Prominent left-wing intellectual Naomi Chazan shares her views on Zionism and the Diaspora.

Naomi ChazanNaomi Chazan. (photo credit: JERUSALEM REPORT ARCHIVES)


NAOMI CHAZAN is a human rights activist and academic, who served in the Knesset for over a decade as a member of the leftwing party Meretz. As Israel celebrates its 70th anniversary, Chazan reflects on the country’s founders’ intentions, as she sees them.

“They very much had in mind a double revolution,” she says in an interview. “Collective self-determination of the Jewish people in a state of their own – that is the creation of the State of Israel, and individual self-determination of Jews in a state that gives equality to all its citizens.”

Chazan believes a void was soon created. “We never really defined the link between Jews, Judaism and the State of Israel,” she says. Chazan thinks this lack of definition leads to confusion and leaves room for multiple interpretations and misinterpretations of Zionism. “There is this identity issue that has yet to be resolved, which makes Zionism too synonymous with a Jewish ethnocentric view. That is antithetical to a broader universalist view that the founders had.”

Chazan, who makes clear she is a Zionist, says Israel is indeed the national homeland of the Jewish people but also a state of all its citizens. “As soon as you establish a state, the relevant unit of analysis is its citizens, without any kind of differentiation on the basis of race, national origin, gender or religion.”

Notwithstanding the unit of analysis being the citizens, Chazan believes there is a role for Diaspora Jews in shaping the Jewish state’s direction. “If Israel was conceived as the homeland of the Jewish people, then the affinity exists for all Jewish people, if that is the way they feel today as well,” she says. “There is no contradiction.

Just like there need not be a contradiction between ‘Jewish’ and ‘democratic.’” As Jews around the world increasingly view Israel as the focus of their Jewish orientation, the question becomes to what degree non-citizens should have a say. Chazan sees it this way: “Israel has become a part of Jewish identity. Some 95% of the world’s Jews live in democratic societies. For many of them, there are liberal democratic values they feel very strongly about. When your identity conflicts with your values, you have an interest in preventing this dissonance. This is as true for Jews abroad, as it is for Jews in Israel.”

She clarifies that she welcomes Jewish activism in Israel from all sides of the political spectrum, from those who believe Israel should do more for residents of Judea and Samaria to those who object to the settlements and are concerned with civil liberties.

“One of the mistakes that was made in the past is Israelis assumed that Jews abroad were sending money to Israel and would have no say of where the money goes or what is done in their name,” she says. “The constant argument is that you do not have the right to tell us what to do because you do not live with the consequences.”

Chazan rejects this argument. “If I have the right to support you and back you and fund you, I also have a right to say that this is my vision of Zionism. I am of the opinion that the Israel-Diaspora relationship is a two-way street.” Taking it a step further, she adds, “If it is not a two-way street, it will not last.”

Given this notion, Chazan cautions that many Israelis fail to identify changing sentiments in the Diaspora. “A relationship cannot be built on emotional symbols that speak to one generation and not the other. If you want to cultivate Jewish identity with Israel, you want people to care. We have to hear what they have to say about what we are doing or not doing in certain critical fields.”

But Jewish individuals and philanthropists are not the only ones who want to have a say about the direction Israel takes. There has been growing anxiety about intervention by foreign governments, the EU and multinational organizations.

Here, Chazan makes a distinction by assessing the motivation of such involvement. “If you are a friend, you can voice what you expect from your friends. If you want to make Israel better, then you want Israel to avoid mistakes and to do good things. Israel, in turn, wants its friends to be happy.”

She draws a parallel between the significant aid that the United States provides to the IDF and the funding the EU and European governments provide to Israel’s human rights and civil rights organizations.

“There is absolutely no reason why you should penalize states if they want to assist civil society and particular organizations.”

Chazan does not view financial support by foreign governments as intervening in internal Israeli affairs, and points to Israel’s own activities in European countries. “Israel spends a lot of money in Jewish communities abroad. Hundreds of millions. It sends a message to certain citizens [of these countries]. Nobody is suggesting this should stop – that the British government stop Israeli assistance to Jewish education.”

But does that logic mean that Israel should consider funding human rights organizations in Europe, as Europeans do in Israel? For example, the shocking images of French armed police ordering a Muslim woman on the beach to take off her clothes does not only have moral consequences, but could also provoke violence in Israel and elsewhere. Chazan dismisses the French analogy, but believes it is appropriate for Israel to intervene elsewhere. “If there are issues that go against the guiding values of Israel, it has a moral right to speak out.”

Chazan explains that overseas humanitarian intervention is of growing interest in certain Israeli government circles. “There is a major movement of Israeli foreign policy, which argues that Israel really has to give light unto the nations,” she says. “When Israel gives technical assistance to farmers in Africa, it is a statement.

The same, by taking a position in Myanmar. If Israel did not take a position, some people would be extremely upset, because it goes against universal values and Jewish traditions.”

In the context of one country funding human rights organizations in another, Chazan believes Israel should welcome foreign funding of its human rights organizations.

“If Israel did not have human rights and civil rights organizations, and wanted to remain a democracy, then it would have to invent them. Those organizations need to be supported from somewhere,” she says, pointing to the role such organizations play in Israel’s public image. “Some people claim that these democratically instituted groups, which display the essential pluralism of Israel, are the main advocates abroad of Israel’s democracy and humanity.

So it is a question of which prism you are looking through.”

One such prism is the side effects of the work of those organizations.

Asymmetry is inevitably created. Israeli human rights violations are actively sought and publicized by such European-funded organizations, but similar violations in Europe would go unnoticed.

For example, Breaking the Silence, a European-funded organization that encourages Israeli soldiers and security personnel to report violations, does not operate in European countries. This asymmetry, in turn, creates a false narrative of Israel’s defensive actions, and some say contributes to the villainizing of Israel.

Chazan maintains that the primary source of this narrative has nothing to do with Israeli human rights organizations. Yet, she acknowledges that the organizations’ activities have negative side effects. “First and foremost, the purpose of these organizations is to make Israel better. If something is done in your name and it is unacceptable to you, you would expect that it would be corrected.”

This leads to a broader question of where we draw the lines of criticizing Israel. After all, those European-funded Israeli organizations criticizing Israel, willingly or unwillingly, become part of the Israeli-criticism chorus.

Chazan believes that when it comes to criticism of Israel, one needs to make distinctions. “Part of the criticism is the strong disagreement with Israel’s policy, but when that part crosses the line and questions the legitimacy of the State of Israel – that is totally a different ball game. Obviously, when it crosses that line, it has new antisemitic trappings,” she says, adding, “And part of the strong distaste for Israel stems from the same causes of old antisemitism.”

As Israel celebrates its 70th birthday, Chazan remains committed to improving the country as best she can. “One of the biggest services that is being done for Israel today is that there are Israeli organizations that believe in human rights, civil rights, concern for human beings, and are trying to hold Israel up to that standard. This is about making Israel better.”


Recent articles:


Related articles:
For inquiries and comments, please email: