How I Became a 'Post-Zionist': Liberal Zionists Speak Out

The Zionist movement succeeded in creating a homeland for the Jewish people in the Land of Israel more than 60 years ago. Its current challenge is to become a truly liberal democratic country of all its citizens and work toward peace with a homeland for the Palestinian people in Palestine.
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The following column is part of a series. For more, go to Liberal Zionists Speak Out.

I imbibed Zionism at a very early age, and it animated my worldview for most of my first three decades. My parents had wanted to go on aliyah as soon as they got married (four years before I was born), but my grandmother's sudden illness kept them in the United States. I often heard the story of my parents' families sitting around the radio listening to the 1947 U.N. vote on Partition, making a hash mark for every "yes" vote, the whole neighborhood (Crown Heights in Brooklyn) erupting in cheers when it became obvious that it had passed.

I remember watching Eric Severeid on the CBS evening news moving pieces across a map of the Sinai during the Six Day Way in June 1967, and my beloved fourth grade Jewish Studies teacher crying openly in class when he told us that the Israel Defense Forces had liberated the Old City of Jerusalem and the Western Wall of the Second Temple, the holiest site to Jews.

Four years later I made my first trip to Israel, to celebrate my brother's bar-mitzvah. As I remember it, I experienced the country as the dream realized. Real-life Israelis, with tanks and guns, Jewish tanks and guns, Hebrew spoken in the streets. When I came back to the States I wrote an essay for school (which I found years later) in which I spoke of my desire to be a tank commander in the Israeli army. Less than 10 years later, I was promoted to the rank of sergeant in the Israeli Armored Corps and commissioned as a tank commander.

When I arrived in Israel for a year of yeshiva study in 1976 fresh out of high school (as was the common practice of Yeshivah High School students in the mid-seventies), I experienced the country in the same manner as I had four years earlier. I was, by then, a young "veteran" of the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry who was taken by Jewish Power slogans and right-wing Zionist ideology. The State of Israel, to my mind, was another stage of the identity politics that we had practiced in Brooklyn. Instead of facing off with blacks or Puerto Ricans we were facing off with Arabs. The fact that "we" had all the guns and the army didn't ameliorate the imminent threat. The Holocaust was always around the corner. When I walked around the streets of Jerusalem, especially its Old City, I mainly saw what was beneath its surface. Traveling with archaeology books in hand, I saw the Jerusalem of 2,000 years ago clearly, the paths of the priests and the smoke of the sacrifices were clear and present; the Palestinian residents were out of focus and almost unintelligible. Why were they still here?

The Sinai accords shook my world. When Egyptian President Anwar Sadat came to Jerusalem in 1977 to speak peace at the Knesset, I was told by the Spiritual Advisor at my yeshiva that I should study the rabbinic understandings of Esau and Haman, two figures of evil in the Jewish tradition. Only then would I understand that Sadat was a contemporary version of these perennial enemies of the Jewish people. This made perfect sense to me. When I visited the Yamit settlement months before the final Israeli withdrawal from Sinai (most of whose secular residents had left, compensated by the Israeli government, some of their houses taken over by messianist nationalist squatters), I was overpowered by the unshakeable belief that the withdrawal would not happen because, as the messianists claimed, "there is no retreat on the path to redemption." I was also convinced by the logic of the so-called rationalists, the real-politik spokespeople who said that if Israel ever went to war again, the Egyptian army would be sitting right outside Beersheba in southern Israel and would easily cross into Israel proper in support of whatever Arab country the IDF was warring against.

The final withdrawal from Sinai was completed in April 1982 and Israel invaded Lebanon (violating a year-long truce with the PLO) in June 1982. Contrary to what I was convinced would happen, the Egyptian army stood down. The invasion of Lebanon itself was framed by propaganda. When I was called up to my tank unit, we were given maps that pointed to the fact that the objective of the war was to control most of Lebanon -- a major war and not the mythical limited operation that Defense Minister Ariel Sharon reported about to the Knesset and the nation.

The withdrawal, the invasion, the incompetent and criminal way the war and its aftermath were handled all shook me to my core. I was released from the army and from yeshiva at the same time -- in August 1982 -- and had the luxury of a university library and the openness provided by the grief and shock of many dead friends to begin the process of coming to grips with the Israel that existed in reality, beyond the dream, beyond the illusions. The Israel of the occupation and petty cruelties. The Israel of power politics and Palestinian oppression. An exhibition of photographs at the Israel Museum (pre-first intifada) of the Israeli border guard doing its violent work in the "territories" made me physically ill. Participation in Netivot Shalom, the first effective religious Zionist Peace group gave me a conceptual vocabulary to think about peace. Less than five years after the afternoon when I'd been commissioned a tank commander in the IDF, I, along with most of my reserve unit, refused our battle ribbons for the Lebanon war.

The moment that brought home the evil of the occupation was when I experienced its banality. Some short while after the outbreak of the first intifada in 1987, my unit was sent to do reserve duty in the Palestinian territories between the Etzion Bloc and Bethlehem. Manning a roadblock, my job was to check the ID cards of Palestinian travellers who were going to Bethlehem. The line of cars was always long and slow and the delays were always caused by the quotidian elements of the life of a reserve soldier: someone did not show up on time for his shift, the commander could not be reached on the wireless, and where was lunch? Without any necessary intention of evil (and there was also that), undue suffering and hardship was caused to an innocent population. People could not get to the hospital, people could not get to their jobs, their fields, their families. I was the symbol of this regime of oppression to people whom I had never met. And they were right.

I have been back in the U.S. for almost 25 years now, and have returned to Israel infrequently. On one of my trips, as my cab driver was pulling out of the Jerusalem Plaza Hotel where I was staying, I noticed the banner on the World Zionist Organization building, which was across the street. It read: "Zionism will win." This statement flummoxed me. To my understanding, the goal of the Zionist enterprise was to establish a homeland for the Jewish people in the Land of Israel. This goal was accomplished in 1948. What did "win" mean now? How much more "winning" was there?

So, if pushed to peg myself on the spectrum from Zionist to anti-Zionist, as I understand we are supposed to, I would classify myself as a post-Zionist. The Zionist movement succeeded in creating a homeland for the Jewish people in the Land of Israel more than 60 years ago. Its current challenge is to become a truly liberal democratic country of all its citizens and work toward peace with a homeland for the Palestinian people in Palestine. It is immoral to deny the Palestinian people a homeland. It is immoral to deny Palestinian citizens of the State of Israel full and equal rights de facto and not only de jure. It is immoral and delusional for the American Jewish community to indulge in conversations about whether or not the Palestinian people exists. The exuberant nationalist Zionism of my youth, of making the desert bloom and conquering the swamps, of building a country in an empty land against all odds is, of necessity, gone -- shoved aside, as it should be, by the reality that is the real thriving State of Israel and the nascent State of Palestine struggling for existence. The challenges of the future are rooted in the reality of the present, the issues of justice, and not the myths of the past.

Rabbi Aryeh Cohen, whose most recent book is "Justice In the City: An Argument from Rabbinic Sources," teaches rabbinic literature at the Ziegler School for Rabbinic Studies of the American Jewish University in Los Angeles, where he chaired the Rabbinic Studies program from 2001-2005. He is a board member of Rabbis for Human Rights - North America and a past president of the Jewish Progressive Alliance. He has taught at Hebrew Union College/Jewish Institute of Religion, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and Brandeis University. He founded the Jewish Community Justice Project in partnership with Bet Tshuvah; the JCJP trains mediators to help bring resolution to non-violent crimes by facilitating a conversation between victim and offender.

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