Features | Jewish identity in a pickle

Affirming non- and anti-Zionist Jewish people at McGill

Independent Jewish Voices (IJV) McGill is a group of anti- and non-Zionist Jewish students on McGill campus.

In speaking about the origins of Zionism and contemporary anti-Semitism in this article, we have chosen to focus on the experiences and theories of European Jewry. We acknowledge the diversity of experiences, whether those are of violence or of thriving communal life, specifically in the contrasting experiences of Sephardic, Mizrachi, and other Jewish peoples. We also acknowledge the forms of violence and dispossession Zionism has imposed on these communities, like “Operation Magic Carpet” in Yemen, and general erasure from dominant conceptions and narratives of Judaism. For the purpose of discussing mainstream Zionism that evolved from European thinkers, as it is applied in Israel by its government, and how it manifests in North America, we are choosing to focus on Ashkenazi experiences and European political Zionism. However, we hope to acknowledge the failure of mainstream dialogue within and beyond the Jewish community to engage with non-Ashkenazi identities and histories. We hope to include these perspectives as we move forward with IJV McGill’s work.

A recent tweet by a student politician, which read “punch a zionist today,” has inflamed discussion over anti-Zionism, violence, and anti-Semitism at McGill. For many of us, this has been a difficult and turbulent time to be both a Jewish student, and an anti/non-Zionist student on campus. We would like to begin this article with the recognition that the tweet may incite violence against visibly Jewish people and Jewish communities in Montreal and beyond. We hear and support calls for the necessity of emotional, physical, and mental safety from anti-Semitic violence.

The conflation of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism within and beyond the McGill community denies us, as young Jewish folks, the diversity of our Diasporic Jewish identities. We denounce anti-Semitism, and recognize the lived realities of the concerns expressed by the Jewish community. However, this conflation fails to recognize anti-Semitism – an attack on members of the Jewish faith and peoplehood – as separate from criticism of the actions of the Israeli state, in particular its illegal occupation of Palestinian land. The ongoing oppression of other peoples is not a project with the right to invoke Jewish peoplehood or Diasporic Jewish claims in our names. In integrating Israel into the fabrics of our communities, the plurality of political convictions held by Jewish peoples are erased, silencing anti-Zionist voices.

The ongoing oppression of other peoples is not a project with the right to invoke Jewish peoplehood or Diasporic Jewish claims in our names.

It is vital to state that anti-Semitism was and continues to be a violent threat to Jewish people and communities worldwide – and leftist anti-oppressive spaces are certainly not free from such anti-Semitism. However, it is also vital to note: modern day systemic oppression cannot be justified by historic discrimination experienced by others. In coming from histories of oppression, we are tied to social justice struggles; as Rabbi Jill Jacobs explains, the “obligation to show ourselves as having experienced discrimination […] means continuously working to alleviate the suffering of others.” We are a collective of young Jewish folk identifying as non- or anti-Zionists, who share principles that are grounded not only in political conviction, but also in ethical imperatives of our shared Judaism. In that sense, we define non/anti-Zionism as a spectrum of political, moral, and religious views that encompass an opposition to the Zionist project, whether it be through Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) against the Israeli state, actively fighting the notion that Israel is the Jewish homeland, or criticizing Israel for its injustices. While we each identify as non- or anti-Zionist Jews, we acknowledge that this article does not speak for all non- or anti-Zionist Jewish people.

In this piece, we aim to critically assess the Zionist theory from which today’s North American Zionist communities and actions are grounded, and from which the principles embodied by the government of Israel originate. But beyond just discussing ideology, we aim to share our personal stories of how the conflation of anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism has harmed us.

“The obligation to show ourselves as having experienced discrimination […] means continuously working to alleviate the suffering of others.”

Students identifying as Zionists have institutional resources and familial support systems at their disposal. As folk that face alienation from our greater Jewish communities and even our families for our solidarity activism, we are systematically and routinely denied these supports. We have expended tremendous emotional labour to publish our views and experiences, and ask that our Jewish identities be respected.

Untangling historical Zionism and Jewish identity

“The Jewish State,” a pamphlet published by the Jewish reporter Theodor Herzl in 1896, aimed to galvanize Jewish people to adopt a national identity and engage with the Zionist project. The text was written in the greater context of widespread anti-Semitism throughout Europe, and in the specific context of the anti-Semitic persecution of a French military captain in what is known as ‘The Dreyfus Affair.” The contemporary manifestation of anti-Semitism that Herzl responded to was new and radical; it departed from medieval myths of wicked Jewish crimes against Christian Europe, such as the alleged Jewish ritualistic murder of children, or the Blood Libels, and conspiracies against governments. As rising ethnocentric nationalism, the emergence of eugenics, and continentalism were embedded into European culture through academic acceptance and institutional normalization, so too were they embedded into anti-Semitism; the Jewish people became a singular, and more importantly, ‘inferior ethnic group,’ irreconcilable with European ethnic and societal standards. Anti-Semitism pervaded all communities, from rural peasantry to the highest ranks of European intelligentsia. Violent persecution and nonviolent discrimination were widespread, and many Jewish people were denied their rights to bodily safety, economic security through employment and property, and freedom of movement. It is within this context that Herzl began his work on the Zionist project.

The Jewish people became a singular, and more importantly, ‘inferior ethnic group,’ irreconcilable with European ethnic and societal standards.

At the time of its conception, Zionism and the intent to leave Europe and form a Jewish state was not a widely accepted political ideology amongst European Jewish communities. Parallel to many other settler-colonialist projects, Zionism was spearheaded by the elite – in this case, the upper-class Jewish intelligentsia of Central and Western Europe. Poor, mainly Eastern European Jewish communities were largely excluded from the Zionist intellectual project, but were instead expected to perform the labour of settling the land – wherever or whenever that was to be.

Diasporic Jewry were proud of their status in the European secular world – whether that pride was grounded in their insular and rabbinical religious communities, their assimilation into the European intelligentsia, or their radical political work. Many of these Jewish folk did not hold an intrinsic yearning to return to Israel, as Zionists often assert. It is important to note that many disenfranchised and oppressed Eastern European Jewish folk tended to favour workers’ organisations like the Bund and advocated for Yiddish Socialism, a Jewish workers movement, rather than Zionism.

Poor, mainly Eastern European Jewish communities were largely excluded from the Zionist intellectual project, but were instead expected to perform the labour of settling the land – wherever or whenever that was to be.

Many contemporary Jewish people have noticed, as we do, that much Zionist theory harnesses the same nationalistic, ethnocentric rhetoric utilized by the anti-Semitic European powers at the time – such as the portrayal of Jewish peoples as genetically of one ethnicity or race. These similarities expanded through the political discourse of the early- and mid-1900s. However, as European powers became more threatening and violent leading into World War II, many Jews took comfort in the adoption of Jewish unity as a means for Jewish strength. However, through this process, Jewish oneness, a foundational and ancient element of Jewish religious thought: כל ישראל ערבים זה לזה, became conflated with nationalism and Zionism. Echoing early political Zionists like Herzl, contemporary groups like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and the Israeli government use this notion of a singular Jewish people to reinforce the myth of unanimous and unwavering Jewish support for the state. This narrative of oneness, rooted in the unification efforts of early Zionism, is a harmful tool of the Zionist project imposed to erase Jewish ethnic and lived diversity.

Zionism today and the “Palestinian Issue”

Contemporary Zionists draw upon the constructed concept of Jewish unity to suggest that all Jewish peoples are treated with equity within the state of Israel. However, from the initial entrance of these peoples into the land, they have been subjugated and segregated. For example, Mizrahi Jewish children were subject to unhealthy levels of radiation at the hands of Ashkenazi officials. Although the Israeli government long denied it, they recently admitted to forcefully sterilizing Ethiopian Jewish immigrant women upon entering the country, and the Ethiopian Jewish community in Israel experiences rates of police brutality six times higher than their communities’ proportion to the population in the country. From its establishment, oppression has been evident in the social fabric of Israel: day-to-day discrimination and threats of violence are a prominent component of the narratives of non-Ashkenazi Jewry who immigrate to or live in Israel.

Although the Israeli government long denied it, they recently admitted to forcefully sterilizing Ethiopian Jewish immigrant women upon entering the country.

Similarly, the Zionist project responds to the ‘Palestinian issue’ in a variety of ways: through the delegitimization of Palestinian people, nationhood, and citizenship, the depiction of the Palestinian people as ‘primitive’ and a violent ‘threat’ to the Jewish state, and the construction of a paternalistic fallacy that the State of Israel would better serve the Palestinians than the Palestinians themselves. In reality, Israeli Jewish citizens are placed in a position of institutional power and hold privilege over Palestinians; this imbalance of power manifests in a multitude of ways which systematically oppress Palestinians. Israel continues to hold Palestinian youths under administrative detention and deny youths access to education, Israeli forces demolish Palestinian homes, and the Israeli government censors, arrests, and abuses Palestinian journalists and activists.

As Jewish folks with relative privilege in Israeli society, we cannot pretend to comprehend the experiences of Palestinians in occupied lands and do not wish to speak over their narratives. However, there is a discriminatory nature of Israel which we can speak to: particularly focusing on its privileging of white Ashkenazi (European) Jews and creating a class-structured society in which Soviet Jews, Sephardic Jews, Mizrachi Jews, North-African Jews, and African Jews are oppressed, marginalized and exploited. The Zionist project largely ignores the inequities of varying ethnic groups of Jewish folk in Israeli society and presents Israel as the protector of all Jews. The patriarchal saviour narrative of Israel as a safe haven for the Jewish people inspires steady Jewish Diasporic support for Zionism.

In order to further concretize Diasporic and domestic Jewish support of Zionism, the Zionist project infuses their political agenda into the architecture of Jewish religious life. However, political Zionism can be further distinguished from Judaism through some religious justifications for a Jewish Diaspora or Exile, known in the Torah as “Ge’ulah.” We would like to preface these religious claims with an acknowledgement that the following is not the only “true” religious interpretation, but also that these views are far from fringe. Following the Roman destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE, some Rabbis re-interpreted G-d’s promise of the land of Israel and Judea to Abraham as a pact, and concluded that only the Messiah can rule a Jewish nation. Under this interpretation, until the Messiah is sent, humans cannot create or self-govern a Jewish state.

The patriarchal saviour narrative of Israel as a safe haven for the Jewish people inspires steady Jewish Diasporic support for Zionism.

Zionism has invaded religious practice, where those forms of prayer and practice that are centered around Israel are deemed superior. In contrast, non-Ashkenazi modes of prayer and practice are deemed ‘impure.’ Zionism has, through time, modified all practices regardless of geographic or ethnic affiliation, damaging and erasing significant elements of them. Diasporic Jewish spaces and practices should not be invalidated by the Zionist project, nor should acceptance into these spaces be conditional on support of Zionist ideology.

We will not be erased: non- and anti-Zionist Jewish voices

Zionism is woven into the fabric of Jewish life and tradition, permeating familial, religious, secular, institutional, and emotional aspects of Jewish existence. Jewish day schools are the birthplace of many young Jewish folks’ strong Jewish identities; they are a place for teaching prayer, spreading culture, and providing a foundation for Jewish children to carry on the Jewish tradition. Unfortunately, these academic institutions use their position to perpetuate the Zionist agenda and encourage impressionable students to subscribe to Zionism. Like many other mainstream institutions, most Jewish day schools tend to erase the differences between a Zionist identity and a Jewish identity. Furthermore, Zionist conditioning occurs in the home, where Jewish families will preach their support and love for Israel as a distant homeland.

Hanna*

Hanna*, who grew up in a Russian Jewish family in the U.S., recounts her story of the pickle jar:

“It was the second night of Passover: I had just sung the four questions, our plates were dotted with red wine, our bellies audibly growling. As the Seder came to a close, my mother left to carry steaming bowls of matzo ball soup in from the kitchen. She also brought a large pickle jar to the table. As my relatives began to slurp, the pickle jar was passed around, and it came to me. My eyes fell to its label: ‘Made in Israel.’ My mother and I made eye contact as I passed the jar to my brother. Shocked, she said in her heavy Russian accent, ‘You’re not eating pickles?’ I was ashamed, and angered. I thought to myself, ‘there are so many varieties on the shelf, mama – why choose Israeli imported pickles?’ How was I to explain my logic of abstaining, or my involvement in the boycott of Israeli products at the dinner table, in front of my grandparents? And who was I? A privileged girl, born to immigrant parents, who could choose what to eat, and choose to politically disengage from certain brined foods. Had I taken it too far? I myself, was in a pickle. The post-dinner kitchen clean up was icy, and my pickle-refusal has come up again, many times, as proof of me ‘turning my back’ on ‘our past.’ Yet again, Jewish culture was being placed inside an Israeli pickle jar.”

Hadar*

Hadar*, a member of IJV McGill and a Jewish day school graduate, explains that her experience with Zionist indoctrination started in kindergarten:

“With a Zionist Israeli father and a Zionist Canadian mother, I was enrolled in a Zionist institution by the ripe age of three. As a young girl, I recall looking up to Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) soldiers with pride and hoping to join them one day in defence of ‘my country.’ Throughout elementary school, we performed plays about the state of Israel, wrote short stories about summers in Tel Aviv, and sang songs expressing our emotional connection to Zion. I distinctly recall an experience that I had in grade four: our Hebrew instructors decided to take a break from studying dik-duk, or grammar, to screen a film. We saw Kershner’s 1977 Raid on Entebbe; a film depicting the historical hijacking of an Air France aircraft by the Palestinian Liberation Organisation. As an impressionable Jewish child, this film and our discussion of it thoroughly frightened me and taught me to fear ‘Muslim-appearing’ peoples and erased the necessary context of Palestinian resistance to conditions of oppression. I have since worked to unlearn this early Islamophobia, but so much of my elementary schooling and domestic environment conditioned me to view Muslim Arabs as inherently bad and Israeli Zionists as ultimately heroic.

“I recall looking up to Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) soldiers with pride and hoping to join them one day in defence of ‘my country.'”

Continuing on with my Zionist activism, I joined my day school’s own AIPAC club, assumed a leadership role in it, and travelled to Washington D.C. to lobby for the pro-Israel super-PAC. I didn’t buy into it unequivocally – I questioned the Islamophobic speakers and presentations and was wary of evangelical Christians that preached their support for AIPAC – but I felt proud, empowered, and part of a larger purpose. I admired the Columbia and Barnard students that led a workshop on combating anti-Zionism – in which they implied that this work also combated anti-Semitism – on college campuses. I struggled with my connection to Judaism in a religious sense, but I thought that I had finally found my place in the Jewish community; my Zionism was my Judaism.

In Beit Knesset (temple), school, summer camp, and extra-curriculars, I was conditioned to unequivocally support Israel. After reading about the atrocities of Operation Protective Edge, when over 2,100 Palestinians were killed in the Gaza Strip by Israeli airstrikes, I completely abandoned my Zionism by the start of grade 11. I knew that my morals and my values hadn’t a shred in common with those of the Zionists, who could avert their eyes from or even justify the massacre. Through interaction with anti-oppressive Jewish communities that acted as alternatives to my Jewish school community, I realised my Judaism once more and reclaimed my Zionist-free identity. However, my immediate community was still Zionist. I sat through my mandatory Israel-Advocacy course as a senior in high school as a mishloach, or representative, from Israel came to inspire us to further support Israel. He asked: ‘Is Israel a racist country?’ Expecting an overwhelming ‘NO,’ I raised my hand and curtly answered, ‘yes.’ My fellow students looked at me in awe, processed my answer, and raised their hands to agree with me. I turned to our mishloach; I’d never seen a more shocked look on someone’s face.

“He asked: ‘Is Israel a racist country?’ Expecting an overwhelming ‘NO,’ I raised my hand and curtly answered, ‘yes.'”

To this day, my views would be met with the same shocked look coupled with an accusation of being a ‘self-hating Jew’ at any given Zionist institution. I beg these Zionist organisations to validate and acknowledge that yes, anti-Zionist Jews exist and we are proud of it. I hope for non-Zionist spaces in which Jews can practise. I hope for Jewish schools that do not condition their students to support Israel. However, spaces on college campuses like Independent Jewish Voices are a step in the right direction for the creation of Jewish communities free of Zionist ideology.”

Reba*

Reba*, an IJV McGill member, recounts her journey towards separating Zionism from her Jewish identity:

“In pursuing an active Jewish identity in the Diaspora, I am repeatedly confronted by a frustrating message that Jewish fulfillment is only possible in Israel. It was only recently, in the past couple of years, that I felt able to call myself religious even though I have no intentions of associating my Jewish identity with Zionism. My whole life, I learned that I should feel ‘the most Jewish’ and the most ‘at home’ when in Israel, despite its distance and difference from anywhere I’ve lived long-term. I grew up being taught that the true uniting force of Jews all around the world was a shared ground, a sovereign land. I now find this argument, that is extremely normalized in Jewish communities, offensive and invalidating to the work I do in the Jewish community in the Diaspora. When I spent nine months living in Israel at the age of 18, I was still confused about how Judaism could mean so many different things to different people, yet by living within certain borders, we were fulfilling ‘the most important Jewish demand.’ It angers me that Zionist rhetoric conflates a religious, spiritual identity with nationalism. As I have personally stopped holding nationalist ideology and supporting borders, Zionism sits in contradiction with more and more of my personal values.

I’ve always connected to Jewish texts, holidays, and practices, and felt satisfied as an active member of Jewish communities in Montreal and Vancouver. However, the conflation of Judaism with Zionism gives rise to a disappointing erasure of Jewish practice and culture that occurs in the Diaspora independently from Israel. Consequently, claims of anti-Semitism in the face of anti-Zionist efforts have struck me as reductive and misguided. In response to criticisms of Israel, Jewish communities will tend to defend the rights and safety of Jews. If we are trying to defend the rights and safety of Jews, why is there not a more inclusive, diverse Jewish community on campus? Why don’t we recognize the role of Yiddish and Arabic in Jewish history? Why don’t we promote celebrations of Jewish holidays outside of Ashkenazi, European practices?

“If we are trying to defend the rights and safety of Jews, why is there not a more inclusive, diverse Jewish community on campus? Why don’t we promote celebrations of Jewish holidays outside of Ashkenazi, European practices?”

Furthermore, conflating anti-Semitism with anti-Zionism allows for an acceptance and ignorance of Israel’s violations of human rights. Rising to protect the rights and safety of Jews in response to anti-Zionism ignores Israel’s settler-colonialist oppression and violence. These kinds of responses have often left me wondering what Israel Zionist groups even support, since the country they choose to defend is an idealized, peaceful land of milk and honey – so very far from the brutal reality on the ground. Zionist structures will often pick and choose what parts of Israel they portray and validate; on Birthright trips, for example, Israeli tourism is glorified and violence is hidden. Continuing to live with such a narrow understanding of Israel will only continue the oppression of Palestinian people. Jews must be honest with themselves about Israel, for its violations of human rights does warrant a global response that is not inherently anti-Semitic.”

Anti-Zionism on campus

Recently, the Algemeiner, a Jewish and Zionist paper, named McGill as one of the “worst universities for Jewish students” in North America. The article argues that the McGill student body largely supports BDS, and is therefore anti-Semitic and hostile toward Jews. Due to its refusal to publish Zionist articles, The McGill Daily has been accused of anti-Semitism by the Algemeiner, as well as in articles by B’nai Brith Canada, McGill Hillel, Honest Reporting, and other Zionist organisations. This criticism is rooted in the above conflation, as Zionist is assumed as “Jewish,” and thus criticism of Israel is anti-Semitism. This continues to silence non/anti-Zionist Jewish voices – many of which have appeared in the pages of The Daily. By clarifying the distinction between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, we would like to show that such accusations of anti-Semitism against The Daily are baseless, and that refusing to publish Zionist opinions is compatible with an anti-oppressive mandate.

This criticism is rooted in the above conflation, as Zionist is assumed as “Jewish,” and thus criticism of Israel is anti-Semitism.

Dominant narratives that conflate Zionism with Judaism result in the marginalization and negation of these non or anti-Zionist Jewish voices. At McGill, Jewish community groups either take an assumed Zionist stance or are ‘apolitical’ – which means upholding the status quo of conflating Zionist and Jewish identities. Apart from Independent Jewish Voices McGill, there is no other non/anti-Zionist Jewish group on campus organising around and speaking openly against Zionist abuses of power. Furthermore, there is not a single other Jewish institution on campus which has committed to a radical anti-oppressive mandate. Radical Jewish folks are left without the familial, communal, material, financial, and institutional support or resources with which to create radical Jewish spaces. Even when recognized, the non/anti-Zionist Jew identity continues to be a taboo on campus, which IJV McGill seeks to deconstruct and combat. The emergence of IJV McGill and non/anti-Zionist spaces for Jews echoes a growing transnational Jewish resistance movement, which includes organisations like Jewish Voice for Peace in the U.S. or Jewdas in the UK.

Independent Jewish Voices McGill is here to affirm that we will not be silenced. Opposing Zionism, an oppressive and violent execution of colonisation, is not an act of anti-Semitism. Furthermore, we aim to challenge the unquestioned harm inflicted on Jewish folks and communities by the Zionist project. We are proud Jewish folks who stand in solidarity with Palestine, the Daily, and criticisms of Israel and Zionism.


*names have been changed.

To contact the McGill Students’ Chapter of Independent Jewish Voices, email ijvmcgill@gmail.com.


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