A Muslim friend recently asked “how can we discuss Zionism away from Judaism?” I offered to meet with her and explain it. As the offer has not thus far been taken up, my response to the question has now been put into writing.
There is a great deal of innocent misunderstanding about what Judaism and Zionism are, and the connection between them. There is also much deliberate obfuscation and misrepresentation in the service of a range of political agendas.
The standard mantra of anti-Israel activists is that Judaism and Zionism are entirely separate from one another. This is a convenient, but entirely false and artificial, rhetorical device for overcoming the widespread perception that many anti-Zionists are antisemites in disguise. By attempting to separate Zionism from Judaism, anti-Zionists try to delude others (if not themselves) into thinking that one can plausibly claim not to hate the Jewish people or the Jewish religion, but “only” to hate the only Jewish-majority State in the world.
To understand Judaism and Zionism, the terms need to be explained.
Zionism is the national self-determination movement of the Jewish people with the aim of re-establishing a state in the Jewish national homeland, known by Jews as Eretz Yisrael (Land of Israel). It is not predicated on any particular set of borders or on the displacement of non-Jewish communities.
With the Jewish state re-established in 1948, Zionism supports the continuing existence of the State of Israel. The word ‘Zion’, from Mount Zion in the heart of Jerusalem, derives from the Hebrew Bible and is a symbolic reference to Jerusalem as a whole, the capital of previous Jewish states in the land. Although Zionism is seen as a modern idea, it is actually ancient; the modern Zionist movement is simply the modern practical manifestation of the Jewish people’s millennia-old organised political presence in the land.
Judaism is most often defined or understood simply as the religion of the Jewish people. However, Judaism is much more than a religion. It is a civilisation that encompasses the full spectrum of the life of the Jewish people, its identity as a nation and a people, its legal system, religion, culture, customs, language, literature, history, values, ideals and vision for a future of justice and peace for the whole of humanity.
This dual identity as both a national and faith community can be traced to the very beginnings of the Jewish people. In the Bible, the Jews are consistently referred to as a nation (‘goy’) and as a people (‘am’). The contemporary mind, which draws sharp distinctions between religion, culture and nationality, can find it difficult to grasp the nature of Jewish identity. Yet for most of human history, these facets of human self-definition were understood as being blended into an integrated whole. It is only in the last 300 years or so, and only in western thinking, that they have become conceptually compartmentalised. Most Jewish people continue to see themselves as a part of both a national and a faith community, as they always have. (The Sikhs, for example, are also defined in this way). Jews who are atheists but identify as Jews culturally are considered, by themselves and by most in the Jewish community, to be Jewish even though they do not adhere to any religious beliefs or practices.
Part of the modern Western understanding of Jews as only a religious community and not also a national community originates with the declaration by Count Stanislas de Clermont-Tonnerre to the National Assembly in France in 1789 in the debate on whether Jews should be given civil rights in France after the French revolution, when he stated “To the Jews as individuals, all rights. To the Jews as a nation, no rights.”
And so began the non-Jewish idea of Jews as only a religious community. Contemporary anti-Zionists utilise this idea to deny that the Jews are also a nation. With the kind of ignorance and arrogance that typifies many kinds of racism, they are effectively claiming to have a better understanding of what it means to be Jewish than the Jewish people themselves. This is a transparent attempt by one group of people to define another so as to suit their own interests and convenience, and it should be condemned.
The artificial attempt to narrow what it means to be Jewish and to confine it exclusively to the sphere of religion is part of the polemical arsenal deployed by opponents of Israel’s very existence as the State of the Jewish people. It is used to try to justify their discriminatory – and therefore racist – denial of the right of the Jewish people to national self-determination.
Jews are indigenous to the land of Israel. The Hebrew language, laws, traditions, culture, and mores of the Jewish people are Middle Eastern, not European. Israel is where Jewish traditions originated and developed. Jews have continuously inhabited the land of Israel for more than 3,500 years, especially in the four cities of Jerusalem, Hebron, Safed, and Tiberias. The only part of the world where Jews have had a State is in the land of Israel. Despite the majority of Jews living outside their land for nearly 2000 years, often in neighbouring lands, the Jewish people never gave up the hope and dream of returning home, and many did indeed return over the millennia.
Extraneous to the Bible, there is an abundance of documents and other archaeological artefacts evidencing that a distinct people and polity called “Israel” lived in the Holy Land as far back as the dawn of the Iron Age, more than 3,200 years ago. In contrast, there is a complete absence of Arabic writing or inscriptions to be found anywhere in the Holy Land dating before the Muslim conquests of the 7th century CE, and an absence of any reference to Palestine as a descriptor for a people before the late nineteenth century.
The Arab invasion and occupation of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) in the seventh century did not negate the connection of the indigenous peoples of MENA ie Amazighen (Berbers), Assyrians, Copts, Druze, Jews, Kurds, Yazidis, and others, to their ancestral lands. It is akin to the European invasion and occupation of the Americas, Australia, New Zealand, and elsewhere which did not negate the indigenous connection to their lands.
The deep and continuing connection of Jews to the Land of Israel is seen in both national and religious aspects. In Jewish religious and cultural tradition, in the Biblical and rabbinic texts, the Land of Israel is paramount to the Jewish people. Even though many Jewish laws are incumbent upon Jews where ever they live, eg observing the Sabbath, keeping kosher, performing circumcision, some laws can only be observed in the Land of Israel eg shmitah (leaving the land fallow every seventh year). In addition, all the holy sites of the Jewish people eg Jerusalem, Hebron, Safed, and elsewhere, are in the Land of Israel. Wherever Jews live, Jews face Jerusalem to pray. Wherever Jews live, they pray for rain in Israel during the rainy season. Wherever Jews live, they purchase and eat the agricultural produce of Israel, eg the seven species (two grains and five fruits) native to Israel, during festivals. One song sums up this deep and intense connection – “Next Year in Jerusalem” which is sung at every festival of Pesach (Passover) expressing the desire that one day, diaspora Jews will return home.
As Jews are both a nation and a religious community, with continuous habitation of their national homeland, who even in exile maintained a deep spiritual connection to the land, it was only natural that Zionism, the Jewish national self-determination movement, would develop contemporaneously with the nationalisms of other peoples. The question then arose: How would this self-determination be manifested? Would the Jews continue to live in their homeland under Islamic/Arab rule as they did under the Ottomans? Or as an autonomous entity within a larger state? Or would the Jews seek sovereign statehood? Freedom, dignity and the lessons of history ensured that the Jews would settle for nothing less than the latter option. It was and remains a matter of honour, self-respect and justice.
Given the discrimination against, and persecution of, Jews over the 1400 year history of Islam, it is not surprising that Jews were averse to continuing to live under Muslim rule. Under Islam, Jews (and Christians) were never treated as the equals of Muslims. Although Jews in Muslim lands generally fared better than Jews in Europe, they nevertheless frequently suffered forced conversions, removal of children (even into the 20th century), and periodic massacres. There were indeed periods of relative tolerance towards Jews, and sometimes an easing of restrictive and discriminatory laws, but these periods were intermittent and could not be relied on to last for very long. There could be no authentic Jewish self-determination under Muslim rule. Several examples suffice to show this.
The holiest site in Judaism is the Temple Mount; on it, Muslims built the Dome of the Rock, and to this day, Jews are forbidden to pray there. Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president, who is widely considered a “moderate”, declared in September 2015 in reference to Jewish holy sites in Jerusalem, including the Temple Mount, that Jews “have no right to defile them with their filthy feet.”
The second holiest site in Judaism is the Cave of Machpela in Hebron, where most of the Jewish people’s patriarchs and matriarchs are buried. On the site of the Cave, King Herod of Judea constructed a monumental building. From the beginnings of the Mamluk empire in the thirteenth century and onwards, Islamic rulers prohibited Jews from entering the building. In addition, under Islamic rule, Jews were permitted only as far as the seventh step outside the building. This prohibition lasted for nearly 700 years, until 1967, when Israel gained control of Hebron, tore down the humiliating steps, and allowed Jews to enter and pray at their second holiest site.
For many centuries, the Jewish community was subjected to threats and extortion by Muslims. If the Jews did not pay an annual amount of “protection” money for the Tomb of Rachel, near Bethlehem, Muslim leaders threatened to destroy the Jewish site. Even today, another Jewish site, the Tomb of Joseph, near Nablus, is subjected to regular arson attacks by local Muslims.
It is only with the re-establishment of a sovereign Jewish State that Jews in the land are once again able to determine their collective future, to live freely as Jews in their own national home, under their own government, to speak the mother tongue of Hebrew as the vernacular, to use the ancient Jewish calendar as an officially recognised calendar, to celebrate Jewish national and religious festivals as official holidays, and, above all, to defend themselves against physical attack. Only through self-determination, have Jews been free of the oppression, humiliation and persecution they were subjected to in the Christian and Muslim worlds over the centuries.
Zionism is at core about Jewish national self-determination in the Jewish historic homeland. Zionism itself cannot be discussed as something that is separate from and different to Judaism, the civilisation of the Jewish people. Zionism is an intrinsic component of Judaism.
Criticism of the policies, rhetoric and actions of the Israeli government, or of any government, is part and parcel of the right of free speech, as is the right to respond to those criticisms. However, those who criticise Israel incessantly and disproportionately, often with exaggerations and distortions of facts, open themselves to the legitimate criticism that they are biased and prejudiced. Those who go further and seek to obliterate Israel and Zionism, one way or another, open themselves to the additional charge that they have descended into racism by seeking to deny the Jewish people a right that they would never dare to deny to another people – the right to determine their collective future as a national community in their own homeland.
Julie Nathan is the Research Officer for the Executive Council of Australian Jewry