Gaza, Solidarity and the Right to Protest Blog Series, Guest Edited by Alana Lentin and colleagues
Blog post by Rachel Solnick and Clive Gabay
Rachel Solnick is a PhD candidate in the Department of Geography and Earth Sciences at Aberystwyth University.
Clive Gabay is a Reader in International Politics at Queen Mary University of London.
Israel's relentless bombing of Gaza, which scholars have warned could amount to the crime of genocide, has been met with global protests. An important element of these protests has been growing numbers of individual and collectively organized Jewish protesters, many of whom identify as anti-Zionist. Across various locations, notably in the US and Germany, Jewish anti-Zionist protestors have been met with police arrest, as well as growing calls from Zionist Jews to label them as “cherem”, an old term denoting total exclusion and excommunication from the Jewish faith. Such attempts to erase Jewish anti-Zionists are not new and have regularly characterized Zionist attacks on Jews both from within the Zionist Jewish community and from non-Jewish Zionist politicians and media. While Zionism has only been a majority position within institutionalized diasporic Jewish spaces since the mid-20th century, and could be found being resisted even as late as the 1960s*, Zionist historiographies have rendered the many Jewish non- and anti-Zionist communities and movements that characterize Jewish histories almost unknown and redundant as templates for contemporary Jewish identity. At a time when there are increasing efforts to police Jewish anti-Zionism, it is vital to historicize the traditions of non-Zionist Jewish thought and mobilization.
Histories of Jewish anti-Zionism
Jews have been a diasporic people for millennia. Even labelling Jewish thought that doesn’t believe in a Jewish state as “anti-Zionist” frames anti-Zionism or non-Zionism as a reaction to Zionism, rather than simply a normative position that defined Jewish communities and thinking historically. While Jewish articulations of Jewishness have often centred the concept of “the Holy Land”, they just as often have not, or have done so in ways that resisted a hierarchy of place and belonging, expressing what the Balkan-Jewish writer Ammiel Alcalay calls “an almost anarchic lack of purity and exclusivity, the inexhaustible knack of being in many places in many times at once” (Alcalay, 1993: 163). Articulations of Jewish Diasporism are thus scattered through the history of Jewish liturgy and political thought. Here we briefly discuss the lack of interest in Zionism expressed by many Jews throughout the 20th century, as well as some key and explicitly anti-Zionist movements and thinkers.
Countless autobiographical writers and historians have attested to the lack of interest in Zionism expressed by communities of Jews across the Arab and Persianate worlds. These communities were not necessarily uniformly anti-Zionist, but they did not understand themselves as being in need of a Jewish nationalist project. The historian Avi Shlaim’s recent memoir illustrates this with regard to Iraq’s Jews. Joel Beinin’s history of the 20th century Egyptian Jewish community, The Dispersion of Egyptian Jewry, reveals a sensibility summed up by one of his interlocutors who told him that “Egypt is our country, we have no other, and our fathers were here as long as any Moslems”. More generally, Beinin shows how the formal institutions of Egyptian Jewish life were adamantly opposed to political Zionism, including after the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948.
Elsewhere, in the early years of the 20th century, before political Zionism gained a foothold among the persecuted Jews of Eastern Europe, the Bund, a Jewish socialist political party, proposed the concept of doikayt (“hereness”). Rejecting a separate Jewish state in Palestine, the Bund fought instead for their right to self-determine where they were. The Bund’s daily newspaper Di Hofnung expounded a deeply diasporic consciousness, of “national and cultural autonomy” for the Jews of Yiddishland. They took pride in identifying as a nation without a state. Jewish workers of the time wanted to combat the hostilities of their lived experience through unionization and through continued dwelling in the cultural and geographical places where they were born, to fight alongside others in those lands for justice where they were.
Holocaust survivor and German-Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt argued for something similar in her seminal 1951 book The Origins of Totalitarianism: she was responding to the 1950 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which tied rights to statehood. Arendt saw this as embodying a contradiction, especially after the political events of the first half of the 20th century had left millions stateless. Arendt argued against ethno-nationalist ideas that provided exclusive rights to an homogenous group of citizens. Instead she proposed a more general right to have rights, right to belong and a right to be at home in the world that transcended the frameworks of the nation-state.
More recently, in their 2012 book Parting Ways, Jewish American political theorist Judith Butler has pointed to the racist thinking behind the construction of the nation-state – a concept which, for most of its history, excluded Jews as a condition of its own existence. Similarly, American Jewish feminist Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz described the need for Jewish political non-nationalism that rejects Zionism and gave it a new name. “Radical Diasporism”, she wrote, “represents tension, resistance to both assimilation and nostalgia, to both corporate globalization that destroys peoples and cultures, and to nationalism, which promises to preserve people and cultures but so often distorts them through the prisms of masculinism, racism, and militarism”. She saw diaspora as a linking concept that embraces the history of dispersion and hybridity to join with others in opposition to nationalism and the nation-state.
Media and political erasure
Over the last month, politicians across all major UK parties and large swathes of the British media have doubled-down on the conflation of Jewishness with Zionism. Instances such as Rishi Sunak claiming to protect Jews whilst supporting Israel’s right to “self defence” or BBC’s Jo Coburn telling Politics live that the “Jewish community as a whole feels very intimidated” by the sit-in at Liverpool Street Station amplify a divisive narrative of Jews as an homogenous group. This construct allows media and politicians to inhabit a convenient, but misleading, philosemitic position of anti-racist protector of Jews, labelling everyone else (but particularly Muslim and left-wing critics of Israel, including non-Zionist and anti-Zionist Jews) as antisemitic. In this framing Jews are enveloped under the wings of British protection, and Jews become both a pet cause and a shield against accusations of racism: in need of care but still fundamentally Othered. Charles Moore wrote in The Telegraph on the 7th November 2023 that pro-Palestine marches had been “far-ranging in their threat to Jews and to ordinary citizens”, revealing that these claims of Jewish protection are often profoundly racist. Are Jews not ordinary citizens? This philosemitic (but in actuality antisemitic) Jewish protectionism has catalyzed a culture of the media gentile speaking “on behalf of Jews”. Mail on Sunday journalist Dan Hodges consistently condemns even the slightest critique of Israel as antisemitic, whilst appropriating the triple parenthesis that denotes Jewishness in his own X handle (((but he is not Jewish))).
The insistence that Jewish safety is only guaranteed by the existence of Israel as a nation-state is a mark of continued western imperialism and coloniality. Given that historically the existence of ethno- and nation-states have been predicated on the non-belonging of several Others, including Jews, the idea that Jews can only be guaranteed to be free in Israel reinforces antisemitism by cohering with a logic that says that Jews cannot be free anywhere outside of their own ethno-state. It also ignores the actually existing record of Israeli state racism against groups of Jews in the country, including Ethiopian and Yemeni Jews. This also drives the narrative that in order for Jews to feel safe they must support or at least tolerate the dispossession of Palestinians. It is one of the reasons anti-Zionist Jewish voices are ignored or derided as unrepresentative, despite notable participation in protests and marches.
Current Jewish dissent
Over the last month, the non-Zionist and anti-Zionist Jewish left has been galvanized. It is an historic moment of organized Jewish dissent. But Jewish criticisms from the Jewish and non-Jewish Zionist organizations that claim to speak for “the whole Jewish community” has once again led to attempts to erase dissenting Jewish voices. It reveals that Zionism is not a protection of the Jewish people but primarily a protection of the nation-state construct at any cost.
Larger organizations in the US such as Jewish Voice for Peace and If Not Now have mobilized thousands of Jews into collective action for Palestinian Liberation, leading to hundreds of Jewish arrests in Washington DC. Anti-Zionist Jews have been arrested across Europe, including in Germany where guilt about the Holocaust sustains strong support for Israel. But the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians in the Nakba, whilst enacted by Zionists (Jewish and non), was itself a consequence of the European antisemitism of which Nazism was the apotheosis. On 2nd November 2023 police broke up Jewish prayer at Kings Cross St Pancras, confiscating speeches and threatening participants with arrest. Iris Hefets, an Israel Jew was arrested in Berlinfor raising a banner that “could incite hate to a specific community”: Jews. The anti-Zionism = antisemitism framework is so strong that across the world we are seeing increasingly paradoxical situations where Jews are arrested for antisemitism under laws that are supposed to protect them from antisemitic hate. The long tradition of non-Zionist and anti-Zionist Jewishness is however resurgent, and these attempts to police and criminalize it only show up the weaknesses of the colonial and racist paradigms that underpin Zionist settler colonialism.
* Although a geographically and socially uneven process, one example would be one of the author’s alma maters, the Jews’ Free School in London, which only formally adopted Zionism into the Jewish Studies curriculum in 1963, following opposition from several school board members. See Gabay, Forthcoming.
Ammiel Alcalay, After Jews and Arabs: Remaking Levantine Culture (University of Minnesotta Press, 1993)
Read further in the Gaza, Solidarity and the Right to Protest Blog Series:
Genocide is not a metaphor: reflections on Gaza and genocide denial
Palestine, Islamophobia and the policing of solidarity
Defending the indefensible
Regarding “human animals” and settler colonialism
The views and opinions expressed on the Identities Blog are solely those of the original blog post authors, and not of the journal, Taylor & Francis Group or the University of Glasgow.