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A Lot More Jews Are Anti-Zionists Than You Think

Nineteen out of twenty American Jews are Zionists.

At least, that’s the perception you would get if you read the breathless coverage of a recent Gallup poll about American Jewish political attitudes. The fact that the poll found that 95% of American Jews “have favorable views of Israel” was cited by a variety of commentators as evidence that Jews skeptical of Zionism as a political ideology are confined to a noisy but small fringe in our community, that all the talk about the rise of leftist Jewish groups like IfNotNow and Jewish Voice for Peace is just that: talk. Jews may well disagree with certain policies of the state of Israel, the argument goes, and they may even disapprove of the Netanyahu government, but the Gallup Poll proves what we’ve known all along: Most American Jews are good, loyal Zionists, supportive of the existence of the state of Israel as a Jewish state, and anti-Zionist and non-Zionist Jewish voices can be confined to the radical fringe where they belong.

Not so fast.

Firstly, asking about favorable views of Israel in some abstract sense is not especially instructive, as the term “Israel” can be adopted to refer to a wide range of meanings depending on how one chooses to use it. “Israel” can mean everything from the physical land and territory of Israel, separate from the political institutions currently governing it, to the creation of a new Israeli culture and the revival of Hebrew as a national spoken language, to the people Israel (Klal Yisrael) ourselves.

These distinctions are not academic, as whole communities of Orthodox Jews who live within the physical land of Israel reject the institutions of the modern-nation state that bears the same name, seeing in them violations of Jewish law and going so far as to refuse to vote in Israeli elections.

Would such Orthodox Jews answer that they hold a favorable view of “Israel,” in an abstract sense? Most assuredly yes, as they revere the land as divinely promised to Klal Yisrael by God, even as they reject the state institutions and all attempts to establish Jewish sovereignty in the land.

This question has even divided West Bank settler groups. One founder of right-wing Israeli settler group Gush Emunim, Rabbi Menachem Froman, later broke with the settler group over the question of the relationship between land and state of Israel, arguing that the priority of the land ought to supersede that of the state of Israel for West Bank settlers. Froman claimed that he was so committed to the Jewish people living in the land of Israel that he would gladly live under Palestinian political sovereignty in order to do so.

Did Rabbi Froman have a positive view of Israel? Most assuredly. A positive view of Zionism? It’s complicated.

Moreover, the association of the term “Israel” with a particular nation-state is a recent invention that contravenes two thousand years of history. As Cynthia M. Baker argues in Jew, her history of the lexical use of the word “Jew” itself, the term b’nei yisrael, sons of Israel, was the common label of self-identity used by the people we now call Jews. The Hebrew or Aramaic terms for “Jew” hardly ever appear in Talmud or midrash. The term “Jew,” in contrast, appears far more often in the Christian New Testament and in early Christian sources than in any rabbinical sources. “For most of two long millennia, the word Jew has… often signified an absolute other, the very antithesis of the Western Christian self,” writes Baker.

In short, “Jews” is what Christians called us, while “Israel” is what we called ourselves.

All this is to say that “Israel” has such a wide range of semantic meanings in Jewish history and culture that asking American Jews if they have a favorable view of Israel tells us essentially nothing. Indeed, the question is almost tautological; having a favorable view of some definition of Israel is an essential part of what defines someone as Jewish.

But let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that the Gallup poll did find that 95% of American Jews have favorable views of the modern political nation-state of Israel. Would that mean that non-Zionists comprise only one in twenty American Jews? The answer is still no.

The reason why cuts to the question of how the ideology of Zionism itself has been redefined in recent years. According to the controversial Jewish nation-state law passed by the Knesset last year, Israel is “the nation-state of the Jewish people,” which means that “the fulfillment of the right of national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people.” In practice, this interpretation of Zionism has come to mean that Zionism requires the maintenance of a strong Jewish voting majority. Thus, former Israeli Minister of Justice Ayelet Shaked has said that maintaining a Jewish majority should trump even preserving democracy itself, declaring, “There is place to maintain a Jewish majority even at the price of violation of rights.”

This definition of Zionism, which requires that Israeli Jews maintain a majority of the state’s voting base, has been internalized even by Zionists who would be horrified by Shaked’s statement. In fact, liberal Zionist groups such as J Street, which advocate for the creation of a Palestinian state, explicitly make the case that Israel “can only remain both Jewish and democratic by giving up the land on which a Palestinian state can be built in exchange for peace.”

The message is clear: A Jewish state is a state where Jews hold the majority of the votes, and a democratic state is a state where every citizen may vote, so Israel cannot remain both a Jewish and democratic state if it were to grant voting rights to Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank.

Though both J Street and Ayelet Shaked would no doubt be horrified by the comparison, both hold the same idea of what Zionism entails: A Jewish state means a state where Jews make up a clear majority of the voting base.

This is a definition of Zionism which many early Zionist luminaries would struggle to accept. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, Zionism encompassed a wide range of conceptions of what “Jewish statehood” entailed, many of which did not presume a Jewish voting majority. For example, Martin Buber, whose Zionist bona fides were so strong that Theodor Herzl invited him to serve as editor of the Zionist newspaper Die Welt, believed there was no way to achieve a Jewish voting majority in British Mandatory Palestine through ethical means.

As Buber’s official biographer, Dr. Paul Mendes-Flohr, writes, the one-time editor of Theodor Herzl’s own Zionist journal concluded that “both morally and politically, the program of a binational state was eminently sounder” than one in which Jews maintained a voting majority. Such binationalist Zionism claimed adherents as prominent as Hadassah cofounder Henrietta Szold and Albert Einstein.

Notably, all of these thinkers who advocated a single state in which both Jews and Palestinians could vote identified as Zionists, and believed their vision was fully compatible with the creation of a Jewish state.

Today, if you advocate for a single state in which everyone has equal voting rights, they call you anti-Zionist, but that is not a definition of Zionism which many early Zionists would have accepted. (Meanwhile, if you advocate for a one-state solution in which Jews still maintain a voting majority, by denying votes to Palestinians in perpetuity, you’re still welcome in American synagogues.)

That’s right: The definition of Zionism adopted by today’s Zionists means that no less than the founder of Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America, would no longer be ideologically recognizable as a Zionist.

In fact, a host of recent scholarship has challenged the idea that the creation of a state with a Jewish voting majority was the original goal of the majority of political Zionists. No less of a right-wing Zionist than Ze’ev Jabotinsky himself wrote in 1926 that “The future Palestine must be founded, legally speaking, as a ‘bi-national state.’” In his groundbreaking recent study of early Zionism, Hebrew University historian Dmitry Shumsky concludes that prior to the Second World War, the leaders of the Zionist movement imagined not a state with a Jewish voting majority, but a form of multinational federalism inspired by their own youths as subjects of multinational empires such as Austria-Hungary. Shumsky concludes that these Zionist leaders “found little to be attracted to in the idea of a sovereign, centralist state, and instead sought to advance political theories based on the idea of restraining sovereignty and granting greater autonomy to various national groups within the state.” In this political vision, “the Jewish nation would realize its culture separately – alongside the Arab nation – whereas the state itself would be neutral.” Such a political vision certainly does not require that Jews maintain a voting majority as a precursor to Jewish self-determination.

In fact, the political leaders most committed to the belief in Jewish sovereignty in a state where Jews comprised a majority of the voting base were the Territorialists, who advocated for the establishment of a Jewish state anywhere in the world – Australia, east Africa, South America – and not necessarily in Palestine. In early Zionist thought, land of Israel and state of Israel were not only not synonymous, but were often detached from one another. It was not until the 1937 Peel Commission report suggested partitioning the territory of British Mandatory Palestine into two separate political identities that Jewish statehood became a dominant model of political Zionism – and even then, binationalism remained an ideological force well into the 1940’s.

So what does Zionism mean today, and how many American Jews reject Zionism? It isn’t an easy question to answer, since Zionism itself is such contested territory. But if we accept the current definition advanced by the state of Israel itself, that Zionism demands a state in which Jews hold a voting majority, then fully twenty percent of American Jews are not Zionists.

We know this because we know that one in five American Jews think it is more important for Israel to be a democracy than for it to remain a Jewish state, thanks to an AJC poll of American Jews are not Zionists). When asked if Israel can be both a Jewish state and a democracy, and if not, which should it be, fully 20% of American Jews answered “No, it should be a democracy.” In other words, if Zionism requires maintaining a Jewish voting majority, so that granting equal voting rights to everyone in Gaza and the West Bank and thereby making Jews a voting minority in the state is seen as anti-Zionist, then one in five American Jews are not Zionists.

To be sure, one in five American Jews is still a minority. But it’s a lot more than one in twenty. Moreover, one in five American Jews is higher than the 16% of American Jews who identify as Republicans, or one in six. There are more non-Zionist Jews in the US than there are Jewish Republicans, and yet we read article after article on how President Trump’s alliance with Israel’s hard-right government is supposedly leading to a huge rise in American Jewish support for Republicans. (Note: It isn’t.) Based on the actual numbers, we should be hearing more about Jewish opposition to Zionism than about Jewish support for Republicans.

Of course, many members of this twenty percent of American Jews would no doubt still report holding a favorable opinion of Israel, in the broad sense of the word. They might travel to Israel and enjoy meeting the people and seeing the incredible landscape and historical sites. They might like the food, the music, the literature. And some of them might not even identify as anti-Zionist at all, since they might have a broader view of what Zionism entails than today’s Israeli government or mainstream American Jewish organizations would accept. (Hadassah today would probably reject Henrietta Szold.) But that is why the Gallup poll itself tells us essentially nothing about American Jewish views on Zionism. Not without considerably more context.

Perhaps the more interesting finding in the poll is that 42% of American Jews think President Trump is favoring Israel too much, far higher than is the case among American Christians. In light of that finding, it’s worth thinking about who Trump is really trying to appeal to with his lockstep support for the Netanyahu government.

But if we don’t know very much about American Jewish attitudes toward Zionism, maybe that’s because we don’t know very much about the history of Zionism itself these days. Maybe historical Zionism itself contains intellectual resources for critiquing what Zionism has become. And maybe non-Zionist Jews aren’t quite as marginal as we make them out to be.

Joel Swanson is a Ph.D. student at the University of Chicago, studying modern Jewish intellectual history and the philosophy of religions. He doesn’t identify as a Zionist, but that in and of itself doesn’t tell you a lot about him. Find him on Twitter at @jh_swanson.

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