WHEN I WAS a seventh grader in Queens, New York, an entire unit of social studies class was devoted to Israel. I remember reverently tracing the map of the young Jewish state. Its creation story was inspiring: the Jewish nation rose like a phoenix from the ashes of genocide. I had recently learned from my parents that these ashes included their families, killed in Treblinka and Auschwitz.
The year was 1960. I was 13, a transplant to America from the Displaced Persons camp in Germany in which I was born and that served as home for my first four years. Israel was the antidote to my family’s history of despair. Zionists were the visionaries and pioneers who gave birth to the Land of Milk and Honey and made the desert bloom — noble warriors who fought and won the battle for Israel against its surrounding enemies.
Sixty years later, this narrative has been largely erased and replaced. “Zionism” has become a dirty word — synonymous with racism, apartheid, and oppression; the white Europeans who established an outpost of Western colonialism in a land belonging exclusively to dark-skinned Arabs. Jewish settlers in Palestine have been cast as imperialists in a land to which they have no moral claim.
How did this story change so drastically? In a word: occupation. Six million dead in the Holocaust made Jews the world’s greatest victims, deserving of their own state as an antidote to a history of genocidal persecution. But as the memory of the Holocaust faded, and especially after the 1967 War of self-defense resulting in the Occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, this story flipped. The victims became the victors. Palestinians languishing in refugee camps drew the world’s sympathies.
The occupation has been a disaster for Palestinians. The relentless expansion of Jewish settlements on the West Bank, balkanization of Palestinian land, denial of water rights, and daily indignities suffered by Palestinians have made their struggle a legitimate cause for justice-seeking progressives. Over the years, Israel has continued to expand its settlements with an eye toward geographical growth and border security. Like the Arab and Muslim nations that could not tolerate a Jewish state in their midst in 1948, Israel’s current leadership can no longer tolerate the idea of a truly independent Palestinian state.
At the same time, the occupation, for many progressives today, refers not to 1967 but to 1948. The demonization of Israel has gathered steam over the years and is the backbone of the PC brand of antisemitic anti-Zionism that flourishes today, in which the ancient animosity toward Jews as a “race” has been transposed to Israel as a nation.
Hence, an important question for leftists. In the context of Israeli military domination and West Bank expansionism, can a legitimate case be made for a progressive Zionism?
For anyone who believes that Jewish nationalism is as defensible as any other nationalism, the answer is yes, but a complicated yes. Defending Zionism without condemning the occupation and supporting a Palestinian state is untenable. But so too is supporting the Palestinian struggle for statehood without condemning the antisemitic elements of Nazi-influenced Arab nationalism and its existential threat to Israel.
Extremists on both sides have a lot in common. Just as extremist Israel supporters deny the validity of any criticism of Israel and dub it antisemitic, so extremist Palestinian supporters deny the validity of any support for Israel and call it racist. In the either/or framework of these partisans, there is no room for a viewpoint that is sympathetic to both Jews and Arabs. One must choose sides in a zero-sum game.
What’s been lost in all the heat on this subject is the simple truth that Zionism is a nationalist movement for Jewish liberation crossing a wide swath of other ideologies. Some of the first pioneers were socialists, for whom the dream of a Jewish state was synonymous with an end to all forms of economic and racial exploitation and oppression. Some were Jewish fundamentalists who believed that Eretz Yisrael had been promised to the ancient Israelites by God. Most were adamantly secular, insisting that Jews must reject their traditional Old Country passivity, arm themselves in their own country, and never again allow themselves to be rounded up for mass murder.
All agreed that if Jews had a nation of their own, where they weren’t subject to the laws and traditions of entrenched European antisemitism, they would be safe to live their lives as Jews. The Zionist aim was the ingathering of threatened diaspora Jews to the land in which they had a continuous presence from antiquity, a return to a cherished homeland.
It is this fundamental Zionist idea that many progressives have discredited — and that should now be defended with the same passion as it was in 1948.
Given the alarming rise of antisemitism — on the right, the left, and in Muslim immigrant communities in the United States and Europe, the defense of the original Zionist vision of Israel as a safe haven for the world’s Jews is more urgent now than at any time since the Holocaust era.
A neutral description of the 100-year clash between Jews and Arabs in Israel/Palestine is that of a war of competing nationalisms. A landless people persecuted, scapegoated, and expelled in their host countries, Jews were propelled to Zionism as a solution to the problem of antisemitism. Palestinians, in their own nationalist struggle against the British Empire, saw Jewish settlers as an alien European force in cahoots with the British, no different from any other white colonialists (a painful historical irony, considering that Jews were not considered “white” by the Nazis, most Jews in Israel are black Middle Eastern Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews, and, far from being indistinguishable from the white British colonizers of the region, European Jews were also fighting the British for their own independent state).
Three wars, two intifadas, several failed attempts at peacemaking brokered by the United States, hundreds of attacks on Israel by Hamas and Hezbollah terrorists and suicide bombers and retaliatory attacks by the Israel military, six decades of the expanding occupation and of an ideological rumble that takes no prisoners — none of these events have succeeded in substantially altering this long war.
Israel is the military victor, for now. But Palestinians have been the winner of the ongoing propaganda war. In social justice movements in the United States and Europe, the BDS movement to dismantle Israel and erect a binational state has become an article of faith. Some go so far as to declare that you can’t be a “real” feminist, anti-racist, or progressive of any kind if you don’t support the mutation of Israel. For Jews like me, the call to rub out the only Jewish nation in the world resounds with terrible echoes from the past.
Jewish nationalism or Palestinian nationalism — which do you legitimize and which do you invalidate? Decades of vitriolic verbal war between partisans on both sides indicate that the answer often hinges on the unstated passions, prejudices, and fears that dictate a compulsive, non-empathic emotional attachment to “our side.” The more important question, not asked by extremists on either side, is: Why must this be an either/or choice?
Jewish nationalism is as legitimate as Palestinian or any other nationalism — no more and no less. When all countries founded on the displacement of ethnic, religious, tribal, or native groups renounce their right to exist, Israel should be among them. Until then, the struggle for human rights must include the support for Jewish national survival alongside a Palestinian state — not a binational state that would nullify Israel and invite a war of ethnic cleansing on both sides. Progressives should be able to call themselves Zionist without being shamed, shunned, attacked, and vilified, as they are on American campuses and in progressive circles here and abroad. For a vivid description of the latter, see The New York Times op-ed written by a Jewish student at George Washington University, “On the Frontlines of Progressive Anti-Semitism.”
While there may be disagreements over strategy, progressive Zionism is a “both/and” perspective that calls for an end to West Bank expansionism and Palestinian terrorism. To be a progressive Zionist is to have the courage to challenge Israel to clean its house of racist policies toward Palestinians while also calling on anti-Zionists to clean up their antisemitism. It condemns both the racist leadership of Netanyahu as well as the incitements to anti-Israel violence from Hamas. It envisions Jerusalem as a shared capital of two nations. In a recent article in Jewish Currents, “How to Fight Antisemitism,” presidential candidate Bernie Sanders rejects the idea that there is an inherent contradiction between supporting both Israel and Palestinian independence.
This opens the door to coalitions of progressive Palestinians and Israelis as well as black, Muslim, and Jewish social activists that conjointly resist prejudice in all forms — a badly needed antidote to the identity wars dividing the left and the nation. Progressive Zionists know that antisemitism and racism together are the core of white supremacist ideology. These connected bigotries split progressive forces, thereby feeding the rise of fascism here and abroad.
Progressive Zionists have persisted since the creation of Israel. I remember the rancorous struggles of 1970s New Leftists between those of us who demanded two states for two peoples, and those who wanted Israel to disappear. Today organizations like J Street, a progressive alternative to AIPAC in the Jewish community that is both pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian, Tikkun magazine and its Network of Spiritual Progressives, and a host of other groups supporting Israeli/Palestinian unity have been continuous voices for sanity, solidarity, and peace.
A hopeful recent development began with the 2017 launch of Zioness, a group of feminist activists that spoke out against antisemitism in the Women’s March leadership and other left demonstrations. Its mission is to empower Jews to be activists in the struggle to advance social, racial, economic, and gender justice in the United States without trying to hide their Jewishness or their Zionism. Its slogan sums it all up: Unabashedly Progressive. Unapologetically Zionist. You can indeed be both.