Zionism: Land vs. Liberty

On the face of it Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu won this last round of brinkmanship over the settlement. He refused to continue the moratorium despite American pressure and Palestinian threats to walk out on the talks. So the freeze is over and, so far, nothing happened. Talks will continue for now.

But Netanyahu knows too that this tactical victory which has made him a hero among his rightwing coalition partners, is temporary at best. Mahmud Abas may change his mind after his consultation with Arab foreign ministers on October 4th. And even if he doesn’t, the issue will not go away because it is considered the litmus test for Israel’s intentions: further settlement, the world believes, mean that Israel does not intend to go the full nine yards of territorial compromise. Why else would it build housing in areas that are to be part of future Palestine? So American pressure is likely to resume after the November elections, and the Palestinians will be forced to walk out eventually, if construction in the West Bank picks up.

All this would have been enough to make the question central to Israeli politics too. But in truth the importance of the settlement question goes even beyond politics. It is not just a matter of policy, it is also one of ideology. The question goes down to the very foundation of Israel’s existence because asking about settlement is really asking what Zionism should be: Is Zionism about liberty, or is it about land?

The original Zionist creed was clear on this issue. In fact, at first, Zionism was not about Zion at all. Herzl, the father of political Zionism, did not think at first that realizing the right of Jews to self-determination must take place in the land of Israel. The pamphlet which inaugurated the movement, Herzl’s The State of the Jews considers the possibility of creating a Jewish state in the territory of Argentina. Famously, Herzl later considered the Uganda Proposal too, though by that stage he thought of that solution as temporary. He was pushed to consider Uganda under the strong impression of the renewed pogroms, and a fear that modern anti-Semitism would turn so violent, that the Jews need to be evacuated from Europe urgently. But at that stage of his career he already understood that Zionism would need Zion: a national (rather than religious) conception of Jewish identity would not make sense outside the ancient homeland any more than a English identity would outside England, or a German identity would without Germany. Still, Zion was a means, not an end. The end was liberating Jews. Herzl thought that Jews would neither be safe nor truly free within the existing European political order, and so concluded that in order to free them as individuals they must be freed as a collective. If Jews cannot become free and equal citizens of other republics, they would need their own independent state, in which they would become active democratic citizens.

Herzl’s most important disciple, founder of the state of Israel, David Ben-Gurion, inscribed this world-view in Israel’s Declaration of Independence: it is “the natural right of the Jewish people to be masters of their own fate, like all other nations, in their own sovereign state.” Thus the internal logic of political Zionism begins with individual liberty, continues to the realization that such individual liberty is conditional upon collective self-determination, and ends with the realization that Jewish self-determination can only succeed in the land of Israel. Zion was the conclusion, not the point of origin.

But not all agreed on this central view. On the margin of the right of the movement there was another conception of Zionism, which saw it, first and foremost, as a reunion of the Jewish people and the Land of Israel. This too had its ideological origins in Europe: in the same way that Herzl’s Zionism stems of the tradition of Enlightenment and national liberation movements, dating back to the American and French revolutions, so the margins of right-wing Zionism have their roots in European ideologies of blood-and-soil nationalism.

Such views remained on the margins and were relegated to pompous rhetoric, while mainstream Zionism built Israel’s democracy. But things changed after the Six Days War of 1967 and the occupation of new territories. The post-war era saw the rise of a new form of religious messianic Zionism. It’s spiritual leader Rabbi Zvi Yehuda HaCohen Kook saw Zionism as part of a process which will lead the Jews, indeed the whole world, to the End of Days. Redemption, he believed, will proceed through the gradual reposition of the Land of Israel by the Jews. The “miracle” of the lightning victory in the Six Days War seemed to him to prove that the process was already underway. Driven by a burning messianic fever his disciples formed a political movement called Gush Emunim (Block of the Faithful) which set out to settle the new territories. He expected the whole of the Jewish people to awaken, regain religious faith, and join in the process of redemption.

Kooks form of Zionism had little to do with the ideal of political liberty, or the democratic foundations of Zionism. It demanded, as religious settlers do to this day, that Israel annex the territories immediately without granting their Arabs inhabitants political rights. For Kook and his settler disciples the Arabs are an alien element in the organic unity of the Jewish people and the Land of Israel. It is the very aberration of Zionism against which Herzl warned: in his novel Altneuland a religious racist leader, which proposes to take away the political rights of non-Jews looses, the elections.

Few Israelis, even on the right, ever considered Kooks theologico-political plan seriously. The religious settlers’ movement numbers about 130,000 people, in a country of just over 7 million people. But it has had powerful political allies on the Israeli right. This does not mean that the Israeli right converted to Kooks apartheid-like views. No government of Israel, left or right, ever moved to annex the territories, and revoke Israel democratic form of government. Mostly the right hoped to use Kook’s movement in the service of a less grandiose vision: annexation in the future, when a Jewish majority is established over the whole land, including the territories. This way Israel will be able to keep the territories and preserve its democratic character. It will give the Arab residents of the territories the same rights that Arabs citizens of Israel have without jeopardizing the Jewish national character of the state which depends on a majority of Jews among its voters. Settlement was a means of consolidating Israel’s hold on the territories until such a move is possible.

The plan depended on two assumptions: that a full fledged Palestinian national movement would not emerge, and that demography would work in Israel’s favour. Both have since proven wrong. This is what convinced a majority of Israelis to support both the Oslo accord, which was aimed at dividing the land into two states, one Jewish one Arab, and later, after they came to believe the Palestinian leadership is not heading for a piece accord, to support unilateral withdrawal from Gaza. The decisive factor was demographic and democratic.

Some on the right continue to support settlement, but their reasons have been scaled back: they argue not for future annexation, but rather that Israel’s presence in the occupied territories is necessary to keep terrorism in check. Settlement is thus a way to demonstrate Israel’s resolve. But this policy is not just ineffective. It also undermines the very foundations of Zionism. This is true not only because ideologically a creed which rest on the universal right of self-determination cannot deny that same right to another people, nor give up democracy. It is also true politically: if settlement blocks the road to partition, it will sink the Zionist dream of Jewish self-determination in a bi-national state, which, as one look at Gaza demonstrates, will not create a middle-eastern Switzerland, but yet another Lebanon. Settlement is thus not just an obstacle to peace, it is a serious threat to the Zionist enterprise itself. Far from being a continuation of Zionism, settlement in the occupied territories are its most dangerous adversary. Thus if one is truly a Zionist in Herzl’s sense, one must object to settlement in the West Bank.

This piece originally appeared in the German Die Zeit on October 1, 2010