By definition, Zionism means support for the State of Israel. But for Liberal/ Progressive Zionists, primarily Reform and Reconstructionist leaders, academics and communal leaders in North America, and many secular Israelis, that does not include Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria, the “settlements.”
Although traditional Zionism is based on the right of the Jewish people to rebuild a homeland in Eretz Yisrael/Palestine and support for the establishment of the State of Israel, Liberal/Progressive Zionists have quite literally drawn the line – the one that was part of the armistice agreements of 1949 which Israel signed with Jordan, Egypt and Syria.
The Six Day War in 1967 changed the map when the IDF conquered the Golan Heights, Judea, Samaria and Gaza, and eastern Jerusalem.
Winning the war was a Zionist achievement, but occupying conquered territory was more problematic, and when Jews began to establish communities there, questions were raised regarding their legitimacy. Absurdly, Israeli courts held that Israel was holding territory in “belligerent occupation.” The Swiss International Committee of the Red Cross held that Israel had violated the Fourth Geneva Convention and was “occupying Palestinian territory”; the international community followed, calling Israeli settlements “illegal.”
Offers by the Israeli government to exchange land for peace were rejected by the Arabs, and Jews were prevented from establishing communities. With a change in ruling parties from Labor to Likud, Jews flocked to “the territories,” Judea, Samaria and Gaza (the West Bank). Eastern Jerusalem was incorporated into western Jerusalem in 1980 and Israeli law was extended to the Golan Heights in 1981; neither was officially annexed.
But Israel remains in “military occupation” of “the territories.” Although Israeli leaders offered to exchange most of the disputed areas for a peace treaty as part of a two-state solution, Arab leaders reject these offers. The Oslo Agreements established the Palestinian Authority and were supposed to accomplish “land for peace,” but did not. And, although nearly a half-million Jews now live in Judea and Samaria, many Israelis, including diplomats, continue to support calls for “ending the occupation of Palestinian territory.” It seems to be not a question of if, but how and when.
Opponents of settlements argue that these Jewish communities prevent ending “the occupation” (of 1967). But Palestinian leaders argue that “the occupation” began in 1948, “the Nakba” (catastrophe), the establishment of the State of Israel; removing Jews from Judea and Samaria is merely a step toward ending the greater “occupation.”
If Israel’s presence in Judea and Samaria is illegal, illegitimate and immoral, then what right does it have to remain there? And, why should Israel maintain and expand Jewish communities – “settlements” – located there? Israeli policy, therefore, seems to be a major source of confusion.
“Progressive/Liberal Zionists” reflect this confusion and ambiguity. The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement uses it as a motivation for its campaigns against Israel. Foreign governments and NGOs use it to justify condemning Israel.
Some blame “the occupation” as the cause of Arab terrorism.
Although supporters of settlements present strong historical, legal and strategic arguments, they are not convincing, especially because the Israeli government has already conceded the debate, calling for “two nations for two peoples.” And this under a so-called “right-wing” government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The question of settlements, therefore, is not only at the heart of Israeli politics, but Zionism itself.
At a recent World Zionist Congress I asked delegates a simple question: Does Zionism include Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria, “the settlements?” Religious Zionists, of course, answered affirmatively; others did not.
“Who needs more Arabs, and those crazy messianists? We can’t continue to occupy another people.”
One liberal Zionist leader insisted: “The settlements are about housing. We can build high-rises for the settlers who will be removed in the Negev.”
Liberal Zionists, including Hatikva (J Street, New Israel Fund, Americans for Peace Now, Ameinu, Habonim Dror, Hashomer Hatzair, Partners for Progressive Israel, etc.), ARZA (the Reform movement) and MERCAZ Olami (the Conservative/Masorti movement) not only oppose settlements; they also opposed a resolution declaring that Jews were an indigenous people in the Land of Israel.
Rabbi Joshua Weinberg, head of ARZA, responded eloquently: “As a liberal Zionist I do not think that the settlements fit in to the Zionist vision. I see the settlement of the lands conquered in the 1967 Six Day War as one of the greatest mistakes made by Israel (right- and left-wing governments alike).
“Settlements are a hindrance to the Zionist dream of living a normal life with peaceful neighbors. I am not naïve, and I am tragically aware that if we were to evacuate every inch of land past the green line tomorrow there would not be peace, and the Pals would not love us. “However, I think this is necessary and would give us peace of mind and a more permanent and lasting base for a final arrangement.
“Unilateral withdrawal is a problem (i.e.; disengagement from Gaza), which is why I am a proponent of a negotiated arrangement.
While I know that Oslo failed, I also know that the negotiated solution is the only one that will end the conflict. I think that once we have negotiated the final borders then Israel will end up annexing or absorbing certain areas that will remain Jewish areas (Gush Etzion, Ma’ale Adumim, Givat Zeev, Ariel, etc.).
“I think the Golan Heights must remain as they are and I don’t see them going back on the negotiating table as almost was the case in Shepardstown (January 3-11, 2000).
“In terms of east Jerusalem, I think that the city is already divided. I hear lots of calls that Jerusalem should never be ‘divided’ but she clearly already is. Israel must maintain sovereignty over the Old City, but other than that the Palestinians should be able to set up a capital in east Jerusalem and give some sort of citizenship and status to residents of east Jerusalem.”
If the basic ideology of the state, its ethos, is compromised by settlements, then its national identity is at risk. Speeches about the danger of Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah portray external threats; but, since settlements prevent the emergence of an Arab Palestinian state west of the Jordan River, for Liberal Zionists, settlements represent a dire internal threat.
But, if removing settlements won’t bring peace or end terrorism and violence, won’t insure regional security or stability, and won’t satisfy Arabs, including Palestinians – why promote it? The failure of Israeli governments to confront this issue is self-defeating. It has turned many Jews and Zionists away from supporting Israel. It has contributed to a misunderstanding of Zionism and the meaning of Jewish nationalism. It has invited condemnation, boycotts and sanctions. It has encouraged Israel’s enemies in their attempts to destroy the state.
Several years ago, Prime Minister Netanyahu appointed a commission of experts led by the late Supreme Court Justice Edmund Levy to study the question of Israel’s legal rights in Judea and Samaria, the issue of settlements and especially the question of “occupation.”
The Commission also recommended judicial procedures for resolving land disputes.
The Levy Commission’s report, however, remains buried deep underground, at Netanyahu’s behest, thereby crippling Israel’s ability to defend itself in the arena of public diplomacy. Despite disagreements about the place of settlements in the Zionist vision, they are an essential part of the state and our national agenda.