Zionist apologetics is based on two sets of claims which are each problematic. One is nationalist and the other religious. The religious claim consists of a number of arguments. First, there is the Biblical text itself, which exhorts the Children of Israel to settle the land and conveys a divine “land grant” to them. S/He tells Abraham after he departs from his ancestral home, that S/He will bestow the land of Canaan to him:
“Unto thy seed will I give this land…Arise, walk through the land in the length of it and in the breadth of it: for unto thee will I give it””
The Jewish liturgy also repeatedly obliges worshippers to return and “rebuild” Zion, which was destroyed following the Roman conquest. This rebuilding alludes to a restoration of the Temple, an obligation Kahanist settlers have taken literally; though the majority of Orthodox Jews see this as spiritual, rather than actual physical command.
For those who assert a Biblical claim, it’s worth noting that the land promised to the Israelites included virtually all of Israel’s current territory plus almost all of Lebanon and portions of Jordan. The Revisionists and Israel’s leaders early in the country’s history envisioned similar expansionist boundaries. But most Israelis now concede this is unattainable. Thus, even believers have conceded that the Biblical vision cannot be realized and that divine promises are not absolute and inviolable. But rather subject to pragmatic realities.
Israeli archaeology offered another means of establishing the legitimacy to the Zionist claims to Israel. Excavations in Jerusalem and throughout the country (even including Palestine!) documented an ancient Israelite presence. Thus archaeology became a discipline in service to a nationalist ideology. But ironically they also documented the presence of other cultures and tribes. But this doesn’t seem to trouble the Zionist narrative.
As for the authenticity of any “divine promise” to the ancient Hebrews, Bible scholars universally agree that there was no divine author, and that Moses did not carry down from Mt. Sinai tablets engraved by God on stone. Rather the sacred book was authored by men at various different periods. This is not history, but myth. So the notion that it is God’s will that bestows this land is unfounded.
Along with the Bible’s divine, exclusivist promise to the Children of Israel, there are prohibitions on pagan worship and consorting with non-Israelite women, among others. These taboos existed precisely because they violated them. They intermingled with surrounding tribes. They absorbed language, culture and customs from their environment.
The Book of Ruth offers such an example of an Israelite man who migrates to Moab, where he marries Ruth, a Moabite woman. When he dies, Ruth’s Judean mother-in-law, Naomi, tells the former to return to her tribe, while she returns to her Judean home in Bethlehem. Instead of doing so, Ruth declares her devotion to Naomi and that she will follow her to the land of Judah. There she remarries another Judean, Boaz. The story affirms that ancient Hebrews intermingled with their neighbors. They did just the opposite of the prohibitions above. Practical realities and human behavior dictated otherwise.
Zionism vs. Biblical ethics
One of the chief characteristics of the human species is migration, a movement of populations from birthplace to new homes in new places. During such mass movement, human tribes absorbed the culture, foods and traditions of others whom they met. Jews are no different. In fact, we are known as a wandering people. From Abraham settling in Canaan, to Jacob uprooting his family to settle in Egypt. to Moses and 40 years of wandering, to the Babylonian exile, and the disperson following the Roman conquest, to the Spanish Inquisition, to the Holocaust.
All these expulsions and migrations built what has become the Diaspora. Through that movement, we became a diverse people that survived during the millennia when there was no temple nor Jewish sovereignty in the land. We dwelled among other peoples and they influenced and changed us, as we did them. In fact, it is one of the great treasures of the Jewish people and a gift to humanity.
Despite a misguided belief that forms one of the bases of Zionism–that Jews have remained racially and genetically pure from the era of Abraham till today and must remain so–we are no different than the rest of humanity. Despite what many may believe, we intermarried with non-Jews. Despite culinary prohibitions, we developed a taste for the foods of those among whom we dwelled.
The Biblical bestowal of the land to the Israelites was neither permanent nor irrevocable. Their claim was dependent on establishing a just society:
The Land of Israel is perceived as the promised land, which involves a moral and religious problem…[Its]…possession [depends on fulfillment of] a moral condition…The Israelite tribes will continue to reside in the Land only if they will be just.
5 Is this the fast I have chosen: a day for a man to deny himself…Will you call this a fast and a day acceptable to the LORD?
6Isn’t this the fast that I have chosen: to break the chains of wickedness, to untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and tear off every yoke?
7Isn’t it to share your bread with the hungry, to bring the poor and homeless into your home, to clothe the naked when you see him,
Israel today is not a just society. It is based on accumulating massive wealth and power. And using that power to oppress, steal and kill another people that lives on the same land. The nation doesn’t even provide for the poor or working-class Jews who go hungry and homeless, reminding us of Isaiah’s warning. It is a dog-eat-dog society in which the rich live in greed and smug satisfaction, while the poor are left to fend for themselves.
Zionism and the territorial claim
The Zionist territorial claim is based on the ancient Israelite possession of the land and a purported direct link to Jews today. However, possession is not nine-tenths of the law. Even if it is, Palestinians maintain equal or greater rights, because they are indigenous and have lived there for centuries. Some Jews have as well, but in smaller numbers. The latter’s presence does not automatically convey rights to those who came after them (the Zionist aliyah). Though those currently who are born there are indigenous, their status does not subordinate the Palestinian claim. The claims are equal, and dishonoring them is a grave violation of justice and fairness.
Nor do I accept an exclusivist Jewish claim to the land with all that entails. God does not grant Jews the right to oppress, steal and kill non-Jews in this land. He does not countenance forced expulsion and destruction of homes and livelihoods for the sake of Israeli interests. God is not the God of Jews alone. He is the God of all, in whatever form the divine may take in different religions.
Zionism and the genetic claim
Zionist apologetics sometimes offers a genetic claim: that the DNA of current Jews shows a direct link back to the ancient Hebrews. This claim too is attenuated by scientific evidence:
A paper published in 2000 by geneticists Harry Ostrer, a professor of genetics at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, and University of Arizona geneticist Michael Hammer showed that most Ashkenazis, Italians, North Africans, Iraqi, Iranian, Kurdish and Yemenite Jews share common Y-DNA haplotypes that are also found among many Arabs from Palestine, Lebanon and Syria.
Such a link offers Jews no more legitimate claim than any other tribe that dwelled in the land before the Israelites did.
The intent to divide Israel from Palestinians via physical walls and Judeo-supremacist laws; to separate from surrounding nations due to perceived hostility; and from the world due to historical trauma or persecution, are all doomed to fail. As John Donne wrote:
No man is an island,
Entire of itself;
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
An exclusivist, supremacist Zionist conception of Israel contradicts human history and morality. Rather, we will live together, or die apart.
Finally, none of what I’ve written above should be read to deny the legitimacy of Jewish presence in Israel-Palestine.