Defenders of Israel’s brutal war on Gaza have attempted to conflate anti-Zionism with antisemitism. But since its beginning, different forms of Zionist ideology have competed with varied anti-Zionisms for Jewish allegiance.

Bundist leaders at a Poland-wide gathering, Warsaw, 1928. (Henryk Bojm / Wikimedia Commons)

Since the Hamas attacks of October 7, defenders of Israel’s assault on Gaza and its long-standing occupation of Palestinian territories have attempted to conflate criticism of the State of Israel with antisemitism. It is an attempt to render invisible or to excommunicate a large and growing number of anti-Zionist American Jews, who have played an important and high-profile role in the Palestine solidarity movement.

The reality, however, is that the Zionization of American Judaism is a relatively recent phenomenon. Zionism itself first emerged in late nineteenth-century Europe, and for decades faced a committed and multifaceted anti-Zionist Jewish majority; Zionism didn’t become dominant among Jews worldwide until the 1920s or ’30s. Even then, though, many Jews continued to oppose Zionism, either on the grounds of religious orthodoxy or on the internationalist premises of socialism and communism. Last month, for the Jacobin Radio podcast the Dig, Daniel Denvir interviewed Shaul Magid, a professor of Jewish studies at Dartmouth College and the author, most recently, of The Necessity of Exile: Essays from a Distance, to discuss the long history of Jewish Zionism and its antagonist, Jewish anti-Zionism. This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

The Beginnings of Zionism

Daniel Denvir

Why is this an important time to learn about the history of Zionism and anti-Zionism?

Shaul Magid

That’s a good way to start, because one could make the argument that we shouldn’t be talking about this at all, after October 7 — that other things that are more important or more pressing, that we’re in a an emergency situation that requires a certain kind of solidarity or circling of wagons on a variety of questions. But I would push back to say that it’s this particular moment, which is an emergency, that enables us to confront [important questions].

Zionism as a project was a project of Jewish self-determination; it was a project of Jewish liberation. It was an attempt to complete — or at least complete a particular period of time of — Jewish history. But it was also as much a return to Jewish power, and with Jewish power a return to Jewish responsibility.

It’s interesting that Zionism sought to offer a response to, or in some cases a resolution to, the Jewish question, and we’ll talk about what the Jewish question is. But one of the things that Zionism produced was what was called “the Arab question.” That is, how is Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel going to work, [given that] in the early periods of Zionism, a majority of Palestinians are Arabs, and after the establishment of the state a large minority are Arabs?

That was a question that bothered people like David Ben-Gurion. It’s a question that has bothered people all the way up to the present. And it’s a problem that in some way underlies the issue that we’re facing post–October 7.

That’s not to say that the lack of a resolution to the Arab question brought about the attack of Hamas on October 7, but the way in which the Arab question was never significantly dealt with in terms of questions of resources, equality, justice, and the question of integrating the Arab minority into the democracy. This is even before ’67 — this is from 1948 until June 1967, and afterward of course the occupation.

October 7 in some ways changed everything, and perhaps in some ways changed nothing. By changing nothing, I mean that the same issues, the same challenges, the same problems, the same complexity that existed in Israel on the question of Zionism as a Jewish liberation project, and the Arab question, and questions of justice and equality and democracy are going to remain. They’re not going to change.

Both the Palestinian population and the Jewish population — those who remain alive after this war — are not going anywhere, and the basic structure of the society will remain more or less the way it was before. So perhaps it is really the time to think about that kind of question.

Daniel Denvir

Why did Zionism emerge when it did in late nineteenth-century Europe? It was this era following the French Revolution when spreading liberalism had emancipated Jews in many places, ending legal forms of discrimination across Europe, and ushering in rapid Jewish educational, economic, and social advancement. In The Making of Modern Zionism, Shlomo Avineri writes, “From any conceivable point of view, the nineteenth century was the best century Jews had ever experienced, collectively and individually, since the destruction of the Temple.”

So why plot mass emigration? As Avineri puts it, “If the nineteenth century was so good to the Jews, why did it for the first time give rise to a movement that attempted to uproot Jews from the continents in which they had resided, albeit precariously, for two thousand years?” What were the problems that Zionism proposed to solve, and what was Zionism’s proposed solution?

Shaul Magid

Avineri is right. The emancipation really was a seismic change in Jewish history. It enabled Jews and invited Jews to become part of European society.

At the same time, it also raised questions about the ability of Jews to be able to fully integrate and be a part of that society, both within the populace and within the various governments. What we might call “modern antisemitism,” or some would just say antisemitism itself, is a product of the emancipation. It doesn’t really emerge until Europe is challenged by the integration of Jews into the society, the upward mobility of Jews, the desire for equality.

What we might call ‘modern antisemitism,’ or some would just say antisemitism itself, is a product of the emancipation of the Jews.

This brought about a number of different possibilities. One was assimilation, in which Jews would fully become a part of the society, and in doing so would have to shed some or all of their Jewish identity. Another was a form of Jewish internationalism in the Bund, or Jewish communism more generally, that Jews would become part of the larger global movement for equality and labor rights — in the case of the Bund, as a Jewish group.

Zionism was another alternative, which basically functioned under the assumption that emancipation wouldn’t work in terms of creating a viable alternative for Jews to remain attached to the Jewish identity in this emancipated world.

Some people link that to the Dreyfus Affair, with Theodor Herzl; some people say it happened before that. Some people talk about the 1880 pogroms, or the 1840 blood libel in Damascus. There are various events that make Jews start to question whether emancipation would ultimately be successful.

It’s important to note that the early Zionists were not basing themselves on religion as the anchor of Jewish identity. They had already given up on religion, so they were already secular. Zionism was a secular alternative to the assimilationist or acculturationist alternative in Europe.

In a sense, what the emancipation created was what becomes known as “the Jewish question.” Karl Marx wrote about it; Herzl famously wrote about it as well. It is: Even if there’s a desire to integrate the Jews fully into European society, will that be successful? The other thing to add here is the proliferation of race science that’s happening at the same time, in which the Jews are being racialized and medically understood to be more inclined toward disease and insanity and double consciousness and so on.

In a certain way, Zionism offered an alternative that was complicated, but also simplistic. That is, why don’t we just find a place for the Jews outside of Europe? Why don’t we just allow ourselves to mirror the Western European nationalism that’s taking place? Why don’t we essentially agree with Joseph Stalin, who said the Jews aren’t a people because they don’t have a language and they don’t have a land and enact that kind of national project — which, from their perspective, would be a win-win? It will be a win for Europe because it gets rid of the Jews, and it will be a win for Jews because it would offer them an alternative where they can live more freely as Jews in a secular register.

One of the interesting things about this is how it was initially rejected as utopian and impractical. As Avineri said, the Jews are finally becoming upwardly mobile in nineteenth-century Europe, and now all of a sudden, you want to take the Jews out of Europe and bring them to a place that’s like the Middle Ages, that doesn’t have any natural water sources, that doesn’t have technology. From the religious sector, [the opposition] was, “Wait a second — this abandons the whole concept of the Jews living in exile until the Messiah brings them out.”

In a fundamental way, Zionism is an expression of the Jews being tired of exile. They didn’t want to live there anymore. They didn’t want to live among the goyim anymore. They didn’t want to live under the auspices of another culture. And this is because they are mirroring Western European nationalist movements.

Daniel Denvir

Where does Theodor Herzl fit into this story, as the proclaimed founder of the Zionist movement? Where does his articulation of the Zionist project in the 1896 book The Jewish State fit into these broader nationalist currents bubbling up around the late nineteenth-century Ashkenazi world?

Shaul Magid

He’s not the founder of the movement. He doesn’t coin the term. There were important figures like Leo Pinsker, and his book Auto-Emancipation, that existed before; Moses Hess’s Rome and Jerusalem; and you have earlier religious thinkers who began to suggest that it may be time for Jews to return to the Land of Israel during the Ottoman Empire.

Theodor Herzl observing the Rhine from the balcony of Hotel Les Trois Rois during the Fifth Zionist Congress in 1901 in Basel, Switzerland. (Ephraim Moses Lilien / Wikimedia Commons)

What happens is that Zionism coalesces around Herzl. He’s an interesting, somewhat ironic figure. He’s an assimilated Jew — he doesn’t know Hebrew. A few years before he wrote The Jewish State, he came up with an idea that the solution to the Jewish question is that Jews should convert en masse to Christianity. He had a very strong sense of charisma, and he had a very strong visual sense of being a kind of prophet.

In 1896, Herzl comes onto the scene and becomes a public figure; he becomes the iconic figure of Zionism, and by 1904, he’s dead. The whole thing was seven or eight years. The entire story of Herzl was like snapping one’s fingers. It was like the Beatles: they come in 1963 and by ’69, they’re done. But like the Beatles, Herzl changes everything.

He changes everything because he is able to articulate a particular vision that the various Zionist factions were able to get around. That was the establishment of a state, even though most Zionists at that time were not statist Zionists. They were not people who were interested in a state; what did the state even mean? The Ottoman Empire still existed.

Really, they were interested in autonomism. They were interested in concepts of autonomy. As Dimitry Shumsky shows in his book Beyond the Nation-State, even people like David Ben-Gurion and Ze’ev Jabotinsky were not necessarily advocating for a state at that time. But sometimes movements need a figure to be a kind of centerpiece, and Herzl provided that for Zionism.

Daniel Denvir

How did Zionists ultimately decide on settling Palestine? What role did the colonial world order, and what that made seemingly “available” for settlement, play? What role did biblical resonance play? What other factors informed where early Zionists thought a mass Jewish settler-colonial project might be possible?

Shaul Magid

We often think of Zionism and the Land of Israel as being attached at the hip, but that was not necessarily the case. The idea of creating a Jewish autonomous and sovereign enclave didn’t necessarily rest on the Land of Israel.

In fact, the Land of Israel was quite impractical, because, first, there were the Ottomans. Second, there was this large Palestinian or Arab population. That’s why people like Simon Dubnow talked about diasporic nationalism. And the territorialists were basically saying, “We just need to find any place that could be a refuge for the Jews.”

The reason that the Land of Israel was the place was that, in a certain sense, it was the most obvious given historical memory. There was the famous Uganda plan, but they realized, “We’re not going to sell this product to Eastern European Jews if it’s about going to Argentina or going to Uganda.” Israel fed a particular historical memory that had a redemptive messianic quality to it — that this was going to be the fulfillment of a two-thousand-year-old promise of the Jews returning to their ancestral homeland.

There were battles between the territorialists and Zionists, especially once Europe starts to really collapse. The territorialists are saying, “Look, we have to get as many Jews out of Europe as quickly as we can. I don’t care where we go; I don’t care if we go to Galveston, Texas, or Uganda or Argentina or any place.” The Zionists were saying, “No, it’s the Land of Israel or bust.”

It turns out that the Zionists won, largely because the Ottoman Empire fell apart; the British Mandate emerged [after] World War I. So Israel became the centerpiece, and it became fused to the Zionist project, but it really wasn’t at the beginning.

Daniel Denvir

Zionism quickly took on many different forms. There was the Labor Zionism of David Ben-Gurion on the Zionist left, and the Revisionist Zionism of Ze’ev Jabotinsky on the Right. There was also religious Zionism, which meant something different in this pre-1948 period — I think it referred to the small slice of Orthodox Jews who supported rather than opposed Zionism. Then, there were the cultural Zionists, who did not prioritize the Jewish state and in many cases opposed it in favor of a single, binational Arab and Jewish state in Palestine.

I want to first address these main Labor and Revisionist currents, the Zionisms that accumulated a mass political base and that ultimately wielded real political power, and that founded the State of Israel and oversaw the mass expulsion of Palestinians. How did these two currents come about? What issues were they fighting over, and what distinguished them?

Shaul Magid

When we talk about Zionism in the prestate period, we’re talking largely about different forms of what later became known as Labor Zionism. That was socialists — in some cases, communists — but socialists of various forms who were interested in the creation of a utopian national agrarian project. This is the kibbutz movement; this is the Second Aliyah.

Revisionist Zionism, which now dominates Zionist discourse, was quite small. Jabotinsky was really an outlying figure at that time. In fact, Jabotinsky leaves the World Zionist Congress and starts his own New World Zionist Congress because he was so much at odds. Ben-Gurion forces him out of Palestine in 1935, and then he dies of a heart attack in the Catskill Mountains in 1940.

When we talk about Zionism in the prestate period, we’re talking largely about different forms of what became known as Labor Zionism. That was socialists of various forms who were interested in the creation of a utopian national agrarian project.

Ben-Gurion wanted to get rid of Jabotinsky and wanted to get rid of the Revisionist Zionists. But there were smaller groups of Jabotinsky followers, and they’re actually quite important. They made up secular militant groups who were committed to acts of terrorism and violence, both to convince the British to leave and also to terrorize the Arab majority. Because at that point, there was an Arab majority; there wasn’t a Jewish majority in Palestine until 1947.

For most of that early period, Jabotinsky was advocating what he called majoritarianism, that what needed to happen was that Jews had to emigrate en masse. Because without Jews being a majority, a Jewish nation-state could never exist. These terrorist groups — the Stern Gang, later the Irgun and Lehi — were influenced by Jabotinsky.

Jabotinsky himself was not really as militant as people often think. He was a strong advocate of minority rights, but he was very influenced by Italian fascism and very hypernationalist. Ben-Gurion understood that he was going to pose a danger to the project of statehood that he was interested in. This ultimately comes down to the famous case of the Altalena, where Ben-Gurion bombs a ship that was coming in led by people in the Irgun, with arms for an alternative militia. The Altalena becomes the last stand of a particular kind of secular Zionist militancy, and Ben-Gurion wins the day.

David Ben-Gurion in 1968. (Fritz Cohen / National Photo Collection of Israel via Wikimedia Commons)

Ben-Gurion was a strong believer that statehood was the only option for the Zionist project — that cultural Zionism was fine and good as far as it went, but ultimately, it would have to be a nation-state. He also was not in favor of the pure political Zionism of Herzl, who was really more of a monarchist than anything else and wanted to establish a monarchy mirroring the Austro-Hungarian Empire, where he came from.

One of Ben-Gurion’s great victories was to go to the Biltmore Hotel in May 1942 and to convince the leading figures in the American Zionist community to abandon their nonstatist project and become part of the statist Zionist project. He and Chaim Weizmann went to the Biltmore. Interestingly, Ben-Gurion did not want to go; Weizmann convinced him to do so, because Weizmann understood that without American Zionists, the project would not ultimately be successful.

Zionism vs the Diaspora

Daniel Denvir

Early Zionists repeatedly invoked seemingly antisemitic descriptions of so-called diasporic Jews as weak, sickly, excessively bookish, effeminized — a people whose spirit was crushed not only by non-Jewish political rulers, but also by the dead weight of rabbinical law. They contrasted this weak diasporic figure with a model of a strong new people, drawing inspiration from everything from the Ukrainian Cossack to Palestinian Bedouin.

The idea was to revitalize this enervated Jewish people through revitalizing the land. You write, “The Zionist project was founded on such antisemitic assumptions: that the Jews in the diaspora were a flawed people, made diseased and unhealthy by centuries of exile, with no meaningful culture of their own.” Or as Liora Halperin writes, “The Zionist movement sought to overturn Ashkenazi Jews’ colonized position in Europe through the colonization of the East.”

How did Zionists seek to remake and reshape the meaning of Judaism and Jewishness? How was that vision itself informed by non-Jewish peoples’ and societies’ antisemitism?

Shaul Magid

The relationship between Zionism and antisemitism is a very complicated one. It really begins with Herzl. Herzl himself said that antisemitism would help his cause, precisely because antisemitism would convince Jews that they had more of a chance of being successful outside of Europe than inside of Europe.

If you read some of the early Zionist thinkers like Berl Katznelson and Aaron David Gordon, the language that they use in describing diaspora Jews is very striking: as sickly, as weak, as diseased. They are really just adopting all of the antisemitic tropes and using them as descriptions of the diaspora Jew as opposed to the “Muscle Jew” that Max Nordau creates, or the Ari Ben Canaan figure [whom Paul Newman played] in the movie Exodus — the idea of the Jew as strong, as virile, which in a certain sense is the antidiaspora.

Zionism constructed its sense of self as antidiasporic, in terms of identity, in terms of self-fashioning, and even in terms of physicality. These Ukrainian youth movements, the Blue and White movement in Germany — which is taking after German nationalist movements, a religion of nature or people of nature. . . . There are a lot of interesting and frightening parallels between the muscle nationalism of Germany and the muscle nationalism of Zionism, between the negative depiction of Jews among antisemites and the negative depiction of Jews among many of the Zionists.

This all coalesces around something thats called in Hebrew “shlilat hagalut,” or the negation of the exile, the negation of the diaspora. This is a cornerstone of Zionism. Arnie Eisen, in his book Galut and in a number of essays, basically says every aspect of Zionism contains within it a notion of shlilat hagalut, of the negation of the diaspora.

Ben-Gurion once said in passing that one of the greatest challenges to Zionism would be a robust, safe diaspora. In that sense, the greatest challenge to Zionism is America. Because Europe, certainly after the 1930s but even before, was affirming the Zionist vision of the diaspora. This was not a place where Jews can feel safe. This is not a place where Jews can be successful. This is not a place for a Jewish future.

America provided an alternative model, which is why American Jews — now I’m not talking about the religious sector, I’m talking about the Reform and more liberal sectors of American Jews — were extremely skeptical of Zionism. Because Zionism was the great threat of dual allegiance, from which Jews had tried to extricate themselves from the beginning of French emancipation.

David Ben-Gurion once said in passing that one of the greatest challenges to Zionism would be a robust, safe diaspora. In that sense, the greatest challenge to Zionism is America.

I think Ben-Gurion knew that. That’s why he wants to come to convince the American Zionist establishment that, ultimately, they have to get on board with his state project. But he says something very interesting in a letter to Jacob Blaustein in 1950, where he states, “The Jews of America do not need to support the political aspirations of Israel.” It was interesting for the first prime minister of Israel to say. I think that if somebody said that today, they would be considered an anti-Zionist.

But Ben-Gurion is saying, “I don’t need American Jews to support Israel. I need American Jews to help Israel in certain ways.” He says different things at different times, where he kind of changes his mind, but Ben-Gurion was ultimately a believer that the danger for American Jewry was not antisemitism; the danger for American Jewry was assimilation — that ultimately, the only place for the Jew to live fully as a Jew would be in the State of Israel.

I think America has proven not to be a place of the disappearance of the American Jew. This is part of the tension regarding the American Jewish community and its fidelity to Zionism.

Daniel Denvir

You write, “To those familiar with the history of Zionism, it is well known that many of these early Zionist ideologues viewed Zionism as the replacement for Judaism, not a complement or extension of it, nor a faction within it. Today’s heresy hunting ignores, dismisses, or perhaps is simply unaware of the utterly radical and revolutionary nature of Zionism itself. It elides how Zionism often claimed to replace Judaism, which some viewed derisively as essentially a product of exile.”

It wasn’t just that early Zionists were drawing on antisemitic tropes, but that they actually, in many cases, opposed Judaism as a religion. Is that right? What do you mean, that Zionists wanted to replace Judaism with Zionism? Did they want Judaism as a religion, the whole tradition of the rabbinic sages, to disappear and be replaced with something new?

Shaul Magid

Certainly, some of them did; obviously, not all of them. When you think about Zionism today and the expanding role of religious Zionism, it’s important to note that in the beginning, in the 1920s really through the 1960s, religious Zionism was quite a small sector of the larger Zionist project. And many of the Orthodox groups like Agudat Yisrael that decided to become part of the state were not really Zionists.

The early radical Zionists, like Yosef Haim Brenner and Micah Josef Berdichevsky and others, certainly saw Zionism as the fulfillment and replacement of Judaism. One of the ways that you see that in the twenty-first century is debates around Jewishness versus Israeliness; there are many in Israel who would really prefer to see themselves primarily as Israeli and secondarily as Jewish.

I’ll give you one other anecdotal example. In the movie Israelism, an interesting movie about the disenchantment of a number of young American Jews about Zionism, they’re interviewing a Reform rabbi, a woman who is, if I’m not mistaken, the Hillel rabbi at the University of Connecticut. She basically says in the interview outright, “Israel is Judaism.”

That sentiment has become more and more common, where the center of Jewish identity has moved from religious practice, religious belief, synagogues, to Jewish federations, to AIPAC, to various other kinds of organizations; [the view is] that to be a good Jew is to support Israel.

There was an essay that came out some years ago called “The Un-Jews,” which makes the claim that a Jew who doesn’t support Israel is a kind of un-Jew. In other words, their Jewishness is in a certain sense erased by their lack of support for the state.

I’ve seen this in more recent op-eds in the Jewish media that are saying that groups like IfNotNow or Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) — some of these progressive groups that are against the war — are not sufficiently supporting the Israeli cause. They should essentially be written out of the Jewish people. The volume has become extremely high.

There’s a history to this. It is what was known back in the 1970s as “the Zionist consensus,” or as I called it in my book, the “Zionization” of American Judaism. There was a very specific, intentional educational project of making Israel and the Holocaust the centerpiece of Jewish education for a generation of American Jews.

I’m certainly a product of that, having gone to Hebrew school in a Conservative synagogue in the early 1970s. We learned about Israel; we learned about the Holocaust. We learned a little bit about the holidays, and we learned how to read Hebrew and not understand it, but that was basically it. That was Jewish education. If you were raised to believe in the centrality of Israel to your Jewish identity, you were a Jew in good standing.

Daniel Denvir

Early Zionists also revealingly relied upon antisemitic, anti-immigrant sentiment, and upon the political support of prominent antisemites, most notably British Lord Balfour, whose 1917 Balfour Declaration paved the way for mass Jewish settlement in Palestine after World War I during the Mandate period.

Zionist emigration, Balfour wrote, would “mitigate the age-long miseries created for Western civilization by the presence in its midst of a body which it too long regarded as alien and even hostile, but which it was equally unable to expel or to absorb.” How did European colonial powers and Britain in particular view the prospect of Europe’s Jewish question being answered in the Middle East?

Shaul Magid

Very much. There are two things at play. One is the political problem of the Jews, or the Jewish question. The other thing is the Christian issue: you have people like Lord Shaftesbury, long before Zionism, who was basically advocating Zionism. Many Europeans, and much later evangelical Christians, saw the Jews returning to the Land of Israel as the beginning of the fulfillment of the prophecy that will culminate in the return of Christ.

In a certain sense, it was fulfilling a political need to rid Europe of the Jews because, even without the antisemitism, the Jews were presenting themselves as competition in a quickly urbanizing, de-agrarianizing European world, and the emergence of cities like Geneva and London and Paris and so on. With the anti-Jewish animus that is of course at play, and also the Christian dispensationalism — that the Jews returning to Israel is part of the prophecy — all these go into making Zionism an attractive solution to a lot of Europeans.

Daniel Denvir

Who were the early American Zionists? What led them to be Zionists, when that was not a normal or obvious thing for a Jew to be?

Shaul Magid

Until the 1920s, most American Jewish leaders were not Zionists. There were a few very prominent figures worth mentioning who were not Zionist, one of them being Kaufmann Kohler, who was the rector of Hebrew Union College, who was vociferously anti-Zionist.

He was also the author of the 1885 Pittsburgh Platform, which was the emblematic statement of the Reform movement in America, which made it very clear that Jews are not a nation, they are people of a religion, and they don’t hope for return to the Land of Israel, and the homeland of the Jews is America. There were many others also.

Solomon Schechter was one of the early Zionists. A Reform rabbi from New Orleans named Max Heller becomes a Zionist in 1904, which is actually quite early, certainly for the Reform movement. And then, Stephen Wise and Abba Hillel Silver — there are certain Jewish leaders that become Zionist, but it’s important to remember that American Zionists, for most of that period, were not necessarily in favor of establishing a Jewish state.

Until the 1920s, most American Jewish leaders were not Zionists.

Perhaps the most well known was Louis Brandeis. If you read Brandeis’s speeches from 1915 to 1916, they’re not about a Jewish state. Zionists were interested in promoting Jewish settlement in Palestine. They were interested in the creation of a modern Jewish culture, a revival of the Hebrew language and all of those kinds of things.

For the most part, they were not really statist until Ben-Gurion convinces them otherwise, in 1942. When Ben-Gurion goes to the Biltmore, American Zionists were interested in two things: they were interested in sending money to Jews who were settling in the Land of Israel, and in trying to use as much leverage as they can to get as many Jews out of Europe as possible to save lives. Ben-Gurion said to them, no, everything should really be about a Jewish state, because that’s going to maximize the possibility of saving Jewish lives.

Some of the most powerful American Jewish organizations at that point — the American Jewish Committee was decidedly non-Zionist. A much smaller group, the American Council for Judaism, was openly anti-Zionist. But most of American Jewish leadership was not Zionist, and they certainly weren’t Zionist the way we think about Zionism today. That was a very slow, progressive change.

Even though many European Jews were anti-Zionist or non-Zionist, once World War II begins, that all ends. Once you get to 1937 or 1938, the situation switches into an emergency situation of trying to excise Jews from Europe as quickly and as safely as possible. All these Zionist debates about socialism and labor and culture and language all seem to become irrelevant. The ultimate force of Zionist consensus was World War II and the Holocaust. What can you say after that?

After the establishment of the state in 1948, much of the anti-Zionism starts to fall away in America and in other parts of the diaspora. There isn’t much going on in Europe at that point, because it’s devastated. Anti-Zionism starts to dissipate, because it doesn’t really make sense anymore.

American anti-Zionists poststate were largely of two groups. One of them was very worried about the treatment of the Arab minority, and they saw that as being antithetical to their liberal understanding of Judaism and morality. The other side were the American anti-Zionists who thought that Zionism was not good for American Jewry, [because they thought] it was going to create a dual allegiance.

Early Anti-Zionism

Daniel Denvir

Let’s get more into these different strains of early anti-Zionism, starting with the anti-Zionism of Reform and Orthodox Jews. You mentioned that Reform opposition was based more on assimilationist social or political arguments, particularly around the place of Jews in the United States, whereas most Orthodox Jews opposed Zionism on the religious grounds that an earthly project of settling in Palestine would amount to a sort of blasphemy or rebellion against God. How would you distinguish these two major religious movements’ opposition to Zionism in the decades leading up to the 1930s?

Shaul Magid

One of the things that the Reform anti-Zionists and the Orthodox anti-Zionists share is a belief in the viability of exile, and that being in exile is something that is positive and constructive and necessary for the Jews now. Not being in an exile of persecution, but being in an exile that was more diasporic, where the Jews were able to function in the world and, in a certain sense, serve as a light to the nations.

A lot of the Reform anti-Zionists had given up on the messianic idea altogether. From the 1885 Platform and those that followed that, even when the movement became a little more Zionist late in the 1930s, Reform Jews are not interested in a return at the end of the day; there’s no messianism.

From the Orthodox perspective — certainly the ultra-Orthodox perspective — anti-Zionism was founded on the notion that Zionism is a false messianism. It is an abrogation of the covenant of exile that was established by the rabbis in the first centuries of the Common Era; it was giving up on the messianic idea by arguing, in a certain sense, that it has been fulfilled. But Zionism does not fulfill the messianic idea on Orthodox anti-Zionists’ reading, according to the traditional sources. Zionism becomes the very thing that Jews need to resist.

From the Orthodox perspective, anti-Zionism was founded on the notion that Zionism is a false messianism.

Even if you want to argue, from the ultra-Orthodox perspective, that Zionism resembles a kind of messianism, it’s being done by a transgressive, secular, anti-religious majority that by definition could not be truly messianic. This is something that Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook contests. One of the things that people don;t realize about Rav Kook is that he took Orthodox anti-Zionism very seriously. He offers an alternative to it, and he disagrees with it. But he certainly deeply understands the problematics of what it would mean for a secular transgressive group of nonbelievers to be the carriers of this messianic period of history.

Daniel Denvir

There are still Orthodox Jews today who are anti-Zionist on theological grounds — notably the Satmar Hasidic groups, and then Neturei Karta Haredi, who are present in in Israel but anti-Zionist.

Shaul Magid

The Satmar sect is the largest Hasidic sect in the world, and it still remains very anti-Zionist. But even groups like Lubavitch Hasidim, which is not anti-Zionist in the way the Satmar group is, are still not Zionists. They may be supporters of the state, they may go into the army, but they’re really not Zionist.

I think there’s a distinction that needs to be made between [Zionists and] those who may be pro-Israel but are not Zionists. Modern Orthodoxy has bought hook, line, and sinker into Zionism. But that was not the case in the 1950s and the 1960s. Modern Orthodoxy was much more reticent about Zionism. The Orthodox weren’t opposed to Zionism, but they weren’t necessarily attached to it in the way that they are now, and their religious identities were not as tied to Zionism as they are now.

Neturei Karta is a different animal. A lot of people put Neturei Karta and Satmar together, but they’re really not the same. First, Neturei Karta are generally Jews from Lithuania — they’re Litvaks, they’re not Hasidim.

They look like Hasidim; they dress like old Jerusalemites. But there was a big break between Neturei Karta and Satmar in the 1960s after Yasser Arafat took over the Palestinian Liberation Organization from Ahmad Shukeiri, who founded it in ’64. When Yasser Arafat took over, certain people in Neturei Karta began communications with Arafat, and the Satmar rebbe Joel Teitelbaum, the founder of the Satmar Hasidic sect, at that point said, “I’m out. I’m done.” Like, “I’m against the state, but you don’t talk to the enemy.” It’s an interesting break.

Daniel Denvir

I did not know that origin story about the break. But it explains why we see the Neturei Karta at anti-Zionist protests against Israeli military actions and meeting up with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at a conference in Tehran.

Shaul Magid

Yeah. And the next Satmar rebbe came out very strongly against those Neturei Karta going to Tehran. The Satmar rebbe was never interested, in any kind of active way, in dismantling the state, whereas some Neturei Karta actually are.

Daniel Denvir

The Jewish Bund is a, if not the, major reference point for a lot of left-wing anti-Zionist Jews today. It was a radical socialist organization that became a powerful force in the Jewish Pale of Settlement, the area to which Jewish residence was restricted in the Eastern European lands conquered by the Russian Empire. The Bund played an important role in Russian revolutionary politics.

How did the Bund articulate its anti-Zionism as part of a particularly Ashkenazi Jewish form of revolutionary socialism? What was the Bund’s conception of what it described as a Jewish nation in Eastern Europe, really a Yiddish nation? How did it conceive of the Jewish nation and Yiddish national culture’s place in a broader social struggle? And how did this conception of the Bund’s revolutionary project in Eastern Europe and Russia inform its understanding of Zionism as a hostile and reactionary force?

Shaul Magid

I have a couple of good anecdotes, because I come from a Workmen’s Circle family; my father’s family were all Bundists and Workmen’s Circle people. People often think that the Workmen’s Circle or the Bund were really universalist and they weren’t nationalist, or they were internationalist, which is not quite true. There were Jews, who were followers of Leon Trotsky, who really were internationalists and became part of the revolution, not as Jews, but just as citizens of the world.

But the Bundists really did have a national identity. They wanted to participate in this international workers’ revolution as Jews, and they had a specific cultural template they worked with that was focused on the Yiddish language. It became a kind of autonomism; it became, “We want to create an autonomous enclave within the larger empire, where we can participate as Jews in this international workers’ revolution.”

The problem the Bund saw with the Zionists wasn’t that they were nationalists, but that they were ethnonationalists, and they wanted to create an ethnostate, and they didn’t want to be part of the larger workers’ revolution. There were certain Zionists like Ber Borochov, for example, who tried to bridge the two. He was a socialist sympathetic to the Bund, but he felt that socialism and nationalism, even ethnonationalism, can work together.

That became the raison d’être of the left-wing kibbutz movements, which saw themselves as part of the international workers’ revolution through the creation of Jewish collective farms that would exist within a Jewish state. There were a lot of those left-wing kibbutz movements in the 1940s that were actually opposed to a state. They didn’t want there to be a Jewish state, because they felt that was going to undermine their international project.

There were a lot of those left-wing kibbutz movements in the 1940s that were actually opposed to a state. They felt that a state was going to undermine their international project.

I’ll give you an example to bring it up to the end of the twentieth century. I went to a Workmen’s Circle summer camp from 1966 until 1974, my entire childhood — the same Workmen’s Circle summer camp that my father went to in the 1940s. This is from the Six-Day War through the Yom Kippur War, 1967 to 1973. I never remember ever talking about Israel. There were no Israeli flags. There was no Hebrew. There were no Hebrew songs. We learned Yiddish, we learned Yiddish stories, we learned about Yiddish authors. We had a Shabbat-type thing, but it was really just dressing in white and eating silently on Friday night.

There was still a sense that there is something called “Yiddishkeit” that doesn’t have anything to do with the Jewish nation-state over there. It wasn’t anti-Zionist: there was nothing said against Israel. There was just nothing really talked about in favor of Israel.

Now, if you go to that same summer camp today, it’s full-on Zionist. The remnant of that Yiddishness that Bundists call “Jewish culturalism,” which didn’t see a Jewish nation-state as part of its project, has almost completely disappeared.

The First Aliyah

Daniel Denvir

The first wave of European Jewish settlement in Ottoman Palestine, known as the First Aliyah, took place between 1881 and 1903. How did that wave of settlement unfold? How did it relate to emerging ideologies of Zionism, a movement that in many ways it predated?

Shaul Magid

Liora Halperin wrote a great book on the First Aliyah, and one of the things that she argued in that book very convincingly is that it wasn’t really a Zionist Aliyah. The first Zionist Aliyah is the Second Aliyah, which is from 1904 until World War I.

The Jews who came in the First Aliyah were mostly religious — they were mostly what we would call Orthodox. They were mostly entrepreneurs; they were mostly coming to set up businesses and set up farms and make money. They saw that Palestine was really a great opportunity to do so, and it allowed them an incredible amount of cheap labor.

The First Aliyah Jews were fairly successful in setting up these kinds of businesses. Many of them were not at all welcoming of the Second Aliyah, which was mostly Jews from Russia, who were socialists, who were Zionists. The First Aliyah felt like, “You people are messing things up. We’re trying to set up an economy here, and you’re coming in with all of your ideology of ‘We’re going to rebuild the land, and we don’t want Arab labor, we want to do it ourselves.’” The First Aliyah Jews were kind of bourgeois, whereas the Second Aliyah Jews were idealistic socialists who wanted to create a revolution. So there was a lot of friction between First Aliyah Jews and Second Aliyah Jews.

The Second Aliyah Jews were much greater in number, although it is true that, among the Jews who came in the Second Aliyah, 60 to 70 percent of them went back to Europe within five years. It wasn’t a very successful aliyah, because the conditions were horrible, there was malaria, and it just wasn’t feasible. Many of these Jews are coming from urban areas. There were also very high rates of suicide among Second Aliyah Jews.

Daniel Denvir

We’ve talked about Labor Zionists and Revisionist Zionists, and we’ve talked about a variety of anti-Zionist currents. A third Zionist current was opposed to political Zionism or was at least set apart from it: cultural Zionism, and also relatedly binationalism, championed by people around an organization called Brit Shalom.

The movement was founded by a thinker named Ahad Ha’am, and it ultimately drew a number of major Jewish intellectuals into its orbit, including the German Jewish philosopher Martin Buber and Hebrew University founder Judah Magnes. But binationalism, despite its far-more-realistic assessment of what partition in a Jewish ethnostate would mean for Palestinians and Jews, never had much popular support or political power.

What was cultural Zionism, and what was its relationship to binationalism? What did binationalist thinkers, disproportionately intellectuals from Austria-Hungary, envision for this imagined future of Arab-Jewish democratic cogovernance in Palestine?

Shaul Magid

I think that Ahad Ha’am in particular is as important a figure in the history of Zionism as Herzl, and in many ways more influential. Ahad Ha’am came from a traditional background and was basically making the claim that Zionism offers the opportunity for the full modernization of Judaism — not the abandonment of Judaism for some political reality called the Jewish nation-state, but the modernization of Judaism in the creation of Jewish culture, Hebraic culture, out of the sources of tradition.

That’s why he was so popular among many of the intellectuals that you mentioned. The other person who’s very important is Gershom Scholem, who was also part of that earlier movement. Another person who was very much a part of this movement was Hayim Nahman Bialik, who was the kind of poet laureate of the early period.

Ahad Ha’am. (National Library of Israel, Schwadron Collection via Wikimedia Commons)

In a famous essay called “This Is Not the Way,” Ahad Ha’am comes out against the establishment of a state before the instantiation of a viable Jewish culture. He felt that first Jews had to engage in this cultural project, which meant reviving the Hebrew language and writing about Judaism and Jewish scholarship in the Hebrew language. Out of this cultural revolution, the concept of a Jewish nation-state would take form.

The problem with Ahad Ha’am’s vision was that history didn’t allow him the luxury of that process. As Europe started to fall apart, the cultural project, which would have taken a generation or two, wasn’t able to continue without the political project taking precedence, given the nature of the danger to Jews in Europe. So in one sense, Ahad Ha’am loses the battle between cultural and political Zionism — not because the political Zionist project was more compelling, but because the political Zionist project became more necessary at a certain point.

Still, Ahad Ha’am is an incredibly successful Jewish thinker, probably one of the most successful in the twentieth century in terms of his influence. Israeli culture, as we know it, is in many ways a byproduct of his vision.

Herzl couldn’t care less if the people in Israel spoke Hebrew; they could speak Esperanto, as far as he was concerned. For him, culture was Vienna, and that’s why he envisioned Tel Aviv as a kind of Vienna on the Mediterranean. He wasn’t interested in the integration of the culture of the Jews from Arab lands. Herzl wasn’t interested in the project that has become “Israeliness,” whereas Ahad Ha’am was.

Brit Shalom was a very small group of people, mostly German Jews. Many of the Jews from Germany and Czechoslovakia who were part of Brit Shalom had experienced the hypernationalism of World War I and were extremely worried about this ethnonational project, because they had seen firsthand what ethnonationalism could produce.

Many of the Jews from Germany and Czechoslovakia who were part of Brit Shalom had experienced the hypernationalism of World War I and were extremely worried about this ethnonational project.

It never really got off the ground, because I don’t think a lot of the Zionists in Palestine at that time took the Arab question seriously. Many of them made the miscalculation that Ben-Gurion made: eventually the Arabs will mostly leave. Because, why would they want to live in a Jewish country? There are all these other Arab countries that they can live in.

That didn’t happen. That is a totally colonialist perspective, because the Arabs in Algeria and the Arabs in Iraq don’t have anything to do with each other. It’s this idea that there’s the Arab world. There is no Arab world — there are different countries. There’s not one thing.

But that was a very colonialist mentality. I don’t blame Ben-Gurion for that, because that’s the way Europeans thought. The idea that, somehow, these people who have been living in Palestine for generations would just get up and move to Iraq, when they had no relatives in Iraq, they had no connection to it, or all they had was a language and they spoke a different dialect. . . . It was a miscalculation that Israel is still living in the aftermath of.

Daniel Denvir

You said that political Zionists didn’t take the Arab question seriously, which is one reason that binationalism didn’t take root in Mandate Palestine. But maybe relatedly, there’s a naivete on the part of the binationalists, because while anti-Zionists and binationalists would find common ground in opposition to a Jewish state, binationalists arguably failed to take stock of the fundamental problem of mass Jewish settlement under the auspices of a British imperial power.

That makes it a form of settler colonialism rather than mere immigration, even if that settlement, in the binationalist vision, was not intended to serve the ends of a Jewish state or ethnic cleansing. There’s still a certain logic to what was going on that maybe inevitably led toward the political Zionists’ preferred solution.

Shaul Magid

I think you’re right. I think the binationalists made a lot of mistakes, and they didn’t see what was happening. They also minimized Arab rejectionism. They didn’t realize the way in which the Palestinian population was increasingly unwilling to acknowledge the possibility of political Jewish presence in Palestine.

That doesn’t happen right away. But I think there was that naivete of the binationalists. Again, underlying their position was fear: they saw in World War I the bloodshed, the mass death, the hypernationalism that brought about the destruction of Europe. So Martin Buber develops this idea that he calls Hebrew humanism, which is an attempt to rethink the prophetic morality of the Jewish tradition within the context of shared political power.

That never came to be, and then the binationalists fell apart, and then they reconstituted themselves as a group called Ihud, and it lasted for a certain period of time. I will say, in Buber’s favor, until he died in 1965, he maintained that binationalism was the only possible alternative that would square with his understanding of the Jewish tradition.

Daniel Denvir

We should also mention that the legendary German Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt was very sympathetic to binationalism. She wrote powerful critiques that presciently warned of all sorts of problems a Jewish state would bring about.

Where does Arendt’s critique of Zionism fit into her larger way of thinking about the world? And where does Arendt fit into the political spectrum of Zionism and particularly the binationalist, cultural Zionists?

Shaul Magid

Arendt is somebody who I am always thinking with. I always have Arendt’s books on my desk, because I’m always going back to them. Although I don’t agree with her in everything, I think she is one of the most incisive political minds in the twentieth century more generally, but certainly on these kinds of questions.

It is complicated with Arendt. In two essays, “Zionism Reconsidered” and “To Save the Jewish Homeland,” she lays out her vision of the possibilities of Zionism. Arendt, in a way, was a Zionist in the beginning. She worked for the Zionist agency in France, helping Jews who were leaving Germany go from France to Palestine.

She certainly was sympathetic to the project. Arendt, though, was really an anti-nationalist. And her anti-nationalism was founded on the principle that nationalism creates refugees, that nationalism itself creates displaced people. So the very concept of nationalism was problematic for her — not only regarding Zionism, but regarding the reconstruction of Europe after World War II as well.

She was afraid of a number of things. One of them was that creating a Jewish state, where Jews will have power over a minority who don’t like them, literally five years after the experience and the trauma of the Holocaust, will not go well. She’s just making a descriptive statement. You can’t take a traumatized people who were victims of genocide, and then give them a gun and put them in charge of people who actually don’t think they have a right to be there.

Hannah Arendt in 1958. (Barbara Niggl Radloff / Wikimedia Commons)

She wasn’t opposed to the establishment of a Jewish state; she basically thought that Palestine should be put in a ten-year receivership. Let the dust settle, let the refugees begin to rebuild their lives, and then we can talk about the possibility of the creation of a state.

Things didn’t work out that way. Ben-Gurion was adamant that it was a state or bust, and the United Nations was sympathetic enough — either guilty or sympathetic enough, to what happened to the Jews in World War II — that a state was born into existence.

But if we look at the longer trajectory, Arendt was kind of right. She was afraid of the slippage into a kind of chauvinism. Again, it’s a chauvinism that she experienced during Nazism, when she was expelled from Germany and had to go to France, and eventually made it to the United States.

Mizrahi Jews in the Zionist Project

Daniel Denvir

We should pause here to discuss Mizrahi Jews, or Arab Jews, who lived all over the Ottoman Empire and broader Arab world, including major historic communities in cities like Baghdad. There’s a reason we haven’t mentioned Mizrahi Jews yet, because Zionism was a project led by Ashkenazi Jews.

Where did Arab Jews fit into Ashkenazi Zionists’ Jewish and settler-colonial imaginary? And what did Arab Jews, including the small number indigenous to Palestine itself, make of this European settler project in the decades before 1948?

Shaul Magid

You’re right Zionism was a European project. There was a strong colonialist attitude that a lot of early Zionists had toward Arab Jews: they saw them as being uncivilized, they saw them as primitive. They saw them pretty much as they saw the Arabs, except the Mizrahi were Jews — and therefore, the Zionists were committed on some level to integrating them into the project.

You do have certain Zionist movements within the Arab Jewish world, in parts of Tunisia and parts of Iraq. So it’s not that it didn’t exist. But to your point about the Arab Jews who were living in Palestine when the Zionists came, it’s an interesting story, because many of those Jews felt themselves to be proud subjects of the Ottoman sultan.

They saw themselves as very much a part of the Ottoman Empire. They lived with fairly good relations to the Arab population; most of them were Arabic speakers. There was a delicate balance of coexistence between the majority Arab population and the minority Jewish population, and many of those people saw that Zionism was upsetting that delicate balance.

There was the beginning of a kind of animus and animosity among the Palestinian population toward the Jews when they saw that these Jews were not just coming from Europe to live in Palestine because of antisemitism — they saw, actually, this is a state-building project. There was a certain point, probably around the second decade of the twentieth century, when a lot of Arab leaders said, “Wait, these people are actually doing something. They’re buying this land. They’re not just like the Jews we knew who were living in Jerusalem or Hebron or Tiberius who were living their religious lives.”

There was a strong colonialist attitude that a lot of early Zionists had toward Arab Jews: they saw them as being uncivilized, they saw them as primitive.

So there was tension between a lot of the Jewish inhabitants of Palestine and the Zionists. Zionism saw itself as a broader Jewish project, but it also needed the numbers of Arab Jews. The Jews from Morocco and the Jews from Algeria and the Jews from Tunisia and the Jews from Iraq and Iran and Syria and other parts — there was a real concerted effort to bring them to become part of the project. But they would have to be Zionized, which really meant Europeanized, to become a full part of the project.

Ella Shohat and Aziza Khazzoom, both scholars of Mizrahi Jews in Israel, write a lot about this project that was known as the “de-Arabization” of the Arab Jews. Getting the Arab Jews not to speak Arabic, not to speak Arabic to their children, not to dress in Arabic clothing; to become more European-like, more Westernized, more “white,” if you want to use that terminology. And there was a lot of resistance on the part of a lot of those Arab Jews to do so because they had their own culture, they had their own language, they had their own customs.

There are two things worth mentioning. First, the Yemenite Jews, who were different than a lot of the Arab Jews because they were coming from the tip of the Arabian peninsula in Yemen, were really cut off from world Jewry, much more than the Jews living in Egypt or Algeria. There’s been a lot of scholarship about Yemenite Jews being brought to the Land of Israel, being separated from their families, children being raised in Ma’abarot, in these camps or these villages, and told that their parents were dead. There’s some really ugly stuff in Israel scholarship about what the Zionists did to the Yemenite Jews, whom they saw as primitive, uncivilized people who needed to be modernized.

It was a complicated story, in that the de-Arabization process that Ella Shohat talks about was very deep within Israeli society and culture. Specifically in the religious sector, but also in the secular sector. Certainly within the religious sector, in the 1960s or ’70s, for an Ashkenazi religious Jew to marry a Mizrahi Jew, even if she was religious, was a kind of intermarriage.

That’s not true anymore. There’s a lot more intermarriage between Arab Jews and Ashkenazi Jews. As a result of that, there’s been a lot of mending of fences that were broken during that early period.

Daniel Denvir

In terms of the desire of Zionists to convince Arab Jews to move to Palestine — and in fact the Zionists need to make it impossible for the identity of Arab Jew to really be inhabited — there are controversial allegations, supported though by scholars like the Iraqi Israeli historian Avi Shlaim, that Zionist agents even orchestrated anti-Jewish bombings in Baghdad to accelerate Jews’ flight to Israel.

Shaul Magid

I’ve read that too. The other thing to mention is the case of the Wadi Salib in the 1950s, which was an Arab Jewish neighborhood in Haifa that was liquidated by the state to build these new neighborhoods. The Mizrahi Jewish residents of the neighborhood, who were largely impoverished, strongly struck out against the government.

There’s another case, of Musrara, which is a neighborhood in Jerusalem, where a similar thing happened. The result of which, in 1971, was the organization of a group of young Israeli Mizrahi Jews who called themselves the Black Panthers after the Black Panther Party in America, who basically went to war against the Ashkenazi government and the Ashkenazi elite; Golda Meir was the prime minister at the time.

There was a racial component that was deeply embedded in the Zionist project. The way the Mizrahi Jews, especially young ones, started to recognize the way they were being held down, the way they were being kept in these neighborhoods, the way they were being left out of the upward mobility and treated essentially like Arabs. . . . By the way, many of these Black Panthers, some of whom became members of left-wing parties in the Israeli Knesset, saw themselves as very much in solidarity with their Palestinian neighbors, because they saw this as a racial divide. They didn’t see it as Jew versus Arab — they saw it as people of color versus white people.

Daniel Denvir

This sense of Mizrahi disaffection and rebellion against the Ashkenazi Israeli establishment was, for a moment, really up for grabs, and had some pretty left-wing and liberatory possibilities. But it ultimately gets significantly conscripted into the most reactionary, right-wing Israeli and Zionist politics, in many cases.

Shaul Magid

Right. You have two things that are important. One is the founding of the Likud party, which had a lot of Mizrahi Jews as its base. And then the emergence of the Shas party, which was a specifically Jewish Mizrahi party.

Mizrahi Jews, over the course of half a century, had developed their own sense of identity and were able to garner a certain amount of political power. They’re quite powerful politically now, and while in the old days, back in the ’70s, a lot of those Mizrahi Jews saw themselves as leftists — tied to Marxist groups, or tied to the racial culture wars of America — a lot of the Mizrahi Jews today have become part of the radical right base. Itamar Ben-Gvir is maybe the most obvious example.

Zionism and American Jewish Communism

Daniel Denvir

We’ve discussed socialist European anti-Zionism and American Reform and Orthodox anti-Zionism, but we haven’t yet discussed the huge number of anti-Zionist American Jews who were members of the Communist Party USA or various other socialist organizations. Historians say that an astonishing one in five American Jews in the 1930s were members of a Communist-led organization at one point or another.

Benjamin Balthaser writes: “In this context, Jewish Communist anti-Zionists held that Zionism was a bourgeois Jewish project, opposed to working-class Jewish interests, and also, for interrelated reasons, a project that conscripted Jews into whiteness.” He writes, “Derided as nationalists, imperialists, and the petty bourgeoisie, Zionists were a small and often-mocked minority within the Jewish socialist left. So much so, that a recently revived Yiddish song ridicules Zionists as ‘little and foolish,’ out of touch with the workers’ reality.” Balthasar continues, “The only way to retain a distinctly Jewish identity was to reject the racial conscription of capitalism. Zionism was a form of whiteness.”

How did Communists and other socialist Jews in the United States during this period conceive of Jewish identity, and why was that vision for Jewish peoples’ liberation fundamentally at odds with Zionism?

Shaul Magid

There was a question of whiteness and its relationship to Zionism, and not only that, but a question of the racialization of the Jew, and the way in which Zionists in America wanted to racialize the Jew as a way of making a claim that Jews have no future in America because they are racially distinct. And even though Zionism was in its origins a socialist enterprise, it really saw itself as part of what the socialists and communists would say was an arm of the larger American imperialist project, and therefore capitalism. And the inequalities inherent in Zionism, whether it’s Ashkenazi Jew versus Mizrahi Jew or whether it’s Jew versus Arab, are really a product of capitalism, and capitalism is the source of racism.

By the way, this isn’t something you see only among the Jewish communists, but something you see in the black radical tradition — that ultimately capitalism is the source of racism. It’s an important intervention that has largely been erased in American Jewish history — that is, the role of socialism and communism in the formation of American Jewish identity.

Maybe, in a certain sense, we’re seeing the last embers of that in Bernie Sanders. Bernie Sanders is an interesting refugee from a particular Jewish socialist ideology that always saw Zionism as problematic. Interestingly, people like Bernie Sanders and Noam Chomsky, who’s a bit older. . . . Noam Chomsky really comes from a kind of socialist Zionist background, and both spent time at a kibbutz in Israel.

It’s an important intervention that has largely been erased in American Jewish history — the role of socialism and communism in the formation of American Jewish identity.

A lot of these Jewish socialists did actually go to Israel — this separates [them from] the communists — in the 1950s and early ’60s, and they saw something that was very compelling to them. But as time moved on into the ’70s, that started to disappear.

In terms of the Jewish socialist bloc, at the time Benjamin Balthaser was writing about, they saw Zionism for what it was. This was an ethnonational project, and it was racialist if not racist, in principle if not in practice, but also in practice. And the socialist ethos that was driving it was ultimately not strong enough to overcome the empirical capitalist aspirations of the state. So it moved from kibbutznikim picking avocados to “Israel, the start-up nation.”

If you look back at the twenty-first century at “Israel, the start-up nation” — now of course you’d say it’s globalized, it’s part of the neoliberal imperial project. Still, on the question of Zionism, from the American Jewish communist and socialist perspective, they saw the dangers that lay ahead.

Daniel Denvir

The comment about Bernie is very interesting. Many anti-Zionists right now in the United States are the same demographic voting bloc that supported Bernie and are currently heartbroken by his seeming inability to call for a cease-fire — even as he has, admittedly, been one of the more Israel-critical members of Congress for quite a long time, and one of the more anti-imperialist members of Congress, whether he’s talking about Chile or Vietnam or Reagan’s wars in Central America.

Bernie is this bridge to that vanished socialist Jewish American past, but also for young anti-Zionist Jews, exemplary of some real generational limits, in terms of his inability to break with Zionism. There still seems to be this resonance from this moment on his trip to the kibbutz.

Shaul Magid

It’s very interesting the way in which Bernie got such strong pushback from that op-ed that he wrote in the New York Times. Bernie is an interesting bridge figure, in that he comes from a non-Zionist socialist upbringing and background, but he also was the product of the Zionization of American Jewry. He also, in a certain sense, probably identifies as a Zionist today. The younger generation of Jews are simply not buying that anymore. They’re really questioning Zionism itself.

Building the Israeli State

Daniel Denvir

How did Zionism change over this longer arc that we’ve discussed so far, from the late Ottoman period through the British Mandate — from the nineteenth century until the eve of war in 1947, as the Jewish population in Palestine swelled from a small minority of tens of thousands to many hundreds of thousands? What changed, as Zionism went from an idea to waves of European settlement, land acquisition, economic development, and then onto more organized armed, militant, and terrorist organizations?

Shaul Magid

A few things happened. First, Zionism was, in the early period from the late 1880s until the 1930s, one idea among a variety of ideas to address the Jewish question that emerged in light of the emancipation of Jews from Europe over a fifty-year period of time earlier in the nineteenth century, and then the rising antisemitism and pogroms that began in the 1880s.

So it was in the competitive market of ideas that sought to address these issues. The shift from Zionism being one in a market of ideas to Zionism becoming almost a necessity [is due to] the emergence of Nazism, once you have Hitler coming to power in 1933, and then subsequent to that 1935 to 1938, when Europe really started to collapse until the start of World War II.

The second thing is that the concept of a state was not really the dominant force behind the Zionist idea. Most of the Zionists before the ’30s were not necessarily statists. The idea of Zionism was either creating some kind of autonomous enclave in Palestine, or the creation of modern Jewish culture and the development of the modern Hebrew language, and these kinds of things. It was a multifaceted ideology.

What happens, largely due to Ben-Gurion, is that once Europe became an emergency situation for Jews, the concept of the state became a centerpiece of the Zionist project. A lot of the Zionists who were not necessarily statists began to coalesce around the concept of the state. Which of course at that time was still quite novel, the idea of creating a state from nothing. It was something that was just not very practical.

It was really a win-win situation, because after 1945, the world was dealing with a tremendous refugee problem, of hundreds of thousands of Jews, who were displaced people. For the most part, European countries and the United States weren’t interested in taking these highly traumatized refugees. So it kind of made sense on the world stage to make some kind of place for the Jews to go. The statist Zionists took that opportunity and went with it.

Daniel Denvir

How did the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, on territory comprising 78 percent of historic Palestine, through the United Nations partition vote and then prolonged war and then the mass expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians — how did this violent, very real-world realization of political Zionism remake Zionism as an ideology and a politics?

Shaul Magid

A myth that’s worth dispelling, at least partially, is that the partition plan was proposed by the United Nations and the Arab countries rejected it and Israel accepted it. That is true, except that it was very contentious within the Zionist community whether to accept partition or not.

Even Ben-Gurion was somewhat ambivalent about it. There were certainly more right-wing, reactionary Zionist thinkers and leaders that were dead set against partition. They wanted the entirety of the historic Land of Israel; they didn’t want the 78 percent.Ben-Gurion was ultimately able to convince them — he talked them down by saying, “Partition is the best we’re going to get.” In a famous speech, he said, “We will accept partition for now.”

A myth that’s worth dispelling, at least partially, is that the partition plan was proposed by the United Nations and the Arab countries rejected it and Israel accepted it. That is true, except that it was very contentious within the Zionist community whether to accept partition or not.

We also have to remember that the Arab countries didn’t accept partition because they felt that they had the power and the numbers to prevent Israel from becoming a state. They had nothing invested in accepting partition. They had everything to lose and nothing to gain; the Zionists had everything to gain and nothing to lose.

Once the war happens and Israel is able to succeed (to its own surprise to some extent), the notion of a state became a reality, and the infrastructure and institutions of the state started to take form, the Zionists had another problem they had to deal with: What are we going to do with all of these Palestinians who are living within the Jewish state?

Many of those Palestinians who were living in Mandate Palestine and then Israel in 1948 were dispossessed of land, were displaced. Seventy-five percent of people living in Gaza now are either refugees or children or grandchildren of refugees from ’48. There’s irony here that Israel comes into existence to solve a refugee problem, on some level, and in doing so it creates a refugee problem.

There was a big debate in’48 and ’49 about whether to let many of those refugees from the ’48 war back to their villages and towns in Israel. Ben-Gurion was dead set against it. He wanted the fewest Arabs possible within the Jewish state. Other people like Martin Buber argued vociferously with Ben-Gurion that you have let these refugees back — we were just refugees a few years ago, you have to allow at least some number of them return. Ben-Gurion said no, and I think that was a tragic mistake that Israel is still living in the aftermath of.

Daniel Denvir

Soviet support for the partition of Palestine in 1947 was profoundly consequential, in a lot of different ways. One, in terms of Arab politics, it undermined the credibility of Communist parties across the Arab world. It also, in the United States, thanks to the top-down nature of the Comintern, forced Jews in the Communist Party USA to suddenly change their line and drop their opposition to Zionism — though many Jews in Trotskyist organizations like the Socialist Workers Party remained anti-Zionist.

How consequential was this shift in Soviet policy for Zionism’s trajectory among Jews, given how many Jews were Communists? Is there perhaps a counterfactual reality where Stalin instead, for whatever reason, opposes partition, and anti-Zionism remains a much stronger force among American Jews for far longer?

Shaul Magid

I think that Ben-Gurion, for example, in the’30s and even in the early ’40s, was seriously contemplating tying the nascent Israeli state to the Soviet Union. It was for Chaim Weizmann that Great Britain and the United States were really the place to go. In ’42, Weizmann convinced Ben-Gurion to go to the Biltmore; Ben-Gurion wasn’t convinced that America was the future.

The Communist Party and the Communists in Israel, and some of the Jewish Communists in the United States, were very in favor of the Soviet Union’s support. Obviously, it changes with Stalin, and most of the Israeli Communists who separate themselves from the party do so after Stalin and after the purges.

The Rise of American Zionism

Daniel Denvir

Israel’s spectacular victory in the 1967 Six-Day War transforms Zionism within Israel and beyond, including very much in the United States.

How did the ’67 war — the incredible swiftness of the victory, and the extensive occupation of new land that it led to — how did that all spur a process of transforming what had been an overwhelmingly secular project into a religious, divinely sanctioned, and messianic one? What were the consequences of that transformation?

Shaul Magid

The ’67 war was a watershed moment for a lot of reasons, not only because of the swiftness of the victory but also because of the fear in Israel of what they were calling the “Second Holocaust.” There were all of these stories of the Israelis digging these mass graves because they thought tens of thousands of Israelis were going to be killed.

Zvi Yehuda Kook, the son of Abraham Isaac Kook, who became the patriarch of the nascent settler movement, gave a speech in May of 1967, three weeks before the Six-Day War. He talked about how, after 1948, after the establishment of the state, he wasn’t able to celebrate the Israeli independence day. In a very impassioned speech, he asked, “What about Joseph’s grave? What about Rachel’s grave?” He talked about all the religious, historical landmarks and how they were not part of Israel but part of Jordan: “How can I celebrate the establishment of a Jewish state when all those holy sites are gone?”

Three weeks later, all of those holy sites were under Israeli sovereignty. That speech was considered to be a moment of modern-day prophecy for the settler movement. What Zvi Yehuda Kook was saying is, “Unless we have those religious landmarks, the messianic project of Zionism is in a certain sense in neutral.” And suddenly it gets thrust into fourth gear.

After that, not only does he become the leader of that movement, but there begins a project of trying to make sure that Israel was not going to relinquish those territories, which most in Israel thought would happen. Except for a few people high up in the government, most of the government figured, “Ok, we occupied these territories in ’67; we’re going to make some kind of a deal, we’re going to make a peace treaty with Egypt, we’re going to make a peace treaty with Jordan.” The settlers saw this as a prophetic moment and began to try to do everything in their power to make sure that those lands were not given back.

What the followers of Rav Kook did not take into consideration — or maybe they did and didn’t care — were the tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of refugees who were living in refugee camps from 1948, who suddenly Israel took possession of. This was one of the reasons why most of the people in the Israeli government said, “We can’t keep this territory, because there are all these people here. And if we integrate them into Israel as citizens, we lose our Jewish majority.”

So everything moved into a holding pattern. It’s this holding pattern that began in ’67 and continued until ’77 for the most part, when everything seemed to go off the rails. Because the government was not going to relinquish those territories without a peace treaty from Jordan and Egypt. Jordan and Egypt weren’t really interested in a peace treaty. Jordan didn’t want that territory back, not to the extent that it was willing to give up something of its own — same with Egypt — in large part because you have this massive impoverished population who were living there.

What Zvi Yehuda Kook was saying is, ‘Unless we have those religious landmarks, the messianic project of Zionism is in a certain sense in neutral.’

The settlers, however, had a very different agenda. They were not in a holding pattern. They saw this as an opportunity to begin to settle in these territories. The government allowed them to do it, thinking in part that it wasn’t going to be a big deal, they’re not really going to stay. There’s the famous case of the Sebastia train station near Ramallah, where Jews on Hanukkah went and camped out in this abandoned train station, and they were visited by people like a young Shimon Peres. The basic attitude was, “Let these people stay, it’s going to get cold and rainy, they’re not really going to remain there.”

This was a tragic error on Israel’s part, of inaction when a segment of the society was building an entire ideology that was founded on the government’s inaction. In a certain way, there was a shock in ’67, where everybody kind of froze — except those who believed this was the beginning of the End Time. The country was transformed over the period of a few decades by that ideology, until 1977, with the election of Menachem Begin and the Likud party, where settlement becomes official government policy.

Daniel Denvir

In the United States, what was the place of Zionism among American Jews between ’48 and ’67? And what changed so dramatically after Israel’s victory?

Shaul Magid

From ’48 to ’67, most American Jews are introduced to Israel. Most American Jews knew almost nothing about Israel before the 1950s. A whole generation of Jews were introduced to Israel by Otto Preminger’s movie Exodus in 1961, which was a film version of Leon Uris’s book [that gave] a grand narrative of Zionism.

Most American Jews had never visited Israel. Most American Jews didn’t really have any understanding of what Israel was. There was a sense of pride in the kibbutz movement; Israel was [seen as] a Third World socialist society.

Everything changes after’67. Norman Podhoretz, who was then the editor of Commentary magazine, makes a statement: “We are all Zionists now.” The entire discourse of non-Zionism or anti-Zionism or assimilationism or dual allegiance kind of gets swept away with the way 1967 was sold to American Jews as the great miracle.

Daniel Denvir

I think Podhoretz said that after the Yom Kippur War.

Shaul Magid

Oh, that would be ’74. The Yom Kippur War was also very important. From 1967 to 1973, the settler movement was quite small, and there were few settlements set up. It’s only after the Yom Kippur that the Gush Emunim, or the Bloc of the Faithful, emerges as a movement and an organization that then becomes part of the government and a number of political parties.

Egyptian prisoners of war being rounded up and made to remove their boots and socks, June 7, 1967. (Shabtai Tal / National Photo Collection of Israel via Wikimedia Commons)

For the most part, the language that was used to describe the Yom Kippur War was that of liberation, the liberation of territory. It’s in the ’70s that it becomes about the occupation of a people. That transition is really important. At the same time that Israel is developing a settlement organization that is hell-bent on maximizing citizens in the territories in order to solidify those liberated territories, American Jews — certainly young American Jews — began to say that there’s something morally problematic in the occupation of this large population.

But these are not the majority. The majority of Jews in America become introduced to Zionism after 1967 and become sympathetic to the Zionist project. The American Jewish Committee, which was a non-Zionist organization — the most powerful Jewish organization in America — suddenly becomes a Zionist organization. You see that shift, and then later on when you get into the ’80s you have the emergence of AIPAC and all these other groups.

Daniel Denvir

And groups like the American Council for Judaism, which came out of the Reform movement and was anti-Zionist, start to fade away.

Shaul Magid

It becomes smaller and smaller, more and more irrelevant. The Reform movement, which was built out of the 1885 Pittsburgh Platform, that said “We are not a nation, we are carriers of a religion” — which was decidedly anti-Zionist — the Reform movement itself becomes Zionist. The Conservative movement was somewhat ambivalent about the Zionist movement in the 1960s. It’s a slow process, but by the 1970s, Zionism is deeply rooted in the American Jewish consciousness.

There is an educational program that is developed for the Hebrew schools of the Conservative and Reform movements that is founded on the principles of Zionism and the Holocaust. So you’re raising a whole generation of people to believe that Israel is the centerpiece of Jewish identity.

Daniel Denvir

Benjamin Balthaser has another fascinating article, about the Jewish New Left. Most of the leadership of the white American New Left was Jewish. They by and large embraced black radicals’ Third Worldist critique of Zionism and Israel. He writes, “Many of the Jews in SDS [Students for a Democratic Society] understood the victory of Israel against Arab states in 1967 less as a victory of Jews than as a defeat in the larger anti-imperialist struggle against Western capitalism.”

He writes that this identification with Third Worldist politics was a politics of solidarity, and also a means of defining Jewish identity against the conscription of Jews into suburban middle-class whiteness. He writes, “As a way to both distance themselves from normative liberal Jewish institutions and rebel against the racial conscription of Jews of European descent, Jews in SDS and other New Left organizations embraced not only Black Power’s call for organizational autonomy and public militancy, but their stance against Israel as well.”

There’s been a resurgent interest in how the New Left theorized whiteness, but I think much less of a recognition of how often Jewish activists were on the front lines of theorizing and resisting this conscription into whiteness. What was it about Jewish American life in the 1960s that made Jews such a substantial part of the white New Left? What about the moment might have motivated such an urgent rediscovery of an anti-imperialist and simultaneously anti-racist way of doing Jewish politics?

Shaul Magid

On the one hand, you have in 1962 the Port Huron Statement, which is really the birth of the New Left — the Jews who were signatories and authors of that statement, and also, people like Mark Rudd, who played a very important role in the SDS at Columbia. Interestingly, Mark Rudd gave a take somewhere in New Mexico in the 1970s reflecting on the SDS, and he said, “For me, it was all really about the Holocaust.” The alienation from Jewishness was more complicated than is often thought.

On some level, these New Left people were antibourgeois. They were anti-capitalist; they saw their parents as upwardly mobile, capitalist assimilationists. They were becoming part of the radical left, which saw itself as dedicated to Third Worldism in all kinds of ways. Israel was seen as being an arm of white colonialism and white imperialism, or American imperialism. A classic example is Noam Chomsky’s first book in 1964, where he writes about that.

To add a caveat to what Ben is talking about: the New Politics conference, which was in late August or September 1967, two months after the Six-Day War, was the basic coming together of all of the factions of the New Left. The black nationalist coalition was part of it; the black nationalist coalition had convinced the conference to add to its protocols opposition to what they called “Zionist colonialist exploitation.”

This was a response to the war. There was debate back and forth. Actually, Martin Luther King spoke at that conference and said had he known that was going to be adopted, he wouldn’t have spoken.

That particular moment was the beginning of the alienation of many people from the New Left to a position that moved closer to Zionism. There are important figures who are still around, like Martin Peretz for example, who was part of the New Left.

Daniel Denvir

Who cowrote an article with Michael Walzer in Ramparts magazine in July 1967 defending Israel, celebrating its victory in the Six-Day War, titled “Israel Is Not Vietnam.”

 

Shaul Magid

Michael Walzer is another important piece here. He was also a New Leftist. He wrote a very famous book called Just and Unjust Wars, which became a primer for political theory in the last part of the twentieth century. The reason that Walzer wrote Just and Unjust Wars was to make a defensive case as to why he could be anti–Vietnam War and pro–’67 war.

The ’67 war and the ramping up of the anti-Vietnam movement put a lot of New Left Jews into that situation. Peretz, Walzer, Martin Jay, Hilary Putnam, and others who were part of the New Left started to become alienated from it when suddenly, if you identified as a Zionist, you were part of the imperial problem and not the radical solution.

Arthur Waskow was another example. His book The Bush Is Burning! in 1971 has a chapter titled “From Jewish Radical to Radical Jew.” This captures the transition of many of those New Left Jews who started to look for their roots in Judaism and Jewishness after they felt that the New Left had abandoned them post-’67.

Daniel Denvir

This divide that emerges among left-wing Jewish Americans with the Martin Peretzes and Michael Walzers on one side and the Abbie Hoffmans and Mark Rudds on the other, this growing divide around Zionism and Israel, was deeply enmeshed with divides that were opening up around the Jewish American relationship to black Americans and black political struggle, particularly Black Power. Balthaser writes, “While it might seem shocking now, polling data in the late 1950s recorded a higher Jewish support for civil rights than for Zionism. For Jews at least, liberal antiracism was postwar Americanism.”

Why did American Jews have this particular investment in civil rights liberalism, and how did the rise of Black Power and the New Left, alongside everything going on with Israel, lead to these emerging fractures, which were simultaneously around black politics and Israel? Different politics were taken by different currents of the Jewish New Left, by liberal American Jews, by the emerging Jewish neoconservative currents (people like Nathan Glazer and Norman Podhoretz), by the Jewish renewal movement, and also by far-right Jewish radicals around Meir Kahane and his Jewish Defense League (JDL). Why is American Jewish politics cracking up in the way that it was at that moment around Zionism, imperialism, and Black Power?

Shaul Magid

I think the question also points to the idea that used to float around, long before my time, that Franklin D Roosevelt was the first Jewish president, and the way in which Jewish socialism and Jewish Yiddishist culture gets transformed in twentieth-century America by the midcentury into a form of liberalism. The idea of Judaism as ethical monotheism, that Judaism is about supporting and advocating for the oppressed — especially in an America where Jews weren’t the ones being oppressed — translated very easily into civil rights. Jews took a very important role in civil rights, in the Freedom Rides in the early 1960s and before.

As you move within the Jewish spectrum from the more liberal or progressive to the more Conservative or Orthodox, you see less and less support for civil rights. The official Orthodox movement doesn’t officially support civil rights until the mid-1960s. They were very reticent about that. Abraham Joshua Heschel, who becomes the iconic figure in the Selma march in 1965, marching next to Ralph Abernathy and King, also enters into the civil rights discussion quite late. Whereas you have people like Joachim Prinz, who spoke in 1963 right before King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, who was more interested in civil rights because of his experience in Nazi Germany. There’s a way in which that translates from that period of oppression, of persecution, into the civil rights movement.

With the rise of the black nationalist movement, a lot of Jews felt that they were being excised from the African American movement.

A lot of this was pivoting on this question of Jews and whiteness. Becoming American was part of becoming white. I think that with the rise of the black nationalist movement, especially after MLK was assassinated in 1965 and the Black Power movement was inaugurated by Stokely Carmichael in 1966, a lot of Jews felt that they were being excised from the African American movement.

To some extent, they were right: the black nationalist movement was a movement by blacks, about blacks, for blacks. Basically, Carmichael, in that famous speech in Greenwood, Mississippi, said, “Here’s the door. You’re no longer welcome. Thank you for your service.”

So there were a lot of ways in which Jews felt very insulted and offended by black nationalism. Then of course, black nationalism sees itself on a Third Worldist model where, after 1967, Israel is considered to be the white branch of American imperialism that’s oppressing the Palestinians.

There is that shift, where Jewish liberalism is put to the test. A lot of these New Leftists, a lot of the Jews who became radicals . . . and we have to remember that radicalism as a posture is really ultimately focused on anti-liberalism. It’s not focused on being anti–reactionary conservatism. It’s a critique of liberalism.

Daniel Denvir

Because that’s the dominant force in American life at that point.

Shaul Magid

Exactly. So there’s that shift from the liberal support of civil rights, the radical support of the Third World, the radical support of people of color, and then this bombshell of the emergence of black nationalism after the assassination of Malcolm X and the assassination of Martin Luther King, where suddenly Jews are marginalized because they’re white. They’re marginalized because they are really, actually, not on the side of justice and equality, but they’re on the side of oppression.

New American Zionisms and Anti-Zionisms

Daniel Denvir

How is it in this moment that you have these more explicitly reactionary breaks from the liberal Jewish consensus — namely, the neocons and JDL?

Shaul Magid

It’s really JDL first and then the neocons. What Kahane did was quite brilliant. Kahane basically just translated radicalism into a reactionary register.

Kahane really went to war against American Jewish liberalism. That was really the enemy. He had a lot of admiration for Malcolm X and the Black Panthers. Of course, he felt the blacks were all antisemitic. He’s just adopting a particular tactic and ideology, which was going to war against Jewish liberalism, because Jewish liberalism was just another name for Jewish assimilationism.

The neocons emerged from a group called “the New York Intellectuals” — Podhoretz was part of it and others — on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, around Commentary magazine and around some other places like that. They began what I would call “soft reactionism.” They weren’t radical; they weren’t revolutionaries the way Kahane was. They were adopting a Jewish ethos that was secular but was focused on questions of hyperparticularity and notions of capitalism and freedom as a way out of the Jewish liberal morass.

The neocons and Kahane were both basically trying to figure out a way to cut off the continuation of Jewish liberalism, because they felt that it was dangerous for the Jews. Either, on the Kahane side, because of antisemitism, or on the neoconservative side, because it was going to lead to assimilationism.

Daniel Denvir

Today we primarily think of neocons as the advocates of imperial adventure and intervention, particularly in the Middle East. They certainly have been that. But in their early years, they were more focused on a critique of Great Society liberalism that was facilitated by a certain pathologization of the black situation in the United States — at least implicitly, maybe explicitly, contrasted against their own collective Jewish advancement.

Shaul Magid

Right. In his book critiquing Cold War liberalism, Sam Moyn says Cold War liberalism eventually corrodes liberalism from the inside, such that it becomes weak and ineffective, and then you have all these different alternatives.

Kahane’s alternative of reactionary or militant anti-liberalism has a very short shelf life, in part because he comes a bit late to the party: the JDL is founded in May 1968. Once you have the end of the Vietnam War, once you have the resignation of Nixon, that kind of radicalism begins to fade away. And when the radicalism in America fades away, the JDL starts to lose its raison d’être. Of course, Kahane also moves to Israel in 1971.

But that’s neoconservatism’s moment. That’s really when it begins to emerge and come to the fore. Henry Kissinger was a very important part of that, where Jews are suddenly now emerging from being lifelong, card-carrying Democrats, whose parents were lifelong, card-carrying socialists, to being neo-Republicans.

Daniel Denvir

We’ve discussed all sorts of Zionism and anti-Zionism over a long period of time, in Israel, the United States, and elsewhere. But there’s also a sort of non-Zionist diasporism, that is probably best exemplified by Philip Roth’s novels. Something more quietist or even indifferent — apolitical — than anti-Zionism, or a more proactive, assertive diasporism.

What’s the significance of this cultural current on non-Zionism? How might it help us make sense of Jewish American politics and the place of Zionism within it?

Shaul Magid

Roth is a great example, as well as Saul Bellow. But Roth is a better example of a kind of ’50s, ’60s, early ’70s Jewish Americanism that was focused on a sense of integration but not assimilation. Maybe the last great exemplar of Philip Roth’s non-Zionist American Judaism is someone like Larry David, or at least the character of Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm. 

It’s interesting that Curb Your Enthusiasm is this really Jewish show and Israel almost never comes up. There is the famous “Palestinian chicken” episode, but generally speaking, it’s not part of that Los Angeles Jewish world. It’s not on the map; it doesn’t matter. They’re not against it — they just don’t have any opinion about it.

That was a much more prominent thing in the 1960s when Roth was writing, because at that time American Jews were mostly American-born. The baby boomer generation was the first generation where the majority of American Jews were American-born, so they’re no longer immigrants. They’re really American, trying to then cultivate and figure out what that actually meant, and at the same time trying to cultivate some form of gastronomic Judaism, or pediatric Judaism, that wasn’t a lot more than bagels and lox, which people make fun of.

The neocons and Kahane were both basically trying to figure out a way to cut off the continuation of Jewish liberalism, because they felt that it was dangerous for the Jews.

But from their perspective, that was sufficient. They weren’t going to become Christians. They wanted to be identified as Jews — maybe they would get a nose job, maybe they would get their hair straightened or colored, to pass a little bit more like Americans. But they still vacationed together; they went to summer camps together; they belonged to country clubs with other Jews. They wanted to be among Jews. They just didn’t want the identity to move beyond that.

I don’t know if that’s really possible now. One of the interesting things about the Zionization of American Judaism from the ’70s onward is that it’s almost impossible to have a Jewish identity today without having a position on Israel. It’s inserted itself so deeply into the American Jewish psyche that you can’t have a Philip Roth character in a story, like “Eli, the Fanatic,” or some of the other characters in his novels. I don’t think it’s possible today; you can’t ignore Israel.

For a lot of pro-Israel Jews, that’s part of the problem. You have all these groups like IfNotNow, or We Stand Together, or Not in My Name, or JVP. These groups are not ignoring Israel — Israel is the center of their Jewish identity. But it’s the center of their identity as a critique.

Daniel Denvir

Let’s turn to this new and very consequential Jewish anti-Zionism. Above all else, it’s an anti-Zionism of young American Jewish leftists.

There are all different sorts of American Jews who have been drawn to it. Some were brought up in a Jewish religious household and were bar mitvah’d and observant and all that; others were culturally Jewish or “New York Jewish” but not really connected to Judaism in any sort of communal way.

Many date the emergence of this new current to Israel’s 2014 war on Gaza, known as “Operation Protective Edge.” Why has it been the last decade in particular that’s been such a consequential turning point for so many American Jews, particularly young American Jews? Why, in response to that moment and the moments since, have so many young American Jews begun to turn away from liberal Zionism toward a skepticism of Zionism, or even a full-throated anti-Zionism in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle?

Shaul Magid

There are probably a few reasons. One, which is not talked about enough but is very important, is the internet and access to information. People who are now in their twenties grew up being able to look at Al Jazeera and the Guardian and the New York Times and Haaretz. There’s an access to information where it’s really difficult now for any community to curate a particular narrative.

The other thing has to do with the changing nature of Israel as a society. Over the last fifteen or twenty years, Israel has become an increasingly right-wing society. A lot of these young people who are now a part of these movements are growing up after the two-state-solution myth. The very idea of a two-state solution, which was a liberal solution to the problem, has become unrealistic, fantastical, utopian. In a sense, if you don’t have a two-state solution, all you have is a one-state reality that looks a lot like apartheid.

Also, progressivism has taken a new turn in America. I’m not talking about Jews — I’m talking about American progressivism. With Black Lives Matter, with the rise of Bernie Sanders and AOC and all the people that came in that wake, there’s a resurgent sense of political radicalism.

I think a lot of these young Jews, who are now solidly white, are recognizing that, and recognizing their complicity in American racism, and then looking at Israel and saying, “Israel is a Jewish supremacist society.” They’ve taken on a particular progressive ethos against systemic racism or anti-Arabism or anti-Palestinianism and begun to cultivate their own sense of identity in opposition to an Israeli society that seems, in their eyes, simply no longer willing to entertain the possibility of a resolution to this conflict.

Activists from Jewish Voice for Peace return to the ferry after occupying the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty on November 6, 2023 in New York City. (Stephanie Keith / Getty Images)

We can take the language of apartheid out, we can take the language of occupation out. From their perspective, Israel is a society of domination. It’s dominating a group of people who have a national identity, who have a national consciousness, who are asking for rights of self-determination.

Just like the New Left was a protest against the Old Left FDR-ism of their parents, the Gen Z new anti-Zionism is a critique of the neocapitalism of the Reagan era. It’s a cycle that’s moving, because I think that for a lot of these people, it’s not just about Israel. It’s about capitalism, it’s about racism, it’s about climate change. Israel defines itself in a proud way as being “the start-up nation,” and a lot of these young progressives are saying, “That’s the problem. They’re hypercapitalists, free-market capitalists, who are taking advantage of people of color in the Global South,” and so on.

People will say, “They don’t remember where it comes from. They don’t remember the Holocaust; they don’t remember 1948; they don’t remember the kibbutz movement.” That’s true — they don’t remember, because they weren’t alive! You can’t just say, “You have to remember what life was like before the Civil War.” The Civil War’s been over for a long time.

For a lot of these people, the miracle of Israel coming into existence post-Holocaust doesn’t have the same resonance it did for a previous generation. And a lot of their parents don’t understand that. But you can’t give trauma as an inheritance in that way; it doesn’t function in that way.

The Crisis of Liberal Zionism

Daniel Denvir

Liberal Zionism is in a real crisis now, in part because the Israeli state is so breathtakingly illiberal. Obviously, the liberal Israeli state was always an illiberal one from a Palestinian perspective. But now, I would argue, that colonial illiberalism has ricocheted back into the Jewish core of governance and society.

Why did liberal Zionists once have a program for Israel that seemed viable? Was it ever actually viable, given its emphasis on ’67 as the moment when Israel lost its moral authority? Even if the crisis for liberal Zionism is new, are the roots of that crisis actually old?

Shaul Magid

Liberal Zionism is an American phenomenon. I don’t think there is a liberal Zionism in Israel. There’s a leftist Zionism in Israel, but that’s very different from a liberal Zionism.

Liberal Zionism, if you want to look at its origin point, is Louis Brandeis. Brandeis wasn’t even really talking about a state, but he was basically making an argument that Americans should be Zionists because Zionism and Americanism are aligned. There’s something about the liberal ethos of American society that is very much in line with the liberal ethos of the early Zionist movement.

The liberal Zionist perspective is certainly on the ropes. What does it mean for a person committed to liberalism to support an illiberal nation-state project? I don’t think one can make an argument that Israel is a liberal state at this point. What becomes more complicated is the desire for Israel to go back to some liberal roots, which, as I see it, never really existed. It’s really a fabrication of a particular American Zionist ethos, which allowed Jews to be liberal Americans and Zionists at the same time.

What’s happening, certainly after October 7, is that liberal Zionism itself is becoming illiberal. The idea is that “my liberal views vis-à-vis America do not necessarily have to translate to Israel.” As a friend of mine wrote on her Facebook page, her political views were “right on Israel, left on everything else.”

The liberal Zionist perspective is certainly on the ropes. What does it mean for a person committed to liberalism to support an illiberal nation-state project?

This is what liberal Zionism is becoming at this point, which you see in a lot of op-eds. Or [people saying], “We’re no longer talking about two states — we’re talking about shrinking the occupation.” Which is a term that was invented by Micah Goodman, an Israeli who is not a liberal Zionist, but who has been able to use liberal language to articulate an illiberal Zionist settler project.

His idea is, “We have to be better settlers. We have to be better hegemons. We have to treat the people we’re ruling over better. We’re not going to give them equality, because we can’t do that, but we have to make life better for them.” That’s “shrinking the occupation.” That has become the liberal Zionist position on some level.

Daniel Denvir

You write that the neoliberalization of Israel, the notion that it’s a “start-up nation,” challenges “the very core of Zionism as an ideology of collective Jewish self-determination, built on a democratic socialist ethos.” I think it also undermines the foundational Zionist idea that working the land would turn weak diaspora Jews into these muscular Israelis. In today’s high-tech economy, and with tighter and tighter restrictions on Palestinians in the territories entering Israel to work, it’s been Thai or Filipino guest workers doing the farm labor; a surprisingly large portion of the hostages taken by Hamas on October 7 were Thai farm laborers.

Where does the neoliberalization and white-collar-ization of Israel fit into the larger politics of far-right settler radicalization that we’ve been discussing?

Shaul Magid

This idea of “start-up nation” as being both the godsend for Israel that thrust it into becoming a first-world economy and the death knell for Zionism comes from a teacher of mine, Eliezer Schweid at the Hebrew University, who was a strong Zionist thinker and probably the person that influenced me more than anyone else on these issues. His basic critique is that globalization was a kind of perfect alternative for Israel. It had the technology, it had the brain power, it had an educated population, and it had the kibbutzim, which could produce and manufacture things like medical technology, computer parts, and so on very quickly.

So Israel was thrust into this global world as “start-up nation,” but Schweid claimed that this undermined the collective ethos upon which Zionism was founded. He didn’t think that Israel had to continue to be an agrarian society. But the fact that being an Israeli meant being a part of a national collective project — with socialism as its economic ethos — started to basically transform into a neoliberal, free-market capitalist society, where you had the rise of a very wealthy class, and a poorer class who no longer had the social safety net that they once had.

And of course, the Israelis were no longer willing to do manual labor, whether it’s farming or construction. In the 1970s and ’80s, it was mostly Arabs who were doing that, who were coming in from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Once that ended in 2000 because of the Second Intifada, then you had all the farmworkers coming into the country who were doing those kinds of things.

One of the things that Schweid talks about is that once you’re being paid by multinational companies — once you’re working for Google and Amazon, once you also have an apartment in Paris and Palo Alto and London — you’re not part of the collective project as much anymore. Your money is not coming in from Israel itself; you’re being paid by Google in California or some other company. You’re not attached to it. You may live there and send your kids to school there, but you become more of a citizen of the world.

The byproduct of that is that the secular Zionist ideology, which was so deeply embedded in Israel in its early days, dissipated. There was this ideological vacuum that was filled by religious Zionism. Because religious Zionism does have a very strong, land-based ideology; it does have a very strong collectivist ideology. It has a very strong ideology of Israel as not a nation among nations, but a different kind of nation.

So settler religious Zionist ideology filled the vacuum that was created in part by globalization and now has come to dominate Israeli culture. I don’t mean only among religious Zionists. I mean even among secular Jews — the idea of tradition, of religion, the idea that there’s something unique and distinctive about the Jewish religion even if it’s not lived out in an Orthodox way.

You see that, for example, in popular music. A lot of popular music now is dominated by religious Jews. Ishay Ribo is the classic example. He’s a fascinating cultural figure, in that he’s an Orthodox Jew singing about Orthodox religious things. If you listen to his music, he doesn’t sound that much different from people you would have heard in Tel Aviv twenty years ago. But he’s not a secular Israeli from Tel Aviv singing about chasing girls — he’s a kippah-wearing Orthodox Jew singing about love of God.

Daniel Denvir

Today, anti-Zionists, including Jewish anti-Zionists, are constantly defamed as giving cover to antisemites or being antisemites by organizations like the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), or even by the US House of Representatives. Jewish anti-Zionists have been declared to be “kapos” or no longer even Jewish. We’re experiencing this huge concerted effort to clamp down on and chill pro-Palestinian speech, and a major part of that has been this unprecedented effort to delegitimize Jewish critics of Israel in particular.

The ADL and others have long tried to equate anti-Zionism with antisemitism. In 1974, the ADL put out a book called The New Antisemitism that described anti-Zionism as a form of antisemitism. But it seems we;ve entered a new moment in terms of the hyperbolic and sometimes absurd nature of these allegations. As Jerry Nadler, no great friend of the Palestinian cause, pointed out on the floor of the House, [the resolution declaring anti-Zionism to be antisemitism] is declaring that Satmar Hasids are antisemites.

What do you make of the way that antisemitism is being weaponized in this quixotic but ever-more-intense effort to preempt criticism of Israel? What do you make of the way that it’s being particularly weaponized against this really substantial number of young, left-wing anti-Zionist Jews?

Shaul Magid

In his new book, Our Palestine Question, Geoffrey Levin locates the first instantiation of the claim that anti-Zionism is antisemitism in 1937 — prestate. So you already saw that there was something brewing early on. It doesn’t reach the same kind of volume as when Jonathan Greenblatt of the ADL says, “anti-Zionism is antisemitism, full stop” recently, and in the battles around the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) antisemitism document, which moves in that direction, versus the Jerusalem document, which resists that.

Hannah Arendt talks about this in her article “To Save the Jewish Homeland,” where she says that Zionist hegemony is a very dangerous thing. She’s talking about it from her experience of hypernationalism in Europe. When you have one ideology that obtains a hegemony over all other kinds of ideologies, you enter into a realm that, if you follow down the road, it turns into fascism.

I’m not making the claim about Zionism and fascism; I’m just saying that Arendt was very disturbed. She claimed that one of the problems with the establishment of the state was that it was going to invalidate non- and anti-Zionist perspectives. Which eventually it did, though it took a few more decades than Arendt thought that it would.

To my mind, it’s an egregious weaponization of antisemitism that is now focused on the Left. The book The New Antisemitism is really about the antisemitism of the Left, which is really the antisemitism of the Muslim world. Here’s the interesting rub: the anti-Zionist who is a Hebrew-speaking, Talmud-learning, Kosher-eating Jew who sees Zionism as a danger to the ethos of Judaism’s focus on justice and equality — that person is an antisemite. But the Christian evangelical who is pro-Israel and has no love for the Jews is not an antisemite. Some thirty-year-old Jewish woman who’s in JVP is an antisemite, and John Hagee is not.

I know it’s hard for people to get their head around, but there are many pro-Israel antisemites. Their pro-Israelism is part of their Christian dispensational ideology.

That’s what we’ve come to: what determines whether you are for the Jews depends what your stance on Israel is. I know it’s hard for people to get their head around, but there are many pro-Israel antisemites. Their pro-Israelism is part of their Christian dispensational ideology that Jesus is going to come back, the Jews are going to have a chance to accept him, and if they don’t, the earth is going to open up and they’re going to fall in. That’s the Book of Revelation. That’s ok. But if you’re an anti-Zionist, you are an enemy of the Jews.

It’s among the terrible roads that Jews have gone down of late. This is one of the worst, because of two things. It’s mistaken, for one. It’s a substitution of Zionism for Judaism. Number two, which may be more pragmatic: those young Jews who you are trying to cut out of the Jewish people — they don’t give a shit. They don’t care. You have no authority over them. You want to call them an “un-Jew,” you don’t want to let them into your synagogue — they don’t want to come to your synagogue.

There’s this real game that’s going on, where the Jewish establishment or the ADL or whatever is acting as if it matters to these young people. They don’t care what you think about them or their Jewishness. They’re going to set up their own learning centers; they’re going to set up their own summer camps; they’re going to set up their own synagogues.

At that point, what’s accomplished? You’re just dividing the Jewish people. You’re going to have some people who are Jews in good standing on their own account because they’re Zionists, and then you’re going to have other Jews who are in good standing because they’re anti-Zionists. In a certain sense, what you’re doing with this “un-Jew” is you’re promoting sectarianism.

I saw this great video clip of these Satmar Hasidim holding up [signs saying] “Israel is apartheid,” then there’s these secular Jews on the sidewalk yelling at them, “You’re not a Jew!” They’ve just come from the diner having a corned-beef sandwich, but they’re going to tell the Satmar Hasidim that they’re not Jews. That’s when the irony becomes comical.

Setting the Satmar aside, I think it’s a terrible mistake, and I don’t think anything good is going to come out of it. It’s throwing down the gauntlet about the intolerance of opposition to the Jewish state — not the Jewish state writ large, but the Jewish state as it presently exists.

Jewish Strength and Jewish Vulnerability

Daniel Denvir

I worry that this equation of anti-Zionism with antisemitism, alongside the actually existing Zionist state’s monstrous actions in Gaza, will or is already fueling actual antisemitism. Obviously, nothing Israel does can excuse antisemitism, but we have Israel doing these horrific things in the name of all Jews at the same time that pro-Israel figures who are telling people who oppose Israel that they are in fact antisemites. It seems very dangerous.

Shaul Magid

It is totally dangerous. The rise in antisemitic acts in the United States is demonstrably the consequence of what’s happened post–October 7. The reality of what we’re seeing on our computer screens every day more and more, week by week, and as the death toll continues to rise. . . . I have Palestinian friends, and what am I supposed to say to them? They absolutely come out against Hamas and against what happened. But they say, “Shaul, they’re killing tens of thousands of children. How do you think that’s going to be a solution to anything?” I have no answer to that.

That is the reality. People are saying, “We can’t trust the Hamas health ministry numbers.” Ok, so it’s not sixteen thousand, it’s eleven thousand, it’s ten thousand. . . . At what point does it not matter anymore?

Daniel Denvir

The irony here is that groups like JVP saying “Not in our name,” the same Jews being accused of being antisemitic, are actually leading the fight against antisemitism in the United States. They’re saying, “We refuse to let Jews be held collectively responsible for Israel’s actions.”

Shaul Magid

When the antisemite is going to point to the Jew in the street in New York City and say, “You’re committing genocide” or “You’re destroying the Palestinian people,” and that person is saying, “No, I’m an American Jew. That’s not me,” and then when Israel in 2018 in the Nation-State Bill says “Israel is the nation-state of the entire Jewish people,” Israel has essentially put into law what the antisemites are arguing: that every Jew is complicit in everything Israel does. They have different ways of articulating it, but it’s the same structural equation.

Daniel Denvir

There’s a surreal thing happening, where there will be an article in the newspaper about reportedly heightened antisemitism on campus, and the evidence will often be something like someone yelling “Free Palestine” at a pro-Israel Jewish student and the student felt uncomfortable. There’s a discourse sometimes that the very invocation of Palestinian identity and Palestinian existence is implicitly genocidal against Jews.

So on the one hand, there’s this possible invocation of the possibility of Jewish annihilation, if not for Israel. But that Jewish insistence on vulnerability is often brought up alongside an insistence on Jewish supremacy and strength, sometimes including an openly annihilationist strength vis-à-vis Palestinians. It’s a discourse that can normalize ongoing Israeli settlement into the territories between the river and the sea, while insisting that the chant “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” is inherently genocidal against Jews — as if Palestinian freedom inherently means genocide of Jews.

How do you parse, ideologically and discursively, Zionism simultaneously invoking Jewish strength and capacity for violence on the one hand and Jewish weakness and existential vulnerability on the other?

Shaul Magid

The way you articulated it is the crux of the tension that exists within the entire Zionist project. On the one hand, Jews now have the right and capability to defend themselves, and on the other hand, Jews are vulnerable.

I’ll give you two examples. One example is something Yitzhak Shamir said and that Netanyahu said as well, that the borders of Israel are like the gates of Auschwitz. What that’s actually saying is that we in Israel are in a state of powerlessness the way the Jews were in Auschwitz, which is of course bizarre. And on the other hand, the comparison that some people made between the kibbutzim that were attacked on October 7 and the Warsaw Ghetto, or all of the kind of comparisons between Hamas and Nazis.

I understand where that’s coming from; I understand the sense of trauma and vulnerability and humiliation that Israel feels as a result of what happened. But the comparison only really shows the way in which that deep sense of victimization that has been embedded in the Jewish psyche for millennia — and for good reason — still actually exists in a nation-state that has a nuclear weapon.

That is the tension between those two things. If you say that a Jew in Tel Aviv is like a Jew in the Warsaw Ghetto, then Zionism has accomplished nothing. It would be something that, I’d say, Ben-Gurion would come out strongly against. He precisely wanted to wipe away the psychic victimization of the Jew through sovereignty and power and domination.

If you say that a Jew in Tel Aviv is like a Jew in the Warsaw Ghetto, then Zionism has accomplished nothing.

We see that that’s a very difficult thing to do. It’s so deeply embedded in the Jewish experience, and of course some Jews use that as a tool of justification for engaging in behaviors of domination. “We have to do it, because we are in a perennial existential crisis.” I’m not even sure what that means, to be in a perennial existential crisis — certainly for a nation-state to see itself as being in a perennial existential crisis, especially when it’s the only country in the region that has a nuclear weapon. It is one of the most militarized countries in the region, that is supported by the great world power, the United States.

Post–October 7, there was such a deep sense of trauma and fear and humiliation, that this was never supposed to happen. Zionism existed so that this would never happen. So what does it mean that it happened in the Zionist project?

Daniel Denvir

There was this moment sometime in the weeks after October 7 when Joe Biden said, “There’s not a Jew in the world who would be safe if there were no Israel,” or something along those lines. It was remarkable in a variety of ways. One, because Biden is the president of Jews, and two, because things like October 7, at least on that scale — knock on wood — do not happen to Jews in the United States. It was remarkable in its dissonance, in terms of the Zionist promise and the reality that had been exposed.

Shaul Magid

The Zionist narrative is basically founded on that principle. Biden is just absorbing a particular kind of Zionism from the 1950s and ’60s when he was growing up. If there was no Israel, world Jewry would be in danger.

My response to that is: maybe that’s true, maybe that’s not true. I don’t know. I don’t want to see the destruction of Israel to find out, but to make that assertion as a proclamation and therefore as a proclamation that one can use to justify certain actions and behaviors — what’s the evidence for that?

Jews lived for two thousand years without a state. Life wasn’t always so good, but it wasn’t necessarily as terrible as a lot of historians want to make us believe. It wasn’t so good, that’s true. But it’s not that Jews disappeared. It’s not that there was ever a sense that the Jews were going to be annihilated.

Of course, the Holocaust becomes the exception to that. But we have to remember, Zionism starts before the Holocaust. The Holocaust doesn’t give birth to Zionism. The Holocaust creates the conditions whereby the world says, “Yes, a Jewish state is necessary.”

Gaza, Israel, and What Comes Next

Daniel Denvir

There’s been this Zionist civil war raging within Israel that had reached quite a level of intensity in the months leading up to October 7. What will happen to those divides now, and how will they shape the future trajectory of Zionism?

On the one hand, we have these deep ideological conflicts that have fueled the anti-Bibi protest movement, and those will remain. But on the other hand, the “democracy” movement was always a Zionist one, which meant that it perversely could not extend the meaning of the democracy that the protesters were fighting for to include Palestinians fighting apartheid. Then today, we have the vast majority of Israeli society, from center left to Right, seemingly united behind various forms of Jewish supremacy.

What are the historical ingredients that led to this extreme far-right government? And what do you think will happen next within Israeli politics, in terms of this divide, even as these two camps are united behind this horrific war on Gaza?

Shaul Magid

For a lot of Israelis, that is really the unanswered question. Can a protest movement begin again? Can there be the same energy among Israelis who are watching the emergence of an autocratic system of government by minimizing the Supreme Court and minimizing liberalism?

The protest movement was not a left-wing protest movement; it was a centrist protest movement. It did not really include the occupation. In fact, for a certain period of time in Capital Square, which was the main stage in Tel Aviv, speakers were not allowed to talk about the occupation specifically. As a friend from Tel Aviv once told me, “If you bring in the occupation, we lose half the people.”

There were anti-occupation neighborhoods in the protest movement: places where there were people holding up Palestinian flags and people saying, “There’s no democracy with occupation,” and so on. But it was really a Jew versus Jew movement. They adopted the Israeli flag; it became an Israeli movement.

Demonstration against judicial reform in Israel, January 28, 2023. (Oren Rozen / Wikimedia Commons)

American Jews didn’t know what to think about it — “Should we support the protests? Should we not support the protests?” Pundits from Israel came over and said, “Yeah, you can support the protests,” and then they supported the protests. And if you weren’t supporting the protests because they didn’t include the occupation, you were being anti-Israel. The Palestinians and the Arabs did not see themselves as part of the protests. I think they were right about that.

How did this right-wing government come to be? Parliamentary politics is complicated for someone more familiar with the American system. It’s a very complicated, messy system — who gets elected, coalitions, things like that. But the difference between the Israeli government that was elected in November 2022 and the Trump administration is that the Trump administration was arguably more of an anomaly. We can talk about the counties in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin and Minnesota . . . had they gone one way or another way, the election might have been different.

The November 2022 elections that brought us this far-right government was the product of the last five elections. It’s that in the four elections beforehand, there wasn’t enough of a coalition — because of parties that didn’t want to talk to each other, [for reasons] having nothing to do with the Arab question. [The rise of the far-right government] had been happening.

Why? I think there are a number of reasons. I’ll suggest two. There really isn’t a Left in Israel anymore. One of the reasons there’s no Left is because many of those people have really bought into globalization. They’ve just checked out of the political culture.

Second, I think a lot of Israelis just got tired of the Arabs. Like, “We’re just done. We’re tired of the occupation. We don’t want it anymore. You don’t really want to be a part of us; we cant really include you.” There was just this sense of, “I give up.” And the ideologists of Zionism were waiting in the wings and were able to swoop in and say, “We have a solution to the problem. Ben-Gvir is going to be the national security minister. He’s going to make sure that we’re going to arrest Palestinians; we’re going to take them from their homes and demolish them,” and on and on.

For example, the pogrom in Huwara, which was horrific. . . . It’s not just that you had settlers who were going and liquidating a village, but also that you had the idea of standing by and watching. Most Israelis were horrified by that. No one was arrested, no one was convicted, no one was put in prison.

That’s the most devastating thing. The fact that you have people who will do such a thing — we know that already. But the fact that the government is willing to look the other way and not prosecute and convict people of these kinds of crimes? Whereas if Palestinians did that to a Jewish settlement, the army would go in and destroy the village.

I don’t think Bibi’s the problem. I think Bibi’s the symptom.

I think a lot of Israelis have become numb to the dominating culture and have basically come to the conclusion, “There’s no other way.” Any of the optimism that happened in Oslo, and any of the optimism that happened after Camp David 1, when there was this meeting of Egypt and Israel and Anwar Sadat flew to Jerusalem. . . . I don’t think that’s part of the Israeli experience anymore.

Bibi is really hated in Israel by a lot of people. Obviously not enough, because he’s still the prime minister, but there’s a large contingency of people who don’t like him, who really blame him for October 7. But I don’t think Bibi’s the problem. I think Bibi’s the symptom.

The problem is much deeper than Bibi. If you look at some of the people waiting in the wings — like Benny Gantz, for example, or even Yair Lapid — on the question of the Palestinians, there’s not that much difference between them and Bibi. There are differences in terms of other things: economic policy, judicial policy, and so on. I don’t see much of a difference between Gantz and Bibi on the question of the occupation.

When all is said and done, when the smoke clears, when people start to rebuild their lives, the same problems that existed before October 7 are going to exist after October 7. I don’t think structurally the country will have changed in any significant way. I’m not a pessimist by nature, but I don’t see a way forward.

Daniel Denvir

We both support some version of a one-state solution in Palestine-Israel, or whatever it will have to be called: a single, democratic state of all of its citizens, Jewish and Palestinian, living between the river and the sea. But it’s hard to imagine such a beautiful thing happening anytime soon, particularly given how intensely uniform the political reaction seems in Israel.

You write, “Liberal Zionists have mostly dismissed such ideas as fantasy. But liberal Zionism is no less utopian than progressive one-statism.” In other words, this proposed solution might seem like a wildly utopian one, but what it has going for it is that nothing else is remotely ethical, moral, or workable in the long term. What sort of resources could Israeli Jews draw upon in their own traditions that might facilitate that happening one day?

Shaul Magid

As a point of clarification, I’m not an advocate of a one-state solution, because I don’t think it’s a solution. I’m in favor of the recognition of a one-state reality, because that’s what there actually is. As opposed to a two-state solution, which doesn’t exist, and the conditions for it really don’t exist. Here I’m influenced by the political scientist Ian Lustick. It’s saying that Israel is a one-state reality. From the river to the sea, there is one state, and that state is called the State of Israel.

The question really is: What kind of state is it going to be? Is it going to be a democratic state? Is it going to be an ethnocratic state? Is it going to be an apartheid state? Is it going to be a liberal democracy?

All of those options are open. I think putting energy into creating a reality of what is rather than imagining a reality that does not exist is probably a better way of spending our time and resources.

In terms of how you get there, there is some really interesting work being done. Omri Boehm’s Haifa Republic uses the example of Arab-Jewish coexistence in Haifa historically as kind of a model for a national program. It’s going back to some form of binationalism, back in the ’20s and ’30s, when nobody really thought it was possible, and it wasn’t possible then. What would it be to be possible now?

The argument in my book is that the problem isn’t, what kind of Zionism? The problem is Zionism. But that’s not an anti-Israel position. It’s saying that Zionism existed, it did its work, it created a state — why can’t we just put that on the shelf and think of another way, outside the narrative of, “This is the land of the Jews, and if you really behave yourselves and you act the way we want you too, maybe we’ll give you piece of it, maybe we won’t. Maybe you’ll be demilitarized, but we can be militarized.”

In other words, there’s an inherent inequality to the very notion of Zionism. My suggestion is basically saying that people who live in this state should be equal by dint of citizenship, and they can have their separate religious institutions and secular institutions of identity, and they can run their affairs the way they want to.

I come closest to this notion of a kind of confederacy, where you have two separate entities under one federal system. That’s probably the most realistic. A lot of people in Israel say, “You can’t do that, because they’re the enemy.” And yes, I think both sides see the other as the enemy, and October 7 just put that into turbo.

I’m not sure how you actually lower the volume. I think if we can think of Israel beyond Zionism, that’s a way to move forward. Otherwise, we’re just going around the carousel, and we’re going to come back to this moment again. Or, on the other hand, Israel will take the route of the United States and Australia, and destroy everybody — and then the problem is solved, and Israel has to live with that. We’re living with that legacy; Australia is living with that legacy.

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