Zionism seems like a binary proposition: You’re either for or against the existence of a Jewish state. But a third option has become increasingly popular, one I would call conditional Zionism. It holds that a Jewish state has a right to exist, but only if it meets certain conditions.
This position is spreading rapidly among liberal American Jews. In an essay in Haaretz in August, for instance, Abe Silberstein argued that Israel must be coerced into creating a Palestinian state because otherwise, the only alternatives are perpetuating the status quo or a one-state solution—and any moral Jew would have to deem the latter “infinitely preferable,” even though it would probably end Jewish statehood. In other words, the Jewish state’s right to exist depends on satisfying Palestinian (and American Jewish) demands.
This position is also common among non-Jews. For instance, in a September essay for Mosaic on whether a Catholic equivalent to Protestant Zionism was possible, Gavin D’Costa concluded, “If the Israel-Palestinian dispute were to be resolved tomorrow, with the full agreement of both parties and with international support, I believe official Catholic Zionism would emerge quite quickly.” In other words, the Church might someday accept a Jewish state, but only if Israel satisfies Palestinian (and Western) demands.
Ostensibly, such positions could be dismissed as simple anti-Semitism based on Natan Sharansky’s famous 3D test (demonization, delegitimization and double standards). The relevant criterion here is double standards since no other country’s existence is deemed conditional on its behavior, even when said behavior is far worse than Israel’s. For instance, China has occupied Tibet for almost 70 years and currently holds a million Uighurs in detention camps, and many people want these policies stopped. But nobody says a Chinese state has no right to exist without such changes.
Nevertheless, dismissing conditional Zionism as anti-Semitic poses one obvious problem: Any rationale for a Jewish state, whether religious or secular, rests on the Jews’ claim to be a distinct people with a distinct religion, language and culture. And that very heritage deems the Jewish people’s right to remain in its land conditional on its moral behavior. This isn’t a minor detail; it’s a core element of Jewish theology.
It’s stated repeatedly in the Bible. It’s included in the Shema prayer, Judaism’s closest approximation to a credo, which observant Jews recite twice daily. It’s the reason given by the rabbis of the Talmud for both the first and second exiles (they attributed the first to murder, idolatry and forbidden sexual relations, and the second to baseless hatred). Indeed, it’s precisely because this is so fundamental that it still seems self-evident even to secular Jews who have abandoned almost every other vestige of Judaism, or a Catholic Church that has downgraded the Hebrew Bible in favor of the New Testament (the main reason Christian Zionism is a Protestant phenomenon is because Protestants give greater weight to the Hebrew Bible than Catholics do).
So does that mean conditional Zionists are right, and Israel’s right to exist depends on satisfying Palestinian demands? Not at all, because there’s a crucial distinction between modern conditional Zionism and the biblical version: Neither the Bible nor the talmudic Judaism it engendered ever insisted that Jewish morality requires the Jewish polity to commit suicide.
Indeed, another fundamental principle of Judaism is that following God’s laws leads to life, not death (see Deuteronomy 30:19 or Leviticus 18:5). Consequently, the Talmud allows almost any religious commandment (except murder, idolatry and forbidden sexual relations) to be violated to save a life. It also declares that if someone comes to kill you, “rise up and kill him first.”
For the same reason, national self-defense is considered one of the principal responsibilities of a Jewish leader, and possibly even a religious obligation. The Bible itself merely states that some wars are obligatory without defining which wars fall into this category. But one interpretation, adopted inter alia by the great medieval Jewish scholar Maimonides, says it includes wars of self-defense.
Obviously, this doesn’t mean anything goes. Even in wartime, the Bible sets limits on an army’s behavior—the original laws of war. But Jewish tradition utterly rejects the idea that morality requires national suicide. On the contrary, it views defending the Jewish commonwealth as a positive moral good.
So what does all this have to do with the Palestinians? It’s very simple: Even if you accept the (false) premise that ceding the West Bank would actually satisfy Palestinian demands, the fact remains that Israel isn’t there solely or even primarily because of the settlers, who have repeatedly proven incapable of preventing territorial concessions (see the Oslo Accords, the disengagement from Gaza, the far-reaching offers made by prime ministers Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert). It’s there because, based on bitter experience, most Israelis see no way to leave without committing national suicide.
Withdrawing from parts of the West Bank under the Oslo Accords led to the lethal terror of the Second Intifada, which ended only when the Israeli army retook control of these areas. Withdrawing from Gaza resulted in 14 years (and counting) of almost nonstop rocket and mortar fire on southern Israel; a similar outcome would be far deadlier in the West Bank, which, unlike Gaza, is in easy range of Israel’s main population centers, economic hubs and international airport. Withdrawing from southern Lebanon in 2000 enabled Hezbollah, a terrorist organization, to acquire a missile arsenal greater than that of many national armies, aimed straight at Israel.
All this has convinced most Israelis that barring a radical and unforeseen change in Palestinian behavior, ceding the West Bank would be militarily suicidal. And since a one-state solution still looks demographically suicidal, that leaves some version of the status quo as the least bad option—not only for Israel, but even for the Palestinians, as I’ll explain in a subsequent column.
So is conditional Zionism anti-Semitic? That depends on the conditions. But nowadays, the key condition usually involves suicidal Israeli concessions to the Palestinians. Thus today’s conditional Zionists require one nation, of all the nations in the world, to destroy itself for another’s sake. And yes, that’s anti-Semitic.
Evelyn Gordon is a journalist and commentator living in Israel.