How a Zionist can oppose the Jewish state: A response to Shmuel Rosner

A recent ‘New York Times’ profile of religious Jews who are highly critical of Israel and sympathetic to the boycott movement sent some in the Jewish blogosphere into a frenzy. In a fascinating response to Israeli journalist and blogger Shmuel Rosner, Jeremiah Haber explains how one can be a Zionist while opposing a Jewish state.

By Jeremiah Haber

It is understandable that two bloggers, Shmuel Rosner and Liel Leibovitz, couldn’t understand my views since they never took the time to read them. Rosner based his criticism on a few words that he admits he has no desire to try to understand; Leibovitz based himself on a few quotes in a newspaper interview. Not knowing what I think, both attributed to me views that I explicitly reject. Perhaps it is easier for them to fit me in their pre-conceived box.

Since I have linked to their posts, and since I doubt their hosts will allow me space to reply, all I ask it that they link to my posts, and we can respectfully agree to disagree.

Gentlemen, I suggest that you begin with the title of the blog, the Magnes Zionist. I don’t think that it’s too controversial to say that Zionism is a type of Jewish nationalism (though not the only type), so that since I consider myself a Zionist, it is hard to argue that I have a “knee-jerk rejection of nationalism” (Leibovitz) or that I “oppose Zionism” and that I “think nation-states are immoral” (Rosner). Had either read my post “Zionism Without a Jewish State,” which is listed on my home page, they would have read the following:

I start from the position of a liberal nationalist, one that sees the value for the flourishing of its citizens in a nation state. (On “liberal nationalism” you can read the good overview in the article on Nationalism in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.) Because I am a liberal nationalist, I cannot be a statist Zionist, because by identifying the Jewish state as a state of the Jewish nation, I am automatically cutting off non-Jews from full membership in that state.

Rosner and Leibovitz assume that I am post-nationalist, anti-Zionist, think that nation-states are immoral, etc., because they assume that Israel is a liberal nation-state, and hence that critics of Israel are anti-nationalists. In fact, I am very much in favor of liberal nation-states – the U.S. and some European states come to mind – which is why I oppose illiberal nation states, among which I include Israel. This is not an unusual position; anybody familiar with the liberal criticism of Israel will know of what I speak: read Joseph Agassi, Moshe Berent, Bernard Avishai, Chaim Gans, and a bunch of other Israeli thinkers. Read Avishai Margalit’s book on a decent society and you will understand why I don’t consider Israel a decent society – although it is certainly not the most indecent society around, and there are certainly good things about it. America with racial segregation was not a decent society, but there were many good and decent things about it.

Where Rosner and Leibovitz and I disagree is not over the justification or morality of states, but over justification or morality of this state. By Rosner’s reasoning, anybody who questions whether Basques or Kurds, Afrikaners or Palestinians, Scots or French Canadians, have a right to a state must be some post-nationalist who think that states are bad. To the question of whether certain peoples should have states, I answered, “That depends.” For example, I don’t think a people who bars membership in the nation on the basis of religion should have a state on that basis. They can have a state on another basis, but the first basis is inherently illiberal, as Isaiah Berlin intimated to David Ben-Gurion when he was asked about the “Who is a Jew” question.

As for Leibovitz’s claim that “religious Judaism is tied to nationalism” I can grant him that point, although I wouldn’t use the term nationalism, which is a modern term. Religious Judaism is tied to the notion of a people covenanted to God; it is not purely a religion, although, for me, and historically, religion has been at the forefront. It has been variously interpreted, and although as an othodox Jew, I cannot fully embrace Hermann Cohen’s rejection of mitzvot, I am not the Judaism kashrut supervisor to say that Cohen, who understood the nature of Judaism different from Michael Walzer (and with due respect, Leibovitz misreads Walzer, with whom I am largely in agreement) doesn’t get Judaism. I understand the radical Zionists who said that Jews have no meaningful existence as Jews outside Israel; they were wrong then and they are wrong now.

And that brings me to Shmuel Rosner, whose skin I apparently got under precisely because, try as he might, he couldn’t dismiss me as some left-wing secular post-nationalist ivory tower professor. What is significant, he says, is not my views or me, but the fact that I benefit from the “special privilege” of having my Jewish grandchildren “growing up safely in a Jewish state – a privilege that most Jews, in most eras, would consider miraculously great.” Well, that’s his opinion, and he’s entitled to his historical claim, for which he brings no support.

But I don’t know what he means by “growing up safely in a Jewish state.” He can’t mean “physical safety” because since 1948 Israel has hardly been a safe place for Jews – certainly not as safe as the U.S. I guess he must mean growing up safely as Jews, i.e., that Jews won’t intermarry non-Jews because of the precautions Israel has taken against it. I can’t argue with him there; the odds of intermarriage for Israelis who stay in Israel are much lower than Jews in the diaspora. I suppose that’s one way to solve the intermarriage problem: create a state where intermarriage is illegal and ship your kids there. Play the odds.

But there are other bad things besides intermarriage. Like living on land that does not belong to you, growing up with racist and xenophobic attitudes, preventing other people from living free lives, consenting to distribute resources inequitably, etc., etc. I don’t mean to say, God forbid, that living in Israel makes these sins inevitable, or that one cannot try to be decent. But when I was a parent raising children in Israel, especially in the religious school system, I worried that my children would be like the children of some of my liberal American Jewish friends who made aliyah, and who sent their kids to learn in institutions run by bigoted rabbis of the Kahanist variety. True, Rabbi Kahana was an American, but he ended up in Israel, where he felt most at home. Thank God, they survived their education, and took the fruit while discarding the husk.

And when I read the periodic surveys of the attitudes of Jewish high school students in Israel, and when I read the policies of the Education Ministry, I pray to the ribono shel olam that my grandchildren will not fall prey to that indoctrination. I take that risk not because my grandchildren are safe in Israel – but because they are safe growing up with parents who know how to give them liberal, humanist, Jewish values, and to filter out the immoral and indecent views. And I know that with those values they will struggle in their own way against the intolerant and often fascist ideology that has hijacked much – though, thank God, not all – religious Zionism. If I don’t worry about my grandchildren, it’s because I am deeply proud of my children and the liberal, religious, humanistic, Jewish, and Zionistic education they received.

Jeremiah (Jerry) Haber is the nom de plume of an Orthodox Jewish studies and philosophy professor, who divides his time between Israel and the United States. This post was originally published on his blog, The Magnes Zionist.

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