Okay, here goes.
I’m renouncing my right to Jewish national self-determination.
There. I’ve done it.
It didn’t hurt.
I’m still here.
I’m still Jewish.
But what was it? And how did I get it in the first place?
And just why do our Jewish leaders like to talk about it so much?
I understand, thanks to various pronouncements from the Jewish community, that as a Jew I have the right to something called Jewish national self-determination.
Thanks chaps. It sounded nice. At first.
Apparently, every nation has this right, and I, as part of the Jewish nation, have it too (at least until my voluntary renunciation, just now).
It means (or ‘meant’ before I gave it up) that I have the right to live in a Jewish State that will protect and privilege me as a Jew. In fact I can move there tomorrow, permanently, if I wanted.
The theory goes that I need this right because such protection can’t be guaranteed anywhere else in the world with any long-term confidence. All I have to do is open a book on Jewish history to know how true this is. Deep down, there are just too many people that hate us. So, how ever bright things might appear at any given moment, there’s no real future for me here that doesn’t require the insurance policy of a Jewish nation state. And take special note of the European mid-twentieth century to see how fragile ‘civilisation’ really is.
Thanks to the backing of just about every Jewish religious denomination and every Jewish communal organisation, and everyone in a position of Jewish leadership, I’ve learnt that Jewish national self-determination (also known as Zionism) is an unshakable right and today an indivisible part of my Jewish identity. You question it at your peril.
However, despite all that, I’m chucking it in. You can have it back. I don’t need it. And I’ll tell you why.
But first you need to know a bit more about how it all works.
The Jewish national ‘back story‘
Despite our two thousand years of dispersal, migrations, expulsions and mixed ethnicity, we are still, the theory goes, a ‘nation’. And the thing that binds my people into this nation is our common origin in a part of the world we describe as ‘The Promised Land’ according to our holy scripture. If you recall your Old Testament stories, it was ‘Promised’ to our ancestors Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and to their descendants.
Yes I know our rabbis successfully reshaped Judaism to adapt to our changed circumstances.
And I know they worked out how to move away from the practice of a land based and Temple cult religion.
I haven’t forgotten how they replaced animal sacrifice with prayer and study and ethical action.
I know how they adapted the remaining biblical commandments to life outside of the Promised Land.
I know, I know, I know.
But it turns out this was just a ‘holding pattern’ and not a spiritual evolution. Merely a necessary, but unwelcome, aberration from our true history as a nation. In truth we were all desperate to get back to our land as soon as possible.
The fact that the rabbis of the 19th and early 20th century had fundamental objections to Zionism shouldn’t distract from the essential truth that Zionism is essential to Judaism – or ‘axiomatic’ as Chief Rabbi Mirvis likes to say.
As for all those previous rabbinic objections, I understand it was something to do with our rabbis thinking that our exile was spiritual and moral as well as physical. And yes they liked to push the idea of a ‘return’ into the messianic ‘long grass’ for fear of us mortal Jews forcing the hand of God.
But in the end they all came round to the idea of Jewish national self-determination. Even those Liberal and Reform rabbis that had been so keen make a distinction between nation and religion. Rabbis have always been skilled at adapting to current political conditions.
And don’t worry if you’re not a religious Jew (and the early Zionists thinkers and pioneers certainly weren’t). The cultural and historical connections to the land are more than good enough to make the case for our national ‘return’.
What’s more, we’ve always had a presence in the Promised Land, however small, all through the period of our dispersal. So actually, when you come to think of it, we never really left.
I hope you’re keeping up.
Because all of this has become highly topical in Britain in the last 18 months as the acceptable parameters of debate on Israel/Palestine have become smaller and tighter and those outside of the acceptable circle of discourse have found themselves hounded and vilified.
Let’s see how it’s happened.
The new international religion
We live in an era of human history where ‘rights’ have become the new international religion. That means you can get into big trouble for denying people anything they consider a ‘right’ as an individual or as a group or, in this particular case, a ‘nation’. In fact, taking away or denying people’s ‘rights’ is about the worst crime you can commit in today’s post-enlightenment Western culture.
So it’s not surprising that denying the right to Jewish national self-determination has now been co-opted into the definition of antisemitism.
Today, if you question the concept of Zionism or the way in which the modern State of Israel is set up, you will quickly find yourself accused of being antisemitic. It is (in theory) okay to criticise particular aspects of Israeli government policy but not the fundamentals of its existence as that becomes a crime against Jewish human rights.
The accusation of antisemitism goes something like this:
“How can you deny the Jewish people their right to national self-determination while defending that right for everyone else? Why should Jews be the only people in the world that you say cannot have this right. That’s antisemitic!”
It’s powerful rhetoric and it’s deployed to close down rather open up debate about a just peace in Israel/Palestine. Most of the time it works. And for the pro-Israel lobby and our Jewish communal leadership, it’s become vital that it does.
The battle of competing human rights
The reason we hear so much about Jewish national self-determination is because it’s become the only way to justify and distract from Zionism’s inherently problematic past and present.
In the last couple of decades the framing of the Israel/Palestinian conflict has changed radically. After nearly 50 years of the Occupation of the West Bank and the annexation of East Jerusalem, and nearly 10 years of the Israeli blockade of Gaza, the conflict is becoming understood in a new way.
It’s no longer about competing nationalisms. It’s no longer about different narratives about the history of the land.
Instead, it’s about who has rights and who does not. Who is denying those rights and who is resisting (sometimes peacefully and sometimes violently). This applies to Palestinians living in the West Bank and also East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip. The lack of rights also relates to Palestinian Israelis (20% of the population) and to the refugees, and their descendants, displaced and not allowed to return to their homes in Israel after 1949.
As the demand grows for Palestinian human rights to be addressed, defenders of the Jewish State have hit back with their own human rights narrative. In this way it’s become a war no longer over territory but over rights. And that takes the whole debate onto a higher, and more tangled, moral plane.
Liberation movement or settler colonialism?
But does the right to Jewish national self-determination really stack up?
Is our story the same as other nationalist liberation movements? In the mid-20th century were we like the Italians or Germans of the mid-19th century? Or the Czechs and Hungarians after WW1?
The awkward truth is that the usual definitions for national liberation movements don’t work when you try and match them to the situation faced by Jews at the end of the 19th century.
We weren’t living in the same land. We weren’t a majority in any land where we did live. We were (and still are) made up of different ethnic groups. The nearest to a shared language and common culture was the Yiddishkeit of Eastern Europe. So it’s difficult to make historical comparisons.
To achieve our Jewish national self-determination required another people, indigenous to the land we wished to ‘return to’, to make way for us. That’s not how national liberation movements are meant to work.
So Jewish national self-determination is a very useful phrase in the ‘Age of Human Rights’. It succeeds in distracting attention from how Zionism played out in practice, however understandable and even noble its intentions once were for the oppressed Jews in the shtetls and ghettos of Eastern Europe.
The concept of Jewish national self-determination successfully turns a settler colonial project (as the early Zionist pioneers were unembarrassed to describe it) into a movement for Jewish liberation. And a national movement for ‘Jewish liberation’ sounds so much better to modern ears than ‘settler colonialism’.
So there’s a huge moral and political conundrum with the idea of Jewish national self-determination once you strip away the layers of collective denial and communal self-justification. And that’s before you question the very idea of a Jewish nation, an idea which has its own set of historical challenges and internal contradictions.
Facing my critics
So I’m turning my back on the whole idea of Jewish national self-determination.
I can see how it’s emotionally compelling for many Jews. But it’s also intellectually ropey at best; an ethical nightmare for Judaism; and a catastrophe for the Palestinians.
But none of this will silence my critics.
They will quickly point out that Israel is not the only country built on a settler colonial past (assuming they accept that premise). You could use the same arguments against the legitimacy of the United States or Australia. Why pick on Israel? Because you’re antisemitic!
It sounds like a fair challenge. Israel certainly isn’t the only country with a settler colonial past. But for Israel this is not only a matter for the historians.
This is a here and now issue.
Israel is still in denial about the nature of its foundation, and the consequences and responsibilities it has towards the people it dispossessed. Secondly, its commitment to democracy remains limited. It effectively controls the lives of 4.5 million Palestinians (either directly or indirectly) through the Occupation and the blockade of Gaza. It discriminates against its own Israeli Palestinian population too. And it refuses to take the slightest responsibility for the Palestinian refugee community it did so much to create. This is a 24 hour a day assault on human rights. It’s not a page from ancient history.
So I’m not picking on Israel unfairly or holding it to a double standard. What’s unfair and inconsistent is to ignore all of this.
The other favorite argument in support of Jewish national self-determination is from the What if… School of History. It goes like this:
What if there had been a Jewish State in 1933 or 1940. That would have saved millions of Jewish lives. That’s why we needed Jewish national self-determination then and why we still need it today. If you deny this right you’d have been happy to condemn millions of Jews to death. And you’d do the same thing tomorrow.
There are alternative What if… questions I could ask. What if Chamberlain had stood up to Hitler at Munich? What if America, Britain and Argentina, had opened their doors to refugees fleeing the Nazis? What if the RAF had bombed Auschwitz? What if Hitler had been assassinated?
There are innumerable different courses history could have taken and changing one element of the story doesn’t prove that the outcome you may desire would have happened. There were millions of Jews and millions of other non-Jewish civilians who were killed by the Nazis or their allies. The scenarios that might have saved them are endless. A Jewish State was never the only or best alternative to what happened.
Where do we go from here?
So I’ve renounced my right to Jewish national self-determination. It’s gone. I’m done with it.
But I recognize that something else has to take its place. Something a lot more coherent and a lot more beneficial to Jews, Palestinians and everyone else we live beside in this global village.
I don’t want Jewish national self-determination but I do want equal rights, equal respect, equal protection and equal opportunity wherever I live. And along with those rights should go the responsibility to champion and protect them for my neighbors too.
Today there is a Jewish majority in Israel with a common language and culture. Those six million Jewish Israelis have rights and they need safety and protection like the citizens of any country. The Jewish Settlers on the West Bank also have rights that need protection even if you don’t like how those rights have been accrued. But none of our Jewish rights can be guaranteed at the expense of another people. The way to protect Israel’s (partial) democracy is to expand it, not to deny it to others.
Rejecting Jewish national self-determination is not the same as wanting the destruction of the State of Israel or wanting its Jewish citizens thrown into the sea. That’s just more apocalyptic language aimed narrowing acceptable debate and stifling an honest conversation.
The call for equal rights does not exclude Jews in Israel or anywhere else. And whatever the exact arrangements to bring about equal rights it would be ridiculous and anti-democratic to think that there would be not be a strong Jewish character to Israel, or whatever we call the territory, just as there would be a strong Palestinian character to it too. But that has to be based on mutual respect and protection not on institutional discrimination.
Having cast away my right to Jewish national self-determination I still feel just as a Jewish as I did before. And I am just as connected to other Jews through a shared faith, a shared history, a shared sensibility. And with that comes a bias towards the oppressed and the discriminated against which is informed by my faith and my understanding of Jewish history.
Our Jewish story is unique. We don’t fit the definitions of other national minorities. So, the resolution of our oppression has to look different too. It needs a universal rather than a nationalist approach. That’s how you secure real Jewish self-determination everywhere not just in one place. It’s called equal rights and we fight for it for ourselves and for others wherever we find ourselves.
This is not some naive utopia I’m promoting. This way of thinking will save the Jewish people, not destroy them. This is common sense as well as common decency.
And that’s always a good place to set out from.
This post first appeared on the Patheos site.