Jews Against Israel: Uncovering the Anti-Zionist Agenda
In the last five years, close to ten major books have been published on Jewish anti-Zionists and other Jewish critics of Israel. Specific Jewish groups promoting one-sided critiques of Israel such as the Independent Australian Jewish Voices have been established in many Western countries.
Yet in reality, anti-Zionists remain a tiny, marginal and generally detested group within Jewish society. There is no serious pro or anti-Zionism debate within most Jewish communities. The only debate occurs within the minority of Jewish groups who identify with the ideological Left, and even there anti-Zionists arguably constitute a small minority. (I deliberately omit here the small number of ultra-orthodox Jews who adhere to anti-Zionist views. Their unique perspective necessarily belongs in a separate analysis.)
Jewish anti-Zionism is not a new phenomenon, but rather fits clearly into a long-term political tradition whereby some far left-wing groups persuade Jewish members to exploit their own religious and cultural origins in order to vilify their own people. There were Jews who defended the 1929 pogroms in Palestine, and there were Jews who endorsed Stalin’s anti-Jewish campaigns in the early 1950s. Today there are Jews who support the most extreme Palestinian political demands against the Jewish state of Israel.
I distinguish between Jewish anti-Zionists and other Jews who are critical of Israeli policies but nevertheless support Israel’s continued existence as a Jewish state. I define contemporary anti-Zionism as a view which regards Israel as a racist and colonialist state which should be eliminated in favor of an Arab state of Greater Palestine – sometimes disingenuously called a secular state – in which Israeli Jews would continue to exist as at best a tolerated religious minority.
Jewish anti-Zionists reject any notion of ethnic or religious solidarity with Israeli Jews whom they regard as inherently evil oppressors. Rather, their sympathies and loyalties lie with the Palestinians whom they construct as defenseless victims.
Prior to the Holocaust, Zionism existed as a minority movement throughout most of the Jewish world. It has been estimated that even in Poland, for example, only 25-30% of Jews supported Zionism during the two inter-war decades. Many Jews appear to have regarded Zionism as an extremist movement with utopian, if not politically dangerous, objectives. Ideological opposition to Zionism was particularly strong from three sources: Orthodox Jews, socialists including particularly Bundists and reform and assimilated Jews.
However, following the Holocaust and the creation of the State of Israel, Jewish opposition to Zionism largely vanished. Religious Jews gradually came to see Zionism as a fulfillment, rather than contravention, of Jewish religious destiny. Many Bundists and socialists remained critical of Zionism’s negation of the Jewish Diaspora, but in practice offered strong support for the State of Israel.
Today, many Jewish leaders argue that Diaspora Jews should unite in support of Israeli policies. This unified support is seen as enhancing Israel’s international standing. Conversely, Diaspora Jewish criticism of Israel is depicted as dividing the Jewish people, and giving heart to those who wish to harm the State of Israel. This attitude is dominant in English-speaking Jewish communities, and has been reflected in constant attempts to censor or silence the minority of Jews who do not unconditionally support Israel.
However, recent studies suggest a more fluid and diverse Jewish identity amongst the younger generation. There is some evidence that whilst younger Jews do assume a continuing close relationship with Israel, they may differ from their parents in that some are more willing to be critical of Israeli policies in the same way that they are critical of specific Australian government policies.
In contrast, Jewish anti-Zionists reject any intrinsic connection between Jews and Israel, and seem to apply a virtual time warp framework whereby the 1947-48 debate about whether or not to create Israel is yet to be resolved. Additionally, their pride in prioritizing universal values over tribal loyalty seems to involve adopting extreme political positions that regard most Jews as the enemy.
Conservative Jewish commentators, who often fail to distinguish Jewish anti-Zionists from those Jews who are critical of specific Israeli policies, have often argued that Jewish critics of Israel are self-hating Jews. Self-hatred is an alleged psychological condition which involves members of despised low-status racial, religious or sexual minority groups identifying with the values and prejudices of the majority group and internalizing their stereotypes.
Significant Jewish self-hatred may have existed in particular historical and political contexts when Jews seeking to assimilate into modern societies were confronted with demands to abandon any behavioural characteristics that distinguished them from the majority culture. However, it is hard to make an empirical case for Jewish self-hatred today given the absence of significant anti-Semitism in most Western societies.
There is little if any benefit to be gained today by individual Jews who express dislike or distaste for other Jews. Moreover, they are likely to earn almost universal detestation from their fellow Jews. In contrast, I would argue that any serious analysis of Jewish anti-Zionists and their beliefs needs to concentrate on their political rather than Jewish or psychological motivations.
Most Jewish anti-Zionists appear to propose two key reasons for rejecting Zionism and Israel. One is that they view Jews as only a religious rather than ethnic or national group, and they reject states based on religion as racist, undemocratic, and contrary to the liberal values of the Enlightenment. However, this argument is wishful thinking since it erroneously assumes that Jews are not a nation. In fact, most Jews today perceive themselves to be a nation who are just as entitled as any other group to national self-determination.
This argument also appears to confuse ethnicity and nationalism with race and racism. Most Jews would arguably define themselves as part of a Jewish people with common cultural characteristics and beliefs. However, this Jewish people or nation incorporates enormous variation in terms of language, religious beliefs, and racial origins. There are Ashkenasi Jews, Sephardi Jews, Ethiopian Jews, and so on. The common factor is not religion per se given that an increasing number of Jews are secular, but rather shared beliefs, values and identity. Overwhelmingly, this includes a close identification with Israel as the national home of the Jewish people.
A second argument from Jewish anti-Zionists is that universal values and human rights should always take priority over what they label as the narrow tribal loyalty associated with Jewish support for Israel. This is, however, a very partial application of universal rights. Most Jewish anti-Zionists do not seek to protect the rights of both Israelis and Palestinians, but are only concerned with defending Palestinian rights.
In addition, few if any Jewish anti-Zionists offer positive reasons for publicly claiming a Jewish identity, and most appear to have little or no interest in or knowledge of Jewish history, values and culture. They also deny any sense of solidarity with other Jews, and present no positive vision for restructuring Jewish communal activities. Nor do they identify with any poor or disadvantaged groups within Jewish society. Their rejection of Zionism and Israel appears to be a purely negative emotion.
There is also little evidence of any existing commitment to Jewish communal life. A number of other UK Jewish leftists have pointed out in relation to Independent Jewish Voices, for example, that most of their spokespersons have actively distanced themselves from the Jewish collective. I would therefore argue that there is little if anything that is authentically “Jewish” about their anti-Zionism unless they also demonstrate a significant positive commitment to Jewish life. In contrast, many Jewish Left groups, which are critical of Israeli policies but still support Israel’s existence, seem far more genuine when they align their criticism of Israeli policies with specific Jewish religious and spiritual values and morality.
In offering this criticism, I am not ruling out the possibility of an authentic Jewish anti-Zionist group based on traditional Bundist principles. Bundist groups still exist today in a number of countries based on a solid commitment to Jewish culture and ethnicity in the Diaspora as a key component of their identity. These groups have largely come to terms with the centrality of Israel to contemporary Jewish life, but still maintain their distance from Zionist-inclined activities. However, their critique of Zionism (which they mostly call a non-Zionist rather than anti-Zionist perspective) forms an insignificant component of their overall Jewish activities. In contrast, most Jewish anti-Zionists today seem obsessed with attacking Zionism at the expense of any positive Jewish identification.
In the past, Jewish anti-Zionists were largely dismissed by the political mainstream as eccentric freak shows at best, and self-hating Jews as worst. However, they have arguably achieved greater traction in recent years for three reasons. One is their smart use of the internet to spuriously imply the existence of serious divisions within Jewish communities over Israel. Secondly, they have shrewdly marketed themselves as “the” alternative Jewish voices even though their voices are neither authentic nor representative.
The other factor is that the Jewish debate over Israel has changed. Many younger Jews do not automatically endorse the positions of a particular Israeli Government, and wish instead to debate the merits of particular policies or actions. Yet mainstream Jewish institutions are often reluctant or unwilling to accommodate open debates where the strength of Jewish support for various positions on Israel could actually be tested.
In this limited debate, advocates of two states are sometimes at a relative disadvantage. Their position is complex and based on balancing various competing political tensions and dilemmas. They support both Israel’s right to exist and to defend itself against external violence and terror, and the creation of an independent Palestinian State based on an end to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank.
In contrast, Jewish anti-Zionists offer a neat and simplistic analysis based on constructing Israel as evil and the Palestinians as victims, and advocating the end of Israel. This black and white sound-bite, however ill-informed and unconnected to reality, seems to be appealing to some sections of the media.
Dr Philip Mendes is the co-editor of Jews and Australian Politics, Sussex Academic Press, 2004. This article is an edited version of a much longer paper he presented to the Limmud Oz conference in Sydney on 8 June, 2009.