Maytal Kowalski

Zionism is Social Justice

The hills of the Jordan Valley
The hills of the Jordan Valley. Photo taken by author.

I run almost every day. I run north, towards the mountains and the water. It’s beautiful, and calming, and the most stressful thing that ever happens is sometimes my dog pulls a bit too hard on the leash, throwing me off-balance.

But on this particular day, half a world away from the mountains and ocean of the Pacific Northwest, and in the early spring heat of the Jordan Valley, I ran in an attempt to protect Palestinian shepherds and their herds from being harassed and attacked by Israeli settlers.

My feet hit the ground in steady repetition, my breath shallow. I looked to my right. A young Israeli settler, 17 years old, wearing faded jeans and a t-shirt that read “artzenu” – “our land”, dodged around me and my partners, volunteers, and staff from Rabbis for Human Rights. He called to the sheep and ran after the shepherds, with the goal to harass, intimidate, and interfere with their daily life and livelihoods.

Israel’s settler movement, the building of Jewish settlements in the West Bank territories Israel occupied after the 67’ war, has always been contentious. In the days following the end of the war, prominent Israeli writers, artists, thinkers, and politicians spoke out and warned about the dangers of occupation. We would have done well to heed their warnings because what has become of this movement is beyond the greatest fears of many of those thinkers in the 56 years since the occupation began.

The settlement that overlooks this small Bedouin village, so small it doesn’t have a name, is the settlement of Hamra. Next to it, an illegal outpost has been erected. Prior to the establishment of these Jewish settlements – all illegal under Canadian and international law – the shepherd’s sheep had 20km of open land on which to graze. What we see now on this land is not only physical and verbal attacks and harassment, though those are the most obvious and most egregious, but also the systematic strangulation of the land — suffocating the ability of Palestinian shepherds and farmers to maintain their livelihood.

The young Israeli settler, so full of venom and hate for his Palestinian neighbours, so hell-bent on playing a zero-sum game in which the Jews win over all the land from the Jordan river to the Mediterranean Sea through any and all tactics necessary, is a Zionist. His vision of Zionism, like the vision of many in the settlements that surround him, is complete Jewish control and autonomy over all of this land. This, after all, isn’t a far stretch from the roots of Zionism. A Jewish homeland in Eretz Yisrael. Sure, maybe it started as one based on internationally negotiated borders and geopolitical gerrymandering, but now it’s something bigger. With Israel’s victory in 1967 and its increased strength and power, these Zionists can focus on something grander, something more ideological, rooted not in the international law and order of modern-day nation states, but a messianic vision of a greater Israel based on ancient texts.

But as our feet continued to race over this land, dry red dust kicking up all around us, I realized that I have something in common with this young man, something our Palestinian friends don’t have. He and I were both raised as Zionists. We were both doing what we were doing on that day, a hot day that could easily have been spent on a beach or in an air-conditioned room, because of our Zionist upbringings.

When I learned of Zionism as a child growing up in Canada, I learned about the right to self-determination, and that Jews, as a people, as a nation, also had this right. I learned that there are also other people on this land, Palestinians, who have a rightful claim to this land too. In my education, the proposed solution for coexistence and peace was a two-state solution. I still believe in that solution today.

The problem is that, for too long, mere lip service to a two-state solution has replaced actual work on the ground toward its realization. To work towards a two-state solution based on Zionist values, we must grapple with hard truths of the past — the Nakba, population transfers, military curfews, discrimination, as well as hard truths of the present and future — creeping annexation, constant surveillance, different sets of laws. But we have been afraid to touch those issues.  We’ve been afraid to admit that our past as Zionists, even as “progressive” or “left-wing” Zionists, has had horrific effects on Palestinians. We have avoided the hard work of reconciliation, and by doing so,  the hard work of building a more just and equitable future.

This is how the messianic settler Zionists have been able to co-opt and claim exclusive rights to the Zionist identity. Because their Zionism is still in service of something. As early Zionists were Zionists in service of the founding of the State of Israel, current right-wing Zionists are Zionists in service of the building of the Greater Israel, and doing it at the expense of the existing Palestinian population.

Some argue that we are in a post-Zionist time, that the vision of Zionism has already been achieved – because Israel exists, we don’t need this identity anymore. Others argue that Zionism is simply the belief that Israel has the right to exist

Progressive Zionists, left-wing Zionists – those who still want to maintain a Zionist identity but shudder at the horrors done under its banner, have failed to maintain a hold on this identity because our Zionism is no longer in service of anything. A call to use your Zionism simply to state that Israel has the right to exist is hollow, and indeed, if having to choose between that as the sole purpose of my Zionist identity and simply no longer being a Zionist, I would choose the latter.

So if we are still to maintain a Zionist identity, if we are to reclaim Zionism, if we are to show people that Zionism can be a force for good in this world, a movement for social justice, we must begin to put our Zionism to use, to make our Zionism once again in service to something bigger than us, something to which we aspire. We must embark on the hard work of reconciliation, and of building a more just and equitable future.

To start, this means listening – truly listening — to the stories of Palestinians, even when it is difficult and especially when it is difficult. It means speaking out loudly against the occupation, even when forces larger and stronger than us advise us to keep quiet. It means rejecting the notion that criticizing Israel in the diaspora leads to an increase in antisemitism. It means listening to young people when they say they felt their Jewish Zionist education was a lie, engaging with them to build more honest curricula, not shunning them from the Jewish community. This can all be present-day Zionism. This can be a compelling and inspiring identity to claim and hold on to. And just like the early Zionists, those who fought for the founding of the State of Israel against all odds, in order to build it, we must be brave.

About the Author
Maytal Kowalski is a dual Israeli-Canadian citizen, having made Aliyah with her family at the age of 10 in 1994. Growing up on a Kibbutz, Moshav, and mixed city, and attending school within the Kibbutz school system during the days of the Oslo Accords, the hope and desire for peace and equality in Israel have been engrained in her from a young age. Maytal currently serves on the executive board of both the New Israel Fund of Canada and JSpaceCanada. She is a 2021 Israel Policy Forum Bronfman Convener, and attended the Shalom Hartman Canadian Community Leadership program in 2023. As a marketer and fundraiser working exclusively within the charitable sector for the entirety of her career, Maytal is fiercely passionate about social justice, systemic change, equity, and civil rights.
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