Zionism is not ‘not Judaism’

‘Zionism is not Judaism!’

We hear this every day from Palestine solidarity activists, Jewish and non-Jewish. Usually it is said with good intentions, a way to designate Zionism, as a political movement and ideology with modern genealogy and sensibilities, from Judaism, as a centuries-old religious peoplehood tradition. And indeed, it is important and correct to make this distinction, to challenge the commonly held notion that Zionism and Judaism are two words for the same phenomenon, that the modern state of Israel is organically rooted in Judaism, the end goal of Jewish thought, yearning and practice ‘since time immemorial’.

And yet, too often ‘Zionism is not Judaism!’ is presented as the end of the story in Palestine solidarity circles. It is imagined that some unchanging, tranquil essence called ‘Judaism’ has been hijacked by an utterly foreign, sinister, parasitic entity called Zionism. Judaism fell from grace, and waits to be redeemed from the narrow clutches of nationalism. Those Jews who center their Zionism firmly in their Judaism, it is reasoned by many Palestine solidarity activists, must simply be confused or misinformed about their own Jewishness, or otherwise just plain racist. In truth, this popular notion that ‘Zionism is not Judaism- end of story’ betrays a shallow and surface-level understanding of Jewish history and consciousness.

Judaism/Jewishness (here, I use the two words interchangeably) is not simply a static set of rituals, practices and a belief system. It is also the embodied, lived experience and narrative of a people, unfolding in history and time. Jewishness is no more or less than the totality of whatever the Jewish people are doing at any given moment in history. On a concrete level, the upbuilding of the state of Israel is a major part of what the Jewish people have been doing on the planet over the last 100 years. It is an unavoidable fact that, especially over the last half-century, the Zionist project has taken center stage in the hearts and minds of most Jews on the planet. The state of Israel- as an idea, and as an actual living society-  has served as the site where some of the most pressing questions of Jewish peoplehood- universalism vs particularism; secularism vs. religiosity; assimilation and its discontents, and more- have played out.

It is important to say, again and again, that ‘Judaism is not Zionism’- that Judaism and Jewishness possesses incomparably more cultural, religious, ethical and historic content than a 100-year-old political project such as Zionism can possibly contain. Nonetheless,  to stare the Jewish people in the face today, after Israel has so clearly played a central role in the collective imaginary of normative Jewish peoplehood,  and to say ‘Zionism is not Judaism, duh’ is to betray a colossal naivete, willful ignorance or worse. Zionism is a part of Judaism.

Often, the ‘Zionism is not Judaism’ argument in Palestine solidarity circles runs something like this- ‘Judaism is a religion; Zionism is a nationalism; while it appears the latter has hijacked the former, in reality, the two have no relationship to each other, so to accuse us of attacking Judaism when we critique the state of Israel, is absurd’. They usually mean well, and indeed, it is important to distinguish legitimate criticism of Israel from antisemitism. But as an actual analysis of Jewishness, they miss the mark, viewing Judaism reductively through the lens of Christian hegemony as merely a ‘religion’ separate from the concrete genealogical, ethnic and/or ‘national’ experiences of the people that lived, clung to and evolved that religion across history. Judaism is not simply a ‘faith’, like Christianity or Islam, but also a people. To excise the ugly ‘national/peoplehood’ component in order to fit what remains in a Western (Christian) framework- whether done by the early Reform movement, or by modern activists trying to distinguish the historical actions of the Jewish collective (such as Zionism) from the ‘religion’ of Judaism- is to mangle and amputate Jewishness itself.

Moreover, when Jewish anti-Zionist activists adopt ‘Zionism is not our Judaism!’ as the principle posture by which we relate to Jewish peoplehood, we are more often than not choosing sloganeering over the hard work of meeting our people where they are at and, with care and commitment, dedicating ourselves to transforming our collective reality. We are saying to the millions of Jews who are actively or passively Zionist- ‘you are ugly and shameful to us, and until you change, we are going to delegitimize your identity, and work to separate ourselves from you’. We are deploying a rhetorical gesture that imagines a Judaism purified of its offending elements, sanitized, purged of the stench of nationalism and particularism- a Judaism of the ideal, a fantasy projection of a Judaism that might have turned out differently.

At its best, the proclamation ‘Zionism is not our Judaism!’ is the subversive assertion of a new Jewish identity that destabilizes the normative sense of Jewishness, broadens our imagination and allows us to envision new alternatives and futures. At its worst, it feels more like a performative gesture towards the non-Jewish Left, a way for Jewish activists to signal to their comrades ‘don’t worry, we’re Jews but we’re not those awful ugly Zionist Jews, please don’t associate us with them’. Either way, it cannot be a roadmap for dealing with actually existing Jews, in the flesh, with their current self-identities and political configurations.

The disavowal embedded in ‘Zionism is not our Judaism’ runs two parallel risks. On the one hand, the proclamation, similar to liberal cries of ‘Not my president!’ in the Trump era, can disassociate us as individuals from imagined complicity in an ongoing legacy of anti-Palestinian oppression in which, in various ways, we remain deeply complicit. On the other hand, this rhetorical gesture can serve to distance us from the bulk of our people, segment ourselves off, alienate us from the hearts and minds that, now more than ever, we need to build bridges with. If ‘Zionism is not our Judaism’, we might reason, then it is no longer our problem; we can leave it to others to disentangle the two for those Jews who have been led astray, while we focus on uplifting our exalted, purified anti-Zionist Judaism.

The truth is that Zionism is our Judaism in the sense that we inherit it; it is ours to reckon with; it is part of the unfolding story of our people. We cannot simply turn away, draw sharp lines of demarcation (you can’t pick and choose which parts of an inheritance you inherit), build anti-Zionist Jewish communities on the fringes, burn bridges with the mainstream, hold firm to the fervency of our convictions, and wait for the entire cursed edifice to fall. Were this to constitute the entirety of our Jewish communal transformation strategy, we would abdicate the position in which history has placed us, we would renounce our responsibility to dwell with and actively transform our people, in the present. It smacks of escapism, of a politics more concerned with demonstrating the purity of our radical position than with getting our hands dirty.

When Zionist Jews hear superficial ‘Zionism is not Judaism’ takes, they perceive it as an assault upon, or at least a misunderstanding of, their Jewish identity- and from their angle, they are correct. Zionism is part of their Judaism, not because they pray to a shrine of Theodore Herzl every day, nor because their Jewish identity solely or even primarily consists in defending Israel’s policies at every twist and turn- but because for them, Judaism and being Jewish is an inherently collective, politicized peoplehood that includes the lived collective experiences, in the modern age, of Israel and Zionism. Judaism for them is not just a faith, a set of rituals to worship a G-d they may not believe in; it is the experiences of deep suffering and national rebirth etched into our collective soul over the long 20th century, in traumatic and uplifting events many of us actually lived through. Judaism for them is the conviction that the complex, tangled set of emotions inherited from these experiences- hope, pride, desire, vulnerability, fear, righteous anger, concern for safety and survival- are inseparable from the need, in our own time, for a Jewish state.

Zionism for them, accordingly, is not support for any specific policy so much as it is a name given to this emotional reservoir underneath, one bound tightly with the living memories of Jewish peoplehood and embedded, for now at least, with the living soil of the Jewish state. Jewish Zionisms, and their emotional underpinnings, are as ‘Jewish’ as any other part of the hodgepodge of our modern Jewish identities, and must be treated, in this light, not with scorn, vitriol and performative distancing, but with compassion and care.

To be sure, Zionism emerged out of real Jewish life and real Jewish needs and conditions, but it is crucial to emphasize that it was not the only or ‘destined’ direction Jewish life could have taken in the 20th century. Zionism was the winner of a decades-long political battle within the Jewish community, over what self-determination and autonomy might look like. The forces of political nationalism emerged victorious, after more liberal and leftist Jewish ideologies- from the Bund in Eastern Europe to the Jewish communist movements in Iraq, Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa- were drowned in the floods of fascism, McCarthyism and other global transformations and catastrophes. But none of this was inevitable or predestined, and if Zionism holds sway over the hearts of so many Jews today, this does not mean it is ‘correct’ or meant to be- this is simply the condition in which history has placed our people, up to this point.

But to deny, as a Jew, that Zionism contains valid and legitimate parts of our people’s experience, is to compartmentalize our very identity, to amputate and suppress parts of our inheritance, to lock away, in a box in the closet labeled ‘Racism’, the tears, fears, hope and pride of a generation that lived through quite possibly the most terrifying events in our people’s history. Non-Jewish Palestine solidarity activists who only learn about Zionism from a BDS 101 presentation, miss this rich emotional depth, minimize and belittle it, hopefully unintentionally; when they proceed to lecture Jewish Zionists about the ‘true nature’ of their Zionism using BDS 101 talking points, they are goysplaining, and it is no wonder that many Jews don’t listen.

We anti-Zionist Jews, who want to build a better future for our people, cannot disavow the conditions that have created the present, rather we must own them, grapple with them head-on. We cannot compartmentalize the Jewish past into tidy boxes labeled ‘fallen’ and ‘righteous’, ‘problematic’ and ‘redeemed’, ‘ours’ and ‘not-ours’. ‘Owning up’ to Zionism is not just calling out and condemning, but also understanding and accepting. It is reckoning in a holistic way with the totality of our always messy, often beautiful, sometimes dark inheritance. In many ways, this is a more intellectually and emotionally difficult task, for it does not admit of easy binaries, tidy distinctions between a ‘good’ and ‘bad’, an ‘enlightened’ vs a ‘racist’ Judaism. It is also difficult to make room for complexity when, too often, calls for ‘complexity’ and ‘nuance’ have the effect, sometimes intentional, of derailing much-needed condemnation of and action against Israel’s human rights abuses.

This is not to say that we Jewish anti-Zionists must become Zionists, avoid articulating reasoned, unapologetic critiques of Zionism, or refrain from uplifting what Zionism looks like from the eyes of Palestinians, Mizrahi Jews and other minoritized groups on the ground (hint- it’s racism). This is our mandate! But in developing alternative identities, and relating to those Jews who don’t agree with us, let us not use our symbols, our fantasies, our hopes for the Jewish people as blinders, obscuring our ability to look squarely where we are, to see the “real movement of Jewish history”, to grasp the real conditions of Jewish life in the present. Let us not separate our hearts, like the Wicked Child of the Passover Seder, from our people. We will change hearts and minds not by ceaselessly disassociating from them, but by really diving in with them, and reaffirming that, at root, we are one people who are in this mess together, and must emerge from it together into our collective future.

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