By Rabbi Marc Rosenstein
(I am a Reform rabbi, born and raised in the US, who moved in 1990 to the Galilee, where I engaged in work to further Jewish-Palestinian dialogue. Since October 7, many friends from abroad have written to ask for my thoughts, amidst the strident public discourse on subsequent events; hence, these notes:)
I do not believe that Zionism is immoral. Nor do I believe that one who defines themselves as a Zionist is required thereby to support all the decisions and policies of the current – or any – Israeli government. That is, I believe that the Jewish people have the right of national self-determination in some part of the area historically associated with Jewish sovereignty in ancient times. However, I believe that that self-determination is only moral if it does not prevent the people who define themselves as Palestinians from exerting their right to self-determination, in the same region.
I believe that Israel can only be a democratic and Jewish state, with a significant minority of Palestinians, if there is a parallel and equal democratic and Palestinian state adjacent to Israel, so that each nation can fulfill its right of self-determination and each state can offer a cultural center and identity for its “diaspora” living in the adjacent state. This is “the two-state solution.” I don’t think there is a viable alternative. I believe that a Zionist must be sympathetic to the plight of the Palestinians, and supportive of the two state solution.
This idea has been floating around for a century, and was formally institutionalized by the UN Partition Resolution of 1947. However, the Palestinian leadership (supported by Arab states all around) rejected partition, leading to the 1948 war, which ended in de facto partition but no Palestinian state, as the portions allotted to the Palestinians came under Jordanian and Egyptian rule. Israel pursued a policy of trying to encourage as many Palestinians as possible to leave its territory, and for almost twenty years ruled those who remained in Israel under a military governorship. (Today, there about a million Palestinians who are full citizens of Israel.) Then in 1967, responding to Egypt’s closing of the passage to Israel’s port of Eilat, Israel struck Egypt and Syria and then Jordan, and ended up conquering Sinai, Gaza, the West Bank, and the Golan Heights. At the time there were those who thought that this would finally resolve Israel’s place in the region, as in return for returning the conquered lands, peace could be agreed to with Israel negotiating from strength.
Meanwhile, the victory of 1967 led to a kind of euphoric pride accompanied by a rise in the messianic belief that Israel was divinely destined to rule the “greater land of Israel.” Peace was not to be bought at the cost of control of the whole Holy Land. Israel must complete the conquest that Joshua failed to finish. This trend has only strengthened in the years since, to a powerful force in public discourse and government power.
Unlike Herzl’s vision that a Jewish polity would bring peace and prosperity to its Palestinian minority, Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza have brought political oppression and economic depression to the Palestinians, and led to repeated attempts at rebellion, often violent, from throwing rocks to throwing bombs; thousands of Palestinian political prisoners sit in Israeli prisons.
Israel began supporting Hamas in the 1980s as a religious alternative power base to the secular nationalist PLO, hoping to encourage a focus on social welfare and culture, instead of liberation politics. Later, as the messianic voice got louder in Israeli politics, Israel discreetly supported Hamas for its rejectionist position regarding territorial compromise, in order to undermine any attempt to get Israel to negotiate peace with the Palestinian Authority ruling the West Bank. Occasional minor wars with Hamas served this goal well, and lulled Israel’s leadership into thinking that we could go on like this forever.
I wish I knew enough to be able to suggest what Israel should do now – what is the “right thing?”. How to attain release of the hostages, how to prevent Hamas from continuing to rule Gaza (with an iron hand), how to minimize harm to the miserable residents of Gaza, how to keep Israel’s citizens safe; how to prepare the ground for a livable future for Gazans and Israelis. And how to do all of the above at the same time. There is no painless, easy way out. Meanwhile, for all my anger at my government and sympathy for the Palestinians, pep rallies for Hamas in western campuses and capitals after the horrors of Oct. 7 are, to me, nauseating.
Part of the depression that affects me and many of my neighbors now is the sense of powerlessness, of having been painted into a corner by our own government, against our values, and not knowing how to get out of it. On the other hand, ironically, perhaps this war will ultimately force Israel to change its conception and actually pursue a two state solution, strengthening instead of consistently weakening the forces open to such a solution. Still, alas, messianic movements have great psychological power, and don’t lend themselves to rational conversation.
One more thing. There has been a lot of talk about Hamas as the new Nazis. People are showing the photos of the horrors of Oct. 7 to strengthen Israel’s “case” in the world, just as in the past, every European diplomat arriving in Israel was taken straight from the airport to Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum. Indeed, yesterday Israel’s UN ambassador came to work wearing a yellow star. Victims, of course, always occupy the high moral ground. Alas, however, it seems that no one ever wins the sweepstakes of competitive victimhood.
But the Holocaust (and the pogroms in Russia and Iraq etc.) took place when the Jews were a powerless dispersed minority. They were victims, not free to resist or counterattack, helpless. Since 1948 Israel has been a sovereign state with a powerful army. As Zionism promised, the Jewish nation has returned to history. But if we – the Jews – have returned to history, with power, that means we are not helpless. The Jewish state can make decisions, act on them, and face the consequences. Israel chose, over the past half century, certain policies, certain conceptions, certain courses of action. It could have chosen others. Israel cannot claim to be merely the helpless victim of eternal antisemitism. The vaunted Jewish return to history implies power, and power implies responsibility. Israel’s diplomats freaked out when the secretary general of the UN said that “the Hamas attack did not take place in a vacuum.” But, horrific as it was, it did not, to any objective observer who has been awake for the past half century, take place in a vacuum. It seems to me that to see the Oct. 7 attack as Kishinev 1903 redux – it’s always only antisemites all the way down – is an anti-Zionist position, that denies the significance of Jewish power and responsibility.
Meanwhile, regarding “genocide” in Gaza. It seems to me that Gaza must be related to as a state. It has an elected government that takes care of public services, public order, foreign policy, defense, etc. It is independent, with clear borders, and, it seems, a powerful military. It is poor, crowded, lacks resources, and has been subject to an economic blockade by Israel since the end of Israeli occupation in 2005, because of its hostile acts toward Israel. On Oct. 7, this “Hamas state of Gaza” launched a surprise attack, invading Israel on land, targeting civilian communities and a music festival for deliberate murder and kidnapping of civilians. To me as a layman, this seems an act of war, and its planners obviously knew that Israel would understand it as such. For the past century or so, war has no longer meant armies lining up to fire at each other in a field, but “total war” where Germany sent missiles to bomb London, and America firebombed Dresden (and Hiroshima and Nagasaki), each side trying to bring its enemy to surrender or collapse.
Just as Israel had and has the power to decide on courses of action, so does Gaza. Hamas deliberately committed an egregious act of war on behalf of the state of Gaza. Israel is responding by trying to force the collapse or surrender of the Hamas-led state that attacked it. A great deal of suffering and death is the result. However, critical as I have long been of Israel’s policies, and fraught as its relationship with the Palestinians has been, and as deep the public bitterness after the brutality of Oct. 7, “genocide” – the deliberate murder of an entire nation – is not what Israel is doing, or even thinking about doing, in Gaza or anywhere else. Apropos “competitive victimhood,” I suggest that both sides call a moratorium on Holocaust imagery and comparisons.
Many people argue that my hope for a two state resolution is naïve and not viable, because experience shows us that there has not ever been – and therefore never will be – a partner; the Muslim religion, or the Arab national character, or Palestinian culture, will never allow reconciliation with Israel’s existence in any form. But I am stuck with my [Jewish] belief that people can change, cultures can change, that there is therefore no such thing as national character, and that Islam, like Judaism and Christianity, has always allowed for a very wide range of interpretations. “There is and can be no partner” is a statement of victimhood.
The twentieth century Jewish philosopher Emanuel Levinas stated that “despair is a sin.” I’m with him.
Further reading on some of the above points: