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Against Zionism—and Anti-Zionism Too

Jews in the United States and elsewhere are at war over these labels. But the distinctions are clearer on paper than they are in real life.

A pro-Palestinian march in Los Angeles
Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images
A pro-Palestinian march in Los Angeles on October 21, 2023

My neighborhood, Manhattan’s Upper West Side, is currently engaged in a semiotic battle over Zionism. Go for walk on a nice spring day, and you will learn from storefront sheds, sidewalks, street barriers, park benches, even the handlebars of a Citi Bike I picked up recently, that “Zionism sucks” and is the equivalent of “racism,” “fascism,” and “genocide.” Of course, it’s not just in my own neighborhood that I see these signs. They follow me to work as well. At a rally outside the chancellor of CUNY’s office on East 42nd Street, one protester’s banner summed up nearly the entire linguistic case: “Call It What It Is: Genocide, Occupation, Imperialism, White Supremacy, Ethnic Cleansing!”

I don’t know how many people are politically convinced by graffiti, but to be fair, such scribbling has long been the weapon of those without access to newspaper editorial pages, full-page advertisements, and other forms of Gramscian opinion management. Mainstream Jewish organizations, neoconservative pundits, funders of Ivy League universities, and the entire Republican Party have better options. And of course, everybody has social media.

But the anti-Zionist street scribes have one point in their favor. The history of the American debate over Zionism has always centered on its etymological underpinnings. During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, most American Jews, originally from Germany and only lightly observant, were also outspoken, fervent anti-Zionists. They understood the idea of Jewish “peoplehood” to be contradictory to Jewish American “patriotism.” Judaism, to Reform Jews of the nineteenth century, was a religion and nothing more, just like Protestantism, and certainly offered no reason to question the commitment of these immigrants to their beloved new home country.

Eventually, during the slow-motion collapse of the sustainability of Jewish life in the Russian “Pale of Settlement”—the area in the czarist empire where the vast majority of Jews had settled following various expulsions and migrations—Eastern European immigration overwhelmed the small German American Jewish population and brought with it a “peoplehood”-dominated understanding of Jewish identity consistent with the concern Jews felt for their families. While not Zionists themselves—they had, after all emigrated to America, not to Palestine—they felt a deep connection to those Jews who had, as well as those seeking to get out of the Pale and go anywhere that might take them. Louis Brandeis, soon to be appointed to the Supreme Court and a German Jewish hero to East European Jews and almost certainly the most famous landsman in America at the time, helped enormously to bring these two groups together in a pro-Zionist consensus by developing a formula by which Zionism became a form of American patriotism (“Let no American imagine that Zionism is inconsistent with patriotism,” he proclaimed.) A safe homeland was something Jews who faced persecution elsewhere in the world might need, but not those lucky enough to live in the land of the free.

As the horrible news of the Holocaust began arriving in the last years of the World War II, surviving Jews seeking a “homeland”—not necessarily a state—in Palestine were fighting British “colonialism,” as the League of Nations had put that nation under a British mandate in 1920 in the wake of the collapse of Ottoman rule. They had the support of nearly all American Jews, as well as most American leftists and, not incidentally, the Soviet Union. And yes, some Jewish groups resorted to “terrorism” in this battle, but American Jews did not approve of these tactics, at least not in public. There were still anti-Zionists and, especially among the Germans, “non-Zionists,” but most lacked both the numbers and the inclination to put up much of a fight against the founding of the first Jewish commonwealth in 2,000 years “out of the ashes of the Holocaust,” in the parlance of the day.

After Israel’s sweeping 1967 victory over Egypt, Syria, and Jordan, together with its ensuing conquest of East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza, the linguistic battle reversed itself in many quarters. The new left condemned Zionism as an ideology of Western “imperialism” and a form of anti-Arab “racism.” Israel’s supporters insisted that virtually all Palestinian resistance to its violent occupation constituted “terrorism,” ignoring the fact that its own side had credibly claimed the same mantle when it was fighting for independence. Today both sides fight over who are the real “terrorists” and which side owns the rights to “liberation movement.” Meanwhile, the anti-Zionist side has succeeded, at least in leftist circles and college campuses, in attaching the words “settler colonialism,” “apartheid,” and (especially since October 7) “genocide” to discussions of Zionist ideology. Because of its explicit equation of anti-Zionism with antisemitism, the pro-Israel side insists that these terms, together with the oft-heard slogan “From the river to the sea” (and sometimes even the words “Free Palestine”), are out of bounds in responsible discourse and should result in firings, expulsions, and other forms of banishment in universities, media institutions, and just about anywhere else they can be found.

What we rarely if ever see, because it is simply assumed, are definitions of the most basic terms of the debate itself. Exactly, what is Zionism?

The question is a lot more complicated than it sounds, and not only because Jews are famous for having more opinions than there are Jews. It’s complicated because there have always been, and remain today, countless species of groups calling themselves “Zionist.” There are religious, ultrareligious, and anti-religious Zionists, and evangelical Zionists (and significant subsets of each one). There is political Zionism of the sort that led to the creation of the state, and purely cultural Zionism that had no interest in statehood. There are Zionists who say they want to live in peace side by side with Palestinians in separate states; Zionists who want to share the land with Palestinians; and Zionists who want to expel all Palestinians, not only from the West Bank and Gaza but also from Israel proper. All of these distinctions tend to be lost in our increasingly furious debates owing to the fact that when debating the question of “Zionism” versus “anti-Zionism,” the instinct of either side is almost always to demonize one definition and defend the other.

Not long ago, 75 percent of the students at one Modern Orthodox middle school told questioners that they felt “a strong emotional attachment to Israel.” But when asked to define Zionism, fully 60 percent wrote, “I don’t know what Zionism is.”

They had a point. Today, both Zionism and anti-Zionism are more feelings than ideas, much less coherent ideologies: A person is either cool with the idea of Israel or isn’t. It’s that simple.

According to the ADL website, “Zionists believe in and support the right of the democratic State of Israel to exist as a Jewish homeland. Israel is the only Jewish state in the world. Being a Zionist is distinct from supporting the policies of the government of Israel.” But according to the Jewish Voice for Peace website, the definition is rather different: “While it had many strains historically, the Zionism that took hold and stands today is a settler-colonial movement, establishing an apartheid state where Jews have more rights than others.”

And what of anti-Zionism? ADL chief Jonathan Greenblatt insists that “anti-Zionism is antisemitism, full stop”; a view that appears to animate pretty much every mainstream U.S. Jewish organizational leader, countless political pundits, and some of the wealthiest donors to America’s most prestigious universities. Lately, some conservative writers, including the neocon Joshua Muravchik writing in The Wall Street Journal, have taken the view that “some say that anti-Zionism isn’t tantamount to antisemitism. If so, it’s worse.… The fulfillment of anti-Zionism means nothing less than a second Holocaust.” Pish-posh, says JVP: Anti-Zionism is merely “a loose term referring to criticism of the current policies of the Israeli state, and/or moral, ethical, or religious criticism of the idea of a Jewish nation-state.”

The distinctions sound pretty clear on paper but, IRL, perhaps not so much. Writing in The Forward, author Lux Alptraum describes a “war raging within my synagogue” between its self-proclaimed Zionists and anti-Zionists. What upsets Alptraum is that rarely are the two sides “actually in disagreement about their ultimate hopes for Israelis and Palestinians.… The arguments that have unfolded are rarely about substantive issues like a cease-fire, hostage return, or Palestinian human rights. More often than not, it feels far more like people are simply fighting over the use of the labels ‘Zionist’ and ‘anti-Zionist,’” which she sees as being “wielded as a way of closing off any dissent, packaged into simplistic catchphrases that only make sense if you already know what the speaker understands Zionism or anti-Zionism to mean.” Similarly, Rabbi Emily Cohen, who works at an Upper West Side Reconstruction synagogue, notes that she has “heard people who identify as Zionist and who identify as anti-Zionist say the same thing about what they think should happen in Israel and Palestine. I’ve heard people who are anti-Zionists identify with what I would describe as Zionist views, and I’ve heard people who are Zionists advocate for what I would describe as anti-Zionist positions.”

Brooklyn College professor Louis Fishman, who describes himself as a “post-Zionist,” worries that the “pro-Palestine bar of acceptance for Jews is not based on shared values of peace, equality, and human rights. It is based on one simple question: Are you willing to separate yourself not just from Israelis but from the Jewish people at large, who overwhelmingly sympathize with Zionism?” Fishman laments that in his experience, it is necessary, for Jews to be welcomed in pro-Palestinian groups and organizations, to “declare vociferously that you’re anti-Zionist and renounce your support for any Jewish political presence in the territory of Israel-Palestine.” One can see the logic of what he describes in action in the writings of the Palestinian author Miriam Barghouti, who, speaking for the popular “intersectional” view among progressives, wrote, “Being a feminist and a Zionist is a contradiction in terms because the Zionist feminist is complicit in propagating supremacy and domination over a people on the one hand, while on the other hand calling for an end to patriarchy.”

Arguments over the nature of Zionism, anti-Zionism, and their relationship to progressive politics belong in seminar rooms and scholarly publications, not in our political arena. Israel has been around for 75 years and is not going anywhere. Yes, many people continue to dispute Israel’s “right to exist.” Lately, some leftist anti-Zionists have begun to deny the “right to exist” of the United States, as well. (They call it “Turtle Island” and demand its “liberation.”) But so what? None of these people have the power to do anything about it. As the Israeli philosopher and adviser to numerous governments Menachem Brinker explained in an essay published more than 25 years ago, “The task of Zionism is very nearly completed. That is to say, the problem that Zionism set out to address is just about solved. Soon we will be living in a post-Zionist era, and there will no longer be a good reason for a Zionist movement to exist alongside the State of Israel.” 

Meanwhile, back IRL, the current political-military-humanitarian crisis between the Israelis and Palestinians is approaching unimaginable catastrophe. Having experienced a devastating day of terrorist mass murder together with a complete failure of both its political and military leadership on October 7, a traumatized Israel has embarked on a military campaign that is leading directly not merely to the mass murder of tens of thousands of civilians but also to mass starvation, disease, and generalized chaos such as the world has rarely ever witnessed. With nearly 33,000 people so far killed, and more than 75,000 injured, little if any remaining medical infrastructure, a daily crisis of food and water, it is this crisis that deserves all of our attention. (Though perhaps we can also take note of the fact that over in the West Bank and off the front pages, with the continuing theft of their land by lawless Israeli settlers/terrorists operating under the protection of Israel’s extremist leadership, the persecution of the Palestinians living on the occupied West Bank is also growing ever more untenable by the day.) To the degree that one can point to an actual, existing form of Zionism today, it is one described by the Israeli scholar and sometimes government adviser Daniel Levy: a “Zionist Jewish political spectrum [that] is essentially all nationalist—running from apartheidists with a smiling face, through to just racist apartheidists, right through to expulsionists and eradicationists.” 

At the same time, the Palestinians, like the Israelis, are increasingly acting on the basis of an ideology of murderous nihilism. Most do not support Hamas, but 70 percent tell pollsters that the horrific attacks of October 7, in which over a thousand innocent people were murdered in cold blood, were somehow justified. (Just one party in Palestinian politics has the support of more than a third of its population, and that party is Hamas.)

The behavior of the leadership on both sides is morally indefensible and politically counterproductive. But however horrific and inhumane the Hamas attacks and hostage-taking on October 7 may have been, responsibility for this mass death and potential famine rests squarely with the Netanyahu government. The Israelis rule historic Palestine literally “from the river to the sea,” and every day, their leaders appear intent on making the lives of the Palestinians under their thumb more miserable, and the Palestinians can do little or nothing to stop them. Meanwhile, Hamas continues to hold, by Israel’s count, 130 of the hostages it took on October 7, and Israel jails more and more Palestinian activists every day.

Despite Israel’s undeniable dependence on U.S. financial, military, and diplomatic support, the Biden administration appears impotent to impose any meaningful limits on Israel’s actions, despite a constant stream of Susan Collins–style statements of “concern.” (Last Friday, in honor of Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visit, the Israeli government announced its largest confiscation of Palestinian land since the Oslo Accords were put into effect in 1993.)

Clearly, what is needed now more than ever is immediate measures to end the killing; prevent mass starvation; improve health, medical, and sanitation services in Gaza; to effect a return of the hostages; and to end the land seizures in the West Bank and begin some sort of plan for postwar reconstruction of Gaza, together with democratic elections in Gaza, the West Bank, and (as Senator Schumer correctly insisted) Israel. All of this is, I admit, difficult to imagine at the present moment, much less implement.

But none of it, I can promise you, will happen in the context of an argument over the meaning of the word Zionism. It’s fair to say that words themselves do not kill anyone. But as this argument has demonstrated time again, focusing on etymology at the expense of actual lives certainly does. Israel-Palestine is not, after all, ultimately a war of words. It’s a war of people. And right now, too many are dying, starving, and desperate for decent medical care to allow the decent among us to argue for even one more minute over whose ideology is the winning one in a fight in which there are only losers.