Franz Rosenzweig, the great 20th century Jewish philosopher, argued against Zionism believing that sovereignty would inevitably corrupt morality.
Recently The New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof has offered numerous op-eds about Israel and in particular its treatment of Palestinians in the West Bank.
And this week’s Torah portion, Devarim, reiterates God’s promise to the Jewish people of the land of Israel: “See, I place the land at your disposal. Go, take possession of the land that the Lord swore to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to assign to them and to their heirs after them.” (Deuteronomy 1:8)
I have spent the past two weeks studying Zionism and Israel and exploring the complexities of life here in the land of Israel, examining for example the morality of war and the difficulties of fighting terrorism. These are no easy topics and the sessions have been both enlightening and at times disturbing.
On Monday, I traveled with Friends of the Earth Middle East to the Jerusalem suburb of Tzur Hadassah. There we walked along the Green Line, the 1967 border and peered over this imaginary line at the West Bank and the settlement of Beitar Illit and the Arab village of Wadi Fukin. Beitar Illit is a settlement situated on the opposite hills from where we stood. It is an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood. Since its founding in 1990 it has grown to some 40,000 people. It is expected to grow to 100,000 by 2020. Below the settlement in the valley is the Arab village of Wadi Fukin, home to 1,200 people. In Wadi Fukin the residents primarily make their living farming the land. In Beitar Illit the majority sustain themselves through Torah study and government subsidies. We were saddened to learn that the sewage from Beitar Illit often runs down the hillside poisoning the farm lands below.
Friends of the Earth brings together Israelis, Palestinians and Jordanians to tackle such environmental problems in the hopes of making peace through mutual care of the land. In this small pocket of the land of Israel they have made some strides in addressing the problems of Beitar Illit’s sewage and Wadi Fukin’s farm lands. I have some concerns about the group and in particular the ideology of the Arab members who I met, yet I admire their efforts.
I believe wholeheartedly in the Zionist enterprise. I believe as well that it is possible to live as a sovereign Jewish state according to the highest moral values. I am saddened when I discover such instances where basic human decency is tossed aside in favor of settling the land. The land is certainly holy and our return to it gives the Jewish people hope, but this must not take precedence over the humanity of those who also live in this land. Jewish sovereignty cannot only be about our rights and our privileges. If this is to be a Jewish state, it must first be about this, but if this is also to be a democratic state, it must not only be about this.
It is such questions that I have spent my weeks here debating. I have also learned that it is easier to debate such issues here rather than at home outside the Jewish state. Israel has its problems just as the United States has its problems. Israel however also faces unique questions. Only about this country do people question its very legitimacy and ask, “Is it wise to grant sovereignty to the Jewish people?” My answer is of course a resounding yes.
It is harder to speak about Israel’s flaws outside of the country. I am far more comfortable debating them when here. There, at home in the United States, we feel uneasy and perhaps even disloyal debating such issues. We feel we must defend Israel against its attackers because underlying these attacks lies this question of Israel’s legitimacy. But here sovereignty is assured and accepted.
As you walk the streets and drink coffee in the cafes the question seems silly and preposterous. And so the debate about values and morality is what animates this place. The argument with ourselves and with Franz Rosenzweig is a daily struggle that I admire and relish. It is what gives life to this land. It is this struggle that gives meaning to God’s promise.