Hayim Katsman, an Israeli Murdered by Hamas, Envisioned a Democratic Israel/Palestine

Hayim Katsman was killed in Hamas’s October 7 attack. Jacobin has received permission from his family to publish a paper he wrote opposing Israel’s ethnonationalist order and advocating equality for all.

Leftist scholar and Israeli citizen Hayim Katsman was killed in Hamas's October 7 attack. (Hannah Katsman / Facebook)

In order to regain political power in the wake of its electoral collapse, the Israeli left must overcome two substantial challenges. First, it must reimagine the project of Jewish cultural revival and national identity, also known as Zionism, in a way that rejects ethnonationalism and embraces traditionally liberal democratic values of equality, liberty, and freedom. Second, the left must take practical actions to garner popular support within Israeli society. For many years now, the Left’s political efforts have failed. Demonstrations, petitions, and dialogue groups have not brought the desired electoral change. It is therefore time for the Left to put serious thought into what it takes, practically, to engender political transformation in Israel.

Paradoxically, some answers might be found in the history of the Left’s traditional political rivals, right-wing religious Zionists. Despite the latter’s marginal political influence in the 1960s, the religious Zionist movement became quite successful in carrying out its controversial project of settling the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Today, in fact, the religious Zionist right is perhaps the most influential bloc in Israeli politics. The contemporary Israeli left thus has much to learn from it.

In the next section I will draw out the tensions between Zionism and liberalism. Then, I will turn to outlining what a non-ethnonationalist Zionism might look like. Finally, I will analyze the main causes for the religious Zionist success to draw some practical lessons for the Israeli left.

The Israeli left today stands at a nadir. But this need not be the case.

Zionism Against Liberalism

Are Zionism and liberalism compatible? The short answer to this question, at least as Zionism is practiced today, is “no.”

Zionism, as enacted by the state of Israel and currently understood by the vast majority of Israelis, is based on ethnonational principles. According to this view, Jews living in Israel must receive more privileges and be entitled to more rights than non-Jews living in the state.

This view is reflected in Israeli law. In July 2018, Israel legislated the “Basic Law: Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People.” The purpose of this law was to officially establish that Israel is the homeland for Jews. The bill contains no mention of Palestinian national identity, and does not even use the words “democracy” or “equality.” Since Israel has no constitution, basic laws such as this one enjoy a semiconstitutional status. Of course, the legislation of this bill only formalized what was already well known: formally, Israel is a procedural democracy that periodically holds free elections in which all citizens have the right to vote, but Palestinian citizens of Israel are denied collective national rights and certain individual rights by virtue of not being Jewish.

There is a debate among scholars as to whether Israel should be considered an “ethnic-democracy” or an “ethnocracy.” There is consensus, however, that it is not a liberal democracy. To take a prominent example of Israel’s nondemocratic character, the famous “Law of Return,” passed in 1950, grants all Jewish people around the world the right to immigrate to Israel, even if their immediate ancestors had never lived in Palestine. In contrast, Palestinians who actually lived on the land and were displaced during the 1948 war are not only denied a corresponding “right of return,” but are often even prohibited from visiting Israel as tourists. Moreover, the Israeli government has undertaken a project of “Judaization” of territory by providing legal, financial, and infrastructural support for exclusively Jewish settlement. Clearly, there is an inherent tension in Israel between the nation’s stated aspiration to grant equal rights to the entire “demos” and the actual policy of preserving privileges for the Jewish “ethnos.”

This tension becomes all the more obvious when one considers all the land presently under the Israeli government’s control. In East Jerusalem and the West Bank (as well as the Gaza Strip), Palestinian residents are not formally considered part of the “demos”: they do not have Israeli citizenship and therefore cannot vote in Israeli national elections. The Jewish settlers who live in the Occupied Territories, in contrast, enjoy the benefit of “carrying” their citizenship rights with them, despite the fact that neither East Jerusalem nor the West Bank are within Israel’s internationally recognized borders. There are two separate legal systems in the occupied West Bank: one for Palestinians and one for Israelis. In the West Bank city of Hebron, these different legal systems exist within the same city.

This state of affairs obviously does not align with liberal-democratic values. Most Israelis are aware of this fact and justify Palestinian oppression and disenfranchisement as a necessary evil. They acknowledge that the situation is not ideal, but claim that it is a necessity that stems from the fact that Jews and Palestinians are engaged in a nationalist, and ultimately existential, struggle. Granting collective rights to the Palestinians, they claim, would bring about the demographic — and perhaps also physical — destruction of the Jewish state and Zionism itself.

Reimagining Zionism

Several recent publications on the history of Zionist ideology, however, suggest that the longing for Jewish nationhood expressed through and in Zionism does not necessitate an exclusivist Jewish nation-state.

According to the Israeli historian Dmitry Shumsky, most major nineteenth- and early twentieth- century Zionist thinkers, including Theodor Herzl, Vladimir Ze’ev Jabotinsky, and David Ben-Gurion, did not consider the establishment of an exclusivist Jewish nation-state as the only solution to the “Jewish question.” Indeed, during the fin de siècle, Jews were a small minority in Ottoman-ruled Palestine. The idea of an independent Jewish state of any kind was hardly conceivable until the Balfour Declaration of 1917 declared Britain’s support in principle for the creation of a “Jewish national home” in Palestine, or until its unimplemented Peel Commission report of 1937 recommended that a sovereign Jewish state be formed in Palestine through a partition of the territory.

Shumsky’s discoveries indicate that, contrary to what has been argued by advocates of the 2018 Basic Law, the essential desideratum of Zionism has not necessarily or always been an exclusivist Jewish state. Rather, significant Zionist thinkers were most concerned with a more fundamental demand: the creation and preservation of a Jewish national identity that was defined by language, culture, and, most importantly, a sense of a shared past, present, and future.

This vision of Zionism, unlike Zionism as practiced today, does not inherently contradict liberal values.

Democratic Political Constellations

The vast majority of the Israeli left and center left has supported the two-state solution, calling for the creation of an independent Palestinian nation-state in (parts of) the West Bank and Gaza Strip. These leftists and liberals believe that the separation of Israel/Palestine into two territorial nation-states is necessary to preserve the Jewish majority in Israel.

In most formulations, this so-called “solution” remains premised on the idea that in their state, Jewish citizens should continue to enjoy political privileges not enjoyed by Palestinians. Put another way, when the majority of Israelis discuss a two-state solution, they remain wedded to an ethnonational logic. It is important to stress, though, that this does not have to be the case: the notion of two states for two peoples doesn’t necessarily mean that a majority-Jewish Israeli state must be ethnonationalist. One could easily imagine a liberal democratic version of Israel in which all citizens, regardless of ethnicity or religion, enjoy all the same rights, privileges, and access. Nevertheless, the truth is that the expansion of Jewish settlements into the West Bank makes the two-state solution all but impossible.

The general disillusionment with the possibility of solving the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians through territorial division has generated several creative ideas. One of these initiatives, proposed by the Jewish-Palestinian civil organization A Land For All, promotes the creation of a Israeli-Palestinian confederation. According to the group’s proposal, while a border would divide Israeli and Palestinian states, it would remain open such that both Jewish and non-Jewish populations could easily traverse it. In addition, A Land for All argues that Israel and Palestine should share several institutions, including a security force.

A more radical suggestion is proposed by the One Democratic State Campaign. This movement wishes to establish a constitutional democracy for both Jews and Palestinians on the entire territory between the Mediterranean Sea and Jordan River. All citizens in this proposed state would enjoy equal individual rights, while the constitution would protect the collective rights of both nationalities. According to this proposal, the new state would help Palestinian refugees and their descendants return to Israel/Palestine. Moreover, the “Law of Return” would be annulled and all immigrants, whether Jewish or not, would be subject to equal procedures of obtaining citizenship.

If such a state were created, it would not mean the end of Zionism — at least, it would not mean the end of a Zionism reimagined in the non-ethnonational, non-exclusivist sense that some of its most influential theorists at one point proposed. While they would have to abandon their privileged status, the 7.1 million Jews living in Israel/Palestine would still enjoy individual and collective rights within a democratic state.

Of course, imagining a different world is easy, and only a first step. In order to make these or other plans materialize, they must receive popular support, first among the Israeli left and eventually across other sectors of Israeli society.

Considering the current state of affairs, it seems that the possibility of Israeli Jews adopting any of these programs is unlikely. Nevertheless, one doesn’t have to look too far into the past to appreciate that the present moment, defined by religious Zionist dominance, also once seemed inconceivable to most Israelis. Put another way, religious Zionist dominance was not inevitable, but was the result of religious Zionists successfully promoting key parts of their political agenda to a largely secular Jewish population.

Indeed, the Israeli left has a great deal to learn from the success of religious Zionists. Perhaps by understanding how religious Zionism supplanted secular, liberal Zionism to become the hegemonic Israeli ideology, the Israeli left can borrow some of its strategies and move toward enacting its own vision, non-exclusivist and democratic.

The Rise of Religious Zionism

The religious Zionist movement emerged in late nineteenth-century Europe as a response to Orthodox Jewish leaders’ opposition to Zionism. At that time, the majority of Orthodox rabbis objected to the secular Zionist movement, whose plans for Jewish revival through secular nationalist politics they considered a forbidden interference with God’s divine plan. In order to overcome this theological challenge to Jewish nationalism, religious Zionists, led by the Lithuanian rabbi Jacob Reines, argued that the Zionist movement was acceptable as a practical solution to European antisemitism, which was increasingly prevalent in fin de siècle Christian Europe.

Reines’ pragmatic approach toward Zionism led to a historical alliance between religious Zionists and labor Zionists. The latter were supporters of a leftist nationalism inspired by socialism, who at the time dominated the Zionist movement. In the early years of Israeli statehood after 1948, in exchange for religious Zionists’ political support, labor Zionists promised to enforce certain religious strictures in the public sphere (such as Sabbath observance) and allow an independent religious, though publicly funded, educational system.

In the early 1960s, a group of young religious Zionists began to contest this arrangement. On the one hand, these youth resented that religious Zionists occupied a marginal political position vis-à-vis secular Jews and could not exert significant influence on major political decisions. On the other hand, they lamented that non-Zionist ultra-Orthodox Jews looked down on them for their collaboration with the secular state.

To address their dilemma, some young religious Zionists embraced the theology of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (1865–1935) and his son Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook (1891–1982). According to the Kooks’ interpretation of history, the creation of an Israeli state was a major step on the path to divine redemption. As such, involving oneself in Israeli national affairs was not only a pragmatic act but also a principled one. This was, after all, the only way to ensure that national policies were subjected to the religious reasoning that would help promote divine deliverance.

These abstract theological debates became politically influential after the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. During the war, Israel seized significant territory from Arab states, including East Jerusalem, the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, the Sinai Peninsula (which Israel handed back to Egypt in the context of its 1979 peace treaty), and the Golan Heights, which it unilaterally annexed in 1981. Though Israel annexed an expanded East Jerusalem almost immediately after 1967 (without extending full political rights to Palestinians located there), the Israeli government and public had no clear consensus as to how they would address the future of the other occupied territories.

In this moment of disarray, young religious Zionists stepped into the breach. Only three months after the war ended in June, a group of religious Zionists established Kfar Etzion, the first post-1967 Jewish settlement in the West Bank. In 1968, others rented rooms in the Park Hotel in Hebron and refused to leave. As time wore on, religious Zionists established a formal settlement movement called Gush Emunim (Bloc of the Faithful), and increased their settlement efforts.

The settlement movement did not get off to an auspicious start. It received little government support and its members lived in harsh and often dangerous conditions. Despite these hardships, however, religious Zionists were determined to realize their vision of settling the Occupied Territories with Jews, and refused to abandon their project.

The settlement movement’s fortunes changed when Menachem Begin, a supporter of the settlers and leader of the secular, right-wing Likud Party, became Israel’s sixth prime minister in 1977. Begin formed a coalition with the religious Zionist party Mafdal, which ended the latter’s traditional alliance with Israel’s Labor Party. This alliance brought religious Zionist settlers into the governing coalition, granting them the influence they needed to further their goals.

There are many reasons why settlers were invited into the government. Perhaps the most important was the fact that the October 1973 Arab-Israeli (Yom Kippur) War, which caught Israel by surprise, traumatized Israeli society. During the war, Israel suffered more than 2,600 casualties and had to rely on substantial US assistance to defeat Egypt and Syria, its primary belligerents. After the war, an Israeli protest movement began demanding that the Labor Party take responsibility for its failures. It was in this atmosphere of trauma and confusion that the Gush Emunim settlement movement emerged with a clear message and political program that, for the first time, started to attract significant attention.

But carrying a clear message was not enough. Religious Zionist settlers were able to successfully promote their politically controversial program because they presented themselves as the ideal Zionists. Their utopian rhetoric, young adventurous aesthetic, and especially their commitment to settling land reminded Israelis of the spirit of the much-vaunted Zionist pioneers of the early twentieth century, who cultivated the image of idealistic risk-takers settling in a hostile but rightfully Jewish rural environment. Many right-wing Israelis, adrift after the 1973 trauma, embraced the Gush Emunim movement, willingly turning a blind eye to the fact that the settlers were in fact presenting a novel religious-messianic interpretation of Zionism that stood in stark contrast to the secular Zionism that had dominated Israeli politics since the 1948 founding.

Over time, the religious Zionist settlers successfully transformed both the material realities of Israel/Palestine and public opinion about settlement. Today, the majority of Israeli Jews support the settlement project in the West Bank, if not all manifestations of religious settler ideology.

Nothing demonstrates the settlers’ success better than the numbers. In 1977, the year Begin brought them into the government, there were around five thousand settlers living in thirty-eight settlements, most of them relatively close to Israel’s 1967 borders. By 1987, those numbers had risen to over sixty thousand settlers living in 134 settlements in both the West Bank and Gaza. Today, even though there are no longer Israeli settlements in Gaza or the northern Sinai, there are over 450,000 Jewish settlers living today in over 220 settlements and outposts all across the West Bank, not including the more than two hundred thousand living in Israeli-annexed neighborhoods of East Jerusalem.

Most importantly, the settlements are no longer an exclusively religious Zionist project; religious Zionists now constitute only about one-third of the settler population. The majority of settlers, in fact, are either secular Jews or non-Zionist ultra-Orthodox Israelis who were motivated by low housing prices (frequently subsidized by the state) and the promise of improvements in “quality of life.” Put another way, the Israeli government presently incentivizes settlement as a means to address internal economic problems.

Lessons from the Right’s Ascent

There are several parallels between the political status of religious Zionists in the 1960s and the contemporary Israeli left. Similar to the young religious Zionists of the 1960s, Israeli leftists are marginalized and seek to gain political influence in a system that appears to have little interest in them. Indeed prominent Israeli institutions, including the military, security forces, public sector, and even the media — all of which used to be dominated by the Left, or at least center left — are increasingly staffed by religious Zionists.

For its part, and despite many attempts, the Israeli left has been unable to improve its position within Israeli society. As such, and before it is too late, Israeli leftists must reconsider their strategy for engendering political transformation. An important step in this process is to draw lessons from religious Zionism’s success. Here are some suggestions for how to do so.

  1. Stand behind one cohesive plan. Religious Zionists knew exactly what they wanted: to settle Jews throughout the Land of Israel. What does the Israeli left want? This needs to be decided upon and articulated if the Left is to have a future in Israel. Vague references to an increasingly difficult to imagine two-state solution, which itself doesn’t necessarily conform with liberal democratic values, are not enough. Though other political possibilities, such as the confederation or the One Democratic State discussed above, are constantly debated within the Israeli left, these discussions are often acrimonious and cause harmful political divisions. It is time to acknowledge that there is no time left for debate. Either of these options is preferable to the current state of affairs. If the Left wants to regain political influence, it must first unite behind one comprehensive plan to end the occupation.
  2. Be resilient. Throughout the more than fifty-year history of Israeli settlement in the Occupied Territories, the settlement movement has faced several major setbacks. The movement’s initial attempts to settle in the West Bank were disrupted by Israel’s left-wing government. In 1982, members of the movement were forced to evacuate eighteen settlements in the Sinai Peninsula as part of the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty. In the 1990s, Israel transferred administrative control over parts of the West Bank and Gaza to the Palestinian Authority as part of the Oslo Accords. Finally, in 2005, the Israeli government carried out its disengagement plan and evacuated over eight thousand settlers living in twenty-one settlements in Gaza and four in the northern West Bank. Religious Zionists carried out wide protests against these evacuations, to no avail. Nevertheless, while these setbacks devastated settlers, they did not despair, and in fact increased settlement attempts wherever possible. In contrast, many Israeli leftists appear to be giving up on the possibility of changing the status quo in the Occupied Territories and Israel proper. Some have focused their efforts on other issues; some have abandoned politics altogether; and some have even left Israel. In order to regain their place in the Israeli political system, leftists must acknowledge that they are engaged in a long — perhaps decades-long — struggle, to which they must remain committed.
  3. Engage broader Israeli society. This is perhaps the most important lesson to be drawn from the religious Zionists’ success. Despite the fact that they were motivated by religious zeal, the religious settlers were able to appeal to secular Israelis by persuading the latter that they were continuing the mission of the original Zionist pioneers. Furthermore, settlers helped convince other Israelis that their behavior actually improved Israel’s security, which encouraged state officials to sometimes turn a blind eye to religious settlers’ illegal activities.Without the implicit support of secular Israelis, the settlement project would not have succeeded. In a similar manner, the Israeli left must appeal to the shared, and somewhat forgotten, secular Zionist values of social justice and self-determination. This is an important means through which to build broader support for the left within Israel. In particular, it is crucial to emphasize the compatibility of the left-wing struggle with liberal, democratic, secular, non-ethnonationalist, and non-exclusivist values. As the Zionist thinker Ahad Ha’am stated (as quoted in Dmitry Shumsky’s Beyond the Nation-State):

A people’s historic right to a land populated by others has no other meaning than this: the right to return and settle in the land of their fathers, to work and develop its resources undisturbed. . . . However, this historic right does not cancel out the right of the rest of the land’s residents, who press their claims by virtue of the concrete right that comes from working and residing in the land for generations. This land is presently their national home as well, and they also have a right to develop their national resources to the best of their abilities. This situation makes Palestine a joint home of different nations, each of which is trying to build its own national home.

Forging the Future

There are many good reasons for Israeli leftists to be pessimistic. The overwhelming majority of the Israeli public does not support a territorial compromise with the Palestinians. In contrast with the United States, where the majority of millennials and Gen Z tend to support progressive policies and programs, the situation in Israel is the opposite. Moreover, right-wing religious Jews tend to have more children than secular Israelis, and studies show that, while Jews born to religious families oftentimes become less religious over time, they nonetheless maintain right-wing political opinions. This is indeed a significant challenge.

But demography is not destiny. The reason religious Zionists were able to become so powerful was not because of birth rates, but because they persuaded other Israelis of the righteousness and necessity of their cause.

It is time for the Israeli left to stop mourning and start working. Engendering left-wing transformation will be a long process, requiring a coherent political program, resilience, and a willingness to engage with the broader Israeli public. But it is only through struggle that we can build the world we desire, a world in which Israelis and Palestinians both are able to live full lives as equals under the law.