Nathaniel Helfgot
Nathaniel Helfgot
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The real problem with anti-Zionism

It's not necessarily anti-Semitism, it's the notion that Jews are not entitled to self-determination in any part of their ancestral homeland
Yemenite Jews walking to Aden, the site of a reception camp, ahead of their emigration to Israel, 1949. (Kluger Zoltan/Israeli National Photo Archive/public domain)
Yemenite Jews walking to Aden, the site of a reception camp, ahead of their emigration to Israel, 1949. (Kluger Zoltan/Israeli National Photo Archive/public domain)

A heated debate has arisen in the last decade as to whether the contemporary anti-Zionism of progressive groups such as the BDS movement or of ideologues and activists such as Judith Butler or Noam Chomsky or Congresswoman Ilan Ohmar is a modern-day form of anti-Semitism. Arguments about double standards, free speech, the inherent right of every nation on earth to express its self-determination in the form of a state or not, the rhetoric one uses and the bedfellows one keeps, have often risen to the surface.

In many ways, this intense debate sets up a false litmus test as to the problem of anti-Zionism. It assumes that if anti-Zionism can be equated with anti-Semitism, it is totally out of bounds and illegitimate, while if it is not, the ideology of rejecting the right of the State of Israel to exist as a Jewish-democratic state is a thoroughly acceptable viewpoint alongside other perspectives.

The issue, however, is not whether anti-Zionists are anti-Semites (the evidence is mixed and points to the fact that some clearly are and some are clearly not). Anti-Zionism, in and of itself, is the problem. But first a definition.

People who are stridently opposed to the policies of the current or any government of the State of Israel or feel that Israel has become corrupt or immoral in many of its actions are not anti-Semites. Just as someone who is virulently anti-Trump or anti-Biden is not anti-American, nor is someone who is virulently anti-Bibi or his policies anti-Zionist nor anti-Israel.

Anti-Zionism should properly refer to people who deny the right of the Jewish people to self-determination in any part of their ancestral homeland, either due to the denial of  Jewish peoplehood (a la what was once the classic mainstream view in the Arab world — that Jews are not a people; that Judaism is exclusively a religion), or to those who view the very founding of the State of Israel as an exclusively colonial enterprise. In that view, the entire legitimacy of Israel rests on an original sin that usurped Arab land and dislodged so many Arab residents of the time, either by a combination of people fleeing battlefields or in some cases forced expulsion or other factors.

For others, though they might recognize the Jewish people as being a “people” and even having some claim to the land, they do not feel that that claim has any validity given the different national collective that formed the majority of inhabitants who lived there in 1948. A subcategory of this group is those who believe that the current occupation of the Palestinians in the West Bank/Judea-Samaria (due to either real or imagined threats to Israeli security), is so evil that it undermines any legitimacy to the Jewish state. It therefore should lead to its dismantlement and to the creation of a secular bi-national state in its place (a la the recent writings of Peter Beinart).

As a committed Jew standing on the shoulders of hundreds of generations of Jews dispersed throughout the world who yearned, prayed, and, in the last century and a half, actively worked to return to its historical homeland, I reject all of these forms of anti-Zionism. This rejection is irrespective of whether it crosses into anti-Semitism so long as the end goal is the dismantling of the sole Jewish majority state into some form of an unworkable binational or purely secular state of all its citizens. Zionism was and is the modern era national liberation movement of the Jewish people, a movement to restore a people to part of its land, to ensure its national survival and enable national revival. The ideology that undermines the legitimacy of the State of Israel and seeks its dismantling is a direct threat to the Jewish collective.

It is clear that the Palestinian people suffered greatly as a result of the War of Independence in 1948 and the creation of the State of Israel. Yet, while acknowledging those facts, the complex historical truth still lies with liberal Zionists like Chaim Gans, Einat Wilf, Michael Walzer, and Benny Morris. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict never was and is not a simple story of Western colonialists dispossessing an indigenous people. The conflict between Jews and Arabs in the Holy Land is a tortured narrative of two legitimate, competing, national liberation movements and ethnic collectives fighting over a small piece of land, both of whom have deep historical rights and connections to that land which could only be resolved by partition into two states. (This continues to be the only realistic solution and one which would have yielded a much better destiny for Palestinians in the decades after 1948 had it been accepted in 1947. History has not stopped and the best deal now on the table is a far cry from what was proffered in the Partition Plan of 1947 or could have been negotiated in the aftermath of the 1967 War.)

The longstanding, deeply rooted connection to the only Jewish homeland, revived, transformed and given political expression in the modern Zionist movement from the 1880s onward, captured the imagination and hearts of many Jews throughout the world. The millennia of Jewish powerlessness and the promise of modern nationalism and self-determination won more and more adherents as the 20th century moved forward. This powerful current of traditional Jewish yearning coupled with late 19th and early 20th-century ideology, and exacerbated by the unprecedented circumstances of a devastated Jewish collective in the aftermath of the Holocaust, propelled the drive for a Jewish state in 1948.

Both the Jewish people and the world at large understood that the War of Independence in 1948 was a war of survival. If the fledgling State of Israel had lost, not only would there have been a bloodbath, but there would have been no Jewish collective able to live in full freedom and expressing their desire for national determination under Arab rule (Yes, Jews and Arabs lived in relative harmony in some corners of the Arab world for many centuries, but that only went so far in the eyes of the law and society. In most instances they held second-class citizenship — as dhmini).

Moreover, the current idea to dismantle the one Jewish sovereign state in the world because of moral and ethical problems of the occupation of the Palestinians in the West Bank/Judea-Samaria (which needs to be solved and ameliorated in as equitable and fair a way as possible respecting the rights of the Palestinian people while balancing the real security needs of Israel) is itself profoundly dangerous to Jewish survival. The recent history of multi-ethnic and multi-religious states in the Middle East such as Lebanon does not paint an encouraging picture. This reality would be even more tense in a binational state of two so divergent ethnic, national and religious groups as Israeli Jews and Palestinians with such a long and bitter history of conflict and grievance. Moreover, even if direct conflict and civil war could be avoided, given the demographic trends, it would not be many years before the Jewish people would become a minority in its own land, with potentially damaging consequences.

Moreover, the eradication of the sole Jewish state in the world would do irreparable harm to the health and flourishing of the Jewish people in broader terms.

Let us say, for example, that in the early 1970s, a bi-national “Israelistine” entity had been created — would it have stepped in and sent commandos to save all those Jewish hostages being held in Entebbe by terrorists? And would they step in, in the future in our own 21st-century reality — for we know there will always be extremists who will never accept any resolution? Would this entity have agreed to spend the millions of dollars and effort to send emissaries and teachers clandestinely to Russia to aid and teach refuseniks and then open its doors wide to have 1,000,000 Russian Jews emigrate and return to their homeland? Or would it have carried out the rescue of the Ethiopian Jewish community in the mid-1980s and spent the millions of dollars in Jewish education throughout Europe and the world that the State of Israel invests in every year with teachers and materials? Moreover, the Jewish people, still reeling over the loss of a third of its populace, still confronting so many challenges of dispersion, assimilation, and anti-Semitism are still in the process of renaissance and healing that can only be fully realized when there is a Jewish state/polity first and foremost devoted to the protection and flourishing of the Jewish people while safeguarding the civil and political rights of all of its citizens.

The Jewish people have been blessed in our era to have a sovereign Jewish state that sees itself as engaged and connected to the Jewish people worldwide and is the homeland of the entire Jewish people. Israel, like every political nation-state is flawed and myopic at times and to many of its supporters both Jewish and gentile, desperately needs new directions, especially in its relationship to the Palestinians. However, it is clear that it needs to exist and must exist and must be preserved and allowed to flourish alongside a Palestinian state that will address the national aspirations of the Palestinian people. Advocacy for a Palestinian state, however, cannot cause us to underestimate the need for the Jewish people to have its own state with its own army and ability to defend itself and its own ability to shape the future and destiny of the political, cultural and social wellbeing of the Jewish people both in Israel and throughout the world.

About the Author
Nathaniel Helfgot is rabbi of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Teaneck, NJ and a faculty member at the SAR High School in NYC.
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