Jewish Voice for Peace’s (JVP) recently published “Our Approach to Zionism,” a compassionate and timely stand against Zionism, has the potential to break liberal Zionist consensus within the Jewish community when it comes to Israel and widen the discussion around Zionism. In this document, the progressive organization has unapologetically stated its opposition to Zionism, declaring it a dangerous, settler-colonial movement for Jews because it continues to hurt Palestinian life and steal Palestinian land.
Given the ongoing uproar within the Democratic Party conflating criticism of Israel with antisemitism, seen most recently with the backlash from Democrats against Congresswoman Ilhan Omar for challenging U.S. policy in Israel, the timing of this statement couldn’t be better. As the Omar debate shows, the Jewish community is still the gatekeeper on the mainstream consideration of Israel. And a liberal Zionist organization is today the most representative body of Democratic Party opinion on the question: J Street. The JVP statement has the power to encourage more liberal Zionists to extricate themselves from Zionism, thereby breaking up the monolith of Jewish consensus around Israel. If the left can win over some of these liberal Zionists, we have the potential to move U.S. policy toward the principle of equal rights and away from religious nationalism. The JVP document may be just the catalyst needed to help people make that shift.
Published on the JVP site in January, the announcement provides historical context for how Jewish trauma and Zionism are connected–and it does so empathetically. Jewish persecution, according to the statement, namely antisemitism and the Holocaust, created the need for a national movement:
We know that opposing Zionism, or even discussing it, can be painful, can strike at the deepest trauma and greatest fears of many of us. Zionism is a nineteenth-century political ideology that emerged in a moment where Jews were defined as irrevocably outside of a Christian Europe. European antisemitism threatened and ended millions of Jewish lives–in pogroms, in exile, and in the Holocaust.
Jewish trauma is indisputable, the document reads, and clinging to Zionism as a result was understandable within this context of Jewish history. Opposing Zionism, then, can be a difficult and painful process.
Zionist ideology is deeply connected to Jewish identity, the statement explains, and subsequently contributes to the fear of antisemitism within the Jewish community:
Zionist interpretations of history taught us that Jewish people are alone, that to remedy the harms of antisemitism we must think of ourselves as always under attack and that we cannot trust others. It teaches us fear, and that the best response to fear is a bigger gun, a taller wall, a more humiliating checkpoint.
The JVP announcement recognizes these wounds as palpable, but also understands that Jewish trauma, in part, can prevent Zionists from exploring their idealization of Israel. This pain blocks their ability to acknowledge Palestinian history and suffering as alongside their own. As long as we are scared for ourselves, the thinking goes, we will not be concerned about others.
The current split within the Democratic party over Israel shows how volatile and fraught this fear is, of course, as witnessed by elite Democratic leaders going after Congressman Omar for foreign policy views that challenge the party’s unconditional support for Israel. These Democrats believe the mythology that Israel is a helpless, passive victim, incapable of doing wrong, and in need of our undying support. Anyone who says otherwise, well, we’ll just criticize them for being anti-semitic and for hating Israel, and the entire liberal Zionist community will back us up.
Thomas Friedman’s March 6, 2018, New York Times piece, “Ilhan Omar, Aipac and Me,” is a good example of U.S. liberal Zionism’s resistance to a discourse that threatens the status quo when it comes to Israel. Friedman writes that Omar “dislikes Israel, because she does not really believe the Jewish people have a right to an independent state in their ancestral homeland.” Rather than try to engage her position in any way–or try to understand its potential nuances–Friedman dismisses her entirely. He’s committed to maintaining a static liberal Zionist viewpoint, and Omar has simply gone too far beyond the liberal gate.
Friedman also shows his liberal Zionist limitations by calling Omar’s support of Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) as speaking in “code”:
By being specific about the rights of Palestinians to return to their home and not unequivocally committing to a two-state solution, the movement leaves me and many others to believe that B.D.S. is just code for getting rid of the state of Israel.
Though he accuses Omar of speaking in code, Friedman speaks in his own “code”–one that deploys progressive-sounding rhetoric as a mask for liberal quietism. Like a bouncer at a dance club who stands at the door checking IDs, Friedman decides who’s let in to the dance. If they go too far like he feels Omar has, they can’t get into the club.
Unlike Friedman, Peter Beinart, another liberal Zionist, shows it is possible for powerful liberal Zionists to shift to the left. After Omar was elected to Congress, Beinart explained in the Forward why neither BDS nor Omar are antisemitic:
The argument equating BDS with anti-Semitism isn’t new. In the organized American Jewish community, it’s a cliche. Omar’s case offers another opportunity to explain why it’s wrong.
Beinart breaks down the very argument that Friedman upholds, and explains why it’s wrong to conflate BDS with antisemitism. Even though Beinart is still a Zionist, his voice has become an important one in challenging the status quo upheld by liberal Zionists like Friedman, who still equate BDS with hatred of Israel.
But the statement explains that support of the Israeli status quo is no longer a viable response to antisemitism:
Through study and action, through deep relationship with Palestinians fighting for their own liberation, and through our own understanding of Jewish safety and self determination, we have come to see that Zionism was a false and failed answer to the desperately real question many of our ancestors faced of how to protect Jewish lives from murderous antisemitism in Europe.
Zionism is a “false and failed answer” to the real problem of antisemitism, and clinging to this nationalist, colonial ideology has perpetuated a phobia within the Zionist community that allows them to never consider Palestinian history alongside Jewish history.
The new JVP statement points out these limitations inherent in liberal Zionism, asserting that one can be Jewish without being Zionist. Unlike powerful liberal Zionists like Friedman, JVP argues in its statement that we must acknowledge Palestinian history:
We are all the more humbled by the vibrance, resilience, and steadfastness of Palestinian life, culture, and organizing, as it is a deep refusal of a political ideology founded on erasure.
JVP’s document offers a way to think about Israel that is markedly different from mainstream liberal Zionism but is understanding enough that it could invite liberal Zionists to make a shift. Rather than discounting them, I’d argue we need more liberal Zionists to join the left in order to break the Jewish monolith in the U.S. when it comes to Israel. The Jewish community is currently standing at a precipice–such as the current divide over Israel within the democratic party–and it will only continue to become more fractured.
Liberal Zionists might soon have to resolve their liberalism anyway, according to JVP’s director Rebecca Vilkomerson. She believes the current political climate in the U.S. is pushing liberal Zionists to decide where they stand when it comes to Israel.
In a January 30, 2019, interview with Michael Schaeffer Omer-Man for the Israeli news site +972, Vilkomerson says:
Especially among liberals, and liberal Zionists, there is an increasing pressure to choose. There’s a way that this political moment writ large is forcing people to really grapple with what their values are–and being consistent with them.
Liberal Zionists can help grow the movement, Vilkomerson says, and JVP’s Approach to Zionism was written, in part, to invite them in:
To a large extent, the audience that we want to reach are liberal Zionists. There are people who still identify as Zionist, who are uncomfortably Zionist, or who are Zionists but with reservations, and those are the people who I think are moving right now. Some of them are saying ‘I can’t let [Zionism] go and therefore I’m going to throw in with the camp on the right.’ And some people are like, ‘okay, it’s the Zionism that I have to let go of and stick to my values.’
Liberal Zionists will ultimately need to decide if their liberalism in the U.S. will extend to Palestine. JVP–a movement far more progressive than liberal Zionist organizations–is strategically trying to reach the liberal Zionists who previously may not have been open to this discussion. “It’s starting to be seen standard that if you support single-payer healthcare, if you support immigrant rights, and support the fight for $15,” Vilkomerson states, “then you’re also going to support Palestinian rights.”
Above all else, liberal Zionism is committed to protecting what it falsely believes is an Israeli democracy” that is just and fair, but of course it’s not. Israel is a “racist hierarchy with European Jews at the top,” the JVP statement warns:
In Israel, Jewish people of color–from the Arab world, North Africa, and East Africa–have long been subjected to systemic discrimination and violence by the Israeli government. That hierarchy also creates Jewish spaces where Jews of color are marginalized, our identities and commitments questioned & interrogated, and our experiences invalidated. It prevents us from seeing each other–fellow Jews and other fellow human beings–in our full humanity.
The JVP statement describes Israel for what it is–a country committed to “systemic discrimination” towards Jews of Color, breaking apart the mythology that idealizes Israel.
Inviting these Zionists to come to the left might seem like a last resort, and maybe it is. It’s certainly not a very exciting way to be an activist, but I think we need to go there. I’d like to try.
We’ve already seen young liberal Zionists make a shift. Several took on Taglit Birthright last summer. In January, Beinart wrote in the Forward that Birthright should change its focus to include trips to the West Bank to meet with Palestinians if it wants to include liberal Zionists who are moving more to the left. Beinart argues that if “Birthright continues on its current path, fewer and fewer liberal Jews will go.” The JVP statement offers liberal Zionists, like those who walked away from Birthright, an alternative way of thinking–one that encourages a true social justice mode of Judaism that could reach them, “guided by a vision of justice, equality and freedom for all people,” one that acknowledges Palestinian history–but that also acknowledges why it’s so hard to change.
As an anti-Zionist, it’s easy–tempting–to disregard liberal Zionists. It’s maddening to have conversations with them about Israel. I experience this regularly when I talk to my mother about Israel. I used to be a liberal Zionist, too, and I had the same blind spots. I see them in many of my Jewish students at school. They attend protests for healthcare and women’s rights and acknowledge their white privilege and volunteer at homeless shelters and tutor disadvantaged youth and have a sparkle in their eye as they tell me these things, because they believe that they are that progressive. But when Palestine comes up, the shimmer fades, for they are unconsciously trained to scoff and turn away. And then they talk about their upcoming trip to Israel–in between their visits to the homeless shelters in town–and the twinkle in their eye returns.
As a teacher, I am committed to reaching my liberal Zionist students, but I have to do it in stages–I must build on the questions I ask them. If I challenge them outright about Israel’s existence as a colonial state, their response, at first, is usually, “We need Israel because of the Holocaust!” When they respond in this way, I want to give them Ilan Pappe’s 2006 The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine–the book that confirms, with documentation from Israeli archives, that plans to colonize Palestine were in the works long before World War II.
I want to be patient, but it is difficult. If liberal Zionists are going to be able to reconsider their previously held opinions about the romanticized Israel in their mind, the Israel they have been taught can do no wrong, the Israel as passive victim–it will take time. With my students, I must identify the various developmental emotional places they are at and build towards ultimately challenging them on Israel’s entire existence as an imperial, colonial project.
It’s frustrating, of course, when it seems like I’m simply meeting liberal Zionists where they’re at. The urgency of the situation in Palestine demands immediate action. Palestinians continue to be imprisoned, killed, the land continues to be stolen. To approach liberal Zionists with patience can appear like a kind of catering–a pandering, perhaps–to the oppressor. A similar dynamic occurs in the anti-racist circles I’ve been in, too, where patience for white people’s fragility can seem like accommodation for their discomfort. A struggle always exists to balance the sense of urgency with the patience required to help someone make an emotional shift in one’s worldview.
I don’t write this to garner sympathy for a liberal Zionist’s epiphany about Palestine–their delayed and overdue shift in worldview. I write it because their deep love for Israel is a complex pathology that needs to be dismantled systemically and individually. And even though the discourse is shifting, it’s still a difficult and painful thing to realize that you were wrong about everything you once fiercely believed in, that you’ll have to change your worldview in a community that is committed to not changing its opinions, a community that speaks for you without your consent–and to ultimately stand in solidarity with Palestinians in their struggle for self-determination.
A few days before I read the new JVP statement, I was sitting in my classroom before school started chatting with a former student, Joseph, who had recently returned from his first trip to Israel. His cheeks were rosy and he was glowing as he talked about how beautiful Jerusalem was. His family had rented an apartment on AirBnB in David’s Village, the upscale apartment complex adjacent to Mamilla Mall, the outdoor pedestrian area that seamlessly fuses the Old City with West Jerusalem at Jaffa Gate. Joseph is a liberal Zionist, but he doesn’t refer to himself as a Zionist, because his love of Israel is inherently connected to being Jewish, braided together like it was for me when I was his age.
The morning Joseph talked with me before school started, he told me he was feeling pressure from his mother to move to Israel. “My mom is pushing me to go to Israel for college so she can retire there,” Joseph confided in me. Then the bell rang, and he left for geometry class. It will be difficult for Joseph if he is to ever separate his Judaism from Zionism, for it could result, on a personal level, in being alienated from his family, friends, and community. But I’m hopeful that the JVP statement could help him to understand why he thinks a certain way, and to help him make the shift. “The Zionism that took hold and stands today is a settler-colonial movement, establishing an apartheid state where Jews have more rights than others,” the statement declares. “Our own history teaches us how dangerous this can be.”
The JVP document could encourage people like Joseph who could learn that his love for Israel has been constructed on a myth–on an entire people who were already there. It gives him the opportunity to see that room exists to be Jewish and to oppose Zionism. The end of the JVP statement emphasizes that this is possible. “Rather than accept the inevitability of occupation and dispossession,” it states, “we choose a different path.”