Violence and Moderation in the Tug of War

Aaron Simons

Yet another wave of violence engulfs Israel and the Palestinian territories. The illusion of peace has been shattered once more, although perhaps the only surprise is that the illusion existed in the first place.

A peaceful resolution to the conflict looks further away than ever. Oslo seems dead and buried. Netanyahu and Abbas appear more interested in preserving personal power than in helping their people.

The effects of violence run far deeper than the immediate tragedy. The widespread broadcast of brutal and evocative violence pushes the conflict into ever widening polarities, cementing rival narratives and creating opposing camps unable to engage with or even comprehend the viewpoint of the other.

The two narratives are obvious to anyone who dares trawl through their facebook or twitter feed. The typical pro-Israel narrative holds that Palestinians are addicted to violence, that Israel will never be safe, that Israel is the victim of Islamic extremism on its doorstep, and that the occupation remains a security necessity. The opposing pro-Palestinian narrative sees the IDF as willing murderers, the stabbings a cry of help against endless oppression, and Israel as a country engulfed by anti-Arab racism.

As long as the narratives remain entrenched, neither progress nor peace will come. Each narrative inoculates its side against the suffering of the other, unable to see, and unwilling to look. So long as each side remains encamped in its own worldview, Israelis and their advocates will never even begin to understand what it is like to live under occupation, and Palestinians and their advocates will never empathise with the all-encompassing fear that keeps Israelis inside their homes, terrified of walking to the shops and being stabbed in the back.

Genuine debate between the two narratives is sparse, if it exists at all. All too often, anything labelled ‘debate’ descends into an extravagant shouting match of repetition and avoidance. Neither side engages but both fire away, shouting the same phrases over and over again. When someone mentions the Israeli fear of being stabbed, someone else mentions the Palestinian fear of being shot, unable to comprehend that both are real and not a counterweight to the other. One side shouts incitement, the other shouts settlements. Both exist, but neither side cares if it the point doesn’t fit into their predetermined perspective. The Israeli-Palestinian debate is like trying to untie a knot through a game of Tug of War.

The effect of violence is to catalyse this process and drive each narrative further and further away. In the drama of heart-wrenching violence, both sides close ranks, unwilling to cede any political territory to the other. This is hardly surprising – it would be unhuman to not be affected by this violence. Spasms of grief close minds to reflection. Attitudes harden, and whatever remained of open discussion becomes angry and emotive polemic. In the game of Tug of War, violence just makes both sides pull harder.

Good people become racists when ethnic conflict causes innocent people to die. Violence like this is an extreme act, so it should be no surprise when it produces extreme opinions. When the path to peace requires each side to humanise the other, acts of violence only serve to dehumanise.

Even conciliatory opinions espoused by usually moderate journalists disappear when lives are on the line. It’s only natural. Why would one lend an ear to an opinion shared by a murderer? This is the final effect of violence. It firmly delineates both sides, and two peoples become entrenched in even deeper opposition, pushed into increasingly intractable polarities.

Social media inflames it all. Videos of violence are provided with no context, creating an analytical vacuum which radicalises pre-existing perspectives. If you were pro-Palestinian but didn’t think the IDF were heartless murderers, you’ll think exactly that after seeing this context free video of a Palestinian child bleeding on the ground. If you were pro-Israel but sought to understand the Palestinian plight, you sure as hell won’t bother understanding any more after watching this video of a meat cleaver being plunged into a Rabbi’s chest.

Violence’s final effect is its ultimate tragedy. Violence drives each side further and further apart, when peace will only come when both sides meet in the middle. And as violence increases this distance between Israelis and Palestinians, violence itself becomes even more likely, in an endless spiral of blood.

I want to end this piece with a call for understanding, a call for empathy, and a call for moderation. But I understand, amongst all the violence, if people won’t listen.

Newton’s Third Law of Palestinian Stabbings

Aaron Simons

Where there is an action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

This has been the line taken in a series of op-eds on the recent wave of violence in Israel and Palestine. Many of them say the same thing over and over again: Palestinian violence is the inevitable response to the occupation.

Gideon Levy wrote Even Gandhi Would Understand the Palestinians’ Violence. In the Guardian, Marwan Barghouti argued There will be no peace until Israel’s occupation of Palestine ends, whilst Mairav Zonszein opined that Israel’s domination of Palestinians makes violence inevitable. In September, Samah Salaime asked Why do they throw stones? The answer, of course, is the occupation.

It seems like an obvious point. The Palestinians live under a violent occupation. Many live in refugee camps, with little or no basic rights. Jewish settlements in the West Bank proliferate. Settlers and Palestinians are treated under two different legal systems. Settler violence is often ignored, whilst snipers are used against stone-throwing Palestinian children, who are then tried in military courts.  The settlers have vastly more rights and resources than the Palestinians. Is violent resistance any surprise as the occupation nears its 50 year anniversary?

Yet this point is often lost; the occupation is often ignored. Palestinian violence is seen as the product of incitement and incitement alone, in a sort of Jew vs Arab clash of civilisations. It’s easier to pretend not to see the occupation and to portray the Palestinians as an implacable enemy, as this allows for the avoidance of any degree of self-reflection, or recognition of Israel’s role in perpetuating the conflict.

But pieces such as Barghouti’s and Levy’s do more than just explain Palestinian violence in the context of the occupation. Explanation moves quickly into justification.

In many of these op-eds, it follows that if one recognises that the occupation is the core motive behind the stabbings, then terrorism is merely a functional response.   Terrorism is not condemned, but rather seen as the inevitable output of the structural logic of the occupation.

It’s Newton’s third law of Palestinian stabbings. The occupation is the action, terrorism is the reaction. Nothing else occurs within this logic, and no other causes of violence are deemed important.

This neutral functionalism, where the terrorist is solely and exclusively the product of occupation, absolves the terrorist from any moral judgement. Occupation and terrorism is understood exclusively as action and reaction and nothing more. Under this argument, it doesn’t make sense to condemn a causal inevitability. The terrorist is not condemned for murder in the same way that a balloon isn’t condemned for popping under pressure. Both are the inevitable reaction to the initial action.

This argument goes further. Under this logic, the blame for violence shifts to what is perceived as the root cause. What this means, quite literally, is that it is Netanyahu’s fault that there are stabbings in Tel Aviv. If Netanyahu creates occupation, and occupation creates terrorism, then under Newton’s third law it follows that terrorism is Netanyahu’s fault. Zonszein writes “This current round of violence… is a direct result of government policy”.

And if one thinks the occupation is wrong, then following this functional logic, ultimately terrorism is justified as a form of opposition to it. If not justification, there is sympathy for those carrying out the stabbings. At the very least, the terrorist is blameless. All these arguments have been made explicitly and implicitly in discussion of Palestinian terrorism on social media and in the wider press.

But Newton was a physicist. Not a political theorist, not a sociologist. It is a complete and utter fallacy to reduce Palestinian terrorism to such a simple and monocausal explanation.

Palestinian terrorists are not merely physical objects in the Newtonian world of action and reaction. A terrorist has moral agency.  The terrorist who picks up a screwdriver and stabs five Israelis in Tel Aviv has made an explicit choice to do so. Zonszein reduces the Palestinian terrorist to the “noble savage”; unthinking, unchoosing, and unaccountable for his or her actions. It is only by the Newtonian logic of the noble savage that Zonszein can dismiss the agency of the terrorist, and make Netanyahu directly to blame, rather than the actual perpetrator of the attack.

Yes, the occupation is the central cause of terrorism. But it is also not the only cause. This most recent wave of violence was triggered by the (false) rumour that Israel was planning on changing the status quo on Temple Mount. And that’s to say nothing of brutal and violent incitement. Say, for example, Hamas creating handy ‘how to stab’ videos. Or the Gaza Imam commanding Palestinians to form stabbing squads in a terrifying sermon given last Friday.

Commentators like Levy also seem unable, or simply think it’s irrelevant, to differentiate between just cause and just method. Opposing the occupation is just. Using terrorism as a method is not. But again, all this is lost when terrorism is reduced to nothing more than inevitable reaction to occupation, where Palestinians are conceived of as an unthinking mass, for whom violence is the only way.

Contextualising Palestinian violence in opposition to the occupation is important. But it should never mean reducing terrorism to this logic of inevitability, where the terrorists are blameless or their actions justified. There are indiscriminate stabbings, shootings, and car rammings of civilians on Israel’s streets. Newton’s law just won’t cut it here.

What Is Zionism?

Aaron Simons

Few words have become as flexible as ‘Zionism’. All at once, Zionism has become synonymous with Israel, nationalism, Jewish liberation, oppression, support for Israel, colonialism, Jewish identity, racism, anti-racism, nation-state theory, ultra-nationalism, ethnic exclusivism, Jewish heritage, occupation, territorial maximalism, and much else.

Any party with a stake in Israel and Palestine likes to claim and redefine the term as if that constitutes winning the debate. By rendering Zionism synonymous with support for Israel, sympathetic but critical voices are invalidated. By making Zionism and colonialism one and the same, there is no place for any sympathy with the Zionist narrative. By making Zionism and Judaism the same, any opposition to Zionism is construed as anti-Semitism.

Far from winning the debate, the politics of terminology over Zionism is largely a pathetic attempt to suppress debate. Instead of engaging with the issues at hand, debate is shut down, as the topic of the debate already comes preloaded with a final judgement. If someone says that anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism, any debate on Zionism is automatically shut down. Likewise, saying Zionism is colonialism does not win a debate, rather it just suppresses it. The merits and criticisms of Zionism cannot be discussed when the definition itself becomes a loaded one. Opposing views simply use different definitions and shout over each other at deafening volume.

To move away from the politics of terminology into genuine debate, it is worthwhile outlining a basic definition of Zionist ideology. This means looking not at actions or consequences of Zionism, or what has been done in the name of Zionism, or interpretations of Zionism, but at what the basic premises of Zionist ideology actually are.

Zionist ideology contains three key premises. Zionism claims that 1) the Jewish people 2) should have self-determination in a national home 3) in the land of Israel.

Like most ideologies, each premise here is a separate conceptual claim. If we are to have any meaningful discussion on what it means to be Zionist, we need a clear and nuanced understanding of what each principle entails.

Zionism’s first principle: the Jewish people

This is an often overlooked but nonetheless important aspect of Zionism. Zionism is Jewish nationalism, claiming that the Jews are a not merely a religious group, but a people or nation. Zionism argues firstly that modern Jewish identity has all the characteristics of nationhood: a shared history, culture, common identity, tradition, and religious heritage. The idea of the Jewish people is the first premise of Zionism, and a building block for its later arguments.

The principle of Jewish peoplehood today goes largely unchallenged, as it does accurately describe contemporary Jewish identity.  Historically, however, this was not always the case. Zionism triggered dramatic intra-communal debates on the nature of Jewish identity in the 1930s and 1940s, between those who claimed Jewish identity was solely religious and those who claimed it was national. Similarly, today many ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel are explicitly anti-Zionist, as they reject any idea that Jewish identity can be based on anything other than adherence to the laws of the Torah. The concept of Jewish peoplehood also has important implications for Israel as the Jewish state today, as it is this concept which defines the members of the national community.

Zionism’s second principle: self-determination in a national home

Zionism argues that the Jewish nation, like other nations, should have national self-determination in a national home. It is this principle which is at the core of Zionism, but also its lack of specificity places this principle at the centre of the various strands of Zionism. In its most basic form, this principle means the Jewish people should be free to live as they like, in control of their own lives, rather than relying on the benevolence of others as an ethno-national minority.

The various strands of Zionism diverge at this point. There is divergence over what political form the national home should take to fulfil the idea of self-determination. The political Zionism of Herzl argued that a Jewish state was required, whilst Ahad Ha’am’s vision of cultural Zionism argued a state was unnecessary. Many Jews envisioned a Jewish state but had no idea how it would come about, imagining decades of immigration under British or American control. Revisionist Zionism, led by Jabotinsky, argued for a romantic militaristic Jewish state based on an ‘Iron Wall’ against Arab opposition. The binationalist Zionists, such as Henrietta Szold and Judah Magnes, sought a single unitary state of Jews and Arabs. Radical socialist Zionism also sought one state based on the unity of the working classes.

There is also divergence at here over what principles the Jewish national home, and then the Jewish State, should embody. Labour Zionism argued that the Jewish state should be secular and socialist, based on the communal living of the kibbutz and moshav. Cultural Zionism saw the Jewish state as a means to inspire a national cultural and religious revival, educating the Jews of the diaspora. Religious Zionism saw the Jewish state as key to restoring the Jewish faith to a messianic age, and today sees settling in the biblical lands of Israel (the West Bank, or Judea and Samaria) as central to this goal. Liberal Zionism emphasises democratic values and the protection of human rights.

Zionism as a whole cannot be reduced to any of its individual interpretations. Zionism is only the broader principle from which all these interpretations are derived. The differing interpretations of Zionism remain at the core of Israeli politics today. Netanyahu’s Likud follow Jabotinsky’s Revisionist Zionism, sitting in coalition with the religious Zionist parties. Herzog’s Zionist Union is the inheritor of Labour Zionism, whilst Yesh Atid, Kadima, and Meretz all carry strands of liberal Zionism.

Zionism’s third principle: the land of Israel

Zionism holds that the location of the Jewish national home should be in the land of Israel. This is based on the presence and status of the land of Israel in Jewish texts, scripture, and history. Quite simply, the Jewish homeland could not be anywhere else. The importance of the land varies according to the strands of Zionism, ranking highest in religious Zionism due to its emphasis on the land’s biblical heritage.

Ideology in Context

None of this is intended to preclude criticism of Zionist ideology, or to whitewash the history of Zionism, or to invalidate interpretations of Zionism, critical or otherwise. Defining Zionism by its own ideological claims sets a common basis for what Zionism fundamentally is. It does not mean that Zionism has to be accepted, or that it is free from judgement. Nor does it free Zionism from interpretation. Zionism can be interpreted both as a liberation movement and as a colonial movement, but neither interpretation fundamentally changes this definition.

What is required is an end to the politics of terminology, whereby interpretation and judgement are interwoven with definition. Redefining Zionism is not a substitute for argument; it is rhetorical isolationism. Attempting to redefine Zionism in this way simply fragments debate into a series of misfiring echo-chambers, each unable to engage with opposing views. If any substantive debate on Zionism is to occur, it is time to move beyond such pettiness.

Dear Mum and Dad

Emma Brand

Sometimes, when I talk about Israel, my dad worries that I am becoming an anti-Zionist. And sometimes, when I talk about Israel, my mum worries that I’m going to make Aliyah.

Their responses are symptomatic of a mainstream Jewry that is, quite simply, baffled by the liberal Zionist brand of scathing, loving critique of Israel. It does not surprise me when liberal Zionists are branded “anti-Israel”, but I want to clarify our position.

We do not hate Israel. We criticise Israel because we love it, and want it to live up to its lofty ideals. We passionately believe in, and are fighting for, a liberal and democratic Jewish state. We’re fighting for the Jewish state that most Jews believer already exists.

So, on behalf of liberal Zionists everywhere, here is my message to the Jewish community.

I know it’s upsetting for you to hear us lambast the actions of the Israeli government, and it confuses you to when we support Palestinian initiatives. I know you would like us to do more to support Israel on campus, using the familiar mantras of Israel being the only democracy in the Middle East, a hub of scientific progress which benefits the entire world, and the only place in the region where women’s rights and LGBT rights are properly protected. But for me personally, those arguments have become little more than slogans. I want them to be a reality.

You claim that Israel is a homeland for all Jews, a safe haven that would welcome us indiscriminately should we ever be in need. Yet many Jewish sections of Israeli society, including Sephardi, Mizrachi, and Ethiopian Jews, face severe discrimination. Furthermore, Reform Judaism has been so openly disparaged by high-ranking politicians that it often seems that Reform Jews have no place in the Jewish state. I’m not saying these things because I hate Israel. I’m saying them because I love Israel, and wish it was the Jewish homeland that it promised to be.

You often proudly point to Israel’s democratic nature, and I’ll agree, Israel protects the rights of minority groups better than any other country in the region. But that really isn’t saying much. And we liberal Zionists will have a hard time forgetting that when Arab Israelis were exercising their rights in the recent election, they were vilified publically by their own prime minister.

And that’s only in Israel “proper”. In East Jerusalem, part of the occupied West Bank, Arabs are underfunded in education, healthcare, and public services, and their planning permission rejections vastly outnumber those of their Jewish neighbours. Furthermore, many Arabs are only classified as “residents” rather than citizens, meaning that they pay taxes, but cannot vote. This is without even starting on the sheer violence of the occupation. I’m not saying this because I hate Israel. I’m saying this because I love Israel, and wish it lived up to its liberal and democratic reputation.

You compare Israel’s criminal justice system favourably with the fanatical religious law which governs many other countries in the Middle East. Yet you overlook the fact that in the West Bank, there are separate criminal processes for Jews and Arabs. Arabs live under martial law, and youths as young as six have been tried in military courts without lawyers. The penalty for stone-throwing has recently been extended to four years imprisonment, and Netanyahu has just approved the use of snipers against the perpetrators. I’m not saying this because I hate Israel. I’m saying this because I love Israel, and believe that a Jewish state should be a just state.

You cite Israel as the only country in the region that guarantees freedom of expression, and it is undeniable that Israeli artists have produced masterpieces as a result. Yet only this past summer, a theatre production in Haifa, the city hailed as Israel’s interfaith success story, had its funding withdrawn and was removed from the list of plays eligible for student subsidies because it was seen to be showing too much sympathy towards the Palestinian terrorists it was portraying.

Subsequently, the Al-Midan Theatre had its funding temporarily suspended, and several other Palestinian and cross-communal theatres also seemed under threat. I’m not saying this because I hate Israel. I love Israel, and want it to be a place that inspires and protects freedom of speech.

You see Israel as a symbol of progress, a Jewish nation but a secular state, a centre of innovation and modernity. Yet only this past summer, the forces of religious extremism made the headlines when a sixteen-year-old girl was stabbed by an ultra-orthodox Jew at a Gay Pride event, and “Price Tag” Jewish terrorists, burnt a Palestinian toddler and his parents to death. I’m not highlighting these painful examples because I hate Israel. I’m highlighting them because I love Israel, and I’m devastated that these things are still happening there.

In short, what I want, and what I do not believe we have, is a Jewish state that reflects Jewish ideals. It’s not enough that Israel has a majority Jewish population, if it does not act in accordance with Jewish values. Jews are taught, “Justice, justice shall you pursue”, and “Do not oppress the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Eqypt.” Israel may keep its Jewish festivals, have Shabbat as its day of rest, and a meat industry which practises Shechitah. But that is not enough when Israel is detaining African refugees in Holon, humiliating Arabs living under occupation in the West Bank, and systematically destroying the Bedouin way of life through forcible resettlements.

When did diaspora Zionism become so fearful of critical thought? For me, being a Zionist is not about blindly defending Israel, no matter the moral costs. Being Zionist is about building the best Jewish State possible. That means I cannot sit by and pretend that Israel has no flaws. I am fighting for an Israel that I do not feel embarrassed to champion.

So, Mum and Dad, I’m not declaring myself an anti-Zionist, and I’m certainly not making Aliyah any time soon. But if I did, I’d want to be moving to a country that I could be proud of whole-heartedly. It may not be fair to hold Israel to higher standards than other countries in the world. Compared with Russia, or China, or Venezuela, it’s doing pretty well. But I don’t want it to be like Russia, or China, or Venezuela, or even Britain for that matter.

I want Israel to be what it was intended to be, a light among the nations. Until that is the case, I won’t stop fighting for it.

Why Are Most Jews Zionist?

Noah Lachs and Joel Collick

It’s often glibly assumed that most Jews are Zionist simply because it says Jerusalem a few times in the Tanakh, or that Jews want to recreate a civilisation that faded away 2000 years ago.

Religious texts and geographical heritage do play a part in the Zionist narrative, but it is way off the mark to reduce Jewish support for Zionism to this. The attraction of Zionism is the product of the Jewish experience in past and present, as well as a reflection of the contemporary world.

It’s worth starting at Zionism’s core principle: that Jews constitute a nation in the world of nation-states. Zionism claims that Jewish identity is primarily national, rather than based on religious practice. The first principle of Zionism is Jewish peoplehood.

This principle resonates with most Jews today, for whom their Jewish identity is not simply a religion. As well as religious obligation, Jews share history, culture, tradition, language, heritage, and much more. Jewish peoplehood recognises the breadth of Jewish identity for both religious and secular Jews.

This is however only part of the story. Zionism does not have a monopoly on Jewish national identity. The Bundist movement, for example, made similar national claims. What distinguishes Zionism is its desire for a Jewish national home in the land of Israel.

Why do Jews desire a Jewish homeland?  Why do Zionist Jews place such high value on national self-determination? It is not, as some slurs suggest, due to a vision of ethno-supremacy.

Jews support the idea of a Jewish national home for two main reasons: the negative push of anti-Semitism, and the positive appeal of national self-determination. It is for these two reasons that Zionism cements itself in the rubric of Jewish identity, religious or otherwise.

The fate of the stateless Jew has been one of near-existential crisis. During the Medieval period, Jews were accused of using the blood of Christian children for ritual purposes as a pretext for anti-Semitic imprisonment, torture and murder. Jews were deprived of basic rights, expelled from major European countries, later ghettoised, and exploited economically.

The 19th century promised citizenship rights for some Jews, many of whom became more integrated into European society than ever before. However, Enlightenment liberalism failed to deliver. Jewish emancipation was largely contingent on assimilation and renunciation of one’s Jewishness. When that failed, dogmatic European nationalism saw Jews as an unassimilable and permanent fifth column. No case proves this better than the Dreyfus Affair of 1894.

In Eastern Europe, Jews who lived in the relatively secluded shtetls were not free from anti-Semitism. These communities, governed by their own councils or kahal, sought to preserve and protect both Jewish people and their faith. Alas in the face of pogroms it could do neither. During the early 20th century, an estimated 70,000 to 250,000 civilian Jews were murdered at the hands of the Ukrainian People’s Republic, the Ukrainian Green Army, nationalist gangs, the White Army and the Red Army.

Middle-Eastern Jewish communities were also ravaged by pogroms. The destruction of the Jewish quarter of Fez in 1912 and the 1941 Farhud in Iraq shatter the illusion that anti-Semitism was solely a European phenomenon pre-1948.  Middle-Eastern Jews even faced blood libels, as in Damascus in 1840, where eight leaders of the Jewish community were imprisoned and tortured after being falsely accused of killing a Christian monk.

Over 2000 years of Jewish homelessness, neither assimilation nor seclusion succeeded in overcoming systemic and violent anti-Semitism. The onset of the Holocaust, and murder of six million Jews—actively assisted by collaborators, and unhampered by apathetic Allied forces—showed that even in the face of annihilation, Jews could not rely on anyone to come to their aid.

The persecution experienced by Jews at the hands of others reinforced over and again a need for a home of their own. Zionism was not a reaction to the Holocaust. The Holocaust, once and for all, proved the need for Zionism. The fact that Jews today do not face the same levels of persecution does not invalidate this long history, nor does it mean this anti-Semitism will not return. 60 years of relative safety is an anomaly over a 2000 year history of persecution.

Support for Zionism is not, however, solely a reaction to anti-Semitism. Zionism today still has the strong positive appeal of self-determination. Abba Eban illuminates these motivations for Zionism. Eban wrote in 1947: “Even if the world were a federation of free, democratic states devoid of the least hint of anti-Semitism, Zionists would not surrender their claim to win a national existence of the Jews.”

Consequently, Eban makes a vital point: Jewish people desire to determine their own forms of political and cultural expression. This is not simply because history has prevented Jews from doing so, but also due to the intrinsic appeal of these objectives. An independent national home allows Jewish tradition and culture flourish.

Socialist Zionist youth movement, Hashomer Hatzair had similar views. Historian Stephan Wendehorst notes how the movement “was opposed to refugee Zionism; first, as it appeared to give credence to the idea that Zionism was merely the product of anti-Semitism, the Jewish nation a creation of Hitler, and not the ‘positive reflection of the deep-rooted urge of the Jewish people for its own life’”.

In wanting a national home, Zionism seeks only to realise for the Jewish people what all other nations desire. For Jews, its promises loom larger when juxtaposed with history: Zionism trades communal vulnerability for collective rights. Zionism consists in nothing less than the emancipation of the Jewish people from perpetual guest status to equality amongst the nations of the world.

It is clear, then, why Jews support the principle of Jewish people, and why for both negative and positive reasons they would want a national home. But what is the significance of Zion? Why the strip of land between the Jordan and the Mediterranean?

Jewish history, philosophy and liturgy concretises Israel as a homeland; the connection is tangible not simply mythic. Israel is where the Jewish forefathers dwelt, the territory governed by Kings Saul, David and Solomon and their successors for a millennium, where there was a significant Jewish presence until the Bar Kochba revolt and a small minority of Jews have remained there ever since. Establishing a Jewish national home anywhere else just wouldn’t be authentic. This does not mean that all Zionists think the Jewish right to live there is exclusive.

That is, in long form, why most Jews are Zionists. Put it in short form and the case becomes even clearer. Zionism is the emancipation of the Jewish people from centuries of expulsion, inquisition, and mass murder, the establishment of the State of Israel, a phoenix from ashes. Zionism elevates the Jewish people from minority status to national equality, providing a place where being Jewish doesn’t mean being an exception from the norm, and gives the Jewish nation a national home.

Think Twice Before Using the Term ‘Zionism’

Noah Lachs and Joel Collick

“Zionists are not welcome here” was the statement released in June by the administrators of NoHeterox**, Oxford’s online forum for the Queer and Trans community. NoHeterox** justified their position “because we are anti-colonialist; we are anti-empire”, before a post called for the expulsion of all “Zios”. On Skin Deep, Oxford’s largest platform for the discussion of racism, Jews have been labelled “Zionist infiltrators” or simply “Zionists” by members when flagging up anti-Semitism. explains how “Zionism = Racism”.

Critics of Israel love to use the word ‘Zionism’. It’s rhetorically punchy, and creates an all-encompassing enemy that all criticism can be focused on. Many unconnected people and organisations use “Zionist” as a catch-all term for everything and anything connected to Israel, or as an insult, or as a synonym for occupation, colonialism, racism, and control.

Where do the pejorative connotations come from? For many, the answers are the Nakba, the Palestinian refugee crisis, occupation, settler expansionism, and so on. These are each topics for discussion in their own right, and all deserve attention. But it is a misinterpretation of Zionism, as well as selective simplification and deep-set prejudice that elicit the kind of statements above.

There are three reasons to be cautious, clear and specific when using the term ‘Zionism’ in discussion of Israel and Palestine.

Firstly, the complete amalgamation of Zionism with all these related and unrelated issues is just factually wrong. It is important to separate Zionism from the State of Israel. Zionism is Jewish nationalism; the belief in the Jewish people’s right to self-determine in the land of Israel. Since 1942, Zionism chose the path of statehood to fulfil these national aspirations, with the State of Israel coming into formation in 1948. It is a state like many other states, with leaders, institutions, and policies.

Railing against Zionism or Zionists in order to criticise Israeli policy, institutions, socio-religious groups, and policy, misses the crucial difference between an ideology that supports the existence of the State, and the subsequent actions of that State.  

Zionism is not actions done by Israel, or a politician who wins just 25% of the vote in Knesset elections. Zionism is not the discrimination and racism experienced by Israeli Arabs, or even Mizrahi and Ethiopian Jews. It is not a byword for Palestinian oppression. Many Zionists oppose all these things.

That is not to say Zionism itself is free from analysis. Nor is it to deny that Zionism has historically caused injustices, or that certain interpretations of Zionism play a direct role in Israel and the Israel-Palestine conflict today. However it is to say, that if you are using the word ‘Zionism’, be aware that you are not tackling these specific interpretations of Zionism, or just the occupation, or the IDF. It means you are tackling nothing less than the entire basic concept of Jewish national self-determination.

Secondly, Zionism is not a monolithic entity. Zionists do not represent an organized mass conspiracy of malign intent. Zionism, as the broad principle of Jewish nationalism, includes within it a speckled cohort of conflicting voices, independently projecting their own interpretation of what Jewish self-determination should look like.

Many Zionists shudder at the thought of Binyamin Netanyahu, while others venerate him. Zionism can be religious and secular. Some Zionists aspire to territorial maximalism, depriving the Palestinians of a state. Most Zionists don’t believe in this vision and favour a two state-solution. Some Zionists think Israel should give preferential treatment to its Jewish citizens. Other Zionists think this is abhorrent. All these groups claim the mantle of Zionism, as they share a belief in its core principles.

There is a tendency on the left to subsume all of these groups into one, and that one is normally the worst incarnation of Zionism. To extract the least palatable aspects of a broad-church ideology to represent an entire belief system is not only lazy but disingenuous and prejudiced. There is an added irony too, in that by seeking to divide those who support and criticise the State of Israel into ‘Zionists’ and ‘Anti-Zionists’, the left excludes Zionists who are harsh critics of Israel and also desire change.

Thirdly, there is another group which also uses ‘Zionism’ as a catch-all term: anti-Semites. Contemporary anti-Semitism masks itself using the word Zionism. The story goes as follows; the Zionist lobby instructs international policy, the Zionist banks finance it, the Zionist media pumps out propaganda, and Zionist forces execute racist imperial oppression, globally. It is in this vein that David Duke, blamed “the Ziomedia” for falsely reporting that he had endorsed Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, and Saxophonist Gilad Atzmon attributed Jeremy Corbyn’s popularity to party members’ “fatigue” with “Zionist interventionist wars” – presumably referring to Iraq.

These kind of conspiracies blend dated anti-Semitic tropes with contemporary accounts of Palestinian oppression. It is not only those on the political fringes that are responsible. To quote Liberal Democrat Peer, Baroness Tonge “The pro-Israel lobby has got its grips on the Western world, its financial grips. I think they’ve probably got a grip on our party”.

Indeed some portrayals of Zionism reel into the downright disgusting. The Independent published a cartoon of Ariel Sharon eating a Palestinian baby in 2003, reimagining the blood libel slur for the 21st century. Anti-Zionism and anti-Semitic tropes coincided recently in the title of Samantha Comizzoli’s documentary, “Israel, the Cancer”. This presentation of Israel as an unassailable far-reaching sickness carries haunting echoes of some of Europe’s worst anti-Semitic propaganda.

Needless to say, to criticise Israel—its government, its policy, its military, and its judiciary; the racism in its society, the settlements, and the occupation; even the conditions and events of its founding—is not necessarily anti-Semitic.

However, if your statement sounds like a Der Stürmer headline with the word ‘Zionist’ substituted for the word ‘Jew’, it obviously carries anti-Semitic overtones. Remember that NoHeterox** statement? “Zionists are not welcome here.”

Whether or not you mean to be anti-Semitic is irrelevant if you’re using language and images of anti-Semitism. Jews shouldn’t have to decode what is political critique and what is vicious hatred. The burden should not be on Jews.

By all means say you’re anti-occupation, condemn the Nakba, and rail against racism in Israel. Critique Zionism itself, if you’re being very specific about what you’re critiquing. But for all three of the reasons above, stop using Zionism as a coat-hook for every Israel-associated grievance, or indeed anti-Jewish sentiment that you might harbour.

Demystifying Israel

Chesney Ovsiowitz

If you have never been to Israel, this is for you. If you have, this is for you too. If you have a flat in Tel Aviv, cousins in Jerusalem, and grandparents in Beit-Shemesh, this is for you. If you have never met a Jew before, this is for you.

I have been to Israel many times, and have been in Israel for a lot of time. As the product of a Jewish secondary school I was taught to love the Jewish homeland unconditionally, to turn towards Jerusalem when I pray, and to ask G-d for peace in the world. I felt as though I understood Israel, its culture, its people, its language; I had experienced it. Zionism was intellectually ingrained within me.

Yet when I went to Jerusalem for a month this summer, these certainties were violently undone. I wrestled between the most natural part of me, my Jewishness, and something that now felt artificial, Zionism. None of the narratives about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in mainstream media were able to help me reconcile these two sides to myself. And then I met a Palestinian of my age, and where I once saw culture, people, language, I saw cultures, peoples, and languages, and ‘Israel’ as a topic felt foreign.

Unlike many, I have never claimed to be an expert on Israeli-Palestinian relations. Maybe it’s because I’ve never been a fan of politics. Debating policies, scandals, exclusion zones, budgets, and death tolls whilst engineering cults of personality in order to win elections does not appear to me as an effective way of catering to the needs of individuals affected by the headlines. By no means is politics ineffective, but it is sometimes easy to feel that it is both a means and its own end; it can override and cloud the truths behind the issues.

Yet when I met the girl from East Jerusalem, politics became a plain and simple background upon which humans were messily scribbled.

She asked me to order a coffee for her before she showed me around the Arab Quarter of the Old City. “Don’t you speak Hebrew?” I retorted with careful we’ve-just-met sassiness. She pulled her face and laughed: “Ew no”. In that moment I felt incredibly naive: I couldn’t understand how someone who lived the city where I’d been living, where I’d been speaking Hebrew, could be so out of touch with what I had experienced. Yet as we walked east and spoke and took in the sights of a familiar city through new eyes, it started making sense. She showed me a side of Israel that I had never seen before outside of carefully-planned, executed, and biased educational trips.

As Ramadan came to a close for the day, the streets around the Damascus gate flooded with people buying food from the vendor stalls. The image didn’t fit into what I’d been taught to expect. Looking at West Jerusalem from the outside for the first time, from the borders of its Eastern neighbour, it began to seem grotesque, with its modern architecture and gaudy Mamilla mall.

“That’s not my country, why would I learn its language?” My first instinct was to try to talk to her about politics and the two-state solution, about government and democracy — even though these are self-professed weak-points of mine — to somehow try to fit her into readymade paradigms and frames of reference. She didn’t want to talk about politics, but she did want to tell me that she was upset, and angry, and hopeful.

We talk about perspective as if Israel is just a series of essays, different news stations, or different theories. It seems obvious enough, but perspective is above all else human. My short and by no means extreme or unique experience of perspective felt like a coming of age. This new friend of mine destabilised my outlook on Israel, and left me feeling confused. Maybe I don’t like this place? Does this make me a liberal Zionist, or an anti-Zionist, or what? Am I ‘allowed’ to call myself anti-Zionist? What would my parents say? The dismantling of my Jewish education on Israel that took place during my month in Jerusalem gave me the strength to say ‘I don’t know’. When the only voices that can be heard around you are screaming either yes or no, it is hard to side with either (or both). Extreme opinions are always easier to defend than nuance or confusion.

Zionish: What’s in the Name?

Zionish wants to break the restrictive parameters placed on debate on Zionism, Israel, and Palestine.

We want to open the discussion on Zionism beyond the simplistic narratives and concepts that dominate our Jewish communities. We want to fundamentally change the view that to be Zionist means to only hear one side of the story, to shout over any dissent, and to uncritically buy every Israeli government line.

We want to challenge the idea that Zionism is defined by unquestioning support of every Israeli policy and wilful blindness to every Israeli flaw. We believe Israel’s problems are to be engaged with, rather than ignored.  We are willing to point out both the rights and the wrongs of Israel in the hope and aspiration that we can fight for a better and more just situation in Israel and Palestine.

We absolutely reject that voicing criticism of Israeli policy and the occupation makes one automatically anti-Zionist, working against the interests of the community. In fact, we argue the very opposite.

We want Zionism to be based on a re-engagement with Zionist theory and the meaning of Israel. We want to reverse the trend where Zionist thought has been reduced into shouting about Intel Core Processors and Tel Aviv beaches. We want Zionism to be about what vision we want for Israel. The Jewish community is long overdue a debate about what we want the Jewish State to actually look like, and what values it should embody.

We also want to open the discussion on Zionism in our student communities. Any discussion on Zionism is dominated by those for whom Zionism is synonymous with oppression and apartheid. Debate is forbidden and anyone who dares deviate beyond the prescribed perspective are intimidated and excluded by their fellow students. We want our student communities to be full of open, honest, and critical debate on Zionism, Israel and Palestine, rather than the aggressive and hostile conversation that currently dominates.

We want to challenge the doctrine of the student debate, and the prevailing conceptions of what Zionism is.  We want to argue Zionism is more than one long apologia for occupation and colonialism, and that there are a multiplicity of narratives that deserve attention in the pursuit of peace and justice in the region. We aim to challenge the conspiracism and  selectivity in student debate on Israel and Palestine.

We also want our fellow students to consider the fact that Zionism is no monolith, and that there are many Zionists who share their anger and fears about the status quo. These voices should be engaged with rather than ignored, or silenced.

We will fight the anti-Semitism that rears its ugly head in debate, and fight even harder attempts to legitimate it.

And so we created Zionish. The name is intended to be subversive. We named our publication Zionish because we seek to challenge the dominant conceptions of what it means to be Zionist. We hope those on both sides of the debate will listen.

Welcome to Zionish

This website was born out of a combination of frustration, idealism, and hope.

For too long, we’ve been frustrated when talking about Israel and Palestine. We’re frustrated at a situation in Israel and Palestine which seems to be sinking ever deeper into the quagmire. As we approach 50 years of occupation, I’m frustrated that peace seems further away than ever.

We’re frustrated at the blindness of diaspora Jewry, which would rather shield itself from reality than embrace the difficulties and contradictions of Israel. We’re frustrated at a student community that renders Zionism the enemy and seeks to silence any Jewish perspective they disagree with, despite the fact that many of these Jews and Zionists seek similar goals of justice and equality. Both of these are symptomatic of a deeper worry: as the situation worsens, debate polarises, and the argument shifts more and more to the extremes.

We do, however, remain idealistic. For too long we and many others felt excluded from the discussion for not subscribing to either polarity. So Zionish was set up to fight for an alternative. When all around us debate falls into hostile and exclusionary narratives, we retain the idealism that states these different narratives can be reconciled, and that an approach guided by nuance and sensitivity can create a united movement for a better future in Israel and Palestine. Commentators are all too quick to declare the death of liberal Zionism. We contain the idealism to reinvigorate it.

Finally, we are hopeful. We are hopeful that those who read Zionish do so with an open mind. We are hopeful that those who come to Zionish will not see us as the enemy, but as a valid and equal part of the discussion on the future of Israel and Palestine. We are hopeful that the debate does not have to be characterised by hate and aggression, but honest and free discussion. We are hopeful that readers realise that we are not a minority fringe, but a real and growing movement in our communities.

So welcome to Zionish. Have a browse of our first articles. We hope there’s a bit of something for everyone. You’ll find a basic definition of Zionism and how we can engage with it away from the politics of terminology. We have analysis of why most Jews are Zionist. For those interested in getting to grips with the historiography of Zionism, you’ll find challenges to the conventional history of Zionism as an irreligious rejection of Judaism. Our writers challenge head-on Zionist perceptions of Palestinians. There are passionate ripostes to those who demand Jews sever themselves from Israel, and articles addressing a Jewish community which so often misunderstands liberal Zionism.

There will be plenty more to come too. We want to talk about the occupation, Jewish peoplehood, the breadth of Zionist thought, the Nakba, anti-Semitism, borders, Jewish Israel education, BDS, anti-Arab racism, the Israeli left, and much more.

Please do take a look. Approach each piece with interest rather than suspicion, and find our what we have to say.

The Judaism of Zionism

Ezra Margulies

The traditional historiography of Zionism sees Zionism as avowedly modern and secular: the reimagining of Jewish identity away from Judaism as religion, and towards Jewishness as nationality.

Yet this narrative of modern transformation creates a false binary, in which the role of Judaism as religion disappears entirely from Zionist thought, playing into a historiography that sees Zionism solely and exclusively as a modern construct. This excludes the numerous ways in which the rabbinical Jewish religion has influenced Zionism, and how, far from rejecting Judaism-as-religion outright, Zionism sought to adapt and reinvent Jewish religious tradition in the modern Jewish nation.

This begins at the very idea of Jewish sovereignty in the land of Israel itself. Careful scrutiny of Jewish thought throughout the centuries reveals, beyond any doubt, that sovereign existence represents a paradigmatic Jewish value. Historically, the idea of yearning for a home in Zion was affirmed by Jews in all eras and locations, with the singular exception of the Reform movement between 1820 and 1937. This hope was always intrinsically linked to the land of Israel and this longing accompanied the Jews through centuries of dispersion.

Yet until the ascendance of the Zionist movement, the restoration of Jewish sovereignty in the Promised Land was conceived as messianic in nature. In other words, Jews envisaged the return to the land of Israel to occur under the aegis of the Messiah, with divine support.

Enter Zionism. The formation of a Zionist ideology occurred alongside the emergence of competing nationalist movements in late-19th century Europe. The same momentum which inspired Italian, German, Polish, or Ukrainian nationalisms affected the Jewish populations which resided in those countries. Whilst Jews previously defined their communal autonomy in terms of religious separateness, a new generation arose which re-interpreted this basic reality in terms consonant with 19th century ideologies. Zionists claimed that Jews represented a distinct nation in the modern sense of the term, and were thus deserving of sovereignty in a nation-state. Yet despite its modern context, Zionism did not have to invent anew the idea of Jewish sovereignty. Rather, it had to create a modern, secularized form of the messianic aspiration for sovereignty which Jews already harboured.

Conversely, it is worth noting that Jewish religious anti-Zionist groups, such as the Neturei Karta, Satmar Hasidim and the Edat ha-Haredim, found their conviction upon this same tradition. Evidently, the messianic era remains a distant hope rather than a reality. The Talmud also contains certain statements cautioning against a return to Zion conducted without divine approval. Yet these groups’ opposition to the modern Jewish state is living proof that sovereignty in Zion is a key premise of the Jewish religion. The anti-Zionism of these religious groups merely maintains the view that the expected restoration must be subservient to universal redemption.

The Judaism of Zionism cannot be reduced to the singular notion of sovereignty in the land. The competing streams within the Zionist movement each developed an entire system of values, hierarchies, and ideals which drew on Jewish religious sources. Micha Yosef Berdichewsky, for example, imagined Zionism would liberate the Jews from the shackles of the Jewish legal tradition and enable them to freely satisfy their sexual and intellectual cravings. Ahad Ha’am, in contrast, sketched out a vision of national renewal which would emanate from the Jewish spiritual centre in Palestine and overflow among Jewish populations in the Diaspora. Nearly half a century later, Eliezer Berkovits conceived of Zionism as a movement for Jewish religious rebirth.

These few examples illustrate the diversity of systems which developed within the Zionist movement, each of which expands well beyond the simple idea of Jewish sovereignty in the land of Israel. There are innumerable differences between the Zionist visions of Herzl and Ahad Ha’am, Bialik and Brenner, Rabbi Kook and Rabbi Reines, Ben-Gurion and Begin, and even today, between Zehava Gal-on and Naftali Bennett. All of these figures identified and are affiliated with the Zionist ideology.

There is, however, one common factor across these numerous streams within the Zionist movement. Zionism, at every stage, communicated and engaged with Judaism. It absorbed, but also transformed, numerous motifs and values from the heart of the Jewish tradition. The “spiritual” Zionist vision sketched out by Ahad Ha’am hearkens back to the Talmudic account of Yochanan ben Zakkai’s escape from Jerusalem, whereas the socialist kibbutz movement celebrated the festival of Israelites’ release from Egyptian bondage during Passover as an epic national and class struggle. Early pioneers drew inspiration from the universalistic ideal of a “light unto the nations,” found in the prophecies of Isaiah, whilst large portions of the settler movement justify the occupation of the West Bank through biblical references to the Davidic monarchy in Judea and Samaria, and Nahmanides’ claim that the settlement of the land of Israel is a positive commandment incumbent upon Jews in all ages.

Zionism – like all nationalisms – is of course a modern construct. Yet just as it is entirely inaccurate to conflate it with Judaism, so is it misleading to sever it from its Jewish origins. The majority of the values and motifs at the heart of the Zionist ideology originate within the Jewish religious tradition. To dismiss this crucial part of Zionist history is to miss out an integral part of the Zionist story.