I wrote the chapter on “Zionism” for the Cambridge History of Jewish Philosophy: The Modern Era. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever written. I tried to combine a historical retrospective and theory. Most of all, I wanted the right balance between charity and suspicion. This was the hardest part. At the end of the day I came to the conclusion, voiced by Arnold Eisen, whom I cite, that at this late historical juncture, Jewish identity (and Israeli) identity is complicated enough without introducing Zionism into the mix. This is one of the things I like about a recent post by Shaul Magid at the Times of Israel. Instead of talking about Zionism or non-Zionism and anti-Zionism, he more simply talks about ideological and pragmatic forms of leftwing and rightwing Israeli political culture. The material cited below comes from my conclusion in the Cambridge. I wrote it during the Olmert government. I’m pretty sure I would not have had the heart to write it today, when the entire Zionist project seems to be foundering on pt. 5 below. About the new government, who knows?


Right” constitutes the most slippery Zionist datum of all. Without any recourse to divine right, most secular forms of classical Zionism are unlike the Palestinian Arab claim to Palestine. The Palestinian-Arab claim builds upon a religious and cultural notion of divine right (Palestine as Waqf, an inalienable Muslim trust) and upon natural rights of possession and self-preservation. Autochthonous, these claims proved static vis-à-vis the historical flux impelling the movement of populations. In contrast, secular Jewish claims to the Land of Israel were carried precisely by that very force of historical change. Setting religious motives to the side, these claims were modern, not ancient. At its origin at the turn of the twentieth century, the sole basis of Zionism in natural right was political need in the face of European anti-Semitism. From this position in natural right follows a completely contingent set of rights involving historical-cultural-religious ties, geographical-historical circumstance, labor, and pragmatics. Secular claims to a Jewish right to Palestine are largely contractual, which made them both unstable and dynamic.

1. Even a non-Zionist and critic of Zionism such as Daniel Boyarin rejects political Zionism “except insofar as it represented an emergency and temporary rescue operation” (A Radical Jew, 249, emphasis added). As a historical form, Zionism enjoys no firm claim to moral right except on the basis of political need, assuming what social contract theorists going back to Spinoza and Hobbes would recognize as a group’s natural right to self-preservation. Cultural questions such as those pertaining to the urgency of the cultural problem in Europe after the rupture of ghetto Judaism, or to the failure of Emancipation to stem assimilation, are corollary to the material crises and political dangers facing the Jews between 1880 and 1948. If anything, the history of Jewish immigration to Palestine shows that large numbers of people move from one country to another country (especially to a less economically developed one) only because of duress. With immigration to the United States effectively closed in 1924, Jews began moving en masse to Palestine from Poland and Germany in the 1920s and 1930s. Without these mass immigrations, the Zionist settlement would have either developed or foundered as a small Jewish colony in Arab Palestine.

2. The practical question of place is raised once one presumes in the abstract the right to collective self-preservation and political self-determination in the face of dire threat. No matter how “constructed” and imaginary, there is no other place in the world with which the Jews have as significant a historical, cultural connection. Prior to the advent of Zionism, the Land of Israel (the name Palestine is not indigenous to Judaism) did not serve as an active Jewish political space for most Jewish people. It was, however, the memory and dream space of Judaism par excellence. The Land of Israel, Jerusalem, and the (memory of the) Temple are central to Hebrew Scripture, Jewish liturgy, and Jewish messianic hope, despite the adjuration in the Babylonian Talmud not to go up collectively to the Land before the coming of the messiah. Once the die was cast to establish a sovereign national presence, anywhere else would have violated the historical sense of place and spatial orientation articulated in diverse, contradictory ways in Jewish religious-cultural traditions. In contrast to Palestine, the Jews would have settled Uganda or Argentina with just as much need but with no historical or cultural right.

3. For the Jews, the right to settle in Palestine and transform it into a Jewish space owed itself to the dumb luck of historical-geographical circumstance. As observed by [George] Antonius and [Rashid] Khalidi, up until the 1920s the Arabs of Palestine rarely saw themselves or were seen by others as constituting a discrete national entity. Identity formed around the local village, which in turn formed part of larger Syrian, Arab, or Ottoman political frameworks. At the start of the century, was it unconscionable for one to think that the Jews might find a legitimately agreed upon place of their own within a part of this larger territorial unit? Given Jewish minority status in Palestine, [Ruth] Gavison concedes there was no right to create a Jewish state there in 1900. She asserts instead a right to try to create conditions that would then justify the creation of such a state. Zionists came to Palestine and could refer to themselves as Palestinian Jews because Palestine was an open territorial identity, because they could do so under Ottoman and then British auspices, and because no local national force effectively impeded their way. The 1936-1939 Arab Revolt led the British to cap Jewish immigration in the period just prior to the outbreak of World War II and in its immediate aftermath, but by this time the Yishuv was impossible to uproot.

4.  Labor formed an additional, contractual component to the Jewish claim to Palestine. Up until 1948, the Jewish claim to a part of Palestine was based on the legal purchase of lands and on the labor put into those lands. While Herzl and Jabotinsky made free use of the terms “colony” and “colonization” and sought to align Zionism with imperial interests, Zionism was not a form of colonialism in the narrow sense. The Jewish national project was never meant to extend the empire of an already extant great power, or to seize access to raw materials and exploit indigenous labor. In the form of state-building institutions, agricultural settlements, and para-governmental agencies, Jewish labor was a proud creation and a central plank of the Zionist movement and of the early state. In spirit, its founders’ intent was to build up a land and to rebuild a people. Indeed, the expropriation of lands in the West Bank and Gaza, the exploitation of cheap Palestinian labor from 1967 until the outbreak of the second Intifada in 2000 did more to undermine the moral legitimacy of the Jewish state than did the social and political exclusions tarnishing the principles and practice of Labor Zionism in its heyday.

5.  A pragmatic basis of right is the willingness to come to agreements with other people. If the first moral trump card of the Zionist movement was the basic right to self-preservation, its final trump card has been the real and perceived willingness to secure international agreements and to accept partition arrangements at key junctures in the conflict’s history (1936, 1947, and 2000[?]). No right is absolute or simply natural. In this respect, Zionism enjoys no moral right to the degree that the State of Israel simply dominates their neighbors and occupies territory beyond internationally agreed upon lines, to the degree that the State does not integrate into the Middle East, its cultures and its future. Like any social group, Zionism secures both a political and moral right to its own border and to its own free self-definition only to the degree that the state founded on its basis seeks to make a genuine, viable space for others both outside and inside the state, to make do with minimal political needs, while forfeiting ideologically and religiously inspired surplus goods and privileges, the demand for which necessarily comes at the expense of another people.

(Zachary Braiterman, “Zionism” in Martin Kavka, Zachary Braiterman, and David Novak (eds.), Cambridge History of Jewish Philosophy: The Modern Era, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), pp.628-30.)


About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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