A View on Judaism and Israel
An interview with Yakov M. Rabkin, a professor of history at the University of Montreal


Yakov M. Rabkin

Professor of History at the University of Montreal, Canada. He has published and edited five books including What is modern Israel? (2014), and A Threat from Within: A Century of Jewish Opposition to Zionism (2006), now translated into fourteen languages.

Middle East is the place where a lot of conflicts have lasted even after the end of World War II. One major issue of the region is finding a solution to the problem regarding the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Through an interview, Professor Yakov M. Rabkin gives us a perspective to better understand the historical background on the topic. His knowledge also offers us a critical view on contemporary world affairs.


The Jews and Zionism

Interviewer: One of the themes of your recent book, What is Modern Israel?, is Jewish opposition to Zionism. Could you expand on this topic?

Rabkin: It is an important historical issue, because today a lot of people confuse and conflate Jews, Israelis, Zionism and Judaism. This complicates the understanding of both Judaism and Israel. So, I explained that not all Jews are Zionists. Some are actually Anti-Zionists. Not all Israelis are Jews. In other words, I explained crucial differences. This is particularly important because Jews are often blamed for what the State of Israel does. My book shows that the State of Israel is not a continuation of Jewish history but a revolution against it. Zionist’s founders was very proud about it. So, I tried to explain to the readers that quite a few Jews, actually the majority of Jews rejected Zionism when it first emerged, even though today, I think a large majority supports it.


As a Political Movement

Interviewer: What do you think is the difference between traditional Judaism and Zionism? Many Japanese don’t know much about Middle Eastern history.

Rabkin: Zionism is a political movement that emerged in Eastern and Central Europe in the second half of the nineteenth century. That was the time of ethnic nationalism all around the world, but particularly in Europe –in Eastern and Central Europe where you had four empires and many nations within those empires. So, many of these nations wanted independence and autonomy. The Jews, particularly those who were removed from Jewish tradition and from Jewish religion, in other words, assimilated to European culture, came to see themselves as a European nation, like the Lithuanians or Poles. They also came to seek national independence and embraced the idea of creating a European country for the Jews in Palestine. So it was in this context that the Zionist movement began in Europe. It is a European movement to solve a European problem of Anti-Semitism. It was meant primarily for the Europeans. So, we have to see Zionism as a European colonial movement of the late nineteenth century.

Judaism is a religion which has existed for about thirty-five centuries and undergone significant changes. It has certain moral values and certain rituals. The nineteenth-century in Europe was a century of secularization. People were abandoning religion. The people who developed Zionism were Jews who not only abandoned religion but rebelled against it and the moral values it professes. They said, “Judaism teaches humility. We don’t want to be humble. We want to be assertive and strong.”” They imitated European nationalism. This is why it’s wrong to present Zionism and the State of Israel as a continuation and a culmination of Judaism and Jewish history. Rather, we should see it as a result of a very profound revolution against Jewish continuity.


The Leaders from the Russian Empire

Interviewer: Very interesting. So you mean that modern Zionism is kind of a secularization, apart from traditional Judaism?

Rabkin: Yes. Zionism is based on a secular political movement. Originally, Zionism was developed by secularized people of Jewish descent largely from families that were already non-observant. As I show in my book, many of the leaders of Zionist settlement in Palestine and the State of Israel came from the Russian Empire.

They rebelled against religion like many Europeans. They didn’t want to practice their religion. Zionism found more followers in Russia because before the 1917 revolution, Jews could not legally move to a big city and forget that they’re Jews, something that was then common in Germany, France or Austria. They had to live in a specially designated area along the Western borders of the Russian Empire, in the so called Pale of Settlement. This concentration of secularized and radicalized Jews produced a proto-national sentiment that dovetailed with the appeal of Zionism.

Interviewer: In your book, you wrote about the fact that many Prime Ministers of Israel have Russian Jewish heritage.

Rabkin: Until today, every Prime Minister of Israel was either born in the Russian Empire or his parents were born in the Russian Empire.


Hannah Arendt’s Views on Zionism

Interviewer: After the State of Israel was established in the mid twentieth-century, many Palestinians were evicted from there. What do you think about this situation?

Rabkin: The first financial institution of the Zionist movement was called the Jewish Colonial Trust. At that time, colonialism was not a bad word. Most Western countries and Japan had colonies. But after World War II, colonialism was largely disgraced. Yet, Zionist leaders and the British government that supported them embraced a colonial project leading to a Zionist State. Naturally, this happened at the expense of the local Palestinian population.

This was a common scenario for many settler colonies. In North America, Canada and the United States – settlers displaced the local population and sometimes killed them. This is called settler colonialism, and it is along those lines that the Zionist movement gradually took control of Palestine. From the 1920s, it adopted the policy of hafrada (separation). It continues to this day, promoting the idea of separate development rather than that of integration into the existing Palestinian society. When the Zionists came to Palestine, they didn’t want to integrate with the Palestinians. They wanted to create a separate entity.

Interviewer: You referred to Hannah Arendt, a political philosopher who had Jewish heritage. Her idea was that establishing the State of Israel might not work well for the future of Jewish people. What is your argument on this point?

Rabkin: I think she was right. She wrote in 1948, when Israel had just been established, that it would become an armed fortress. Indeed, it has become an armed fortress. She said that they would be only preoccupied with security and violence, and it continues to be preoccupied with security and violence. Hannah Arendt made a precise prognosis in 1948. That’s why she was not liked in Israel at all. Her books were translated several decades after her death.


The Different Lessons from the Genocide

Interviewer: In her opinion, establishing the State of Israel was not a solution. What do you think about this, considering WWII?

Rabkin: When the Nazis came to power in 1933, they passed several Anti-Jewish decrees. However the only Jewish organization that they favoured was the Zionist organisation. Why? Because Zionists proclaimed, “We don’t belong to Germany. We want to go to another country.”” That’s exactly what the Nazis wanted – to get rid of the Jews in Europe. So, the Nazis, including Eichmann, helped the Zionist movement train people for the settlement in Palestine. Eichmann went to Palestine in 1937 to check on how the Zionist settlement was proceeding. When he was captured and brought to Israel in 1961, it was not his first time in the country. During the war, some right wing Zionist leaders offered the Nazis help against Britain, even though, that wasn’t the official policy of the Zionist movement.

Hannah Arendt was also saying something important about the genocide – that the Nazi killing machine was based on an efficient bureaucracy rather than on visceral hatred. She considered Eichmann to be a specialist, an expert who did what he was told to do. She pointed out that the modern state that can do such things represents a tremendous danger.

After the War, the tragedy of the Nazi genocide provided different kinds of lessons to different people. For the Zionists, it provided the ultimate proof that a separate Zionist State with its own army was needed to protect the Jews. In other words, their argument is essentially tribal: we were weak, now we must be strong. In Germany, a different lesson was learned, namely that he State must be tolerant, liberal and respectful of minorities.

This German interpretation of history is closer to the thought of Hannah Arendt. In fact, quite a few Jews of German descent like Albert Einstein and Martin Buber held a similar view. They didn’t want to have a segregated Jewish State in Palestine, because they knew it would constitute a grave injustice towards the Palestinians and create a situation of constant insecurity. This is why Hannah Arendt’s thought remains important, but is seen as controversial in Israel.


Modernity Versus De-modernization

Interviewer: Indeed, several wars have been waged between Israel and the Arab states. What has been the cause of these conflicts?

Rabkin: I come to your home and I take a small bedroom. You say, “Okay, fine.”” Then, I take the living room and say, “You’d better leave altogether.”” Are you going to like me? That’s exactly what has happened in Palestine. In other words, the Zionists gradually took more… and more and more, displacing the local population and making them barely tolerated foreigners in their land. Obviously, that creates violence.

Hannah Arendt warned. “You’re building a country on total violence.”” Of course, the United States was also built on the same kind of violence but it was in the eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries. In the twentieth century this would be no longer acceptable, even though Israel continues dispossessing local population with impunity.

In the modern world, the citizen relies on the Constitution of his or her State for protection. For quite a few Zionists, however, it’s the Israeli Army that is the ultimate saviour, not only in Tel-Aviv, but also in New York. In other words, they rely on tribal solidarity, an utterly pre-modern concept. Thus Israel reflects a fascinating case of tension between technological modernity and socio-political de-modernization. Zionism is essentially a de-modernizing movement.


Iran and Israel

Interviewer: For most Japanese, I think this is a very complicated problem to understand.

Rabkin: My books were very well understood in Japan. True, there’s a lot of pro-Israel propaganda in the media. Israel appears to have largely won politically, militarily and in terms of public relations. Palestinians continue to be evicted and displaced. And there are thousands of them languishing in Israeli prisons. While Israel has won, it will never feel safe because of millions of dispossessed Palestinians who naturally feel aggrieved and hostile.

Today, the conflict is no longer with Arab States but, rather, with the Palestinians. Benny Morris, an Israeli historian, was one of the first to document ethnic cleansing in 1947-49 and the emergence of the Palestinian national movement. However, he said later, “Even the great American democracy could not have been created without the annihilation of the Indians. There are cases in which the overall, final good justifies harsh and cruel acts that are committed in the course of history.”” He argues that Israel should have done a better job of ethnic cleansing.

Interviewer: Another issue in the Middle East is the conflict between Iran and Israel.

Rabkin: When discussing these two countries, one should look at the historical record. How many countries has Israel attacked since its creation for nearly seventy years? How many countries has the United States attacked for two centuries? How many countries has Iran attacked? It turns out that Iran, unlike Israel and the United States, hasn’t attacked a neighbouring country for about three hundred years.

It’s a clear sign of political de-modernization and a return to colonial mentality to believe that some countries, like Israel, have the right to modernize, while Iran doesn’t have this right and, unlike Israel and the United States, should not have weapons it needs for its self-defence. One need not be sympathetic with the Islamic ideology in Iran to conclude that Iranian leaders have been a lot more careful and prudent than Israel leaders. If the question “Who should have nuclear weapons?”” should be asked altogether, Israel, rather than Iran, should have been prevented from developing them. After all, Israel has repeatedly attacked its neighbours. Yet, Israeli and Western propaganda against Iran has been so strong and effective that one tends to ignore its utter irrationality. (For more on this issue, see the article published by IDE-JETRO in Tokyo: Yakov M. Rabkin, The Iran Deal: Irrationality in foreign policy discourse)


Steven Spielberg’s Film Munich

Interviewer: In your book, you mentioned Steven Spielberg’s film, Munich.

Rabkin: There is one episode in the film which I remember in particular. A European Jew recruited by Israel to build explosive devices to be used against Palestinian personalities in Europe, refuses and says that killing is against Jewish moral values. Spielberg was unusually secretive while filming it. He feared that Zionists might prevent him from completing the picture. He expected Israel and its allies in the United States to be very upset about a movie that questions what Israel is and does in terms of Jewish moral values.

Interviewer: How do you see the Evangelical Christians in the United States who are supportive of Israel? They are said to be a population of over 50 million people, over three times more than the total number of Jews in the world.

Rabkin: The founders of Zionism saw their movement as a clean break with Jewish history; the pioneers of the colonization of Palestine were proud to have carried out “the Zionist revolution.”” But paradoxically, if the Land of Israel is indeed central to Jewish spiritual tradition, Christians, not Jews, were the ones who sought the actual ingathering of the Jews in the Holy Land by political means in order to bring about the Second Coming of Christ. Zionism’s deep and intimate connivance with Christianity goes far to explain the powerful support the State of Israel enjoys in the United States, where Evangelical Protestant groups are numerous and influential. That explains partly why the United States is so supportive of Israel.

Japan’s Role in the Middle East

Interviewer: Do you think Japan can play a role in the Middle East? I think Japan could be a mediator to the countries in this region.

Rabkin: That’s why I’m very happy that my two books were translated into Japanese. Japan could play an important role as a mediator. To do so, Japan has to have an independent foreign policy rather than follow the United States. In the 1970s, Tokyo enjoyed a lot more independence from Washington. In the meantime, the United States attempts to play the role of mediator, while remaining staunchly supportive of Israel.

Japan has an additional advantage of not being a European nation. As an Asian power, it has an interest in defusing tension. It also depends on fossil fuels coming from the Middle East. Japan can and should play an important role in restoring justice and peace in Israel/Palestine.

Interviewer: Thank you for your time.

Rabkin: It was my pleasure to address Japanese readers.

A View on Judaism and Israel
Copyright © IRH Press Co.Ltd. All Right Reserved.