There are two arguments which are commonly made in favor of the idea of Israel as a Jewish state. One is that in the light of the Holocaust it is clear that the Jewish people needs a state of our own which can protect us from persecution . The other is that God assigned the land of Israel to the Jewish people as a homeland in which to live according to God’s laws. Both of these arguments have serious flaws.
The problem with the argument that Israel is needed as a bulwark against anti-Semitism is that the main cause of anti-Semitism in the world today is hatred of Israel. Not only is Israel under constant threat by Arab and Muslim anti-Semites but Jews in the Diaspora also find themselves under attack by those who assume that they must be supporters of Israel. Under these circumstances it is easy to imagine that if only Israel would somehow go away then anti-Semitism would also go away. Or as one prominent Jewish-American leftist of my acquaintance told me when I asked him how he felt about Israel, “Israel is the cross that we have to bear.”
As for the argument that God wants a Jewish state in the land of Israel, the problem is that God is not the only supernatural entrant in the field. There is also Allah, who is said to insist on Arab and Muslim rule of the territory they are currently calling Palestine. In practice the argument from religious authority boils down to the assertion that my god can beat your god, which in turn boils down to the well known doctrine that might makes right. And more often than not might does indeed make right, but whether this is a sound basis for a Jewish state in the land of Israel is open to question.
However, leaving aside both God and the anti-Semites, the fact remains that for a period of over 1000 years, from the time of King David to the time of Simon bar Kochba, the Jewish people either exercised sovereignty over the land of Israel or at the very least constituted a formidable presence in the land. It is clearly on this fact that the legitimacy of Israel as a Jewish state must rest. But not only on this fact, since the Arabs and Muslims exercised sovereignty over the land for a similar period of time, and more recently at that. What is decisive in my eyes is the meaning of the fact. In other words, what was it about the ancient state of Judah that was so important as to justify its revival in modern times in the face of determined opposition by the Arabs and Muslims and their allies everywhere?
The standard Jewish answer to this question is that Judah pioneered a doctrine of ethical monotheism which later became the basis for both Christianity and Islam and so advanced the cause of human progress on a world scale. The problem with this answer is that precisely because they are derived in one way or another from Judaism, both Christianity and Islam have traditionaly claimed to supersede Judaism and render its continuation in its original form at best unnecessary and at worst undesirable. Moreover it is far from clear that ethical monotheism is in fact such a wonderful doctrine as its supporters make out. In any case there is no obvious reason why the state of Judah should have to be revived in order to promote the further spread of ethical monotheism around the world.
But what most people, including most Jews, don’t seem to realize is that ethical monotheism was not the only unique feature of the culture of ancient Judah. Inherent in the laws and social practice of Judah was an egalitarian bent that stood in sharp contrast to the hierarchical structure of the surrounding kingdoms and empires. Unlike its neighbors Judah did not have an aristocratic social class. It did have a hereditary priesthood, but priests did not amass great wealth. Farmers were the dominant social class, and any farmer who lost his land through debt was supposed to receive it back in the year of the Jubilee. Slavery existed, but only on a small scale, and there was even a law (Deuteronomy, Chapter 23, Verse 16) which banned the return of runaway slaves. Until the Greeks and Romans arrived there were no large estates worked by slaves or landless laborers, but only small farms worked by their owners. Social equality was the ideal, and those who were destitute could demand charity, the Hebrew word for which, tsedakah, comes from a root meaning “justice”.
In the eyes of the ancient world, Judah was best known for two things: the observance of a day of rest every seven days, and a ban on the worship of graven images. The name of the mandatory day of rest, Shabbat, comes from the same Hebrew root as the Hebrew word for going on strike. The implication was that for at least one day no one could be compelled to work. Likewise the ban on the worship of graven images had the implication that no one could be compelled to bow down before symbols of authority many of which bore an uncanny resemblance to the members of the Egyptian, Greek or Roman ruling class. Taken together with the egalitarian tone of Jewish social relations these features of Jewish law gave the kingdom of Judah a radical image which aroused both widespread admiration and widespread opposition among the surrounding peoples.
Why did the Jewish nation come to occupy such a unique position in the ancient world? According to the Hebrew scriptures Judah was founded by the descendants of runaway slaves. And in fact cuneiform inscriptions dating from the 2nd millennium BCE have been unearthed in many parts of the Middle East making reference to armed bands of runaway slaves known as Habiru. In particular large numbers of Habiru are described as participating in a rebellion against Egyptian rule in Canaan in the 14th century BCE. There are also references to Habiru prisoners of war seized by the Egyptians and brought back to Egypt to work as slaves on building projects. It is evident that the story of the Exodus in the Torah is a mythological version of a real life escape of Habiru slaves from Egypt and their incorporation, under the name of the tribe of Levi, into a confederation of Habiru bands in Canaan. Led by the Levites, the Habiru in Canaan evolved a culture and set of laws whose egalitarian thrust had its roots in the egalitarian social relations prevailing among runaway slaves.
Because their way of life was founded on the institution of slavery, the rulers of first the Greek and then the Roman empires in the Middle East came to view the nation of Judah as a dangerous threat to their supremacy. Not content with invading the land of Israel, the Greeks and Romans embarked on a campaign of mass murder directed against Jews both in Judah and in the Diaspora. At least 2 million Jews were killed in this campaign, which stretched over a period of approximately 300 years, from the middle of the 2nd century BCE to the middle of the 2nd century CE. The land of Israel was laid waste and the once flourishing Jewish communities of what are now Egypt, Syria and Turkey were almost entirely destroyed. Symbolic of the assault on the Jewish people by the Greco-Romans was the destruction of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 CE.
The profound impact of these events on the consciousness of the peoples of the entire Mediterranean region is shown by the emergence of first Christianity and then Islam. Christianity originated in the area where the massacres had taken place and represented an attempt to preserve something of Jewish tradition while at the same time accomodating itself to the anti-Jewish culture of the empire of the Caesars. Islam on the other hand grew out of a mass movement in favor of conversion to Judaism which emerged in the wake of the massacres among the foes of Roman rule in North Africa, Ethiopia, Arabia and the Persian empire. It was the popularity of this movement which induced the early Muslims to claim descent from Abraham, venerate Moses and practice circumcision while at the same time, just like the Christians, distancing themselves as much as possible from the Jewish people.
Basically what happened is that the Christians and the Muslims, each in their own way, ended up claiming the legacy of the martyred nation of Judah as a way of legitimizing their own imperial ambitions. But precisely because of those imperial ambitions, the one thing neither one could accept was a revival of the Jewish state. Yet for the Jewish people, the one way out of the status of hopeless losers to which both the Christians and Muslims assigned them was the advent of the Messiah, meaning the revival of the Jewish state. Belief in the coming of the Messiah, “even though he might tarry”, therefore became an article of faith of the Orthodox Jewish religion. “Next year in Jerusalem” were the words which ended the Passover seder, and in every generation there were Jews, some many, some few, who sought to make these words a reality. And so matters stood for roughly 1000 years, until the rise of the British empire.
Under the influence of the egalitarian values associated with the English Revolution of the 17th century there emerged a “philosemitic” tendency among the British Protestants. This tendency manifested itself in a decision to readmit Jews to England, from which they had been banished at the end of the 13th century. And it also manifested itself in the appearance on a small but significant scale of a tradition of English Protestant advocacy of the return of the Jewish people to the land of Israel. When the European powers decided to partition the Ottoman empire at the time of the First World War, the British were therefore already predisposed to associate their claim to the land they called Palestine with the desire of the Zionist movement to revive the Jewish state. The result was the Balfour Declaration, by means of which the British sought to legitimize their conquest of Palestine on the novel grounds that they were acting on behalf of the Jews.
But of course the British had no intention of permitting the revival of a Jewish state in the land of Israel. What they wanted was a British state of Palestine as an integral part of the British empire. The word “state” is first and foremost a euphemism for a monopoly of armed force within a given area, and in Palestine the British sought to maintain this monopoly against Jews and Arabs alike. Furthermore, under Arab pressure the British gradually reduced the number of Jews who were permitted to enter Palestine, until finally they established a blockade preventing ships containing refugees from the Holocaust from reaching the land of Israel. It was this blockade and the policy of preventing further Jewish immigration which motivated it which was the main reason for the expulsion of the British and the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948.
What has happened since that time is that the state of Israel has come to occupy the same position in the Middle East as the state of Judah occupied in the Greco-Roman world. Founded as a socialist democracy Israel has evolved into a liberal democracy whose way of life is at odds with the authoritarian culture of its neighbors. But whereas Judah had hardly any allies in its struggle with the Greco-Romans, Israel is supported to some extent by the various liberal democracies around the world. Unfortunately this support is far from wholehearted, undermined as it is by a fear of losing access to the large reserves of oil controlled by the Arabs and Muslims. This fear rarely manifests itself as such, taking rather the form of a critical, patronizing attitude towards Israel’s efforts to counter the genocidal threat posed by the unabashed hatred of its neighbors. What our half hearted allies refuse to understand is that nothing that Israel can say or do will make this threat go away so long as the Arab and Muslim world is dominated by an authoritarian set of cultural values.
Without intending to, Israel has created a situation where its long term survival depends on the revolutionary transformation of the Middle East in the direction of a more democratic social order. Israel created this situation simply by remaining faithful to the egalitarian bent of traditional Jewish culture and instituting a democratic society in a region ruled by feudal potentates and military dictators. It was in order to eradicate Jewish egalitarianism that the Nazis sought to destroy the Jewish people, and it is in order to eradicate Israeli democracy that the Islamists pursue this same goal today. Conversely, recognition of the truth of Jewish history is the most fundamental basis for the recognition of the need for a Jewish state in the land of Israel..