Opinion: Jewish anti-Zionist myths are unfair

Zionism is a movement that says the Jewish people have value.  

Only two out of every 1,000 people on earth today are Jews. They are outnumbered by at least some people among the remaining 998 either who want Jews and Judaism destroyed, or who don’t care if they are. Israel is the only place where we can be sure Jews’ safety is priority one, not priority 10,001. 

I believe anybody opposing Israel’s existence as a Jewish nation-state thereby says Jews’ safety is less important than something else. Yet some Jews say they oppose it, and for Jewish reasons. These naysayers have existed at least since the 1890s founding of modern Zionism. 

Sometimes they make headlines. That happened on July 8 when the New York Times published an opinion column by Jewish commentator Peter Beinart claiming, “I no longer believe in a Jewish State.” 

Jewish anti-Zionists exist in two groups. On the right is a minority subset of haredi Orthodox movements. To them, Zionism constitutes a religious heresy that substitutes a secular nation-state for observance of Judaism. 

In addition, the Talmud (Tractate Ketubot) includes a passage contending that the Jewish people in exile are bound by oaths pledging them not to retake the land of Israel by force, and not to rebel against the world’s nations. Therefore, to these haredim, Jews must live peacefully in exile, even under mortal threat, until God decides when and how to return them to the land. 

On the left, Jewish anti-Zionists include people like Beinart and organizations like Jewish Voice for Peace. 

According to its website, JVP says Zionism and Israel constitute “a false and failed answer to the desperately real question many of our ancestors faced of how to protect Jewish lives from murderous antisemitism in Europe. … [T]he Zionism that … stands today is a settler-colonial movement, establishing an apartheid state where Jews have more rights than others. Our own history teaches us how dangerous this can be. …  

“Many of us have learned from Zionism to treat our neighbors with suspicion, to forget the ways Jews built home and community wherever we found ourselves to be. … By creating a racist hierarchy with European Jews at the top, Zionism erased those histories and destroyed those communities and relationships. … It prevents us from seeing each other — fellow Jews and other fellow human beings — in our full humanity.” 

These JVP statements distort Jewish history and Israel’s reality. Zionism is not an imperialist “settler colonial” movement seeking to seize and exploit foreign people and resources. It is how the most unjustly and long-time persecuted minority group in history sought to return to its ancient, religiously important, and never totally abandoned homeland to create a refuge from, and defense against, that persecution. 

Israel has a total population of about 8.8 million, 76 percent or about 6.7 million of whom are Jews, according to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics in 2018. Of the Jewish population, about half descend from immigrants from Europe or Russia. Many Israelis are Jews from Arab/Muslim countries. Some are, or descend from, Jews from Ethiopia, India, and elsewhere. These facts demonstrate that the notion of Israel being a European “racist hierarchy” is false. 

Plus, all Israelis, Jewish and not, have the right to vote and freedom of speech and the press; and non-Jews serve in Israel’s government, including in the Knesset (Parliament) and Supreme Court. A truly Jewish “apartheid state” could not say any such things. 

JVP’s claims also constitute a seemingly ignorant if not callous dismissal of the dedication our enemies have to our destruction and the indifference of a great many other people to our fate. 

Without state power, Jewish lives have not mattered to at least some countries majority non-Jews, who have done whatever they liked with us, from economic discrimination to mass murder. They have done so for centuries, not only during the World War II Holocaust, and not only in Europe but also in Arab/Muslim lands, as any good history of antisemitism demonstrates. 

Jewish anti-Zionists apparently seek to return us to past conditions of vulnerability. Remember: “Our own history teaches us how dangerous this can be.” 

Having said that, however, an uncomfortable truth also exists. Jewish anti-Zionists are mistaken, but they are so out of good faith concern for Jewish survival. They therefore not only constitute a legitimate part of the community but may even perform some services. 

For one, in his essay “On Liberty” British philosopher John Stuart Mill wrote, “He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that.” By presenting Jewish arguments against Zionism and Israel, Jewish anti-Zionists strengthen our ability to defend them by forcing us to think about how to reply. 

For another, as British philosopher Bertrand Russell said in a 1960 book, “I think nobody should be certain of anything … one ought always to hold one’s beliefs with a certain element of doubt and one ought to be able to act vigorously in spite of the doubt.” 

The Jewish people need a nation-state arguably more than anybody else does. Nevertheless, nation-states really can be problematic and dangerous political and social arrangements. They have created horrors, as many of their histories demonstrate. 

So, any nation-state should be supported with some wary doubt that prevents people from turning it into an idol for mindless worship. Jewish anti-Zionists warn us of such dangers, and so may enable us to avert or at least reduce them. 

Leon Cohen’s opinions are his own. He is the former editor of the Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle.