The Jewish People, Zionism, and the Question of Justice
Date: Friday, March 23 2007
The Jewish People, Zionism, and the Question of Justice
Mark Braverman, Ph.D.
When I was a boy in the 1950s attending Hebrew School in Philadelphia, we would receive little cardboard folders with slots for dimes distributed by the Jewish National Fund. On the cover was a picture of a tree being planted by handsome, tanned people in shorts. When the card was full, you sent it in and in return received a certificate with your name on and a bigger picture of a tree, which was the tree you had planted in Israel. It was fun and it was a thrill – I was reclaiming the homeland. I saw pictures of kibbutzim and orange groves filling the valleys and dreamt of going there someday.
Four decades later, now a middle-aged man, I saw pictures of Israeli bulldozers uprooting three hundred year-old olive trees and Jewish soldiers restraining Arab villagers crying hysterically over the destruction of their groves. I traveled to the West Bank – Israeli occupied Palestine – and saw the hillsides denuded of trees to build concrete Jewish settlement cities. I saw Arab houses leveled and gardens taken to make way for a 30 foot-high concrete wall cutting through Palestinian cities and village fields. I saw that this was wrong. I didn’t buy the story that this was for defense. I could see that it was a lie.
When I returned to the United States and began to talk about my horror, sadness and deep concern over what I had seen, I was told by many of my fellow Jews that I must not talk like this. I was informed that this makes me an enemy of the Jewish people and that I was opening the way for the next Holocaust. I was told by many Jews that I was disloyal to my people, that I had “gone over” to the “Palestinian side.” One Jewish rabbinical student informed his colleagues that I was obviously a convert to Christianity “masquerading” as a Jew in order to cause the destruction of the Jewish people. I have spoken about my experiences before many groups, almost all of them in churches. I have yet to speak in a synagogue. I am trying hard to make sense out of this and to figure out a way forward. Here is what I have figured out so far.
Jewish History: Survival and its Shadow
Zionism was the answer to the anti-Semitism of Christian Europe. The failure, despite the Enlightenment, to establish Jews as an emancipated, accepted group in Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries, and the rise of political anti-Semitism in the late 19th and first half of the 20th century gave birth to political Zionism under the leadership of Theodore Herzl. Zionism expressed the powerful drive of the Jewish people to establish ourselves as a nation among other nations, with a land of our own and the ability to achieve self-determination. This is why, in sermons from synagogue pulpits, in lectures on Jewish history, in classroom lessons for small children, and in spirited discussions about the Israel-Palestine question, you will so often here the preamble “throughout the centuries…,” followed by a description of the suffering of the Jews at the hands of our oppressors. Indeed, it’s in our liturgy, notably in the Passover Seder. The story of Jewish survival despite constant persecution is in many ways our theme song -- it’s in our cultural DNA, it’s the mantra of our peoplehood. It runs deep.
This unique Jewish quality is not the product of some cultural aberration or collective character flaw. Developing this particular brand of “character armor” has been part of our survival throughout long ages of persecution, marginalization, and demonization. We survived, in part, by creating rituals, habits and attitudes of insularity, pride and persistence that allowed us never to forget, never to let down our guard, and to always be proud of our stubborn vitality in the face of “those who sought to destroy us.” When, in our modern liturgical idiom, we talk of the State of Israel as “the First Flowering of our Redemption,” we are reflecting the reality of our survival, the meaning of the achievement of political self-determination in the context of Jewish history. It is good to have survived.
But we must also see clearly the shadow that this history casts on us today. We have striven to be the masters of our fate – but, having achieved this, we must also realize that we are responsible for our actions and for the consequences of these actions. Being free, we have free choice. The tragedy of Jewish Diaspora history, in our own cultural narrative as well as in reality, is rooted in our history of powerlessness and passivity. Zionism came to correct this, and it has undeniably succeeded, indeed far beyond the expectations of Jews and non-Jews alike. But if we now become slaves to the consequences of empowerment, then we are not free, and we are not truly powerful. The Nazi Holocaust in particular casts its shadow over our modern history and the history of the State of Israel. The Nazi’s campaign to eradicate world Jewry has become part of our uniquely Jewish “Liturgy of Destruction,” the way we Jews throughout the ages have made sense of our suffering by turning to the broader context of Jewish history. From this matrix of vulnerability, victimization and meaning-making comes the Zionist cry, “Never again!” But the modern State in its policies, carried out purportedly to preserve our people, and using the Holocaust as justification for unjust actions, is betraying the meaning of Jewish history. You cannot achieve your own deliverance, even from the most unspeakable evil, by the oppression of another people. Indeed, in this current era of power and self-determination for Jews in Israel, we face risks to our peoplehood that far exceed the physical perils brought by millennia of persecution.
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