Neo-Zionism, Religion, and Citizenship

The majority of Israelis, like me, can no longer use the term “Zionist” to define what we believe in. “Zionism” has been hijacked by the movement of settlers who have built hundreds of settlements in the West Bank and are the primary obstacle to making peace with our Palestinian neighbors on the basis of the two-states-for-two-people solution. As I’ve argued in The Jerusalem Post, we need a new definition. We need a neo-Zionism.

The hijacking of Zionism is not a new phenomenon. It is at least as old as the occupation itself – 40 years. What is new is the realization that we may be facing the final opportunity to divide historic Palestine into two sovereign states. The settlement movement has changed the reality of the West Bank so deeply that many question the very possibility of creating a viable Palestinian state today.

If this is so, the victory of the settlers and their settlement enterprise will succeed in bringing about an end to the Zionist enterprise. An Israeli Jewish state on all of the land between the river and the sea will within one generation no longer have an Israeli Jewish majority. Control of the non-Jewish population within those borders will only be possible through repressive means. Once the two-state solution is no longer valid, the entire international community will join the campaign to paint Israel as an apartheid state. Once that happens, it is only a matter of time before the state of Israel will have absolutely no legitimacy to exist.

Today the so-called Zionist movement is, in my mind, similar to the Zealots of Masada who in their heroism committed national suicide 2,000 years ago. In order to differentiate between the modern day Zealots and the rest of us Zionists, I use the term neo-Zionist to define people who share the belief that the Jewish people have a right to a nation state, equal to the rights of every other people. The term defines a belief that the state of the Jewish people must be democratic and just and must be based on the prophetic values on which our heritage as a people stands firm.

As neo-Zionists, we must also search for new ways to translate our Jewishness into modernity that does not detach ourselves from our roots but also helps us to give meaning to that Jewishness outside of the synagogue. The challenge of finding and shaping the Jewishness of the state must be a joint project that includes those settlers that we are calling on to come back home to Israel. Our challenge will also be to enable those people to feel at home in a society that is represented to them by the secular “holy city” of Tel Aviv.

Religion and the State

The system of relations between religion and state practiced in Israel today is a primary factor alienating most young Israelis from Judaism and Jewish expression. The system of control over religion, inherited from the Ottoman Empire, gives the state power over the formation of religious establishments and all issues concerning personal status such as birth, death, marriage, and burial. This system by definition limits pluralism and religious freedoms. In Israel there is no freedom of religion and there is no freedom from religion. The only escape from state religious control over personal status issues is to leave the country. Reform and Conservatives rabbis, for example, can practice the rites of marriage and burial all over the world except in the Israel. Likewise, there is no legal way for people of two different religions to marry in Israel. They must go abroad to marry, and only then will the civil institutions of the state recognize the marriage.

The Israeli state must relinquish control over religion as a necessary precondition for enabling Judaism to find new expressions in Israeli society and culture. The state-controlled monopoly over Judaism has frozen Jewish expression and culture in a very narrow confined space held by Orthodoxy as interpreted by very small sects within Jewish society. This must change.

The Jewish religion itself has a very small role in shaping state policies. The exception is, of course, the overwhelming power of the settlement movement vis-à-vis all governments since 1967. The settlers anchored their expansionist ideology in Jewish history and religion and in long-term strategic planning and implementation by taking control of key institutions such as the civil administration and offices controlling land registration. The anchoring of the settlement enterprise on religion was quite easy. After the miracle victory of the 1967 war in six short days a wave of messianic urges together with the nationalist, chauvinistic militarism that spread throughout Israeli society enabled the leaders of the settlement movement to link every step they took to the pages of the Bible. The guidebook for the building of settlements was and remains the Old Testament. The names of the settlements are the same as the cities and villages of old, and they are located on the very same land where they existed during the times of the Prophets. This linkage naturally has great popular appeal and was supported by most of the political parties making up most of the governments since 1967.

Only recently have the majority of Israelis and the majority of the political parties that compose the government come to understand that we must break the link. The majority of Israelis realize that in order to maintain Israel as the state of the Jewish people, we must break the link, we must remove the settlements in the hinterlands of the West Bank, and we must come back home to the state of Israel within the Green Line border. As part of this new reality in Israel, the settlement movement is increasingly becoming perceived as a threat to the existence of the state. Those sentiments will strengthen if it appears that there is a real partner for peace in Palestine and that the peace process is genuine.

Land and Peace

The problem that we will face, and we experienced this in the disengagement from Gaza, is that the split of opinions in Israel on the issue of land and peace is very similar to the religious-secular split in the society. Chances are that if you are a religious Israeli, you will support the settlers and if you are secular, you are more likely to support compromise on territory with the Palestinians. This is not a 100% correlation, because the first half of the sentence is truer than the second. Most religious people in Israel will find it more difficult to give up parts of the land of Israel than secular people. At Peace Now demonstrations it is difficult to find many people with the religious kippa (skull cap) on their heads, while at the demonstrations in favor of the settlers it is difficult to see people without their heads covered.

When and if the battle on the future of the borders of the state of Israel is behind us, it will be necessary to find the path toward healing the wounds and for creating dialogue and reconciliation between the religious and the secular parts of Israeli society. The resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will also necessitate resolving fundamental questions regarding the status of the Palestinian citizens of Israel.

Two aggravating factors may play a very negative role in the coming years. Proposals for land swaps with the Palestinians that would enable a large number of settlers to remain where they are involved moving the border westwards in a way that would include several very large Palestinian-Israeli cities within the new Palestinian state. From the point of view of most Jewish-Israelis this is a very positive idea. From the point of view of almost all of those Palestinian-Israelis who will be directed affected by the change of border this is a very negative step. One Palestinian member of the Knesset, Ahmad Tibi, described it as being “obscene.”

There is a certain compelling logic to the idea – why shouldn’t Palestinians who sees themselves as part of the Palestinian people and also see themselves as discriminated against by Israel be pleased to be included in the new Palestinian state? Objectively this should be perceived as a blessing. They are not required to leave their homes and land. There is no transfer or expulsion; it is simply a change of border. One reason for the reluctance of Palestinian Israelis to support this border change can be found in the economic disparities between Israel and Palestine, but it is more complex than that. The very raising of the issue is going to add to tensions that already exist and will require both sides, Jewish Israeli and Palestinian Israelis, to seriously question and tackle the meaning of citizenship for Palestinian Israelis.

The second aggravating factor is the rise of the radical Islamic movement in many of the communities of Palestinian Israeli citizens. The branch of the movement represented by Sheikh Raed Salah of Umm el Fahem is successfully radicalizing many segments of the society and pushing them toward a denial of the possibility of coexistence between Islam and the state of Israel as the state of the Jewish people. The distance between holding that ideology and taking action on it is very short and this poses a great danger to the future of relations between Israel and its Palestinian citizens.

In the view of this neo-Zionist, it is legitimate to raise the issue of transferring the border so that some Palestinian Israeli communities could be found within the state of Palestine, but the implementation of that should only be done with the agreement of those who will be affected by it. If done in a reasonable way, raising this issue could actually have a very positive impact on shaping the definition of citizenship for Palestinian-Israelis. In my view, there is absolutely no reason why Palestinian citizens of Israel should not enjoy full equality in the state. There is no reason why Palestinian Israelis should not have a lot more autonomy over their educational system. There is also no reason why they should not be called to do a non-military national service to serve their state and their communities.

Once there is a state of Palestine next to the state of Israel living in peace, the issues concerning citizenship and possibly dual citizenship should be somewhat easier to deal with. The pretexts for discrimination will hopefully no longer exist, and Israel will have to work much harder at finding the true expression of its democracy.

Gershon Baskin is the co-CEO of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus. For more articles in FPIF’s Religion and Foreign Policy focus, please visit www.fpif.org.