Making Space for Jewish Liberation
I ventured to a Greenwich comedy club in late May, and it didn’t disappoint. For 2 hours, comedians performed material they’d surely been working on for quite a while. One comic in particular, though, captured my attention.
He was a heavyset, 30-something Jewish guy. His Judaism was only implicit for the first ten of his fifteen-minute set. (You can only hear “oy” so many times before doubt about one’s religion dissipates). But the real giveaway? He started those final five minutes with “So I’m Jewish…and all I know about Israel is that it’s where I kissed a girl for the first time when I was a teenager.”
This show, mind you, was about two weeks after the start of the most recent slew of violence in Israel and Palestine, and only shortly after both sides reached a ceasefire. The dust hadn’t yet settled. People were still reading, speaking, thinking, and posting about the conflict. So the response to the comic’s joke was…awkward.
Some people laughed, some chuckled, and everyone else seemed either too irate or too uncomfortable to make a sound. I thought the comic was funny, to be sure. But what I found most fascinating was the narrow space he had to speak about the conflict. He couldn’t – or wouldn’t – address anything substantive. Instead, he resorted to self-deprecation. The subject about which he spoke was simply too contentious.
This sort of political claustrophobia has become all too common recently. I often feel it. Countless Jewish friends of mine feel it, too. But dealing with it is a very tricky proposition.
I say this as someone who believes in Jewish liberation, meaning I believe the Jewish people should have the right to self-determination in their ancestral homeland. But I also say this as someone who condemns violence against innocent people and policies of forced eviction. I despise all systems of degradation, such as those that restrict movement and prevent political autonomy. And I certainly denounce those who employ religious justifications for these actions. If you know anything about Israel, you likely know where I’m going with this. I – like many other Jews – am caught at a crossroads. On one hand, I can’t support many of the ways in which Israel attempted to actualize Jewish self-determination, as well as many of its policies. But on the other hand, I’m a Jewish liberationist.
In May, these priorities of mine clashed, and I felt powerless. It’s one thing for American Jews like myself to criticize Israel in American climates supportive of the Jewish state. But to criticize Israel in America’s anti-Zionist circles is another thing altogether. May was the first time I had to do just that. And I don’t use the words “had to” lightly. Whenever there’s a fine line between excusing Israel’s actions and preserving Jewish history, Jewish liberationists must walk it. So when many of May’s condemnations of Israel also sought to deny the Jewish people’s historic tie to the land, I couldn’t join in.
A (somewhat brief) history of Israel, the Jewish diaspora, and Zionism
So what exactly is the Jewish tie to the land? The Jews’ relationship to present-day Israel and Palestine dates back to the 11th century BC, when the kingdoms of Israel were established. For a thousand years, the Jews planted their indigenous roots, centering life around the Holy Temple – the most important site in all of Judaism. (According to Jewish tradition, the Temple contained the Ark of the Covenant, which held the stone tablets on which God redacted the Ten Commandments). Jews living in the Kingdoms were subject to three major invasions and subsequent exiles. First came the Assyrians in 722 BC, followed by the Babylonians in 586 BC. The Jews were later permitted to return, allowing them to recover their political autonomy and rebuild the Holy Temple, which the Babylonians had destroyed. However, in 73 AD, the Romans conquered Jerusalem, taking autonomy out of the hands of Jews in the land until 1948, when the State of Israel was founded. Because of this, Jewish liberationists find it inconceivable to start describing the conflict at (or anytime shortly before) 1948. We must start no later than the Roman invasion.
The Romans destroyed the Second Holy Temple (the most sacred site in all of Judaism, on the remains of which al-Aqsa mosque would later be built), slaughtered countless Jews, transported many to Rome as slaves, and forced others into exile. As the Roman Empire began to disintegrate, Rome’s enslaved Jews later left for other areas in Europe. Those who fled to the Iberian Peninsula later became known as the Sephardim, and those who fled to present-day Germany later became known as the Ashkenazim. Together, the Sephardim and Ashkenazim joined the Mizrahim (Jews who had already fled to other areas of the Middle East and North Africa, due to either the Roman invasion or previous invasions), as well as other African Jewish groups (such as the Ethiopian and the Igbo Jews) as the constituents of the Jewish diaspora.
And even despite the Roman invasion, Jews in the diaspora never constituted all of world Jewry. The Jews have managed to continuously sustain their presence in the land to the present day, first by secretly setting up synagogues during the Roman occupation, and later by living at the mercy of the land’s countless colonial overlords. After the Romans came the Byzantines, the Umayyads, the Abbasids, the Crusaders, the Ayyubids, the Mamluks, the Ottomans, and, finally, the British. The Jewish people have continuously lived in the land through it all.
At the time of its destruction by the Romans, Jerusalem had served as the center of Jewish life for over a thousand years. It existed in what was then called Judea, which is where the Jews’ name derives. But in order to minimize the Jews’ ties to Judea, the Romans renamed the territory Palestinia. Many scholars believe Judea’s new name – which stems from the Hebrew word plishtim, meaning invaders – commemorated earlier Philistine violence against the Jewish people.
The Jewish diaspora that resulted from the Romans’ sack of Jerusalem eventually created the differences in physical appearance we observe amongst Jews today. I am an Ashkenazi Jew, meaning my more recent ancestry is eastern European. But the only thing that differentiates me from my Mizrahi counterparts, for example, is simply more European admixture. As a result, the “white” genomes of Ashkenazi Jews contain Middle Eastern DNA. (Although genetics should under no circumstances form the basis of political rights, this fact has nonetheless been documented time after time in the scientific record.)
All of this makes the Israeli-Palestinian conflict even more difficult for many to grasp. Absent from much of the discussion of Israel as a settler-colonial state is the notion that even the whitest of Israel’s Ashkenazi Jews – aesthetically “colonial” in the eyes of many – are still indigenous to the land. In fact, their whiteness is a direct product of imperialism. In other words, had my ancestors not been enslaved and exiled in Europe, my skin would be as brown as that of a Mizrahi Jew. This is not to suggest that Ashkenazi Jews, both in Israel and in the diaspora, have not experienced the material benefits of whiteness. But to implicitly connect our whiteness to that of notable European colonists (e.g. British colonists in America) is simultaneously deeply insulting and ahistorical. Additionally absent from our discourse is the fact that over half of the Jews in Israel are people of color. This fact doesn’t cohere with the general image of Jews as historically marginalized but nonetheless white.
By the late 1800s, the Jews – vastly outnumbered by their Christian and Muslim counterparts – had lived for nearly 2,000 years at the mercy of ruthless empires, mass-murdering religious fanatics, and ethno-supremacist regimes. At best, during certain stretches in places like Poland and the Ottoman empire, they experienced second-class citizenship. At worst, they were perpetually slaughtered during periods like the Spanish Inquisition and the Russian and Algerian pogroms. One of the countless regions wherein antisemitism ran rampant was the French Third Republic, the place where Theodor Herzl, the founder of the modern Zionist movement, spent much of his professional life as a journalist. Herzl – like all Jews in the diaspora – was the product of displacement. He witnessed constant antisemitism throughout his life, including the famous Dreyfus Affair, all of which prompted him to articulate a vision of Jewish liberation, Zionism, which eventually sought to return the Jewish people to their ancestral homeland.
It’s important to note that Zionism was not the first Jewish liberation movement. Many were attempted between the Roman invasion and the creation of Israel. It just so happens that Zionism was the only one to achieve “success” in the narrow sense that it resulted in Israel’s creation. In doing so, Zionism afforded refuge and political autonomy to the Jewish people.
In 1897, the First Zionist Congress met in Basel, Switzerland to discuss ways of achieving the Zionist agenda. Countless delegates to the convention were raised similarly to Herzl. They were secular (a product of assimilation) and more concerned about Jewish safety in general than Jewish safety in Palestine. They were raised in climates wherein colonization – not self-determination – was the international legal norm for land acquisition. All of these factors led many early Zionist leaders to discuss their options (and later actualize their agenda) in ways we would now condemn.
Herzl, who personally detested the colonization of Africa, offered temporarily colonizing Uganda as a solution to protecting Russian Jews in imminent danger. The simple adage “two wrongs don’t make a right” applies here. That people like Herzl seriously considered protecting Jews by encroaching on Ugandan land – even temporarily – must be condemned. This approach to addressing Jews’ struggles is not unique to Herzl. The Jewish Colonization Association, which formally sought to resettle endangered Jews in places of refuge, began in the late 19th century. While the Association first attempted to create Jewish enclaves within preexisting nations, it shifted its focus solely to Israel by the 1950s.
Israel by that point had been formed largely through the leadership of two of its founders: David Ben Gurion, its first Prime Minister, and Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the father of right-wing Israeli politics. Ben Gurion, whose left-wing coalition controlled the first thirty years of Israeli politics, directly advocated for an expansionist Israel that “transferred” (i.e. expelled) the Arab population. Jabotinsky famously described Israel in colonial terms in his 1923 “Iron Wall” essay, which argued that the future Israeli state had to contain a Jewish majority, and that conflict between the Zionists and the Palestinian Muslim leadership was therefore inevitable.
Israel actualized these visions. From the 1948 Israeli War of Independence to today, over 80,000 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli forces. Additionally, the War for Independence and the Six-Day War in 1967 created over 1.1 million Palestinian refugees, who together with their descendants now number over 5 million.
These are merely a couple of notable examples affirming that Zionism was, at least in the eyes of some of its early leaders, colonial. No, not all Zionists shared its most destructive aims. Yes, we can understand the constant fear people like Herzl and Ben Gurion must have felt in an era of such substantial anti-Jewish violence. And most importantly, we must acknowledge the distinction between the diasporic Jews’ return to their homeland and other colonial entities’ pillaging of lands with which they had no previous tie. It is true that without Zionism, countless Jews would have continued to live unbearable lives in the diaspora. They would have remained alienated from their homeland, unable to practice their faith freely and openly, and subject to genocide and ethnic cleansing. But all political movements – even ones that seek safety for marginalized people – must be held accountable for any harm they bring about. And it is also true that had Zionism never come about, millions of Palestinians would still have their homes, livelihoods, and lives.
As a Jew, I’m incredibly thankful that Zionism created a nation to protect our small community. But as a Jew who seeks prosperity for all, I wish Zionism had taken a different form. I wish the first successful Jewish liberation movement was one of peace, not violence and displacement. If we could have waved a magic wand at the turn of the twentieth century, I wish all of the region’s religious communities could have made Palestine a sustainable place of refuge for the Jewish people. I wish that together they would have created a society that shunned its history of colonial rule and afforded political autonomy to all its people. I wish that together they would have come to live in peace and prosperity. But that simply didn’t happen, and yearning for a history that never was does not solve our contemporary problems.
Here I anticipate objections from many of Israel’s supporters, namely that “peace could have happened had the Palestinians not done X” or “had neighboring Arab countries not done Y.” I hear you. If only to prevent unnecessary bloodshed, I, too, wish the Palestinians hadn’t rejected the 1948 UN partition plan that Israel accepted. I, too, wish neighboring Arab nations more widely appreciated Jewish Indigeneity to Judea. And of course I condemn terrorism and totalitarianism of the sort perpetrated by Hamas and championed by the Palestinian Authority. But facts are facts. Despite the fact that Jews have retained a consistent presence in the land for over 3,000 years, as well as the fact that Jews before 1948 lived in a state of perpetual fear and uncertainty, Jewish Zionists from the diaspora, together with the Jews who were already living in Palestine, regained control of the region from a people not responsible for taking it from them in the first place.
What I’ve laid out undergirds the problems at hand. Jewish liberationists recognize present-day Israel as the ancestral homeland of the Jewish people, and we believe Jews have a right to self-determination there. But our desire to protect that self-determination is today threatened by two critical problems. I’ve already described the first: the only Jewish liberation movement to ever attain success is Zionism, whose negative externalities speak for themselves. But the second problem is that many who think they are solely critical of Zionism often affront Jewish liberation as a whole.
In essence, Jewish liberationists face a generational problem. Many of today’s conversations about the conflict deny us the space to discuss these matters productively. Our popular and academic discourse on this topic often denies Jewish Indigeneity, making Jewish liberationists as useful to the dialogue as the comedian.
Consider the social media posts that became popular in the wake of the Sheikh Jarrah evictions. So much of the time, they were non-starters for Jewish liberationists. Consider the offensive information embedded in these two popular infographics:
I cannot condone these posts, despite the fact that they clearly care for Palestinian suffering. The posts simply contain too many false and antisemitic narratives. The first graphic claims that the Palestinians are “the native population,” which amounts to a denial of Jewish Indigeneity. It also claims that Jewish Israelis are part of a “new society,” rather than one that has stayed intact for thousands of years despite perpetual alienation from its homeland. Finally, the suggestion that Israel “isn’t a country” by virtue of the manner in which it was founded is inherently antisemitic. Even if I believed (ahistorically and antisemitically) that Israel’s founding was identical to Canada’s, for example, wherein European colonists conquered land to which they had no previous tie, I would still grant that Israel is a country. I would do so because Canada is a country, and if all countries created through conquest are now not to be considered countries, we’d have substantially fewer countries in the world. We must remedy the legacies of colonialism and imperialism. But as a Jewish liberationist, it becomes far harder to do so when the sole Jewish state is held to its own standard.
The second graphic is far more antisemitic. For starters, only within the past decade has Israel managed to unearth natural gas. (For the bulk of its existence, Israel almost exclusively imported oil from other nations because it had so little of its own). So to claim that the Jews merely desire to exploit the land’s (until recently nonexistent) oil, and to insist that Jewish moneyed interests (the Rothschilds) oversee this project, contributes to the ages-old antisemitic trope of Jews controlling the global financial and media apparatuses. Even more disgustingly, the post denies the fact that the land is important to Jews because it is our ancestral homeland. The land is where all of our most treasured sites are located, and where all of our ancestors came from.
Jewish liberationists must condemn Israel’s violent past and present, but we can only do so while retaining our commitment to Jewish liberation. Posts like these do not care for Jewish liberation. The rejection of Jewish Indigeneity is their underlying premise.
And to those wondering the degree of seriousness with which we should look at posts like this, I have two responses. First, I’ve witnessed with my own eyes people – typically non-Jewish, non-Muslim, white, Western progressives – “learn” about the conflict through these sorts of posts. Social media has tremendous sway over belief in this day and age. But even if nobody took these posts seriously, it isn’t only the social media activist community perpetrating antisemitic misinformation about this topic. Just consider this statement released by Yale University’s Department of Ethnicity, Race, and Migration.
One need look no further than the first sentence to understand the problem. The Palestinians are the Indigenous population. And Israel is expropriating their land. I want nothing more than to echo many of the later points expressed in the statement. But I cannot. Doing so would directly contradict the clear and indisputable history of my people. Echoing language by professors who deny Jewish Indigeneity would accomplish just that.
Towards the future
I’ve already discussed the barriers to progress posed by Israel’s detractors. But to put it simply: far too many fight for Indigenous peoples’ rights unless they pertain to the Jewish people. Far too many also seek to reverse the legacies of racial supremacy while refusing to acknowledge the pain and suffering that caused Jewish racial differences in the first place. This refusal is, ironically, “colorblind.” If the purpose of upholding race as a relevant category is to come to grips with the legacies of racist ideas, structures, and individuals, Jews – and their many colors – should serve as an influential case study. But instead, Israeli Jews are too often dismissed merely as white colonizers, and the legacy of Jewish racialization has fallen by the wayside.
Additionally, too many of Israel’s sympathizers refuse to speak honestly about Israel. Their logic goes something like this. “Israel won the wars in 1948, 1967, and 1973. History is told by the victors. Therefore, as the victor, Israel has a ‘right’ to live in peace and harmony, no matter the cost.” There’s something deeply cynical about this worldview. In many respects, to be Jewish is to have an inferiority complex. Our history of unthinkable oppression informs the way we see power. But Israel’s most ardent supporters too often forget that our history of oppression must also inform the ways we wield power now that Israel has it. This “might is right” mentality will destroy the aims of Jewish liberation. We must put an end to it.
If you came to this piece skeptical of Zionism, I hope I’ve at least clarified why Israel is so important to countless Jews. It is our homeland, and too many don’t seem to recognize that. The Jews are a tiny people who number 15 million globally, dwarfed by Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, and Buddhism. The only world without Israel we’ve known for the past 2,000 years is one marked by constant fear. For so many Jews, Jewish self-determination is all that stands between us and a return to that fear.
But why, you might still be wondering, am I concerned about Jewish liberation? After all, Israel exists, its Jews have political autonomy, and non-Israeli Jews are eligible for the same. It’s therefore easy to see how Jewish liberation doesn’t seem to be threatened. But if you speak to Jews in the diaspora about the conflict, they’ll likely note that antisemitism and political uncertainty attend seemingly every instance of Israeli aggression, as if all Jews are responsible for the actions of a small few. If you speak to Israeli Jews, they’ll likely mention the trauma that accompanies the daily threat of rocket fire. From my vantage point, the status quo is clearly untenable for both Israelis and Palestinians in the long term. So what makes you think Jews have achieved liberation?
Israelis, Palestinians, Jews, and Muslims alike have spoken over each other for far too long. We’ve seen the other as the villain in our own stories. We’ve refused to look into each other’s eyes with the desire to see the other’s struggle as our own. In reality, though, we are cousin populations whose histories of oppression have been continuously weaponized against each other, most notably by the post-World-War-I British colonizers. Neither population is going anywhere. Nor should they. As a result, our own dreams and aspirations will not be attained without attaining as much for each other. It is up to us to ensure no government – including and especially that of Israel – denies freedom, dignity, and justice to those who wish to live in the land.
We should all be Jewish liberationists. Embedded in the fight for Jewish liberation should be the fight for Palestinian liberation, the fight against colonialism, the fight against bigotry of all forms, and an agenda of peace. I’m confident that our generation will overcome the constraints of our own narratives and transform the land into a bastion of peace and prosperity.
Ryan Bronston (22+1) is an EP&E major from Houston, TX. He is interested in ideological polarization and moral psychology, and he hopes to write regularly on those topics this upcoming year while performing with the Whiffenpoofs. You can find this and other articles at ryanbronston.substack.com.