From the Editors
What constitutes a “good” Jew in contemporary American culture? What is the relationship between Zionism and Jewish identity? How do anti-Zionist Jews navigate or oppose the exploitation of their faith in Zionist discourse? And how can responses to these questions advance the cause for justice in Israel and Palestine?
Zionists appear to be winning the battle for control over Jewish identity politics in the United States. As a result, the mainstream conversation over what makes a “good” or a “bad” Jew compels some progressive, anti-Zionist Jews, including myself, to articulate their opposition to Israeli policy as a position rooted in their understanding of Judaism. For some, scripture and faith form the foundations of their position on Israel, and it is indeed important that Israel be discussed in religious terms. In the words of Israeli-born activist Gilad Atzmon, “If Israel defines itself as a Jewish state and its tanks and airplanes are decorated with Jewish symbols, we are entitled to ask: ‘who are the Jews, what is Judaism, what is Jewish-ness?'” A critical discussion of Israel and its relation to Judaism and Jewish law is therefore an important one. For many American Jews, however, employing the rhetoric of Jewish ethics is simply a means to defend our identity in the face of an enduring narrative that champions Zionism as the solution to Jewish suffering. Responding to this pressure can distract from the more powerful points that need to be made about history, social justice, and international law. As these points get left out of the conversation among Jews, we are left with a Jewish institutional culture that is overwhelmingly Zionist and intolerant of opposition to Israel. To operate outside of this mainstream is to operate in the margins of Jewish public life. If we wish to change the status quo, eventually Jewish religious and social leaders must feel comfortable opposing Israel without jeopardizing their status within Jewish institutional culture. All of this will require a potentially painful re-examination of Jewish identity.
Dominant narratives of the Arab-Israeli conflict attempt to distill complex histories into a story of primordial antagonism between Arabs and Jews. Simplified versions of history often fuse the terms Jewish and Zionist, coupling Jewish identity with support for the Jewish nation. A more rigorous reading of history, however, reveals that the categories of “Arab” and “Jew” are themselves complex and constructed, and that different Jewish communities across the world have long been divided along linguistic, national, class and ideological lines. Likewise, the Zionist movement has always been a divisive issue between and among Jewish groups. The state of Israel was not born out of a unanimous Jewish desire for a nation. Instead, it was the result of an intricate confluence of social and political realities that, in the end, championed Zionist political aspirations despite widespread Jewish opposition and even hostility to the idea of a national home.
In late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century Western Europe, Zionist political discourse emerged against mainstream, secular Jewish thought that championed liberal values and the historic processes of de-nationalization and assimilation. Thus, when faced with Zionism at the turn of the twentieth century, many Jews feared the movement might undermine the advances they had made integrating into their various societies. Many in the Orthodox Jewish community had their own fears, although for different reasons. Rejecting secular assimilation, these Jews also rejected the idea of statehood, arguing that a sovereign Jewish state that precedes the coming of the Messiah is contrary to Jewish law. This movement still exists (ie: Neturei Karta), and is fairly well known today thanks to the novelty of images of bearded Jewish men protesting Israel in cities across the world.
Skepticism towards the Zionist movement was not limited to European Jewry. Jewish reactions to Zionism were profoundly altered by specific circumstances. Abigail Jacobson writes of the “old Yishuv,” the indigenous Jewish community in Palestine, and describes the debates within it as European Jewish immigrants began settling in Palestine and as World War I threatened to change their political landscape. For Ottoman Jews, Zionism was not a question of assimilation, religion, or the national character of the Jewish people; it was a question of loyalty to the Ottoman Empire and negotiating their place in society in the midst of wartime realities. Interestingly, for Ottoman Jews, proving loyalty to the empire sometimes existed simultaneously alongside Zionism. Although, as Jacobson points out, Ottoman Jewish Zionists, and indeed Ottoman Jews in general, were more inclined toward Jewish coexistence with Christians and Muslims than were their Ashkenazi counterparts. I introduce this history here in order to illustrate an important point: the ways in which Jews received Zionism were always informed by their assorted and changing political and social milieus. For the proponents of Zionism, winning the favor of their co-religionists was complicated by the variety of contexts through which Jews around the world considered Zionism.
Given the challenge of winning the allegiance of Jews in different social and political situations, Zionists sought to appeal to what they considered universally Jewish concerns. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that the social and psychological concept of Jewish self-hatred developed in Europe concomitantly with the foundation of Zionist ideology. Early Jewish proponents of the notion of self-hatred argued “that assimilation was corrupting for the Jews, could only produce self-hatred, and that the solution for Jews was to assert their Jewish identity, primarily through the nationalist project.” This rhetoric — equating rejection of Zionism with Jewish self-hate — remains a part of the discourse surrounding Zionism and Jewish identity (see this pamphlet by the American Jewish Committee). The very real anxiety produced by such discourse is added to larger concerns with anti-Semitism and Jewish survival. This anxiety is a large part of why Zionism has become a fixed part of the “Jewish identity” that many Jewish organizations seek to cultivate and preserve.
American Jewish Institutional Culture
While it goes without saying that early twentieth century Jewish anti-Zionism ultimately failed, “many of its residues can still be heard in contemporary Israel-Diaspora tensions.” While the face of Jewish anti-Zionism has changed, the Zionist response to it continues to be the relentless question of the “good Jew.” To be a “good Jew,” they argue, is to believe that Jews have a unique history of suffering and that Israel was established as salvation from this suffering. It is to believe that the Israeli flag, with the Star of David at its center, belongs in synagogues, Jewish social institutions, and on summer camp T-shirts. Today, much of the nuance of Zionist history has been lost, as many American Jewish youth come to understand the establishment of Israel as a culmination of the history of their faith. These ideas are reified and reinforced in synagogues, and Jewish youth groups, social organizations, and popular culture across the United States.
One of America’s leading Jewish youth groups, the B’Nai Brith Youth Organization (BBYO), has the mission of inspiring youth “to live Jewish lives while making a difference in the world.” This is the face of BBYO, and perhaps why many Jewish youth join the organization. However, another part of BBYO’s mission is to enable “teens to explore areas of leadership, service, civic engagement, Israel education and Jewish values.”  One of the core missions of B’nai Brith Girls (BBG) - the female section of BBYO, of which I was a member and leader in high school - is “to help Jewish teens develop a commitment to the State of Israel and K’lal Yisrael (all of Israel).”  These aspects of BBYO’s mission and program are not immediately obvious to a teenager who wants to socialize with her peers or parents eager to facilitate their children meeting other Jews. The Israel aspects of Jewish youth groups such as BBYO are subtle but powerful.
By way of example, the International BBG song is sung at most meetings and all conventions by female members of BBYO. The song lyrics are as follows:
We pledge to thee, oh BBG
Our love, our youth, our loyalty
We sing to thee with joyous sounds
Our voices reach the sky
From Zion came the white and blue
To give these colors bold and true
Our loyal daughters gather ‘round
To raise our flag on high
It is usually impatient girls who sing this song; they are often eager to finish their institutional business and get on with meeting the new crop of boys. Nonetheless, the message is clear: to be a Jewish youth is to be loyal to the state of Israel. Pride, sisterly love, Jewish identity and Zionism are bound together, rendered indistinguishable to a Jewish teen who may not be encouraged to ask critical questions about her identity and Zionism.
Of course, BBYO is not the only Jewish youth group in the United States, although it is a representative example (note the similar programming missions of Hillel, NFTY and Young Judea). There are organizations that are less political, and even some that are explicitly non-Zionist (see Jewish Voice for Peace). However, the fact remains that the dominant Jewish institutional culture – those community centers, summer camps, youth groups and synagogues which set the tone for the conversation over the relationship between Jews and Israel – is a Zionist one. There is debate surrounding the question of whether American Jewish youth are growing more or less attached to Israel, but there is little sign that the institutional culture is changing. To be critical of Israel makes it difficult to be a part of, let alone a leader in, this culture. My personal experience is testament to this fact.
I have dedicated a large portion of my life to the Jewish community as a leader in organizations such as Hillel and BBYO. I had benefitted greatly from my involvement in Jewish public life. As an adult, however, I began asking Jewish community leaders critical questions about the politics and history of the Middle East. I had hoped that their answers would help me reconcile what I was learning of Palestinian suffering with the Jewish world that I had come to know. Instead, my questions made me the object of criticism and even suspicion. I no longer felt the same sense of comfort or pride in my position within the Jewish community. It has, at times, become tempting to reaffirm my Jewish identity by grounding my opposition to Israel in Jewish principles. Doing so, however, has done little to help bring me back into Jewish public life. Instead, I have tried to add my voice to the fray of the larger Palestinian solidarity movement. This diverse movement is led by passionate and dedicated people all over the world, but made especially powerful by Palestinians in the Diaspora. Meanwhile, the major American Jewish social and political institutions continue to be led by Jews who are either Zionist or are unwilling to speak out against Zionism. The "us" versus "them" dialectic continues.
The possibility for non-Zionist or anti-Zionist Jews to influence Jewish institutional culture is still a very real one, but not as long as Jews continue to fear that their Jewish identity will come under scrutiny on account of their political views. Couching criticism of Israel in terms of Jewish ethics is not the only way to protect one’s status as a “good Jew.” Recognition of the rich history of Jewish opposition to Zionism in Britain, the Ottoman Empire and in the United States is the first step. Jewish institutional culture used to include, and indeed was represented by, organizations that saw the Zionist project as harmful to world Jewry. That these organizations were eventually outnumbered and outpaced by Zionist lobbying does not mean that the history should be forgotten or that it is not still alive today. With this more complete version of Jewish history in mind, Jews who are critical of Israel might feel more confident in voicing their criticism. To be a “good Jew” will mean not to stand with Israel, but to stand for social justice, even, especially, for the Palestinians. This, of course, is already what it means to be a “good Jew.”
 Atzmon, Gilad. Interview: March 15, 2012. Atlantic Television News. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_YH47MaHkoQ>
 See Alcalay, Amiel. After Jews and Arabs: Remaking Levantine Culture. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, MN. 1993.
 See Levene, Mark. War, Jews and the New Europe: The Diplomacy of Lucien Wolf 1914 – 1919. Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK. 1992.
 Jacobson, p.109.
 Finlay, W.M.L. Pathologizing dissent: Identity Politics, Zionism and the ‘Self-Hating Jew’. British Journal of Social Psychology, Vol. 44, 2005, p. 211.
 Wistrich, Robert S. Zionism and its “Assimilationist” Critics: 1897 – 1948. Jewish Social Studies, New Series, Vol. 4, No. 2 (Winter, 1998), p. 62.
 Brownfield, Peter. The League of British Jews: Challenging Nationalism on Behalf of Jewish Universalism. The American Council for Judaism: Issues. Fall, 2001 & Wistrich, Robert S. Zionism and its “Assimilationist” Critics: 1897 – 1948. Jewish Social Studies, New Series, Vol. 4, No. 2 (Winter, 1998).
If you prefer, email your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Hot on Facebook
It is now a battle of will: who will put conditions on whom: us, or them? Who names the new government or transitional council: SCAF, or the Square?click | email | tweet
Jad NavigationView Full Map, Topics, and Countries »
From Jadaliyya Reports
Jadalicious / جدلشس
Latest EntriesView All Entries »
- Egypt Media Roundup (May 20)
- Last Week on Jadaliyya (May 13-19)
- Jadaliyya's Occupation, Intervention, and Law Page Resonates
- Al Jazeera Management Orders Joseph Massad Article Pulled in an Act of Pro-Israel Censorship
- سعادت حسن منتو: قصة قصيرة
- Reports Roundup (May 18)
- Injuries, Arrests and House Raids: The Case of a Bahraini Family
- الليبرالية الفلسطينية أمام القضاء الإسرائيلي
- ما هي النكبة؟
- Academic Freedom and the Middle East: A Handbook for Teaching and Research
- Syria's Inglorious Basterd
- Maghreb Media Roundup (May 17)
- Buckling to Bigotry: The Newseum Dishonors Murdered Palestinian Journalists
- كتب: أطفال الندى
- Statement of the Arab and Middle East Journalists Association in Reference to Newseum Scandal
- New Texts Out Now: Maya Mikdashi, What is Settler Colonialism? and Sherene Seikaly, Return to the Present
- On the Margins Roundup (May)
- On the American Association of University Professors' Opposition to Academic Boycotts
- The Palestinian Museum: An Agent Of Empowerment And Integration For Palestinians
- An Ongoing Displacement: The Forced Exile of the Palestinians