In March 1989 the estimable magazine The Washington Report on Middle East Affairs (WRMEA) published my article “Grandfather Sparks Interest In Debate Over Zionism” in its “Seeing the Light” series. (It was subsequently included in the WRMEA book Seeing the Light: Personal Encounters With the Middle East and Islam, edited by Richard H. Curtiss and Janet McMahon.)
The surrealism of this week’s contrasting scenes in the Gaza Strip, where Israeli soldiers were murdering dozens and maiming many hundreds of unarmed Palestinians, and Jerusalem, where smarmy representatives of the Trump administration — led by Donald Trump’s daughter and son-in-law — flattered Israel’s rulers while dedicating the new U.S. embassy, prompted me to post my 29-year-old article, with the gracious permission of the Washington Report.
Grandfather Sparks Interest In Debate Over Zionism
I have vivid childhood memories of collecting money to plant trees in Israel. I recall as well the frequent accounts provided by Hebrew school teachers of Jewish heroism and devotion in the midst of a hostile sea of Arabs. And I’ll never forget the day my school mates and I were taken downtown in 1960 to see the eagerly awaited movie “Exodus.”
Mine was a childhood that in large part revolved around Israel. Ben-Gurion, Moshe Dayan, and Golda Meir were heroes. My parents, Conservative Jews, were not Zionists; moving to Israel, or seeing their children do so, was unthinkable. But they were loyal Israelists, committed to the Jewish state as necessary for the existence of Judaism and for the victims, present and future, of ubiquitous anti-Semitism.
I have another memory, which stands in sharp relief to these pro-Israel images. It is the memory of my paternal grandfather [zade or zaide or zayde], Sam Richman [Shlomo Hersh ben Moshe], a joyous, tolerant Orthodox Jew [from Lithuania] and a shomos (sexton) at a little synagogue. Every Saturday afternoon, after Shabbat [shabbos] services, we’d visit Zadie and Bubby at their apartment. The conversation would often turn to the Middle East. I would sit quietly and listen. There, and only there, did I hear criticism of Israel. I think this became particularly pronounced after the six-day war in 1967.
“The Jews in Israel are causing all the trouble,” he would say repeatedly. “The Arabs want peace. ”
My father would counter: “How can you say that? Israel wants peace. It is one little slice of land. The Arabs have so much, but they won’t sit down and talk.” He would suggest that my grandfather visit Israel and see the situation for himself.
Zadie wouldn’t budge. “I will never go,” he’d say. Each year, as he led our Passover seder, when he was supposed to say “next year in Jerusalem,” he’d improvise with a smile, “next year in Philadelphia.” The family always regarded Zadie as the venerable patriarch. But on this issue he was treated as uninformed and stubborn. It was confusing. Little did I know then that he represented an important position in the original Jewish debate over Zionism. To him Zionism was counterfeit Judaism and the Zionists charlatans. His Orthodox belief held that the re-establishment of Israel was a matter of God in the messianic future. He would have agreed with Yehoshofat Harkabi, a former chief of Israeli military intelligence, who said “The Jews always considered that the land belonged to them, but in fact it belonged to the Arabs. I would go further: I would say the original source of this conflict lies with Israel.”
At the time of the six-day war I was 17 years old. Aside from this one dissenter, I never imagined there was another side to the Israeli-Arab dispute. As I understood it, the Jews had a Biblical and legal right to the land and were eager to live peacefully with the Arabs. But the Arabs hated the Jews because they were Jews. So there was no peace. I don’t think I’d heard the word Palestinian.
My parents and teachers sincerely believed what they taught me. They bore no ill will toward the Arabs. But like many of us, they were too busy with their lives to research the question themselves, so they relied on the people they trusted, namely, the Jewish and Israeli leaders, who were Zionists.
In the early 1970s I had stirrings of dissatisfaction with what I had been taught. I began to wonder how European Jews came to own land in Palestine when an indigenous population lived there. My teachers said the Jews bought the land. That satisfied me at first. Meanwhile, I made two trips to Israel, during the 1973 war and a year later. By this time I was a journalist looking for adventure. I put my reservations on hold.
Whose Land Was It?
In 1978 I began hearing the land question discussed and for the first time I came across the argument that most of the land bought by the Zionists was sold by absentee feudal landlords, whose “tenants” were then run off by the purchasers. In my view of property this was illegitimate. The real owners were the people actually working the land: the homesteaders, the Palestinians.
Since my libertarianism puts me on the side of the victims of the state, I began to understand that the Palestinians were the latest in a long line of groups oppressed by political power. Jews, of course, have been similarly oppressed in many places; now some Jews, the Zionists, were in the role of oppressor. My childhood view of Israel was unraveling.
I belatedly began investigating the real story of the founding of Israel. I read Elmer Berger’s Memoirs of an Anti-Zionist Jew and the writings of Alfred Lilienthal, Noam Chomsky, Edward Said, and others. I revised my views on the relationship of Judaism and Zionism, on the Arab-Israeli wars, and on the Zionist agenda for Eretz Yisroel. I “discovered” the Palestinians. I became satisfied that what my parents and teachers told me was mistaken and that what Zadie had said was right.
He died in 1974. I’m painfully sorry I didn’t know then what I know now. He was a wise man, a prophet unsung in his own land.
I omitted some steps in my odyssey, which I will rectify now. The first person from whom I heard substantive arguments about who legitimately owned the land in Palestine was Roy A. Childs Jr., the long-time editorial director at Laissez Faire Books and an inspiration to so many libertarians of my generation. In a lecture at the first of the old Cato Summer Seminars (1978), I heard Roy talk about absentee feudal landlordism and the illegitimate sale of property out from under the true Lockean owners, namely, the actual tillers of the soil. I followed up with conversations with Roy, and I have vivid memories of being at the Laissez Faire office feverishly photocopying chapters of David Hirst’s The Gun and the Olive Branch: The Roots of Violence in the Middle East, the first book on the subject that Roy recommended. (I also recommend it.)
I learned the fine details of the land story from an article by my friend Stephen P. Halbrook in the old Journal of Libertarian Studies (Fall 1981), edited by Murray Rothbard. In “Alienation of a Homeland,” Halbrook presents the hard data on the ownership and conveyance of land in Palestine. It is an eye-opening article that more people need to read. I could no longer believe that Israel was the result of the legitimate acquisition of property. It could not pass libertarian muster.
Finally, in 1980, while attending a libertarian conference in Maine, I met Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, an American libertarian and Muslim, who was the son of Palestinians. Dean became a good friend and colleague, especially during my active years in the Libertarian Party (1977-1983). He went on to create the Minaret of Freedom Foundation, whose mission statement I highly commend. It was Dean who taught me about the bloody campaign of the Zionist militias to drive the Palestinians out of Palestine. It was in a heart-rending song that Dean had written and performed at the conference that I first heard the words Deir Yassin, the village in which the Irgun paramilitary force, under the command of future Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, slaughtered 354 men, women, and children on April 9, 1948. It was just one piece of crusade to rid the land of Arabs in order to make way for the future Jewish citizens of the state of Israel.
I have other memories as well. I recall the days after the 1967 war, when American Jews (myself included; I was 17) celebrated Israel’s military victory (in what was not a war of defense, as the state’s political and military leaders well understood; see what really had happened on the Golan Heights, which were part of Syria). I recall being at a rally of United Synagogue Youth, of which I was a member in those days, when the exuberant crowd sang the song “David Melech Yisroel” (“David, the King of Israel, lives and endures”). At the end of the song, the rally leader began shouting the names of cities in Israel, with the crowd responding each time, “Yisroel!”:
Then things became more eerily revealing.
I’ll never forget it. Maybe that is why I can’t remain silent.
Yes, my zaide (who like his Belorussian wife, my bubby, Katie, lost close family in Hitler’s Holocaust; they had come to America before World War I) insisted the Arabs wanted peace and did not hate Jews qua Jews. He was not speaking from ignorance, as my later research showed. (See also my “Arab Attempts to Negotiate with Israel,” American-Arab Affairs, Summer 1991, alas, not online.) Arab rulers made repeated offers of a general peace, only to be rebuffed by Israeli governments. (Nothing will be allowed to get in the way of an expansion into all of Palestine and the creation of Greater Israel.
My article mentions the early Orthodox Jewish objection to Zionism (some Orthodox Jews still vehemently oppose Zionism), but Reform Judaism — on principle — also opposed the movement, which was founded and run by atheists who cared nothing for the Jewish religion but only for an invented “Jewish People.” One can reasonably say that the Zionist pioneers were the first self-hating Jews. A huge volume of work on the Reform Jewish case against Zionism, that is, Jewish nationalism, exists thanks to American Council for Judaism founder Rabbi Elmer Berger (who later founded American Jewish Alternatives to Zionism), Alfred Lilienthal, Allan Brownfeld, Israel Shahak (all of whom I’ve had the great honor of knowing), Moshe Menuhin (author and father of famed violinist Yedui Menuhin), and many others. (See excellent historical accounts here and here.) I could name books all day.
Reform Judaism opposed any Jewish State for two reasons: first, Judaism, in this view, is a religion comprising a worldwide faith community made up of many different peoples; it is not “a people.” Declaring that Jews were a single people with their “own state” would distort a religion that was held as embodying universal values and compromise the Jewish citizens of other countries through the suspicion of dual-loyalty.
Second, Palestine was already inhabited largely by Arab Muslims and Christians — the Palestinians. Palestine was not, contrary to myth, a “land without a people.” Full stop. Hence, the creation of a Jewish State in Palestine, which was unlawful by any standard, would mean Jewish oppression of non-Jews.
The very thought of such consequences revolted the prophetic Reform Jewish leaders.
No one was more vehement than these lions of the Reform movement in their opposition to Zionism, which they regarded as a form of anti-Semitism and even idolatry because God was pushed aside literally by blood and soil. (The only British cabinet opponent of the 1917 Balfour Declaration was also the only Jew, Edwin Montagu, who accused his colleagues of veiled anti-Semitism. (My loose translation of the implicit message of the declaration: “Hey, Jews, here’s an idea: why don’t you all leave Britain and move to the Middle East. We’ll help you pack!”)
The Zionist leaders were not clueless about what they were doing. Israel’s first prime minister said what many of his colleagues were thinking: “Why should the Arabs make peace? If I was an Arab leader I would never make terms with Israel. That is natural: we have taken their country…. We have come here and stolen their country. Why should they accept that?”
To be Socratic for a moment, we are left with this: either Israel is the Jewish State, that is, embodies Jewish values (as its most fervent advocates insist), or it is/does not. If it is/does (which I do not believe), then considering what Israelis do every day to the non-Jews of Palestine, what does that say about Judaism? And if it is/does not, then why are American Jews (and everyone else committed to justice) so attached to it? (Of course, in America, this attachment is diminishing dramatically.)
Nearly two million Palestinians are confined in the open-air prison called the Gaza Strip. What the Israeli government is doing there, and on the West Bank, is unconscionable. These crimes date back 70 years and more and cannot be ignored merely because some Palestinians have committed unjustifiable acts against innocent Israelis. Those who think the relatively small-scale violence perpetrated by desperately long-oppressed individual Palestinians can possibly mitigate the monstrously systematic state brutality committed routinely by the powerful (and nuclear-armed) state of Israel, fortified by the U.S. government, have become enablers of the cruelty and dehumanization visited daily on the Palestinians not only in Gaza and the West Bank but in Israel itself.
I can only hope that future generations will look back on all this with puzzlement and shame.
The following lecture was delivered at Spring Arbor University, October 2023. There is hardly anything more important to the future of the world than Sino-American relations. And that’s quite a thing to say when looking at the state of the world these days. But over...