Polarity^2: Stop debating Zionism and anti-Zionism

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The Israel-Palestine conflict may be the most toxic and polarizing political discussion that has occurred in modern history. As I’ve followed the debate, I can feel my hair graying from stress as I am constantly frustrated and baffled by the discussions occurring. In this article, I am not interested in debating or convincing anyone of my general political beliefs on the issue. I’ll state them bluntly in the following paragraph for transparency’s sake. 

I’m an atheist-agnostic diasporic (which is code for non-Israeli) Jew, and I personally think that the Israeli government has been committing a decades-long genocide of Palestinians. I see the two-state solution as the best option moving forward; even though a harmonious one-state solution is something I idealize, I just don’t see it happening anytime soon. While I condemn many of the actions committed by both Hamas (a militant Palestinian wing that holds power in the Gaza Strip) and the Israeli Defense Forces, I believe responsibility in ameliorating the solution falls on Israel and the United States, their close and strong ally. 

These are my general beliefs, but they are not points I am here to make or prove. In following debates and discussion over the Israel-Palestine conflict, a conclusion I’ve come to is this: we need to stop debating between Zionism and anti-Zionism. At one point, I identified as an anti-Zionist as I generally found more progressive political views and willingness to critique the Israeli government among anti-Zionists. If you held a gun to my head and forced me to choose, I would still say I was an anti-Zionist, but as I stated, I think the discourse needs to move past these labels. The debate and discussion I’ve found that center around the use of these labels are incredibly toxic in what is already an immensely contentious and bloody conflict that has claimed and harmed too many lives. 

Modern Zionism began in the late 1800s, but has its roots all the way back in the Tanakh, or “Hebrew Bible” as many gentiles will call it. It consists of many of the same books as the Christian Old Testament depending on who’s arranging the scriptures. The name Zion (where we get “Zionism” from) refers to the City of Jerusalem, the established capital of the Kingdom of Israel after being conquered and unified by the Twelve Tribes of Israel as per biblical narrative. This occurred traditionally as fulfillment of Israel being a “Promised Land” that God promises to Abraham’s descendants. This followed his lineage through Isaac and then Jacob and then splits off between Jacob’s twelve sons who are the patriarchs of the Twelve Tribes of Israel (Israel is both the name of the actual land as well as a name given to Jacob himself). 

The Kingdom of Israel (which is certifiably real outside of biblical narrative) ends up fracturing into the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah before both being conquered by decidedly non-Jewish empires leaving no Jewish kingdom standing by the 5th century BCE. This sparks what we call the Jewish diaspora where peoples of Jewish faith and ethnicity migrate throughout the world, setting up many communities under foreign rule in various places. Before the Industrial Revolution, there were Jews in China, Ethiopia, Russia, Portugal and the New World among so many other places. The treatment of the Jews was a mixed bag and they tended to have no say in being a minority almost everywhere they went. This varied between genocides, expulsions, inquisitions and subsistence in isolated communities to name some of the most prominent and unfortunate occurrences. Also interesting to note is that historically few Jewish individuals were given special rights under the Christian feudal system to deal with finances; this was because the Jewish faith had far fewer restrictions on moneylending than Christian sects did.  

In seeking to undo the diaspora in a certain sense, we reach the Zionist movement of the late 1800s; this seeks, in the broadest sense, to re-establish a Jewish nation in the Promised Land. Many Jews began migrating to the area with the Zionist movement, eventually forming an Israeli nation in 1949. Migration continued throughout the 20th and 21st centuries as well. This skips a lot of messy political history and wars between not just Israel and Palestine, but colonial powers, Jordan, Egypt and others. Regardless of this, no matter how you slice the political history, there are now major populations of what I will broadly describe as ethnically-diverse religious Jews (since Zionism was a religiously rooted movement) and religiously-diverse ethnic Palestinians (since those in the area before the Zionist movement shared similar ethnicities). I will take it as a given that most (except for the most extreme on both sides of the political debate) agree that both these groups have valid ties to this same general area in the Middle East.  

As we are in this continued conflict, we now come to the issue of how to agree and slice up borders. I believe the terms “Zionism” and “anti-Zionism” have come to mean generally “those who are supportive of the actions of the Israeli government” and “those who are critical of the actions of the Israeli government” respectively, but the histories and connotations of the terms, I argue, make them absolute poison for political discussion and cooperation. 

I’ll begin with Zionism. In discussions and interactions I’ve had and watched in real life and online, I’ve realized that many people will refer to themselves as Zionists, but will have similar progressive left-wing critiques of the Israeli government that I do. For some people, Zionism seems to be akin to what I would call simply “Jewish pride,” which is something I have as well, even if I don’t call it Zionism. Many people see Zionism as a movement that is, at this point, particularly non-progressive. These people see Zionism being characterized by the right-wing factions of Israeli politics centered around Prime Minister Netanyahu, American political organizations like AIPAC (the American Israel Public Affairs Committee) and various politicians in the Democratic and Republican parties. At the most extreme end, some see Zionism as an overtly ethnonationalist and Islamophobic political project. It is also interesting to note the Christian Zionists who, while not Jewish themselves, support the return of the Jews to the Promised Land as fulfilling prophecies set forth in the Old Testament. 

Now we can turn to anti-Zionism. The realm of anti-Zionism that I know and have considered myself a part of tend to be progressive and leftist groups who consider anti-Zionism a movement seeking equity between Israelis and Palestinians, usually aiming harsh criticism at the Israeli government. A lot of people who consider themselves anti-Zionists are blatant anti-Semites and neo-Nazis who wish to see the Holocaust fully realized. A lot of anti-Zionists are politically-radicalized Palestinians who may fall into either of these groups of progressivism or extremism in their advocacy for Palestinian rights. Another smaller group is made up of Jewish Bundists. They are a historical Jewish socialist group that opposes Zionism and sees it as it lacking in solidarity for the diasporic Jews who still fight for their liberty and identity as a minority around the world. 

I think that, from these two explanations, we can see groups that have varying premises for their criticisms (or lack thereof) and also groups who use the same label but would never agree to associate with each other. This is fundamentally where the problem starts to occur. An interesting debate I watched that explains a lot of this well is a recent one between the 92-year-old linguist and social critic Noam Chomsky, and millennial Zionist-activist Rudy Rochman. (I recommend everyone watch it, it’s fascinating on many levels.) In the debate from February of this year, Chomsky explained how he was considered a Zionist early in his life, but that while his beliefs didn’t change, definitions did–and he suddenly became an anti-Zionist through no fault of his own. Chomsky and Rochman agreed that both groups have a right to self-determination, but get diverted throughout the debate into arguing the semantics and history of labels and movements rather than how to move forward cooperatively. This particular digression is characteristic of my broader issue.  

Fundamentally, the labels “Zionist” and “anti-Zionist” are causing nothing but gridlock in the discourse surrounding the Israel-Palestine conflict. They are used to make pernicious arguments by the most biased individuals and have immense potential to confuse those of us who may be out of the loop. This is why I refuse to self-identify as either an anti-Zionist or a Zionist. The distinction currently gives birth to enough red herrings to fill the Dead Sea. In my perfect world, these labels would never come up in political discussion. Zionists would be those broadly with Jewish pride and anti-Zionists would only need to be anti-Semites. We obviously need to keep using slogans and labels–whether you tout #FreePalestine or “Jewish Indigeneity,” none come untainted. But all this being said, fundamentally, the terms Zionism and anti-Zionism are causing more trouble than they’re worth and they need to be retired in political discussions.