Books: A polemic against Israel

Yakov Rabkin argues that Zionism is racist, manipulative and exploitative.

A man wears a kippa.  (photo credit: REUTERS)
A man wears a kippa.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Yakov Rabkin, a professor of history at the University of Montreal, argues in his book What Is Modern Israel? that the creation of Israel was a secular “Zionist enterprise” designed to make “a clean break” with Jewish history and Judaism.
The product of 19th-century European colonialism and (biological and cultural) nationalism, Rabkin writes, Zionism rejected the Jewish tradition that the return to the Holy Land was a “messianic project rather than a human initiative of migration;” dismissed Jewish identity centered on the Torah, fused religion, ethnicity and nationalism; “displaced” Jews from their countries of origin to the Middle East; established political and economic control over Palestine; developed Hebrew as a new vernacular national language; and “manipulated public perceptions of Jews and Israel.”
The result, Rabkin maintains, is a Jewish state that equates criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism, commits itself to the use of force and constitutes the principal obstacle to peace in the region.
Rabkin draws on heretofore obscure writings by ultra-Orthodox rabbis to document the conflict between Judaism and Zionism and the “prostitution” of the former by the latter to foster allegiance to the state. His book is a polemic, motivated – apparently – by a conviction that Israel is “the most racist state in the industrialized world” that plays a leading role in replacing self-determination, which seemed to be a self-evident principle following World War II, with re-colonization, military intervention, “wars on terror” that ignore the sovereignty of states, and the hegemony of the West.
The theological arguments of detractors of Zionism, Rabkin claims, have not changed all that much since the 19th century.
For many observant Jews, for whom “the land of Israel has no value detached from the Torah,” the state is not and cannot be connected to redemption.
On Independence Day, the most radical of them have often worn mourning sackcloth and burned the Israeli flag. In the 1940s, Rabkin adds, some Reform rabbis proposed a democratic Palestine in which “neither religious faith nor ethnic derivation would be a deterrent to full participation in the national polity.”
Later, Élie Barnavi, former Israeli ambassador to France, concluded that “deprived of its religious dimension, the dream of a ‘Third Kingdom of Israel’ can only lead to totalitarianism.”
Some religious critics, Rabkin suggests, have been co-opted. Shas, for example, is a haredi political party that has formally joined the Zionist movement. Some hassidic Jews now serve in the armed forces, while others have been silenced by threats of reprisal.
“It appears impossible to set up a loyal opposition of Zionism,” Rabkin indicates, “since the attitude is that ‘You are either with us or against us.’” That said, he notes that religious anti-Zionists still give voice to their views online and in other venues. And the apocalyptic claims of early critics, he asserts, “appear today far better grounded in fact in a nuclearized Israel.”
To Jews in Israel and elsewhere, Rabkin points out, “the concept of a ‘Jewish state’ is increasingly incongruous and foreign.”
Only 40 percent of American Jews believe Israel embodies God’s promise to the Jewish people. And so, Rabkin concludes, Israel is best understood as an ethnocratic “Zionist state” and not a “Jewish state.”
Rabkin throws everything, including the kitchen sink, at Israel. Zionists, he writes, collaborated with Nazis and other anti-Semites to increase immigration to Israel. They exploited – and continue to exploit – the Holocaust to legitimize their enterprise. Zionists have repudiated biblical injunctions that Jews be bashful, compassionate and charitable, accord supreme value to peace, and not resort to force except in self-defense.
Since 1948, they have adopted “a reductionist vision of ‘the Arab’ identical to racial anti-Semitism” and engaged in systematic “ethnic cleansing.” Along with the pro-Israel lobby in the United States, Zionists in Israel have “fabricated” Iran’s nuclear threat. In the wake of the attacks on September 11, 2001, they have influenced the US to treat symptoms of problems in the Middle East without recognizing “that its own policies might have engendered armed resistance.”
And Israel has been “the sole beneficiary” of US intervention in the region.
Rabkin concludes that peace remains possible. The Arab League, he notes, has offered normalization of relations in exchange for withdrawal from the territories occupied since 1967.
And the prospect of a binational state between Jordan and the Mediterranean “has continued to gain ground, both in Israel and the diaspora,” he claims. Even though he acknowledges that Israeli politicians denounce these initiatives as existential threats and that the Zionist structure of the state is not likely to be changed anytime soon, Rabkin thinks there is a decent chance that support for a genuine peace will grow as intellectuals question the concept of “the Jewish People” that underlies Zionist ideology.
What Is Modern Israel? is not likely to stimulate significant support for Rabkin’s views. But he is almost certainly right about one thing: the State of Israel is, indeed, “a vanguard and a barometer of changes that have taken place in international relations, in warfare, and in the ‘war of terror’ in the 21st century.”
Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.