[Buddha-l] One Buddhist's perspective on Zionism

Richard P. Hayes rhayes at unm.edu
Thu May 19 11:48:26 MDT 2005

Dan Lusthaus's recent musings on all the prejudices allegedly lurking in
the dark recesses of my words (and perhaps even of my Unconscious) has
provoked me to think a little more carefully about Zionism, a topic on
which I have been unswervingly neutral for most of my life. As my
philosophical colleagues are wont to say about something in which they
have little interest, "It's not my project." The topic of Zionism is not
my project, but Dan's insistence that it is my project has made it my
project, at least for the past day. I have done a little reading up on
it by exploring a dozen or so Jewish web sites. (This is, after all,
2005, so you really wouldn't expect me to read a BOOK would you?) So
now, as a result of all this haphazard research and very brief
reflection, I have a couple of very superficial observations to make on
how the topic of Zionism now seems to me to look from a Buddhist

First of all, I would like to distinguish between two projects that can
be called Zionism. One of them, I take it, is a largely secular claim
that there is a Jewish nation that did not have a homeland and yet
deserved one. The second is a religious claim that God gave a chunk of
land to the Hebrews in biblical times and that the modern descendants of
those Hebrews (or Europeans and others who have, or whose ancestors
have, chosen to convert to the religion of those descendants) are still
entitled to that same chunk of land. My cursory research uncovered a few
other forms of Zionism, but for now let me discuss just these two.

Let me take the second of those projects first. From a Buddhist
perspective, I think it is pretty easy to dismiss any claim made by any
people that they were given any land by God. It does not take much study
of history to make one aware that all land is "owned" only by those who
take it by force from others, whether those others be trees and rocks or
animals or human beings. The Hebrews, if we can believe the biblical
accounts, took the land that became Israel away from its previous
occupants by a series of brutal, even genocidal, campaigns. In this they
are not so unique. Show me any people from history whose name we now
remember, and I'll show you a people who have earned their place in
history through brutality, violence and campaigns that resulted in
either the enslavement, the extermination or the displacement of those
whom they conquered. This is true of the Han, the Tibetans, the Mongols,
the Diné (Apache and Navajo), the Aztecs, the Mayas, the
Dakota/Lakota/Nakota, the Anglo-Saxons, the Normans, the Indo-Aryans,
the Hittites and the Hebrews. 

Even a cursory study of history also shows that most of these peoples
had some sort of belief that their rapacious brutality, even their
genocidal actions, were justified and fully sanctioned by one or more
gods. It seems to me that either one believes all those claims or one
believes none, for I have yet to find any rational and impartial way to
distinguish between justifiable and unjustifiable violent conquest, and
I have yet to find an impartial way to distinguish between what gods
really said and what men and women imagined that gods had said. So my
tendency would be to say that the claim that God had a hand in giving
Israel to the Hebrews during biblical times is exactly as worthy of
credence as the claim that God gave Tenochtitlan to the Aztecs (and then
decided to transfer the title to the Spaniards). With any kind of
Zionism based on what it says in a book whose claim to being unique in
being divinely inspired I do not recognize, I am therefore not in much

The other project that can be called Zionism rests on the supposition
that every people is entitled to a homeland and to self-rule in that
homeland, because no one is safe except at home. This sounds like a
noble supposition, and as an ideal it seems no one could deny its
attractive sound. Every people on earth should have a haven from the
kinds of violent actions that every people on earth have, at one time or
another, visited on their neighbors. As long as we are waxing
idealistic, I guess I would say that that haven should be the entire
planet earth. That is, every human being should be able to go anywhere
on earth and be treated with civility and hospitality and respect.
Sadly, this has never been the case for anyone. No human being is safe
for long on this planet. Security and justice are not reliable features
of human life, whether one is at home or abroad. When safety and justice
do happen, the interludes tend to be short. Working for a world in which
everyone will be safe is perhaps the noblest enterprise on earth, an
enterprise to which some Jewish people have made breathtakingly
exemplary contributions over the years. Yet, like all noble enterprises,
this one is heartbreakingly quixotic. I wish it were not so, but it does
indeed seem to be so.

The Buddhist in me, therefore, remains quite uninspired by any struggles
to own a piece of property, or establish a homeland, for I have come to
think that nothing on earth can be owned without some kind of theft.
There is no such thing as a homeland for one people without some other
people being dispossessed of what they once saw as their home. The whole
enterprise of establishing homelands therefore strikes me as tragic. It
is perhaps the single greatest tragedy of the human condition. 

So what does inspire the Buddhist in me? Perhaps nothing says it better
than my favorite Mahayana sutra, the Ratnagunasancayagatha. (Please
pardon my laziness in not producing diacritical marks. And please
forgive me for paraphrasing rather than giving an accurate quotation.)
This sutra depicts the bodhisattva ideal with words to the effect that a
bodhisattva knows that in the vast universe there is no place even as
small as an atom that a person can truly call home. But in knowing this,
the bodhisattva is in no way afraid or resentful. Rather, that radical
homelessness becomes the occasion of universal compassion--the
recognition that we are all, forever and always, homeless, no matter
where we go.

I suppose because nothing inspires me more than the bodhisattva ideal of
Mahayana Buddhism, I have never been able to place a very high value on
any kind of nationalism or on any undertaking that employs violence to
achieve an end. For that reason I would tend to place all enterprises
that fall into the same category as Zionism lower in my system of values
than I place the cultivation of universal metta and compassion. That is
why, although descended on both sides of my ancestry from people who
seemed to believe that it was divinely ordained for them to be the most
recent conquerors of a land they chose to call America, I have never
been much of a patriot. It is why I have on the bumper of my car a
picture of the American flag, over which are written the words "These
colors don't run...the world." (Alas, those words are false, to my
constant shame and disgust.) And it is my allegiance to the bodhisattva
ideal that makes me fairly confident that even if I were Jewish, either
by birth or by conversion, I would not be a Zionist of either of the two
types I have discussed here. 

That is my personal taste (or prejudice, if you prefer that word). And,
religious pluralist that I am, I fully recognize, and even celebrate,
the fact that other people have a different set of values than mine. My
personal project is to learn how to live harmoniously with all those
whose values differ from my own. (Except Republicans, of course.)

Richard P. Hayes
"There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide."
        (John Quincy Adams)

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