Saturday 14 February 2009

Zionist or Jew

The general election held earlier this week in Israel to the 18th Knesset has produced a king maker in the name of Avigdor Lieberman. Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel is our home) party won 15 seats. With the deadlock between the two leading parties, Kadima (28 seats) and Likud (27 seats), it seems certain that the party that will form the next government is the one that attracts Lieberman's support.

Avigdor (Evet) Lieberman has always been a controversial character, and leads a party with controversial policies. He was born in Kishinev in Soviet Moldova in 1958. He immigrated to Israel at the age of 20, and served in the Israel Defence Forces before earning a degree in International Relations and Political Science from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Lieberman joined the Likud and served as the party's Director-General between 1993 and 1996. He was the Director-General of Netanyahu's Prime Minister's office between 1996 and 1997. He founded the Yisrael Beiteinu party in 1999 and was first elected as a member of the Knesset in the same year. He has served as Minister National Infrastructure, Minister of Transportation and Minister of Strategic Affairs.

His Yisrael Beiteinu party represents an interesting and unconventional mix of policies. Lieberman advocates redrawing Israel's borders to exclude areas which have Arab majorities. He proposes ceding these to the Palestinian Authority. In addition, he demands that those living in Israel should only be granted Israeli citizenship if they are loyal to the state. He advocates this for both disloyal Arabs as well as disloyal ultra Orthodox Jews who do not recognise the State of Israel. During the 2009 election campaign, he coined the phrase "no citizenship without loyalty". Another aspect of his policy is to relax certain national laws which are based on Jewish religious practices. He plans to introduce the option of civil marriage, and relax laws relating to the sale of unkosher foods and to the opening of business premises on the Sabbath. On the face of it, Lieberman seems to be strongly Zionist in the way in which he approaches issues relating to the tolerance of "anti-Israel Israelis". On the other hand, he appears anti-Jewish in his advocacy of reducing the influence of Jewish religious practices on everyday life in Israel. Can these two seemingly dichotomous views survive on a common platform?

Lieberman's policies unfortunately fuel the argument of those who try to separate Judaism from Zionism. Over the decades, there have been many who have claimed that anti-Zionism does not represent anti-Semitism. This view has been expressed in the UN during the course of many anti-Israel resolutions that have been passed, most notably resolution 3379 from November 1975 that equated Zionism to Racism.

There is no escaping the fact that Zionism is a uniquely Jewish concept. The Oxford English Dictionary defines Zionism as "a movement for the development and protection of a Jewish nation in Israel". This links the concept to its two important dependencies - Judaism and the land of Israel. Without either one of these dependencies, there is no Zionism. The term emanates from Jewish liturgy going back many hundreds, if not thousands of years. Jews pray every day for the return to Zion. This literally refers to Jerusalem, and specifically Mount Zion within the city. This mount was part of the ancient City of David, and is located on the boundaries of today's old city.

The fact that many Zionist leaders in history including Herzl, Ben-Gurion, Meir and Lieberman have been anti-religious has been used to justify the fact that Zionism and Judaism are not linked. It feeds the notion that one can be a lover of Jews and a hater of Israel. All Zionist leaders in history had two main characteristics in common - the fact that they were Jewish and their vision of a Jewish state in the land of Israel. The above-mentioned leaders all had a view of the Jewish state being one where Jewish religious laws should not dictate laws of the State of Israel. This view equates to one of a secular state for Jews. Whether one agrees with this or not, it is clear that their form of Zionism clearly advocated a Jewish (albeit non-religious) state. The link with Judaism remains unequivocal.

It is my personal view that the Jewish state does require some elements of Jewish religious law incorporated into its set of laws and norms. This preserves the Jewish character of the state and distinguishes it as a Jewish state as opposed to any number of other secular countries. The absence of Jewish religious laws as a minimum basis for the laws of the Jewish state risks the slide of the Jewish state into just another country that has a Jewish majority. Whilst not wanting to minimise the importance of the Jewish majority in any way, it should be clear that the concept of a Jewish state is founded upon Judaism. This fact should be clear in all aspects of the public management of the country. Because some Zionists are anti-religious does not change the fact that they are Jewish, and it is this Judaism which is inextricably linked with their Zionism. So, Zionists who are not orthodox Jews and oppose orthodox Judaism remain Jews and Zionists. With this in mind, when considering the policy platform of Yisrael Beiteinu, there seems to be no reason why the party cannot be both Zionist and anti-religious. The important point is that being anti-religious does not equate to being anti-Jewish or anti-Semitic.

Those people who feel that Lieberman and others like him create an opening to separate Zionism from Judaism are mistaken. For me it is not Zionist or Jew, it can only be Zionist and Jew.

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