Watch the American debate over Israel closely and you notice an intriguing symmetry.
In official Washington, where establishment Jewish groups wield power, they erect a de facto litmus test for Palestinians: Endorse Zionism or we will bar you from the halls of power. Earlier this month, for instance, Nadia Ben-Youssef, a representative of Adalah, which advocates for Palestinian citizens of Israel, said at a panel on Capitol Hill that Zionism privileges Jews. The Israel Project, which is run by AIPAC’s former spokesperson, responded by implying that Youssef was anti-Semitic, calling the panel a “hatefest,” and demanding that the congressman who sponsored it “condemn the event.” The purpose was clear: Ensure that critics of Zionism don’t receive a platform in Congress again.
On the radical left, where pro-Palestinian activists wield power, the dynamic is oddly similar. This past weekend, some LGBT Jews brought rainbow flags superimposed over the Star of David to Chicago’s annual “Dyke March.” The organizers asked them whether they supported Zionism, and when the Jews answered yes, asked them to leave. The collective that runs the Dyke March insisted that, “Queer and Trans Anti-Zionist Jewish folks are welcome here.” But it declared that, “In movements for justice and liberation, there is no room for Zionism of any kind.”
See the similarity? The Israel Project can’t accept that Palestinians might have reasons to oppose Zionism that don’t stem from hatred of Jews. It can’t imagine why Palestinians might harbor hostility towards a movement whose success forced hundreds of thousands of their parents and grandparents from their homes. It can’t imagine why Palestinians might oppose an ideology that is used to justify forcibly taking land from West Bank Palestinians and giving it to Jewish settlers. It can’t imagine why Palestinians might dislike an ideology in whose name Jewish leaders call Palestinian babies a “demographic problem.”
Because the Israel Project can’t acknowledge these experiences, and the anger they understandably provoke, it can’t see Palestinians as fully human. For the Israel Project, Palestinian anti-Zionists become mere anti-Semites, motivated not by love of their own families and communities, but merely by hatred of Jews.
The organizers of the Dyke March are doing something comparable. They seem unable to understand why Jews, who prayed toward Jerusalem for 2,000 years, might celebrate the existence of a Jewish state that secures Jewish access to it. They seem unable to understand why Jews today, who know how few countries offered their parents and grandparents refuge while Hitler murdered two-thirds of Europe’s Jews, might appreciate a country dedicated to Jewish refuge. They seem unable to understand why Jews, a people dispersed, battered and threatened with extermination for millennia, might take pride in the movement that has revived Hebrew as a living language, and created a Jewish society whose intellectual ingenuity often leads the world.
The organizers of the Dyke March, for all their progressive rhetoric, are as dehumanizing as the leaders of the Israel Project. Declaring that, “In movements for justice and liberation, there is no room for Zionism of any kind” is wildly ironic given that, for millions of Jews, Zionism has been a movement for justice and liberation. To say you can’t tolerate a rainbow flag with a Star of David because it makes other marchers feel “unsafe” is ironic too. Because asking Jews whether they support a Jewish state, and then kicking them out of a march because they say yes, is a good way to make them feel unsafe. Especially when you allow other ethnic groups to hoist their national flags.
To welcome Jews so long as they renounce Zionism is as dehumanizing as welcoming Palestinians so long as they as they endorse Zionism. It’s a way of saying: We’re happy to have you, so long as you deny the experience that makes you who you are.
Progressive Jews, including Zionists like myself, should defend the right of Palestinians to question Zionism, so long as they don’t espouse hatred of Jews. But we must also defend the right of Jews to celebrate Zionism, so long as they don’t espouse hatred of Palestinians. In his famous statement in Pirkei Avot, Hillel didn’t only ask, “If I am only for myself, what am I?” He also asked, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?”
In America today, Jews both dehumanize Palestinians and are dehumanized by people championing the Palestinian cause. The two tendencies feed off of each other. Each is likely to get worse. Progressive Jews must confront both, urgently. If Not Now, When?
Peter Beinart is a Senior Columnist at The Forward and Associate Professor of Journalism and Political Science at the City University of New York. He is also a Contributor to The Atlantic and a CNN Political Commentator.