Two Flawed Attempts to Rethink Zionism

June 24, 2016 | Allan Arkush
About the author: Allan Arkush is the senior contributing editor of the Jewish Review of Books and professor of Judaic studies and history at Binghamton University.

Two new theoretical works attempt to save Jewish nationalism and the state of Israel from their purported deficiencies and, simultaneously, to defend them against their critics. In Zionism and Judaism: A New Theory, David Novak argues that the only grounds for the rightness of Zionism are religious, and therefore Israel should be “a theistically based polity,” with its legal system undergirded not by halakhah but by the seven Noahide laws. Chaim Gans, in A Political Theory for the Jewish People, contends that the principles justifying Jewish statehood also justify Palestinian statehood, and also the right of Arabs to their own national culture within a Jewish state. Allan Arkush finds both books unsatisfactory (free registration required):

[I]is it an accident, we must ask, that Novak has omitted any mention of idolatry and blasphemy from this Noahide bill of rights? These are, after all, by far the most problematic prohibitions for a modern state. What are Israeli pagans (there are a few) to think of the proposal to outlaw their religion? Much more important, wouldn’t the prohibition of idolatry and blasphemy threaten to curtail the free expression of anti-clerical writers and atheists and even—on Novak’s analysis—cultural Zionists? And wouldn’t Israeli homosexuals (not to speak of consenting adulterers) have good reason to fear that the Noahide law against sexual license would be interpreted in ways that would deprive them of their freedom?

As for Gans, Arkush writes, he is

a consistent thinker whose ultimate grounds for defending the Zionist enterprise require the support of Palestinian national rights, as he defines them. There is, however, good reason to fear the consequences of putting his ideas into practice.

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