Why I am a (Liberal) Zionist
I am not Jewish, but then again, neither were most of the volunteers at Ein Hashofet, a kibbutz located somewhere between Haifa and the Sharon plain. It had been founded during the Arab Revolt of 1936-39 by immigrants from Poland and the United States who were of the Left-wing Hashomer Hatzair movement. The first settlers had to manually drain the land and plant trees to make it viable, while residing in tents, eating meager meals, and using communal showers and toilets. They were also required to defend the fruits of their labors, not only during the revolt but also the War of Independence, during which the nearby kibbutz of Mishmar Ha’Emek was attacked by the Arab Liberation Army.
I would have made a terrible Zionist pioneer. After arriving from Tel Aviv, I managed to last a week as a gardener, working with power tools and doing tasks no more arduous than raking up dead brush before I started pleading for a change of scene. “Not everyone can be a gardener,” Roni, my extremely kind and understanding boss, told me. “Not everyone can be a writer.” He may have been humoring me with that one. So, for the remainder of my time at Ein Hashofet I worked in the main factory, which manufactured ballasts and transformers for fluorescent light fixtures (someone has to), spending hours hanging the near-completed items on hooks and reading Amos Oz novels during downtime.
Based on my observations, it is fair to say that people rarely have clear reasons for leaving behind the comforts of home for a few months of toiling under the hot sun. All the volunteers seemed to be trying to run away from something or leave something behind. Or they were searching for something, looking to remake themselves. Some didn’t seem to know why they were there at all. Others were simply looking for a good time. Arak was complementary at the kibbutz pub, so if you were so inclined, what could be better?
My own motivations were clearer. For me, the kibbutz was a place where I could explore my early attraction to Israel, which was more instinctive than anything else, and grounded in an understanding of Middle Eastern history. The time I spent exploring and putting something back into the land was a formative experience, the beginning of something larger. At Ein Hashofet, I began a greater examination of Israel—its history, its political and social divisions, its culture—out of which arose a deeper commitment to the ideology of Zionism itself, albeit from a goyishe perspective.
Not being Jewish inevitably means that I have a different relationship with the Jewish state than people who are. That much is inescapable. I do not have a direct, historical connection to Israel through lineage or conversion. No one in my family lives there. I am not entitled to make aliya. I will never have to serve in the IDF.
The most obvious result of this is that it has made me a secular Zionist. Indeed, in the earliest expression of my Zionism that I can find—a letter toThe Times from June 2010, at the time of the Mavi Marmara incident—I called Israel a “secular miracle,” an earnest phrase that does not necessarily make a great deal of sense. What I mean by it is that, while I appreciate that Jews of all denominations are able to practice their faith openly, actively, and vibrantly without fear or compromise (almost, anyway), the Israel I admire is to be found in the achievements of man: the kibbutz, the Knesset, and the novels of Oz and David Grossman.
After Toulouse, Reviewing the Politics of Hate
The slaughter of Jewish schoolchildren in Toulouse, and the emergence of a Muslim suspect who claims ties to al-Qaeda, has focused a piercing light on the temporarily halted presidential campaign, and specifically the heated rhetoric that has characterised the argument over immigration.
Nicolas Sarkozy, in order to win over disgruntled Front National voters, has moved decidedly rightward on this subject. Appearing on France 2’s Des paroles et des actes, he proclaimed that integration in France was failing since there are “too many foreigners on our territory”. He proposed to “divide by two the number of people that we welcome”. In the same vein, in a later campaign speech Sarkozy threatened to pull France out of the Schengen zone.
The President even engaged in a debate with Le Pen over kosher and halal meat, following her assertion that “all the abattoirs of the Paris region have succumbed to the rules of a minority”. After initially dismissing her claims, Sarkozy flip-flopped, calling for all meat sold in France to have labels outlining the method of slaughter.
The Prime Minister, François Fillon, was promptly dispatched to repair relations with the Jewish and Muslim communities, yet the damage is already self-evident. In a campaign marked for its lack of ideas or substance, racial and religious minorities became the subject of demonisation and delegitimisation. Sarkozy’s Interior Minister, Claude Gueant, went so far as to openly use the old nationalist axiom, “les Français ne se sentent plus chez eux” – “the French no longer feel at home”.
For Baroness Warsi, An Education on Secularism and its Benefits
At least Baroness Warsi had the wherewithal to note in her article in the Daily Telegraph published prior to her grovelling, fawning visit to Cardinal Ratzinger that, “I am not calling for some kind of 21st century theocracy”. She may have been pandering to the Pope, but we should take some comfort in the fact that she didn’t go the whole hog, adding, “What is more, secularism is not intrinsically damaging”.
Unfortunately, such comments were but caveats in her wider, poorly-argued, baseless, and illiterate polemic, which sought to argue for more religion in the public sphere, cautioning against what she called a “militant secularisation that is taking hold of our societies”.
First of all, I would like to know who exactly in the British establishment is calling for the removal of religion from the public square. After all, the Queen remains the head of state and Defender of the Faith, head of our established church. Bishops sit in our legislature, just as they do in Iran. One third of schools in this country are run by faith-based institutions and receive government funding. The number of sharia courts is expanding.
No members of the political class in or out of government are doing or saying anything to combat this, yet Ms. Warsi still suggests that, “signs of religion cannot be displayed or worn in government buildings; states won’t fund faith schools; and religion is sidelined, marginalised and downgraded in the public sphere”. In her article, she does not cite one example to support her thesis. Please: name one.
An unwanted French revolution
The burqa is the most visible representation of the worst elements of sexism, subjugation and intolerance within Islam. To live life cloaked entirely in black from the hairs on your head to soles of your feet, and to see the majesty of the world only through a tiny slit in a hood, is to live no life at all. European society should indeed wish to see the practice of veiling within Islamic culture slowly wither away.
But in the banning the burqa, as the French have now formally begun to do, the Élysée has managed to turn it into a symbol of liberation and individual expression. Since no state holds the right to dictate what its citizens can or cannot wear, covering the face with a cut-price polyester sheet has somehow become a noble act of defiance against a government’s nastiest oppressive excesses.
In the French instance, this ban on the burqa (or the niqab, in reality) is the destructive consequence of what happens when the fault lines of muscular, exclusive Gallic secularism and continental Maghrebi-centric xenophobia collide. On the one hand, it is an extension of the colonial mission civilisatrice, a desire to bring colonials into the life and culture of the métropole by commanding them to adopt a superior language, values and faith.
At the same time, this edict is driven by the desperation of a weakened President who feels the need to appeal to and manipulate the pervasive undercurrent of bigotry which encompasses a significant bloc of French society that has made immigrants from former outposts in North and West Africa into hermits. In this case, those who come from the Maghreb in particular are being actively encouraged, if not forced, to adopt French customs or face exclusion from mainstream society.
All of this flies in the face of the most admirable tenets of French revolutionary thought; that “men are born and remain free and equal in rights” and “liberty consists in the freedom to do everything which injures no one else.” It is also symbolic of France’s decay into a dualistic society: of the empowered, those who are culturally French in the nationalistic sense of the term; and the oppressed, those who are not. Visit any city on the mainland and observe the ghettoisation of Arabs and West Africans in les banlieues, Bantustans on the peripheries, whilst the masters inhabit the expensive and affluent centres.
If French and indeed European society wishes to achieve the emancipation of Muslim women from the practice of veiling, it will not be accomplished through this kind of negative decree. A ban on the burqa is as repressive and as hysterical as the fatawa issued by the ulama of Saudi Arabia or Iran, making the French government in effect indistinguishable from the worst elements of religious autocracy. If anything, the ban will only embolden the miniscule minority of Islamic French women who practice this kind of facial drapery.
Rather, it is the American model of openness and religious tolerance, where the Bill of Rights forbids Congress from making any law “respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” which demonstrates the liberating power of an inclusionary set of values working in tandem with education and economic empowerment. Waves of immigrants, from Catholic Irish and Italians, through Protestant Germans and indeed Muslims, have integrated themselves successfully into a society that places great values on contribution to the economic success of the nation, in addition to diversity and multiculturalism in the truest sense of the term.
The American constitutional, liberal model should be considered an exemplar to Western nations now and Middle Eastern states in the future. Benazir Bhutto – whose tragic, premature death struck a blow for the advance of moderate Islamic argument – put forth in her final tome Reconciliation that only democracy, education and the construction of an economic middle class could defeat the forces of militancy and extremism.
Education in particular, and individualism too, is even more vital in societies were men are the guardians of religious text and law. The cycle of oppression can only be broken, and the veil lifted from the face, by ijtihad: the independent interpretation of the holy sources, the Qur’an and the hadith. Literacy amongst women will shatter the control of access to information and enlightenment men presently have, and ought to enable women to discover for themselves that the burqa is by no means mandatory to religious observance.
The ban on the burqa, then, is no kind of victory at all, for those who wish to see Muslim women delivered from the medieval practice of covering one’s charms. Nor is it a triumph for sorority or equality, as Christopher Hitchens would have us believe. This is in fact a most unwanted and unnecessary French revolution, that will only serve to criminalise the practice of dressing now an individual sees fit, drive subjugated women underground into the clutches of oppressive masculine figures, and further entrench the partition of French society between those who are permitted to have and those for whom having is forbidden.