I am generally not a fan of ascribing to any particular political or social ideology. I find that they have a way of constraining people, limiting their ability to see the world in its entirety. That is not to say that I never have felt the need to identify with any group. I can look back to a time not so long ago when I embraced the type of brash liberalism that seems to have become a cliché of modern youth. Since then, I have attempted to scrupulously maintain a moderate approach to most issues. I have found that in weighing the options, opinions, and solutions, I gain a better appreciation of the problem in question. I have come to understand that ideological camps wear the colors painted by a broad brush, submerging the intellectual, social, and historical contours of many critical issues in a unifying hue of orthodoxy and fidelity.
It is in this way that I came to examine Zionism. At its most basic level, Zionism champions the ideas of Jewish civil, political and social emancipation within the borders of the ancient state of Israel. As is so often the case however, ideas in practice can differ greatly from their theoretical origins. Zionism has encompassed far more than a static set of demands or principals, capturing within its’ advocacy the history of a people whose lives have been defined by waves of persecution, dispossession, and constant lose. Zionism, growing in the wake of brutal anti-Semitism in the 19th century, was the solution to the vulnerabilities faced by every single Jew who nursed the ceaseless sting of institutional hatred. Yet, for all of my familiarity with the context into which Zionism was born, I still approached it with certain trepidation.
As some Jewish opponents of Zionism had noted, the very idea which it proposed challenged the accepted philosophy of social and cultural integration as the best remedy for Jewish persecution. In jettisoning the most visible manifestations of distinctly Jewish traditions, Jews could insulate themselves from the worst violations society inflicted on them. Or so they thought. Once again, reality painfully burned away these aspirations. Even as Enlightenment ideals seemed to banish much of the carefully cultivated anti-Semitism, Jews still found themselves subjected to the same variety of restrictions, abuses and humiliations. The United States even, with its avowedly egalitarian principles, still managed to encounter the same issues of Jewish inclusion which had been present in Europe. No Jews allowed, in hotels, or neighborhoods or certain professions. It appeared then, that the attempts to dispense all obvious traces of Jewish identity had fallen short. If one could not be safe in their place of birth, where then could security be found?
Israel, with all of its troubles and imperfections, has to a degree provided the answer to this persistent question of Jewish identity. While I believe that the goal of most Jewish communities should continue to be the affirmation and protection of their right to safety and freedom, the ability for Jews to have a safe place to relocate cannot be dismissed. Recent trends in Europe as well as other places around the world confirm this necessity. Jews in France, Belgium, the U.K. and many other nations, no longer feel safe to even minimally express their Jewish identity. Defiance of this prevalent hostility has frequently led to violence and sometimes tragedy.
The growing chorus of anti-Israel voices argues that Israel’s existence as a Jewish state is intrinsically racist. Its actions are routinely excoriated by those who bear the mantle of ‘human rights.’ Yet, when Jewish shops are torched, as they were in Paris in 2015, there was no such outcry. When Jews were murdered in a Brussels museum, tears and condemnation did not flow with such zeal. When a rabbi and his children were murdered by a terrorist in Toulouse in 2012, it scarcely made a dent in international headlines. If the drumbeat of the early 21st century is the expansion of human rights and freedoms, then Jews certainly should find themselves puzzled. Are they not included in what is considered human? Do Jews not have rights or freedoms? It is with these questions in mind that Zionism makes more sense.
To be a Zionist is not so much about borders or simple adherence to a national or spiritual identity. Instead, Zionism represents inevitability, the final, crystallized product to emerge from the forge of relentless persecution and marginalization. Jews have exhausted themselves over the course of countless generations in pleading for clemency from a largely unsympathetic society. While the serenity of inclusion and opportunity had presented itself at different places and times, these instances were largely overshadowed by the vicious spasms of edicts, expulsions and violence. Modern Jews, safely ensconced in the vibrant mesh of Western multicultural society, may find such appraisals to be overdramatic, largely unacquainted with the specter of anti-Semitism. I can include myself in this category to a certain extent. I only ever encountered a few isolated incidents of true anti-Semitism growing up, vile comments hailing from the tropes of classic Jew hatred. My community, which included several synagogues and a Jewish Community Center, was as tolerant and accommodating as one could hope for. If my understanding of how Jews lived amongst their neighbors had been limited to my county, I might have concluded that anti-Semitism was largely extinct, relegated to the ineffectual fringes of society.
A further confession-I was for a time among the critics of Israel and while I cannot say I no longer have any criticism, I mark the distinction in that I can temper my critiques with knowledge instead of rhetoric. I believed that Israel’s actions provoked the very anger they sought to quell and therefore bore the greater responsibility in resolving the conflict. While Israel is not without blame, I came to realize that the situation was incredibly complex. I began to reexamine the Zionist principles I learned in synagogue when I observed how a requisite understanding of these complexities were being dismantled in the spaces of intellectual pursuit. While there are many overlapping threads and trends which have contributed to this oversimplification, it can be reduced in many ways to the blunt cruelty of the signs which adorned many establishments generations ago: No Jews Allowed.
While more practiced hands have examined the various ways which this ‘new anti-Semitism’ has presented itself, there are several aspects of this idea which have influenced my thinking. The closure of intellectual spaces to Jewish views and voices is among the most alarming of these trends. I believe that higher academics provide some of the most exciting opportunities for personal and intellectual growth. Seeing these avenues of knowledge being used as weapons against Jewish students and Israel supporters is a tragedy. Another aspect, related to this academic assault is the attempted erasure of Jewish indigenity. Jewish history is rewritten, guided by inaccurate and racist depictions of Jews and their origins. Libelous ideas such as The Khazar Hypothesis have gained credence among those who claim that the Jews of Israel have no connection to historical Judaism and constitute an invasion of White Europeans, supplanting an indigenous Arab population. The final observation I include in the realm of learning is more of a personal one. Simply put, anti-Semitism or anti-Zionism is sustained on the belief that Jews possess some inherent privilege.
In spite of having endured millennia of brutal persecution, Jewish people are still viewed as being the nefarious manipulators of global affairs. Irrefutable proof of discrimination against Jews frequently produces hollow condemnations or worse, attempts at outright justification. In an age in which the virtues and vocabulary of social activism have permeated the public consciousness, Jews have been conspicuously excluded from the groups of the disenfranchised and oppressed. I volunteer a term which encapsulates the reasoning behind this. The Jews have become a ‘Minority of Privilege.’ The meaning and reality of this term is expressed in the constellation of classic anti-Semitic tropes with the flourishing new narrative promulgated by anti-Israel organizations. Jews are expelled from the ranks of disenfranchised minorities, as they are seen as being part of the dominant structure of power, particularly vis-à-vis The State of Israel. As a Minority of Privilege, the individual Jew is considered guilty of having connections to a grand network of wealth, power and influence simply by the virtue of their religious identity. While these ideas may originate with the traditional forms of anti-Semitism, they have been revived and sustained by the rise of anti-Israel sentiments. Recent rallies in Europe and the United States, ostensibly concerned with Palestinian solidarity, have invoked the stereotypes of “global Zionism” or “Zionist bankers.” Israel has become the ultimate figure for the audacity of a minority who is already considered to control much more than it deserves. Recognizing this concept is crucial to combating the multitude of abuses which Jews and their allies must contend with.
While I cannot say I have completely discharged my reluctance to call myself a Zionist, I can say that I have a much more confident understanding as to why it is needed now more than ever. It is not that Jews wish to advance their rights at the expense of others, nor do they wish to acquire more than what they need. Instead, Zionism should be seen as a call for justice, a rectification of centuries of unmitigated hatred and brutality. The idea of Zionism is at its simplest, a form of nostalgia-the desire to return home. While the moral and political questions surrounding Israel cannot be dismissed, neither can the essential reasons of its founding. We must expose the hypocrisy of a world which has endeavored to subdue or expel Jews for generations then claims that Jews have no right to agency or sovereignty in the land of their ancestors. I contend that if Zionism is to remain relevant in an era of differentiated Jewish identity, it must embrace a broader meaning. In place of the familiar narratives which are closely linked to the physical reestablishment of Israel, Zionism must present itself as a continuing struggle for the rights and security of Jews around the world. Acknowledging the controversies of Israeli policies should also be embraced as an indication that different opinions are not inherently threatening. In this way, Israel becomes only one critical component in the fabric of Zionism. In transforming the narrative from one of an oppressive, militant ideology to one of a journey towards personal sovereignty and unrestricted freedom, Zionism will reemerge as an effective articulation of the aspirations of Jews from every background.