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.

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.