Today, Rabbi Arik Ascherman of Rabbi’s for Human Rights gave a lecture at the Middle East Institute concerning the definition of Zionism and its impact on human rights in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Rabbi Ascherman started off his presentation by explaining the fact that within Israel there is a question over the ideological identity of the state. For quite a while there has been a battle between more right-wing zionists and a more liberal non-zionist left.
Ascherman defined Zionism as the idea that Judaism is not simply a religion, but that the Jews are a people themselves and that their homeland is in Israel. He also explained that this idea existed long before it was called Zionism, and that this can be seen by the fact that for thousands of years the Jewish Holidays and other aspects of the Jewish calendar have been based upon the agricultural calendar of Israel.
One of the major points made by Ascherman throughout his lecture, was that there are many different strands of Zionism. The two primary strands are political zionism and cultural zionism. Political zionsism is the idea that although the Jewish people have tried to assimilate to various different communities and have created their own affluent sub-communities the prevalence of anti-semitism has caused assimilation to fail, and that the only true home for the Jewish people is in Israel. Cultural Zionism is the idea that the Jewish people can thrive and be safe within Israel. But, a point that Ascherman strongly emphasizes is that for cultural zionists, a Jewish state is simply a means and not an end.
The lecture then turned to the question: Can zionism be compatible with human rights? When addressing this question Ascherman separated the idea of human rights into two categories; individual human rights and the human rights of Palestinians as a whole. He stated that when he spoke with more conservative zionists in Israel on the subject of individual human rights almost everyone was in agreement that people are entitled to these basic liberties. However, once the topic shifted to the human rights of Palestinians as a people he said, “there was no longer very much for us to talk about.”
The major issue of human rights in Israel derives from the idea that the existence of a Jewish State is an imperative. Ascherman noted that in Israel all but a handful of people consider themselves to be Zionists, and that almost all of them believe that the existence of a Jewish State is in fact an imperative. This explains why Israelis are so unwilling to give into the idea of “full right of return”, or that both the Jewish and Palestinian people have the right to return to their homeland in Israel. The real issue with a “full right of return” in Israel is that if there were a sudden influx of non Jews into Israel, then there would be the possibility that Jews would no longer constitute the majority. This would therefore put into jeopardy the Jewish State seen by many Israelis as a necessity.
If you would like more information on the event or about Rabbi Arik Ascherman it is available at the Middle East Institute Website: