"Oh you foolish little Zionists"
Justine Sachs on the cruelty and inhumanity of Zionism, the movement supposed to solve the 'Jewish question'.
“Oh you foolish little Zionists
With your utopian mentality
You'd better go down to the factory
And learn the worker's reality
You want to take us to Jerusalem
So we can die as a nation
We'd rather stay in the Diaspora
And fight for our liberation”
English translation of an old Yiddish folk song
In recent years, Aotearoa New Zealand’s small but vibrant Jewish community has begun to show fissures and cracks, revealing fundamental tensions and disagreements about the future of Jewish identity. These cracks, however, are neither new nor exclusive to Aotearoa; they have simply become more difficult to ignore. The question of Israel and of Zionism as a political ideology takes on a greater sense of urgency with every passing year. There is growing disharmony and conflict within the Jewish diaspora over our support for and identification with Israel in the face of increasing awareness of Israel’s colonial history and its ongoing incursions into Palestinian lives and land. For many diasporic Jews around the world, Israel’s inhumanity towards Palestinians is no longer something that can, in good conscience, be smoothed over for the sake of peace and quiet at the Passover dinner table.
Zionism emerged in the 19th century as one of many competing movements aiming to find a solution to the ‘Jewish question.’
That these conflicts are now being openly discussed by our communities at all speaks to a small but significant change in Jewish hegemony. Since the establishment of Israel in 1948, it has been assumed that Jewish people throughout the globe, from South Africa to Spain, understand their Jewishness as fundamentally and inextricably linked to the so-called ‘Jewish state.’ This has come about because of the rise of Zionism, the founding ideology of the Israeli state. Zionism emerged in the 19th century as one of many competing movements aiming to find a solution to the ‘Jewish question.’ Its power comes largely from the fact that it promises an appealingly straightforward solution to a very real problem, proposing that Jewish people could never escape the constant anti-Semitism and oppression they were facing until they had an exclusively Jewish state. Zionism is thus, at its core, a nationalist movement: it attempts to disentangle Jewish identity from its complex religious, ethnic, cultural – and otherwise diasporic – elements and transform it into a static national identity. This national identity has been deeply bound up in the ongoing colonisation and occupation of Palestine from Israel’s inception, functioning to continually justify the actions of the Israeli state as representing the best interests of the Jewish people.
French historian Ernest Renan, in an essay written in 1882, argued that the act of selectively forgetting and remembering is essential in the construction of a nation. George Orwell echoed this in his 1945 essay, ‘Notes on Nationalism,’ commenting that “every nationalist is haunted by the belief that the past can be altered.” That is to say, a settler-colonial state is always built on the ongoing and often brutal process of erasing, rewriting and ‘forgetting’ the Indigenous past. However, it is constantly haunted by this very same past, which never truly disappears from the physical and social world, and which threatens at any time to break through and call into question the legitimacy of the settler-colonial state’s existence. Israel is no exception: like any settler-colonial state in its infancy, it is forged in blood and fire. While Jewish kids around the world are taught to celebrate Israel’s inception, Palestinians refer to it as “Al Nakba,” a name which translates to “the catastrophe.” Al Nakba saw 700,000 Palestinians forcibly expelled from their homes and villages by Israeli militias, creating a refugee crisis that persists to this day. This tragedy is selectively forgotten and remembered by the Israeli state, which celebrates the anniversary of Al Nakba as Israeli Independence Day.
Israel, a settler-colonial nation in its infancy, is thus not only erasing and forgetting an Indigenous past, but is also actively rewriting an Indigenous present
Israel, a settler-colonial nation in its infancy, is thus not only erasing and forgetting an Indigenous past, but is also actively rewriting an Indigenous present. The Israel/Palestine conflict today is characterised by the haunting of this Indigenous present, demonstrated every day in the resistance and survival of Palestinian people who refuse to be forgotten. That first catastrophe, the ethnic cleansing of Palestine, created 700,000 external refugees whose direct descendants now comprise 7.2 million people. The existence of this community, and its struggle for justice alongside the Palestinians who live in Israel proper and the occupied territories, represents an existential threat to Israel. The Zionist project relies on the myth that Israel currently is, and always ought to have been an exclusively Jewish state, a myth that is fundamentally undermined by the struggle for Palestinian self-determination. This threat weighs heavy on Israel’s collective national psyche, which regards Palestinian life itself as an obstacle to its aims. With this history in frame, Israel’s descent into a paranoid apartheid state should not come as any surprise.
Last year, I attended a talk by visiting Israeli journalist Gideon Levy. Gideon works for Haaretz, a progressive and critical Israeli newspaper which works from within to keep Israel accountable. During his speech, Gideon acknowledged a simple yet radical truth: that Israel could either be “a Jewish state, or a democracy; it could not be both.” His words struck a chord with me as a painful reminder of how, growing up in the diaspora, my own Jewish identity was so embroiled in the myth and mythos of Israel. I wondered how to go about disentangling it. Looking over my own life and ancestry, I began to realise that Israel, and Zionism, is haunted not only by an Indigenous past and present, but equally by a Jewish past and present. More than that, it cannot contain the possibility and potential that this past opens up. I thought about the history of anti-Semitic oppression, marginalisation and suffering in Europe, and how it has informed Jewish identity. My own family immigrated to New Zealand from South Africa when I was eleven years old. My mother and father were third- and second-generation South Africans respectively; they were born in South Africa, but their parents and grandparents hailed from Lithuania. Indeed, the majority of the Jewish diaspora in South Africa is made up of refugees from Lithuania, who arrived in South Africa on boats, fleeing state-sanctioned waves of anti-Semitic violence. These bursts of targeted violence were referred to as pogroms, a Russian term which describes “wreaking havoc or destruction.”
As young men, my grandfather and his brother fled to Germany to escape pogroms in Lithuania. Their parents had recently died of pneumonia, brought on by their impoverished living conditions. Unfortunately, they arrived in Germany at the dawn of the Nazi Party’s emergence. When my grandfather got on a boat to flee Germany in the 1930s, I’m told he was unsure of where he was going. All he knew was that if he stayed, he would not survive. Although I never met my grandfather, my father made sure to tell me his story. His intention in passing on this knowledge was not only to keep his father’s memory alive, but to keep my generation accountable to the promise that “never again” would humankind permit such horror, cruelty and inhumanity.
Although I never met my grandfather, my father made sure to tell me his story. His intention in passing on this knowledge was not only to keep his father’s memory alive, but to keep my generation accountable to the promise that “never again” would humankind permit such horror, cruelty and inhumanity
My father was not the only person who tried to instill this lesson in me. Kadimah College, the small Jewish school I attended in Auckland, also endeavoured to remind us that events like the Holocaust happened because of indifference, and fear of difference or anything Other. According to the school, the only way to make good on the promise of “never again” was to live an ethical, moral life and to remember the lessons of the Talmud: “he who saves one life saves the entire world.” It seems abundantly clear now that memories of dispossession, oppression and anti-Semitic violence are embedded into Jewish values and education. But Kadimah’s version of “never again” was complicated and deeply contradictory. On one hand, it taught us the value of all life, and instilled in us an imperative to fight for social justice. But on the other hand, this was constantly used to defend Israel’s existence as an exclusively Jewish state, and its constant incursions on Palestinian lives and land.
The invocation of the Holocaust – an example of brutal disregard for human life – to defend Israel, another example of brutal disregard for humanity, transformed the universal lesson of “never again” into a cynical and selective one. Within Zionism, “never again” has a caveat. For Zionists, “never again” is exclusive to Jewish lives. So while I was taught the value of all life at Kadimah, I was never taught what the word ‘Palestine’ meant or who the Palestinians were. In our Jewish studies, Palestinians were faceless and dehumanised, a people that could not be defined or placed, and whose lives we were never taught to value.
In this way, Zionism is ultimately a paranoid and conspiratorial ideology. To establish a stable Jewish national identity, and ensure the stable running of a settler-colonial state, it has to appeal to our desire to transcend our history of oppression and anti-Semitism while, at the same time, closing off the possibility of meeting that goal with an empathetic, non-violent, and anti-colonial Jewish movement. This bit of ideological sleight of hand is achieved by foreclosing our ability to see Palestinians as human, and keeping their own experiences of oppression out of our sight. There’s a fundamentally authoritarian bent to this. Zionism cannot handle or reason with difference or otherness. It seeks to dominate and subdue its others through brute force. This was exemplified in Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s chilling comments at an Israeli nuclear research facility earlier this year. He argued that, in order to ensure the survival of Israel, “there is no place for the weak,” stating that “the weak crumble, are slaughtered and are erased from history while the strong, for good or for ill, survive.” Netanyahu’s remarks are revealing and frightening. They expose the inhumanity of the current Israeli administration, reflecting a militaristic “survival of the fittest” ideology that despises vulnerability, empathy and difference.
Netanyahu’s nationalist rhetoric drips with a specific kind of loathing for Palestinians and, interestingly, for diaspora Jews. In fact, his words reflect early Zionist ideas of “Muscular Judaism,” which saw the need to design a “new Jew” for a “new land.” This new Jew was to be the antithesis of the “old” diaspora Jew, who was often stereotyped in anti-Semitic propaganda as a physically weak and intellectually esoteric person. This sentiment is ubiquitous in Israeli society, where offhand remarks and jokes about the “wimpy” nature of diaspora Jewry are commonplace. Indeed, it is very telling that Israel’s leader of the opposition, Avi Gabbay, recently commented that the synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh, which killed 11 people, should “teach Jews to make aliyah.” Zionism is constantly haunted by the diasporic Jewish past and present, precisely because our experience of vulnerability, oppression and marginalisation mirrors so closely that of Palestinians and other oppressed people all over the world.
the conflation of anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism as misleading and deeply dangerous. It is an ideological device that limits the possibilities of what Jewishness can be, and shuts down important dialogue about Israel’s apartheid regime and colonial history
Judith Butler, in her book Parting Ways – Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism, notes that perhaps the defining characteristic of diasporic Jewishness is “cohabitation with the non-Jew,” and that it is therefore “possible to conclude that commitments to social equality and social justice have been an integral part of Jewish secular, socialist, and religious traditions.” She observes a painful irony, then, in the fact that the struggle for social justice in Israel/Palestine is often cast as anti-Semitic. However, that perception is starting to change owing to the work of progressive Jewish people throughout the diaspora who are doing the work of disentangling Jewishness from Zionism. We see the conflation of anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism as misleading and deeply dangerous. It is an ideological device that limits the possibilities of what Jewishness can be, and shuts down important dialogue about Israel’s apartheid regime and colonial history.
Indeed, Jewish people within the diaspora overwhelmingly tend to be politically progressive. With this in mind, the current conflict brewing within the Jewish diaspora over the question of Israel/Palestine and Zionism is a long time coming. Israel and Zionism has always been a blind spot within our community, a contradiction in our politics and values. In recent times, this contradiction has become increasingly irreconcilable, a result of Israel’s slide into fascism and our growing awareness of the oppression of Palestinian people in the occupied territories.
While there is certainly a generational element to the conflict, with young Jewish people seeming particularly disillusioned with Zionism, it would be a mistake to reduce the conflict to that. Rather, I would argue that it is the result of an irreconcilable contradiction between Jewish nationalism and diasporic Jewishness. For me personally, I attribute my turn away from Zionism to the fact that I am from a family of immigrants. I came to Aotearoa from South Africa, my grandfather went to South Africa from Lithuania, and my ancestors went from the Middle East to Europe thousands of years ago. I do not see myself as rootless, but as rooted firmly in my experiences with difference and multiplicity. In both Aotearoa and South Africa, I was confronted with the legacies of colonialism, dispossession, and the pervasive racism that animates settler-colonial society. In Aotearoa, as I grew up, I began to see how I benefited from these systems that were built to privilege settlers and dispossess Māori. I saw how this was not an individual problem but a structural one. I learned that the early Jewish settlers who came to Aotearoa in the colonial period were complicit in this process. I began to map the connection between the colonial history of Aotearoa and Israel’s formation, and what I saw was a mirror image. As a result, I feel an obligation to live up to the ethical obligations passed on to me in Hebrew school, the obligations of ‘tikkun olam’ which translates to ‘repairing the world,’ and ‘tzedek tzedek tirdof’ which translates to ‘justice justice you shall pursue.’
Across the world, we are seeing the formation of Jewish groups committed to fighting for Palestinian rights and justice in the region. These groups play an important role in challenging the conflation of anti-Semitism with anti-Zionism, and function to carve out a creative space for diaspora Jews to find new ways of being Jewish
I am not the only one. Across the world, we are seeing the formation of Jewish groups committed to fighting for Palestinian rights and justice in the region. These groups play an important role in challenging the conflation of anti-Semitism with anti-Zionism, and function to carve out a creative space for diaspora Jews to find new ways of being Jewish. These new ways are in fact old, they seek to reimagine the present and create something new by conjuring up the powerful memory of our past. They also constitute a rebellion against a Jewish establishment that refuses to consider the possibility of Jewishness beyond Zionism. That refusal puts progressive Jewish people in a double bind, leaving them feeling alienated and outcast from the communities they grew up in. That has certainly been my experience. I knew from a very early age that criticising Israel was taboo, and I was taught to regard those who did so as self-hating and self-destructive. Confronting the reality that our upbringing was wrong, that the ‘outcasts’ were right, is not an easy process for progressive Jews.
For some, the solution has been to reject their Jewishness completely in order to escape the conflict, but I couldn’t do that. I began to feel neither here nor there: no longer welcome in the Jewish community, but not at home in mainstream Pākehā culture either. The stories about my grandfather's life, my experiences with anti-Semitism, the values my Jewish education instilled in me, and the rich, wonderful traditions that have been passed down for millennia are an integral part of who I am. It was impossible for me to throw those aside and pretend I was not, for better or worse, a Jew. This realisation led to another: it was necessary to speak out and confront these issues, both within my community and within broader society.
In other words, the only option was to rebel, and that is exactly what we are doing. Ultimately, my act of rebellion was daring to publicise my views and write about them. In doing so I overcame my fears of ostracisation and claimed a space within my community as an anti-Zionist Jew. In December 2017, I co-wrote an open letter to New Zealand pop-singer Lorde with a Palestinian friend, urging her to respect the cultural boycott of Israel called for by Palestinian civil society. The letter went viral, and Lorde’s later decision to cancel the concert meant that we were suddenly thrust into the international news cycle. We were inundated with support, but we were confronted just as strongly with an onslaught of abusive messages from an online army of Zionists, incensed that a Jewish person had publicly criticised Israel. The abuse, racism and misogyny I was met with only proved to me how desperately my rebellion was needed. For so long, Zionism's entanglement with Jewishness has left us unable to face Palestinian people and recognise their humanity. In turning away from the imperative to repair the world and pursue justice, our own humanity faded away too.
One article written about me in the Israeli press illustrated this point to me perfectly. The author Assaf Wohl writes that “the difference between you and me, Justine is that I am an Israeli Jew and you are a Jew. That’s it. You have no nationality. You live in a negligible, insignificant sheepfold stuck somewhere at the end of the universe: New Zealand, which robbed the Indigenous Māori people of their land in favor of a European colony.” Later, he remarks that I have “chosen to play the role of the classic Jewish wimp.” His words bear a revealing similarity to the rhetoric of Netanyahu, demonstrating the same contempt towards me as a “wimpy” diaspora Jew. Wohl’s article, then, accuses me of being self-hating while invoking old anti-Semitic tropes and stereotypes about Jewish people. While the cognitive dissonance is almost funny, it demonstrates how Zionism's dehumanisation of Palestinians has in turn dehumanised Jewish people. In order to fully realise our own humanity, we must recognise theirs.
As for Wohl’s comment about me living in a settler colony in which the Indigenous people have been systematically dispossessed of their land, he is not wrong. But the idea that I should stay quiet about Israel because I structurally benefit from colonisation in Aotearoa is bizarre. The struggle for peace and justice in Palestine and Aotearoa are connected and intertwined. “Never again” demands a universal recognition that all life, everywhere in the world, has value. Finding new/old ways of doing Jewishness means rejecting any kind of Jewish exceptionalism or particularism. Instead, we must stand in solidarity with all oppressed people. There is work to be done at the end of the universe.