An Ignorant and Dangerous View of Jewish History

Readers who follow the events in the Middle East are used to media mistakes. Reporting from Israel is often undermined by ignorance and bias, which leads to reporting errors like calling Tel Aviv the capital of Israel, or mistaking members of Islamic Jihad for journalists. Recently, The Economist reported about a “fanatical settlement”, Kochav Yair; in actuality, Kochav Yair is in central Israel, and it generally votes for center left parties. So it’s certainly not unusual when an op-ed about Israel slides by an editor with serious mistakes in fact; op-eds are meant to be polemical expressions of opinion, and a looser standard of fact-checking applies.

All of this is to say that I’m not easily shocked by what I read on the opinion pages. But reading a recent op-ed by Sam Bick in the Montreal Gazette over breakfast made me spit out my coffee. He claims that “previous articulations of Jewish collective identities … never expressed as their goal a nation-state in historic Palestine solely for Jewish people.….”  and that “this idea of Jewish people as a “nation” or “race” in need of a territory is a new conceptualization popularized in 19th-century Europe.” Bick doubles down his argument by offering the bizarre claim that Jews in Warsaw and Jews in Bagdad didn’t see themselves as part of one nation until the Zionists came along. And it was these assertions that shocked me; because even by the normally elastic standards of op-ed writing, a claim that can be refuted by Sunday School Bible students shouldn’t find their way onto the opinion pages.

The claim that Judaism is a religion divorced from nationalism doesn’t require any serious expertise to disprove. Even a cursory reading of the Bible, Talmud, and prayerbook makes it clear that national aspirations were always central to Jewish identity, and remained so for 1,900 years of exile.  The very beginning of Abraham’s mission in Genesis 12:1-2 is a call to create a nation-state, and the words of the prophets Isaiah, Amos and Zechariah envision a return to a Jewish nation state in Israel. And the prayerbook, one shared by all Jews, both in Bagdad and in Warsaw, talks incessantly about rebuilding a state and ingathering all the exiles.  Judaism is both a nationality and a religion, and has always dreamt of return of a Jewish nation-state in the land of Israel.

This inspiration to live as one people in Israel was very much alive in the Middle Ages. Some 300 Rabbis moved to Israel from France and England in the early 13th century, under treacherous conditions. The great Spanish rabbi Nachmanides moved to Israel in 1267 at the age of 73. And Judah Halevi, a celebrated philosopher poet and intellectual, leaves a comfortable life in Spain to make the dangerous journey to Israel at age 65. Halevi wrote, “my heart was in the east, even though I am at the edge of the west”, and he decided to move where his heart belonged.

So, my local paper published an op-ed about Judaism that betrays a shocking ignorance of what Judaism actually is about; does that really matter? Actually, it matters a great deal. This op-ed was written by a partisan for the Palestinian cause who wants to delegitimize Israel. He does so by perverting history, and acting as if the historic Jewish interest in a nation-state is in doubt and debated by “historians” (i.e., fringe figures with academic credentials in other fields).  If his view becomes the dominant one among supporters of the Palestinian cause, there will be no possibility for peace. One cannot have a significant dialogue without understanding the other side.

And therein is the true tragedy of this specious op-ed; it signals how readily historical revisionism is seized upon by those who support the Palestinian cause. Yasser Arafat told Bill Clinton the Temple was built in Nablus, not Jerusalem; and this idea has recently been endorsed by the Palestinian Authority’s Ministry of Information. Holocaust denial also runs rampant; when Professor Mohammed S. Dajani Daoudi took a group of Palestinian students to Auschwitz this past March, he was disowned by his university and expelled from his academic union.

Any serious negotiation between Israel and the Palestinians requires an understanding of the other side. And in this op-ed, one sees a dangerous ignorance, a willingness to demonize Zionists as colonial usurpers with a fake claim to the land. This ignorance will only reinforce Palestinian intransigence and increase Israeli insecurity, and extend this bloody conflict for more years to come.

About the Author
Chaim Steinmetz is senior rabbi at Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in New York City. Rabbi Steinmetz has been a congregational Rabbi for over 20 years, and has previously served pulpits in Montreal, Quebec and Mount Vernon, New York.