Anti-Zionism is Perfectly Mundane
which doesn't mean that it's right
A common theme here is that the left seems to effortlessly capture territory when it comes to culture, language, and discourse, but produces very little tangible change. Usually I’m talking about, like, putting Beyoncé on the $20 bill while prisons make Black people handle depleted uranium or whatever, but perhaps Israel is the better example. The discursive space has opened up massively in my adult lifetime, and Palestinians have a level of visibility now I wouldn’t have thought possible. But the political conditions that actually matter in the conflict have only gotten worse.
Still, I think the progress in America has been real. In particular, the mass disillusionment with Israel that’s grown among young American Jews strikes me as a genuinely significant development. We must always worry about selection bias - for various reasons, the type of young Jews who shun the Jewish state are more prominent in media and online, and it would be easy to overstate their numbers. No doubt they are largely drawn from secular Jewish families who weren’t exactly in the habit of saying the Prayer for the State of Israel in the first place. But even still, in elite circles of American life the odds that any given Jewish person you meet will be a committed defender of Israel has markedly declined. And it’s not just a staid political position, either; in my experience the sense of alienation that many young liberal and leftist Jews feel is visceral and profound. It’s just my particular experience, of course. But so many I know feel not just that Israel’s reactionary politics and frightening extremists are contrary to their most basic values, but also that they were lied to, that the Birthright trips and “never again”s were used to sell them on a vision of a country that doesn’t exist. This type of youthful betrayal is formative. It lasts.
Anti-Zionism remains a third rail. Very many people continue to believe that the term is synonymous with anti-Semitism. Anti-Zionism was quite ordinary within worldwide Jewry for most of the people’s history; King David died 700 years before anyone hung a star in his name, you know. But we now live in a world where there are exquisite sensitivities in this area, which I don’t resent. That sensitivity is one more consequence of Dachau. Well, I’m afraid I have to be insensitive and say that I am an anti-Zionist, and the reasons are not raving Jew-hatred or even commitment to the Palestinian cause. My reasons for opposing the Zionist project are my objection to ethnonationalism and theocracy, and my observation that those conditions have created the unique misery, the unique tragedy, of Israel and Palestine. There is nothing remotely unusual about believing that nation-states should not have fundamental ethnic or religious characters; this stance stems from the most basic principles of liberal democracy. And I can’t imagine a better demonstration of why those principles exist than the slow-motion car crash in Palestine.
Strangely my commitment to anti-Zionism also stems in part from my belief in the potential of the people who undertook the Zionist project. It’s true that I spend more time worrying about the negative consequences of the Jewish state of Israel than I do about the Islamic state of Iran because my country massively subsidizes the former and opposes the latter. But I also think that Israel must be pressured because there is still a chance for progress. I hate the Saudi Arabian government even more than I hate the government of Israel. But I see no hope for anything resembling democratic reform there; either the house of Saud will fall or it won’t, and until it does no amount of political pressure will matter. And for all of the deepening ethnic hatred within Israel, and the bunker mentality that has developed as international pressure has increased, perhaps there’s still a chance for equality.
Of course, the reflexive rejection of anti-Zionism often stems from a very reasonable place: the fear that it’s synonymous with pushing Israeli Jews into the sea, with the destruction of the modern state of Israel instead of its transformation. There are almost four millennia of history that explain that fear. But Zionism is a political project, and anti-Zionism has political targets, not human ones. As I’ve said many times, a righteous project of anti-Zionism seeks not to harm the living conditions of a single Israeli Jew, but rather to establish total political, social, and legal equality between all people living between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River, whether Arab, Jew, or other. More than the IDF, more than the ultra-orthodox settlers, more than AIPAC and the American political unanimity in support of Israel, more than the Zionist project itself, it is that assumption that prevents peace - the assumption that the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is zero sum, that the ascension of Palestinians means the fall of the Jews. But a shared world is possible.
I am not in the habit of giving advice to Zionists, and they are certainly not in the habit of listening to me. But I will give them some anyway. In a country full of passionate debates, in a culture with one civil war after another, Israel has still always been discussed in a heightened register. As both sides agree when convenient, Israel is special. My sincere impression is that this heightened sense of danger and watch-what-you-say culture regarding Israel now does more harm to Israel’s public perception than good. The structures that have arisen to shield the country from public scrutiny, yes AIPAC and the ADL, yes the craven pandering of almost every sitting member of Congress, but also simply the ubiquitous sense that to criticize Israel is to risk it all… they might be temporarily convenient. But this condition has famously contributed to a situation where anodyne criticism is represented as conspiratorial bigotry - again, perhaps convenient in the moment, but in the long run rendering the basic operation of mundane advocacy impossible. More, it suggests to those impressionable youth the right-wing Zionists would like to recruit that Israel’s reality cannot be defended in normal terms. It looks like Israel’s defenders are cheating, that Israel has something to hide. Which of course it does. My advice, self-interested but sincere, is for Israel’s defenders to commit to détente, to participate in a drawdown of tensions that will inevitably invite more unqualified criticism but which is necessary to produce the discursive conditions from which a mutually beneficial future might emerge.
In 2015 Tablet named a type of anti-Semitism after me, refusing to link to the post on my blog that had invited that accusation. (That piece was lost along with almost all of my other posts due to a malware injection.) I think today it would not be published, perhaps not because of a change in attitude but because there are simply too many incoming threats to Israel’s reputation to spend any time worrying about me. The Iron Dome might be impenetrable. But Israel’s reputation no longer is. The rockets are still ineffectual, but lately it seems that they’re coming from every direction. And while I sympathize with some committed friends of the actually-existing Israeli state, who are feeling besieged even as the country enjoys immense security and prosperity compared to so many others, ultimately they must get comfortable with arguing about this issue the way the rest of us have to argue about everything else - without a safety net, without the support of the refs. Harsh criticism of Israel is here to stay. Whether this ever leads to meaningful reform is anyone’s guess. In my lifetime, it’s hard to imagine equality in Israel-Palestine. In the long run? Who can say.
Perhaps they’ll name the new country Canaan.