Living in Israel in my early 20s, raised among Holocaust survivors, the product of Hebrew school, leader of the Jewish Student Union at my University, I had come to fully embrace the logic of Zionism. Thirty years later, it's clear the ideology has to end
There was that first day in Jerusalem, sitting on that stone wall in the heart of the Old City, looking down at the alleyway below, and seeing that young Palestinian boy pushing a cart full of freshly baked bread, only to be suddenly ambushed—pelted by rocks from a yelling group of kippa-wearing Jewish kids who taunted and threatened him as he scurried as fast as he could towards his destination, in fear.
There was that massive mob of at least a thousand Jews—many from Brooklyn—gathered in my neighborhood of Rehavia, shouting in unison as loud as they could: “Mavat L’Aravim! Mavat L’Aravim!” (Kill all Arabs! Kill all Arabs!)
And when I asked some of them if they also meant that Arab children should be killed—thinking naïvely that such a question might shame them into recognizing the wickedness of the chant—they menacingly replied, “An Arab child today is a terrorist tomorrow.”
There was the well-meaning film professor at Hebrew University who explained that not all propaganda is intrinsically pernicious or wrong—that, Zionist propaganda about Israel, for example, was factual and sound. And her colleague, the well-meaning history professor who explained that while most nationalisms are invented, constructed nonsense, Jewish nationalism is actually based upon purely legitimate claims. And all of the Jewish students—mostly from the US—who listened to these professors without batting an eye.
There were the Palestinian workers at the kibbutz who had to wake up at three a.m. and stand in long lines just to pick fruit in an orchard owned by Jewish socialists—the same Jewish socialists who scolded me when I let Mustafa drive my tractor: “We don’t let them do that.”
There was the manila envelope I kept—out of sheer moral indignation—in which I would stuff clippings from the newspaper every time a Palestinian child was shot or killed by Israeli guns, an envelope that just kept getting thicker and thicker and thicker.
This was all some 30 years ago. Since then, Israel has only become more repressive and inhumane, seizing more land illegally, and killing, arresting, and torturing more men, women, and children. But back then, I was a Zionist in my early 20s, living in Israel—the nearly inevitable development of my Jewish identity up to that point. I had been raised among Holocaust survivors, gone to Hebrew school and Yiddish school, was bar mitzvah’d, attended and worked at Jewish summer camps, led the Jewish Awareness club at my high school, led the Jewish Student Union at my University, and had come to fully embrace the logic of Zionism: that the Jewish people, like all peoples, have a right to self-determination.
Dependent on the whims of others—the roots of Zionism
To understand the existential heart of Zionism, the Evian Conference is as good a place to start as any. In July of 1938, delegates from 32 countries met in a lovely spa town in France to discuss what to do about Germany’s intention to rid itself of its Jews. For nine days—in between swimming, dancing, and supping—the good participants expressed sympathy for the poor Jews who were trying to flee the Nazi regime. But aside from the Dominican Republic, none of them were willing to take in any Jews as refugees. The fate of Europe’s Jews was thus decided by non-Jewish powers, who handily sealed it: the Jews would be shot in the woods, burned in large pits, suffocated in gas chambers by the millions.
The Evian Conference showed, in explicit relief, what Jewish existence was: utterly dependent upon the whims of others. Such had been the precarious situation for some two thousand years, during which time Jewish diaspora communities lived as distinct and tiny minorities in various lands that tolerated them, exploited them, expelled them, attacked them, blood-libeled them, pogromized them, or exterminated them en masse. Jewish life everywhere was characterized by varying degrees of unequal rights, denied citizenship, perpetual othering, ghettoization, and existential vulnerability.
Zionism was forged amidst just such vicious anti-Semitism, which was religiously-embedded, culturally pervasive, and politically potent. The visionary architects of Zionism rightly believed that Jewish life must be in Jewish hands. Jews, one of the world’s most hated minorities, must be able to determine their own fate and no longer rely on the good or bad will of others. The only way for any people to be freely self-determined is to be able to decide what laws they themselves wish to live by and be able to defend themselves against those who want to kill them, and the only way to accomplish such ends is to have a country of one’s own. Sure, in principle, all countries are arbitrary, artificial constructions that only divide humanity. But so long as they are the only accepted geopolitical formations that humans use to establish and ensure collective self-determinization, then a country is what a people needs in order to be free from oppression.
And where should Jews create such a country? In their ancient homeland, of course. Hence Zionism.
The obvious problem: the land that the Zionists decided to make their own was not empty, as many of their early ideologues had lied. It was inhabited by people who, in the face of encroaching Zionist success, would come to see themselves as Palestinians. They, too, have a right to self-determination, a right which Israel goes to great lengths to deny and destroy.
In the thirty years since I lived in Israel, despite my admiration of much of Israeli society, and despite the friends I have who live there, I have come to embrace post-Zionism.
The necessity of post-Zionism
Post-Zionism is defined by what it is as well as what it is not.
Let me start with the latter: post-Zionism is not anti-Zionism.
Anti-Zionism explicitly denies the right of the Jewish people to self-determination, advocating that Jews to go back to being existentially dependent on others, back to being a powerless minority, back to singing in the shtetl. Anti-Zionism urges Jews to learn nothing from two thousand years of persecution, and merely hope for the best moving forward. No, that won’t do. Not after Treblinka and Sobibor. Indeed, unless all peoples everywhere—Palestinians, Kurds, Tibetans, Armenians, Vietnamese, Japanese, Icelanders, Greeks, Ukrainians, Tatars, Irish, Somalis, Ethiopians, Haitians, the Navaho—renounce their right to national self-determination, and until all countries the globe over melt away into a unified global cosmopolitanism, then demanding that Jews—and only Jews—give up their own national rights and aspirations is an obvious manifestation of Jew-hatred.
So, what then is post-Zionism? It is an orientation that recognizes Zionism as a goal fulfilled when the modern State of Israel was created and sees the ongoing ideology of Zionism as mostly harmful. It places universal ethical imperatives in general—and Jewish ethical imperatives, specifically—above nationalistic tribalism and religious bigotry. It favors human rights over Jewish supremacy; it supports democracy over Israeli apartheid; it focuses on the ongoing suffering of the Palestinian people, unabashedly crying out against the Israeli perpetrators of ongoing occupation. It demands that Israel adhere to all articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; it condemns the growing bigotry of Israeli culture and politics and advocates for all nonviolent efforts to stop Israel’s systematic human rights violations of the Palestinian people; it supports the boycotting of, sanctioning of, and divesting from Israel until it grants Palestinians the same rights it reserves for itself. It specifically calls on Jewish federations in the US, Canada, France, and elsewhere to end their uncritical, unwavering support of Israel; it rejects the vile notion that a magical deity plays favorites with certain peoples, granting some vast parcels of land but not others; it demands that Israel dismantle its apartheid system that establishes different laws, rights, and privileges for different people, depending on their religion or ethnicity; it questions the logic, feasibility, and justice of the conferring of citizenship based solely on religiosity or ethnicity; it debunks self-serving myths of Zionism that ignore the crimes it committed against the Palestinian people. It clings to the ideal that when two peoples claim the same land, the only just solution is to share it equitably and divide it fairly; it is about demanding that Israel treat others the way it would want its own citizens to be treated, and until it does, deserves neither our sympathy nor support.
In practical terms, post-Zionism yearns for Israel to evolve into a multi-ethnic and multi-religious nation in which no single people is dominant. But if such a possibility isn’t attainable, then a true two-state solution is necessary, one that allows neither Israel nor Palestine to dominate.
Of course, those Palestinians who want to eliminate all Israelis and don’t support a future of co-existence are also a vicious part of the problem. The fact that Israel unilaterally withdrew from Gaza in 2005, and yet instead of subsequently developing Gaza into a model of peaceful, prosperous, and democratic Palestinian civilization, a religiously fanatical, despotic regime emerged that exploits international aid, uses human shields, launches rockets at Jewish civilian targets, and makes “Death to Israel” its reigning policy, does not bode well. Such violent, intolerant elements of Palestinian society only help justify Zionist intransigency.
Despite such troubling Palestinian elements, the reality is that Israel is — by far — the dominant power in the region. And every day, Israel entrenches its apartheid, supported largely by US tax dollars, Evangelical Christians, and Zionist Jews. It builds more illegal settlements in the West Bank, represses more Palestinian people with military occupation, and allows more Jewish lynch mobs to terrorize Palestinian villages with impunity. It denies more Palestinians housing, water, and farming rights, as well as due process. It befriends more Jew-hating dictators and demagogues, yearns evermore for Trump’s return, passes more racist laws, enacts more collective punishment, and increasingly demonizes those who speak out against injustice.
But speak out we must. To do so is to be proudly, ethically post-Zionist.
Over 2,000 years ago, the legendary Rabbi Hillel is believed to have posed the following inter-related existential questions:
If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
If I am only for myself, what am I?
The answer to the first question—If I am not for myself, who will be for me?—is, of course: no one. Zionism heeded well that warning, insisting that Jews need to take their fate into their own hands—by any means necessary.
The answer to the second question—if I am only for myself, what am I?—is also quite clear: a monster; a self-consumed entity without empathy, without compassion, without morality, without fairness, without justice.
It is that monster that post-Zionism recognizes in the current state of Israel and yearns to rein in.
As to the last question, again the answer is obvious: human rights deferred are human rights denied. To tarry on that front is not acceptable, as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. taught us in his letter from that jail in Birmingham.
Fortunately, the younger among us are already trending towards post-Zionism. A recent Gallup poll reports that, over the course of the last ten years, “an age gap has emerged, with net sympathy for Israel declining more sharply among younger than older adults.”
This progressive movement is especially encouraging among younger American Jews; according to a recent Pew survey, while 44% of American Jews over age 65 strongly oppose the BDS movement, only 27% of American Jews in their 20s express such opposition. Not surprisingly, secular Jews are more critical of Israel than religious Jews.
For those of us who embrace secular humanistic values such as empathy, compassion, fairness, justice, and democracy, post-Zionism is an essential part of the journey toward making this world a better, more humane place.
Mentshlekhkayt is simply impossible without it.