Blog: The Politics of Hope

Challenging the Law of Return, and an important new book

In this week’s posting I bring two items to your attention.


1. Challenging the Law of Return

The first item is a powerful statement by American Jewish activists involving the State of Israel’s “Law of Return.”  This law, one of the very first enacted by the state, is the cornerstone of political Zionism and in a very real sense the state’s raison d’etre. The law gives every Jew, no matter what his or her citizenship or country of birth, the instant and automatic right to Israeli citizenship.  It also confers powerful incentives to immigration in the form of tax advantages and housing allowances.  After 1948, Jewish immigrants to the new state were settled in the homes and on the land of Palestinians who had fled or were expelled from their cities and villages.  According to these Sacramento, CA Car Accident Lawyers the  process of dispossession of indigenous Palestinians and settlement of foreign-born Jews has continued throughout the history of the state, accelerating through the illegal settlement of Gaza and the West Bank, and finding its most recent and egregious expression in the current drive to empty Jerusalem of its non-Jewish inhabitants and settle Jews in these neighborhoods. This statement, entitled “Breaking the Law of Return,” can be found at

I have signed it because it expresses simply and powerfully what I have felt for some time. Here are the opening words of the statement:

“We are Jews from the United States, who, like Jewish people throughout the world, have an automatic right to Israeli citizenship under Israel’s “law of return.” Today there are more than seven million Palestinian refugees around the world. Israel denies their right to return to their homes and land—a right recognized and undisputed by UN Resolution 194, the Geneva Convention, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Meanwhile, we are invited to live on that same land simply because we are Jewish. We renounce this “right” to “return” offered to us by Israeli law. It is not right that we may “return” to a state that is not ours while Palestinians are excluded and continuously dispossessed.”

My eye is caught, and yours may be also, by the phrase in the last sentence above, in which Israel is referred to as “a state that is not ours.” The authors are making the simple point that as Americans we cannot claim Israeli citizenship simply because we are Jews. This is especially so in light of the fact that the land and property thus acquired would come into our possession through disposession and the inexcusable reality that Palestinians who became refugees in 1948 and 1967, who together with their descendants now number some four million, have been prohibited from returning to their homes.

But for me there is another level of  meaning in these words, something that goes deep into my experience as a Jew confronting the horror and sadness about of what Israel has become, a meaning that applies to all Jews, whether living in Israel or outside its borders.  Certainly, Jewish citizens of Israel, many who are third and fourth generation descendants of the early European Zionist immigrants, as well as the children and grandchildren of survivors of the Nazi Holocaust, feel a deep sense of attachment to the State of Israel.  It is, without question, their country.  But there is a way in which this sense of the land belonging to Jews – both Israeli and those living elsewhere – is deeply tainted and in question.  Any land taken by force and through dispossession of its rightful owners is in question with respect to its moral legitimacy and political viability.  Any state that practices systematic discrimination against citizens (or occupied subjects) who do not belong to a favored group faces censure and isolation from the outside world and risks internal divisions, insularity and racism that damage and sicken its society. I make these statements with a sense of deep sadness and concern for Israel.  They are not made lightly by someone whose family roots are there and who has dear friends and beloved family living within its borders.

But there it is.  I believe to my core that the land can be claimed as “ours” only if and when we Jews can learn to share it.  Someday, the territory now called Israel — whatever it may come to be called and however it is to be constituted politically — may be a place in which Jews can coexist with non-Jews in a democratic and egalitarian society. We cannot, however, justify the Jewish presence in the land until we acknowledge the crimes and injustices committed to secure it, and until we undertake to do all we can to redress the injustice.  This has nothing to do with the nonsensical argument about Israel’s “right to exist.”  States do not have rights — they exist, regardless of the history that brought them into being and regardless of their human rights record or current practices.  States do, however, have responsibility — to their own citizens and to the community of nations.   The question is not whether there should or should not be an Israel — the question, to paraphrase the question posed by writer Bernard Avishai, is: “what kind of Israel do you want?”  Would a democratic Israel, an Israel that has relinquished its quixotic and tragic attempt to maintain its Jewish majority, continue to be the Jewish state envisioned by its Zionist founders?  An increasing number of people have come to doubt the sustainability of that original vision, however much we understand the experience of suffering and vulnerability that created it in the minds and hearts of the Jews of Europe.  Slowly, we have begun to relinquish the fears that have imprisoned us in the consequences of the Zionist project. We have begun, to echo the words of Israeli writer Avraham Burg, to open ourselves to a vision of who the Jewish people can be once we have left Zionism behind.  I have written elsewhere that a democratic, pluralistic and just Israel might be a state that deserves to be described as “Jewish.”

2. Zionism Laid Bare

Kathleen Christison’s review of M. Shadid Alam’s Israeli Exceptionalism: The Destabilizing Logic of Zionism, is an important read. In her characteristically transparent, compelling style, Christison sets out the “cold logic” of Alam’s thesis.  Fasten your seat belts:  for many — Jews and non-Jews alike — these will not be easy truths to assimilate. But the sooner we do, the sooner we may be able to see the way toward peace for historic Palestine.  The review opens in this way:

“Until recent years, the notion that Zionism was a benign, indeed a humanitarian, political movement designed for the noble purpose of creating a homeland and refuge for the world’s stateless, persecuted Jews was a virtually universal assumption.  In the last few years, particularly since the start of the al-Aqsa intifada in 2000, as Israel’s harsh oppression of the Palestinians has become more widely known, a great many Israelis and friends of Israel have begun to distance themselves from and criticize Israel’s occupation policies, but they remain strong Zionists and have been at pains to propound the view that Zionism began well and has only lately been corrupted by the occupation.  Alam demonstrates clearly, through voluminous evidence and a carefully argued analysis, that Zionism was never benign, never good — that from the very beginning, it operated according to a “cold logic” and, per Rumi, had “no humanity.”  Except perhaps for Jews, which is where Israel’s and Zionism’s exceptionalism comes in.

Alam argues convincingly that Zionism was a coldly cynical movement from its beginnings in the nineteenth century.  Not only did the founders of Zionism know that the land on which they set their sights was not an empty land, but they set out specifically to establish an “exclusionary colonialism” that had no room for the Palestinians who lived there or for any non-Jews, and they did this in ways that justified, and induced the West to accept, the displacement of the Palestinian population that stood in their way.  With a simple wisdom that still escapes most analysts of Israel and Zionism, Alam writes that a “homeless nationalism,” as Zionism was for more than half a century until the state of Israel was established in 1948, “of necessity is a charter for conquest and — if it is exclusionary — for ethnic cleansing.”

Read the entire review.  It will continue to grip you. It answers the question, “why do some Jews, those, for example, who wrote and will sign the statement discussed above feel compelled to take such a hard line toward Israel?  Why can’t we understand why Israel needs to protect itself?  We do understand — and that is why we work so hard, in the company of courageous and articulate activists and writers like Christison, to remove the veil from our eyes and those of our American compatriots, to speak the truth that may set the combatants free from their headlong race to disaster.

A final note: Visit my Events Page for details of my February-March book tour and speaking schedule.  I will be presenting at Friends of Sabeel conferences in Seattle, Honolulu, and Marin County, and meeting with groups and doing book readings in those cities as well as in Santa Cruz CA and Portland OR.  The Sabeel conferences are going to be extraordinary events — registration is still open.

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