Writing about this topic as a lefty British Jew is a minefield of self-doubt and identity crisis. Israel is my largest political problem as a Jew; Its fortune is intertwined with my fortune. That is how deep the emotional connection is, or I feel to be. It is hard, then, to speak ill of the country. An inner-struggle of right vs wrong, Left vs Right, parents vs children, community loyalty vs individual rectitude occurs at the same time. My previously firm identity is challenged.
I do not write this article to present a robust defence of Israel or statist Zionism. The Israeli state acts viciously toward its Palestinian minority, brutalising it and rendering their existence troubled. Palestinians live in constant fear, insecurity and have been subject to occupation and its natural bedfellows – detention and torture – for decades. That cannot be covered up or ignored. I have seen too many inexcusable videos now, I have read too many anguish-inducing articles, listened to too many poems laced with sadness and despair. Palestinian voices have become globalised – particularly via social media – and are beginning to take control of the narrative. If the Israeli ‘New Historians’ irrevocably fragmented accepted Zionist-historical memory, its myths and assumptions, then young Palestinians continue to fragment it today and promote viable alternative discourses. No longer can Israeli abuses and misuse of power be covered up with official, accepted government-approved or revisionist narratives.
The logic from this evidential base should be clear, as the received wisdom would have it. If all these things are the case, then I must surely be an anti-Zionist. Who in their right mind defends this (or most likely: ignores it)? Or explains it away?
But those are the wrong questions to ask. Of course these horrendous acts are indefensible and they cannot be explained away. However, whilst anti-Zionism has its attractions (for me it would be their attempt to de-centre Israel as the most important global Jewish community and to defend the diaspora as a place of useful Jewish identity-work), it also has its massive drawbacks.
Firstly, I do not think that anti-Zionism in practice is actually productive for the peace process. There is no central authority for anti-Zionism/ists, but major proponents (such as Jewish Voice for Peace) openly endorse the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS). However, BDS alienates a large cross-section of the Israeli-Jewish population (as well as the global Jewish population) and simply hands the will of the electorate to Netanyahu and the Israeli right-wing. This isn’t because of an unreasonable collection of reactionary fears. If I were Israeli I would rightly be extremely concerned at one of the BDS movement’s major aims: the Right of Return for the victims of the Nakba and their descendants – a figure that could amount to seven million people. If realised, that would immediately change the balance of power at all levels of society – social, cultural and economic. Moreover, BDS can wax lyrical about how it only targets Occupation-complicit institutions, organisations and illegal settlements, but in reality, these actions severely affect the national mood and help to foster a siege mentality.
Secondly, anti-Zionists reject differences in Zionisms. To be sure, they haven’t done this alone. In a Sartre-esque fashion, along with the Israeli right-wing, they have been the ones to create the Zionist. Although definitions of Zionism are contested, manifold and sometimes contradictory, at the current moment, if you are a Zionist you definitely: 1) Believe in an ethno-religious Jewish majority in a state of Israel 2) Are pro-occupation/settlements 3) Settler-colonial and quite possibly 4) racist. As the pre-Ariel Sharon anti-occupation Israeli Left has faded from historical consciousness, these definitions have become more entrenched. The Israel Left – non-Zionists and anti-Zionists included – still exists but have retreated into relative obscurity in an era of the hegemonic Israeli Right, who gathered political capital during and in the aftermath of the first and second Intifadas, from Yitzhak Shamir to Benjamin Netanyahu. Therefore, in this muted atmosphere for the Zionist or Israeli Left and because of an ascendant, noisy Right – wide differences between Zionisms have become elided.
This isn’t, I stress, some abstract academic exercise in getting correct definitions: these are our identities. I believe in a Zionism that is against the occupation, against illegal settlements, does not need to be Jewish majoritarian. Yes, there are commonalities to Zionisms, for example, Jewish nationalism for the main purpose of security for Jewish people. However, I don’t think this is inherently bad, given the scale of persecution Jewish people have faced in the twentieth century, and it only became problematic when that nationalism involved subordinating another group of people – Palestinians. Collective autonomy (even within a nation-state) without oppression should be feasible. Collapsing all Zionists into neatly-packaged box-like categories – racist, pro-occupation, supremacist, oppressive – is just pure bigotry – it completely erases my self-identity as being against all of these things.
Lastly, anti-Zionists ignore the Israel that is not about occupation, war, and settlements. This is not where I start pinkwashing and give you ‘the only democracy in the Middle East’ spiel. However, Israel is a highly-developed and dynamic society. Whilst our attention toward Palestinian plight and the peace process should not leave critical view, nor should we completely ignore Israel and its population, rich young culture and the intimate links which tie the country to the diaspora. Useful and stimulating parts of states can exist without needing to endorse the state’s domestic or foreign policy. I agree with the (Jewish) anti-Zionists taking the lead in the reconstruction of Yiddish and the European Jewish tradition, and I agree that more of us need to listen and learn from Palestinians and their stories and experiences of injustice and trauma, but crucially we also need to work together with Israel civil society and not alienate them en masse. We also need to listen to Israel traumas and experiences of the conflict. Though anyone can see that the distribution of power between Palestinians and Israelis is highly imbalanced, the bizarre inability for some anti-Zionists to even acknowledge Israeli trauma is jarring and troubling.
I am an anti-anti Zionist Jew because I find anti-Zionism in practice, with its support of BDS, to be counter-productive for the peace process; I find that it seeks to erase my heterodox Zionist self-identity (I suspect for political expediency); and I also find that it continually undercuts Israeli Jewish culture, its people and its experience of conflict.