My mentor Rabbi David Bigman and I have had an ongoing conversation about Zionism and Israel for a number of years. We both found the conventional discourse — whether in support of Israel or critical of it — to be overly simplistic. I suggested to Rabbi Bigman that he allow me to interview him and share what we felt was a more nuanced and complex conversation. We thought it important to present these thoughts to his students and beyond. The following is an edited version of the interview. My thanks go out to David Lester, a faculty member of Yeshivat Maale Gilboa and Talmid of R. Bigman, whose collaboration on editing the final text was invaluable.
Could you share your journey into Zionist ideology?
The Zionist dream appealed to me at a very young age. Zionism provided me with a meaningful alternative to the ailments of the American Jewish community that surrounded me in the sixties. I saw a very complacent nouveau-riche community that was invested in social and economic stature. Synagogue was, to a great extent, a fashion show. While the community paid lip service toward values like civil rights, it was not willing to pay a price for these values. I remember that when African-Americans began to move into our neighborhood in Detroit, some of the Jews decided to move out of the neighborhood. Their decision to move was probably less motivated by racism than by a concern for the value of their homes. Be that as it may, these families chose to flee to the suburbs instead of taking a stand.
In Zionism, I saw a movement that could potentially transform Jewish experience into something more meaningful, more down-to-earth and deeply rooted in the land. At the time, the Zionist movement included and embodied values of social justice and responsibility for society as a whole. In my understanding, this “society” included both Jews and Arabs. To me, Zionism felt like an obvious extension of the Torah and of the Talmud. In my youthful simplicity I thought, we pray three times a day: “Turn our eyes towards Your return to Zion.” After so many centuries, we finally have the opportunity to fulfill the mitzva of making Aliya. Seeing this amazing opportunity led me to feel that choosing to remain in America would be hypocritical.
I also found the ideals of socialism appealing. The thinkers and pioneers of the second Aliya have always been an inspiration for me. Their idealism was an antidote to American materialism. While I am not sure that the socialism of the Second Aliya is realistic in the 21st century, nevertheless, I think there is still much to draw upon. One small example of this from my own life was my appreciation of kibbutz chores. Fulfilling these obligations in the context of serving in my rabbinic position was redeeming.
What has Zionism accomplished and where do you think we should go from here?
A number of 20th century orthodox Jewish thinkers speak about the religious significance of the Jewish state as enriching Jewish identity and culture as well as stemming the tide of assimilation. Rav Zalman Melamed, for example, pointed out that some people were putting their tefillin aside before the state was declared. Rav Soloveitchik in Kol Dodi Dofek lauded the effect of the establishment of the state upon disaffected Jews. It is common knowledge that the victory of the six-day war brought about a surge of Jewish pride in both North America and the former Soviet Union.
In addition to the religious revival, one of the most important accomplishments of Zionism was the revival of the Hebrew language. Zionism revived and enriched the Hebrew language. The existence of the state of Israel makes people abroad put Hebrew into the curriculum. Many people today, my parents included, see the study of Hebrew as an integral piece of their children’s Jewish education. The importance of this lies in the fact that knowing Hebrew allows us to feel at home in Jewish sources. I think that in order to really know “what Torah is all about” one needs to be able to read our sources in the original. Reading sources that are not translated, and therefore unmediated, enables our sources to impact us more deeply. This is what makes the Torah – “Torah Dileih” – your own torah. I remember being in sixth grade and arguing with someone at a Shabbos group who quoted Rashi and told me that using a different take on the verse was not possible. The fact that I had learned Hebrew in school enabled me to come home, open up a Chumash, and find my take on the verse in the Ibn Ezra.
On an even more basic level, The Zionist idea – that the Jewish people are a nation who should fulfill itself in a nation-state – saved the Jewish people. The pogroms and the Holocaust have made it clear to us that our existence cannot be taken for granted. When established, the state of Israel was a means for our survival.
However, we still are left with a basic problem. The Jewish state in and of itself, without spiritual and cultural goals and without an aspiration towards social justice, leads to a dead end. I think that today Israeli society is too caught up in survival mode and views the state mainly as an agent of self-preservation. Without spiritual and cultural content the existence of the state becomes meaningless. It’s only a finger in the dike of this deep problem of Jewish identity in the 20th century.
This is true for all nations. Creating a state for one’s nation is an important step but it is worth very little if you do not know who you are. The wellbeing of individuals within a society depends on the cultural wealth that a nation is able to offer its members. At the end of the day, partaking in a shared heritage, as expressed through cultural experience, is deeply significant for us. It is a mistake to think that the nation state is the ultimate expression of one’s needs.
Ahad HaAm spoke about a cultural renaissance. His cultural renaissance did not include an obligation to Torah and Mitzvot. Ahad HaAm emphasized the importance of the Jewish people returning to its roots, to its homeland, and to the place of the Tanach and the Mishna. I agree with Ahad HaAm’s call for a renaissance, however I think that a real Jewish renaissance depends on two additional factors, factors that Ahad HaAm did not take in to account. One crucial factor is the sense of obligation. The other is a recognition that the Torah is the embodiment of a connection with something beyond man, something transcendent. In Sweden, they have an excellent awareness of cultural and societal needs and yet Swedish people are still despondent and commit suicide in high percentages. This proves that, as individuals and as a society, we need higher goals as well. For Israeli society, finding a higher purpose is an absolute necessity. In the long run, we need to invest in the Zionist project both culturally and spiritually in order to revive Zionism with a connection to Torah. When I talk about a connection to Torah I should clarify that I do not necessarily envision all Jews being observant and committed to halacha in the same way that I am.
I think that as part of reclaiming our heritage we must reclaim our concern with people who are suffering. Currently this entails coming to terms with Palestinian suffering. We must come to terms with Palestinian suffering while not forgoing our own narrative. Someone once asked me how they could translate this duality into practice. They wanted to know how they could express their empathy for Palestinian suffering while not forgoing their own narrative. One example of a step in the right direction that came to mind was for the Jewish community worldwide and the Palestinian diaspora to join forces to create a fund that would help the victims of violence on both sides. This is one way we could support the national aspirations of Palestinians in a way that doesn’t hurt our own national aspirations.
Is Zionism still necessary for the Jewish people? And what about nationalism in general?
I think we have a very deep problem in contemporary Western culture, a problem I call “the imagined problem.” We have adopted a John-Lennon-Mode in which we think that the differences between people are a problem. We detach people’s personal identities from the community and nation to which they belong. Nationhood can, and does, create conflicts – conflicts of interest as well as armed conflicts. However, we still need to recognize how basic these differences are to human nature. We should appreciate our differences and respect them. I believe that having a specific identity has universal value and that these different identities contribute to the world. It is important that we, as Jews, maintain our specific culture and its specific contribution. The same holds true regarding Palestinian culture. It is important that they maintain their own culture and contributions.
At certain times the Jewish people have been focused on recovering from acts of discrimination, persecution and genocide. A part of this recovery is the cultivation of Jewish pride. We need to understand that ethnic pride is not necessary only for Jews; Ethnic Pride is a universal value. We need to learn how to reclaim our own pride without negating the pride of other nations and ethnic groups. We must learn to appreciate and encourage multiculturalism. We must internalize the horror of discrimination towards any nation of any color. In other words, I believe that all peoples deserve equal and fair opportunities. The expression of this fairness and equality can be a complex issue.
Sometimes certain nations, like the Basque for example, cannot have their own state because of technical reasons, but I think they do deserve recognition. This distinction is important because while every nation deserves recognition, not every nation needs the political entity of a state. In the 20th century, statehood was an absolute necessity for the survival of the Jewish people. For example, after the Holocaust my mother-in-law had nowhere to go. I think that statehood is still a necessity for the Jewish people today. However, in the long run I think it is conceivable that the needs of the Jewish people will enter a different phase that might not depend so heavily on statehood.
I think that one of the problems today that one can find in political and sociological discussions, is that we are superimposing 19th century nationalism on our own peoplehood and on the peoplehood of the Arabs that live here. The mold of nationalism forces both sides to pay a price. We are suppressed by this mold.
So, is the Two-State Solution a good solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
Partitioning the land might help address some of the issues at hand, however I think it is naïve to imagine that the Two-State Solution in and of itself will completely resolve the conflict. My impression is that many Palestinians are not willing to accept the Two-State format as a long-term solution. At most, the Two-State Solution is another stop-gap measure.
I want to explain why I think the Palestinians won’t accept this solution. A close friend of mine, Rabbi Elyashiv Knohl, once said that the Creator gave this land to two nations. I agree with his statement because I think that both Jews and Palestinians feel deeply connected to and deeply identified with the land as a whole. We are both indigenous natives to this land. It is important to understand that the goals of Palestinians relate to the entirety of the land of Israel, of Palestine. In interfaith dialogue, Islamic Imams have told me point blank that the land is holy and it can only be under Islamic control. They think that Jews should be vassals of the Islamic state. Palestinian lore has always been deeply connected to the Islamic religion. That is why the Zionist project has always been anathema not only to the Palestinians as a people but also to their religious creed. Some Jewish settlers share a position that is just as problematic when they say that the land belongs to the Jewish people because it was given to us by the Creator. The partition program is an attempt at a practical solution. However, even though it is accepted by most Jews it is not accepted by many Arabs. It is not accepted because the narratives of many Arabs, and also some Jews, relate to the entire land. Every time we move toward peace accords the radicals on both sides become violent because they don’t want to forgo the rights to the whole of Israel, the whole of Palestine. My impression is that the unwillingness to divide the land is especially prevalent on the Palestinian side. When their desire to not divide the land leads Palestinians to violence many Israelis are put in a bind. While many of us are genuinely concerned with the welfare of the Palestinian people, I think we feel caught because often, somehow, our concern is met with violence.
While both Israelis and Palestinians feel a deep connection to the entirety of the land, I think that the Jewish experience and the Palestinian experience are different from one another. The Palestinian people have a close, personal connection to the land. Palestinians hold memories of their grandfathers plowing certain pieces of land since the 19th century and living in specific buildings. Today, some Palestinians still hold on to keys for the homes they fled in 1948. The way Palestinians feel towards the land could be described as alive and immediate. The Jewish narrative about the land of Israel has different qualities. The Jewish people hold the legends of their people going back thousands of years as being connected to this land. The Jewish narrative is heavy and it holds a certain depth. Each of these different narratives has different strengths and weaknesses. A solution will come only if we take these differences into account.
That is one of the issues I have with the Israeli left and the American left. The left tells a story in which trouble began with the Six Day War in 1967. However, that is simply not the case and by saying that they cleanse their hands of the part Israel really took in the tragedy. Past attempts at a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have been problematic because they have over-simplified the problem. I think it is naïve to think that we can overcome one particular kind of oppression and make everything better. There is a tragedy in this story. Zionism is the legitimate expression of the aspirations of the Jewish people to have a political entity. At the moment, many Jews want their state to be in their ancestral homeland. However, the aspiration of Palestinians for their own homeland is a legitimate response to the Zionist project. This is where the tragedy resides. On the one hand, we cannot cleanse our hands of the outcome of the assertion of our aspirations for statehood. On the other hand, however, we should not deny our own rights.
How do you view the Palestinian resistance movement? Do you view all forms of resistance as legitimate?
I think that the Palestinian aspiration to assert and express their nationhood in the form of a state is a good thing. I think that the violent means they have used are horrible and abhorrent. I completely denounce the use of indiscriminate violence and aggression. Too often Palestinians adopt anti-Semitic motifs into their narratives. With that said, my hatred of violence does not eliminate the empathy I feel towards some of the motives Palestinians have.
I want to elaborate on the kind of empathy I have for Palestinians. It is important to understand that decades ago, some of the ways in which Jews took over Palestinian lands and buildings were unfair. We conquered Ramla because we were attacked, but our response caused innocent Palestinians to flee. Even if I say that considering the circumstances Jews had no other choice but to take over certain areas, I still cannot disregard the fact that some Palestinians were hurt in the process. Deeming certain political and military decisions as legitimate doesn’t diminish the hurt caused to some Palestinians. Sometimes Israel had no choice but to defend itself, but Israel still needs to be held accountable for its actions. Asserting our own rights does not exempt us from recognizing the damage and suffering that are a byproduct of the Zionist movement. I want to reiterate how critical I am of many of the means (violence) and motivations (antisemitism) of many Palestinians. With that said, I still think that the Palestinian cause is understandable when we consider their gut feeling that their land has been taken over by strangers. I also think that the human suffering on the Palestinian side needs to be recognized and accounted for.
In order to move forward each side must recognize that the other side feels they have certain rights to specific pieces of land. While we feel we have rights to Hebron, Palestinians feel they have rights to Haifa. Only mutual recognition will enable us to move towards compromise. That is why mutual recognition needs to be pursued before any steps towards compromise are attempted.
I have spoken with many Israeli Arabs and Palestinians and, in my experience, when you get down to the nitty gritty, many of them will deviate from talking the party line. In actuality, the Palestinian movement and many Palestinians deny the Jewish narrative. Not all Palestinians deny our connection to the land but many, especially Islamic Palestinians, do. They deny our history and the roots of our culture, saying that all of it is a Zionist invention. When I participate in interfaith dialogues the rabbis will say: “We have a connection and you have a connection,” but the Imams will say: “You have no connection.” This is very frustrating because, while the Imams are nonviolent and open to discussion and even want to pursue a peaceful solution, they still refuse to acknowledge the basis of our narrative. They do not fathom how deep of a connection the Jewish people have with the land.
I think that buying into the Palestinian narrative hook, line and sinker is a mistake. They have rewritten their own history and denied their part in the development of the tragedy. It is deeply troubling that some Palestinians use the victim mode as a political tool, without taking their part into account. This is incorrect and unfair. “No compromise” voices exist within Zionism, however, for the most part, they have been kept under control by the Zionist establishment. For many years, even the Religious Zionists were moderate because they followed basic Jewish ethics. They wanted to handle the conflict peacefully because they believed in showing concern for others.
Where do you stand vis a vis the occupation?
The left sees the occupation as the problem, but this focus is rooted in a deep and fundamental misunderstanding of the aspirations and motivations of Palestinians. The left focuses on the settlements because it is a convenient subject to discuss but I think this is superficial because the occupation started with the Six-Day-War whereas the violent acts of Palestinians towards Jews began before the state was even established. The violence does not stem from the occupation. The conflict does not stem from the occupation. That is why I think it is problematic to focus on the occupation.
Palestinian violence is not a reaction only to the occupation. It is very complicated. Some of the violence is a reaction to the occupation while some of it is an expression of the Palestinian resistance to the Zionist movement per se. These two motivations are intertwined and do not differentiate themselves from one another. Palestinian textbooks do not make a distinction. When they speak with the West, Palestinians talk about the occupation, but when you speak with them behind closed doors, they say completely different things.
The problem is that when we try to deal with Palestinian aspirations by saying – “Let’s give back the West Bank” – this, for the most part, has absolutely nothing to do with their narrative. That’s where it gets complicated. It’s not that Palestinians won’t accept a two-state solution. They can’t. They cannot say that the giving back of territories will be the last stage. Publicly they espouse the two-state solution but in private discussions they say that it is only the first step. For them, establishing sovereignty over certain areas and not others is their way of progressing towards their national renaissance. One hundred years ago, Zionists did the same thing. They were practical and they said: “Let’s settle where we can buy the land.” Palestinians are also focusing on what they can get now – the West Bank – and telling themselves that they will do their best with that for the time being.
The Palestinians claim that we are robbers. They say we stole their land. I don’t think we stole their land, but I do think that our project came at their expense and that is something we have to take into account. We have to try to alleviate their suffering as best we can. We also should deal with their aspirations. I am concerned about the occupation because of the suffering it creates on the ground. Granted, a lot of the suffering is a direct result of their violence, however some of that suffering is the byproduct of the Zionist movement and some the result of mistaken policies of political leaders of both sides. For example, the occupation forces many Palestinians to wait in long lines every morning at border crossings before being approved for entry into Israel. Some Palestinians have lost their jobs because of this security measure. I also think that the presence of our soldiers, who represent a state that is already established, irritates Palestinians and is part of what is hindering progress. From this perspective, the fact that Israeli soldiers occupy the territories needs to change.
Regardless of possible future peace accords, I think that we need to make some serious changes vis a vis the settlements. I think that the occupation is not sustainable from an ethical point of view. Even though the conflict and the violence do not stem from the occupation, I still maintain that the occupation of the West Bank is an ethical issue and we must do our best to change the situation and get out of there somehow. The occupation is damaging to our moral fiber. Even if it does not lead to peace, I still think we have to leave the territories in a way that doesn’t create more havoc and violence and also takes the trauma this would cause the settlers into account.
On the one hand, those who call for Israel to end the occupation are not necessarily anti-Semitic. On the other hand, anybody who thinks that an end to the occupation will solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is naïve.
What needs to be understood in order to move towards a long-term and lasting solution to the conflict?
I think that any real solution needs to include both Israelis and Palestinians taking into account the two different narratives. A real solution cannot deny the connection of both peoples to the whole of the land of Israel. It cannot deny the Jewish people’s connection to Jerusalem nor the Palestinians’ connection to Jerusalem. It cannot deny the wrongdoings on both sides, the choices made on both sides to use inexcusable violence, like Der Yassin on the Jewish side and Ma’alot on the Arab side. I find it very disturbing when people say that it is only the Zionist project that is wrong, whereas the Palestinian project is blameless. That is factually untrue. I am certain that not only the Israeli government is to blame that the Oslo accords were not implemented. I think that Israel has gone a long way towards recognition of Palestinian rights while Palestinians have only gone a short way towards recognizing any Jewish rights to the land.
I also think that as Jews we need to approach the conflict in a manner that is more sophisticated. Our own national renaissance needs to include the recognition of the plight of the other. Without this recognition our basic ethos is damaged. I think the Israeli population has gone a long way towards recognizing Palestinian plight. I think that the average Israeli, as well as political leaders recognize that something was amiss, that our project came at the expense of other people. I would like to see Israel move even further towards recognizing Palestinian suffering. As part of our own national renaissance, we have to take this recognition of the other and do something about it. Our heritage includes being redeemed from slavery and this obligates us to recognize the needs and the plight of other “strangers”.
Rav Zvi Yehuda Kook used to say: “We have no argument with Achmad. We only have an argument with Muhammad.” I think Rav Zvi Yehuda was trying to say that as Jews we do not have, and we never have had, any desire to hurt specific individual Palestinians. I know that Rav Zvi Yehuda actually threw out two students from the yeshiva for pushing around a Palestinian on the street. That was his statement. He thought that we need to be considerate, fair, and just with individual Palestinians. I think the matter is more complex. The problem begins when Achmad has national aspirations. Achmad’s national aspirations are part of his being. I think that it is impossible to really be respectful towards Achmad while denying his national aspirations altogether. That’s the catch here. Over the past 150 years there has been a steep increase in the number of Palestinians who identify with national aspirations, with the Palestinian people and with a religious creed that flat out denies any Jewish rights.
While empathy for the other is one of the cornerstones of our heritage it is important that this recognition of the other does not overshadow our own need for a state at this moment in time. The West closed its doors on those who came out of the ashes and survived the Holocaust. These Jews found a haven in political Zionism. We owe it to our own people to affirm our own narrative and our connection to our ancestral homeland. Antisemitism still exists and political Zionism remains a necessity.
How do you respond to the claim that Israel is an apartheid state?
I think the situation in Israel is significantly different from Apartheid in South Africa.
In South Africa, after the fall of the previous regime, people on both sides were encouraged to tell their stories. Anyone who had done something wrong would just confess their sins and confession exonerated them. This enabled everyone in South Africa to make a fresh start. For a certain period of time we were optimistic that a similar process could occur here in Israel. We were optimistic that the soldier from border control would say: “I once went overboard in reacting to something.” And the Palestinian would come forward and say: “This is how I hurt innocent civilians.” But the Oslo accords did not bring about this process here in Israel.
I think that the main difference between the situation in Israel and the apartheid narrative is that apartheid was based on race. In Israel all citizens within the green line are viewed with a great deal of equality. Usually this equality manifests itself in terms of application and not in terms of rights. Instances of discrimination between individuals do exist, however there has been continuous improvement in this area since the end of martial law. If you go to the supermarket or to the mall in Haifa or in Afula, you can see how far Israel is from apartheid. One personal example of this comes to mind. Once while in Afula my daughter went into a supermarket and saw some of the employees throwing a birthday party. All of the workers – Jews and Arabs – were celebrating a birthday of one of the Arab employees. They provided a cake. That is part of our normalcy here. I have a friend in the supermarket. His name is Shadi. When he heard I was going to New York, he said, “Can you bring me Starbucks red coffee beans?” And I brought them for him. Sometimes he brings me a cup of coffee and we’re friends.
Using the apartheid mold is an example of oversimplification. The comparison with apartheid gives the Israeli situation racial overtones which are ridiculous. The Arab population is not any darker than most Sephardic Jews. Race has nothing to do with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As Jews we are not a racial group; we are an ethnic group. There are Jews of different colors. I will not deny that incidences of prejudice towards Arabs do exist in Israel, however, I think that this prejudice is based on animosity. Some Jews are wary of Arabs because of the animosity of the Palestinian community towards Jews. I think this is what sometimes leads to a kind of discrimination that is based on fear. This kind of discrimination is very different from apartheid.
What do you think about Shovrim Shtika (Breaking the Silence)?
Armies need watchdogs. The Israeli army is no exception. The problem with Shovrim Shtika is that they are not an objective watchdog. Shovrim Shtika has an agenda: to bring an end to the occupation. Having an agenda and spreading propaganda is legitimate if one is upfront about it. Shovrim Shtika made a transition from allowing soldiers to vent their feelings and share their experiences to publicizing damning testimonials against the occupation. What bothers me is that Shovrim Shtika made this transition without admitting it. Today Shovrim Shtika present personal accounts of soldiers and claim that these accounts are the objective reality. From what I have heard from students in the army, I know that, at best, Shovrim Shtika only present one piece of a bigger, more complex, picture. Unfortunately Shovrim Shtika’s lack of objectivity hurts their own cause because it undermines deserved criticism. People in Israel know that their accounts are influenced by their agenda. I think there are enough problems on the ground that we don’t need this trumped up narrative which only adds fuel to the right-wingers.
What do you think about BDS?
BDS represents old-fashioned Palestinian objection to the Zionist venture in total, while claiming to object only to the occupation.
What place do the Jews of the Diaspora have in this discussion?
I think that Jews who live in the diaspora should be involved and invested in the state of Israel, but I think that their vote should be secondary vis a vis the people who are on the ground. The diaspora should have a say, but the citizens of the land should have more of a say. I think that sometimes Israelis feel that diaspora Jews don’t realize that they are playing with the lives of those who live in Israel. I think that is true for both those who support the Israeli right and those who support the Israeli left from the outside. I think the participation of anyone who lives outside of Israel is limited because from afar many things are oversimplified. Being on the ground and speaking with people gives one a perspective one cannot get in other ways. On the one hand, you want to have people invested in the state of Israel but, on the other hand, often those who do not live here miss many nuances.
For the opinions of diaspora Jewry to be stated in a way that I would find legitimate I think there needs to be a general acceptance of the Zionist project and of the state of Israel. With that basis I would be open to hearing different criticisms of certain policies. For example, I think that the American Jewish community can, to a certain extent, participate in criticism of the occupation. I think pressure should be put on the state of Israel to end the occupation, but I am not sure what the legitimate mode for that pressure should be. I think that the mode should not be acceptance of the Palestinian narrative in its entirety. I think that putting pressure on the American government to put pressure on the Israeli government, as done by some groups is often egregiously patronizing. Yet, diaspora Jews should be encouraged to vent their thoughts and feelings by writing articles and going to the polls. When these avenues are cut off, they end up on the other side of the track. I think that if we had legitimate modes for them to be a part of the Jewish community without giving up their left-wing opinions, we would see less Jews forgoing their Jewish and Zionist identities.
The extreme rejection of Zionism that is trendy among many sensitive, intellectual, and politically aware young Jews is deeply problematic. As I have mentioned, Zionism is a healthy, legitimate and vital movement. It saved Jews, brought new life to Jewish identity, revived the Hebrew language, and reinvigorated the study of Torah. Moreover the desire for a particular national identity is a basic human need and Zionism is a legitimate expression of that human need. Of course, Zionism is not perfect and this is why critique is necessary. But it is crucial that critique come from within and we need to think carefully about the content and context of that critique. We must take responsibility and ensure that our critique does more good than damage.
It is this combination of appreciation for what Zionism has given us with a sincere reflective reckoning of where it has fallen short that can lead to even greater blessings for the State of Israel and the Jewish people as a whole.