Israel Israeli occupation Palestinians Zionism

The Magnes Zionist on “moral” vs. “immoral” Zionism

I have found a rare commodity: a kindred spirit in the blogosphere. “Jerry Haber” is the nom de plume of an Israeli professor whose provocative blog, “The Magnes Zionist,” wrestles bravely with the same issues I am trying to address. Both of us were recently plugged by Mobius in his indispensable “JewSchool.”

Judah Magnes, as this blog has noted, was an important part of a tiny but memorable Zionist bloc that advocated a binational state beginning in the 1920s. He represents the kind of Zionism that has been ignored and shunted aside for far too long.

The following post by Haber Are You A Moral Zionist? Take the Test! is worth quoting in full. I am not sure I agree with each and every one of his premises, particularly his wholesale dismissal of “political Zionism.” But he evokes the intellectual journey many –albeit not nearly enough –Israeli and Diaspora Jews have been taking in the last few decades, as we come to terms with the fact that much of the history we were taught as kids was, to put it mildly, one-sided and inaccurate. Here is his “test”:

Zionism, like other things, comes in various shapes and sizes. I, for one, am a Zionist who doesn’t believe that the State of Israel as founded in 1948 is a good idea; it has to be changed fundamentally to make it into a liberal democracy with a more vital and challenging Jewish component. Political Zionism may have been a reasonable idea at the time, especially if you came from Eastern Europe, but it hasn’t worked out well. When Magnes addressed the Jewish Agency and said that declaring a state would provoke unending war with the Arabs, he was laughed at. Who’s got the last laugh now?

But today, I want to talk about a different division of Zionism, not one of political vs. cultural, but immoral vs. moral. And I have devised a test that you can take to judge your morality meter. I know, I know, this is “beyond Chutzpah,” to use Norm Finkelstein’s phrase (so don’t accuse me of plagiarism!), but there is a point to the exercise.

Are you a moral Zionist. Answer these questions!

1) As part of your Zionist indoctrination, you were taught that the Jordanians desecrated Jewish holy sites and cemetaries between 1948 and 1967, but that Israel respected Arab holy sites. Now you learn that the Israeli government had a deliberate policy of destroying Arab towns and villages (around 500 of them), including sixty mosques, many of great archaeological value, over the objections of Israeli archaeologists. Your reaction is:

A. To feel outrage that you were lied to, and to acknowledge that Israel lost the moral high ground on this issue.

B. To accept responsibility for the actions of Israel, to discuss ways of commemorating the towns and mosques, to issue an apology to the Palestinians and Muslims.

C. To say, “Look, all emerging nations try to obliterate the past of their enemies; we are no different from anybody else. So maybe wiping out the towns was not nice, but that’s the way the world works.”

D. To say, “Those ghost towns and empty mosques posed a serious security threat to the State of Israel, and we were perfectly justified to wipe them out. Anyway, if the Arabs hadn’t attacked us, they wouldn’t be ghost towns”

2. You were always taught that the land for settlements in Judea and Samaria were obtained according to law, and that the Arab demand for making parts of Eretz Yisrael “Judenrein” was antisemitic. You now learn that many settlements are built on Palestinian private land, that much private land was declared public land by dubious legal methods, and that distinction between private and public land is actually irrelevant, because all of the land is considered by the world “Occupied” except by some Israelis, Zionist Jews, and Christian fundamentalists. Your reaction to this:

A. To feel outrage that you were lied to, and to acknowledge that Israel lost the moral high ground on this issue.

B. To agitate for the removal of the settlements, and at the very least to call for a complete freeze and a government accounting.

C. To shrug your shoulders and say, “There was a war, and these are spoils of war.”

D. To say, “This is Eretz Yisrael, man; if they don’t like it, they can move to Detroit.”

3. You were always taught that the Palestinians fled during the 1948 and 1967 fighting because their leaders urged them to do so, so they could come back after the Arab victory and loot the Jewish stuff. You now learn that Palestinians were forcibly expelled as part of IDF policy, and at any rate, even those who left voluntarily, or happened to be away at the time, were not allowed to return to their birthplace as part of a strategy to provide a Jewish majority, and that this strategy of transfer had already been discussed by the executive of the Jewish Agency prior to the State. Your reaction is to:

A. To feel outrage that you were lied to, and to acknowledge that Israel lost the moral high ground on this issue.

B. To urge Israel to take responsibility for creating the plight of the refugees, by its sovereign decision not to let any of them back in, in violation of UN resolution 194.

C. To say that the rights of the Jews to a state of their own involved, inevitably, getting rid of a large number of Arabs, and that the justice of Zionism outweighs the resulting injustice to the Palestinian Arabs.

D. To argue that life is tough, that your parents or grandparents were refugees, and that the Arabs themselves kicked out the Jews from their countries, that their own brethren should take responsibility for them the way Jews take reponsiblity for their refugees, that the Palestinians could have stayed put, that the whole damn thing is their fault, and that, anyway, refugees are a fact of life, expecially after World War II.

Well, I’ll stop here.

If you answered A or B to all three, then you are an adult and moral Zionist. Pat yourself on the back and feel bad about being a bleeding-heart.

If you answered C, then you are an amoral Zionist; in fact, you are pretty amoral altogether wheh it comes to the behavior of states. Or to use the jargon, you believe in realpolitik. We won; they lost; let’s eat. You may use the language of morality (3C), but that’s just for outward consumption and inward self-justification. Even if the Jews act immorally, the only thing that really matters is that are alive to act at all. Better a live bad Jew than a good dead one.

If you generally answered D, then you are an immoral Zionist. Or you are a moral Zionist, whose conception of morality is that of Tony Soprano or Meir Kahana. In the professional jargon, it’s called “Mafia Morality.” This usually means that you do an enormous amount of hesed work, that you always have guests for shabbat, that you give a lot charity to Jewish causes, and that you would do anything, anything for anybody who is a member of the tribe. But that if somebody is not a member of the tribe, then he or she has worth only in so far as she is good for the tribe.

(I will have a post later on Torah morality according to Tony Soprano (or Dov Lior, or Yisrael Rosen, etc.))

If you answered B to all the questions, then send me an email — we should have coffee together some day.



PS. Read about the mosque destruction at

13 thoughts on “The Magnes Zionist on “moral” vs. “immoral” Zionism

  1. These are confusing times indeed for Zionists who are bending over backwards to apologize for past crimes, while sticking to the same racist premises that were responsible for those crimes. I don’t know if this Haber person is in that category. From what you wrote about the wall and the checkpoints, Dan, you certainly are.

  2. Jerry’s characterization of the Palestinian refugee situation seems to be a vast oversimplification if one reads and believes historian Benny Morris’s treatment of it. Palestinian refugees fled for a number of reasons. Zionists both tried to keep Arabs from fleeing and encouraged them to flee, depending on the time, place, and identity of the Zionists. This is not to say that it isn’t something that Israel should take possible responsibility for. But I have also yet to see the Palestinian leadership take any responsibility for the creation of the refugee crisis.

  3. Tom,

    What responsibility did the Palestinian leadership have for the invasion of Eastern European Jews, or the ethnic cleansing that Benny Morris himself said was part of the Zionist strategy?

  4. Wonderful… I look forward to reading more from the Magnes Zionist. As an anti-Zionist I can say that Judah Magnes always seemed like my kind of Zionist.

  5. To Marco – at the risk of being ungracious to our host, I have to say “word up”. Dan – how *did* you score on the test? I don’t think you’ll be having a coffee with Magneszionist any time soon!

  6. Kevin,

    Sorry to make your life more difficult and complex, but if you had read this blog carefully over the last few months, you would have predicted that my answers would be “a” and “b” to all of them. Your prediction would have been correct (although, like Tom, I thought MZ’s assertion about the refugee problem was a bit too glib, which is an almost inevitable consequence of trying to describe almost anything related to this conflict).

    Go back to my April postings. I would like to think that, had I been around back then, I would have joined with Magnes, Buber, Szold and all of their ilk. Like my new friend the Magnes Zionist, I am trying to take back the word “Zionism” from the clutches of people with Mafia morality. When I use that word, it is Judah Magnes’ universalist spirit –which need not contradict the particulars of Jewish experience–that I am trying to evoke…However, the bi-national state that Magnes and Buber and Szold advocated at the time is impractical now. And those who advocate it are perpetuating Palestinian suffering by keeping alive the cruel delusion that somehow, some way, a binational state will emerge any time soon…

  7. I am with this Magnes Zionist guy on a lot of points but assertions about the refugee issue in the late ’40s should NOT be glib. They need to be carefully formulated. He only told one side of the story. For one thing, he completely neglects the fact that the Naqba occurred in large part because Arab armies invaded Israel, and that their intention was ALSO ethnic cleansing. Would the Zionists have kicked out the refugees had there not been an ethnic war –a war that they did not declare? No one knows, do they?

    That said, Israel still ought to apologize. Benny Morris and Tom Segev and others have shown how the idea of population transfer gradually coalesced as an option within the Zionist leadership before the War for Independence. The War gave them an opportunity. Again, it is unclear if they would have acted upon this sentiment had there been no war…It is also unclear if that option would have coalesced had the Arabs accepted the partition resolution, and if there had been no Arab Revolt in the ’30s, or Hebron massacre in 1929, or the attack on Jews in Jaffa in 1921, and other violence that convinced many of the Zionists leaders that there was simply way to resolve this dilemma peacefully.

    In other words, #3 in MZ’s morality test should have been a lot longer!

  8. Guys,

    The fundamental problem is that the reaction that the Magnes Zionist says is “amoral” is the one that Zionists continue to fall back on:

    “To say that the rights of the Jews to a state of their own involved, inevitably, getting rid of a large number of Arabs, and that the justice of Zionism outweighs the resulting injustice to the Palestinian Arabs.”

    That just doesn’t add up. Neither do all of the claims about Palestinian and Arab responsibility. Sure, there is plenty of blame to go around. But I am sorry: there is a moral ledger here, and the Zionists don’t come out ahead. If you are willing to acknowledge THAT as part of your re-education, then I’d be more sympathetic to your moral quandaries

  9. Obvious John,
    The Palestinian leadership had responsibility for rejecting the UN partition resolution of 1947, for rejecting the Peel Plan of 1937, and for fomenting pogroms against the Jewish yishuv in Palestine during the 1920s and 1930s. During the War of 1948 it was the Palestinians who went on the offense first trying to block off the roads and isolate the Jewish settlements. The Hagana went on the offensive only in April. Now if by invasion you mean the immigration of East European Jews into Palestine during the British mandate, that was legal.

  10. Tom:

    I agree with much of what you say, but the fact that the Jewish Immigration to Palestine under the British Mandate was “legal” does not (and did not) not necessarily make it either just or moral.

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