An Israeli soldier keeps guard near a Palestinian woman standing next to Star of David graffiti sprayed by Israeli settlers at an Army checkpoint in the center of Hebron. May 18, 2009 (Photo: Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images)
Zionism has not yet murdered Judaism but it has undermined its moral and historical integrity. By intentionally fanning antisemitism, Israel is a major contributor to Jewish insecurity.
If we take the straightforward dictionary definition of antisemitism rather than the tendentious IHRA one, we find that Zionism itself exhibits signs of anti-Jewish ideology.
Merriam-Webster defines antisemitism as “hostility toward or discrimination against Jews as a religious, ethnic, or racial group.” On this score, Zionism minced no words. In its foundational doctrine “the negation of the Exile,” Zionism, of course, did not discriminate per se against Jews as a religious, ethnic or racial group. It did, however, express hostility towards them, particularly in its devalorization of Jewish life and culture abroad over the past two millennia – often encapsulated in the dismissal and ridicule of “galut (exilic) mentality.” While targeting Jewish communities for the purpose of recruiting them to its settler project, Zionism repudiated them, denying their very validity, akin to conceptually eliminating the Palestinians as “natives” with no national existence or rights. It did so by defining Jews exclusively as a national group, a claim that annulled Jewish ethnicity, Jews’ ability to live among other peoples, and refashioned Jewish religion as an organ of the state – “Constantinian Judaism” as the anti-Zionist theologian Marc Ellis puts it. (Neither Diaspora Jews nor Zionists ever claimed that Jews are a race.)
Negation of the Exile
“Negation of the Exile” began as an assertion that Jewish life in the “Diaspora” was untenable, either in terms of the persecution generated by one nation inhabiting the lands of other nations and its opposite, the existential danger of assimilation, or both, as in the US today. If diasporic Jews would only grasp the fact of Exile, they would see themselves in their proper historical and political light: as proto-Israelis whose life abroad is ephemeral and can only be redeemed by settlement in the national and spiritual center of the Jewish nation, the Land – and State – of Israel. In this view Jews had become parasitic on other peoples. As the early Zionist ideologue A.D. Gordon put it: “We are a parasitic people. We have no roots in the soil, there is no ground beneath our feet. And we are parasites not only in an economic sense, but in spirit, in thought, in poetry, in literature, and in our virtues, our ideals, our higher human aspirations. Every alien movement sweeps us along, every wind in the world carries us. We in ourselves are almost non-existent, so of course we are nothing in the eyes of other people either.” This view of Jews as a parasitic people resembles, the Israeli historian Zeev Sternhell notes in his book, The Founding Myths of Zionism, modern European antisemitism. Indeed, Sternhell observes (p. 49), “A hatred of the diaspora and a rejection of Jewish life there were a kind of methodological necessity for Zionism…. Not only was Jewish history in exile deemed to be unimportant, but the value of living Jews, Jews of flesh and blood, depended entirely on their use as raw material for national revival.”
Zionism released a dynamic, the nationalization of Judaism, that may have superseded Jewish life in the Exile in Zionism’s own eyes but has led to the division of Jews into two ever more distinct peoples: Israeli Jews and Jews living abroad.
While insisting that it alone represented Judaism in its “true” national form, Zionism also resembled Christian supersessionism by claiming Jewish nationalism superseded diasporic Jewry. Indeed, Zionism released a dynamic, the nationalization of Judaism, that may have superseded Jewish life in the Exile in Zionism’s own eyes but has led to the division of Jews into two ever more distinct peoples: Israeli Jews and Jews living abroad, many of them even rejecting the label “diasporic,” which only feeds into the proposition that they are living outside of the actual center of their lives, Israel.
Fundamental to this division is the very different conceptual basis of their collective lives. Since the beginning of the Enlightenment in the late 18th Century, which gave rise to its Jewish version, the Haskala, European Jews steadily abandoned religion in favor of integration into the secular life of the countries in which they lived. That process has culminated in the United States, home to the largest and most influential Jewish community outside of Israel, where, according to a Pew poll, only 19% attend religious services once a week, the other 80% seldom or never. But religion nonetheless plays a key role in Jewish identity by informing it with a worldview, a set of values based on historical and religious “traditions” and experiences, albeit mixed with other sources: participation in a pluralistic society, a high level of education, the prevalence of secularism in modern life, experiences with injustice (from the memory of the Holocaust to the wide struggle for civil rights), and more.
American Jews (except for the 10% who are ultra- or modern orthodox), I would argue, draw the Jewish part of their worldview from the Prophets and those sources that flow out of the Prophetic tradition. They are largely defined by social justice, a commitment to civil and human rights, a general liberalism, which they identify as part of their Jewish heritage. Indeed, Jews are the most liberal American ethnic community, 76% defining themselves as liberal or moderate, only 21% as conservative, the orthodox accounting for a good proportion of that (according to Pew).
Israeli Jews, on the other hand, whether religious or secular, define themselves by the first Five Books of the Bible, with Zionism throwing in the Book of Joshua relating the Israelites’ conquest of the Land as well. These are the most “national,” even tribal, parts of the Bible, the ones that best reflect the Zionist view of Jews as a nation in rightful possession of its homeland (although conquered from others, an early version of settler colonialism), justifying genocide and ethno-religious separation from others. When linked to the Eastern and Central European ethno-nationalism from which Zionism sprang in the late 19th Century, plus the conflict with the Palestinians and the wider Muslim world over the past century, one can understand why two different Jewish peoples have emerged. Life in the “Diaspora” has bred a Jewish community that is secular, liberal and engaged in the wider social issues of their societies, while Zionism has fostered a nationalistic, largely religious (in a recent Pew study, 51% of Israeli Jews define themselves as either Haredi, religious or “traditional”) and highly militaristic Jewish community, terrified by the danger of assimilation.
Co-optation of the Exile
But Zionism, now embodied in the state of Israel, has yet another compelling reason for “Israelizing” Jewish identity, besides the obvious objective of inducing emigration to Israel. Jews abroad represent a highly influential lobby group for generating support for what are in reality policies of occupation and the repression of Palestinians unpopular not only in general public opinion, but which should arouse opposition amongst Jews in particular, human rights and social justice being so central to their communal values. Rather than negating the Exile, Israel’s new-found task is recruiting the Exile to its side. Since Jews are obviously staying where they are, negation of the Exile morphs into cooptation of the Exile. Exile is still exile; Israel continues to unsettle Jewish life by reminding Jews abroad that their exilic existence is ephemeral and transitory, Israel representing their only place of refuge when the time (invariably) comes. In the meantime, out of solidarity for their Jewish compatriots in the Jewish state and out of self-defense, they had better weaponize their exilic identities as citizens of their countries to advocate for Israeli policies.
Still, the social justice/militaristic nationalism chasm remains between Jews abroad and in Israel. Besides exhorting Jews to support Israel, how can they be made to overcome their liberal values in favor of Israel’s ever more flagrant violations of human rights as applied to Palestinians under a repressive “Jewish” occupation? How, in short, to convert liberal Jews into PEPs – Progressive Except Palestine? Here negation turns into cooptation. Not having a strong sense of religion to fall back on, almost totally integrated into their societies, “support for Israel” became the lynchpin of Jewish identity. The void left by religion and tradition was readily filled by Israeli hasbara, and particularly by an Israel whose existence is in jeopardy.
Probably nothing did more to Israelize Jewish identity abroad – or Americanize Israel – than Leon Uris’s book Exodus, together with the dazzling exploits of Moshe Dayan and the heimish-ness [familiarity] of Golda Meir. After 1967, pulpits in synagogues were framed by American and Israeli flags, Israel became a major America arms market and Middle East surrogate, and Israel, by co-opting the Jewish community and its major organizations, became a domestic political issue, not a foreign one. Similar processes occurred in other countries as well. Centering your individual and communal identity around Israel worked for one major reason: it was relatively cost-free. Unlike keeping kosher, dressing in a distinctive way or displaying behaviors that might alienate you from your fellow citizens, you could simply give money out of “support” for Israel to express a minimal, yet sufficient, Jewishness. This also allowed you to continue your PEP-ness, your liberal values, the good life of a secular American (or Brit or Brazilian), all while being a “good Jew” defined by support – mainly financial and symbolic – for Israel. Being mobilizable when Israel “needs” you supplied enough Jewish content, so that you could get on with your life secure in your Israelo-centric identity.
So it all worked according to everyone’s mutual interests. Support for Israel helped assimilated Jews retain a satisfying modicum of Israeli-defined Jewishness, while Israel was able to weaponize their support to protect Israel from criticism and advance its interests among governments. Still, there is growing disenchantment with Israel amongst many Jews abroad, especially in the younger generation. Recently, Ron Dermer, a former Israeli ambassador to the US, advised that Israel should prioritize support of evangelical Christians over that of American Jews since the former are “passionate and unequivocal” about Israel, while the latter are “disproportionately among our critics.” Jewish Voice for Peace, the fastest-growing organization of young American Jews, has issued an anti-Zionist manifesto. “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 recent events in Gaza and Sheikh Jarrah have only escalated that distancing of many Jews from Israel.
Blurring the lines
Israel then came up with two responses for dealing with dissent within world Jewry while retaining its ability to mobilize the public opinion and the support of governments. First, despite the fact that a minority of Jews identify themselves with Zionism (only 62% of American Jews agreed that merely “caring for Israel” is important to their Jewish identity), Israel nevertheless presents itself, its government and its policies as representing the entire Jewish people. “I went to Paris not just as the prime minister of Israel but as a representative of the entire Jewish people,” announced Netanyahu on a visit to France, much to the dismay of French Jewry. (In fact, only a quarter of Israel’s Jews voted for him.) Picking up on that, Trump called Netanyahu “your Prime Minister” when addressing a group of American Jews. This conflation of Jews with Israelis intentionally blurs the distinction, co-opting millions of Jews who do not agree with Israel’s policies and certainly never voted for an Israeli government as de facto “supporters” of Israel. Jewish organizations like AIPAC, the American Jewish Congress, the British Board of Deputies, UK Lawyers for Israel, the Conseil Représentatif des Institutions Juives de France (CRIF) and others, including many rabbis, embrace that blurring, making “support for Israel” and fund-raising their main activities – providing that Israel lynchpin to Diaspora Jewish identity.
At a time when it is increasingly difficult to mobilize even Jews abroad around support for Israeli, turning to the old reliable canard of antisemitism offers a tried-and-true strategy for overcoming political reservations.
Second, building on that blurring, Israel casts all opposition to its policies as “antisemitism.” At a time when it is increasingly difficult to mobilize even Jews abroad around support for Israeli policies of occupation, apartheid and ethnocracy, turning to the old reliable canard of antisemitism offers a tried-and-true strategy for overcoming political reservations.
Here Israel is demonstrating its lack of concern for the well-being of Jewish communities abroad, and its long-standing willingness to sacrifice them for the greater Israeli good. An Israeli-centric “new antisemitism” was invented by the Israeli government and its supporters in order to delegitimize criticism of Israel as antisemitism. “One of the chief tasks of any dialogue with the Gentile world,” said Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban in the 1973, “is to prove that the distinction between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism is not a distinction at all. Anti-Zionism is merely the new anti-Semitism.”
Perhaps the most telling evidence of Israel’s instrumentalizing antisemitism is its attempt to get governments, universities and other institutions the world over to adopt the working definition (for it is only a working definition) of antisemitism proposed by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA). Tellingly, six of the eleven “illustrative examples” of antisemitism have to do with criticism of Israel. The IHRA, however, never intended for its working definition to be translated into hard-and-fast policy, certainly not to have the “illustrative examples” be taken as part-and-parcel of the definition, or that it have the political meaning Israel and its supporters attach to it. (In an article in The Guardian entitled “I Drafted the Definition of Antisemitism. Rightwing Jews are Weaponizing It,” Kenneth Stern raised his opposition to attempts of pro-Israel groups to use the IHRA definition to silence criticism of Israel.)
It is clear that the actual menace of antisemitism bothers Israel less than criticism of its policies. By focusing so narrowly on Israel, weaponized antisemitism lets real anti-Semites off the hook. Evangelicals who teach that at Armageddon Jews either die or are converted to Christianity, but who are “pro-Israel” because they need Israel to bring about the End of Days. Or classic European anti-Semites like Hungary’s Viktor Orban or Poland’s Andrzej Duda who support Israel because they see it as the kind of ethnically exclusive society they aspire to impose on their own countries, to which we might add the likes of Modi in India. By contrast, the British Labour Party, kowtowing to Israel and the organized Jewish community, expels or suspends prominent Jewish members critical of Israel.
The intentional blurring of Jews and Israelis does not justify attacks on Jews abroad, of course, but it does demonstrate Israel’s willingness to place Jews in harm’s way for its own ends. Rather than being antisemitic attacks, attacks on Jews abroad take on the character of inter-communal clashes, akin to what took place in Israel during the fighting with Hamas. But while Israeli Jews realized that political context and therefore did not describe the attacks as “antisemitic,” Jews abroad do not have the same political context. Understandably for them, they are merely Jews, citizens of their own countries, being attacked for acts that Israel perpetrates, or simply, they justifiably think, because they are Jews.
Negation of Zionism
There are two ways out of the trap that Israel has laid for Jews abroad. First, Jews – and particularly their communal organizations – have to cry out: Not In My Name! They must let it be known, to the Israeli government as well as to their own fellow citizens, that Israel does not represent them, that they never voted for the Israeli government and cannot be held responsible for its policies. Declining to do that, they cannot be surprised that they are seen as Israeli surrogates. This does not mean repudiating Israeli policies; many Jews and Jewish organizations do in fact support what Israel is doing. It means, rather, to distance themselves from Israel, making it clear that they have the right to support whatever political positions they want, but that they are doing so out of their own personal choice as citizens of their countries, not as proto-Israelis. They must resist co-optation even if they agree with the policies of a foreign country. That will go a long way towards differentiating antisemitism from anti-Israelism.
Jews abroad must validate their own historical experiences and cultural traditions. They must reject the Negation of the Exile. Ideally they would go a step further, countering the Negation of the Exile with the Negation of Zionism.
Second, Jews abroad must validate their own historical experiences and cultural traditions. They must reject the Negation of the Exile. Ideally (in my view) they would go a step further, countering the Negation of the Exile with the Negation of Zionism, the attempt to co-opt Judaism for the purposes of settler colonialism, dispossession of another people and ongoing oppression. In that case, it would be understood that, for better or worse, Israel exists, but that it must be decolonized, de-Zionized. An Israeli democracy of all its citizens must emerge, either on its own or as a broader state incorporating all the land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River, a single, inclusive democracy in which Israeli Jews, Palestinian Arabs and others (ethnic Russians and African asylum seekers, for example, as well as other minorities) live in equality, each preserving and nurturing its national, ethnic or religious identities and cultures.
The great danger inherent in Israel’s co-optation of Jews and antisemitism in order to maintain an illegal and oppressive regime is found in Israel’s need to claim Jewish/Israeli exceptionalism from the rest of humanity. The Fourth Geneva Convention forbids the annexation and settlement of an occupied territory, but Israel, a signatory to the Convention, claims that it doesn’t apply because all the land in fact “belongs” to the Jewish people, despite clear rulings of the International Court of Justice and the UN to the contrary. Jews possess the right of self-determination in Palestine, but the indigenous Palestinians do not, because Israel has decided that there is no Palestinian people. Israel criminalizes Palestinian resistance as “terrorism” despite the fact that United Nations resolution 37/43 (1982) “reaffirms the legitimacy of the struggle of peoples for independence, territorial integrity, national unity and liberation from colonial and foreign domination and foreign occupation by all available means, including armed struggle,” citing the Palestinian case explicitly. And as victims of Zionist (and British) colonization, Palestinian should enjoy the protection of two international covenants: the UN Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples (1960) and the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (2007) – the provisions of both denied to the Palestinians by Israel and its international supporters.
Indeed, Israel often invokes the Holocaust to stress Jewish exceptionalism, presenting antisemitism itself as a form of hatred separate from other forms of racism. From there Israel’s assertion of its “right” to dispossess the Palestinian people and to pursue policies that violate virtually every article of the Fourth Geneva Convention flows from its self-serving contention that it is outside of international law. That position can be effective for Israel, but it jeopardizes the well-being of world Jewry.
Rene Cassin, a French-Jewish jurist, Holocaust survivor and one of the principal authors of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, used to point out that human rights were an umbrella under which everyone could shelter; no one stood outside its purview. One reason why Jews were singled out for persecution in Europe was their exceptionalism: they stood outside all the accepted religious, national and ethnic frameworks. Now that Jews are incorporated into the rest of humanity, now that they live under the umbrella of human rights, now that antisemitism can be fought not on its own but on front united with other struggles against racism, Cassin would ask: do the Jews want to step out from under the umbrella again? Do they really want to be exceptions to the rule of universal human rights?
For Israel, with its international support and powerful army, the answer seems to be “yes.” If rejecting the applicability of human rights conventions and international law will help us keep our occupation and pursue our policies of Judaizing – and de-Arabizing – Palestine, then we are fine with that. For Jews abroad, however, much more vulnerable and having a stake in living in their societies, the answer must be “no.” Indeed, the disproportionate involvement of Jews in causes, be they revolutionary or liberal, their preoccupation with social justice, their identification with issues of human rights, speaks not only to the Jewish experience and the prophetic tradition, but to a hard-headed assessment that being under the umbrella of human rights affords the Jews their ultimate protection – not a national army poised on walled-off borders. This bespeaks the fundamental difference between world Jewry and Jewish Israelis.
In the meantime, disassociating antisemitism from other forms of racism, enforcing Jewish national claims at the expense of the national rights of another people, and manipulating international law for its own purposes may be effective strategies for gaining certain Israel-specific goals, but as Jews abroad face attacks brought on them by Israeli policy, unfair as that may be, these expressions of exceptionalism place them in jeopardy. No less threatening to Jews is the Zionist assault on their experiences and values, on the very validity of their collective existence, and on their political liberalism and cosmopolitanism.
Zionism has not yet murdered Judaism but it has undermined its moral and historical integrity. Just as Israel must de-Zionize in order to finally find its place in the Middle East, so, too, must Jews abroad de-Zionize in order to reclaim their own Jewish traditions, experiences and communal validity. And the perpetual question of Jewish security? That seems much more certain under liberal democracies willing to contend with racism and injustice for everyone, including Jews, under the banner of human rights, international law and civil law, rather than gathering Jews into an exclusivist national ghetto at war with its neighbors and with the world of human rights as one. Israel, it turns out, by intentionally fanning antisemitism, is a major contributor to Jewish insecurity.
First published by Mondoweiss on 2 July 2021