JVP’s Dogmatic Anti-Zionism 

The Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), an activist organization on the left that supports Palestinian rights and opposes Israel’s Zionist character, recently launched a post on Facebook and Instagram that proclaims: “Zionism breaks every single Jewish value.”  This online statement reduces the entire Zionist experience to “colonialism,” “militarism,” and “apartheid,” while denying that it has anything to do with “Jewish self determination.”

The JVP officially proclaimed itself to be anti-Zionist in January 2019 (see its website statement here.)  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 its relentlessly one-sided viewpoint profoundly wrong and disturbing.

In its anti-Zionist zeal, its most recent post falsely claims that Albert Einstein and Hannah Arendt were among the “Jews standing in opposition to it.”  Einstein and Arendt were known to prefer a binational state in Palestine to a so-called “Jewish state,” but Einstein was such a high-profile Zionist that David Ben-Gurion offered him the mostly ceremonial presidency of Israel after its first incumbent, Chaim Weizmann, passed away in 1952.  (He demurred, insisting that he’s “not a politician,” but mostly because he was comfortably ensconced in Princeton during his final years; he died in 1955.)

Arendt broke with the World Zionist Organization in 1942 after it endorsed the Biltmore Program, calling for a “Jewish Commonwealth” in Palestine for the first time.  But in an interview on West German TV about 30 years later, Arendt proclaimed her work in Paris for Youth Aliyah, sending German and Polish young people to Palestine in the 1930s (thereby saving their lives), her proudest achievement. 

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.  It’s a mistake to conflate a historic grassroots movement with the policies of specific governing coalitions in Israel, however deplorable or even reprehensible they may be.  In the view of liberal Zionists like myself, Israel desperately needs reforms that better integrate its non-Jewish minorities, but this doesn’t mean that Jews were wrong to establish Israel as a refuge against centuries of bigotry, oppression and ultimately, genocide.  For example, one doesn’t have to be anti-Zionist to deplore the “Jewish Nation-State Law” of 2018. 

JVP’s Lack of Historical Context

It’s not that leftwing Jews are antisemites for expressing opposition to Israel’s establishment as a state primarily for Jews (not “Jewish-only” as JVP claims), 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., assimilation, Bundism, democratic socialism and varieties of Marxist-Leninism.  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 — nurtured somewhat reluctantly by the British under the Balfour Declaration (until they reversed course with the White Paper of 1939) — provided a haven for nearly a half-million Jews who otherwise would likely have perished.

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.  The founder of the Zionist movement, Theodor 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 liberal party over a movement that wanted to restrict citizenship rights only to Jews.

Being a Zionist used to mean being active in an explicitly Zionist organization and/or intending to make Aliyah. Nowadays, it seems to mean anyone who supports Israel’s existence.  Simply being a low-octane Zionist of this sort has become problematic for Jews in the radical left today — who often flunk a pro-Palestinian litmus test even if they support full equality for non-Jewish citizens of Israel and the establishment of an independent Palestinian state.

JVP Ignores Complicated Truths

It’s unmistakable that Israel is militarily powerful and often employs its power brutally.  It’s also an exceedingly small, vulnerable country with long exposed boundaries in the size and shape of New Jersey, but with a slightly smaller population.  Accepting such a complicated truth seems difficult for ideologues.

It is morally shortsighted for leftists to either ignore or denigrate the basic need and right of Israeli Jews to be secure in their everyday lives.  A truly progressive analysis would be concerned with the security of both Israelis and Palestinians. If one takes the Palestinian-American scholar Rashid Khalidi seriously in his 1997 book, “Palestinian Identity: The Construction of Modern National Consciousness,” Palestinian-Arab nationality evolved in the early 20th century in tandem with the emergence of what became Jewish-Israeli identity.  Both nationalisms were late comers on the world stage. 

The JVP provides no consideration of the Palestinian-Arab leadership’s violent rejection of the United Nations Partition Plan of 1947, with concerted attacks that began Israel’s War of Independence; over 6,000 Jews were killed and 15,000 wounded (3.5 percent of the Yishuv’s population), leading almost inexorably to the Nakba and exile for over 700,000 Palestinians.  Along with the armies of several Arab states, Palestinian militias attempted to destroy the embryonic Jewish state at birth.  The UN’s Partition Plan (which should have been called a confederation plan) would have created two sovereign states, pledged to protect the ethnic minorities in each, and joined by a common market, single currency and a holy district of Jerusalem and Bethlehem that was claimed by neither.

Nor is there any mention of 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 rightwing governments in 1996 and 2001.  Then, 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 Netanyahu’s return to power in 2009.

The JVP makes no reference to 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 the difficulties inflicted upon this massive influx of impoverished refugees.  They were subject to discrimination, but also arrived in a country still in turmoil from the bloody war that had engulfed it from late 1947 until January 1949, at a rate that soon equaled the existing population, transcending its capacity to comfortably absorb them.  There is no mention of how the vast majority (often the entirety) of these ancient communities were compelled to leave their homes, generally with a total loss of property.  

JVP’s cursory treatment of Zionism is analogous to rightwing Zionists reducing all of Palestinian nationalism to the leadership of Hajj Amin al-Husseini, the infamous Grand Mufti of Jerusalem.  Husseini allied with the Nazis, recruited Balkan Muslims to the SS, and urged genocidal attacks on Jews in radio broadcasts to the Arab world from his sanctuary in Berlin. 

Neither side holds a monopoly on wrongdoing in this sad history.   Exclusively 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 scapegoat Jews for the failures and contradictions of totalitarian regimes.