Why you can’t be anti-Zionist without being anti-Jewish
I was sitting in a large tent with red, tapestry-like rugs spread across the sandy desert floor about an hour outside of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, schmoozing with my Arab cousins about life, dating, family, travel.
When it’s not sandstorm season, Saudis flock to their large desert tents many weekends for camaraderie and escape, as we did this day in February 2022.
My friends and I shared some laughs over some delicious kabsa, a Saudi national dish of lamb, goat or chicken, slow cooked in rice and spices.
Side note. I pretty much ate my way through Saudi Arabia, the food was so delicious. Even the falafel were way better than the rest of the Middle East.
Back to the desert tent.
One of my new friends turned to me, not with politics on his brain, but with curiosity.
“What’s the difference between Judaism and Zionism?”
Nobody had ever asked me the question, but it was a thoughtful one.
I wiped my messy hands of rice and, if had a beard, this would’ve been a good time to stroke it a few times before answering.
“Well,” I began, “there’s capital ‘Z’ Zionism and then there’s lower-case ‘z’ Zionism.”
The Judeans, the source of the words “Jews” and “Judaism,” were a people whose entire identity, culture and origin story were tied to the land we know as Israel (half of which was called Judea).
People of different backgrounds joined this people whose entire being was tied to the land of Israel-Judea.
Their songs, their daily rituals, agricultural practices, their history and origin story, and yes, their spirituality, all revolved around the Israel-Judea land. Much like other indigenous peoples around the world.
When the Judeans were kicked out of their land and sent by the Romans as slaves to Europe, and displaced to places like Iraq, Yemen, Spain, Northern Africa — the Judeans’ challenge became how to keep their land-based culture and tribe without their land.
Virtually every ancient culture has died off. Were the Judeans—the Jews—going to die, too, without their land?
Their teachers and scholars said “No!”
They developed an entire system on how to be Judean, i.e. Jewish, outside of Judea. Judean in a suitcase. They developed modern Judaism, based on their origin story and lessons from Israel-Judea taught in their spiritual books, from the Five Books of Moses and the Prophets and Writings.
One of the biggest components of those teachings, still followed today, was of course about their land, Israel. And their spiritual centerpiece, Jerusalem.
The teachers and scholars 2,000 years ago ordained that Jews around the world would pray facing Jerusalem. They would make pilgrimages to the remnants of their holy Temple, the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. They would attend synagogues instead of going to the Temple in Jerusalem. And they would continue to celebrate their holidays that center around the Israel agricultural calendar, whether living in America or Brazil or France or Bahrain or Tunisia.
Jerusalem is mentioned over 600 times in the Jews’ Torah, Prophets and Writings. It goes by another name you may have heard before.
What capital “Z” Zionism means is the longing and idea of Jews worldwide to remain connected to their indigenous homeland and to ultimately return. That has remained part of Judaism since Jews became a people.
So when someone asks what the difference is between Zionism and Judaism, well, Zionism is an inseparable piece of being Jewish.
To oppose the idea that Jews have a real connection and a legitimate right to return to their indigenous homeland is, well, anti-Jewish.
When someone says they’re anti-Zionist, what they typically mean, as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, is that they don’t like the Jews. You can’t be for the Jews and reject their connection to Israel any more than you can be a vegan and eat cheeseburgers.
Now for what I’ll call lower-case “z” zionism.
Beginning In the 1800s, there was a non-religious political movement in Europe, self-labeled as Zionism, for Jews to escape the horrors of anti-Jewish hate in Europe, move to Israel and re-establish their home there so Jews would have a safe place finally free of abuse.
Long before Hitler, Europe murdered, abused and shit on its Jews for nearly two millennia. Russia, England, France, Portugal, Spain all took turns at their Jews. That’s right. When the oppressors weren’t busy colonizing and abusing Africa, they were at home harming their Jewish citizens.
For Jews who weren’t fully accepted in other places outside of Europe, the idea of returning home resonated as well.
The movement took off among even the least practicing Jews. Who among any of us wouldn’t want to be free of persecution?
So beginning in 1881, Jews from Europe and Yemen immigrated to Israel, which was then colonized and ruled by the Ottoman Empire. Just before World War II, more Jews from Russia immigrated there and revived the ancient Jewish language, Hebrew, which for centuries had been relegated to religious study.
When Britain took control of the area after World War I, then called British Palestine, more Jews returned. The area we know as Israel was re-named Palestine by the Romans centuries ago. Some liken the name to the Biblical Philistines, but reputable archeologists and anthropologists uniformly agree that nobody today in Israel-Palestine descends from that group. Still, Arabs and Jews both lived in this place called Palestine. Both called it home. Even Jews referred to themselves as Palestinians.
When the habitual colonizer Britain finally left Palestine after Hitler was defeated, in 1947, the United Nations passed a partition plan giving Palestinian Jews their nation in the part of the land where the majority of Jews lived and giving Palestinian Arabs their own nation in the part of the land where the majority of Arabs lived.
The Jews accepted the plan and renamed their country its original homeland name, Israel. Jordan convinced Palestinian Arabs to reject the plan. A rejection of anything less-than-all that would repeat itself for the next 50+ years.
Not coincidentally, Jordan took control of the West Bank (named because of its relation to the west bank of the Jordan River), including East Jerusalem, which is home to Islam’s third holiest site, the Al-Aqsa Mosque. Jordan continued to control the area without establishing an independent Palestinian State during its near 20-year reign.
This 1800s Zionist political movement was initially consistent with the capital “Z” Zionism of the 3,000-year Judean mindset, but for many right-wing nationalists, it increasingly became a rallying cry to take over all of the original land “promised to the Jews” by God in the Bible.
These right-wing nationalist Zionists adopted the same mindset as Palestinian leaders have for the last seven decades. That all of the land was theirs. Some have called for the expulsion of their Arab cousins. Some have advocated worse. One recently even advocated burning down an entire Palestinian area.
Some extremist Palestinians likewise refuse to accept a Jewish homeland in any part of Israel-Palestine and resort to terrorism and killing to make that point. Palestinian schoolbooks to this day contain maps where Israel-Palestine is all labeled “Palestine.” In other words, Israel does not exist in their world.
The obvious problem with this extremist nationalist Zionist mindset (and extremist Palestinian terror mindset) is there are other people who also live in the Israel-Judean land. There are other people who also share a love for that same land. And there are other people who long for their own home in the same land.
Over the last 70 years, right-wing nationalist Zionists are the ones who pushed for building new Jewish settlements in the West Bank and previously Gaza (Israel unilaterally withdrew from Gaza almost 20 years ago). In the late 1970s, there were 5,000 Jews living in the West Bank. In 2023, that number is over 700,000 and growing, continuing to encroach on the 2.8 million Palestinians living there.
Anyone who cares about the Palestinian people, myself included, is justified in criticizing these so-called Zionists who continue to place their belief in “all of their land” over the dignity and real hopes and dreams of Palestinian Arabs. We must demand an end to West Bank settlement expansion and abuse of Palestinian Arabs.
But we can love and advocate for Palestinian Arabs without being anti-Jewish. Are you listening AOC, Omar, Bush and Tlaib?
We can fight for Palestinians without denying the deep Jewish connection to Israel. We can loudly criticize Israeli governments who reject Palestinian dignity without erasing the Jewish indigenous link to Israel. Just the same as we can reject Palestinian terror and violence against Israelis while still supporting Palestinian dignity and self-determination.
Above all, we can work toward a more peaceful world without pretending that Zionism is distinct from Judaism. Because it’s not. At least not the capital “Z” kind.