Why I can’t cut myself off from half the Jewish world.

Ben Goldstein

“Don’t you know that Judaism and Zionism are not the same? Don’t you know that you can be Jewish and have nothing to do with Israel? Don’t you know that, in fact, there are Jews who oppose Zionism?”

Yes, of course I fucking know this. And not just because I’m constantly reminded of it by anti-Israel campaigners seeking to deny charges of anti-Semitism. I know this because I’ve been educated about Jewish history from the age of 0, and because I occasionally pick up a book. Oh, and yes, I’ve heard of Ilan Pappé.

But here’s the thing: the (blantantly bloody obvious) fact that Zionism, Israel and Judaism are conceptually distinct is really screwing with the debate on Israel-Palestine.

Let me explain. The anti-Israel crew in general don’t properly recognise how Jews feel when Israel is being discussed, or why on earth Jews should feel anything at all. After all, they reason, Israel is just a nation state, like the UK or Australia. And if Zionism is not Judaism, then there is no reason why expressions of anti-Zionism should have particular consequences for Jews. So the anti-Israel campaign regularly argues, even demands, that Jews either cut themselves off from Israel or else be condemned as apartheid apologists.

Meanwhile, we Jews in the debate, while sometimes stating that we feel “uncomfortable” with a comment here or there, rarely explain why. We don’t, in other words, justify why our sense of self/wellbeing/identity depends on a state 2000 miles away that we might have only visited a couple of times. There are understandable reasons for this: it’s weird, immensely untrendy and certainly not very postmodern to actually feel attached to a place or a state (unless it’s on your Gap Yah in South Asia. Then feel attached. Feel very attached.)

This balagan renders actual debate useless, and we need to do better. This doesn’t mean quoting Buber, Herzl or Ben-Gurion. It means, at root, explaining that the demand that Jews cut themselves off from half the Jewish world is a demand that is going to hurt.

Judaism, or rather being Jewish, is more than just adhering to a set of practices and theological beliefs. It has a collective element. This can be expressed in many ways, but at its core, the communal character of Jewish identity means that Jews feel connected to other Jews. The experience of collective national trauma has helped solidify that connection.

This almost comically simple point bears repeating: Jews feel connected to other Jews. When there’s a Jewish winner of the Nobel Prize, Jews around the world feel proud. When there’s an anti-Semitic attack somewhere, Jews everywhere feel particularly distressed.

And yes, when there’s a terrorist or rocket attack in Israel, Jews in the diaspora feel it. Because, y’know, there are lots of Jews there. The bus drivers, plumbers, sportsmen, soldiers and bin-men – as well as the lawyers and professors and journalists – are (for the most part) Jews.

This sense of solidarity makes it hard for us Jews to just cut and run, to say, “Screw the whole thing”, or, “Never mind – nothing to do with me.” To do so would be to turn our backs on people speaking a language drawn from our tradition, with histories that mirror our own, bound through collective experience, memory and culture.

None of this, by the way, implies that Zionism is correct. Nor that, despite everything, Jews shouldn’t be encouraged to support BDS or attend PSC rallies or whatever. But it is to say that circumstances have conspired to render the boundary between Zionism, Israel, and Judaism more porous than detached conceptual analysis would imply.

Maybe, then, it would be worthwhile for the anti-Israel camp to at least understand what it feels like when we Jews are told to disassociate ourselves from half the Jewish world, or to keep our Judaism away from that evil Zionism thing. Sure, it’s possible. But don’t under-estimate how painful it would be.