Zionism and Universal Ethics

10 February 1972

in A Critique of Zionist Ideology, Articles, The Other Israel

This is an edited version of an article written by Akiva Orr.


Zionism by its theory and practice in regard to the Palestinians has produced a moral conflict which haunts the Israeli-Zionist establishment and its leaders. In a speech at the officers’ school, Moshe Dayan quoted from the writings of Artur Rupin, “godfather” of the Zionist colonization of Palestine. It is interesting to note the passages Dayan felt called upon to cite. Dayan quoted from one of Rupin’s letters of 1936 concerning the founding of Brith Shalom (Peace Fellowship): “We are aiming at relations [between the Zionist colonists and the Palestinians] which we will be able to defend against our own consciences and against the League of Nations as a just solution to the problem without renouncing the fundamentals of Zionism.” 1

So the godfather of Zionist settlement felt the need to defend himself against a stab of his conscience created by the conflict between the realization of Zionist aims and the demands of a universal humanist ethic. He found it necessary to defend himself against his feeling that he might be responsible for deeds which appeared to him contrary to that ethic, but which were, nevertheless, necessitated by his Zionist convictions.

Dayan quoted another passage from Rupin, written in 1928: “It became clear to me how hard it is to realize Zionism in a way compatible with the demands of universal ethics. I was quite depressed.” The interesting point here is Rupin’s guilty conscience and, even more, the fact that Dayan had to bring up the question and confront it anew in 1968. In spite of all the ideological and ethical tranquilizers which the Israeli-Zionist establishment and its intellectual camp followers cram into Israeli youth, in spite of all the historical justifications and all the sermons about Jewish identity, in spite of all the work of the machinery which moulds national consciousness and national loyalty and which has, for many decades, been exerting immense pressure on Israeli minds at home, at school and in the media – in spite of all this, Zionism cannot rid itself of the demon that Rupin calls the “demands of universal ethics.”

The very fact that Dayan was forced to confront this problem in 1968 in a forum such as the officers’ school of the Israeli Army indicates that this same moral conflict exists to such an extent that it has become a real problem within the Army. Dayan is trying to bury the moral ghost. We doubt that Dayan or anyone will ever succeed in attempts to put national ethics above human ethics. What is of interest to us here, however, is the intensity of the moral conflict in a state which, according to the official and popular version, only a year and a half earlier was saved from the “danger of annihilation” by winning a “war for survival.” Annexation of territories as a result of military conquest does not usually bring with it moral problems. Why then, do those who favor annexation need moral justification in the form of historical rights? Why can they not simply insist on ownership by right of conquest? Why, for example, in an interview with Shlomo Shmagor, was Ben-Gurion forced to ask, “Is it right for Jews to settle in Jaffa and wrong in Hebron?” 2 Whose permission does he ask? The Palestinians?

The fact that in Israel it is necessary to supply moral justification for military and political acts stems, to no small extent, from a particular feature of Jewish culture. One of the most important elements in this culture is that of social justice, where justice means humanist ethics. This culture, unlike Christianity, does not stress forgiveness; nor does it stress material incentives or honor. It denies the realism that demands reconciliation, adjustment to objective reality, and it demands, “Thou shalt be killed rather than transgress [the basic moral laws].” Whoever seeks to justify his deeds in the name of this culture is forced to do so in the name of “universal human justice.”

But this is impossible for Zionism, simply because its basic assumption – the starting point of all Zionist ideology, of the Zionist enterprise itself, and of day-to-day Israeli policy – is reconciliation with and acceptance of an immoral phenomenon. That phenomenon is discrimination against and oppression of national minorities. This is regarded as a permanent phenomenon of human society, unwanted but still understandable, since it is inseparable from human nature. Zionism does not see in anti-Semitism a problem of humanity as a whole, but an exclusively Jewish problem. It tries to solve the Jewish problem by coping with and even justifying anti-Semitism while actually reversing the situation: In the Jewish national state, the Jews are transformed from an oppressed minority into the oppressing majority. But the principle of discrimination is maintained; it is still the highest “morality” of Zionism.

Thus Zionism does not see any possibility of avoiding discrimination against the Palestinians. For example, it cannot help exclude them from the Law of Return or discourage a higher birth rate among them, to mention only two of the issues.

Zionism, in its relation both to anti-Semitism and to the Palestinians, comes into conflict with the Jewish code of universal ethics. Because Zionists sense this they must continually invent rationalizations to try to end the conflict.

This problem is, of course, not peculiar to Zionism. It exists whenever a national movement tries to place national values above human ones. It is given more weight, however, in a public educated on Jewish culture. Rupin tried to pacify bis conscience in 1928 by using the argument that “the same right which entitles the Arabs to remain here, entitles us to come.” Forty years later, Dayan presents the same argument to officers of the Israeli Army.

It is noteworthy that Rupin was forced to deal with his conscience by using the category of right – moral justification – and could not, for example, simply pit force against force, fact against fact. Dayan had to follow him forty years later in his attempt to bury the demon of “human rights.” But, what is “right”?

For Robinson Crusoe, as long as he lived in isolation on the island to which fate carried him, there was no meaning to concepts such as “right” and “ownership.” They acquired meaning only when Robinson met Friday. Human beings, living in society, use these terms to explain and justify their mutual relations in order to avoid resorting to physical violence. The concept of right can be the basis of a society only when all members conceive it as natural or self-evident. Moral rights are like mathematical axioms: They do not need justification. Robinson could insist forever that he had right of ownership on the island, but as long as Friday did not willingly agree, the concept of right could have no social role; it was superfluous. Historically, it would not yet have been invented. Robinson could, of course, force his will on Friday, but in such a situation he would have no use for such an ideological tool as the concept of right A situation in which Robinson forced Friday to accept his will by constantly fighting and applying physical force, yet simultaneously insisting on justifying his actions by the concept of right, would become schizophrenic.

The demon of right enters Robinson’s mind and complicates what for him is quite a simple situation in which he constantly applies brute force against Friday. In the absence of a psychiatrist on the island, Robinson has to make do with self-treatment. He invents explanations such as “The source of Friday’s resistance is emotional, not rational”; “It may be too bad, but this is reality”; or “The development of the island through social and economic faits accomplis will sooner or later lead Friday to accept the reality I have forced on him.”

But Friday refuses to give up. He can see the facts that Robinson is creating, but he refuses to recognize them as right and just. Robinson, who was educated on “justice,” arrives at the conclusion that there is some logic in Friday’s claim, and says:

Well, I agree that you have rights on this island due to the fact that you have been living here for generations, and I see that the proposition “Might is right” is morally wrong. But I have historical rights to the island too, as I was taught when I was a boy and as I read in certain books. Why don’t you reconcile yourself to my definition of the concept of “historical rights” on the island?

Then Friday might reply:

The fact that you’ve created for yourself the notion of “historical rights” and that this helps you get rid of your guilty feelings is none of my business. In reality, you force your will on me by using direct and indirect physical force, confronting me with faits accomplis. You take for yourself, and you refuse in principle to recognize my political and civil rights, which stem from my living on the island. You refuse, again in principle, to include me in the Law of Return and in the policy of encouraging a high birth rate, while at the same time you declare at the top of your voice that you give me equal rights. You have a strange definition and interpretation of the notion of “right” I cannot understand it, and I cannot accept something which I don’t understand.

Robinson (to himself): “It may be regrettable, but this is the reality.”

This is the classical argument of someone suffering from constant mental conflict. He tries to convince himself that the source of the conflict lies in something that is external and over which he has no control. Mental illness can become degenerative. Rupin was aware of this danger in 1928 when, after recording his “depression,” he went on to ask, “Will Zionism degenerate into a senseless chauvinism? Is there no way to give the growing number of Jews a sphere of activity without robbing the Arabs?”

It is enough to look at a discussion among top leaders of the Israeli Labor Party to recognize the chauvinism, with a veneer of Zionist “rationality,” toward which Zionism has pulled its executors. Shimon Peres, a member of the Knesset, argued:

“To my mind the Labor Party is a Jewish-Zionist world party, not a binational Jewish-Arab party … [Assume that] it should become a binational Jewish-Arab party while we continue to talk about encouraging a high birth rate in Israel. We get up and say, ‘We only encourage a high Jewish birth rate and Jewish immigration, not immigration of Arab refugees.’ We would be saying to the Arabs, ‘You should vote for Jewish immigration, but you’re still an equal member of the party …’ What kind of party would that be?” 3

Such a party in Peres’ eyes would be an organized hypocrisy, since he and his followers insist on justifying everything on moral grounds. But how does he propose to overcome the problem? Very simply: Refuse to accept Arab members in the Labor Party, and then encourage a higher Jewish birth rate and Jewish immigration without a guilty conscience.

Member of the Knesset Santa Yospital, for example, has a guilty conscience of the “I must not lie to myself” variety.

“The Arab question,” she said, “seems to me a decisive matter. I cannot lie to myself. I cannot today regard Arabs as equal party members in all matters. I don’t trust them to the extent that I’d be willing to discuss every matter with them. I hear from [Mapam leader Meir] Ya’ari that they are tactful enough to know when not to participate. I don’t regard this as tact on their side but as hypocrisy on our side. In some situations we’re willing to meet with them, in some, not This is true not only in matters of security and foreign policy but also concerning immigration, birth-rate encouragement, etc. I cannot accept it.” 4

Of course, Santa Yospital doesn’t see any hypocrisy in the fact that the Labor Party, cleansed of Arabs, will encourage a higher birth rate among Jews (and, possibly, discuss means of reducing the birth rate among Arab citizens of Israel). That this solution in fact eases her conscience is the moral degeneration characteristic of Zionist ideology.

To cite another instance, Ben-Gurion told Shlomo Shmagor in the interview cited above,

“It is the Jewish Agency, not the government, that should take care of encouraging a rise in the birth rate, for, since the government cannot discriminate, money would have to go to big Arab families too. There is equality in everything except immigration.” 5

This argument is a miracle of Zionist moral reasoning. If the policy of encouraging a higher birth rate were in the hands of the government, it would have to discriminate against Arab citizens. (Why? Whatexactly prevents the realization of equal civil rights?) Therefore, there must be a special institution which discriminates in favor of the Jews. By this formal step, the Zionists resolve the moral conflict The problem no longer bothers their consciences; they no longer perceive in this special treatment a degeneration of the principle of equal rights. They no longer lie to themselves.

It is typical that in the same interview Ben-Gurion insists again and again that “historically, our nation survived conditions which no other people could have, and when I ask why, the answer is, a great spiritual virtue. If we lose it, I don’t know whether well continue to exist.”

In no way do we share a philosophy of history with this man who, as Prime Minister and Minister of Defense at the time, bears responsibility for the massacre of Kibye in October 1953 by the Army’s Unit 101, and who afterward declared on the Israeli radio, “We made a careful investigation and it was evident that not even the smallest army unit was missing during the night of Kibye.” 6 This statement could not be further from the truth. But the fact that Ben-Gurion can invoke the great spiritual virtue of Jewish culture without realizing that the meaning of this culture entails a universal human ethic as the sole guide to human behavior, and that in the same breath he can recommend the Jewish Agency as an instrument of discrimination in favor of the Jews so as to relieve the government of the necessity of doing so, and that he does all this without seeing any moral wrong-this is a classical example of the decay of morality of nationalist ideology.

Nationalist ideology and feeling constitute a specific form of human alienation. Human beings produce for themselves not only material things,, but also languages, moralities, particular interpretations of history and social notions like nation and fatherland. None of these things comes from nature or heaven, they are continuously being created and re-created by human beings who live today. Once created, they confront their creators as objective forces and fetishes, as in some religious practices; they conquer the minds of their producers. Whether nationalism is a historically necessary form of alienation or not, once it is understood as alienation, the ground is cut from under national morality and the conflict between this morality and human ethics ceases to exist But as long as nationalism is not perceived merely as a historical phenomenon, there is no way to resolve the contradiction between the two kinds of morality. An attempt can be made to quiet the guilty conscience by means of the objectification Dayan uses: “This state of affairs may be undesirable, but it is the reality.”

Our answer is: People have produced the social reality and it lies within their power to change it, especially if it is undesirable.

But the question that remains to be answered is: Is the “reality” Dayan mentions actually undesirable to the Zionists?

  1. Ha’aretz, Sept. 22, 1968.
  2. Yediot Aharonot, Oct. 11, 1968.
  3. Yediot Aharonot, Oct. 11, 1968.
  4. Ibid. (italics added).
  5. Ibid.
  6. Kol Israel (Voice of Israel), Oct 19,1963.

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