Letters / On “On Loving Jews”
I enjoyed Arielle Angel’s recent essay, “On Loving Jews.” But I would like to add one point. Angel is correct that Gershom Scholem’s concept of “ahavath Israel, or love for the Jewish people,” does not appear in the Bible, but nor does it originate in a commentary to Leviticus. In fact, it appears nowhere in classical rabbinic literature.
Many rabbis, including Maimonides, do believe there is an obligation to love individual Jews, based on the verse, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). But that is quite different from an obligation to love the Jewish people, understood as a national collective. Moreover, in traditional sources, the responsibility to love one’s fellow Israelites remained entangled with the covenantal responsibilities of the Torah and its mitzvot. One was obligated to love a Jew because of shared commitments and obligations—and as some commentators note, when a Jew fully rejected those obligations, it was not clear whether the mandate to love them remained. As scholars Shira Kupfer and Asaf Turgeman show in their remarkable study of the famous debate between the scholar of Jewish mysticism Gershom Scholem and the political philosopher Hannah Arendt—over the latter's argument that European Jewish leaders were complicit in the Holocaust—a norm of loving the Jewish people emerged only in modernity, in 18th- and 19th-century Hasidic sources, especially those wrestling with how to understand the Jewishness of irreligious Jews. Thus, ahavath Israel freed itself from religio-ethical limits and became a doctrine of national, ethnic solidarity only through a process of secularization; eventually, mostly secular Zionists, jettisoning both God and the commandments, reinterpreted the concept as a traditional antecedent for their nationalism.
I offer this footnote to Angel’s powerful, provocative article because I would not want readers to think the principle of “Jewish solidarity” which it discusses is a traditional, religious conception—or, conversely, that ethical-political critique of such solidarity is distinctively modern and secular. Rather, the opposite seems to be the case: The idea that one must love Israel as a generalized, collective nation and irrespective of its behavior or commitments is a product of secularization, whereas the covenantal, religious limits on ahavath Israel in the traditional sources imply a critique of such an unfettered imperative. In this case, and perhaps others, the secularization of an old concept has not been liberatory; it has in fact produced a nationalism more chauvinistic than anything any premodern rabbi entertained.
There is one highly pertinent point which I found sorely lacking in Arielle Angel’s otherwise thought-provoking text: that opposition to Zionism can actually be motivated by—be an expression of—concern for collective Jewish safety.
This was a major theme of Jewish opposition to Zionism long before the formation of the State of Israel, which many Jews warned would bring new dangers, not safety. This concern remains central for many today—perhaps especially among us Jewish Israelis. Although we are also moved by moral responsibility, empathy, and solidarity with our Palestinian brethren, the realization that the State of Israel provides neither lasting safety nor real well-being is often pivotal for making anti-Zionists out of Zionists. And indeed, anti-Zionism within the Zionist state can be an astounding feat of unconditional love for the Jewish collective, loving it and fighting against its self-destruction even while it answers with exclusion, hate, and physical violence.
If we ever wish to unravel Zionism, we cannot afford to ignore how it fails on its own terms, failing to ensure Jewish safety and well-being. This point is important in the diaspora just as it is within Israeli society, where its evidence is most salient: Life in Israel is very obviously unsafe and difficult for the vast majority of Jews, even while it is far worse for Palestinians.
It is up to us as Jewish anti-Zionists to point out that staking Jewish safety on a project of perpetual dispossession and oppression is a dangerous gamble. It is up to us to remind our communities that no such project lasts forever, and the sooner Jewish communities begin the hard work of decolonization, reparation, and reconciliation, the better Jews as a whole will fare whenever the whole thing inevitably comes crashing down. Such concern for Jewish liberation, safety, and well-being need not, and ought not, come at the expense of others; equally, concern for Palestinian liberation, safety, and well-being need not, and ought not, drive us to reject concern for Jews. Our vision for liberation must include both, and our opposition to Zionism remains therefore a project of love—unconditional love for the Jewish people in particular, albeit never exclusively.