Tuesday, April 5, 2005
John Rose - We Need a Post-Zionist Leap of Faith
Saturday April 2, 2005
The Guardian <http://www.guardian.co.uk>
Does the religious and historical attachment of so many Jews to the "land of Israel" justify the Zionist project? The idea of a Jewish homeland continues to pose two problems. The first is the denial of Palestinian rights, especially the rights of the dispossessed refugees, who see an Israel built on their homeland. And the second is what "homeland" means for the Jewish majority that lives outside Israel. There is an interesting and unexplored link between these two problems. Resolving the second can contribute to resolving the first. But that means Jews in the west renouncing our automatic right to be potential citizens of Israel.
This position chimes with the rhythms of Jewish history, especially, paradoxically, in the Middle East. More than 2,000 years ago, long before the fall of the second temple in Jerusalem in AD 70, the Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria addressed this very question. "Homeland", patris, was one's place of birth and education. There was Jewish pilgrimage to the temple at Jerusalem, but this meant reluctantly abandoning patris to visit what Philo called not "homeland", but a"strange land".
Incidentally, the existence of flourishing Jewish communities such as Philo's across the Mediterranean and beyond, long before the fall of the second temple, upset the Zionist myth of "exile". This held that Jews went into exile after the fall of the second temple as a result of the Roman policy of forcible dispersal. The Zionist enterprise is supposed to overcome the dispersal 2,000 years later. But "dispersal" appears to be a much more "natural" historical condition. More than a thousand years later, also in Egypt, we have a highly successful Jewish community in the newly built Islamic city of Cairo.
Professor Shelomo Goitein, the brilliant scholar of Islamic Arab-Jewish relations, in his analysis of the "Geniza" documents discovered in a medieval synagogue, has left us a vivid insight of how the city's Jews saw "homeland". This is the high point of Islamic-Jewish relations symbolised by Saladin, the Islamic world's greatest leader, protecting Cairo from the Crusaders as well as expelling them from Jerusalem. It is worth reminding ourselves that it was the European Crusaders who slaughtered the Jews (as well as Muslims, of course) in Jerusalem, and it was Saladin who invited them to return. But most Jews had no intention of living in Jerusalem. It was a religious and spiritual centre, not a "homeland". The communities felt "at home" in villages, towns and cities throughout the Islamic world. Jews migrated from Europe to the Islamic world to escape the Crusades.
Cairo's Jews readily offered help to their European co-religionists. According to Goitein, Islamic authorities made no attempt to impede this migration. What a contrast with our contemporary "civilised" attitudes to migration.
The Jews of early 20th-century Iraq have similar lessons for us. To this day, Iraqi Jews understandably boast about their uninterrupted2,500-year history, from Babylon to Baghdad. Joining the Iraqi national movement to throw out the British immediately after the first world war, they certainly did not want the Zionists. Menahem Daniel, a Baghdadi Jewish notable, wrote to them in 1922: "You are regarded as a threat to Arab national life." He told them: please stay away.
Jewish culture flourished as part of Iraqi culture. Over a third of Iraq's top musicians were Jewish. In 1949 as the crisis for Iraq's Jews gathered pace, cynically engineered by both Israel and Britain, as well as Iraq's pro-British puppet government, the Jewish Chronicle, to its credit, reported on the determination of Iraq's Jews to hang on: "On the whole, Islamic tolerance has enabled Baghdadi Jews to flourish as a centre of learning and commerce. They and their kind would like to stay..."
It will be objected that the European Jewish experience, nevertheless, suggests the need for a securely Jewish homeland as a kind of insurance against another Holocaust. Yet here we have what is sometimes called the "lachrymose" view of Jewish history: the inevitability of Jewish suffering at the hands of non-Jews. As one writer has put it, there is adanger of the scar doing the work of the wound.
In truth, the European Jewish experience is far more complex. The Jewish response to the anti-semitic pogroms of the collapsing Tsarist Russian empire more than 100 years ago deserves particular study. The Jewishmass migrations to western Europe and America begin here. The Zionists developed their best cadres here. Yet the astonishing levels of participation by Jews in the resistance to the Tsar speak of a different Jewish history in the making. A history where the Jewish value asserted with most consistency was solidarity between Jews and non-Jews in the resistance. The Jewish socialist Bund helped pioneer this value, which the Zionists simply could not understand.
The value of solidarity was built into the promise made to the Jews by the Enlightenment and the French revolution. It said you are welcome here as equal citizens in the land of your birth. Is this not the expression of Jewish history in modern times?
Are not the Jewish communities in Western Europe and America models of an enlightened assimilation where we can express our Jewish identities, as well as feeling at home in the lands of our birth? The dispossession of the Palestinians reinforces this argument. How can we justify the right to Israeli citizenship when the Palestinians have no country?
Arab-Jewish reconciliation demands an alternative approach. It can legitimately point, borrowing an insight from Walter Benjamin, to "sparks of hope" from the past history of Arab-Jewish relations in the Middle East. Some Israelis understand this. Israeli intellectuals associated with the trend known as post-Zionism imagine with confidence a Jewish life in the area without a Zionist state. A tiny number of former Zionist leaders, such as Meron Benvenisti, one-time deputy mayor of Jerusalem, agree. He says the Zionist revolution is over. He suggests scrapping the law of return that allows Jews anywhere to become Israeli citizens.
He says he loves the land and it's an Arabic land. Perhaps the old Jewish Enlightenment thinkers who believed in assimilation were much more correct than even they realised. Imagine the great-great-grandchildren of European Jewish settlers in Palestine assimilating into Arabic culture, absorbing it and contributing to its development, some time this century. A leap of faith? To be sure, but we Jews have always been rather good at that.
* John Rose is the author of The Myths of Zionism firstname.lastname@example.org