Is There a Soul for Israel to Lose?

By Issa Khalaf

Is it real or fantasy, the Jewish American liberal Zionist insistence that, after 1967, with the occupation, Israel lost its liberal democratic, human rights, pluralist soul?  Many Western liberal Zionists and their Israeli counterparts hold steadfastly to this view, perhaps fearing the psychological shattering that reality—a grimy, violent, racist state of Israel—would impose. Israel cannot live its “liberal democratic ideals” because they are not inherent in its Zionist foundation and institutions. Quite the contrary—and the evidence unearthed and gone over by so many scholars, is abundant.

Majority rule, self-determination, right to land and homeland, civil and political equality, these, from the very beginning, belonged only to the Zionist settler-colonists, not to the indigenous Palestinians, who comprised the vast majority.  The Israeli state’s “democratic and moral character” requires serious intellectual calisthenics to pin down.

If the dominant Jewish tradition teaches and insists, over and again that collapse and destruction follows dreadful ethical and moral waywardness, then the collapse of Israel is a matter of time. It seems to me that Zionism took the worst universal human compulsion, group and nationalist darkness, and dressed it in Jewish clothes, challenging and distorting Judaism’s universal spiritual and moral essence. Judaism, unbound in history, will of course outlive historical Zionism, but Zionism’s sin was to wed the two. This of course does not mean that Zionism is an aberration. We must recognize that it is a manifestation of one strand of Jewish identity and “life.” Still, Israel is hardly a spiritual center for Judaism and Zionism is a corrosive moral influence upon it; for some, perhaps many Jews, love of Israel, that is, invented Jewish national identity is more important than love of God, or a universal Judaism.

No, not withstanding the righteousness of Ha-Am and Buber—who sought to force-fit Zionism to Jewish ethics, who talked of Palestine as a cultural rather than a political center for Jews or a bi-national homeland for both peoples—there cannot be a democratic or moral political Zionism.  One can have great empathy for Jewish suffering in the Holocaust, even consider the idea of a safe homeland for Jews, but one cannot accept this moral calamity, making the case of those Jews who argue that there is no compatibility between non-territorial, non-national, non-militarist, non-chronological Judaism and starkly, Jewish Zionist nationalism.  How much more evidence of Zionist intent regarding the Palestinians—when every Palestinian man, woman and child is extirpated or expelled?  Even this possible eventuality will probably not change the mind of the Zionist faithful, certainly the Israeli state and the American Zionist establishment, for these are fossilized in the recent historical past.

Lo and behold, it seems Jews wielding power can be just as grotesquely distorted by it as the inferior Goyim—you know, that drunken, violent, sexual, brawny, non-intellectual mass of humanity.  Zionists kill, steal, lie, murder, oppress, dehumanize, violate and commit all manner of hideous sin.  But they must be okay, those Zionists; thus shedding innocent Palestinian blood—not that it’s seen as innocent—is justifiable: Jewish history, Jewish needs, Jewish suffering transcend those of the uncivilized “Arabs,” who after all will kill all Israeli Jews given half a chance.

Israel’s perennial atrocities and mini genocides against the victimized Palestinians, is always enormously difficult to comprehend, at least on a deeper level, so irrational, politically stupid, suicidal its behavior.  It will allow the Palestinians nothing, no form of genuine self-determination, short of exit.  To me, deeply ingrained Israeli hatred, in state and society, is about the essential dehumanization of the Palestinians, characteristic of a European colonial settler society, for Israel still lives in the late 19th century.  Add to this Jewish superiority and exceptionalism, Jewish trauma and paranoia, and the psychological neurosis caused by trying to erase your victims to avoid their reminder.  Denying the Palestinians have equal humanity or existence as a people, much less that Jews are doing harm to them, derives from this volatile mix, what psychiatrist Joel Kovel, referring to American Jews, calls a “bad conscience.”

Arnon Soffer, a prominent sociologist weirdly consistent with Israeli standards, is emblematic of Israeli craziness, moral blindness, and deafness to their own irony.  So terrified at the prospect of demographic shift in Palestinian favor, he says: “[W]hen 2.5 million people live in a closed-off Gaza, it’s going to be a human catastrophe.  Those people will become even bigger animals than they are today, with the aid of an insane fundamentalist Islam.  The pressure at the border will be awful.  It’s going to be a terrible war.  So, if we want to remain alive, we will have to kill and kill and kill.  All day, every day.  If we don’t kill, we will cease to exist.  The only thing that concerns me is how to ensure that the boys and men who are going to have to do the killing will be able to return home to their families and be normal human beings.”

Defending his “kill” statements in a Jerusalem Post interview, Soffer said, “I didn’t recommend that we kill Palestinians.  I said we’ll have to kill them.  I was right about mounting demographic pressures.  I am also entitled to defend myself and my country.”  Imagine the career trajectory of an American academic talking like this.

Zionism expands and insists on ethnic homogeneity, colonizes and insists on separation, legally institutionalizes superiority and insists on democracy, occupies and brutalizes and insists on self-defense and peace.  Soffer’s kill statements may in fact express Zionism’s ultimate logic.

The profound conundrum of Israel is that Zionism, whether of the right wing or Labour variety, built a house on a crooked foundation, viz., the original sin of ethnic cleansing and steady, relentless, methodical drive to extinguish the Palestinian national presence and political organization in Palestine.  Israel’s leaders, including many intellectuals and rabbis, strikingly lack self-awareness, disconnected from the real world as they are.  How can a state, a belief system, built on ethno-religious exclusivism, the imperative of making the Palestinians disappear, territorial expansion and war, wanton destruction and starvation, mold a moral society?  It’s a numbing assault on humanistic and ethical sensibility.

It would be good if Israel becomes Israel, encompassing an inclusive identity and citizenship-based state welcoming all those who dwell within it—that is, all of historic Palestine—to the promise of civil, political, and social equality.  It is near impossible to sustain a “Jewish state,” for a modern state is incompatible with religious, group identity.  (Besides, Zionist colonization is ensuring its own undoing.)  The ideological compulsion to maintain Israel’s “Jewish identity and values,” an innocuous demand to the uninitiated, makes one wonder what is really so Jewish, as in Judaic values foremost preservation of life and justice, about this state extinguishing the life of Palestinians—including babies, children, pregnant women, old people—without a shred of remorse, but with prodigious fury and rationalizations.  Jewish ethics surely require compassion and embrace of the Palestinians, justice most of all.  Zionism fails this litmus test miserably.

It’s for Jews to debate and resolve, if ever, the tension between Jewish morality and universalism and Zionist nationalism and chauvinism.  However, it is not for Israeli Jews and their Zionist supporters in the West to dominate, suppress, and distort, as they do, the moral case and narrative for Palestinian freedom and dignity.

– Issa Khalaf, a Palestinian-American, has a D. Phil. in Politics and Middle East Studies from Oxford University. He contributed this article to

PHOTO: An Israeli street sign placed in the occupied West Bank (near Bethlehem) on Road 375 going from El-Khader Junction with road 60 (Tunnel Road) to Ela Valley. The sign is placed just before crossing from Israel to the West Bank, near the illegal, Jewish-only colony/settlement of Betar Illit and the Palestinian villages of Husan, Batir and Wadi Fuqeen (Betar Checkpoint). It says in Hebrew:

“Welcome to Betar Checkpoint

This checkpoint is for the passage of Israelis only. It is forbidden to pass and/or drive a person through this checkpoint, who is not Israeli!!

“Israeli” – a resident of Israel, a person who lives in the area and is a citizen of Israel, or a person ENTITLED TO MAKE ALIYAH TO ISRAEL ACCORDING TO THE [JEWISH] LAW OF RETURN, 1950, AS VALID IN ISRAEL” (emphasis added)

(PHOTO CREDIT: Dudy Tzfati via Roy, TRANSLATION CREDIT: Dudy Tzfati)

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