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We need to talk about Zionism

Equating Zionism and Judaism is a dangerous mistake that needs to be remedied

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I am both Arab and Jewish. My Baba was born in Beirut, Lebanon, and while he does not identify with his heritage-choosing to speak French rather than Arabic-my siblings and I do identify as Arab, and this is important to us. My Ma was born in Massachusetts to a Jewish-American woman whose family escaped Germany in the 1860s among the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe, and assimilated into Christian American life. I hold tightly to both my Jewish and Arab identities, but this places me in a difficult spot when Jewish high holidays come around. With the recent controversies surrounding the SSMU General Assembly, it is obvious to me why.

Zionism is an idea that was concretely founded by Theodor Herzl in late 19th century Germany in reaction to the same violent anti-Semitism and ghettoization that my ancestors fled. His now infamous piece Der Judenstaat (“The Jewish State”) outlined his desires for a return of Jewish people to their homeland in the Levant from the diaspora. Zionism changed, however, from the desire for safety from anti-Semitism in a land holy to Judaism into an ideology of manifest destiny justifying the genocide and forced removal of Palestinians from their native land. Zionism has become a variant of white supremacy. Israel is not a Jewish state but a white Jewish state which has historically treated Jews of color (from Mizrahim to Beta Israel) as inferior, denying them the same rights and liberties as Ashkenazim in Israel.

The racism Israel is founded on, and the racism it continues to perpetuate, very obviously conflict with the Jewish principle of tikkun olam or “repairing the world.” Judaism is less focused on achieving the best afterlife and instead is about working towards making sure the world we leave behind us is better for what we have done on this Earth. When Zionists claim that Israel is imperative for tikkun olam, they are essentially saying that Arabs are not the same, equal images of God that other humans are. The idea that Arabs do not deserve right to their native land, or the same rights and liberties as white Jews, directly contradicts tikkun olam, one of the most central ideas of Judaism.

So when Noah Lew equated Zionism to Judaism in his Facebook post (which has now been shared over 1,700 times), accusing McGillís BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) group of being anti-Semitic specifically because they are anti-Zionist, I was reminded of all the times I have been told I am not “truly Jewish.” I am told that I am dirtied by being Arab, I am told my Judaism is illegitimate because I do not believe in a colonialist Jewish state, I have been told to pick my Jewish heritage over my other for it to be real. But if Judaism is about leaving our world better than when we entered it, then how can racism, occupation, and genocide be an intrinsic part of being Jewish?

I was reminded of all the times I have been told I am not “truly Jewish.” I am told that I am dirtied by being Arab, I am told my Judaism is illegitimate because I do not believe in a colonialist Jewish state, I have been told to pick my Jewish heritage over my other for it to be real.

Lew’s claim that BDS is discriminatory and therefore unconstitutional makes it very clear that he does not comprehend his privilege as a white Jew over Jews of color and Arab goyim alike. This was what McGill BDS was responding to, this was what BDS was combatting. If this university’s administration finds it unconstitutional to fight racism and occupation through protest as peaceful as boycotting, then this administration has very clearly taken its stance as pro-colonialism. If this university allows its student and administrative leaders to justify bigotry with religion, then it cannot claim to be inclusive.

Professor Suzanne Fortier, Principal and Vice-Chancellor of the University, recently sent out an email to all students, both undergraduate and graduate, stating that the accusations of anti-Semitism are being taken very seriously. Anti-Semitism should always be taken seriously, but in the words of first year student Misha Mykitiuk, “The persistent claim that these [anti-Israel protests] are or constitute anti-Semitism diminishes and undermines the anti-Semitism that occurs every day, here and across the world.”

While it is true that there are many who use anti-Semitism as fuel in their fight for Palestine, BDS is no such perpetrator in this case. In their emails regarding this issue, they used very clear language that did not at all target Jews, but instead identified specifically the claims by the SSMU board that BDS is unconstitutional. The letter-form and statement BDS spread to be sent to the SSMU Board of Directors never resorts to anti-Semitic stereotypes, and even goes so far as to clarify that Israelis, both in Israel and of the Diaspora, are not a homogeny which unequivocally agrees with its government. We must always make sure to identify and shut down anti-Semitism, but it is equally important to distinguish between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism.

It is of utmost importance that we approach this current controversy with such nuance in mind and a clear understanding of Zionism and the Arab-Israeli conflict. The occupation of Palestine is an issue which has been simplified into one of “Arab v. Jew”, when the religious and ethnic identities in Palestine and Israel are not so binary and oppositional. To resist racism and colonialism, we must resist Zionism. This means allying with groups like BDS and ensuring that such protests are not condemned in our university.