Remind Me About God, Please

Knesset scuffle highlights moral bankruptcy of liberal, secular notions of ‘justice’ in Israeli-Arab conflict

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Israeli Arab Member of Knesset Jamal Zahalka (pictured), head of the Balad Party, on Monday delivered a provocative tirade directed at young Labor MK Stav Shaffir. 

Before continuing, it should be noted that Balad’s stated political aim is to “transform the State of Israel into a democracy for all its citizens, irrespective of national or ethnic identity.” In other words, this party rejects exclusive Jewish claims to the land. Jewish presence in the land can only be tolerated under a kind of democracy that puts an end to the “Jewish state.”

During this week’s Knesset encounter, Shaffir sent Zahalka on a rampage by complaining about Prime Minister Netanyahu allegedly trying to “buy” the support of Arab MKs for his hotly debated “offshore gas deal.” 

From Zahalka’s point of view, Shaffir came across as a typical liberal Ashkenazi Jew lecturing the Arabs about what to think and how to behave. His response to Shaffir’s sense of superiority started by reminding her that she “never spoke a word to me. She never once said hello to me. I am invisible to her. Arabs do not exist.”

“Silent racism” he called it from the Knesset podium.

Zahalka continued by noting that “the extreme right-wing MKs at least say hello and smile when they meet us, but the Labor Party are the mother and the father of racism. They are those who stole the Arab land and patronize us in the name of universal values.” 

He continued his lecture by asking, “Who hurt us more, Labor or the Likud? The Labor Party of course. The Likud built settlements next to Arab villages … The Labor Party built their kibbutzim, their socialism right on the ruins of our villages … and after that they come and speak in the name of social justice.”

Leaving aside Zahalka’s selective memory that fails to mention unjustifiable Arab violence toward Jews, not to mention his lack of historical knowledge (initially the kibbutzim were built on land purchased from Arabs; some were later built on or nearby abandoned Arab villages), he is nevertheless right in poking his finger in the left-wing bubble of arrogance expressed in condescending attitude toward any critical voice.

Most importantly, though, Zahalka refuses to take part in the liberal Zionist illusion that believes the sooner Israel withdraws to its pre-1967 borders, the sooner peace and tranquility will come upon our tormented land. Zahalka insists that the problem is not borders, but rather the Jewish belief that they have returned to their land. This position pushes the origin of the conflict back to the first wave of Jewish immigration in 1882.

As sharply as I disagree with Zahalka on almost every other issue, I agree with him on the notion that in a world without God, Jews have indeed stolen the land from its native people. From a secular point of view, and Stav Shaffir is secular, the conflict is unresolvable until the land is given back to its rightful owners. 

This is why the Israeli Left is so susceptible to the Palestinian narrative. In a world without God, Zahalka is right, and, no matter how enlightened they claim to be, the Zionists forever will remain the perpetrators.

Zahalka’s charge is anything but new. Throughout the ages, Jews were acutely aware of the fact that they have taken a land which is not theirs. The Jewish French philosopher Immanuel Levinas had proposed that the ten Israelite spies delivered their negative report on the land’s inhabitants because they were morally stricken by the concept of conquering other people’s land. Accordingly, their report was driven by their sense of justice, and not by fear.

A similar concern was raised by Rashi, one of the most important Jewish sages of all times. 

In the opening sentence to his commentary on the Book of Genesis, Rashi asks why the Bible begins with the Book of Genesis and not with the first commandment given to the people of Israel in Exodus 12:2. His answer is strikingly contemporary: 

“The reason He begun with Genesis is to show ‘his people the power of his works, in giving them the inheritance of the nations’ (Psalms 111:6) so that in case the nations of the world will say to Israel ‘you are robbers who conquered the land of seven nations’ they [Israel] should tell them, ‘the entire land is God’s. He created it and He gave it to whomever He pleases. When it pleased Him He gave it to them and when it pleased Him He took it away from them and gave it to us [Israel]’.”

According to this view of history, none of the people living in Israel are “natives,” which is why no one can steal it from anybody. Additionally, whoever controls it is able to do so only by divine permission. Triumphant Israel, therefore, is not a historical accident or a divine mistake. People with genuine faith, be they Jews, Muslims or Christians, understand this, which is why they are better suited than anyone else to offer meaningful consolation. 

Secular democrats like Zahalka and Shaffir can only offer mutual agitation and never-ending conflict, which is a grim reminder of the real value of their sense of justice.

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