Ignorance & Acrimony in Debating the Z Word

TTN Co-editor Ralph Seliger:

About 13 minutes into the Dec. 8th broadcast on NPR of KCRW’s “Left, Right & Center,” host David Greene identifies himself as a “Jewish person” who is “anti-Zionist,” but also “pro-Israel.” In explaining his idiosyncratic viewpoint, this soft-spoken and well-meaning veteran journalist and radio personality reveals a profound level of ignorance and misunderstanding:

My understanding of Zionism is not just reflecting respect for the existence of a Jewish state, but … that it was right to drive and displace Palestinians from their lands. I believe there was a version of that, if you look decades ago, that there could have been the existence of a Jewish state elsewhere that did not require people to be displaced. . . . But I am also pro-Israel; I believe that Israel should exist but I don’t believe in the philosophy that led to where we are today and I certainly don’t condone the behavior of the Israeli government right now in how they are handling this conflict against Hamas. So there’s a lot of nuance there and there’s no place for me, there’s a lot of gray for me, in a resolution that says “antisemitism and anti-Zionism is [sic.] the same thing.”

“Why is the House focusing on antizionism while addressing antisemitism?”
Left, Right & Center, Dec. 8, 2023

Although I regard Israel as justified in attemptIng to remove Hamas from its malevolent bastion in the Gaza Strip, I share Greene’s distaste for how Israel is conducting this war, apparently showing little regard for the lives and well-being of over two million non-combatants. I also share his disapproval for legislation that automatically equates anti-Zionism with antisemitism. But there is almost nothing accurate in what he said.

Over 700,000 Palestinian Arabs were permanently exiled by Israel in the 1948 war, not because of a “philosophy” but as a consequence of concerted attacks by local Arab militias and the armed forces of neighboring Arab states attempting to destroy the (UN-endorsed) Jewish state at birth. (One can still empathize with the collective trauma and sense of injustice created by the resulting Nakba — a humanitarian catastrophe.) Greene vaguely alludes to quixotic schemes floated a half century before for Jews to colonize part of British-ruled East Africa or of the desolate Argentine region of Patagonia, as if they were well-developed alternatives that would not have seeded conflicts with Africans or Argentinians.

An Ideological Football

The Z word, “Zionism,” has become an ideological football being kicked around by the pro’s and the anti’s who want to score against each other rather than to reasonably settle this longstanding and increasingly violent conflict. It’s the extremes who are the most vociferous in their Zionism or their anti-Zionism. (For more on this debate, I suggest reading my post on the anti-Zionism of JVP — the Jewish Voice for Peace.)

Zionism has succeeded in establishing a remarkable country, but not in its deeper goal of fully normalizing Jewish existence. This can only come with peace. Without the mutual acceptance by Jews and Palestinians of each people’s legitimate needs, a respect for each people’s “narrative,” this cannot end well.

A lengthy email discussion at the TTN academic listserv was initiated by the unearthing of this opinion article in the Washington Post: “Anti-Zionism isn’t the same as antisemitism. Here’s the history.” Subtitled, “The value of a Jewish homeland has long been subject to vigorous debate among Jews themselves,” it mines the pre-Holocaust and pre-1948 Jewish debates on Zionism to support current-day questioning of the legitimacy of the State of Israel. Most TTN comments provoked by this piece see it as exaggerating and distorting the nature of historical disagreements. What follows below are two of those critical comments, selected with the permission of their authors, Professors Kassow and Michels.

Samuel Kassow, Professor of History, Trinity College, Hartford, CT:

There’s no question that before World War II, support of Zionism within various Jewish communities waxed and waned depending on the emotional and political news of the day. In the 1920’s Zionism was the most popular trend within Polish Jewry. By 1938, in the Warsaw city council elections, the Bund [a non-Zionist, Yiddish cultural and Marxist political movement] took 18 out of 20 Jewish seats, with similar results in Lodz and Vilna. That didn’t mean that Jews suddenly became avowed Marxists and convinced anti-Zionists. it reflected the context: the impact of British immigration restrictions, the Arab revolt, Jewish readiness to buy the Bund’s message of Doikayt — “Hereness” — Here is our home for better or worse, and if we don’t fight fascism and antisemitism here, where we live, with our socialist partners, Jews are safe nowhere.

In the US, Zionism enjoyed a spectacular rise in support during World War I, in part because of [the Zionist activism of Justice Louis] Brandeis, in part because of the hoopla surrounding the Balfour Declaration. But such support dropped precipitously in the 1920’s, for various reasons, some personal, some political. Weizmann [head of the World Zionist Organization] tore his hair out because, in the 1920’s, when there was a clear window to bring in immigrants and invest in Palestine, American Jewry was sending more money to fund JDC [Joint Distribution Committee] agro-projects in Ukraine than it did to the Yishuv [the organized Jewish community in Palestine].

I wonder if there would have ever been a Jewish state had the US not closed its doors in 1924. It was only because of immigration restrictions that the Yishuv grew from 180,000 in 1928 to half a million in 1939: a critical mass able to defend itself and build a state in the making. 

Ok, so we all know the obvious: before World War II, Jewish support for Zionism was far from unanimous. But my question is — so what?

In 1939 about 500,000 out of 17 million or so Jews lived in Mandatory Palestine. Today 7 million Jews — almost half the entire Jewish people — live in Israel. 

Before 1939, non-Zionists could point to vital centers of Jewish cultural creativity in Eastern Europe and elsewhere. That’s no longer the case. I don’t want to get into a debate about the future of American Jewry, but I believe that culturally speaking, it will not be able to replace Israel. 

In short: Jewish anti-Zionism can provide thesis topics for many graduate students in the future. And if Jews want to call themselves non-Zionists, I can respect that. But as for now, given the demographic and cultural realities, you have to see Israel — with all its many faults — as the center of Jewish life. And that to me, means that the practical difference between anti-Zionism and antisemitism in the present circumstances is miniscule.

Tony Michels, Professor of American Jewish History, University of Wisconsin-Madison:

In recent years, there has been a tendency to exaggerate the number and influence of anti-Zionists in the American Jewish community.  Of course, there have always been opponents of Zionism.  Zionism, like many of the new political movements that emerged around 1900 (the Bund, for instance), was controversial.  

Zionism was controversial, in part, because it challenged the status quo in the Jewish community.  Reform Jewish leaders, wealthy philanthropists, and self-designated spokesmen for Jews in groups such as the American Jewish Committee opposed efforts to democratize the Jewish community, rejected ethnic definitions of Jewish identity, as well as the socialist ideologies that accompanied Zionism and other new Jewish political groups.

But to paint an accurate picture of anti-Zionism in American Jewish life, one must recognize the shifting balance of forces over time.   First, membership in Zionist organizations increased from decade to decade during the first half of the twentieth century, reaching a peak after World War II. To quote Howard Sachar’s account of the immediate post-war years:  

American Jews by the hundreds of thousands now were engaged in pro-Zionist political agitation, donating substantial quantities of money to the cause.  By 1947, membership in the Zionist Organization of America had climbed to 217,000; in Hadassah to 189,000; and other Zionist organizations and parties had accumulated their own scores of thousands of members. In all, nearly a million Jews now paid dues to the World Zionist Organization or one of its affiliates.

Sachar, “A History of the Jews in America,” p. 592

Second, anti-Zionist organizations were few and the number of people who opposed Zionism declined greatly between 1897 and 1948.

To give a few examples:  Reform Judaism officially endorsed Zionism in 1937.  The American Jewish Committee went from anti-Zionism to non-Zionism to Zionism by the end of the 1960s.  The Yiddish Forverts, while not a Zionist newspaper, became pro-Yishuv by the 1920s and strongly endorsed the establishment of Israel in 1948.  The Communist Party went from labeling Zionism a form of fascism in the 1920s to promoting the development of the Yishuv in 1942 to calling for the establishment of a Jewish state in 1947-48.  The Trotskyist Workers Party (the “Shachtmanites”) shifted from anti-Zionism to a recognition of Jewish national rights in Palestine in 1946, to support for Jewish statehood in 1948.  Bundists accepted the creation of the state of Israel even as they remained anti-Zionist on principle. 

Finally, a discussion of anti-Zionism in American Jewish history should draw a distinction between pre-1948 anti-Zionism and post-1967 anti-Zionism. In the pre-1948 period, anti-Zionism had nothing to do with antisemitism.  Anti-Zionism today often minimizes antisemitism, excuses it, and all too often traffics in it.  

A goal of anti-Zionism today is to bring an end to Jewish political sovereignty, a goal which can only be reached through the destruction of Jews as a national community.  (I don’t regard bi-nationalism or federalism, whatever their merits or flaws, as forms of anti-Zionism.)  In short, anti-Zionism today represents more of a break from pre-1948 anti-Zionism than its continuation.