The Israeli military – Operation Cast Lead – was launched in the Gaza Strip on December 27 2008. Ten months later, how has it affected civilians there? Dr. Akram Nafie, Médecins Sans Frontières mental health programme doctor in Gaza, provides an insight:

"I continued working during the early days of the war. We went to the schools where people had gathered. We made donations and provided emergency medical care. MSF had given me a medical kit with antibiotics, supplies for making dressings and treating burns and wounds, oral rehydration salts, analgesics and tranquilisers. I was able to treat about sixty people in my neighbourhood, people who could no longer get to a healthcare facility. The hospitals were overwhelmed by people with serious injuries who were flooding in, anyway.

After the ceasefire, everything was devastated. The F-16 bombings had left craters more than 20 feet deep in the streets. All the water tanks on the roofs of the houses had been destroyed. People put plastic sheets in the windows to replace the glass and began cleaning up the houses. There was dust everywhere.

A consequence of the war has been post-traumatic stress syndrome. It shows up an average of three to six months after the causative events – now, in other words. A lot of people who seemed to be doing well immediately afterward are really bad off now. They're having hallucinations, are very aggressive and nervous, both on the street and at home. I see a lot of abdominal pain and diarrhoea. There's also a lot of cancer (leukemia, prostate, and breast) – including among the very young.

Most children are wetting their beds. My son wakes up every night after an hour or two; he's terrorised, but doesn't hear us or see us when we try to calm him. My wife starts crying at the least siren. As for me, I feel like things are still not totally right. I have memory and concentration problems, but I'm managing.

Before the war, I followed an average of 13 patients in the mental health program. Now I have about 50. They're in really bad shape – not eating or sleeping. One young man lost a leg and both eyes. He and his friends were trying to help other people during a bombing attack. All his friends were killed and he lay under their bodies for three hours. At the hospital they thought he was dead, too, and put him in the morgue. His family was in mourning for two days before learning that he had, in fact, survived.

Another patient lost her three sons, her husband, and her daughter-in-law in the war. She gathered up what was left of them and stayed shut up in a stable for three days like that. Israeli soldiers evacuated her, but refused to bury the bodies and drove right over them. How can someone not be totally depressed after experiencing such things? MSF has been monitoring her and has put her on medication. We found her an apartment. She was totally apathetic, but she's slowly starting to live, sleep, feel hot and cold, and cook again. She'll continue to need help for months yet, but when I see a patient get better like that, I feel useful.

The amputees are happy to be alive, but want to get back their independence, be fitted with prostheses – but they don't have any. How can they put themselves back together? We have so many problems in Gaza. Building materials, drugs, medical equipment, clothing, shoes, coffee, watch batteries. So many goods aren't allowed in because of the embargo. Some infant formulas are allowed, others aren't, and it's really hard to find baby bottles.

Prices are skyrocketing; dairy products take two days to get in and are spoiled when they do. The borders are closed and urgent medical cases can't get out. Before, trucks managed to get through, but now the situation is really getting complicated. And then there's the unemployment – another result of the war.

I'd like to be able to leave from time to time, to get some air, see the sky, and then come back".

A Fundamental Jewish Value.

Interview with Judge Richard Goldstone

By Rabbi Michael Lerner

October 02, 2009 "
Tikkun" -- This interview was given to Tikkun magazine by Judge Goldstone (herein referred to as RG) and conducted by Rabbi Michael Lerner (ML below), editor of Tikkun magazine and chair of the interfaith organzation The Network of Spiritual Progressives and by Rabbi Brain Walt (BW below), founding chair person of Rabbis for Human Rights (North America) and chair of Ta'anit Tzedeck.

ML: I really appreciate you for taking the time to be with us.

RG: Well thank you for making the contact, I really appreciate it.

ML: Was and is the blockade of Gaza a war crime?

RG: It was a violation of international law, it was not a war crime because there was no war. It was a violation of the 4th Geneva convention. There has to be an actual military armed conflict for it to be a war crime. It is also a violation of international human rights law.

ML: What are the specific steps that Israel could have taken to stop the shelling of southern Israel before commencing an attack on Gaza?

RG: Well, it could have used greater pressure by diplomatic means. They could have used the security council for that purpose. Israel could have put the security council on notice and said "if you don't stop this, if you don't do something to stop it, we will have to resort as a last resort to military means." But in our report we didn't question the right of Israel to use military force.

ML: So you are saying that the attack on Gaza was, by your estimation, not a violation of any international laws or agreements?

RG: I'm not sure I want to comment on it, it was not something we looked into. We were looking at war crimes, which are crimes committed during military operation. We didn't look at the justification for using military force.

ML: Do you think Israel could have succeeded in stopping the bombing of Sderot had it gone to the Security Council?

RG: Well, I don't know. If it didn't work, then I have got no doubt that Israel was entitled to take a strong action to put a stop to the firing of rockets and mortars and has a duty to its own population to protect them.
Military force should be the very last resort. I think it is arguable here that other diplomatic means could have worked. If they didn't work then the last resort is to use force, and whether it is military or policing action force, Israel was entitled to take active steps.

ML: Hamas and supporters of the Palestinian cause have always said that Israel could have taken the step of ending the blockade of Gaza, and that would have been a condition for ending the attacks by Hamas.

RG: That is getting into the politics of the situation, which I don't wish to do. What I hear you say is why peace is so crucial in the Middle East. There is a sort of spiral, the blockade, the refusal to respect the right of self-determination for the Palestinians.

ML: So once deciding to attack, the question gets raised: Is there any way to fight a war against terrorists that would not result in deaths and casualties of civilians, assuming that urban terrorists have located themselves in the midst of the population?

RG: You know, commando actions could have been taken. But in any event, even though Israel might have been entitled to use force, the real point of the report was that it was disproportionate force. Look at the thousands of homes destroyed, the factories, the agricultural land, this is almost impossible to justify militarily.

BW: Also in your view, in the view of your report, it was deliberate?

RG: I don't think there is any dispute about it. The Israeli army has very sophisticated weaponry, and I don't think they make many mistakes as to what they target.

BW: But I think that is the one piece where your critics are very upset about the report: the whole question of intention. And they do deny that there is intention, they claim that the civilians died accidentally

RG: I think we are talking at two different levels. When it comes to the destruction of infrastructure, they haven't really responded at all to that, and that was part of what the report addressed. None of the Israeli responses have even said a word about the property destruction, the bulldozing of agricultural fields, the bombing of water wells, the bombing of sewage works that caused a huge spill over a huge area. There has been no attempt to justify that. When it comes to the actual killing of civilians in urban areas, that is where the big dispute comes in. I think all I can do is refer to the 36 incidents that we report on. And with almost all of them, we found the Israeli response to be disproportionate.

BW: As regard to wells and the factories, one can make a reasonable argument, not a pleasant argument, why Israel would want to do it?

RG: There was a political reason, and that was collective punishment and an effort to weaken the support for Hamas.

ML: Is that a violation of international human rights, destruction of infrastructure?

RG: It is a war crime. It is an attack on civilian objects, as opposed to military objects.

ML: Is that the kind of attack that is serious enough to warrant reprimand through the ICC?

RG: It would certainly be something that falls within the jurisdiction of the ICC.

BW: Let's jump to civilians. Do you follow that same logic with regard to civilians? i.e. in regard to the water, electrical, and food, they wanted to go after the infrastructure, in regards to civilians, was that disregard for human rights, or was it intentional killing?

RG: Certainly some of the incidents appear to be intentional. What we didn't do, because it wasn't our mandate to do, was to investigate who bore responsibility. Whether this was policy at a high level, or policy at a battalion level, or specific soldiers who acted on their own. That is the sort of investigation that we suggested should be taken by Israel itself.

BW: If I remember correctly, in the report, you quote Israeli officials who say "we are going after the infrastructure, we want to cause them hurt," and so on and so forth, but I don't remember any references to Israeli officials indicating their intention to kill civilians.

RG: No, we didn't make any allegation that there was a policy to kill civilians.

ML: That is an issue that has to be investigated.

RG: Yep.

BW: Like you, I was raised in the South African Jewish community. I know exactly the community you have come from, I was raised in the same community, with similar values around Israel and so on. And it seems to me that when I read the statement that you made yesterday just before the council ... it felt to me very courageous because I admire immensely what you did. It was so moving to me to read that statement.

ML: You made a statement in response to a woman who was attacking you for betraying your own people?

RG: I said I wasn't going to dignify her remarks with a response, but they call to mind the attacks made on me as a white South African for going against the interests of whites during the Apartheid era. And I said I thought having regard to the terrible history of the Jewish people, of over 2000 years of persecution, I found it difficult to understand how Jews wouldn't respond in protecting the human rights of others. And I talked about that as being a fundamental Jewish value.

BW: Rabbi Lerner and I are involved in an organization, Ta'anit Tzedeck, that is calling for the lifting of the blockade because of the material deprivation it causes, and we are calling upon people to fast the 3rd Thursday of each month in solidarity with this demand. I wondered for you as a South African Jew who cares about Israel, how is it to face the incredible wall that Israel has placed in your way about this, and seeming disregard, like they aren't really interested in your findings and substantive things. It is a position of arrogance.

RG: When I went into this, I didn't know any of the details we were going to find. I obviously watched the TV and knew there was tremendous destruction, but I wasn't prepared for what I saw on the ground.

BW: What happened when you saw what you saw on the ground?

RG: I was shocked at the number of buildings that had been razed. Particularly private homes. And I wasn't prepared for the stories that were told by witnesses we considered to be credible. As to the way the Israeli Army treated them. I felt a great deal of shame and embarrassment particularly as a Jew, but also as a human being.

ML: Maybe you could cite one such story?

RG: Well, the one that really upset me was the shelling of a full Mosque during the afternoon service. And we didn't look at other Mosques. We accepted the idea that maybe some Mosques were used to give shelter to fighters and militants. They may also have been used to store weapons, but even if that was true (and we found that it wasn't in respect to this particular Mosque), but even if it was, it is completely unacceptable and a warcrime to shell the Mosque during a service. There were hundreds of people in that Mosque, and 15 people were killed and many more were injured. It is that sort of conduct that is absolutely unacceptable. That was one of the incidents that caught me in particular. And it is a particular concern because of the reaction of people who were there. I put myself in the position how Jews would feel if they were attacked in a synagogue when it was full of worshipers.

ML: Israeli Prime Minister said "The Israeli public will not be willing to take risks for peace if stripped of its right to self-defense." And the article said, Netanyahu referred to the Goldstone report written by the fact-finding UN mission that investigated IDF operations, stating that the peace process would be brought to a halt if the report was submitted to the international court in The Hague. A democratic state's right to defend its population has been crushed by the UN body.

RG: Well, it is absolutely incorrect. Our report doesn't bear on the question of self-defense at all. It is not a relevant remark to make.
There is not a word in the report that questions the right to self-defense.

ML: Netanyahu, however, is saying that de facto, you can't conduct defense in a war against terrorists without engaging in operations against civilians, and your response is, there is a way to conduct those.

RG: Yes, it is a question of what is proportionate.

ML: Your report suggested that Israel has to conduct a further investigation, and the question is, is there any point in a government-led investigation?

RG: It depends who they appoint. If they appoint someone who is transparent and public about it, then I think that would certainly be exactly what we had in mind.

ML: Do you think you could state any minimum requirements? Those who are critical of Israeli policy think that the investigation would be a way of avoiding taking any responsibility and would get the public's eye away from the Goldstone report and would drown the impact of the Goldstone report and would probably come up with a much more equivocal finding than your report. I am wondering if you could state any minimum criteria for what it would take for people outside to take a government report where the government is investigating itself.

RG: I think the investigation must be conducted by people who are independent and are perceived to be independent like former Israeli Chief Justice Aharon Barak. And it must be done with openness and transparency. And it certainly must take into account evidence from all sides. One of the problems I've got with these military investigations is, as far as I know, there's only one which I've read about where the military investigations even spoke to any of the victims, spoke to any of the people from Gaza who obviously are the best people to speak to.

ML: In other words you're saying that the first criterion is that the people be independent, and second...

RG: that the investigation is a transparent one.

ML: The second is transparent and the third is that they speak to the victim.

RG: Right.

ML: The victims of the assault, not just to the military people to explain what they were intending to do.

RG: Correct.

ML: Are there any other criteria?

RG: No, I think those are the major criteria. And Israel has done it. I think the Israel's investigation into Sabra and Shatilla is a very good example. And that was accepted absolutely by the international community as being appropriate.

ML: You say people are independent but there were some people in the peace movement in Israel who say that Aharon Barak himself led a Supreme Court that never challenged the Israeli military's denial of human rights to Palestinians

RG: It's a difficult one. I've known Aharon Barak for many years and I absolutely respect his independence and integrity. In my book he'd be a very appropriate person.

ML: OK. Let me give you one of the frequent criticisms of the Goldstone report that I've heard and that I'd like to put to you. Not that it's inaccurate but that it's a reflection of a prejudice because of selective prosecution. The UN gives this attention to the sins of little countries or powerless countries, relatively powerless countries, while never daring to do a comparable report on big guys like the human rights violations of the United States in Iraq, of Russia in Chechnya, China in Tibet. The argument goes that when one picks on historically oppressed groups like Jews for their sins while ignoring the far greater sins of the more powerful, the UN participates in a kind of double standard that in other contexts would be seen transparently as racist or illegitimate. So that even though you, Judge Goldstone, were perfectly fine in what you did, the actual investigation itself by virtue of selecting this target by a body that doesn't target the more powerful is a reflection of prejudice.

RG: Generally I agree with the criticism. I think the powerful are protected because of their power. But it's not prejudice it's politics. It's a political world. There's no question of not investigating countries because of who they are for religious reasons or cultural reasons, it's because of their power. They use their power to protect themselves. It doesn't mean that investigations [in countries] where politically they can be held are in any way necessarily flawed or shouldn't take place. The same argument was raised by Serbia in particular. They said, "Why was the international criminal tribunal set up for us? It wasn't set up for Pol Pot, it wasn't set up for Saddam Hussein, it was set up for Milosevic." And my response at the time when it was put to me by the Serb minister of justice, as I remember very well, was if this is the first of the lot, then I agree with you, it's an act of discrimination, but if it's the first of others to come then you can't complain, you have no right to complain because you're the first. And if crimes are being committed then at least, to go after those that one can go after politically is better than doing nothing.

ML: For example, there haven't been any comparable investigations of human rights violations by Syria, by Saudi Arabia, by Egypt -- admittedly these are against their own populations.

RG: I think that what distinguishes this from that is that these war crimes are committed in a situation of international armed conflict. It's not going to be a civil war situation.

ML: And you don't think there is something inconsistent or one-sided and prejudicial in investigating this type of crime but not internal crime?

RG: I think it's a double-standard more than prejudice.

ML: So you would agree that there's a double-standard.

RG: Absolutely.

ML: And that it should be changed, but that doesn't invalidate what you do.

RG: This is why. The best way of changing it is for every nation to join the International Criminal Court.

ML: About that. Do you have any theory of why the Obama Administration has not embraced your report.

RG: I really don't know. No reasons have been given. I'm happy that it supports the recommendation of internal investigation.

ML: What do you think about those who'd say that pushing accountability on these kinds of crimes will be destructive to the process of peace, because Israel once facing this kind of international pressure will not be willing to submit itself to any other pressure for actual peace and that consequently the Obama Administration's refusal to take your human rights violations seriously is a reflection of their desire to make the peace process work.

RG: I don't know that but if that's correct I would strongly disagree with their reasoning. It's been my experience that there can be no peace without justice. There can be no peace if victims are not acknowledged. [Editor's note: This view, of course, has been the underpinning of the Truth and Reconciliation process in South Africa that did in fact yield peace between the white and black populations, an outcome that has frequently been attributed to this process of requiring both the African National Council and other freedom fighters as well as the supporters of the apartheid regime to fully describe what they did and when they violated the human rights of others. The Goldstone report calls for both Hamas and for Israel to conduct investigations.]

ML: Can you say another sentence about what gives you that feeling. What's the historical basis for thinking that?

RG: Well you know you're not going to get peace when a society has a deeply imbedded call for revenge. And the way to avoid that, and a way to avoid collective guilt is through justice. The crimes that we've identified that were committed by the Israeli Defense Force are not in my view crimes committed by the people of Israel. There are many people in Israel who would oppose them.

ML: I'll look at that then. Do you think there's anything in the speculation of some in the United States that the reason why it wants to distance from the Goldstone report is because by the similar criteria the United States might be brought to a similar accounting for what it has done in Iraq or Afghanistan?

RG: I don't. I absolutely don't, I haven't read or heard of the U.S. intentionally attacking civilians. if innocent civilians have been killed or injured by the United States in Afghanistan or Iraq it's been by negligence. It hasn't been by intention. And when it's happened it's usually been followed by apology.

ML: What do you think Americans can do now to push our government to take seriously the recommendations of the Goldstone report?

RG: My first choice would be to put added pressure on Israeli to have the sort of investigation we've been talking about. I don't know, maybe I'm a naive optimist, but I thought the statement by Netanyahu that the cabinet is going to consider an investigation is a positive shift.

ML: And do you have any views on the larger conflict itself, about what you think would be the most wise path that would come to settlement between the two sides?

RG: It seems to me its a question of leadership. I think we're lucky in South Africa to have leaders of the caliber of DeClerk and Mandela. Leadership could deliver what they promised. And it seems to me that that's what missing at the moment in the Middle East. Particularly on the Palestinian side. As long as they're going to be fighting against each other who's going to represent them meaningfully at the peace negotiations?

ML: Your daughter Nicole is alleged to have told the international media that you are a proud Jew and one who loves the State of Israel and if not for your efforts the outcome of the report would've been even more damaging.

RG: That's her opinion, and I really don't want to comment on it. The first part is absolutely correct. I don't think it's possible to say whether the report would've been more or less damaging if I hadn't been involved.

ML: Could you say one last sentence about what your feelings are about Israel and Zionism. I wanted to hear from you.

RG: I've worked for Israel all of my adult life.
I've been involved with the governor of the Hebrew University for what must be thirty years. And I've worked in World ORT since 1966. I've been involved in working for Israel and I'm a firm believer in the absolute right of the Jewish people to have their home there in Israel.

ML: That's a strong and clear statement. I want to thank you for this work. It's a Kadush Hashem from my standpoint and the standpoint of many many Jews. I know that Israel will be much stronger when its embodying Jewish values of generosity or love of a stranger

RG: Thank you very much for reaching out to me. I much appreciate it and certainly it's really crucially important for Jews particularly to stand up for Jewish values. I don't think this is what's happening sufficiently.

To read the full Goldstone report, go to: 

This interview was conducted on October 1st, 2009, with Judge Richard Goldstone, the chair of the UN commission investigating the War in Gaza in 2008 and 2009. In the latter years of Apartheid in South Africa, Goldstone served as chairperson of the South African Standing Commission of Inquiry Regarding Public Violence and Intimidation, later known as the Goldstone Commission. The Commission played a critical role in uncovering and publicizing allegations of grave wrongdoing by the Apartheid-era South African security forces and bringing home to "White" South Africans the extensive violence that was being done in their name. The Commission concluded that most of the violence of those years was being orchestrated by shadowy figures within the Apartheid regime, often through the use of a so-called "third force." The Commission thus provided a first road map for the investigations into security force wrongdoing that, after democratization, were taken up by the country's Truth and Reconciliation Commission. After South Africa's first democratic election in April 1994, Goldstone served as a judge of the Constitutional Court of South Africa, from July 1994 to October 2003. The Court was entrusted with the task of interpreting the new South African Constitution and supervising the country's transition into democracy.

He also served as national president of the National Institute of Crime Prevention and the Rehabilitation of In August 1994, Goldstone was named as the first chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), which was established by a resolution of the UN Security Council in 1993. When the Security Council established the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) in late 1994, he became its chief prosecutor, too.  He was a member of the International Panel of the Commission of Enquiry into the Activities of Nazism in Argentina (CEANA) which was established in 1997 to identify Nazi war criminals who had emigrated to Argentina, and transferred victim assets (Nazi gold) there.  Goldstone was chairperson of the International Independent Inquiry on Kosovo from August 1999 until December 2001. Goldstone serves on the Board of Directors of several nonprofit organizations that promote justice, including Physicians for Human Rights, the International Center for Transitional Justice, the South African Legal Services Foundation, the Brandeis University Center for Ethics, Justice, and Public Life, Human Rights Watch, and the Center for Economic and Social Rights. He is a trustee of Hebrew University.

Subsequent to the release of his UN report which criticizes human rights abuses and violations of international law by both Hamas and Israel, and calls for each to conduct an independent and objective investigation, he has been assaulted by various leaders in the Jewish world and described as being anti-Semitic.

Demystifying Zionism

Yakov M Rabkin

October 02, 2009 "
Information Clearing House" --- The word “Zionism” means different things to different people. Some use it a badge of honour, unconditionally defending the state of Israel right or wrong. Yet, many Zionists take umbrage at the appellation of Israel as a Zionist state. They insist that it is a “Jewish state”, a “state of the Jewish people”. Quite a few people who identify themselves as Zionists, are distressed by what Israel is and does, but remain reluctant to express their distress in public. Others, including quite a few Israelis, see Zionism as the main obstacle to peace in Israel/Palestine, a path to collective suicide. And, finally, in some circles the word is used as an insult.

This article proposes to demystify Zionism by outlining the origins of the Zionist idea and of its relationship with religion. It continues with a cursory look at the evolution of Zionism, from motley seemingly incompatible ideologies to a rather monolithic political stance prevalent nowadays. The article concludes by offering answers to two questions that concern many people today: what explains the solid support that Canadian, US and other Western governments offer the state of Israel, and why rejection of Zionism and criticism of Israel are often regarded as an anti-Semitic act.


Zionism is a product of European history and one of the last movements in contemporary history that set out to transform man and society. Both Zionists and their opponents agree that Zionism and the State of Israel constitute a revolution in Jewish history, a revolution that began with the emancipation and the secularization of European Jews in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Secularization, which affected many Jews in Europe, was a necessary, albeit not a sufficient, factor in the emergence of Zionism. Another important factor was resistance against the entry of Jews into European society, which coalesced into the secular ideology of racial or scientific anti-Semitism. Unlike Christian anti-Judaism, which aimed at salvation through conversion, modern anti-Semitism considers Jews to be a race or a people intrinsically alien, even hostile, to Europe, its population and its civilization.

Secularization also revolutionized Jewish identity from within: traditional Jews can be distinguished by what they do or should do; the new Jews by what they are. While they practice the same religion, it would be truly daring to assume that Jews from Poland, Yemen and Morocco belong to the same ethnic group, let alone are descendents of the Biblical Hebrews. Some, such as Professor Shlomo Sand of Tel-Aviv University, argue that the Jewish people, as an ethnic concept, was simply “invented” for the needs of Zionism in the late 19th century: after all, one needs a nation to be a nationalist.

In the words of the late Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz of Hebrew University in Jerusalem,

The historical Jewish people was defined neither as a race, nor as a people of this country or that, or of this political system or that, nor as a people that speaks the same language, but as the people of Torah Judaism and of its commandments, as the people of a specific way of life, both on the spiritual and the practical plane, a way of life that expresses the acceptance of … the yoke of the Torah and of its commandments. This consciousness exercised its effect from within the people. It formed its national essence; it maintained itself down through the generations and was able to preserve its identity irrespective of times or circumstances.

Zionism rejected the traditional definition in favour of a modern national one. Thus Zionists accepted the anti-Semites’ view of the Jews as a distinct people or race and, moreover, internalized much of the anti-Semitic blame directed at the Jews, accused of being degenerate unproductive parasites. Zionists set out to reform and redeem the Jews from their sad condition. In the words of Professor Elie Barnavi, former Israeli ambassador in Paris, “Zionism was an invention of intellectuals and assimilated Jews… who turned their back on the rabbis and aspired to modernity, seeking desperately for a remedy for their existential anxiety”. However, most Jews rejected Zionism from the very beginning. They saw that Zionists played into the hands of their worst enemies, the anti-Semites: the latter wanted to be rid of Jews while the former wanted to gather them to Israel. The founder of Zionism Theodore Herzl considered anti-Semites “friends and allies” of his movement.

Among the many tendencies within Zionism, the one that has triumphed formulated four objectives: 1) to transform the transnational and extraterritorial Jewish identity centred on the Torah into a national identity, like ones then common in Europe; 2) to develop a new national language based on biblical and rabbinical Hebrew; 3) to transfer the Jews from their countries of origin to Palestine; and 4) to establish political and economic control over the land, if need be by force. While other European nationalists, such as Poles or Lithuanians, needed only to wrest control of their countries from imperial powers to become “masters in their own houses,” Zionists faced a far greater challenge in trying to achieve their first three objectives simultaneously.

Zionism has been a rebellion against traditional Judaism and its cult of humility and appeasement. It has been a valiant attempt to transform the meek pious Jew relying on divine providence into an intrepid secular Hebrew relying on his own power. This transformation has been an impressive success.

Zionism and Religion

According to a sarcastic remark of an Israeli colleague, « our claim to this land could be put in a nutshell: God does not exist, and he gave us this land. » Indeed, secular nationalism and religious rhetoric lie at the root of the Zionist enterprise.

Indeed, Zionism turned prayers and messianic expectations into calls for political and military action. In his intellectual history of Zionism, Professor Shlomo Avineri of Hebrew University observes “Jews did not relate to the vision of the Return in a more active way than most Christians viewed the Second Coming. … The fact remains that for all of its emotional, cultural, and religious intensity, this link with Palestine did not change the praxis of Jewish life in the Diaspora: Jews might pray three times a day for the deliverance that would transform the world and transport them to Jerusalem, but they did not emigrate there.” They did not because Jewish tradition discourages collective, let alone violent, return to the Promised Land: this return is to be operated as part of the messianic redemption of the entire world.

There is little wonder that the Zionist idea provoked immediate opposition among traditional Jews. “Zionism is the most terrible enemy that has ever arisen to the Jewish Nation. … Zionism kills the nation and then elevates the corpse to the throne”, proclaimed a prominent European rabbi nearly a century ago. The Israeli scholar Yosef Salmon explains this opposition:

It was the Zionist threat that offered the gravest danger, for it sought to rob the traditional community of its very birthright, both in the Diaspora and in the Land of Israel, the object of its messianic hopes. Zionism challenged all the aspects of traditional Judaism: in its proposal of a modern, national Jewish identity; in the subordination of traditional society to new life-styles; and in its attitude to the religious concepts of Diaspora and redemption. The Zionist threat reached every Jewish community. It was unrelenting and comprehensive, and therefore it met with uncompromising opposition.

Rabbis were also concerned, long before the declaration of the state of Israel, that “the Zionists would ultimately create a Judaism of cannons and bayonets that would invert the roles of David and Goliath and would end in a perversion of Judaism, which had never glorified war and never idolized warriors.” This has in fact happened, particularly within the National Religious movement that has been the engine of Zionist settlement in the territories conquered by Israeli troops in 1967.

Grafting traditional Jewish symbols on essentially secular Zionism, however incongruous, is very potent. Identification with Israel’s reliance on force has increased even among many observant Jews, in spite of the principled rejection of Zionism by the rabbis they continue to revere. More importantly, Zionism has replaced Judaism as a new religion for millions of secular and atheistic people. They reflexively reject disapproval of Israel and avoid unpleasant facts about it. Believing to act as good Jews, they cherish and cheer on an ideal, virtual Israel, just as Western communists used to support an ideal Soviet Union, which had little to do with the real one.

At the same time, a broad variety of Jews continue to oppose Zionism, accusing it of destroying Jewish moral values and endangering Jews in Israel and elsewhere. It remains to be seen whether the fracture between those who hold fast to Jewish nationalism and those who abhor it may one day be mended. Or, like Christianity before it, Zionism will coalesce into a new identity independent of Judaism altogether.

While Zionism has profoundly divided the Jews, it has united tens of millions of evangelical Christians in the United States and elsewhere. Some of them claim that Israel is “more important for Christians than it is for Jews”. For the prominent evangelical preacher Reverend Jerry Falwell the founding of the State of Israel in 1948 is “the most crucial event in history since the ascension of Jesus to heaven … Without a State of Israel in the Holy Land, there cannot be the second coming of Jesus Christ, nor can there be a Last Judgement, nor the End of the World”. The coalition of Christians United for Israel claims many times more supporters than the sum total of Jews the world (between 13 and 14 million). Most Zionists today are Christian, which is hardly surprising since the very project of actually gathering the Jews in the Holy Land had emerged in Anglo-American Protestant circles well before Jews embraced it in late 19th century.

Evolution of Zionism

Political ideologies within Zionism used to vary from militant exclusive nationalism to humanistic socialism and national communism. While the former were convinced that the indigenous Palestinians would only acquiesce to Zionist colonization in the face of a overwhelming military force, the latter believed that eventual benefits of progress and modernization would lead to proletarian unity between the colonizers and the colonized. Unlike the right-wing Vladimir Jabotinsky, who openly endorsed the colonialist and therefore forceful character of Zionism, the socialist majority of the Zionist pioneers refused to acknowledge conflict over the land between Zionists and the indigenous population. Jabotinsky, an admirer of Mussolini, who called for mobilization of the Jews for “war, revolt and sacrifice,” derided the illusions of the Social-Zionists and their insistence on the “purity of arms”.

In fact, emphasis on the use of force was almost as common among the socialist Zionists. True, thousands of socialist and communist rank-and-file Zionists were opposed to the idea of a Jewish state, that they considered reactionary and even fascist in the 1920s. At the same time, Labour Zionist leaders did not apply socialist egalitarian principles to local Arabs and Jewish immigrants from Muslim countries. Socialism was for them no more than an instrument to be used in the cause of nationalism, rather than an intrinsic social or political value. David Ben-Gurion, the future founder of the state of Israel, declared in 1922:

It is not by looking for a way of ordering our lives through the harmonious principles of a perfect system of socioeconomic production that we can decide on our line of action. The one great concern that should govern our thought and work is the conquest of the land and building it up through extensive immigration. All the rest is mere words and phraseology, and — let us not delude ourselves — we have to go forward in an awareness of our political situation: that is to say, in an awareness of power relationships, the strength of our people in this country and abroad.

According to Zeev Sternhell, Israel’s foremost historian of right-wing movements, Ben-Gurion’s socialism was inspired by the German nationalist socialism of the years immediately following the Great War. In the introduction to his book, The Founding Myths of Zionism, Sternhell goes to great lengths to come up with the term “nationalist Socialism” to avoid calling Ben-Gurion’s political outlook National Socialism. While some Zionists deplore the disappearance of the “small beautiful Israel” of the 1950s, which was admired by the international left, it was to be expected that practical Zionism, which involved displacement of local population, would evolve towards exclusive nationalism, away from socialist ideals that enthused Zionist pioneers.

Western Support

An Israeli political commentator once remarked that had Jean-Marie Le Pen transferred his party to Israel, it would find itself in the centre left of the country’s political spectrum. Media in Israel have termed as “fascist” and “racist” the parliament elected in 2009. This election came in the wake of a popularly supported massive attack on Gaza that left behind thousands of civilian dead and wounded. The new government has proposed a series of repressive legislative measures, intensified police harassment of Jewish dissident groups, and barred entry to UN officials.

However, Western governments did not react to all this with disapproval, which followed the election of Hamas in Gaza or even the ministerial appointment of Heider in Austria. Most expressed confidence in the robustness of Israeli democracy and abstained from voicing criticism. Canada’s Conservative government continued its policy of enthusiastic support and security cooperation with Israel. Why does Israel enjoy so much support from Western governments?

One of the reasons is the right wing shift in political, social and economic conditions in Israel. The gap between the rich and the poor increased, competition replaced social solidarity, and privatization encroached even on kibbutzim. This dovetailed with measures to dismantle the welfare state in major Western nations in the wake of the dissolution of the Soviet Union. As if in reaction to the Soviets’ internationalism, overt ethnic nationalism has made a comeback, first in the Baltic republics, and later in the rest of Europe. Egalitarian liberal discourse has ceded its once dominant place to attempts to exclude “the other”.

Liberal values emerged during the post-colonial period when it became no longer admissible to proclaim the superiority of one culture over another, one religion over another, let alone one race over another. Cold War made racism illegitimate as intensive struggle was conducted between superpowers for sympathies in the Third World. There was shame and regret expressed with respect to past racist practices in Europe and in the colonies around the world. The end of the Cold War reversed this process. One has begun to hear justifications of colonial rule in France, to see monuments to SS troops erected in Ukraine, and watch Roma, Africans and Asians violently attacked throughout Europe. Mass massacres accompanied the collapse of Yugoslavia, while Czechoslovakia dissolved peacefully along ethnic lines. References to national and religious “intrinsic” factors of behaviour regained legitimacy as Western nations engaged in wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Here again Israel, espousing ethnic, not civic, nationalism, appeared as a trendsetter. As Zionists would not admit that injustice against indigenous population lies at the foundation of their state, they would not attribute the enduring enmity of the displaced Palestinians to grievances about their deportation and dispossession. Rather, “the Arabs” are portrayed as irrational haters, religious fanatics or even modern-day Nazis. Some would compare them to animals and insects, a zoological vocabulary being common to many colonizers. Western reaction to the events of September 11 embraced Israel’s narrative about the Arabs’ irrational hatred of progress and freedom, their inborn hostility to “Judeo-Christian” values. Moreover, Israel has come to play a major role as a privileged source of expertise and equipment in “the war on terror” conducted by Western nations, while being hailed by the evangelical right, which sees in it a harbinger of the Second Coming of Christ.

However, Western support is fragile since it suffers from democratic deficit. Public opinion in the countries, whose governments enthusiastically endorse Israel, consistently considers it a major threat to world peace. While business circles express their admiration for Israel, unions and other grass-root associations condemn it as an apartheid state and campaign for boycott, disinvestment and sanctions. Israel has firmly positioned itself as a beacon for the right.

Is it anti-Semitic to reject Zionism and to criticize Israel?

Ever since 1948, when Zionists unilaterally declared independence against the will of the majority of Palestine’s population – Christians, Muslims and quite a few Jews – Israeli leaders began to worry about ensuring a Jewish ethnic majority. They have used a range of methods to encourage immigration of Jewish citizens of other countries. Since most immigrants have moved to Israel under the threat – genuine or fake – of anti-Semitism, rather than for ideological reasons, anti-Semitism has always served Israel’s interests.

Nowadays anti-Semitism is mostly fallout from the Middle East conflict. Jews are increasingly associated with Israel’s bomber aircraft, gun-toting soldiers and Zionist settlers that fill the TV screens. However, Israeli authorities are not concerned that their policies towards the Palestinians breed anti-Semitism around the world. To the contrary, the rise of anti-Semitism supports their claim that only in Israel can a Jew feel safe, and, in practical terms, increases immigration.

At the same time, “vassals of Israel” (a term coined by the former Israeli ambassador to France Elie Barnavi for persons often mistaken for Jewish leaders), not only proclaim their loyalty to Israel, but also defiantly fly Israeli flags at the entrance of Jewish institutions, including old-age homes and hospitals. Such conflation of Israel and Jewish citizens of other countries provokes anti-Semitism and invites hostility. The standard Zionist claim that Israel – a distant and combative state most Jews neither control nor inhabit – is “the state of the Jewish people” implicates Jews around the world into what Israel is and does. Calling Israel the Jewish state predictably foments anti-Semitism and breeds anti-Jewish violence.

By stifling even the most moderate critique of Israel with accusations of anti-Semitism, these “vassals of Israel” further enhance anti-Jewish sentiment. Conversely, Jews who speak against Israeli actions – such as Independent Jewish Voices in Canada – undermine fundamental anti-Semitic beliefs. They embody the actual diversity of Jewish life – “two Jews, three opinions” – that flies in the face of the anti-Semitic canard of world Jewish conspiracy. But Jews need not be the only people “authorized” to discuss Zionism and Israel.

Conflation of Israel with Jews and their history serves to muddle and throttle rational discussion. This is why it is so important to make distinctions between the following concepts: Zionism and Judaism; Israel as a state, as a country, as a territory, and as the Holy Land; Jews (Israelis and others), Israelis (Jews and non-Jews), Zionists (Jews and Christians) and anti-Zionists (again Jews and Christians). Israel should be treated as any independent country: according to its own merits and faults, without references to the Holocaust or the pogroms in Odessa. To avoid anti-Semitic overtones in discussing Israel, it is important to remember that Zionism has been a daring revolt against Jewish continuity and to dissociate Jews and Judaism from the State of Israel and its actions.

One of Israel’s experts in Zionism Boaz Evron brings a sense of rationality to this often emotional issue:

The State of Israel, and all the states of the world, appear and disappear. The State of Israel, clearly, will disappear in one hundred, three-hundred, five-hundred years. But I suppose that the Jewish people will exist as long as the Jewish religion exists, perhaps for thousands more years. The existence of this state is of no importance for that of the Jewish people…. Jews throughout the world can live quite well without it.

The author is Professor of History at the University of Montreal; his recent book, A Threat from within: A Century of Jewish Opposition to Zionism (Fernwood), has been translated to eight languages and nominated for the Governor General Award.