Analysis from Israel

Zionism seems like a binary proposition: You’re either for or against the existence of a Jewish state. But a third option has become increasingly popular, one I would call conditional Zionism. It holds that a Jewish state has a right to exist, but only if it meets certain conditions.

This position is spreading rapidly among liberal American Jews. In an essay in Haaretz in August, for instance, Abe Silberstein argued that Israel must be coerced into creating a Palestinian state because otherwise, the only alternatives are perpetuating the status quo or a one-state solution—and any moral Jew would have to deem the latter “infinitely preferable,” even though it would probably end Jewish statehood. In other words, the Jewish state’s right to exist depends on satisfying Palestinian (and American Jewish) demands.

This position is also common among non-Jews. For instance, in a September essay for Mosaic on whether a Catholic equivalent to Protestant Zionism was possible, Gavin D’Costa concluded, “If the Israel-Palestinian dispute were to be resolved tomorrow, with the full agreement of both parties and with international support, I believe official Catholic Zionism would emerge quite quickly.” In other words, the Church might someday accept a Jewish state, but only if Israel satisfies Palestinian (and Western) demands.

Ostensibly, such positions could be dismissed as simple anti-Semitism based on Natan Sharansky’s famous 3D test (demonization, delegitimization and double standards). The relevant criterion here is double standards since no other country’s existence is deemed conditional on its behavior, even when said behavior is far worse than Israel’s. For instance, China has occupied Tibet for almost 70 years and currently holds a million Uighurs in detention camps, and many people want these policies stopped. But nobody says a Chinese state has no right to exist without such changes.

Nevertheless, dismissing conditional Zionism as anti-Semitic poses one obvious problem: Any rationale for a Jewish state, whether religious or secular, rests on the Jews’ claim to be a distinct people with a distinct religion, language and culture. And that very heritage deems the Jewish people’s right to remain in its land conditional on its moral behavior. This isn’t a minor detail; it’s a core element of Jewish theology.

It’s stated repeatedly in the Bible. It’s included in the Shema prayer, Judaism’s closest approximation to a credo, which observant Jews recite twice daily. It’s the reason given by the rabbis of the Talmud for both the first and second exiles (they attributed the first to murder, idolatry and forbidden sexual relations, and the second to baseless hatred). Indeed, it’s precisely because this is so fundamental that it still seems self-evident even to secular Jews who have abandoned almost every other vestige of Judaism, or a Catholic Church that has downgraded the Hebrew Bible in favor of the New Testament (the main reason Christian Zionism is a Protestant phenomenon is because Protestants give greater weight to the Hebrew Bible than Catholics do).

So does that mean conditional Zionists are right, and Israel’s right to exist depends on satisfying Palestinian demands? Not at all, because there’s a crucial distinction between modern conditional Zionism and the biblical version: Neither the Bible nor the talmudic Judaism it engendered ever insisted that Jewish morality requires the Jewish polity to commit suicide.

Indeed, another fundamental principle of Judaism is that following God’s laws leads to life, not death (see Deuteronomy 30:19 or Leviticus 18:5). Consequently, the Talmud allows almost any religious commandment (except murder, idolatry and forbidden sexual relations) to be violated to save a life. It also declares that if someone comes to kill you, “rise up and kill him first.”

For the same reason, national self-defense is considered one of the principal responsibilities of a Jewish leader, and possibly even a religious obligation. The Bible itself merely states that some wars are obligatory without defining which wars fall into this category. But one interpretation, adopted inter alia by the great medieval Jewish scholar Maimonides, says it includes wars of self-defense.

Obviously, this doesn’t mean anything goes. Even in wartime, the Bible sets limits on an army’s behavior—the original laws of war. But Jewish tradition utterly rejects the idea that morality requires national suicide. On the contrary, it views defending the Jewish commonwealth as a positive moral good.

So what does all this have to do with the Palestinians? It’s very simple: Even if you accept the (false) premise that ceding the West Bank would actually satisfy Palestinian demands, the fact remains that Israel isn’t there solely or even primarily because of the settlers, who have repeatedly proven incapable of preventing territorial concessions (see the Oslo Accords, the disengagement from Gaza, the far-reaching offers made by prime ministers Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert). It’s there because, based on bitter experience, most Israelis see no way to leave without committing national suicide.

Withdrawing from parts of the West Bank under the Oslo Accords led to the lethal terror of the Second Intifada, which ended only when the Israeli army retook control of these areas. Withdrawing from Gaza resulted in 14 years (and counting) of almost nonstop rocket and mortar fire on southern Israel; a similar outcome would be far deadlier in the West Bank, which, unlike Gaza, is in easy range of Israel’s main population centers, economic hubs and international airport. Withdrawing from southern Lebanon in 2000 enabled Hezbollah, a terrorist organization, to acquire a missile arsenal greater than that of many national armies, aimed straight at Israel.

All this has convinced most Israelis that barring a radical and unforeseen change in Palestinian behavior, ceding the West Bank would be militarily suicidal. And since a one-state solution still looks demographically suicidal, that leaves some version of the status quo as the least bad option—not only for Israel, but even for the Palestinians, as I’ll explain in a subsequent column.

So is conditional Zionism anti-Semitic? That depends on the conditions. But nowadays, the key condition usually involves suicidal Israeli concessions to the Palestinians. Thus today’s conditional Zionists require one nation, of all the nations in the world, to destroy itself for another’s sake. And yes, that’s anti-Semitic.

This article was originally syndicated by JNS.org (www.jns.org) on October 30, 2019 © 2019 JNS.org

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In Europe, Israel needs a bottom-up approach to diplomacy

For years, I considered Europe a lost cause from Israel’s perspective and decried the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s Euro-centric focus, arguing that it should instead devote more effort to places like Africa, Asia and South America, which seemed to offer better prospects for flipping countries into the pro-Israel camp. But the past few years have proven that Europe isn’t hopeless—if Israel changes its traditional modus operandi.

This has been evident, first of all, in the alliances that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has formed with several countries in eastern and southern Europe, resulting in these countries repeatedly blocking anti-Israel decisions at the European Union level. Previously, Israeli diplomacy had focused overwhelmingly on Western Europe. Netanyahu’s key insight was that conservative, nationalist governments seeking to preserve their own nation-states would have more instinctive sympathy for a Jewish state than the liberal universalists who dominate in Western Europe, and whose goal is to replace nation-states with an ever-closer European union.

But as several recent events show, even Western Europe isn’t a lost cause. The difference is that there, conventional high-level diplomacy won’t work. Rather, the key to change is the fact that most Europeans, like most people everywhere, don’t really care that much about Israel, the Palestinians or their unending conflict. Consequently, small groups of committed activists can exert a disproportionate influence on policy.

For years, this has worked against Israel because the anti-Israel crowd woke up to this fact very early and took full advantage of it. Take, for instance, the 2015 decision to boycott Israel adopted by Britain’s national student union. The union represents some 7 million students, but its executive council passed the decision by a vote of 19-12. Or consider the academic boycott of Israel approved in 2006 by Britain’s National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education (which no longer exists, having merged into a larger union). The association had some 67,000 members at the time, but only 198 bothered to vote, of whom 109 voted in favor.

Yet it turns out pro-Israel activists can use the same tactics, as in last week’s approval of a resolution saying anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism by the lower house of France’s parliament. The resolution passed 154-72, meaning that fewer than 40 percent of the National Assembly’s 577 deputies bothered to vote, even though 550 deputies were present earlier in the day to vote on the social security budget. In other words, most deputies simply didn’t care about this issue, which meant that passing the resolution required convincing only about a quarter of the house.

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