Why can’t we Jews advocate for our self-interest?
Recently, far-left Israeli journalist Gideon Levy published a provocative opinion-piece in which he claimed that Zionism is inherently unjust. According to Levy, “Zionism gave birth to a terrible national wrong that has never been righted.”1
The Anti-Zionist Argument
Zionism is the national liberation movement of the Jewish people.
Founded at a meeting of Jewish world leaders in Basel, Switzerland in 1897, the Zionist Movement sought to restore a Jewish nation in the ancient homeland of the Jewish people at the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea. Since the 1948 founding of Israel, the world’s only Jewish state, the goal of the Zionist movement has been to strengthen Israel and support its Jewish character.
In 1975 the General Assembly of the United Nations, a world body dominated by Muslim countries and their allies, passed the now infamous “Zionism Is Racism” resolution. That resolution was rescinded by the United Nations in 1991. But the question lingers.
Is Zionism a form of racism? Is it inherently unjust?
In his anti-Zionism hit piece, Levy revives the “Zionism is Racism” argument. According to Levy, “Zionism contradicts human rights, and thus is indeed an ultranationalist, colonialist and perhaps even racist movement….” As proof, Levy cites the Zionists’ zeal to “Judaize” large tracts of Israel such as the Negev desert, and to preserve Israel’s Jewish character and majority.
Other evidence of the injustice of Zionism includes efforts to deport Africans who have come to Israel illegally. Then, of course, there is the “occupation.” The “settlements,” that is the building of Jewish communities in the heartland of historic Israel, are a colonial enterprise carried out by “ultra-nationalists.” Levy believes the country has been gripped by a “cult of security” and that the Israel Defense Forces are there primarily to enforce the occupation, that is, the unjust seizure of Arab land. Ultimately, according to Levy, the establishment of the Jewish state contradicts the Arabs’ right to their land.
Levy’s accusations are absurd.
The Justice of Zionism
Fundamental to understanding the right of the Jewish people to restore its homeland, is the recognition that Judaism is more than a religion. It is also a nationality. This is because the Jewish nations of Judah and Israel existed for a thousand years. What Levy calls an “occupation” is in reality a dispute between Jews and Arabs about national claims to land on which Jews have lived for 3,500 years and Arabs for 1,400 years. Although the Jewish people faced expulsions—notably the Babylonian exile in the sixth century before the Christian era, and the Roman rout in the second century of the Christian era—there was never a time when Jewish people did not live in this area. It is odd that Levy accuses the Jews of being colonizers, while turning a blind eye to the Arab colonialization of North Africa, the Middle East and much of Europe. After all, when the first Arab colonizers arrived from the Arabian Peninsula to what is today Israel, the Jews had already been residents there for two thousand years.
Today the Jews of Israel speak the same language their forefathers spoke, hold the same beliefs and observe the same religion and most of the same cultural practices, such as male circumcision and the dietary laws. We Jews are one of the world’s most ancient peoples living today in the land of our forefathers.
It is not racist to honor the national rights of the Jewish people. A number of nations grant citizenship to people who can show that one parent or even one grandparent was a citizen of that nation. Some nations grant citizenship based on ancestry that goes back even further, as far as three or four generations.2,3 Spain grants citizenship to Jews who can show that their Spanish ancestors were expelled from the country at the end of the fifteenth century.4
As evidence of the injustice of Zionism, Levy cites Israel’s policies toward Africans who have entered and remain in Israel illegally. But the problem of illegal immigration is hardly unique to Israel.
All nations exert efforts to control illegal immigration and all have deported some or all illegal immigrants. Israel has developed humane policies to relocate some illegal immigrants to other countries. The Israeli courts, as well as a number of advocacy organizations, have protected the human rights of illegal immigrants and provided them with support.
It is no accident that these immigrants, who come mostly from Eritrea and Sudan, have chosen to come to Israel. Israel does not share a border with these countries, and yet the refugees have come to Israel while they have avoided their fellow-Arab countries that do share a border with their home countries. In these bordering countries they often face kidnapping, extortion, and death at the hands of tribes and gangs with the complicity of the army. Immigrants risk their lives to cross the desert to get to Israel because they know that once they arrive in Israel they will be safe.
The Character of a Nation
Is it racist for Zionists to advocate that the Jewish state maintain a Jewish majority and Jewish character?
Many countries maintain and enforce religious and national identities. Twenty three nations currently recognize Islam as their official state religion. Many other countries have officially recognized state religions. These religions include Roman Catholicism, several branches of Protestantism, and Buddhism. Nepal is officially a Hindu state.5
Several Gulf Arab states have large non-Muslim immigrant populations, which were imported as laborers. These millions of people are not eligible for citizenship, nor are any of their descendants, no matter how long they live in these countries. They must conform to traditional Muslim practices or face beatings, arrest, and possible expulsion. (These practices include modest dress for women, no public displays of affection between sexes, strict separation of sexes, no driving privileges for women, and no alcohol consumption). France is well-known for its aggressive policies to retain the “French character” of the country, its language, manner of dress and other customs. For example, headscarves are outlawed in public schools. The government strictly enforces a unique policy of laicite—the secular, French way of life. Japan has always made immigration of non-Japanese difficult. Japanese language, customs and manners are scrupulously preserved.
None of these countries is criticized as racist.
In his opinion piece Levy condemns Zionist plans to “Judaize” the Galilee and the Negev. I am not sure what he means by “Judaize.” Israel, like every nation, has the right to encourage its citizens to settle in less developed areas. Levy’s charge is odd. Many thousands of Arabs and Bedouins live in the Galilee and in the Negev, with full citizenship rights and full access to generous state welfare benefits. (It is true that Israel, as part of its development projects, has resettled some Negev Bedouins into new communities close to their original communities. The Israeli government provides all those who are resettled with generous grants to deeded land, as well as utilities, roads, health care and transportation. Compare that to the rotten deal the Jews received in Arab countries: Their property was stolen and they were expelled or forced to leave their home countries.)
Levy claims that Zionism contradicts Arab human rights. What human rights is he speaking of? All Israeli citizens—Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Arab or other minorities have a full menu of human rights. That cannot be said of any of Israel’s neighbors or of any Arab country. Countries such as Saudi Arabia prohibit even the entry of Israelis. Despite Levy’s protests, Arabs in Israel have more human rights than Arabs in any Arab country. Israel also has democratic institutions that are sorely lacking in much of the rest of the world: free speech and assembly, a free press, a representative parliament, free elections, and an independent judiciary that has been very active in protecting the rights of all Israelis, especially Arab Israelis.
Is there discrimination in Israel? Of course. Israel, like every other country, is far from perfect. And discrimination in housing and employment works both ways. At times Jews discriminate against Arabs and at times Arabs discriminate against Jews.
Levy decries the very notion of Jews advocating for a Jewish state. That is, Levy—-like many on the left—-condemns self-advocacy when it comes to Jews, and only Jews. To Levy, when Jews advocate for their state they do so on the backs of Arabs, whose rights are inevitably violated.
But why can’t we Jews advocate for our self- interest? The rule among leftist commentators is that self-advocacy is admirable—-as long as the self-advocates have dark skin or can be seen as powerless. Self-advocacy among Jews, people with light skin, and Europeans, is morally suspect. Isn’t it time we called out this double-standard?
We Jews, like every other national group, also deserve human rights. The most basic of those rights is the right to live.
No other nation has to fight as hard as little Israel against an array of aggressors who try at every opportunity to kill Jews, all the while bragging about it. Levy must know about Israel’s formidable security challenges. Despite this, he chooses to malign Israel by claiming that Israelis are seized by a “cult of security.” Were the Jews obsessed by a “cult of security” when the nation was founded in 1948 and Israel fought a deadly war for survival against Arab aggressors—-a war that resulted in the death of one per cent of Israel’s population? In the face of Hezbollah’s 150,000 missiles in Southern Lebanon aimed at Israeli population centers, and Hamas’ constant infiltrations and rocket attacks in the south—-can anyone claim that Israeli concerns about security constitute cult-behavior? I would like Levy to explain that point of view to the thousands of Israelis who have lost loved ones to Israel’s defensive wars and to Arab terrorism.
National Goals versus Human Rights
Levy argues that there is a tension between Zionism and human rights. Yes, Zionist policies to promote the Jewish character of Israel are at odds with the goals of some sectors of the Arab population. So Levy is not entirely wrong here.
What he misses is that this tension exists in EVERY state with minority populations. For example, national policies to maintain the French character of France, or the Muslim character of Saudi Arabia, are at times at odds with the rights of citizens of those countries who come from other groups.
In western countries both government and civil society institutions enforce values which people from non-western countries find morally wrong or offensive, for example: granting equal rights to women, allowing people to dress the way they want to, protecting people who speak out against particular religions or against any religion, protecting the rights of gay and lesbian people, prohibiting minority religions from discriminating in favor of their co-religionists, allowing people to criticize others’ beliefs, allowing people to work on Sunday or Saturday, and so on. Do these policies violate the human rights of conservative Muslims who live in the west?
The tension between national goals and human rights is inherent in the very character of the nation-state. Levy identifies this tension accurately but he makes a mockery of the truth by pretending that it exists as a problem in only one state: Israel. Unless Levy wants to erase hundreds of years of the history of the nation-state, and return to tribal enclaves, we have to live with this reality. Democratic states address this tension between the rights of the state versus the rights of minority groups, by guaranteeing basic rights to all citizens. Despite problems and setbacks, we often fail to recognize that western democracies—-including Israel—generally do a good job of preserving basic human rights. The same cannot be said for the rest of the world.
According to Levy, the Jewish people, and only the Jewish people, are morally derelict in establishing our own state, because that state inevitably violates the human rights of others. Absurd. I suggest that Mr. Levy read a few world history books.
If anything, Israel proves that, even in the face of overwhelming threats of annihilation from its neighbors, Israel can maintain a reasonable level of human rights for all its citizens. And things will get even better when the threats diminish.
A Single State?
In this op-ed, Levy takes the facile path of many political pundits who shovel out plenty of criticism, but never trouble themselves with solutions. But in other writings Levy has revealed his “solution” to resolve the “injustice” of Zionism: a single state for Jews and Arabs. This “solution” would result in war and destruction. It would rob us Jews of our birthright and our only guarantee that we will not be slaughtered, as we have been in the past.
We Jews are a righteous, proud and ancient people. We have survived countless catastrophes. We have been around for millennia while other groups have come and gone across the pages of history. We didn’t get here by being lemmings, willingly herded by pundits like Levy, in the name of decency, to march en masse off the cliff’s edge and into the roiling sea.6
We are also a tenacious people. And we shouldn’t allow anyone to talk us out of being that way.
- Levy, G. Opinion: Israel’s Minister of Truth. Ha’aretz. September 1, 2017. Retrieved September 2, 2017 from: http://www.haaretz.com/opinion/1.809867
- Twelve Countries with Birthright Citizenship. This Is WU (Western Union). June 24, 2016. Retrieved September 3, 2017 from:
- Henderson, A. The Best Citizenship by Descent Passports from Your Ancestors. Nomad Capitalist. January 30, 2017. Retrieved September 3, 2017 from:
- Chu, H. Welcome Home, 500 Years Later: Spain Offers Citizenship to Sephardic Jews. Los Angeles Times, October 1, 2015. Retrieved September 3, 2017 from:
- State Religion. Wikipedia. Retrieved September 3, 2017 from:
- Lemmings are small rodents that inhabit the artic regions. They share one characteristic with Jews: They are both victims of public misconceptions. Contrary to popular belief, lemmings do not commit mass suicide by marching over cliffs into the sea. Despite this, authors often use the lemming suicide myth to dramatize a point. That is what I have done here.