Four days ago a man in a village near here was shot in the face while he was sleeping by an army sniper. The bullet pierced his right cheek and exited through his left cheek, knocking out most of his teeth and shattering his jaw. His brother came to help him get to the hospital. While the brother was carrying the victim to the car, the sniper shot him, too. Then, while they both lay helpless, the sniper got closer to the first victim and shot him in the chest. Miraculously they both survived, but they remain in critical condition. The end of the story is that it turns out it was a mistake. They got the wrong guys.
It is unlikely that anyone in the army will be prosecuted for the incident. What is so frustrating is that I could describe such an incident to friends and family in the United States and many would refuse to criticize Israel. Perhaps they would see this as an isolated incident, which it is not. But more likely, they would feel that any criticism of Israel is either anti-Semitic or anti-Zionist. Mass propaganda has succeeded in equating the Israeli government and army with the Jewish people: a criticism of one has become a criticism of the other. The Israeli government has hijacked the Jewish identity in the same way that George W. Bush has hijacked American identity during the Iraq War: “If you’re not with us, you’re against us.” But occupying Arab populations has nothing to do with Judaism or Americanism. Being Jewish or Israeli doesn’t have to mean unconditionally supporting the actions of the Israeli government any more than being American means unconditionally supporting the actions of the United States government.
People who consider themselves Zionists feel especially uncomfortable with my work, even though my principal writing topic is not whether or not there should be a Jewish state, but rather how such a state should comport itself. Just because one supports the idea of a Jewish state does not mean that one must also support all that Jewish state’s actions. In fact, I would argue that Zionists should be against the Occupation, as the current situation is putting the Jewish state at greater risk than ever. Israel’s Occupation of the Palestinian Territories is protecting Israel about as much as the United States’ occupation of Iraq is protecting the United States. The Occupation has produced resentment and disapproval towards Israel from people and governments around the world. It has undermined the Jewish tradition of humanitarianism and social justice and created a dependence on US military aid that cannot be sustained indefinitely. Israel, as an occupying power, is doomed. Those who love it can help it most by working for justice and peace, not power.
People differ in their definitions of Zionism, but I use the term in reference to the political philosophy that supports a Jewish state in historic Palestine. Unlike a Jewish homeland, which could be a homeland for others as well, Israel is a Jewish state in the exclusive sense, i.e. the state of the Jewish people and only the Jewish people. Israel is not the state of its citizens. Israel is the self-proclaimed state of all Jewish people, even those in the diaspora. In other words, Israel is the state of a group of people who are not its citizens, and not the state of a group of people who are its citizens. Israel is my state, but it is not the state of the Palestinians with Israeli citizenship, including families that have lived in Palestine for hundreds or even thousands of years. They can never be nationals of their own country, because there is no Israeli nationality. You are either Jewish or Arab—this is specified on your ID card. Jews are allowed the privileges of a national, such as owning or leasing state land. Jews can come and go as they please and never lose their rights to live in Israel. Palestinians in Israel, on the other hand, are treated like foreigners, even those whose families have been here since long before Zionist immigration began. They receive far fewer services from the government than do their Jewish counterparts (even though they pay the same taxes) and they are the targets of deliberate policies to condense or minimize the Palestinian population in order to ensure maximum space and resources for Jews.
There are many Jewish Israelis working for minority rights in Israel. Many of them believe that you could have a Jewish democracy in Israel if you just fixed all the laws to give equal rights to all. But even if the law dictated equality, Palestinians could still not expect any more inclusion than, say, Jewish Americans or African Americans could expect if the United States suddenly became the sovereign state of the Christian White people. How would Jewish Americans feel about the US flag being replaced by a flag with a giant cross on it? Palestinian citizens of Israel live under a flag that doesn’t represent them, a flag that symbolizes a religion that they are not even invited to become a part of.
Israel’s discriminatory laws are not a perversion of Zionism—they are an inevitability of it. The exclusivist framework of an ethnically Jewish state is inherently anti-democratic and has given rise to animosity and resistance that have haunted Israel since its inception. How can you have a democratic Jewish state when the majority of people with legal claim to the country are not Jewish? Non-Jews make up a significant minority within Israel today, and that minority is growing. What happens when they get to be too many? Another nakba? Israel either has to push out and keep out the non-Jews, or somehow convince millions more Jews in the Diaspora to come live in Israel.
This second possibility deserves a closer look. Jews in Israel would not risk being outnumbered so dramatically if only the millions of Jews outside Israel wanted to leave their lives at home and move to a Jewish state. But here’s the thing: for once most Jews don’t seem to be desperate to flee lives of persecution. Perhaps they don’t see themselves as victims anymore. What a wonderful thing! Shouldn’t we rejoice that most Jews left in the Diaspora are not desperate to come to a place where they will surely live freely as Jews? The fact is that most people taking advantage of the Jewish “Law of Return” to Israel are Eastern Europeans and Ethiopians fleeing economic poverty more than religious or ethnic persecution. Meanwhile, millions of Palestinians with nowhere else to go are prevented from returning to their homes purely on the basis of their ethnic and religious backgrounds.
Given the current demographic realities, I cannot support the existence of an exclusively Jewish state any more than I can support its policies in the Occupied Territories. I cannot believe it has taken me so long to admit this to myself. I felt guilty before, as if criticism was somehow a disservice to my grandparents, great uncles, aunts, and cousins who perished during the Nazi Holocaust. But now it is clear to me. I cannot change the world if old wounds blind me into making or condoning new mistakes. There is no reasonable justification for reserving a country for people of one ethnicity—many of whom, like me, although born with the privilege have never needed it—while millions of people from another background with legal and historical claim to the land suffer desperately next door.
Certain early Zionists envisioned a Jewish homeland rather than a Jewish state, somewhere always open to Jews but not exclusive to them. I have met many Palestinians who would be willing to explore this and many other options that would respect international law and the human rights of everyone in the region. I personally believe the path to a lasting peace in the Middle East lies in creating a single homeland for both Jews and Palestinians, with equal rights for all regardless of ethnicity. It has been done before: consider blacks and whites in the United States and South Africa. Desegregation is not easy, and it takes a long time, but most would agree that the two-state alternative—i.e. separate states for blacks and whites—would only have perpetuated the racism and injustice. Peace founded on segregation is not real peace, and it won’t last. Coexistence, equality, and justice eventually heal wounds that separation never can.
My personal realization that I oppose Zionism will make for interesting debates with friends and colleagues, but ultimately I know that my opinion is not important. The decision whether to pursue a binational homeland or a two-state solution lies with Israelis and Palestinians. If the majority of Israelis and Palestinians prefer two independent states side by side—which, according to polls, seems to be the case—then it is not my place to interfere. My role goes only as far as a brutal occupation is being carried out in my name as a Jew and with my tax dollars as an American. Once the political stranglehold of the Occupation is lifted, both sides can sit down at the negotiating table as human beings and decide how to ensure peace, security, and self-determination for both peoples.