Features | Not in my name

Why being Jewish does not necessitate being Zionist

Trigger warning: this article discusses the Holocaust and the Nakba

The summer of 2014 was the year my whole worldview turned inside out. I decided to go on Birthright, a fully-funded trip to Israel, mostly to take advantage of travelling for free. Little did I know that I was signing up to pledge my loyalty to a state that I, and “my people,” were supposedly tied to. Much of what I was told on Birthright echoed my childhood and the ideas and opinions I was told in Hebrew school, at the synagogue I belonged to, and in my home growing up. I was there on the brink of and during Operation Protective Edge, Israel’s rocket offensive on the Gaza Strip, which amplified the biases our trip leaders displayed. When I returned home, I began unfolding the stories to my family, describing every moment, taste, and sight in vivid detail. It was then that I began to sense an unshakeable fear in my gut that something was deeply wrong. Phrases like “Palestinian terrorists” and “Israel has the right to defend itself” began surfacing in my mind as flashbacks from what I heard on the trip.

I started to hear the sound of my own voice, and realized I had drunk some seriously nationalist (and racist) Kool Aid. My identity was being used as a political tool, a way to indoctrinate me into believing that Israel must exist as it does now, in the name of my ancestors who faced discrimination. As new questions arose in me, I began to uncover the truth of what went on that July, as well as the nuances and differences in Jewish worldviews. I suddenly felt the profound need to learn what I had never been taught. Throughout this process, I saw how Judaism and Zionism were being blended into a single identity on a massive scale, when in reality the two could not be more inherently separate.

The fall after Birthright, I started at McGill and found myself at a SSMU General Assembly (GA), where a motion to stand in solidarity with Palestinians following the Israeli Defense Force’s assault on Gaza was put forward. I sat with my peers and listened to Zionist students defend the war crimes Israel had committed. I remember thinking, if this conversation is about oppression, how are we not considering the disproportionate death tolls from this summer? Or the fact that Gaza is the world’s largest open-air prison? Which identities were being truly oppressed both in Israel and in this room? I didn’t understand how things could look so clear-cut, and also why these particular Jewish students were speaking on behalf of all Jews.

As I reflected on why this event made me uncomfortable, I soon came to realize that an internal hierarchy has formed within Judaism. To mainstream Zionist discourse often assumes, whether consciously or not, that all Jews are white. This erases both the racial diversity within Judaism and the intersectional factors that elevate certain identities over others. Over half of the Jewish population in Israel is either Mizrahi (from Arab countries like Iraq, Yemen, and Egypt, among others) or Sephardic (Iberian Jews, mainly from North Africa). Ashkenazim (Jews from Central and Eastern Europe) make up only 30 per cent. A smaller 2.2 per cent of Jews in Israel are Ethiopian. However, when looking at the dominant images and rhetoric of Israel and Zionists both in the U.S. and Canada, Jews of colour are significantly underrepresented. Rarely does the media reference Jews of Arab or African descent, and based on my experiences, oftentimes mainstream Jewish education institutions in the U.S. and Canada perpetuate the idea that most Jews in the world are white or European.

Zionism’s colonial narrative

It is important to situate these racial groups within the context of colonialism. Seeing Israel as a colonial state and Zionism as a colonial movement can help to understand the ongoing, systemic violence Israel perpetuates. From its onset, one of the narratives Zionism promoted was the idea of Israel as “a land without a people, for a people without a land.” This conveniently erased the presence of Palestinians – whether Muslim, Christian, or Jewish – who had lived there for centuries. The widespread implementation of such beliefs justified the first European settlements in Palestine, and contributed to the denial of an identity for its local inhabitants.

Herzl believed that Zionism was a “civilizing” mission that could bring European and particularly German cultural ideals to Palestine.

Likewise, early Zionists had colonial views that saw Palestinians as lesser, despite some of them being Jewish. Figures like Theodor Herzl, commonly known as one of the ‘fathers of political Zionism,’ fueled his Zionist discourse with nationalism and racism. Herzl believed that Zionism was a “civilizing” mission that could bring European and particularly German cultural ideals to Palestine. He referred to the local inhabitants of Palestine as “dirty Arabs and Jews, and beggars.” This language echoes the countless colonial narratives prominent in Europe, in which the non-European world was seen as backward and the people living there needed to be educated and civilized by enlightened white Europeans. Such logic was present in European colonies in Africa, where societies were ranked based on measures of ‘primitiveness’, a concept central to colonial rule and control. Like other colonial ideologies, Zionism constructed a racial hierarchy completely outside the realm of religion, which continues to operate today.

These historical and present-day examples further prove how crucial it is to make it clear that not all Jews benefit from Zionism, considering how many Jewish communities are oppressed by the same system that claims to be representing them.

Considering these historical attitudes, one can look at contemporary Israeli demographics to better understand which groups hold positions of power and privilege. The Israeli government, the upper ranks of the Israeli Defense Force, the police, and the corporate sphere are all dominated by white, Ashkenazi men. It’s no coincidence that these groups exercise racialized oppression, which most violently targets the Palestinian citizens of Israel, but also leaves all other racialized citizens at an extreme disadvantage. The term “Mizrahi” stems from racist categories imposed on Arab Jews by European settlers. Between the 1930s and 1970s, Mizrahi children were forcibly removed by the government from their families and often given to Ashkenazi parents, as Mizrahim were deemed unfit for parenthood. Similarly, Ethiopian Jews today face job discrimination, forced sterilization, exclusion from the education system, and rampant police brutality. These historical and present-day examples further prove how crucial it is to make it clear that not all Jews benefit from Zionism, considering how many Jewish communities are oppressed by the same system that claims to be representing them.

Beyond harming certain Jewish communities, Zionism has also long been the basis for the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians. This began with the Nakba, or “the disaster,” where 750,000 Palestinians (80 per cent of the Arab population) were forcibly removed from their homes and land. It is no surprise that this occurred in 1948, the same year that the state of Israel was founded. This Palestinian uprooting was deliberately conducted by Zionists, with the hope of creating a Jewish majority in Palestine. The effects of the Nakba are ongoing, as there are 7 million Palestinians of different generations who are currently refugees and displaced. Today, nearly seventy years later, Israel continues to colonize Palestine and strip Palestinians of their agency. Contemporary atrocities include the state-backed ongoing theft and expropriation of Palestinian land in the form of illegal settlements in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza, the daily demolition of Palestinian homes, “greenwashing” initiatives launched by The Jewish National Fund (planting forests over the ruins of depopulated Palestinian villages), and the construction of what Israel calls the security barrier – the Apartheid Wall.

Israel was founded upon and continues to exercise principles of racist oppression. Conflating Judaism with Zionism creates a single, monolithic definition of Judaism that erases the diversity of opinions and stances amongst Jews, and forces all Jews to support a state that systematically violates human rights.

Anti-Zionist Biblical justifications and activism

Because the Zionist movement developed out of political and nationalistic aspirations, it, in many ways, contradicts traditional tenets of Judaism. This has caused many Orthodox communities to attempt to disassociate themselves from it both when the movement was founded, and in the present day. In the Torah, there exists a concept known as “Galut” or “Ge’ulah” that signifies the ideas of exile and diaspora. With the Roman destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE, rabbis began to reinterpret the Biblical passages where God promised to give Abraham and his people the nations of Israel and Judah. The ancient rabbis concluded that God’s promise to Abraham was more of a pact, where the people will only be given a nation if they abide by His commandments. In other words, some rabbis believed Jews were committing sins, and thus were being revoked self-governance. They extended this interpretation into a belief that a Jewish nation can only exist under the Messiah, the only ordained leader, whom God has not yet sent. The Jewish diaspora is justified under this belief, and it is mirrored by the psalm of Solomon that states, “among every nation are the dispersed of Israel according to the word of God” (9:2).

These references are being used to challenge the idea of Zionist statehood in the present day. For instance, groups like Rabbis for Human Rights and Neturei Karta, both of which are devoutly Orthodox, use these Biblical justifications to call for the dismantling of the state of Israel as Jewish. Both are also pro-Palestinian, and attend anti-Israel demonstrations. Neturei Karta has been subjected to brutal beatings at protests by security guards hired by the Israeli ministry.

There also exist many other activist groups that identify as both Jewish and anti-Zionist. These include Jewish Voice for Peace, Independent Jewish Voices (based in Canada),the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network, Anarchists Against the Wall, among others throughout Canada, the U.S., and Israel. Many, if not most, of these groups support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) Movement, as well as other initiatives meant to disrupt the functioning of Israel’s state policies.

I recently spoke to a Jewish, Israeli, and anti-Zionist activist named Sandra Ruch, who has worked for women’s groups resisting oppression in the Occupied Territories such as Machsom Watch and Bat Shalom. She told me that “realizing that all these atrocities were under my name gave me the responsibility to explain to people that this is not my Judaism.” In the context of discussing Israel as a place of refuge for Jews after World War II, Ruch mentioned the idea that relying on the memory of the Holocaust as a justification for the Zionist state holds people hostage to Israel’s oppressive policies. Such theories, she explained, often place an emotional burden on Jews (especially those who have survivors in their family) to support Israel. They have also been used to frame Israel’s violent actions toward Palestinians as defence. In a recent speech to the World Zionist Congress, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described a meeting between Adolf Hitler and Palestinian leader Haj Amin al-Husseini in 1941, where Husseini apparently told Hitler to exterminate the Jews in Europe, in order to prevent them from immigrating to Palestine. A number of historians have commented on Netanyahu’s blatant distortion of facts, and his twisted shift of blame from Adolf Hitler to Palestinians. Netanyahu and the Israeli far right are so desperate to incite racist hatred of Palestinians that they are willing to offend Holocaust victims and survivors, and rewrite history to do so.

Nuancing our conceptions of Judaism

The reality is, the Zionist voice is very loud, and it speaks over anyone who opposes it. Being an anti-Zionist Jew is deeply marginalizing, and, for me, unpacking the conflation of Zionism and Judaism came with painful internal conflict. Suddenly the identity my family had so carefully nurtured in me was crumbling, and I had trouble finding Jewish friends to relate to. When I started at McGill last year, I felt alone and even more on the periphery.During the SSMU GA, I witnessed Zionist students, who were mostly white men, speak over people who have directly experienced Israeli brutality. I felt hesitant to speak up as an opposing Jewish woman’s voice, fearing intimidation and backlash. I was being misrepresented, brushed over, and spoken for, and it felt silencing. Pro-Palestinian student activism has been increasingly shut down and antagonized in both the U.S. and in Canada, causing students of all identities to feel targeted. Likewise, the Zionist domination over Jewish views has resulted in a lack of anti-Zionist Jewish spaces on university campuses: students who identify as such feel isolated, ashamed, unsupported, and conflicted about making their voices known. I was not surprised to find many students who felt this way at McGill, and now a group of us gather to share our experiences, histories, and politics with one another in a space that’s reassuring, anti-oppressive, and validating.

The reality is, the Zionist voice is very loud, and it speaks over anyone who opposes it. Being an anti-Zionist Jew is deeply marginalizing, and, for me, unpacking the conflation of Zionism and Judaism came with painful internal conflict.

Perpetuating the idea that as a Jew you are obliged to support the state of Israel silences the thousands upon thousands of Jews, including myself, who choose to self-identify as Jewish anti-Zionists. At the most basic level, how can we persist to deny people’s right to define themselves by their own terms? Supporting Israel’s violent crimes is by no means the only way to express one’s Judaism. For me, Israel in the present moment has nothing to do with religion. Its existence as a militaristic, nationalistic, apartheid state that institutionalizes racism both within it and the Occupied Territories prevents me from trying to find in it a place for Jewish spirituality and culture. Calling my views anti-Semitic is false, especially considering Israel’s ongoing oppression of Jewish communities of colour, and the social marginalization of radical Jewish voices.

I am not a self-hating Jew, and Israel does not represent my identity as a Jew. I refuse to be placed anywhere in the context of Zionism, and to have my Jewish heritage used to justify the occupation and the erasure of the history and culture of the people indigenous to Palestine. I am ashamed that Jewish identity is being used to dehumanize people through systematic deprivation of the minimal right to exist. I stand in solidarity with the Palestinian cause, and believe in Palestine’s right to be free. Saying all of this is by no means a denial of my people’s history. If anything, it stays true to the values they held and continue to hold deepest.

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