Starving for Zion

This is not a happy time for Zionists on the left, who have been in the Israeli political wilderness for years and have no champions on the horizon who seem capable of restoring them to power. But if their electoral prospects remain dim, they are still renewing their intellectual resources. Some of the best of them are on display in A Just Zionism: On the Morality of the Jewish State. In this insufficiently noticed book, now republished in paperback, Chaim Gans, a political philosopher and law professor at Tel Aviv University, has rethought and refashioned the liberal argument in favor of Zionism. He has done so, moreover, in ways that can be instructive to all of Israel’s supporters, even those who may not always see eye to eye with him. In a book of fewer than one hundred and fifty pages he has presented a finely honed “philosophical analysis of the justice of contemporary Zionism as realized by the state of Israel, including Israel’s territorial and demographic aspirations and the way it conceives of itself as a Jewish state.” In the mine-strewn context of current wrangling over the rights and wrongs of Zionism, Chaim Gans’ contribution stands out as a systematic analysis of unprecedented profundity. It merits the most serious intellectual and political attention.

Gans’ defense of Zionism rests on two main arguments. One is the moral justification of ethno-nationalism in terms of a liberal worldview. The other is the justification of the Jewish people’s specific need for, and entitlement to, self-determination in the particular territory known to Jews as the Land of Israel. While justifying and endorsing Zionism in principle, Gans forthrightly acknowledges the fateful fact that the realization of Zionism’s aspirations conflict with those of another people, the Palestinians, who also have morally valid needs and aspirations.

Gans locates the justification for nationalism in general, and Zionism in particular, in the human rights of the individual. He upholds the liberal philosophical tenet that adhering to whatever culture one regards as one’s own constitutes an inalienable human right. Nationalism’s chief virtue consists in its capacity to enable and sustain the individual’s liberty to enjoy that right. By the same token, the territorial state that any nationalist movement attains is morally entitled to provide support for the sustenance of the culture to which the majority of the state’s citizens adhere.

But what gives the Jewish people the right, in the first place, Gans asks, to self-determination in the Land of Israel? In a word, history—but not in the way that many people understand it. What is of crucial importance is not first or early occupancy of a given territory, but the territory’s formative role in the history and culture of the nation that is calling it its own. It is on the latter conception that the Zionist historical claim to the Land of Israel rests. However, in the face of the historical counterclaim of the Arabs who had long since become the ethno-cultural majority in that territory, not historical and religious claims but another factor ultimately substantiated the justice of the Jewish claim. That factor was existential need. That is to say, the cruel circumstances of rejection, persecution, and humiliation suffered by Jews in consequence of their millennial national homelessness, all became exacerbated to the point of utter catastrophe by the mid-20th century.

Gans’ exploration of this crucial factor, which he defines in legal-philosophical terms as the Jewish people’s valid “remedial right” to national self-determination in the Land of Israel, accords wholly with the Zionist case as it was in fact presented over the years by its spokesmen across the entire spectrum of Zionist ideology. As Ben-Gurion told United Nations Special Committee on Palestine in 1947: “The conscience of humanity ought to weigh this: where is the balance of justice, where is greater need, where is the greater peril, where is the lesser evil and where is the lesser injustice?” A decade earlier, when Vladimir Jabotinsky gave evidence to the Peel Commission of 1936-7, he put it even more pithily: “When the Arab claim is confronted with our Jewish demand to be saved, it is like the claims of appetite versus the claims of starvation.” But even if taking the “line of least injustice,” as Chaim Weizmann urged the Peel Commission to do, validated Jewish national self-determination specifically in the Land of Israel, it did not endow the Jews with a right to exclusive sovereignty over the country.

What, then, justifies the creation of Israel as a state dedicated to satisfaction of the existential needs of the Jewish people, in a land long populated mostly by non-Jews? At the time Zionism arose, as Gans correctly records, the territory at issue (Eretz Yisrael for Jews, Filastin for Arabs) was not in any sense an independent political entity. Within the Ottoman Empire, it was not even demarcated as a single province of some larger entity. In those historical circumstances, Jews had a moral right to seek permission from the ruling authorities, namely the Ottomans and thereafter the British and the League of Nations, not only to settle the land but also to aspire to ethno-cultural self-fulfillment—albeit not yet in the form of independent statehood. However, with intellectual consistency, Gans recognizes that once the Palestinian Arabs had developed their own aspiration to attain self-determination, not as a part of the pan-Arab nation or Syria but specifically in the territory deemed to be Filastin (Palestine), they too had a valid national claim.

Most historians agree that this national aspiration began to emerge around 1919. The Arabs did not have the right, however, to exercise their claim without consideration for the historically relevant Jewish claim, which was fatefully reinforced by existential need as well as by Jewish demographic growth. These considerations began to tip the moral balance by the 1930s, as hatred and persecution of the Jews escalated toward utter catastrophe in Europe, echoed threateningly even into countries of the New World, leading them to close their doors to Jewish immigrants, and infected also Muslim countries in the Middle East and North Africa.

According to Gans, under normal circumstances “the right which ethno-cultural groups have to self-determination should not be interpreted as the right of such groups to hegemony in the countries in which they exercise self-determination.” But under the special circumstances of worldwide persecution and unyielding Arab opposition to the Jews’ exercise of their legitimate rights in Palestine, the creation of a Jewish state in the Land of Israel was warranted. Nevertheless, Gans argues, it is by no means legitimate to invoke such rights “for the sake of justifying the territorial expansion of a people,” like Israel’s Jews today, “which already enjoys self-determination.” Now it is the Palestinians who live in a state of national deprivation, and their hunger, to borrow Jabotinsky’s language, can be contrasted with the appetite of the Jews. These considerations undermine the staple argument of the pro-settler right-wing camp that there is no moral difference between post-1967 settlement in and control over the West Bank territory on the one hand, and the pre-1948 settlement of the territory that has become the sovereign State of Israel, on the other.

Gans thus favors not only the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel but also posits a notion of near—global moral responsibility for solving the Palestinian refugee problem. Because they were the main perpetrators of the persecutions that necessitated the fulfillment of Jewish existential needs in Palestine, the European states, above all Germany, have a moral obligation to undertake such efforts. But Israel, Gans insists, also has a share of responsibility for the refugee problem and must be willing to negotiate compensation and resettlement wherever possible, even partially within the borders of the Jewish state.

The same liberal premises that underlie his justification for Israel’s existence (if not all of its actions) also support Gans’ critique of the institutional form the Jewish state has assumed. While a Jewish state has a right to defend itself and to take certain measures to maintain a Jewish majority, it  does not have a carte blanche “in the ethno-cultural sphere.” Gans therefore objects to what he describes as Israel’s “statist” conception of self-determination, which shapes Israel’s Jewish public symbols, state-religious relations, kinship links with a diaspora, and privileging of Jewish immigration by dint of its Law of Return. Contending that collective rights of “homeland minorities”—such as the Palestinians in Israel—deserve more consideration than do immigrant minorities, he rejects what he calls “the everybody does it” argument of Amnon Rubinstein and Alexander Yakobson, who in their book Israel and the Family of Nations: The Jewish Nation-State and Human Rights demonstrate that Israel is no different from many other democratic states in providing a framework for the ethno-cultural hegemony of the majority. In this respect Gans’ arguments are at their least convincing. One is left wondering what his critique amounts to in practice. Certainly not a truly binational state, for he holds back from concluding that only a state that institutionalizes perfect binational parity can satisfy the primary right of both Jews and Palestinian Arabs to live within their own cultures. After all, he decisively affirms that Israel’s Jewish majority is entitled to exert its hegemony in respect of security and sustaining a Jewish demographic majority. This shows that he acknowledges an important extenuating circumstance—the problematic reality of the Palestinian Arab minority’s natural affinity with an implacably hostile regional political and ethno-cultural environment. So, is Gans hearkening back to the model of post-World War I “minority rights” for the Jewish and other minorities that were imposed upon re-established states such as Poland? If so, it should be noted not only that this model was never honored in practice but also that even its theory allowed for the majority ethno-culture’s hegemony in respect of the state’s symbols.

Gans’ conclusions flow logically from his moral-philosophical premises, but they are cloaked in an abstract purism which is likely, in my opinion, to render some of their implications unacceptable even to those who endorse his liberal conception.

In sum, Gans’ book makes a profound contribution to clarification of the moral-philosophical bases of a contemporary liberal Zionist ideology. It merits acceptance as a moral compass. However, while navigating with this compass, one ought not lose sight of the real-world dangers that lurk in the troubled Middle Eastern terrain. As long as Palestinian nationalism produces no liberal counterpart willing to acknowledge the moral legitimacy of Israel’s Jewishness, not even in the restrained sense that Gans advocates, his operative policy advocacies remain open to alternative formulations even by those who heartily share his basic liberal Zionist outlook.


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