On Non-Zionism: Between Bradley Burston and Philip Weiss (and with Dimi Reider)


The post I wrote for HuffPo, on Susya, the South Sudanese and why Israel is not a “Jewish State” in any value-based or valuable way, was picked up and quoted at length by two influential writers in the liberal/leftist American-Jewish Israel-Palestine discourse, Haaretz’s Bradley Burston, a Liberal Zionist, and Mondoweiss’ Philip Weiss, an anti-Zionist. Interestingly, both had positive things to say about my piece, and for both it fit within their larger ideological framework.  Interestingly, I disagree with both of them, on certain points, and would say that my work and beliefs actually falls pretty squarely between Burstonian Liberal Zionism and Weissian anti-Zionism.

The piece by Bradley Burston (whose writing was very influential in my personal process, and thus it was very moving to have him quote my article, even if I now hold somewhat left of him) was entitled as follows: “A Jewish heart vs. a Jewish state: Choose the first – or we will lose both.” The piece was written beautifully, and honestly, but I disagreed with its framing before I even got past the title: I don’t think a Jewish State is something to aim or hope for. I want an Israeli State, side by side with a Palestinian State, or some other more creative arrangement. I have ceased to believe that a “Jewish State,” as it is currently conceived of, will ever be able to treat non-Jewish Israelis as full equals.

On the other hand, Weiss reposted my article as “a sharply anti-Zionist piece” which showed that US consensus on “the issue” is starting to crumble. I agree with the latter assertion, and am thankful that Weiss quoted my piece at length and accurately, but I see neither my piece nor my work in general as “sharply anti-Zionist.” I am anti-government, and am against what the State of Israel has become, but I am not an anti-Zionist. I have too much empathy with the roots of Zionism (see cartoon at the bottom of this post)* and too much suspicion that many anti-Zionists are simply advocating for the situation to be reversed (that is: a single state of Palestine. “Good luck, Jewish minority. Not our problem”).

Seeing my piece thus reposted, both times in ways that did not fully sit well with me, helped me clarify why “Non-Zionism” is the most accurate and honest term for where I fall on this spectrum (I have been thinking about this term for a while now, since one of my favorite bloggers and commentators, Dimi Reider, wrote a brilliant piece on why he is a non-Zionist rather than an anti-Zionist).

Dimi’s post immediately caught my attention with its preamble on what he means by Zionism, in which he writes that he does not align “the most common version of Zionism, which today defines Israeli policies, and, consequently, the anti-Zionist opposition,” but might resonate with the sort of Zionism I most believed [and believe] in, Martin Buber-ian Zionism which, as I see it, advocates for a spiritual Zionism, based in justice, and does not see a “Jewish State” as a goal. In fact, Buber saw such a pursuit as wrongheaded in the years leading up to 1948, and advocated actively for a binational Zionism, although after the war, Buber wrote that he would not seek to dismantle the State, but rather to try to make it the best it could be, and advocated, for the remainder of his life, for a federation between Israel its Arab neighbors.

It’s pretty clear to anyone who reads my work (or Dimi’s, I’d say) why I am not a supporter of Zionism-qua-Israeli Policy. And while I respect folks like Bradley Burston, I think they are mistaken to [still] believe that Zionism or a Jewish State can truly treat Israel’s Palestinian minority fairly and equally (a conclusion that was cemented in the process of making this film on identity in the Palestinian-Israeli villages of Deir al-Assad/Bineh/Majd al-Krum). What is less clear for many is why I do not call myself an anti-Zionist. Rather than re-inventing the wheel, I’ll quote from Dimi’s piece, at length, and then speak briefly to why it resonated:

When asked about the future, many anti-Zionists present a curiously frank mirror image of Zionist Israel: A democratic state called Palestine in which the rights of the Jews will “obviously” be preserved.  Most Israeli Jews would be honest enough to know just what such promises are worth, having made and broken them themselves for the past sixty years or so…

…for Israelis, Zionism runs much deeper than system of governance. They know, and they are right, that neither they nor their parents and grandparents would have been here if it wasn’t for the Zionist enterprise. To a non-Israeli and any Israelis who have transcended their Zionist upbringing (not just family, but kindergarden, school, media, army, friends), anti-Zionism may mean opposition to an ideology complicit of ethnic cleansing, military occupation and wanton discrimination; they may (or may not) have nothing against the actual Israeli Jews going on to live here, so long as the latter forsake their claim to hegemony. But to most if not all Israeli ears, anti-Zionism is something monolithic absolute. To them, it sounds not like a proposal for a different and more equitable future, but as mocking, taunting and jarring denial of everything that they are: Their present, their language, their fears and their love for the only land they ever knew; the future they imagine for themselves and for their children, their past, their parents’ love, their grandparents arrival to, adoption of and construction of a new homeland. Tell an Israeli you’re an anti-Zionist, and he’ll hear: “You are a liar; your parents are liars; your grandparents are liars; and I don’t stop you from lying, you’ll produce lying children who’ll continue to lie. I don’t care if you’re afraid – your fear is also a lie; I want you to go away, or at least to shut up and be grateful you’re allowed to stay here, preferably while paying penance for your parents’ and grandparents’ sins.”

Often, anti-Zionism goes hand in hand with Palestinian Nationalism. I have sympathy for that movement as well, clearly, but I am not a Palestinian Nationalist, and refuse to replace my former Israeli Nationalism with a Palestinian one, under the bizarre and self-deceiving illusion that some manage to hold that Palestinian Nationalism would be any “better” if it attains hegemony, that Jews would be treated superbly in Palestine. Nationalism is Nationalism is Nationalism. Period. I understand why it is important for many, but I also understand the devastating damage it has done to this world in general and to this place in particular, and thus cannot and will not wave any Nation’s flag. For this place to become better, we need something outside of the [largely oxymoronic] binary of “whose Nationalism is more moral.” Again, Dimi puts it beautifully:

“The only legitimate alternatives to Jewish-Israeli hegemony in Palestine are such that nevertheless will not allow the physical, cultural or political removal of Israeli Jews from the scene… Merely reflecting back an inversion of every Zionist tenet and argument leaves advocates of change playing by the same old Zionist-nationalist rules, and proving the formula they seek to disprove. The change that needs to happen here is too great, and possibilities outside this dichotomy are too vast, for us keep clutching to that old pro/anti see-saw. New approaches must be found – and they cannot be found through mere contrarianism.”

So. I appreciate both Philip and Bradley’s reposting of my piece, and I respectfully disagree with parts of what each has to say, in this context and others. Somewhere between Liberal Zionism and anti-Zionism, I am, in the year 2012, a Non-Zionist (and a Buberian Zionist, a few days a month).

Cartoon explaining what I see as one of the major moral differences between colonialism and early Zionism:

In case that wasn’t 100% clear, I’ll spell it out. Colonialism can be summed up the parable of a person swimming in her native lake, and someone else coming from the outside, stepping on her head, and stealing her resources (land, water, people, dignity).

On the other hand, Zionism also has the context of native person swimming, and outside person coming in and stepping on her head, but there is the moral difference- and in my mind, this is major, except in one context (spelled out below)- in that the outsider comes in not primarily to steal resources, but rather because she is afraid (justifiedly so) that she will drown in her home-river.

Two major caveats to the cartoon’s formula:

A. This is the exception to the moral difference being “major:” for Palestinians, the result is exactly the same, even if most Zionists came out of fear rather than greed, the Palestinians were stepped on and oppressed by [most of] the early Zionist leaders, just the same.

B. Comparing the Zionist settlement enterprise post-67, and especially today, to colonialism is, in my mind and according to this formula, entirely fair. The settlements and their ideological leaders are not there because of any fear-of-death or desperation, they are there for resources, of which “religious devotion” is certainly one, and so are minerals and land and so on.