The Guilty Conscience of Jewish Empire

In The Wondering Jew, the influential Israeli philosopher Micah Goodman—who has argued for “shrinking” the occupation—contends that liberal Judaism requires maximalist Zionism.

Daniel May
June 28, 2021
The Jewish settlement of Kfar Adumim in the West Bank. Photo: Debbie Hill/UPI via Alamy

Discussed in this essay: The Wondering Jew: Israel and the Search for Jewish Identity, by Micah Goodman, translated by Eylon Levy. Yale University Press, 2020. 264 pages.

OVER THE LAST FIFTEEN YEARS, the Israeli center has drifted steadily closer to the Israeli right. But the partnership at the heart of Israel’s new government—between Yair Lapid, a supporter of “two states for two peoples,” and Naftali Bennett, formerly a leader of the settlement movement—still presents a contradiction: How can the ostensibly anti-occupation center reconcile itself to the right’s policies of perpetual occupation? 

The philosopher Micah Goodman has in the last half-decade become perhaps Israel’s most prominent public intellectual by arguing that it’s possible to find a compromise between these seemingly incompatible views. Goodman’s 2017 book Catch-67 spent an entire year atop the Israeli nonfiction bestseller list, was discussed on the floor of the Knesset, and was reviewed in Haaretz (critically) by former Prime Minister Ehud Barak. This rise to prominence led to a lengthy, favorable profile of Goodman in The New York Times, and later to an English translation, released in 2018. Goodman has developed a powerful following: Lapid has appeared to paraphrase his views on Jewish morality, while Bennett has openly cited Goodman’s argument that the asymmetrical conflict between Israel and the Palestinian people cannot be resolved, so the goal should be to “shrink” it

What made Catch-67 such a phenomenon was its promise of an alternative to the failed framework of the Oslo peace process. Goodman begins from the premise that the occupation is both wrong and inescapable: thus the “catch” of the book’s title. But he argues that even if this impasse cannot be solved, it can be “shrunk” by granting the Palestinian Authority greater autonomy, withdrawing from certain segments of the West Bank, and extending Israeli residency to some West Bank Palestinians. Though Goodman’s policy prescriptions are hardly novel, he defends them with a particular line of moral reasoning that he calls “pragmatic.” According to Goodman, truly ethical behavior occurs only when we are forced to balance competing moral commitments—the survival of the Jewish people, for example, alongside support for basic democratic norms. As he puts it in Catch-67, “pragmatism is based on a complex moral conviction.” It rejects “the left’s monopoly on the fear of the corrupting potential of Israel’s power” as well as “the right’s monopoly on the fear of the threatening power of Israel’s enemies.” Instead, pragmatism “refuses to renounce either moral concern but rather insists on clinging to both of them without compromise.” In practice, for Goodman, this means accepting the necessity of military rule while attempting to minimize its worst excesses.

Goodman’s framework epitomizes a common line of Jewish argument about Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. When Israel bombed Gaza last month, many insisted that the country had reconciled the competing claims of self-defense and human rights—for example, by seeking to minimize civilian casualties by notifying residents of the impending destruction of their homes. According to this framing, the bombing and destruction in Gaza—the deaths of at least 227 Palestinians, over 60 of them children; the destruction of about 1,000 homes; the displacement of upwards of 58,000 peoplewere above all a burden for Israel, which was forced to balance two contradictory commitments. 

Given the prevalence of this view, Goodman’s work is valuable less for its distinctiveness than for the way it reveals the assumptions that shape so much Jewish discussion about Israel. If Catch-67 captures the current discourse, Goodman’s newest book, published last fall in English as The Wondering Jew, clarifies the ideology behind it. The topic of the new book at first seems only tangentially related to the political polemic of Catch-67. Goodman’s argument here is that neither religious nor secular Judaism can offer a way forward for Jewish life: The former is too hobbled by irrational dogma, the latter too untethered from any Jewish past. But Goodman’s solution to this dilemma leads directly back to his political program. Only by accepting the Zionist precept of Jewish sovereignty over the whole of the land of Israel, he argues, can secular Jews embrace a liberal, pluralistic worldview without ceasing to be distinctly Jewish. In short, liberal Judaism requires maximalist Zionism. 

With this argument, Goodman helps illuminate a central but often unarticulated phenomenon of contemporary Jewish politics. Today, support for permanent Jewish rule over non-Jewish subjects is not limited to far-right settlers and religious fanatics who want to inhabit the land to fulfill God’s plan. Rather, many who consider themselves liberal—and who agonize over the destruction, death, and loss caused by Israeli assaults like the one in May—view occupation as both morally repugnant and incontrovertibly necessary. By providing a philosophical and religious defense of this position, Goodman reveals how a stated opposition to occupation can so easily rest alongside support for its perpetuation.  

IN THE SUMMER of 2019, I saw Goodman speak to a room packed with Americans at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, a Jewish pluralist research center (where Goodman has long been affiliated, and where I’m also a fellow). He is a compelling and gracious public speaker, and the audience adored him. But there was one awkward moment. A young Israeli in the audience asked him how he could lament the moral injustice of the occupation as a resident of the settlement Kfar Adumim and as a founder of Ein Prat, a beit midrash located in the West Bank. “That’s a personal matter,” he replied. “We’re talking about ideas.” But the questioner wouldn’t let it go, and finally Goodman asked to speak with him after the talk. A group gathered to hear the response. Diffusing the tension with a warm smile, Goodman explained that while the Palestinian people are occupied, the land is not. There was, therefore, nothing inconsistent in opposing the occupation of the Palestinian people while living in the West Bank.

Goodman presents this argument late in Catch-67, but it turns out to be central to the book’s thesis. Although he begins the text with the more familiar claim that the occupation is necessary to ensure the survival of Israel, it becomes apparent that security is not his main concern. Though the Israeli center left has argued for decades that the country can be defended without the territory of the West Bank—citing, as Barak did in his review, all the wars Israel won defending borders Goodman declares “indefensible”—Goodman doesn’t acknowledge or respond to that point. Instead, he insists that as immoral as the occupation may be, ending it is also immoral—above all because relinquishing the land would mean conceding ownership of what rightfully belongs to the Jews. 

Goodman develops this argument by reiterating common talking points of the Israeli right. One is that the land was occupied by Israel only after a war of self-defense; to relinquish it now would therefore “reward the crime of aggression.” But to Goodman, that war only returned to the Jews what was already theirs. The dilemma that Goodman perceives, then, is not one pitting security against morality, but one shaped by the unfortunate fact that non-Jews happen to live on Jewish land. The question that guides Goodman’s policy proposals is therefore not how to ensure Israel’s security while governing according to basic democratic norms, but how to make Jews’ supposedly morally justified rule over the Palestinian people less morally horrendous for the occupier who carries it out. He proposes that granting Palestinians greater autonomy while maintaining control of their territory would transform the struggle “from a conflict between a state and its subjects into a conflict between a state and its neighbors.” But giving a prisoner a few more free hours in the yard does not make them any less a prisoner. What it does is allow a morally anguished jailer to feel a bit better about running a prison.

While Goodman believes that Zionism, as a movement concerned with a people’s self-determination, may contradict its own principles “by subjugating another people,” he insists that it would likewise “contradict itself by relinquishing parts of the land of its forefathers and foremothers.” Withdrawal, he argues, would “be an admission that Judaism is not a healthy nationality, but rather a lightweight religious culture.” 

In The Wondering Jew, Goodman elaborates on what it means for Judaism to function as a “healthy nationality.” As he explains, there are two basic forms of modern Judaism: one defined by observance of halakha, or religious law, and another that takes its secular authority from universal moral principles, accessible through reason. Each has its strengths, but both are ultimately destined to fail. Traditional Jewish observance, he argues, offers meaning and community but requires a betrayal of “intellectual integrity” and too often demands a sacrifice of “humanistic values.” Secular Judaism, on the other hand, is free from the irrationality of a strict adherence to halakha, but uproots Jews from their culture and past. 

The only alternative, for Goodman, is a Judaism in dialogue with its past but freed from an unchanging Jewish law. But such a Judaism, he argues, can only survive in a Jewish state. In liberal states, defined by individual autonomy, Goodman argues that Jews who don’t observe halakha will simply drift away from Judaism, leaving Jewish life unable to sustain itself. As evidence of the phenomenon, Goodman notes oft-cited data on the decreasing numbers of non-Orthodox Jews in the United States. But a Jewish state, he argues, solves the dilemma of Jewish continuity by ensuring that the grandchildren of Israeli Jews will be Jews regardless of their observance. Only in a country in which Jews rule can Judaism survive untethered from Jewish law.

Goodman calls his vision for Judaism “non-diasporic.” As he narrates Jewish history, diaspora consigned Jews to a constant preoccupation with their own perpetuation. Achieving Jewish sovereignty in the land of Israel is the sole way that Jews can finally free themselves to “worry less about how to preserve Judaism and wonder more about what its purpose should be.” For Goodman, central to that purpose is a commitment to universal morality. As he puts it, “the State of Israel is the place where a new Jewish religiosity can flourish, elevating morals above rituals without threatening Jewish continuity.” Once they can stop worrying about whether or not Judaism will survive, Jews can turn to matters of universal moral concern. 

Goodman’s conflation of Jewish identity with the Jewish state is not unusual, and it’s tempting to class it as simply another articulation of Jewish nationalism. But doing so obscures what is distinctive about his project: What Goodman defends is not just a Jewish nation-state, but a Jewish empire. At its most basic, the term “empire” describes any political body in which a single sovereign rules over subordinate peoples. Throughout history, most empires have defended their rule as serving a civilizing mission; the empires of the modern era, including the American one, have tended to explain their rule in democratic terms, justifying the inherent inequality of their regimes on the grounds that the ruled are incapable of self-governance. While such arguments aren’t hard to find on the Israeli right, Goodman provides a distinctive defense of Jewish rule over non-Jewish polities, framing the issue in terms of morality.

In his defense of empire, Goodman appeals to a long tradition of Jewish thought, dating back to the Bible, according to which Jewish residence in the land of Israel is contingent upon Jewish moral character. But he argues that the Bible’s central moral teaching is “that memories of past weakness will counterbalance an awareness of present strength”—and that this balance is impossible in the diaspora. “Only when the nation is strong can memories of weakness balance out their power,” Goodman writes. “When the Jewish people are neither strong nor sovereign, memory loses its role as a counterweight. The Exile rendered the biblical injunction to constantly remember weakness absurd.” Thus a genuine Jewish morality is “only relevant to the Jewish people when they are sovereign in their own land.” 

Though Goodman’s “pragmatic” morality is theoretically an exercise in balancing competing commitments, Jewish sovereignty over Jewish land turns out to be the sole commitment that cannot be compromised to any degree, as it’s the condition for any Jewish morality at all. Other values, such as democracy, are not above sacrificing. What emerges is an agonized but still resolute Jewish empire, one whose moral character is exhibited in its reluctant embrace of the requirements of permanent sovereignty over non-consenting subjects. Goodman’s is an empire with a guilty conscience. 

Despite Goodman’s attempt to show why the morality of Judaism rests on the morality of Jewish rule, the actual manifestation of that rule tells us otherwise. Domination inevitably provokes resistance, and despite Goodman’s rosy description of a kinder occupation, control of those who do not consent can only be maintained through violence. In a land in which millions of Palestinians live and millions more have a right to return, the question is not whether Jewish power will be exercised with compassion or malice. The question is whether it will be shared. That sharing of power could take various forms: one or two genuinely equal states, a federation. By indicating that it will uphold the status quo in the West Bank—and thus conditioning its existence on a not-so-tacit acceptance of ongoing Jewish empire—the new governing coalition, despite its inclusion of the Arab party Ra’am and the left-leaning Meretz, only affirms how far we may be from such a vision. The violence and death of the last months have certainly only made it harder to imagine what that sharing of power might look like, and whether it is even possible. But they have also revealed its necessity. Even if it’s a path that he attempts to block, Goodman helps illuminate the only way out of the darkness.

Daniel May is the publisher of Jewish Currents.