If You Say You Support the Palestinians You Can’t be Neutral on the Racist Ideology that led to the Creation of the Israeli State
Formed in 1996 Jewish Voice for Peace has become the largest single Jewish group advocating for the Palestinians in the world. Indeed it is the largest pro-Palestinian organisation in the United States. Where it has led others, like Ifnnotnow have followed.
JVP has over 70 chapters, hundreds of thousands of online supporters and over 100,000 Jewish signatories. One theme has run through all their actions – what Israel does to the Palestinians is Not in my Name. The Jewish state is not, despite its claims, a State of the Jews.
JVP did not start off as an anti-Zionist organisation. To have done so would have cut it off from an American Jewish community of some 5 million people. Unlike in Britain, the vast majority of American Jews are Liberal, Masorti or Conservative as opposed to Orthodox. Although historically the American Jewish community was the most liberal section of the White community in the USA, supporting the civil rights struggle of Black people, it also supported Israel and turned a blind eye to things which, if they’d occurred in America and to them, they would have been the first to condemn.
Unlike Britain there is a Growing Divorce Between the American Jewish Community and Israel
JVP was the first to raise the question of the American Jewish community’s loyalty to Israel. As in Britain Jews have historically been silenced by memes such as ‘You don’t live in Israel you have no right to criticise what it does’ and of course the classic argument of Zionism that if anti-Semitism ever rears its ugly head then Israel will provide a refuge.
These arguments carry less weight today. If Israel claims to be a state of the Jews, all Jews wherever they live, then it can hardly claim immunity from criticism by Jews. This argument, that people who don’t live in Israel can’t criticise it would not be given the time of day if it had been applied to Apartheid South Africa or Nazi Germany.
Israel has become a topic of both discussion and dissension within America Jewry. Partly this is because of Israel’s own desire for Jewish racial purity. In a state based on race then someone must be the guardian of who is and who is not a member of the chosen race. There must be some ‘objective’ criteria for deciding who does and does not fit in.
Liberal and Conservative Jews are not recognised as fully Jewish and therefore most American Jews live in a no man’s land. All personal matters – birth, marriage, divorce and death – in Israel are controlled by the Orthodox rabbinate. American Jews are Jewish for the purposes of the Law of Return but not for personal matters.
When a neo-Nazi gunman Robert Bowers murdered 11 Jews at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh last October Israel’s Chief Rabbi David Lau refused to even recognise that this was a synagogue. Lau called it ‘a place with a profound Jewish flavour’ as if it was a form of chewing gum.
Robert Bowers had targeted this particular synagogue because they worked together with HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society which helped refugees in the United States. ‘You like to bring in hostile invaders to dwell among us’ This was at the same time as when Donald Trump’s racist invective was at its height attacking the refugee caravan during the Congressional elections. Trump created the atmosphere in which Bowers did his murderous deeds.
It was no therefore surprise that Pittsburgh Jews told Trump to stay away and not to visit them and when he came anyway they demonstrated against his presence. Who accompanied Trump? The Israeli Ambassador Ronald Dermer. Who flew to the USA to defend Trump? The arch-racist Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett.
Shalom Lipner, a former adviser to several Israeli prime ministers, was reported as saying that Bennett’s actions were
‘misguided + irresponsible this is: an Israeli minister coming to Pittsburgh and hitting the campaign trail for Trump one week before the midterms. Israel is already enough of a partisan football in America; why would Bennett want to make the problem worse?’
Liberal Zionist columnist Peter Beinart tweeted, “Yes, antisemites don’t ask if you’re Orthodox, Conservative or Reform. How about the Israeli government?”
This is the atmosphere in which JVP organises. There is severe disagreement in the American Jewish community over its relations with Israel. Netanyahu is reported to have written off the American Jewish community altogether.
Two years ago JVP set up a working party to draw up a statement on Zionism. They have now reported and issued a statement. They declare that:
‘Jewish Voice for Peace is guided by a vision of justice, equality and freedom for all people. We unequivocally oppose Zionism because it is counter to those ideals.’
The statement explains that when it was first formed
‘JVP made a conscious choice as an organization to abstain from taking a position on Zionism, because we felt it closed off conversation in the Jewish community.’
JVP’s decision to now describe itself as anti-Zionist is an important one. It should serve as an example to British Jewish groups such as Jews for Justice for Palestinians which has steadfastly refused to adopt any position on Zionism and has instead stuck to an outdated and incoherent 2 State position that accepts a racist Israeli state. Jewish Voice for Labour, although most of its members are anti-Zionist has likewise adopted a position that says it will take no position on Zionism. Palestine Solidarity Campaign although formally anti-Zionist in practice says nothing at all about Zionism.
Why the Question of Zionism is important
There is one thing that Zionists hate above all and that is discussing Zionism. The Jewish Labour Movement campaigned against what it saw as the use of the term Zionism as a word of abuse. A position endorsed by the Labour Party’s Chakrabarti Report.
Why then is it important to understand and to oppose Zionism? First and foremost because Zionism is the political movement that gave birth to the Israeli State. Zionism is the ideology of the Israeli state.
If you don’t understand Zionism then you won’t understand why Israel is a uniquely ethno nationalist state. You won't understand why it behaves as it does. Instead of dealing with the Israeli state as a political problem Israel will be seen as amenable to a 'peace process' and diplomacy. Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians will be seen as primarily one of human rights and not a consequence of settler colonialism.
If you don’t understand and oppose Zionism and see how it is antipathetic to Jewish people and how it internalised everything anti-Semitism said about Jews then people will see Israel as a normal bourgeois democratic state that has gone off the rails. Without an understanding of Zionism people see Israel as a Jewish state no different from Britain as a Christian state. From there it is but one step to seeing Israel as the embodiment of Jewishness, which is the approach of anti-Semites like Gilad Atzmon.
Anti-Zionism is the cure for Anti-Semitism
Anti-Zionism, contrary to what is alleged, is the cure for anti-Semitism. Instead of blaming Israel on the Jews, anti-Zionism enables people to understand the racist and imperial roots of Zionist colonisation and settler colonialism. Israel is seen as a state that does the bidding of western imperialism rather than a Jewish collectivity.
That is why the Zionist cliché that anti-Zionism = anti-Semitism is an Orwellian lie that doesn’t become true by repetition. When world leaders such as Justin Trudea or Emmanuel Macron repeat this lie it is because they wish to demonise opposition to western imperialism.
When people don’t have an understanding of where Israel has come from and why, then they look to conspiracy theories about Jewish power or the Rothschild bankers. It is the demonization of anti-Zionism that leads to anti-Semitism. Today as yesterday, virtually all anti-Semites are also supporters of Zionism. From Christian Zionists to White Supremacists there is wall to wall agreement on support for Zionism. As Orly Azoulay put it in Israel’s YNet
‘The Jewish right in America and in Israel is no longer afraid of the ‘old anti-Semitism,’ yet progressive Jews are being defined as accomplices of Israel’s haters. As a result, Israel’s relationship with America’s Jews is becoming increasingly explosive.’
For example the Zionist Organisation of America invited Trump’s anti-Semitic adviser Steve Bannon as a guest speaker at its annual gala dinner in 2017 and 2018. John Hagee, the President of the million strong Christian United for Israel, who preached that Hitler was god’s agent sent to drive the Jews to Israel, presided at the opening of the US embassy in Jerusalem.
JVP have recognised that if you are going to support the Palestinians then you have to take a position, not merely on this or that aspect of Israeli policies but on the nature of the state itself and the movement that gave birth to it.
I have disagreements with aspects of the statement. For example I think they are wrong to talk about different strands of Zionism and equate ‘Cultural Zionism’ (which was confined to about a dozen supporters) with Political Zionism and also not to see that Religious Zionism was an offshoot of the latter. I note that they don’t even mention Labour or Socialist Zionism, quite correctly in my opinion.
Also I think JVP are wrong not to openly come out and say that Zionism is a form of racism. I also think JVP are wrong to describe Zionism as ‘a form of Jewish nationalism’. This presupposes that the Jews are a nation, an anti-Semitic idea. Zionism was a nationalist movement, amongst Jews and non-Jews. In much the same way as Nazism and similar racist movements in Poland, Romania and Hungary were nationalist. However Zionism wasn’t a movement of a Jewish nation. I make a sharp difference between nationalism and a nationalist movement.
I disagree with the formulation that
‘“Anti-Zionism” is a loose term referring to criticism of the current policies of the Israeli state, and/or moral, ethical, or religious criticism of the idea of a Jewish nation-state.’
Anti-Zionism is a critique, not of particular policies of the Israeli government but the State itself. A Jewish State is inherently racist in a settler colonial context. But these are mere quibbles. JVP accepts that Israel is a settler colonial state and an Apartheid State. More importantly than both it describes itself as anti-Zionist. All I can say to this is Mazel Tov. Let us hope that British Jewish groups in support of the Palestinians have the courage of their convictions and realise that temporising will not gain them either support or friends. Below is the JVP statement:
What is Zionism? Where did it come from?
Zionism is a form of Jewish nationalism, and is the primary ideology that drove the establishment of Israel. Zionism began in the late 19th century in the context of a set of huge changes in political, cultural, social landscape of Jewish life in Europe, along with the general rise of nationalist movements and nation-state political forms. For Jews in Europe, this meant a sharp rise in violent antisemitism. Jewish people – even though they had lived in Europe for centuries – were fundamentally excluded from the ways European nations defined themselves. This resulted in violent, targeted, anti-Jewish massacres in Russia, known as pogroms; the development of anti-Jewish conspiracy theories like Protocols of the Elders of Zion; and the re-emergence of older antisemitic tropes, like blood libels, which claim that Jewish people use the blood of Christian children in rituals.
Some Jewish people responded to this antisemitism by attempting to assimilate into the European countries they lived in; this often proved impossible. Many Jewish people – over 2.5 million – left as refugees, coming to the United States or other parts of Europe. Others, most famously the Bund, rejected the concept of nationalism altogether or turned to revolutionary socialism. And some, notably Theodore Herzl, often seen as the founder of Zionism, thought that Jews themselves constituted a separate people, and should therefore have a state of their own. Herzl and other early Zionist thinkers were also very influenced by European settler colonial thinking, often explicitly making the case that a Jewish state in Palestine would be a European colony similar to the British presence in India.
It is important to note that people who consider themselves Zionist have different interpretations of what that label means in the present political moment, to them personally, and historically. Moreover, over time, multiple strains of Zionism have emerged, including political Zionism, religious Zionism, and cultural Zionism.
- Political: When people refer to “Zionism” today, this is often what they mean. Founded by 19th Century thinker Theodore Herzl, it sees the “Jewish problem” as having a solution in a “Jewish state.” As nationalism rose in Europe, many, including Herzl, saw Jews as outsiders to the nation, unable or unwilling to assimilate or be fully accepted as members of the nation-state. According to Herzl, this “problem” should be solved by a community of nations by establishing a Jewish state in Palestine.
- Religious: Many, but not all, forms of Zionism have their roots in theological interpretations. It is important to note that this form of Zionism is not exclusive to Jewish religious traditions. For example, some evangelical Christian denominations believe that in order to facilitate the second coming of Christ, Jews must “gather” in Israel as part of Biblical prophecy.
- Cultural: Most often attributed to Herzl’s contemporary, Ahad Ha’am (Asher Ginsberg), this form of Zionism called for a spiritual and cultural center for Jewish people in Palestine, but not for a “Jewish state” in the same way Herzl did. Instead, this form of Zionism calls for Jews to share a national language and culture.
The political ideology of Zionism, regardless of which strain, has resulted in the establishment of a Jewish nation-state in the land of historic Palestine. In 1948, 750,000 Palestinians were expelled as part of that process, their homes and property confiscated. Despite recognition of their rights by the United Nations, their rights to return and be compensated have long been denied by the US and Israel. In 1967, Israel occupied what is now known as the Occupied Palestinian Territories, putting millions of people under military rule. Longstanding systemic inequalities privilege Jews over Palestinians inside Israel and in the Occupied Territories.
For more, please see this speech by former JVP Deputy Director Cecilie Surasky, “Settler colonialism, white supremacy, and the ‘special relationship’ between the U.S. and Israel”
What is anti-Zionism?
“Anti-Zionism” is a loose term referring to criticism of the current policies of the Israeli state, and/or moral, ethical, or religious criticism of the idea of a Jewish nation-state. There has been debate, criticism and opposition to Zionism within Jewish thought for as long as it has existed. Jewish anti-Zionists span a political and religious spectrum, from religious and secular progressives who view opposition to Zionism as an anti-racist praxis, to ultra-Orthodox Jews who oppose Jewish dominion until the time of the Messiah, to anarchist Jews who oppose the very concept of nation-states, Jewish or otherwise. There are also many non-Jewish anti-Zionists whose perspectives may be informed by moral criticism of the policies of the Israeli government, problems with the impact of Zionist thinking in Israel on non-Jewish residents, and/or a criticism of ethno-nationalism more broadly. Many Palestinians take anti-Zionist positions or identify as anti-Zionist because of the current and historical practices of the Israeli state.
Criticism of Zionism is not to be conflated with antisemitism. States such as Israel and the United States are openly criticized in public life, and their political beliefs and policies are subject to critical debate, in accord with our basic First Amendment rights.
For more on the history of Jewish alternatives to Zionism, please see this blog post by former JVP staffer Ben Lorber.
For more on the problems of conflating antisemitism with anti-Zionism, please see this op-ed by NY Times columnist Michelle Goldberg.
For more on criticisms of Zionism, please see these excerpts from “Zionism from the Standpoint of its Victims” by Edward Said.
Why and how did we clarify our position on Zionism?
At its founding, JVP made a conscious choice as an organization to abstain from taking a position on Zionism, because we felt it closed off conversation in the Jewish community. Palestinian partners had long theorized Zionism as the root cause of the Palestinian condition, and more and more of our members not only agreed, but understood Zionism as damaging to Jewish identity and spiritual life. In 2014, it became clear that we needed to clarify our position in order to effectively continue doing our work.
We started by creating a committee through an application process that was purposely designed to represent the breadth of JVP membership. This group of staff, members and board met regularly over the course of two years to design a curriculum on Zionism. Over 700 members attended the webinars presenting the curriculum, and throughout the process, chapters met and discussed the ways JVP’s approach to Zionism impacted their work locally and nationally.
In addition, we held conversations about Zionism at the 2017 National Member Meeting, surveyed individuals who attended the webinars, and had our constituency groups – including Rabbis, artists, and students – hold independent discussions on Zionism, notes of which were shared with the JVP board.
We also gathered feedback from JVP staff, Palestinian members, activists and thinkers, along with feedback from Jewish people of color and Sephardi & Mizrahi Jews.
The board met over the summer and fall of 2018 to draft and finalize this statement.
What do you see as the harms of Zionism against Jewish people? Isn’t Zionism a movement for Jewish self-determination?
While Zionism is often referred to as a movement of “Jewish self-determination,” the Zionist movement defined this term in a narrow political sense, rejecting the diaspora as inherently toxic and unhealthy for Jews. The Classical Zionist concept known as shlilat hagalut (“negation of the diaspora”), demeaned centuries of a rich Jewish spiritual and cultural history – often to the point of using anti-Semitic imagery. For instance, famed Zionist journalist/ writer Micah Josef Berdichevsky claimed diaspora Jews were “not a nation, not a people and not human.” Hebrew literary icon Yosef Hayyim Brenner called them “gypsies, filthy dogs and inhuman,” while Labor Zionist AD Gordon referred to diaspora Jews as “a parasitic people.”
Zionism, as a political ideology and as a movement, has always hierarchized Jews based on ethnicity and race, and has not equally benefited or been liberatory for all Jewish people in Israel. Zionism is and was an Ashkenazi-led movement that othered, marginalized and discriminated against Jews from across the Middle East and North Africa that it termed Mizrahim (the ‘Eastern Ones’).
In the early 1950s, starting two years after the Nakba, the Israeli government facilitated a mass immigration of Mizrahim. Unlike their Ashkenazi counterparts, the new Mizrahi immigrants were not permitted to settle in the central cities or live in housing they could eventually come to own. Instead, the Israeli police were deployed to compel Mizrahi immigrants to remain in the transient camps and later development towns in Israel’s periphery, as a means to expand the state territory and prevent Palestinian return. During the 1950s Mizrahi immigrants were also subject to medical experimentation facilitated or performed by the Israeli government, and several thousand babies and toddlers were forcibly taken from their parents by the Israeli government. These children, two thirds Yemeni and a third from Tunisian, Moroccan, Libyan, Iraqi and Balkan families, were taken by physicians and social workers and given up for adoption by Ashkenazi families.
From the first waves of immigration in the 1980s, Ethiopian Jews have experienced racism on the part of the government and the Israeli public, exclusion from the public sphere, discrimination in education and employment, and exposure to physical and verbal violence. They also remain unrecognized as Jews by the Israeli religious establishment and religious councils because of racial prejudice. Ethiopian mobilization for racial justice consolidated since 2015 has called for an end to institutional discrimination, police harassment, arrests without cause, false accusations and indictments about assaulting police officers, and the denial of due process, all of which have long been experienced by the Ethiopian community.
For more, please see “Zionism from the Standpoint of its Jewish Victims” by Ella Shohat, and “They didn’t want Ethiopian Jews in Israel, either” by Efrat Yerday.