring that no future accommodation with Palestinians could ever qualify for a viable Palestinian state in the West Bank (since, as many settlers argued, the land had been given to the Jewish people by God, hence precluding any rights to Palestinians).
- Transformation of Israeli politics from a robust democracy into a system replete with verbal violence that sometimes spilled over into real violence (most notably, the assassination of prime minister Rabin because of his pursuit of peace and reconciliation with the Palestinian people).
The distortions in Israeli society required to enable the occupation to continue have been yet another dimension of the problem:
- The pervasive racism towards Arabs manifested not only in the willingness to blame all Palestinians for the terrorist actions of a small minority but also in the willingness to treat all Israeli citizens of Palestinian descent as second-class citizens (e.g., in giving lesser amounts of financial assistance to East Jerusalem or to Israeli Palestinian towns than to Jewish towns).
- The refusal to allocate adequate funds to rectify the social inequalities between Ashkenazi and Sephardic/Mizrachi Jews.
- The willingness of both Labor and Likud political parties to make electoral deals with ultra-orthodox parties intent on using state power to enforce religious control over Israelis’ personal lives and to grab disproportionate state revenues–in order that they could count on these religious parties to back whatever their engagement or disengagement plans in the West Bank.
One of the victims of these distortions has been Judaism itself. Judaism has always had within it two competing strands:
Love Judaism – a Judaism of love, social economic justice, and compassion that envisioned a world of peace and justice and affirmed the possibility of healing the world and transcending its violence and cruelty.
Settler-Judaism – a tendency to see the world as dominated by evil forces and to believe that only power over others could ultimately provide salvation for the Jewish people.
But today, when Jews are the rulers over an occupied people, or living in Western societies and in many cases living in the upper 20% of income or wealth holders, the supremacist ideas of Settler-Judaism create a religious ideology that can only appeal to those stuck in the sense that we are eternally vulnerable. For a new generation of Jews, bred in circumstances of power and success, a Judaism based on fear and demeaning of others, a Judaism used as a justification for every nuance of Israeli power and occupation, becomes a Judaism that has very little spiritual appeal. Ironically, Right-Wing Israelis demand of American Jews to be handmaidens to this distortion of Judaism. This is already causing a “crisis of continuity” as younger Jews seek spiritual insight outside their inherited tradition (in many cases, they have never been taught about a Judaism of Love).
Love Judaism, which started with the Prophets and has reasserted itself in every significant age of Jewish life, insists that the God of Torah is really the Force of Healing and Transformation and that our task is not to sanctify existing power relations but to challenge them in the name of a vision of a world of peace and justice and caring for the stranger/the-other. Perhaps the greatest danger that Israel poses to the Jewish people is the extent to which it has helped Jews become cynical about their central tasks:
- to proclaim to the world the possibility of possibilities for a world based on love, generosity and caring for each other.
- to affirm the God of the universe as the Force that makes possible the breaking of the repetition compulsion– the tendency to do to others the violence and/or cruelty that was done to them.
If Israel is ever to be healed, it will only be when it is able to reject this slavish subordination to political realism and once again embrace the transformative spiritual message of renewal.
While Israel has had a right-wing government for much of the last 25 years, the government that took power in late 2022 has become a fascist government with little respect for the history and judicial processes of a democratic society. Writing in the first half of 2023, it seems hard to imagine what would create a society that resembled Israel’s society before it began a path of domination and cruelty. It needs a serious and pervasive process of T’shuvah-Repentence. Israel’s current policies have moved hundreds of thousands of Israelis into the streets in protest and other to be considered moving elsewhere. Many passionate Zionists have begun to rethink and even reject the policies of conquest and insensitivity to the Palestinian people. Jews living in the Diaspora are beginning to understand that it is the policies of domination and disrespect of Palestinians that are undermining respect for Israel and providing an excuse (never legitimate) for antisemitism. I want to remind the readers of this article that the sins of Israel pale before the human rights sins of many other more powerful governments around the world, including China, Russia, the United States, Great Britain, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and many other states. For those of us that care about Israel, the fact that they’re not the worst of human rights violators should not be used to forgive what the Israeli government is doing now. We should also recognize that the violence of the Israeli occupation will take decades for Palestinians to truly forgive. Just as it will likely take generations of Israelis to forgive the assault on Israeli citizens through acts of Palestinian terrorism.
We are aware that the present government of Israel and its policies against Palestinians for the past several decades do not embody the ethical and spiritual values of Judaism. For that reason, it is a mistake to think of Israel as a Jewish state when it is only a state that contains millions of Jews. Many of us have relatives or friends living in that state and many of those are as disappointed and angry that Israel claims to be a Jewish state while trampling on Jewish values, not to mention trampling on universal human values. This too can also change, but that transformation may be a long way away. Our task as Jews and our non-Jewish allies is to resolutely challenge the state of Israel just as we had to challenge the many destructive behaviors and wars of the United States. We need to change those religious practices that embody chauvinism, racism, and Jewish supremacy–all of which were developed when Jews were powerless. Yet today, supremacist ideas in Judaism, in prayers, songs, and culture, need to be eradicated from our communities.
We invite Jews and our many non-Jewish allies throughout the world who share this perspective to join us in affirming the Love and Justice-Seeking essence of Judaism that has been a central part of what Judaism continues to offer the world. But that struggle will inevitably require for support for the larger global struggle against capitalism, imperialism, and other forms of domination.
We invite all people who share this perspective to join Tikkun and to celebrate the continuing possibility of a world transformed from the domination and power over others that are the principles of global capitalism, imperialism, and selfishness to a world of love and caring for each other and caring for the planet that is the essence of the world we seek.
— Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun and rabbi of Beyt Tikkun: Synagogue Without Walls