Stephen Games

What’s a Zionist? Only an anti-Zionist can say

Vice-chancellors from several of the UK’s top universities were summoned to a meeting with the British prime minister today to discuss antisemitic hostility on UK campuses. An additional £500,000 has also been given to the University Jewish Chaplaincy service to provide additional welfare for Jewish students. Both these moves follow government concern about extensive campus protests in the USA and the need for police suppression of the violence that has come with it, and fears about copycat behavior in Britain. 

In the BBC’s Today program on Radio 4 this morning, another pro-Hamas student who would not be identified except as “Issy” explained why Jewish students should not be fearful of the encampment at Leeds University, in the North-West of England, where she is based.

Unlike Jewish student leaders who have spoken on radio and TV, and who do nothing more than list examples of whatever unpleasant behavior they are aware of, “Issy” was chillingly articulate in her delivery of a highly developed political theory to defend the encampments and the protests, but she began by stating what the encampment protestors are demanding of Leeds University.

“Our first demand is that the university acknowledges the genocide happening in Palestine and we also demand that the university cuts ties with arms companies like BAE Systems that make parts for the F35 jets that Israel uses to bomb Gaza. We demand that they cut ties with Israeli universities on occupied Palestinian land. We demand that there are no war criminals on campus [which means no Israelis]. We demand that [the university] stand with the student movement for Palestine.”

On the first point, “Issy” was asked by Today presenter Amol Rajan how she could expect the whole university to sign up to an acknowledgement of genocide when such a claim is disputed by people of many faiths and no faiths. In reply, she said, “I think we can look to the International Court of Justice and the South African case against apartheid and genocide that they brought to the ICJ, and [where] the ICJ ruled that Israel is committing plausible genocide. Our university should not be standing for this genocide and not be complicit in it.”

Ignoring the fact that this is a falsehood—the ICJ ruled that Gazans have a plausible right to be protected from genocide, not that the claim of genocide by Israel was plausible—the interviewer then asked whether “Issy” was opposed to antisemitism.

“Of course we’re opposed to antisemitism,” she continued. “And we’re opposed to all forms of oppression.” And was she an anti-Zionist? “Zionism is an ideology that has led to the oppression and genocide of thousands of people,” she replied, as if a genocide can be waged against mere “thousands” of people.

“A lot of Jews would say that they have been brutally persecuted for centuries,” Rajan argued, “and Zionism, which they see as the pursuit of a safe place that they can call home in the Middle East, is central to their Jewish identity, and therefore being anti-Zionist might imply that you think Israel itself ought not to exist. What do you think about that?”

“We need to acknowledge the millions of anti-Zionist Jews who would disagree with that statement,” she replied. “We also need to look at the logic of Zionism as a defeatist one. Zionism claims that the only path to liberation is to give up the fight and carve out a place elsewhere that belongs exclusively to one people. But then if we, as an oppressed people, reject defeatest logic and fight it and oppression, we can find a better answer to antisemitism and make a more peaceful world for people everywhere.”

Did she think Israel has a right to exist, in that case? In her reply, “Issy” said that since the creation of the State of Israel 75 years ago, the Palestinian people have been undergoing oppression and are currently undergoing genocide. “The State of Israel represents something that has harmed many, many people. I think that the State of Israel for many Jewish people represents a safe haven but isolating people is not the answer to oppression. I think liberating people worldwide, fighting antisemitism at home and abroad, is the only answer.”

Opposing antisemitism as an intellectual position was very clear, Rajan observed, but added that there were genocidal implications in not being able to say emphatically that Israel has a right to exist, after centuries of persecution and the Holocaust, because that suggests that the home for Jews, after centuries in which Israel was their home, ought not to be theirs. 

“Issy” countered that “a home for Jews does exist and it is with everyone else. [That is, not in Israel.] Everyone should be able to lead lives that are free from oppression together, united.”

I am not a political operator and had not previously come across the notion of Zionism as a “defeatist” ideology, that is to say, an inadequate alternative belief system, got up in the face of the failure of a more ambitious aspiration to live in the world “with everyone else”. But equally, I had not been aware that ideological supporters of Hamas were developing a theory that made them better able to say what was in Jewish interests than Jews themselves. Nor have I ever been aware that Zionism is a single ideology with a defined set of precepts that shapes anyone’s belief systems of actions.

When I was a student and an actively religious but unpolitical member of my university’s Jewish society, Zionism seemed to be a belief that Jews from all over the world should move to Israel and no longer co-exist in other countries with everyone else, and I strongly disagreed with this. On the contrary, I thought there needed to be a stronger Jewish presence in the world, not least to make Jews known, understood and liked by those who, in our absence, might misunderstand us and fetishize that misunderstanding into hatred.

The meaning of Zionism then seemed to morph into both a looser notion of Israel’s legitimacy merely as a homeland, and a more hardline notion used by settlers and extremists to defend their right to settle all the land that the Jewish tribes had conquered at their most expansionist moment in Biblical history. There are undoubtedly other interpretations of Zionism beside these.

Nowhere, however, do Jews have a single definition of what Zionism means, nor is “Zionism” the basis of any political program. Over twenty political parties are currently represented in Israel’s Knesset; not one of them shares a set of beliefs with any other, nor does any party sign up to a declaration of beliefs that defines them as either Zionist or not Zionist. The idea that Israel is the product of a Zionist “project” is a chimera, as is the notion that genocide and oppression are fundamental to Israeli politics in the way that they were for Nazi politics.

It is only on university campuses, among Israel’s enemies, that Zionism is tied down, defined and then vilified on the grounds of its imagined evils. But that fact—that such notions, invented by academics and pro-Hamas propagandists, are imaginary—should not placate us into ignoring them. 

It is usually the case that people define themselves. Uniquely, in the case of Jews, we are being defined by outsiders who distort their wish to defend the interests of others by making it appear that they are also defending us and know better than us what is good for us. They may believe that what they say is true. I think that the rest of us believe that they are naive, ignorant, devious, intellectually dishonest and therefore dangerous, and that whoever pulls their strings—those, perhaps, in the ideas factories of poli-sci and sociology departments—will cheer when we no longer exist.

In theory, I would agree with “Issy” that, in an ideal world, it would be lovely to be “liberated” and for us all to live in freedom together, rather than in bunkers of isolation. But if she and other student protestors are going to be the gatekeepers and welcoming parties for this new togetherness, I can well understand why Jews have gone into retreat. She would have denied it but we have seen for ourselves just how welcoming the varieties of pro-Hamas activists are towards Jews when they all bed down together in their encampments. 

In addition, friends of “Issy” may oppose what they regard as “Zionism” for wanting to “carve out a place … that belongs exclusively to one people”. For the rest of us, it’s hard to understand why such an ambition is illegitimate for Jews but perfectly acceptable for the descendants of those who, for centuries, had been the most military force in the world and who conquered land from Africa to India, and who now want their occupation of the tiny piece of land at the east end of the Mediterranean to be theirs alone. 

They may feel oppressed—and they are, by those who keep them locked into a mindset of permanent victimhood—but aren’t they the real colonialists?

As for their support among “millions of anti-Zionist Jews”—I don’t think so.

About the Author
Stephen Games is a designer, publisher and award-winning architectural journalist, formerly with the Guardian, BBC and Independent. He was until Spring 2018 a member of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, habitually questioning its unwillingness to raise difficult questions about Israel, and was a board member of his synagogue with responsibility for building maintenance and repair. In his spare time he is involved in editing volumes of the Tanach and is a much-liked barmitzvah teacher with an original approach, having posted several videos to YouTube on the cantillation of haftarot and the Purim Megillah.
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