Friday November 17, 2023 – ד׳ כִּסְלֵו תשפ”ד

Have you ever been in a conversation with someone who says, “I’m not antisemitic; I’m just against Zionism?” Or “I have nothing against Jewish people per se; just don’t think they need to have a state.” Or, better yet, “Israel doesn’t need to have an ethnic-nationalism, but a civic nationalism – and be a state for all people living between the river and the sea.”

In this second piece in our series on Jews, Israel, and antisemitism, we are going to explore the notion of anti-Zionism. The curious case of anti-Zionism as it manifests in many progressive circles, in academic and intellectual spaces, and increasingly more among those who hold political power, is a result of an insidious attempt by those who oppose the existence of the State of Israel to undermine the legitimacy of its existence but do it in such a way as to seem intellectually objective and morally pure.

Yes, anti-Semitism is alive and well, and increasingly it masquerades as criticism of Israel. The discussion around Zionism and those who oppose Zionism calls for clarity intellectually and morally. To be clear, we have said it over and over again – one can criticize Israeli policies because a modern nation-state that fails to live up to its human rights and democratic aspirations can be criticized legitimately without the critic being antisemitic.  In other words, one can use strong critical language, can protest, can even lobby against specific policies without being an antisemite.

However, some of the criticism crosses the line. If criticism denies the Jewish people’s legitimate right to self-determination in a nation-state of our own in the Land of Israel, that is antisemitic.

When faced with anti-Zionism one must understand what Zionism is to the Jewish people. In short, Zionism is the movement for self-determination as a people and for the re-establishment, development, and protection of a modern Jewish nation-state in the ancestral Homeland of the Jewish people.

There are many ethnic groups around the world that do not have their own state, or that exist as minorities within a larger state. Just as we Jews are entitled to self-determination, so too is the Palestinian people so entitled as are any people who seek to enjoy the rights of independence.

Not everyone, of course, agrees.
In Thursday’s NYTimes, columnist Charles Blow reported that:

“A few weeks ago, I interviewed several pro-Palestinian activists and scholars in America. Almost all of them described themselves as anti-Zionist, but in our conversations, all of them also condemned antisemitism. …  When I talked to the pro-Palestinian activists and scholars, I posed a simple question that is often asked: Do you believe that Israel has a right to exist? To my surprise, none answered with a direct “yes.””

This may not be surprising as it is a position that is more and more accepted and is creeping slowly into political, academic, and religious circles. I have never heard of another country whose existence was conditional or whose legitimacy was subject to the whims of world opinion.

Blow interviews scholar Marc Lemont Hill who makes the false comparison that, “It would be like asking Native Americans if America has a right to exist,” and specifies that his critique is specifically about political Zionism.

No. That comparison puts Jews like colonialists of Jamestown who fled persecution to dominate the natives when they arrived in this land to which they had no prior connection. Israel absolutely should be a state of all of its citizens, and there’s no excuse for any discrimination against the roughly 20% of Israel’s citizens who are not Jewish.

According to an explanation making its way around Instagram by the group Jewish Voices for Peace, “Zionism,” as they see it,

“suggests Jews require a supremacist nation-state to answer the real question of Jewish safety. We believe that everywhere in the world, Jews belong and should be safe. Real safety does not grow from guns, checkpoints, walls, and a police state. True safety is built through forging real solidarity with all those fighting for a more liberated world.”

I’m sorry, what?!?!

First, Zionism does not “suggest a supremacist state.”  Zionism suggests a Jewish nation-state just like Denmark suggests a Danish state, France a French state, Japan a Japanese state, Argentina… etc.

Second, Israelis would love nothing more than to live without guns, checkpoints, and an army and police. Wouldn’t we all?  Of course, Jews should belong and feel safe everywhere in the world, but our history has proven otherwise, that to lack power means to be vulnerable to attack and subjugation and worse. October 7th proved that even those security precautions are not always enough to provide for the Jews’ safety.

Third, is the anti-Zionist Jewish Voice for Peace insinuating that if only Israel would forge solidarity with those fighting for a more liberated world, we Jews would live in peace and and be secure? Really?

It is important to refute these claims and this sorely mistaken definition because those who advocate for this distorted and false characterization of what constitutes safety for Jews have been posted and shared by its creators and many in the Jewish community now regard it as somehow authoritative.

The adoption of this formulation of anti-Zionism has serious and grave implications well beyond the theoretical justification or lack of justification for ethnic nation-states and their legitimacy. This is about how those who identify with the State of Israel, who are Zionists, are so easily equated with a “supremacist state.” Such a characterization justifies targeting Zionists as representatives of all that is evil in the world, such as racism, ethnic and religious supremacy, colonialism, oppression, and even genocide.

Many anti-Zionists use classic antisemitic tropes and imagery to characterize Jews and Zionists. If one accuses Israel of secretly controlling world powers, that is antisemitism. If one uses the word “Zionist” as a negative and pejorative code word for Jews or Israelis, that is antisemitism. If one uses the word “Zionist” as a replacement term for “fascism,” “imperialism,” “colonialism,” and “oppression,” that is antisemitism. If one denies the Jewish people the right to self-definition and self-determination as a people, that is antisemitism.  If one assumes that any particular Israeli government speaks for all Jews (who are not Israeli citizens) that is antisemitism.

Just as there are many kinds of Zionism (e.g. labor, Religious, Reform, Socialist, Political, cultural, revisionist, etc…), there are also many kinds of anti-Zionism.  Some forms of anti-Zionism are not antisemitic.

There were/are Jewish movements and groups that do not regard the Zionist enterprise and/or the Jewish nationalist story and narrative as central to modern Jewish identity.

The American Council for Judaism, founded in 1942, echoed some of the early Reform Jewish notions regarding Judaism and Jews as part of a religious affiliation and not as a people.

“We view Judaism as a universal religious faith, rather than an ethnic or nationalist identity. We further recognize the silent and often non-participating majority who define their Judaism in the context of their own perspectives. We remain committed to the ethical, intellectual, and prophetic values of Judaism. We cherish the spiritual ties that link us to our fellow Jews around the world, with whom we share our heritage and history.

The State of Israel has significance for the Jewish experience. As a refuge for many Jews who have suffered persecution and oppression in other places, Israel certainly has meaning for us. However, that relationship is a spiritual, historical, and humanitarian one – it is not a political tie. As American Jews, we share the hope for the security and wellbeing of the State of Israel, living in peace and justice with its neighbors.”

The pre-Holocaust socialist labor union, known as the Jewish Labor Bund, was formed in the late 1890s at the same time as the World Zionist Organization. The Bund eventually came to oppose Zionism strongly, arguing that immigration to Palestine was a form of escapism. They embraced the Yiddish concept of “Doikayt” literally ‘hereness’ (דאָיִקייט), and the pre-cursor to ‘Diasporism,’ which focused its efforts on solving the challenges confronting Jews in the country in which they lived, versus the “thereness” of the Zionist movement, which posited the necessity of an independent Jewish polity in its ancestral homeland to secure Jewish life.

And of course, we see the extremist ultra-Orthodox version of anti-Zionism from groups such as Neturei Karta and Satmar Hasidism whose worldview perceives Zionism and the establishment of the State of Israel as an anti-messianic act, conceived and born from sin. According to this logic, the concepts “Torah state” or “halachic state” [one run according to Jewish law] are oxymorons; any Jewish state prior to the messianic age–by the very nature of its human, natural, mundane provenance undermines and denies the Torah and takes a stand against the halakha, and therefore it is necessary to do everything they can to undermine the Jewish State.

As a Jew, Zionism and Israel are inextricably intertwined with my identity. The Jews are a people, a nation, an ethnicity who have a clear right to be a nation like all other nations.

Six weeks since the horrific October 7th massacre, and now a bitter war in Gaza that has seen rampant destruction, the debate in progressive circles around the legitimacy of the State of Israel has come to center stage. It is our job as Reform Jews and Zionists to teach our children that the Jews are a people, who have a right to their own sovereign state. We need to uphold the values of the sanctity of human life and must do everything in our power to maintain our ability to live as a free people in our land.  Those who are most critical of Israel’s prosecution of the war are often those who do not have to live with the consequences of Hamas terrorism and of whom the deep moral challenges are largely theoretical.

More on that in two weeks…

Shabbat Shalom.