What is Zionism from a Secular Humanism Point of View


“O Jerusalem of gold, of brass and of light,
For all your songs
I will be your harp.”

Traditional Hebrew song

“Zionism” is an emotionally loaded word, and like other such words, it has sharply different meanings, depending on who’s talking and in what context.

Zionism has been around, as a word and as a concept, for my whole life. I was born only five years before the State of Israel was created. When I went to Hebrew school, there was a map of the state of Israel on the wall. In the early 1950s, one of the teachers, a very literate college professor, stood in front of that map and declared to us children, loudly and in no uncertain terms, “Hitler killed SIX MILLION OF US.”

Obviously, a very powerful moment, which I still remember

Israel fought a war for independence. I learned early on, though I grew up among Jews who were far from radical, that the land of Israel was central to being Jewish. It is where all Jews should want to return. Israel then fought half a dozen more wars, winning all, most of them decisively. The recent misadventure in Lebanon seemed to me to be a draw, with Israel failing to accomplish what it wanted to, militarily.

But today the centers of Jewish life are Israel and America, and to a lesser degree, Europe. Clearly, many Jews don’t want to return to Israel. They like it just where they are. But some do. Others have nowhere else to go, so Israel is very important to them.

Two realities about Zionism are paramount to me as a secular humanist.

One is that finally, Jews can defend themselves – and they do it damn well. At long last, they have learned that to survive in a violent world, Jews must be violent themselves, if only in self-defense.

There have been too many centuries of passive endurance of all manner of torture and persecution. If this passivity was in any way supported by religious belief – that God wanted things this way, that he was somehow punishing the Jews, or that he would deliver them from the current horror – then religion has been immensely harmful to my people, and the rabbis have much to atone for.

It was secular Jews who founded Israel. It was secular Jews who won the first half-dozen wars and enabled the tiny state, though vastly outnumbered, to defeat enemy after enemy. It’s important to me as a Jew, to see Israel thrive.

However, I still don’t want to live there. There’s a level of Jewishness in Israeli society that perhaps is a bit much for me, what with the Orthodox having so much political influence. Then there’s the constant warfare. It takes a certain type of person.

But, as I say, I like to see tough Israelis. The persecution of passive Jews is over. Jews now have the best weapons, the best training, the best technology, the best intelligence, and even some nuclear warheads, should the worst happen.

So I’m proud of what the Israelis have accomplished, and I tend to cut them a lot of slack. What would YOU do if you had to defend your family’s life – your country’s very existence – day after day?

It’s pointless or irrelevant to cite Israeli mistakes or excesses. Sometimes it seems that they’re held to an exceptionally, inordinately high standard of behavior. Besides in marked contrast to their Arab neighbors, Israelis are often their own harshest critics.

It’s a matter of survival. I fully agree with the maxim that “if the Arabs put down their guns, there’d be no war. If the Jews put down their guns, there would be no Israel.”

Israel can and should and will survive because it must. The Jews must have a homeland.

That is the second key reality about Zionism for a secular humanist. Jews must have a homeland because the rest of the world – especially the Christian world has demonstrated, loud and clear, that it cannot tolerate Jews. It just could not allow them to peacefully assimilate but be a little different.

The Jewish problem

There was always “the Jewish problem.” What the hell WAS “the Jewish problem,” exactly?

My understanding is that Jews did well in the advanced societies of the medieval Muslim world. I think the Muslims’ liberality (unlike today) definitely had something to do with their sophistication and prosperity.

But in Christian Europe, Jews suffered because they poisoned the wells and caused the plague because they used the blood of Christian babies to make the Passover matzoh. And because of other vile lies, which barbaric, cynical, fanatic politicians, kings and clerics used as excuses to inflame the masses, find a scapegoat, and consolidate their power.

What Hitler talked about the final solution to the Jewish problem – had been discussed for many, many years. Total annihilation. Hitler threatened it, he carried it out, and the Allies refused to bomb the tracks leading to Auschwitz, deciding instead to focus on winning the war. So the trains kept running.

I don’t know whether this was a sound military decision. All I can do is report America’s military rationale and take it with a grain of salt. They were only Jews, after all. We’re not sending the Marines to quell the violence in Darfur. They’re not Christian and have no oil, last I noticed.

With all that as background – my pride in Israel, my Jewish consciousness, and my awareness of the complexity and precariousness of Middle Eastern events – let me differentiate between two kinds of Zionism.

I think it’s important to distinguish between secular Zionism and religious Zionism.

As I said, the people who founded Israel were secular. They wanted to create a Jewish state, where Jews could live free of fear and expulsion, with a Jewish-oriented culture and society – but not a theocracy.

That is not racism! The Kurds also want a homeland where Kurds cannot be persecuted and expelled. The Italians and Poles already have homelands.

In Israel, as in the Christian and Muslim worlds, the forces of religion have invaded the government. In fact, today, the secularists are fighting a tough battle with the Orthodox, who want to make Israel a Biblical Jewish state, sort of a Jewish Saudi Arabia.

Secular Zionism

So yes, the Jews should have a homeland. This is a secular Zionism.

There was the question of where it should be. I actually see the point in the argument made by the president of Iran: the Jews that were so horribly treated in the Holocaust were European citizens, and Europe should have solved the refugee problem and Jewish homeland problem, all on its own soil.

And I even have no problem with that. How about a nice, lush chunk of Bavaria, instead of the rocky wasteland they got? Wouldn’t that solution have a delicious irony and poetic justice?

But Israel is where it is. The winning powers in World War II were empowered to call the shots, and they did. They restored the Jews to their ancestral homeland.

As a rule, history has been about more powerful and better-organized societies pushing others off their homeland (usually by slaughter, epidemic, and/or assimilation), as happened in the Americas – and much earlier in the Far East, where the ancestors of today’s Chinese pushed out a lot of others, whose Descendents are to be found in Southeast Asia.

Pushing people out has a long history. The president of Iran should be aware that his ancestors pushed native people out. The Indo-European language family that resulted in stretches from India to Ireland. Clearly, there was a lot of violent pushing out. But nobody’s talking about giving America back to the natives.

So Arabs and others should stop getting so upset about Zionism, which is just more case of pushing out, this one somewhat justified by history and definitely triggered by the extraordinary circumstance of the Holocaust.

You can argue that Jews had abandoned Israel as early as Roman times, when there may have been as many as 40,000 Jews in Rome. Or you can argue that they should be allowed to have a homeland that they can return to if they want to.

What you cannot argue, in my opinion, is religious Zionism: the land-grant which is repeatedly articulated by God in the Torah and whose fulfillment is a constant theme of the interactions between God and the Israelites.

That is all primitive shepherd stuff. We have to deal with realities as they are today. The people who insist that Israel be run according to Biblical law…or think they can settle in places they shouldn’t because the Bible says they can…are making the problem a lot worse.

I really wish Israel could be a secular state, with the government following the Jewish calendar, and Jewish culture well represented in society and the arts, and so on. Arabs could still have full civil rights.

Confusion arises because the word “Jewish” can refer to an ethnicity/culture (e.g., “Irish, French”) and a theistic belief system (Christianity, Islam). Thus, Islam encompasses Arabs and many other ethnic groups. And there are Christian Arabs.

Secular humanistic Jews identify with the culture but don’t believe in any of the religious fantasies.

Nothing in the Torah happened, though most Jews sort of pretend that it did.

Secular Jews have always been around. They were probably the people against all against whom all the gruesome, hideous curses in the Torah were directed. You can read the threats in the Books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy. When I read them, they creeped me out. But that’s what happens when you don’t obey God’s commandments.

Along with being Zionists, secular Jews were socialists, even early Bolsheviks, always trying to, as they put it, “fix the world.” Freud and Marx were secular Jews, as were Einstein, Carl Sagan, and a long list of others I could name.

Secular Jews simply cannot accept the religious story, but they identify, to one degree or another, with ethnicity and culture. They celebrate Rosh Hashanah but not Christmas, Passover but not Easter, know Hebrew songs but no Gaelic ones, and so on. It’s all in what you do and what you get used to.

So the Israelis have a lot of problems, but most of them would go away if the Arab world weren’t constantly using the Jews as a way to inflame the passions of its religious believers. The amount of anti-Semitic garbage that is spewed by the Arab media every day is disgusting.

The Palestinians should know that they have suffered in those horrendous refugee camps because Arab leaders promised that they would drive the Jews into the sea and the people could have all of Palestine back, even though there already was a plan in place for compensating them or letting them keep their property.

And for the past six decades, Arab leaders have used these unfortunate souls as bargaining chips to keep their own populations in line and divert attention from how miserably their people are governed by their theocracies and dictatorships.

So the bottom line on secular Zionism is that the Jews had to have a homeland, it shouldn’t be a religious state, it can be Jewish and still grant the Arabs rights, and the rest of the world just – for once – let the Jews live in peace.

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