In the 1800s, the great Moses Hess, a French Jew, felt like an outcast; he said that he felt like a Socialist amongst Zionists and a Zionist amongst Socialists.
In 1900, Dov Ber Borochov, a Ukranian Jew, was expelled from the Russian Social Democratic Party, an anti-czarist revolutionary socialist party, for his Zionist leanings.
Unfortunately, in the 2000s, not much has changed. It’s really not cool to profess to being a Zionist in progressive spaces.
And more than that, many young Jews are hiding their connections to Israel, to such an extent, that they are willing to turn a blind eye to blatant anti-Semitism.
Much has been said and written about the conflation of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism. On the one side, objections to crying anti-Semitism at any criticism of Israel and its government’s policies and on the other, with Israel being so central to many Jew’s Jewish identity, a denial of its right to exist is denying Jews their right to self-identify as Jews with a land and a people and a language and a history – and a State that is real and is home to over 8 million people.
But even without the charge of anti-Semitism labeled on its detractors, Zionism as an ideology can stand proudly on its own two feet. Surely we’re beyond the need to have to justify it? No?
“Zionism is the liberation movement of the Jewish people. Surely all progressives are pro-liberation for oppressed peoples?”, I hear the call.
“But the Jewish people are not oppressed! They are white, privileged and extremely wealthy. And if you want to talk about oppression, it’s Israel who are the oppressors, oppressing the Palestinian people in our name”, comes the response.
Parts, or all of this dialogue may seem outlandish to some readers, but they actually represent real positions held by many Jews and non-Jews alike. What this article intends to do is to unpack these thoughts, idea by idea.
Zionism is the liberation movement of the Jewish people
“Zionism is the modern expression of the ancient Jewish heritage. Zionism is the national liberation movement of a people exiled from its historic homeland and dispersed among the nations of the world. Zionism is the redemption of an ancient nation from a tragic lot and the redemption of a land neglected for centuries. Zionism is the revival of an ancient language and culture, in which the vision of a universal peace has been a central theme. Zionism is the embodiment of a unique pioneering spirit, of the dignity of labor, and of enduring human values. Zionism is creating a society, however, imperfect it may still be, which tries to implement the highest ideal of democracy – political, social and cultural – for all the inhabitants of Israel, irrespective of religious belief, race or sex. Zionism is, in sum, the constant and unrelenting effort to realize the national and universal vision of the prophets of Israel.”
So said Yigal Alon, an Israeli politician, general and kibbutznik , to the UN General Assembly in 1975. The State of Israel is the physical embodiment of the Jewish peoples’ need for self-determination and sovereignty, transforming their abnormal status as a minority susceptible to the whims of whoever happens to be governing them in a particular time and place.
“Victorious socialism must achieve complete democracy and, consequently, not only bring about the complete equality of nations, but also give effect to the right of oppressed nations to self-determination, i.e., the right to free political secession”, so said the Bolshevik Vladimir Lenin in 1916, a position which Socialist organisations and movements have embraced for the 100 years since. Except, it seems, in the last few years, and only with regard to the Jewish people.
The Jewish people are white, privileged and wealthy
Well, according to the Pew Report conducted in 2013, fully one-quarter of US Jews (25%) say they have a household income exceeding $150,000, compared with 8% of adults in the public as a whole, whilst 94% of North American Jews describe themselves as non-hispanic white.
Even though there are significant exceptions to these statistics in the US (a quarter of U.S. Jews reported household incomes of less than $30,000 per year and the increasing numbers of Jews of color), it is worth remembering that even though just under half of the Jewish population on the planet in 2017 reside in the US, we must look at the Jewish people over both time and place to give us a more complex understanding. And socio-economic factors are not the sole arbiters of comfort and belonging.
Theodore Herzl put it this way: “We have sincerely tried everywhere to merge with the national communities in which we live, seeking only to preserve the faith of our fathers. It is not permitted us. In vain are we loyal patriots, sometimes superloyal; in vain do we make the same sacrifices of life and property as our fellow citizens; in vain do we strive to enhance the fame of our native lands in the arts and sciences, or her wealth by trade and commerce. In our native lands where we have lived for centuries we are still decried as aliens, often by men whose ancestors had not yet come at a time when Jewish sighs had long been heard in the country. . .
Oppression and persecution cannot exterminate us. No nation on earth has endured such struggles and sufferings as we have. Jew-baiting has merely winnowed out our weaklings; the strong among us defiantly return to their own whenever persecution breaks out. . . Wherever we remain politically secure for any length of time, we assimilate. I think this is not praiseworthy. . .”.
Anti-Semitism and the Jewish Diaspora
For some, this is the historical context, for many more, this is their day to day reality in 2017. But what does it look like for American Jewry, the biggest and strongest Jewish population outside of Israel? This Washington Post piece from 1987 was entitled “Is America The Promised Land for Jews?”. The opening paragraph reads, “It’s time to say that America is a better place to be a Jew than Jerusalem. If ever there was a Promised Land, we Jewish Americans are living in it. Here Jews have flourished, not alone in politics and the economy, but in matters of art, culture and learning. Jews feel safe and secure here in ways that they do not and cannot in the State of Israel”.
And yet, according to this survey, 76 percent of Israeli Jews said they believed it is safer to live as a Jew in Israel than in the Diaspora, with only 10 percent choosing the Diaspora as being safer. Have Jews in Israel not flourished in politics and the arts? In hi-tech and learning? With all it’s deficiencies, Israel exists as a democratic sovereign country where it’s citizens shape the country.
And what do American Jews say? We should look no further than college campuses, where the common belief is that they are a hotbed of anti-Semitism, where students are afraid to speak out. However, a recent study claims that everything is ok. Conducted on five college campuses in California, researchers “didn’t find Jewish students who felt themselves under threat or in hostile conditions. We didn’t find students who characterized their campuses as anti-Semitic”.
Is this the same UCLA that a student government leader announced he was leaving the school due to vicious harassment by BDS activists and scapegoating by the administration for trying to maintain student government neutrality on the the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Where the school’s Students for Justice in Palestine chapter screened a documentary that promoted “centuries-old anti-Semitic conspiracy theories” about Jews and Zionists controlling the media?
Or UC Berkley, where the suspension and subsequent reinstatement of a student-run course advocating the destruction of the State of Israel and the surrounding controversy causing an immediate and sharp increase in anti-Semitic expression on campus, which included the appearance of fliers warning “non-Jews” against “Jewish bullies” who try to manipulate university affairs?
Or UC Irvine, where a mob of 50+ demonstrators stormed a screening of an Israeli film — shouting “Long live the intifada!” and “All white people need to die,” where the filmgoers were forced to barricade themselves inside? One Jewish student who arrived to see the film was chased into a nearby dorm, from where she was rescued by police after calling 911.
And the national statistics confirm that anti-Semitism is on the rise in the USA, and it is not just the ADL that is saying so. The FBI released its figures recently, which confirmed back to back yearly increases from 2014-2016, and 2017 is all set to push those numbers up even further.
And let us not forget that this is the example of the US is the best case scenario for Jews around the world today. What about the reality of the half a million Jews living in France – French Jews made Aliyah in the tens of thousands between 2014 and 2017 following a wave of fatal anti-Semitic attacks? What about the Jews living in the rest of Europe? Elsewhere?
The argument for progressive Zionism is as strong as it has ever been. Why do we need to listen to those that say that the Jewish people can’t build a just society in Israel? There were naysayers a hundred years ago too, and if we had listened to them we’d still be refugees.
I almost managed to write a whole article on Zionism without mentioning the occupation and the Palestinians. Almost. Any progressive Zionist that wants to be heard by progressives is obliged to state unequivocally that their Zionism in no way condones the occupation and Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. Quite the opposite: The Zionist dream is over if we continue to control and oppress another people without actualising their own dream for self-determination.
And yet, if Zionism remains inextricably linked to the Palestinian cause, we are doing it a disservice. Zionism existed long before the occupation, and will continue to exist long after its inevitable end.