There are plenty of American Jews who do not support Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. But recent events have highlighted a troubling fact: In 2017, many people in the US, across the political spectrum, are conflating Judaism with Zionism.
In June, the Dyke March in Chicago banned women carrying “Jewish pride flags”—rainbow flags that bore the Star of David. Bari Weiss at the New York Times saw the Dyke March controversy as an opportunity to launch a sweeping condemnation of intersectionality and the left. But even people without that particular ax to grind were concerned.
Then last week, as reported in the Forward, Chicago’s SlutWalk—a feminist organization—announced that it would not allow Zionist displays at its rallies. The Forward took this to mean that the march would ban displays of the Jewish Star of David, which both symbolizes Judaism and appears on the Israeli flag. Via its Twitter account, however, Slut Walk organizers said they would only ban the Star of David when it was part of a Zionist display.
But how is anyone to determine if a Star of David is Zionist or not? Do Jews displaying the Star of David need to be questioned as to their motives, as they were at the Chicago Dyke March? Where does Jewish identity begin, and support for the Jewish state of Israel end?
There are, obviously, many Jews who want justice for Palestinians. Thus the existence of organizations like the Jewish Anti-Zionist Network and J-Street. There are also many Jews, such as myself, who don’t feel any particular commitment or connection to Israel. My grandfather was a socialist Zionist, and I donated part of my allowance to Israel as a child, as did everyone who went to my Hebrew school. But even as a kid, I had no particular desire to visit Israel.
As an adult, I believe nationalism, in whatever form, tends to be poisonous. I don’t believe in the virtuous exceptionalism of the United States, and I don’t believe in the virtuous exceptionalism of Israel. Nations have neither souls nor destinies. For me, Judaism is a family tradition of ethical commitments, and a history that, I hope, places my sympathies with people who are marginalized and persecuted. Being a Jew, in my case, doesn’t have anything to do with a connection to a particular piece of land, or to a particular nation.
Jews, after all, come from all over the world. They have different skin colors, come from different socio-economic backgrounds, and have a wide range of religious and secular beliefs. Some Jews, as just one example, come from Arab nations—and they often have a very painful relationship with Israeli nationalism. Given the wide variety of Jewish individuals, it makes sense that Jews would have varied relationships to Zionism—ranging from enthusiastic identification, to deeply felt rejection, to indifference.
The problem is that in America—and elsewhere—there are a lot of people who have a vested interest in linking Jews as a whole with Israel, no matter what individual Jews say or think about it. Vocal anti-Semites, of course, see all Jews as connected to a global conspiracy; they don’t bother with distinctions. But anti-Semitism in less virulent forms leads many people to see Jews as Jews first, and only later as individuals. This leads to a lazy tendency to blur the line between Judaism and Israel—which can result in demands that Jews displaying Jewish symbols publicly declare their opposition to Zionism.
Finally, Zionists themselves have an interest in equating Israel with Jews everywhere. Zionism is built on the idea that Jews are a coherent people with a historical and spiritual connection to a particular land. That’s why some Zionist Jews will almost certainly react to this essay by claiming that I am a “self-hating Jew.” Part of the Zionist project is to make the essence of Jewishness Israel, and the essence of Israel, Jewishness. Jews, Zionism says, are the people who live on and own this particular land. From the perspective of ethno-nationalism, the nation is the self, and so to refuse to embrace Israel is to betray one’s own biological and spiritual essence. If you’re a Jew who doesn’t support Zionism, you’re rootless and debased. Not coincidentally, this is itself an anti-Semitic stereotype.
Zionism is, in many ways, the mirror image of anti-Semitism. Where anti-Semitism imagines a hook-nosed intruder infiltrating the volk, Zionism imagines a virile soldier standing strong upon his (or her) own ancestral lands. The two stereotypes are perfectly opposed—but they share the assumption that a group of people is healthy only insofar as it shares an ethnicity and a land. That’s why Donald Trump, America’s latest avatar of white nationalism, has received a certain amount of support from both anti-Semites and Zionists. Steve Bannon and Benjamin Netanyahu disagree on many things, but they do have some common ground: Both believe that the borders of a nation determine who you are.
When Zionists conflate Jews and Israel, they aid and abet anti-Semites. And when liberal anti-Zionists conflate Jews and Israel, they aid and abet the Zionists they claim to oppose. For Jews, or for any persecuted people, nationalism can seem like a path to protection and power. But the historical record is pretty clear that the fruits of ethnic determinism do not benefit Jews—either as a group or as individuals.