Podcast / On The Nose
On the Nose is our biweekly podcast. The editorial staff discusses the politics, culture, and questions that animate today’s Jewish left.
On Zionism and Anti-Zionism
0:00 / 50:58
May 16, 2024

The recent wave of anti-Zionist Gaza solidarity protest encampments on college campuses has reignited a longstanding public debate over how to define “Zionist.” On May 8th, a week after the Columbia University encampment was dismantled by the NYPD, more than 500 Jewish students at the school who identify as Zionists published an open letter in which they laid out their perspective. “A large and vocal population of the Columbia community does not understand the meaning of Zionism, and consequently does not understand the essence of the Jewish People,” they argued, positing that Zionism and Judaism are fundamentally intertwined. The claims echoed a common mainstream Jewish talking point, that the student movement’s stance against Zionism and its adherents is a de facto rejection of Jews—a discourse that plays out against the backdrop of a yearslong Israel advocacy effort to redefine Zionism not as a political ideology but as a protected ethnic identity under US civil rights law. Yet anti-Zionists, Jewish and otherwise, maintain that their position is simply a rejection of the political structure of Jewish supremacy that undergirds the State of Israel.

On this episode, Jewish Currents staff members discuss how they describe their politics in relation to the term “Zionist” and why. They reflect on the comparative advantages and limits of using the labels “anti-Zionist,” “non-Zionist,” and “cultural Zionist” to articulate opposition to a state project of Jewish supremacy and support of Palestinian liberation and right of return, and consider how those identifications impact relationships within the Jewish community and with the broader solidarity movement.

Thanks to Jesse Brenneman for producing and to Nathan Salsburg for the use of his song “VIII (All That Were Calculated Have Passed).”


Excerpt from “Zionism from the Standpoint of Its Victims,” Edward Said

2021 Study of Jewish LA

How ‘Zionist’ became a slur on the US left,” Jonathan Guyer, The Guardian

A plan to save Israel — by getting rid of Zionism,” Emily Tamkin, The Forward, on Shaul Magid’s new book exploring a “counter-Zionist” future

Haifa Republic: A Democratic Future for Israel, Omri Boehm

Address by Max Nordau at the First Zionist Congress, 1897

The Suppressed Lineage of American Jewish Dissent on Zionism,” Emma Saltzberg, Jewish Currents, on the historical evolution of the meaning of the term “Zionism”


Arielle Angel: Hello, and welcome back to On the Nose, the Jewish Currents Podcast. I’m Arielle Angel, editor-in-chief of Jewish Currents, and I’ll be your host for today. So we’re doing this podcast by popular demand. As these encampments have spread across the country to universities, the word Zionism, I think, has become much more of a buzzword than it has in the past, especially as people are trying to understand the dynamics between these encampments, where Jews are over-represented among participants, and where those Jewish students are still a minority within larger Jewish student populations who identify as Zionist. And the encampments themselves have insisted: Well, they’re not anti-Jewish or antisemitic, they are anti-Zionist, and they are welcoming spaces for anti-Zionist Jews. I think more and more people are asking themselves: Well, what is Zionism? What is anti-Zionism? I think a lot of people, even in our readership, or perhaps new to our readership, are asking themselves about how they identify and what it means for them to identify as anti-Zionist or non-Zionist (or some other kind of Zionist), and we’ll talk about all of those things today. So I’m joined by editor-at-large Peter Beinart. Hi, Peter.

Peter Beinart: Hi

AA: Publisher Daniel May.

Daniel May: Hello, good to be with you.

AA: And associate editor Mari Cohen.

Mari Cohen: Hello.

AA: Is there anything anyone else wants to say about: Why talk about this right now?

MC: Well, I do think part of what’s happening with this encampment discourse is that people are saying “Our issue is with Zionists, not with Jews,” and then Jewish students are responding—Jews in the community writ large—are responding and saying “No, no, Zionist is an integral part of being Jewish, and this actually means something else, and it doesn’t necessarily mean oppression.” There’s these ways in which the term Zionist is becoming the terrain over which a lot of this debate is being had.

AA: Yeah, I guess one of the things that we should bring up is the letter by Columbia students called “In Our Name”—which is kind of strikingly titled, a mirror image of the “Not In Our Name” slogan that has been used by left-wing Jews for many years.

MC: I was very disturbed by that title.

AA: I mean, I know they’re saying “in our name,” as in, “we are going to speak for ourselves,” but they basically say Zionism is inextricable from being Jewish. And they also say something which is very, very common across the Jewish world, which is to say, basically, that Zionism is just the movement for self-determination in the land of Israel, and it is just about Jews having a home and being able to decide their own fates. And so I wonder if maybe we start there with these two basic assertions: One about that definition of Zionism, and one about this contention that Zionism and Judaism are intertwined.

MC: I just want to say something that I think is interesting on background about this: Obviously, what happens in a lot of these debates is that people say: Well, even if you say your issue is with Zionists, and not Jews, most Jews are Zionists, Zionism is intertwined with Judaism, and there’s no way to extricate it, so really, you are targeting Jews, even if you’re just saying that you’re targeting Zionists. But if you do polling of different American Jewish communities, a lot of American Jews are actually really reluctant to identify themselves as Zionists, even if they hold what are basically Zionist political positions. A quick example: In 2021, there was a Jewish community survey of LA, and they asked people whether they agree with the statement “I consider myself a Zionist,” and only 24% strongly agreed and 18% somewhat agreed, but then a pretty large proportion didn’t agree: 11% somewhat disagreed, 23% strongly disagreed, and 25% had no opinion or weren’t sure. So there was not a lot of positive majority feeling around identifying as a Zionist. But then they asked people: If you think it’s important for Israel to be the nation-state of the Jewish people—which is a pretty common, what we might think of as a Zionist political position, the idea that Israel should be a Jewish state—and then you’ve got 61% of people strongly agreeing and then only a very small percentage disagreeing, like 6% somewhat disagreeing, 6% strongly disagreeing. And this is pretty consistent across any of these surveys where they actually ask people if they identify as Zionists, which is a pretty rare thing, actually, in the Jewish community. Usually they don’t even ask questions that way. It’s really mostly in these local surveys. And so what’s interesting is these students at Columbia are saying: Well, you don’t know what the term Zionist really means, you’re not understanding it properly, you’re using it as a pejorative. But also, American Jews writ large don’t even really seem to know what the term means, or for whatever reason, even among conservatives, tend to have some level of reluctance in identifying with it.

PB: If I can just add, I think part of the problem is that the definition of Zionist itself went through a very fundamental change soon after Israel’s creation, at least for American Jews. I think Zionism, at its core—whether it originally envisioned a Jewish state, or whether there was more flexibility about some kind of Jewish homeland that wasn’t necessarily a state—the core assertion was that Jews needed to be in this place, in this homeland, this state, in order to be safe and fully actualized. Zionism was based on a repudiation of diaspora Jewish life. And so then you have (particularly with American Jews), soon after Israel’s creation, this historic conflict where American Jews say: No, no, we’re really good with what you’re doing, we want to support it, but we reject the idea that we are not actualized and safe here. We want to call ourselves Zionists, but we don’t plan to go and join you in this enterprise and repudiate our own enterprise.

That’s one of the aspects here, which is to say: Most people who are calling themselves Zionists in America, don’t mean, by Zionist, the repudiation of diasporic life. They just mean a statement of support for Jewish statehood, whatever exactly that means. And that’s part of the reason, I think, that you might find some American Jews saying they don’t consider themselves Zionists, even though they are very strongly in support of the idea of a Jewish state.

DM: I think it’s helpful to turn to the actual text of the Columbia students’ letter as an example of what I think has become a very dominant understanding of what Zionism is in the American Jewish community. Because I think the text actually quite clearly illustrates some of the central contradictions or challenges that a conversation like this presents, and trying to pin down what exactly you mean by these terms. So this is what the text of that letter says: “We proudly believe in the Jewish people’s right to self determination in our historic homeland as a fundamental tenet of our Jewish identity. Contrary to what many have tried to sell you, no, Judaism cannot be separated from Israel. Zionism is, simply put, the manifestation of that belief.

So there’s a whole bunch going on in just these three short sentences. The first is this idea of self-determination. Implied here is the notion that self-determination requires a state—that, in order for a people to be free, they have to have a state in which they are a majority; in which they have hegemonic and permanent control over the instruments of government; a place in which they have a monopoly on violence. That’s a contestable idea, right? There are lots and lots of peoples throughout the world who have different forms of political organization that are not statehood that I think many of us would want to affirm as still having the possibilities of freedom within them—including Jews, I would say, in the United States, whom I would argue have a certain kind of self-determination, while, of course, we do not have permanent control over the instruments of government.

The second idea here is that Israel/Palestine is the historic homeland of the Jewish people. So not the places where Jews lived for millennia in Europe, in North Africa, throughout the Middle East, but this one particular place becomes the homeland, as against all others, which gets to Peter’s point about a negation of the idea or possibility of other homelands for Jews. And then, I think most remarkably, where this short paragraph ends, is that Zionism is simply the manifestation of Jewish belief. So there’s this move from a declaration of a political position, which entails a certain understanding of self determination, a certain understanding of homeland, to then a claim that this isn’t just a political position but a fundamental tenet of identity. And part of what makes this conversation so frustrating, at least for me, is that there’s a constant move to turn from what ought to be, I think, a political discussion and a political argument to a conversation about identity that makes the political discussion extremely difficult to even have.

MC: And just to note, that’s been the strategy, lately, of many of the Israel advocacy groups in the United States, which is basically the idea that they’re trying to perpetuate a legal definition—helped by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism and some of the Civil Rights Education cases they’re pursuing—that, basically, to be a Zionist is a protected class, because it has to do with Jewish identity.

AA: And nationality, because nationality is a protected class, too.

MC: Yeah. And if you’re denigrating Zionists, then you’re denigrating Jews, and that that is a matter of discrimination and you’re liable under the Civil Rights Act. So that’s part of this big strategy by all of these groups, is basically saying that Zionism is really a matter of ethnic and national identity and not a political position.

DM: The other thing that these sorts of sentences do is obscure the fundamental moral and political dilemmas underneath cliché. So it becomes very difficult to argue with the principle of Jewish national self-determination. And so, to oppose a Jewish state in the land of Israel becomes synonymous with opposing Jewish national self-determination, which then becomes seen as a position that is antisemitic. But a Jewish state in the land of Israel/Palestine required the dispossession of hundreds and hundreds of thousands of people. In 1900, only 8% of the population of Israel/Palestine was Jewish at a time (in 1897) the first Zionist Congress, when this idea is just emerging. And then as late as 1947, Jews are 31% of the population but only owned 6% of the land. So the immediate question is: What is it that allows Jews to have a right of national self-determination and a state in which Jews are a permanent majority in a place that, again, even as late as 1947, 70% of the population is not Jewish? And the constant return to these abstract principles are a way of obscuring and deflecting these central questions that follow from the actual political implementation of these ideas.

PB: This is part of the heart of the divide over the debate about Zionism on these campuses. The people who are against Zionism, when they think about Zionism, they’re thinking about the Palestinian experience of Zionism at the heart of what they’re thinking about. That’s, for them, the central question. It’s as Edward Said said: Zionism from the standpoint of its victims. And what you see in this Columbia statement is a conversation about Zionism from which Palestinians are absent—in which that’s not a question of which one has to engage.

I think the other thing you notice here is that there is a whole series of terms that are intimate terms that Jews use but also terms that are quite vague and slippery, right? So if you look at the language from the Columbia students, it says: “Contrary to what many have tried to tell you, no, Judaism cannot be separated from Israel; Zionism is, simply put, the manifestation of that belief. Our religious texts are replete with references to Israel, Zion, and Jerusalem.” Well, when those religious texts were talking about Israel, they weren’t talking about Medinat Yisrael, the modern State of Israel, because it didn’t exist. They were talking about the land of Israel. The term Israel itself is now the name of a state, the name of the people—right, the people Israel is synonymous with the Jewish people—and the name of the land. So you see, the move here is to say: Judaism is synonymous with Israel. Well, if you mean the land of Israel, you may have actually a reasonable point. It is true that references to the land of Israel do suffuse Judaism. But then you move from land to state and you’re making a pretty big leap here, right? Because you’re reading back into literally centuries of Jewish texts that are talking about a land, and then you’re imagining that they’re talking about a state that didn’t actually even exist. So I think this is part of the kind of slipperiness of this whole discourse.

AA: And if you really want to actually go there, in the Orthodox community, in the Haredi community, there’s a huge debate, theologically, about Zionism. Most people consider Zionism, as the State of Israel is right now (especially the Satmars, but not only the Satmars), that this is a total abomination, that you cannot bring a political entity for Jewish people in Israel without God. That God is the being that is going to bring the Jewish state into being, and that what we have now is a total shame, frankly. And, you know, they bring up, for example, “Next year in Jerusalem,” that we say that at the end of the Seder as proof that we should have a political state in Israel. Now, what this says to me is actually that the idea of Israel is a perpetually deferred dream; that the idea is that if we’re supposed to say “Next year in Jerusalem” over and over again, that the idea is not to arrive in Jerusalem. Even if you’re in Jerusalem, you have to say “Next year in Jerusalem,” which actually affirms the fact that we are not supposed to arrive; we are supposed to consider ourselves in diaspora, or in a constant state of becoming, and that it is not the point to control the levers.

But I want to go back to what we were saying about the fact that this definition of Zionism obscures what Zionism has meant to Palestinians. There is, of course, an entire conversation to be had about Palestinian anti-Zionism and the long history of that. We, of course, are not going to have that conversation today just because of who we have here on this call and because we’re Jewish Currents. It’s important to also make room for this intra-Jewish conversation within this group of people. We all, actually, I think, identify differently around the question of Zionism. Nobody believes in state Zionism. Everybody believes in the right of return, full equality, and reparations for Palestinians. And yet, we have three different self-definitions. Mari and I—and most of the staff of Jewish Currents, most of the younger staff of Jewish Currents—identify as anti-Zionist. Daniel, I know that you’re more comfortable generally with the term non-Zionist, is that right?

DM: Yeah, although I resist all these terms for various reasons.

AA: Okay, well, we’ll get into that. And Peter, you prefer the term cultural Zionist, which I would say really kind of puts you in a category by yourself.

PB: Maybe it’s not coincidental that I’m one of the oldest staff members.

AA: Yeah, so I want to talk a little bit about that. So maybe I’ll start with you, Mari, about why you identify as an anti-Zionist?

MC: I’m actually not sure there was ever a time in my life that I explicitly identified as a Zionist. I was raised in a pretty standard liberal reform household and community in Michigan, and definitely very pro-Israel. I visited Israel a couple of times before I was 14, including once on a teen exchange program that I elected to do myself. So I was definitely very, “Yeah, Israel’s awesome, I support it, it seems cool,” based on the education that I had gotten, but I don’t think I was ever really taught to use or identify with the term Zionist. It just didn’t really come up, and this might also be a vestige of especially some of this reform movement, American stuff around supporting Israel and Israel’s policies but not really identifying very closely with the term Zionist. And so I basically started questioning things, and made some Palestinian friends studying in high school, and just started to notice that there were protests of some of the Celebrate Israel-type events in my community. I got very interested in what was motivating people to have these deep disagreements with this pro-Israel stuff. And so I started a long journey. And I don’t think it was until after college that I officially adopted the anti-Zionist label. I think in some ways, it was pretty easy for me to arrive at an anti-Zionist position because I never even had a Zionist position to begin with, like that label never really meant anything to me. So that’s one thing.

The other thing is, if we think of Zionism as political Zionism, in terms of this idea that Jews should have a Jewish state in the land of Israel, that was always pretty hard for me. The idea of a specific religious group having a state reserved for itself just always made me pretty uncomfortable, or I knew that that wasn’t the type of vision that I would want to see in a government that I would live under. And so it was hard for me to imagine myself advocating for that kind of political system anywhere. And then thirdly, I feel pretty convinced by the idea that at this point, the term Zionism has become subsumed by what it has become in Israel, by its effects on Palestinians, by its colonial history, and the colonial aspirations of some of the original thinkers whose vision for the state won out—and that’s pretty convincing to me. And I just don’t know if any kind of reclamation of the term is possible. And for me, I don’t really have a reason to want to reclaim it. If I’m like: This is what Zionism has meant to the Palestinians who have been displaced by Zionism, I’m fine with taking the term Zionism, throwing it in the proverbial trash.

AA: I share a lot of that reasoning, Mari. I think one of the reasons that people don’t want to get rid of the term Zionism is because it feels like an indictment of their ancestors on some level, or their grandparents, or people who like—for example, in my case, part of my family was always in Palestine, and they were not necessarily Zionists because they were Palestinians. But they did get swept into the Zionist project. They learned Hebrew, even though they spoke Arabic, and that’s kind of one side. But another side of my family is Holocaust survivors from Salonika, Greece, and while my grandmother and grandfather came to the United States—the only survivors from both of their families—my grandmother’s sister went to Israel. And I was raised very Zionist, and I identified with that through my adult life. I went through college without really shaking that, even though I had some teary arguments with friends that I thought just didn’t get it. And that was really my whole argument: You don’t get it, the Holocaust.

But for me, I don’t know what kind of decision I would have made in that moment, coming from Salonika—whether I would have gone to Israel, whether I would have gone to the United States. And I felt on some level like I couldn’t really judge my great aunt for the decision that she had made. And saying that I understood the decision that Jews made in these very difficult circumstances felt like, on some level, a connection to Zionism because it was a connection to the concrete mindset that caused people to emigrate, and also the ways in which their choices were limited. And I just have had to let go of that over the years because people make different decisions in different moments. It doesn’t mean that we have to continue to affirm that ideology, especially in terms of what it’s become. It doesn’t mean that those people were evil, you know, it just means that in addition to them being refugees, there were settler colonial processes that did remove other people from their lands, separate them from their property, and also that there was an incredible violence in order to do that, and that that continues to this day in an unequal system.

So I was actually involved in maybe a year of organizing around Palestine before I started to think of myself as an anti-Zionist—it took a long time to shed. And I think what actually did it was the realization that, even if there were two states—even if there were two sovereign entities (let’s say that that was possible), side by side, even within the State of Israel, you would still have a supremacist state. You cannot engineer a demographic majority and not have that connected to a lot of other processes that we would think of as completely unacceptable, including ethnic cleansing; including a certain kind of relationship to outsiders or asylum seekers or migrants that is exclusionary; including enshrining the national rights of one group over another; including making decisions about land use, and who can use certain tracts of land and who can’t. And, of course, that’s what we see in the modern state of Israel. To have a Jewish demographic majority in a place where there are other people will always require a measure of very violent social engineering and dispossession. So that was really what moved me completely into identifying as an anti-Zionist,

PB: Like you, Arielle, I was raised as a political Zionist in the belief in a Jewish state, a state in which—I don’t think I would have put it this way—but where Jews are in charge, which I thought was necessary for Jewish safety, and also was responsible for this place that I started going as a kid and felt a really strong identification with. I don’t support a Jewish state, I support an equal binational state, and yet I do call myself a cultural Zionist, which refers to a tradition of people who, like me, oppose the idea of a Jewish state and support a binational state, but called themselves Zionists because they believed in the importance of a flourishing Jewish culture in this territory. Maybe they might even set a Jewish society that could revive Hebrew as a living language, for instance, and do other kinds of cultural and even religious production that they believed was important, but they disassociated that from the idea of Jewish statehood, which they opposed as I do. So I think it’s a very legitimate question to ask: Well, why would someone want to hold on to this cultural Zionism, given that it’s obviously not the Zionism that’s prevailed?

Political Zionism, the Zionism of a Jewish supremacist state, has been the ideology that has governed Israel since its founding. And first of all, I find that many people just don’t accept when I call myself a cultural Zionist. They say: No, you’re not. You’re an anti-Zionist, because I define Zionism as Jewish statehood. So I find that from, often, people in the Jewish community, and I find people on the left who dislike this because they find the term so obnoxious, that it kind of undermines whatever shared values they feel like we have based on our support for the idea of equality. The reason that, to me, this tradition is important, the tradition of people like Martin Buber, and Henrietta Szold, and Judah Magnes, and Ernst Simon, and Brit Shalom, and Ihud in the 30s and 40s, is that it suggests a couple of things about the vision that I would like to see; one of which is that I’m not indifferent to whether there is a thriving Jewish community in the land between the river and the sea. It’s very important to me.

I guess, in that way, I’m not a diasporist in the sense that I do think it is very difficult to disassociate the land from Judaism. I think Judaism is, to a significant degree, a land-based religion. The idea of the land of Israel suffuses Jewish texts—obviously not the state, because the state didn’t exist—but the land is very central. There are certain religious commandments that can literally only be conducted in the land, which I think speaks to the importance of the idea of a Jewish presence in the land, and the importance of that. And secondly, it’s important to me that when I think about the vision of a free, liberated, equal country, I think about it as a place in which not just Jews remained, but where there can be space for Jewish collectivity. For instance, schools that can teach Hebrew, public observance of the Jewish religious calendar (alongside, of course, Muslim and Christian religious calendars). And so for me, that’s why I believe in binationalism. The current movement for Palestinian Liberation that you see in the United States mostly has a kind of decolonial vision of a kind of return to Palestine, which doesn’t publicly acknowledge the idea that this is now—it seems to me—a place of two collectivities. So for me, calling myself a cultural Zionist is a way of saying: No, I think this is a place of two collectivities, and I believe in the idea in which Jews and Palestinians would both have self-determination within the context of legal equality and historical justice. That’s a position that was mostly a Jewish position in the 30s and 40s but one that was picked up later, near the end of his life, for instance, by Edward Said.

AA: Peter, I want to ask a quick question about this.

PB: Sure.

AA: I know that the term cultural Zionism maybe is not necessarily about (for you) the culture but it’s more about the collectivity. But I think even there, we have a situation where a Jewish culture in that place—you know, there is the revival of Hebrew, right, but it was also at the expense of Yiddish and Ladino and other diasporic languages. Certainly Arabic, which was really suppressed from Mizrahi Jews. You also have an enormous appropriation of Palestinian dance, food, culture, in order to renativize. And the question for me—I mean, I know that you think about cultural Zionism more in terms of collectivity than in terms of culture—but there is an argument to be made here that there has not been a significant revival of culture with real integrity on some level. There is a way in which this kind of cultural development has fallen short, because of the ways that we’ve been talking about, the ways that Zionism actually operated on the native population. I’m just curious how you think about that.

PB: I would like to see Israeli Jewish culture evolve under conditions of equality in which not only was there not a stigma to Jews speaking Arabic, but in fact, that that was required in schools, and in which this would not be considered exclusive in the way it is today. But it seems to me you can’t ignore the fact that there is now an Israeli Jewish culture that exists. I think that I would like it to be preserved and evolved, and I don’t think, to me, it has to have any supremacist elements within it.

AA: Yeah, I mean, I think it remains to be seen, what it would mean to actually try to separate out, at this point, the supremacist elements—which, I think we would agree that there has been a way in which that has become a big part of the culture. Like right now in Israel, a lot of music, a lot of visual culture has become very genocidal in form, very directly. I don’t think it’s actually controversial to say that. And the extent to which we can remove that, especially from a history of erasure of the Palestinian population within Israeli culture, that’s a real question. I mean, in the same way that we would interrogate American culture for anti-blackness and all these kinds of things.

PB: Absolutely. Absolutely. No, this is the work of decades and centuries. This would be a very, very, very long process under the best of circumstances. But I think, again, unless you have some vision in which the Israeli Jewish population is going to leave, you’re going to have, for a long period of time, people speaking Hebrew. My vision is essentially to move towards allowing that to coexist in a condition of equality and thinking through the way in which colonization has affected it rather than basically imagining that somehow you can turn back the clock to a moment in time when you didn’t have this large Hebrew-speaking Jewish population in Israel/Palestine.

DM: I do find this conversation challenging and somewhat frustrating because I think that these terms mean so many different things to different folks that it can become really hard to know what it is that we’re talking about. And I’m not sure that the political substantive differences are relevant. So just in this conversation, between Peter’s cultural Zionism and Mari’s anti-Zionism, it seems to me—I mean, I’m curious, maybe you both would disagree with this—but it seems to me, politically and substantively, I think there’s a great deal of overlap, and it’d be hard for me to identify practically what the differences are.

AA: I mean, I’m not sure that I care that much about national rights being recognized in a future state. Like, that’s a big difference between me and Peter. I agree that we’re not kicking all the Jews out, and that there should be a Jewish society there, and that Hebrew and Arabic should be recognized alongside one another, this kind of thing. But the idea of national rights, as opposed to just equality under the law, is a big question for me.

DM: Well, I think even just the way you just described that, Arielle, I mean, if Hebrew is an officially recognized language, then there’s some kind of national rights. I mean, that means that there are schools where Hebrew is the language of the school. Well, that’s not that’s not nothing.

AA: That’s not nothing. I just mean that there are degrees

DM: There are degrees. But as soon as we’re talking about schools in which Hebrew is the language that is spoken in schools, we’re talking about some degree of collective autonomy. It’s not strictly just: You’re an individual Jew at home, and then the language of society is Arabic,. I mean, there’s some—even just in the way that you named it—some granting of collective rights. Now, of course, how much and what does that entail are big questions—but there’s still a significant amount of overlap. And I think that’s true of a lot of recent books like Omri Boehm’s Haifa Republic, where he is talking about his work in the context of a refashioned Zionism that isn’t bound to the state, and Shaul Magid’s counter-Zionism, which he describes as a kind of rejection of Zionism, or at least an alternative to it. And I think politically, substantively, the visions that they offer are very difficult to distinguish from each other.

So I think that’s my first issue. The second is that I resist the transformation (or the turning) of, what I mentioned earlier, what I think ought to be and should be a political conversation into a conversation about identity. I don’t really care how you identify yourself. What I care about is: What are your commitments, and what are you doing about them, and what is your program? And my commitments are: I’m opposed to Jewish supremacy; I’m opposed to Jewish hegemony; I’m opposed to the domination of the Palestinian people. Because of those commitments, I’m opposed to the notion of a Jewish state in which Jews are a permanent majority with permanent control over the apparatuses of government and a monopoly over violence. And I’m committed to Jewish culture and collective life in Israel/Palestine. I do not think that Israel/Palestine is the homeland of the Jewish people. I think it is one important area of Jewish life around the world. And those are my commitments. Now, certain people would hear all that and say: Well, obviously you’re an anti-Zionist. Others might hear it and say: Well, there’s a tradition of Zionist politics that that’s situated within. For me, the question is: What is our strategy for building power to address a system of supremacy and domination, and what is our ultimate program that we’re hoping to achieve? And then, how do we build from that? And if that includes people who describe themselves as cultural Zionists (like Peter) and many, many people who describe themselves as anti-Zionists, or people who resist these labels, like I do? To me, that’s the question, and I think an emphasis or preoccupation with the individual identification actually prevents organizing the kind of solidarity that we need.

I’ll also say, I do think that one of the reasons that I have a hard time strictly describing myself as an anti-Zionist is that I think that the basic insight and political critique of the early Zionists is one that I am sympathetic to. Because ultimately, I think the basic insight of the early Zionists (including the political Zionists), was the nation-state, as it has developed in Europe, cannot and will not provide equality and freedom for its minority members. Equality under the law is insufficient for freedom in a state defined as an ethnostate. That was the basic Zionist critique of the European nation-state. You hear it in Nordau’s address at the first Zionist Congress, where he says that equal rights are like a piano that every rich person has to have in their room, but no one knows how to play. Or that equal rights are like an alms that are given to the poor that allow the wealthy to congratulate themselves but can be taken away at any moment. The problem is Zionists and political Zionists, and the way the movement unfolded (and of course, eventually, in the founding of statehood), replicated the exact political structure that the early Zionists were critiquing. But in terms of the basic critique of the idea that the ethnostate is not going to provide freedom and equality for its minority members or for its Jews—I basically think that the political Zionists and the cultural Zionists were correct in their basic analysis of the fundamental problem of the nation-state.

AA: Okay, so they were right about their critique, and they were wrong about the actual entire project. So, what?

DM: Well, no, I mean, again, I’m not defining myself as a Zionist precisely for the reason that you’re naming. But I don’t know what the content of anti-Zionism means, practically, when it comes to these central questions. Are we talking about a Jewish identity that is strictly a matter of individual religious belief? That’s not one that I want to subscribe to. And in the modern era, the political project that rejected that idea of Judaism as—again, a Protestant, individualized religion—those folks were, broadly, in various kinds of ways, connected to Jewish nationalism,

AA: I just want to push back a little bit on you, Daniel. I agree with you that these words mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people; the fact that the four of us agree on some of the basics of the politics and identify differently is significant. And we actually need to be building within the framework of what we’re building towards, and I think that sometimes that gets lost. At the same time, I identify as an anti-Zionist because of what that means to Palestinians. I mean, I was with a friend the other night, a Palestinian talking about when they meet an Israeli, they need that Israeli to signal to them that they do not believe in Jewish supremacy, and the term that they want to hear is anti-Zionist. That is the term that is going to signal to them that they’re safe with this person. And so that is actually a shorthand that I understand is going to help communicate that to people who are potential allies.

And you’re talking about political utility—like, what is the political utility of these terms? I think that does have political utility, like that is about the questions of: How do we build power? How do we build allyship? How do we move forward in this? Now, do I think that anti-Zionism has a positive content? Like, does it say what I am for? No, and I do think that’s a limitation of the term. And I’ve been thinking a lot about: If we start to build what are essentially anti-Zionist Jewish institutions in the United States, we should probably, at least in the Jewish world, transfer to diasporism (which I guess wouldn’t really include Peter, on some level, who doesn’t identify as a diasporist). But at least it’s a positive articulation of a thing that we are for trying to create. And even that word, I think, is insufficient, because it’s also not holistic in terms of what it means about Jewish life. But I don’t know. I mean, like this question of political utility is interesting. One thing that I’ll mention is that the two of you guys were in a room where we witnessed a kind of intra-Palestinian debate, because somebody said, you know, “We don’t have to say Zionism, we can just say, the State of Israel,” and some other Palestinians in the room pushed back fairly strongly on that, that it was so important to use the word Zionism. And I just want to put that on the table as well.

PB: Yeah, I think what you’re saying about the importance of saying you’re anti-Zionist to many Palestinians (and to others too), I think, in this moment, is absolutely correct. And so yes, that there has a political utility because people can have a phrase in which everyone unites that has a really important meaning to them. But when one thinks about political utility, one also has to think about the people that one is not able to convince, who one might be more able to convince if one spoke about the principle of equality under the law. So I’m not saying that this anti-Zionism doesn’t have political utility—under the circumstances, it has a lot of political utility, but it also has a political cost. Because I actually think, in some ways, that you can make an argument that stating the set of principles that you believe in—equality under the law, and historical justice—actually has the potential to reach people that the phrase anti-Zionism doesn’t have. And I think that it’s particularly a little bit confusing to me, or worrisome to me, because it’s not just the term Zionism that has now become so central in these conversations on campus and others, but the term Zionist. And so Zionist becomes a marker of the right to exclude people based on the idea that they’re Zionists, right? And I’m not always entirely clear how the people who are being excluded as Zionists, or the people who are excluding them, are actually defining that term, which to me means that it becomes all the more important to actually lay out what the underlying principles here are.

MC: I hear that, Peter, and I do think that there’s stuff to talk through there. But I do think that if we stop using the term Zionist to describe this mechanization of colonization and oppression in Israel/Palestine, I just don’t really know if there’s an equivalent term that captures that.

AA: Right, you’re left with “Jewish.“

MC: You’re left with Jewish, which we don’t want, like Jewish nationalism. We don’t want the Jewish national project. We don’t want the word Jewish in there. And I don’t think you can really say Israeli—first of all, because now Israel is like a name on people’s passports, so then it seems like it’s becoming an individual thing rather than a state thing. But also, we’re talking about a project that predates the official state formation. So we need to have a term for that and the ideologies that developed around it. And I think we also need to have a term for these political actors and ideologies at work outside of the State of Israel. So not just what the state and government of Israel is doing, but what organizations and other countries do that support them. Right now, that term is Zionist. I guess we could talk about the term “pro-Israel.” But I think, again, that doesn’t totally capture the historical nature of it, and also it’s a slippery term in its own right, because like, what does pro-Israel really mean, and then there’s people who would dispute that term. So I think it makes sense why Zionist has become the term to use because I think it captures some of these expansive dimensions that there’s not really another word for,

PB: Right. But there’s not often clarity on what the term means to various different people, which I think is part of the challenge.

AA: Yeah. And I think the movement could be better at defining what it means. I also think it’s a good thing that young Zionists on campus are being forced to examine what that word means to them. And I do hope that there are alternative resources that can break through the “This is just self-determination for Jews” line, which is kind of the whole show that they’re working with right now. I agree with you that—I mean, we’ve talked a lot on this podcast about what it means to create a new hegemonic understanding. And I do think that there’s a value to polarization around this word, in the moment, as a means of challenging people to learn about the mechanism of Zionism and the history of Zionism. And that also includes the people, Peter, that you consider to be your intellectual forebears, but also the actual history of what it has looked like. I was asked recently by someone: Why do you have to say Zionism? Why can’t you just say, I’m an anti-nationalist? Why do we have to focus on the particular term for Jewish nationalism? And I think it’s kind of a good question, except that I think the Jewish dimension of this nationalism has been a part of the ways that it has evaded scrutiny. Because of the history of Jewish repression and the Holocaust, and the ways that international law formed out of this post-World War II moment, there’s a way in which this particular story around Zionism has a valence that we don’t think of in league with other nationalisms and has some of its own qualities, I would say. I also wouldn’t generalize it just as like, another nationalism, because of the ways that the positive valence of Zionism and the current hegemony needs, itself, to be broken down.

DM: Yeah, I hear the points that you both have raised, Mari and Arielle, both around the utility of anti-Zionism and the need for a word that can describe all these different dynamics. I mean, the way that I think about this is around the term Jewish supremacy—and that may invite just as many problems as Zionism. But I think that the problem with the project of national collective life in Israel/Palestine was not that it was a project of national collective life in Israel/Palestine, but that it was built from its very beginning on notions of supremacy, all sorts of colonial ideas about the civilized against the barbarians, and you can see that in every single Zionist writer from the 19th century and early 20th century. But I think that the reason that I ultimately have a hard time embracing the anti-Zionist label is because I do think that what in the 19th century was referred to as the Jewish question remains a central question. And I don’t think that, as I see or understand it within an anti-Zionist politics, I’m not sure what the vision is for Jewish life and identity—which, again, maybe this is just a way of saying your point, Arielle, about the need for a robust diasporism (which I’m totally down for), but I don’t want to embrace a term (again, for myself, and for my own political self-understanding) that I think runs into all these problems of trying to name what it’s substantively for and not just what it is in opposition to.

PB: I mean, the thing that I’ve really been struggling with and trying to make sense of is: So if somebody wants to, in college, join the pro-choice or the environmental group, and these groups make the statement that “We don’t allow Zionists”—to me, that represents part of what I find problematic about this discourse, in the sense that I don’t know how that term is being defined by the people who are doing the exclusion, or the people who are being excluded. And I think that if you present the degree to which the functions of the Israeli state are fundamentally anathema to principles of liberal democracy and human equality, you can start to make a lot of people—among Jews, and in America more generally—aware of the fact that they can’t, in good conscience, claim to believe in those principles and still support a Jewish-supremacist state. And I’m just not sure that the debate about Zionism and Zionists, although I recognize it has a certain utility, I sometimes worry that it’s actually potentially impeding that shift.

MC: I hear that. I think what’s happening is that there’s a meaning that’s being constructed in real time. In some ways, what Zionism is going to start to mean is, potentially, opposition to the protest movement for Palestinian Liberation, and anti- or non-Zionism is going to come to mean support of that movement as it is right now. And personally, I’m not necessarily opposed to that redefinition. I think, obviously, the challenge that it creates is basically for a Jewish community where many of its members do identify as Zionists—if that leads people to feel permanently excluded or like they’re unable to cross over to the other side. But I guess I’m just not super convinced for how many people that would be supportive of Palestinian liberation that that’s really the main obstacle.

AA: I assume, essentially, that if you’re in the reproductive justice club that has also adopted a Palestine resolution, and is saying, “This is an anti-Zionist club, also, because reproductive justice is Palestinian justice”—you know, something like this, this is the situation that you’re putting forward, Peter—I think there is going to have to be a recognition by liberal Zionists who want to be in these clubs that their political sensibility around this issue does not reign. Because I think if you are a liberal Zionist, and you recognize that this is a part of the left at this moment, and you can’t bring your whole self as a Zionist into that room, but you still are okay to be in that room—for me, that’s what I would want to see. I would want to see liberal Zionists feeling uncomfortable—in the same way that I think Palestinians have felt uncomfortable in most American spaces, period, regardless of nominal political persuasion, because there’s been a hegemonic and tacit Zionism, and who probably had to show up in that environment again, and again. I think it’s actually a kind of okay reversal, in my mind, for liberal Zionists to have to deal with that. Because I don’t think that if you come in as a liberal Zionist in your heart, or whatever, even telling people that you hold those views, but you’re working towards it, and you’re not obstructing a larger, pro-Palestinian bent in that organization, that anyone is going to kick you out, frankly. Like, I just don’t see that happening. It’s about the idea that those ideas should be catered to within that context, or that the group shouldn’t do something because there are people who are Zionists in that group. And that’s where I think it’s actually fine for these people to just suck it up.

PB: I’m pro discomfort, I agree. But I do think, to me, you’re laying out a scenario that I am pretty comfortable with, which is one of discomfort but not exclusion. I think, to me, that’s an important distinction, right? It’s just to say, yes, people should have to face the discomfort of the fact that they want to hold views on different issues that are in tension with one another. It’s when those views become a reason to exclude people rather than invite them into a conversation where they’ll have to confront uncomfortable things that I don’t think that’s as useful.

MC: I think, also, we just have to understand what the parameters of this conversation look like right now. Like, I think the stuff that we’re talking about, in terms of thinking about the history of Zionism and anti-Zionism, and also what that means in terms of actual Jewish identity and assimilation. And it’s interesting to think about American history in that some of the biggest early anti-Zionist American Jewish names and organizations were really made up of these more assimilated German Jewish wealthy elites who really wanted to prove their Americanness (and, really, their whiteness), and that was part of why they rejected the idea of standing out as Zionists. So I agree that there’s not always this easy, smooth identification with some earlier anti-Zionist positions. And I also think it’s just important for us to recognize how, in many ways, that conversation doesn’t feel urgent for a lot of people right now, just thinking about what’s going on on the ground, and genocide, and what Israel currently is doing as a state, and this spectacle of, you know, Israelis basically destroying humanitarian aid that’s on the way to Gaza. I can sympathize with the idea that that conversation feels extraneous in this moment. That doesn’t mean I don’t think we should have it, I just think it’s important to understand how a lot of people are gonna not really be interested in approaching this dimension of the conversation when that’s what’s playing out.

AA: Yeah, I think once again—and we come to this a lot—this conversation looks just very different within the Jewish world. And you know, as this is Jewish Currents, and this is our purview, the question of how we connect to those people (whom we think might be gettable if they understood the terms of the conversation) is different than the concerns of the overall movement. Now, the extent to which the overall movement should be concerned about this or not—whether they have time in this confrontational moment for quote, unquote, “dialogue” around these kinds of things—I mean, if you ask me, this is a moment for protests and not necessarily a moment to slow down. You know, I think political education at every level is always a good thing, but it’s not necessarily the moment to get the people who are not gettable. I mean, even me, as I said, I was in the movement for a year before I started to confront Zionism qua Zionism. So it takes a long time. And that may not be the overall movement’s first priority—which again, as we always say, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t have to be a priority for us within the Jewish community.

Thank you guys for joining me for another episode of On the Nose. Thank you to our producer Jesse Brenneman. If you liked this episode, please share it and subscribe to Jewish Currents, JewishCurrents.org. Thanks a lot, everyone. Hang in there.

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