The Unspoken Privilege of Jewish Anti-Zionism

I’m going to begin this article with a somewhat controversial statement: the Jews living in Canada and the United States have it pretty good. That’s not to say that we’ve always had it good here or that even now we’re living in a discrimination-free world (quite the contrary) but in the long and tumultuous history of the Jewish people that’s been plagued with expulsions, inquisitions, pogroms and gas chambers, we’re quite safe in comparison here in North America. We wake up in the morning knowing that our lives aren’t in danger and we go to bed feeling the same way. As silly as that barometer for safety sounds, my grandparents’ generation didn’t have that luxury and such a reality should never be taken for granted.

Now, that’s not to downplay the very real anti-Semitism that Jews are facing here, with the FBI publishing a report that in 2016, Jews were subjected to 54% of religiously motivated hate crimes despite being just 2% of the American population. And of course, I’ve personally experienced countless episodes of anti-Semitism in Canada, ranging from pennies being pelted at me to my synagogue being vandalized with swastikas. For a more “casual” display of anti-Semitism in Canada, I invite you to try walking along downtown Montreal on a Friday night with a Kippa on your head. I can assure you that both the city’s homeless population and its drunken university students have nothing but glowing endorsements of the Jewish people to share with you, “le juif avec le bec.”

With all that said, there’s an infrastructure to combat hate here. When there was that spree of synagogues being vandalized in Ottawa last year, Prime Minister Trudeau was quick to condemn it and a number of my colleagues reached out to me to let me know that they stood in solidarity with the entire Ottawa Jewish Community during such challenging times. While the white supremacist march in Charlottesville was not properly condemned by President Trump, it was condemned by virtually everyone else and the counter protests were larger than the actual march. Moreover, when the Jewish cemetery in Missouri was vandalized, the community was quick to roll up their sleeves and clean it up, raising thousands of dollars for its restoration. This shows that while an extremely hideous underbelly exists in our society, we have the numbers on our side. The culture of hate is combated by our values of love, generosity and mutual respect; and those in power share those same sentiments.

This brings me to the subject of my article. There are a growing number of Jews in North America who, after seeing some less-than-appealing aspects of Israeli society, have chosen to throw their hands in the air and essentially say “it would have been better if this country never existed and we’d like it to end because our hands are so dirty that it can no longer be justified.” Oftentimes, these people embrace the BDS Movement or at the very least, call for a One State Solution (somewhat naively believing that this will actually solve the conflict).

These individuals should not be simply cast aside by the Jewish Community as “self-hating Jews” or “Hamas allies.” Not only is that horrendously offensive, but it does a tremendous disservice to these people who, by and large, take pride in their Jewish identities and who have a genuine belief in human rights and progressivism.

Rather, these people should be called out for what they really are: extremely privileged.

They’re privileged enough to live in a country where they don’t fear for their lives and that, when it comes to calling for basic equality regardless of ethnicity, the vast majority of the populace (including those in power), agree. They’re privileged enough to live in a country with the cultural and political infrastructure to fight against racism. They’re privileged enough to live in a country where it would be unthinkable for the government to make laws that discriminate against them or at the very least, turn a blind eye to their suffering.

This privilege has bred a certain naivety, and dare I even say arrogance, to believe that their situation in North America reflects the realities of Jews living in other countries, which unfortunately are less-than-hospitable.

But before I present the situation for the Jews in some of these others countries, let’s start with a brief look into the not-so-distant past, back when Canada and America were one of those less-than-hospitable countries. When Jews were fleeing Nazi persecution and Prime Minister Mackenzie King was asked how many Jews were too many for Canada to take in, he infamously replied “none is too many.” When the M.S. St. Louis tried to bring over 900 Jewish refugees to Cuba, Canada and the United States to avoid the death camps, all three countries rejected them and the ship was forced to sail back to Europe, resulting in the slaughter of its helpless passengers. This was also at a time when there was overt anti-Semitism in society, where people would refuse to hire Jews, sell them property or allow them into universities above a certain quota simply because their ethnicity was deemed “undesirable.” While Canada and the United States have thankfully come a long way since then, this evolution didn’t come quickly and it came at a tremendous cost. Had the State of Israel been established prior to the Holocaust, there is no doubt that less than six million Jews would have perished.

Thankfully, it was established in 1948 to make up for lost time and ended up aiding millions of Jews who found themselves seeking sanctuary. Despite its numerous faults, I’m immensely thankful that the State of Israel existed to absorb the over 800,000 Jewish refugees that were fleeing persecution in Middle Eastern and North African countries. I’m also grateful that the State of Israel existed to provide refuge for the hundreds of thousands of Jews who were trapped in the former Soviet Union and the scores who were able to flee Ethiopia to enjoy better lives in their ancestral homeland. I’m unsure what the anti-Zionists would have proposed to these oppressed and endangered minorities but something tells me that their fancy posters and melodic chants would have been less-than-helpful.

If you think that these are solely problems of the past and that Israel no longer serves a purpose as a place of Jewish refuge, you couldn’t be more wrong. In the present day, there are countless Jewish populations around the world that are at risk.

In Poland this past November, 60,000 white supremacists marched in what was the largest gathering of Nazis in Europe since World War Two. These subhuman hatemongers could be seen giving Nazi salutes, calling for a “white Europe” as well as chanting their desire to see “a second Holocaust.” This march was largely downplayed by Polish politicians and was casually labelled as “incidental,” greatly ignoring the severity of the situation. Moreover, the march wasn’t just ignored by politicians, it was even openly embraced by some, with the Associated Press reporting that a Polish minister referred to the march as “a beautiful sight.”

Unfortunately, neo-Nazi groups throughout Europe are on the rise and they’ve made their way into different legislatures, giving anti-Semitism and ultra-nationalism newfound power. Many of these parties are proudly white nationalistic and use dog whistle politics to attract voters while others are openly anti-Semitic and engage in Holocaust revisionism. Examples include Greece’s Golden Dawn, France’s National Front, Austria’s Freedom Party, Italy’s Lega Nord and Hungary’s Jobbik – all of which hold seats in their countries’ national assemblies.

It would seem that European countries are having a tougher time than ever combating anti-Semitism and convincing their Jewish populations that they can keep them safe, with French Jews moving to Israel in record numbers for the past three years. In the last month alone in France, a 15 year old Jewish girl had her face slashed while taking public transportation, an 8 year old Jewish boy was badly beaten on his way to after-school tutoring, and a kosher supermarket was firebombed – the very same kosher supermarket that was shot up immediately after the Charlie Hebdo attacks. In fact, things have gotten so bad in France that the government has even deployed soldiers, armed with automatic weapons, to guard synagogues and Jewish institutions. This has become the new normal, with many French Jews reporting to be too scared to wear any Jewish symbols in public. This is truly a sad state of affairs.

What would the anti-Zionists propose we do to help these people? Here’s a better question: would they have the courage to look French or Polish or Hungarian Jews in the eye and tell them “we appreciate that you’re suffering and that there are literal neo-Nazis in your national assembly and that you fear for your family’s future but I’m afraid your safety comes at just too much of a moral cost for us to bear because of the occupation”?

This simplistic, zero sum, all or nothing approach to Israel is counterproductive. You can fight anti-Semitism at home while opposing the settlement enterprise and a whole bunch of other Israeli government policies and still support the concept of a Jewish Homeland. In Israel’s own declaration of independence, it states quite clearly that Israel will guarantee the “complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.”

While we can poke holes in how the practice has differed from the theory, the point is that the Zionist project, at its core, intends to safeguard the rights of the Jewish people as well as promote equality for all – including the non-Jewish minority that resides there. This is both an admirable and progressive goal. If anything, there is no greater progressive cause than supporting the right to self-determination for a historically and currently oppressed minority.

I would encourage my colleagues who identify as anti-Zionist to join me in calling for an Israel that greater reflects its stated ambitions rather than call for its end. We need not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

In the United States, there’s a well-known progressive, anti-occupation movement called If Not Now (INN). While I find myself in a agreement with many of their core values, an issue I take is their lack of uniformity, in that they are agnostic on the issues of BDS, the One State Solution, non-Zionism and even anti-Zionism. As far as INN is concerned, if you hold any of these views, you can still have a seat at the table, thereby tacitly approving of the very views that would have Israel vanish. It all comes back to the mentality of “the occupation is public enemy number one and the rest is just commentary.” This is horribly misguided.

INN gets their name from a quote that was written by the great Jewish sage, Hillel, in Ethics of the Fathers (Pirkei Avot), where he rhetorically asks “If I am only for myself, who am I? And if not now, when?” While this is a beautiful quote, it isn’t the full passage. Ironically enough, the anti-Zionists in INN seem to conveniently ignore the very phrase that starts off the verse from which their organization owes its namesake: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?”

These sentences are not meant to be taken individually, but taken together to form the battle cry of Jewish social justice: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? And if not now, when?” In other words, not only must Jews stand shoulder to shoulder with their fellow Jews in solidarity but it’s equally as incumbent on us to fight for the rights of others and that we must seize the moment and act, not tomorrow, but today. Calling for an end to the State of Israel is not being “for myself” and is an affront to the memory of Hillel.

The opposition to Israeli policy need not lead to the opposition of Israel itself. While I believe that most Jewish anti-Zionists mean well, the cessation of Israel’s existence entirely will create more problems than it will solve. In other words, this ideology actually does more harm than good and for that reason, should not be pursued by anyone who considers themselves an advocate of peace and human rights. The notion of equality, self-determination and peace shouldn’t extend to everyone but the Jewish people.

About the Author
Michael Aarenau lives in Montreal, Quebec. He has a Bachelor's of Public Affairs and Policy Management from Carleton University and is currently pursuing a law degree at McGill University. Michael is passionate about human rights, international affairs and justice. For cheeky insights in 280 characters or less, follow him on twitter @MAarenau
Related Topics
Related Posts