RHR 2008: Opening
RHR 2008: Boker tov from RHR!

RHR 2008: Zionism, Israel and Human Rights

L to R: Paula Hyman, Munther Darjani, Avram Burg.

The first plenary session was Zionism, Israel and Human Rights with Avram Burg (read more: Burg: Defining Israel as a Jewish state is the key to its end), author and former Speaker of the Knesset; Paula Hyman, Lucy Moses Professor of Modern Jewish History at Yale University; and Professor Munther Darjani, professor at Al Quds University. The panel was moderated by Kathleen Peratis, Board Member Emerita of Human Rights Watch.

"My first religion was human rights," Peratis said. "I became a Jew through human rights and civil rights... To me, the Judaism of B'nai Jeshurun on the Upper West Side was Judaism." Upon realizing that this wasn't the only Judaism, she became aware of the importance of this organization. "Judaism and human rights are, and should be, inextricable."

"Rabbis for Human Rights is not like 'bankers for money' or 'teachers for books;' it's a necessity in the world in which we live." She continued, "'My mother was an Arab Jew from Hebron and my father was a German Jew from Dresden,' is something Avram Burg wrote in his first book... It has been written that short of being president, Burg could not be higher in the Zionist establishment."

"After Sabra and Shatila in 1992, Mr. Burg gave a speech...at the biggest rally in the history of Israel, and launched his public career at that time." His book is called in English The Holocaust is Over: We Must Rise From Its Ashes, and has received both extreme praise and extreme condemnation. "Choosing a provocative quote from this book," Peratis said, "is like shooting fish in a barrel." She quotes Burg's book: "The early anti-Zionists had their own ethical and spiritual reasons, but all were united by fear: the fear, which eventually materialized, that a Jewish political entity would create an...intolerant establishment which would alter the character of the Jewish people."

Avram Burg said:

Spiritually and existentially, I feel at home [in this community] -- enough to open a Jewish Pandora's box. A pushke.

We have the word Zionism in the title of the evening, and therefore it would be unfair not to relate to the very existence of such a massive entity in the midst of the deliberations. Zionism is a fantastic idea, a carrier of unbelievably social existential & structural changes in the very existence of the Jewish people. But we cannot ignore some basic assumptions that did not work well with some of the values we'd like to take our children toward.

One which was before the mabul (flood), when Herzl and his colleagues came to Israel, was: a people without a land for a land without a people. It's as if they never read Emmanuel Levinas! That there is someone else out there who is not us! You cannot live in the reality of turning your eyes, being arrogant enough not to see the very existence of the Other.

The other was after the mabul. As if before the Flood, we thought what we would find there would be eretz bechira, the land of choice. When the gates of Auschwitz were opened, the land of choice became a shelter. And in a shelter, especially a shelter of battered people, you behave differently. In order to change the attitude of us, as a collective, a nation, Zionists and non-Zionists alike, we must change our existential self-confinement reality. life does not need this kind of shelter anymore. We can go out of the shelter and explore other territories of trust and confidence with ourselves and the rest of the nations around us.

I am generally reluctant to participate in discussions like this evening because I am an old hand at this. All the non-Israelis and the non-Jews are criticizing Israel, and it is much more important --

I look around here and see a kind of retreat, a going backward. You think I'm happy about Guantanamo, about Sarcosy limiting freedom of the press...? Look at these, going backwards. I ask myself, what does that mean to me? Where do I belong in this bigger picture of going backwards? Many of us say, if the world is so bad, that's good for us; let's behave like the rest of the nations! The oxymoron, that the Zionist utopia should be like the rest of the nations --! But if the rest of them look like the last 8 years in Iraq, in the United States, I'm concerned; that's not the spiritual/moral neighborhood I would like to live in. So what do I do? Do I hide, or do I try to offer an alternative which is better than this?

Three items to highlight:

1) I do not believe we can allow ourselves to stay behind the line. The role of a people like ours is to say, if you go the wrong way, let's show you a different way. We shouldn't live under the paradigm that Never Again is Never Again for Jews only, and therefore let's live with walls around us, and who cares about the price. Never Again for a people who ere 60 years ago the victims of the universe has to mean never again for anyone... be it in Gaza, in Darfur, in the inner city of Detroit: wherever there is an outcry, the one who was the victim of indifference of nations so many years ago must turn to the nations now and say, "wake up!" That's the real never again.

2) About the clash of civilizations, in a flat, Tom Friedman-style world: somebody else became all of a sudden the Richard Lionheart of the West, in a crusade to I don't know what. I say it's dangerous... To say that all Muslims are one, does that mean you are all George W's? No!

If there is a clash of civilizations it's not all of us versus all of them, whoever they are; if there is one, it's between the democratic hemisphere and the theocratic hemisphere. Those who believe we are the source of authority and have the final responsibility; and those who say no, there is an ultimate source of authority which commands me on behalf of the love of God to kill you.

When I was attacked for arguing against the current state of affairs, I offered a Talmudic dilemma. You're walking by the river, and two people are drowning and you can only save one -- either/or! one is the Dalai Lama and one is Rabbi Kahane, for whom do you jump? Tell me, whom are you? Are you the part of the people for whom a brother is someone who shares the same value-language, or do you jump for the one who is genetically similar no matter his value-language? ...Jewishness is about values; whomever is my brother/sister in my value system is my partner in the struggle, and whomever is not may be my cousin, my uncle, maybe my enemy.

3) I believe a core for a new spiritual conversation in the world is needed. I am not one to speak on behalf of religions; who am I? But a place like this is a launching-pad of alternative Jewish spiritually. The very foundations of the kind of value system we're talking about here, the mitzvah of v'ahavta et ha-ger ["and you shall love the stranger"] is the most repeated mitzvah in the world; that we open the haggadah with avadim hayyinu ["once we were slaves"], not "masters we became" or "independent" we became but avadim hayinu! Our role within the Jewish discourse is to remind the people, listen, this is what Judaism is all about.

A different Jewish content than the one which has characterized us in the last 60 years: from shelter, to choice again. I hope you'll buy into my prayer that the Jewish people, the Israeli people included, will move slowly from trauma to trust.

We have a chance. There is a different generation, a different spirit, here and there as well. If next year more of [our children's generation] are here in the room, we will know we've made it.

Professor Munther Darjani said:

It's difficult to follow such an eloquent speaker; he said all what needs to be said!

The Talmud states, the best preacher is the heart; the best teacher is the time; the best book is the world and the best friend is God. Thinking about this, I will take the lessons of time to speak to you from the heart.

Human rights is an old new topic which has engaged thinkers & religious leaders over the centuries. The reason is that man by nature aspires to be free and prosperous. He found out that this goal cannot be found in slavery, domination, or occupation. Thus all religions, and without exception all philosophies and scholars, gave much attention to the subject. Competing views arise on the subject of what constitutes human rights and to whom such rights apply.

In Judaism, Christianity and Islam we find texts calling for love, peace, and good behavior. This poses an important question for me: to what extent do the faithful and believers practice those values? To what extent do Zionists, in achieving their dream of establishing a Jewish state, have heeded the values of Judaism, particularly when it calls on Jews 'don't do unto others, what you don't want others to have done to you?' "What is hateful to you, do not do to another. This is the whole Torah; all the rest is commentary." (Talmud) "Peace will not arise through force, but only through understanding."

Being devout Muslims, Christians, and Jews, Palestinians revere Judaism, and make a clear distinction between Judaism as a religion and Zionism as a political ideology. There are popular quotations from the Torah that they keep quoting, such as "you shall not oppress the stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger," etc. (Exodus 23:9.) The Hebrew Bible states, you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. (Lev. 19:34.) Their understanding is that Judaism values greatly the sanctity of human life and considers it central. One should distinguish between the followers of the Zionist movement, who were secular, and the later Zionists who developed their ideas around religious principles and are classified as Orthodox Zionists who insert political beliefs into their religious agendas.

The extent of the Zionist agenda has no boundaries. The problem here is very serious; as there are radical Zionists in the Jewish camp who do not believe that Palestinians deserve to be treated as people with human rights, we have also on the Palestinian side people who believe that Jews also as a people without human rights. Here both religions, Islam and Judaism are being hijacked by heretical minority who use whatever tools available, far from the universal beliefs we all believe in. The problem is much more complex than one anticipates, because radicals move you from universal common values of religion -- that we have so much in common! -- to the particular, where it is full of areas open to conflict. Focusing on differences, thus widening the gap rather than bridging it.

In the politics of ordinary man there is a popular saying, that the devil is in the details. Here, the emphasis on the differences enlarges and widens the gap between communities and society as a whole, to achieve political goals.

Generally speaking, Palestinians, like many Arabs, are not aware of and do not comprehend the teachings of Judaism, and focus on the activities of Zionists against the Palestinian population so they can stereotype Jews... There is a need to use common religious values to spread the universality of its principles. One should focus on empathy. I understand that a delegation of your esteemed group has just come back from the West Bank, where they spent time helping Palestinian farmers with the olive harvest. These are the kind of activities that plant the seeds of peace and understanding, not uprooting those trees.

I would like to propose that we focus on using our religious values, whether in Judaism, Islam or Christianity, to spread the culture of peace, democracy, and moderation. We need to focus on the high value of saving human lives, on developing a better understanding of each other, and of putting into practice important concepts such as liberty, equality, and justice for all. And toward advancing among all people a culture of forgiveness, conciliation, and coexistence. One cannot go on with business as usual, ignoring what is happening around him. We have a collective responsibility, as Jews, Christians, and Muslims, to advance the culture of coexistence.

We have to get away from dehumanizing each other, to humanizing one another. We need to teach our children that nobody monopolizes the truth, and to emphasize the possibility that another point of view may be right and that we need to put ourselves in the shoes of the other before condemning them.

We live in a small world, for a short period of time, so we ought to make the best out of it. We need to ask ourselves, what heritage we should leave to our children? Where is the utility in spending this short lifetime in fighting wars and killing each other? Shouldn't we spend it constructing bridges of understanding and enjoying peace and prosperity?

We have to continuously remember that "a soft answer turneth away wrath, but grievious words turn up anger." Believe in God, the witness of humanity and oneself; time will heal our wounds, and experience teaches us to forget and forgive. Remember the advice found in Talmud: a wicked inclination is at first a guest, but if you grant it hospitality, it will make itself master of the house. Similarly, if one grants human rights to be violated for a perceived pretxt, it will be easy to extend more violations in the name of the common good.

 Paula Hyman said:

It is very hard to speak after these two wonderful speakers, because I agree with everything they've said! And I don't think I'm going to be very controversial, but I want to talk a little bit about the fact that Zionism, or Zionisms -- Zionism is multivocal, and we make a mistake in thinking that all Jews in Israel speak for Zionism, all rabbis in America speak for Judaism, and the reality is really much more messy than all of that. I am a historian; we have to look at Zionism and its development in context.

The book I wish you could have (it's not written yet!) is part of a series to look at key words in Jewish studies, and to look at how the meanings of words change. All of us here tonight are aware that the meanings attributed to Zionism have changed radically in the past generation. Zionism was the plucky nationalism, the choo-choo that could and did and created the Jewish state of Israel, and it was within the world community generally well-regarded. And now Zionism has become the incarnation of Satanic nationalism and a colonialism run wild. We American Jews also find ourselves in a cultural context in which Israel, for which in my younger years everyone felt only admiration, to an Israel which we now feel we must defend ourselves against its vilification in the larger community.

I want to go back a little bit in history and talk about Zionism as it developed. Zionism was not about human rights. It was not against human rights, certainly, but the force of Zionism was concern for the situation of the Jews. There were many different kinds of concerns. Concern for the vulnerability of the Jews in Europe: that was Theodore Herzl's political Zionism, that Jews had to leave Europe, that a way had to be found to strengthen them so they would realize they were a people, not just adherents of a religion. He thought, by the way, that antisemites would be happy with Zionism because it would encourage Jews to leave Europe. He was right, though, that Jews were vulnerable in Europe, and he was aware of the Otherness that Jews felt and that they would never fully be accepted into European society, and he thought Zionism would enable those Jews who didn't want to completely assimilate to simply say, okay, I will leave! That was one goal of Zionism: to give Jews political power, to recognize Jewish peoplehood, and also to provide a haven for Jews who could not find a place for themselves where they lived. He didn't write much about America, which we American Jews see as different.

The second goal of Zionism was a response to the problem of assimilation, to the fact that to be accepted in societies in which Jews lived -- and again, this is European-centric -- to be accepted, Jews had to give up much of their culture. That they in fact were yielding, allowing themselves to lose so much of what had made them Jews. Not just religion; I don't think most secular Zionists worried about religious Jews, but rather a sense that Jews had a culture of their own and that culture was going to disappear. One of the promises of Zionism was, in addition to creating the 'new Jew' who would be proud and vigorous (and by the way was always male), but there was also a sense that a new Jewish culture could be created only where there was a concentration of Jews who controlled their own fate.

Zionism was one of the most successful national movements of the 20th century. It did result in the creation of a state, the restoration of Jewish sovereignty, and it resulted in the creation of a Jewish culture, a renewed renaissance of Jewish culture and a strengthening of the Hebrew language which might very well have followed in the footsteps of Yiddish as a Jewish language.

Aside from the fact that I'm a historian, the history lesson is actually meant to convey to you the fact that when national movements are creating -- and Zionism had a tough job ahead of it, to create not just an independent nation, but to create the nation and the facts on the ground which would enable it to achieve independence; but Zionism, and all national movements, focused on nation-building. They don't focus on the human rights of everybody. They essentially don't focus on the human rights of those who are being negatively affected by the movement.

Early Zionists presumed that the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine was not going to hurt anyone. It's not just the famous statement of "a people without a land for a land without people," but -- it's not that they were unaware that there were Arabs living in Palestine, that they were living in the midst of an Arab population; but that in fact [they thought that] what they were doing would bring benefits to the Arab farmers as well as to the Jews who settled in Palestine! So the image of Zionism as it developed in the 20s and 30s was, for Zionists themselves and also for those in the Diaspora who read about Zionism, something that was entirely good. Zionism did not bring any hardship to others and would only fulfill promises to the Jews themselves. Zionists prided themselves on the fact that the mobilization of force, because they were aware that there was opposition to their being in Palestine -- they saw their deployment of force as entirely defensive, not ever as aggressive. I think that for American Jews, that was true through the Six Day War, which became a kind of apotheosis of the success of Zionism.

I'm not going to quote the Talmud or Hebrew Bible but will quote my friend Leibl Fine, who said that what happened to him -- after the spectacular victory of the Six Day War, his mechanic in a garage said, "You really pasted them! You were terrific!" He said, "I found myself saying, thank you very much." -- a kind of identification with the Six Day War which many of us now see as a horrible Pyrrhic victory, because it unleashed a radical nationalism among Jews in Palestine and led to the vulnerability of Israel in the Middle East and in the world. We were very proud as American Jews that very quickly after the Six Day War, soldiers who had fought in the war collected statements in which they wrestled with ethical problems. "The Seventh Day," it was called in English. Those of us who were passionate Zionists felt, "Yes! This is really terrific!" Because here we see that Israelis Jews, soldiers, are in fact concerned with ethical problems.

If we jump a generation ahead: we see that American Jews have an image of Israel and of Jews that in fact makes it very difficult for us to move from the support of human rights to a recognition that Israel is not alone responsible for the situation in the Middle East and that the Israeli government and military have much more power than do Palestinians who live under their control. Here I would echo Avram, though I came to this from my teaching of the Holocaust; those of us who teach the Holocaust talk about the tripartite element: the perpetrators, the victims, and the bystanders. We Jews in America see ourselves and all Jews as victims. The victimhood status, which is very privileged in the United States, is such that it makes it difficult for most American Jews to recognize that in the situation of Israel/Palestine it is primarily the Palestinians who are the victims. We are certainly bystanders here in America; some Israeli Jews on the ground are in fact inflicting injustice on Palestinians on a regular, indeed daily, basis.

It's our responsibility; as we think about our own tradition and we think about human rights -- I saw a big sign about Darfur; American Jews are terribly concerned about human rights! In 2006 at the big rally, Jews predominated, in terms of those who came to speak out against the situation in Darfur. But Jews find it hard to think of themselves, not just in the status of victims, but certainly as bystanders and in some cases as perpetrators. That, I think, is the responsibility that we bear, as those who are really concerned with implementing the Jewish values of human rights; that should be the message that we bear, in talking about it with the American Jewish community.

[At that point, we were invited to come up to the mike in the central aisle and ask our questions.]

Reb Leila Gal Berner had a question for Professor Hyman: When I was a teenager, I read Herzberg's The zionist Idea. One of the things that inspired me was that there were at least two chapters in the book by different authors, Yitzchak Epstein and Judah Magnus, who did notice that there were other inhabitants of the land. Both of whom spoke specifically about the "Arab problem," and how do we deal justly with the inhabitants of the land; Yakov Epstein in particular. The most disturbing chapter in the book for me was that of Jabotinsky, who spoke of expelling the Arabs from the land. I've always wondered: in the early Zionist movement, was there debate about the so-called Arab question? If there wasn't, I would be terribly sad.

Professor Hyman answered: Yes, and that's why I said there were many voices within Zionism. The group in which Judah Magnus was active was Brit Shalom; Martin Buber was part of that group; mostly German intellectual migrants to the Yishuv. I think that that voice, that other voice of 'maybe we can find a way to create a state, or some kind of authority, in which both peoples would be equal' -- that was discussed. Magnus actually came back to the United States in 1948 to argue against the new state, and he died here. So: I think there have been voices all along that have recognized there was a problem. But I personally have to say that I'm not one of those who thinks that you can go back and simply rewrite the history; I think that the establishment of the state of Israel was an extraordinary event in all of Jewish history, and it is nice to see that there were some voices, but they were always minority voices.

The moderator asked: Do either one of you want to comment on the possibility of a bilingual multinational state in the area?

Burg: I'd like to compliment Professor Darjani for his non-accusing argument. It's a rare kind of discussion, and usually when we go to the classical Israeli/Palestinian thing, I think of a story my father used to tell, Moshe who was battered by the goyim, and his friends came and asked: what happened? And he said, 'I have no idea what happened, but it all started when the goy kicked me back.' The brilliant attitude of Professor Darjani tonight enables an opening to a different kind of conversation, and I'd like to adopt it.

A word about Zionism and then a word about what you asked. History is a beautiful issue; history is the politics of the past, as politics is the history of the future. Looking at current actual affairs, what do you do with it? At least for me, Zionism was a beautiful scaffolding, as Ben Gurion described part of it, supposed to enable Jews to move from exile to sovereignty. But over the years Jews have built two structures: American Jewry, and the sovereign state of Israel. I ask: isn't it time to remove the scaffolding and enjoy the beauty of the structure?

Many of my friends are Orthodox in many ways, including Orthodox Zionists. For them, every day is Simchat Torah: as soon as you finish the Torah you begin reading again. But for me, Zionism is not the book you read time and again; Zionism was a chapter. Let's move to the next chapter! For me, the next chapter is humanism, is universalism. It's a departure point for something else.

Pay attention to these words from Professor Darjani: The days of the two-state solution formula are numbered, not because there is any better formula; I don't see any better formula today. But because both societies were abducted by a tiny fundamentalist religious eschatological minority, which actually takes to a different place, a different galaxy, the motivation of the people! In Oslo, 70% of both peoples were ready for hope. And now we are deep into despair. The settlers in Israel are having a one-state solution formula; they say, the Greater Land of Israel! And Hamas is saying, one-state solution: the state of Palestine! And as long as these two minorities are ruling, reigning, dictating to the majority what is to be done about the politics, this is the kind of Stockholm Syndrome we are having. We are in love with our kidnappers.

The little I know about my history is, each and every time Jewish politics merged with Jewish Messianism it ended up in a catastrophe! So if you ask me, two-state solution, one-state solution: if the two-state solution will not work, the one-state solution is even worse, because then you'll have a kind of clash which is almost uncontrollable. Having said that: I believe that the more time passes, the wider the call for a solution. The day after '67, the first thing Israel did was expel the king's supporters: King Hussein was seen as an arch-enemy, let's kick out the royalists. A void was created. Then we said, we'll never talk to the PLO, God forbid! Then, thank God, appeared Hamas and we talked to the PLO. Now we say, we'll never talk to Hamas! But tomorrow morning Al-Qaeda will be there in the Occupied Territories and we'll say, where are the Hamasniks when we need them? ...Sometimes it's possible because we are both partners in peace movements; and sometimes it is possible because it is so bad. There are enough Sunni people in the regimes who are so concerned about Shiite Iran that they even like to have something with Israel because Iran is more of a problem for them. That's a different kind of opportunity.

I do not believe, like I believed 20-some years ago, that the Palestinian state is the final arrangement. It is not anymore. It is an interim solution. Without a kind of first Palestinian state, then a federation between Israel and Palestine, then a larger federation in the region, then a kind of Mediterranean-European cooperation, there is no solution. To believe that Israel is the end of our dreams is a dream, and to believe that the Palestinian state is the end of our dreams is a nightmare; it calls for a wider solution.

Should we stop calling ourselves Zionists? Should we condemn others who call themselves Zionists and say, you're not, you're mischief-makers! Is Zionism just an obfuscation of reality?

Paula's response: In this book that I'm writing, I have decided to end Zionism with 1948. I don't think that we should talk about Zionism except in historical terms. Zionism developed, it was successful, it made an enormous change in Jewish history, and now we face a situation where we have to deal with very different kinds of issues! I still call myself a Zionist, but I think a Zionist is a supporter of Israel; often quite a critical supporter of Israel. Zionism should be left as a historical phenomenon. It's a flag that is waved by nationalists and also by those who oppose Israel.

Avram's response: Tell me, who is a Zionist? Is a Zionist one who is born to a Zionist mother? For me, my identity is having 3 components. My family name means I'm a human being, part of the family of nations. My middle name is I'm Jewish; and my private name is, I'm an Israeli. Through my life I've tried to find a balance between these sometimes contradicting components of my identity. I do not need a fourth definition (adding I'm a Zionist) unless I need a tool to discriminate against somebody. Over the last few years, Zionism which was a beautiful memory and a beautiful chapter (never mind when it ended), a glorious story, became a very sad story of discrimination. Therefore the way I see the state of Israel, not because of this problem -- human rights not just between Jews and Arabs but Jews and Jews as well -- but the fact that six weeks ago I officiated the wedding of my daughter at home, but she is not married, because in Israel the Orthodox chief rabbinate wants to determine how my daughter will have a sex life. It's a different issue of civil rights in Israeli society.

For me, the state of Israel is not a Jewish state. That would mean that the state itself is having a religious or messianic dimension which a state should never have. Therefore for me the state of Israel is the state of the Jewish people if the Jewish people will decide to live there! The Jewishness of the state is the responsibility of the people who live there; but it belongs to all of its citizens, him and me alike. If one day we should lose the majority of Jews in the state of Israel, there is no technical beaurocratic discriminative measure that can be morally taken in order to ensure this character of the state of Israel. If we should lose it, this is the vote of no confidence of the Jewish people.

A word of rabbinic pilpul. You remember Korach and Moses: Korach comes and says, everybody's holy; why you? It sounds to our ear like a democratic argument! Moshe doesn't answer; he falls on his face, he's muted. And then when you listen to the answer of Moshe, it comes from a different place. He says, in sefer Vayikra, kedoshim tihiyu ["you shall be holy"], etc. There are two kinds of kedusha: kedusha of Korach (top-down) and kedusha of Moshe. Korach says you are all holy, no matter what you do, no matter what sin you commit or unjust deed you do. But says Moshe, this is not right; this is not kedusha. The kedusha in Vayikra is tzedek tzedek tirdof, ahavat et ha-ger: ["justice justice shall you pursue," "love the stranger"] -- the repairing of the world is kedusha. So the state of Israel should not ever be a state of Korach. It needs the kedusha of Moshe.

And with that: it's time for a late maariv, and the session comes to a close.

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