A Jewish crisis
Zionism ≠ Judaism. Daniel Lazare looks at the effect that Israel’s oppression of Palestine is having on American Jews - as more and more of them join protests against the threat of genocide in Gaza
On October 19, police arrested more than 300 Jewish peace activists and their supporters, as they took part in a sit-down protest in Washington DC against US support for Israel. Eight days later, after a thousand or more protestors mobbed New York City’s Grand Central Terminal with signs saying “Ceasefire now” and “Never again for anyone”, they arrested some 200 more.
One of the groups that organised the protests was Jewish Voice for Peace, which Noam Chomsky and the playwright Tony Kushner (Angels in America) helped form in 1996 and whose leadership now includes Naomi Klein, Wallace Shawn and the gender theorist, Judith Butler. A handwritten sign featured on the JVP website seems to say it all: ‘Zionism ≠ Judaism’.1
The other group involved is IfNotNow, named for the first-century rabbinic sage, Hillel the Elder, who famously asked: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And being for myself, what am ‘I’? And if not now, when?” In Washington, protestors blew shofars - the ram’s horn used in traditional Jewish ceremonies - to sound the alarm against the Israeli assault on Gaza. In New York, one rabbi said of the Friday evening protest:
While Shabbat is typically a day of rest, we cannot afford to rest while genocide is unfolding in our names. The lives of Palestinians and Israelis are intertwined, and safety can only come from justice, equality and freedom for all.2
To which socialists who call for a united workers’ democracy in Israel and Palestine can only reply, ‘Hear, hear!’
The protests, which have alarmed and infuriated Jewish conservatives, are a sign of many things - that the US Jewish community is split; that growing numbers are dismayed by the seemingly endless cycles of violence in the Middle East; that kneejerk support for the Jewish state is a thing of the past; and so on. The protests are an indication that the bloody October 7 eruption has not only thrown US imperialism, Zionism and the Palestinian national movement into crisis, but diaspora Jews as well.
In the US - home to the world’s second-largest Jewish community after Israel - the relationship between the diaspora and the Jewish state once seemed easy and natural. American Jews looked on Israel the same way that Irish Americans looked on the Irish republic: ie, as an ancestral homeland to cheer and support and maybe visit on summer vacation. Politics did not get in the way as long as American Jews could persuade themselves that Israel mainly consisted of the sunburnt sabra labouring in a socialist kibbutz, amid conditions that the press described as free and egalitarian.
Then reality dawned. First there was the privatisation and economic polarisation that put an end to the kibbutz movement and the ‘socialist’ ethos that went with it. (With a Gini coefficient of 38.6, the so-called ‘start-up nation’ is now the second most unequal country in the advanced industrial world after the US.) Next came the assassination of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 and the rise in Israel of an apocalyptic ultra-right. Then there was 9/11, the war on terror and a US rampage in the Middle East that overlapped and intersected with Israeli wars against Hezbollah in 2006 and Hamas in 2008, 2012 and 2014. Finally, there was the formation of an ultra-right government under Benjamin Netanyahu in late 2022 that unleashed a wave of anti-Palestinian pogroms in the West Bank. This left many American Jews shaken and fearful, since the attacks could not help but summon up memories of the anti-Semitic pogroms that had sent their own grandparents and great-grandparents fleeing to the New World.
A gap is thus growing between two Jewish communities: one liberal, assimilated and devoted to the virtues of racial diversity and multiculturalism (70% of US Jews vote Democratic); and the other hunkered down in a racial-supremacist state swept by far-right forces.
The result by the 1990s was that pro-Israel lobbyists in Washington were spending more time cultivating rightwing Christian evangelicals, whom most American Jews regard as implicitly anti-Semitic, than Jews themselves. By the 2010s, Benjamin Netanyahu was telling his cabinet, according to a high-ranking US official, “that Americans Jews were not so important, that they were not going to remain Jewish in another generation or two, and that there was more to be gained by cultivating a relationship with evangelicals”.3 By 2021, 54% of American Jews were giving Netanyahu only a ‘fair’ or ‘poor’ rating, while the percentage who thought Israel was sincerely trying to achieve peace with the Palestinians fell to just 33.4
It was a sea change from the days of ‘Our Israel right or wrong’. And it was all before the Hamas attack and the massive Zionist counteroffensive sent tensions rising even more. Jewish conservatives lamented “a politically polarized Jewish community in which the overwhelming majority are members of a party [the Democrats] where support for Israel is on the wane”.5
But protestors were unabashed in placing the blame squarely where it belongs. Said IfNotNow:
We absolutely condemn the killing of innocent civilians and mourn the loss of Palestinian and Israeli life, with numbers rising by the minute. Their blood is on the hands of the Israel government, the US government which funds and excuses their recklessness, and every international leader who continues to turn a blind eye to decades of Palestinian oppression ...6
Although US Jews are horrified by Hamas terrorism and no doubt feel a gut-level affinity for their Israeli co-religionists, there is also no doubt that anti-Zionism is growing - and that it will continue to grow, as the Gaza assault intensifies and the Mideast crisis spreads.
This is contrary to all predictions. According to Zionism, the diaspora is nothing more than an anteroom for Jews, as they prepare to emigrate - to make aliyah, as Zionist terminology has it - to their biblical homeland. Anti-Semitism is supposedly ineradicable, while a racially exclusive state is the only way out. This is what the founding Zionist, Theodor Herzl, argued in his 1905 pamphlet, The Jewish state. Yet it has all turned out to be wrong.
The symmetry is remarkable. The Jews who are now isolated and besieged are mainly in the Jewish state, where the conflict with Hamas presents them with a Hobson’s choice: either become victims of violence themselves or perpetrate even worse violence against others. In America, by contrast, they are free to make their way in a country in which anti-Jewish prejudice has fallen to historic lows. More than just tolerated, Jews are downright popular in the US - more so according to a recent survey than any other religious group, Protestants, Catholics, and Christian Evangelicals included.7 With an intermarriage rate now at 61%, American Jews do indeed face an existential crisis. But it is all the fault of a society that is almost too open and welcoming rather than hostile and closed.8
Not that the US is overflowing with peace, love and tranquillity. On the contrary, racism is surging, as the economy deteriorates and the political crisis grows more acute. But anti-racism is also on the upswing, and American Jews, for certain historical reasons, are in the forefront. It is anti-racism that is propelling younger Jews in particular in an increasingly anti-Zionist direction.
While Zionism is often seen as the antithesis of anti-Semitism, its attitude toward anti-Jewish hatred has historically been at best ambivalent. Herzl regarded it as a force of nature that was better to harness than combat. He said at one point:
I do not consider the anti-Semitic movement entirely harmful. It will break the arrogance of the ostentatious rich, the unscrupulousness and cynicism of Jewish financial wire-pullers, and contribute much to the education of the Jews.
He told a friend that Jews are “a people debased through oppression, emasculated, distracted by money, tamed in numerous corrals”, and was convinced that people would be so happy once he succeeded in prying them loose from the diaspora that: “They will pray for me in the synagogues, and in the churches as well.” Not only would Jews liberate themselves by moving to Palestine, he said, but they would be liberating Christians too - “liberating them from us”.9
Anti-Semitism was thus useful to the degree that it encouraged Jews to transfer to the Holy Land. As David Ben-Gurion would later put it, “The harsher the affliction, the greater the strength of Zionism.” The upshot was an authoritarian bourgeois movement - Herzl was an enemy of parliamentary democracy, who inclined towards an “aristocratic republic”10 - in which racism would not be fought, but internalised, coopted and turned against others.
This is the only part of Zionism that has proved true after all these years, as Israel shifts ever farther to the right and prepares for a final showdown with Hamas. Its alliance with Joe Biden’s neocons and the Christian Zionists who control the US Republican Party means that it is now a full partner with Washington, as it moves toward a similar confrontation with Iran. Since this is the last thing America’s liberal Jewish community wants, growing numbers are trying to get off the Zionist juggernaut before it hurtles over a cliff. History gives them little choice.
It may seem inappropriate to dwell on the problems of an affluent community in far-off America at a time when the death toll in Gaza due to the US-Israeli war machine now tops the 8,000 mark. Nonetheless, American Jews are politically important, because they represent the contradictions of Zionism and imperialism raised to the highest pitch. While conditions are peaceful for the moment, they know that they could change all too easily, as war grows and the dark forces unleashed by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict spread far afield. In France, Germany and Italy, where Muslims account for anywhere from 3.6% to 6.5% of the population, the upshot will almost certainly be renewed xenophobia that plays straight into the hands of Marine Le Pen, Éric Zemmour, Giorgia Meloni and the Alternative für Deutschland.
In America, the Muslim presence is much less - just one percent according to one estimate11 - but the same forces will nonetheless benefit: ie, Christian Zionists, hawks, ultra-rightists baying for Palestinian blood, etc. The rhetoric on the ultra-right so far has been nothing short of hair-raising. “Anyone that is pro-Palestinian is pro-Hamas,” tweeted Marjorie Taylor Greene, the Georgia Republican. Republican senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina described the conflict as a “religious war” and called on the Israelis to “level the place”, adding: “Gaza is going to look like Tokyo and Berlin at the end of World War II when this is over. And if it doesn’t look that way, Israel made a mistake.” Tom Cotton, a far-right senator from Arkansas, said: “As far as I’m concerned, Israel can bounce the rubble in Gaza. Anything that happens in Gaza is the responsibility of Hamas.”
Florida governor Ron DeSantis, a Republican presidential contender who is doing his best to out-Trump the last Republican president, told a campaign rally that all Palestinians are responsible for Hamas’s crimes: “If you look at how they behave, not all of them are Hamas, but they are all anti-Semitic.”12
This is the sort of unbridled racism that is now running rampant in America and which Jews fear will be turned against them - which it undoubtedly will be. Since Zionist racism can only compound the problem, Jews have little choice but to oppose nationalism and fight for equal rights for all - for Palestinians, Muslims in general, blacks, and so on.
All are in the line of fire, which is why racism - the Zionist variety first and foremost - must be fought across the board.
A Elon Herzl New York 1975, p131; J Kornberg Theodore Herzl Bloomington 1993, pp117, 126, 162.↩︎
T Herzl The Jewish state New York 1988, p145.↩︎