When Israeli soldiers shoot, maim and kill unarmed Palestinian protestors living under Israeli siege in Gaza – where has Zionism taken us?
When a nation descended from refugees turns it back on African asylum seekers because they will dilute the Jewish purity of the State – what moral integrity does Zionism have?
When the President of the Board of Deputies in Britain describes a left-wing religious Jewish group as “a source of virulent antisemitism” because they openly criticise Israel – what madness has Zionism created?
As Israel turns 70 later this month, Zionism, the political ideology that propelled the Jewish State into existence, is showing all of its failings and exposing the destructive force it’s always been for Palestinians and, indeed, for Jews.
For everyone’s sake, it’s high time we ditched it.
The ‘Jewish Question’
Zionism at the end of the 19th century set out to provide a distinctly Jewish response to what was described as ‘The Jewish Question’. How could Jews break free from centuries of oppression and discrimination? Where could Jews find safety and security and lead a normal life in a place that could be called ‘home’?
Zionism’s answer to ‘the Jewish Question’ was the revival of Jewish nationalism with the aim of ‘returning to’ and ‘recreating’ our ancient biblical kingdom. It was influenced as much by European ‘blood and soil’ nationalism as it was by socialism and the collective memory of ‘Eretz Yisrael’ carried with us through sacred texts and daily liturgy.
But whether nationalist, socialist or religious, Zionism has failed to address the Jewish Question. The State of Israel has neither normalised nor made safe the Jewish people.
If successive Israeli leaders are to believed, Israel is permanently under genocidal threat.
Right now we have the nuclear ambitions of Tehran; the would-be Palestinian murderers about to tear down the Gaza fence; and the campaigners in Europe and North America using boycotts, divestment and sanctions to throw the Jews into the sea. So what happened to the ‘safe haven’ in times of trouble? In 2018 Israel must be the least safe place for a Jew to live.
As for antisemitism, Zionism was meant to address this by taking Jews out of the continent of Europe which had given birth to it. But according to Israel’s advocates, antisemitism has not gone away but mutated into anti-Zionism. Not only does this call into question the point of Zionism in the first place, it’s also a convenient framing that makes opposition to Zionism look like hateful extremism.
Rather than address the causes of antisemitism, Zionism has confused and complicated matters, making it more difficult to agree what antisemitism is and how best to combat it.
Defending Israel, defending Zionism and castigating its critics takes up a disproportionate amount of the diaspora community leadership’s time. But it’s worse than that. The pro-active position on Israel and Zionism that’s been adopted by Jewish leaders around the world creates distorted and strained relationships between the Jewish community and other faiths groups.
New Jewish Questions
Since the late 1980s, the Zionist narrative of ‘Jewish Return’ as part of a righteous and moral endeavour of Jewish national self-determination has been challenged by Jewish Israeli historians gaining access to Israel’s own government archives.
There has been a growing understanding that the indigenous Arab population of Palestine paid a high price for the triumph of Jewish nationalism. The historical record shows that Zionism was never just an innocent endeavour which Arab hostility and irrational Jew hatred attempted to thwart.
Zionism and the creation of the State of Israel created a brand new set questions about Jewish security and Jewish identity just as urgent and just as fundamental as those of the 19th century.
What happens when the Jewish people become colonisers?
What happens when we create a State that constitutionally discriminates against its own non-Jewish citizens?
What happens when we become occupiers?
What happens when we besiege and annex another people’s land?
By holding dear to Zionism, Jewish communities around the world are trapped in a state of collective denial about the past and the present. Not only do we refuse to accept what’s taken place, we’ve made ourselves incapable of seeing it.
Zionism and Judaism
What makes it so difficult for Jews to ditch Zionism is that it’s undergone a highly successful ‘merger’ with Judaism. Zionism long ago stopped being merely a political project. It’s now understood as the natural heir to three thousand years of Jewish religion, history and culture.
We pray for Israel and its armed forces in our synagogues; our communal leaders advocate on its behalf, chastise its critics, stay silent on its misdemeanours; and Israeli Independence Day itself has been made a minor Jewish festival celebrated not according to the secular Gregorian calendar but by the Hebrew lunar calendar.
But if Zionism is Judaism and Judaism is Zionism what’s left of the ethical Jewish tradition? Because now the Nakba is Judaism. The Occupation is Judaism. The siege of Gaza is Judaism. The question becomes not only what is Zionism but what is Judaism? Is Judaism no more than the defence of a colonial project of dispossession? And if our Rabbis find such a statement abhorrent, why don’t they speak out against the atrocities being committed and then excused in the name of our faith.
Liberal Zionists insist that the ideology of Zionism is still fundamentally sound and can be redeemed from its current difficulties through a two state solution. Such a position now looks not only naive but a deliberate attempt to obscure the truth.
Liberal Zionists still treasure the Israeli Declaration of Independence signed on 14th May 1948 with its promise of equality for all Israel’s citizens. But in truth that was a deceit from the beginning. There is no true democracy on either side of the ‘Green line’. Try asking Palestinian Israelis if, after 70 years, they think the Israeli Government treats them as equal citizens or a demographic threat to the Jewish State?
Dividing not unifying
For a younger generation of Jews living outside of Israel, the Jewish State is no longer an idea that creates communal unity or a satisfying secular or religious Jewish identity.
Younger Jews have learnt too much about the forced displacement and on-going discrimination against an indigenous people to accept that Zionism was, and still is, an innocent project of Jewish liberation.
They have questioned the myths and narratives accepted by their parents and grandparents, while their own understanding of what it should mean to ‘be Jewish’ in the 21st century feels offended by what they see happening in a country that claims to exist and act in their interests.
In America you see the growing inter generational divide at work with the rise of Jewish Voice for Peace and If Not Now. In Britain the latest twist in the ‘Get Corbyn’ saga has given a healthy profile to a young group of religious and leftist Jews called Jewdas disenchanted by a Jewish establishment which is attempting to police who is a ‘good Jew’ and who is a ‘bad Jew’ based on criteria set by Zionism.
How to mark Israel at 70?
As Israel turns 70 there’s nothing to celebrate but there are many lives to mourn.
The dead and wounded Palestinians shot by Israeli army snipers on the Gaza border over the last two weeks is what makes Zionism a crime rather than just a political failure for the Jewish people.
The latest atrocity, is just that, the latest atrocity in a long line of Israeli atrocities, which Zionism attempts to legitimise and justify. The news reporting rarely reminds the public why there are so many Palestinians crammed into the Gaza Strip, how they got there or where their grandparents came from. But without that knowledge you cannot understand this year’s Great March of Return 70 years on.
If you are Palestinian the idea of another people celebrating the moment of your national catastrophe is profoundly immoral. The growing number of Jews who have understood that Zionism has been a ‘wrong turning’ in Jewish history will not be celebrating either. Instead we’ll stand with Palestinians to mark the 70th anniversary of their Nakba on 15th May.
Only one thing is certain, Israel needs to stop being an ideology and start being a nation. A nation of all of its citizens, all with equal national, civil and religious rights.
After 70 years, only partial justice and restoration is possible for the Palestinian people. Whatever constitutional arrangements are arrived at, equality should be the guiding principle at work.
As for Zionism let’s ditch it and move on. It’s time to place it in a glass cabinet and put it in a museum in a room marked ‘Dead Ends & False Messiahs’.