by Yakov M. Rabkin
Quite a few Jews feel offended when confronted with criticism of Israel. But when someone denounces Zionism and the Zionist nature of the Israeli state they cry antisemitism. Jewish students are particularly affected as they cannot separate Zionism from the Jewish identity the way it has been taught to them. This particular identity is centered on political support for the state of Israel, and they see advocacy for Israel, a designated course in the curriculum of many Jewish schools, as a key part of being Jewish. Leaving the bubble of Jewish schools for university campuses can be truly traumatic.
Teaching the centrality of Israel, a policy applied in most non-ultra-Orthodox Jewish schools for several decades has borne fruit. Their graduates feel that criticizing Israel’s treatment of Palestinians are manifestations of antisemitism. Their feelings are genuine. They need not be considered only as attempts at conscious manipulation of antisemitism for political purposes.
In many synagogues, except ultra-Orthodox ones, support for Israel has become part and parcel of a liturgy. One senses the congregants’ true enthusiasm as they stand up to chant the blessing for the state of Israel and its armed forces, an enthusiasm that tends to be missing in the traditionally important parts of the communal prayer such as the silent prayer amida. Many Jews have simply not noticed that their ageless religious and ethnic identity has morphed into a new political one. They support Israel financially, attend concerts by Israeli singers, and otherwise “defend Israel”. Some even encourage their children to serve in the Israeli army. The existence of a State boasting a national flag, a powerful army and a prosperous economy confers pride and a sense of involvement in something bigger than private life.
“Vicarious Israelism” has replaced the traditional Jewish identity, a shift that has been all the easier given the less demanding nature of the new identity. As traditional Jewish identity is founded upon obedience to the Torah and to the precepts that it articulates; it impinges both on the private domain, such as food and intimate relations, and public conduct, such as non-use of automobiles on the Sabbath or dressing in a modest manner. At the same time, “Israelism” carries with it no particular obligation, though it does impart a sense of belonging. It breaks cleanly with the traditional ways of being Jewish, including compassion toward the poor and the downtrodden. Israel has come to embody military power, political clout, and material success. The Israeli intellectual Boaz Evron asserts that “moral identification with power politics is equivalent to idolatry” while the American theologian Marc Ellis considers that this same identification constitutes a “disaster” and reminds his readers that “collective pride implies collective guilt.”
Today the idea of Jews opposing Zionism and Israel appears an oxymoron to quite a few people. Some, however, remember that Zionism, a political movement, which emerged at the end of the 19th century in Europe, was opposed by the vast majority of Jews, both religious and assimilated. The Balfour Declaration, which provided Britain’s support for Zionism, was bitterly denounced as antisemitic by Edwin Montagu, the only Jewish member of the British cabinet. When my book on Jewish opposition to Zionism appeared first in French and then in more than a dozen languages, it was only the Hebrew publisher in Israel that subtitled it “the story of a continuing struggle.” Indeed, most Israelis are aware that Jews, including many ultra-Orthodox residents of Jerusalem, continue to reject Zionism, refuse to enroll in Israel’s armed forces, with deeply religious conscientious objectors serving time in Israeli military prisons. This is rarely mentioned, let alone taught, in Jewish schools.
Just as many Jews – and many more Evangelical Christians – ardently support Israel, quite a few Jews oppose Israel and stand by the Palestinians. Jews play a prominent role in the campaign for boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) aiming to soften Israel’s policy towards the Palestinians. Nothing divides the Jews more than the question of Israel.
When identity politics supplants politics of ideas, it is easy to mistake political opposition for an ethnic or religious slur. It is significant that those who impute antisemitism to pro-Palestinian movements on the campuses, often express admiration for the quality of Jewish life at their universities. Apparently, nobody objects to their practice of Judaism and celebration of Jewish culture. It is their political views and actions that provoke rejection. Our society is politically diverse. It is important to keep it this way, telling apart ethnic and religious bigotry from political disagreement. To do so we must beware the diligently cultivated confusion between Judaism and Zionism.
The author is Professor of History at the Université de Montréal and a founding member of Canada’s Independent Jewish Voices; his recent books are A Threat from Within: A Century of Jewish Opposition to Zionism (Zed/Palgrave-Macmillan) and What is Modern Israel? (Pluto/University of Chicago Press).