A new generation is stepping forward – help us build Partners to Peace

Jonty Leibowitz

Young Brits, Israelis and Palestinians are no longer willing to watch an older generation lead us down a path of violence, polarisation and a stalled peace process. The time for action has come.

The recent passing of Shimon Peres reminds us that we are further away from peace than we have been in any of our lifetimes. In the two decades since he last served as Prime Minister, it has become more difficult than ever before to see an end to the Israeli-Palestinian impasse.

A whole generation has grown up in a climate of mutual fear and suspicion, without any real concept of what a stable outcome could be. The politics of division have sown themselves deep; so much so that both sides in the conflict are no longer even encouraged to try to understand one another. Only last week, four Palestinians were arrested by the PA for attending a Jewish Sukkot celebration. In Israel, most Jewish children grow up knowing very few Arabs, if any. The result is a lack of trust and communication on both sides.

It is into this space that Yachad Youth are launching our Partners to Peace Campaign. Over thirty students from across the UK are coming together, raising money and awareness for the Holy Land Trust, a Palestinian NGO based in Bethlehem. We have chosen the Trust because we saw their work firsthand in September, during the 2016 Yachad Student Trip to Israel & the West Bank.

On the trip, we saw time and time again the impact that generations of conflict has on young people across the region. They have grown up knowing only bombs, guns and a life of conflict – making ‘peace’ seem remote and alien. Whether it’s Israelis who only know Palestinians as terrorists, or young Palestinians who associate all Israelis with the IDF, the consequence is a culture of violence and fear.

The Holy Land Trust seeks to remedy this divide. Working in Bethlehem, the Trust empowers Palestinian young people and encourages them away from violence. We are seeking to raise £8000, which will help fund long-term educational programmes that teach Palestinian young people non-violent methods of change and build critical leadership skills.

The reason behind choosing such a programme is clear: it is by training a new generation of leaders to turn away from the violence of the last generation that we can find hope of a peaceful solution. As young British Jews, we want to see a thriving Israel and a stable, secure Palestine, and know that this yearning is deep in the heart of most in the region. Yet, too often, the debate in Britain about what we can do to help has been stale. We hope that, by launching this project, we can begin to change the conversation.

Partners to Peace stands in a proud lineage of young British Jews working energetically to refashion our community. Since 2011, Yachad Youth has been a tireless voice for young progressive Zionists in the Anglo-Jewish community. We draw on our experiences from across the Jewish community, from our synagogues and Youth Movements. From Youth Movement Workers and Israel Tour leaders to 17 year olds staffing summer camp for the first time, building a network of young people helps us to maximise influence. We seek to harness the fire and dedication of young British Jews, eager to forge new possibilities in the British conversation about Israel. Partners to Peace is the product of this passionate energy, fuelled by a team of volunteers who believe that the time to take action must be now.

Too many children are growing up with a polarised view of the Israel-Palestine conflict. In the schools and homes of Jerusalem, Ramallah and even Pinner the story is one of polarisation and blaming the ‘other side’. Yet now is the time to build bridges between our communities, rather than embellish the politics of division. Partners to Peace is based on the recognition that we all want a peaceful resolution to the conflict, and that this can only be achieved by cooperation and collaboration. The Holy Land Trust exemplifies the sort of Israel & Palestine we want to forge, and British Jews must reach out to this extended arm of friendship.

We are aiming to raise £8000, but more fundamentally we want to fire the starting gun for a new type of conversation; one which recognises that partnership is our best route to peace and stability. We need each and every one of you to take this message of nonviolence and solidarity back to your communities, schools, synagogues and campuses. Follow us on social media, donate via our webpage, share our articles. Email your shul or school, and get in touch with us to find out how you can play your part.

Our generation could be the ones to end this bloody conflict. We have the will, strength and resolve to reject the years of violence, and seek something better. Join us to help begin the peace process anew.

For Liberal Zionists, Israel Apartheid Week is Exhausting

Natasha Spreadborough

Israel Apartheid Week strikes a significant chord with the Jewish community everywhere. As the cardboard, graffiti-covered walls and faux-checkpoints go up around university campuses, so do the leaflets, tweets and Facebook posts about Jewish-Arab coexistence, Palestinian terrorism, “the real Israel/apartheid/take your pick”. On both sides the dialogue is vicious, hateful, and uncompromising. On both sides it involves the wilful distortion of truth and consistent over-simplification in order to put forward one aggressive narrative. Liberal Zionists find themselves stuck in the middle.

Israel Apartheid Week whips up a storm of hatred against a place many of us hold dear, and an aggressive dehumanisation of a population we are often very familiar with. In the manic fervour surrounding IAW events, nuance is frequently lost in any discussion or event. I sat with several Jewish students in the SOAS (University of London) Student Union last year during a debate on the academic boycott of Israel listening to the entire room scream that Israel will be burned to the ground. This is not infrequent during IAW.

This year saw a mock Israeli checkpoint at Cambridge University, with students dressed up in khaki and wielding fake guns. A similar event was held at Leeds University, with one Jewish student reporting feeling threatened, particularly by the Israeli flag armbands the students bore. At SOAS, their yearly cardboard replica of the separation barrier was again erected outside the university, covered with phrases such as “illegal under international law” and “cutting people off from schools, hospitals, food, water”.

This kind of environment is not only painful for Jewish students, but tends to encourage instances of overt antisemitism. It is a week where we see kosher food removed from Student Union shop shelves and Jewish students evicted from student societies on account of their Zionist beliefs. Some Jewish students report feeling endangered, particularly on smaller or more hostile campuses, and are compelled to travel around in groups, or avoid their campus all together.

At the same time, liberal Zionists are forced to wrestle with the points and ideas being aired, and the response of the mainstream Jewish community. Many of us are very aware of the violence and injustice of the occupation, and are actively involved in battling it. As such, we can be uncomfortable with responses from the wider Jewish community which tend to whitewash Israel and deny the problems we know to be true.

Last November I was lucky enough to attend an incredible four-day trip around Israel and the West Bank with Yachad, a pro-Israel pro-peace organisation based in the UK. We were exposed to a wide variety of opinions and realities surrounding the occupation, meeting with Israeli NGOs, think tanks and human rights workers, Palestinian activists, Israeli settlers in the West Bank, and members of the Israeli government. What resounded for us was becoming aware of the depth of violence, injustice and inequality in the occupation. None of us were naive of this before, but many of these things we experienced we’d previously only heard about through the prism of anti-Israel discourse and activism. It’s hard to glean accurate information from organisations committed to one narrative, or to trust people who perpetuate such antisemitism. It is equally hard to deny what you experience as a reality.

Both our own experiences and what we heard first-hand from Palestinians and Israeli human rights workers forced us to wrestle with the label of apartheid. We all, obviously, had very different and passionate view points; but it was not important for us all to draw one coherent conclusion. That is the biggest failing of labelling Israel and/or the occupation as apartheid. The strength of the images and connotations it represents instantly shut down a nuanced and critical approach to the occupation, to the conflict, and to the interactions of Israelis and Palestinians. The situation here is not South Africa; it comes with its own context, history(ies), politics, nationalisms and narratives. That is not to say the occupation does not, in so many appalling ways, resemble apartheid South Africa. But it is something that should be interrogated in its own context, and the suffering of the Palestinians should stand on its own merit.

So what can liberal Zionists do around this time, stuck between the whirlwind of hatred and antisemitism, the injustices of occupation, and the battles of distorted narratives? Engage. Engage with the conflict and the occupation. Engage with each other. Engage with your own ideas and (mis)conceptions. Support those organisations that are striving to do the same thing, on either side of the Atlantic. The Forward wrote back in November about a brilliant guide to Israel/Palestine activism, which I am very enthusiastic about, having worked or currently working with many of the organisations listed. Many of them could greatly do with support – financial or otherwise – at a time when Israel’s left-wing NGOs are under attack. If you are able, participate in their work in the region, and learn more about the nuances of the conflict, and what you can do to help. After a taking part in a similar Yachad trip to mine and becoming aware of some of the injustices of the military court system in the West Bank, a group of British students were motivated to raise money for a lawyer to defend Palestinian children caught in the system, a useful and constructive contribution.

Equally importantly, support each other. Reach out to liberal Zionist friends. Become more involved with liberal Zionist organisations locally. Unite with a large and international community who share your values. For Jewish students on campus especially, IAW can be an emotional struggle. Find ways to consistently remind yourself, and be reminded, that you are not alone.

Israel Apartheid Week is an aggressive battle between two polarised narratives. Despite the elements of truth in both sides, neither achieve anything helpful. There are many more ways to raise awareness of the occupation, discuss the complexities of Israel and the conflict, help Palestinians on the ground, and battle antisemitism without resorting to the kind of hatred we see at this time of year. Liberal Zionists should look to each other and to the organisations and communities engaging helpfully with the conflict. There is great work being done.

The (Double) Standards Applied to Israel

Carter Vance

One of the most familiar tropes of the hasbara wing of Israel advocacy is the notion that Israel is being “singled-out” in the world for reasons which are implied, if not outright stated, to be anti-Semitic in nature. There is obviously some truth in this. But all too often, this observation is twisted into a dismissal of any critical focus on Israeli policy. It is important to distinguish what is and isn’t true about the standards, double or otherwise, Israeli conduct is held to.

There is no doubt that Israel receives a disproportionate amount of global attention relative to the scale of its human rights abuses. Yet, contrary to the hasbara line, anti-Semitism does not account for bulk of this discrepancy. There is the narrative, popular in leftist circles, of Israel as an essentially colonial project. There is also the fact that Israel, unlike North Korea or Sudan, has extensive economic, military and diplomatic ties with the West.

Perhaps most importantly, criticism of Israeli policy is based in the idea of holding Israel to the very standards its supporters espouse. We are constantly told that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East and that this should be applauded. However, democracies, and more specifically liberal democracies professing a devotion to human rights, are and ought to be held to a higher bar. Blindly following Israeli policy wherever it may lead and expecting absolutely no external consequences to flow from this is the definition of the very sort of double standard the people practising it so often decry. We expect human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia, but we are told not to expect them in Israel.

Thus the double standards of Israel’s critics reflects the double standards of her supporters. What this ultimately reveals is an essential difference between liberal and rightist forms of Zionism: conditionality. Liberal Zionists do believe in the essential case for a Jewish homeland, but their support for Israeli policy fluctuates on Israel’s alignment with other liberal values.

The idea that Israel is ‘the only democracy in the Middle East’ that ‘shares our values’ is important across the different Zionist camps. Liberal Zionism, however, does not accept these values as intrinsic to Israel but as a product of her conduct. This is why liberals oppose settlement expansion, gagging left-wing NGOs, racially discriminatory laws and language: because they are not policies living up to the agreed-upon standards for both liberal democracies in general and Israel in particular.

In other words, liberal Zionists agree entirely that Israel’s democratic character is a distinguishing feature we ought to support. The difference between left and right wing Zionism is that liberals do not sharply dismiss any criticisms and use the claim of Israeli democracy as a rhetorical shield. Rather, liberals see democracy, tolerance and respect for human rights as fragile concepts that must be fought for, whether in the United States, the European Union or, indeed, in the Holy Land.

From that liberal perspective, recent actions of the Israel government have been far from laudable. From easing rules on live ammunition fire during protests, to targeting peace-oriented NGOs, to allowing the jailing of 12 year-old Palestinians, these are not laws befitting a healthy democracy. One may rightly say that Israel would be “singled-out” amongst wrongdoing nations for paying some sort of penalty for these policies. But, consider not that many of these policies exist in unsavory regimes the world over, but if they were implemented today in Canada, in the United Kingdom, in France or Germany, criticism would be scathing.

When thought of in that light, the distinction becomes clearer between the liberal and the illiberal becomes ever clearer. Israel is not Sudan, not North Korea, not Gabon nor Saudi Arabia, and it should never be expected to live down to those standards. Rightful frustration with a general over-focus on Israel’s crimes, both at the UN and on campus, should never blind us to the essential values we want upheld. The Zionist camp should be proud, rather than angry, at the lofty standards we set for the Jewish state.

As Santa Starts Taking Sides, Who Wins from the Decision to Label Settlement Goods?

Carter Vance & Aaron Simons

It would seem that no symbol is too sacred in the propaganda drive that fuels the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As Christmas approaches, even Santa is not safe.

Last week, a group of Palestinian protesters clad in Santa suits clashed with Israeli troops in Bethlehem. In a debate where image is everything, the outfits were certainly effective. The Israeli soldiers’ combat gear looked brutish and disproportionate against the frivolity and merriment that the Santa suits symbolise.

Next up to co-opt Christmas was Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer. Santa’s sleigh carried gifts laced with a potent political message this year, as Dermer’s presents to the White House were comprised of gifts produced in the West Bank and Golan Heights. Dermer’s gifts were a riposte to the EU decision to label settlement good as such, and the Obama administration’s decision not to protect Israeli settlement goods from boycotts.

The Israeli government’s response to the EU decision was predictable, and summed up in Dermer’s pithy letter accompanying his gifts. “Today, the Jewish state is singled out and held to a different standard than other countries” Dermer wrote. The charge is one of double-standards, for reasons which are implied, if not outright stated, to be anti-Semitic in nature.

The charge of hypocrisy is not an unjust one; Israel is indeed being singled out. Many other territorial conflicts do not have the same labelling rules applied to them. Yet hasbara commentators use this logic to argue that West Bank products should not be specifically labelled rather than that products from other territories of disputed sovereignty should. Indeed, very little commentary opposing the decision seems to think this decision would be just if only it also had included Nagorno-Karabakh in its purview.

This is because, at its core, the ‘singling out’ argument is one of deflection rather than anything else. Aware that it stands little hope of convincing an international audience, Israel wants to avoid any substantive discussion on the legitimacy of the West Bank settlements, and so resorts to deflective arguments to avoid the debate entirely. In this case, the deflection has largely been successful, not least in part because the accusation of double-standards is an accurate one.

If Israel opposes the labelling decision, it is assumed that the decision plays into the hands of the BDS movement. Indeed, anti-Zionist and BDS activists cheered it as a victory for their movement, even though it was stated by the EU Commission to be a purely technical procedure. The celebrations of the anti-Israel crowd, however, should be understood in light of the decision’s symbolic, rather than strategic, importance.

Anti-Israel activists will cheer anything that riles the Israeli government. Furthermore, given that this decision was interpreted as a weakening of Israel’s international standing, it added further fuel to the BDS bonfire. But beyond images of a flustered Netanyahu and a floundering Israel-US relationship, the strategic outcome of the EU decision is to harden the distinction between Israel and the occupied territories, and emphasise the EU’s commitment to a two-state solution.

Maintaining this distinction runs counter to the BDS movement’s call for a boycott of Israel in its entirety, which it holds as collectively responsible for West Bank settlements.  Similarly, in upholding the principle of the two state solution, this decision runs counter to the aims of a BDS movement which either outwardly advocates a one-state solution or holds an inalienable right of return for Palestinian refugees incompatible with a two state solution. The BDS movement’s claims of agnosticism on the issue of statehood seem weak compared to the iron-clad commitment of its leaders and followers to one state of Palestine from the river to the sea.

The EU decision thus creates the most unlikely of allies.  A conflation of the West Bank with the totality of Israel is usually confined to the anti-Zionist crowd, but in opposing the labelling move, it is being unwittingly embraced those who consider themselves the Jewish state’s staunchest defenders. A continual erasure of the distinction between Israel and the Occupied Territories leads down a pathway to a one-state solution in which the country will either cease to be Jewish or cease to be democratic. In this sense, those who empower the settlers and those who long for the cessation of Israel’s being are each other’s best friends.

Strangely, then, those most empowered by this decision are liberal Zionists. Uncompromising differentiation between green-line Israel (a flawed, but vibrant, democracy) and the parts beyond (zones of military rule and repression) is the essence of this position. This ability to be critical of Israel whilst still upholding its fundamental legitimacy is what distinguishes liberal Zionism from the all too common blanket support of Israel on the one hand, or a total denial of its right to exist on the other.

This decision redraws the green line in the face of the Greater Israel visionaries and BDS movement intent on erasing it. It makes no difference to the BDS boycott call which covers Israel in toto, and reasserts the primacy of the two-state solution over the one-state calls of Barghouti and other BDS leaders. Whilst both the Israeli government and Palestinian protesters may appropriate Santa to their cause, it would appear that the EU has delivered a Christmas gift to liberal Zionists instead.

Zionish wishes everyone a very merry Christmas.

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.

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.

From Blindness to Denial: Zionism and Palestinian National Identity

Daniel Rey

In an infamous interview with the Sunday Times in 1969, the then Israeli Prime Minister, Golda Meir, made the claim that “there was no such thing as Palestinians”. This highlighted one of the darkest aspects of the history of Zionism: The belief that while there may be Palestinian people, there is not a Palestinian people.

One of the great tragedies of the Israel-Palestine conflict is that beyond the clash over security and territory there is a deeper, and more intractable, reality of competing national identities and aspirations over the same land.

From the outset of Zionism, a nascent assertion developed that the land of Israel was empty, and the Jewish people possessed a unique claim over the biblical territory. The early Zionists did not see, or rather did not want to see, the Arab inhabitants of the land. At the birth of Zionism in the late 19th century, ignorance of the make-up of Ottoman Palestine enabled Zionists such as Israel Zangwill to claim that Palestine literally had no inhabitants. He wrote in 1902 that Palestine “remains at this moment an almost uninhabited, forsaken and ruined Turkish territory”.

However Zangwill soon opened his eyes. Soon after, he shocked the Zionist Congress by announcing that Palestine did in fact have a significant population.

And so the narrative changed. Early Zionists acknowledged the existence of Arab inhabitants of the land, but denied them any sense of collective identity. They were people, but not a people, or a nation, and only nations deserve nation-states. Zionists argued that while there may be other Arab inhabitants of the land, their claim to statehood did not rest on the same foundation of legitimacy as that of the Jewish people.

This claim was etched into the birth of Zionism with Chaim Weizmann, later to become president of the World Zionist Congress, who repeated in 1914 the oft-recited saying that there “is a country which happens to be called Palestine, a country without a people, and, on the other hand, there exists the Jewish people, and it has no country”.

This was a critical pillar of the development of Zionism as it provided a clear argument for a Jewish homeland to present to the international community. It also provided a riposte to the clear demographical imbalance that existed in mandate Palestine. In the year prior to the establishment of the state of Israel, the Palestinian Arab population held a two-thirds majority with 1.2 million in contrast to the 600,000 Jews.

Zionists argued that these people were merely inhabitants, rather than the full fledged citizens-in-waiting, that the Zionist Jews believed themselves to be.

This de-legitimisation of Palestinian national aspirations was infused in the British occupation, as the League of Nations Mandate for Palestine refused to accept the existence of Palestinians as an entity whatsoever and merely describing them as “the non-Jewish communities in Palestine”.  This framework, coupled with the terms of the Balfour Declaration, which enshrined the aspiration for a “Jewish home”, laid the foundations for a Zionism which cemented its validity through the denial of the identity of the Arab Palestinian population.

Evidently, Palestinian national aspirations have suffered from a lack of tools available to other nation-states. As a nation that has never had its own state, the Arab Palestinian population has lacked the means to propagate its identity through independent political processes and education systems. Consequently the idea of Palestinian identity has always grown up in the shadow of other states—the Ottomans, then the British, and then the Zionists. Nonetheless, the collective narrative that makes up the constructed community of national identity was evident from the start of the 20th century in the profusion of Palestinian civil society, as demonstrated by the proliferation of the press.

The leading daily newspaper at the start of the British Mandate, Suriyya al-Janubiyya, expressed the bombastic nationalist rhetoric typical of any aspiring nation-state. A piece in January 1920 speaks of the “patriotic bonds and national rights” of its people and cries “Palestine, my honour, my glory, my life and my pride” in a manner typical of nineteenth century romantic nationalism. The paper’s articles from the early 1920s are notable in that they begin to refer solely to the Palestinian people, rather than the Arab population at large, and emphasise the shared affinity between the Christian and Muslim communities in their struggle with the rise of Zionism.

This vibrant civil society, straining under the British Mandate to express its identity, is a vital counterpoint to the right-wing Zionists of today. This Zionism is built on the claim that Palestinian nationalism is a ‘modern’ creation. They argue that it is merely a consequence of the establishment of Israel in 1948—and thus should be given less credence than the more historically founded Zionism. This viewpoint is given a voice by rambunctious American politicians, including Republican presidential hopefuls such as Newt Gingrich and Mike Huckabee. The latter claimed only a matter of months ago that “there’s really no such things as the Palestinians”.

Former Israeli Prime Minister, Golda Meir, would use as evidence of this argument the name of Suriyya al-Janubiyya, which translates as “`Southern Syria”, to claim that prior to the establishment of the state of Israel, Palestinians merely viewed themselves as part of Syria rather than as an independent entity. It is indeed true that at the beginning of the 1920s, the Palestinian press did play heavily on the notion that it was a part of a wider Syria. However this must be viewed in the context of the era. At this time, King Faisal of Syria seemed to possess the greatest hope of breaking out of the colonial yoke of the region and thus was a rallying point for wider regional independence. The Palestinian elite therefore viewed Syrian independence as a stepping-stone to the emergence of a Palestinian nation.

The self-identification of ‘Southern Syria’ was, however, short-lived and as soon as the French crushed Faisal’s revolution, the Palestinian press made its intentions clear.  al-Sabah, the successor to the Surriya al-Janubiyya, explained in its first edition in October 1921 that it was being published in Jerusalem, “the capital of Palestine”, in contrast to preceding descriptions of the capital as “Damascus”.

Ultimately, Palestinian national identity is no greater or less than any other national affiliation, be it British, American or Zionist. However it is important to reaffirm the historical reality of Palestinian national identity to counter the more nefarious strains of right-wing Zionism. When the Israeli government expanded settlement building in the West Bank in the 1980s, they based its legality on an Ottoman ruling dating back to 1858 that declared that unused land could be turned over to the state. This behaviour can only be logically sustained by viewing the history of Palestine as merely rented land that was passed between different empires through history. It shows vicious contempt for Palestinian national identity. Consequently, Israeli governments have come to view Palestinian statehood as a price to pay for peace, rather than as the realisation of genuine national aspirations.

To move forward, liberal Zionism needs to argue more strongly than ever that the Israel-Palestine conflict is a conflict of intertwined national narratives and identities. Only through creating a Zionism that does not base its validity on the negation of the national identity of the Palestinians can a genuine and honest discussion on the meaning of a two-state solution occur. In 1973, the liberal Zionist outfit, Breira, called on American Jewry to “recognize the legitimacy of the national aspirations of the Palestinians”. Given the total lack of progress towards peace in the intervening forty-odd years, this call is as pertinent now as ever.