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  • Johnny Gross

On Zionism and Anti-Zionism

Updated: Feb 1

Note: This article was written at the end of 2021, and thus does not address certain happenings in Israel and Palestine that are worth acknowledging here: the assumption of power by Israel’s ultra-nationalist right wing in the nation’s fifth election in four years and, most recently, the Israeli raid on the West Bank that killed nine Palestinians and the shooting at a Jerusalem synagogue that killed seven.

On May 6th of 2021, Palestinians took to the streets in East Jerusalem to protest the Israeli Supreme Court’s imminent eviction of six Palestinian families in Sheikh Jarrah, East Jerusalem. The next day, Israeli forces, responding to rocks flung by protesters at the Temple Mount, stormed the Al-Aqsa Mosque, subduing the protesters with tear gas and stun grenades. Several hundred were injured, the majority of whom were Palestinians. The eviction notice was delayed.

Four days later, Hamas, the militant governing body of Gaza, that for many years called for the destruction of the Jews, issued an ultimatum to Israel: they were to surrender the Al-Aqsa Mosque or suffer the consequences. After Israel’s failure to withdraw forces from the Temple Mount, Hamas, together with the militant group Palestinian Islamic Jihad, launched rockets into Israel, hitting homes and schools, killing 13 and injuring at least 200. Israel responded with overwhelming force, sending airstrikes into Gaza that destroyed dozens of commercial buildings, schools, medical facilities, and damaged a refugee camp. At least 256 Palestinians were killed. 72,000 were displaced. A ceasefire was reached between Israel and Hamas on May 21st.

The events at Sheikh Jarrah reignited what is now a tired, and incorrigible, debate about Israel and Palestine. Such questions as Does Israel value Jewish life and property more than that of Palestinians?, Is Israel an apartheid state?, Does Israel have the right to defend itself against Hamas?, Is Hamas or Israel the primary instigator of such deadly encounters between Israelis and Palestinains? consumed public and political consciousness for the entire month of May. For many, answers to these questions were obvious: Yes, Israel values Jewish life more than Palestinian life, Yes, Israel is an apartheid state. Or, perhaps, Yes, Israel has the right to defend itself and Hamas, not Israel, is solely to blame for the bloodshed. Those that answered in the affirmative to the former two questions were castigated as anti-Semitic by the pro-Israel, anti-Palestinian population, and those that answered in the affirmative to the latter two were labeled racist or Zionist, often synonymously, by the pro-Palestine, anti-Israel population. Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter were aflood with forceful accusations, some well-founded and thoughtfully worded and others more incendiary than anything else. American news media ran the gamut from Bret Stephens’ article “For the Sake of Peace, Israel Must Rout Hamas,” to Bernie Sanders’ “The U.S. Must Stop Being an Apologist for the Netanyahu Government,” to Asia Khatun’s “There’s Nothing Complicated about What’s Happening in Palestine,” to the Boycott Divestment & Sanction (BDS) movement’s article “East Jerusalem: What is happening and how you can take action now,” followed by a blurb that read: “Watching apartheid Israel’s bloody crushing of popular Palestinian protests in Sheikh Jarrah and occupied Jerusalem calls us to action.”

News and social media became a cesspool of highly charged dogmas, a flurry of “Zionism is racism” and “Israel has the right to defend itself,” such that one had to actively mine for meaningful commentary on the conflict—a word admittedly decried by many as not incriminating enough of Israel. I was at once utterly exhausted and unable to look away. Seeing friends add the “I stand with Israel” filter to their Facebook profile picture angered me. Seeing people, mostly white gentiles, post something along the lines of “Zionism is settler-colonialism is racism is genocide” angered me also. I found few others who reacted to both refrains with anger, which is why I have felt compelled for some time now to write down my thoughts.

In short, I believe that Zionism and Israel are not synonymous. Israel as we know it today is only one of many possible iterations of Zionism. I am a Zionist but I do not support Israel in the way it has been realized. I believe that anti-Zionism is anti-Semitic most of the time. But I believe that supporting the Israeli government is often anti-Palestinian. Anti-Zionism is far more sweeping, and unjustifiable, a dogma than anti-Israelism.

Zionism traces its origins to late 19th century Jewish Europe. It was one of many nationalist movements that arose in the 19th century and one of many Jewish political movements that developed in response to violent anti-Semitism. Zionism, born arguably in the small, late 19th century Russian and Eastern European groups Hovevei Zion (Lovers of Zion) and BILU, argued that only the creation of a Jewish homeland could uplift the Jews from the oppressive galut (exile). Although technically preceding the publication of Theodore Herzl’s Der Judenstat (1896) and the First Zionist Congress (1897) by a decade and a half, these two groups were in many ways Zionist, and supplied the bulk of the 35,000 Jews that comprised the First Aliyah: The first of four major waves of Jewish to Palestine or Eretz Yisrael (The Land of Israel). The Jews of Hovevei Zion and BILU that formed the First Aliyah were, in Russia and Eastern Europe, forty years away from emancipation. They were confined to the Pale of Settlement, stripped of most civil freedoms, and regularly pogromed. Between 1881-1884, an estimated 200 anti-Jewish attacks occurred in the Russian Empire. Among these, the Kiev, Warsaw, and Odessa pogroms are most well-known. It is true that the Jews of the First Aliyah left for Palestine, a place which at the time was home to vibrant communities of indigenous Arabs and only a small number of Jews, with the intent of building Jewish settlements. But they also did so to escape death and to return to a biblical, spiritual and religious homeland.

Many who question the fundamental legitimacy of Zionism point to the fact that the Jews were indeed a minority in Palestine before the advent of Zionism. They argue that Zionism represented a systematic attempt to manufacture a Jewish majority out of thin air, and displace the indigenous majority in the process. They also imply that, because Jews were not indigenous to the land of Palestine, they had no right to establish settlements there. This is not entirely true. While European Jewish immigrants to Palestine certainly were not indigenous to the land, it is ahistorical to say that “the Jews” are not indigenous. Yemeni, Mizrahi, Mustaarbi, and Sephardic Jews who stewarded the land for centuries have the same claims to indigeneity as Palestinian Arabs, who have called the land home since the first half of the 19th century. Regardless, even if no Jews on earth could in good faith claim indigeneity to the land of Palestine, why ought that to mean that they had no right to live there? Are all lands exclusively reserved for the indigenous?

I exaggerate a bit. I admit that only very few argue that non-indigenous Jews have no right to live in the land of Palestine. But they do argue that Zionism is illegitimate because it necessitates that the Jews not only settle in Palestine but supplant the indigenous population there. Anti-Zionists invoke the racist quips of Zionism’s most prominent leaders, such as David Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir, so as to once-and-for-all dispel all doubt that the movement is inherently foul, anti-Palestinian. The opening paragraph of an article from the website Decolonize Palestine goes as follows: “The claim that Zionist settlers ‘made the desert bloom’ is one of the most recognizable Israeli talking points, perhaps second only to the ‘land without a people for a people without a land’ slogan. This line is used so often that it has become a rather parodied cliché. But cliché or not, it still endures to this day and is fervently repeated over and over by Israelis and their supporters worldwide.” Jewish Voices for Peace, an anti-Zionist American Jewish organization established in 1996, includes on its website a letter from David ben Gurion to his son in 1937, in which he writes the following: “We shall admit into the state all the Jews we can. We firmly believe that we can admit more than two million Jews. We shall build a multi-faceted Jewish economy - agricultural, industrial, and maritime. We shall organize an advanced defense force - a superior army which I have no doubt will be one of the best armies in the world. At that point I am confident that we would not fail in settling in the remaining parts of the country, through agreement and understanding with our Arab neighbors, or through some other means.” This letter is included in a section on the website about the Nakba, an Arabic word meaning catastrophe, which denotes the ongoing expulsion and flight of indigenous Palestinian Arabs from their land by the Israeli government. The implication is that this letter proves Zionism’s inherent settler-colonialist designs.

Jewish Voices for Peace is right to draw attention to this letter. Decolonize Palestine is right to debunk the myths that Palestine was an unbloomed desert until Europeans arrived. It is true that David Ben-Gurion was racist and anti-Palestinian. It is true that after heading the expulsion of many hundred thousand Palestinians in the War of 1948, he wrote in his diary “We must do everything to insure they (the Palestinians) never do return.” It is true that Golda Meir, the fourth prime minister of Israel often depicted as a benevolent, strong-willed leader of the Jewish people, said in 1969 that “There were no such thing as Palestinians [...] When was there an independent Palestinian people with a Palestinian state? … It was not as though there was a Palestinian people in Palestine considering itself as a Palestinian people and we came and threw them out and took their country away from them. They did not exist.” Racist, anti-Palestinian quotes from the leaders of Israel, past and present, abound. It is true that Israel hid archives that proved that the Zionist army known as the Irgun had designs to forcibly expel Palestinians from their land. All of these things are true. All of them are often denied or explained away by the Israeli government or supporters of Israel. All of them are worth bringing to the fore and fuel an increasingly powerful and necessary pro-Palestine movement. Together they make a strong case that the State of Israel was from the get-go anti-Palestinian.

My bone to pick does not lie here. It lies in the fact that the comments, actions, and ideologies of certain leaders of Israel and the Zionist movement are used to prove the illegitimacy of all facets of Zionism, including perhaps its most central tenet: that Jews have the right to live in the land of Palestine. They also have the right to establish there a Jewish society where Hebrew, Yiddish, Ladino, Judeo-Arabic, Judeo-Tat, Judeo-Malayalam or any other of the countless Jewish languages is the language of the street. They have the right to erect a synagogue on every corner; to close all the shops on the Sabbath; to make the Western Wall into a symbol of Jewish unity and resilience; to welcome the Jews of the world to join them there if they please. The Jews are entitled to this. We were persecuted and libeled; scapegoated and vilified; attacked, pogromed, and murdered. One in three of us died in the Shoah. We are entitled to self-determination and freedom in the land that to many of us is the most potent symbol of our culture and religion. This is what Zionism means to me.

We cannot, in the name of achieving a Jewish society in Zion, kill and expel its indigenous inhabitants. Regrettably, such is how much of the story of the creation of the State of Israel has unfolded. I protest that and support, if not as much as I ought to, efforts to pressure Israel to end its occupation in the West Bank and welcome back the Palestinian refugees kicked out from their land.

This end result is not predetermined in all forms of Zionism. Not all forms of Zionism envisioned a Jewish-majority state in Palestine. Among those ardent Zionists who vociferously denounced the notion of a Jewish-majority Israel were Ahad Ha’am—the father of cultural Zionism—Henrietta Szold, Judah Magnes, Gershem Scholem, and Martin Buber. Magnes, a reform Rabbi from Oakland who was educated at the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati and among the leaders of the progressive Kehillah experiment in New York, moved to Palestine in May of 1923 and immediately began butting heads with the likes of David Ben-Gurion and Chaim Weizmann over the establishment of a Jewish-majority state in Palestine. Magnes was a member of Brit Shalom (Covenant of Peace), an advocacy group that would later be absorbed by a political party known as the Ihud (Union) Association of Palestine in the early 40s that campaigned for a bi-national Arab-Jewish state in Palestine. He protested the infamous Balfour Declaration. He fought against Chaim Weizmann’s attempt to make the Hebrew University of Jerusalem a mouthpiece for mainstream, political Zionists. In a 1925 letter to Ahad Ha’am in which he lamented the invitation of Lord Balfour to the opening of the Hebrew University, Magnes wrote “All that we Jews here have a right to ask is peace, and the open door for our immigrants, and the opportunity without let or hindrance to live our spiritual and cultural life. This is all the Arabs have a right to ask for themselves [...] Our University should be the highest of our spiritual endeavors, preaching peace and practicing it, devoted to the passionate pursuit of truth, to the ideals of righteousness and brotherhood.”

On March 14th, 1946, the Ihud testified before the Anglo-American Inquiry Commission in favor of a bi-national Arab-Jewish State in Palestine. Representing the Ihud were Austrian-Jewish philosopher and professor Martin Buber, farmer and First-Aliyah Zionist settler Moshe Smilansky, and Dr. Magnes, Chairman of the Association. Professor Buber spoke first, elucidating the “roots” of his Zionism. “Judaism,” said Buber “did not simply create another national movement of the European type but a unique one, a ‘Zionism,’ the modern expression of the tendency towards ‘Zion.’” This tendency constituted a longing for the “soil” of Palestine as well as for the resurgence of a Jewish community endowed with the right to self-determination. “It does not, as the greater part of the Jewish people thinks to-day,” clarified Buber, “necessarily lead to the demand for a ‘Jewish State’ or for a ‘Jewish majority.’” By extension, while realizing Zionism depended on a steady flow of Jewish immigration to the land of Palestine, it, according to Buber, “must oust no Arab peasant.”

After Buber’s introductory comments, Magnes said his piece: “This is a land sui generis, a Holy Land for three monotheistic religions. It is, therefore, not just a Jewish land or just an Arab land […] We regard the Arab natural rights and the Jewish historical rights as, under all circumstances, of equal validity. We look upon Palestine as a bi-national Jewish-Arab land.”

The fact that Ben-Gurion’s Zionism triumphed over Magnes’s Zionism is tragic. But it does not mean that Ben-Gurion’s brand is inherently more representative of Zionism than that of Magnes.

It is in light of my belief that Zionism represents “the modern expression of the tendency towards ‘Zion’” and the longing for a Jewish religious and cultural center in Palestine that I react with pain and anger to many aspects of the present-day Anti-Zionism movement. It is difficult to read on the website of Jewish Voices for Peace that “Palestinian dispossession and occupation are by design. Zionism has meant profound trauma for generations, systematically separating Palestinians from their homes, land, and each other. Zionism, in practice, has resulted in massacres of Palestinian people, ancient villages and olive groves destroyed, families who live just a mile away from each other separated by checkpoints and walls, and children holding onto the keys of the homes from which their grandparents were forcibly exiled.”

Zionism is not Israel. Attaching the actions of the Israeli government to the Jewish tendency towards Zion associates the mere presence of Jews in Palestine with violence. It is what leads people like history professor Sherene Seikaly of UC Santa Barbara to claim that we must begin the story of Israel-Palestine in 1917 with the Balfour Declaration. Thus was the Israeli settler-colonial project launched. Thus did the Jewish claim to the land of Palestine begin with the predestined erasure of Palestinians. What of the Jews of the First Aliyah who escaped pogroms in Eastern Europe by the skin of their teeth? What of those that wanted a Jewish homeland in Palestine only if it meant that Arabs were included as equal partners?

The conflation of Zionism and Israel is what leads people, former friends, to say that it is ok, good even, when Jews in Israel are killed by Palestinians because they are occupiers of the land and Palestinians are freedom fighters (to be completely clear, supporters of Israel who claim that Israelis have the right to kill Palestinians in order to defend the Jewish nation equally incite my ire). It paints Jews, at least those who don’t spend all their breath denouncing Israel and especially those who outwardly support the existence of a Jewish center in Palestine, as unbothered by, or perhaps even complicit in, the Israeli government’s dispossession of Palestinians.

It leads people to relate Jews’ role in Zionism to White Americans’ role in White Supremacy. Jews have to actively denounce Zionism to be acceptable members of society just as White Americans are, rightfully, expected to actively denounce White Supremacy. For white Jews, Jewishness becomes not a reason why one might be persecuted, but a factor that enhances your whiteness. As an outspokenly anti-Israel roommate said to me once, not a month after the Tree of Life shooting killed Joyce Fienberg, Richard Gottfried, Rose Mallinger, Jerry Rabinowitz, Cecil Rosenthal, David Rosenthal, Bernice Simon, Sylvan Simon, Daniel Stein, Melvin Wax, and Irving Younger: “White Supremacists love Jews because Jews are white.” When I pushed back he silenced me aggressively before saying, “but I don’t mean to say that anti-Semitism isn’t a thing or anything.”

To some this essay might read as a legitimization of Israel couched in long-winded qualifications. To others it might read as a blasphemous attack on the right of Jews to have a Jewish-majority nation in their historical homeland. For me, it is immensely cathartic and deeply emotional.

While it is of utmost importance to speak up for Palestinians who risk losing their homes and livelihoods to Israeli settlers on a daily basis and who are shot dead in Gaza like clockwork, this essay is for the Jews who long for Zion. It is for the descendants of Holocaust survivors whose relatives escaped the gas chambers only because they found Zion. It is for those who are reminded by grandparents who have forgotten their Jewish tongue that there were once 11,000,000 speakers of Yiddish and now only several hundred thousand; that there were once 3,000,000 Jews in Poland and now fewer than 10,000; that the number of Jews in the world in 2022 is still 1.6 million fewer than it was in 1939.

Vestiges of the lost world of Jews remain because of Zion.

An ailing Jewish world convalesced in Zion.

The Jewish world grows stronger because of Zion.

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