Marc Overbeck
Relapsed government relations practitioner, emerging poet, committed Reconstructionist Jew

Zionism is Humanitarianism

A month ago, I had planned to write an essay titled “Zionism is Humanitarianism” in response to growing reports from social media and general media that Zionism was being increasingly conflated with ethno-nationalism. Over the past month, the cascade of conflation has become a full wall of water.  I started to tell myself that it was impossible to actually have people hear that Zionism is a humanistic approach to people living together. But rather than give up, I’m going to boldly speak into a roaring sea of already-knowing what Zionism is (even if inaccurate)—with an intention of raising a staff (here in the last days of Passover) and create a hole in that wall of water.

Before going further, I want to note how much it grieves me that the general, global attitude around Zionism seems to be so fixed and misguided as to Zionism’s original intent, and the possibility that Zionism represents not merely for Jews but for all people.

Theodor Herzl and the early founders of Zionism were not focused on removing Arabs or others from the Holy Land in order for Jews to have a secure space to live.  And that makes Zionism distinct, and I would argue, more humanitarian than other creeds that call for elimination of what is considered “infidel” or “heretic” from one’s land. Although Orthodox Judaism does spell out strict customs and practices, which it often holds out as superior to other ways of observing Judaism—on the whole, Judaism’s attitude to non-Jews is “let us do our thing, and if you let us do that, you are welcome to do yours, even if we don’t join in.”

Now, I would assert that this has been problematic for many people in some ways:  There’s the problem with “let us do our thing”, in a universe where people want others to do as they do. There’s the problem of non-Jews being “permitted” to do one’s own thing, when  no one wants to feel dependent on someone else for their free expression. And, there’s the problem of “even if we don’t join in”, when what that provokes is “you think you are better than me that you don’t do what I do.”

But that’s the deal of Zionism as originally postulated—and mostly, of Judaism. Of the three Abrahamic religions, there are 2.4 billion Christians in the world of various denominations; and there are 1.9 billion Muslims (both Sunni and Shia) in the world.

Both Christianity and Islam have conversion of others to their respective faiths as core components.

Judaism takes a different approach. It doesn’t go and proselytize; in fact, Judaism offers barriers to people becoming Jewish—and many people overcome these barriers through sheer commitment.

There are fewer than 16 million Jews in the world.

Throughout history, Jews have been not only disparaged and harassed; they have been killed en masse—simply for being Jewish. People have diminished and deflected that by questioning the accuracy of statistics:  “Oh, the Holocaust was exaggerated!”  To those who have asserted they think the number of Jews who perished were fewer than generally reported, or point out that others were also killed during the whole of WWII I would say:  You don’t believe 6 million Jews were killed?  Okay. So do you think that 2 million or 3 million or 4 million is somehow acceptable? You want to talk about others who were killed at the hands of the Nazis?  We grieve those deaths also. And, other people dying doesn’t negate that millions of Jews did also—as a result of being Jewish.  What do you have to say about THAT?”

Having read this far—even if you came with no knowledge of Jewish history—you might start to understand why Jews, who have been massacred and/or expelled from countries where they lived as citizens, have felt the need for a “safe space” to avoid elimination altogether.

So, let’s be clear, that a commitment to Jews having a “safe space” in which to exist is not predicated in some master plan to make the whole world Jewish, or to convince people with different beliefs that they should adopt those of Judaism.  It has been, since the beginning of the postulation of Zionism—literally a survival strategy.

Now, social and political movements often have been prone to being co-opted by those wishing to hijack them for a more narrow or different purpose.  And, it’s entirely possible that Zionism has fallen prey to this phenomenon by rightwing, nationalist exclusionists.

It is this reality in which groups have emerged such as Jewish Voice For Peace (JVP), that call themselves “anti-Zionist.”  I really regret this labeling.

I do not believe that JVP truly disavows the aim of Jews to be secure; my understanding is that the group believes the results of Israel’s particular approach to its security have produced such negative effects that it has decided to renounce Zionism altogether.   And, while it’s fair to reject and disavow the effects of how some have hijacked Zionism—by going after “Zionism”, I think JVP and groups like it actually do harm to Jewish solidarity and the notion that Jews have a right to be free from persecution and extermination, and that these groups in doing so, actually promote anti-Jewish sentiment.

I had nearly given up any defense of Zionism.  But my honor of the core tenets of what it is to be Jewish won’t permit me to do this. Even if there is practically no space for people to hear what I have to say, my own integrity won’t let me not.

It’s quite common—perhaps even fashionable these days—to equate Zionism with ethnocentrism.   I think this is quite consistent with historical views of Jews as “elite”, “superior”, and secretive.”

It is entirely possible to be for one’s own survival and not antagonistic to others’ existence.  In fact, one could say that real humanity begins in this space—the space of non-antagonism–and ideally, moves toward a full embrace of others as fellow human beings.

Zionism at its core asserts that it is proper and right that Jews who wish, have the opportunity to reside and practice their faith securely in their ancestral homeland, and recognizes the special nature of that piece of geography for the Jewish people.  Period.  This is not racially superior; this is not inclusionist.

Neither Zionism’s original spirit nor its founders’ aspirations intended that Jews be the only people who could live in a state founded by Jews and for Jews.  Whatever one’s miscontextualization of “colonist approach” in the writings of the early Zionists to make the case that Jews “colonized” a land to displace natives, it is hard to argue that Zionism was founded as a racist or ethnonational.  As a key tenet of Zionism, Herzl wrote:

Every man will be as free and undisturbed in his faith or his disbelief as he is in his nationality. And if it should occur that men of other creeds and different nationalities come to live amongst us, we should accord them honorable protection and equality before the law.       – The Jewish State (1896)

Theodor Herzl, and his fellow Zionist founders, were non-religious Jews.  They were not vying for a religious state.  They saw the solution to the problem of Jewish persecution as the establishment of a state where Jews had a safe haven.  In fact, Herzl was even ambivalent, at best, as to the location of that state in the biblical land of Israel.

But the location of a state that was meant to be secure for Jews was settled nearly 100 years ago by the international community at the time.  The League of Nations, and then the United Nations, both endorsed this.  It is interesting that Israel is the only nation where many in the international community question its legitimacy.

It’s easy to say that “if only” surrounding Arab nations had recognized Israel’s statehood we would not be in this mess.  But that only avoids responsibility, which Jews value highly.  It really is the case that Israel has been attacked over and over, and that it continues to be the target of direct attacks from Hezbollah, Hamas, Iran, and others; and of indirect attacks by many others.  None of this negates the damage, pain, and suffering of Palestinians—whether in Gaza or the Territories that has taken place in the name of Zionism.   An attack in the name of Zionism is not the same as an attack being an actual product of Zionism.

To groups like Jewish Voice for Peace, to the students protesting what they see as unjustified and inhumane treatment of Palestinians—I say “stop attacking Zionism”.  Instead of invalidating it, you should embrace Zionism as what it represented for humanity, and be a demand that the parties in the Middle East operate in alignment with its core principles.

That tens of thousands of people have died in the current conflict is a tragedy.  That the ratio of civilian death to combatant death is roughly 1:1 is a miracle.  As fervently as I seek the end to an Israeli government headed by Benjamin Netanyahu, and I vehemently disagree with aspects of how the war has been conducted, I acknowledge that Israel has taken care to minimize death and suffering—all while a global conversation indicts Israeli military forces for cruelty.

Judaism purports that the saving of one single life is like the saving of the whole world.  I am clear that Israeli Defense Forces have taken this proposition seriously.  Israel truly is fighting a war in a different manner than is typical—notwithstanding condemnation.

Far-right leaders hijacking Zionism for further attacks on Muslim presence “from the River to the Sea” is not Zionism.  And, rather than attacking Zionism or attacking Israel, those who want a peaceful resolution to decades-old conflicts should put their efforts toward ending power for those who block a Zionism that is true to its founding principles and the values of Judaism—not “Israel” and not “Jews”, and not “Zionists”.

Zionism, at its heart, is a radical, pluralistic, humanistic approach to security.  It may not be surprising that it has been been misunderstood by so many people—and misappropriated by both Jews and those antagonistic to Israel’s existence.

In these final days of Passover, where Jews commemorate the exodus of Jews from a mythical Egyptian slavery, many Jews don’t feel so free.  Let us embrace our shared Jewish peoplehood, and let us embrace an ideology that was founded on a notion that Jews can be secure and live in proximity with others who may not share our faith, but share in our commitment to building a nation that works for all.  Zionism is not racism.  It is humanitarianism.

Zionism is hard.  It is seemingly paradoxical.  It goes against most basic human impulses to reject others and reject difference.  Now more than ever, let it provide a model for shared community.  A community where we will be safe, and as long as you don’t threaten us, we want you to be safe too, and to share a land and its benefits.

About the Author
Marc Overbeck has been a member of Reconstructing Judaism’s Board of Governors since October 2020, and twice served as president of Temple Beth Sholom in Salem, Ore, where he lives with his wife Deb. Marc earned his bachelor’s degree in political science and philosophy from Willamette University and also studied at Birkbeck College, University of London, where he served as a Hansard Scholar and research assistant for former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown.