As an American Jew, I was brought up with Zionism as the “of course” way of thinking. “Of course” the Jewish people need a state of our own because our history shows that we’re not safe anywhere in the world as “outsiders,” as “others.” And “of course” that state must be established in the Land of Israel, our ancient ancestral homeland. This was simply a given. It’s our Manifest Destiny.
And in the days of my youth, back in the 1970s, Zionism could be seen as actually progressive. Its government had been almost exclusively Labor for its entire existence up to that point; indeed, for most of its first decade, leadership was contested between the 2nd and 3rd Internationals,1 before the 2nd International gained the definitive upper hand in the 50s. Its most powerful institutions were the Histadrut, the union federation that owned a good chunk of the nation’s means of production; the kibbutzim, a utopian socialist experiment in collectively owned farms (which also include light industry – the kibbutz I went to had a factory stamping tire treads for Mercedes-Benz); and of course the military, of which every adult citizen (with some key exemptions) is either an active member or a reservist subject to mobilization at any time, with the underlying idea that we’re all in this together equally.
It was only in the late 1970s that Likud – the right-wing party with its origins in the fascist2 Irgun militia of the 1930s-40s – took power, and for the following decade Likud traded and/or shared power with Labor; the Israeli left was still strong, and there was even a peace movement that offered hope.
So I was a Zionist even as I grew up and became a leftist (rather than merely a liberal as I’d been raised), seeing no inherent contradiction there. Zionism was “the national liberation movement of the Jewish people” and, as noted above, in many ways Israel was a “socialist” state. We just needed to sort out a mutually acceptable peace with the Palestinians to make everything OK.
Then the anti-apartheid movement kicked off in the mid-1980s and I got deep into it – arguing at every mention of Israel’s intimate partnership with South Africa that we shouldn’t talk about that –for a full year. (I actually made the cover of the campus Jewish student magazine among a group celebrating Yom Ha’atzmaut that first year.) Those debates made me think more deeply about what I’d taken for granted, but I kept standing my ground. It was only when I saw a documentary from South Africa, interviewing people from all different backgrounds all over the country, and saw an Afrikaner defending apartheid using the exact same rhetoric – often word-for-word – as I’d been given to use in defense of Zionism, that I got the necessary kick to the head to change my mind. The next year, I was writing our first leaflet in support of the intifada.
In the decades since then, Israel’s political scene has continued its steady march to the right. Likud – a far-right party by any objective evaluation of its ideology and history – has become the center. Parties even further to the right, spouting outright fascist and genocidal rhetoric out loud as their official platforms, wield outsized influence, while the “left” is nowhere to be seen. Whatever “progressive” cover Israel might have had in the past has long since been discarded; only the complete ignorance of developments in Israel by the outside world (thanks to the silence of the makers of public opinion) has maintained that illusion here.
Ironically, while establishment and mainstream Jewish support for Israel and Zionism has been unwavering, it’s been diaspora Jews who have been paying closer attention to these developments than most of our neighbors who have become increasingly uncomfortable with the whole thing, forming organizations like Jewish Voice for Peace (of which I’m a member, but not a spokesperson). The Israeli & Zionist response has been to label us as “self-hating Jews” and employ their propaganda and intelligence apparatus against us to an even greater degree than they do against actual antisemites.3
And in an even more ironic twist, the leadership of Israel – founded on the basis that the Jews of the world need our own state to protect us in case fascism rises up again in Europe – are embracing European fascist rulers and parties as their closest ideological compatriots, while in the USA their most consistent, uncritical and valued support comes from the Christian evangelical far-right, whose support for Israel is based on their interpretation of their Book of Revelation that sees us all going to Hell once we’ve fulfilled our part of their “prophecy.”
This is the inevitable outcome of the inherent contradiction between the progressive aspirations of the early leftist Zionists and the settler-colonial project they’d embarked on to achieve those aspirations: Socialism for Jews; dispossession, wage slavery and destitution for the Palestinians.4
And the whole idea of a “two-state solution,” with a fully sovereign Palestinian state on the land occupied by Israel since 1967, was never anything to Israel but a stalling tactic. In the West Bank, Israel has consistently, cynically proceeded to establish “facts on the ground” with ever-increasing and ‑expanding “settlements” (a word that invokes images of small villages, not the major urban developments they are) and settlers-only roads connecting them, dividing and subdividing and choking and shrinking the area under “Palestinian sovereignty.” Meanwhile, Gaza was sealed off and placed under a state of permanent siege. In both cases, the obvious, and not infrequently spoken aloud, aim of eliminating them altogether and incorporating the entire territory into a Greater Israel. (That’s the moderate position; the extremists want to take it all the way to the Euphrates.)
At this moment, right before our eyes, the Zionist settler-colonial project seems to be reaching its logical conclusion: the complete dispossession of the Palestinian people of their land, and insofar as possible, the outright elimination of the Palestinian people themselves. In a word, genocide. Right out in the open, and proclaimed in those terms by government and military officials and the people in the street.
At what point will my fellow diaspora Jews receive that kick to the head that makes them reconsider their dearly-held narrative of a “Jewish homeland” to finally earnestly ask themselves, “Are we the baddies?” I fear that if this doesn’t happen soon, and very soon, it’ll be too late.
--written by David Campbell
1 The USSR was the first country to recognize it in the UN, and the “War of Independence” was fought largely with Czechoslovakian weapons.
2 …as in, they trained under Mussolini.
3 When the ADL/SFPD sub rosa intelligence operation of the 1980s was exposed in the 1990s, I had been a member of three organizations on their list.
4 I recall, even as a Zionist, being disappointed when I went to kibbutz and found they were hiring Palestinians to do the shit work for shit pay – the idea that Palestinians should be included in the “workers collectively owning the means of production” thing was weird to them.