The relationship between Israel, Zionism, anti-Zionism, Jewish identity, and Jewish peoplehood has become a main topic of conversation again in American Jewish opinion circles and social media. The rhetoric has been heating up, as we can see from a number of recent essays, which argue variously that those who do not support the Jewish nation-state project are bad Jews, disloyal Jews, possible not worthy of the name “Jewish”—at the very least complicit Jews. That is, if you are not pro-Israel, in the way they want you to be, it’s not that you aren’t a good Jew, in fact you are a kind of anti-Jew. And although this tired line of rhetoric—one could cite literally thousands of pieces written in the last hundred years in which the gatekeepers of Zionist-Jewish identity try to write out of Judaism anyone who doesn’t share their nationalist project—has now become part of our collective argumentative history, it remains mistaken. Let’s look at some of its assumptions, and ask why this new iteration is happening now.
One of the classic tools of the trade of Zionist policing is the demonization of the term “anti-Zionism.” As Hannah Arendt notes in her essay “To Save the Jewish Homeland” (1947), until the founding the state (her essay was written right on the cusp of Israeli statehood) there existed a healthy tension among Jews between Zionism and non—and anti-Zionism. She laments the loss of that tension, as ideological hegemony is always a dangerous political phenomenon. Those who demonize anti-Zionism today never quite define the term. Denial of a “Jewish” state? Of Jewish chauvinism or Jewish supremacy? Of Israel itself? There is the theological anti-Zionism of ultra-Orthodoxy made explicit in the writings of the Satmar rebbe, Yoel Teitelbaum, the moral and anti-nationalist anti-Zionism of Hermann Cohen and Franz Rosenzweig, the secular anti-Zionism of the American Council for Judaism, the diasporist anti-Zionism of Judith Butler or Daniel Boyarin, and the anti-imperialist anti-Zionism of Noam Chomsky. Are they all the same? Of course not. All have different assumptions, different thought processes, and in some cases different goals. But for the gatekeepers, nuance and distinctions don’t really matter.
And in some cases it’s clear that their proponents aren’t only Jews, but pretty serious ones. Yoel Teitelbaum, to take one example, argues for his anti-Zionism, which was shared by most of his contemporaries before the war, from deep within the sources of Judaism, as do others in a different way, like Daniel Boyarin. You may disagree with their highly informed readings culled from traditional sources, but one can hardly question their credentials as Jews.
To be fair, the enforcers are not saying non- or anti-Zionists are not Jews. It’s even worse than that. What they are arguing is that they are essentially anti-Jews, or counter-Jews, because for the enforcers, Zionism, meaning support of the State of Israel as a Jewish state, has become a more important marker of identity than Jewish practice or any other kind of identification. In a sense, this is an exercise in marking modern-day heretics, Jews who, while still inside the orbit of the Jewish people, are forces that are undermining them. The Talmud teaches that the heretic is actually worse than the idolater. To those who would write them out of the Jewish community, what matters is the approved final destination: support of Zionism as the national Jewish project, which includes at its center support for the State of Israel as a Jewish state. Anything outside that is taken to be a form of Jewish heresy.
One question that necessarily arises when one makes a normative claim—a claim that is not just descriptive but prescriptive, arrogating to oneself judgment for how others ought to be, or must be—is by what authority the ought is rendered. Many pro-Israelists place a lot of stake in popular opinion. They claim, correctly that most Jews today are Zionists in some form (even if most hardly know what “Zionism” means) in that they support Israel as a “Jewish” state. But so what? No serious thinker believes that popular opinion is a good criterion for a normative claim. If that were true, Judaism as we know would not have come into existence. The rabbinic sages who were its architects were a tiny minority of the Jewish population of their time. And according to majoritarian logic, the early Zionists would be the heretics of the first part of the 20th century (actually, in many circles they were considered so), because until the 1930s the preponderance of Jews in Europe and America were against the Zionist project. And according to majoritarian logic, intermarriage would be the normative claim of Jewishness in America, because almost 60% of American Jews intermarry. Indeed, this is a logic in danger of collapsing in on itself: Essays attacking anti-Zionist Jews are often written out of a terror that, unless the alarm is sounded, soon the majority of Jews won’t be Zionists. Which, of course, is highly unlikely. But if we’re to honor the way “actual Jews do Jewishness,” then we’d have to honor it even when they do Jewishness in a non-Zionist, or even anti-Zionist, way.
But look: As I claim, majority opinion is not a legitimate argument for normativity. In both history and practice, normative claims emerge in a much more complicated way. I want to take the argument about anti-Zionism being antithetical to one’s Jewishness seriously—more seriously than some of the Zionist essayists do. I want to take some early Zionists as examples. Some early Zionists would have readily agreed that they were out of step with any notion of normative Jewishness. Yosef Hayyim Brenner, for example, identified himself as the “Last Jew and the first Hebrew.” The Canaanites openly repudiated Judaism and Jewishness in favor of a new Hebrew nation that was definitively not “Jewish.” And even more conventional Zionists of that era were devoted to the creation of a Hebrew (and not necessary a Jewish) nation, whose relationship to Judaism was often quite tortured and complex, a topic discussed at length in Arieh Saposnik’s Becoming Hebrew: The Creation of a Jewish National Culture in Ottoman Palestine. Today’s heresy politics elides the utterly radical and revolutionary nature of Zionism. It elides how Zionism often claimed to replace Judaism (which was viewed by some as a diasporic phenomenon) before most American Jews were Zionists and even before statist Zionism was the dominant form of the Jewish national project, as Dmitry Shumsky discusses in his excellent book Beyond the Nation State (2018). The simplistic Zionist thinkers don’t realize that the Zionism they now take as coextensive with Judaism was for many of its architects the alternative to Judaism.
And even if we accept that some anti-Zionist Jews are abandoning Judaism, their identity as Jews, and the Jewish people, it’s short-sighted and crude to want to write them out of the so-called normative tradition as heretics. Some of these so-called heretics throughout history were indispensable for the tradition. Let us not forget the rabbis of Northern France burned Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed in public, claiming it was heresy and thus forbidden. Spinoza, for example, who was considered a heretic but not an apostate because he never converted, is often called the “first modern Jew” because he had the courage to say things that got him excommunicated from his community, to which he never tried to return—while never abandoning the label “Jew.” His Theological-Political Treatise remains a classic among modern Jewish books. Should Spinoza be now considered the first modern un-Jew? And Rav Kook’s books were burned as well in some circles in Jerusalem.
There were other Jews who abandoned Judaism, or the Jews, but not their identity as Jews. For instance, Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger (1926-2007), a Jewish apostate from Poland, became the cardinal of Paris but on his death bed, requested that Kaddish be recited at his funeral, which was done with the permission of the chief rabbi of Paris. The great German literary figure Henrich Heine famously said, “I was baptized but not converted.” Oswald Rufeisen, also known as “Brother Daniel,” the subject of the Israeli Supreme Court’s “Who is a Jew” case in 1962, was a Polish Jew who converted to Catholicism during the Second World War; but before his conversion he saved tens of thousands of Jewish lives, including almost the entire Mir ghetto, while working undercover as a Pole for the Nazi police in Russia. Rufeisen was a lifelong Zionist, and after his conversion, he applied to immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return. His request was denied because he was a monk, even though he was a Jew. He claimed that while he was a Christian and Carmelite monk he never repudiated his Jewishness. He said, “My ethic origin is and always will be Jewish … I did not accept Christianity to leave my people. I added it to my Judaism.” (Time magazine, Dec. 7, 1962). He was eventually permitted to immigrate as a righteous gentile, and he lived the rest of his life in a Stella Maris Monastery in Haifa, traveling the country teaching Israeli children in Hebrew about Christianity. He was often visited by survivors whose lives he saved. He continued to identify as a Jew until his death.
I raise these examples simply to illustrate that questions of crossing borders, transgressing norms, and fidelity to Jewish identity and peoplehood have always been complicated matters. Certainly much more complicated than identifying with one Jewish project among many. Were these figures Jews, non-Jews, ex-Jews, bad Jews? In The Non-Jewish Jew (1968), Jewish Marxist Isaac Deutscher wrote about Jews who repudiated Judaism, or even converted, but never abandoned their connection to Jews, or their own Jewishness. For Deutscher they were still all Jews, and important ones, many making significant contributions to Jewishness. What do we make of these figures, and others, and by what criteria do we judge them?
What the Zionist ideological enforcers suggest is a radical reassessment of Jewishness no longer based on Halacha, or religion (however defined), or even ethnicity. For them, legitimate Jewishness pivots instead on identification with, and fidelity to, a national political project. To be clear, this line of thinking arguably seems to take a higher view of completely secular, assimilated, nonpracticing Jews who love Israel than of faithful, observant Jews who do not. Perhaps this is the true heresy. In his provocative and brilliant work Knesset Yisrael and the Gentile Wars, a response to World War I, the ultra-Orthodox pacifist Aaron Shmuel Tamares (1869-1931) called “erez moledet,” by which I think he likely meant “territorial nationalism,” the “modern idolatry.” This included, for him, political Zionism. But for our enforcers, matters of practice and belief have been replaced by national affiliation, exercised through support of a territorial state, an erez moledet, as the quintessence of Jewishness, from which the very boundaries of legitimacy are drawn. Can this be a form of idolatry?
The notion of Zionism as the only possible way to be properly Jewish ironically grounds Zionism in an antisemitic premise. In pre- and then post-emancipation Europe, antisemites often argued that Jews were not fit for membership in society in part because they were a sick and cultureless people. Josef Stalin once said that the Jews are not a nation because they lack two essential national attributes: language and territory. Many Zionists agreed! In some ways the Zionist project was founded on the antisemitic assumption that the Jews in the diaspora were a flawed and even diseased people, who had had no meaningful culture of their own.
This fallacy was concretized in a provocative essay by Shai Ish Hurwitz, published in the Hebrew journal Ha-Shiloah in 1903, in which Hurwitz questioned the legitimacy of Jews’ continued existence at all. And of course the founder of Zionism, Theodor Herzl, once advocated mass conversion to Christianity as the only solution to the “Jewish Question.” The idea of Zionism as the only solution to Jewish existence was not uncommon among many early Zionists; for some, Zionism was presented as the very last possible avenue of Jewish survival and the only way for Jews to overcome their state of sickly demise. This unfortunate line of argument is now being raised to a whole new level by those arguing that the attempt to separate Judaism, or Jewishness, from Jewish nationalism, that is, through non- or anti-Zionism, is an act of collective suicide.
The problem with this assessment of Jews is that it was wrong. That is, while Zionism indeed provided extraordinary opportunities for Jewish self-flourishing, including the founding of a state, the creation of a Hebrew culture, and the revival of a language, the diaspora did not turn out to be as Hurwitz and others imagined in 1903. To be fair, it turned out much worse, and then subsequently much better. There is now a thriving Jewish diaspora in North America, South America, Europe, Australia and elsewhere, one that is not dependent on Israel for its creative sustenance. This should be celebrated. But the party-line Zionists have nothing to say about it. They may view it as a cause for alarm, and at the very least they are willfully uncurious. Their interest, here and elsewhere, is not in figuring out how Judaism flourishes, but in convincing Jews (and others) of the primacy of their political project.
And here I think we get to why this kind of pressure is being applied now. Israel is a complicated place for younger generations of Jews, especially but not only in America. Jews under the age of 50 do not know Israel other than as an occupying power. With the advent of the internet, Jews can read The Jerusalem Post beside Al-Jazeera, the Forward beside the Guardian. In such an open-access environment, Israel’s propaganda industry is failing miserably. It has some talented people, but it simply doesn’t stand a chance against the present media—or against history. The half-century occupation has arguably become de facto annexation. The prospects for a two-state solution are at their nadir. Many younger Jews—often progressive in politics, and questing after Jewish spiritual identity—find that a presumption of reflexive support for Israel as an occupier insulting.
Indeed, one wonders for whom the anti-anti-Zionists are writing? Do they imagine that hectoring people who don’t love Israel as they do, or labeling them as self-loathing, traitorous, or heretical, will bring anyone back into the fold? There is something sad about this whole enterprise, as if it’s the 1960s and all young Jews need to firm up their commitment is a screening of Paul Newman in Exodus, a guilt-inducing call from their grandmother, and a pledge card from their local Jewish Federation. If there is a case to be made for Zionism, in any of its forms, it will be made by having a real honest conversation about history, narrative, its failings, and human rights—not by questioning the Jewish bona fides of people who are, in many cases, Jews deeply invested in their Jewishness.
Zionist hegemony will be a tough case to make. Jews who want out of the Jewish people can choose to exit and live full healthy lives in America. They don’t even have to convert. They can attend the synagogue of Saturday-morning NPR (already a very big shul). Or Jews can cultivate their Jewish identities by being critics of Israel, or by using other criteria (e.g., ethnic, religious, moral, cultural, artistic) to identify as Jews. Will they be threatened by a few Zionist hegemonists casting doubt on their Jew cred? Doubtful. Are we to say that those progressive social justice Jews don’t care about Jews or the Jewish people as much as Zionists do? Are we to say that Judith Butler, Daniel Boyarin, Peter Beinart, and Noam Chomsky—or, for that matter, me—are not deeply invested in the Jewish people? I don’t think so.
And drawing boundaries with no power to implement them is a toothless exercise. Do these Zionist hegemonists want to prevent the non-Zionists from visiting Israel? Or from making aliyah, if they choose? Put them on a list that excludes them from the Federation dinner? Should their books be burned, or banned? Arguably, the enforcers are guilty of flattening the Jewish tradition to serve their temporal chauvinistic nationalist political agenda. To them, what a Jew believes, what she eats, if she davens, how she keeps Shabbat—it doesn’t really matter. To be a Jew in good standing only means to support the Jewish national project. And now that they have made that clear, we can really begin to debate the issue
Shaul Magid, a Tablet contributing editor, is the Distinguished Fellow of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College and Kogod Senior Research Fellow at The Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. His latest books are Piety and Rebellion: Essays in Hasidism and The Bible, the Talmud, and the New Testament: Elijah Zvi Soloveitchik’s Commentary to the Gospels.