JVP is Anti-Zionist? Who Knew?

The only surprise regarding Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP)—a group that fully supports BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) against Israel—finally “coming out” as anti-Zionist, on January 14this that it took so long. As a longtime left-Zionist who views the Trumpification of Israel with trepidation and horror, I can understand the JVP up to a point, but I find their bottomline one-sided conclusions equally troubling.

What does anti-Zionism mean in our day? It’s not that left-wing Jews are antisemites for criticizing Israel’s establishment as a state primarily for Jews, but the historical context is different than when Jews argued among themselves about the merits of Zionism versus other strategies to counter antisemitism prior to the Holocaust: e.g., emigration, assimilation, Bundism, democratic socialism and varieties of Marxist-Leninism. The argument is no longer about the abstract justice or correctness of one ideology over another. When people engage as militant anti-Zionists today, they are against the existence of a sovereign nation, established to safeguard a persecuted population and widely supported as such by leftists at the time.

Given that Jews were slated for total slaughter under the Nazis, it should be appreciated on humanitarian grounds that the rapidly growing Jewish-Zionist community in the Palestinian Mandate provided a haven for nearly a half-million Jews who would otherwise have perished. The Yishuv was nurtured somewhat reluctantly by the British under the Balfour Declaration, until they reversed course with the White Paper of 1938, when the legal immigration of Jews was severely restricted — just as the Nazi menace was growing enormously.   

The JVP’s analysis of Zionism as an ideology is superficial and tendentious, cherry-picking angry quotes from early Zionists railing against the Diaspora; it doesn’t register for the JVP that the heartland of the Diaspora in Europe was rife with Jew-hatred and would soon turn into a killing ground for those left behind. Ascribing to Theodor Herzl, the founder of the Zionist movement, the conviction “that Jews themselves constituted a separate people, and should therefore have a state of their own,” is a gross oversimplification. Herzl was a highly secular and assimilated Jew who launched political Zionism after witnessing the Dreyfus Affair and other manifestations of antisemitism that made him despair for the security of Jews remaining in Europe.

Even the term “Zionism” does not stand for a single philosophy or ideology. Bitter divisions have inflicted Israelis and Zionists since before Israel’s inception on how to deal with the Arabs of Palestine — ranging from those who embraced a bi-national state or federation to those who barely tolerated citizenship rights for non-Jews, if at all. Herzl envisioned the “Jewish state” as a pluralistic, multicultural and multi-religious modern society; his 1902 utopian novel, “Old New Land,” ended with the electoral triumph of a tolerant liberal party over a movement that wanted to restrict citizenship rights only to Jews.

The JVP statement makes no mention of the experiences of Jews in North Africa and other parts of the Middle East in Muslim-majority countries, other than to criticize Ashkenazi Zionists for their difficulties when they came to Israel as impoverished refugees. There is no mention of how the vast majority (often the entirety) of these ancient communities were compelled to leave their native lands, generally with a total loss of property.

They arrived in a country reeling from the bloody war that had engulfed it from late 1947 until January 1949, in numbers that quickly equaled (eventually surpassing) the pre-existing population, overwhelming its capacity to comfortably absorb them. Today, Mizrakhim (eastern Jews) suffer little overt discrimination, often intermarry with Ashkenazim, and are integral to modern Israeli society.

There is no mention of the violent rejection by the Arab-Palestinian leadership of the United Nations partition plan of 1947, with concerted attacks that began Israel’s War of Independence — during which approximately 6,000 Jews were killed and 15,000 wounded (3.5 percent of the Yishuv’s population), and leading almost inexorably to the Nakba (catastrophe) of exile for over 700,000 Palestinians.

Nor is there any reference to the waves of violence against Israeli civilians in the 1990s and 2000s that undermined the efforts of several Israeli governing coalitions to negotiate an end to the occupation and a two-state solution. Bloody attacks on Israeli civilians were key to the election of right-wing governments in 1996 and 2001, and in the wake of Israel’s unilateral withdrawal, Hamas’s use of the Gaza Strip as a base for countless rocket attacks and ground incursions, propelled Benjamin Netanyahu’s return to power in 2009.

JVP claims to “support any solution that is consistent with the full rights of both Palestinians and Israeli Jews, whether one binational state, two states, or some other solution.” Yet the logic of anti-Zionism implies supporting “one state” where Jews become a minority in a region of the world where minorities fare very badly.

A binational state would be ideal if we could repeal history. This concept was completely rejected by Palestinian political factions when proposed by a variety of Zionist individuals and movements (e.g., Marin Buber, Hannah Arendt, Albert Einstein, Hashomer Hazair). And Palestinians are often still hesitant to accept Jews as a people with national rights, beyond a religious group — even though most Jews are minimally religious, when at all.  

Neither side holds a monopoly on wrongdoing in this sad history. Blaming “Zionism” brings us back to the sterile debates of the pre-Holocaust years and the worst times of the Stalinist era, when the Z word was used willy-nilly to victimize Jews.