Anti-Zionist Reflections on Zionism and the American Jewish Community

By Ben E.

The cracks in liberal Zionism have been growing for some time. Liberal Zionism is the unsteady combination of civil rights-themed liberalism and Zionism impressed upon most young American Jews, in which Israel is imagined as a progressive Jewish paradise that simply wants peace with its neighbors. That central myth, one of the glossy veneers covering the obvious contradictions, seems to be slipping. As Israeli society has moved further and further rightwards, grown bolder and crueler in its projects of ethnic cleansing, and especially as we have witnessed the horrors and brutality of the invasion of Gaza, liberal Zionism has become increasingly unstable.

This generally presents American Jews and Jewish organizations with two choices–either leftward towards a stronger critique of (if not yet a break from) Israel, or rightward to mirror the hard-right politics that has become increasingly dominant in Israel and make alliances with opportunistic antisemites when needed. There has been movement in both directions, with a large chunk of American Jews becoming more distant from Zionism, while major Jewish organizations have unsurprisingly continued walking down the latter path.

This dynamic poses a problem for organizations like the Anti-Defamation League (ADL): to uphold the idea that Jewishness is equivalent to Zionism in a world where a large chunk of younger Jews no longer identify with Zionism and oppose the inhumanity of Israel’s rule over Palestinians, you have to silence all of the Jews who disagree with you. As this has gotten harder these organizations get more desperate and seek allies on the right. It makes it clearer than ever that Zionism is making American Jews less safe.

Protesters posing with signs: "End the siege in Gaza," "As a Jew I cannot support the bombing of civilians," and "As a Jew I cannot support attacks on civilians."

The ADL, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), and the Israeli government are more than happy to work in tandem with Christian nationalists who wish to impose their will on all minority religions, and praise Neo-Nazi cheerleader Elon Musk, who is continually promoting antisemitic conspiracies and making sure Twitter is a breeding ground for racist, fascist, violent bigots.

They are doing so in order to crush a movement with a significant number of Jews in a coalition of our allies: people from other minority religions, immigrants, young people of color, college students, civil libertarians, and the left (with many people falling into several of those categories). These allies are who we need to work with when we are organizing against the antisemites of the far right.

This is what happens when you decide that aligning with a nation-state’s interests is more important than fighting actual antisemitism—such as calls for all of us to move to Israel so the rapture will happen, or claims that we’re subhuman or a threat to white domination of the U.S. (flattered). And it turns every major Zionist organization into a reputation-laundering service to insulate far-right bigots so long as they are pro-Israel. It’s the same as how the Sierra Club helps oil companies greenwash or the Human Rights Campaign helps homophobes pinkwash. Give enough money or lip service, and we will do you a solid.

This only makes sense if you assume as most Jewish orgs implicitly do that real antisemitism—the kind that leads to synagogue shootings, the kind that defines America as a country for Christians alone—isn’t an actual threat. How else do you explain the relative lack of concern when groups like Patriot Front march at college campuses compared to the response to pro-Palestine demonstrations? Where was Netanyahu comparing it to 1930s Germany? Where were the calls to crack heads? Where was ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt calling them the same as Hezbollah agents? Where was Mossad promising to identify and get them fired? If they care about Jewish safety, why does the ADL condemn campus protesters significantly more harshly than they do armed Neo-Nazis openly calling for genocide?

The role of Zionism here is to redirect Jewish fear away from where it’s deserved and needed. Zionism promotes a deluded mindset in which actual antisemitism prompts concern, but any challenge to Israel triggers immediate freakouts, weeping over how awful it is, screaming at cops to violently break up protests, filing lawsuits, and invoking the Holocaust. This is the outcome of the kind of constant conditioning many of us get starting in synagogue and Hebrew school. It takes a lot to break out of that; but it’s necessary.

And it seems that people in the community are warming to the idea. Four years ago, a poll showed 10% of Jews supported the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement (BDS), but still had limited willingness to criticize Israel. But a poll in February showed a third of American Jews describing Israel’s actions in Gaza as unacceptable, while a quarter of younger Jews opposed U.S. military aid to Israel. Months ago, the majority of American Jews said they wanted a permanent humanitarian ceasefire, putting them on the opposite side from every major American Jewish organization at the time–and from the majority of Israelis and the Israeli state/war machine. Our communities still have a long way to go, but the scale of American Jewish discontent with Israel is higher than it’s ever been.

Anyone who has been to a campus encampment has seen this first hand in the widespread participation of Jewish students and community members in solidarity with Palestine. In colleges with protests or encampments across the country, I suspect that the number of Jewish students who have experienced any threat to their safety from the protests is much, much smaller than the number of Jewish students participating in the protests. In other words: if we are talking about Jews in relation to the situation, we should be seeing the encampments and protests as the most visible expression of Jewish students. If we care about Jewish students’ safety, then we should see the police attacks on the encampments where they are staying as an antisemitic affront. An affront carried out at the request of college administrators, right-wing politicians and billionaires, and the Israeli state.

Protesters holding banners and signs that read: "Jews won't be free until Palestinians are. Reject AIPAC, reject occupation. IfNotNow," "Freedom [and] dignity for all," "End the occupation," "Welcome to the Jewish resistance."

The only way you can claim that crackdowns are for the safety of Jewish students is if anti-Zionist Jews are simply not considered to be Jews at all. If you stop doing that, you quickly realize that there has been a huge number of Jewish students who were assaulted and arrested over the past weeks–all by the police (or a violent, right wing Zionist mob). The idea of protecting Jews by getting the cops to arrest and/or beat them up makes no sense. But it’s not about the safety of Jewish students, and never has been. It’s about keeping in the good graces of right-wing billionaire donors and far-right politicians.

The breakdown between American Jewish opinion and that of Israel and its supporters is a significant development, and the more it grows and the more American Jews are aware of this, the better. It shows that a core (and absurd) assumption of modern Zionism, that American Jews and Israelis are more or less the same, culturally and politically, is falling apart. It allows younger members of the community to question whether bombing hospitals and sanctioning pogroms match the values we are raised with. We are at a point where even many who wouldn’t think to break with Zionism recoil in horror when they see the brutal, racist political discourse that’s dominant in Israel. The cognitive dissonance is breaking down.

When this happens, it opens a lot of space for anti-Zionist Jews to assert our legitimacy however we can and further erode the lie that Zionism and Jewishness are the same thing. And although the current moment is enabled in part by a wave of campus protests, many of which will cease when the academic year ends, these moments of resistance are bound to keep happening for as long as Israel shows the awful violence and brutality needed for the Zionist project to function.

I don’t know that we’ll ever see a day where most American Jews are anti-Zionist–or at least, we won’t see it soon. There’s still too much money and ideological labor being devoted to ensuring we grow up with a fairytale version of what Israel is and has been. But Zionism’s hold on our communities is weakening, and the false idea that there is a Jewish consensus around Zionism is increasingly difficult to keep up. Good.

Photo credits:

  1. Jewish Voice for Peace-Seattle, Palestine Solidarity Committee, Voices of Palestine, Dyke Community Activists and Women in Black joined together to protest the Siege of Gaza in downtown Seattle on December 2nd, 2006. Photo by Jewish Voice for Peace (CC BY 2.0 DEED), via Wikimedia Commons.
  2. Hundreds of young Jews with IfNotNow protesting the American Israel Political Action Committee’s 2017 Annual Policy Conference in Washington, DC; March 26, 2017. Photo by IfNotNow (CC BY-SA 4.0 DEED), via Wikimedia Commons.

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