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Conflating Zionism and Judaism leaves Jewish students exposed

‘Israelism’ has replaced traditional Jewish identity, making it difficult for Jewish students to distinguish between divergent political views and attacks on their identities.

By Yakov M. Rabkin

Young Jews participating in the Taglit Birthright program at an event held at the International Conference Center in Jerusalem. (Marc Israel Sellem/Flash90)

Young Jews participating in the Taglit Birthright program at an event held at the International Conference Center in Jerusalem. January 4, 2012. (Marc Israel Sellem/Flash90)

It is no secret that young Jews often find it difficult to separate Zionism from the Jewish identity as it has been taught to them. Their identity is often centered on political support for the State of Israel, and they see advocacy for Israel — a special course in the curriculum of many private Jewish schools — as a key part of being Jewish. Leaving the protective bubble of Jewish day schools for university campuses, therefore, can be traumatic.

Teaching the centrality of Israel, a policy that has been applied in most non-ultra-Orthodox Jewish schools for decades, has borne fruit. Graduates often feel that criticizing Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians is a manifestation of anti-Semitism. Those feelings are genuine, and need not be simplified into attempts at conscious manipulation of anti-Semitism for political purposes.

In many synagogues, support for Israel has entered liturgy. The congregants’ enthusiasm is palpable when they chant the blessing for the State of Israel and its armed forces, enthusiasm that seems missing in the traditionally central parts of the communal service such as the silent amida prayer. Many Jews have simply not noticed that their traditional religious and ethnic identity has morphed into a new political one. They support Israel financially, attend concerts by Israeli singers, and 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.

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This 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. Since traditional Jewish identity is founded upon obedience to the Torah and to the precepts that it imposes, it impinges both on the private domain, such as food and intimate relations, and public conduct, including strict requirements of ethical behavior. Judaism articulates hundreds of ritual and moral duties. At the same time, Israelism carries with it no particular morality, no prohibition against oppressing the powerless, that the Torah repeatedly articulates. It breaks cleanly with the traditional ways of being Jewish.

Israel has come to embody military power, political clout and material success. At the same time, it raises serious moral concerns. The Israeli intellectual Boaz Evron asserts that “moral identification with power politics is equivalent to idolatry,”[1] while American theologian Marc Ellis considers that this same identification constitutes a “disaster” and reminds his readers that “collective pride implies collective guilt.”[2]

The idea of Jews opposing Zionism and Israel may appear as an oxymoron today. Some, however, remember that Zionism, a political movement, which emerged at the end of the 19th century in Europe, was opposed at the time by the vast majority of Jews — both religious and assimilated. The Balfour Declaration, which provided Britain’s support for Zionism, was bitterly denounced as anti-Semitic by Edwin Montagu, the only Jewish member of the British cabinet. Zionists, just as anti-Semites, postulated that Jews did not belong to the countries of their birth. Both disdained Diaspora Jews and found them degenerate, attributing to them many a negative stereotype. Theodor Herzl was well aware of this fact, confiding in his diary: “The anti-Semites will become our most dependable friends, the anti-Semitic countries our allies.”

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 who 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 and refuse to enlist in Israel’s armed forces, for which many serve time in military prison. 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 denounce Israel or its policies and support 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 the politics of ideas, it is easy to mistake political opposition for discrimination. It is significant that those who impute anti-Semitism to pro-Palestinian movements on campuses often express admiration for the quality of Jewish life at their universities. Apparently, nobody prevents them from practicing Judaism and celebrating Jewish culture; it is their political views and actions that provoke rejection. Our society is politically diverse, and it is important to keep it this way — differentiating ethnic and religious bigotry from political disagreement. To do so, we must beware the diligently cultivated conflation between Judaism and Zionism.

Yakov M. Rabkin 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).

[1] Boaz Evron, Jewish State or Israeli Nation, Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1995, p. 253

[2] Marc Ellis, O Jerusalem: The Contested Future of the Jewish Covenant, Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 1999, p. 52

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    COMMENTS

    1. Yaron Buki

      Hum, I spend my whole day studying Judaism, and I haven’t found a complete truth to what you wrote. You have taken topics and inserted it into your political would view. For example if we define Zionism as “the national movement for the return of the Jewish people to their homeland and the resumption of Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel.” Jews of all shades, historicly, have been praying for that since 400bce, 3 times a day. In the end I believe you are puffing up your world view and not basing it on reality.

      Reply to Comment
      • JNN

        “Jews of all shades, historicly, have been praying for that since 400bce, 3 times a day.”

        Yes, praying that the Messiah comes and takes us back to a Torah observant life on the land. That’s not what Zionism is. Zionism says forget the Torah, forget the Messiah, forget God. But aren’t sins far less that those the reason we were tossed off of the land?

        Reply to Comment
        • JeffB

          @JNN

          The messiah is a liberating king who takes his people out of exile and gives them back Israel. Seems to me we got that in Ben-Gurion.

          Reply to Comment
    2. Eric Walberg

      >When identity politics supplants the politics of ideas, it is easy to mistake political opposition for discrimination.

      nice credo. it works for all identity politics. the tragedy of the middle east is buried on p26, and our headlines are littered with sex scandals and gender identity politics, even as imperialism and capitalism continue to destroy whatever fabric is left of society. is it a kind of stockholm syndrome or mainstream society as a collective ostrich?

      Reply to Comment
    3. David

      Wake up and smell the coffee!! Ever increasing numbers of people around the world, including Jews, especially youth, are rightfully disgusted with and enraged at Israel. No surprise!! The handwriting is on the wall!!

      Reply to Comment
    4. JulesFe

      Zionism is a movement that maintains the right of the Jewish people to live as a free people in it’s historic homeland.
      Anti-Zionism denies the right of Israel to exist. When a person, in the same breath, supports the rights of all peoples to self determination and denies the right of Israel to exist he is an anti-Semite, even if he is a Jew.

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        @JulesFe: What you write is confused. The right of a people to live as a free people in it’s historic homeland is not the right to have an ethnocratic state that subjugates other people living in that land and ethnically cleanses other people from that land. “Jewish homeland” and “Jewish state” connote vastly different meanings. Opposing the right wing Jewish nationalist project of occupation and subjugation is not anti-Semitic and it is not “anti-Zionist” and it does not deny Israel “the right to exist.” What you have written is a pile up of falsely conflated ideas and historical misconstruals.

        Reply to Comment
      • JeffB

        @JulesFe

        Exactly. Israel has decided to go 51st in the list. When France decides to stop being French, China decides to stop being Chinese and Malaysia decides to stop being Malaysian Israel will stop being the state of the people of Israel.

        Reply to Comment
    5. JeffB

      When the Chinese crushed Tibetan culture were the crushing Tibetan nationalism or Tibetan Buddhism? There is no way to oppress Jewish Zionism while not attacking Judaism. It may be true that Israel has become a Jewish idol but attacking Jewish idolatry while arguing you aren’t attacking “Judaism” is essentially the same claim that Christians traditionally made. “We are attacking Rabbinic Judaism not the True Completed Judaism of Jesus Christ”.

      Finally one more point.

      Jews play a prominent role in the campaign for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) aiming to soften Israel’s policy towards the Palestinians.

      BDS does not aim to soften Israel’s policy towards the Palestinians, it aims to end Israel. A successful Israel living at peace with its Palestinian minority in goodwill would represent the total failure of BDS not its success. BDS represent a clear cut doctrine that Jews are not people of equal worth and are not entitled to the rights of other people most importantly self determination. It is seen as antisemetic because it holds Jews and Israel to a standard not demanded of any other people.

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        JeffB,

        1. Excuse me but are you competing with Jules to see who can sound more muddled? Embedded in this misleading morass is the straw man that BDS aims to “destroy Israel.” But just look at that concretion of confusions and misleading analogies (your specialty) inside of which the straw man is stuck, as in concrete. French, Chinese, Malaysians, Tibetans, Buddhism, Christians….
        2. France did not have to decide to stop being French to pull its colonialists out of Algeria.
        3. And then this gem: “There is no way to oppress Jewish Zionism while not attacking Judaism.” Ahem. “Jewish Zionism” is being “oppressed”? Just what do you mean by that? (As always with our JeffB, one has to ask over and over, “What does it mean”? In what context? Hello?)
        4. Of course by “the people of Israel” you must be meaning “the Jewish people” but forget that the conflict exists because there is more than one people in the land.
        5. “When the Chinese crushed Tibetan culture were they crushing Tibetan nationalism or Tibetan Buddhism?” Answer: both, of course.
        6. The wonderment and the questions multiply. Why on earth would you invoke the Chinese oppression of Tibet as a model in sympathy with you? Israel is the crusher not the crushee.
        7. Why not rewrite what you are trying to say this way? “When the Israeli Jews crush Palestinian society are they crushing Palestinian nationalism or Palestinian Islam and Christianity?”
        8. “A successful Israel living at peace with its Palestinian minority”
        Translation: A Greater Israel in which the Palestinians have surrendered all sovereignty but at the same time are not equal citizens in a state of all its citizens, but are a subjugated, profoundly inferior “minority.” We shall remind you of your ruminations on the Huguenots and the Belarussians if we hear protestations to the contrary.
        9. I could go on. But I won’t. I had to number these because your argument is to me sufficiently disjointed and illogical that a piecemeal reply seemed all I could do.

        Reply to Comment
        • JeffB

          France did not have to decide to stop being French to pull its colonialists out of Algeria.

          France would have stopped being France to pull the French out of France. BDS is not about the occupation it is about the destruction of Israel proper. BDS explicitly rejects the Liberal Zionist concept that the conflict is about occupation.

          ” Ahem. “Jewish Zionism” is being “oppressed”? Just what do you mean by that?

          Jewish Zionism is a political / religious ideology. People who are passive or active supporters are being openly subject to harassment and intimidation on USA campuses. As collateral damage this is in effect full blown harassment and intimidation of Jewish students.

          “the people of Israel”

          Means just that the people of Israel. Supporters of Narnia or

          Israel is the crusher not the crushee.

          Not with respect to the objectives of BDS.

          all sovereignty but at the same time are not equal citizens in a state of all its citizens.. We shall remind you of your ruminations on the Huguenots and the Belarussians if we hear protestations to the contrary.

          Seems to me the progeny of the Huguenots are doing fine as are the Belarussians. So no you are completely reversing the meaning of those examples.

          Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            You lost this argument about BDS being about “the destruction of Israel” a while ago, on April 10, to ‘Paranam Kid, here:
            https://972mag.com/why-settlement-boycotters-shouldnt-join-the-bds-movement/126405/

            Repetition did not help you there and it won’t help you here. What you are trying to do here is lump all progressive boycotters of the occupation into one manufactured bogeyman called BDS. Because you oppose all serious attempts to put pressure on Israel to end the occupation, you want to demonize any and all boycott attempts. And here you threw on the pile yet another misleading, simplistic analogy, that Israel and France are comparable with respect to the issues here. They are not. In fact, they are wildly different. And up above you do the exact anti-Semitizing conflation of Judaism and Zionism that the author warns against. It seems you can conflate with the best of them.

            If people are being subject to harassment on campuses that is a separate issue. (And did you read the article by Maya Avis on December 14th?) It does not negate the inherent justice of the progressive boycott movement. I find it interesting how harassment of US students interests you keenly and seems to you some kind of trump card but routine savagery against Palestinians, and obvious silencing by force of Ben Gurion U. students, and an Israeli official openly threatening the residents of a foreign country exercising their democratic right to protest–while linking to an article on the Israeli army’s use of live fire against protesters in occupied territory (Inna Michaeli, December 18th)–interests you not so much. Your radar for “oppression” is highly selective.

            “Means just that the people of Israel.”

            So just who is that? You are implicitly calling for an Israeli nationality that is blind to whether one is Jewish or Arab, calling for a state of all its citizens. I guess. With you, one never knows what you really mean but one always has the impression that your words are evasions.

            I like the way you implicitly admit that Israel is the crusher. One is not surprised though. I have told you that your abiding characteristic is that you are blithe, JeffB. True to form, here you airily dismiss the Soviet crushing of the Belarussians and the French savaging of the Huguenots as “their progeny are doing just fine.” The clear implication is that the Palestinians just need to be crushed and get over it and in another few centuries they will be “doing fine.” Lah dee dah. So no in fact I am not “completely reversing the meaning of those examples”—on the contrary, JeffB, I have nailed who you are and what you are about beneath the evasions and the obfuscations.

            Reply to Comment

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