My journey away from Zionism

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A friend who had read a number of my recent pieces on Israeli intolerance sent me a note the other day asking me whether Israel was ever good in my eyes, even as a child, when it changed, and why I left the place. These questions are all about my relationship with Zionism, a very long relationship indeed, and it seemed a good time to reflect on that experience.

Although I have written some things in that area before, as in this article from last year, I nonetheless thought that it was indeed time to write a more comprehensive article, relating more deeply to my personal experience, particularly vis-á-vis Israeli society, especially the society I come out from – the kibbutz society. 

Zionism is Israel’s fundamentalist religion’

I come from the typical secular socialist kibbutz (lived there for the first 20 year of my life), and most of my siblings are living there. That is a predominantly leftist Israeli-Jewish society, historically representative of Zionist socialism. It is a society that you could regard as ‘liberal-Zionist’. On the one hand, there is that ‘leftist’ element, and that can have various shades, but it’s rare to find a rightist in that society. On the other hand, the Zionist issue is generally not even to be questioned. Here we approach the first critical notion, concerning Zionism, which is the one that is a clear breaking point between me and my family, as well as most of Israeli society. As Haaretz journalist Gideon Levy recently succinctly summarized, “Zionism is Israel’s fundamentalist religion, and as in any religion, its denial is prohibited. In Israel, ‘non-Zionist’ or ‘anti-Zionist’ aren’t insults, they are social expulsion orders.”

I have clearly crossed that red line, and I know all too well what Levy is saying. I know it viscerally.

It’s not that my family won’t talk to me or anything – it’s that there is a clear ‘understanding’, that any discussion of ‘politics’ must steer away from relating to Zionism, or be avoided altogether – in order to keep the family together, as it were. My articles on Mondoweiss and elsewhere regarding Israel and politics are just not discussed, not mentioned.

The mask of liberalism and democracy

The thing with ‘leftist Zionism’ or ‘liberal Zionism’ is, that it’s often not so leftist and not so liberal – and those same leftists and liberals are often enraged when this is pointed out to them. With the rightists, it can be different, they could be proud of their Zionist racism: Less than two months ago, Israeli journalist David Sheen posted photos and videos from Prime Minister Netanyahu and Culture Miri Regev’s visit to southern Tel-Aviv, when they were “on a mission to give back south Tel Aviv to the Israeli residents” as Netanyahu said (“giving it back” meaning taking it away from the African refugees who supposedly “took it” from them). In Sheen’s posting on Facebook, May Golan, a well-known rightist political activist, television commentator and Knesset candidate, can be seen saying “I am proud to be racist”.

But this ‘pride’ is not something that leftist or ‘liberal’ Zionists share – they don’t generally want to be known as racists. And that’s why it enrages them when Zionism is called out as racist. It is worth mentioning, that when I say ‘liberal-Zionist’, that is, itself, a term that encompasses much more than the left. It is a general term that refers to those Zionists who retain the mask of liberalism and democracy (represented in the state’s self-notion as ‘Jewish and democratic’). So ‘liberal Zionist’ represents most Zionists, most Israeli Jews. It is only the few who boast their racism like May Golan. Thus, my family, my old kibbutz society, that’s a society that is on the left of that ‘liberal Zionism’.

But then when you look at the views espoused within this leftist Zionism, it can be downright shocking sometimes. I have mentioned Israeli historian Benny Morris, a self-proclaimed ‘leftist’, several times in the past. He happens to come from a neighbor kibbutz, 5 minutes’ walk from the one I grew up in. I have mentioned how he justified ethnic cleansing (“There are circumstances in history that justify ethnic cleansing”);  that he thought Ben Gurion didn’t go far enough in 1948 (“If he was already engaged in expulsion, maybe he should have done a complete job”); and that he also justified genocide (“even the great American democracy could not have been created without the annihilation of the Indians”).   

Benny Morris is shocking precisely because he is supposedly meant to represent this leftist, liberal Zionism – but he drops the masks. Morris was aware of this when he told those things to Ari Shavit in 2004, he even said it himself: “I know that this stuns the Arabs and the liberals and the politically correct types”, he said after the sentence about Ben-Gurion’s ‘too limited’ expulsion.

So, there is that typical caution amongst liberal Zionists to not drop all ‘liberal’ masks, and Morris is a rather rare exception here. But whilst liberal Zionists, and certainly the leftists amongst them, would often try to keep a certain distance from outright overt fascism and genocidal advocacy (such as Morris’s), they have a rather equal and opposite concern, to protect Zionism. And that’s where the big clash comes with those who happen to not agree at all with basic Zionist notions, or oppose them outright. These are the non-Zionists or anti-Zionists that Gideon Levy is referring to above, those who are basically social outcasts in Israeli society today.

My departure from Zionism

But how do you get to that point, to being opposed to Zionism? Philip Weiss had asked me, “when did it start to change?” As I had mentioned in my earlier writing my story is not really that dramatic, I think. My leaving Israel to Denmark in 1995 was not politically motivated and I had very little critical political awareness then. My turning was about a decade ago, around 2007. I had begun to actually meet Palestinians and hear their stories, and at that point I read Ilan Pappe’s The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine (which was released a year earlier, 2006). That book, a milestone in itself, was also a milestone for me in terms of waking me up to a reality which I had been comfortably shielded from by the Zionist narrative which I had been inculcated with from birth. From that point, I read a myriad of critical historical appraisals, which starkly contrasted the Zionist narrative, and which came to shed a shockingly real light upon what the Zionist narrative conveniently marginalized as “the Palestinian narrative”. It occurred to me, that Winston Churchill’s quip at the House of Commons in 1948 (“For my part, I consider that it will be found much better by all Parties to leave the past to history, especially as I propose to write that history”), was exactly the reason that the Palestinian history had been neglected and nearly erased in my Zionist upbringing – because it was us – the victors – who were writing it.

So that’s where a critical process began in me, in earnest – from 2007. And I came to build up an understanding of Zionism which was much less forgiving that the apologetic ethos of “self-defense” I was brought up with, and which kept informing my notions of ‘reality’ vis-á-vis Palestinians. My new historical awareness was often downright condemning, and it brought me to think differently about what I was seeing currently. If the roots of a conflict show you that it’s not really a conflict but rather a case of colonial aggression, then you have to think differently about its historical extension into the present. Back to Morris – he is undoubtedly a scholar that has unearthed much of those horrors that have been kept classified and hidden, as they were an uncomfortable challenge to the ‘righteous’ Zionist narrative. But we can see, that although he saw those uncomfortable truths, perhaps as clearly as I did, he chose another moral path. And you have to choose, once you face that reality – do you support ethnic cleansing, or not? That is the essential question that remains, as an insurmountable moral obstacle, for those who walk this path. Morris obviously took the Zionist path, and justified it. The logical extension of it is that once you’ve done that, you have to continue to do it – because the current state of Israel is an extension of that original massive 1948 ethnic cleansing, with its subsequent 1967 ethnic cleansings, and on to present-day ethnic cleansings which occur even in what is called ‘Israel proper’, targeting Israeli citizens who are non-Jewish.

So it’s not really that Israel has changed that much, in its essential Zionist character, since I was a kid growing up in that kibbutz. In direct answer to my friend’s mentioned question about “whether Israel was ever good in my eyes, even as a child”, I would say yes, I thought it was awesome, as a child, and also as a young adult. I loved the whole Zionist ethos, I loved the whole militarism thing. But it was only because I was brainwashed. You can’t really expect much dissent from people who were brainwashed from when they were kids, especially not when they still are kids. You can hope that as adults they may develop some critical angles, but really, only few do so. Although changes have been occurring in Israel, in terms of more racist laws and more overt fascism, they are, in my view, not as dramatic as the left would have them be. The drama often serves the Zionist left in order to chide the right as being wrong. This also strengthens the notion of ‘Zionist pluralism’ as well as the concept of a ‘democratic society’. But two wrongs don’t make a right. The Israeli mainstream left also has a natural aversion to being “Arab lovers”, as left leader Isaac Herzog had recently put it. In the bigger scheme, and from the Palestinians’ perspective, the differences between Zionist left and right have meant precious little for their reality. Both have ethnically cleansed them, both continued to colonize them. Some had prettier faces, like ‘centrist liberal’ lawmaker Yair Lapid, some less. But all in all, Zionism has been a horror for Palestinians.

Yet think – what does this departure from Zionism really mean in more practical terms? It means, that one is not in rejection of a democratic, secular state, a state that is not a “Jewish state”, but that accepts Jews as Jews, as it allows religious freedom, as it separates religion from state. That’s all. For me today, it seems so natural. But for the Zionist mind, this is anathema – it is simply heresy. Thus, like Gideon Levy wrote, I come out from, and against, “Israel’s fundamentalist religion” – Zionism. And it’s really like a cult. At best, I am tolerated, by some – as an outcast that one needs to keep a certain distance from. Those Israelis who accept me fully are but few, and they are basically the same social outcasts themselves.  

So here I am, telling about what departing from Zionism has meant for me. I didn’t go into the many details of the many insults, the many exclusions – I don’t want to burden with it, and I don’t think it’s necessary. I am also wary about not making this too personally overwhelming – particularly because I am aware, that the greater exclusion, the much greater, immeasurably greater, suffering, is that of the Palestinians. Their suffering from Zionism is a much more real and tangible one. After all, I am still, in many ways, one of the privileged ones, because I’m a Jewish Israeli. It would have been very different if I was a non-Jewish Israeli, or if I was a non-Israeli Palestinian, either under Israeli occupation or expelled from its territorial control. If the exclusion I speak of as a non-Zionist Jewish Israeli is societal, the exclusion Palestinians experience is national.

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Very good explanations of all points touched upon. Enjoy your music!

Good article Jonathan !!

I loved the whole Zionist ethos, I loved the whole militarism thing. But it was only because I was brainwashed. You can’t really expect much dissent from people who were brainwashed from when they were kids, especially not when they still are kids. This says it all, for most of… Read more »

Mr. Ofir,

Thanks for taking us on your personal journey. May it inspire others who were and are similarly brainwashed into thinking that zionism is a force for good or has any redeeming qualities.

awakening the racist

takes time

waiting for that epiphany

the ‘oh my god

what a fool I’ve been’