Rabbis Without Borders
Rabbis Without Borders is a dynamic forum for exploring contemporary issues in the Jewish world and beyond. Written by rabbis of different denominations, viewpoints, and parts of the country, Rabbis Without Borders is a project of Clal – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.
Let’s say I take the position – as many, many Israeli citizens and politicians do, indeed as many Jews around the world do – that a Palestinian state is absolutely out of the question because it would pose a mortal danger to the State of Israel… It would hem Israel into indefensible borders – Auschwitz borders as Abba Eban famously called them – that no country in the world would ever agree to. Such a position becomes even more eminently logical when we take into account the difficult neighborhood in which Israel finds itself; both close and distant neighbors clamor for her destruction.
Does opposition to a Palestinian state turn me into someone bearing deep irrational prejudice against Palestinian Arabs? Should I be tarred and feathered for hating Palestinians? Clearly not! I may be accused of being blind to Palestinian suffering, I may be callously favoring my people’s interests over their people’s interests, but all that does not make me an irrational hater of Palestinians.
So too, anti-Zionism is not anti-Semitism. It is often fed by anti-Semitism and it often feeds into anti-Semitism. They are frequently found together and at times may even be indistinguishable. But that does not turn them into one and the same thing.
Anti-Zionism negates the legitimacy of the State of Israel as a Jewish state, and indeed the destruction or the demise of the State of Israel would be catastrophic for the Jewish people. But that still does not turn anti-Zionism into anti-Semitism.
I am willing to partially concede the argument: Yes, anti-Zionism is often a form of anti-Semitism. But in principle, they need not be the same phenomenon and in many cases, they are empirically not the same phenomenon. Furthermore, as I will argue near the end of this piece, missing the distinction between them is an expression of our circle-the-wagons zero-sum-game attitude that ends up damaging the integrity and the righteousness of our cause and hindering the continued advancement of the Zionist vision.
I want to focus on Palestinian anti-Zionism. Fundamentally it is a cry of suffering that arises out of the experience of losing one’s land and one’s identity. Palestinians see themselves as victims lashing out against their oppressors. It is a stance taken in self-defense, an assertion that Zionism cannot be justified because of the putative injustice that it has caused. Palestinian anti-Zionism proclaims that this land cannot be your land because it is my land.
Palestinians in the 1920s and henceforth needed no anti-Semitic baggage – for hundreds of years they had lived side by side in relative peace with the religious Jews of the ‘yishuv hayashan’ (the pre-Zionist Jewish community in the Holy Land) – in order to rise up against what they perceived as the gradual encroachment of the Zionist settlers upon their ancestral lands. They sounded the alarm against the Zionist movement which they saw as scheming to turn their lands into a Jewish State. Zionism was their enemy and of course, they fought against it.
Certainly some Palestinians – both then and today – enlisted European Christian anti-Semitic themes and players in their battle. Some made common cause with the Nazis. A beleaguered people collects all the allies that it can. But that does not turn the two into the same phenomenon.
Not all anti-Zionism is of the same cloth. Islamic anti-Zionism – both that of the past hundred years and that promoted today by Hamas – that incorporates and promotes anti-Jewish readings of verses from the Quran and from Muslim tradition, may indeed be labeled anti-Semitic. But certainly, not all anti-Zionists accept the venom spewed forth by these ideologies.
Why do I insist on such nuance? Hasn’t my argument died the death of a thousand qualifications? Because demonizing the other – even when he is the enemy – is supremely unhelpful if we ever want to solve this conflict and to live together in peace.
Of course, if our aim is to vanquish and eradicate the enemy, then it might be argued that a demonization is an important tool in our arsenal. But almost all of us understand that the Palestinians do have some right on their side and do deserve to live in some of the land free of military occupation. To some degree or another, we will have to compromise and share the land. Until each side can see the other as partially right so that we can begin to sit down and negotiate in good faith, Palestinians and Israelis will continue to die, and the Zionist vision will remain incompletely realized.
Painting Palestinians and their allies as anti-Semites demonizes them. It signals that we don’t have to grapple morally or intellectually with their opposition to Zionism because it is really just a disingenuous smokescreen for a sick and demonic hatred of Jews. It allows us to justify refusing to engage them or to listen to them; it actually makes a moral imperative of repudiating them without sitting down to a serious dialogue.
Labeling our opponents as anti-Semites widens the gulf between us; it reinforces and perpetuates the conflict. It buttresses our conviction that there is no one to talk to and it buttresses their conviction that there is no one to talk to. It distances the day when we will begin the process that will end the bloodshed.
Judging favorably can open up lines of communication, and create trust and empathy, which today are sorely lacking. Instead of calling out the other side for their mistakes – name calling – we must take responsibility to create the conditions that will allow us to move forward towards reconciliation in this little sliver of land that we both call home.
In the work of Roots/Shorashim/Judur, the Israeli Palestinian grassroots initiative for understanding, nonviolence, and transformation, which I helped to found in 2014, I have seen the tremendous power of true dialogue. I have seen Palestinian anti-Zionists come to appreciate the righteousness of the Jewish return to the land, just as I have seen Zionists – myself included – come to appreciate the righteousness of the Palestinian connection to the land.
Remember the damage done by the infamous “Zionism is racism” resolution? Let’s not do something similar!