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Zionists And Anti-Zionists Don’t Agree About What Zionism Is

Last night, at a CNN town hall, Bernie Sanders put to rest the idea that the 2020 Democratic primaries are going to be about Israel.

“I am 100% pro Israel,” he said. “Israel has every right in the world to exist, and to exist in peace and security, and not to be subjected to terrorist attacks. But the United States needs to deal not just with Israel but with the Palestinian people.”

“What I believe is not radical,” Sanders admitted. “I just believe that the United States should deal with the Middle East on a level playing field basis. The goal must be to try to bring people together, and not just support one country which is now run by a right wing — dare I say, racist — government.”

“I am not anti-Israel,” Sanders elaborated. “But the fact of the matter is, [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu is a right wing politician who is treating the Palestinian people extremely unfairly.”

These words are indeed not radical; they could have easily been uttered by any progressive American Jewish leader today. Sanders’ view of the Middle East can be neatly summed up as liberal Zionism. And despite all the ink spilled about how revolutionary Sanders will be on Israel, how far he’ll push the Democratic party, and how much of the 2020 debate will focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, last night, Sanders revealed that he sees the region in the same terms as every single other candidate running for the Democratic ticket in 2020.

He isn’t even willing to commit to leveraging military aid to Israel. Though he once said he would consider voting to reduce U.S. aid to Israel, he backtracked last month when asked about it again point blank by the New Yorker.

Sanders’ position — being pro-Israel but critical of Israel’s racist rightward turn and disgusted with Netanyahu — also captures the way the vast majority of American Jews feel right now about Israel. In fact, it might just capture the view of the majority of Jewish Zionists period, given how many Israelis cast a vote for the more centrist Benny Gantz.

There is no inherent contradiction in this position. While the history of Zionism contains vigorous debate about what Jewish self-determination should look like, these debates have by and large subsided. Zionism today for the majority of people who would call themselves Zionists is a pretty minimal proposition: It’s the preference for planet earth to contain a Jewish nation state.

This of course doesn’t mean approval for how that nation state behaves, the course its leaders choose for it, or even the way in which it came about.

But these are all things that Israel’s critics hold Zionists responsible for. And that’s because Zionists and anti-Zionists do not define Zionism in the same way.

For anti-Zionists, Zionism is a much more expansive proposition. To be a Zionist is to endorse the ethnic cleansing in 1948 that accompanied the establishment of the Jewish state, known as the Nakba in Palestinian communities. It is to endorse Israel’s military occupation of the Palestinians of the West Bank, the dispossession of their civil rights and their inequality before the law. It is to endorse the blockade of Gaza and the violence at the border fence.

Because the existing Jewish state does these things, and because they accompanied its establishment, anyone supporting a Jewish state surely must be signing on to these things, goes the argument. And how could there be a Jewish state with a Jewish majority without the oppression and ethnic cleansing of Palestinians? Ergo, those who desire such a state must surely be comfortable with ethnic cleansing and Apartheid.

Few Zionists and no liberal Zionists would recognize themselves in this description. For American liberal Zionists, Zionism is the fantasy that Jewish liberation brings with it a Tikkun Olam, a correction of the world that would raise up along with it other marginalized peoples. The American Jewish community’s current horror at what Israel has turned into is nothing short of the jarring realization that this has been a fantasy all along.

But the fact that their intersectional fantasy is no reality is a far cry from an endorsement of the current ethnonationalist ugliness Israel has descended into.

No one exemplifies this more than Sanders. Sanders didn’t only describe himself in Zionist terms. He went one step further, calling himself “100% pro Israel,” like 93% of American Jews recently polled on the topic (well, they settled for just “pro-Israel”). And like the majority of those Jews, Sanders saw no contradiction between calling out the racism of the current Jewish state and insisting in absolute terms on its right to exist.

His anti-Zionist supporters, of whom there are many, are facing a choice given Bernie’s ardent Zionism. They can either accept that he is a Zionist and that there is a version of Zionism that distinguishes itself from Israel’s ugliest traits, or they can abandon him as one of the bad guys, a purveyor of a trief ideology that’s akin to colonialist white supremacy in their view.

As importantly, Zionists today have to confront difficult questions with a fourth Netanyahu term now in session. Can a Jewish state exist without ethnically cleansing and oppressing Palestinians? Can a Jewish majority be maintained without evoking racist language and actions? In 2019, can one really insist on the distinction between the Zionist fantasy and the Israeli reality? And if so, for how much longer?

Batya Ungar-Sargon is the opinion editor of the Forward.

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