Nationalism and Zionism without racism

(photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
I was truly shocked when I saw on TV and read in the Israeli press about the vicious attack on three Arabs on a beach by four young Jews from Haifa at the end of August.
This was not a casual slap or a screaming match but a violent incident using chains and clubs, severe enough to cause injuries that required surgery and hospitalization.
Furthermore it was totally unprovoked. They were asked, “Are you Arabs?” and when they answered “Yes” they were assaulted. At the same time I was relieved to see that the attack was stopped by two Jewish passersby. How much worse it would have been if all the Jews there had simply stood by and let it happen. At least we know that racism and hatred has not infected all Israeli Jews. Indeed I would hope that it has not infected most of them.
My neighborhood, Armon Hanatziv in Jerusalem, borders on Arab villages, and Jewish homes here have been damaged by stone throwing Arabs and there was a bus bombing that resulted in Jewish deaths as well, yet I have never witnessed any violence – verbal or physical – against the Arabs who frequent the local Post Office or the stores in this area. All is not lost, but there have been enough incidents of violence and even killing of innocent Arabs by Jews in Israel for us not to be complacent. Remembering the infamous chants and attacks by the fans of Beitar Jerusalem, I know that there are all too many racists among us.
What is particularly disturbing is that politicians and leaders of our government as well as rabbis and so-called Sages too often lend their hands and their voices to creating an atmosphere in which Arabs are singled out for contempt. Nor can we be complacent when the government pushes for laws that, however banal, are motivated by anti-Arab sentiments, as was made very clear by the statements heard in the Knesset by some of the sponsors of the new nation-state bill recently passed. The lack of sensitivity toward non-Jews displayed on the Knesset podium was appalling. The use of scare tactics to promote voting in national elections is unworthy of a national leader. When we hear religious leaders advising us to vote for a candidate because “he’s good for the Jews,” we should know that something is wrong.
It is possible to advocate for a Jewish state without diminishing the rights and the status of non-Jews. It is possible to have pride in our Jewishness without demeaning others. It is possible to struggle against those who harm us without becoming racists who condemn all members of another group. I am particularly disturbed when Judaism and Jewish Law are used as a prop for racist teachings, such as in the infamous “Torat HaMelekh” volume, ignoring the many teachings of Judaism, which require us to treat all humans created in the image of God in a fair, loving and just manner. We dare not ignore teachings such as that of Rabbi Akiva that “A human being is precious because he is created in the image of God” (Avot 3:15). Not merely Jews, but human beings, members of the human race are precious and beloved.
The question that arises is: can one be a proud Jew and a proud Zionist while at the same time honoring non-Jews, including those who are citizens of Israel? Perhaps this should be phrased even more boldly: if one adopts racists’ beliefs and mistreats non-Jews, can one be considered a good Jew and a real Zionist?
Judaism has always contained both universalistic and particularistic aspects. It is concerned with the fate of the Jewish people – that is a main theme of the Torah – but it also has a universalistic view in which non-Jews too are seen as the concern of God and worthy of respect. Two contrasting verses uttered by the very same ancient prophet, Amos, illustrate this seeming paradox: “You alone have I singled out of all the families of the earth – that is why I will call you to account for all your iniquities” (Amos 3:2). “To Me, O Israelites, you are just like the Ethiopians – declares the Lord. True, I brought Israel up from the land of Egypt, but also the Philistines from Caphtor and the Arameans from Kir” (Amos 9:7). The first verse indicates that there is a special relationship between God and Israel, a closeness and a covenant between them. That is a particularistic vision. But on the other hand, according to the second verse, God is also concerned with the welfare of all nations. We are not the only ones who gained our freedom through God’s actions. That is a universalistic vision.
It is important to note that the book of Jonah, which we read each year on the holiest day of all, Yom Kippur, the book that contains the message of forgiveness and of how to achieve atonement, chooses as its example not Jews, but the king of Nineveh and the people of that pagan city. They are the ones who return, giving up their evil ways.
“God saw what they did, how they were turning back from their evil ways. And God renounced the punishment He had planned to bring upon them, and did not carry it out” (Jonah 3:10). These non-Jews are used as the example for Israel of true repentance. That is a powerful message for us at such a critical moment. Nor is it accidental that that same book also portrays non-Jewish sailors as being God-fearing and righteous – “The men feared the Lord greatly; they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and they made vows” (Jonah 1:16). It is the Jewish prophet, Jonah, who has to learn how to be forgiving, merciful and concerned with human beings of whatever nation. As the Lord says to him, “And should not I care about Nineveh, that great city, in which there ae more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not yet know their right hand from their left, and many beasts as well?!” (Jonah 4:11).
The State of Israel is and has been since its birth a Jewish nation, although exactly what that means has never been defined in a definitive fashion. Even the new Nation-State Law does not give a full definition. But whatever it means, it is certain that it must not mean that only Jews are first-class citizens here and that only Jews have full civil rights. Jews were the victims of hatred and discrimination throughout the Middle Ages and Jews also suffered discrimination in the modern age, either officially or by custom, in even the most liberal and democratic of countries such as England, France and the United States. Even such an enlightened nation as Norway officially discriminated against Jews until almost the end of the 19th century. For Jews now to treat others as we were treated is the ultimate irony, especially since it does not represent the true values taught by our Jewish tradition.
If Israel is to become a light unto the nations, as we so often boast, a symbol of democracy and of love and respect, it must rid itself of any blemish of discrimination.
The Jewish State must become the example for others of enlightened nationalism that does not descend into racism and injustice. If it does, it can no longer be said to be a truly Jewish state.
Reuven Hammer, is a former president of the International Rabbinical Assembly and a two-time winner of the National Jewish Book Award. His most recent book is ‘Akiva: Life, Legend, Legacy,’ available both in English (JPS) and Hebrew (Yedioth Books) and a new work, ‘A Year With the Sages’ (JPS), will be published in the spring.