Post-Zionist leap of faith
- We need a post-Zionist leap of faith
"The dispossession of the Palestinians reinforces this argument. How
can we justify the right to Israeli citizenship when the Palestinians
have no country?"
"Meron Benvenisti, one-time deputy mayor of Jerusalem, agree. "He says
the Zionist revolution is over. He suggests scrapping the law of
return that allows Jews anywhere to become Israeli citizens."
"He says he loves the land and it''s an Arabic land."
"A history where the Jewish value asserted with most consistency was
solidarity between Jews and non-Jews in the resistance."
Does the religious and historical attachment of so many Jews to the
"land of Israel" justify the Zionist project? The idea of a Jewish
homeland continues to pose two problems. The first is the denial of
Palestinian rights, especially the rights of the dispossessed
refugees, who see an Israel built on their homeland. And the second is
what "homeland" means for the Jewish majority that lives outside Israel.
There is an interesting and unexplored link between these two
problems. Resolving the second can contribute to resolving the first.
But that means Jews in the west renouncing our automatic right to be
potential citizens of Israel.
This position chimes with the rhythms of Jewish history, especially,
paradoxically, in the Middle East. More than 2,000 years ago, long
before the fall of the second temple in Jerusalem in AD 70, the Jewish
philosopher Philo of Alexandria addressed this very question.
"Homeland", patris, was one''s place of birth and education. There was
Jewish pilgrimage to the temple at Jerusalem, but this meant
reluctantly abandoning patris to visit what Philo called not
"homeland", but a "strange land".
Incidentally, the existence of flourishing Jewish communities such as
Philo''s across the Mediterranean and beyond, long before the fall of
the second temple, upset the Zionist myth of "exile". This held that
Jews went into exile after the fall of the second temple as a result
of the Roman policy of forcible dispersal. The Zionist enterprise is
supposed to overcome the dispersal 2,000 years later. But "dispersal"
appears to be a much more "natural" historical condition.
More than a thousand years later, also in Egypt, we have a highly
successful Jewish community in the newly built Islamic city of Cairo.
Professor Shelomo Goitein, the brilliant scholar of Islamic
Arab-Jewish relations, in his analysis of the "Geniza" documents
discovered in a medieval synagogue, has left us a vivid insight of how
the city''s Jews saw "homeland". This is the high point of
Islamic-Jewish relations symbolised by Saladin, the Islamic world''s
greatest leader, protecting Cairo from the Crusaders as well as
expelling them from Jerusalem.
It is worth reminding ourselves that it was the European Crusaders who
slaughtered the Jews (as well as Muslims, of course) in Jerusalem, and
it was Saladin who invited them to return. But most Jews had no
intention of living in Jerusalem. It was a religious and spiritual
centre, not a "homeland". The communities felt "at home" in villages,
towns and cities throughout the Islamic world.
Jews migrated from Europe to the Islamic world to escape the Crusades.
Cairo''s Jews readily offered help to their European co-religionists.
According to Goitein, Islamic authorities made no attempt to impede
this migration. What a contrast with our contemporary "civilised"
attitudes to migration.
The Jews of early 20th-century Iraq have similar lessons for us. To
this day, Iraqi Jews understandably boast about their uninterrupted
2,500-year history, from Babylon to Baghdad. Joining the Iraqi
national movement to throw out the British immediately after the first
world war, they certainly did not want the Zionists. Menahem Daniel, a
Baghdadi Jewish notable, wrote to them in 1922: "You are regarded as a
threat to Arab national life." He told them: please stay away.
Jewish culture flourished as part of Iraqi culture. Over a third of
Iraq''s top musicians were Jewish. In 1949 as the crisis for Iraq''s
Jews gathered pace, cynically engineered by both Israel and Britain,
as well as Iraq''s pro-British puppet government, the Jewish
Chronicle, to its credit, reported on the determination of Iraq''s
Jews to hang on: "On the whole, Islamic tolerance has enabled Baghdadi
Jews to flourish as a centre of learning and commerce. They and their
kind would like to stay..."
It will be objected that the European Jewish experience, nevertheless,
suggests the need for a securely Jewish homeland as a kind of
insurance against another Holocaust. Yet here we have what is
sometimes called the "lachrymose" view of Jewish history: the
inevitability of Jewish suffering at the hands of non-Jews. As one
writer has put it, there is a danger of the scar doing the work of the
In truth, the European Jewish experience is far more complex. The
Jewish response to the anti-semitic pogroms of the collapsing Tsarist
Russian empire more than 100 years, ago deserves particular study. The
Jewish mass migrations to western Europe and America begin here. The
Zionists developed their best cadres here. Yet the astonishing levels
of participation by Jews in the resistance to the Tsar speak of a
different Jewish history in the making. A history where the Jewish
value asserted with most consistency was solidarity between Jews and
non-Jews in the resistance. The Jewish socialist Bund helped pioneer
this value, which the Zionists simply could not understand.
The value of solidarity was built into the promise made to the Jews by
the Enlightenment and the French revolution. It said you are welcome
here as equal citizens in the land of your birth.
Is this not the expression of Jewish history in modern times? Are not
the Jewish communities in Western Europe and America models of an
enlightened assimilation where we can express our Jewish identities,
as well as feeling at home in the lands of our birth?
The dispossession of the Palestinians reinforces this argument. How
can we justify the right to Israeli citizenship when the Palestinians
have no country?
Arab-Jewish reconciliation demands an alternative approach. It can
legitimately point, borrowing an insight from Walter Benjamin, to
"sparks of hope" from the past history of Arab-Jewish relations in the
Middle East. Some Israelis understand this. Israeli intellectuals
associated with the trend known as post-Zionism imagine with
confidence a Jewish life in the area without a Zionist state. A tiny
number of former Zionist leaders, such as Meron Benvenisti, one-time
deputy mayor of Jerusalem, agree. He says the Zionist revolution is
over. He suggests scrapping the law of return that allows Jews
anywhere to become Israeli citizens.
He says he loves the land and it''s an Arabic land. Perhaps the old
Jewish Enlightenment thinkers who believed in assimilation were much
more correct than even they realised. Imagine the
great-great-grandchildren of European Jewish settlers in Palestine
assimilating into Arabic culture, absorbing it and contributing to its
development, some time this century.
A leap of faith? To be sure, but we Jews have always been rather good
· John Rose is the author of The Myths of Zionism
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