April 23, 2024

My neighborhood, Manhattan’s Upper West Side, is currently engaged
in a semiotic battle over “Zionism.” Go for walk on a nice spring day, and you
will learn from storefront sheds, sidewalks, street barriers, park benches,
even the handlebars of a Citi Bike I picked up recently, that “Zionism sucks” and is the equivalent of
“racism,” fascism,” and “genocide.” Of course, it’s not just in my own neighborhood that I see these
signs. They follow me to work as well. At a rally outside the Chancellor of
CUNY’s office on East 42nd Street, one protester’s banner summed up
nearly the entire linguistic case: “Call It What It
Is: Genocide, Occupation, Imperialism, White Supremacy, Ethnic Cleansing!”

I don’t know how many people are politically convinced by
graffiti, but to be fair, such scribbling has long been the weapon of those
without access to newspaper editorial pages, full-page advertisements, and
other forms of Gramscian opinion management. Mainstream Jewish organizations,
neoconservative pundits, funders of Ivy League universities, and the entire
Republican Party have better options. And of course, everybody has social
media.

But the anti-Zionist street scribes have one point in their favor.
The history of the American debate over Zionism has always centered on its
etymological underpinnings. During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries,
most American Jews, originally from Germany and only lightly observant, were
also outspoken, fervent anti-Zionists. They understood the idea of Jewish
“peoplehood” to be contradictory to Jewish-American “patriotism.” Judaism, to
Reform Jews of the nineteenth century, was a religion and nothing more, just
like Protestantism, and certainly offered no reason to question the commitment
of these immigrants to their beloved new home country.

Eventually, during the slow-motion collapse of the sustainability
of Jewish life in the Russian “Pale of Settlement”—the area in the czarist
empire where the vast majority of Jews had settled following various expulsions
and migrations—Eastern European immigration overwhelmed the small German
American Jewish population and brought with it a “peoplehood”-dominated
understanding of Jewish identity consistent with the concern Jews felt for
their families. While not Zionists themselves—they had, after all emigrated to
America, not to Palestine—they felt a deep connection to those Jews who had, as
well as those seeking to get out of the Pale and go anywhere that might take
them. Louis Brandeis, soon to be appointed to the Supreme Court and a German
Jewish hero to East European Jews and almost certainly the most famous landsman
in America at the time, helped enormously to bring these two groups
together in a pro-Zionist consensus by developing a formula by which Zionism
became a form of American patriotism (“Let no American imagine that Zionism is
inconsistent with patriotism,” he proclaimed.) A safe homeland was something Jews who
faced persecution elsewhere in the world might need, but not those lucky enough
to live in the land of the free.

As the horrible news of the Holocaust began arriving in the last
years of the World War II, surviving Jews seeking a “homeland”—not necessarily
a state—in Palestine were fighting British “colonialism, as the League of
Nations had put that nation under a British mandate in 1920 in the wake of the
collapse of Ottoman rule. They had the support of nearly all American Jews, as
well as most American leftists and, not incidentally, the Soviet Union. And
yes, some Jewish groups resorted to “terrorism” in this battle, but American
Jews did not approve of these tactics, at least not in public. There were still
anti-Zionists and, especially among the Germans, “non-Zionists,” but most
lacked both the numbers and the inclination to put up much of a fight against
the founding of the first Jewish commonwealth in 2,000 years “out of the ashes
of the Holocaust,” in the parlance of the day.

After Israel’s sweeping 1967 victory over Egypt, Syria, and
Jordan, together with its ensuing conquest of East Jerusalem, the West Bank,
and Gaza, the linguistic battle reversed itself in many quarters. The New Left
condemned Zionism as an ideology of Western “imperialism” and a form of
anti-Arab “racism.” Israel’s supporters insisted that virtually all Palestinian
resistance to its violent occupation constituted “terrorism,” ignoring the fact
that its own side had credibly claimed the same mantle it was fighting for
independence. Today both sides fight over who are the real “terrorists” and
which side owns the rights to “liberation movement.” Meanwhile, the
anti-Zionist side has succeeded, at least in leftist circles and college
campuses, in attaching the words “settler colonialism,” “apartheid,” and
(especially since October 7) “genocide” to discussions of Zionist ideology.
Because of its explicit equation of anti-Zionism with antisemitism, the
pro-Israel side insists that these terms, together with the oft-heard slogan “from
the river to the sea” (and sometimes even the words “Free Palestine”), are out
of bounds in responsible discourse and should result in firings, expulsions,
and other forms of banishment in universities, media institutions, and just
about anywhere else they can be found.

What we rarely if ever see, because it is simply assumed, are
definitions of the most basic terms of the debate itself. Exactly, what is
“Zionism”?

The question is a lot more complicated than it sounds, and not
only because Jews are famous for having more opinions than there are Jews. It’s
complicated because there have always been, and remain today, countless species
of groups calling themselves “Zionist.” There are religious, ultra-religious,
and anti-religious Zionists and Evangelical Zionists (and significant subsets
of each one). There is political Zionism of the sort that led to the creation
of the state, and purely cultural Zionism that had no interest in statehood.
There are Zionists who say they want to live in peace side-by-side with
Palestinians in separate states, Zionists who want to share the land with
Palestinians, and Zionists who want to expel all Palestinians, not only from
the West Bank and Gaza but also from Israel proper. All of these distinctions
tend to be lost in our increasingly furious debates owing to the fact that when
debating the question of “Zionism” vs. “anti-Zionism,” the instinct of either
side is almost always to demonize one definition and defend the other.

Not long ago, 75
percent of the students at one Modern Orthodox
middle school told questioners that they felt “a strong emotional attachment to
Israel.” But when asked to define Zionism, fully 60 percent wrote, “I don’t know what Zionism is.”

They
had a point. Today, both Zionism and anti-Zionism are more feelings than ideas,
much less coherent ideologies: a person is either cool with the idea of Israel
or isn’t. It’s that simple.

According
to the ADL website, “Zionists
believe in and support the right of the democratic State of Israel to exist as
a Jewish homeland. Israel is the only Jewish state in the world.
Being a Zionist is distinct from supporting the policies of the government of
Israel.” But according to the Jewish Voice for Peace website, the definition is
rather different: “While
it had many strains historically, the Zionism that took hold and stands today
is a settler-colonial movement,
establishing an apartheid state where Jews have more rights than others.”

And what of “anti-Zionism?” ADL chief Jonathan Greenblatt
insists that “anti-Zionism is
antisemitism, full stop”; a view that appears to animate pretty much
every mainstream
U.S. Jewish organizational leader, countless political pundits and some of the
wealthiest donors to America’s most prestigious universities. Lately,
some conservative writers, including the neocon Joshua Muravchik writing in The
Wall Street Journal, have taken the view that “some say that anti-Zionism isn’t
tantamount to antisemitism. If so, it’s worse…. The fulfillment of anti-Zionism means
nothing less than a second Holocaust.” Pish-posh, says JVP: Anti-Zionism is merely “a loose term referring
to criticism of the current policies of the Israeli state, and/or moral,
ethical, or religious criticism of the idea of a Jewish nation-state.”

The distinctions
sound pretty clear on paper, but IRL, perhaps not so much. Writing in The
Forward
, author Lux Alptraum describes a “war raging within my synagogue” between its self-proclaimed
Zionists and anti-Zionists. What upsets Alptraum is that rarely are the two
sides “actually in disagreement about their ultimate hopes for Israelis and
Palestinians …The arguments that have unfolded are rarely about substantive
issues like a cease-fire, hostage return, or Palestinian human rights. More
often than not, it feels far more like people are simply fighting over the use
of the labels ‘Zionist’ and ‘anti-Zionist,’” which she sees as being “wielded
as a way of closing off any dissent, packaged into simplistic catchphrases that
only make sense if you already know what the speaker understands Zionism or
anti-Zionism to mean.” Similarly, Rabbi Emily Cohen who works at an Upper West Side’s
Reconstruction synagogue notes that she
has “heard people who identify as
Zionist and who identify as anti-Zionist say the same thing
about what they think should happen in Israel and Palestine. I’ve heard people
who are anti-Zionists identify with what I would describe as Zionist views, and
I’ve heard people who are Zionists advocate for what I would describe as
anti-Zionist positions.”

Brooklyn College professor
Louis Fishman, who describes himself as a “post-Zionist,” worries that the “pro-Palestine bar of acceptance for Jews is not based on
shared values of peace, equality, and human rights. It is based on one simple
question: Are
you willing to separate yourself not just from Israelis but from the Jewish
people at large, who overwhelmingly sympathize with Zionism?” Fishman laments that in his
experience, it is necessary, in
pro-Palestinian circles to
“declare
vociferously that you’re anti-Zionist and renounce your support for any Jewish
political presence in the territory of Israel-Palestine” are Jews welcome among
pro-Palestinian groups and organizations. One can see the logic of what
he describes in action in the writings of the Palestinian author Miriam
Barghouti, who, speaking for the popular “intersectional” view among
progressives, wrote, “Being
a feminist and a Zionist is a contradiction in terms because the Zionist
feminist is complicit in propagating supremacy and domination over a people on
the one hand, while on the other hand calling for an end to patriarchy.”

Arguments over the nature of
Zionism, anti-Zionism, and their relationship to progressive politics belong in
seminar rooms and scholarly publications, not in our political arena. Israel
has been around for 75 years and is not going anywhere. Yes, many people
continue to dispute Israel’s “right to exist.” Lately, some leftist
anti-Zionists have begun to deny the United States’ “right to exist” as well.
(They call it “Turtle
Island” and demand its “liberation” as well.) But
so what? None of these people have the power to do anything about it. As the
Israeli philosopher and adviser to numerous governments Menachem Brinker
explained an essay published more than 25 years ago, “the
task of Zionism is very nearly completed. That is to say, the problem that
Zionism set out to address is just about solved. Soon we will be
living in a post-Zionist era, and there will no longer be a good reason for a
Zionist movement to exist alongside the State of Israel.” 

Meanwhile, back IRL, the
current political/military/humanitarian crisis between the Israelis and
Palestinians is approaching unimaginable catastrophe. Having experienced a
devastating day of terrorist mass murder together with a complete failure of
both its political and military on October 7, a traumatized Israel has embarked
on a military campaign that is leading directly not merely to the mass murder
of tens of thousands of civilians, but also mass starvation, disease, and
generalized chaos such as the world has rarely ever witnessed. With
nearly 33,000 people so far killed, and more than 75,000 injured, little if any remaining medical infrastructure, a daily
crisis of food and water, it is this crisis that deserves all of our attention.
(Though perhaps we can also take note of the fact that over in the West Bank
and off the front pages, the continuing theft of their land by lawless Israeli
settler/terrorists operating under the protection of Israel’s extremist
leadership, the persecution of the Palestinians living on the occupied West
Bank is also growing ever more untenable by the day.) To the degree that one
can point to an actual, existing form of Zionism today, it is one described by
the Israeli scholar and sometimes government adviser Daniel Levy: a “Zionist
Jewish political spectrum [that] is essentially all nationalist—running from
apartheidists with a smiling face, through to just racist apartheidists, right
through to expulsionists and eradicationists.” 

At the same time, the Palestinians, like the Israelis, are
increasingly acting on the basis of an ideology of murderous nihilism. Most do not support Hamas, but 70
percent tell pollsters that the horrific attacks of October 7, in which over a
thousand innocent people were murdered in cold blood, were somehow justified. (Just
one party in Palestinian politics has the support of more than a third of its
population, and that party is Hamas.)

The behavior of the leadership on both sides is morally
indefensible and politically counterproductive. But however horrific and
inhumane the Hamas attacks and hostage-taking on October 7 may have been,
responsibility for this mass death and potential famine rests squarely with the
Netanyahu government. The Israelis rule historic Palestine literally “from the
river to the sea,” and every day, its leaders appear intent on making the lives
of the Palestinians under their thumb more miserable, and the Palestinians can
do little or nothing to stop them. Meanwhile, Hamas continues to hold, by
Israel’s count, 130 of the hostages it took on October 7, and Israel jails more
and more Palestinian activists every day.

Despite Israel’s undeniable dependence on U.S. financial,
military, and diplomatic support, the Biden Administration appears impotent to
impose any meaningful limits on Israel’s actions, despite a constant stream of
Susan Collins-style statements of “concern.” (Last Friday, in honor of Secretary
of State Antony Blinken’s visit, the Israeli government announced its largest
confiscation of Palestinian land since the since the Oslo Accords were put into
effect in 1993.)

Clearly, what is needed now more than ever are immediate measures to
end the killing, prevent mass starvation, improve health, medical and
sanitation services in Gaza, to effect a return of the hostages, and to end the
land seizures in the West Bank and begin some sort of plan for postwar
reconstruction of Gaza, together with democratic elections in Gaza, the West
Bank and (as Senator Schumer correctly insisted), Israel. All of this is, I
admit, difficult to imagine at the present moment, much less implement.

But none of it, I can promise you, will happen in the context of
an argument over the meaning of the word “Zionism.” It’s fair to say that words
themselves do not kill anyone. But as this argument has demonstrated time
again, focusing on etymology at the expense of actual lives certainly does. Israel/Palestine
is not, after all, ultimately a war of words. It’s a war of people. And right
now, too many are dying, starving, and desperate for decent medical care to
allow the decent among us to argue for even one more minute over whose ideology
is the winning one in a fight in which there are only losers.